Dad Writes To Fisher-Price To Let Them Know Trains Are For Girls, Too

The White Family, lovers of trains and confident girls.

The White Family, lovers of trains and confident girls.

UPDATE 11-23-15: Fisher-Price response is at end of post.

This week I met Jake White on Twitter, a dad raising two daughters who love trains and engineering toys. He wanted to share his family’s disappointment with the current Fisher-Price holiday catalog from Toys “R” Us that featured only boys playing with Thomas trains.

Really – page after page of boys happily playing with trains. Zero girls.

His main concern was why, in 2015, do toy companies still cling to the belief only boys enjoy playing with trains and building things?

As Jake points out perfectly in his letters, “Girls also love discovering new things, using their imagination, and engaging in problem solving and cooperation. Those are not boy-specific endeavors.”

Below is the letter he sent to Fisher-Price Global Brands Executive Vice President Geoff Walker, published here with Jake’s permission. Jake sent a similar letter to Richard Barry, Toys “R” Us Executive Vice President, Global Chief Merchandising Officer.

November 17, 2015

Geoff Walker
Executive Vice President, Fisher-Price Global Brands

Fisher-Price Brands
636 Girard Avenue
East Aurora, NY 14052

Dear Mr. Walker,

Last week we received a mailer from Toys “R” Us advertising various Thomas & Friends products offered at Toys “R” Us stores.  I have attached copies of a few pages of the mailer.  My wife and I were excited about the mailer. She pointed out a coupon for a free Thomas train.  We were excited because both of our daughters, ages 6 and 3, love Thomas.  Especially our youngest daughter, Arwen.  In fact, she loves Thomas so much, her third birthday party in April sported a Thomas & Friends theme, complete with a Thomas banner, homemade train, Thomas plates and cupcakes, and Thomas favors for her friends.  Our oldest daughter, Abby, also likes Thomas because she is a budding engineer who loves putting together new and unique track formations and learning about how trains work.

My excitement quickly turned to disappointment.  I wanted to turn the mailer over to Arwen, but, as I always do before handing over something to my 3-year-old, I flipped through it first.  What I saw was page after page of pictures of boys playing with Thomas engines and accessories.  In fact, there were seventeen pictures of boys included in the mailer.  I was absolutely shocked that I did not see a single picture of a girl playing with Thomas toys.  Not one.

I simply cannot understand how this could happen.  Surely there must be thousands, perhaps even millions, of young girls who love to play with Thomas & Friends toys.  Why would Toys “R” Us and Fisher-Price fail to make any effort to market these toys to girls?  On the back of the removable “Shopping Guide” the following question is posed – “Why Thomas & Friends?”  The answers are: “Discovery” “Imagination” “Problem Solving” and “Cooperation”.  Surely these are traits and ideas that should be encouraged in children regardless of their sex.  Girls also love discovering new things, using their imagination, and engaging in problem solving and cooperation.  Those are not boy-specific endeavors.

Needless to say, I did not turn the mailer over to my daughter.

I hope that, in the future, you will ensure that these types of products are marketed to all children, regardless of their sex.  Please respect children enough to allow them to make their own choices regarding the toys that they play with.

I attempted to raise this issue with your company through its “Thomas & Friends” Facebook page and Twitter account, but received no response.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Jacob J. White

Arwen at her train-themed birthday party.

Arwen at her train-themed birthday party.

I really appreciate when parents like Jake and his wife Aiyana make the effort to provide diverse play experiences for their children, free of gender expectations and stereotypes. Most of the children our family knows play this way – childhood is more than shades of pink and blue.

I also appreciate when parents take the time to use their voices to create meaningful change for children, especially with toy companies who use outdated and limiting gender messages in their marketing and packaging.

Jake, a union lawyer, and Aiyana, a screenwriter, live in the Los Angeles area with their daughters Abby and Arwen.

 

UPDATE: On November 23 Fisher-Price responded to our post with the following tweets. Their response was encouraging and the PPBB Community is hopeful the Fisher-Price Marketing Team takes to heart the idea that all toys are for all kids.

