The Revolution Will Not Be GoldieBlox

If this feminist toy campaign is progress, it’s an ode to incrementalism.

National Journal
lucia graves
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lucia graves
Nov. 28, 2013, midnight

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.

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