The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

December 2, 2013 by

Goldieblox and the Three Girls

Goldie-Blox-2For Hanukkah, my daughters (ages 6.5, 4.5 and 1.5) are getting a range of gifts that are great for girls. These include K’Nex (my older girls just built an amazing roller coaster and are looking to expand their amusement park), a remote controlled robot kit (my eldest year old attended vacation robot camp over Veteran’s Day and filed the experience on her Things That Are The Best Ever list), Magnatiles and SnapCircuits.

Yes, these gifts are great for girls. These gifts are great for kids, and surely girls fit into that category. These toys help children learn to follow directions, teach them spatial relations and encourage fine motor skills, give them opportunities for storytelling and cooperation, engage their imaginations and their innate interests in building, and give them a well-earned a sense of pride and accomplishment. They’re also really fun, which I believe is the best kind of learning.

This gift list does not include GoldieBlox, the much-hyped “engineering for girls” toy that hit the web with a sonic boom on Kickstarter last year, and has upped its own ante with commercial that has gone viral. If you haven’t seen it (you can watch it here), it features three girls who overturn media assumptions about what girls like by building an extremely sophisticated Rube Goldberg machine using, among other things, a pink tea set.

I actually contributed to inventor and engineer Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter campaign and bought the first Goldieblox kit. I was under the impression that what made this engineering kit different from others on the market was that it featured girls in the game’s lead roles and in its marketing, so that my girls would be able to recognize themselves in the game. Rarely are girls featured as normative lead characters in STEM-related children’s products (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math); it’s a struggle to find mainstream kids’ books, games or toys about engineering, architecture, science, inventing or math that feature a female protagonist. I was excited at the prospect of a toy my kids could relate to, not because it was “for girls,” but because the hero was a girl.

However, I completely misunderstood the premise of this invention. I am entirely at fault for this misunderstanding, for I did not, at the time, read all the way down the long Kickstarter page to the copy that reads as follows:

Designed for girls

GoldieBlox goes beyond “making it pink” to appeal to girls. I spent a year doing in-depth research into gender differences and child development to create the concept. My big “aha”? Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters…

Goldie’s toolkit is inspired by common household objects and craft items — things girls are already familiar with. Plus, the set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls. Last but not least, the story of Goldie is lighthearted and humorous. It takes the intimidation factor out of engineering and makes it fun and accessible. 

This, in a word, is narishkeit. Kids of all genders love reading, stories, characters and building. No girls are earth are hardwired to prefer pastels (I assume that’s what “attractive colors” means. Are there toys made of unattractive colors? If so, what is the target market?). I’ve never even heard of this soft textures and curved edges business before (frankly, it conjures up in me images of breasts, which in terms of innate preferences can go either way, gender-wise, particularly with the infant set). Blocks, Legos and Erector Sets are common household items if parents have purchased these toys for their kids – and in their absence, there are pillows to build forts, stones to build towers, and plastic utensils and paper plates to build a model of the Brooklyn Bridge (shout out to my 6 year old). And, most importantly, kids of this age (target age 5-9) are not innately intimidated by engineering – unless they’ve absorbed that society thinks they should be, for example by telling them they have better verbal than spatial skills and that if it’s not pink and curvy, it’s not for them.

While Debbie has tried to distance herself from this toy series, this is the same misguided premise that led to the creation and marketing of Lego Friends, aka Legos for Girls – a cutesy pastel version of Legos– as if the very awesomeness of Legos themselves were not enough for girls. As if without a verbal component, a pink component, or a princess component (Goldieblox 2.0 features a story about a float in a princess parade), girls just won’t get with the program. And suppose it is true that girls are more interested in building if there is a story component involved (apparently Debbie’s team worked with neuroscience experts at Harvard who led her to this conclusion. One must wonder whether there were girl neurologists involved in this study), then why not include a story about a girl who builds something awesome in primary colors – a toy for all kids, a toy that exposes boys to female protagonists, rather than the pink (ie, for girls ONLY, and therefore by definition a marginalized character) “girl inventor” (this inventor wields a heavy hammer that she’s banging over our heads). Why not make Goldie a character just like Bob the Builder is a character, rather than a “girl character”. Has anyone ever called Bob Bob the Male Builder, or Bob the Builder for Boys?

So, I bought Goldieblox. And guess what? My kids played with it for five minutes and got bored. The story, about a “girl inventor” trying to help her dog chase his tail, is boring. The toy, which leaves no room for creativity, is boring.  The fact that there’s no actual building involved in this toy is boring.

Despite what the media is so desperately trying to tell my girls about themselves, they are no dummies. I’m not sure they know pandering when they see pandering, but they know boring when they see boring. They also don’t care that they are “supposed to” like a toy because it’s pink and comes with a story or that they’re “supposed to” have strong verbal skills, weak spatial skills, and be intimidated by “boys’ toys” – STEM toys.

My daughters aren’t anomalies to their gender. They aren’t geniuses (well, maybe a little). They aren’t good at math or building because of some preternatural understanding of numbers or physics or because they have overcome a hardwired weakness endemic to girls’ brains. They’re just kids, and because they’re kids, they are curious and they like stacking things on top of each other (sometimes they like stacking themselves on top of each other). Because they’re my kids, their curiosity isn’t boxed in to gender roles, and they know they can do anything or be anything (ask my kids what girls can’t do, and they’ll give you this list: “girls can’t be daddies or brothers or grandfathers or sons”. Ask them what makes something “girl” or “boy,” and they will tell you a vagina makes something “girl” and a penis makes something “boy.”) My husband and I have worked very hard to let our kids know that some of their strongest assets lie in their curiosity, their desires to explore, to try, to be willing to fail, and to try again. And building toys are perfect ways to learn these lessons and prove them true. And so, building toys for KIDS – not for girls – are the toys that they are receiving, and will love, this Hanukkah. (And, by the way, if they had been focused in their interests this year on dolls or crafts kits or jewelry, as they have been in past years, I would have gotten those gifts for them, just as I would like to imagine I would have for my sons, if I had any.)

It is important to note that I think the inventor’s impetus for creating this toy was strong. It seems Debbie faced many obstacles in her field (not surprisingly), and she wanted to open up doors to the next generation of girls entering STEM fields. I think she might reach an important market of parents who have gender-boxed their kids, who might finally buy their girls an engineering toy because they themselves are attracted by its pinkness. Likewise, I hope that girls who have already internalized that there is such a thing as “girl toys” and “boy toys” and won’t allow themselves to play with “boy toys” will give themselves a second chance by engaging with this toy. I just hope they aren’t so put off by how boring the toy is that they don’t themselves decide that engineering is of zero interest indeed. I hope Debbie and Goldieblox succeed in attracting girls to engineering who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks, even if it is by reinforcing stereotypes. I hope Goldieblox is a gateway toy to K’Nex.

If you are still searching for great gifts, The New York Times has put together a terrific list of  “girl toys”. I can’t wait for my kids to age into each toy on this list. I also love A Mighty Girl’s curated gift list.

What are you getting your kids for Hanukkah? Have you had a different reaction to or experience with Goldieblox?

Happy Hanukkah!