Pink Apologia

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Is there a more divisive color?
 
I’ve written about the utility and frugality-influenced decision to dress my son in pink clothing as an infant. (And, on the very day I caught wind of the flap surrounding a J Crew ad featuring a five-year-old boy with pink-painted toenails, guess whose toenails were,  indictingly, sporting a Wet ‘n’ Wild shade called Bar-B ).  Based on the feedback I got, it’s pretty clear reasonable people  understand that (A) boys, of any age, wearing pink clothing is not an offense worthy of comment — or an offense, period; and (B) gender performativity and gender aren’t one-to-one correlatives. To say nothing of sexual orientation.
 
However! What is considered defensibly boundary-defying when applied to boys still inspires pushback from some high-minded, unorthodox parents when applied to girls.  I’m talking about parents, usually of a pedantic ilk, who question the implications of various childhood rules and rituals, and talk their way around the acceptance or rejection of these. (See also: “What we concern ourselves with when we aren’t concerned about where our next meal is coming from”). Yeah, I’m talking about parents like me.
 
 A lot of these … whatever … parents have no problem saying, “I would never dress my daughter in pink clothes” or deriving pride from their little girl’s pink-repulsion.  And, I admit, I might have done the same. In fact, this issue probably wouldn’t even be a blip on my indignation radar if not for MaryAlice, my two-and-a-half-year-old (in case you missed it in the slide show):
 

MaryAlice, whose current hair-hue comes courtesy of Manic Panic’s Hot Hot Pink, has a certain appreciation for the color: one that Stuart really doesn’t.  Her mindset hasn’t reached an “I will forsake all  other colors!” plateau. But, when given a choice between a pink object and a non-pink object, it isn’t hard to guess which one she’ll select.

“Why?” doesn’t really matter. We didn’t deluge her with pink from birth or eliminate it from her realm of awareness. In fact, she mostly wore hand-me-downs from Stuart — which, again, meant her wardrobe included pink items but was not exclusively pink.

As a child who has been around other children, most of whom are products of traditionally-inclined  households, since she was eight weeks old, has MaryAlice digested the idea that Girls ♥ Pink? Well, sure, probably. On the other hand, if taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?


I think it’s difficult to divorce emblems from their perceived connotations or historical, cultural, or iconographic roots. And it’s less complicated  to put the kibosh on, essentially, an aesthetic preference than it is to “say what you mean” — to quote the eminently quotable Lewis Carrol.  Just like it is less complicated to forbid branded and cross-branded toys and apparel and food and household products than to have a frank, age-appropriate discussion about the detriment of consumerism and insidiousness of advertising. (Believe me, I’ve been there. In the past month, my four-year-old has exclaimed “Trix are for kids!” and questioned, “What does that Cheetos cheetah [shady and beshaded spokestoad Chester Cheetah] want us to do? Should we eat Cheetos all the time?”). Or to put princess-blinkers on our daughters than to celebrate and cultivate the multifarious characteristics that make them special people. (This is also territory I’ve covered before).


Ah, princesses. Without deviating too far off-course — because this topic probably deserves a post unto itself — I want to briefly bring princesses into the discussion, if only because they, and the alleged damage they cause, are often conflated with the color pink, and vice versa.

Peggy Orenstein has been getting a good amount of press for her latest offering, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the actual book in its entirety, but have seen it excerpted widely. Here is a quote from the afore-linked NPR interview: 

Orenstein says very young children don’t yet understand that your sex is fixed — that you can’t go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy. So little girls may be drawn to pink, sparkly princess gowns as a way of asserting that they’re definitely girls.

But an overemphasis on pink can eventually be harmful, Orenstein says. “Those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they’re allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures, become big gaps.

“When your daughter is sitting there in her room, with her pink princess dress and her pink Scrabble kit … and her pink Magic 8-Ball, it just makes those divisions so much bigger and so much harder to cross.”

I understand why archetypal fairytale princesses make people squeamish. They are demure; delicate; in need of “rescuing”; objectified; valued only for their beauty. Their chief goal is to be desired, and subsequently obtained, by a prince. 

This is not a revelation.

