Female Empowerment Is the New “New Coke” (Thanks for Nothing, GoldieBlox)

Thanks for Nothing_GoldieBlox (555x504) (455x413)

Do you remember “New Coke”?

In 1985, the Coca Cola Company replaced its original formula for Coke with “New Coke” for a mere 79 days — a marketing disaster that precipitated an abrupt return to the status quo. It’s a well-known example of an “oops, my bad” moment in product marketing.

GoldieBlox’s recent reversal on their Beastie Boys parody advertisement is another example of an “oops” moment, except that this time, it’s imbued with gender stereotypes.

The Parody

Two weeks ago, GoldieBlox, the maker of a supposedly gender equalizing toy, advertised its product with a parody of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls.” Initially, I was pleased to see GoldieBlox repurpose the Beastie Boys’ misogynistic song into a girls’ empowerment anthem. As Max from Litigation and Trial (an ABA Journal top 100 “Blawg”) discussed in GoldieBlox’s Parody of the Beastie Boys is Probably Fair Use:

It was [] deeply satisfying to see GoldieBlox, the makers of a science-based toy for girls (one that I pre-ordered for my girls and received as a gift from my mother), repurpose the song as a girls-empowerment theme, changing lines like “Girls, to do the dishes / Girls, to clean up my room” into “Girls, to build the spaceship; Girls, to code the new app.” They then posted it online, and it promptly went viral, shared widely by the many people who hated the original “Girls.”

Some claim that the Beastie Boys’ song is itself a parody of rap, but I see that as nothing more than conscientious people trying to defend their taste in bad music. The entire album is full of offensive messages (for which Adam Yauch later apologized). Besides, even if “Girls” is a parody, I don’t think it’s generally interpreted that way. So, I welcomed the GoldieBlox version.

We own the GoldieBlox construction toy (see the image above), but my daughters don’t play with it. Why not? Because they play with regular legos, blocks, and Lincoln Logs. Girls don’t need separate toys made just for them. They should be playing with the same toys boys play with (and vice versa). That said, I respected what I believed was GoldieBlox’s female empowerment message, and I felt that their parody and the subsequent lawsuit they filed against the Beastie Boys furthered this message.

The Lawsuit

On November 21, 2013, after the Beastie Boys questioned GoldieBlox’s commercial use of the “Girls” parody (without having paid any licensing fees), GoldieBlox filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California seeking a declaratory judgment that their parody was fair use. Filing preemptively is an aggressive move, but it’s not unusual, and it felt empowering to those of us who have hated the Beastie Boys’ misogynistic song for more than two decades. According to U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994), the GoldieBlox parody likely falls into the fair use exception to copyright infringement. As Max explains:

Truth is, Campbell alone resolves the issue raised by The Beastie Boys, i.e. that the use is objectionable because, regardless of how empowering and affirming it may be, it’s nonetheless commercial. Campbell says that commercial intent alone isn’t enough to preclude an infringing work from being protected as a parody.

It was a worthy battle for GoldieBlox to wage, and those of us who want broader fair use protections were cheering for them.

The Ditzy “Apology”

Then, on November 27, 2013, GoldieBlox took the video down and issued an “apology” to the Beastie Boys. They wrote (cue the giggle, high-pitched voice, and hair twirling): “We don’t want to fight with you. We love you and we are actually huge fans… And we want to be your friends.”

I can see how GoldieBlox, despite knowingly instigating this dispute, may have subsequently felt that it was unseemly for a toymaker to take such aggressive action. After all, we do teach our children to avoid fights. However, when I tell my daughters to refrain from fighting, I’m talking about physical fights and unfounded arguments, not legally meritorious claims challenging mainstream misogyny.

The message, then, of GoldieBlox’s reversal is: Oops. We don’t fight. We’re just girls. The juvenile, ditzy tone made me wonder whether the writer of that pathetic letter was a mechanical engineer (as GoldieBlox’s founder claims to be) or Malibu Barbie.

