Barbie’s days are numbered. In the past couple weeks alone, a torrent of praise surrounding a new “Normal Barbie” shamed traditional Barbie and her unnatural physique. The Internet eviscerated Mattel for the “I Can Be A Computer Engineer” book, where Barbie fumbles through an embarrassing string of incompetencies before asking boys to help, and Frozen characters bumped Barbie from her throne as #1 holiday toy, following a massive sales slide in 2013.
However, the bigger story here is not Barbie’s demise. It is the rise of a new generation of pro-girl toys that are challenging large toy corporations and the archaic gender roles they espouse, changing ideas about how girls play.
Toys have a significant and lasting impact on the ways children learn to view themselves and their place in the world. They shape cognitive skills, like spatial thinking, but also worldviews. Toys like Barbie send the message to young girls that being pretty is the only thing that matters, and that message sticks.
“Gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched,” says Kate Roberts, a clinical psychologist and expert on “tween” girls. “What has changed is that we are now aware of the biases in our toys, and we question and discuss them.”
Crowdfunding platforms are one of the biggest drivers of that shift. As toy corporations continue to churn out products for girls that focused on clothes, makeup, and shopping, while boys got action figures and train building sets, Kickstarter has become a place where independent toy makers can garner grassroots support for their products. Many of the most successful projects are built on the belief that girls need less proscriptive, more progressive toys.
Goldieblox is one of the most well-known examples. The company set out to raise $150,000 on Kickstarter for its construction toy set for girls. It also released a video of girls building a Rube Goldberg machine that went viral, and ended up raising nearly twice its funding goal. Goldieblox hit mainstream retailers in 2013, and has since released a number of new toys. Most recently, the company came out with an action figure for girls named Goldie, and of course, a companion viral video.
“Fashion dolls teach girls to value beauty over brains,” Goldieblox founder Debbie Sterling told Co.Exist. “It’s crucial that we constantly remind our girls of their potential and ability to be original. The most important thing young girls need to compete in today’s marketplace is confidence. At the end of the day, we need to be giving our girls more options and empowering them to follow their own, individual path, not necessarily the path that society dictates.”
The Lammily Doll is another example. This “normal” Barbie has the proportions of an average 19 year old girl. Her crowdfunding campaign roared past its $95,000 goal to raise $501,000 and finally became available for purchase and delivery just before Thanksgiving–complete with a flaw extension pack of cellulite, stretch marks, and zit stickers. Something as simple as changing the doll’s physique had a dramatic effect on how girls perceived her. In a series of video interviews the dolls’ creators posted online, second graders thought the Lammily Doll could be a teacher or athlete, while Barbie was a fashion model or “didn’t do anything.”
Then there are the IAmElemental action figures which soared 465% past their funding goal, racking up $162,906 in a 30-day campaign. These female action figures embody the positive qualities of Courage: Bravery, Energy, Honesty, Industry, Enthusiasm, Persistence, and Fear. They have “healthier breast, waist, hip ratios,” articulated joints, and are worthy of “save-the-world storylines.” In addition to the girl-specific toys, Kickstarter has also yielded a fertile crop of gender-neutral toys that promote engineering skills, like Woody Mac, Ubooly, and Atoms.
All of these products are still in their early days. They are in various stages of the difficult road from successful crowdfunding campaign to successful mainstream toy, and that road is not always smooth. GoldieBlox has taken heat for making toys that don’t live up to their feminist ideals and treats a girl “like she has a disability.” Critics have said the Lammily Doll is anything but body-positive, and still promotes a standardized ideal of beauty that is harmful, even if that ideal isn’t anorexic and blonde.
In fact, there is a long history of “Anti-Barbies” and none have made notable progress toward dethroning the original. Even Mattel’s attempts at transforming Barbie into a figure of empowerment have failed miserably. I Can Be A Computer Engineer catastrophe aside, academic research has found that playing with Barbie dolls limits girls’ ambition and sense of possibility, regardless of whether the Barbie they play with is in a bikini or doctor’s coat.
While the trend of toys that promote healthier beauty standards and interest in STEM fields is encouraging, the road for these efforts is ridden with land mines. As with most things that aspire to be “pro-girl” or “pro-woman,” there is not widespread agreement as to what is positive and what is not. There are many people who believe that the problem is creating a separate category for girls at all, and others who think that giving girls different toys is accomplishes nothing beyond self-congratulation.
Whether these toys will sell (none of the companies have released sales numbers), and whether they will have a tangible impact on bridging the STEM gender gap, remains to be seen. Furthermore, research from a multi-year toy study out of the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University found that “basic is better.” The toys that elicit the most complex forms of play are simple, such as hardwood blocks and classic construction toys, which begs the question–are “pro-girl” toys beside the point entirely?
I believe the answer to that question is no, if for no other reason than that they are attracting a tremendous amount of attention to the issue of how we socialize girls. Women represent over 50% of the population, and yet a mere 24% of the STEM workforce, 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Sexist toys are not entirely responsible for those inequalities, but they certainly play a role in reinforcing the cultural messages that say “STEM is not for girls.”
What GoldieBlox, the Lammily Doll, IAmElemental, and others are doing is causing people to more carefully consider what values they pass on to their children via toys. They are providing more options for parents who don’t want to buy from the toy corporations that control the market and have perpetuated sexist values for decades. The successful crowdfunding campaigns are also demonstrating to members of that elite toy cabal that there is a market for toys less vapid than Barbie. If (and when) Mattel sells a Barbie Dream House that you build from scratch, including an electrical and mechanical system, that is a victory. That is real disruption. Will that disruption bridge the technology gender gap? Only time will tell.