Rebecca and Riley: Tempest in a Doll’s Tea Party

January 2, 2012

A fresh new year and Rebecca Watson is already upset about something I wrote. Is it January already?

Rebecca recently wrote a piece for her Skepchick blog called "Intellectual Cage Match: Ben Radford Vs. A 4-Year-Old," in which she critiqued a blog piece I wrote for Julia Lavarnway's recently-launched blog "We Are SkeptiXX." It was an analysis of a viral video featuring a four-year-old girl named Riley who complains about gender stereotyped marketing. In order to understand the context it's important to read my original post, which can be found at the link above.

There's much wrong about Rebecca's rebuttal to my article, so I'll jump in.

1) Rebecca begins by accusing me of "misrepresenting" research last year on a different topic; we had a long, drawn-out discussion on the subject which is easily available for anyone who wishes to look for it. I explained why Rebecca was wrong in her interpretation, and the whole thing ended with Rebecca contacting one or both of the authors who she claimed I misquoted; a year later, neither one has yet claimed that I misquoted or misrepresented them, their research, or the conclusions I quoted from their papers. Strange that Rebecca neglected to mention that...

2) Rebecca writes, "It takes a lot to strawman a 4-year old, but Ben's done it. For starters, most of his takedown involves literally taking the 4-year old's words at face value instead of comprehending what she's saying with her limited vocabulary."

There's a very specific reason I focused on Riley's words "at face value" for the purposes of discussion: They are concrete and objective. We can all agree on what exactly she said, we can read it and listen to it and quote it for reference in case of dispute. Anything much beyond her words is interpretation (more on this later). Julia's statement, in her response to my article on the We Are SkeptiXX blog that the point of Riley's rant was that "aisles in the toy store are often specifically labeled ‘Boys' and ‘Girls'" is a perfect example. To Julia, that was obviously the gist or thesis of Riley's comments. But that was not the gist that I, or another viewer I corresponded with, interpreted from her Riley's words.

The point isn't that Julia, Rebecca, or any one of us, is necessarily wrong, but that the problem with discussing interpretation is that it brings us back to subjective opinions. Like a piece of art, a dozen different people may have a dozen different interpretations. Certainly we can each argue for our own interpretation, but it's like people arguing about different interpretations of the Bible: It's often circular, and there's rarely a meeting of the minds or consensus about interpretations.

Of course it's not enough to just analyze her words (that's why I did so only briefly); it's only a starting point. There's nothing inherently wrong with discussing various interpretations, as long as people acknowledge that they are essentially subjective opinions, and that other people may have equally valid interpretations. When we stick to the original, objective, indisputable words that Riley spoke-whether she's four or forty-we stick to things we can all agree on. This is actually standard practice for skeptical investigation, which is my specialty (and something Rebecca has, to my knowledge, never done): You focus on what exactly the person said.

So when I insisted that Riley was wrong in her claim that girls are forced or "tricked" into buying or liking pink items or princesses, my purpose was not to be pedantic, but instead to keep the discussion grounded and rooted in objective evidence.

3) "Ben goes on to guess at why society has decided that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. One of his guesses is that girls' toys are pink because their dolls' skin is pink."

Apparently Rebecca was so busy facepalming herself that she didn't read what I wrote closely... Do I explain why girls decided that pink is for girls? Nope, I say that no one knows; here's the direct quote: "girls were later assigned the color pink for reasons that aren't entirely clear." Misrepresentation or misreading? Either way, Rebecca is wrong. A closer reading shows that I never claimed or suggested any link between "why society has decided that pink is for girls and blue is for boys" and "that girls' toys are pink because their dolls' skin is pink."

Rebecca confuses two separate issues; the question "Why are most toys and clothing items for female babies and young girls pink" is a different question than why society chose pink and blue to represent girls and boys, respectively. I did not even try to answer the latter question (in fact I wrote that "reasons that aren't entirely clear"), while the former question can be analyzed as follows:

"One obvious reason is that dolls are by far the most popular toys for girls. What color are most dolls? Pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-toned. There are, of course, dolls of varying skin tones and ethnicities (the popular Bratz dolls, for example, have a range of skin tones). But since most girls play with dolls, and most dolls are pink (a green- or blue-skinned doll would look creepy), it makes perfect sense that most girls' toys are pink."

Rebecca apparently believes that most dolls do not have "pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-tones." To Rebecca, the claim that most dolls have "pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-tones" is a "ridiculous fantasy story." What's her evidence for this? Did she do any research? Nope, she zoomed in on a screen capture of Riley taken with a cell phone and concluded that few if any of the dolls are pinkish. (Watch the first ten seconds of the video and see how the background colors change every few seconds; this is pretty much the definition of a flawed experiment, as she'll get different tones depending on when she freezes the picture.)

