It seems like forever ago—way more than one week—that we stumbled on an adorable marketing video for a startup toy company called GoldieBlox and posted it to our blog. The ad introduced three supremely cute girls bored beyond belief by princess culture. As a feminist rewrite of a Beastie Boys tune thumped in the background, the girls used all their gender-normative toys to engineer a sprawling, complex machine. We thought the video’s messaging was super. I think my words were “stupendously awesome.” My editor came up with the headline, “This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers.”
We were so innocent then. It was the dewy beginning of the Passion of GoldieBlox: for the company, more than 8 million YouTube views, a derecho of positive press, amazing sales, oceans of encouraging tweets, and its own hashtag. Then things got weird. The Hollywood Reporter revealed that GoldieBlox was suing the Beastie Boys in order to pre-empt any claim of copyright infringement. (Check out an open letter the band released in response here, in which the musicians seem understandably peeved that their intellectual property is being used to enrich a business without their say so.) Actual engineers left less-than-glowing reviews of the toys on Amazon. Internet sleuths unearthed the potentially compromising fact that one of GoldieBlox’s products revolves around a princess pageant.
I’ve reached out to CEO and founder Debbie Sterling and will update this post if she agrees to an interview—but in the meantime, it appears the toy company deserves a second look. As GoldieBlox stands to attract even more publicity (it is one of four finalists in a contest for small businesses to air an ad during the Super Bowl), we should ask whether its products live up to the company’s message. Does GoldieBlox actually “disrupt the pink aisle,” inspiring girls to trade in their tiaras for goggles—or is it a cynical attempt to straddle the market by hooking parents on a message of empowerment while enticing kids with the same old glittery crap?
Thesis No. 2 certainly resonates with some smart, feminist bloggers. In addition to the princess pageant issue, they have observed that Goldie, the girl “who loves to build,” is blond, thin, and cute; that the products go heavy on purple and pink; that they feature furry animals and ribbons; that characters are sweetly determined to help others rather than succeed on their own. Is GoldieBlox just a sly update on Lego Friends (aka “Legos for Girls”)—a way of forcing girls back into the princess bubble, no matter how many machines they design?
“You cannot create a toy meant to break down stereotypes when you start off with the ideal that ‘we know all girls love princesses,’” argues Melissa Atkins Wardy. “When we use princess culture, pinkification, and beauty norms to sell STEM toys to girls and fool ourselves that we are amazing and progressive and raising an incredible generation of female engineers we continue to sell our girls short. It is the equivalent of covering broccoli in melted processed cheese and thinking we’ve been served a very healthy meal.”
Fair. Like Atkins Wardy, I don’t love my girl power dished up in a glop of hyperfeminine signifiers. And yet: Isn’t melted cheese plus broccoli a better meal than plain melted cheese? For all its social aspirations, GoldieBlox is still a business; Sterling can do nothing about the STEM gender gap without breaking into the marketplace first. Right now, for whatever nefarious reasons, that marketplace looks like the inside of an NFL stadium in October. Pretending that its norms don’t shape your daughter’s preferences will only depress you further when she makes a beeline for the newest Bratz doll. (I’m also not sure why the bar is so high for this one company. Sure, it’s disappointing when products don’t live up to their ads, but do we really expect truth in advertising? Did Coke really promote world peace or just inspire us to buy more Coke?)
So I’m sympathetic to this post, written by Deborah Siegel, proposing that GoldieBlox is practicing “Trojan feminism.” The toys may depend on stereotypes to lure kids in, but they also tweak and reframe them. In Goldie Blox and the Parade Float, for instance, Goldie and her friends create a vehicle to transport the winner of a beauty pageant. Vehicle, good; pageant, blech. But then I remember books like The Paper Bag Princess and Dealing With Dragons—great reads about smart princesses who don’t stick to the script. Given that the princess script persists, maybe it’s OK that the toys we give girls acknowledge it—and start to show a way out. (We should also keep in mind that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the color pink or tiaras—only with their omnipresence.)
The bigger question should be: Does GoldieBlox really encourage creative play? On the company website and in the Los Angeles Times, Debbie Sterling claims that her toys are precision-tuned to “inspire the next generation of female engineers.” How? By appealing to girls’ heightened verbal skills. “Girls love stories and characters, whereas all the construction toys are building for the sake of building,” she said. That claim matches the description on one GoldieBlox product’s Amazon page: “We spent a year researching gender differences, talking with Harvard neuroscientists, and observing children’s play patterns. Our stories leverage girls’ advanced verbal skills to help develop and build self-confidence in their spatial skills.”
Yet as this post by Robert McGinley Myers points out, toys with intricate built-in narratives actually don’t fire up kids’ imaginations the way simpler ones do. (Sorry, Harvard neuroscientists.) Studies show that while both boys and girls tend to gravitate toward flashy, themed construction sets, they play longer and more creatively with plain blocks. Maybe it’s no coincidence that, in the words of scientist Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, “toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented … [also] elicited the highest quality play among girls.” These are toys that don’t feel the need to couch problem-solving and imaginative expression in precooked story lines, as GoldieBlox does in its quest to make engineering female-friendly. (These are also not the toys getting millions of YouTube hits—funny, that.)
Several reviews of GoldieBlox toys on Amazon suggest that the products are boringly designed and shoddily built. “The actual toy is very limited in how to play,” wrote one parent. “It is basically turning a wheel with a ribbon that is attached by a Velcro.” Said another: “If you are looking for a toy that is poorly made, extremely overpriced, and that your kids will use once and only once then you are in the right place.” The haterade continues here (though I should note that Goldie and her crew have so far garnered more positive reviews than negative ones, and Amazon reviews are certainly not a representative sample).
GoldieBlox. What should we make of you? Neither evil nor anti-feminist nor effective at accomplishing your stated aims nor, perhaps, especially fun to play with. So, basically, a company selling stuff. But still, great video.