There’s been a major push lately to encourage young girls to play with toys that help build their math and science skills. The idea is that if girls grow up with toys that teach them about engineering and technology, they’ll be more likely to enter these typically male-dominated fields later in life. In that vein, Mattel is introducing a Barbie construction set, indicating a mainstream acceptance of the push toward eliminating gender divides in children’s toys.
The Mega Bloks Barbie Build ’n Style line is still extremely girly — the scenes that can be constructed include a pink mansion, an ice cream cart, and a pet shop. But that’s OK. It’s a step in the right direction to encourage girls to think about building their own dream mansion, rather than just fantasizing about marrying someone who can afford to buy one for them.
Barbie has long been a subject of criticism from feminists for her unrealistic, impractical and overly sexualized body to her consumerist ideals and gendered careers. She started out as a teen fashion model, a nurse, a flight attendant, and other traditionally female roles. In recent years there’s been a steady increase in less stereotypically feminine careers for Barbie, including race car driver and police officer. The construction set represents the next step in the iconic doll’s shift from a symbol of enforced femininity to a tool of empowerment.
Barbie’s various careers can potentially inspire girls to consider jobs other than mommy and model, but the construction set actually helps them develop skills that they’ll need to compete in the typically male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The New York Times has suggested that the introduction of the construction sets has as much, or more, to do with the fact that more dads are doing the shopping as with encouraging girls to participate in STEM. Marketing is traditionally aimed at women, who used to do all of the household shopping, but with more and more moms working as much or more than their husbands, things are evening out a bit.
“Once it’s in the home, dads would very much be able to join in this play that otherwise they might feel is not their territory,” the Times quoted Dr. Maureen O’Brien as saying. (Dr. O’Brien is a psychologist who consulted on the new Barbie set.)
Whatever the motivation for creating the new line, Barbie products that encourage girls to create, not just to buy things and be pretty, represent a positive step by Mattel and for girls and women.
The sets will be available in stores next week, just in time for Christmas shopping.