Ok first – can we fast-forward to the part where we live in a post-STEM society? I don’t mean that we no longer have science, tech, engineering or maths (good heavens people, I’m not a monster). I mean that glorious future where we can have more nuanced discussion and initiatives on improving gender equity and under-represented perspectives in the sciences than just standing in the middle of the room yelling “STEM! STEM! STEM!” I don’t know what this utopian post-STEM world would look like, and perhaps this death-by-STEM buzzwording has just been some necessary evil, a waypoint, for some next phase for meaningfully infusing the sci/tech/eng/maths with greater proportions of not-just-white-dudes.
For now, let’s buzzword away and take a look at the latest educational opportunity for STEM-ifying the hell out of our girl children shall we?
Roominate is a toy house construction kit whose end creations bear more resemblance to the crate-and-college-leftovers décor of my first apartment than to some swanky Barbie Dreamhouse. However, any style or elegance demerits aside (I mean come on, LEGO houses), the hook of this house-building toy targeted to girls who tend towards the dollhouses-are-cool camp is its incorporation of components like motors, batteries, circuits, axles, switches, lights – not the usual fare for dollhouses right? Sounds more like a mash-up of Barbie’s Dreamhouse and one of those Radio Shack 160-in-One electronic kits.
Unfortunately for those of us who thought dollhouses were for suckers and spent hours connecting fistfuls of wires on a board for the express purpose of extracting a tinny beep from a tiny speaker, the Roominate building kits seem much more dollhouse than 160-in-One kit.
So will Roominate be the toy that will single-handedly turn your heteronormative dollhouse-loving girl child into the future physician astrophysicist electrical engineer of your dreams? My inclination to bestow a verdict of “ok sure why not” or “nooooooope” is largely context driven. Let’s say this toy was the result of some big patronizing dude-initiated effort. In that case I would be on team “oh hell no” and commence with burning down the whole thing. But if the context is an educational toy developed by a female mechanical engineer who admits to digging dolls as a kid, who also seems to possess some genuine understanding of gender bias risks in toy targeting, well I’m going to step aside and say godspeed. Meet Roominate’s creator Alice Brooks:
“There’s a fine line of playing into what they are [already] doing versus showing them something new and we saw it as an opportunity to give some context that really made sense to a six-year-old with a dollhouse.”
Brooks’ pragmatic father gifted her a saw to build her own damn dollhouses when she asked for a Barbie as a kid. Who can say whether giving our doll/dollhouse-inclined girl-children Roominate kits instead of a saw will churn out the army of women scientists, techies, engineers and mathers we’re dreaming of. But overall, we’ll settle for the smartening-up and tech-ification of a toy that, like it or not, appeals to masses of girls.
So while I’m a big sporty commie feminist pinko whose lady-pursuits include pants-wearing, home-improvement, science and beer-swilling, I believe in honoring all girls’ and women’s experiences – including (and perhaps especially) when those experiences are things I personally have no interest in, even princesses and dollhouses. So I say you go with your bad circuit-building dollhouse.