The Commodification of Girls

So, everybody’s heard about the legal drama going on between toy company GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys, yeah? In case you haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis. GoldieBlox took a misogynistic Beastie Boys song, changed the lyrics to something that was less soul-crushing, then used the modified version as the musical track for a commercial. In the commercial, some guy named Brett Doar had built a super-sophisticated Rube Goldberg machine out of pink toys and cute little girls ran around in front of it while wearing safety goggles. While I am definitely in favor of encouraging kids of all genders to play with whatever toys they want, there is no mistaking the fact that this is a clear and obvious commercial meant to sell a product: some purple, teal, and yellow science toys because I guess GoldieBlox wants to make sure that they are identifiable as “girl toys” without making them pink because… uh… GoldieBlox has an issue with the color pink itself, not what it stands for in terms of gender segregating children’s toys? I’m not really seeing the sense in being like, “Hey girls! You can play with toys that aren’t pink! Here’s some purple ones too!” Whatever.

So the Beastie Boys had their lawyer send a letter to GoldieBlox essentially saying that they did not grant permission for their music to be used for a commercial purpose and, you know, knock it off I guess. Naturally, GoldieBlox decided to respond to this reasonable request by filing a lawsuit. Terrific.

Somehow, this has people pissed off at the Beastie Boys. This is not something I can get behind. I agree that the message behind the original song was gross. And, this part is worth noting: so do the Beastie Boys. They have made an explicit point of apologizing for their sexist and homophobic lyrics and have dedicated time in the spotlight to talk about important social issues like protecting women from sexual assault at concerts and music festivals:

The feminist goodness starts at 3:00.
If you wanna watch that fuckin’ GoldieBlox video you’re gonna have to Google it I guess because I have no interest in posting it here.

The Beastie Boys have been outspoken advocates for marginalized people for a long time now. While they certainly have made missteps in the past, they’re essentially every activist’s dream: people who saw the error in their ways and made a point to do better and be better. If we want to get people to change their minds about the things that matter to us, we need to stop being so shitty to them long after they’ve crossed over to our side. What is the point of continually rubbing their noses in past mistakes that they have already distanced themselves from and sincerely apologized for? Even though the lyrics are screwed up, GoldieBlox had no right to take music that someone else had created and use it to sell a product. Being mad about some problematic attitudes someone expressed in their creative work does not give anyone the right to steal that work and use it for their own financial gain.

And let’s talk about what’s GoldieBlox is actually selling for a minute. Like I said earlier, I want all kids to grow up feeling like they can play with whatever toys they want and pursue whatever they’re interested in without getting hung up on gender. I also believe that marketing has a powerful influence on the gender socialization of children. But girls always have, and always will, play with “boy toys”. I don’t know if I know any women who didn’t play with blocks and Legos and K’nex and Tinker Toys when they were children, even though toy companies didn’t start making purple ones until pretty recently. I agree that advertising for kids should be more gender-inclusive and encouraging, but can’t that be accomplished by putting more girls in the commercials and on the boxes without making a huge fuss about it? And without mocking the kinds of make-believe play that lots of children love? If the only reason why girls want to play with dolls and tea sets is social conditioning, then why do so many boys want to do it too, even when it means parental freakouts? I definitely think it’s a problem if we are sending girls the message that they should only play with toys like dolls or tea sets, but there is nothing wrong with kids engaging with those kinds of toys some of the time.

This circles back to an ongoing annoyance of mine. I’ve heard a lot of feminists talking endlessly about how we have to get more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, & math) careers because they’re challenging and they pay well and they’ve been kind of a guy party for a long time. I am fully supportive of removing any and every gender-based barrier from the path of anyone who wants to pursue a STEM career. However, I’m uncomfortable with the insistence/ “strong encouragement” that more women and girls have to pursue those careers, because I don’t like the insinuation that the gender pay gap has anything to do with women choosing “less valuable” or “less important” occupations. Fields that are typically dominated by women, like social services and care giving, yield terrible compensation because they are dominated by women. Society has devalued these essential services but that does not mean that they are any less crucial. It doesn’t mean that they are unskilled or easy. There are important things in the world that have nothing to do with math, science, or sales. When we start acting like it (and quit cutting funding for programs that benefit children, the poor, the elderly, and really everyone if you look at the big picture) then maybe we will start to see men moving into “women’s jobs” and women will have an easier time entering “men’s jobs” without the hostility they face right now.

In the meantime, maybe GoldieBlox can stop exploiting our discomfort with the gender segregated labor force (and the Beastie Boys’ creative property) for their own financial gain. The dreams of girls are not commodities.

UPDATE on 11/27/13: After posting this last night, I watched an interview with the GoldieBlox CEO, who claims that her products are the result of “research” into the ways that girls and boys play that yielded findings indicating that girls are more interested in stories and reading than in building. This is the same bullshit that Lego fed us when they came out with their Lego Friends line, also known as “easy Legos for girls that come in a purple box”. This is gender essentialism in feminist clothing. To make things worse, apparently the “stories” from the GoldieBlox build along sets involve shit like helping princesses build parade floats to compete in beauty pageants. Way to go, GoldieBlox, please continue to do whatever you can to advance the narrative that you can be a princess or you can be a smart girl, but you can’t be both. While you’re at it, make sure you’re letting little girls know that beauty is a competition and that pageants are acceptable and worthwhile rather than toxic and degrading. Fuck off, GoldieBlox.

