Recently, the Barbie.com website became a polling place where participants could vote on what the legendary doll’s next career move should be. Toymakers at Mattel offered five choices for its new “I Can Be” Barbie: architect, anchorwoman, computer engineer, environmentalist, and surgeon. Girls overwhelmingly favored the “News Anchor Barbie”—whose glamorous get-up (tulip skirt, pink velvet jacket, black camisole, high heels, and cordless microphone) draws more inspiration from American Idol than it does from Katie Couric’s nightly wardrobe. I didn’t see Surgeon Barbie’s proposed garb, but I’d bet that her lab coat lacked a certain glitz factor. Of the five career options, anchorwoman fits most snugly within the media-and-entertainment realm that saturates kids’ fantasy lives. Newscaster Barbie’s popularity among girls is hardly a shocker.

In a surprising twist, however, the computer engineer beat the anchorwoman in the popular vote. But it wasn’t because girls vouched for her. Rather, a vocal group of adult female computer engineers launched an online campaign to lure voters—parents included—to elect the leggy lady with the pink laptop. “Please help us in getting Barbie to get her Geek on!” they appealed. Their campaign worked.

Mattel did its best to glam-up Engineer Barbie’s attire, which includes “geek-chic glasses,” black leggings, a Bluetooth headset, and sporty yet sensible pink shoes. But while real-life girls love electronic gadgets, most don’t seem to aspire to high-tech careers themselves. Or, at least, they don’t take a shine to a doll that does.

In the end, Mattel decided to play to both constituencies, and announced plans to manufacture the top two winners in the coming months. But let’s take a step back for a minute. Does it really matter what career path Barbie takes? Do toys really influence girls’ future aspirations? Clearly, women engineering professionals think they can.  According to Ann Zimmerman of the Wall Street Journal (who reported in the April 9, 2010 issue): “Why grown women felt so strongly about having themselves represented by a doll—especially onethat feminists have always loathed—speaks volumes both about the power of the iconic Barbie doll and the current state of women who work in computer and information sciences. Their ranks have declined in the past two decades. In 2008, women received only 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.”

In the early 1970s, when role models for girls in male-dominated professions were sorely lacking, proponents of gender equality successfully lobbied toy makers and educational publishers to design products depicting diverse career options for girls. They strongly believed that early play experiences would make a difference in kids’ future aspirations.  So they worked actively to shape the material culture of childhood.

Back then, Barbie was so anathema to feminists that it would never have occurred to them to collaborate with Mattel. But times have changed. Over the past three decades, commercial toymakers have perfected their absorption and co-optation of liberal feminist ideals; Barbie’s latest career makeover is just one recent example. So today, many women’s groups are apt to adopt the strategy: “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” We can interpret these Barbie dolls as “compromise formations” (to use an old grad-school phrase) because they represent an uneasy combination of traditionally feminine beauty standards with forward-thinking advocacy to enhance women’s economic and professional status.

With these Barbie dolls in our daughters’ playrooms, are we on solid footing, or shaky ground? Will the new Computer Engineer Barbie help reverse the decline of women in high-tech careers? We don’t know. But real surgeons—and I’d bet most computer programmers—don’t wear stilettos to the workplace. It’s too bad that Barbie dolls still have to.

One of my  favorite new websites is www.sweetonbooks.com.  Founded, written, and edited by two book-loving moms who live in my hometown of Larchmont, New York, Sweet On Books offers children’s book recommendations for kids at all literacy levels, from picture books and short chapter readers to novels for middle-schoolers and beyond.  This appealing, user-friendly website is ideal for anyone on the lookout for top-notch children’s lit:  parents and kids obviously, but also teachers, librarians, grandparents, relatives, and friends.

As described by co-founders Melissa Young and Melissa Gaynor, the website guides visitors through an annotated “virtual bookstore” showcasing books that might not be on a reader’s immediate radar or that they might not pick up on their own. The editors write all of the entries themselves, and they add new content every week.  While it’s hardly a comprehensive database, their lively reviews embody the principle of quality over quantity.  Beyond plot summary, each review offers an overall sense of the book’s quality and tone, and points out issues that could potentially arouse fear or anxiety in young readers. On a lighter note, each book is ranked on a “laugh meter” ranging from “not a comedy” to “giggles” to “can’t stop laughing.”

