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December 07, 2006

Sexist merch from the Discovery Channel


Mike the Mad Biologist catches the Discovery Channel pandering to sexist stereotypes with their diverging lines of merch for boys and girls.

The Discovery Channel recommends cool science toys for boys:
1. Discovery Whodunit? Forensics Lab (Pictured here. Pretty cool, huh?)
2. Discovery Fingerprint Lab
3. Discovery Speed Detector
4. Radio Control Equalizer Stunt Car
5. Discovery Remote Control Chromashift Roboreptile

And what it's in store for Discovery Channel girls?
1. Discovery Ultimate Pottery Wheel
2. Discovery Knit Kit
3. Discovery Deluxe Nail Salon (WTF?!)
4. It's My Life Scrapbook Kit
5. Discovery Friendship Bracelets
6. Discovery Jellloopdeloops Jewelry Kit
7. Klutz ® Paper Fashions Kit
8. It's All About Me Quiz Book

Draw your own conclusions.


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When I clicked the girls' link, the frontpage results included:

Discovery Whodunit? Forensics Lab
Discovery Ultimate Star Planetarium
Discovery Gyrotek Rock Polisher

Discovery Fingerprint Lab

I thought it was interesting that the gift sections were sex-neutral except for the age ranges 5-7 and 8-12. For teens, adults, babies and pre-schoolers no distinction is made.

"It's All About Me Quiz Book" ??? What, if a girl is into science she must be a selfish man-hating feminist? Odd switch after trying to turn all science-interested girls into homemakers.

What the fuck, Discovery. What the fuck.

A pottery wheel is pretty cool, though.

personally, i strive whenever i can to counteract the sexist assumptions that paternistic soceity tries to impose on our kids.

today, waiting in line at the library to check out some books (all murder mysteries, that's all i read, so sue me) i spotted a cute little girl, must have been about 5 or 6, waiting as her mom checked out their selections of books.

the little girl was holding some kids book about planets and space, and, as kids are wont to do, stared up at the strangers in line, looking for human connection.

i asked her if she had a space book. she shyly nodded yes.

i asked her if she liked to read about space and stars. she again nodded yes. i said that was really good.

i also told her she must be a very smart person to like to read about space.

she ducked behind her mom's legs, but still peeked out to see me.

i asked her if she had a telescope. she shook her head no. i said i did and it was really fun.

her mom, smiling, finished up at the counter, and led her daughter out. i said "bye bye" and waved, as did the little girl.

i try to encourage (a) reading and (b) becoming what ever you want in kids.

fuck discovery channel. any channel with its own store is too corporate for me.



If you click on all then the lists start having more crossover but still Friendship bracelets and Scrapbool kit seem pretty lame.

It's ironic to me that you mentioned this, because just last night I was at looking for a toy to get my 2 1/2 year old niece. Though I am a feminist I must admit my first inclination was to buy her a "girly" toy, like a doll or maybe a toy pony. But then I thought about all of the smart women I know, including Amanda Marcotte, Jessica Valenti, Diane Sweet, and YOU, of course. Though I doubt any of you would have castigated me for picking a doll, I still think you all would have reminded me that women, even those of the 2 yr. old variety, are interested in more than just dollies and horsies. I ended up buying her this (Ages 2 - 5).

I may not be sexist, but culturally-acquired habits die hard. I thank all the smart ladies in my life (even if some of them are only in the cyberworld portion of my life) for helping both the world in general and me personally to take a more enlightened approach to women. You're making the world a better place for women AND men. Keep up the good work.

Good work, Skippy.

That looks like a really fun present, John. When she gets a little older, you might consider PlayMobil sets. They've got every realistic action set from pirates to brain surgeons to firefighters with male and female characters well-represented.

The conclusion I draw is that the Discovery marketing people believe they can sell more overall by selling different merchandise to girls and boys. You can fault them for being mistaken about that, and they would listen; but if you fault them for promoting invidious stereotypes, they could honestly reply that isn't their intention, that they just want to make as much money as possible. That's less than satisfactory, but it is how they think, and what they think about.
Friendship bracelets do interest me more than forensics labs -- but then, I haven't been murdered lately.