FP Twt 1

FP Twt 2

FP Twt 3

On November 17 ABC News covered another parent’s similar reaction to the Thomas catalog – read the story here. In ABC’s report mom Rebecca Binder is quoted saying, “Girls love Thomas for the same reason boys do. The story lines are all about friendship and teamwork. I see her building complete worlds around her Thomas toys. I just don’t want Reece to ever think it’s weird that she likes them.”

 

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

 

 

 

A Conversation With Barbie: Missteps and Moving Forward

Recently toy giant Mattel received heavy criticism for a book that was part of the 2010 launch of the Barbie I Can Be….A Computer Engineer career doll. As the internet found out this week, much to our surprise, in the book Barbie actually does zero computer engineering. In fact, as the story plays out we see Barbie framed as rather incompetent when it comes to tech. To make matters worse, Barbie calls on two male friends to come and save the day. The fact that the book was written by a female computer engineer makes the situation all the more incredulous.

Things went really wrong with this book, and Mattel did a good job of owning it with this statement posted to their facebook page:

“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.” 

Barbie is a lot of things to a lot of people. She’s polarizing and inspiring. She’s a glamorous beauty and she’s a ground breaking career girl. She’s also in the the homes of millions of little girls.

While the internet has done an amazing job of responding to and re-framing  this misstep by the brand I was interested in a deeper conversation. I think the problems were well covered by others so I wanted to focus on a few key points:

  • Do they understand the issues facing girls who want to pursue STEM interests and careers? Do they understand how this book fed into those issues as opposed to fighting them in an empowering way for girls?
  • How did this book get past the review process and make it to print? Where were the checks and balances?
  • Moving forward, how will Mattel work to stay aware of girls’ issues and reflect that knowledge through truly empowering toys and media for young consumers?

This brings us to the perfect time for me to issue the disclaimer that despite being a frequent critic of the brand, I was invited to participate in a play experiment called The Barbie Project. It was a role I accepted, have enjoyed with my daughter, and a role I used to get my questions answered by Barbie’s Lori Pantel Vice President, Global Brand Marketing. There are a lot of moving pieces to such a large brand like Barbie, and each of those pieces is a human being. When we peel back the layers and open a conversation with each of those people in a way that moves the issue forward, we move closer towards the goal of creating meaningful change for our kids.

My interview with Barbie’s Lori Pantel Vice President, Global Brand Marketing:

1. The first question on everyone’s mind is, how did this get past the review process at Mattel and become published? Each time there is a media whirlwind around an offending product that is the one question I see over and over again. We know Barbie is aware of the issues surrounding girls and STEM, but this book does not reflect that. Can you help us backtrack and understand the process for developing a product like this book? And what are the checks and balances? 

When we first learned of this earlier in the week, to be honest, we were horrified & disappointed because this doesn’t reflect our vision for the brand.  We believe that girls can do anything and be anything.  And as a Mom myself, I take this vision very seriously.

To better answer the “How did this happen”? We spent the early part of the week digging in to the how & why because: 1. We wanted to identify where our process of checks and balances broke down.  2. To ensure it never happens again.

Our publishing process has changed since this book was first released in 2010.  

In 2010 our process for content publishing was that we worked with licensed partners around the world and they were given “story starters” and plot themes.  Those themes were then given to independent writers to create age appropriate books for young readers.  While most of the Barbie books do a good job of reflecting the brand values and positioning, we run the risk of misinterpretation and ultimately loss of quality control.  Clearly, we do not want this to ever happen again. Over the past year we have changed the strategy. Today, instead of asking others to interpret our brand, we now concept, write, and approve all stories for publishing here at Mattel. 

In light of this week’s learnings, we have started to audit all of our current publishing content that is available now in the marketplace.

 

2. I’ve been a critic of Barbie in the past, and even during my time on The Barbie Project I’ve talked about the dual nature of the doll as I see both positive and negative aspects. Clearly, I’m not a fan of this book. Has it been pulled?