The site is especially remarkable because it refuses to trade in the all-too-prevalent gender stereotypes that dominate children’s book publishing today.  When designing the site, Ms. Young and Ms. Gaynor chose a palette of light blue, chocolate brown, and burnt orange—and selected “gender-neutral” icons and images that would appeal to readers of both sexes. “We definitely wanted to avoid being perceived as a ‘girly site’ or a site that only boys or only girls would want to visit,” explains Ms. Young.  Occasionally, a review might mention a book’s potential appeal to “reluctant boy readers,” but in its basic structure, the site does not presume that readers for particular books will divide neatly along male-female lines.  (Ms. Young’s own kids, perhaps, have encouraged her to disregard conventional marketing wisdom.  In her household, 8-year-old Hannah has devoured all the books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, while 4-year-old Sam can’t get enough of Fancy Nancy.)

In conversations with fellow parents and teachers, they discovered that many elementary-school kids seldom discriminate between “boy books” and “girl books,” and are “equally happy to read from both ends of the spectrum.”  As Ms. Gaynor elaborated, “We try to recommend books that don’t follow typical stereotypes often found in children’s literature:  for example, books that have strong, positive relationships between boys and girls (Melonhead); non-traditional roles for boys and girls (Falling for Rapunzel, Keeping Score); and books with a main character that will appeal to both sexes (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing).”

Of course, one website alone can’t change the gendered face of children’s publishing, but for now I’m pleased to report on a cultural space in which sex distinctions aren’t being mined, magnified, and marketed to sell things to kids.  On my own parenting “smile meter,” that scores a big grin indeed.

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Last week, I faced a parenting moment that I knew would come eventually: my kids discovered a video game online that was, in my view, gratuitously and offensively violent—and I banished it from the screen. The game pits two characters (one controlled by the computer, one controlled by the player) who engage in face-to-face combat. It allows players to select weapons, beginning with a pre-modern arsenal of slingshots, bows and arrows, and Viking-style hatchets. But my boys soon worked their way up to machine guns, and their curiosity took over. The game got ugly, and they knew I wouldn’t approve. They showed me the game, and asked me if it was “OK” to play it. I said no, and we sat down for another round of mom’s edifying (or is that moralizing?) conversations (lectures?) on the subject of “why toy guns and violent video games are bad for kids.”

At the ages of 8 and 11, they still willingly participate in these discussions, though I know my days may be numbered. Since my boys were toddlers, I’ve done my best to keep plastic pistols out of their hands. I say “done my best” because in reality, we parents can’t control all the variables.  They’ve picked up water guns at the local pool, and they’ve received toy muskets as party favors—occasions that inspired my own half-hidden, disapproving eye-rolling.  They like to try their marksmanship with a Nerf-ball shooter, and I now realize that compared to the graphic, gory violence lurking in cyberspace, such playthings seem almost as tame as Legos.

But when it comes to micro-chip warfare, my boys know where I stand. And while they—like millions of other boys for whom these games are intended—are intrigued by cyber violence, they seem to get my point. My older son even wrote an essay last year titled “Why Kids Shouldn’t Play Violent Video Games”: a homework assignment that I was all too willing to help him with. Maybe I’m a walking cliché:  a forty-year-old suburban mother who detests violent video games with every fiber of my being. I’ve read books and articles on both sides of the issue: the experts who say that online violence “desensitizes” kids to real aggression; and the researchers who claim that it lets boys “blow off steam” while improving their manual dexterity. I’m more convinced by the former argument, but my reaction to violent games is more visceral and instinctive than rational or scientific. In a word, the sight of my children controlling a virtual machine gun—seeing a barrage of on-screen bullets emanating from their hands—makes me feel sick.

Honestly, I don’t get the appeal. But I’m not an eight-and-a-half-year-old boy. So over tacos last night, I asked my younger son and his friend why kids like these games. “It makes you feel awesome and super-strong,” his friend replied. Eli explained that games with brawls and fights are “more challenging and more addicting” because “you keep advancing to higher levels and getting better and better and beating them.” When I pointed out that Wii Sports or race car video games also provide those thrills, they agreed. “We like those games, too,” they said.

“Those games are OK,” I replied, mouthing the psycho-babble in the articles I’ve read, “because they let you gain skills and feel strong without destroying or killing another person. Even if you’re just pretending, feeling good because you can dominate or murder someone else isn’t a healthy or positive way to feel good about yourself.”

“So why do they make these games if they’re so bad?” my son asked. “Well isn’t that the 64,000 dollar question!” I replied. As I took the last bite out of my taco, I asked “do you guys want to stay here and talk about how video-game companies use violence to sell products and make money—or do you want to go upstairs and practice your magic tricks?” Fortunately, they chose the latter option, but I know the topic will re-surface around the dinner table again soon.

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Last week, my sons participated in their school’s first school play—a charming production of “The Sound of Music.” While my fifth-grader worked the spotlight from the mezzanine, my 8-year old played one of the Von Trapp boys, appearing in the scene in which Maria dresses her charges in dungarees she fashioned out of floral curtains. (Yes, it was adorable!)

