Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 14

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This subject of this issue of Picturebooks on the Potty – Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine – is one part book, one part educational toy, and one part girl power battle cry. The book tells the story of a girl named Goldie who builds a machine to spin her toys modeled after the ballerina in her music box. The goal: Get more girls to see science, technology, engineering, and math as arenas for creative play, exploration, and potential careers.

To be honest, The Spinning Machine wouldn’t have made this column as a stand alone picturebook. The story just isn’t that captivating. (You can find some of my recommendations for picturebooks about kids who build stuff here and here.) What Goldie Blox does that these other books don’t, however, is provide materials for readers to build alongside Goldie. This is good news for parents as well as kids. No pressure to gather supplies and mine Pinterest for DIY project ideas. Our kids, boys included, can start tinkering immediately.

But girls are the primary audience for Goldie Blox. Combining their love of storytelling with all kids’ tendency to come up with new ways to play with their toys, the makers hope to reach millions of girls who are would-be engineers but, “just might not know it yet.” After only one reading, Crafty Cora has spent hours playing independently with the peg board, washers, axels, spools, blox, and snap-on figurines that came with the book. She has set the parts up in various configurations and made up scenarios for each scene.

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Cora wasn’t the only girl around here excited about Goldie Blox. Her older sister, grandmother, aunt, and I have all spent time messing around with the kit. In this way it’s been a cross-generational activity, one which each participant approaches a bit differently, thus demonstrating that there’s more than one way to spin a sloth.

As far as I’m concerned, Goldie Blox has already earned her keep. Still, I’m eager to see what else she might inspire.

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My Cousin versus Land’s End

Portia Munson’s “Pink Project” (1994)

Just a few short weeks ago, the maxipad company Always brought me to tears with their video #LikeAGirl. I was crying for the young me who struggled to find herself amidst a sea of gender-based societal expectations I thought were bullshit. I was crying for my mother who was told she ought to be a teacher rather than a physician. And I cried for my daughters, for whom I hope the path to self-discovery is less tumultuous.

And then my cousin Lisa – a computer programmer, maker, and homeschooler – wrote a letter to the Land’s End clothing company that went viral. Here’s an excerpt:

My nine year old daughter loves science…So you can imagine her reaction when she saw your company’s science-themed t-shirt designs for boys featured on page 26 of your latest catalog…We immediately flipped forward in your catalog to find the equivalent shirts in girls’ sizes… instead of science-themed art, we were treated to sparkly tees with rhinestones, non-realistic looking stars, and a design featuring a dog dressed like a princess and wearing a tutu.

My first response was, of course, “How totally cool! My cousin made the Huffington Post!” I shared the link with my students, particularly a few whom I specifically recalled were interested in gender issues in visual culture and art education. I used Lisa as an example of how one person, speaking out online, can make an impact on others. We spend so much time in our program asking students to post their work on their professional websites and share their ideas via social media but it isn’t always easy for them to see the impact of those actions. Here was an example. And one relevant to those in our field who believe that part of our job involves educating people to critically interpret and respond to the material culture that surrounds us. The letter was met with applause all around.

Today I visited the Huffington Post’s facebook page link to the article about Lisa’s letter. While only 25 people commented on the website itself, there were 185 comments on Facebook. (A conversation for another time, perhaps: Where are getting our news these days?). I was amazed to see how many people thought she should have kept her mouth shut and that her opinion was frivolous:

 This is not news worthy; if your daughters like science then buy the science shirt. Not everything we buy & sale needs to be steeped in controversy. 

Others thought her ignorant of how commercial marketing operates. (If only they knew she was the daughter of a true Madison Avenue ad man.)

Another idiot who doesn’t understand business. Are there girls who like science? Yes. But who is more likely to want a t shirt with planets on it? Boys. A company isn’t going to make a whole line of clothes that only 1% of the customer segment will want. Simple business, all these gender rights radicals need to go to a remote island where there’s no economy to worry about.

Neither of these commenters seems aware at all that women are still fighting, every single day, for equal pay for equal work or that some of still feel the need to explain, as adults, when we don’t adhere to gender stereotypes. Sure, Lisa can just buy her daughter the shirts she likes from the boys’ section of the catalogue, but kids are very brand conscious and they can be mean. All it would take was one kids saying, “Hey, that’s a boy’s shirt!” to make even the most grounded girl question herself. And it starts earlier and earlier.

For anyone who doesn’t see the connections between gender-based marketed and children’s psychosocial development, I highly recommend Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011). See also the artist Portia Munson’s Pink and Blue Projects (detail above).

We have the right to make choices in the marketplace, and the marketplace is growing and becoming more diversified everyday. Online t-shirt companies like Columbus-based Skreened, for example, offer design options that can be printed on your choice of t-shirt (color, cut, size). But for the majority of Americans shopping at Walmart, Target, and Sears (who carry the Land’s End line), the choices are pretty black and white. Or should I say, pink and blue. And that matters. It matters a lot.