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.




#1 SallyStrange (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 8:42pm

Next time someone asks me, “Why is it that you say that the skeptical community has a sexism problem?” this post and the one that precipitated it will be among the pieces of evidence I show them.

#2 Josh Slocum (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 8:49pm

This is a disgusting display, Ben. You were wrong, you were ignorant, you were sexist, and you dismissed legitimate criticism. Skeptic my ass.

If the Center for Inquiry can’t do better than this then there are surely other organizations to support.

God, you’re an ass.

#3 BigFrankieC (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:15pm

The first two comments on this thread floor me. I would like to see the commenters quote the specific sexist comments in this article, because I missed them entirely, and I just read this article twice.

#4 wilt (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:18pm

Uh oh Ben,  you have criticized the REBECCA!!!!  yes, the leader of the “when you do it it’s sexicm, when I do it it’s sexy” gang.  Saying that some toys are pink for a reason that Rebecca does not agree with is evil sexism, as I’m sure countless posters will put up here.  It’s NOT a big deal.  It’s not about gay people.  (though Rebecca seems to make it about being gay).  It’s simply an observation.  My children, girls, played with trucks.  They are both straight, so the implication by Rebecca that a boy who plays with a pink doll and a girl that plays with Legos is going to be gay is an insult to straight people.  Yes, when I go to McDonalds I know to ask for the boys happy mean prize, because it’s always more interesting than the girls.  But that’s not what Ben’s post was about.  Rebecca has found her calling.  Sadly, her representation of what is an important aspect of the skeptic movement, how to get more minorities (or in her case let’s just focus on women) invovled is to cause friction and guilt.  A sense of pointing fingers.  “Ass kicking”.  Instead of education, calm response, respect, well written and researched blog posts (the woman has a writing degree right? and I don’t call her a “girl” like PZ) we get “oh I’m clever and fast”.  What does she DO all day?  Write books? Edit?  Have a real job?  And yet people that do all that have the time to do real research and engage in good debate (without twittering for all her buddies to POST on Ben’s blogs and FB).  To get respect, you must act in a respectful manner.  And you must have a body of work that shows you are really commited.  Taking abuse (which is the claim, poor Rebecca can hardly sleep from all the negativity) is not “commitment”.  Heck she needs to read her buddy Jon Ronson’s new book where he meantions the woman that was targeted by the 9-11 truthers.  He says she was nuts to take them on. He was happy she stopped, because as he wrote in his book…it was making the woman nuts and paranoid.  You can’t WIN, but in a way, like a woo that really hopes Big Foot isn’t proven real because then WHAT is he going to do for a hobby… Rebecca lives for the imagined sexist slant from anyone on her “hit list”.  She can’t NOT keep looking for it.  She can’t deal with it in a creative responsible way.  She deals with the slights to women the way the CHURCH deals with slights to their theology.  With GUILT and finger pointing.  Ben, has crossed the Rebeca line, and must pay.  I don’t know where she went to church but she learned her lessons well.  However, critical thinking she not be about guilt.  It should be a more thoughtful approach.  How about getting more women to write and blog?  Let’s get more scientists and highly successful women involved in the movement.  Let’s get them writing.  A few I know aren’t stepping away from the movement because of the behavior of men, they are stepping away because skepchick, which declares themselves the leaders of the skeptic woman, seems to be lead by very few really successful women. Women that don’t live at home with mom and dad, women that have careers, women that have science degrees and have participated in life, women that do more than just blog and write from a computer and are “cute and clever”.  I adore what one woman speaking at TAM wrote back to the email sent to all speakers asking them to address the “elevator gate” issue in her talk.  However, it’s not safe for polite society!!

#5 Jennifer (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:28pm

While I actually don’t agree with you that girls aren’t pressured by society to get girls toys, (they most definitely ARE pressured by friends, family, and society at large), I don’t really agree with the way Rebbecca Watson does things always.

In short, she and the people over at Skepchick often go crazy with personal attacks.  You can see it clearly in the way Julia Lavarnway and Rebbecca Watson, Julia addresses your claims, and the fallacies in them.  Rebbecca addresses your claims and the fallacies, but also goes on to add a lot of personal attacks.  What is this 2nd grade?  I agree with Watson nearly always, but the way her and her community address people who disagree is immature.

