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Gazetteers :: The Downfall of Toys

Posted by The-Gazetteers on July 9, 2012

Welcome to the inaugural post of the new articles series, GAZETTEERS! We’re an eclectic group of like minded women that wanted to share our passion, knowledge, and love of the nerd-verse with you. Some of us you know from Nerdy Show, others are new to the site. You’ll get to know all of us soon enough, and if you want to get a head-start, just check out the episode of Nerdy Show introducing us!

The Gazetteers are a group of like-minded nerd girls who are artists, engineers, and writers. This series isn’t about us telling you how awesome or misunderstood girl nerds are. Rather, we just want you to know what gets us excited, angry, or incredibly happy in all aspects of the nerd culture. We’re not about gender-bias; we’re about sharing ourselves, our fan love, our culture, and writing about the nerd world as we see it. We are nerds, we are Gazetteers!


The Downfall of Toys.

Toys are an integral part of anyone’s childhood. They’re magical, fun, and exciting. We’ve all spent countless hours creating and playing with them, using them as an outlet for energy and a way for us to interact and express the colorful worlds in our minds. In many cases, they bring families together with fun traditions and fond memories. Most of us still have this special relationship with toys today. But these days is seems like toy manufactures have taken a turn for the worse; subtracting fun creative processes with mindless repetitive steps – creating toys that do nothing to stimulate a child’s imagination. Then there’s the genderization of toy: trucks for boys and baby dolls for girls, etc.  Gender-specific toys have been commonplace for centuries and these days, with things like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the gender lines are getting blurred. But in many cases (including MLP) the blur is happening in spite of the manufacturers’ intent.

Toys marketed to one gender over another aren’t inherently wrong, and it’s not likely that we’re going to see this age-old trend stop any time soon – it’s human nature.  However, it’s always a shame when a company produces something that needlessly and condescendingly markets toys to a certain gender. With this and more in mind, The Gazetteers have gathered to offer up our opinions of the current state of toys – what it means for girls, boys, and future generations of nerds in general.


Jessica Uelmen- Nerdy Show Sci-Tech Correspondent/ Parallax Engineer :: Jessica first suspected that she was a nerd at the age of 6 when she would prefer to stay indoors and read a book or do homework rather than play outside with her friends. These suspicions were confirmed at the age of 14 when she began writing Sailor Moon fan fiction and created a website to host them. Today, Jessica is the Engineering Manager at Parallax Inc., co-founder of the hackerspace Dweeb Den and creates educational YouTube videos for which she was awarded at 2011 Makey from MAKE magazine. As for general geekery, Jessica enjoys RPG video games, reading, e-textiles and being able to trounce you at Harry Potter trivia any day of the week.

Some of my fondest memories are about St. Patrick’s Day; and no, it has nothing to do with green beer. You see, when I was a wee lass, the Uelmen household was visited every year by a mischievous leprechaun who would always cause a bit of a ruckus. To mitigate this phenomenon, we would devise and build traps using LEGOs and other miscellaneous items in an attempt to contain the troublemaker. We’d get up on St. Patty’s morning to find our traps triggered, but no tiny man caught inside. Our slippery leprechaun would then always leave a box of Lucky Charms with a note wishing us better luck next year.

Now it wasn’t just the hyperactivity caused by the usually banned sugary cereal that made me excited for this holiday – it was the thrill of designing and building a contraption that I thought would ensnare a mythical creature. My imagination would run rampant and I would always proudly present my masterpiece to my parents, taking them through each step of my cleverly calculated ruse. I reveled in the challenge of accomplishing the impossible, each year looking at new and interesting ways to catch our prankster.

The best part of this yearly tradition? I wasn’t working with a KIT. I sat town with a box of mismatched LEGOs and put together something spawned completely by my imagination. Sadly, I don’t see this happening much today.

In fact, I recently popped into a LEGO store at my local mall. To my chagrin, it seemed to be more of a George Lucas cash cow than anything else. Sure, building the Millennium Falcon or the Death Star is cool – but where’s the reward? You follow a set of instructions and wind up with exactly what you expected. No ingenuity involved, no brainpower necessary. Congratulations, you now have another tchotchke to dust.

So what exactly are we teaching the next generation? Seems to me we’re just training the fastest IKEA furniture assemblers in the West – beings perfectly programmed to simply follow instructions. To be fair, the LEGO Store also had a wall in the back full of brightly colored bricks, which you could mix and match in a bucket and bring home with you. But honestly, what kid will make it past the TIE Fighters and Black Pearls and spend the time making something completely from scratch when it’s so easy to build something they instantly recognize and want?

