Standing at the precipice of misunderstanding depends on which side you’re facing.
There have been a number of notable moments lately that have exposed just how precarious binary gender narratives are in a culture that works overtime to show only narrow understandings of femininity and masculinity. Not surprisingly, feminism was at the center of all of these discussions. From the Beastie Boys non-ironic defense of their feminist credentials to asking the question as to how one of the leading masculinity experts avoided calling out the worst of the worst mansplainers, feminism seems to experiencing a resurrection of sorts.
There are many threads of feminism but the most common understanding is mainstream feminism, otherwise known as liberal feminism. Liberal feminism is best summed up by failing to recognize that lived experiences are not the same for all. This is a critical blind spot when one is in a position of power and has a web of privileges that benefit rather than block access to making decisions, which often leads to epic failures to recognize how this influences the way one speaks on behalf of “women” or minorities and other terribly relevant policy implications.
Recent mainstream feminist battles have been interesting to observe because the debate appears to pivot on practice. There was a time not that long ago where the shouting matches were over the very existence of a thing called feminism. Now the politics seems to be about who’s doing feminism “right” and who is doing it “wrong.”
Using the example of GoldieBlox taking the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” without their permission, we can explore this idea of who is practicing feminism “right” (specifically liberal feminism). GoldieBlox’s social venture for-profit mission is to sell toys that empower “girls” to pursue math and science-based careers through inspired yet gender segregated learning concepts like girls inclination to have strong verbal skills. Their theory of change seeks to “disrupt the pink aisle” which will eventually narrow the gender gap in male-dominated engineering fields. It’s a worthy endeavor if you don’t question the larger root causes that maintain this limited career access.
On the other side, we have the Beastie Boys with their checkered past of blatant sexism that was transformed by feminist consciousness, public apologies, and practicing “good” feminism. The Beastie Boys evolution from sexist to feminist was a disruption in its own right.
GoldieBlox’s defensive stance was that they were simply using the song “Girls” to demonstrate parody through a critique that proclaimed “Girls” is sexist. They banked on parody to protect them under the umbrella of fair use, which means they could use the song without permission or compensation. GoldieBlox, by contrast, are not sexist because their mission is to sell empowerment only to girls. It’s a thin argument that GoldieBlox has the authority to determine what is sexist and what is not.
The point of contention for the Beastie Boys was not being labeled as sexists but rather that GoldieBlox was using their song to sell a product. The two-minute video was in fact an ad whose message was to empower girls through the purchase of the GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine book and construction pieces. In a statement by Debbie Sterling, GoldieBlox’s CEO, “Our intentions are good. We just really want GoldieBlox to stand for a brand that empowers girls. We want to be good role models.”
There is no doubt that GoldieBlox wants to “change the equation” but the gender paradox they’ve constructed actually perpetuates a hierarchical system they allegedly wish to see equalized. The real politics are that it’s not good feminist practice to brand empowerment, especially in the form of a disposable, ephemeral product. The lesson learned is that good intentions are not a shield to protect you from being called out and that, like the Beastie Boys, one always has room to grow into being better feminists.
original publish date: December 3, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)