I’ve been thinking about the words “girl” and “girly” since the advertisement for an engineering toy for girls, Goldiblox, went viral. Fear that Goldiblox will reinforce gender stereotypes because it is too “girly” seems to be common. The backlash to the rise in “girly-girl” toys since the 1990s has come mostly in the form of mothers encouraging their daughters to get tough through sports and smart through math. Consequently, the message became girls who like “girly toys” can’t be tough or smart; that being “girly” is not being tough or smart. Therefore, girls aren’t tough or smart.
Tony Porter, an advocate for fighting violence against girls, described his reaction after a boy told him that “it would destroy him” if his coach said he played “like a girl.” Porter responded, “If it would destroy (a 12-year-old boy) to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”
We are in a sociocultural stage, where it is mostly OK for girls to be like boys. But true gender equality would be where it is OK for girls to be like boys, boys to be like girls, girls to be like girls and boys to be like boys.
The most common solution to the gendered-toy dilemma is to create more gender-neutral toys. I like gender neutrality in most things and I think we need more of it. However, I am not fooled that gender neutrality is the ultimate form of gender equality. Gender neutrality is the absence of gender, not the tolerance of gender. Instead of defaulting to toys with no gendered characteristics at all, we should tolerate boys and girls to play with any toys.
It seems like we are in an “anti-girl” phase. Feminist playwright Eve Ensler argues that there is a “girl” in all of us, and girl-like qualities (empathy, passion, vulnerability, etc.) are key to the repair and growth of humankind. Yet, we socialize the “girl” out of all of us. We teach our men not to be girls, our boys not to be girls and our women not to be girls.
The world can be changed dramatically if we empower and educate girls, because a girl is more likely to contribute to the economic growth of her community while she takes care of her family. This understanding is epitomized in the story of Malala Yousafzai, an education activist from Pakistan. In 2012, the teen was shot by the Taliban on her way home from school. Remarkably, she survived and is changing the world. In fact, recognition of the power of girls has spurred International Girls Day, an entire day dedicated to the power of girls.
So let’s embrace “girl” and cultivate girl in all of us.