Social engineering

GoldieBlox have been in the news (by which I mean the blogs) a lot lately because of their Princess Machine video. In case you missed the memo, GoldieBlox do engineering toys for girls, by which they mean a) they’re pink, and b) they’ve got stories, because girls need everything to have a story. Think I’m making this up? I’ll let the founder tell you in her own words on the project’s kickstarter page:

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.

GoldieBlox is the best of both worlds: reading + building. It appeals to girls because they aren’t just interested in “what” they’re building…they want to know “why.” Goldie’s stories relate to girls’ lives. The machines Goldie builds solve problems and help her friends. As girls read along, they want to be like Goldie and do what she does.

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. [my emphases]

So the starting point is still “making it pink” (i.e. reinforcing the message that girls can’t use the real engineering stuff, only the special pink girl versions), but hey, it goes way beyond that … into even more bad science and stereotype. Those differences in spatial abilities may well be cultural rather than biological, but why let that get in the way of a good generalisation? Boys love construction toys. Girls love stories (and “household objects and craft items”). That’s just the way people are! It’s nothing to do with the way society genders these behaviours from before children are even born; it’s just that boys have the meccano gene and girls have the fairytale gene! (If you don’t fit into either category — ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ — then maybe you’re allowed to make your own mind up about this stuff, but there’s no way Goldie’s going to think that far outside the Blox.)

Yes, in some cases there are neurological differences between boys and girls. But in many such cases the differences between boys and girls are far smaller than the differences within either boys or girls (there were lots of good examples of this in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, far better written and better researched than I’m going to manage in a blog post).

And don’t even get me started on the idea that “soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors […] are all innately appealing to girls”. Since she’s just asserting this without any evidence, I’m going to assert (with just as little evidence to back me up) that all kids would probably like soft textures and attractive colours if given the chance to enjoy them, it’s just that approximately 50% of those kids are told from the minute they’re born that liking soft things and bright colours will make them effeminate and/or gay, and that this is about the worst thing that could happen to them.

*

Anyway, I started writing this and then discovered that Shakesville already said all this and all the other things I was going to say, better. So I’m not going to rehash that article any further here; instead I’m just going to point out that girls are clearly already allowed to do engineering because look, pink Meccano:

Photo of Meccano sets available in blue or pink.

The pink car and the blue car knew their place

So boys get a primary-coloured kit for building cars, while girls get a pink-and-purple kit for building sexy cars with eyelashes (and despite the fact that the blue version is the ‘advanced’ one, the pink version is the more expensive). You can argue that girls would never touch the toys “for boys” anyway so giving them pink versions is “better than nothing”, but to my mind covering construction toys in pink, hearts, fluttering eyelashes and Princesses (yes, GoldieBlox does princesses too, despite pretending they’re all anti-princess) is just reinforcing the stereotypes: even if girls want to build cars, they have to do it in a girly way (and they can’t build proper cars anyway, just cartoonishly anthropomorphised cars); they can’t possibly use the same toys as boys, because otherwise people might try to use their Meccano and Lego and so on to build the apparatus required to climb out of the pink and blue boxes.

Dressing up

A few months ago now (OK, this post has sat in drafts for a while) when I came to pick my daughter up from nursery I found her wearing a pink ‘fairy skirt’ (something like a tutu). “Her trousers and her spare trousers both got wet and it was the only thing we could find!” they said cheerfully. Fair enough if true, but I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d’ve miraculously managed to find a clean pair of trousers if she’d been a boy…

“She loves wearing it, she’s been doing little twirls around for us,” they gushed. All well and good – dressing up is fun, twirly skirts are fun. But I wonder how much of it was her own doing and how much was pressure from the nursery staff? They seem generally keen on encouraging her to look in the mirror, play with her hair and so on. “Are you going to wear your pretty skirt at the weekend and show all your friends?” they cooed at her. “Yes!” she said. I sighed inwardly at the thought of the likely battles ahead of me when she insisted on wearing the skirt to bed, or in the bath, or somewhere similarly impractical.

