We Don’t Want to Build That

GoldieBlox: you are a Serious Toy for Smart Girls. And yet in true Goldi-fashion, you’re not too serious, and not too smart. You want to “disrupt the pink aisle” of Girl Toys, but you are full of pastel plastic and Barbie-haired cartoons. You want to advance Girl Power in a still-sexist world, but you define Girl Power in a still-sexist way.

You claim girls are just as smart as boys, and you’ll prove it by helping girls to mitigate their girliness and learn to do boy things. GoldieBlox, this is a big bowl of lukewarm semi-feminism, cooked up decades ago and yet still somehow still out for consumption, rubbery as Three Bears’ porridge.

Your version goes like this:

1. Girl Play is all about princesses and baby dolls, storytelling and dressing up.

2. Girl Play isn’t Real Play, which would involve Real Brainwork that would prepare girls for Real Jobs.

2a. (Real Jobs are Man Jobs, in fields of Science, Engineering, Technology, Math. And so Real Toys are Boy Toys, like construction sets, building tools, science kits.)

3. If girls start to engage in Real(Boy) Play, maybe they will finally use their brains, and grow up to do Real(Man)(STEM) Jobs!

4. Girls will then be free from all that artistic expression and caregiving and social negotiating involved in Silly(Girl) Play, that leads to Silly(Woman) Jobs: teaching, nursing, mothering.

5. After all, only when girls succeed in being Not Too Girly can they be truly successful, in play and in life.

6. Because girliness sucks.

GoldieBlox, it’s hard to be all about Girl Power when you think girls suck! No wonder your new video advertisement has such (unintentional) gender trouble.

It begins with three badass builder-girls sneering at three silly dress-up girls (We aren’t girly like THOSE TWITS). But then it features a Rube Goldberg machine filled with baby dolls, tea sets, and feather boas (Don’t worry, we’re still a little girly!). The little badass builder-girls wear tool belts, hardhats, and safety goggles, but have reassuringly extra-long hair.

The background music is a peppy, tinkling remake of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls”: now with cheerleaderish, girl-power verses, but still conjuring the misogynist original.  Its lyrics echo the sneer from the video’s beginning: “You like to buy us pink toys / and everything else is for boys / and you can always get us dolls / and we’ll grow up like them: FALSE.”

It’s disappointing to see the media eat up this message with equal parts complacency and delight. Smart Girls like Slate’s Katy Waldman write, “We love this video because it subverts a bunch of dumb gender stereotypes,” [as] “a trio of smart girls could not be less impressed by the flouncing beauty queens in the commercial they’re watching.” (Wait. What?) In the LA Times, Rene Lynch gushes, “Girls rule! A pink empowerment video making the rounds is so darn cute you may not care that it’s a not so thinly veiled commercial for an upstart toy company.”

GoldieBlox! You’re as subtly vicious as a Mean Girl, as adorably liberating as a skort! You’re smart enough to aspire beyond your femininity, but savvy enough to keep yourself cute. You despise and celebrate, reject and cling to girliness in equal measure. You say girls deserve better than girl toys, but aren’t ready for boy toys, and in so doing, you perpetuate the girlyhate that makes yourself a market.

“We just want girls to be able to use their brains a little more,” said GoldieBlox’s inventor and CEO, Debbie Sterling. Just a little more. Not too much, though. Disrupt the pink aisle, but just enough to make a place for GoldieBlox, right there in the middle.

–Natalie Miller: Wears patchouli

 



  1. November 26, 2013 @ 11:29 am Jordan Stein on Facebook

    YES IN THUNDER.

    Reply

  2. November 26, 2013 @ 11:35 am Sarah Mesle on Facebook

    Natalie Miller for Avidly, bringing it bringing it bringing it.

    Reply

  3. November 26, 2013 @ 12:46 pm Kendra Wilhelm on Facebook

    As long as we brand toys so strongly “girl” and “boy” we have a problem. Besides the toy looks like it sucks.

