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  • Writer's pictureAqil Raharjo

Crafting Girls Through Craft Kits: Limiting Their Unlimited Creativity

As a child, I built houses and cars from blocks but never knitted. I assembled plastic pieces to robots and airplanes, but the idea of beading has never come to my mind. No one taught me how to sew and decorate cupcakes, yet my parents taught me how to experiment using the science toys they have given to me. This evidence suggests that children’s craft kits were extremely gendered, which resulted in the way I perceive some types of crafts and some roles as gender-specific. Rooted in this experience, this paper examines the subtle yet powerful ways children are taught to a traditional ideology of gender by observing girls craft kits in Toronto craft stores. Hermeneutical and semiotic methods are integrated into this paper to analyze the symbolic language of gender through analysis of the purpose of the kits as well as their presentation of the packaging. From the analysis, emerged a strong association of traditional crafts among female-marketed kits with an emphasis on decoration rather than functionality. This observation demonstrates that girls' craft kits send girls clear and consistent messages, of which I argue affirm traditional values and maintain traditional relations between males and females. Therefore, girls' craft kits are limiting the girl’s exploration the same way boys craft kits limit boys towards roles or skills that are not directly assigned to them.

Western policies for over 200 years, according to Craft, have valued children’s curiosity, imagination, and creativity (“Deconstruction or reconstruction?” 29) and such qualities can be found in children craft kits. Craft conducted qualitative research undertaken in England over the last fourteen years and concluded that the notion of children’s creativity is driven by ‘possibility thinking’ (Creativity and Early Years Education: A Lifewide Foundation 111). It is a way of thinking that evokes questions like ‘what can I do with this?’ as well as assumptions like ‘what if I were in a different role?’ (Craft, “The Possibilities Are Endless” 49). The environment of possibility thinking, Craft highlighted, can be enabled through exploratory and combinatory play (“The Possibilities Are Endless” 50); like in children’s craft kits. In this context, a craft kit is a set of articles, tools, or equipment, designed, packaged, and marketed specifically for children to begin a creative activity. For instance, a bracelet kit to create bracelets and a science kit to experiment with science. The emphasis on creation and experiment among craft kits allows children to explore, innovate, and being imaginative.

However, although the quality of ‘possibility thinking’ is evoked in children craft kits, the idea of what it means to be a girl or a boy is also reinforced through toys (Pennell 359) and parents (Chafetz 24), which therefore limits a child’s exploration outside his/her gender. Researchers asserted that as early as three years of age, children are able to differentiate between “girls’ and boys’ toys” – in which they prefer toys marketed to the same sex as them (Pennell 359). By the age of three or four, they already know how to use gender as a basis for categorizing the world around them (Ibid.). They begin to identify themselves as girls or boys, and abilities, interests, and activities are some ways in classifying their identity to a particular gender dichotomy. Studies that examined the gender lessons encoded in toys and toy advertising have also conducted their analysis in the relationship between the kinds of toys designed for girls or boys and what roles these toys prepare children for (Chafetz 15).

Categorizing an individual on the basis of gender and understanding how he/she segregates the world within a categorization system, which in this case through boys’ /girls’ toys, marks the development of the child’s gender identity (Pennel 359). Most parents, however, usually form their children a highly stereotyped understanding of maleness/femaleness (Spence 63) and society’s gender categories (Sherif 60). They embrace the core of traditional values between men and women, such as what roles and types of activities are appropriate for men and women. However, as ‘possibility thinking’ in toys addresses what ifs questions to children, when these kits are marketed primarily to one specific gender, they limit a child’s ability to imagining roles outside their assigned sex.

