by Hilary Levey Friedman
Engineer turned social entrepreneur/toy maker Debbie Sterling thinks Goldilocks should have built herself a chair and bed that fit her just right. No matter if her creations ended up pink and covered in glitter—the important thing is that she build herself.
That notion inspired the creation of GoldieBlox: The Engineering Toy for Girls. Funded on KickStarter in 2012, the small business got international attention in February when it won a contest to air an ad during the Super Bowl. GoldieBlox’s ads feature a multicultural trio of girls who appropriate their very girlie (read: pink and sparkly) toys to build machines and rocket ships. With a “girl power” message of teamwork, GoldieBlox proponents would love to see a TV series focused on Wendy, Bob the Builder’s trusty sidekick. Their long-term goal is to improve the statistic that only 11% of engineers are female.
Unlike Legos, which has simply changed the color of their pieces to “girly” ones, GoldieBlox tried to create a toy that speaks to what interests girls today, based on their own market research. This 2012 Atlantic article explains:
At the center of Sterling’s creation are several strategies for getting girls to build: engage them with a story, challenge them to build with a problem-solving purpose, use materials that are warm or soft to the touch (no metal) and have shapes with curved edges, and presented in colors that American girls in the year 2012 tend to be attracted to. The toy set includes the story of its heroine, “GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine” (available as a book or iOS app), five character figurines (Goldie’s “friends”), and building kit that includes plastic elements and a ribbon.
These ideas are similar to those of many parents I met while studying families with elementary school-age children who compete in afterschool activities (specifically chess, dance, and soccer), detailed in my recent book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Parents of girls had particular gender scripts that came into play when they selected and/or approved particular activities for their daughters. One of those—the “pink warriors”—resonates strongly with the GoldieBlox approach.
Chess allows girls to be what one mother of two sons described to me as a “pink girl”: “These girls have princess T-shirts on. [They have] rhinestones and bows in their hair—and they beat boys. And the boys come out completely deflated. That’s the kind of thing I think is so funny. That girl Carolyn, I call her the killer chess player. She has bows in her hair, wears dresses, everything is pink, Barbie backpack, and she plays killer chess.”
Most of the chess girls I met are not “pink girls” in the sense that they don’t dress exactly like Carolyn. But in chess there is the chance to be both aggressive, like a warrior, and girly, embracing pink. The pink warrior gender script allows girls to be aggressive and assertive but still act in a normatively feminine way—if they want to do so.
GoldieBlox seems to be inspired by the same gender script of “pink warriors.” It allows girls to combine what Connell calls hegemonic masculinity (engineering) and normative femininity (pink, soft, narratives, etc.). I write in Playing to Win: “Like soccer girls, chess girls are encouraged to be aggressive. But this aggression is slightly different because chess is not a physical game. Unlike dance and soccer, chess is a primarily a mental competition, so physical femininity is not an issue at competitive events. With the lack of physicality, the femininity associated with chess is more inclusive. Chess promotes a hybrid gender script for the small group of girls who participate. These girls learn to be aggressive, but they also can focus on a feminine appearance if they so choose.”
GoldieBlox is like chess in that it allows for a hybrid approach to gender that combines today’s much talked about “girly-ness” with today’s competitive approach to childhood and STEM careers that has previously been associated with boys. More girls than boys succeed in the classroom through elementary school and into graduate school, but not into the scientific career ranks. People like Sterling are working to ensure that those girls don’t just end up as Goldilocks, but they end up as Dr. Goldilocks with their own labs, businesses, and construction sites.
Hilary Levey Friedman is affiliated with the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. More information on her recently published book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, can be found here.