    Reply

  4. November 26, 2013 @ 12:59 pm Jill Bernstein

    Thank you Natalie! I have been surprised by how much enthusiasm that commercial has generated. I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like it. The one thing that jumped out at me was that it was totally unrealistic. I’m sorry but I highly doubt that any kids of that age built that contraption, so it just seems phony to me, contrived for the commercial. Why don’t they show us what some actual kids built because that IS cool! We don’t have to be impressed by what the adults who made this commercial can come up with! (Mind you, if this really was built by the kids themselves I totally stand corrected.) But your post helps me to see the messed up gender implications of this ad, too. Thank you!

    Reply

  5. November 26, 2013 @ 1:01 pm Mandy Berry on Facebook

    ENGINEER IS NOT THE OPPOSITE OF PRINCESS

    Reply

    • November 26, 2013 @ 3:29 pm thane

      As a gay mechanical engineer, I couldn’t agree more.

      Reply

  6. November 26, 2013 @ 1:01 pm Mandy Berry on Facebook

    Great piece!

    Reply

  7. November 26, 2013 @ 1:03 pm Jordan Stein on Facebook

    Mandy Berry: Does an engineering princess engineer princesses?

    Reply

  8. November 26, 2013 @ 1:09 pm Mandy Berry on Facebook

    I think I stole that from you, Scout Calvert! But I love it.

    Reply

  9. November 26, 2013 @ 1:14 pm Scout Calvert on Facebook

    Probably Nora. She’s savvier than I am. I am opposed to princesses because we don’t do hereditary rule.

    Reply

  10. November 26, 2013 @ 1:24 pm Avidly on Facebook

    Jill Bernstein commented on Avidly:

    Thank you Natalie! I have been surprised by how much enthusiasm that commercial has generated. I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like it. The one thing that jumped out at me was that it was totally unrealistic. I’m sorry but I highly doubt that any kids of that age built that contraption, so it just seems phony to me, contrived for the commercial. Why don’t they show us what some actual kids built because that IS cool! We don’t have to be impressed by what the adults who made this commercial can come up with! (Mind you, if this really was built by the kids themselves I totally stand corrected.) But your post helps me to see the messed up gender implications of this ad, too. Thank you!

    Reply

  11. November 26, 2013 @ 5:05 pm Avidly on Facebook

    thane commented on Avidly:

    As a gay mechanical engineer, I couldn’t agree more.

    Reply

  12. November 26, 2013 @ 5:05 pm Avidly on Facebook

    thane commented on Avidly:

    As a gay mechanical engineer, I couldn’t agree more.

    Reply

  13. November 27, 2013 @ 12:14 pm APS

    Sincere question: Is your issue that there’s pinkwashing here, or that the commercial and product somehow bash stereotypical “girly” play and toys? Because I’m not sure I fully understand how it does both.

    Here’s how I see their version, which seems equally likely to me as what you’ve outlined above, only just maybe giving the creator the benefit of the doubt:

    1. [Stereotypical, mass marketed] Girl Play is all about princesses and baby dolls, storytelling and dressing up.

    2. NOT ALL GIRLS ENJOY [stereotypical, mass marketed] Girl Play.

    2a. SOME GIRLS ENJOY [play in fields of Science, Engineering, Technology, Math with stereotypical, mass marketed Boy Toys, like construction sets, building tools, science kits.)

    3. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THOSE GIRLS DON’T ALSO LIKE PINK OR STEREOTYPICALLY “GIRLY” THINGS.

    4. Girls CAN ALSO ENGAGED IN artistic expression and caregiving and social negotiating IN TRADITIONALLY MALE-DOMINATED FIELDS and in fact might make those fields BETTER by bringing in those attributes.

    5. After all, only when girls succeed in being [THEMSELVES – LOVING PINK OR NOT, LIKING STEREOTYPICALLY GIRL TOYS OR NOT] can they be truly successful, in play and in life.

