The Pink Aisle

12.24.1310:55 AM ET

Girl-Power Toy or Sexist Game?

The Goldieblox engineering tool set is a hot commodity this Christmas season—but critics say the pastel colors and princess theme perpetuate old stereotypes.

I think about toys a lot. As I’m cleaning up my twin four-year-old daughters’ playroom, it’s hard for me not to notice how much of the detritus is pink and pretty. There are hundreds of sparkly little pastel animal and humanoid figurines who demand only to be groomed and accessorized; this despite my determination, early on, that the bulk of their toys be gender-neutral and have some kind of educational value. It’s easy for me to point my finger at friends, relatives, and their preschool classmates for turning them on to the pleasures of the “pink aisle” of the toy industry. But ultimately I have no one to blame but myself (and my wife), since, as gatekeepers to the playroom, we’ve kind of been slackers.

This would gnaw at my conscience, if I had any concern that my kids were only receiving messages about traditional notions of gender roles. However “girly” their toys and clothes may be, the examples of their parents—I’m equal parts stay-at-home dad, writer, and carpenter and my wife is a doctor who keeps food on our table—and many of our friends’ families, represent a vast array of options for girls’ lives and future careers. I also feel like we have provided our daughters with enough gender-neutral toys to balance out the pink ponies and princesses. And even though they love their girly toys, it’s not like they only use them in the often passive ways the packaging suggests. Worlds collide in our playroom: My Little Ponies and Lalaloopsies embark on maritime adventures in Playmobil lifeboats and Melissa and Doug ice cream scoopers, and then go to sleep in houses made of LEGO and Magna Tiles.

Thanks to their old man, they’re conversant in real hammers, nails, bolts, wrenches, screws, and screwdrivers. I mean, how many four-year olds know the maxim “righty-tighty/lefty-loosey” and can change the batteries in their own toys even with those annoying childproof battery compartments that are held down with tiny screws?

Still, I’m always on the lookout for toys that nurture their mechanical instincts. So, months ago, when I first started hearing a little buzz about a line of toys called Goldie Blox, designed specifically to get girls interested in engineering, my ears pricked up. I checked out the website and read some reviews (mostly good).

Then, around Thanksgiving, my social media feeds and email inbox blew up with links to this awesome video on YouTube, of adorable little girls combining their boring pink-and-pretty toys with household objects and Goldie Blox components to create a mesmerizing Rube Goldberg contraption that chain-reacts, to the soundrack of a girl-power remake of the (pre-enlightenment) Beastie Boys’ embarrassingly misogynistic song “Girls,” through the house, garage, front yard, and ultimately back into the living room where it snaps off the TV that has been blaring traditional gender role messages.

The feminist blogosphere loved it, for the most part. But there were detractors, who suggested that, upon closer inspection, the Goldie Blox line was not much different than other “pink-washed” toys whose marketing depends on assumptions that boys and girls are fundamentally different in their interests, play styles, and aptitudes, and that girls must be marketed to with the trappings of traditional femininity in order to be enticed to build things. Goldie Blox play sets include blocks, cranks, spools, and shafts, and storybooks about the adventures of the main character (Goldie) and her friends, meant to inspire girls to play around with the engineering principles introduced in the stories. To the dismay of some, the toys come in pastel colors and the storyline of one of the two sets currently available involves the princess trope. (The characters subvert the standard princess narrative, but Goldie Blox critics groan and ask why princesses must be involved at all.)

And then there were the legal issues with the Beastie Boys, over whether the re-engineering of their song was a parody and thus fell under the category of fair use, or whether it was a case of a company trying to shill its product by infringing on the copyright of a band who famously wants nothing to do with corporate commerce. The conflict was made even more dramatic by the revelation of a clause in the recently deceased Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s will, requesting that none of his music ever be used in any kind of advertising. (You can follow the ongoing legal wrangling—which is not the focus of this article—here.)

People took sides regarding the integrity and the feminist credibility of Goldie Blox, but the upshot is that the product has been in the news almost continuously during the holiday shopping season, and if you have tried to find their toys online, you know that they have been flying off the virtual shelves.

I spoke to Goldie Blox CEO Debbie Sterling on the phone (while simultaneously chaperoning a preschool field trip—Worst Classroom Dad Ever) and asked her about the company and its critics who say the toys are no different than products like LEGO Friends, a line that feminists have criticized due to its pastel colors and tendency to focus on domestic or “frivolous” pursuits.

