Pink Is Not the Enemy. Stereotypes Are.

There is a growing faction within the girl-empowerment movement that expresses disdain and scorn for all things pink and princess.  Supporters of young girls are increasingly pitting rough and tumble tomboys against tutu-wearing, glitz-loving girly girls.

Why can’t girls be both?

Pink is not the enemy.  Labels are.

To understand how pink has evolved into such a polarizing color, I spoke with historian Jo Paoletti.  The association of pink with females began in the late eighties/early nineties, when retailers and mass marketers found a highly effective way to sell more products by assigning colors to genders.  They chose pink for girls and blue for boys.

It was not always this way.

In fact, for many years, according to Paoletti, blue was for girls, because it was considered to be a softer, more demure color.  Pink was associated with males, because it was a stronger and more decided color than blue.  Pink was also the color selected for most babies’ first birthday cakes, regardless of gender.

Take a look at Disney’s 1953 film, Peter Pan.  Wendy Darling is wearing a blue dressing gown, and her baby brother Michael is clad in pink pajamas.  Peter Pan is a movie rife with stereotypes, and the producers had no interest in making a statement about gender nonconformity.  This was just the way society viewed pink and blue in the mid-twentieth century.

There was a brief period of time where gender-neutral clothes were all the rage.  During my childhood in the seventies and eighties, my three sisters and I wore mostly primary colors, denim, beiges and tans.  I don’t remember ever owning a pink dress.

But my four-year-old daughter has a closet full of pink dresses.

What happened to the Free to Be You and Me era?

Marketers, that’s what happened.  Fashion.  Media.  Corporations.  They figured out that a mom who would buy one black-and-white soccer ball for her kids to share could easily be persuaded to buy a pink soccer ball for her daughter and a blue soccer boy for her son.  Mass marketers picked pink for girls and blue for boys.

It was simple.  It was brilliant.  It was about money.

But there have been unintended externalities to the assignation of colors to genders.  Gender is a complicated thing.  Just as soccer balls come in more than just black and white, gender comes in more than just boy and girl.  If you disagree, look at the world in which we live, and assess where excessive labeling has landed us.

On the most extreme end, we have young kids who choose to take their own lives rather than continue to be tormented by their peers for being different.  The media focuses on these tragic stories, because they resonate with parents and they propel people to take action.

Yet there are thousands of kids who quietly suffer, kids who aren’t pushed to the extreme act of suicide, but who are hurting nonetheless, because they are not free to be themselves.

Who are these kids?  They are the kids who are trapped by a stereotype, by a label.  Every time people call a child by a name with the intent to scorn – be it gay, fat, sissy, dork, fag—that child is boxed in and limited.

And this now extends to terms like princess and pink.

There are a number of well-intentioned people who want girls to have access to every opportunity in this life, and they have come to see pink and princesses as a barrier.  I argue that pink and princesses are not the barrier; the stereotypes that they represent are the barrier.

I have a Star-Wars loving, soccer-playing second-grade girl who has become a symbol of girl empowerment and bullying prevention.  But I would be lying if I said that she doesn’t like pink and princesses.  Why can't she like whatever she wants?

Melissa Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals—Redefining Girly, posted the following quote to her Facebook page a few days ago:

"I don't think parents have to defend a daughter's love of tutus or glitter or dolls anymore than I have to defend my daughter's love of travel, whales, and dirt. I'd like to do away with the divide of "girly-girls" and "tomboys" and just have "girls". This isn't about choosing a sparkly princess petticoat vs dirty soccer jersey...it is about a girl's right to have both."

I couldn't agree more.  Wardy is not anti-pink.  She is anti-limitation.  For many parents, pink and princesses have come to represent limitation, because many toy and clothing manufacturers LIMIT their offerings to girls to row after row of pink, princess stuff, which has led exasperated parents to rebel.

If we respond to limitation with limitation, we do a disservice to our children.  It’s fine for my four-year-old, Annie Rose, to choose to play with princess dolls, as long as I give her access to trucks and Star Wars toys, too.  She may not choose to play with the trucks, but at least she has the choice.

Isn’t that how we got here?  By taking away choices?

If I wrote off princesses and queens, what would happen to two of Katie’s favorite characters:  Princess Leia from Star Wars and Queen Lucy from Narnia?  Katie’s soccer team chose to name themselves The Presidents this year, which I loved, as opposed to something like the Butterflies or the Ladybugs.  Not because there is anything wrong with butterflies and ladybugs, but I really liked that the girls viewed themselves as presidential.

