Yes, Actually, There is a Huge Problem with Pink
By Kirsten Clodfelter
One afternoon when I was out with my daughter, then nine months old, a woman stopped us to gush over my “handsome baby boy.” No worries—it’s definitely hard to determine the sex of an infant just from his or her face, and my partner’s genes, at least in regard to physical appearance, seem to be far more dominant than mine. But when I smiled and corrected this stranger, instead of laughing it off, she demanded to know why I didn’t have my little girl in pink. I must have missed that parenting memo dictating all babies be dressed in the appropriate color so that their gender is easily identifiable to any random person you might interact with for a total of 90 seconds and then never again. Apparently the blue and green floral-print outfit my kid was rocking that day was just not cutting it.
In a recent article for New York Magazine, Yael Kohen proposed that the color pink, princess culture, and girliness in general are getting an unfair shake. Kohen’s piece responds to a feature for the New York Times that examines how toy companies are embracing the market shift and working to put toys like this new line of Nerf Rebelle bow-and-arrows into the hands of girls, riding the coattails of popular strong female characters like Katniss Everdeen and Princess Merida.
The Times article explores how the makers of toy weapons are tapping into a goldmine by targeting girls and potentially leveling the playing field in the process, but still the piece asks, “Do they have to be in pink?” Answers Kohen in her own article, “Well, no: Of course they don’t ‘have to’ be pink. But when we treat pink — and the girls who like it — with the condescension that question implies, what are we really saying?”
Writing for Slate‘s Double X, Allison Benedikt responded in kind, charging that by “do[ing] everything within your power to steer your daughters away from anything that has the stink of ‘girly’ on it,” all these “mildly feminist” moms engaging in princess-shaming are acting out a “weird sort of female self-loathing,” and it’s no wonder, then, that little boys equate girliness with being lame.
Good job, feminists, for once again making men hate you. But Stout and Harris’s piece for the Times doesn’t actually shun girliness. Instead, the authors ask readers to examine how marketing so-called aggressive toys to girls through the implementation of sexist stereotypes both “challenges antiquated notions and plays to them deeply.”
Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and play therapist quoted in the Times piece, notes the dichotomy of this aptly when she asks, “What I don’t like is the stereotyped girlifying of this…. Why can’t they be rebels and have to be re-BELLES? Why do they need to look sexy when aggressing, defending the weak or fighting off bad guys?”
The problem with pink, of course, isn’t with the color itself or that some girls embrace girliness with abandon, it’s with the way pink is used again and again as a singular representation of girls’ interests and how this furthers a gender divide that hurts both girls and boys. I don’t see Katniss or Merida sporting a pink bow, but when toy manufactures co-op these models and remake them solely as something overtly girly, what they’re communicating is that the these types of strong, independent female roles are only valid when they’ve been glamourized, that to be a fierce girl without simultaneously valuing or respecting or embracing your femininity is only a fiction.
As my own daughter has grown beyond infancy to establish and vocalize her preferences, our household has accumulated an impressive collection of Thomas the Train shirts and Elmo memorabilia. But her dad and I also gladly fawn over Angelina Ballerina, with the understanding that we have no idea yet what kind of person our daughter will be, and we want her to know that there’s value in all different identities.
But it is important that those preferences come from her, that they exist as a genuine reflection of her desires rather than as a product of institutionalized sexism that she believes should be her preferences or that she is habitually guided to think are her only available options. It is true that plenty of girls like pink, but maybe for some girls this becomes ingrained because, from a very young age, they’re shown repeatedly that in order to identify “appropriately” with their own gender, boys get versions of toys that looks like this, while girls get this.
Benedikt reports seeing a troubling trend among the moms in her community who roll their eyes when they witness an oversaturation of pink, and certainly no four year old (girl or boy) needs to be shamed for picking out party accessories that would rival even Pinkalicious. But I think Benedikt might not have dug deeply enough to notice that what’s irritating these parents isn’t simply that some little girls might be perpetuating a stereotype by liking the color pink.