Sterling explained the genesis of the Goldie Blox idea as a conversation with a friend about the dearth of women in the field of engineering, and how neither of them had had toys that encouraged building when they were little girls. Her friend had played with her older brothers’ construction toys, but Sterling had only sisters and remembers nothing but girl-specific toys in her childhood. She says that she didn’t really know what engineering was until high school, when she wondered why a teacher who recommended it to her thought she would be suited to driving a train. Eventually, Sterling followed that teacher’s advice and ended up studying engineering at Stanford, with a focus on product design.

After having that conversation with her friend about their childhood toys, Sterling visited a toy store and was shocked that the aisle for girls was even pinker than it had been when she was a kid, and that it “inspires girls to be princesses and housewives and pop stars,” whereas the “blue aisle,” where toys are marketed to boys, promoted “math and science and chemistry and construction.” She felt like there was a huge gap in variety, and told me, “I don’t want to sound corny, but it felt like my life’s calling” to close it.

I asked her about the critics who say that Goldie Blox is simply the latest version of the trend to push STEM (edu-speak for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) onto girls by, ironically, using the very stereotypes that have contributed to the idea that boys are naturally attracted to STEM, and girls are not. I can see both sides of this contention, since, although I wish it weren’t true, my girls are kind of “meh” about their bucket of primary-colored basic LEGO, but will spend hours creating fantastical structures with their Cinderella-themed set. I can’t speak for all girls, of course (or even my own, really), but mine don’t seem to be very interested in building as a discrete mode of play. The construction is always part and parcel of some epic make-believe session, which usually (okay, always) includes beautiful clothes and accessories, and delicious baked goods.

Sterling explained to me that her approach to developing Goldie Blox was based on her education in engineering and design: “It’s not just about the technical know-how, but also about knowing who you are designing for.” This “user-centered design” philosophy led her to do a year of research about the “female brain, the male brain, and how hormones influence behavior.” She interviewed experts at Harvard and played with hundreds of children. “I don’t want to propagate gender stereotypes,” she told me, “but the fact is that boys and girls are different.” I asked her what her research suggested that those differences are. First of all, she pointed to girls’ verbal skills, which tend to be stronger than boys’ and, she argues, lead them to prefer to playing with a purpose: “Rather than just building for the sake of building, girls have a tendency to prefer playing with characters, themes, and stories.”

And, she explained, that’s why Goldie Blox comes with a narrative about a girl builder solving some kind of problem by building machines rather than an “instruction manual for how to build a thing.” When I asked her how she would respond to the criticism that basing the marketing on this theory might bolster the culture’s reinforcement of whatever innate gender differences there are (for what it’s worth, I think that the chicken and the egg exist in a permanent feedback loop and their primacy is irrelevant), she pointed again to the abundance of evidence in the research. Whether we like it or not, boys and girls think differently, she said, and we should encourage girls toward STEM pursuits, even if their approach is different than the that of their male playmates.

When I asked Sterling specifically about some people’s disappointment that Goldie Blox came in “girly” colors and even mentioned the problematic princess theme (however subversively), she explained a bit about what it was like trying to launch a startup that wants to “disrupt the pink aisle.” “When I first started Goldie Blox,” she said, “I had so much pushback from people in the toy industry. They told me that the concept was extremely ‘niche’ and could never go mainstream. I wanted to really push the envelope, but there was always that toeing of the line where I had to think about how to appeal to girls.”

The sales of Goldie Blox seem to suggest that Sterling has found a sweet spot where her product appeals to girls (or at least the people who are buying their Christmas presents), satisfies the toy industry’s notions of a viable commodity, and still approaches her goal of inspiring future female engineers. I asked her what the response to Goldie Blox, which she refers to as “overwhelming,” means for her and the company, and without hesitation she said that she intends to parlay it into further progress on her mission to get more girls into engineering departments in colleges and businesses, and that since the product is proving itself through sales, she will be less beholden to the gendered marketing she had to make concessions to in the rollout of the toys.

The first question I posed to Sterling—why I should buy Goldie Blox for my kids’ Christmas present—is moot now, given the date and the fact that they are sold out everywhere I look. Our conversation has me leaning toward the conclusion that there is nothing anti-feminist about acknowledging gender differences while trying to integrate the sciences, but I still need to see how these toys perform “on the ground.” Luckily, one of my girls’ best friends is getting a set for Christmas, and I’m definitely going to be arranging a play date.