Every Yack Needs a Good Hack
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

Ten years ago I’d never heard of an “un-conference.” Now they are a fading fad. I’m not bold enough to claim that we invented the media studies “un-conference,” but I am certain that some of our motivations for the Flow conference stemmed from frustrations often felt in the humanities: not enough opportunities for talk and way too much talking just to be heard. I think we were successful in addressing the first concern and perhaps guilty of perpetuating the second. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons the “un-conference” has become unpopular of late is the sense that the conversations they produce don’t amount to any fundamental changes to the field or the media studies mission. At least traditional conferences are seen as possible outlets for testing driving article drafts and promoting book projects.

Before we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and accept that we are just another traditional discipline too invested in our own insular conversations to be bothered with alternative presentation (and publication) platforms, I’d like to propose that we revisit an aspect of the “un-conference” that Flow most definitely did not pioneer, but has become a staple of the digital humanities un-conference circuit: the Hack-and-Yack. Hack-and-Yack refers to a set of intersecting (though sometimes also competing) practices at un-conferences wherein scholarly conversations are complemented by efforts to “make” digital tools that elucidate, complicate and facilitate scholarly interventions. I learned how to make a twitter-bot at a THATCamp un-conference even as I engaged in provocative conversations about twitter-bots as culture jamming versus cultural critique (versus techno-fetishistic wastes of time). While in the DH world, Hack-and-Yack has increasingly become a polarizing and unproductive “hack versus yack” argument, my takeaway from THATCamp was the mutually constitutive possibilities that emerged when the definitions of “making,” “tools” and “scholarship” were tested and intersected. Hack-and-Yack might offer a usable framework that media studies could adapt for the purpose of transforming not-fully-formed ideas into sustainable experiments that forge new approaches within the field.

hack and yack

The Hack-and-Yack structure might offer opportunities for discussion, collaboration, production, and presentation.

What if the Flow conference served as an incubator for new modes of scholarly production, distribution, aggregation, annotation, argumentation, engagement and intervention, with the Flow Journal serving as a platform (or a “spreadable” brand) that sponsored these emerging projects? What if we re-calibrated roundtables as planning sessions with the explicit outcome a proposal draft that could be presented to all conference attendees at a showcase event? Wouldn’t it be great if we could invite representatives from granting agencies like the NEH, SSRC, NEA, Mellon, MacArthur, etc. to serve as informal evaluators at this event?

My goal here is not to diminish the importance of talk as productive labor. There is little doubt that sharing ideas is an essential stepping stone for generating more complex understandings of our media industries and practices as well as for potentially shifting paradigms for how our field operates. But the process of moving from creating knowledge to creating works that disseminate knowledge beyond a small number of privileged conference participants is often left unfinished when the three-day gabfest ends and we return to our homes. Sure some of these ideas find their way into our classrooms and even our publications but these seem like small returns on our investment in trying to flip the conference on its head. Instead, we might look for ways to channel talk into new modes of engagement with our desired audiences, modeling alternative modes of media production, media consumption, and media analysis.

Truth be told, there are already a range of media studies projects that borrow from Hack-and-Yack principles by looking to create media even as they aim to study its impact. We might look to AJ Christian’s phenomenal Open TV project as a model for producing, distributing and studying online queer television. Or we might learn from the Organization for Transformative Works initiative, spearheaded by Karen Hellekson, Francesca Coppa, Rebecca Tushnet and others, which has brought together fans and scholars to both archive and study fan creative works. Or, we might draw inspiration from the work Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley have done creating workshops that train academics in videographic criticism and, in conjunction with their collaborators Catherine Grant and Drew Morton at [in]Transition, producing an open review publishing platform for these works.

image 3

Logos for Open TV, OTW, and [in]Transition, all projects that create media as they study it.

We don’t have to start with anything nearly as ambitious or impressive as these projects, but we should start by recognizing that they all emerged out of intensive and inspiring conversations that went beyond the talking stage. Let’s start small. I’ve created a Youtube channel for the conference: (over)flowTV (with much thanks to Will Brooker for coining the term – even if I am using it out of context). Let’s imagine what we might do with it to propel our yakking into hacking.

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo.
2. The Hack-and-Yack structure…
3. Logos for Open TV, OTW, and [in]Transition (composite of screenshots).

Please feel free to comment.

“Its Not Just a Doll; It’s a Social Movement”: Investing in Black Toys Then and Now
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Healthy Roots

In my previous post I explored some of the rhetorical and representational strategies used by toy start-ups pitching STEM products for girls through crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In this post I want to compare those campaigns with ones for toys aimed at African American girls and focused on helping them to overcome internalized racism and colorism with regards to their appearance. Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect successfully raised funds to manufacture lines of dolls that came in different skin tones (yet all identified as “Black”) featuring hair similar in texture to African American women that could be styled in ways evocative of the African diaspora. I also compare these crowd-funded initiatives with an earlier attempt by Shindana in the mid-to-late-1970s to produce toys for African American children. In triangulating Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect’s campaigns in relation to GoldieBlox and Shindana I hope to capture how notions of play and of power operate differently today for African American-led ventures into children’s culture.

Naturally Perfect

Healthy Roots

Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect dolls capture the diversity of skin tones found in the Black diaspora. Where Naturally Perfect (top) identifies all four ‘girls’ as African-American, Healthy Roots (bottom) matches skin tone with geography and disperses its ‘girls’ across the globe.

Much like with their STEM-toys-for-girls-focused peers, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect foreground the organic relationship between their company’s founders and the products they were pitching. Both Yelitsa Jean-Charles and Angelica Sweeting positioned themselves as African American female entrepreneurs whose desire to empower young Black girls went hand-in-hand with their identification of a notable gap in the market that their products could fill, thus walking that fine line required of social entrepreneurship in linking ‘doing good’ with ‘making money.’

