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Princess or scientist: Do girls have to choose?

Published December 3, 2013 9:35 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As holiday gifting season hits its stride, one toy is getting all the ink: a little storybook-and-construction-toy combo designed to get little girls excited about engineering.

GoldieBlox got a little famous in 2012 with founder Debbie Sterling's earnest Kickstarter launch video. In the past month, it got a LOT famous with its viral advertisement featuring three girls, bored with typical "pink aisle" toys, creating a Rube-Goldberg-esque contraption to a parody of the Beastie Boys' "Girls" (later removed due to intellectual property issues).

The video and the toy initially got raves all around. Sterling, a Stanford-educated engineer, was lauded for bringing science-y skills to girls' toy sections. The toy is meant to tie narrative play — girls' domain — to physical problem-solving — not traditionally girls' domain.

Then came the reservations.

Several writers objected to the whole idea of an engineering toy marketed specifically to girls, as if they can't enjoy building and experimentation without pink sparkles.

"GoldieBlox is treating my girl like she has a disability: SHE IS A GIRL," Sandra Shpilberg wrote for The Huffington Post.

The coup de grace: The latest book is premised on ...

... wait for it ...

... a princess pageant.


"So what do we get?" asked Margot Magowan on ReelGirl. "An anti-everything pink and princess themed ad, which is great, selling a princess themed toy. WTF?"

As the mother of a young daughter (Happy birthday, Dragon!), the princess stuff has me torn. I'm not princessy myself, and the thought of possibly having fathered a tiara-wearing creature makes my husband want to stab his eyes out. I understand the hard line. Not all girls want to be princesses, it's a narrow and shallow stereotype for girls to live up to, eww chauvenism, eww princessy entitlement, eww damsel in distress. We don't want to sell out the ideal of gender-neutral play, which welcomes and frees all children.

But here's the thing: I don't know a single little girl who really hates princesses. I do, however, know plenty of little girls who lovelovelovelovelove princesses despite their parents' desperate efforts to banish any and all royalty. The war is over by preschool. Girls find out they're girls, and a lot of them don't want to be gender-neutralized.

Whether it's imposed by culture or not, I suspect there is a good chance my Dragon will go through a princess phase, where she is fascinated by all things "girly." She may spend a fair bit of her early childhood (or more) latched on to traditional gender norms. She may one day see the pink aisle as the place *for her.*

During that time, is it really productive to force-feed gender neutral play to a little girl and just wish away the princess phase? Resign all of her girly enthusiasm to a marketplace full of low-action, low-imagination toys focused mostly on preening? She only gets one childhood. Do we really want to throw away all the learning opportunities that might resonate with her princess side, just because the pink glitter violates some sort of feminist purity?

I haven't played with GoldieBlox and can't speak to its quality. If I want to give active, creative play to Dragon during a princess phase, it probably will involve planting some "magic" radish seeds and building a palace from household objects. I'll always try to facilitate other kinds of play, too.

But I won't tell Dragon she can't be princess of her own castle.

— Erin Alberty




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