Taking a Closer Look at Pink Microscopes

This week, I’m diving into some troubled water around gender stereotypes in the design and marketing of toys.  The interwebs have been all atwitter—or should I say, ablog?—over a recent Toys ’R Us ad featuring, on a page of black and gray toy science gear, microscopes and telescopes in cotton candy pink. Some say this sends the message that girls are “other” (which usually means lesser); that they must be girls first and scientists second.  Some note that the pink versions are available only in lower-powered models, conveying that the pink versions are more about style than substance, and that girls don’t desire/need/expect the same functionality as boys.

Others find these concerns misguided.  They argue that shunning pink microscopes sends the message that if girls want to be smart, they must check their femininity at the door.  They argue that the real problem is that one shouldn’t buy scientific equipment from a toy store, whatever its color.

Personally, I worry about the pinkification of girlhood the same way I worry about (as ethnographer-me would say) the “regulating discourse” of princessness.  The danger is that rather than opening the possibility that one can be girly and [pick your object: a scientist, soccer player, be powerful, etc.], the princessarchy instead demands that the only right way to be a scientist or play soccer or exercise power is in the girliest way possible.  Soon the absence of pink means this is not for you, girlfriend.

I also agree that when only the rinky-dink model comes in pink, it does say that for girls, appearance matters more than function.  But these are TOYS.  Buying “real” science gear makes sense if you have a kid who is old enough to know the difference, has developed a sustained interest, and you’re prepared to make an investment in equipment.  But stating that as a rule is like saying that rather than buying your kids toy pots and pans, you should go straight to Williams Sonoma and get them a set of Calphalon.

And there’s another aspect of this debate that I have yet to see addressed in blogdom: the power and pleasure of good design.  Remember when Apple came out with those candy-colored iBooks a decade ago?  These were no toy computers in fancy clothes, no distaff laptops for ladies.  They were serious machines, but they were also pleasurable to look at and to keep on your desk and even to use.  For me, it was as if somebody had just switched on the lights.  Why did all the other computers look so standard and bland and beige?  And so I wonder if the pink microscope might represent not a lesser version for a superficial consumer, but rather a creative reinterpretation of a utilitarian object.  Why shouldn’t everyone have a microscope that’s fun to look at as well as to use?  And why wouldn’t everyone want one?  Graphic designer Elizabeth Amorose (whose firm, Thinkso Creative, designed Ma’yan’s new look), agrees.  “By making science equipment attractive,” she explained to me, “we are sending a visual message that science is something desirable, fun, smart, innovative—which, duh, it is. In that way, there’s no reason why these toys shouldn’t look cool, fun, pique the interest of boys and girls so that they then want to use them.” 

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that the pinkification of girlhood is unproblematic.  But the fun-ification of designs that reinterpret adult tools for children’s play: well that’s enough to make me want to pick up a new microscope myself.  I’ll take mine in purple, thanks.

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