19 Dec 2012

Does pink really stink?

In the run-up to Christmas there's been a lot of talk in the feminist-sphere about gendered toys, and the difficulty in buying gifts that don't reinforce tiresome gender stereotypes. Ms. have a great feminist gift guide for girls on their blog and feminists have welcomed the news that Sweden's Top Toy company depicts boys playing with dollhouses and girls playing with toy guns in their catalogue. I welcome it too, being well acquainted with a 6 year-old boy who loves the colour pink and often asks to go through my make-up bag. However, while I think while gender-neutral toys and freeing kids up to play with toys that have historically been assigned to the opposite gender are definitely a good thing, I think there should be some caution in assuming that everything pink, well, stinks.

I say this as a strident feminist who grew up in an all-pink bedroom with a toybox full of Barbies and My Little Ponies. I say it as an educated, unmarried woman who does not want children, is indifferent to the concept of marriage and has never, ever dreamed that some day a man will come and transform my life. Girly things aren't necessarily evil. Barbie may be an irritating silicone-pumped airhead, but to me as a child, she was just a doll whose hair I brushed. She didn't make me want six-foot long legs (which bizarrely, you could bend forward at the knee) and I didn't ever relate my own flat eight-year-old chest to her pneumatic bosoms. I liked dressing her in pretty outfits, and that was about it. I knew she wasn't real nor did I really want someone in my life who actually resembled her.

I guess a lot has changed in 21 years though - as far as I'm aware you couldn't buy pole-dancing kits for children back in 1991, or padded bras for young girls. Children weren't nearly as sexualised or aggressively marketed to, although I've learnt that in 1992 a talking Barbie that said "Math Class is Tough" was pulled from the market, so we were hardly living in a post-feminist utopia back then either. But yes, I can see why feminists, educators and parents are increasingly concerned about not sending the wrong message to little girls. That message being - and one that is still too frighteningly popular in the modern world - that how you look is what matters most, followed by getting male attention, money and being a princess.

However, the danger with tearing the Barbies out of your daughter's hand and directing her towards toy diggers and trucks, is that we end up denigrating that which is seen as 'feminine' and reinforce the idea that traditionally masculine preferences are superior. If my daughter wanted to play with dolls, I'd let her - because as a child I played with plenty of dolls, both the glitzy Barbies, Sindys and Jems and also the baby-sized 'proper' dolls that I'd put in a crib and 'mother'. And guess how I turned out? Firmly feminist, proudly child-free and with no desire for babies of my own. And because like most kids, I didn't stick to one thing in particular, I also played with Lego, and my brother and I had a particular fondness for our toy farm and a red wooden train which we named HobNob. As demonstrated by the 6 year-old boy who will try on my lipgloss then run to play with a toy tank, and who will alternate between drawing sharks and rainbows, kids' tastes are pretty varied (not to mention sometimes, completely bonkers). 

Yes, it's ridiculous to swathe things in pink in order to 'entice' girls - primary coloured Lego was good enough for this girl, thanks - but at the same time, many girls will continue to gravitate towards all things pink like bees to a flower, and this shouldn't be a source of concern. Because if  we start deeming a 'girly' colour as somehow inferior, this implies we see femininity as inferior. And I know, I know - the very concept of 'masculinity' and 'feminine' things are socially constructed, and that if we'd been saying pink was a ''boy's colour' since time began we'd probably see it as a manly, butch colour. But all that aside, as soon as we pit 'masculine' tastes against 'feminine' ones we're only reinforcing damaging gender binaries. Traditionally 'feminine' work has long been denigrated - motherhood, nursing, cleaning, care work, secretarial work etc. I don't think it's coincidental that the traditionally 'pink collar' jobs are the ones with the worst pay, least security and benefits, most exploitation etc. And yes, one of the ways to combat this is to get more men on board (as a former carer I can definitely attest to the value of having more men in the profession). But the other way is to remind ourselves that much as we are trying to make the point that women aren't only fit for cooking, cleaning and caring, those traditionally 'feminine' roles are still roles that deserve respect, as much respect as any traditionally 'masculine' role does (and not least because a lot of 'feminine' industries enable a lot of traditionally 'masculine' industries to exist by taking the burden of caring and homemaking men).
And although I know we're talking on a much more trivial level here, I do think the same goes for the gendered spheres children find themselves in. If your daughter's determined to smother her life in pink, refusing to give her what she wants for Christmas isn't going to dampen that desire for all things fuschia. But then, if it's your son who wants a magenta bedroom, you won't change his mind either by forcing a toy gun into his hands. Yes, there are dangerous messages send out by gendered toys - that being a boy involves violence and aggression, and that being a girl involves being passive and superficial. And we need to intercept those messages, but not by imagining we can fight the influences of media and peers single-handedly. Educate your child that what matters is being a kind person, treating others well, being generous and not judging on appearances, and for all the dolls and pink in the world they might just grow up to be a feminist anyway. Like this non-silicone enhanced short-legged brunette did.
(Oh, and if you could teach them to sit still in restaurants and be quiet on aeroplanes, that'd be super fab too.)

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