I don’t usually write about this aspect of the toy industry, but this particular case caught my interest. Last week I was geared up (pun partially intended) to write about the recent launch of GoldieBlox, a Connecticut-based company that sells a line of engineering toys aimed at girls. Through a combination of storybooks and building kits (based on skill concepts such as wheel and axle and belt drive), GoldieBlox construction sets endeavor to tap into girls’ interests in narrative and storytelling to inspire them to build things, create, and imagine. It’s exciting and inspiring to see construction toys targeted specifically at girls (though as Olga Khazan points out, there’s a long tradition of these), and it’s encouraging to see those toys receive positive attention after similar endeavors like LEGO’s Friends line drew criticism (even as it became a commercial success). GoldieBlox created a very fun promotional video featuring girls having fun and building a Rube Goldberg-like device, all set to a version of the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” (rerecorded and with more girl-empowering lyrics!)
And that’s where it got ugly. The Beastie Boys contacted GoldieBlox about copyright infringement, but did not take legal action. And then GoldieBlox sued them. I won’t recount the full details here; you can read the full story from a variety of sources, such as The Huffington Post, Adweek, and Forbes. GoldieBlox’s use of the song is complicated from a legal standpoint, and I don’t know much about copyright law. However, I found their quick jump to litigation and the legal document filed on behalf of the company quite frustrating.
The document details how sexist the song is and how important it is to empower girls to pursue STEM careers, which is all well and good (though the extent to which the original “Girls” is itself a satire of sorts has also been raised), but at times, the document begins to play fast and loose with what the video in question sought to accomplish. GoldieBlox claims their appropriation of the song was fair use and falls under the grounds of parody (since they rewrote the lyrics and rerecorded the music). Their insistence that the song’s use in the video be protected is largely asserted on ethical grounds, it seems:
“In the lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ song entitled Girls, girls are limited (at best) to household chores, and are presented as useful only to the extent they fulfill the wishes of the male subjects. The GoldieBlox Girls Parody Video takes direct aim at the song both visually and with a revised set of lyrics celebrating the many capabilities of girls.”
Certainly the company’s re-imagining of the song aligns with their mission to empower girls, but the song is not parody for a critical purpose, but rather, parody put to use to sell a product (however admirable the message undergirding that product is). There are plenty of other sexist songs that have lapsed from copyright, but GoldieBlox needed a song that people would recognize. Indeed, the video’s catchiness (or its spreadable or viral qualities), might largely be attributed to its appropriation of the familiar song. Even as it claims to revise and recode that song, it’s that tune that will stick in viewers’ heads, get them to click the share button, and remember to google “GoldieBlox” this holiday season.
A further frustration is the inconsistency with which GoldieBlox takes aim at traditional, sexist discourse (broadly speaking) and children’s consumer culture, specifically. The company’s mission (and in large part, their appeal to using the song) is based on opening up new options for girls and, put succinctly on their website, to “disrupt the pink aisle,” though their packaging is predominantly purple, red, pink, and yellow, and the toys themselves are molded in a range of feminine pastels. In short, they will fit right in on “the pink aisle.” Perhaps their design is tactical and the building sets will function like a Trojan horse: unleashing a set of engineering skills on consumers who thought they were picking up just another girl’s toy. I suspect, however, that the design of the GoldieBlox sets is not tactical–a radical way of challenging stereotypes–but is rather strategic: operating on the assumption that to sell toys to girls, they have to look like they’re for girls, even as those color schemes and designs are part and parcel of the culture they critique.
On the level of narrative, too, the books accompanying building sets seem to engage with core issues only superficially (this admittedly based on my perusal of their synopses). In the first story, Goldie must build a spinning machine to accommodate a group of friends (thus putting those engineering skills to work in order to serve or please others). In the second adventure, GoldieBlox and the Parade Float, Goldie’s best pal Ruby (described as a “princess-turned-engineer”) helps her build a device that utilizes wheels and axles. So the skills are there, but the tales nevertheless draw upon the kind of iconography the company seeks to dismantle. Yes, Ruby and Goldie are young inventors and engineers, but on the book’s cover–that is, at the point of sale–there’s a girl (either Ruby or their friend Katinka) in her crown and gown. While the personae of princess and engineer certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, for a company that makes the princess figure a kind of straw-woman for broader concerns in girl culture (even selling clothing proclaiming the wearer is “More Than Just a Princess”), GoldieBlox also makes strategic use of the princess.
I think it’s this superficial (and selective) engagement with important questions around girls and STEM skills that bothers me about the eruption over the Beastie Boys song. When pushed, the company lampooned the song as emblematic of the way that girls have been marginalized and shut out of vital cultural and vocational discussions, all while relying upon equally, if not more pervasive, narrative and aesthetic conventions that function (even implicitly) relegate girls to “the pink aisle.”