In the early twentieth century, toy manufacturers like A. C. Gilbert borrowed the language of scientific discourse communities to market Erector sets and other products to boys, shaping not only how they played with their toys, but also how they saw themselves in relation to science and the scientific community. Today, companies like Goldie Blox and Roominate can take advantage of online social networks to promote their products and related messages about gender and science to girls. Rather than sponsoring institutes and clubs, these companies maintain Facebook sites and Youtube channels, where they and their customers share photos and videos of girls playing with their toys. These online communities might seem like they would replicate Gilbert’s Institute, by positioning players as proto-scientists, but in fact, girls in these videos take on different roles, usually that of instructor or reviewer. In this way, these online communities model a role traditionally accorded to women, that of the instructor or mediator of scientific knowledge.
As Barbara Gates and Ann Shteir, Kathryn Neely, Alan Rauch, and others have shown, women have long participated in science as illustrators, translators, and popularizers of science. They have historically written textbooks, popular versions of scientific treatises, and pedagogical science books meant for children in which a female teacher or an older child teaches a younger child about a scientific concept. As mediators of scientific information, women took on a gender heteroglossic role that blended interest in science (which was increasingly coded as masculine) with feminine pursuits such as writing and illustration. While we might expect that contemporary toys targeting young girls might try to break out of this pattern, we see this tendency persist in online communities.
In many videos, girls are pictured in pedagogical roles. Roominate, for instance, sponsored a series of videos with a young female instructor, and many amateur videographers have taken up this approach. For instance, in a video titled simply, “Roominate Pottery Wheel,” an unnamed girl demonstrates how to create a pottery wheel using the motor from her Roominate set (Roominate Toy). She first describes the materials needed to make the pottery wheel, and then she puts the wheel together, describing potential pitfalls and offering troubleshooting tips as she goes along. The camera focuses on the girl’s hands as she manipulates the parts for her pottery wheel, including the motor from her Roominate set, a pencil eraser, plasticine (to represent the clay), and a metal barbecue skewer that she uses as a sculpting tool. Here, we see a girl taking on a role that has long been ascribed to women as ancillaries to scientific activity, that of instructor. It is also notable that the girl chooses to demonstrate a typically feminized activity using the toy, that of an artist. Nowhere in the video does the girl mention how this applies to a scientific concept or engineering principle.
Other videos involve an activity known as “unboxing.” In these videos, the recipient of a new product is filmed opening a box, assembling its contents, and demonstrating the item’s key features. Although this genre began among tech aficionados who taped themselves opening the latest gadgets, unboxing videos about toys have become common. According to an NPR story, one of the most popular composers of this genre is DisneyCollector, a twenty-something woman from Westchester County, N.Y., whose unboxing videos are popular enough to allow her to give up her day job and make them full-time (National Public Radio). At the time of writing, DisneyCollector had over 1200 unboxing videos online, all featuring various Disney Products. Her most popular videos garner upwards of 10,000,000 views, and one, an unboxing of Disney Frozen Play Doh, has over 98,000,000 views. In an unboxing video, the presenter not only takes on the role of a reviewer but also an instructor, showing others how the toy works. (It is hard not to liken the reviewer’s role to that of a home shopping channel presenter, one who narrates in great detail and with great enthusiasm the tiniest details about the product.) While not confined to women, then, the unboxing video, especially when it features toys, seems to play into established gender roles.
Unboxing videos about toys also regularly feature children. In some cases, they act as reviewers or commentators. In other cases, child presenters simply demonstrate the contents of the object or begin playing with it to show how it works. In videos about toys like Goldie Blox, unboxing videos show girls not as teachers but as hosts who explicitly take on the roles of inventors and builders. For example, in “Building with Goldie Blox!,” a video posted by a self-described stay-at-home mom and homemaker, a kindergartener shows off the ice skating rink she made with a Goldie Box kit (Schmid). Throughout the video, she is being interviewed by a woman (presumably her mother), and they appear to be at home. In response to the questions she is asked, the girl demonstrates how the ice rink works, and she explains that she would like to be a “builder” when she grows up—a builder of ice rinks. For this child, then, playing with the toy is an approximation of a real-life career she might later inhabit. The girl also mentions how building offers independence, because you can make anything you want. While not a scientific career per se, this player seems to understand her play as leading to a future profession. Notably, the profession of “builder” is not one that has been traditionally linked to women, so even though this girl does not understand her play as a form of science, it nonetheless challenges the continued division of labor into jobs for men and jobs for women.
In this video and others like it, we have a modern parallel to the depictions circulated in A.C. Gilbert’s time of boys posed alongside the models they had made. For these boys, as for the girls in the video, this kind of play was understood both as fun and also as preparation for a future career. However, in some videos circulating today, girls also take on the role of mediatrix, one traditionally granted to women as a way to engage in science on the sidelines. Thus, it remains to be seen whether Goldie Blox and Roominate will actually encourage more girls to pursue scientific careers, or whether they will situate girls’ scientific interests within more readily available roles.