Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Rebelle, Rebelle, You've Torn Your Dress": Nerf for Girls!

©2013 Hasbro, via Renegade Chicks

One of my awesome iSchool MI students/RAs reminded me about the highly gendered Hasbro "Rebelle" Nerf-for-girls line this week (depicted in the ad above), which motivated me to revisit the toy and some of the criticisms that have emerged around its aesthetics and design since the product was first announced back in February (2013). Clearly a response to the recent Brave and Hunger Games-inspired boom in the popularity of archery among tween and teen girls, the Rebelle brand includes girl-targeted bows, crossbows and guns or "blasters," adorned in pink and purple and sporting pseudo-"tough girl" names like Heartbreaker and Pink Crush. Admittedly, my initial reaction to the toy line was somewhat mixed. As I wrote on Twitter back in February:
"yet another example of gendered toy design, although admittedly Hasbro's Rebelle nerf-bow does LOOK pretty cool"
Above all, I liked how the Rebelle signified a departure from Hasbro's usual approach when it comes to NERF guns, in which the product designs, packaging and marketing all try to make it very clear to consumers that these toys are "meant for" boys. Finally, it seemed that the company might actually be starting to realize that (some) girls like to get their warrior on and engage in backyard battles just as much as (some) boys do.

But as a number of children's toy/media critics pointed out on Twitter (posted back in February, 12, 2013), the pinkification going on here was too blatant to ignore. For instance:
 ‏@LetToysBeToys  Entorien It challenges the stereotype .. but then panders to it.”  
 ‏@EntorienLetToysBeToys If they want girls to feel like Merida or Katniss, model on their bows, which were plain.
In reading through these comments, as well as the broader news coverage, corporate pr, and ensuring public reaction, it all started sounding eerily similar to last year's LEGO-for-girls launch. For instance, Hasbro representatives claimed that the gendered elements weren't actually stereotypes because they came out of research (3 years worth! just like LEGO) and represented the wants and preferences of girls themselves. As cited in Hillary Busis' article for Entertainment Weekly
"I think if anything, we went into this without any stereotypes and instead talked to young girls, found out what they wanted, and then designed a line of products that addressed that opportunity,” [John Frascotti, Global Chief Marketing Officer of Hasbro] told EW in an interview, saying that Hasbro did research for over three years while creating the line.
And, just like LEGO, Habro described an approach that clearly aimed to position the Rebelle girls' line in a way that kept it as separate as possible from their regular, i.e. boy-targeted, toys. As Busis writes,
"Trying to encourage girls to buy existing Nerf toys or easing up the gendered overtones of those products was never really on the table."
Wow. Well, at least this acknowledges, to some extent, that the company is aware that its other Nerf products are gendered in a way that works to exclude girls (although some girls will, of course, defy marketing discourses and play anyway...but they aren't a "market" problem for Hasbro, are they?). As Molly Freeman, at Renegade Chicks notes, this is the same company that only a couple of months earlier was garnerning accolades and praise for "coming out with a line of gender neutral Easy-Bake Ovens." 

Of course, in that case, the move toward gender-neutrality was driven by a pretty widely-publicized petition launched by 13-year-old McKenna Pope, expressing her frustration that marketing/gender-coding for the Easy-Bake Oven toy excluded boys, a cause she took up on behalf of her little brother who loved to bake and cook. As Pope wrote in the petition description:
I want my brother to know that it's not "wrong" for him to want to be a chef, that it's okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate. There are, as a matter of fact, a multitude of very talented and successful male culinary geniuses, i.e. Emeril, Gordon Ramsey, etc. Unfortunately, Hasbro has made going against the societal norm that girls are the ones in the kitchen even more difficult. Please join me to ask Hasbro to feature males on the packaging and in promotional materials for the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, as well as offering the product in different, non gender specific colors, i.e. primary colors. 
Pope's story inspired 45,000 others, including celebrity chefs, to sign her petition. Ultimately, Hasbro invited her to its office and unveiled plans for a black-and-silver Easy-Bake Oven, which is now available and looks like this:
The inclusion of both a boy and a girl in the image on the box is a nice nod toward gender-inclusivity. In relation to the Rebelle toy line, however, Hasbro's response to the Easy-Bake Oven petition strikes a noticeable contrast to the company's more recent assertion that making existing Nerf toys more gender-inclusive "was never really on the table."

