Boy Babydolls and Princess Builders: Rethinking the Pink Aisle

Girls with their Jewelbots.

As the holiday season rolls in, those of us with children, particularly girl children, in our lives are forced to confront the pink aisle. The debate over the gender identity in children’s toys is not a new one, but it seems to have reached reached a fever pitch in 2015. As our culture slowly begins to accept a more open notion of gender fluidity, many of the traditional boys and girls toys are beginning to feel out of date. The idea of a girl’s aisle full of pink toys focused on antiquated notions of feminine roles (think Easy Bake Ovens, baby dolls and the Barbie Dream House) and a “boys aisle” focused on preparing young men to be warriors, builders, and problem solvers seems wildly out of touch with the world in which we are currently living.

There has been much discussed on this topic this year, with one of the most visible moves coming from Target who, in a nod to gender neutrality made the somewhat controversial decision to get rid of its signage for separate girl and boy aisles. While heralded as a sign of a big box retailer getting with the times by some, it caused outrage among many of its customers. To clarify, all Target did was remove a sign.

Earlier moves to make traditional “boys” toys appeal to girls have not been well received. When lego introduced pink legos in 2011, it’s critics were vocal. There was even a petition calling to ban them. The knee-jerk negative reaction to anything that might be feminine or girly is upsetting and devalues many girls’ tastes and aesthetic preferences. Why is making something pink “dumbing it down”? Why discourage something that is targeted at girls that might actually be useful?

There is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink. And there is definitely nothing wrong with sparkles. I’ve never been a fan of primary colors, and if given the choice as a kid, I would have bought the pink Legos in a heartbeat. I still would! But now we are starting to see a real disruption in this space, a disruption in the function of these girls toys, and it’s fantastic.

Goldieblox has been one of the most successful trailblazers in this space to date. They created a line of building and engineering toys for girls, all centered around characters that girls can identify with.They have gone a step further than just making their building set pink, they tied the product to a female heroine and used her story to create a narrative along with building. They took something that many girls already like, stories, and wove it into the foundation of play.

We are trying to do something similar at Jewelbots. Because our goal is to get girls excited about computer science, the last thing we want to do is discourage them, or for them to think that our product is not for them. Our designs may appear “girly” because we talked to girls about what they liked and incorporated their responses in our designs. We took our cues from the girls in creating not only the design, but the actual functionality of our product.

The term “gender neutral” can be problematic. Many things (especially clothing and accessories) that are “gender neutral” are actually designed for men, with women as an afterthought. (Hello, Apple Watch!) Men are the default and women are the other. Boys are totally welcome to play with our product, but we are designing for the experience of and tastes of girls. For us, girls are the default. We want girls to know that this is for them. Not all of our charms will be flowery, some might be more appealing to boys, but we are optimizing for girls. There’s nothing wrong with designing a toy, an experience, or an accessory with girl’s interests and tastes in mind.

There will always be a contingent of pink/feminine/sparkly toys that exist and appeal to some girls, so why not make those toys smarter? Why penalize kids — whether boys or girls — who like pink and sparkly things by not giving them the same robust and educational toys that other kids get? Bring on the pink building blocks, the pink soccer balls, and pink smart jewelry. If our sons or daughter want the pink chemistry set, who are we to discourage them?

Speaking of boys, this disruption needs to flow both ways through the toy aisle. A lot of ink is spilt talking about princesses and Barbie dolls, but what about the boys? Is there anything to be gained by them venturing into the traditionally feminine play space of dolls and Easy Bake Ovens. If we also value raising our boys into men who can do their share of domestic duties, don’t we also want to prepare them for those roles from an early age? Kids like to mimic adults, and these “playing house” toys can be a fun way for them to play and prepare for these kinds of tasks. The main problem is that these toys have been deemed just for girls, but what if taking away the pink in this case could make these kind of toys more welcoming to boys. I took a quick browse through Amazon and was delighted to see that this is starting to happen. Behold- domestic labor toys for boys too!

Amazon Review of North American Bear Company Rosy Cheeks Baby Tan Boy
“Our little boy wanted a “baby doll” for Christmas and I was a little concerned because I already hate those creepy plastic head dolls for girls and I wasn’t thrilled about my little guy running around with one, but we were very happy when we found this option which is nicely constructed, soft, and even came in “tan” that is nice for our own brown-skinned baby to have something more representational of the world he lives in. …. But he loves it and we are happy he loves it. It is nice to see him giving the doll some affection and telling it he is the daddy (when he isn’t throwing it into the air as high as he can).”
Amazon review of Little Tikes Super Chef Kitchen
“For the price, this kitchen is great. I got it for my son last Christmas right around when he was turning 2. He still plays with it, asking if I want coffee and cake all the time. I really enjoys it. My son has a small playroom that’s originally a dining room. Seeing as this kitchen fits in the corner, it’s great for space, leaving plenty of room for a table, chairs, and a shelf I’m using for his ‘toy box.’ I plan on adding a train table to his room this year and with the size of the kitchen there will be plenty of room to move around.”
Amazon review for Melissa & Doug Let’s Play House! Dust, Sweep and Mop
“Received this yesterday. Ordered as a gift for my grandson who turned one year old yesterday. He was always wanting my broom and my swiffer , but so big for him to handle. He started this a few months ago as soon as he was walking.
He was here when the package arrived, so I got it out, put it together in a matter of minutes and the fun began. This is all that he has been playing with. My daughter told me this morning that this was definitely the best gift I could have gotten him. He loves it!”

So how about instead of trying to either put girls and boys in separate boxes, or make them fit in the same mold, we enable them with the confidence and individuality to make their own choices based on their own unique hobbies, tastes and aesthetics.