Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Girls, Goldieblox, and the Perils of Princess Culture

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.

Girls, you think you know what we want
Girls, pink and pretty's it's girls
Just like the fifties it's girls

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 time to change
We deserve to see a range
Cause all our toys look just the same
And we would like to use our brains

We are all more than princess maids

Girls, to build a spaceship
Girls, to code a new app
To grow up knowing
That they can engineer that

Girls, that's all we really need is girls
To bring us up to speed, it's girls
Our opportunity is girls
Don't underestimate girls

Note the direct critique of "princess" and "pink." Goldieblox is lavender and yellow. It focused on STEM, which I guess is fine, but I'm interested in creativity, not one special brand of creativity. But it definitely counters that Lego "friends" toy with which I started this essay. It's also sparked a real debate among feminist writers. Siegel has a round-up of some of the critiques, though I note everyone seems to think the advertisement and the subversion of the sexist song about "girls-as-objects" is pretty great. My emphasis below:
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 princess-themed toy.”...
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.

Maybe I should go shopping for presents now.