While revisiting Rebelle this week, my student pointed me toward a short but compelling article by Ashley Perez on Buzzfeed. What I particularly appreciate about Perez' article (or, more accurately, image/photo essay) is that expands the critique beyond colour-coding and gendered marketing to examine the actual affordances of the toys themselves. I'm a huge proponent of this type of design-focused analysis, because it allows us to understand how "gendering" a toy often involves a lot more than merely slapping a coat of pink paint on it. As feminist scholars of technology like Ellen Van Oost, Pat Kirkham and Carol Colatrella argue, for many designers and companies, re-branding a particular object specifically to girls and women (whereas previously that object was advertised as "for boys/men" or was largely non-gendered), often means changing fundamental design features as well... such as simplifying the design, making it less customizable or more fragile, or otherwise gendering it at the functional level (i.e. how it can be used). I've been applying this type of analysis to my study of the Lego Friends (i.e. Lego for girls) line with some pretty fascinating results

Perez's analysis suggests that the Rebelle toys don't simply look different but also come with different features, which in turn impact on how they're used. Key among which is her comparison of the number of "darts" (soft, reusable ammo that Nerf toys shoot) included with one of the Rebelle toys (Power Pair) versus Nerf (for boys) toys: 2 (per gun blaster) versus 6, and in another case 2 versus 25! Of course, there's a clear motivation for Hasbro to try its best to get players to buy additional darts (sold separately), and for the Rebelle line, they've even gone so far as to try to brand the darts themselves as "collectibles." But 2 darts also means shorter intervals between shooting and retrieving darts (always a pain when playing Nerf), which could be significant. I'd be interested to see how this compares with the average, and how (or if) it affects gameplay, puts Rebelle owners at a disadvantage, etc. I'm also very curious to see if Rebelle toys can shoot regular, non-Rebelle, non-collectible darts. 

Perez's analysis of the Rebelle ads is indeed just a small, anecdotal comparison (and likely not representative), but it's definitely on the right track. It points to the need for some further comparative analysis in terms of what's included, what's assumed and what's made possible/impossible by the designs (and accessories) of the toys themselves. Do the Rebelle toys shoot as well as regular Nerf? As far? Are they as sturdy? Hasbro claims that Rebelle toys will have the "same performance" as their regular Nerf...what I'm looking forward to now is for these toys to finally hit stores so that we can start hearing feedback from players who have put this claim to the test.

******Update: please see first few comments (below) for a counter to Perez' claims re: number of darts, as well as correction on terminology ("blasters," not "guns"). Big thanks to Matt for sharing his expertise on all things Nerf-related.

Friday, July 05, 2013

This Looks Awesome Alert: New NPR Series on Kids' Culture

©2013 NPR Monkey See: currently running a very cool series of stories on 
kids & media, literature, culture, toys and play

Via Emma Mustich over at the Huffington Post, news about a recent, month-long series by NPR examining various aspects of kids' media culture and consumption practices, from questions of representation (gender, race), to contemporary (and enduring) toy trends. Here's an excerpt from the HuffPo article:
"...why don’t we pay closer attention to the art and entertainment our kids experience on a regular basis? How carefully do we really consider the media they are ingesting at the library, in the playroom and when they sit in front of the TV?
In a month-long radio series, NPR has approached this question from myriad angles -- examining everything from the lack of racial diversity in children's books to how the media presents hard subjects like cancer, school shootings and genocide.
"Media," for the purposes of this series, is a broad term, meaning books and TV shows, but also physical toys -- from blocks to dolls. In an upcoming story, we learn about the rise of kids playing with "goth Barbies" (better known as Monster High dolls)."
 Here are the links to some of my favourite stories from the series (so far):

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Traditional Toys and Digital Devices

©2009 John Crane Ltd (via Pintoys)
A new report from The NPD Group was released this week, relaying findings from a recent study that examines how/if digital games and devices might be displacing traditional toys among different age groups. Here's an excerpt from Kidscreen's iKids News coverage of the study by Jeremy Dickson:

The report, entitled The Evolution of Play, found that 51% of parents felt electronic devices had no impact at all on their child’s play time, while 40% felt their child was spending less time with traditional toys.
Looking at age, as kids get older and more social they become more adept with digital apps and tablets, thus decreasing time spent with traditional toys, whereas younger children who use technology are still more likely to request traditional toys.
While the report in its entirety is only available for purchase, the NPD's press release outlines a number of additional key findings, including:

  • Use of digital devices by younger children is "perceived [by parents] to have little effect on play time with toys.
  • Parents who spend the most on technology products (e.g apps, etc.) are also the heaviest purchasers of traditional toys (i.e. "more likely to shop most toy categories and spend more when they do make a purchase"). (***noteworthy)
  • As well as: "Parents were unequivocal in praising electronic devices for their educational potential and for helping children to build skills. However, they are equally concerned that too much technology could make their kids lazy, foster unhealthy solitary experiences, or lead to “over-connectedness.”" 

This last point is of particular interest to me, as it shows that many parents report the same sort of ambivalence vis-a-vis children and technology (simultaneous, conflicting positive and negative feelings) as found in popular discourses, news coverage, etc. We often present these polarized discourses as coming from opposing camps - but this presents the compelling alternative that both can and do co-exist simultaneously, at the individual level and likely at the organizational level as well. Of course, years of exposure to press coverage and reports from the two "sides" of the debate have likely contributed significantly to this ambivalence. These are arguments that I've explored in some of my previous work on the topic (discourses on children and technology), and am currently re-examining in my upcoming book on kids' digital play. Always nice to have some up-to-date stats to refer to!