In a recent viral video, a Rube Goldberg device made up of a series of pink and purple toys—a feather boa, a tea set, a baby doll—moves along to the tune of “Girls” by the hip hop group the Beastie Boys. But in this version of the song, the misogynistic lyrics have been replaced. Instead of calling for girls “to do the dishes” and “to clean up my room,” the revised lyrics call for girls to build apps and spaceships. Produced by GoldieBlox, a toy company that pairs storytelling and simple machines to encourage girls’ interest in engineering, the video was quickly hailed as a success and the toys praised for being an example of how to get girls to maintain interest in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math, popularly known as STEM fields.
When the novelty of the catchy video wore off, however, the reaction to GoldieBlox was not entirely positive. Some comments criticized the quality of the toys, others said the main character of the stories was too thin and blonde, and still others disliked the fact that one of the story lines revolved around a “princess pageant,” arguing that it played into the girly stereotypes that the toys claimed to upend—not to mention the bad press from the brief legal scuffle between GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys. “You cannot create a toy meant to break down stereotypes when you start off with the ideal that ‘we know all girls love princesses,’” wrote Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of the forthcoming Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, From Birth to Tween, on her blog. Yet no matter one’s opinion of the product, the sentiment the video evokes—that girls shouldn’t be confined to or defined by what GoldieBlox calls “the pink aisle”—clearly resonated with many viewers.
Princess narratives (and, thanks in large part to Disney, the accompanying products) have become so ubiquitous among young girls that simply offering an alternative to such ideals can attract media coverage. In fact, Mercy Academy, an all-girls, Catholic high school in Louisville, Ky., recently received national attention for its enrollment video and the accompanying ad campaign.
Like GoldieBlox, the goal of Mercy’s video is to get viewers to understand the ways in which a product (in this case, the school) helps to empower young women. With the help of the firm Doe-Anderson, the ads bluntly refute the fairy-tale narrative on which many girls were raised. They feature paintings of a glass slipper and a faceless prince and princess, accompanied by various slogans, including: “You’re not a princess. Prepare for real life”; “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall. Be more than just the fairest of them all”; and “Don’t wait for a prince. Be able to rescue yourself.”
Mercy Academy’s principal, Amy Elstone, told Huffington Post UK that “as a Catholic institution, our foundress, Catherine McAuley, focused on education as a way of empowerment, self-sustainability and independence. We believe in empowering young women to chart their own course in life.” The high school is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, and the video, which at press time had more than 52,000 views, points out that the school offers “a strong foundation in faith” as one of the reasons the students there will be “better prepared for whatever comes next.”
The campaign is admirable not simply because it’s eye-catching and clever, but because it encourages young women to see their lives as multifaceted, to understand the need to develop their mind, body and spirit. The broader message of the video also emphasizes that developing one’s own talents is not only empowering but also can be a way to contribute to a larger community.
The video encourages young women to be themselves. It’s a common and perhaps overused refrain, but amid the uncertainty, anxiety and excitement of growing up in today’s world, young women can’t hear this enough. And even without the catchy ad campaigns, Catholic schools have played and can continue to play a vital role in helping students to take a whole-person approach to life and to strive to live according to Gospel ideals. In the end, it’s not the prevalence of princess pinks or waiting for a so-called prince that’s the problem, so much as the pressure caused by the pernicious belief that lives with alternate narratives somehow fall short. The truth is, as Mercy’s video put it, “In real life we all write our own stories.”