Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Seeing Pink

***originally posted at Anti-Racist Parent***

Before my daughter was born, I knew what kind of father I wanted to be for her. My babygrrl was going to be raised to be a fierce, strong woman of color. I was going to make her iron-on onesies emblazoned with portraits of Yuri Kochiyama, Angela Davis, and Frida Kahlo. Her toybox would be filled with both dolls of color, preferably made by either anti-corporate crafters or small indie companies, and things traditionally coded as “boy” like trucks and cars and tools. Both toy guns and Barbie would be equally verboten in our home, and her closet would be a pink-free zone. I knew the constricting, restricting and damaging messages the world would soon bombard her with about race and gender, and dammit if I wasn’t going to all I could inside our home to inoculate her against them.

So yeah, it would’ve only served me right to have been gifted with a stereotypical “girly girl,” a little karmic payback for putting all my crap on my poor baby’s head before she was even born. That hasn’t happened, luckily–while my Pumpkin’s favorite color, for clothing and everything else, is, of course, pink, she does not, like her best friend since birth, demand to wear Disney Princess costumes as casual wear. As for my plans for a line of “Radical Mama” toddler-tees and stacking the deck toy-wise, well, the first toy I ever bought her was a “Little Frida” doll, and we dubbed the racially ambiguous doll we got her from a line of multiculti dolls by an alum of color from our alma mater “Angela” because of her hair-do. bell hooks’ children’s books are on her overstuffed bookshelves. And because I’m not anti-commercial per se but more anti-certain things (you know?), she’s got more than her fair share of mass-produced goods featuring a certain brown-skinned Latina girl who likes to have adventures and help her animal friends, as well as her current favorite, the Backyardigans (who, I’m convinced, are kids of color–I mean, Pablo? Tasha? Tyrone? Uniqua?)

Suffice it to say that as much as possible, her mother and I try to mediate potentially negative messages embedded in popular and commercial culture by controlling what she consumes (at least in our home) and by talking with her about things that might be problematic. But of course, none of this gets any easier as kids get older, with more and more outside influence impinging on them. During her year in day care, she’d come home talking about t.v. shows we didn’t watch at home, or pretending to shoot things with her fingers like one of the little boys there. “Where did you learn that, Pumpkin?” we’d ask, before explaining why we didn’t shoot things or people. Now that she’s started preschool, I know there will be more of these teachable moments, even though we found as progressive and diverse a school environment as we could in our town.

But what’s really got me thinking, about the subtle and insidious effect of both popular culture and the influence of other kids on how our Pumpkin learns to see the world and her place in it, is how she’s started to label things as gender-appropriate or -inappropriate. It started cropping up during the recent holiday consumption season, during our trips to the local Target and Costco. One time, she was looking at some kids’ room furnishings at Target, which, of course, are separated into a mostly blue boy aisle and a mostly pink girl aisle. There was some Thomas the Tank Engine stuff in the boy aisle, and she called out “Thomas!” happily when she saw it. “Want to look at that stuff, sweetie?” I asked. “No,” she said, “that’s for boys.”

I stopped the cart. Say what now? She’s always loved trains in general and Thomas specifically, so where did this come from? “No, love, anybody can play with Thomas, boys and girls, right?” But the moment was past and her attention was already on something else. But I was disturbed. I mean, I wasn’t naive, I knew these messages, what was appropriate for boys to play with, what was appropriate for girls to play with, were out there, bombarding her on TV and even in the choices and behaviors of her friends. But I always thought that the messages coming from home were enough to counteract these–that she could play with anything she wanted (well, not guns or Bratz, but you know what I mean), that she could do anything, that these things weren’t limited because she was a girl.

Not long after, in the holiday gift section at Costco, I was checking out a Fisher Price kids’ digital camera. There were two models, a big stack of blue toddler cameras and a big stack of pink ones. Apropos of nothing, The Pumpkin pointed at the two stacks: “That one’s for boys and that one’s for girls.” “No baby, anybody can have any color camera they want, right, Mommy? A boy can have a pink one and a girl can have a blue one if they want.” But she wasn’t having it–she knew who was supposed to have what, by color.

It was a digital camera, of all things. Of all the toys that did not need to be gender-coded, I thought, this would be it. It was the exact same toy, the only difference was the color. Did there really need to be a “boy” camera and a “girl” camera? I mean, c’mon! Needless to say, when it came time to buy presents, both the boy and the girls on our list got a different brand of camera–one that came in orange.