But let’s get right to the gender point here: Out of 150 kids who voluntarily signed up for the cast, only 20% were boys—and most of them were in the younger grades. While dozens of older girls donned nun’s costumes, only a handful of pre-teen boys participated. The fifth-grader who played the Captain enjoyed a hearty applause after hitting all the right notes in “Edelweiss,” but his male peers were in the audience, not onstage with him. When I asked other folks why this was the case, I heard that most boys were too busy with sports to commit to two weeks of rehearsals. Or, they just didn’t think being in the play was cool.

According to two professional directors who teach acting classes and orchestrate children’s productions in our community, the percentage of boys in our school play was actually rather high. At one local theater program, only 10 to 15% of six-to-eight-year old kids are boys. At another, a recent casting call for “Peter Pan” attracted over forty young thespians, but only three or four boys. Ultimately, the Lost Boys were played by girls.

What’s up with this? “It’s a societal thing,” says Dan Ferrante of the Westchester Sandbox Theater in Mamaroneck, New York. Traci Timmons, of the Bendheim Children’s Theater in nearby Scarsdale, surmises that when parents guide their sons’ extra-curricular activities, they usually prioritize sports over the arts, even if their boys show interest in creative activities. As boys get older, some dads fear a stigma of effeminacy or homosexuality often connected to men in theater. One positive sign is that sibling involvement can attract cross-gender interest. When brothers come to see their sisters perform, they want to be part of the excitement the next time around.

Parents are always hearing about the character-building benefits of team sports for kids of both sexes: they promote cooperation, persistence, self-confidence, healthy body awareness, the list goes on. True enough, but can’t the same be said for performing arts? Ms. Timmons argues that acting can enhance kids’ self-confidence, reduce feelings of social apprehensiveness, build literacy skills, and foster emotional sensitivity. For decades, feminists (and parents in general) have rightly fought to ensure gender parity in athletics—but what can we do to increase boys’ involvement in the arts? Even the popularity of Disney’s “High School Musical”—in which Zac Efron plays a jock who eventually learns to love the limelight on stage as well as on the basketball court—doesn’t seem to have made much difference.

Kids’ free time is limited, and they can’t do it all. But it’s a shame that boys who would otherwise enjoy—and benefit from—theatrical pursuits avoid them because they’re worried that their friends will think it’s uncool or “girly.”

Next fall, Benji will move on to middle school—but Eli will be in fourth grade, and he’s already planning to be in the school play again. Rumor has it that next year’s musical might be “The Wizard of Oz.” I hope they won’t have to cast a girl as the Tin Man.

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the website pinkstinks.co.uk: a “campaign and social enterprise that challenges the culture of pink which invades every aspect of girls’ lives.” Founded by two “thirty-something” British twin sisters, pinkstinks aims to spark public discussion and influence the media to promote positive gender roles to girls worldwide. Website co-founder Abi Moore, a London-based documentary filmmaker and mother of two sons, grew disgusted by the vapid 24/7 media coverage of Paris Hilton and other celebrities while the achievements of brilliant female scientists and other talented women go virtually unrecognized. Determined to provide more substantive female role models for girls today, Abi teamed up with her sister Emma Moore—a publishing executive and parent of two girls—to start the online venture.

Their appealing website creatively challenges the “culture of pink” and its reductive, restrictive gender stereotyping. On one level, pink is just a color—and if you’re a mother struggling with whether to buy a rose-hued wardrobe for your princess-obsessed daughter, rest assured that a few pink shirts or dresses won’t keep your five-year-old out of the Ivy League down the road. On the other hand, though, “pink” is more than a color: it’s a ubiquitous cultural symbol for a set of prevailing values and messages about what it means to be feminine, for what girls are supposed to care about: beauty, appearance, domesticity, and (before you know it) heterosexual allure.

According to the website, for example, more than 60% of British girls aged 7 to 10 wear lipstick and / or perfume, while over 40% wear eye shadow or eyeliner. Among British girls aged 15-17, 73% say that when they feel bad about themselves, it’s related to their looks or their weight, rather than school work or other abilities. In contrast, pinkstinks motivates girls to develop more meaningful ambitions and privilege brains over beauty.

If you visit the website, be sure to click the box labeled “voices,” which links you to a video of two Swedish pre-teens who took on Toys-R-Us for its “very gendered and sexist Christmas Catalogue.” According to the young investigators, only 14 out of 54 pages of the catalogue portray boys and girls playing with the same toys. Their report is an inspiring example of children’s feminist activism on a global scale—and it may prompt your own kids to question, or at least be aware of, the hidden politics of pink. You can also purchase some alternative merchandise, including a bib or t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m no Princess.” Just think of how adorable your little one might look in that!  And by all means feel to comment with your thoughts below:  does pink stink?

