It's that time of year again: Red, green, and glitter have officially rained down upon your favorite stores. Kids of all ages have begun compiling their holiday wish lists. And gift givers are racking their brains for the perfect presents combining fun with learning and inspiration.
In recent years there's been a relative dearth of toy representations of women and girls with interests or careers in the sciences — particularly women and girls of color. But thanks to heightened public interest in such offerings, this year marks what I hope is the beginning of a sea change, with quite a few new options in these areas.
The following is a selection of currently available female action figures and dolls in science, technology, engineering, and math for the young ones in your life. Know of other compelling STEM dolls or figures? Share your favorites in the comments! And don't forget: You can find a number of classic models with a little digging on resale sites like Ebay. Happy holidays!
I discovered the brilliant UK-based Lottie Dolls a few years ago when parent company Arklu released their cute Robot Girl doll and Busy Lizzie robot. While similar in style to 2010's Computer Engineer Barbie, this Lottie won me over for featuring lifelike proportions — and for not being pinkwashed, as so many dolls and figures out there are. This year, Arklu added two adorable science-themed characters to its lineup. Stargazer, created in partnership with the European Space Agency, comes with a telescope, solar system cards, and a sheet highlighting eight pioneering women in astronomy, from Caroline Herschel to Carolyn Porco. Fossil Hunter, co-developed with the organization Trowelblazers (which celebrates the history of women in archaeology, paleontology, and geology), features miniature ammonites, digging tools, and cards outlining the life of 19th century fossil expert Mary Anning. I would have loved for at least one of these three dolls to be a girl of color, but I'll offer that Arklu does sell multicultural Lotties that can be swapped out with the clothing and accessories for Robot Girl, Stargazer, and Fossil Hunter. A male figure, Finn, is also available in this line, and can be paired with the accessories from any of the science-themed dolls.
Project MC2 is an exciting new offering from MGA Entertainment — the same company that produces the popular, though highly criticized, Bratz dolls. Unlike the hyper-sexualized Bratz, however, Project MC2 provides a relatively realistic representation of four clever and curious teens who love science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). To be sure, the four dolls — Adrienne Attoms, Bryden Bandweth, Camryn Coyle, and McKeyla McAlister — aren't much better than Barbie when it comes to skewed body proportions, but I'm willing to give that a pass based on their maker-style accessories — such as a do-it-yourself glow stick, skateboard, and lava lamp — and STEM-infused personal effects, including a sweet Nintendo NES belt and beaker-shaped combs. The dolls even spawned a live-action Netflix series aimed at the 7-12 age group and branded with the tagline "smart is the new cool." While the show can sometimes get a little silly, it's wonderful to watch culturally diverse teenagers using their science and technology skills to solve problems with direction from a character called "The Quail," played by actor and longtime STEM advocate Danica McKellar. I'll be eager to see more from Project MC2 in the near future!
In the wake of their massively successful Kickstarter campaign of 2012, GoldieBlox, purveyors of simple engineering toys marketed toward supporters of women in STEM, has spawned a dynamic action-figure duo meant to get girls excited about engineering. The company's namesake figure, GoldieBlox, is a wide-eyed engineer who invents her own zipline — which kids can build so Goldie can slide from perch to perch. Joining on her adventures is Ruby Rails (sold separately), a skydiving action figure whose parachute rig must be properly assembled before Ruby can take flight. I really appreciate that these products are listed as teaching tools for very specific engineering concepts: suspension and aerodynamics. My one wish is that the Ruby Rails character, named for the Web application framework Ruby on Rails, were instead built around some programming concept rather than mechanical engineering, which seems to have little to do with Ruby's listed power ("code-cracking") and hobbies ("building apps"). That said, Goldie and Ruby are excellent choices for kids who'd like to build something for their action heroes to interact with.
Okay, she's not a fully licensed vet — yet. But Disney's Doc McStuffins is a huge hit with young children, and she plays an important role in encouraging little ones to consider medicine as a career. There's actually a ton of Doc McStuffins merch these days, from dolls to books to action wear to holiday ornaments. In a Lego store recently, I was heartened to witness a young girl selecting one of the McStuffins Duplo sets to take home with her that afternoon. I'm also a fan of Disney's own mini figurine set, which emulates a vet's office where McStuffins can care for an injured friend, Lambie; and of the McStuffins talking doll (pictured), who says things like, "I have a doggie diagnosis!" and comes with a medical bag and stethoscope. To boot, as I've written previously on this blog, Doc McStuffins is an excellent example of the growing reality that consumers are chomping at the bit to buy toys featuring strong and witty characters of color. We need more of them!
As described in detail in my last Voices post, Lego this year provided its fans with a new assortment of female minifigs and mini-dolls in STEM-related activities and professions. If you're looking for a small gift under $15, I recommend the Space Starter Set, in which two of the four minifigures — a scientist and an astronaut — are women. For something a little more advanced, I like the Deep Sea Helicopter set, which includes both a tandem-rotor helicopter and an Alvin-style research submersible (pictured), either of which can be piloted by the set's female minifigure. Fans of "The Big Bang Theory" may also get a kick out of Lego's set featuring seven of the show's main characters, all but one of which are scientists or engineers.
Much has been written about Barbie's history of unrealistic body proportions and of promoting a vision of an impossibly tall, blonde, Caucasian woman as a cultural model of perfection; my own parents refused to buy me Barbies when I was a child for this very reason. Yet it's undeniable that with Barbie, toy maker Mattel has pushed the envelope far more than many doll/figure creators in terms of presenting its characters as leaders in powerful careers — astronaut, executive, surgeon, etc. — even decades ago, when women in real life weren't even fully accepted into those roles. Mattel continues this admirable trend with its current offerings of various doctors and a lab scientist — available both in African American and Caucasian models.
Did you know that Diana Prince, Wonder Woman's alter ego, was a scientist/engineer before she took off on her adventures beyond Paradise Island? It's true: The original comic by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter depicts her as the engineer and inventor of a silent, invisible airplane, and as a scientist who discovers a healing ray that she later uses to save the life of Captain Steve Trevor. While her character has certainly evolved in the 70 years since her debut, Wonder Woman remains a strong feminist icon — and the title character of an upcoming feature-length live-action film starring Gal Godot. There are, of course, zillions of Wonder Woman toys out there, including vintage-style ephemera such as a bendable action figure from NJ Croce (pictured). If you're looking for novel gift ideas, don't miss the exhaustive and jaw-dropping Web museum, "Experience the Wonder," a catalog of the extensive personal collection of Wonder Woman enthusiast Antony Coukos.
Yuna Doll (Coming soon — hopefully!)
The new Yuna Doll from Dream Big Friends is not yet in production, but you can help make her come to life through a Kickstarter campaign. According to the project's promotional video, Yuna “loves science, travel, rockets, art, design, and Korean food. Her big dream is to run a company designing rockets that will one day take her to Mars. She’ll be the first one to stand on the planet’s surface, naturally.” What's not to love about that?!