Going forward, annotated bibliography posts will include a my commentary and questions followed by a bulleted summary of the reading.
This week’s reading, Retooling play: Dystopia, Dysphoria, and Difference by Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson, is another chapter in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.
The memory that de Castell shared about her childhood experience with dolls as toys really resonated with me. She asked, “How many of us harbor memories of dismembering our dolls, hacking off their hair, positioning them in compromising postures?” I can relate. None of the Barbie dolls that I receive lasted long before I mutilated them. I distinctly remember getting in trouble once for trying to flush a Barbie head down the toilet. I hated pink as a child and Barbie was all about pink. And clean. And “perfect.” My sister and I were given a Barbie house (all pink and white) and a Barbie convertible (all pink) one year and, to my sister’s dismay, one of the first things I did to it was take a permanent blue marker to one of the bedrooms because if I had to play with that thing I was going to have a blue bedroom. Once my sister got mad because I put one of her Barbie dolls in clothes that I borrowed from my brother’s GI Joe doll. “Barbie is a girl! She does not wear GI Joe clothes!” My sister and I were always fighting about what Barbie could and could not wear, where she could work, who she could be friends with, and what she did for fun.
It was not long after attempting to flush Barbie’s head down the toilet that I stopped getting Barbie dolls as a gift. Over the next few years of birthdays and Christmases I received things like magic kits, telescopes, miniature chemistry sets, and science kits. The packaging only had boys on it, though. As I am writing this, I tried doing a Google search for “microscope toy” and found that the first page of images only shows boys with microscopes:

Google Microscope toy
Google search, image results, for microscope toy (Jan 2015)

There is nothing wrong with Barbie wearing pink. There is something wrong when Barbie only comes in pink. Thankfully today’s Barbie can be a doctor or scientist or a baker – though, the sets and clothes could still use some variety (i.e. less pink washing).

Retooling toys is not about removing all pink and traditionally feminine aspects of Barbie. It is about providing an inclusive spectrum of things that Barbie can be, do, wear, etc.
How do we thoughtfully design toys that are for children instead of toys for boys and toys for girls? How do we avoid going from pink washing to total pink removal? What is the right balance?
How do parents introduce toys to children? What is the best way for parents to use toys as teachable moments?

  • Author memory of getting a baby doll for Christmas and her first “encounter with the dystopia of gendered play – the treachery of the toy purposely built, like the Princess phone or the Easy-Bake Oven, ‘just for you,’ those ‘special’ feminized playthings that escort girls to their proper place in the gender order.”
  • Toy industry has always manufactured gender-appropriate playthings, but only recently has that included computer-mediated toys and games for girls.
  • Success of “Barbie Fashion Designer” computer game in October 1996 (500k copies sold in first two months) showed huge profit opportunities and resulted in major corporate-sponsored research campaigns to identify the differently gendered play patterns of boys and girls and to discover what girls like best.
  • Resulted in retooling of technology, but it was done by “affirming rather than challenging received gender stereotypes that preserve girls’ historically assigned locations in the gender order.”
  • “Besides the profit motive, let’s not overlook the significant part played by the educational system: cultural expectations relating to gender have shifted significantly, and no profit could be made if a cultural recognition of the desirability of girls participating in technological culture had not been created.”
  • Parents are encouraged by schools and the toy industry to see technology use as necessary for a successful future.
  • “Gender” is a complex term. Gender used to be a “fancy word”for sex where biology was destiny. Now, biology is not destiny. Emergence of grassroots feminist activism intellectualization into academic feminist theory:


  • From academic theory grew the idea that “girls’ interests, desires, and pleasures might be created and shaped by cultural forces.” Our of this a new social issue emerged: gender equity. Biology is no longer destiny, girls could be liberated to pursue any interest. Practical problem: “girls appear uninterested in entering traditionally male turf.”
  • Technology viewed as gendered. 1996 study of high school students: boys and girls represented computer expertise as almost exclusively a male preserve. 500 students surveys about technology interest, competence, access, and use by sex. Significant differences between boys and girls in all areas. Students asked to draw a “computer whiz” and a “computer whizn’t” and give them names and ages. Whiz: usually a boy, Whizn’t: usually a girl.

de Castell, S., & Bryson, M. (1998). Chapter 11: Retooling play: Dystopia, dysphoria, and difference. In J. Cassell, & H. Jenkins (Eds.), From barbie to mortal kombat: Gender and computer games (pp. 232-261) Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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