I’m a young feminst-y mom to twin two-and-a-half-year-olds. You’d think GoldieBlox, a line of toys that aims to interest girls in STEM, would be right up my alley. I’ve been known to rail against the hyper-gendered toy aisles available to my girls. I’m constantly looking for primary-colored options in a sea of pink and blue, and it often feels like a losing battle -- instead of selling one gender-neutral tool or dress-up kit, stores offer two options: one butched up for boys, one pink and glittered out for girls.
For now, I’m careful to buy both tea sets and trucks, baby dolls and blocks, tool sets and play kitchens. My girls are likely getting a work bench and a dress-up wardrobe for Christmas this year (thank goodness they can’t read). Their dad and I encourage them to engage in all manner of play, and I’ve even worked really hard to stifle my urge to prevent them from getting too dirty when they’re having fun outside. I never want them to feel that they have to stick to things deemed feminine or girly.
So this week, GoldieBlox is introducing Goldie, what they’re calling the “first action figure for girls.” They did so with an ad reminiscent of Apple’s 1984 spot, featuring an assembly line of high-heel wearing little girls being handed Barbie dolls as a glittery woman in a video intones over and over, “You are beauty, and beauty is perfection.” Then, a little girl who is a dead wringer for Goldie herself, clad in Converse and overalls that reminded me of a certain Lego ad from my childhood, wrecks the assembly line machinery and causes it to produce a hammer wielding Goldie figure instead.
Here’s the thing: by calling their toy the first action figure “for girls,” GoldieBlox seems to forget that girls (like me!) have been playing with action figures since forever.
Ninja Turtles are not just for boys, for one thing. I spent many hours on elementary playgrounds playing X-Men with my friends of all genders. As one apt Internet flow chart put it, if you don’t operate a toy with your genitalia, then it’s a toy for all genders. If GoldieBlox is the “first action figure for girls,” then all those other action figures out there become NOT for girls.
GoldieBlox bothers me because they perpetuate the harmful gender binaries in toys and products for children rather than shattering them, and they also perpetuate the false opposition our culture sets up between “beauty” and “brains.”
For one thing, though they might disagree, their thin, white, golden-haired toy may be wielding a hammer and building her own zip line, but is she really all that much different from the “fashion dolls” they claim their action figure opposes? I’d argue that if you play with a Barbie the way I and many of my friends did, she’s no less an action figure than a GI Joe is.
Barbie is deservedly criticized for perpetuating narrow beauty standards, but she’s also the vehicle for a lot of imaginative play for kids. Baby dolls are taken care of by child mommies and daddies, but Barbie allows adult role-playing -- you don’t take care of Barbie so much as you create narratives about and for her and enact those dramas through many wardrobe changes and small plastic accessories.
If your parents have been careful to balance out your toy collection, you might even find yourself constructing, or as GoldieBlox would say it, engineering your own Barbie dream house out of Lego. And Barbie manages to affirm that you can be both beautiful AND enjoy building things or being a veterinarian or an astronaut, that it’s not an either/or proposition.
The more I think about it, the more I’d categorize my vast collection of Playmobil toys as action figures as well. They started out as the normal family that populated the Victorian dollhouse my dad handmade for my sister and me. But eventually we got the hospital, fire, police, and even hot dog vendor sets, and the scenes we enacted through them were about far more than beauty or fairy tales or romance. To look at toy aisles and catalogs today, the dollhouse figures would be clearly meant “for girls,” and the hospital ones “for boys.”
I don’t want to slightly broaden the “for girls” category. I want to smash it altogether. If my daughters want to play with dinosaurs or are very into trains, they’re not doing things “for boys,” but rather “for kids.” And if they want to play dinosaurs while wearing a Queen Elsa dress from Frozen? That’s cool too. My feminism smashes pink princess stereotypes when necessary, but it also has room for the idea that pink princesses can also rock at math. We even have a Frozen storybook in which Elsa laments that she wishes she had a friend who knew geometry—an extension of her line about “frozen fractals” in “Let it Go,” I guess.
I’m not wishing ill on GoldieBlox, I just wish they’d look a little harder at the way they perpetuate gender binaries in toys, the same sort of binaries they supposedly want to do away with when it comes to STEM fields. I wouldn’t be disappointed if a relative gave my girls a Goldie figure for Christmas this year, either, though I might get Goldie a superhero figure to hang out with as well. In the meantime, I’ve got two little hammer-wielding princess-dress-wearing toddlers wandering around my house offering to “fix it,” and I think they’re turning out a-OK.