Who's right, me or Rebecca? I could cite studies about the dearth of minority skin tones in children's dolls, but there's a much easier way to do it. Decide for yourself: the next time you're in a toy store, craft store, or anywhere else where dolls are sold, look at the skin tones on the majority of the dolls. Are they roughly pink tones, or are they another color? Or do a simple Google image search for "dolls" and see what skin color most of them show up as; according to Rebecca, it will be anything but pink.

4) "Here's another reason Ben made up for why girl toys are pink: Pink is also the most popular color for girls' items for the same reason that white is the most popular color for new cars: that's what most people prefer. Get it? Popular things are popular because they're popular. Pink things are popular because people prefer them."

I'm not sure what Rebecca doesn't understand about this, but I've spelled out the logic below, maybe this will help:
1) Most girls play with dolls
2) Most toys that girls play with are dolls (i.e. they are by far the most common girls' toy)
3) Most dolls are pink
4) Therefore most girls' toys are pink.

I can do a Venn diagram for her, but it's valid.

5) This is perhaps my favorite Rebecca-ism:

"Girls who don't dress up or wear make-up are called dykes or unfuckable prudes. Boys who wear skirts are called fags or treated for mental instability. Riley understands this, but apparently Ben does not."

Yes, Rebecca is really saying that four-year-old Riley understands that "girls who don't dress up or wear make-up are called dykes or unfuckable prudes. Boys who wear skirts are called fags or treated for mental instability."

It's clear that Rebecca is putting her own spin or interpretation on Riley's comments. Julia Lavarnway, in her piece on We Are SkeptiXX, had a very different interpretation than Rebecca does, saying that "Aisles in the toy store are often specifically labeled ‘Boys' and ‘Girls.' That is what Riley is really complaining about." Of course Rebecca assumes that her interpretation is the only correct one; I'm wrong, Julia is wrong, and anyone else that doesn't agree with her is an idiot.

But if you listen closely you find that Riley doesn't talk about gender roles; that's Rebecca's spin on it. Riley's not talking about unfuckable prudes or boys being called fags; she's noting, correctly, that toys marketed for girls tend to be pink (and princesses), and toys marketed for boys tend to be superheroes (and not pink). She complains that girls are "tricked" into buying pink items, a claim Rebecca apparently agrees with. Riley actually contradicts herself at least once in the video, for example when her father points out that boy are not forced to buy "different colored" (i.e., non-pink) items. I'm not sure which contradictory position of Riley's Rebecca endorses; probably both.

Are there people and parents who freak out if their young daughter plays with G.I. Joes or acts like a tomboy? Of course. Are there people and parents who freak out if their young son likes to play dress-up and wear pink? Sure there are. No one is saying that those people don't exist, or that their narrow-mindedness is not a problem. But this is specifically about Riley Maida, her comments, her father's comments, and the public's reaction to them, not about whether gender stereotypes exist (of course they do).

6) I actually wrote (and submitted) a much more detailed piece than the one that appeared on We Are SkeptiXX blog. It's unfortunate that it was not posted earlier (and is still not available) so that Rebecca could read the whole piece, since she misunderstands a lot of it.

Instead of trading insults with Rebecca, I'd rather look critically at the issues Riley raises. Of course marketing and advertising is going to feature pink toys (since many girls prefer pink-whether it's genetic, cultural, or both is another matter) and girls playing with dolls and princesses. Most TV commercials don't depict girls playing with gender-stereotyped male toys like WWF action figures and rockets-and why would they, since girls prefer dolls? If you're a company marketing to girls, you're going to depict girls playing with toys that girls prefer to play with; you could of course make gender-contrary ads (boys playing with princesses and girls playing with racing cars, or even men in lingerie), but why would you? No advertiser in their right might would do that--not because they are part of some sinister sexist stereotyping marketing conspiracy, but because there's little point in funding a marketing campaign that will appeal to a minority of consumers. Rule #1 in communication and marketing is "Know Your Audience"; you don't pitch BMWs to teenagers, beef to vegetarians, or princesses to boys. There are lots of toys that girls rarely appear in commercials playing with.... I'm not sure where the assumption comes from that girls only play with toys that they see girl actors in commercials playing with.

I think the discussion gets more interesting and much more productive when we as skeptics focus on real-world evidence and objective claims. We can speculate all day about why a particular girl likes pink, or whether boys or girls are harmed by not having opposite-gender toys marketed to them, but in the end it's mostly opinion. If there are studies showing that girls or boys who play with gender-stereotyped toys are damaged in some way, let's review them and discuss them. If there's some evidence (or reason to believe) that removing the "Boys" and "Girls" aisle signs in toy stores would have some beneficial effect on girls, let's talk about it.

