A few months ago, I wrote about a new line of toys, or more precisely a franchise, which features dolls and accompanying ‘science experiments’ marketed towards girls. The brand is called Project: Mc2 and it’s the latest creation from the minds at MGA Entertainment, capitalizing on the current push towards S.T.E.M education.
The focus of my writing was on the media content landscape for tweens and how the Netflix mini-series represents a significant contribution to diversity, particularly for young women. I want to revisit these products, and the franchise as a whole, by looking at gender and power discourses.
On her Feminist Current blog, Anita Sarkeesian spoke about Lego and how the iconic brand has shifted its marketing efforts exclusively towards boys. She expresses her discontent at a separate line of new products for girls that promotes “friendship” in opposition to the imagination, agency, and empowerment to ‘build’ promoted to boys through traditional Lego. Unfortunately, the children’s toy industry is fraught with examples of products that target boys and girls as separate audiences and contribute to perpetuating biased gender norms. The consumer goods industry has been profiting from increasingly segmented consumer groups over the last few decades. By carving out exceedingly smaller, delineated niches, the advertising and marketing industries can more precisely detail a consumer’s needs, wants and desires, and subsequently ensure the establishment of greater brand loyalty by providing these features through a highly targeted product campaign. This is not new information, but it’s particularly relevant when we look at how children’s products are marketed and advertised. The entire reason the ‘tween’ exists, as many academics have explored, is mainly attributed to marketers and advertisers who discovered the decision-influencing power of this age-group within the family unit; by creating/ singling out this group/ demographic, the industry could access and target it directly. It’s therefore not much of a surprise that marketers and advertiser would be keen, and find it fairly effortless, to separate boys and girls as target markets… after all, society’s already done all the legwork via a long history of deeply rooted gender stereotypes.
The Project: Mc2 brand is perplexing and I can only speak from a place of an observer: I am not the target audience nor do I have children. While I have worked with hundreds of children through my media production career, if anything, I have never consciously applied gender bias to my process. Perhaps the very nature of the type of content I specialized in, documentary-style content, and its emphasis on showing diverse stories, didn’t lend itself to the perpetuation or highlighting of stereotypes; we were capturing and sharing experiences and not creating fictional characters or stories. We were generally not privy to audience ratings or knowledge of whether our content resonated more with boys or girls, however the overall intent was to address both genders equally and show diversity, in all of its facets and manifestations, where possible. It is worth mentioning that this content is somewhat of an anomaly in the ‘protected’ niche of children’s public broadcasting. Perhaps working in this sector has made me instantly critical or suspicious of any commercial, private broadcaster content for the same audience.
As a result, I can’t help but suspect that Project: Mc2 is a carefully orchestrated strategy to ultimately sell more toys by jumping on the girl empowerment bandwagon. After all, it’s not exactly like MGA Entertainment is an altruistic, non-profit or community organization. However, at the consumer level, if the company’s ‘secondary’ goal is to empower a generation of girls to build an interest, a community and later a career in the S.T.E.M. subjects, then it’s hard not to get on board. One particularly impressive move is the brand’s decision to incorporate the ‘A’ for arts into the mix to make up “S.T.E.A.M.” This speaks to an acknowledgement of a pentad of subjects that represent the type of knowledge that is increasingly sought after; all of these represent and can contribute to creative thinking and innovation. Perhaps this company isn’t just about the profit…
I’m quieting my inner-cynic for the time being. Focusing on the positive, there’s certainly so much good here. These toys can represent a direct rebuttal to LEGO’s “no girls allowed” messaging. Given the revealing studies around misogyny in the gaming industry (Jensen & De Castell, 2013) and evidence of hegemonic masculinity in the technology sector (Pechtenlidis, Kosma & Chronaki, 2015), this franchise can represent a much-needed ‘safe’ space just for girls to explore their S.T.E.A.M.-focused interests and promote empowerment themes. MGA Entertainment is the same company that brought us the controversial BRATZ dolls. Perhaps, as Jenson and de Castell present as a call-to-action to academics (2013), this is a form of feminist forensics on the part of the product development team; individuals who have reflected on their role in perpetuating gendered norms.
The dolls themselves physically resemble a more realistic cross-section of the population with various ethnicities and races, heights, body shapes and features. Their names are atypical and eclectic.
The lack of a boy in this group is a bit disappointing and perhaps a missed opportunity? But, I can’t help but think the developers had far too much fun coming up with details: ie. the lead character’s name is McKeyla McAllister aka Mc2. They are recruited into the agency of NOV8 (innovate) and McKeyla’s mom is Danica McKellar (former child actress and current mathematician!). And if traditional lab experiments aren’t up your alley, maybe you’d consider a career as a culinary chemist? Heck, if I had known of that career path back in my grade school days, I might have actually taken chemistry instead of biology (which was where my science education ‘ended’). The idea of making science relatable and fun is not a new concept- we’ve had Bill Nye the Science Guy and Popular Mechanics for Kids around for generations. But the combo packaging is fresh and new: High tech diary- cool! Lava lamp making kit? Groovy! Sparkly slime making experiment? Curiosity piqued!
However, to borrow from the writings of Pechtelidis, Kosma & Chronaki (2015), the lab experiments with instructions position girls as “users” as opposed to “connoisseurs,” as they must follow the directions to complete the experiment or project. A beacon of hope lies with the “Ultimate Lab Kit.” To encourage girls to embrace the role of connoisseur, the kit (which comes WITHOUT a doll!), encourages children to come up with their own experiments, too.
And though I indicated I would not be discussing the TV series, it is worth mentioning that it does promote empowerment, experimentation, agency, and independence. The protagonists are solving mysteries, exploring new possibilities, and pushing boundaries- elements that the limited science experiment toy kits cannot capture. So, the true power of this franchise lies in all of the pieces contributing to a greater ‘empowered female’ whole.
So, while the marketing of dolls to women promotes gendered roles, presenting these dolls as women who find it equally fun to mix up their fashion as they do pursuing their brainy and historically male gendered interests, represents a renouncement of old gender stereotypes. While still a commercial project, I do believe that the Project: Mc2 toys represent a subtle shift, a ripple in the pond towards the promotion of gender equality. And perhaps, in a world where threatened parties (individuals opposed to gender equality) are so quick to go on the offense and attack, perhaps a gentle ripple is the way towards the most meaningful, albeit gradual, change when we should be doing everything we can to keep the spark of curiosity in S.T.E. (A.) M. topics alive in young girls.
Jenson, J. & de Castell, S. (2013). Tipping Points: Marginality, Misogyny and Videogames. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 29, 2, 72-85.
Pechtelidis, Y., Kosma, Y. & Chronaki, A. (2015). Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Women and Computer
Technology. Gender & Education, 27, 2, 164-182.