    6. Because girliness [COMES IN ALL SHAPES AND FORMS, AND SHOULD BE REPRESENTED IN ALL DIFFERENT WAYS IN ADVERTISING].

    If the toy itself isn’t fun/engaging, then sure, that’s worth criticizing. But isn’t it at least possible that the goal here was to show that a girl can love pink and “girly” toys AND build a fun Rube Goldberg machine – that girls don’t have to choose one or the other?! Why does saying, “hey, some girls like to do THIS” have to necessarily mean that “huh, apparently it’s not OK for girls to like THAT.” This commercial – and yes, this product – fills a specific niche. It’s not supposed to be all things to all people (girls or boys, stereotypical or not). And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being one of the girls who falls in that niche.

    Reply

    • November 27, 2013 @ 2:44 pm Sarah Blackwood

      I think this is an interesting take, and probably true to a certain extent. I’m curious to hear Natalie’s take. For my part, I don’t think anyone buying their girl some Goldiblox is like setting the kid on the pageant route or whatever, and there is certainly nothing not awesome about a girl in a tutu working with some beakers. To me the main thing here is what Natalie calls “lukewarm semi-feminism.” So this product works *within* a fairly unimaginative system to offer new options to girls– great! But also, to a not small degree, “sigh.” Nothing really gets shaken up here, nothing gets reimagined, and most infuriatingly, *toys remain gendered* which: why?! Why at all? Semi-feminism has gotten us to a certain point– middle and upper class women in college, women in boardrooms, etc.– but not at all far enough– those women in boardrooms assuming everyone has nannies, abysmal payscales for people involved in care work (as opposed to male-dominated Silicon Valley “disruption”), women’s bodies always assumed to be “in service” (to blastocysts, men, etc.), and toys that, rather than reimagining the world, just accept the values being peddled by those in power (STEM!), rather than trying to DISRUPT THAT POWER. And it’s just a little sad that this product has been so breathlessly lauded– like, man, we’re really happy for scraps these days, huh?

      Reply

      • December 2, 2013 @ 9:23 am APS

        I share your frustration about how much further women still have to go to achieve *true* equality (not to mention simple parity in things like pay) – but I guess my main issue remains: criticizing this toy and this creator strikes me in some ways as being part of the problem rather than working toward a solution.

        It’s fair game to point out that the “breathless lauding” is kind of ridiculous, that this toy isn’t the be-all-end-all, that we still have a long way to go before toys are just toys rather than being gendered – but why slam Goldieblox for being sexist when they’re at least trying to make a dent in those stereotypes? This is *progress*, even if only incremental – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be celebrated as such, even while recognizing we still have a lot of work to do. This type of criticism smacks a lot of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

        And let’s not forget: This is still a product, which is supposed to make money. If Goldieblox’s female creator lost sight of that critical fact, she wouldn’t be a woman in power for long. Seems to me she’s done a decent job of threading the needle between pushing things forward a smidge while still making a toy that will have appeal to girls more accustomed to pink princessy gear. And maybe even boys who like pink (gasp!) AND building stuff. This isn’t a Barbie who says, “Math is hard.”

        Reply

  14. November 27, 2013 @ 12:24 pm Avidly on Facebook

    APS commented on Avidly:

    Sincere question: Is your issue that there’s pinkwashing here, or that the commercial and product somehow bash stereotypical “girly” play and toys? Because I’m not sure I fully understand how it does both.

    Here’s how I see their version, which seems equally likely to me as what you’ve outlined above, only just maybe giving the creator the benefit of the doubt:

    1. [Stereotypical, mass marketed] Girl Play is all about princesses and baby dolls, storytelling and dressing up.

    2. NOT ALL GIRLS ENJOY [stereotypical, mass marketed] Girl Play.

    2a. SOME GIRLS ENJOY [play in fields of Science, Engineering, Technology, Math with stereotypical, mass marketed Boy Toys, like construction sets, building tools, science kits.)

    3. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THOSE GIRLS DON’T ALSO LIKE PINK OR STEREOTYPICALLY “GIRLY” THINGS.

    4. Girls CAN ALSO ENGAGED IN artistic expression and caregiving and social negotiating IN TRADITIONALLY MALE-DOMINATED FIELDS and in fact might make those fields BETTER by bringing in those attributes.

    5. After all, only when girls succeed in being [THEMSELVES – LOVING PINK OR NOT, LIKING STEREOTYPICALLY GIRL TOYS OR NOT] can they be truly successful, in play and in life.

