Consumer culture has always been about the illusion of options. GoldieBlox, a toy that encourages girls to be engineers, both plays off of stereotypes about female needs and yearnings (the need for a story, the requirement of pink packaging) while also attempting to undercut current pink princess culture, which, as I mentioned in my previous column, remains the dominant image of “femininity” in America. In a previous ad for GoldieBlox, we could see little girls seated in front of a television, bored out of their skulls by ads which depicted little girls playing princess. Together they would develop a miraculous contraption that would turn off the TV, while a parody version of the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” played in the background.
The ad garnered considerable attention, especially in light of the discussion on whether or not GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” should be considered fair use (the makers of GoldieBlox have subsequently agreed to redo the ad). Less consideration has been given to the parody itself and the fact that “girl power” is so often framed by pitting girls against girls, rather than creating an environment where little girls and boys are encouraged to choose toys that appeal to them.
The problem with GoldieBlox’s ad was the same as in Pink’s song and music video, “Stupid Girls,” where a little girl is encouraged to choose between a doll and a football. After Pink showcases various dumb girl stereotypes—the valley girl carrying her puppy in her purse, the bimbo who wants to be loved, the skinny blonde who refuses to eat- our little tomboy heroine makes the “right” choice and goes for the football. GoldiBlox encourages a similarly reductive attitude towards gender, with little girls' sing-song voices hating on dolls: “…we would like to use our brains. We are all more than princess maids.” As if girls don’t use their brains when playing dress up or with dolls. As if the very accoutrements of girlhood render girls deaf, blind, and dumb.
Anti-princess culture is often more hostile towards girls than princess culture itself is. It enforces negative stereotypes about femininity by asserting that the only way girls can be smart is to reject traditionally feminine things. It’s wonderful when girls are strongly encouraged to excel in a range of different fields, but I’d love to see a world that also lauds men who pursue a career as a nurse or teacher. For all the furious antipathy towards the pink aisle it is much easier to be a tomboy in our culture than to be a little boy that likes girlie things. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that we still view traditionally feminine things as less important than male ones. A girl who likes aggressive sports and toys that feature weapons is likely to be praised for her tenacity, while a boy who likes to play dress up and play with dolls is still seen as doing something that is fundamentally taboo. This is clearly seen in the slew of cases where little boys have faced repeated harassment at school for wanting to wear nail polish or wear dresses. But we don’t have movements encouraging boys to explore their “feminine side” precisely because we don’t view doing so as meaningful or important.
Ads like the one for GoldieBlox reinforce the idea that girlhood is an obstacle to success, rather than simply encouraging girls to pursue what they want and love who they are. Phrases like “more than just a princess” do little to counter pink culture but do a lot to harm girls. By consistently presenting girlie-girl culture as stupid, airheaded and catty, we are effectively reducing the chance that girls who do like dolls and princesses might see themselves as capable and competent just as they are.
In its second season, Mad Men famously played off the idea that women had only two options for what they could aspire to be in life: a Jackie or a Marilyn. Today we see that false and limited dichotomy as completely sexist, but we are still offering girls and young women shallow and limited options: the pretty princess or the tomboy warrior, the playboy bunny or the gaming geek. Let’s not confuse these new cookie cutter models of female identity with genuine empowerment. True freedom will come when we don’t feel the need to continuously remind girls that they are “more than just a princess.” The only word that has ever stuck with this brand of messaging is the word just. Girls need models of empowerment that don’t consistently emphasize that their burden will be to forever fight against a world that sees them as meek and incompetent. It’s a sad lesson, and one which perpetuates a view in which girls will never be seen as brave or strong without a caveat.
Of course, at its root, all advertising wants to us to get rid of our old toys and replace them with new ones, at least until we get bored of old patterns or eventually grow up. Today, we need toys that challenge children to explore the world around them, rather than remind them that the gender they are born into will determine their entire path, whether they like it or not.Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.