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I am pleased to introduce Susan David Bernstein, “Beyond Pink & Blue’s” first guest columnist! Susan teaches literature and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has published widely on contemporary feminist theory and the Victorian novel. She is currently working on a study of women writers and activists in the Reading Room of the British Museum, as well as a memoir titled Unlikely Loves.

Here’s Susan:

I discovered new realms of gender profiling before my child was born in August of 1992. Although the sex chromosomes of this eventual baby were recorded in my OB/GYN file, I was adamant that I did not want to know. “Don’t tell me!” I’d shield my eyes, when a nurse or doctor opened my file at an appointment. At that time, it was increasingly common for people to have this knowledge, and from what I witnessed, prenatal gendering took off with a vengeance. I’d hear comments like, “I know this little guy is going to be a quarterback! What a kicker already!” Baby showers became gendered affairs, and the first outfits for the ride home from the hospital were tooled to match that chromosomal information. I was happy instead to receive an array of baby clothes, some blue, some fuschia, one with a rodeo pattern, another with vegetables in reds, greens, and oranges.

So even back then, it was unusual to answer the “what kind of baby are you having?” question with, “I don’t know.” I had an elaborate birth plan which even included a provision about birthing room announcements: I asked my doctor not to say, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” but simply, as he did, “Congratulations, you have a healthy baby!” My partner and I even joked about how we’d try not to know those gender-defining genital features of our baby (we’d have someone else do the diapering and bathing for the first month), so that our ingrained notions about gender would be kept at bay. And, we thought, so would those of the world we lived in. Not possible, I discovered, from day one.

I did of course learn I had a daughter within in minutes of her birth, and she was quickly swaddled in a pink blanket. A nurse held out a basket of caps for newborns, all knitted by a women’s league, and I chose a white one with lavender and blue stripes. But later that day my partner and I requested a different blanket, yellow perhaps, or green or white. We learned that the maternity unit only had blue and pink blankets.

This was Madison, Wisconsin, a university town with a history of progressive values; Tammy Baldwin is our congressional representative—the first open lesbian to be elected to the House. Today, in 2009, my daughter is taking a terrific women’s studies class in her high school (the same one Baldwin graduated from); all four public high schools in Madison offer such courses. But in 1992, there were only pink and blue blankets at the hospital. So I asked for a blue one. A nurse entered my room the next morning, glanced at the bassinet, and then asked me cheerily, “And how is your little boy today?” I responded, “I do not have a boy.” The woman peered in the basket, looked a bit alarmed, and hurried out of the room.

Within a few years, the hospital expanded its newborn wardrobe to include prints and other colors. Still, there remain many ways in which the straitjackets of gender identity flourish from before birth through high school. My daughter spent all four years of high school competing on the cross country team where the girls run 4K meets to the boys’ 5K races. And now she’s one of two girls on her high school team of forty wrestlers. She’s also in the gender minority in her advanced chemistry and physics classes. As a family, we’re still learning to navigate the updated variations of pink and blue that we first encountered in 1992.

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Back in the 1970s, feminists took toy companies to task for their sexist marketing practices. They railed against the board game “Battleship” for depicting a father and son at play while an apron-clad mother and daughter washed dishes in the background. (One outraged mother even sent the cardboard game box to the editors of Ms. magazine to prove her point.) They questioned why pretend kitchens were fashioned out of pink plastic, when the majority of professional chefs were men. And they urged puzzle-makers to depict women piloting airplanes and fighting fires.

One of the youngest toy activists was a seven-year-old from New York City named Caroline Ranald. In 1972, the second-grader wrote a letter to the Lionel train company admonishing them for their boy-dominated ads. “Girls like trains too,” she explained. “I am a girl. I have seven locomotives. Your catalog only has boys. Don’t you like girls?” Caroline’s short letter made a big impression. Not only did the toy train makers feature girls in their subsequent catalogs, they also circulated a press release with endorsements touting the psychological and cognitive benefits of train play for girls.

Fast forward to 2009…and we have to ask: what happened to the gains feminists made in toyland? I literally did a double-take when I read that the Toy Association’s “Toy of the Year Awards” offer separate prize categories for “Best Boy Toy” and “Best Girl Toy.” Sure, they slot some contenders into gender-neutral categories like “Best Outdoor Toy” and “Best Educational Toy.” But they don’t even try to airbrush the fact that when it comes to selling toys, gender divisions—and gender stereotypes—still reign.

