Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why I'm Not Excited About GoldieBlox

GoldieBlox made a huge splash on the Internet recently, with their commercial featuring a Rube Goldberg machine made out of fluffy princess-y toys and a parody of Beastie Boys' "Girls." For many people, this was their first introduction to the toy designed to making engineering more appealing to young girls. If you haven't seen the ad already, here it is:

This wasn't the first time I had heard of GoldieBlox, though. The GoldieBlox Kickstarter had been brought to my attention when it first came out, both by science blogs and feminist ones. Bloggers in both fields had positive things to say about the project. I liked the concept—wedding hands-on construction with a narrative is probably a great way to teach kids to use different information processing techniques in conjunction with each other, and a way to get kids who struggle with reading into books as much as it is a way to get girls into "engineering"—but the pink and purple frippery, as well as the heavy marketing towards girls, also made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn't quite articulate. After some thought and discussion with others, I managed to pare down my discomfort to some essential points.

  1. Gender Absolutism

This idea that "girls like reading, boys like building" that GoldieBlox is based on doesn't sit well with me. As a rule, I dislike gender absolutism, especially absolutism taken at such face value: is this true for all girls and all  boys, or only WEIRD ones? How much of parents' preconceived notions about what toys to buy their children comes into play (no pun intended)? How much of girls' disinterest in the science of building things is because many of the toys that develop the kind of spatial intelligence necessary are often marketed heavily, if not exclusively, towards boys?

  2. Male Normativity

 Moreover, why is girls' lack of interest in science (or at least, apparent lack of interest) considered a grave problem to be solved (with crap to buy), while boys' lack of interest in reading (or at least, apparent lack of interest) is nothing worthy of its own special toy? I'm not trying to play the "what about the men" card here, or Patriarchy Hurts Men Too; more to the point that any behavior in boys (and subsequently, men) is considered the norm, the default. We don't wonder why more men aren't nurses, secretaries, or stay-at-home parents. We don't worry that our sons don't play with baby dolls. Thinking of women as a problem to be fixed (and by fixed I mean made to be more like men) is not a good implementation of feminism.

  3. "Princess Creep"

So far, GoldieBlox consists of two stories. One is "The Spinning Machine," which is about how Goldie builds a machine to help her dog chase its tail. Fair enough. The second story, for whatever reason, is back to pretty princesses, all revolving around a beauty pageant: "The Parade Float." From the website:
In this much-anticipated sequel, Goldie's friends Ruby and Katinka compete in a princess pageant with the hopes of riding in the town parade. When Katinka loses the crown, Ruby and Goldie build something great together, teaching their friends that creativity and friendship are more important than any pageant.
"But the moral of the story is that creativity and friendship are more important than any pageant!" Yes, maybe so. And maybe the story will do a really great job deconstructing the role of beauty and youth for young women and how brains are more important—I would certainly hope so. But the book and toy set is still only available for pre-order, so I'll have to reserve judgment on the story until the new set is released.

  4. Drop in the Bucket

 To be fair, this isn't a problem with GoldieBlox as a product. However, GoldieBlox is a toy, and so this point is fairly pertinent: you can't fix broken gender stereotypes just by buying new (or different) toys. You don't get to give yourself a pat on the back for buying Goldieblox for your daughter if you do nothing else to challenge her developing brain and personality, or to take a critical look at gender disparities in the media and the narratives she receives now (and she will receive later) about what it means to be a woman.

  5. Fair Use?

And, for the bonus points, the fact that GoldieBlox didn't do their due diligence with spoofing The Beastie Boys in the above ad, only to turn around and sue Mike D and Ad-Rock after they expressed concern about their material being used without permission (to sell something, no less) is just the WTF cherry on this meh sundae. Hat tip to my friend Melissa for heads up on that.

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