It doesn’t end there. Where I always thought that I knew where the issues would be coming from–deflecting and deprogramming hegemonic lessons that toy kitchens were for girls and only boys could play with Tonka trucks from commercials that smacked of biological determinism–now even gender-neutral toys aren’t so neutral. Does LeapFrog, for example, really need to make blue and pink versions of their kiddie learning computers? Is it that important to brand something as “for boys” or “for girls“? Will boys only use a computer if the learning game is branded with Disney’s Cars? Will girls only use it if the game is branded with Disney’s Princesses? And what if a girl likes Cars? Or a boy likes Princesses? What then? Or will they not even think to ask, having imbibed the blue=boy/pink=girl lesson for too long already?

I think about all the societal forces bombarding my daughter and her friends, and I don’t want to feel powerless to do anything. The other night, one of The Pumpkin’s best friends, a little boy she’s known since birth, was frantic because he couldn’t find another chair in which to sit at the kids’ table for dinner. He refused, absolutely refused, to sit in a Dora-emblazoned chair because it was Dora, and Dora is for girls. No matter how much I or his parents tried to convince him that that wasn’t the case, and that he could sit in the chair, he wouldn’t change his mind. He wouldn’t play dress-up with the girls, either, since the Disney Princess gear was obviously not for boys. Another boy in our group of friends, however, wouldn’t hesitate to put on one of those tiaras. He unabashedly loves Dora and the Princesses, and his parents support that love. But what messages does he get at preschool, I wonder, from both teachers and other kids, when he shares that love with others?

I’m tired of seeing pink. I’m tired of seeing blue. And I’m both pissed off and saddened deeply that at age three, my daughter and her friends, both girls and boys, have already learned to see those colors, and what they are supposed to mean, so well. And I know that this isn’t the last time I’m going to start a sentence with, “No, baby, both boys and girls can….”


Superha said...

we'll put our son in a pink polo someday... just for you. thanks for the orange camera. bff loves it! :) a camera by any other color...

Ka_Jun said...


Just wait. Our boy has been insistent that we take a trip to Chuck E Cheese over the last week. Turns out, Chuck E Cheese has purchased ad spots on PBS right before Sesame Street. The war has been joined a long time ago. Date of first microconsumer attempt to influence parental buying patterns, 25 months. It only gets worse from here on out, no matter how hard we fight.

christina said...

yeah, what about diapers?! No one but a parent or care giver is going to see those and yet they continue to make them gender specific in color and decor. One day my colleague who was making a run to Costco picked up a pack for me. Then she apologized that she picked up the wrong ones. I thought they were the wrong size. Turns out she meant that it had "Cars" on it rather than "Cinderella". Luckily, for now BabyGirl doesn't care.

awatersign said...

I'm not a parent yet but I definitely think about these issues and how I'll deal with them when I have kids. I remember taking a gender studies class in college and the professor (who was very much a feminist) talked about how with her own kids, she constantly had to deal with the "only boys can be firefighters" type of thought her kids were spouting, despite her considerable influence over them. I found the anecdote sobering.

I think we can only do the best we can and trust that as kids get older and have more advanced critical thinking skills, that the examples we set will help them rise above these things.

dylandog said...

I used to feel the same way about my daughters when they were little (they are 7 and 9 now). No pink in the house... denim overalls and plain Ts in solid colors were the norm. I avoided "girly" toys and bought trucks, blocks and puzzles. I felt assured that they would grow up to have a broader view of themselves as girls (other than "girls wear pink and play with dolls"). But, in reality, all kids need to identify with themselves and their gender. I think by removing or shielding them from "every" ounce of commercialized crap geared towards "girly-girls" it teaches them that there is something shameful about being a girl and having these preferences. I grew up an absolute tom-boy, I used to change out of the dresses my mom put me in while on the way to school (in the bushes, of course), I played with the boys, loved dirt and swearing. While I had a great time in general... I have to admit that the teen years were awkward. I was hard to find another female who understood my point of view and was equally as difficult and frustrating to hear other girls blather on about lipstick and eyeshadow... but this and other things eventually passed. I eventually relented with a lot of my anti-pink activities and just provided the best role model behavior I could. Now my daughters play competitve soccer (and enjoy throwing elbows), shun pink (except for underwear.. go figure), and still are searching for the meaning of "girlhood". As an aside, my 2 year-old son loves dress-up (he looks smashing in the Barbie cheerleader outfit) and has a babydoll named Steve (complete with stroller and carseat). And I'm cool with that.

Paula said...