Personally, I think the whole idea of distinguishing Boys and Girls toys is silly. I don't have a problem with girls being tomboys and playing with Superman, or boys playing with princesses. It doesn't bother me either way, I think Riley and every other kid should do what he or she wants. I'm not defending gender-stereotyped colors and toys, in fact I think the whole idea is ridiculous, and if parents buy into that they need to get over their hangups. But nor do I see any sexist marketing conspiracy in it. I don't see any specific harm or damage done if a girl plays with a pink princess, or a boy is given blue instead of pink or another color. Who cares?

Parents--not toy companies or toddlers--control what their children play with, from clothing to toys. Instead of blaming toy marketers for providing products that parents are free to buy or ignore (as Riley seems to), parents need to take responsibility. If you don't want your little girl to play with Barbie, don't buy her one. Ideally parents should offer their boys and girls a variety of gender-neutral toys and colors, and let them express their own preferences.

But little girls who express a desire for pink dolls and "girlie" items should not be denied them, nor made to feel like they "shouldn't" like those things because they reinforce gender stereotypes. It's insulting to suggest that the reason a girl wants pink is that she must have been influenced by marketers and the media: "I don't care what you say, you don't really like pink or want a Barbie... you're just buying into consumer culture's sexist expectations of what you should want." She might like pink dolls because she saw them in a commercial, and/or because her friends have them, and/or because she just likes the way they look, and/or because her mother or grandmother had one like it, and/or countless other reasons. Or she just might like pink dolls, and shouldn't have to justify her preference. I think kids should be kids, and allowed to like or dislike any toys or colors or clothes without their decisions being second-guessed by adults. Riley may be four years old, but she's not stupid.

It's clear there are social and cultural expectations for women about beauty and appearance, I don't think anyone is arguing or disputing that. It's the link between that and what Riley says in this video that's much less clear and focused. We all agree that what Riley said is not literally true: girls aren't tricked or forced into buying anything. So let's broaden the scope to a larger claim: Marketers encourage girls to buy (actually, their parents to buy) pink items and princesses, and boys to buy superheroes and non-pink items. Okay, so where does the discussion go from there? What exactly is the evidence of harm, and the proposed, evidence-based remedy? What is anyone suggesting be done about it?

Rebecca doesn't offer any answers; she's too busy hurling insults, being outraged, and trying to keep her head from asploding. I've tried to provide a level of considered, critical analysis about this topic. In the end, I think that Rebecca, Julia, and I more or less agree about 95% of this topic, and that much of the perceived disagreement is either factual (Rebecca claims that most dolls aren't pink; I claim most are); or interpretation.

I'll end on a different note. Rebecca and I can disagree about this and other topics, but it's disheartening to be called "idiotic" and described as less intelligent than a four-year-old by a friend and skeptical colleague. I counted about a half-dozen insults in her piece, and it's clear Rebecca enjoys being outraged at various things. It's often the case that outrage and insults substitute for truth and accuracy; it's easier to call someone stupid than it is to engage them respectfully. It's easier to have knee-jerk, facepalming reactions than it is to thoughtfully see if there's some misunderstanding on someone's part-or, god forbid, even some common ground. For my part, I take my cues from Ray Hyman, one of my heroes and one of the founders of both CSCIOP and the modern skeptical movement.

If you haven't read Ray's piece "Proper Criticism," you should; it's what guides editorial policy in Skeptical Inquirer. It's a short piece explaining how best to deal with people and claims you disagree with. I'll quote a few short sections: "Many well-intentioned critics have jumped into the fray without carefully thinking through the various implications of their statements. They have sometimes displayed more emotion than logic, made sweeping charges beyond what they can reasonably support, failed to adequately document their assertions, and, in general, failed to do the homework necessary to make their challenges credible.... If we envision ourselves as the champions of rationality, science, and objectivity, then we ought to display these very same qualities in our criticism. Just by trying to speak and write in the spirit of precision, science, logic, and rationality-those attributes we supposedly admire-we would raise the quality of our critiques by at least one order of magnitude.... The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a...claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should...convey the opponent's position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner. We should avoid using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms. If the proponents happen to resort to emotionally laden terms and sensationalism, we should avoid stooping to their level. We should not respond in kind."

Just because someone disagrees with you, or has a different opinion than you do, doesn't mean the other person is a stupid, dishonest asshole. Even a four year old knows that.