Disrupting the pink aisle? Not quite, GoldieBlox
Disney’s ‘Frozen’ and the girls’ toy GoldieBlox are really just clever marketing ploys by companies promising that they take gender equality seriously
Gwen Stefani (centre) meets Anna and Elsa from the new Disney film “Frozen,” at Disneyland park in November. Photograph: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disney Parks via Getty Images
Rejoice, sisters. Ding dong, the Disney princess is dead. Well, not dead exactly. But she’s had a makeover. All right, not a makeover per se. More of a realignment; a repositioning of her priorities. She has had what’s known in marketing speak as a long, hard look at herself in the mirror.
Disney’s newest princesses – Anna and her sister Elsa from the movie Frozen, which will be released in Ireland at the weekend – still have the wide, Bambi eyes, the tiny waists and the spectacular, Wagtastic hair. This is Disney, after all.
But in the pre-release trailers available on YouTube they come across as independent, sparky, multidimensional characters – Anna, in style and manner at least, is less classic Disney Princess and more “manic pixie dream girl”, which is probably only a marginal improvement. But the love story at the heart of the movie isn’t the friendship between Anna and her swarthy sidekick, Kristoff, it is the relationship between the two sisters.
For all that, I don’t think anyone would accuse it of being a feminist tour de force. Yes, it has two female leads and – unprecedented for Disney – a female director. According to proud Disney executives, it passes the Bechdel test (which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man) with flying colours: there are several conversations between the sisters that have nothing to do with boys. The trailer even asks: “Who will save the day? The ice guy? The nice guy? Or no man?”
Refreshingly, there is no must-find-and-marry-a-prince plotline, except for a subversive one that is turned on its head in the first half hour.
In the end, though, the original story of the Snow Queen by the not-exactly- renowned-suffragette Hans Christian Andersen was a more authentic feminist tale, and populated by a cast of strong females. Still, it’s a long way from the Little Mermaid, who abandoned her family and turned herself mute in order to hook up with a boy she barely knew.
With the step-in-the-right-direction Tangled and the courageous Brave under its belt, Disney seems to be moving away from the days of swooning, vacant-eyed and physiologically impossible princesses. And it’s paying off: Frozen took in $93 million (€69 million) in its first five days in the US, quite a few of those dollars coming from boys.
It’s not such a bad time to be a little girl. The internet has been falling over itself with rapturous reviews for GoldieBlox, a Meccano- and Lego-inspired construction toy for girls. Its website describes it as making “toys for future inventors” and “future engineers”. GoldieBlox’s motto is “disrupting the pink aisle”.
Feminist toys aiming to turn little girls into engineers; Disney princess movies that boys will love too. But are these really exercises in Trojan feminism or are they just cynical attempts by marketers to appeal to parents sick of the narrow gender roles their daughters are being funnelled into, while indulging in the same old stereotypes?
I love the rationale behind GoldieBlox. I love that its creator, Debbie Sterling, is a Stanford-educated engineer, who claims to have designed the toy range because she was worried about the lack of women in engineering.
But, try as I might, I can’t quite love GoldieBlox, with its pink ribbons and its princess pageant storylines. For all its talk of creating engineers and inventors, it is still squeezing girls back into that same, saccharine pink bubble. Sterling has said her starting position is that girls love pink and princesses, and telling stories. (Yes, I know: lots of little girls do. But since they’re bombarded with virtually nothing else from the time they can open their eyes, that’s hardly surprising. And try telling Hans Christian Andersen that storytelling is a girls’ thing.)
In the end, Frozen and GoldieBlox are really just sops to parents like me; clever marketing ploys by companies aiming to prise open our purse strings with the promise that no, really, they take gender equality seriously.
Disney seems to have realised it can’t keep churning out movies with terrible, retrograde messages for children and expect parents to go blindly along with it. But if it was really serious about making films that show little girls everything they are capable of, it would stop insisting that they all had to be princesses.