For a minute it looked like the revolution had arrived. Just two years after Peggy Orenstein spelled out the problems with America's princess culture in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a toy company with a mission of "disrupting the pink aisle" stormed the Internet.
GoldieBlox put together a hit video of three little girls, who, disgusted by the pink-princess culture in America, take their conventionally girly toys and turn them into a Rube Goldberg machine, rocking out while a revamped version of the Beastie Boys song "Girls" plays. The ad dominated Upworthy, Slate called it "stupendously awesome," and it was given glowing reviews on the front page of The New York Times' business section. (The video, if you haven't seen it, is here.)
Turns out, the product doesn't quite live up to the hype. "Why are the toys all still pink and pastel colors?" asked one Facebook commenter. "As a mom of two daughters, not sure I buy it…. Sticking with lego, planes, trains & automobiles," tweeted another. "It's a holiday purchase scam, and I am disappointed at every mom who shared that video with me!"
There's the fact that the products go heavy on pink and purple; the fact that Goldie, the girl who "loves to build," is thin and blond and and conventionally pretty; and the fact that GoldieBlox is still, at the end of the day, selling princesses. GoldieBlox and the Parade Float, for instance, tells the story of Goldie's friends Ruby and Katinka who compete in a princess pageant with the hopes of riding in the town parade. When Katinka loses the crown, Goldie and Ruby team up to build her a parade float as well. Not exactly "disrupting the pink aisle"...
Narratives are a trademark of GoldieBlox toys, which CEO Debbie Sterling says are designed to "inspire the next generation of female engineers" by appealing to girls' heightened verbal skills. "Girls love stories and characters, whereas all the construction toys are building for the sake of building," Sterling told the Los Angeles Times. Sterling herself trained as an engineer at Stanford, where she was frustrated to see how few women pursued the field at the graduate level. That's something she wanted to change; and to reach women early, she set her sights on the toy aisle. (She was not able to accommodate an interview request from National Journal until December.)
A post written by Deborah Siegel, proposes that GoldieBlox is practicing "Trojan feminism." Sure the toys are conventionally girly, she writes, but the underlying concept—teaching girls to think creatively and build things—is what's really important. It's a valid argument, although that didn't save pink Legos from being widely panned (they were a hit commercially).
"If putting it in a pink box can get girls interested in spacial relationships, that's great," said Sean McGowen, a toy analyst with Needham & Co. It's probably not the answer to getting women in science, but it does sell toys, and there are certainly less-educational ones.
Rebecca Hains, an associate professor of communications at Salem State University, suggested that GoldieBlox may just be doing what's required to enter the mainstream market. "I think it's a chicken and egg thing," she said. "Retailers aren't going to give shelf space to an unproven company, and so the company has to prove itself. And to prove itself, from a retail perspective, they need to appeal to the largest possible audience."
That desire has GoldieBlox talking out both sides of its mouth: an empowering message for parents and the media, glittery junk for the kids. But attract a wide audience it has. The toy line was recently picked up by Toys "R" Us and its new ad, released last week—just before Black Friday, naturally—has garnered more than 8 million views and is currently competing for an ad spot in the Super Bowl.
But even the ad has attracted criticism. The Hollywood Reporter revealed that GoldieBlox is preemptively suing the Beastie Boys to discourage any claim of copyright infringement. (The Beastie Boys are understandably vexed that the toy company has used their music without permission in service of its bottom line.) Others have complained that company hired a mostly male crew to create the complex contraption featured in the video.
Deception in marketing is nothing particularly new. We know, for instance, that the Ford Fusion cannot fly (though Ford somewhat hilariously has a disclaimer for that). The idea that girls can build a cool contraption out of their own toys, however, is not exactly an impossible scenario. "I really would have been much more impressed if I thought that thing was set up by a bunch of 8-year-old girls," said McGowan.
GoldieBlox won't bring the revolution overnight, but it might help build it one pink (sigh) block at a time.