Something looks amiss outside this house on Plumosa Drive in Pasadena. Actually, a lot of things look amiss. Strewn about the front and side yards are wires and cords, a folding table overturned on the lawn, a children’s stove smashed to pieces and, despite unseasonably hot afternoon temperatures, a pink umbrella abandoned beside the front door.
It looks like a garage sale gone wrong. Or perhaps the beginning of clean-out day on “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”
But on the backyard patio next to the pool, Debra Sterling explains that the mess outside (and inside too) is more than the set of toy commercial. Yes, she is producing a video that promotes GoldieBlox, building-block toys she designed specifically for girls. But by hiring Brett Doar, the creator of the must-see-to-believe Rube Goldberg machine in the band OK Go’s viral video for “This Too Shall Pass,” Sterling has turned this quiet suburban house into one very loud message: Give girls more than princess dolls and pink play kitchens.
“It’s sort of a commercial for a toy, but not really,” Sterling says. “It’s more like an anthem -- a power anthem for little girls.”
Little girls who grow up to be engineers.
Sterling’s story starts in high school, when the master at her school recommended engineering as a major in college.
“I remember that day because I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what it was,” Sterling says. “I was too ashamed to ask her because I thought it would seem stupid. But in my mind, an engineer was either a train driver or some dirty guy sitting alone at a computer.”
At Stanford she took an introductory mechanical engineering class and loved it. She went on to graduate from an engineering program in which fewer than 25% of the students were female.
Growing up, Sterling says, she and her sister were given ponies and Barbies to play with. “We never built anything. We thought those were boys’ toys, not for girls,” she says. “The blue aisle is for boys, the pink aisle is for girls. Boys get all the math and science and building and engineering stuff, and girls don’t.”
So two years ago, she decided to make a construction toy for girls. She researched gender differences and found what she thought was the missing link: “Girls love stories and characters, whereas all the construction toys are building for the sake of building.”
Sterling invented a character who was not like Barbie, not like Polly Pocket, not a Bratz girl. Her name was Goldie, and she was more like Pippi Longstocking or Punky Brewster -- “a funky, original role model, hopefully more modern,"Sterling says. Goldie is a builder, an inventor, a tinkerer.
Sterling launched GoldieBlox on Kickstarter one year ago with a goal of raising $150,000 in 30 days. She raised that amount in four days. By the end of a monthlong run, supporters had pledged $285,000 to start manufacturing. More than $1 million in pre-orders rolled in before the product was on the market, Sterling says. Toys R Us put GoldieBlox on its shelves nationwide.
To further her cause and her company, the entrepreneur tracked down and hired Doar, whose OK Go contraption has drawn more than 41 million views on YouTube. But whereas the rock band’s video has flying TVs and falling file cabinets and rolling oil drums, the GoldieBlox video has smaller-scale, domino-effect stunts involving a broom and a frying pan, a skateboard and a Rollerblade, a pink teapot and a heart-shaped light.
The GoldieBlox “machine” runs through the living room and kitchen of the Pasadena house, then across the backyard, down the side yard, and then back through the front door. Books set up like a house of cards tumble, sending a miniature hair dryer swinging like a pendulum and whacking a precariously balanced chair, which falls and propels across the fireplace mantel a headless doll that looks an awful lot like Barbie, rigged like a battering ram ready to trigger the next step in the chain reaction. And that’s just four seconds of a two-minute video, set to the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” rewritten to be less misogynistic, Sterling says.
Along the way, dozens of props smash and crash, flip and flop, swing, hit and fly. Arguably the highlight: A Goldieblox trolley sends a bowling ball down a slide and along the edge of a pool, where it knocks three Barbies --- sorry, “fashion dolls,” Sterling says, carefully correcting herself -- into the water.
The video is a bit of a subversive amusement, poking fun at the gender roles perpetuated through children’s playthings.
“I’m not trying to bash princesses,” Sterling says. “It’s more about showing girls other things. What I’m hoping is that every kid who watches this video gets inspired to build their own machine.”
That inspiration comes in the form of a video that has not only moments of rebellious humor but also a childlike sweetness that’s different from some of Doar’s caffeine-spiked, adrenaline-pumped productions. He and his team of four lived in this house for 2 1/2 weeks building and testing the dozens of tricks that make up the machine. When asked how many objects are used in the two minutes of running time, the crew is essentially stumped. The answer: too many things, changed too many times, for anyone really to know.