GoldieBlox Means Well But Doesn't Live Up to the Hype

GoldieBlox has inspired much enthusiasm among adults. The concept—disrupt the pink aisle! provide girls with an alternative to princess-mania!—is the stuff TED talks and viral videos are made of. But are the toys actually any good? Those videos aren't just a P.S.A. campaign—they're advertisements. And there, the jury's still out.

The company's Super Bowl commercial conjured up a cross between Erector sets, soapbox-derby races and model rockets—but girl-friendly! It's a charming vision, but the reality is a little more limited. The company's first project, GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine, is a relatively simple kit meant to teach the concept of the belt drive, which a kid is meant to assemble from a series of pegs, a ribbon, and a crank handle. A single set isn't going to get a kid that far, and it seems likely to skew to the younger end of the recommended 5-to-9 age range.

GoldieBlox Means Well But Doesn't Live Up to the Hype

The feedback on Amazon's product page for Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine is mixed. The majority of the 435 reviews are positive but many are negative, complaining of low-quality components and interest quickly lost. What's more, several positive reviews admit the same faults. Though maybe some of the purchasers were just a bit... confused:

GoldieBlox Means Well But Doesn't Live Up to the Hype

Amazon reviews aren't a perfect measurement, of course—the dissatisfied are much more likely to complain—but it jibes with other reviews, as well. For instance, a reviewer from PC Mag had his daughter play with the original ribbon game, and he expresses concerns about replayability, the cost in comparison to other building toys and whether it's actually able to teach engineering concepts:

For $29.99, for instance, you can get the Lego Creative Bucket, with 600 free-form pieces that can make thousands of projects. If your girl won't buy anything not obviously girly, the 191-piece Lego Friends Olivia's Tree House costs only $20 and is a good starter building set.

Admittedly, Lego doesn't teach "engineering concepts," but I'm not sure GoldieBlox does, either. The simple belt drive in the GoldieBlox machine is a far cry from the complicated Rube Goldberg machines that the kids in the company's viral advertising video are making. GoldieBlox has expansion kits, but they're more of the same basic pieces.

Financial therapist Amanda Clayman concurs, in a Tumblr piece titled "I hate to be the feminist grinch here." She reports that her own six-year-old didn't bite:

It's like the great capitalist trifecta when the product, message, and need all sync up to something socially positive. But in this case I feel like the need and message are galloping off into the sunset, while the product sort of limps along behind.

Plus, despite Sterling's insistence that girls are drawn to stories while boys are drawn to building (questionable!), it makes for a very directed play experience. And it may be that open-ended toys are better are fostering the skills necessary for STEM in the long run. According to this New Yorker piece:

Video footage of the research shows a little boy who, while playing with a simple set of flat magnetic shapes called Magna-Tiles, needed a square tile to complete the "tiger house" he was building. When he couldn't find one, he made one by combining two triangles—a fascinating demonstration of how building toys connect to math concepts. It turns out that what makes toys effective at promoting STEM skills is not gender targeting or complicated design, but qualities like simplicity and open-endedness that allow a child to experiment and explore.

Besides, can't girls make up their own stories?

What I don't have a problem with: the pastel colors, a princess character or the cutesy animals. It's common to hear complaints that GoldieBlox isn't actually different enough from traditional toys, with its references to princess and "girly" color palette. But frankly, if Mattel were to roll out partner with the makers of Erector Sets to produce a Build Your Own Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse with lights and working motors, I'd be delighted.

Toy sales are starkly divided by gender, and it's worth considering this argument that GoldieBlox is practicing "Trojan feminism." Sure, it would be great if, like Harrods, toy stores quit dividing their wares into boy/girl and began organizing them by theme. But as it stands, a lot of adults won't venture past the pink aisle—and a lot of little girls won't, either. Isn't it better if there's something there that might build her confidence for the day it comes time to decide whether to take that physics class?

But, again, it all depends on the quality of the product. And while GoldieBlox isn't crap, it's not the women-in-STEM messiah, either. It's especially depressing when you consider that toys for boys around the same age—think of something like Hot Wheels, where they're encouraged to assemble elaborate tracks that test the boundaries of centripetal force—are relatively more whizz-bang, as this Huffington Post column points out. Plus, there are alternatives that'll get a parent more for her money, and it's worth noting that plenty of families want to provide their daughters educational opportunities but don't have $70 to blow on three different kits.

I was certainly enthusiastic when I first heard about GoldieBlox, and when I met founder Debbie Sterling (in my previous gig as a tech writer), I was charmed by her pitch. I don't think this is all some cynical marketing ploy. And it's possible that, as the company pulls in more investors, the additional money will dramatically improve the product. There was certainly a big leap between the initial version and the more polished product on shelves at Christmas. And supposedly they've got more advanced offerings on their roadmap.

But maybe this is just what happens when you try to marry wildly idealistic goals with selling an actual product—the concept so easily outruns the reality of what you can pull off. It's just hard not to feel like GoldieBlox has rocketed into public consciousness not because it's a magical play experience for kids, but rather because it gives grownups something to argue about.

Besides, even if Sterling does manage to "disrupt the pink aisle," it won't be enough. If only getting girls into STEM was as simple as buying them the right toy, or reading them the right picture book at age 7. Young women interested in tech have to run a lifelong gauntlet, from fighting the idea the computer lab is a boys-only space to facing down smug Hacker News "the disparity is because women just aren't inclined to code" types as fully credentialed professionals.

Sure, it feels great to RT that Super Bowl ad and it's fun seeing a niece unwrap a GoldieBlox set. But it's going to take a hell of a lot more work to have serious impact.

Image by Jim Cooke.