I then analyze how this limitation in roles and reinforcement of traditional values are being transmitted through craft kits. Firstly, I decode the symbolic language of gender contained in craft kits and their packaging as cultural artifacts, in the sense that they carry society’s dominant ideologies (Hirschman 31). Then to objectively interpret craft kits packaging, hermeneutical interpretation and semiotic analysis are used. The hermeneutical technique is the use of close reading as a way to analyze various texts that involve a detailed examination of the product’s elements and themes contained in the products (Pennel 360). Such details include the pronouns and adjectives used in the kit’s description, the kit’s color(s), and how they are designed. These textual details/component parts become standard of which interpretations are evaluated. Known as Hermeneutic Circle, the oscillation between parts and whole is the basis of interpretive research to achieve the degree of “objectivity” (Pennel 361).

Furthermore, I examine the products’ context through semiotic analysis in which the meaning of a sign is determined by its relationship within a larger system of signs. It is the contrasting relationships - that defines what it is not - that determines a sign’s character (Saussure 121). For instance, what is meant (signified) by the word (sign) feminine may be difficult, but it has no masculine characteristics, therefore, is not masculine, as syntactical analysis suggests. I also look at the semantics; the relationship between the sign and its object. For instance, continuing the earlier example of what feminine means, semantic relationships suggest that if the feminine is typically used to signify women, (through traits such as) passive behavior and the color pink, then these objects come to define this particular sign (word). Semiotic signs graphically represent the semantic relationships from which a theme begins to emerge, while the oppositional relationships between signs bring the theme into sharper focus. In doing so, the meaning conveyed by these signs is “made opaque” (Goffman 27), and therefore highlights the ways children, starting at a very young age, are taught narrowly stereotypical sex-roles and assigned to specific skill sets.

Following my Toys ‘R Us, DeSerres, and Michaels craft store visits in Toronto, there is a noticeably strong association of femininity among traditional craft kits. Knitting, sewing, weaving, bracelet, and headband making, as well as quilting, are the types of kits that currently dominate the shelves in the girls’ aisle. Semantic relationships among semiotics on the packaging, such as colors, designs, names used on the kits, and the use of female models pictured, formed an association with femininity. Boys craft kits, which themes are often about science and assembling, use bold colors, anything but pink to capture the industrial quality (See Figure 10). In contrast, in the girl’s crafts aisle at Michaels (See Figures 1 and 2), visitors are bombarded with pastel colors, especially pink and lavender and often use curved, undulating lines on their packaging designs. Shades of pink are one of many visual markers to femininity (Koller 401) and aesthetician Maitland Graves (in Sahlins 193) suggested that curved, undulating lines symbolize not only femininity but also softness and passivity. In addition, the naming of the kits designed for girls (KnitLoom, Mine2Design, Sew Crazy, and Gel-a-Peel) suggests that the crafts they are interested in are simple. Simplicity is also being addressed through the use of words that conveys ease like “No Stitching, Just Knotting! (Figure 3)” “Easy, endless combinations! (Figure 4)” “Just Squeeze! (Figure 5)” and “Simple, Fast, and Fun! (Figure 6)”; in which such style of wordings is not as prevalent among science and assembly kits targeted to boys. While boys are typically pictured actively engaged with the tools (Figures 7 and 8), oftentimes girls are not; seen at Figures 3, 4, and 6, the model, smile, or showing off their work. Thus, such oppositional relationships sharpen traditional craft kits’ association with girls and femininity.

In addition, girls’ craft kits emphasize a decorating activity rather than inventing a functional product. John Ruskin along with William Morris founded the Arts and Crafts movement whose movement stood for traditional craftsmanship. In his Sesames and Lilies, Ruskin views “the woman’s power is not for rule, not for battle, and her intellects in not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, management, and decision” (Edwards 13). This idea can still be implicitly seen in today’s girls' craft kits. Although they offer girls various new activities in which allow girls to develop new skills and interests, the activities still fall into the category of decorating (as shown in Figure 3; 4; 5; 6; 9). Instead of how to make cupcakes from scratch, for example, these kits teach girls how to decorate them (Figure 5). Boys craft kits, on the other hand, have a strong emphasis on making something useful or building and assembling from scratch (Figure 11, 12, 13). Thus, these kits further reinforce attitudes that girls do not have the need to know how things work as much as boys do; as males are perceived to be dominating the public sphere.

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