Sugar, spice and 'Real Steel': Why robots should be for girls (and moms) too.


I’m not sure when exactly my 2-year-old daughter fell in love with robots. Maybe it was one of the thousand times when her dad has said, “Hey little girl, check out this cool robot! Don’t you love them?”

Traditional gender roles tell us, of course, that little girls like princesses and little boys are the ones who like robots, but I don’t see why that has to be so. My daughter enjoys wearing her pair of fairy wings, and her favorite book is Pinkalicious, but she also adores this boxy, tin-toy Lilliput robot that staggers forward awkwardly when you wind it up. He has joined more than his share of imaginary tea parties.

This is why I’m grateful for a movie like Real Steel, opening today, a robot boxing movie that has something more to it than just the spectacle of flying sparks. (Read EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s A-minus review here.)

It’s not that anyone should be pressured to love anything, but why aren’t robots and sci-fi the kind of thing that all kids can enjoy regardless of gender, like Elmo, macaroni and cheese, or misbehaving?  I feel like that dynamic has already been changing, with just as many gals embracing geek-culture as guys, thanks to storytellers like Joss Whedon and James Cameron, who took pains to welcome them to the boys-only club of monsters, machines, and mayhem. This futuristic world of fantasy and imagination should be big enough for everybody.

But let’s face it: The reason robots have been the domain of little boys for so long is because the stereotype for both, mostly deserved, is “Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!” But with Real Steel, director Shawn Levy puts a great big beating heart at the center of his movie’s battered metal chest, broadening its appeal to not just dads and sons, but hopefully moms and daughters too. The story of Hugh Jackman as a down-on-his-luck, deadbeat dad who reconnects with his estranged son (Dakota Goyo) while they rebuild an 8-foot robot pugilist named Atom has a lot more in common with Paper Moon than Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly plays the tougher-than-she-looks owner of a robot training gym. (Moms may appreciate, and sympathize with, the effort she puts in to keep her two non-mechanical boys functional.)

Levy and Jackman have said that they wanted the movie to have a heartfelt appeal beyond just robot spectacle, that the father-son story had to be strong enough to touch an audience even if the sport was ping-pong, or they were rebuilding a car instead of a metal gladiator. Okay, so I asked the actor the obvious question in a recent interview: “Why make it with robots at all then?”


Image Credit: DreamWorks/Greg Williams

Jackman took a moment to answer. Then his face broke into that big familiar smile and he said the obvious back, “Because they’re cool.”

I had to laugh. That’s as good an answer as any. Robots are massive, they’re powerful, they’re (supposed to be) devoted to us. When you’re a kid, you don’t have any say over your life. You’re told what to wear, when to eat, where to go, what to say. Every element of your day is controlled. How cool is it to be the one in command? Or to just be that strong? “If you can control something like this, that has all this power, it gives you power,” Jackman said.

For a kid raised on Transformers toys, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Isaac Asimov, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars’ R2-D2 and C-3PO, it’s hard to reduce their appeal to one particular element, but that comes pretty close: They’re cool. That desire to be strong, resourceful, but also feel empathy for those who suffer when that power is misused, is a good thing for boys and girls to have rattling around in their subconscious. But also, yeah – like Hugh said: They’re just cool.

In my case, I have a little girl who brings me so much happiness and I’m trying to give her a little piece of the things that made me happy as a child too (and obviously still do). But that wind-up tin-toy I mentioned earlier? That thing just sat on our shelf for years – a kitschy decoration. Only after our daughter came along, and she began reaching for it, laughing at its bumpy walk, did it become a plaything again.


Image Credit: Blue Sky Studios

I’m blessed with one of those cool-chick wives who is both a girly-girl and a tomboy, thanks to her amazing older brother, who had a great comic-book collection and didn’t mind sharing his love of Wolverine, Thor, Batman, and Superman with his tiny Strawberry Shortcake-loving sister. (While I’ve seen Real Steel once, she has already seen it twice – bringing along her girlfriends the second time.) I don’t think my daughter has to grow up to be just like me, but I’d love it if she grew up to be like her mom.

And so, the robot indoctrination began. Again, I would never force anything on my little girl, but after repeatedly watching pieces of Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure during her limited TV time, I did introduce her to T-Bob, the fussy little automaton from the old ‘80s cartoon M.A.S.K., by popping in one of those DVDs. She has her favorite robot t-shirt shirt, and my heart swelled recently when was playing with one of my vintage Transformers toys, rolling the little yellow Volkswagen on the tabletop, and discovering the hood pulled out into little legs, the wheels became arms, and the back panel lifted open to reveal a metal face. “Ro-butt!” she declared with a big grin, holding Bumblebee out to me.


Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Does it go both ways? Do I think a little boy should be encouraged to play with dolls? Absolutely. They already do. People who think He-Man and GI Joe aren’t dolls simply because they’re marketed as “action figures” are kidding themselves. I’ve become quite a fan of Pinkalicious myself, and I’d hope the boys in her daycare class play with the non-action-oriented dolls with her just as she plays Hot Wheels with them. A boy should be able to sit down and enjoy a make-believe tea party just as much as a girl. Of course it’s okay for boys and girls to have some separate things, too. As the proud dad of a little girl, I just like the idea of blurring the line some.

My daughter is still a little young for movie theaters, since sitting still for more than 40 minutes tends to give her a case of the squirmies, but I’m looking forward to the day when she’s a few years older and we can sit down to watch Real Steel together. If she were 8 or 9, we’d be at the first screening after school on Friday. Right now, the animated Robots movie from 2005 is more her speed. And I can’t wait for her to discover The Iron Giant. There’s a lot of time left to grow up. I hope there are more movies like Real Steel waiting for her in that future.

She’ll decide for herself what she loves as she gets older. Maybe that’ll include robots, and maybe not. At the beginning, though, I just believe those who are made from sugar, and spice, and everything nice should have a little iron mixed in as well.

Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican.

Read more:
EW Review: ‘Real Steel’
Box Office preview: ‘Real Steel’ to rock and sock the competition
Evangeline Lilly discusses learning elvish, breastfeeding on the set of ‘The Hobbit’

Comments (31 total) Add your comment
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  • James Griffin

    After Lost began, I thought the gorgeous and talented Evangeline Lilly had a promising career ahead of her and would become a bigger star but she has done so little in the last seven years. I hope she’ll have a career renaissance with Real Steel and The Hobbit films and do more mainstream movies from now on. Good for her to keep landing such high profile roles. She deserves it. It’s an exceptional performance by her in Real Steel, just wonderful.

    • Brittany

      Quit posting the same thing you dbag.

    • Annette

      Who the f cares what boys and girls like last time I checked they both can like whatever they want regardless of toy stores have different isles! Yes, I really blame the parents on this one not toy companies! Cause at the end of the day they are going to you not a toy store!

  • Tess McGill

    I think maybe the reason robots don’t appeal to girls is the general metallic finish. Paint them up in crayon colors and give them a less menacing countenance and they’ll seem more interesting.

    • robotgirl

      Public service announcement: facetious comment is facetious. I don’t want any movie producers seeing this and mistaking your sarcasm for actual insight into their female audience. The poor schmoes have enough trouble figuring women out without making them decipher irony as well.

  • Kelsey

    I hadn’t realized that gender roles were being strictly enforced. When I was growing up girls could play with anything, including guns, trucks & chemistry sets. It was my uncle however a WWII vet who didn’t want his sons to play with guns. So I had the 6 shooter when we played cowboys & Indians. But my cousin John & I put Barbies in the trucks … I’m a little aghast that today gender roles are being so strictly enforced … When did “we” stop evolving? 1979? I think it’s a male thing, frankly.

    • CarrieL

      I blame Disney Princesses. For real. Check out the book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter;” it’s really scary how prevalent gendering is becoming in marketing towards children. (Or just go to your local toy store and see how everything get repainted pink and labeled “for girls”)

      • Kelsey

        Sounds like marketing execs trying to make things easy for themselves as well. Dividing toys into gender specific is almost like gender *enforcement* of roles. I really don’t like this. Thought the idea was to raise well-rounded kids/individuals with a variety of interests. With shows like Top Chef where male chefs usually win, are toy makers going to make black & silver Easy Bake Ovens for the boys & pink for the girls?

      • orville

        It’s not a bad theory. I was aware of Disney as a kid (because of the Sunday night show), but it hadn’t become the all-consuming thing it is now.

        I had my share of Barbie dolls and a second hand Easy Bake oven, but I also had Stretch Armstrong, Lincoln Logs, and Matchbox cars. And, frankly, the latter were my favorites.

    • Ikagirl

      Yep, me too. Had all the chemistry sets I could use, lots of toy robots, and did not like Barbie dolls-too boring. Not to mention all the sci-fi I could get my hands on.
      Not sure who to blame for this gender-enforcement. I thought that went away decades ago. Disturbing. Or perhaps it’s just the author of this article?
      Speaking to the movie, I hope the author is aware that it’s really Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, The Movie, and not something original.

    • mp

      It’s awful out there. Toys R Us, Pottery Barn, Target, Wal-mart, Lego store. They are all reinforcing the gender divide by having separate boy and girl toy aisles. Only the small independent children’s toy stores organize toys according to age, and not gender. And in that way, Amazon has proven its worth to me. I look for toys based on things that matter–price, age appropriate-ness, character. And I don’t care that it’s “supposed” to be only for a girl or boy.

      My little girl plays with cars and trains and farm animals. More than with dolls. But that’s her choice, and I’ll continue to give her options.

      Nice article.

