Science Museum gift shop offers girls “space princess” tees and other stereotypes

Boston MoS shirts and hats

You know, there are a lot of ways to get girls excited about science, but I don’t think this is one of them:

Boston MoS shirts and hats

What the heck is a space princess??
Photo by Peter Wood (@prwood), May 31, 2012:…

Neither is this:

The Boston Museum of Science’s “Hug-a-saurus” t-shirt–because little girls like their prehistoric beasts sweet and snuggly and sugar and spice…? 
Photo by Peter Wood (@prwood), May 31, 2012:

The fact that a science museum is targeting girls Lego Friends style–by coating the gender-neutral concept of science with sparkly, pink, purple nonsense about princesses and other stereotypically girly traits–is infuriating.

Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (aka STEM careers), and the reasons have everything to do with gender socialization–not innate intelligence levels or interests. Check out this great infographic for an explanation of the STEM gender divisions:

Girls in STEM

As this infographic explains, when girls are asked to think about their gender–in ways as simple as indicating their sex on a test–they score 20% lower than they otherwise would.

Instead of peppering the gift shop with stereotypes, how about finding or producing merchandise that positions girls as creators, inventors, scientists, engineers–without making it all about gender?

As an example of what this might look like, one woman in who works in a STEM field recently designed a prototype for a proposed Lego set that is girl-centered, but not girly. The set features the woman, Limor Fried, in her workshop, making things–a nice change from depictions of girls and women who want nothing more than to be looked at.

Ladyaya’s workshop, a prototype of a proposed Lego set that positions girls as scientific creators, not stereotypes

Even cooler is the prototype for Roominate. Developed by three women with STEM backgrounds as a way to address the fact that most girls’ toys are dolls and princesses, the Roominate toy consists of “stackable, attachable & customizable miniature room with working circuits” that girls can build themselves.

Positioning girls as princesses restricts the imagination–whereas positioning girls as creators has the potential to inspire and open doors.

So, please, science museums: Don’t place items in your gift shops that present girls as second-class scientists. They shouldn’t be girls first and scientists second. They’re not “space princesses,” and they don’t need to imagine that the ferocious T-Rex liked to snuggle.

Treat girls like people, not stereotypes, and you’ll better support their burgeoning scientific interests.

20 Comments on “Science Museum gift shop offers girls “space princess” tees and other stereotypes

  1. So the only way a girl can be interested in space is if she’s the “princess” of it? *FACEPALM*

    I have a science degree, and one of the things that sticks out most in my mind when I started pursuing it was not the level of men saying “you can’t do this,” but actually a highly intelligent female friend who stated to me, “you’re changing your major to science? That’s going to be really hard for you.” Needless to say it pissed me off to no end, and while I may not have been the most enthusiastic or best science student in HS (Rebecca…I think you were my lab partner in honors bio?) I worked my butt off in college and graduated magna cum laude.

    However I do think my field of science (Environmental Science) was more gender balanced than what’s perceived to be the more “hard-core” sciences/STEM programs (Physics, Chemistry, Engineering).

  2. Ok, so much in this particular article resonated with me!!

    I grew up LOVING dinosaurs and matchbox cars. I still love certain dinosaurs (triceratops and stegasaurous being particular favorites) and was fairly precocious when I was younger in being able to point out which dinosaur was which. I had a few matchbox cars, a particular favorite (which I still had around even through High School) was a bright blue jaguar with doors that opened up. I guess in the late 70’s-early 80’s they weren’t yet making the more snuggly dinos?

    As for the math/science, that was a whammy that hit me in 4th grade. I was very good at math until then, not as advanced as my friend who also skipped 3rd grade with me in our Montessori school, but still, I was doing 4th and 5th grade math…until I switched schools. I went to a private school for one year and was in the 4th grade (long story cut short: this school began Middle School in 5th grade and socially my parents didn’t think I was ready for that). I was in the higher level math class and kept on getting my answers marked wrong because I didn’t do the math problems the exact same way the teacher did. I did them as I was taught — I got the right answers, just skipped a step or two that she would write out. Because of that, I nearly failed that class — I got in trouble for not doing my problems right and had to stay for detention a few times to write out ‘I will get my failed tests signed by my parents’ 100 times. The school then stuck me in an ‘easier’ math class and there began my issues with math. From that point on, I began struggling with it to the point where, starting in 6th grade and going through High School, I needed a tutor in order to understand what was being taught.