The short answer is yes, the book has been pulled by Random House. The minute we learned of this title and read the content, we immediately partnered with Random House to pull the book from the market.   

 

3. So, as my daughter says, you are ‘Barbie’s Boss’, which is her understanding of your role at Mattel. For the little girls out there who want to be the boss some day, what would you tell them about being the boss when a fumble like this happens at work and how do you show your team good leadership?

That’s very sweet, but I actually don’t think of myself as “Barbie’s Boss.”  I believe that part of good leadership is taking responsibility – facing the challenge head on and using it as a learning moment. I would tell your daughter that we are all human. And at times will make mistakes – but what is most important is how we learn and grow from them. 

 

4. There are a lot of moving pieces to a large brand, and those pieces are people who are a part of our culture. This book wasn’t too far off from what real girls and women experience in everyday culture. I can see how creators might overlook things they were never taught to question. What I see as I travel and speak to groups is that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ So, now that Barbie knows better how will Barbie do better in the future?

Over the past few years the brand has partnered with 3rd party experts as it relates to our Career of the Year programs. Whether NASA for "Barbie as Astronaut" or a diverse group of entrepreneurs this past summer for the launch of Entrepreneur Barbie. The brand engages in these partnerships to ensure authenticity in both the doll design and program content. We will continue to explore these types of partnerships when exploring new areas for the brand.

We believe that Barbie unlocks a girl’s imagination. And that through open-ended play, Barbie invites girls to explore the world around them. We know it is critically important to not only listen to girls but also to listen to and learn from parents. That’s what we are doing now and will continue to do going forward.

 

I really appreciate Lori Pantel taking the time to answer these questions. Authentic communication with brands is a best first step in bringing about the changes we would like to see. As I continue to fill my role on The Barbie Project I will use every opportunity to encourage the brand to continue to move in the direction of empowered, diverse play for girls. Here is what I would hope to see the brand take away from this week of negative press and use it as a learning experience and catalyst for change:

  • Rewrite and publish the computer programming book. Just reboot the project and get it done right. Engage with women from STEM fields or groups who teach girls to code. Best yet: Have the girls in these coding/engineering groups team with Mattel to write a new version of the book they know will inspire little girls.
  • Reach out to advocates and experts who work to empower girls. Use our knowledge and consultations to guide decisions during the creative and development process.
  • Truly commit to showing girls all of Barbie’s careers are within reach through interactive web pages and product packing. Highlight women in those careers, much like the Barbie I Can Be…..An Entrepreneur site does. Then replace the two craft projects with a road map to developing a working business plan and a template for business cards. The Barbie Computer Engineer could come with an app where girls can get code from the inside of the doll’s package they input into the app to design the robot puppy they saw Barbie bring to life in the code *she successfully wrote and programmed* in the new book.
  • Pledge to keep Barbie as the protagonist in all of her stories. Let girls see her doing the problem solving, going on the adventures, and saving the day. Introduce new friends along the way, but keep Barbie in a position of power and leadership.

 

And what, dear reader, should your take away be? Let’s remember this is one conversation in what needs to be an ongoing conversation. As you read, think about how you want that conversation shaped, who you want heard, and how best to deliver your messages.

Computer Engineer Barbie

Computer Engineer Barbie

If You Give A Girl A Puzzle

Let’s Put The Pieces Together

When the currently popular and substantially profitable “girl empowerment marketing ” becomes a story of saving girls from their mindless, idle feminine selves, we need to take a step back and consider how well we really understand today’s girls and what goes on in their hearts and minds. Let us compare and contrast two ads that came out this week, both offering very different messages about girls and STEM.

In one ad, the girl is shown as a natural-born scientist who uses inspiration from the world around her to bring her ideas to life.

In the other ad, the girls are shown as mindless robots who need the presence of a savior product in order to be rescued from themselves.

Ignoring for the moment this is an advert for a controversial oil company……Pay attention to the details of the story being told here. Children don’t play with toys the way they are marketed or intended to be played with. Curiosity is innate in the child. A knack for STEM is already inside a girl. A good toy sparks innovation and wonder. A good toy can be many different things, even the least likely of things.