Maker Faire Bay Area always has the LEGO Train Town and Village where members of BayLUG show off their creations. It’s always fascinating to see the time and effort people put into their models, like this tribute to Ghostbusters.

But I have to wonder – what will this group look like in the years to come? Will it just be several LEGO kits on display; all available for sale to those who are now too lazy to build anything?

We’re training a generation of consumers – those that would rather have instant gratification than a feeling of triumph generated by seeing their own ideas come into fruition. Worse than that, we’re not even giving them the chance to feel accomplished.

So to any parents reading, do your kid a favor and bring home an ordinary box of LEGOs and tell them to build something awesome. That’s it. And you don’t stop at LEGOs, there’s a whole world of making out there! If you’re in need of a starting point, pick up the book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). It’s chock full of ideas and inspiration for DIY projects and experiments. Heck, if you’re feeling particularly randy, pick up a 3D printer and let your kid make their own toys!  Just please, turn your kid into more than an instruction-following zombie. -Jessica

Kailyn Boehm (Kaymonstar)- Creater of the Webcomic Failcraft/ Nerdy Show Minecraft Correspondent :: When she was little people always asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and her response was always “A starving artist.” Little did she know that it was a very obtainable dream. Kay draws funny pictures and for the most part isn’t a writer but she’s giving it a shot anyway. Her nerd genes were passed down genetically from her mother who was an avid D&D player and lover of Star Trek. She was even named after a princess in a Star Trek novel (from Covenant of the Crown to be exact). Many weekends of her childhood were spent eating breakfast for dinner while watching science fiction and horror films from the 80’s. Also see: Raised by television.

Gender specifics have played a part in marketing for years, and I don’t believe that it is going to change anytime soon. The problem isn’t that toys are being aimed at boys or girls specifically. The problem is the idea that the gender specific marketing is going to make the decisions for the child. Parents are the ones who are supposed to make the decisions for children until they are old enough to make their own observations and start forming their own opinions.

Having a kit specifically geared towards girls or boys doesn’t matter to children. Kids don’t understand the concepts of gender marketing. Kids understand that building things is fun. Just because you bought Suzy a LEGO set that happens to be a pink house kit doesn’t mean Suzy is going to grow up to be a housewife constrained by gender stereotypes. And just because Johnny wants to play with Suzy’s super awesome pink LEGOs doesn’t mean Johnny is gay either.

The things we play with as children will eventually shape who we will become right? And because I played with Barbies when I was younger, obviously I am a sophisticated, astronaut, veterinarian who also happens to be a rock star with an amazing wardrobe. False, that is pretty much the opposite of what I am. I enjoyed Barbie’s because they were tools for my imagination not because I aspired to be like her.

When I was a kid, I was never one to follow the directions on the box. Much to the dismay of my brother I would constantly take his sets apart and build other things. The great thing about LEGOs is, the instructions are there to act as guidelines to build neat things, but you aren’t limited by those blueprints. They are options, not rules.

Advertising cannot make you do anything that you don’t want to do. I have never once in my life saw an advertisement and felt compelled to do anything I haven’t wanted to do. If I see an ad where there is a sexy cowboy smoking I don’t immediately think “Oh man, smoking will turn me into a sexy cowboy.” Usually my thinking is along the lines of “Oh man, that sexy cowboy is probably going to get cancer.”

I think society for the most part doesn’t give children much credit. Kids are smart and adaptable. They aren’t programmable robots. Sure they may mimic something they see or hear but it doesn’t define them as a whole. Life is a series of trials and errors and finding out what works best for ourselves is what it is all about. No amount of gender marketing is going to forcibly change who a child will be. -Kaymonstar


Kristin Frenzel- Nerdy Show Arts & Culture Correspondent/ Pop Culture Artist :: Kristin is an artist based in Fort Lauderdale Florida. She’s an avid lover of science fiction, classic cartoons, that plus her deep obsession with Barbara Gordon make her a very particular (and/or peculiar) sort of geek. She blogs about horrible cosplay, bakes cakes in the shape of Red Lectoids, and other fun nerdy oddities. Krisitn currently spends her days drawing, painting and running around her house dressed as a dinosaur. Rawr.

I’m saddened by what toy companies have transformed themselves into. Overly gender-specific toys can make kids feel afraid or ashamed to explore what they truly enjoy. Over-simplified toys won’t let kids use their imagination, or learn on their own.

