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Utopian Entrepreneur

Author: Brenda Laurel
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: May 2002

 REVIEW 1: Rita Lauria
 REVIEW 2: Geert Lovink
 REVIEW 3: Leslie Regan Shade

Brenda Laurel's Utopian Entrepreneur details the rise and fall of Purple Moon, the girls software company created in the mid 1990s to counter the male shoot-em-up-car-racing-alien splatter hegemony of the boys videogame and software industry. Its creation was a brilliant move by Laurel and her colleagues, fuelled by some heavy capital from the likes of Interval Research, one of Paul Allen's investment toys, and a fairly sizable market research agenda led by Cheskin Research. Purple Moon's software deviated from stereotypes of Barbie, pink ponies, and insipid dating games, and featured Rockett Movado, new girl at Whistling Pines Junior High, who through a series of mishaps and great adventures, made new friends (a true multicultural cast including Miko, a Japanese-American, and Stephanie, an African-American) amidst the familiar environments of bedrooms, school corridors, and bathrooms.

I was shocked when Elizabeth Weise, a reporter for USA Today, called me up in early 1999 to ask me what I thought of the demise of Purple Moon. Shocked because this was the height of the "Girls' Games Movement," academically documented in Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkin's book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (MIT Press, 1998), and shocked because the shelves of my local bookstore and electronics warehouse were filled with pale imitations of Rockett: games morphed from books such as American Girl and Nancy Drew, and of course the ubiquitous Barbie -- Barbie Gotta Groove, Barbie Beauty Styler, Barbie Pet Rescue, Barbie Super Sports, Barbie Beach Vacation, Barbie ad nauseum!

The really perverse thing is that one month after Purple Moon closed their doors, Mattel (parent company of Barbie) announced their acquisition of the company for an undisclosed sum of money. Rockett would live on, but through the pink and reactionary gauze of Mattel.

Brenda Laurel, like other feminist moms I know, shares my loathing for Barbie: "for me, Barbie was never about what was possible. Au contraire, she was precisely about what was impossible" (48), Laurel writes. Subverting the plastic babe became a slight pastime with Laurel and her daughters, for instance, through the creation of Halloween Crone Barbie ". . . painting white-out on her hair and dressing her in a dark, ragged costume. A wad of masking tape produced a great dowager's hump. We experimented with lowering her bust line by holding a match under the indicated area, but this produced only melting, not sagging" (46).

My mother saved my Barbie's from the early 1960s, thinking I'd like to pass them on to my daughter. Twenty-five years later, upon opening her baby-blue vinyl carrying case, I found Barbie (she of the upswept blonde beehive hair and crusty blue eyeshadow) dressed in a see-through pale-blue negligee with an imitation leather trench-coat on top. What was I fantasizing when I last encased her? Was Barbie off partying with the likes of Sinatra and some fellow stewardesses? Fast forward to my son's sixth birthday party in the mid 1990s, when giggling boys flush the same, yet now dismembered Barbie, down the toilet. Soon thereafter, the toilet stops up, and the culprit (after the toilet is literally taken off its base) is found to be Barbie's svelte leg, molded foot formed for achy stilettos.

OK, enough about Barbie. But in order to understand some of the motivations behind the creation of Purple Moon, one has to get a sense of why Laurel wanted to create a cool and realistic alternative to Barbie and other sorts of games (those of the Polly Pocket and Little Ponies genre) for girls. And why she had to fight so hard to convince others (Interval Research Corporation's David Liddle, for one) that this was a great and viable idea. "What would it take to design a computer game a large number of girls really liked?" (23), Laurel asked, and hence the creation of three interrelated companies: interactive CD-ROMs, the purple-moon.com website, and Purple Moon collectibles (the first CD-ROM, "Rockett's New School," came packaged with a purple mini-backpack, Jonathan Martin t-shirt, a Bonnie Bell lip-smacker, and a plastic Rockett doll).

Rockett fans -- the intended young girls -- were many and quite faithful, even logging on to the purple-moon site after its demise. Rockett critics -- feminists included -- were vehement in their distrust of the games, as they chronicled the imaginary, yet realistic, social lives of young girls, with a preoccupation on friendships, social status, and image. Which is exactly what young girls are concerned with -- often in rather bitchy ways! Navigating these contrary readings of Rockett, Laurel saw herself as a 'utopian entrepreneur' -- one who embraces a different ethic, where the marketplace is not King (or Queen), where the Public Good is a desirable deliverable, where making a business model from non-violent genres is possible, and where values are expressed through good storytelling that also lets the player be in control.