Unlike Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Jean-Charles and Sweeting downplayed their pioneer status in favor of foregrounding their own victimization by societal beauty standards as inspiring their endeavors. If the former talked about wanting more girls to follow her into careers in science and engineering, the latter reminisced about feeling ostracized as children and frustrated with their own appearance. Jean-Charles begins her pitch by noting, “Growing up, I suffered from many insecurities about my skin color and hair texture. I was often told that in order to be beautiful you had to have long, flowing hair or fair skin.” Meanwhile, Sweeting explains how developing the Angelica Doll proved therapeutic: “As I began to develop The Angelica Doll and give serious thought to the things I wanted to do for young girls, I realized that I had been influenced by society’s standard of beauty for as long as I could remember. Here I am – 27 years old, and I am honestly just beginning to walk into who I am, my natural beauty.”

Yelitsa Jean-Charles

Angelica Sweeting

Yelitsa Jean-Charles (top) and Angelica Sweeting (bottom) both claim that the ideas behind their doll lines emanated from their own struggles to see their own beauty as children.

While I have no reason to doubt either of these women’s claims, their rhetorical focus on personal journeys toward self-love over career and education-driven aspirations (Jean-Charles identifies as a children’s illustrator while Sweeting offers no information about her career path other than being a wife and mother) is somewhat revealing of how white privilege works. Where Sterling et al. advocate for toys that get girls excited about science, engineering and technology, Jean-Charles and Sweeting suggest that Black girls first need to rebuild their self-esteem before they can aspire to barrier-breaking career choices. Tellingly, Sweeting offers “The Angelica Doll is a courageous, bold entrepreneur full of self belief, natural beauty, and perseverance.”

Angelica Doll

Angelica’s entrepreneurial spirit only emerges once she experiences self-love.

Though they positioned themselves as outsiders, both Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect towed the industry line in positing toys as the solution to social problems while ignoring both the family and socio-economic environments in which play takes place. As Elizabeth Chin argues, it serves the economic and cultural interests of the toy industry to claim “it is children’s relationships with things rather than people that is most critically important for their sense of self”[ (( Chin, Elizabeth. “Ethnically-Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry.” American Anthropologist 101:2 (June 1999): 305-321. ))]. Healthy Roots asserts that “to solve [the] problem” of people of color being “told to change the natural texture of their hair in order to go to school or get a job” their doll line will “educate children and mothers about the joy and beauty of natural hair.” While there is little doubt that the Healthy Roots dolls might be tools that parents can use to encourage their children to appreciate their hair in the face of ongoing cultural stigmas and institutional racism, the dolls alone are not going to undo these problems. Yet, the assertion that instilling pride in how Black girls look at themselves will serve as a catalyst for action is built directly into the company’s mantra: “Healthy Roots is not just a doll. It is a social movement.”

Despite the rhetoric of transformation it is also important to note that A) both companies accept without question the notions that girls of any color want to play with dolls and that self-love is rooted in “broadening” beauty categories rather than overturning them. In this regard, these initiatives like the STEM-for-girls ones, re-inscribe and reinforce gender norms when it comes to play reassuring consumers that ‘change’ is truly skin deep while biology remains intact. B) Both sets of dolls are priced between $65-88 with an additional $30 required to acquire the Big Book of Hair that teaches kids how to style natural Black hair (whereas an 18-inch Frozen Elsa doll will cost $25-30 and your average children’s book is under $10). While this clearly makes the dolls unaffordable for most people (even as it acknowledges the existence of a middle-class Black constituency who might buy into the concept if not the actual product), it also speaks to limitations encountered by current-day toy entrepreneurs in terms of controlling manufacturing costs. Indeed, both Kickstarter campaigns identified their number one need as raising capital to meet manufacturer minimum order requirements, suggesting where the real product cost comes in (Naturally Perfect stated that it needed to raise $25K to meet the 1000 unit minimum demanded by its manufacturer, which works out to $25/doll excluding prototyping, packaging, shipping, and other expenses). And finally, C) Health Roots makes a point of connecting the ‘social movement’ inspired by its products to the need to “bring diversity to the toy aisle,” a correlation that again situates ‘change’ comfortably within consumerist ideals, but also seems oblivious to prior efforts to sell non-white toys at retail.

Big Book of Hair

Images from the Big Book of Hair that demonstrate how to style Black hair

That neither campaign showed any awareness of the historical company they keep is not surprising; crowd-funding strategies demand a focus on the new rather than on continuity. Nevertheless, a quick look back reveals that there have been efforts beginning in the early 1970s to diversify toy lines. While early mainstream efforts like Mattel’s Colored Francie doll were met with criticism that they merely painted the dolls brown and used pre-Civil Rights era language like ‘colored’ to describe the toy [ (( see Ann DuCille’s Skin Trade for an extensive discussion. DuCille, Ann. Skin Trade. Harvard University Press, 1996. ))], the rise of the Black-owned Shindana toy company in 1968 offers both a important contrast with and cautionary tale for today’s efforts.