      • PrincessBride

        And don’t forget the gender-segregated Happy Meal toys – dolls for girls, trucks and action movie tie-ins for boys. I have a daughter who has never cared much for dolls but loved trains and Legos. We’d get strange looks when wed ask for the boy’s toy…

  • Lucy

    What a great column! In my favorite pic of my niece, snapped when she was three, she’s wearing a pink fairy outfit complete with tiera, holding a wand in one hand and a freshly-captured lizard in the other. (Yes, we rescued the lizard within 60 seconds.)

  • Nuny ensenat

    My daughter love robots and anime and still love the fearys wings and te partys with all her dolls ,I dont see any wrong in something its not exclusive for boy its a Robot a machine Im not sure why the Infatuation is like say cars are only for men so
    If that is the situation someone speak to Danica Patrick.

  • justpeachy

    As a female mechanical engineer who spends my days repairing robots, was an entire article on this necessary?

    No, women are not afraid of robots. Point made.

    • Anthony Breznican

      You should read more carefully. I didn’t say women are afraid of robots.

      • justpeachy

        No, you didn’t. However, you did imply that it’s some anomaly that a girl would want to play with robots. It just seems a shame to make a point with an article about a potential gender shift when I think most people would agree that this isn’t shocking anymore. Especially from a big girl who plays with robots for a living.

      • Kat

        I got what you were saying, Anthony, and I think it was a great article with an important point to make. Justpeachy…it IS kind of an anomaly that a girl would want to play with robots. It’s not that it never happens; just that it’s not as common as boys playing with robots. No one is saying that girls playing with robots is somehow shocking. Robots are just not the usual toys girls are given to play with. You, as a female mechanical engineer, are somewhat unusual. It’s a shame, but it’s still very true that girls usually don’t go into fields like engineering. I’m an anthropologist by training. I promise you, gender roles are still very much in effect in our culture. These days, it’s not as often seen as a bad thing when people break out of stereotypical gender roles (and sometimes it’s celebrated), but gender divisions are definitely still promoted/experienced everywhere, from toys to careers to the wage gap to domestic chores to child-rearing to entertainment tastes.

  • tammy

    My family just got back from seeing Real Steele. As a mom of both a girl and a boy, we see all kinds of movies, to keep everybody happy. Some I enjoy, some I endure, because my husband and son want to see them. This movie had me from the get go..I liked that although it was full of awesome action, it also had an actual storyline that had meaning. To me, that was all the difference with this versus, say for example, transformers. I enjoyed the first transformer movie but the next two were just too much of the same kind of scenes with no storyline..very boring..which should not be the case for an “action” movie! So, from me and my family…two thumbs up made a great movie with real steele!

  • Anthony Breznican

    Cool! Well said, Tammy. Glad you all had a fun night out.

  • jane

    I am completely unashamed to say my favourite movie is Dirty Dancing – followed by Terminator 1 & 2. My daughter is 2 also, and I have found myself wishing there were Elmo’s and less….princesses? Or more princes? I don’t know, but the toy stores are pretty well divided by gender (more so the older the target age becomes). I don’t think I necessarily want robot movies to become chick flicks, so much as I want little girls (and big girls!) to think beyond the chick flick designation. Good article!

  • Amanda

    I am a girl. I love scifi films. I have a care bear on my t-shirt and last night I was watching the Amityville Horror.

  • Violet

    Lovely Article, Anthony! Your little girl is fortunate to have great parents! If you haven’t already, listen with her to “The Marvelous Toy ” sung by Peter, Paul and Mary until you all sing along!

    • Anthony Breznican

      I’ll do that. Thanks!

  • Dusty

    My brother and I were close in age, so we played together all the time; I grew up playing with barbies, GI Joe, stuffed animals, X-Men, easy bake ovens, and creepy crawler machines. I think there is still the “default” gender stereotypical marketing toward kids, but if kids are exposed to different types of toys, they will play with what they like, whether it’s considered a girl or boy toy or not. At least I hope so.

    • ikagirl

      Dusty, I think you have the right idea. I was allowed to choose my own toys and hobbies, and always went for anything that was scientific or mechanical. Or gross. Remember Incredible Edibles? Candy bugs and spiders. My sister went for the more “girly” stuff. I agree, let the child have choices. They’ll turn out ok.

  • Claire

    I don’t think it’s the way ‘geek culture’ TV shows and movies are written that’s changed how women respond to them (though don’t get me wrong, I loved Buffy etc.). I just think that it’s more about perception and what you’re offered growing up. If an adult changes channels from “Transformers” to “My Little Pony” (for girls, or vice versa for boys) then obviously you’ll end up watching more of one type than the other as a kid. Fundamentally, I think men and women, boys and girls, get similar things out of stories: we all love suspense, action, heroics, drama. I used to read my dad’s old [as in, 1950s] “Boys Own Comic” annuals as a young girl, and funnily enough I distinctly remember my favorite story being about a crippled man who built and trained a robot to fight for him. I’ve always read a lot of science fiction/fantasy, and my favorite shows on TV when I grew up in the ’80s were things like “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “V”. I guess I was just lucky that my parents didn’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t like – we were all just geeks together ;)

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