Stop Using Stereotypes To Sell STEM to Girls

We all get it, we desperately need more girls involved in STEM at increasingly younger ages. As they age, we need to keep them engaged there. We do a great disservice to them when we raise them solely on a diet of vapid princesses, beauty queens and sexualized fashionistas.

But when we use princess culture, pinkification, and beauty norms to sell STEM toys to girls and fool ourselves that we are amazing and progressive and raising an incredible generation of female engineers we continue to sell our girls short. It is the equivalent of covering broccoli in melted processed cheese and thinking we’ve very served a healthy meal.

Girls do not need the Pink Princess Hook to get them interested in building or engineering. They need to be handed building materials and the message, “Hey! You are a person with a brain and two hands. Go build, it is great fun!” Kids are naturally curious which makes them natural experimenters which makes them natural builders and creators. All of that comes organically. NO WHERE is the princess complex hardwired.

Stop believing the hype, “Well, if it gets girls building that is all I care about.” No. Just no. Have more faith in girls that they don’t need products dripping in the pink syrup and exhausted princess stories. Be brave enough to tell new, more daring stories. If you go there, the girls will come. They don’t need pink bread crumbs leading the way. Have the strength of your convictions.

I know it is a common belief at some very popular manufacturers of girls toys right now to use the princess hook as any means necessary to get girls building. I know the marketing around some of these companies has the Internet swooning and in love. I’m just not buying it.  I know that to publicly deviate from this thinking may leave me unpopular. But that doesn’t make me wrong.

You cannot create a toy meant to break down stereotypes when you start off with the ideal that “we know all girls love princesses”. That is a stereotype. Not all girls love princesses. Many girls are limited to and even force fed princesses. Many families stay far away from the princess industry. Don’t confuse these two ideas.

This difference is a company that thinly veils mediocre building toys as girl empowerment while still using the same marketing tactics that we can’t stand – namely gender stereotypes and low expectations of girls. As you view this slick marketing, ask yourself if the toy is really that engaging and complex. Is the toy even capable of the engineering concepts being shown and celebrated? I know people will say, “But this is a step in the right direction and we should support it.” Yes, but at the same time, with all of the awareness that is out there, all of the studies and articles published, is it fair that we ask for giant leaps in place of smalls steps? Have we arrived at a time when we can expect more than scraps?

Do the ends justify the means?

For example, this Lego nightgown that has girls “Building Beauty”. Is there a pajama set for boys named “Building Handsome”? Of course there is not. When my daughter builds with her Legos, she builds ocean side villages and tidal waves, science labs, schools, office buildings, and hospitals. We don’t focus on beauty or princess pageants, we focus on brains. It would be nice if these engineering toys did, too.

Lego Friends “Building Beauty” nightgown. (Photo sent in by Amanda Cowell Jones. Thank you!)

Yo Lego, this is building beautiful. And it has nothing to do with what my daughter looks like

 

 

I want all of you to soak this in. Print it out, push it up against your forehead, and soak. it. in.

“After grading finals yesterday, I put my finger on what was bugging me about the whole Goldie Blox argument of “But girls like princesses!” The prompt for the final was two questions: who am I and who do I want to be (referencing and reflecting on the literature we studied this term). Several of my students, who are bright, capable, talented young women, wrote about how they felt restricted or “less than” or “other” because of their looks, and how they didn’t want to or like to feel that way. They said that they felt like women’s accomplishments are tied in no inconsequential way to their appearances. One even wrote “It’s not enough for me to be a good athlete and a good student. Society says I should look beautiful, too, or I’m a failure.”
These girls grew up in the early stages of princess culture. They absorbed the message that their accomplishments don’t mean much unless they’re accompanied by a certain beauty standard. Another said “I’m afraid to draw attention to myself because of the blemishes on my face.” Another: “I know I should care more about who I am than what I look like, but I still think of achievement in terms of weight and appearance.”
Toys that emphasize girls’ appearances rather than their abilities, or that place appearance alongside ability, send toxic messages to the young women they become. It matters. And I don’t want my daughter — or anybody else’s daughter — to feel less than awesome or that she’s somehow a failure because her abilities aren’t paired with a perfectly made-up face or size zero figure or a boyfriend. I don’t want to read essays from my full-of-awesome students that break my heart with the baggage they’re carrying already about womanhood.” -PPBB Community Member Gina Caponi Parnaby

The messages we give our daughters in childhood matter. Make them healthy, empowering ones. And don’t settle for anything less.

 

Comments

  1. Roadblock99f says:

    I understand the concern about selling STEM to girls using the very gender stereotypes that have harmed them. But I have a question about the premise. One of the examples the author uses is that there is no “building handsome” pajama set. That creates a concern for me because the gender stereotype for boys isnt about being handsome but their is an implicit tone to this article that suggests that the gender stereotypes for boys arent bad. My other concern is that there is a tone to this article that suggests that there is something bad about classical definitions of femininity. That bothers me because there is strength in womanhood that could be used appropriately. Also there are young girls who are into “girly” things that can appreciate this melding. One of the best examples I have seen is a perfume chemistry set that my niece is desperate for. It appeals to her girly personality while introducing her to very demanding STEM career

    • Roadblock99f -
      To address your concerns….

      1. Stating there is no “building handsome” pajama set for boys is not implying that stereotypes about boys do not matter. Rather, it is showing there are stereotypes that exist for girls that are not present for boys. Girls are marketed messages about beauty very, very early on. Boys do not get these same messages about being handsome.

      2. My article does not state that classical definitions of femininity are bad. Rather, it addresses the issue of limiting ALL girls to that definition. Those definitions are “classic” due to stereotypes and patriarchy. Gender is a learned performance that varies from culture to culture. These definitions are not innate, and my work is attempting to show people there are many ways to be a girl. There is no “right” definition. When we box girls in like this it is unfair and unhealthy, equally true for boys and box around masculinity.

      Your daughter may love the perfume chemistry set. But I ask you, as her parent, does it concern you that science marketed specifically to girls is notoriously dumbed down? Does making perfume from a $20.00 boxed set introduce her to a “demanding STEM career”, or the idea that she can be anything she wants as long as she is pretty and sweet smelling while she does it?
      Some food for thought…. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/03/girls-science-toys_n_4346336.html

  2. I’m a tomboy & had 3 girls, one loves science. The other 2 taught me that makeup, dresses & princesses aren’t wrong, no matter what anyone else trys to tell them.

  3. Rescue Girlz, the dolls who love to rescue animals, provides what Goldie Blox lacks. Each doll comes with a pet she rescued and a story about her rescue adventure. Rescue Girlz is a fun and creative way to involve young girls with helping animals. Our dolls truly empower young girls by teaching them that they can make changes in the world by advocating for the welfare of animals. We donate 5% of our profits to the ASPCA and other animal charities.
    It’s ironic that Debbie Sterling never even practiced engineering which might be why she’s perpetuating the princess syndrome. She worked in marketing which explains all the hype and no substance with Goldie Blox.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with your, thank you for sharing this with me! :) cheers! :))

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