Reddit creeps who hit on underage girls, people who say sexist things to Rebbecca, and Richard Dawkins being an asshole definitely deserve hate, but the character attacks extend beyond those people to EVERY person they disagree with.  It reminds sometimes of Bill mahr’s toxic attitude.  Although I have to admit to you, your response isn’t any better.  Props to Julia for keeping it mature.

There are women in the Skeptic sphere myself who although we love her points, don’t care for the Skepchick network’s rudeness or their assumption that they always speak for all women.

But despite her petty personal attacks, she’s right you are WRONG here, and no offense, but you’ll never understand why because you’re not a woman.

#6 Kath C (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:34pm

I wonder if pink-gate will be the elevator-gate of 2012?

I have gender studies under my belt as part of my degree, and I am a mother of three. I must say I believe the evidence supports much of what Ben says, however not all. 

In terms of can a child buy any toy, or have it bought for them? Well broadly, yes.

But it is more complicated than that. Moving away from dolls, if a child wishes to have a toy for role playing an activity that is classified as belonging to the female sphere, it can be difficult to find it in anything not pink. For example an iron. Or a vacuum cleaner. Or a kitchen set. Pink pink pink. (mostly, it is of course possible to source a realistic non pink toy iron, but much quicker and easier to get a pink one) . Sewing machine? Pink. Etc etc.

But if you are looking for tools or gardening equipment or cars, well blues, greens, reds, oranges are everywhere, for these are male activities, or, in the case of gardening, possibly gender neutral ones.

I do find the continued gendering of adult roles frustrating. And to see it reinforced in the colours and packaging used in the manufacture of children’s toys can make my blood boil, if I let my guard down.

Yes, I am that mum who had to console her son that the only stroller colour for his fave baby doll in the four stores at our mall was pink. And to explain to my daughter that I didn’t know why there were no pink remote control monster trucks.

Of course marketers market to the masses, in the form of constructed target groups, and the manufacturers manufacture what they believe will sell, and continue to manufacture products that have proven themselves in the marketplace.  But do gendered products sell because it’s (just about) the only option available, or are the options limited because that is what the purchasing public actually want.  I would say its a little from column A, and a little from column B.

I look forward to further installments in this discussion. Please keep it civil and respectful and evidence based. Ad hominem attacks do not a discussion make.

#7 Robert B (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:36pm

Ben, you are correct that marketing towards the majority of likely consumers is a strong part of the issue. There is a cultural signal in packaging by color and who can produce the most eye catching shade of pink. This is where I think that some of the problem in this discussion is.

The boxes are pink, but the dolls are not. We are both old enough to remember when there was a “flesh” colored crayon. It had shades of pink, but _I_ wouldn’t call it pink. You consider the skin of a Caucasoid doll to be pink, I would call it light beige-ish. To call it pink is to be less accurate than is possible. The packaging is very likely to be in the pink range regardless of the color of toy inside.

Non-doll items marketed to girls are often pink, from bb guns to bicycles to microscopes. The color pink is a societal signal for feminine, but it is also a societal signal for weak and subservient. Can you think of a single action heroine that wore pink? The only one I can come up with would be Buffy.

#8 Eric S. on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:40pm


Dismissing what someone has to say because of who they are is decidedly unskeptical.

#9 Miranda Celeste Hale (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:41pm

This is a fantastic, thorough, classy, and spot-on response, Ben. Thanks for writing it.

#10 Dorion on Monday January 02, 2012 at 9:48pm

@5 Jennifer:
I’m a woman. Although there is definitely some room for disagreement, I don’t think Radford is “WRONG.” Do I have to turn in my uterus now?

#11 Adrian Hayter (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:03pm

I read both your original article and Rebecca’s response side by side, and the amount of times she blatantly quote mines you or sets up a strawman is unbelievable.

I didn’t need this article to know why she is completely wrong on this issue, but thanks for writing it all the same (it provided some interesting back story).

I wonder whether she’ll respond?

#12 Jennifer (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:05pm

//I’m a woman. Although there is definitely some room for disagreement, I don’t think Radford is “WRONG.” Do I have to turn in my uterus now? //

No this would be the Skepchick network’s Style.  I believe people can disagree without creating shitstorms of flaming and personal attacks.

my comment about him not understanding is that he’s never experienced people telling him that he can’t play with the cool “boy-toys.  I grew up in a community which definitely did tell me I shouldn’t.  So it’s not about who he is it’s about him never experiencing that side of the coin.

Yes, personally I think he’s wrong, but I’m cool with other people thinking differently.

