A recent series of blog posts at Scientific American criticizes a company's offering of extremely gendered science kits for kids, including thirteen perfume and makeup related chemistry investigations for girls and six rocket, outer space, and slime related editions for boys, all complete with pink and blue wrapping as appropriate. What is especially interesting is that it there is actually much of the same stuff going on in both versions of these kits, minus some extra rocket and space stuff for the boys :soap-making, slime analysis, crystal growth. Yet the girls' are exclusively about beauty, while the boys' are all about shenanigans and grossing out your sister.
So while you're giving your child the gift of budding Scientific Curiosity this Christmas, you can wrap it up in a nice layer of gender policing, because you know, girls have to be beautiful while boys just want to make things explode!
Naturally, I find the very concept so all kinds of wrong that it gets my blood boiling, from the insult that pink and sparkly helps girls be interested in something to the subtle yet toxic reinforcement that if you are a girl it's only normal after all for you to care about being beautiful and all of the shit that does to one's self-image later in life. Whenever you say "hey look, we changed this up so that your can do this too even though you're different!" you are subtly implying that all those things that make you different are set in stone and sort of bad for you but we know you can't help it. Or, as the post author put it:
"In tandem, the messages conveyed by these kits seems to be saying: you can like science without transgressing the boundaries of acceptable feminism--but those boundaries are important, and you would do well to learn to stay within them."
However, this whole charade of reaching out to young members of each gender differently is a subtle, subtle affair, because there are girls who really love pink and sparkles, who like to be pretty and smell good, who might also actually like science. It is insulting to dumb something down to make it acceptable--but it is also hugely insulting, and a whole separate load of gender-related baggage, to assume that a girl who likes pink and sparkly is also dumb and not also totally into science of her own accord. Pink and sparkles are neutral, not an indication of inferiority.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong in liking to smell good and look good or in liking slime and to watch things explode...within reason. (Clearly I'm talking Mythbusters here, not terrorism.) It's is just when you start wrapping things in contrived narratives that tell kids that because you are a girl, you should like to be beautiful (and when you're an adult you'll find that if you aren't beautiful then you aren't desirable and if you aren't desirable than you are a failure), because you are a boy you should like to blow things up (and when you're an adult you'll find out that if you don't like violence then you aren't masculine and if you aren't masculine then you are a failure and possibly gay or a woman and that's even worse) that we get into what's actually a really toxic and mean present to give to some unsuspecting little kid.
There is an incredibly fine line between "oh, you like to be pretty, well there's some science you can learn about that, too!" and "you're a girl so you must to like to be pretty (even if that doesn't mean you can't do science.)" I doubt the creators of those kits intended anything like the last message, and probably meant all the best, but I'm not convinced that the second message isn't what they've ended up selling anyway.
This is not a new trend in children's toys, but science is really something it is worth just keeping all the gendered crap out of. We don't need all of that baggage. What's masculine or feminine about looking through a telescope, envisioning a deep sea creature, collecting interesting rocks or shining light through a prism, anyway? What has to be so masculine or feminine either about launching a rocket or making soap?