When I go to the toy store I always love to walk down the toy kitchen aisle. It was one of my favorite things when I was younger, and the past few times I went down the aisle I got upset. I see tons of pretty princess kitchens, and pink kitchens all aimed towards young girls. I’m not upset or angry that these might be teaching young girls to “stay in the kitchen” because, hey, if my little Susie wants to become a chef when she grows up she can do whatever makes her happy! (I don’t have kids yet, but if I do you bet your sweet tooth I would be okay with that). Rather, I’m upset because these kitchens are exclusively aimed at little girls. But what about boy kitchens? I mean if a boy wants a pink kitchen then great – I see nothing wrong with that, but can we truthfully say that parents would buy their little boy a pink kitchen? Probably not. So why not make a G.I. Joe kitchen, or a Spider-Man kitchen? Aside from not making much contextual sense, would that even solve the problem? Kitchens are gender-neutral places by default, why push for gender-specific models?

Not all toys or companies are at fault, there are some fantastic ones out there that create some spectacular things. Toys geared at learning like the soap labs, and the children’s chemistry sets are prime examples. Toys that involve science and discovery. They have mini planetariums and even CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for children. These are both innovative, fun, and gender neutral. A far cry from some of the “Dora the Explorer” dolls. They seems like a good idea, but come packaged with the girl doll staple: a hairbrush – so Dora can always be groomed. Most popular toy companies make their living off of gender-specific toys and toys that don’t encourage imagination. These are the toys that kids will put on their lists to Santa, lest they get ostracized for not having because all the cool kids have them. If we want kids to get excited and be creative we have to give them exciting creative toys! Supporting the toy makers that provide gender neutral toys and toys that nurture creativity and self exploration will tell the industry what is important. -Kristin


Laura Borrelli – Co-Creator of A Comic Shop’s Fangirls Club / Comic Book Aficionado :: Raised on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Laura’s nerdom began at a very young age. She loves to read comic books, play video games, and watch sci-fi. Armed with a degree in Psychology and Marketing, she hopes to use her attention to detail and passion for creativity in the comic book industry. Nerdy things aside, Laura also enjoys running, eating cookies, drinking tea and laughing at cat pictures.

Gender-specific toys can be categorized in two ways: by color or by the accessories included in a play set. Many believe that gender-specific toys are more likely to have a negative impact on a child’s potential to explore alternative long-term directions in life. More often than not, girls toys are generally geared more towards, shopping, style, or child-rearing, whereas boys toys have a tendency to focus on firepower and mechanics. You can easily spot where the boys and girls sections are in a toy store simply based on their overall color scheme in any given aisle. This division into feminine and masculine categories can discourage cross-sex friendships and the formation of good relationships – romantic or otherwise.

Hamleys, the worlds largest toy shop, recently had employees remove their pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections and replaced them with red and white signs. The floors are no longer devoted to Barbie dolls and action figures. Toys are now being organized by types and interests rather than suggesting which gender is expected to play with them. This is a great idea – now, no kid will ever feel obligated to go to one section over another.

Not all companies appear to be putting in as much effort as Hamleys when eliminating gender-biased toys. For example, at the beginning of 2012, LEGO released a new line for girls called LEGO Friends. The line does away with the gender and race-neutral, yellow-skinned LEGO people in favor of Bratz-like girl figurines, and offers buildings such as beauty shops and cupcake cafes. While it’s not wrong for girls to like beauty shops, should these really be the only options available in a line of toys targeting females? Many parents were displeased with LEGO stepping away from gender equality toys and started a protest petition, some even took action.

Limor Fried aka ladyada, a “hardware hacker” and founder of Adafruit Industries, with her business partner Philip Torrone recently developed the LEGO set “Lady Ada’s Workshop”. The workshop features Lady Ada (in a work outfit) surrounded by a laser cutter, soldering station, a computer, a microscope, and several other appliances. If the project can get 10,000 votes it has a chance of becoming an official LEGO product. At first I thought this was a great idea. It sends out the message that girls can be also engineers and inspires creativity. Unfortunately, while the ideals behind the set show promise, the actual delivery leaves a lot to be desired. The playset is more of a diorama than anything a kid would play with. Hopefully, that will be improved in the future but its a certainly a step in the right direction.

When I was younger I was lucky to have a play room that I shared with my older brother. My parents never separated our toys. I remember playing with my purple tea set and my brother’s Hot Wheels track system. Kids don’t need everything to be ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ color-coded. Kids are attracted to toys that incite fun and creativity. -Laura

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