Dress-up wedding collections for your little “bride-to-be.” Pretty LEGOs to help her build beauty shops. Dolls skinnier than Barbie and sexier than Bratz. Pink vacuum cleaners and cleaning trolleys, makeup kits and kitchen sets.
I spoke with Jennifer Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News, about the effects of toy gendering on young girls. Even beyond their frills and (seeming) frivolity, hyperfeminine and highly gendered products like Barbie and Bratz are far from harmless, said Pozner. Instead, they serve as “didactic tools to teach girls what they will be valued for and what is expected of them.” In this framework, toys like tiaras, purses and play ovens represent more than fun and games: They’re instruments that help socialize girls for roles as caretakers and trophy wives. And while cooking and cleaning are undoubtedly important skills to teach the young, it becomes concerning when the more educationally driven toys are overwhelmingly targeted to boys.
“It’s almost impossible to overstate the level of misogyny and hypersexualization present in the marketing of products to girls,” said Pozner, “and the problem is getting worse.” Indeed, many experts argue that toy marketing has become increasingly gendered over the last decade, leaving little room for boys who like nail polish or girls who like science.
So what can you do if you don’t want give your daughter a pink apron for Christmas? With Pozner’s help, I’ve compiled a list of fun, empowering and educational gifts for young people that do more than dictate sex and gender roles.
- I Got Shoes and other children’s CDs, Sweet Honey in the Rock
I first learned of this all-women, African American a cappella ensemble in a women’s studies class during my freshman year. The Grammy Award-winning troupe boasts several children’s records that use song and dance to address issues of motherhood, spirituality, freedom, and civil rights. Great for burgeoning toddler activists!
- MindWare toys
This educational toy line has received awards from Parents’ Choice, Creative Child magazine, iParenting Media and others for its engaging products, which include puzzles, mazes, and arts and crafts.
- Genderific Coloring Books, Jacinta Bunnell
Bunnell’s coloring books, including Girls Are Not Chicks and Sometimes the Spoon Runs away with Another Spoon, encourage positive sex and gender roles, such as celebrating girls who climb fences and boys who bake pies.
A female engineer created this innovative construction toy for girls in response to the fact that nearly 90 percent of all engineers are men. The toy teaches basic math and science concepts as girls build a belt drive for Goldie and her friends.
- Call Me Madame President, Sue Pyatt
Even after record-breaking wins in the recent election, women still hold only 20 percent of seats in the U.S. Senate. Help fix the problem by inspiring a young girl with this tale of 8-year-old Amanda, who becomes president of the United States!
This gender-neutral engineering toy lets children build miniature rooms and houses. Best of all, there is no set way to build a space, allowing for constructive problem solving and creative thinking.
- New Moon magazine
Pozner recommends this bimonthly magazine for young girls, which is free of advertising and diet advice and rich in stories on young female activists, adventurers, and athletes.
- Hummingbird Robotics Kit
A spin-off from a similar kit by Carnegie Mellon University, the kit comes with everything a girl needs to build the robot of her dreams, from a dragon with flapping wings to a replica of R2-D2.
- Help her become a rock star.
Why buy Rock Band when you can give your daughter the real thing, asks Pozner. Set her up with a guitar and music lessons, or better yet, sign her up for a week at Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a nonprofit music and mentoring program dedicated to the empowerment of girls and women.
Ages 13 and Up
- Our Bodies, Ourselves
First published in 1971, this canonical book teaches crucial information on women’s health and sexuality, with topics including menstruation, childbirth, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental health, and general well-being.
- Arduino Cookbook
This “cookbook” teaches readers to program an open-source microcontroller, a tiny circuit board that serves as the basis for arts and robotics projects. Kids can use it to create their own toys, remote controllers, alarms, detectors, robots, and more.
- A month of tutoring on graphic design or video editing
“Getting girls involved in creating their own media can be a great skill and empowering tool,” said Pozner. Girls interested in media literacy can use software programs like Apple’s Final Cut Pro to make their own movies, memes, infographics and more.
- Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV, Jennifer Pozner
Pozner herself wrote this 2010 book, which analyzes biases promoted by reality TV, especially regarding sexism, and arms readers with tools to understand and challenge media stereotypes. According to AAUW fellow and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, the book “should be required reading for every American girl and woman.”