Also, to clarify, I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the fact that women who do want to be in STEM careers are being excluded and pushed out. However, I think this has a lot to do with discrimination, discouragement in higher education, and workplaces that are hostile to women. GoldieBlox toys address none of those issues. By making a case about girls playing with the wrong toys, GoldieBlox’s advertising sends the message that the exclusion of women in STEM is somehow their own fault, and that if they just loved it more they could knuckle down and tough it out while they wait for more women to join their ranks. For more information about how we can address gender representation issues in STEM at an institutional level rather than an individualist level, check out this article by Erin Cadwalader and Janet Bandows Koster of the Association for Women in Science. Fun fact: none of the suggestions involve encouraging parents to buy more shit for their kids.


Capitalism Will Never Be the Solution to Rape

American Money by 401(K) 2013, on Flickr

Recently, a couple of new “anti-rape” product lines have been brought to my attention. The first, AR Wear, is a line of pants and underwear that are made of ultra-strong fabric that cannot be cut and lock in place to so that they cannot be removed. The second, DrinkSavvy, is a line of cups and straws that will detect beverage contamination with certain date-rape drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine. Neither has officially hit the market yet, as both are still in preliminary/fundraising phases.

There’s an immediate part of me that wants to rejoice. The prevalence of rape is starting to make its way into the public consciousness. People are donating their time and their money to projects that aim to reduce the incidence of rape. Both of those are good things. My kneejerk reaction to AR Wear in particular was a really positive one. But, as I thought more about these products, there was something that just wasn’t sitting right with me.

There’s been a lot of criticism echoing around the blogosphere that AR Wear will promote victim blaming, which is not necessarily something that I agree with. I would think that it’s pretty obvious that there are practical reasons that would prevent women from exclusively wearing expensive, high tech anti-rape underwear every day of the week. Of course, there are plenty of obvious rebuttals to every other victim-blaming line of reasoning, but the old arguments are more culturally entrenched and pervasive. Since anti-rape underwear is a relatively new thing, one would hope that “It’s her fault because she wasn’t wearing protective undergarments” isn’t a line of thinking that would be able to establish a foothold in today’s society without being an old argument that’s passed down from generation to generation. Again, this is just speculative on my part, so my hopes should be taken with a grain of salt. In light of the fact that AR Wear has already raised over $50k to start up their business, it seems that it will just be a matter of time before we find out.

So if my problem isn’t the potentiality for victim-blaming, what is the problem? I guess the first thing is that I don’t think that either product line will be particularly successful in achieving what each sets out to do: prevent rape. As far as AR Wear is concerned, there are unfortunately various ways to sexually assault victims without removing underwear. Also, in a coercive situation, an attacker can threaten, manipulate, or use physical violence to get the woman to remove the garments herself. In this situation, the product meant to mitigate risks can actually lead to the escalation of an already bad situation.

As far as DrinkSavvy is concerned, the most common form of drug facilitated sexual assault involves alcohol only. Date rape drug detection won’t do anything to prevent the overwhelming number of rapes that occur after a victim has had too much to drink – either willingly or because they were being pressured or misled by their attacker to drink to the point of incapacitation (as was the tragic case with 14 year-old Daisy Coleman of Maryville, MO). Additionally, an incredibly wide variety of drugs can be used to facilitate sexual assault, including but not limited to anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, and cold medicines. DrinkSavvy’s website says that initially the drinkware will only detect Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine, but even with updated versions it’s difficult to imagine that the drinkware will ever catch up. If these cups become as popular as their inventor wants them to be, potential rapists will likely just avoid using the particular drugs that the cups detect, as there is a wide variety of other options.

I don’t feel good about being too hard on the creators of these products – both companies drew their inspiration from awful first-hand experiences. I truly believe that the people behind these companies have the protection of potential victims at the forefront of their minds.

That being said, there’s an elephant in the room: money. There have not yet been prices released for these products, but considering the costs of research, development, and technology involved, they can’t possibly be cheap. It’s likely that only people who are relatively high-income will be able to afford to make casual purchases of these items. I can’t help but think though, that there is likely a market for these items with people who will spend money, even money they can’t really afford, in hopes of preventing future sexual assaults: actual rape victims. Many people who have survived rapes are traumatized, excessively anxious and plagued by intense fears of re-victimization.

When I saw the AR Clothing, my immediate thoughts were to wonder how I would be able to obtain at least one of the garments. Money was barely a concern, because the prospect of being able to go an entire day without the fear of rape was something that couldn’t be given a price. Believing in these products felt so important. I had to sit with my thoughts for a few days before coming to the difficult conclusion that anti-rape products would not make me rape-proof.

Despite my own conclusions, I can’t help worrying over the idea of victims sinking their income into investing in DrinkSavvy straws and cups over and over again, regardless of cost. I worry about the idea of victims feeling the need to purchase enough AR Wear to be able to outfit themselves in it every day. The products and the companies that make them are walking a fine line between offering a service and financially exploiting a particularly vulnerable population, if not outright crossing that line altogether. If there was good reason to believe that the products would be efficient in preventing rape, it would be worth it. Considering the obvious weaknesses in both product lines, I don’t believe that’s the case.

We all want for there to be quick fixes and easy solutions for preventing sexual violence. Anti-rape products play into these desires, becoming more and more profitable as the desperation for protection increases. At this point, I’m not sure what the best course of action should be. Should we protest these products, or should we sit back and cross our fingers, hoping our collective skepticism will be proven wrong?