    6. Because girliness [COMES IN ALL SHAPES AND FORMS, AND SHOULD BE REPRESENTED IN ALL DIFFERENT WAYS IN ADVERTISING].

    If the toy itself isn’t fun/engaging, then sure, that’s worth criticizing. But isn’t it at least possible that the goal here was to show that a girl can love pink and “girly” toys AND build a fun Rube Goldberg machine – that girls don’t have to choose one or the other?! Why does saying, “hey, some girls like to do THIS” have to necessarily mean that “huh, apparently it’s not OK for girls to like THAT.” This commercial – and yes, this product – fills a specific niche. It’s not supposed to be all things to all people (girls or boys, stereotypical or not). And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being one of the girls who falls in that niche.

    Reply

  15. November 27, 2013 @ 1:14 pm Sarah Mesle on Facebook

    Natalie Miller, thought you might want to check out this last comment.

    Reply

  16. November 27, 2013 @ 2:35 pm Natalie Miller on Facebook

    Hello, APS. My issue is that GoldieBlox’s marketing would like to have it both ways. It wants both to say that Girl Play is Less Than/Not Enough (stereotypically girly is silly) AND it wants to say that Girls Need Special Girly Building Gear (let’s make our building stuff cute and pink, so girls will be interested). Indeed, that’s where the tension comes from, as well as the many comments that go something like “yeah, there was something I didn’t like about that commercial, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.” Of course, this is how GoldieBlox is trying to squeeze up its niche “Hey parents! Your girls are More than Just a Princess! But before you buy them a microscope, or K’NEX or something, take care…..because they need special blocks, designed for a girl.”

    Separate but Equal. Ugh.

    As I took care to show in my piece, the GoldieVideo does – explicitly – bash the princess/dress-up/dolls play paradigm, both in the opening sequence, as well as in the song’s lyrics. So, as various mediafolk celebrated the commercial and product as “disrupting gender stereotypes” or “empowering girls,” I thought it important to point out that in its attempt to “get girls building,” it is also implying that there is SOMETHING WRONG WITH/INADEQUATE ABOUT THE WAY GIRLS PLAY. GoldieBlox leaves undisturbed the underlying assumption that Science Play is Better Play. And GoldieBlox also leaves undisturbed the underlying assumption that Girls Like Pastel Stuff. So, in my opinion, it doesn’t get a claim on Girl Power.

    In GB’s website’s About page and FAQ, it does feel – at moments – like it is on the verge of saying what you suggest, that storytelling and artistic expression and social negotiation actually make building play more meaningful. But really, its message keeps falling back to its promise to “help LEVEL the playing field” (emphasis mine), not to change the field for the better. In the end, what GB says in order to create their niche is this: “Girls need building toys. But not just ANY building toys. Special building toys, that meet them where they are. That’s why you should buy GoldieBlox. Let’s just help girls “use their brains a little more.””

    And when we say “yeah, GoldieBlox are kinda shitty, but at least they’re a step in the right direction,” or “yeah, the commercial is kinda problematic, but their heart is in the right place,” or “c’mon, give them the benefit of the doubt,” we say: “Eh. It’s good enough. Let’s not expect too much from a toy built for girls, by girls.”

    I mean, my education (in the humanities) just won’t let me stand for it!

    Reply

    • November 27, 2013 @ 2:46 pm Sarah Blackwood

      Heh. Natalie, we crossed responses!

      Reply

    • December 2, 2013 @ 9:44 am APS

      Well, again, from what I’ve heard, the toy itself isn’t actually that fun…so on that point, I certainly agree that the product leaves a lot to be desired. But for me, there’s a big difference between my saying, “Hey, this is a step in the right direction, and I’m glad that girls who like pink AND like to build stuff now have a product that demonstrates that so-called girliness and engineering are perfectly compatible,” and “Let’s not expect too much from a toy built for girls, by girls.” In fact, I’d probably just say let’s not expect too much from a toy, period. I pretty much consider it gravy when a product represents social progress, even infinitesimal incremental progress – and frankly, I think it shows the genius of the female creator that she’s managed to generate this kind of viral marketing for a startup toy company. That’s some pretty sweet subversive girl power, if you ask me.