#13 Dorion on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:14pm

Thank you, Jennifer. You’ve also reconfirmed my decision to stay away from the Skepchick network.

I admit that I was never told I -could not- play with boy toys. I wasn’t steered much as a kid in that regard. What made me “immune” to this apparently personality-warping force that is marketing? THAT would be something more interesting to consider, not the (obviously ridiculous) question of “why do manufacturers make/sell what works?”

#14 Somite (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:45pm

Excellent post consistent with my theory that although the claims of feminism are real its practice is unscientific and probably not relevant to skepticism.

#15 Jennifer (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:48pm

//“why do manufacturers make/sell what works?”//

Yes, I have to admit that I’m a pragmatist on this issue.  The gender framing exists, and so people will continue to make money off it, I don’t blame capitalists (like myself) for doing what will make them the most money.  That’s the nature of greed.

//I wasn’t steered much as a kid in that regard. What made me “immune” to this apparently personality-warping force that is marketing? THAT would be something more interesting to consider//

Well I was raised in a suburb of a major city, not a place you’d expect sexist attitudes, but they were there.  my parents were good about letting me have what toys I wanted, but in general the schools I went to always focused me on girl toys and would talk to my parents about how I was “rough like a boy”.  The kids also made fun of me as a manly girl for wanting to play things like war-games and nerf shootouts and I was always told “this isn’t for girls” by my peers.  Years and years of that goes to your head and I found myself questioning whether something was wrong with me.  I don’t speak for all women, but I’d venture that many have had similar experiences in their lives and my point was that Ben never had to deal with that, so he doesn’t see it.

And as for Skepchick, my beef is that nothing can be talked about there without it being a shitstorm, it tires me out reading it. 

However, regardless of their bad attitudes, they are very correct to say that sexism is still alive and well in the Skeptic community.  I agree that we need to do much more to stamp it out and make the skeptic community a more welcoming place for women.  I just don’t believe flame-wars are a good way to do it.

#16 John (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:51pm

So, ben raises some interesting points here for me, both as a father and someone who works for an advertising/marketing company.

On the latter: I know we all want to think that somehow, eeeeevil marketing is making all these decisions for us, and certainly, I used to think that. But after a few years working for a company “in the biz”, I realized that marketing is *far* more reflective than we want to think.

I, and a lot of fathers, single and not, really, really hate the way everything having to do with marketing to families is aimed at women. Kid’s clothes, food, pretty much all of it is aimed at women. Why? because when you go out and do surveys, and ask “who makes the decisions about kids’ stuff in your family” the answer for the vast majority of respondents is “The mother/wife”. So yes, you COULD market to dads, but why? They’re not that significant in terms of what the companies paying for the ads care about.

You want to know why girl’s stuff is marketed the way it is? Because the people who buy the stuff want it that way. Really. Advertising companies don’t just make stuff up, or create trends that much. The *products* might, the companies behind the products might, but the advertising companies, by and large, don’t. Every ad you see, from ones for multinational conglomerates to that “Mom & Pop” restaurant down the street has been approved by the client, and in almost every case, designed with extensive client input. What drives the client? Sales data.

You want the ads to change, change the data. Really.

Now, as a father…well, yes, there is a lot of…sometimes pressure, sometimes encouragement to buy toys along gender lines. But ultimately, the decision lies, as Ben correctly points out, with the parent. When my son was oh, heck, 9? maybe? We went to a McDonald’s and the “boys” meal toy was some crappy movie tie-in, a lame faux hotwheels thing. Sucked. But the “girls” toy was pretty awesome, some flying fairie thing. My son didn’t see that. he saw:

a) lame toy car. Sux.
b) Spinny helicopter thing that FLEW. AWESOME x ELEBENTY!

Wasn’t even a hard choice. He wanted the girls toy. The lady at the counter made some kind of silly “but that’s the girl’s toy” and I said “It’s also about a hundred times cooler than the boys toy. it flies.” She stopped, thought for a second and said, “Yeah, I guess that would be cooler. Here you go honey”.

At that time, i had a choice, do the right thing, or let some silly categorization disappoint a little kid, whose happiness I have a somewhat vested interest in. Luckily, the right choice was the cool choice in this instance. Other times it wasn’t, and there was some wailing and whining, and I still was the parent. Not the store worker, not the product, not society, not my friends, my family, or the marketers. Me.