70s Toy Ad

Efforts to ‘diversify’ doll lines in the early 1970s typically involved dying existing molds brown. The Talking J.J. Doll was one of Shindana’s early successes

Shindana, which means ‘competitor’ in Swahili, was an initiative launched by Operation Bootstrap following the 1965 Watts riots. Operation Bootstrap was a “self-help job training program” that emerged following the Congress of Racial Equality’s strategic shift from “nonviolent direct action to community organizing” [ (( Ellis, Russel. “Operation Bootstrap.” People Making Places: Episodes in Participation, 1964-1984. Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. No date. http://www.russellis.net/writings/ Accessed April 4, 2016. ))]. The organization sponsored black-owned businesses in poor neighborhoods that fed part of their earnings back into their local communities in the form of jobs and infrastructure. The ideal of “profit-turned-to-education” was imagined as not simply improving lives in impoverished Black neighborhoods, but also leading to a politicized Black citizenship that had the clout and resources to push back against those in power [ (( see Russel Ellis’ People Making Places for an extended history of the organization. ibid. ))]. As Lou Smith, Operation Bootstrap founder and Shindana’s CEO explained, “The answer I have come up with is that we must use the system’s weapon against it. It is a must that we establish our own economic base from which to finance our struggle… All the profits from these ventures should be used to finance the work of the organization as well as creating jobs for our ghetto-trapped brother… In short, we must inject the “soul”of the black community into the economic area” [ (( Quoted in Ellis. ibid. ))].

A significant aspect of Operation Bootstrap’s approach was a refusal to rely on federal assistance, instead looking to find investors among liberal-leaning members of the business community. Mattel gave Shindana an estimated $500,000 in loans and technical assistance to launch its operation. At its height, Shindana operated a factory in South Central Los Angeles that employed 70 people manufacturing dolls that were based on ‘ethnically correct’ Black features (Baby Nancy, Talking Tamu), Black celebrities (talking Flip Wilson, Red Foxx, and Jimmie Reeves plush dolls as well as plastic dolls based on the likenesses of Marla Gibbs and O.J. Simpson), and board games rooted in African American culture like The Jackson 5 Action Game and The Afro-American History Mystery Game. Sales reached $2 Million in 1975.

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Pages from Shindana’s 1978 toy catalog showcase their diversity of product lines

Ann DuCille suggests that Mattel’s investment in Shindana was not as altruistic as it may have seemed as the company not only used Shindana as an idea incubator for how to reach Black consumers but also piggybacked on the company’s early market success to release a new set of Christie dolls, billed as Barbie’s Black friend. The size of Mattel’s operation meant that it could manufacture toys in higher volume at lower costs, which in turn forced Shindana to begin importing parts from China to keep its pricing competitive leading to layoffs at the Shindana factory. To complicate matters further, the support Mattel offered Shindana had largely been in the form of retail distribution assistance, which meant that when Mattel was ready to release its own set of Black dolls, it was easy to squeeze Shindana off store shelves. Shindana ceased operation in 1983.

Shindana's Success

Shindana’s success would prove its undoing as companies like Mattel flooded the market with Black dolls and toys while mimicking Shindana’s marketing

Coming back full circle to Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect it quickly becomes clear how placing their efforts in historical context complicates both the business plans and the politics they advocate. The keys to Shindana’s early success and subsequent downfall were controlling manufacturing but not distribution (as well as perhaps being too trusting of their investors’ goodwill). In contrast, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect do not own their own means of production but have some modicum of control over distribution in the form of direct sales. But their price points make it all but impossible to find retail partners like Wal-Mart or Target, leaving boutique and specialty stores not especially known for catering to minority clientele. Ultimately, diversifying store shelves remains an obstacle both then and now, though for different reasons. And while Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect have not sought assistance from mainstream manufacturers like Mattel, that doesn’t mean that industry leaders don’t see crowd-funding as a form of market research for determining emerging consumer trends. As my opening post about Project MC2 argued, MGA Entertainment developed a STEM-based lifestyle brand in response to the successful incursions companies like GoldieBlox had made with millennial parents through Kickstarter.

Of greater significance, perhaps, is the clear shift from a community-based form of identity politics to an individuated one. Where Shindana saw empowering African Americans by creating Black toys as intertwined with creating Black jobs, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect define empowerment almost exclusively in neoliberal terms as helping Black girls find self-love. Accordingly, external challenges to the Black community are overcome by individuals acquiring commodities that boost their self-confidence and teach them how to turn a social stigma into a stylish form of self-expression. If investing in Shindana was positioned as an investment in African American economic self-determination, an investment in these newer enterprises is marketed as an investment in oneself (or in one’s daughter, niece or sister), but not in a Black infrastructure that might combat institutionalized racism.

Image Credits:

1. Healthy Roots Cover Image
2. Naturally Perfect
3. Healthy Roots
4. Yelitsa Jean-Charles
5. Angelica Sweeting
6. Angelica Doll
7. Big Book of Hair
8. 70s Toy Ad
9. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Girls)
10. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Boys)
11. Shindana’s Success

Please feel free to comment.

Investing in Girl Play: Kickstarting a New Era of STEM Toys?
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Inspiring Play

Roominate’s success is positioned as both forward thinking and familiar

In my prveious Flow post I argued that MGA Entertainment’s transmedia product(ion), Project MC2, was marketing STEM as a lifestyle for tween girls. I also argued that MGA’s motivations for entering this market were likely less about wanting to shift the tide in girls pursuing engineering degrees and more about competition from emerging toy companies specifically claiming this demographic of girls, tweens, and parents concerned about the mainstream toy industry’s seemingly archaic adherence to reductionist gender binaries.

This post takes a closer look at a few of these so-called industry outsiders who are leading the charge to change girls’ play culture and guide them toward future STEM fields. More specifically, I analyze the ways these companies have positioned themselves to ‘consumer-investors’ on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While my objective is not to deter from the likely genuine desires of these companies and their founders to make positive interventions into girls play culture, I do seek to demonstrate how they strategically construct both the scope of their interventions and their own legitimacy as interventionists.