      Reply

  17. November 27, 2013 @ 2:44 pm Avidly on Facebook

    Sarah Blackwood commented on Avidly:

    I think this is an interesting take, and probably true to a certain extent. I’m curious to hear Natalie’s take. For my part, I don’t think anyone buying their girl some Goldiblox is like setting the kid on the pageant route or whatever, and there is certainly nothing not awesome about a girl in a tutu working with some beakers. To me the main thing here is what Natalie calls “lukewarm semi-feminism.” So this product works *within* a fairly unimaginative system to offer new options to girls– great! But also, to a not small degree, “sigh.” Nothing really gets shaken up here, nothing gets reimagined, and most infuriatingly, *toys remain gendered* which: why?! Why at all? Semi-feminism has gotten us to a certain point– middle and upper class women in college, women in boardrooms, etc.– but not at all far enough– those women in boardrooms assuming everyone has nannies, abysmal payscales for people involved in care work (as opposed to male-dominated Silicon Valley “disruption”), women’s bodies always assumed to be “in service” (to blastocysts, men, etc.), and toys that, rather than reimagining the world, just accept the values being peddled by those in power (STEM!), rather than trying to DISRUPT THAT POWER. And it’s just a little sad that this product has been so breathlessly lauded– like, man, we’re really happy for scraps these days, huh?

    Reply

  18. November 27, 2013 @ 2:46 pm Avidly on Facebook

    Sarah Blackwood commented on Avidly:

    Heh. Natalie, we crossed responses!

    Reply

  19. December 2, 2013 @ 9:23 am Avidly on Facebook

    APS commented on Avidly:

    I share your frustration about how much further women still have to go to achieve *true* equality (not to mention simple parity in things like pay) – but I guess my main issue remains: criticizing this toy and this creator strikes me in some ways as being part of the problem rather than working toward a solution.

    It’s fair game to point out that the “breathless lauding” is kind of ridiculous, that this toy isn’t the be-all-end-all, that we still have a long way to go before toys are just toys rather than being gendered – but why slam Goldieblox for being sexist when they’re at least trying to make a dent in those stereotypes? This is *progress*, even if only incremental – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be celebrated as such, even while recognizing we still have a lot of work to do. This type of criticism smacks a lot of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

    And let’s not forget: This is still a product, which is supposed to make money. If Goldieblox’s female creator lost sight of that critical fact, she wouldn’t be a woman in power for long. Seems to me she’s done a decent job of threading the needle between pushing things forward a smidge while still making a toy that will have appeal to girls more accustomed to pink princessy gear. And maybe even boys who like pink (gasp!) AND building stuff. This isn’t a Barbie who says, “Math is hard.”

    Reply

  20. December 2, 2013 @ 9:44 am Avidly on Facebook

    APS commented on Avidly:

    Well, again, from what I’ve heard, the toy itself isn’t actually that fun…so on that point, I certainly agree that the product leaves a lot to be desired. But for me, there’s a big difference between my saying, “Hey, this is a step in the right direction, and I’m glad that girls who like pink AND like to build stuff now have a product that demonstrates that so-called girliness and engineering are perfectly compatible,” and “Let’s not expect too much from a toy built for girls, by girls.” In fact, I’d probably just say let’s not expect too much from a toy, period. I pretty much consider it gravy when a product represents social progress, even infinitesimal incremental progress – and frankly, I think it shows the genius of the female creator that she’s managed to generate this kind of viral marketing for a startup toy company. That’s some pretty sweet subversive girl power, if you ask me.

    Reply

  21. December 19, 2013 @ 1:00 pm What Shall I Give Her? Thoughts On GoldieBlox, William's Doll, and the Confusing World of "Girly" Toys (Part 1 of 2) » On The Willows

    […] stopped, because something I couldn’t quite name was bothering me. When a friend passed along Natalie Miller’s critique of the GoldieBlox commerical, it put words to some of my GoldieBlox issues, specifically: Isn’t it strange that a company […]

    Reply


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