GoldieBlox’s change of heart in a week’s time exposes that either (1) female empowerment is nothing more than a marketing ploy, or (2) GoldieBlox is run by a bunch of irrational, silly people. The latter is a stereotype often associated with girls, one that reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), in which a woman diagnosed with hysteria (a condition thought at the time to be related to female biology) is placed on a bed rest “cure” that drives her mad. It is a story about the patriarchal isolation and silencing of women, which came to mind when I saw a tweet from Max about GoldieBlox’s message: “if boys don’t like something girls did, girls should back down, bat their eyelashes, and give up.”

Conclusion

In the end, the GoldieBlox reversal imparts three lessons for those of us who were duped into supporting this unprincipled toy company:

  • (1) Women are irrational and can’t be trusted to think things through (even when they seek legal counsel);
  • (2) Even the purest form of parody isn’t worth defending (even with an on point Supreme Court case); and
  • (3) The song “Girls” is rightly a classic with a message entitled to deference and respect.

Quite frankly, after this many missteps, I wouldn’t be too surprised if GoldieBlox’s next blog post blames the entire debacle on menstrual cramps.

PS. For all of those people hyped up gender differences after seeing the articles on male brains versus female brains, see A Quick Moan About Male and Female Brains: “We cannot talk about ‘hardwired’ differences between female and male brains without understanding the genetic factors, the environmental factors and the interactions and feedbacks between them.”

29 thoughts on “Female Empowerment Is the New “New Coke” (Thanks for Nothing, GoldieBlox)

  1. I (maybe ignorantly) enjoyed the Beastie Boys a lot when I was in high school, which was also after they had sort of turned tail, become enlightened, and helped put on Tibetan Freedom. At that point, though, I still even liked “Girls”, mostly due to the huge goofball factor of the song. Over the years, I cared for them less and less, and while it was sad to lose Adam Yauch so young, their music has had much less of an effect on me through the years.

    However, upon reading the surviving members’ letter to GoldieBlox, it upped my respect for them to more than I’d had in over a decade. I think that the company just made an extremely poor decision in the first place, and the initial lawsuit was the company putting their mouth up without the money to back it up. The message that Yauch stated in his will, that the Beasties’ songs not be used for any commercial purpose, is pretty resonant in the musical/commercial culture we live in. The surviving members actions are consistent with issues they’ve had with other companies.

    GoldieBlox’s message though, does sound like a high school girl who gets angry at something a popular boy in school does – until he turns his attention to her, and then she says, “Oh, wow, actually let’s talk a little more!”

  2. fransiweinstein

    Having spent my career in advertising this doesn’t seem like a marketing ploy to me. Whatever it was, though, when you consider how many toys are bought by women (versus men) whatever their reasons are, it was a monumentally stupid business move. Even if the toys women are buying are for boys.

  3. That’s wow, bizarre. I had a similar thought to you when I saw the video: that girls already play with the toys available to them. There doesn’t need to be girls’ Lego and girls’ science kits. Just like there doesn’t need to be video games for girls. Ohh, I’d love to see the marketing campaign for that one. The Skyrim for female gamers! Don’t worry ladies, you don’t have to lift that big heavy sword!
    Heads would roll…

    1. “you don’t have to lift that big heavy sword!” Ha!

      Yeah, girls play with the toys available to them. The only benefit I see to GoldieBlox is if the pink/golden/purple colors and marketing make it appeal to parents who either implicitly or explicitly adhere to gender stereotypes. GoldieBlox might be the only overtly science-based toy parents like that would buy for their little girls. Otherwise, I think the toy company is based on stereotypes and certainly furthered those stereotypes with this recent fiasco. Thanks for the comments!

  4. I suppose it’s fitting GoldieBlox draws their name from a cautionary tale about a foolish child who disregards an obvious danger until it is right upon her, after which she hastily retreats.