The examples I draw upon are from the Kickstarter campaigns for Goldieblox, Roominate, and i-Besties: Middle School Moguls and the Indiegogo campaign for Miss Possible. The first two originate as construction toys (though Goldieblox has since introduced an action figure line) while the other two brands are dolls accompanied by multimedia extensions that offer varying degrees of interactivity (GoldieBlox and Roominate have also recently ventured into app-enabled enhancements for their physical toys). All four companies launched their crowdfunding campaigns between May 2012 and June 2015 and all four exceeded the dollar amounts they were seeking to raise.

Miss Possiblei-Besties

Miss Possible (top left), i-Besties (top right) and GoldieBlox (bottom) represent a new crop of girls STEM toys

All four companies were launched by women with advanced degrees in STEM or MBAs, which is notable considering the dearth of female executives in the toy industry (LEGO has 22 men and 2 women in leadership roles; Mattel employs 11 men and 1 woman on its Board of Directors). Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen (Roominate), Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves (Miss Possible), and Gina and Jenae Heitcamp (i-Besties) all looked to establish their credentials as engineers, scientists and business experts, but not as toy industry insiders, in building support for their cause. This positioned them as outsiders bringing new ideas to a stale male-dominated medium, but also as novices and idealists, which potentially undercut investor confidence in their ability to follow through on their initiatives. Unsurprisingly, Sterling was quick to point out that GoldieBlox was supported by the founders of Cranium and Klutz Press, two men with longstanding reputations as toy industry innovators who sold their startups to Hasbro and Scholastic. Likewise, Brooks and Chen noted that their product had been backed by entertainment and media mogul Mark Cuban after having been pitched on an episode of Shark Tank. In general, the founders foreground the relationships they had built with veteran toy manufacturers and distributors as assurance that their outsider status was more rhetorical than infrastructural.

Importantly, all 7 women used their college experiences as de facto origin stories for their products, reciting almost verbatim their shock at how few other girls were in their programs (MGA’s Isaac Larian also offered a ‘where are all the girls?’ epiphany for launching Project MC2 – albeit 35 years after he graduated from college – suggesting that this trope has quickly crossed over into mainstream efforts to sell STEM toy lines). They all then proceeded to make the spurious leap from low female enrollments to the lack of play options for girls, suggesting “you can’t be what you can’t see.” By spurious I don’t mean to suggest that they mischaracterized the state of girls toys, which is strongly entrenched in domestic, social, and appearance-based play scenarios, but rather, that their correlation selectively focuses on play objects rather than play environments. Brooks and Chen explain how their love for engineering stemmed from childhood experiences like Brooks’ father giving her a saw instead of the Barbie she requested and Chen growing up building LEGO creations with her older brothers and giving “no thought to gender differences in toys.” Though these disclosures are intended to justify the need for the products being ‘kickstarted,’ they also inadvertently undermine their effects-based arguments by revealing how parental interventions and gender-neutral household dynamics were ultimately the greater influencers on these women’s career paths. Here the rhetoric of parental intervention is transferred onto investing in the product lines being developed.

Also of significance is the way these campaigns go out of their way to reassure potential contributors that playing with STEM toys will not sap girls of their essential ‘girlyness.’ This message is conveyed on two fronts. First, the seven CEOs establish that they have not lost their femininity despite pursuing science and engineering careers. Sterling twice repeats that she enjoys pink princesses and playing dress-up while also advocating that girls are “so much more than that.” Her campaign video features her sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor in what is presumably her house rather than behind the desk at her office, which both juvenilizes and domesticates her ambitions. Hobbs and Eaves recount that they thought up Miss Possible in their dorm room while sharing “a pack of gummy worms (yummy!),” a rhetorical maneuver that ‘cutifies’ their business plan.

Engineering Toys for Girls

Screengrab of Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter pitch video

Second, the products pitched fit comfortably within established tropes of girl play culture. Roominate offers girls the opportunity to build and design their own dollhouse: “Designing the room ties the experience back to common play patterns that we know girls love!” [ (( To Roominate’s credit, their second crowdfunding campaign openly celebrates the diverse creations girls have made with their product, which include cars, space ships, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge and other non-domestic designs. ))] i-Besties seeks to take advantage of girls “already established play patterns” with dolls and doll fashions to ‘edutain’ them about “modern concepts of entrepreneurship and technology.” Hobbs and Eaves brag that the Miss Possible doll with have a “vinyl body and brushable nylon hair (like Barbie).” GoldieBlox reminds parents that an essential difference between boys and girls is that while the former have innate spatial skills the latter have superior verbal ones (read, boys are naturally good at unstructured play while girls take instruction well), which is why GoldieBlox combines building with stories that guide girls through the process. While some of this might be interpreted as a set of backdoor strategies to get girls interested in STEM, it also normalizes the industry’s status quo when it comes to gendered tastes and segregated sensibilities, offering product differentiation within established toy and consumer categories rather than challenging the logics of retail toy shelf slotting.


Dollhouses and interior decorating: backdoor strategies to excite girls?

The embrace by most of these entrepreneurs of the industry standard that kids want toys (or at least packaging) that somehow look like them is perhaps most apparent in their nod toward supporting diversity in their products. Miss Possible declares that “We want every girl to see powerful role models who look like her” accompanied by a promise that their second doll will be of African American aviator Bessie Coleman (the Kickstarter campaign is to prototype their Marie Curie doll), while i-Besties enthuses that the doll line is “as diverse as the girls who love them. Distinct in culture, personality and talents, they come from backgrounds that include blended, bi-racial, military and single-parent households.” Just like Miss Possible, however, their initial prototype doll, McKenna is Caucasian (she is also the self-identified ‘business boss’ of the group whereas the other non-white members have more discernibly exploitable high-end skills like coding and graphic design). In both instances, whiteness remains the default product that must succeed in order to get a complete racially-diverse set. [ (( Roominate again proves the exception with all of its packaging featuring non-white girls playing with the toy and its initial mini-figures based on childhood versions of the company’s founders, who are both Asian-American. ))] Diversity is also seemingly vinyl skin deep in the sense that there is virtually no address of diverse experiences or reasons why girls of color might either embrace or reject STEM. In this regard, the promise of diversity mimics the industry’s current reduction of race to a color dye rather than a socio-historical condition that influences and impacts everything from play possibilities to career opportunities.