The other viral video from this week is a commercial for a toy company and also has us thinking about girls and STEM, but this one  further divides the girl side of the gendered, segmented children’s toy market into 1) sneaker-wearing, hammer-wielding Tomboy Girls and 2) glammed up, brainwashed one-dimensional Barbie Girls. In the Goldie Blox ad the “sparkly girls”, also sometimes referred to as “tutu girls”, are robotic pink-wearing drones who soak up gender norm and beauty messages without question. These girls and their pink tunnel vision are the problem, until they are saved by Goldie and her hammer.

 

Girl empowerment? Buyer beware.

Attack the media and marketing that sell girls short, yes. Challenge a generation of parents who fail to think critically about the media and toys they provide their children. But let’s back off the attacks on girls and how they do girlhood.

There is a difference between a girl-centric business using “girl power” as a marketing gimmick and a business centered in authentic girl empowerment. May I suggest we think twice about bashing the intellectual capabilities of girls who play with Barbies, enjoy fashion and glam, or who by genetic lottery fit the beauty norm? None of those things are mutually exclusive to also liking or being good at STEM pursuits.

My Friends, fashion dolls are not the hill you want to die on. While definitely an imperfect toy that require parents to assist with unpacking messages, insisting fashion dolls are the root cause of the Failure of Girls demonstrates a profound lack in understanding how girls really play and think. The Shell ad showcases this beautifully.

From Shell's How Will You Change The World? video

From Shell’s How Will You Change The World? video

Barbie isn’t the enemy. Limitation is. The Goldie Blox spot tried to show this, but the message came off as: Pink sparkle girls who play with Barbies and enjoy glam dress-up are mindless idiots who must be saved from their soulless selves. Girls who play with Barbie are no less capable of innovation, creativity, demonstrating STEM skills, and driving a successful education and professional career years down the road. They can be pretty and feminine while doing it. There are many ways to be a girl.

As a mom said on my facebook page and I have to completely agree based on my own family’s experiences, “The Goldie Blox building sets are frustrating and fall apart as you are building them. There is very little that you can actually do with them. My daughter has had more creative and imaginative play with her *gasp* Barbie dolls.”

This isn’t a debate between Goldie Blox or Barbie, there is room for both on the shelf and both serve a purpose. The Goldie Blox ad is a great ad, as far as advertising goes. Goldie Blox’s newly released zip line set and movie machine set are neat. But for those of us truly invested in girl empowerment, our focus should be on how we are using, depicting, and profiting from girls in marketing. Let’s be mindful of what problems and deficits we are being marketed about our girls versus what we know to be true as we watch them grow day in and day out.

EVERY GIRL has a scientist inside of her. Girls are not the problem, we are. We’ve forgotten how to draw the curiosity out of her, we’ve stopping expecting it from her, and we’ve stopped giving her opportunities to explore it, experiment with it, and expand on it. We’ve listened to what the media wants us to believe about our troubled girls, and bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Girls know better, they are waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

At breakfast these girls were playing Barbie. By lunch they were examining specimens at the Smithsonian. My 5yo niece is instructing my 6yo son on what to do with his QVR code.

 

If you give a girl a puzzle, she’ll want to solve it.

And she’ll likely want another one. 

When she’s finished, she’ll put on her favorite science goggles. 

Then she’ll call all her friends over and you’ll need puzzles and goggles for them, too. 

After the puzzles, they’ll want to go outside and make a fort. 

When the girls finish getting dirty building the fort they’ll find a toy to take apart and rebuild. 

Of course, when she’s finished she’ll want a science experiment. 

And chances are, if you give her all these STEM opportunities, 

she’ll grow up knowing she was a scientist, engineer, and mathematician all along. 

Let's be very careful with what we presume about our girls, their interests, and abilities.

Let’s be very careful with what we presume about our girls, their interests, and abilities.

 

Exploring the Smithsonian Qurios lab.

Exploring the Smithsonian Qurios lab.

