My 9yr old complained to @LEGO_Group re mag she was sent,reply was useless.
Re-registered as ‘John’.Big difference. pic.twitter.com/Tbdo1X39zc
— Jacky Wafflewaitress (@Wafflewaitress) November 22, 2013
I think about toys and gender a lot because of the ways that early experiences shape our brains. My daughter gets invited to a lot of parties – because almost every kid in her pre-school invites all the other kids in their class if they have a party. Well, not every kid. One girl invited all the girls to a “princess party.” Come dressed as your favorite princess, the invite read. We skipped it. Our first instinct was to disrupt, to send Ellie as a Valkyrie or Pirate princess, but we can’t force Ellie to match our agenda. I can’t make Ellie the Trojan Horse (borrowing a metaphor from the blog I discuss below) of my feminist values. It’s not Ellie’s /job/ to be the agent of subversion, as much as I want her to do that. Her mom and I, our friends, our community, can just try to provide strong counter-models and offer her the tools to write her own narratives.
But princess culture everywhere. Lego offers girls “friends.” If you eat McDonald’s, and we do sometimes (it’s a place Nico is happy to play on the slides while not eating anything they serve), they will ask for “boy” vs “girl” toy, even though they are not supposed to do so (according to unenforced corporate guidelines). Girl toys are pink, purple, and passive. Boy toys are multi-hued and active (cars or violent action figures). This is a problem for both genders, though in different ways.
All of which brings me to Goldieblox, also known as “Engineering toys for girls.” They recently unveiled their newest toy. Not a spaceship. Not a car. Not a computer. Not an engineering lab. Not an underground lair. It’s a parade float. With a crown. She’s a daydream believer. She’s the homecoming queen.
And the feminist blogosphere is in turmoil.
A lot of friends sent me this fairly awesome ad (which parodies a sexist Beastie Boys song, itself derivative of “Shout,” called “Girls,” and has engendered a fairly hypocritical response from the Beastie Boys and a lot of bad publicity for them from hip maker types who have otherwise stayed loyal).
Here’s the ad. It’s definitely fun and you should watch it and then read the lyrics. Then I’ll offer some thoughts with the help of a thoughtful post from @@deborahgirlwpen (Deborah Siegel).
So that’s fun. Here are the lyrics, directly critical of princess culture.
I’m in partial agreement with my feminist colleagues who are in outrage over the fact that GoldieBlox
is selling a princess-themed toy. Many had been rooting for the
start-up toy company, which started on Kickstarter, with a full on
mission to spark a love for STEM in girls. They feel rightly let down
that the sequel to the original product (a building toy, with a
narrative story) features a princess tale. They critique the
manufacturer’s market-straddling approach. Writes media studies scholar Rebecca Hains,
“GoldieBlox is having it both ways: appealing to parents with
anti-princess rhetoric and then, in stores, selling girls on a
Melissa Atkins Wardy (whose new book, Redefining Girly,
will be published on January 1), perhaps says it best: “[W]hen 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 very served a healthy meal.”
Wardy is asking – Do we have to use princesses and pretty to sell products to girls?Can we trust girls to buy toys not covered in lavender?
I have to say that I find these critiques persuasive. I have tried, personally, to re-brand Disney princesses (gifts to my daughter. Please don’t get us anymore, if you’re reading this blog. Although I appreciate the thought! And Barbie is out too), as “Norns,” or other powerful queens of the universe riding their three-headed Dragon (it’s a cool puppet) and otherwise being active. Am I trying to “boy” Ellie in this? I’m definitely trying to de-princess her toys and make them strong. I’m trying to work against the grain, as always, knowing that the larger society will give her plenty of ideas that run counter to mine. And if you’re horrified, don’t be, because I’m totally failing. The ubiquity of princess culture means that my micro-efforts are almost irrelevant. At best, as I said above, I might be giving her the tools to I generate counter-narratives should she want to do so.
Because there’s nothing wrong with choosing to play as a princess, so long as the choice is made in an array of other choices, not pushed there by default and the pressures on our sub-consciousnesses to conform.
So if Princess culture can’t be escaped, then what do we make of Goldieblox and their ad (in contention for the Superbowl). Siegel suggests that maybe what Goldieblox is doing, by selling out to girls with princess toys, might not be so bad. It’s sneaky. It’s subversion. And we should recognize that it creates a pathway into the homes, hearts, and minds of people who are not feminists or even anti-feminists.
I’m not convinced the ad isn’t progress. I’ve watched every video GoldieBlox has produced
and have gotten teary over every one. I’ve played with the original toy
in the Marbles store with my 4-year-old daughter (no princesses in that
one) and am still considering it as a Hannukah gift. I’m a sucker,
perhaps, and an easy target. But let’s put personal reaction aside.
I believe in evolution, as well as revolution. I’m a writer who wrote a book on feminism
and let her publisher slap on a hot pink cover. I wanted people–and
young women in particular–who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book on the
women’s movement to read about it. And they did.
I find Siegel’s thoughts persuasive as well. In other words, I’m torn.
But here’s a deeper question. Is this a divide between waves of feminism? The feminists of the 70s and their children grew up in a world of browns, yellow, greens, and de-stablized gender norms in child-related marketing. The millenial feminists and those slightly older, just having children, seem just as wedded to causes of equality and the battle against patriarchy, but are often seemingly less concerned with the color pink and all its ilk. This is just an impression of mine, not based on data, but it’s an impression I have re-confirmed all the time as I survey feminist discourse across generations.
That doesn’t mean that the new waves are correct, but in Goldieblox we have an interesting test case to see how it sells, see what kind of messages it encodes, and to see, ultimately, if our kids play with it by choice.
One Reply to “Girls, Goldieblox, and the Perils of Princess Culture”
From the age of five until about eight, pink and white were my favourite colours. I grew up in the 70s, and my parents always bought me (with the exception of my Barbies) gender-neutral toys, mostly in primary colours. Partly this was so I could hand them down to my younger brothers.
Now I have two nieces, both under the age of six, and they have a lot of pink toys. They love pink so much one of them even insists anything red she likes is DARK PINK.
But the image of them playing that stands out for me is when they loaded their princess dolls into their pink Barbie Fiat toy cars and played "head-on collision", complete with enthusiastic sound effects. Or how they can't open or close the doors on their pink Hello Kitty toy jumbo jet without making hydraulic door sounds. Or how they fight over who gets to play with the "dark pink" Hot Wheels Formula One car.
It's not the pink, but what's pink and what the kids are expected to play with it that's the problem. Your Goldie Blocks example shows that perfectly.