Miss Possible

Miss Possible promises that diversity will follow if investors fund their Marie Curie doll

Finally, it is important to place efforts to inspire a love of STEM through play within the context of entrepreneurship. While it is a common refrain within these campaigns to suggest that more women becoming involved in STEM will make the world a ‘better place,’ there is a decidedly careerist bend to this notion. i-Besties bluntly states its goal to inspire girls to become CEOs, but all of the projects loosely connect improving the world with the success stories of their companies’ founders. Simply put, through the logic of crowdfunding, an investment in Roominate is both an investment in girls’ futures and in the present ambitions of the women who founded the company. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging more women to become scientists, engineers, and business-owners, there is some concern that tying this accomplishment to entrepreneurship’s investor model places the responsibility on consumers rather than public institutions. Entrepreneurship’s focus on market competition and executing sustainable business plans contributes to the conversion of young girls into customers rather than seeing them as a community with shared interests in STEM. Notably, none of the companies I’ve discussed share any of the proprietary science or engineering behind the products they are selling, nor do they acknowledge their own complicity in taking STEM jobs away from both girls and boys through their contracting of more cost-effective overseas manufacturers and product testers (granted these aren’t the sexy STEM jobs imagined as making the world a better place).

Roomminate in Wal-Mart

Roominate conflates sales success and being stocked at Wal-Mart with empowering girls

The arrival of STEM toys brings with it a lot of excitement for play’s potential to change the demographic makeup of the next generation of scientists and engineers. How that potential is refracted through the toy industry’s entrenched product and consumer categorization practices remains to be determined. Despite the celebration of crowdfunding’s ability to circumvent the established industrial etiquette by appealing directly to consumers as investors, the girl inventor promoted by all these initiatives still seems constrained by the need to embrace a market-friendly invention of girlhood.

Image Credits:
1. Roominate header
2. Miss Possible
3. i-Besties
4. GoldieBlox
5. Debbie Sterling’s kickstarter pitch video (author’s screen grab)
6. Dollhouse interior decorating
7. Miss Possible diversity
8. Roominate in Wal-Mart

Please feel free to comment.

“Smart is the New Cool”: Branding Project MC2’s S.T.E.M. Lifestyle
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Netflix original series Project MC<sup>2</sup>

Publicity Image for the Netflix original series Project MC2

At the 2015 New York City Toy Fair MGA Entertainment, makers of Bratz and Lalaloopsy, introduced its new initiative, Project MC2, which targets girls 6-13 and seeks to get them excited about S.T.E.M. through a branded toy line, app, interactive website, social media campaign and a Netflix series produced in conjunction with DreamWorks’ AwesomenessTV, all launching simultaneously in September 2015. MGA CEO Isaac Larian explained that he was troubled by the low enrollment of women in college engineering programs harkening back to his own undergraduate days when he majored in civil engineering at Cal Tech and had only one female classmate. Larian stated that his hope was that Project MC2 would contribute to a woman becoming the next CEO of Microsoft or Google (though tellingly not MGA). [ (( Stevens, Heidi. “Project Mc2 dolls intended to nudge girls toward STEM careers,” Chicago Tribune online. August 21, 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-sun-0823-balancing-act-20150821-column.html Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

While Larian’s hopes for Project MC2 are likely genuine (at least in part), the timing of his renewed concerns needs to be understood not just in relation to the ongoing gender gap in S.T.E.M.-based careers, but also in relation to the inroads made by startup companies like GoldieBlox and Roominate in securing very limited shelf space in stores like Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart, not to mention the crowdfunding success that they, iBesties and Trobo the Storytelling Robot have found, indicating a growing market for toys that challenge gender norms and encourage girls to engage in S.T.E.M. activities. GoldieBlox had over 5500 backers on Kickstarter and in addition to raising $285,000 (exceeding their $150,000 goal in just 4 days), the company received pre-orders north of $1,000,000 when it launched in 2012. It is currently available in more than 6000 retail outlets worldwide. Perhaps most importantly for MGA, GoldieBlox’s latest products are girl engineer and programmer “action figures,” shifting its primary competition from construction-based toy companies like LEGO and Mego Blocks to doll lines like Mattell’s Barbie and MGA’s Bratz. [ (( For an insightful analysis of GoldieBlox’s troubling insistence on calling their toys “action figures” instead of “dolls,” which potentially reinforces gender hierarchies when it comes to toy culture, see Derek Johnson’s 2014 Flow column “CALLING “ACTION” IN THE GOLDIEBLOX FRANCHISE”  http://flowjournal.org/2014/11/calling-action-goldieblox-franchis/ Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

Goldie BloxRubie Rails

Where S.T.E.M. toys for girls have up until now largely focused on construction sets, companion dolls/action figures like Goldie Blox, Rubie Rails and iBesties are now entering the market.

None of this is to say that Project MC2 isn’t a sincere attempt to capture girl consumers and ingratiate them into the wonders of S.T.E.M. The brand features four teenaged female friends from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and with diverse skills who work for a spy organization run by women called Nov8 (pronounced “innovate” but also the date for National S.T.E.M. Day). Though the premise lends itself to action and adventure, the Netflix series and website make clear that these girls use science and engineering to solve cases. The series stresses female friendship and the importance of girls working together and supporting one another. It also depicts the four protagonists as not only comfortable in their own skin but also fashionable and conformist (they are not depicted as outcasts for their interests nor are they made to “stand out” among other girls. They are smart, cool, and accepted).