In case you’re wondering, the “Best Boy Toy” of 2009 went to the Bakugan Battle Brawlers Battle Pack Action Series. These intricately wrought orbs of plastic snap open into dragon- and vulcan-like shapes when they are hurled onto corresponding magnetized cards. Bakugan isn’t just a Manga-inspired action toy, it’s an entertainment brand, complete with a website, television show, and other paraphernalia. According to the Toy Association’s website, Bakugan beat out the Handy Manny 2-in-1 Transforming Tool Truck, the EyeClops Night Vision Infrared Stealth Goggles, and a few other trinkets for the top boy toy honors.

My own boys, ages 8 and 11, can’t seem to get enough Bakugan spheres, priced around ten dollars a pop. When I asked my younger son why he thinks girls aren’t into Bakugan, he replied that “they don’t like to fight and brawl the way boys do.” Maybe so, but when toy companies are so explicit about developing toys for gender-specific markets, we have to ask the proverbial chicken-and-egg question: do boys like Bakugan because it taps into some innate affinity for competitive, militaristic play—or because they are being socialized and culturally conditioned to prefer those forms of play?

For the record, the Best Girl Toy of 2009 was the Playmobil Horse Farm, a plastic play-set complete with stables, ponies, and equestrian figurines. (In 2007, the honor went to Hasbro’s FurReal Friends Butterscotch Pony—which raises the question of why a horse-related toys have become so feminized in recent years.) Runner-ups for Best Girl Toy include a Pedicure Salon activity kit, a Talking Dollhouse, and Hannah Montana’s Malibu Beach House—toys based on stereotypes of beauty and domesticity so blatant they speak for themselves.

Although most elementary-school boys probably wouldn’t beg for a kiddie pedicure set, children display more variation and boundary-crossing in their play than the toy industry might care to admit.  Decades after the heyday of second-wave feminism, few parents would bat an eye at a girl playing with StarWars action figures or a boy weaving a potholder on a loom.  But for the purveyors of playthings, pink and blue don’t make purple; they make green.  Toy makers have a vested interested in selling to a gender-bifurcated market, because they can make double the money selling twice as many toys.

In the spirit of feminist toy activism, perhaps it’s time, once again, to argue the point. If there are any little boys out there who have a thing for horses, maybe they can e-mail the folks at Playmobil and set them straight.

Welcome to my first column exploring gender stereotypes and realities in children’s lives. Whether or not you’re a parent yourself, it’s impossible to miss the countless ways in which our culture divides kids along gender lines. Just walk into any toy store and notice how the playthings are segregated–with action figures, race cars, and dinosaurs for the boys, and Barbies, Bratz dolls, and craft kits for the girls.

For decades, debates have raged over the “nature vs. nurture” question: Are we neurologically “hard wired” to behave in stereotypically masculine or feminine ways—or is gendered behavior acquired through culture and socialization? The pendulum has swung back and forth over the past fifty years, with scientists, educators, and parents vacillating between two poles of thought. During the 1970s, second-wave feminists came down on the “nurture” side of the fence, and worked hard to raise a generation of kids free from the restrictive gender roles that permeated the postwar, Leave-it-to-Beaver era. (Think Free to Be, You and Me, Title IX, and the ubiquitous parenting refrain: “you can be ANYTHING you want to be…”) Recently, however, some experts have been touting the “nature” side of the equation, arguing that boys and girls are “biologically programmed” to behave and learn differently.

Today, in my opinion, the most sophisticated and sensible answer to the “nature vs. nurture” question is: “both.” In her new book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—And What We can Do About It,” neuroscientist and mother-of-three Lise Eliot explains that there are some real inborn differences between the sexes, but statistically, they are very small. It’s our culture—what we do and say at home and at school, on t.v. and in the toy store—that amplifies those small innate differences, turning them into self-fulfilling prophesies that limit the aspirations, experiences, and skills of boys and girls alike.

It’s not simply a matter of banning Barbies or forcing boys to do needlepoint. The issues swirling around kids and gender identity are complicated, so simplistic, one-size-fits-all “solutions” won’t do the trick. But in the best feminist tradition, it’s worth asking tough questions about the messages our culture sends out to parents and kids on a daily basis. Why, for example, does the Toy Industry Association persist in having categories like “Best Boy Toy” and “Best Girl Toy” of the year? (More on that next month!) Retail stores gain when they sell pink drapes for girls’ bedrooms and blue shades for boys’—but what do kids lose when they grow up in such a gender-bifurcated world?

Please share your thoughts, opinions and questions by posting a comment or emailing me at rotscant@yahoo.com.