A few months ago, I wrote to Hasbro toys to complain about their ad campaign for Tonka trucks, which includes the slogan "Built for Boyhood," as sexist and undul gender-specific. This is the response I got. The response upset me more than the original ad campaign.


Hi [XXXX],

Thank you so much for your recent inquiry about our marketing strategy on Tonka. As the mother of a 3 and a half year old girl, I can certainly understand the fun and wonder when a little girl or little boy breaks "stereotype" and plays with non-traditional toys. My daughter is totally into Spiderman, and I LOVE IT!

As a family organization we are committed to finding exciting and appropriate play experiences for boys and girls of all ages, and if you log on to our website at www.hasbrotoyshop.com , I am sure you will find many toys that are both gender neutral as well as gender specific.

The gender specific toys help to build confidence and create wonderful bonding experiences amongst both parents of same sex children and amongst the children who they relate with most.

Specifically on Tonka, there are essentially two reasons why we choose to market Tonka to boys. In all of our research, the overwhelming majority of Tonka interest is with little boys. Further, we have scores of research that tell us about the psychological differences between boys and girls and how they play. In fact, there is some recent research that explains how this can actually be traced back to the actual biology and chemistry in the brain. This research proves to us that while there will be girls who defy these studies, the marketing is best targeted to boys and moms of little boys.

Thank again for your concern and interest, and I hope this letter helps to shed some light on our marketing strategy.

My Very Best,

Angie S______

Director of Marketing, Tonka brand

Hasbro, Inc.

thisislarry said...


Dont blame yourselve, and try not to put all the blame on society.

At a certain age, as dylandog says, kids need to start identifying who they are, and of course one way to do that is to decide what groups you're a part of and what groups you're not.

Its no more insidious than saying "this food is for me, this other food is for the dog" Is that specie-ist or something?

Some would say wisdom is gained by being able to distinguish between like choices. At this age this may be something like learnign that two nickels are worth more than two pennies, or a pile of four cookies is different from a pile of four carrots.

That this extends to what the differences are between 'boys' and 'girls' seems just a natural extension of this.

Having gone thru the ebbs and flows of this like Dylandog, I'm much less worried that there are secret forces at play. The forces are all out there in the open, and DISL you above most others are well enough aware of them to be a good guardian.

Robyn said...

I'm not a parent yet (only an auntie) but this reminds me of something I learned in high school psychology that might help. Something about how kids of a certain age are really focused on black and white categories, but they grow out of it. When I learned this I immediately thought about the childrens' obsession with boys' and girls' stuff. Not that grown-ups don't also sometimes (often?) think the same way, but with your guidance, it is probably just a stage. Probably an important stage too! I mean we teach kids to classify other things too right: needs and wants, vegetables, tools, whatever...

Paula: That Tonka letter is awful! Especially the part about marketing to moms of boys--what, no dads?

Kirin said...

This my first trip to this blog and I love it. I'm pregnant with my first child and I also vowed to try and raise my child as open and gender-neutral as possible (nursery will be "alphabet soup", not "princess" or "airplane" themed). Growing up I'd play GI Joe as often as I did Marvel (as Phoenix, no less). Having studied human behavior, part of a child's identity, ironically, is knowing s/he can fit in. I don't think most people feel comfortable being "themselves" and shirking stereotypes until well into adulthood. We just have to keep guiding and educating our munchkins and hope they develop the strength of character we want in them.

Besides, if you think it's bad now, wait till she gets older and you have to battle with the hoochie outfits in the little girl stores and the Bling Bling hooker looking Barbies.

PacificaMatt said...

Totally true, every word. As we speak I'm trying to buy my daughter a pair of pajamas. Try this. Every pair of pajamas in the entire world is very clearly labeled as "boys pajamas" (blue with sports, trains or dinosaurs) or "girls pajamas" (pink with flowers, hearts, butterflies or pandas). There are no children's pajamas in brown, orange, green, chartreuse, crimson, or anything else.

Oh, with one scary exception: boys can now wear camouflage. I'm all for respecting the troops, but there's nothing like preparing your two-year-old to be a soldier!

Twiz said...

My mom bought pink camouflage pants for my 3-yr-old daughter!

Good post, DISL!

Felix said...

I agree with awatersign that you're doing the best you can, and I'm nowhere near becoming a parent, but I've noticed that the older I get, the more I notice the things my parents taught me as a child. What you're doing is planting a seed to bloom beautiful flowers for your child, but there are also weeds to contend with. Don't freak about the weeds, just tend to your garden as best you can and it will pay off in the end =)