Project MC2 has also tapped Danica McKellar, former star of The Wonder Years (1988-1993) noted for earning a degree in math and then publishing several books directed at girls about the topic as Nov8’s director, codename The Quail. McKellar bring “authenticity” to the project (all of the other characters are portrayed by actresses with no touted S.T.E.M. skills) and in many ways embodies MGA’s approach to feminizing S.T.E.M. Her bestselling book Math Doesn’t Suck relies on examples like learning how to properly create a shoe shopping budget and using ratios to determine whether or not to be into a guy in order to supposedly make math “relatable” to girls’ experiences. Likewise, Project MC2 positions S.T.E.M. as just another facet of (stereo)typical girlhood (though the Nov8 team is exceptional, the girls are presented as equally concerned with their appearance as with saving the day; as simultaneously capable of mooning over Prince Harry – the dimwitted celebrity they are assigned to protect – as they are the advanced tech that Nov8 uses).

With the Netflix series providing a playable storyline that can be acted out through product acquisition, Project MC2 utilizes immersion and extractability strategies to move consumers across product(ion) sites. The dolls are dressed in the exact same outfits as the characters on the series and come with experiments that kids can perform at home drawn directly from things shown in the series. For example, the Adrienne Attoms doll comes with an erupting volcano experiment that the character performs as part of her initiation into Nov8. Yet, it is telling that most of the “gear” extracted from the series focuses on benign rather than disruptive experimentation. While some of the tools the Nov8 team uses in the series might be difficult to recreate at home without exceeding MGA’s $14.99-$49.99 price-point, it is worth pointing out that Netflix’s Adrienne Attoms also demonstrates how to lift fingerprints using a quarter cup of flour and two dashes of cinnamon while the characters of Bryden Bandweth and Camryn Coyle are able to build a camera pen and a portable police scanner out of spare parts. Their dolls, however, come with experiments that demonstrate how to make a glow stick necklace (worn by Bryden) and how to assemble a mini plastic version of Cam’s customized skateboard. In other words, where the show features characters’ adept at creating surveillance technologies, the “gear” available for purchase focuses on items that are intended to be looked at. In other other words, the Project MC2 brand is geared toward encouraging girls to see S.T.E.M. as a lifestyle amplifier tied to traditional notions of girlhood rather than a way to push back against existing gender scripts.

Project MC<sup>2</sup> Dolls

Project MC2 dolls come with experiments and fashions drawn directly from the Netflix series. Note the beaker-shaped combs, which exemplify MGA’s efforts to combine Bratz’s fashion and beauty focus with a new emphasis on smarts.

Lab KitLab Kit

The Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit is another accessory used on the Netflix series that is intended to make S.T.E.M. stylish.

AwesomenessTV’s promotional materials for Project MC2 in some ways best reveals MGA’s approach to getting tween girls to invest in S.T.E.M. as a lifestyle brand. Awesomeness produced several short videos where the stars of the series are interviewed by Ashley Adams, host of the web series Foodie Face about topics like how to make homemade acne prevention cream and sunburn masks. These paratexts help bridge the brand’s interests in both science and style by focusing on how household concoctions could be used to keep a girl looking her best.

Mika Abdulla and Victoria Vida on Foodie Face discussing the science of homemade sunburn cures.

While this seems a far cry from the series’ “spies save the world with S.T.E.M.” premise, it isn’t really: the characters on Project MC2 are all about celebrating and documenting their awesomeness, regularly breaking out in “go us” chants and constantly uploading selfies to Instagram. While there is nothing wrong with girls expressing excitement about their accomplishments, the characters on Project MC2 verge on narcissistic. Mirroring this, AwesomenessTV also produced a series of unboxing videos featuring each actress squeeing over her doll. The spots focus on their palpable excitement over seeing their faces on the packaging and the ways their outfits have been carefully reconstructed for the dolls. Each girl talks about how the clothes worn by their character both captures their fictional and real personalities. There is nary a mention of whether the actresses have come to appreciate S.T.E.M. through their embodiment of these characters, but it is clear that they have come to appreciate the coolness of their characters’ geek chic looks. Not surprisingly, Larian recently announced MGA’s search for licensing partners to produce a line of Project MC2 inspired clothing and accessories. [ (( Sax, Barbara. “Evolving MGA,” Global Licence! October 1, 2015. http://www.licensemag.com/license-global/evolving-mga Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

Mika Abdulla unboxing her doll. Note the focus on style over science (presented as easy and fun) and the slippages between herself and her character.

Another promotional paratext prepared by AwesomenessTV that drives home the significance of style in making “smart the new cool.”

Selling Project MC2 as a lifestyle brand that uses S.T.E.M. to express one’s individual style might actually entice some tween girls to buy in to the concept as much as the products, but lifestyle brands also typically privilege external expressions of personality over character or skill building tools, which risks promoting S.T.E.M. as cool without making it any more accessible to girls who are otherwise regularly told that they aren’t any good at math or science. Project MC2 offers to give S.T.E.M. a product makeover; I’m just not sure it is intended to actually excite girls about the process of experimentation, either with S.T.E.M. or gender norms.

MC2 Lifestyle

The Project MC2 lifestyle brand focuses on making the S.T.E.M. look trendy for tween girls without much focus on the need for actual S.T.E.M. knowhow.

Image Credits:
1. Project MC2 promotional image
2. GoldieBlox
3. Rubie Rails
4. iBesties
5. Project MC2 dolls
6. Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit (unopened)
7. Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit (opened)
8. Project MC2 lifestyle brand

Please feel free to comment.