Anyway, we got home with only one mention of the skirt (“[name] is wearing a skirt!” “That’s right, darling”) and she got out of the bike and stomped into the house, pink fairy skirt flouncing behind her. I was just wondering whether to try to interest her in make-believe such as playing at being a fairy or a dancer, since she was wearing the skirt anyway (cue a moment of anxiety as I realised I had no idea what fairies actually do) when she turned to me and announced “[name]’s skirt is Not Nice. Take it off.” She hasn’t mentioned it since even though it’s been sitting around in plain sight (so that I don’t forget to return it to nursery next week).

*

A few days after that she was wearing navy shorts, a blue/grey/orange striped tshirt with a little tiger icon on it, orange/grey striped socks, and her blue trainers. She had a couple of red hairclips in her past-shoulder-length hair, to try to keep it out of her eyes. To me she looked like a little girl wearing normal summer play clothes.

As we walked to the shop, she stopped to try to catch a baby woodlouse (as you do). While she was grubbing around on the pavement and I was absent-mindedly talking to her (“do you think it’s going to play with the other woodlice? Don’t eat the moss, darling, it’ll give you a tummy-ache”) a passer-by stopped to grin at her and say “Ooh, what are you doing down there?”

She was too engrossed in the woodlouse to answer, so I replied on her behalf: “Trying to play with a baby woodlouse,” I said, with a rueful grin. “Ooh, does he like woodlice?” she asked. I didn’t comment on the pronoun but replied “Yeah, she loves all the creepy-crawlies.” (It’s true – she asks to stroke snails, she thinks woodlice are hilarious, she has been known to say “Excuse me, ant” as she walks past an ant, she loves bumble-bees and ladybirds, she’s quite interested in spiders as long as they’re not too close to her.) “Oh, it’s a little girl! Oh, sorry, in shorts and tshirt I couldn’t tell,” said the woman. “No no, that’s fine, they all just look like toddlers at this age,” I smiled. “Oooh, yes, of course, she’s a pretty little girl, I can see now,” she went on. I gritted my teeth. What I wanted to say was some or all of the following:

“Well, yes, I think she’s pretty, but then she’s my daughter, so I’m kind of biased. On the other hand, she looks basically fit and healthy and (unusually) reasonably clean, and those things combined with her blonde hair and blue eyes probably mean that white people are moderately likely to describe her as ‘pretty’. I’d rather people valued her for reasons other than her appearance, but I’ll concede that random passers-by don’t know anything about her except her appearance, though that doesn’t really explain why they think they need to comment on it. She totally doesn’t care if you think she’s a boy — she barely knows what a boy or a girl is. I honestly don’t mind if you think she’s a boy when you see her passing in the street — it doesn’t bother me (though it does annoy me if you make assumptions about what she’ll do/think/be based on your guess/knowledge about her sex). If you ask me if she’s male or female, I’ll tell you; and (for the sake of not confusing her) I’d rather you used female pronouns to refer to her, because that’s what everyone else uses to/about her; but other than that her sex is pretty much irrelevant, and her gender is basically whatever her parents choose to present her as, because she doesn’t really have any concept of gender yet.

“She likes playing with woodlice because they curl up in a ball when you poke them with a blade of grass, and to a two-year-old that’s pretty damned hilarious. You really don’t have to call her ‘pretty’ to make up for thinking she was a boy. I don’t mind if she’s not feminine and I don’t mind if she’s not pretty. I don’t feel the need to balance her attractiveness against her liking creepy-crawlies, because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, and both of them are orthogonal to her biological sex and her gender.

Basically what I’m saying her is: SHE’S ONLY TWO. Let her get on with her life.”

Of course, I didn’t say any of that, I just smiled vaguely and said to my daughter “Shall we say ‘bye-bye’ to the nice lady now? Are you going to come and help mummy with the shopping?”

*

I don’t really have a worked-out conclusion or a neat moral to derive from this. It’s just interesting (and extremely frustrating) to see how much importance people seem to place on clothes. I mean, when my daughter fishes the tiger costume out of the dressing-up box at nursery, people don’t assume she’s going to start attacking gazelles; and really, when you think about it, it’s all just dressing-up.