GIrls are fully capable of being multi-dimenisonal.

GIrls are fully capable of being multi-dimenisonal.

Science Tees For Girls Is What We’ve Always Done

It is great that Lands’ End listened to customer feedback following the viral backlash that came with a mom’s letter calling out their sexist back-to-school shirts. This isn’t new territory for Lands’ End, I wrote about this three years ago when the company found themselves in more back-to-school trouble. When the story first broke Pigtail Pals was mentioned in this article on Huffington Post directing parents towards better apparel options and advocacy work against gender stereotypes in children’s media and products.

Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has been around for five years, and we’ve always made real science tees for girls.

Pigtail Pals paleontology tee for girls, 2010.

Pigtail Pals “Dino Dig” paleontology tee for girls, 2010.

If you would like to order some empowering apparel for girls and boys, visit www.pigtailpals.com

I’m pleased that Lands’ End is offering two science-themed shirts to girls that aren’t sparkly gendered science, but real science. The designs are great. They will reach the masses and that is superb. Congratulations on those two t-shirts.

Meanwhile, Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has ALWAYS offered real science tees for girls. Our playtime apparel has always been free of gender stereotypes, it was the founding principal for our company in 2009. PPBB remains a small business, but our commitment to honor childhood and offer over fifty respectful and empowering playtime designs is one of the biggest in the business.

Our Redefine Girly line shows girls being smart, daring, and adventurous.

Girls astronaut design from Pigtail Pals. Our Redefine Girly line shows girls being smart, daring, and adventurous.

Chemists

Girls chemistry design from Pigtail Pals. Our Redefine Girly line shows girls being smart, daring, and adventurous.

Doctor

Girls doctor design from Pigtail Pals. Our Redefine Girly line shows girls being smart, daring, and adventurous.

Girls of all sizes love science!

Girls of all sizes love science!

It would be important to note that Lands’ End didn’t create a new science design for girls from this recent controversy. The headline making science designs for girls is actually two space designs Lands’ End took from the boys MIGHTY GRAPHICS! section and simply put on a girly tee with scalloped edge sleeves.

In fact, when you take in the overall offerings to girls and boys from their catalog we find twenty four long sleeved tees for boys, eighteen of which have a science or nature theme that looks like actual science and nature. When we look at the girls CUTE TO A TEE section (natch) we find twenty four tees that offer tutu and tiara wearing dogs, coral colored zebras, bubble blowing elephants, and mask-wearing foxes. The girls’ options carry nothing of the biology and physics messages the boys’ do. The girls’ options have been dipped in pink and bedazzled with sparkles to the moon and back. Except, of course, for the two boy designs they just inherited.

The girls’ designs are cute, when we take each one at face value. When we compare them to what the boys are offered the sexism and gendering is offensive. By Lands’ End own descriptions, boys are mighty whose imaginations need to go wild. Girls are cute and add smiles to their outfits. Oh giggle!

I applaud the big corporations when they make small steps like this towards gender equity and leaving stereotypes off of their children’s products. At the same time, I’m rolling my eyes. This is literally the smallest step that Lands’ End could have taken.

It is 2014 after all, and it isn’t like this girl empowerment and STEM stuff is new. I’m just not so convinced two science t-shirts out of an offering of two dozen should really earn the fanfare it is getting the retailer. The fact remains that Lands’ End, while wholesome, is one of the most gendered places out there for kids. Maybe selling gender stereotypes isn’t so wholesome? Or progressive?

I’ll be convinced there has been progress made when moms like Lisa Ryder and myself don’t have to write letters in the first place.

After, girls will be girls.

PPBB's "Girls Will Be Girls" designs turns stereotypes upside down.

PPBB’s “Girls Will Be Girls” designs turns stereotypes upside down.

 

If you would like to order some empowering apparel for girls and boys, visit www.pigtailpals.com.

Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies is a small business operated by Melissa Atkins Wardy in Wisconsin, where are shirts are printed and shipped with love.

Find Melissa Atkins Wardy’s book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” on Amazon.