The Price of Success: A Lament for the Unconference
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Flow 2014 Logo

A week has passed since I returned from the fifth Flow conference held at UT Austin. Like with many successful conferences, I left having made some new contacts with scholars working in my particular sub-discipline of media studies; I left having reconnected with old friends, mentors and colleagues, reaffirming a certain bond that only those insane enough to pursue academia as a career share in common; I left having acquired some new nuggets of information, some helpful feedback on projects currently in medias res, and some necessary challenges to my unacknowledged assumptions about how media operate. In sum, Flow was a worthwhile three days with much to build on.

And I also left mightily impressed with the efforts made by the RTF Department’s current cohort of graduate students and faculty mentors, who clearly worked very hard to pull off an ambitious conference filled with special opportunities, including receptions, screenings and three core conversations with television industry insiders. Conference organizing is hard work that often goes unacknowledged (or worse, organizers are blamed for everything that doesn’t work, while the parts that do are shrugged off as having supposed to have been seamless to begin with). In truth, conference organizers play essential curatorial roles in shaping the dynamics for attendees, creating interesting panel configurations, controlling pacing within and in between panels, arranging the schedule in such a way that hopefully places panels in conversation with one another and allows those conversations to progress horizontally throughout the conference. I have said on more than one occasion that organizing the first Flow conference in 2006 provided me with insights that have carried over into other aspects of my career, including designing course schedules, lesson plans, and even assembling committees. I’m confident this year’s organizers will take away similar lessons.

So, that’s that. The conference was a success both for me and for the organizers. I’m certain many of the attendees feel the same way. Kudos!

And, yet, even with all this goodwill, I am left feeling unsettled about the entire experience.

Let me preface this part of my post with some necessary caveats:

1) I co-created the Flow journal (with Dr. Christopher Lucas) and the conference concept (With Dr.’s Lucas, Michael Kackman, Allison Perlman, and David Uskovich) while I was a graduate student at UT, and there is most definitely a part of me that still feels a sense of stewardship over both entities that somehow entitles me to wax nostalgic about the so-called good old days and always colors my experience of what has come since. I know that isn’t fair.

2) Austin and UT have both changed a lot in the 9 years since I earned my PhD, and I’ll admit that I felt somewhat alienated from a city and a campus that I once felt deeply attached to and that this disconnect was a bit unnerving for me (I know that some of my fellow returnees had very different responses to their homecomings)

3) Since leaving UT for Old Dominion University, I’ve been involved in several initiatives that place curatorial work and community building at the forefront of academic practice, including MediaCommons (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org), all of which have had me thinking way too much about sites of social experience.

4) I am admittedly a curmudgeon

So take the following with grains of salt.

When I returned home after this year’s conference and my departmental colleagues asked me to recount my favorite parts of the experience, I told them about an extended lunch conversation I had with Courtney Brannon Donoghue and Kimberly Owczarski, where we discussed the different institutional cultures wherein our approaches to media studies were embedded; I told them about a brief conversation in the hallway in between panels with Shawna Kidman and Kathryn Frank on the adaptation of superhero properties to television and the new type of embedded fan embodied by showrunners and other industry insiders; I told them about a fleeting exchange with Aymar Jean Christian about a local queer hip-hop festival happening in Austin the same weekend as Flow, which made me wonder about the different performance circuits and venues for this subgenre. In other words, I didn’t talk about the roundtables or the core conversations, but instead I focused on the moments in between them. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a big deal for me – many of my more meaningful moments at conferences typically happen in the interstices – but Flow was purposely designed to privilege the hallway conversations and bar chats; to reproduce the best graduate seminar we’ve ever had where ideas multiply and mutate as classmates are inspired by one another to re-imagine the field. Hence, I found it somewhat ironic that the parts of Flow that left the greatest impression on me were precisely the parts that weren’t part of the official conference experience. At the end of day, Flow felt just like another conference.

Of course, that isn’t really true. There were no papers delivered. Roundtables felt more like workshops than panels. The time allotted for presenters to articulate their positions and for audience Q&A was inverted. These are significant transgressions of the typical conference setup. But in its effort to build on past successes and innovate on an “unconference” format that has become more common since 2006, my impression is that this Flow was going for “bigger is better.” That’s a shame, because the conference’s appeal was always its casual intimacy.

Some of this boils down to where the event was hosted. The first two Flow conferences were held in the Texas Union, and while it was not a perfect setting – The Texas Governors’ room had a long rectangular table in the center and four dozen chairs lining the periphery, which created an unintended asymmetry that literally required roundtable participants to have their backs turned to the audience – the venue still felt fairly informal (despite the Union’s stateliness). The Student Activity Center was built to host conferences, but not an unconference. The big halls on the SAC’s second floor felt cavernous and gave the roundtables an unintended rigidity and restrictiveness because of their lecture-hall design. The smaller rooms on the third floor were admittedly better, though even there, more thought might have been given to how to set them up, especially as tables and chairs were not locked down. Reproducing a standard “panelists facing audience configuration” felt very… standard.

Texas Governors Room

The Texas Governors Room, in the Texas Union at UT, where the roundtables of past Flow Conferences have been held

SAC Room

One of the rooms in the Student Activity Center (SAC) where roundtables were held at this year’s Flow Conference

One suggestion for Flow 6.0 might be to think carefully about conversational spaces and how those facilitate innovative forms of scholarly engagement. For me, future roundtable spaces might include living rooms and park benches; they might encourage group work or offer conversational stations (imagine speed dating for media scholars) that participants can move in-between at will.

