If you haven’t seen it, check out the commercial for GoldieBlox that’s sweeping the Internet. It’s an ad for a set of interactive toys and books that encourages girls to build their own castles rather than wait for princes to come do it for them. In an age when girls’ toys painfully adhere to gender stereotypes, the message in this commercial is clear: Girls want more than princess toys for Christmas.
The commercial opens with three girls watching TV and looking unimpressed with what they’re seeing: other little girls in precious party dresses dancing around a tea set. They switch on their record player, grab their hard hats and tool belts and get to work on a Rube Goldberg apparatus assembled with household items and typical girls’ toys (everything from a tea set to a tiara and a baby doll cradle). The record player plays the Beastie Boys song “Girls,” but it’s been rewritten as a rallying cry against princess-toy culture: “It’s time for a change, and we deserve to see a range, ‘cause all our toys look just the same, and we would like to use our brains.”
GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling invented the engineering toys tailored specifically to girls after being frustrated by the lack of other female students in her undergraduate engineering program at Stanford University. She spent a year researching how she could create a building toy for girls beyond making it pink. Her research led her to the conclusion that girls tend to have strong verbal skills, that they want to have stories and characters rather than to build for the sake of building. She incorporated these findings into her toy design and GoldieBlox was born.
The goal of GoldieBlox is to “get girls building.” And that is no small task. Women are vastly outnumbered by men in fields such as science and technology, making up only 11% of the world’s engineers. According to a report on women in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation, girls tend to lose interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) between the fourth and eighth grades. Discouraging messages from the media, parents and teachers can squash curiosity in STEM. Fostering an enthusiasm in these subjects can spark an interest that could turn into a career.
Studies have shown that the way toys are marketed has an enormous impact on reinforcing gender roles, and toy companies are woefully behind on offering gender-neutral toys. Gender gaps are closing in certain areas, according to a study of more than 4,000 kids in 12 countries done by Marketing Store Worldwide — except in the realm of toys. Boys are much more likely to have construction toys and girls are much more likely to have dolls and stuffed animals.
Although there are toys like the Easy Bake Oven that are now (and only after very pubic pressure) being marketed as gender neutral, some would argue that in the last decade the toy industry has actually increased its gendered marketing. Elizabeth Sweet, a doctoral candidate at UC Davis, researched the gendered marketing of toys in 20th century Sears catalogs and found that although the 1970s showed an increase in gender-neutral marketing of toys, this trend reversed in 1990s. By the end of the 20th century, the gendered marketing of toys had crept back to levels not seen since the 1950s. As Sweet argues, it is even more extreme today.
As any parent who has braved the toy aisles knows, girls and boys are sold vastly different kinds of toys. Girls’ aisles are brimming with pink toys, often geared toward domestic pursuits or beauty, while boys are sold action figures, construction sets and toy guns. But in a sign of a growing unease with such blatant gendering, Toys R Us in Britain recently declared that it would blend all toys together and get rid of the signs indicating boys and girls sections.
The message of toy marketing is that some toys are “naturally” for boys and some for girls, which has a powerful effect on young people. When girls are told they should play only with tiaras, baby dolls and play kitchens, it can reinforce the idea they are meant to be only domestic caretakers, not doctors or scientists. Sadly, the more educational toys — such as construction and science kits — are largely marketed to boys. This is the niche that GoldieBlox is hoping to fill.
As a girl growing up in the 1980s, I was obsessed with princesses and Barbie, but (thanks to my brothers) I also played with LEGOs and GI Joes. Pink princesses aren’t all bad, but girls should have choices about what they want to play with, and it only takes one trip to the toy store to see that the options are stark.
As a mom of a baby girl, I am heartened by the message and mission of GoldieBlox. Even if my daughter wants nothing to do with a construction set, it’s encouraging to know she has the option of having one. As best put in the commercial: “Don’t underestimate girls.”
[Updated at 7:35 a.m. on Nov. 21: A previous version of this post misspelled the toy company's name as GoldiBlox. It is GoldieBlox. The Beastie Boys song was also incorrectly titled. It is "Girls."]
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.