Ben's and John Lucid's comments bring to my mind something that has kind of bugged me for a while. Is it that the toy manufacturers are sexist, or is it that the parents and others participating in the child-rearing process, however accidentally, instill sexist desires into their children? Because it seems to me that if parents didn't push their children to play with gender-typical toys, the purchasing (which toy manufacturers surely study in detail) may well converge, and this "for boys" and "for girls" thing would sort of disappear. If boys and girls (or whoever is making their purchasing decisions) come into the toy-buying process already in possession of different desires, it would be bad business not to cater to those desires. I don't know if this is the case or not.

For instance, when I was a kid, I wanted Batman toys, and my sister wanted Barbie toys. Now, there is obviously a difference between those and the Discovery Channel toys here: the DC toys are designed to propel their users into life paths, whereas Batman and Barbie are sort of isolated as purely-for-fun toys (body image issues aside). But it's fairly easy to replace "Batman" with "science kit" and "Barbie" with "Playskool Kitchen" in the first sentence of this paragraph and believe that the children really want those things.

So I guess what I'm asking is whether the "pandering" to sexist stereotypes is something for which we should blame manufacturers if they're not the ones who created those types. L'Oreal advertises purely to women. Kingsford advertises purely to men. This, too, is stereotypical, but they are responses to market realities, and it would be a bad business move for them to spend significant advertising dollars on the opposite gender. Children are a different case, but should we really expect child toy makers to push against the market when other businesses do not?

Of course, I can see why this is something we want to correct. And I agree that businesses shouldn't be excused outright for perpetuating stereotypes. But it does strike me as something of a chicken-egg problem. None of us would deny that marketing can shift attitudes toward gender roles (see the Marlboro Man), nor would any of us deny that parenting can shift those attitudes (see too many examples to name). But does one or the other of these deserve primacy? If so, which? I don't know the answer to that, but there seems to be an argument to be made on both sides. So then there is a secondary question that I pose to the hive: does it even matter which came first? I have an intuition that it probably does, but I can't say why.

Perhaps by pointing out these stereotypes, you alert buyers, who will think carefully (as John Lucid did) and buy something better. Perhaps awareness is all that is required here to create the convergence of toy desires, which through the market will turn the practices of the Discovery Channel, et al. But if what you're after is something more, I'm not sure what or how best to get it.

Ugh. Semi-stream of consciousness commenting is not recommended.

Well, sure it's a chicken and egg problem. So, businesses and parents and other adults need to hear about the chicken and the egg. Deep-seated biases in the toy market deserve attention. You just don't see "girls only" pink-coded forensics labs. Sometimes blue or neutral science toys get marketed to boys and girls, which is great.

However, I think the public shouldn't forget when it comes time to take stock of women in science, and independent public life generally, that experimental undertakings have been represented to little girls as male-or-neutral for as long as they can remember, and scarcely ever as feminine.

If you're saying, "There's nothing feminine about physics, chemistry, forensics, geology, or any of the "science" playkits marketed to children," I'm saying "You're right!" There's nothing masculine about them either. Yet, somehow, they seem to be disproportionately marketed towards male children, perhaps because conventionally-socialized parents are more susceptible to the pitch.

That's disgusting, but (sadly) not surprising. The Discovery Channel bought out the old Nature Company (which had much cooler stuff) and dumbed its selection way, way down (lots more cross-marketing and stupid shit like that). I refuse to set foot in one. I'm not shocked that they would advance that particular type of stupidity.

Makes me think of a line from a book I just read, set in the 40's (The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages, highly recommended):

"The Boy Mechanic," she said, snickering. "Why do you have that?"
"They didn't make one for girls."

There used to be "boys chemistry sets" and "girls chemistry sets." At least nowadays they don't actually put the gender in the name of the toy.

I think my parents found me an ancient "girl's cosmetic chemistry set" at a garage sale in the mid-eighties. The thing was probably almost 20 years old when they bought it. It so happened that my grandfather started his own business making cosmetics in his garage several decades earlier. So they presented it to me and told my grandfather he was in charge of teaching me how to use it.

My grandfather jumped at the challenge and helped me learn everything in the manual, plus a bunch of other cool lab stuff. It was the only "scientific" bonding experience I had with him until I decided to show him how to bake chocolate chocolate chip cookies about five years later. He said he'd never baked anything in his life, that was alway's Nana's job. But we had a great time experimenting in the kitchen with different batches of cookies. I think we ate almost all of them before any "responsible" adults got home. Good times...