So yeah. Sometimes a lot of things make the ‘right’ decision a damned pain in the keister, but that doesn’t make ben’s point about parenting wrong. Also, many people, including Watson, don’t really understand much about marketing on a national level. It’s more number - driven than you want it to be.

oh, on the whole “you’re a man you can’t understand.” Really? So can I play parental trump card and say anyone without kids can’t “understand” and are therefore wrong if they disagree with me on parental issues? I mean, it’d be a terribly dumb thing to do, but it’s kind of the same thing.

#17 Jennifer (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 10:52pm

//Excellent post consistent with my theory that although the claims of feminism are real its practice is unscientific and probably not relevant to skepticism.//

Yeah, so you gonna do the scientific method to figure out the whether your theory is correct.  Or just pass that process up and make it a conclusion?

I’m guessing the latter.

#18 SallyStrange (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 11:18pm

Comparisons between feminists’ approach to sexism and skeptics’ approach to religion are apt. Religion and sexism are in the same category: outdated, unscientific dogma whose prejudices infect our thoughts whether we want them to or not, and whose influence requires effort to escape.

Of course, that puts those objecting to the confrontational approach of Watson and other like-minded feminist skeptic in an awkward position: advancing human understanding when it comes to religion, but standing in the way of progress when it comes to sexism.

Ben Radford is speaking from ignorance. He doesn’t know why pink and blue have the association that they do; he doesn’t deal with the reality of how marketing works, and he doesn’t deal with the reality of how social pressure works in enforcing gender roles. He should not be given a platform to opine when he has done so little research.

This link is anecdotal, but it illustrates the possibilities available to us in teaching young children about gender—something a lot of people here obviously take for granted, and for some reason are quite resistant to thinking skeptically about.

#19 Tim F (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 11:18pm

Sounds good, Ben. I don’t think you have an issue with the intent of the girl, which is what people seem to be getting upset about. You make good points about what just showed up in the news. Great article.

#20 SallyStrange (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 11:20pm

Ah, links are not allowed. Well, if you’re interested, google “One teacher’s approach to preventing gender bullying in a classroom”

#21 CIV (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 11:31pm

The herd of buthurt Watsonites canvassed here is laughable.

#22 Josh Slocum (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 11:36pm

The fact that anyone can reduce this issue, or this set of issues, to a cult of personality (“Watsonites”) is a symptom of what’s so goddamn wrong about this conversation. Jesus Christ. Hate Rebecca Watson or anyone at all as much as you like. But don’t discount legitimate issues as nothing more than tribal affiliations.

#23 Gwynnyd (Guest) on Monday January 02, 2012 at 11:36pm

On the “I never *said* it was because dolls are pink” issue - er, Ben, that’s kinda weaseling around the thing you did say.  If you don’t think things marketed to girls are pink because they are like dolls, why write it that way at all?  Your point 3 above reads as if it was only when it was pointed out to you that that’s a really stupid thing to say, did you backpedal to an “I never really said THAT if you read really, really, really carefully and take special notice of the fact that since I obviously did no research into the issue, I left myself a way to weasel out of stating it as my belief.” 

As the mother of two girls, I can assure you that the dolls themselves are not pink, they are various flesh tones. Doll *clothes* and accessories are pink.  The boxes they come in are pink.  The toy houses and cars and strollers and carry cases for the dolls are all overwhelmingly pink. 

On any cartoon, if the main characters are male, there is a female sidekick .... dressed in pink (unless she is a robot, when sometimes her metal shell is pink.)  For at least the last twenty years, pink has been shorthand for female and lesser.  And it is bloody annoying.

#24 mrmisconception (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 12:15am

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.

Ben, I notice that you did not include yourself in the list of who might be wrong. Telling really.

#25 dysomniak (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 2:51am

Dear Mister Radford,

I have to admit I didn’t know who you were before Rebecca’s post. Now I wish I didn’t.

I get the distinct impression that you take the problem sexism somewhat less seriously than the problem of Sasquatch. Your articles dealing with the claims of ghost hunters and cryptozooligists seem relatively detached, logical and extensively well researched. In contrast, whenever you attempt to comment on gender issues your argument wanders in circles as you attempt to wring multiple conflicting conclusions from each piece of misrepresented evidence.

You are an embarrassment to skeptics, and to men.