Laurel calls what she does Culture Work, but culture here isn't just the elite side of culture, it's pop culture -- but pop culture with guts, intelligence, values, and grounded research to back it up. And, in order to create good Culture Works that have humanistic goals, you become a utopian entrepreneur, but man-o-man, that can be tough: "by trying to do anything socially positive at all, the utopian entrepreneur opens herself up to the endless critique that she is in fact not doing enough" (27).

So, given the predilection for companies to try to attract as much possible revenue from their products, by exploiting their clientele and extending their brand, what's a utopian entrepreneur gonna do? Although Purple Moon engaged in some cross-licensing schemes (Bonne Bell Lip-Smacker, etc.), this is mild compared to other like-minded marketing endeavours. The commodity audience, as political economist Eileen Meehan (2002) has written, is gendered both in its infatuation with stereotypes of what a 'typical' woman or 'typical' female tween-ager is interested in, as well as in its erasure of 'different,' 'renegade,' or even 'realistic' cultural (and racial and class-based) expressions.

Exhibit A: mary-kate and ashley, the twins who first made their appearance in the sitcom Full House, have morphed from adorable brats to teenage branded icons pushing a 'lifestyle collection' at Walmart (http://www.marykateandashley.com). Not only do they have their own line of bed coordinates, clothes, and footwear, they have a Sweet 16 doll line (yup, clones of Barbie) with a Hang-Out Room, trendy daytime and fashionable party outfits, videos where the intrepid twins explore the world (Winning London! Holiday in the Sun! Passport to Paris!), and PlayStation and GameBoy games (Crush Course, Get a Clue!, and Magical Mystery Mall). They also have their own magazine and their own animated television series.

OK, so if Rockett and her pals had their own gig on Nickelodeon, and a slew of products like Rockett's Bubbling Bath, Rockett's Cool Wear, etc., would Purple Moon have survived? Of course not. As Laurel documents, by allowing young girls to manipulate and create new scenarios for Rockett and her friends, through asking the girls themselves what sorts of content they wanted for future games, and by taking them seriously, Rockett's fan community was loyal. The girls were part of the creative process, and didn't need any Happy Meal gizmos or collectors' cards to spice things up. Virtual treasures and web-based postcards sufficed.

Mattel has since rolled out its own Rockett adventures, and I think that Laurel would be happy to know that they've received less than lukewarm reviews. Here are just two from the Amazon site, reviewing Rocketts Camp Adventures from Mattel Media (note: spelling mistakes maintained):

    Not As Good . . ., August 1, 2000
    Reviewer: Brittany (see more about me) from MB, Canada
    I own all of the purple moon games except for the Starfire Soccer Adventure and Rocketts First Dance[If you have one of these write me!]

    I personally think this game isn't as good as the others. Its much more babyish since Mattel Media came along and its more about little activities, rather then one long decision making game. The other games are more realistic and fun to play because they let you be in control. With this game you are just sorta like "boring" after the first few plays. Still, if u r a die-hard pm fan then try this one out, but otherwise let it rest on the shelf.

    A disapointment, July 23, 2000
    Reviewer: A software user from AK
    After hearing such great things about this soft wear I chose tobuy the latest one. I was very disapointed. You really didn't do ANYTHING! You played a stiff canoe race,made a hockey printable friendship braclet and played with sounds to make a mix "rap". It was more like watching a cheaply made (sort of)interact movie. A hour long movie. You only made 3 chosses.Ha. Apparentally the ones before Mattel bought the company are much better.

What's the future of the utopian entrepreneur in our current climate of dot-commie failures, defense spending mania, and Enron escapades? Is humanistic culture work in vogue? Hell, I would like to think so! I'm optimistic that Laurel can continue her own quirky work and inspire others along the way.

Meehan, Eileen. "Gendering the Commodity Audience: Critical Media Research, Feminism, and Political Economy." In Sex & Money: Feminism and Political Economy in the Media, eds. Eileen R. Meehan and Ellen Riordan, pp. 209-222. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Leslie Regan Shade:
Leslie Regan Shade is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa and the author of Gender and Community in the Social Construction of the Internet (Peter Lang, 2002). She is also working on a SSHRC-funded project, "Children, Youth, and New Media in the Home." 

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