  3. Crappy, lazy merchandise….so disappointing. It’s like folks aren’t interested in trying very hard. It’s not difficult to present positive images for girls and boys – especially at a SCIENCE MUSEUM! There must be some smart, thinking people behind the scenes over there, no? Yikes!

  4. My 4-year old loves princesses AND wants to be an astronaut – she’d love a space princess t-shirt! Do you have any idea how hard it is to find stuff that supports brains but still passes the peer-pressure-driven princess test? I agree that we need more non-princess, non-hyper-stereotyped gear, but I think hybrid items like this might be a gateway.

    • That’s a good point. I’m glad that product is available for girls like your daughter! My concern is that in recent years, sparkly pink princess play has become THE idealized version of girlhood. In mainstream pop culture and material culture, it is marketed relentlessly to girls, often to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. I have no problem with these products if they are a “gateway,” a starting point on a range of great options for girls. But if the marketers are lazy and stop here–which is usually the case–then they’re selling girls’ full range of interests short.

  5. Interesting. My 7 year old daughter asked me recently ‘Why is everything for girls pink? My favorite color is blue.

    • Good for her for maintaining her preference despite all the pressures to fall for pink. The relentless marketing of pink to girls is really coercive, in my opinion.

  6. Your timing couldn’t be better – I got this via twitter just after returning from this very science museum. Spent a fair amount in the gift shop on stuff for my kids – books and rocks and yes, one tee-shirt – light blue with an image of the space shuttle. Reasonably gender-neutral, if one thinks of the blue as being the earth’s upper atmosphere.

    I didn’t get anything for myself, though, because of the stereotyped marketing. Women’s apparel – not just girls’, but women’s – is appallingly gendered. The ones that had me the maddest: the men’s shirt with a periodic table-style graphic that read Ge Ni U S, beside the women’s shirt in the same style (pink, of course) that said Cu Ti E.

    Boston’s MoS is one of my favorite places in the world, which makes this whole issue sting all the more.

    • Eliza, thanks for your note. We love the Museum of Science, too; my son is almost four, and I’ve been taking him there since he was a newly toddling one-year-old. And my dad took my sister and me there regularly throughout our childhoods. It’s a special, favorite place.

      We never go in the gift shop, though, so when Peter sent me those photos via twitter, I was stunned. I’d never thought it through, but based on my reaction, I guess I assumed that the gift shop would emphasize science, not gender.

      The issue really does sting.

      • I could also mention that a few butterflies on boys’ clothes would serve as a reminder a) that boys can be ornithologists, too, and b) that sometimes boys like butterflies, plain and simple. 🙂

        BTW, Rebecca, do you mind if I link to your blog from mine?

        • Eliza, good point about the butterflies. How they became grouped with fairies and princesses as “girly” things is beyond me.

          As for the link from your blog, I would be honored! Thank you!

  7. A former New Englander and huge MOS fan, I now live in San Diego, and I’ve seen the same thing in our Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the rest of Balboa Parks wonderful learning places. As a concerned grandmother of boys, and great grandmother of a girl, I would offer this advice. If you want pink and sparkly, go to Disney. If you want Science, to to the museum. If the MOS and SDNat can’t get this straight, then possibly reduced sales will make our point.

  8. I have always been proud of having excelled in subjects stereotipically considered “for boys” despite the fact that boys were less clever than many girl in my class. Nevertheless I’m one of the two (out of 16) who followed a STEM University course and career path.
    Let me say it is a very difficult path, with little or no comprehension for the fact of having two kids. My collegues, when they have a congress or a working overload, generally have a wife who cares for theirs. My housband, whom I met at the University, is mildly supportive, but sometimes can’t help wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us if I had a more sterotypical job.

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  11. If you want to see something that encourages little girls about science and space, I suggest you check the Laura’s star series, she loves watching the sky at night and wants to be an astronaut.

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