Happily, we can give girls chemistry sets and model building sets today. But it doesn't run the other way; try giving a boy a macrame kit, for example. Is this because female-coded activities and playthings are lame, or because in our culture it's better to skew "male" than "female?"

Not lame, just girl.

The problem of gender-specific toys is much more burdensome for boys and their parents, just as the problem of dress is. Girls are free to associate upward with boys' things--pants, sports, telescopes--but don't let your son get caught with a skirt, a doll or an Easy-Bake Oven.

Androgyny is for girls.

Kind of OT: a grandpa was picking up his grandson at my kid's hippie school and asked the kid, Is Taylor a boy or a girl? Grandson: "I think she's a girl, why?" The names are so oh-who-cares, Grandpa is going to have a stroke in 10 years. 'What do you mean, you're taking Guthrie to the prom?'

I kind of agree with Dabodius -- the main goal is to sell people things they don't need (you can't have a hand-me-down from your older sibling if it's inappropriately gendered) more than it is to produce/enforce stereotypes. Those stereotypes seem to be awfully good at selling people things they don't need, though. If, after all these messages you get as a kid, by some strange chance you should feel inadequate to some abstract standard of proper gender appearance or behavior, maybe you will buy lipstick, gym membership...cosmetic SUV...

John- Good choice on the train set. We started my son with one when he as about that age. Those sets match up with those from other companies so it is really easy to add on as other gift giving events arrive. Look for Brio products for add ons, well made and many optional items including trains that run on batteries.

Is this thread confusing intentional stereotyping with a web purchase feedback system?

Amazon recommends books to me, PartsExpress tells me that the same individuals that bought a tweeter also bought a certain crossover.

These toys are sorted by best sellers by age group. I suspect the purchase process gathers a smidgen of info on the intended recipient and just feeds it back to the next person who presses the button. (But I confess I haven't pursued this enough to confirm my suspicion.) The boy selection has zip for girlish toys but the girl's selection has the (so-called) boy toys if you scroll down a bit.

I guess you can complain about the boy vs. girl buttons, but...

To get all anectdotal, I always felt bad for the girls since I thought us boys always had the good toys. But for better or worse the genders tend to have different interests despite our best efforts to be gender neutral. I could never get my daughter to play baseball, soccer or basketball. And once, when she was not yet 2, I was dressing her and she objected because the colors did not match. (And no, this did not come from Mom, she who never wears makeup and does not buy clothes. If anything it comes from me. I was in a hurry and should have known better.)

Kids are different at different ages, too. At some ages, they're very gender-oriented, and at others, they don't care so much. Right now, my almost-7-year-old niece has reached the the pony stage, so she's getting pony computer programs for Christmas.

Though, at any age, I would have loved that forensics lab.

>But for better or worse the genders tend to have different interests despite our best efforts to be gender neutral.

>Kids are different at different ages, too. At some ages, they're very gender-oriented, and at others, they don't care so much. Right now, my almost-7-year-old niece

I was playing the boardgame Life with my friend and his 7-year-old girl. They have the little blue pegs to represent the man players, and pink for the women players, and ideally, the two spouse up together and drive off down the board. But most of the blue pegs were gone, so when my friend's girl got the "Get Married" card or space (I forget which it is), I put another pink peg next to her. She scrunched up her brow and spat, "Not a _Woman!_"

This is actually good compared to most retailers. Go over the Amazon and click on toys for little girls vs. boys and see what you get. My daughter is 14 now and for years we struggled just to find clothing in primary colors, not pastels, for her to wear. And yeah, she loved dolls but she really loved blocks, and building things, and technology and music. And every year the toy catalogues would come in shades of pink and blue. Now she makes her own calls, and (literally) more power to her. Conversely, when he was 5, my son desperately wanted an Easy Bake Oven....and Santa delivered on that, big-time.

Looks like it might be time to resurrect the Barbie Liberation Organization

>Conversely, when he was 5, my son desperately wanted an Easy Bake Oven....and Santa delivered on that, big-time.

Reminds me of King of the Hill, where son Bobby is always disturbing his Dad, Hank, by volunteering in the kitchen. Hank thinks it's "not right," but to the viewer, the son is just a natural-born chef, going to be one when he grows up. As a foodie, I approve of anyone being taught cooking.

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