Design for Girls: Put A Heart On It

When are design critics like novelists? After the holidays, when they have to decide whether to offend the people that gave them gifts by reviewing them. So here’s my disclaimer, family members: I thank you for your generosity, and my children will play with everything you gave them to the best of their abilities and interest. But I can’t turn off the voice in my head.

Now that that’s out of the way, it is time for my annual post on the horrors of design for kids (previously: designer toys, baby clothes). This year, it is not just me that is talking about the gender gap when it comes to toys. The week before Christmas there was lively debate online about the news, via this Bloomberg BusinessWeek story, that Lego was creating a new line of pastel pieces for girls. Peggy Orenstein wrapped it all up in the New York Times on December 30.

The basic horror seemed to be the realization that Lego had gone from this:

(Could have been me, from the braids to the dungarees.)

To this, from the Hero Factory line:

Thus necessitating the creation of a whole other-hued product category. As a parent who suffers, in a minor OCD manner, from having too many different and incompatible building toys, the idea that my son’s Lego and my daughter’s Lego might not be able to commingle brings on some frustration. I already have a labeled bin! Which means that, while I truly appreciate the toned-down, gender-neutral colors and 100-percent recycled content of Green Toys blocks we received, I wonder if it might be more/equally sustainable to stick with Duplo. Who wants to start over each year with an incompatible building system? Modularity has its purpose.

The giver of the Green Toys was thinking of me and my husband, the interests we would like to pass down, the developmental stage my daughter will soon reach. I’m having a harder time reckoning with the Melissa & Doug Pretty Purse Fill and Spill. It’s true, my daughter loves nothing more than pulling everything out of her own go-bag (a sturdy, lightweight LeSportsac messenger bag), and cellphones have recently become something of a fascination. So the Pretty Purse is also developmentally on target. If only everything else about it wasn’t wrong.

Why pretty? Pretty, in this case, means pink and purple, hearts, velvet. Who says that’s pretty? And what adult women has a purse that looks like that? If part of the idea of this toy is to give your child a makeshift adult avatar, I don’t see how a one-year-old can make the connection between my gray LeSportsac, or her babysitter’s silver tote, and this new object. Same deal for the ersatz (and, naturally, heart-shaped) compact. First, I don’t want a toymaker telling my daughter to get excited about make-up and second, who has one of these anymore? Seems like a leftover from Sally Draper.

Why a purse? As far as I can tell, my daughter’s toy choices so far are gender neutral. She’ll chew on a car or a stuffed animal. She’ll knock over blocks or a butterfly stacker. If Melissa & Doug made a fill-and-spill messenger bag in a nice bright green it could hold a cellphone, wallet and keys, and be sold to 100 percent of the baby population. Don’t one-year-old boys like to take things out of bags too?

(It turns out they do, but their bag looks like this. Pity the uncoordinated. I do rail against the boys-love-sports hegemony every time I shop for shirts for my son.)

And why this design? It’s ugly, it’s girly, and it doesn’t even work. The multi-color keys (on a heart-shaped key fob) are made of plastic, so they slide easily. It would have been nice if they could also have been different shapes and included numbers, like this classic toy. So why couldn’t the phone also have been plastic, with mashable buttons. The fat stuffed oval included looks more like a worm than a contemporary phone. There are numbers on the coins inside the change purse but again, they remind me more of cookies, especially since the digits are enumerated in more hearts. Might fabric bills not have worked better?

And finally, the change purse, like the purse that holds it, suffers instead from a more basic design failure: material. Both are made of clear plastic, with purple velour piping. But once the plastic decision had been made, legal issues kicked in. You can’t have a little girl suffocating in her Pretty Purse. So the opening of the big purse is made quite small, so small it is hard to get all those fat and furry accessories in and out. So much for spilling. So much for filling. Even if I loved everything else about this toy, this lack of functionality would doom it.

Along with more “realistic” figures, more domestic settings, and more role-playing about animals and food, the new Lego Friends collection includes more accessories. Front and center in the spread for “Stephanie’s Cool Convertible” is another pink purse. And she’s got a mirror, with a heart on it, in the backseat.

Maybe I should just give up now.

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