There are thousands of little girls who will choose to wear clothing with flowers, butterflies, rainbows and ladybugs.   The flowers and butterflies aren’t the problem, no more than pink is the problem.  It’s the lack of choice that is the problem.   If your girl is wearing pink because she has been told that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, then there is most definitely a problem.  Not with the fact that she likes pink, but with the reason why.

Although I get frustrated with the excessive princess culture, I try to remember not to scorn it.  A dangerous consequence of parents rejecting pink and princesses as too girly is that it validates the stereotype that pink is only for girls.  This hurts the many boys out there who are taunted for liking pink.  It's okay to be a boy who likes pink, like Sarah Hoffman's son.  It's okay to be a boy who likes princesses, like Cheryl Kilodavis's son.

We don’t want to inadvertently assign significance to stereotypes.  Some people WANT us to verify that certain colors are only for boys or only for girls, because then they can peddle fear of pink to parents who are afraid of having gay boys.  Not that buying pink stuff for your boy in any way is going to make him turn out gay.  It doesn't work like that, but a lot of anti-gay people try to convince us otherwise.

Pink is not the enemy.  Limitation is.  Princesses are not the enemy.  Stereotypes are.

If you want to empower your daughter, there are a lot of ways to do it besides telling her not to like princesses.  Tell her to question the stereotypes associated with princesses.

Get her New Moon Girls magazine.  Buy her an airplane shirt from Pigtail Pals.  Find her a hammer T-shirt from Princess Free Zone. Sign her up for an activity through Hardy Girls Healthy Women Institute or Girls Leadership Institute.  Ask her if she wants to join Girl Scouts.  She can wear a tiara while she climbs a tree.  There is no reason why she can’t be her whole self with complete acceptance of her pink and her blue.  For more ideas, see Peggy Orenstein's page called Fight Fun with Fun.

Let’s be careful not to make pink a fighting word.  Keep the focus where it belongs.

Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. Bullied addresses issues of sexualization, gender bias, and bullying.

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  • I really liked this post. I was blessed with twins 3 years ago, 1 boy and 1 girl. I have the best of both worlds and so do they. My son joins in on tea parties sometimes when my daughter lines up all of her little friends (which include a few of my gargoyles) and caters to them. He helps pass out the cups. And my daughter plays Cars and builds sandcastles in the dirt with her brother, all the while wearing her frilly purple tutu and sparkly pink shoes.

    Choices. I love that. You have reinforced my belief that the only limitations our children will have are those that WE set for them. So lets blow away the lines of "limitations" and tell them to aim for the stars in whatever they want to do!

    I only recently started following your blog after I discovered MTM's but I think you have a great outlook and look forward to reading more of your posts!

  • I LOVE this essay. It articulates why I had such a bad reaction to Peggy Orenstein's book Cindarella Ate My Daughter. I have never admitted this in public before--because so many people loved it, and because I agree with what she says about the commercialization of girls' interests and the creepy early sexualization of girls. I don't think that many girls are girly simply because Disney/Mattel tells them to be. I think that many girls--and some boys--are simply girly. Just like many boys--and some girls--are boyish. What they need, as you say, is choice--the ability to choose what toys/clothes/games/friends best suit who they really are.

  • Thank you for putting your finger on so much of what bugs me about the way the problem of gender stereotyping tends to be approached in terms of what we're teaching little kids. It's ultimately the same thing that's driving so many of their big sisters to reject the term "feminist." It might not be the intent, but the message being heard (even back in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up) is "You can do or be whatever you want... but you'd better want the RIGHT things."

    It's not always easy to tell where the line is -- I had the knee-jerk "You've got to be KIDDING me!" reaction to the advent of Supergirl and Batgirl costumes manufactured in pink. But as long as little girls are free to choose costumes for the same characters in their proper canon colors -- and they are -- who am I to tell them they can't have the pink ones?

  • I agree wholeheartedly. I became aware of a similar issue when I started knitting. In Debbie Stoller's "Stitch 'n' Bitch" book, she talks about feminists scorning activities like knitting because they are traditionally "feminine" activities. As she points out, the unfortunate implication is that "feminine" activities, like knitting or sewing, are inherently inferior to "masculine" activities, which is not what they're trying to say. That having been said, it bugs me when I see toys like Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs in pink, because the implication from the manufacturer is that the "original" sets are only for boys.

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