As feminist parent-scholars we’d like to call for an end to (or at least a pause in) the seeming incessant focus on rejecting all that is pink, salmon, rose, coral, blush, and flush. As much of nation recovers from the frantic collective shopping spree that characterizes the end of the year, we’d like to make the case that the denunciation of all things pink should not really be our primary focus if we want to move toward a more gender equal world for girls and boys. Instead, we suggest that we begin to turn our attention to expanding the acceptable range of boys’ toys and their colors.
Many of us who think about gender and childhood toys are by now familiar with the debate about GoldieBlox, a toy company that sells products encouraging girls’ interest in engineering. The company’s commercial depicting girls deploying a Rube Goldberg-type setup with the typical girl toys—princesses, dolls, teacups, and oh-so-much pink—was seen as both inspirational and problematic. Commentators both celebrated the fact that girls were being encouraged to engage in engineering and critiqued the fact that that the products marketed by the company are still firmly framed in terms of girl culture.
The cultural process of “pinkification” (as Gwen Sharpe refers to it) is a way in which toys and forms of play which may have been historically associated with boys are rendered acceptably feminine. Indeed many, us included, are concerned with toys marketed to girls that are a larger part of a socialization process that encourages girls to be nice, passive and relationship-oriented. As Ellen Seiter notes in her book Sold Separately, “advertisements for girls’ toys have undergone fewer changes than other toys in the past fifty years because they continue to depict girls’ play as a miniature version of their mothers’ domestic work” (74). Luckily Pottery Barn simply leads with this sort of gender stereotyping in its toy section (placing gender “neutral” toys at the bottom of its boys and girls pages), even as it divides up its offerings by gender.
We find it a little concerning, however, that this discussion is so focused on girls. What would this discussion look like if we examined boys’ toys? What might this conversation look like if we focused not on getting rid of pink, princesses, or housekeeping toys, but on making these toys acceptable for everyone to play with. After all, as others have pointed out, this “pink is for girls” thing is a relatively new development. In her book Pink and Blue, Jo Paoletti details the historic transformations involved in gendering these two colors. While a brief look at JeongMee Yoon’s The Pink and Blue Project vividly illustrates the extent of this transformation, there’s no reason that color coding toys by gender couldn’t undergo future evolutions (especially with consumer pressure). Indeed, organizations like Let Toys Be Toys are fighting to get retailers to stop promoting toys as “for girls” or “for boys” and some toy stores are starting to try to make changes.
The focus on the push back against pink and, by extension, princess culture is especially surprising when one looks at what is for sale in the boys’ aisle. Take the first category of offerings for boys at the Toys R Us website for example – action figures laden with a variety of weapons who are designed to defeat the bad guys. The closest offering for girls is a dolls category – featuring Barbies, the Little Mermaid, and Strawberry Shortcake. None of them are warriors. None of them have weapons. We see a similar difference even when looking at the exact same category: Girl’s Building Sets vs. Boy’s Building Sets. Girls apparently build houses, salons… and the occasional bridge. Boys? They build Super Star Destroyers and Monster Fighter Vampyre Castle… and the occasional bridge. To be clear, the “pink aisle” of toy stores is deeply problematic. It encourages a narrow range of passive, primarily family-oriented and appearance-obsessed femininities. But, as the toys on the (digital and physical) shelves indicate, we are encouraging equally restrictive and arguably more dangerous masculinities – warriors, space fighters, and ninjas.
So why isn’t the gunnification of boys culture the locus of discussion? It has a lot to do with our fear of boys’ gender transgressive behavior. Emily Kane gives us important insight about the power of this fear. In interviewing parents about their responses to their children’ gender nonconformity she finds many parents actively support some atypical behaviors in their sons. But, this acceptance and support is usually tempered by efforts to ensure that he conforms to masculine ideals in other ways. Importantly, parents of young children express more concern that gender nonconformity in their sons (but not necessarily daughters) is an indicator of a future non-heterosexual identity. A rejection of femininity is part of socializing boys to be acceptably masculine. As Kane writes, “Most parents made efforts to accomplish, and either endorsed or felt accountable to, an ideal of masculinity that was defined by limited emotionality, activity rather than passivity, and rejection of material markers of femininity.” Thankfully, some have begun to imagine what gender progressive parenting practices would actually look like.
Gloria Steinem is quoted as having said, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Maybe the war on pinkification isn’t the one we should be fighting. Or at least we need to add to it a focus on the toys that we market to boys. The fact that boys are being socialized into violence and dominance is at least as problematic as the domestic and relational roles that are being marketed to girls. Rather than focusing so much energy on pink, perhaps we should be working on opening up rainbows of every color and toy for ALL children.