#26 Randy (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 3:43am

I think this article makes good points.  However, I seem to have been in some very unusual toy shops as a kid, and as an adult, because I don’t recall ANY of them ever labelling the aisles in any manner at all, much less “girls” and “boys”.  Generally it was “pink” and “blue”.  You only needed to experience it once to know which toys were where.

#27 Tessa (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 7:21am

Thank goodness the MRAs have another blogger like you on their side, you jerkbag. Instead of entering a discussion with Skepchic you instead write thousands of words to talk about how wrong, dumb and immature you find her? If you were really more mature than her you’d have discussed this privately and tried to understand the points of view. Instead, go back to intellectually defeating four year olds who have no soapbox to argue back upon.

#28 John (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 7:27am

And Tessa hits the MRA ad hom for the win. Nothing Ben says is valid, he’s an MRA.

Honestly, I’m only surprised it took this long. I love seeing people who claim to question anything defend their orthodoxy against the nonbelievers unto the death.

#29 JL (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 7:37am

“... and it’s clear Rebecca enjoys being outraged at various things”

Any response that differs from my own is invalid and probably has an ulterior motive!!!

Go fuck yourself, you giant misogynist.

#30 Adrian Hayter (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 7:42am

@Tessa: Please point out the place in the article where Ben goes on about men’s rights. I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Also, it was Rebecca who first responded to Ben…in *public*. Why should Ben be forced to discuss things privately when Rebecca has made it clear she wanted to make this a public thing?

@JL: Please take some time to educate yourself on the definition of the word “misogynist”.

#31 John (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 7:43am

#29: ooh, good reply. Cogent, full of specific rebuttal to arguments, clearly, you are a giant amongst skeptics.

#32 Nope (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 8:00am

I want to mention mansplaining, but you might have a shit fit.

#33 Jennifer (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 8:08am

Okay, let’s make two things clear.

1. Ben definitely is minimizing the effect of societal sexism here.  I don’t know why, but I suppose it’s because he’s never been in the place of a little boy or girl who’s been told by peers, schools, and family that they can’t play with what they want.  I will gladly sit down with you over coffee at the next major atheist conference to explain why you’re minimizing the sexism that exists Ben.

2. The Skepchick network commenters are here being their usual rude selves.  Seriously people, right message, but can there be at least one issue that we can discuss in a civil manner?  All the screaming, name-calling, and swearing gets really old after a while.

#34 Miranda Celeste Hale (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 9:43am

@mrmisconception (comment 24):

In your comment, you say:“Ben, I notice that you did not include yourself in the list of who might be wrong. Telling really.” in response to this quote from Ben’s article:

“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.”

So, my question to you is: how does Ben’s “any one of us” not count as “includ[ing] [him]self in the list of who might be wrong”?  You’ve either misread his quote or are intentionally misrepresenting it.

@dysomniak (comment 25):

Your argument rests upon a false analogy. You say that:

“I get the distinct impression that you take the problem sexism somewhat less seriously than the problem of Sasquatch.”

Yet Sasquatch and sexism are completely different issues. Sasquatch (and similar claims) are testable, as they are based on observable, concrete, and objective facts. Either there’s empirical evidence for Sasquatch or there’s not (obviously, there’s not).

However, sexism is subjective. It means different things to different people. Its claims are not testable. In contrast to supernatural claims, claims of sexism are not based on concrete and objective facts.

#35 A mom (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 9:56am

One of my son’s favorite toys when he was a little younger was a pink princess doll.  It stopped being his favorite toy when he took it to the library with him and some of the other kids tormented him for having it.  When I told the other kids to leave him alone, one of the other parents blamed my son saying he shouldn’t have such a toy and it was our fault for letting my son be a ‘sissy’.

Now it sits in his toy box, untouched.

Radford, either you are a misogynistic moron, or completely out of touch with society.

#36 John (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:01am


You’d think that whole “Sexism is subjective” thing, especially when it’s things like gender bias in marketing and toys might occur to people. Then again, you’d think unicorns were real by how badly that idea fails.


Or your son’s parents allowed other people’s moronic opinions to outweigh their own, and should have had better mental and emotional fortitude so they could properly handle that situation, and help the kid learn some himself.

Clearly, that’s Ben’s fault too.

#37 Will R (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:07am

Odd. My comment actually addressing your points has been deleted. And my login information is “not in the database.” Are you seriously trying to silence people who take you to task point by point?

#38 John (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:13am


You have zero proof it’s deliberate, and yet, you’re ready to accuse. Nice, way to be skeptical. Also, if he did, why not? Heaven knows it’s done enough by the Watson Clique.

