Boys, girls, science and marketing.

We love the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. We’ve explored Legos, King Tut, Anne Frank, Castles and trains there, spent many days learning about chemistry, physics, history and math while having a great time. It’s a rare place where I can simply follow my kids’ lead without worrying about protecting them from inappropriate, dangerous or insipid material.

This week we took some grandparents to visit the Museum, and I took advantage of the extra adults to pay a visit to the gift shop. The boys were happily learning science:

Boys with microscopes

boys learning science at the Children's Museum

Matilda and I wandered into the science section ignoring the massive pink Barbie display dwarfing the cool legos.

chemistry for boys, electronics for boys, boring

I left the store and cornered my father-in-law.

“I need your camera so I can document the sexism in the gift store.” He handed it over. This is the same guy who actually made his buddies quit joking about wifely duties at our “couples shower” 17 years ago. My outrage is rarely news to him.

I took the camera back downstairs and used that time to try and pinpoint my upset. I’m not opposed to dangerous boys- I’ve got two of my own. I’m all for bubble baths, and I think making my own perfume sounds lovely. It wasn’t about what was on that wall, it’s what was missing. There was nothing on that wall that encouraged girls to take risks. The science available to girls was science designed to make them more attractive mates. Boys? Here- light stuff on fire, make sparks. Girls? You get to bathe. I felt like the first little girl in the pony ad.

Spa science kits at the museum, marketed for girls.

Learn science, smell pretty.

A clerk approached me, looking concerned.

“Can I help you find something?”

“How do you choose which science kits to offer?” He led me over to the science kit wall, eager to introduce me to their cool products, and then saw my point and cringed a bit. “I’ve been a parent of boys for almost ten years,” I explained, “and I’m happy to see stuff that celebrates boyhood. But now I’m a parent of a girl, and when I walk into your science section I just feel sad for her and worried that there won’t be fun, dangerous stuff for her to try.”

He told me I’d managed to arrive just after the Christmas rush and I admit, I stooped to a bit of sarcasm when I asked if that meant all the dangerous girl science kits, perhaps including the daring kit of nail polish, had sold out. In the end, he apologized and told me that when marketing toward 9-16 year old girls, dangerous doesn’t cut it- bubble bath does. He thanked me, assured me he’d pass on my concerns, and asked me to continue the dialogue as my daughter grows.

We’ve already bought our annual membership, and I’m certain we’ll return to the museum this year. It felt a little silly to be arguing about science kits for teenagers when the center of the debate was strapped to my shoulder teething on a toy, but if 9-16 year old girls prefer perfume to science, then we need to get started at an earlier age.

Take a look at this ad aimed at people buying for little girls:

You didn’t misunderstand- the little girl really sings, “I love when my laundry gets clean, clean, clean.” I spent way too much time trying to find an equivalent ad for boys- the closest might be Hasbro’s 2007 “built for boyhood” campaign, which certainly made it sound more fun to be a boy getting muddy than a girl doing his freaking laundry, but there’s nothing I could find that sends the message, “here boys, do basic self-care. It’s loads of fun.” There’s no surprise that we’re not raising girls who think dangerous science could be fun- we’re too busy telling them cleaning is fun.

12 thoughts on “Boys, girls, science and marketing.

  1. Great post Amy!
    It’s so interesting for me to read posts like this, as a mother of an only child, and a girl at that. We haven’t done a lot of blowing up things, but she is definitely a calculated risk taker, who loves doing things many might consider dangerous and daring (trapeze comes to mind….).

    When one looks at it from a commercial standpoint, it can be a whole new way of looking at things….
    I think i might have to look into kits of blowing things up…. 🙂

  2. Huzzah!
    As the parent of a daughter who already is showing more interest in math & science, I am forever looking for gender non-specific science toys & kits. Hard to come by. Or I just go ahead and buy the boys’ stuff. I know bubble bath sells, but interesting that the boys aren’t “supposed” to like it. Hmmm… Keep up the dialog. We’ve come so far since we were kids; hopefully the world will advance so far for our children. Thanks, Amy!

  3. Have you seen JeongMee Yoon’s Pink and Blue Project? I find it fascinating, and when I speak to my students about gender and gender roles, I always show a bunch of these pictures, as well as pictures of “gender neutral” items (like a giraffe, or a green blanket) and have them try and guess the sex/gender of the baby.

