The pink, the Barbies, the "Daddy's little" princess, the new LEGO Friends, the shopaholic, the American Girl dolls, the beauty queen and the the very pink happy homemaker. Each time someone raises an objection about the toys, the stereotypes, and the clothing that is marketed to our girls from birth forward, others brush their concern aside.
It isn't a big deal.
It is just make-believe.
She just likes pink. What is wrong with pink?
She's just trying to be like her mommy.
She just wants to feel special. Doesn't everybody want to feel special?
It is just one toy. She plays with cars too.
No one item is THE one tool of oppression that is going to alter the path of our girls forever. Not the colour pink, a Barbie doll, a princess onesie, or a bright pink plastic kitchen. One toy, one clothing item, one choice isn't the issue. It is the complete onslaught that begins at birth.
The Pink Aisle
By now, you've probably seen the video of Riley, the little girl ranting about stores wanting girls to buy princesses and boys to buy super heroes when really girls and boys can both like both of those things. She's livid and maybe some other girls are too. However, it seems as though most girls simply accept it. They observe what is happening around them, take in the marketing messages that are being sent to them, bow to the peer pressure that is being imposed on them, and they make choices about what they like and don't like, consciously or subconsciously, based on what society tells them they should like.
Then there is the video of the two little girls that Ellen sent on a shopping spree at Toys R' Us. Unlike Riley, these girls do not seem to have any problem with the pinkification of their lives. They show up at the store dressed like pink princesses, freak out over all the pink stuff in the store, ignore the non-pink aisles of the store and leave with shopping carts full of pink, pink, and more pink.
Over time, the gender divide appears to be widening. On their websites, in catalogs, and even in the store, retailers divide toys into "boy toys" and "girl toys". The number of toys that companies would classify as unisex is decreasing. This is happening for two reasons. Manufacturers of toys are increasingly shying away from the creation of toys that could be enjoyed equally by both boys and girls, instead seeking to further exploit gender stereotypes by making more and more toys that cater to the extremes. More toys for boys that involve fights and battles. More toys for girls that focus on beauty and everything fancy. What happened to boys and girls playing side-by-side with neutral coloured building blocks, nature puzzles, or using a basic LEGO set to build a house or a castle? Or passing a nice red bike down from big sister to little brother. No, with the gender divide, parents who have boys and girls will need to buy at least two of everything.
The author of the blog Feminist Frequency looked into this, focusing in particular on the history of the marketing of LEGO to children. Take a look: One quote stood out to me in this video while discussing the new LEGO Friends line, which is marketed specifically to girls:
While the entire concept and marketing of the Friends theme is deeply problematic, it’s not without some small merits. The emphasis on sharing, cooperation and nurturing are values that I would love to see infused in toys for children of all genders. Even the title of Friends draws attention to the importance of relationship building, however, these values are almost exclusively found in media and toys for girls and are wrapped up in harmful gender stereotypes, meanwhile these positive values are almost entirely absent in toys aimed at boys. The repercussions of this can be grave, relegating the responsibility for fostering healthy relationships and communications on women and simultaneously reinforcing to boys and men that using violence is a practical options for solving conflicts, even interpersonal ones.
I know I've often been annoyed at the newer LEGO toys because it seems like kids put them together once and then never do anything with them again. I much prefer the older LEGO sets where you can build something new every day. But this video gave me even more reasons to dislike the way that LEGO is marketed and sold these days.
Girls Do X, Boys Do Y
What all of this leads to is societal expectations about what girls should do and what boys should do. Girls, to some extent, are allowed to venture into what is considered "boy" territory, and are even applauded for it. As my friend Alexandria wrote, her daughter Story's love of "boy" things was celebrated:
As a toddler, my daughter adored trains and cars; Lightning McQueen in particular. We bought her boys' underwear because the girls' ones had kitties and crowns, when what Story wanted were puppies and automobiles. Nobody thought it was at all strange for her to like these things. They championed her cause: There is no such thing as a "boy toy"! Girl power!
A few years later, however, people's reaction to her son's interests was somewhat different. After showing pictures of him in princess and fairy dress-up clothes that he likes, she wrote:
When we take Story to the grocery store in these outfits, people fawn over her. But when people see my son wearing the same things, we get a lot of funny looks and sideways glances. Some "tsk-ing" as we walk by. Why is this? Why can my toddler son not embrace whatever makes his sweet little heart happy? Why do people embrace my daughter enjoying tools and the mechanics of cars yet still shy away from a little boy who wants to twirl and sparkle? Most of all: what's it of anyone's concern? Are they intimidated by his affinity for things we've labelled "girly"? Do they think we're doing him an injustice?
Girls liking boy things is accepted by society, to some extent. They can go after the power job, grab the (pink) power tools, play hockey, and break glass ceilings. But, as some feminist scholars have underlined, there is a hidden inconsistency in many of the "We Girls Can Do Anything" messages (like the ones Barbie puts out in its "Barbie I Can Be" campaign). As I wrote on Care2, when reporting on research by Nathalie Elaine Meza Garcia:
Women are able to enter into new spaces and break glass ceilings, but they still have to be beautiful, nurturing mothers, good homemakers, and doting wives. Essentially, women have demanded the right to do anything that men can do, but they have not shed any of their old roles, duties or subjugation in doing so.
That is not to say that women shouldn't be beautiful, be nurturing mothers, be homemakers, and so on. The point is that if a woman has a partner and a career, there shouldn't be an assumption or expectation that she will also be the one cleaning the toilets at home, that she will always have hot legs and great make-up, that she'll be the one to miss work to pick up a sick kid from school, and that she'll spice up the bedroom every single night. When women take on new roles, men need to do so too. There needs to be a re-balancing of the workload and of expectations.
Fitting In Versus Getting Sucked In
What bothers me about pink, isn't pink. What bothers me about Barbie, isn't Barbie. What bothers me about little princess onesies, isn't the little princess onesies. What bothers me is the expectation and pressure for girls to like all of those things. And the expectation and pressure for boys to abhor them.
I remember Julian's first Halloween at school. When he came home and we asked him what costumes the other kids in his class had, the answer for every single girl in the class was "princess". Yes, they were ALL princesses. I remember too the day he told me his favourite colours were brown and blue, because "boys like boring colours and girls like pretty colours". He was expressing his preference based on what society thinks he should like, while also expressing how he felt about that.
Day in and day out, I see the peer pressure and the marketing pressure telling my children what they should like and who they should be. I see increased pressure for more homogeneity within a gender and a greater gap between genders. Are they just giving girls and boys what they want? Or is there more to it than that?
In the New York Times, Peggy Orenstein explains that there are some difference between boys and girls play preferences, but they are exacerbated and exploited by the toy industry:
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.
As a parent, I am torn. I want my children to see the full range of possibilities that is open to them, for play, for friendships, for relationships, for interests, and for eventual career options (no, Princess is not a potential career option for more than a small handful of girls). But at the same time, I also want my children to fit in and, because I had so much trouble fitting in as a child, I understand them making choices in order to fit in. So when Emma asks for the latest pink plastic stereotype and bad body image reinforcing toy for her birthday, I struggle with the decision about whether to buy it for her. Are her preferences and her choices truly coming from inside her or are they coming societal pressure?
Ultimately, we seek a balance. There is exploding pink princess stuff in our home, but there are also other toys and games and activities that encourage diverse interests. I do worry, however, that the balance we strive for in our home will never survive the pink tsunami.
This is the first in a series of four posts looking critically at the way society, corporations and media influence the role girls and women are expected to play in society. The posts are written by me (Annie @ PhD in Parenting) and are generously sponsored by Pigtail Pals.