#39 bluharmony (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:23am

Great post, Ben. The Watson/Myers cult makes me ill.  There are reasonable ways to disagree, but those people will have none of it. You’re either a skeptifem as defined by them or an idiot.  There is no middle ground or rational discussion.  There’s no evidence to disprove claims.  But they do offer a whole lot of erroneous info to those willing to accept it.

#40 Will R (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:25am

@38: LOL! So, it’s not skeptical for me to think my comment was deliberately deleted, and yet somehow it is skeptical for you to express guilt by association.

What hypocrisy.

#41 Will R (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:28am

@39: Actually, I made a (really long) comment responding to each of his points without a single use of foul language or insult. I called him out on his definite lack of skeptical thinking on this topic. I called for him to actually provide the evidence he keeps claiming that he has. But, my comment was deleted.

#42 Michael De Dora on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 10:30am

@Will R.: bloggers here have little to no control over the commenting system, so there was almost certainly some other issue. For example, did you try to include a link in your comment? Because the commenting system here does not allow comments that include links.

#43 Gra_factor on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 11:19am

@27 Tessa   “write thousands of words to talk about how wrong, dumb and immature you find her?...........If you were really more mature than her you’d have discussed this privately and tried to understand the points of view. Instead, go back to intellectually defeating four year olds who have no soapbox to argue back upon.”

Oh, this is priceless. You mean like the way Watson discussed it privately with Stefi McGraw?

He never called her dumb and immature: Watson on the other hand used insults. But never mind, just repeat, “feelings are facts, feelings are facts…”

#44 Kris (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 12:27pm

#25 Nailed it. I’m impressed at the level of detail and depth many skeptics (Radford included) will give when it concerns Bigfoot or UFOs, but many times when there is an issue involving gender that could benefit from some hard nosed skeptical thinking, some of my favorite skeptical writers utterly fail. It’s disappointing. I expect higher standards from CFI.

#45 Will R (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 2:12pm


No, there were no links in my comments. And the comment posted just fine last night and was visible after I returned to the page some time later.

It’s certainly possible there was a glitch in the system—I won’t deny that. It’s just odd that my comment that actually addresses his points in the manner which he feels it is necessary to address him disappears while other comments that fit the picture he is painting of Skepchick are left in tact.

Whatever the explanation, I am more than happy to re-post my comment, but I doubt Ben or most of the other people who support him really care about understanding how and why his arguments are bad, especially from us mean, vitriolic, feminazi, out-of-control Skepchick cult members!

#46 Susan (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 2:24pm

God you sound like a pompous ass. You were wrong and the conclusions you drew were ridiculous.  Get over it already.  Or at least don’t be so fucking long-winded. Oy.

#47 Dorion on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 2:30pm

As this discussion drags on and on, and spreads across at least five locations (and counting? dog help us), I’ve come to one understanding: Everyone is wrong.

#48 crowepps (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 4:15pm

“And Tessa hits the MRA ad hom for the win. Nothing Ben says is valid, he’s an MRA.”

It only makes sense to complete the set—this just naturally goes with “Nothing Watson says is valid, she’s a shrill feminist.”

#49 BigFrankieC (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 5:38pm

I got into the skeptical movement because I had to change how I responded to outside stimulus. I’m mercurial, reactionary, and well, just sort of a maniac. One of my friends would start talking about astrology or psychics, and I would just start laughing like Henry Rollins. I have a figurative black belt in dickish over-reaction.

I think the problem here, and why this type of blow-up is so jarring to me, is that it’s all based on the analysis of an INTERPRETATION of the meaning of some cool shit a little kid said. The problem is, you can replace “some cool shit a little kid said” with “a Biblical passage” and the arguments will end up about the same. Everyone has their own interpretation of what they took the video to “mean to them.” I just saw a little kid who seems to have some parents who are doing something right. Instead of just smiling, and feeling like there’s one more person that has a better-than-average chance of being a critical thinker when she grows up, people keep trying to attach deep philosophical meaning to it. Then use disagreements between those attached meanings to dredge up old fights.

That’s how I used to act in junior high and high school. I was wrong to do that then, and we’re wrong to be doing it now. A few people have kept it civil, but very few.

I’m ashamed of us all right now.

#50 Yes (Guest) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 at 6:03pm

“#49 BigFrankieC”  Hits the proverbial hammer right on the head.

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