  4. Thanks Natalie- I hadn’t seen that page, but I do know of lots of little girls who were given “gender neutral” clothes and chose pink as much as possible.

    Thea- if only my boys were interested in bubble bath. That would save me a lot of hassle. I imagine I’ll buy her a lot of boy stuff, but what hurts me is the idea that if I bought my boys “girl” stuff I’d be selling them short. Yet I am constantly told that there’s no need for feminism- that our society is past that. We’re not, clearly.

    Next time you guys are in town we’ll blow something up in the backyard.

    Lisa- a book we like is Backyard Ballistics- “build potato cannons, paper match rockets, Cincinnati fire kites, tennis ball mortars and more dynamite devices”. Fun times indeed.

  5. Amy– your comment here really hit something on the head that steams me . . . that it’s more ok for girls to be exposed to or participate in “boy things”, than it is for boys to take part in “girl things.” What does that say? Clearly, it’s more horrendous to have to do things that girls are supposed to do. Who could stoop that low? Horrors!

    In our household of two male children and two female adults, we try very hard to have a mostly gender neutral environment for our kids, but that’s really stretching it sometimes. It’s hard enough to find plain t-shirts and not monster trucks and GI Joe, but to think about anything pink, or toys that are “clearly girl toys” is harder to do. We do have baby dolls and all their requisite equipment, and even managed to find them in dark red and navy blue (imagine!), and I went out on a limb and bought a Fancy Nancy book for Max in December. (He loves it.) We have a doll house (plain wood, with wooden furniture), and plenty of play cooking stuff (also not pink.) It’s not that I’m opposed to pink necessarily, but I don’t want all the “traditionally girl” stuff to be pink. I feel like that just sets up the gender bias, especially in young minds. Maybe it’s just me.

    Max hasn’t had a bubble bath in a few years. Maybe I’ll suggest that tonight.

  6. Jill- it’s not just that those toys are pink, it’s also that ftmp, they are lame. Compare Barbie to Spiderman- Carter wouldn’t accept an action figure without a minimum of points of articulation, Barbie couldn’t make the cut (or bend her legs enough). When Legos marketed pink sets for girls, they came with the roofs pre-assembled. No fun there either. I’m certainly not opposed to my boys liking pink things, but I want them to have some standards about how fun they are.

  7. Definitely. I don’t disagree. I guess I was using “pink” as a way to talk about how things are categorized. Our culture assigns pink to girls, so nurturing activities like baby dolls are pink, cooking supplies are pink… etc, etc. There are plenty of pink things around here, for sure. Maybe it’s that I feel like the pink assigns a value. Something lesser, that my boys don’t need to bother with.

    I’m not sure the “fun” factor is what bugs me. I don’t know that a leg has to bend in a certain number of places to be fun for everyone. The lego roof story is infuriating because it seems to imply that girls aren’t capable of the engineering necessary to create a roof that doesn’t collapse. Now THAT honks me off.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this stuff a little more. It’s an interesting enterprise to work at articulating some of it a little more clearly.

  8. oh yea- the lego thing is definitely more infuriating than just being lame- it was surprising too as lego is generally a company I think of as being congruent with my values (as much as a company that manufactures gigantic amounts of plastic can be). My point on the articulation is that you can’t do as much when you can’t move them around. The dolls for girls appear to be designed to look at and admire, while the dolls for boys (Carter called them action dolls for years)are made for movement and hostage-taking and flying.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this. My eldest child (a girl) is turning 6, and in looking for gifts for her, I’ve been so frustrated by the gender categories that put things like telescopes & microscopes & building kits in the boys section and toe nail painting & quilting sets & purse making in the girls section.

    In 2010 do companies really believe it serves the greater good to expose girls only to prettiness & boys to only science.

    My son is equally interested in learning to sew as my daughter is in learning to build bigger, higher, taller…. and they both should be allowed & encouraged to do so. I don’t purchase gifts gender-targeted, and I’m not about to begin (though I’m seeing increased divisions in toy selection and clothes selection in shops as the kids get older – its infuriating!). I want my children to pursue what INTERESTS them, NOT what the manufacturers believe SHOULD interest them.

    And that commercial? Beyond yuck.
    One of the reasons we don’t do TV in our house is the commercials. Awful.

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