Living Room

The next Flow Conference should consider conversational spaces like living rooms…

Speed Dating

and/or a type of speed dating set up for media scholars

In much the same way that unconferences like THATCamp have unofficially borrowed from the Flow concept, perhaps Flow might take a page from the digital humanities and consider introducing a riff on the “hack and yack” format, where TV scholars are tasked not only with critical conversation about television’s past, present and future, but actually with proposing alternate production, distribution, financing, programming, and reception models.


Just as “unconferences” like THATCamp have pulled from the Flow model, perhaps it is time for the Flow Conference to look to digital humanities for future inspiration

Another source of ambivalence for me were the core conversations. Admittedly, it was great to hear industry insiders tell their versions of where television is going, and while their musings were largely anecdotal, anyone doing production studies-type research was bound to take away something useful from the trade stories, turf marking, on-the-ground theorizing, and semi-public disclosures these folks produced. If Flow continues down this path, I strongly encourage inviting a more diverse set of working professionals – there was one woman among ten participants, and everyone was Caucasian – and maybe even a juxtaposition of conversations with industry people and “fan-trepreneurs” (to quote Suzanne Scott). More than mere diversification though, I hope that conference organizers consider integrating non-academics within roundtables. In 2006, we tried very hard to socially engineer the right mix of scholars, fans, critics and professionals on roundtables. We were far less successful in doing so than we’d hoped (though there were a handful of fantastic exceptions). But I’m not certain that our failures should result in retrenchment back to older hierarchical paradigms. Bringing the industry to the academy (as well as policymakers, advocacy groups, fans and media entrepreneurs) is a fabulous idea, but in the spirit of flow, “core conversations” really need to be about rethinking who constitutes the core and how conversations are configured.

I realize that this post seems more critical than celebratory. I am perhaps too close to the Flow concept to be impartial. Let me end on a softer note. Flow is a great idea, and it is one that has inspired several generations of UT graduate students to try and re-imagine what the conference ought to be about. The 2014 edition was no exception, providing many nice touches that demonstrated outside-the-conference thinking. I hope that my critiques will be taken as a sign of my engagement with the incredible efforts and ideas that were produced and a genuine enthusiasm for Flow to continue to experiment with new ways to unconference.

Image Credits:
1. Flow 2014 Logo
2. Texas Governors Room
3. SAC Room
4. Living Room
5. Speed Dating
6. THATCamp

Please feel free to comment.

Flow Fuzzies and Forget-Me-Nots

by: Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

I just wanted to express my appreciation to everyone — from the conveners and the attendees to the volunteers and the moderators — who helped make Flow such a cathartic and inspirational experience. I was energized by the opportunities to engage in actual conversations about subjects I am passionate about with colleagues I admire and respect, but rarely get to interact with in this manner. I am so appreciative of all the work that went into making these opportunities available. Several attendees commented to me on how this was the first conference in years at which they had attended almost every single session, which is perhaps the ultimate testament to Flow's success. Many of the roundtables I attended not only had lively conversations about their particular subject areas, but these discussions often also came back around to larger, more tenuous, at times frustrating, and yet also imaginative, impassioned, and collaborative efforts to figure out how media scholars can be more proactive, can make more of a difference, can do the things we do better and with greater results. The hunger people demonstrated for both community building and community outreach was probably the most rewarding aspect of the endeavor for me.

And this was quite the endeavor. I would especially like to recognize the incredibly brilliant, creative, dedicated, generous, and hard-working conference organizing committee – Allison Perlman, Alexis Carreiro, David Uskovich and Michael Kackman – who spent over a full year putting Flow together, and did so largely without remuneration or breaks from their other regularly scheduled teaching and grading assignments. Often, individual research, dissertation-writing, and other pursuits had either to be set aside or competed with conference organizing activities. These sacrifices deserve acknowledgment. Thank you.

As satisfying as the conference was, I am left to wonder about its legacy. As Allison Perlman pointed out to me, in order to host this event again next year, we would have had to start organizing Flow '07 a month before Flow '06 eventually happened. In part, this speaks to the complexities of orchestrating a non-conference of this nature, but in part, this is also a concern over a lack of resources and the reliance on free graduate student labor. I believe grad students can be great initiators and innovators when given the opportunity, and I am indeed thankful for the encouragement I received at UT, but I am also aware of the drain and discord that comes when creativity is not duly compensated. Quite simply, for a conference like this to be an annual event hosted at UT, the University will at least need to dedicate a full-time, paid conference organizer and several half-time salaried assistant-organizer positions who have the time and incentive to make it happen.

Beyond these not-so-petty concerns over funding, however, there are larger questions about what will come from this event that just passed. Whereas Flow's emphasis on conversation deviated from traditional conference formats in refreshing and, arguably, necessary ways, conversations are also inevitably ephemeral and easily forgotten. Already, I have forgotten more than I remember of those three fantastic days. Moreover, conversations are not easily archived for future generations (or even contemporary ones) to go back and access in the ways that traditional conference paper trails can (admittedly misleadingly) allow. In hindsight, I wish we'd had the resources in place to have recorded these sessions, even web-cast them for folks who were unable to attend. Are conversations enough? Certainly, they are important starting points – and we all agree that we have too precious few of them — but I am not certain they are a means unto themselves. Will Flow still feel this significant three months from now? Only if the conversations we started at the end of October can be continued in various ways (this special conference issue is a good start. Thank you!) and be transformed into new collaborations, initiatives, outreach efforts, and scholarship. The inspiring desire for community building I spoke of before requires that these initial conversations generate ambitious yet realizable plans of action. And that is the provocation I'd like to leave you all with: Where do we go from here and how do we get there? How do we transform the discursive traces that emerge from Flow into new social structures, methodologies, and modes of engagement?

Please feel free to comment.