One problem is that all gender-specific versions of toys are not created equal. In an informal examination of the Toys “R” Us website in 2013, Elaine Godfrey points out how children’s toys discourage girls from STEM fields at an early age. Nested under the site’s classification of “building toys” for girls, Godrey found Lego sets like Lego Friends Olivia’s House and Cra-Z-Art Lite Brix Sparkle Salon (also available in the Radiant Runway edition, of course). For boys, though, the retail behemoth offered Lego City Space Shuttle, Lego City Space Center, and the “Builders of Tomorrow” set.
Melissa Atkins Wardy wrote an excellent piece on Lego’s culpability in this type of inequality for CNN last year:
But that still leaves the market wide open for children such as my daughter, who want more female “minifigs” in gender-neutral packaging. Instead, LEGO clearly distinguishes which sets are aimed at boys or girls, and our children take in the colors on the packaging and placement on the shelves through a cultural lens. They get the message loud and clear. LEGO is the second-largest toy manufacturer in the world; gender parity matters in a product that is consumed and loved by so many children.
This is a problem, too, for boys who have an interest in items marketed exclusively to girls. As Joanna Schroeder detailed in an essay for The Good Men Project, with the Easy-Bake oven’s most recent transformation into a product that’s purple, adorned with flowers, and features only girls on the box, “It’s almost as if Hasbro is saying, Hey boys, just in case you thought the home might be a great place for you to feel comfortable working, we want to make it clear that you simply don’t belong here.” (If the packaging and commercial are any indication, it would seem that Easy-Bake ovens are also only for white girls, and preferably ones who are blonde.)
And if parents are not as thoughtful and diligent about working against these types of tired gender stereotypes as is Schroeder, who discussed the shortcomings of gendered marketing with her two sons at length, what probably happens instead is that a boy with an interest in cooking who wants an Easy-Bake oven is told, “You don’t really want that, it’s for girls.” I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s instances like THIS, and not Benedikt’s “mildly feminist” mom bubble whispering apologies about the excessive pinkness over the heads of their princess-crown-wearing children, that are subtly or not-so-subtly encouraging boys to think that princesses and “the stuff girls like [are] lame.”
The solution isn’t to ban pink or to ridicule girls who identify more with the sparkly Leona the Unicorn Fairy than with One Crazy Summer‘s resilient Delphine, but we do need to make sure that these diverse representations exist and that they are both accessible and familiar to children. So that a girl who doesn’t care for pink won’t have to feel like any less of a girl for coveting the blue version of a toy instead of the pink, we should urge companies to use advertising that features kids of any gender playing with toys in a wide range of color themes and aesthetics. It’s silly that this isn’t already a standard practice, and for this reason we should laud businesses when they do it successfully.
Companies choosing to market toys through the reinforcement of gender stereotypes has significant consequences for young children beyond hampering the creativity, comfort, and boundarylessness by which their identities should be formed. Take, for example, the nine-year-old boy in North Carolina whose school administrators recently argued that by bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school, Grayson was making it nearly impossible for bullies to resist targeting him, that essentially he was baiting his aggressors. Or look to eight-year-old Sunnie Kahle, who was recently kicked out of her Virginia Christian school for looking and acting too much like a boy.
As kids get older, this type of divisive thinking contributes to why girls who excel at or show an interest in certain athletic programs are labeled as butch or as posers of their more sports-savvy male peers, or why girls who wear pink or show an interest in high-fashion are frequently taken less seriously in an academic or workplace environment.
I absolutely don’t begrudge any five OR fifteen year old girl (or boy) who idolizes Sleeping Beauty’s ultra-feminine Princess Aurora, but those girls aren’t hurting for cultural representation. Rather than rushing to defend all things pink and princessy, I think we might do better to lobby instead for providing more diverse and inclusive toy options so that no child, regardless of their gender-identity or their preferences, feels discounted.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, storySouth, and The Good Men Project, among others. Her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published last year by RopeWalk Press and is now available for Kindle. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo