The Electronic Gender Gap


Do a Net search for ‘girl toys’ and you’re likely to find stuff that’s a lot more hair-raising than the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber & Beauty Shop. Janese Swanson, a digerati mom in San Francisco, was so aghast at the lame and lascivious results of such a search that she decided to get into business herself: making hip (read: techie) toys for daughters just like her own.

Swanson was already a veteran of the ballyhooed girl games scene; her CD-ROM Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? quickly became a staple for the market. But software, Swanson felt, had a limited audience since it was only playable by those who had computers. To reach a broader market of girls (and maybe turn more on to science), there was another medium for the message: electronic toys.

“[Computer games] and the Net are always considered the coolest, hippest technology,” Swanson says, “but there’s a lot more technology out there that’s cool and cutting edge.” Her company, Radica Games, is one of the first devoted to the rather untapped world of e-tchotchkes for girls. In the past, boys were considered the target for the mainstays of electronic toys— laser guns, handheld sports games, pet robots.

According to Tiger Electronics, recent hit electronic toys like the Furby interactive pets were originally designed for girls but ended up finding a boy crowd instead. “The fact that the Furby burps and does body noises makes it attractive to boys as well,” explains Lana Simon, the company’s director of public relations. Still, a lactose-tolerant doll doesn’t a girl toy make. Swanson, who studied gender differences in play while getting a doctorate at the University of San Francisco, saw a sizable void. With some research data in tow (e.g., girls dig privacy), she and her eight-year-old daughter hunkered down over the living room table to brainstorm ideas for their next-generation gizmos.

The theme for postmillennial riot grrrls: don’t fuck with our things. The Door Pass uses a voice activated chip to create a DIY bedroom security system. Once the Barney-colored box is affixed to her door, a girl records her own password— like “Faludi!” If someone opens the door without first uttering the code, a motion sensor goes off, triggering an alarm and, most embarrassingly, keeping a log of how many times mommy and daddy passed through. Diarists get similar security with the Password Journal— a voice-activated lock box for a girl’s Dear Kitty.

For other developers, it’s never too early to breed some future power-lunchers. Tiger Electronics has brewed its own popular line of girly personal digital assistants (PDAs). The bright pink Clueless Organizer sports its own scheduler, phone book, and calculator. And Mattel’s “Talk With Me” Barbie Smart Phones make the perfect accessories for the next Cybersuds. Each of these kandy-kolored flip phones has a built-in automatic timer that periodically triggers the toy to ring. If the kid’s too busy to answer the “call,” a voice mail system will later play back fun “messages” from Barbie’s friends; it’s never too early to learn how to screen.

Mattel’s licensed line of Barbie pretend electronics runs the gamut from CD players to answering machines to boomboxes. One of the more popular items is the “Shop With Me” Barbie Cash Register. Girls can scan their own items, swipe credit cards, and even make their own blue-light special announcements over the kiddy PA system (“Hey! there’s a special on poopy in aisle 8!”). Lisa McKendall, Director of Marketing Communications for Mattel, isn’t swayed by critics who think Barbie products like this breed pathological consumers. “It’s a great way for kids to learn about money,” she says. And debt.

Ultimately, the success of e-toys is up to finicky experts like my five-year-old niece, Alyssa. Despite the piles of fuzzy toys in her closet, her favorites are the realistic electronic ones like her Barbie Online Talking Laptop. With tiny floppies and whooshing modem sounds, it’s like playing with mommy’s
computer— guilt-free. As far as Alyssa’s concerned, it’s the real deal, and, even better, it’s Barbie. “I like it,” she says, “because it’s girl stuff.”