I recently ordered a gift for a friend’s son. He is turning 10 soon, just as my oldest daughter is. I did an online search for “gifts for 10 year olds” to get some ideas and found what looked like a great toy: a build your own table-top catapult. The kit was well-reviewed, and the price was right, so I placed the order. A few days later the package arrived, and my daughter was standing by me as I opened the box. When I pulled it out she exclaimed, “Whoa! Cool! Can I get one?” And, indeed, the toy does look cool. The box contains materials to build two catapults (red and blue), and a picture on the front of the box shows what appears to be a pre-teen boy with his finger pushing the back of the catapult down, ready to launch.
The toy is officially called “Build Your Own Catapult Wars” and the box has several exclamations festooning it: New! Build, Customize & Play! Easy to Assemble! Build & Battle! (The company clearly doesn’t fear an exclamation point.) It also says, right above the name, Boy Craft. That last one caught my eye. Boy craft? Why boy craft? I looked the box over more carefully. On the top flap it reads, again, “Boy Craft: Build your own Catapult Wars.” On the left and right sides of the box there is the “Boy Craft” stamp alone. I asked my daughter what she thought about that. She found it strange, and disappointing. She’s a girl and her fingers were itching to get into the kit. What’s more, the kit contains much of what parents and teachers are seeking to provide for all children today, in particular, hands-on learning through building and engineering skills development.
I don’t know why the makers felt the need to put a “Boy Craft” sign in four places on this toy. I don’t know why the model they chose to include on the box is a boy. Maybe they didn’t think girls would be interested in such a toy. Maybe, as is the case with too many activities in our society, they made the assumption that girls and their parents would be willing to buy a toy “for boys,” but most boys would not touch something “contaminated” by an association with girls. Maybe the marketing team that designed the box was trying to tap into Google searches for “gifts for boys.” Maybe they thought, and maybe they were right, that people searching for birthday gifts online don’t tend to order catapult kits for girls.
While I don’t know the exact reasons the makers of this “New!” toy decided to make it clear that this kit is for boys, I do know that it matters. We are bombarded with messages about how to be a boy and how to be a girl. My daughter tends to be aware of those messages and pushes back against them when she finds them confining, but it shouldn’t be something she has to push so hard against.
Fortunately, this story has a positive ending. My daughter decided to write to the toy manufacturer. Using the persuasive writing skills she has been learning about in her 4th grade class, she composed a powerful argument in favor of changing the name. Less than two weeks later, she received a reply. The company, it seems, had already decided to re-market and re-name the toy. They agreed with her that there was no reason to call the kit “boy craft.” This is a great start – though the underlying problems remain. (And, as of this writing, the kits for sale online still read Boy Craft.)
This story is just one minor example of the ways that gender is normalized in potentially limiting ways. It is important to recognize the power of these messages. Yes, this is one toy. One box. But as humans we are shaped by our day-to-day interactions. We are formed by what surrounds us: what we see on TV; pick-up from what peers, teachers and co-workers say; read in magazines; hear on the radio; see on YouTube; observe in advertisements. Messages from all these sources form a central thread in the fabric of our society. And if that ubiquitous—and yet almost invisible—fabric is interwoven with messages that girls should not play with the same toys as boys, that they should not build, should not design, should not compete, then we perpetuate limits that influence the rest of our children’s lives.