    GoldieBlox’s story makes no sense. If they didn’t realize until just now that The Beastie Boys strongly opposes their ad, why did they file the lawsuit a week ago? There’s only two possible explanations: either this really was a surprise and so GoldieBlox has the worst lawyers ever, lawyers who failed the communicate even the basics of the Beasties’ threats and failed to explain to GoldieBlox what their own lawsuit meant, or, GoldieBlox’s story now is total crap, and they’re hanging their lawyers (and, really, everyone) out to dry.

    1. Yeah, Goldilocks isn’t exactly the best role model in fairy tale land! Your comment made me laugh. 🙂

      As for GoldieBlox, I agree that their story makes no sense unless their lawyers really didn’t explain anything to them before filing the preemptive lawsuit.

    1. I’m amazed by how many parents adhere to gender stereotypes when choosing toys for kids. For my twins’ birthday party this year (we did it early), several parents asked me what my girls wanted. I said that my girls love books, Batman, transformers, and trains. My girls ended up receiving lots of art supplies (which we like), one or two books, and a lot of pink toys (including pink/purple Legos). GoldieBlox might be a good option for parents who just can’t buy a so-called “boys” toy for a girl.

  5. Amira

    Well said! This is a very important post. It’s clear Goldieblox stands for nothing more than capitalism & profit — when you take a stand on an important issue and then back down, or even worse, as in this case, reverse your platform as soon as a challenge occurs, then unfortunately all you’ve actually done is undermine and hurt your cause.

    I love the way you involve your children in these important issues– you’ve clearly found a way to communicate with them and teach them solid values and to stand up for what you believe– you’re girls look like crusaders 🙂 love, LOVE the photo!

  6. I watched the GoldieBlox commercial and found it less than inspiring. I thought the music and the purple, pink, and golden colors used drew away from its supposed message of gender equality (as does the subsequent apology by its founder). The one thing that the commercial did right was to show several girls working together to create a project–this should have been what was emphasized about the toy. I worked on an NSF grant intended to promote women in the sciences, and one of the main things that the research shows is that girls tend to shy away from STEM fields because they perceive them as being solitary pursuits, whereas girls prefer environments where they work with others as a team to accomplish a goal. The color of a building block toy is really irrelevant.

    1. You raise interesting points. I’m no fan of the pink and golden colors either (I’ll always love purple, though :)). While I dislike the idea of gender segregated toys, I think that GoldieBlox might encourage a parent who either implicitly or explicitly adheres to gender stereotypes to buy a science-based toy for their daughters. Also, children aren’t immune to these stereotypes, and a little girl might be more inclined to play with a pink toy than a blue one. Even one of my girls prefers pink toys (but will play with anything).
      Thanks for the comment!

  7. Goldiebox only apologized in that vapid way because they didn’t want to be sued. They were protecting their hind quarters. 😉 And you’re right: there shouldn’t be separate toys for girls and boys. There should be toys for kids.

    1. Yeah, they’re trying to protect themselves, but then they shouldn’t have picked the fight in the first place! As for gender segregated toys, the only benefit I see to GoldieBlox is that it might convince some parents with either an implicit or explicit preference for gender stereotyped toys to buy a toy for their daughters that encourages science.
      I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!

  8. I listened to the song and read the lyrics. Compared to rap music it is almost PG. As for toys marketed to one sex or the other, kids don’t usually make that choice, parents do. As a kid I received all the Barbie dolls, etc. and all i wanted to do was skateboard, ride my horses and catch frogs. Toys were lost on me.

    1. Hi Donna! The Beastie Boys’ lyrics are just stupid. I agree with you that it’s the parents who choose what toys their kids play with, and ads on TV sway children to want certain items. Both parental choices and toy marketing are based on gender stereotypes.

    1. Thanks for the link (I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet, but I will)! I definitely believe that this company perpetuates gender stereotypes, even without the advertisement debacle. It’s built on the idea that boys and girls are so different from each other that they need separate toys to achieve the same result later in life (success in STEM fields). Whatever average differences there may be between the sexes mean nothing for any individual boy or girl. Differences are largely the result of how we raise our children (as Donna said above, it’s parents who choose the toys).

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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