GoldieBlox: Engineering toy for girls 'not that radical'

The ad for the toy has taken YouTube by storm, but it may be reinforcing stereotypes

GoldieBlox's ad has been viewed more than 7 million times in less than a week.

A new construction toy for girls designed to break gender stereotypes may actually be "an homage to the patriarchy," a noted sociologist told Al Jazeera.

The ad for GoldieBlox, a book and toy designed by Stanford University-educated engineer Debbie Sterling to familiarize girls with basic engineering principles, has gone viral on YouTube, where it has garnered more than 7 million views in less than a week.

The toy features a pegboard, axles, cranks and ribbon — in pastel pinks, periwinkles and purples.

"It's not that radical, and that's why people are loving it," said Lisa Wade, chair of the sociology department at Occidental College and author of the blog Sociological Images.  

"The idea started in the '70s that the way we should liberate women is to get them into guys' stuff," she said. "There's nothing about this toy that breaks with what we tell girls to do in this country every day: model what boys do, but not break with femininity."

"They can have careers and drink whiskey, but have to be women at the same time." Otherwise, "those girls are 'dykes' and 'bitches'."

A more groundbreaking toy, Wade said, would break with gender roles altogether. But that would never happen, she said.

"Toys are among the most heteronormative things in America."

Richard Gottlieb, CEO of the toy industry consulting firm Global Toy Experts, told Al Jazeera that toys have become increasingly gendered over the past several decades.

"The girls' department is pinker than it's ever been," Gottlieb said. "It's the success of Barbie, all the Disney princesses. People just pile on more and more pink."

His firm recently interviewed 1,700 moms, asking what kinds of toys they had played with as girls compared with their daughters now. He found that in just one generation, there was a 25 percent drop in the number of young girls who played with toys traditionally marketed to boys. 

Gottlieb said that as an example of how one retailer has tried to combat toy stereotypes, Harrod's department store in London once removed gender-based signage from its toy department, but then had female employees wear pink shirts and male employees wear blue shirts to signal to customers who to speak to about "girls' toys" and "boys' toys."

"It's a mixed message," he said. 

Gottlieb said that GoldieBlox has "smart marketing. (Sterling) sees there's a hole in the market for smart, engineering-based toys for girls."

GoldieBlox very clearly aims to bridge a gap that plays out in the professional world later in life.

"The scary truth is that only 11 percent of engineers are women, and girls start losing interest in science as young as age 8!" Sterling reported on her Kickstarter campaign for the toy last year.  

Wade noted that boys are "better at mental rotation," which helps them get engineering jobs later on. Yet her studies have shown it is not a biological advantage but "practice" that puts them ahead of the curve.

"Boys get a lot of practice because of sports and video games," she said. "It's likely that games like this will shrink the gap. That's probably true. The same could be true of sports and video games."

Despite her misgivings, Wade was a fan of the commercial — like many other Web users.

"The song is wonderful, the kids are adorable," she said.

Sterling did not respond to requests for comment at time of publication.

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