GoldieBlox, a relatively new toy company whose mission is to entice girls into the field of engineering, is no stranger to controversy. Their previous advertisement quickly went viral and both heartened parents seeking “alternative” toys to what their daughters are more routinely offered, and enraged those who saw the line as capitulating to commercial pressures to offer a more traditional storyline as part of its narrative.
Its advertisement, which won a coveted 2014 Superbowl spot, engendered even more outrage as claims that the girls shown “building” the Rube Goldberg machine did little of the actual work (plus the company appropriated the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” a little too freely for the band’s taste).
Now, just in time for the holiday push, the company is back with another ad that, similar to its previous break-out video, shows girls rebelling against the roles that society slots them into—pink-skirted and vested, doll-loving automatons. The grim-faced girls march, lockstep in pink high heels, in some dark, creepy factory setting in rote parallel with the thin, blond Barbie-esque dolls identically dressed (as the girls are—making the point of the uniform straitjacketing of girls and dolls both) who are rolling down a conveyor belt alongside them.
The voice of “Big Sister” is set to repeat as she intones, “You are beauty and beauty is perfection” until—wait for it—a girl with bushy blond hair in red sneaks and overalls decides to break out of formation and start a rebellion.
In this behind the scenes look at the making of the ad, it becomes clear that GoldieBlox has learned from past critiques: Girls and young women on set are shown speaking about their contributions in making this video and a female director is present.
Yet, clearly this mini-narrative is one that adults have conceived for the purpose of selling their new product—a rather thin, blond-haired doll who sports a tool belt and is GoldieBlox’s new “action figure.” From their site it’s hard to figure out what exactly she can (or can’t) do, but with her bright green eyes and bright yellow hair, she is the brand’s chief ambassador.
Criticism of the ad has quickly rolled in: The figure isn’t one that represents any kind of diversity, although there is (some) ethnic diversity seen within their (small) stock of products. Criticism also registers in that the girls—again— aren’t leading within this ad, not genuinely, as despite their takeover of the factory, this is clearly scripted.
This Lego ad (right) from 1981 is still a touchstone that most critics love to reference; here’s a girl who isn’t breaking out of a pink mold, but rather is using a product (at least at that time, Lego’s backwards gender marketing is another topic altogether) to simply enjoy building things. There is also the fact that GoldieBlox, perhaps in reaction to the backlash it experienced last year, is now pitting pink-loving girls and Barbie-esque dolls against the hammer-wielding, overall-wearing set, and why? Are they reiterating another kind of girl-divide when there doesn’t need to be one at all?
My own feelings are mixed. While I’d love to see an ad for a product that is geared towards encouraging girls into STEM fields be written by girls and likewise, produced by women who are their allies, let’s be realistic. I’m glad to see that (at least in the behind the scenes peek that is, no doubt, strategically released) GoldieBlox seems to be practicing what it preaches with girls’ involvement in the making of the short film.
However, founder Debbie Sterling has defended her products’ “lets meet them halfway” strategy of “luring” girls into engineering by calling on traditional or expected themes to then—whoosh!—suddenly help girls have the epiphany that building is fun. I find this strategy problematic since, while it aspires to undermine gender-bifurcated marketing, it also replicates it.
And yet, my own stance toward the brand has softened as I’ve listened to mixed reviews roll in over the past year. Some parents say their daughters (and sons) have enjoyed the products, some not so much, for various reasons. But it’s hard to turn away from the raw hunger for this shift, which I share. And, even if imperfect, there is no denying that GoldieBlox’s intentions are sincere. As a toy company, they are trying to shift stereotypes, not reify them—far more than most (if any) commercial toy companies can claim, including Lego and its backhanded moves toward girls for the past few years.
But the advertisement is still disturbing on various levels. For one, I’m not sure I even understand the creepy chant. As far as inane messages that girls are brainwashed into hearing, “You are beauty” isn’t one that often springs to mind, as the high percentages of girls who feel anything but beautiful will attest. In overalls and with hammer in hand, will the new Goldie action figure offer a fresh option? It’s hard to say. She could be thicker-waisted, she could be not so pale, she could be designed by a team of girls herself. Although she’s not any of these things, for now, I’m still hopeful she will be an alternative that’s currently just not out there, and for some girls, she will offer a shift.
Image via GoldieBlox website