I will point out, though, that (A) the whole trope has been revised significantly (if imperfectly) in many cinematic and literary interpretations of the past several decades; and (B) I don’t think princesses’ appeal, for young children, is even rooted in those classic traits. From observing my own children, who are pretty typical, I’m all-but-certain that they are mesmerized by the pageantry, the sparkle, the ostentatiousness : l’art pour l’art. Pink figures prominently into this schema — and tulle and glitter and cupcake-like embellishments. All of these things are value-neutral in a vacuum.

For example, Stuart and MaryAlice call Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz a “princess.” Does her lack of monarchical lineage contradict this assumption? Or her disinterest in princes/men, her ability to act independently, and her role as a font of guiding wisdom in the story? Of course not! She’s a “princess” because she’s got an absurdly impractical dress that looks like it’s made from cotton candy, a disco-mitre crown, and travels in an incandescent, fuchsia bubble. Just like, in their minds, I’d be a doctor if I donned a white lab coat and wore a stethoscope. (Thankfully, few people over the age of eight or so could be similarly fooled).


Here’s the thing I don’t get: why the princesses — and pink — are being singled out, as supposedly hyper-gendered signifiers, for lambasting. Why should girls be steered toward so-called “crossover” interests (more on that in a bit), and boys, by and large, left to their paradigm?

To try to respond to my own confusion from Orenstein’s perspective: she  may be castigating them because she’s built a career on writing about social challenges foisted upon girls. Plus, she has a little girl. It’s an immediate concern for her.

Nonetheless, some of her quotes and conclusions give me pause:

 I wanted [my daughter] to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely — that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation. For a while, it looked as if I were succeeding. On her first day of preschool, at age two, she wore her favorite outfit — her “engineers” (a pair of pin-striped overalls) — and proudly toted her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox … My daughter had transcended typecasting.

Then, of course,  disappointment sets in when, under the influence of her Princess Svengali classmates, Orenstein’s daughter takes up the pink-loving torch:

As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. … [F]or her third birthday [she] begged for a ‘real princess dress’ with matching plastic high heels.

Shame. Failure. Bad feminist mommy.

So many of these feelings that one needs to write an entire book to expiate them? That’s a bit of a reach on my part.

It isn’t too farfetched to say that Orenstein  is not alone — not by a longshot —  in stamping implicitly or explicitly boy-aligned toys, colors, interests, even behaviors and emotions, with gold-star status, and declaring them honorarily “gender neutral,” while taking their girl-aligned counterparts to task. 

As  the proverbial “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” are given nods of approval from every direction, boys are still the clear default target demographic, and girls a mere afterthought. Orenstein herself bemoans Thomas the Tank Engine’s tokenistic treatment of female characters:

I complained to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the Learning Curve company, which pictured only boys on its Thomas packaging and had made Lady, its shiny mauve girl engine, smaller than the rest. (The other females among Sodor’s rolling stock were passenger cars — passenger cars … ).

Dressing in pinstriped overalls to emulate a conductor on Thomas  might be “transcend[ing] the stereotype”; but is it a victory for girls? And, critically, is it better than an infrastructure  that deliberately places girls’ existence at its center? After all, even in the most abhorrent, outmoded fairy tales in which princely acceptance is regarded as the ultimate goal, and physical beauty is viewed as paramount, those princes are just kind of set-dressing, plot devices. Heck, they usually don’t even have memorable names!

So, regardless of intention, this reactionary favoring of “boy stuff”  makes boys the litmus test. Again. Still.


I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us — especially women — continue to unwittingly devalue, and even demonize, the traditionally “feminine” because we are trying to shield the young girls in our lives from the imperatives that we, ourselves, may have struggled with. We wanted a Transformer and got a Barbie instead. Science and Math were seen as masculine subjects in school, so we were encouraged to make our mark in English and Art. We babysat, while our brothers had paper routes. There was internal  dissonance  if we followed the mandates to a T and  external tut-tutting if we didn’t.

This, I absolutely agree, is unhealthy for girls, and unhealthy for boys.

But not because newspaper-hurling is a worthier pursuit than babysitting. Or because excelling at English or Art has no merit. And neither Barbie nor Transformers are the ideal role models for children of any sex or gender. (Can I note, though,  that Barbie and the Magic of PegasusBarbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia and Barbie of Swan Lake meet Bechdel/Wallace standards? Anything from the Transformers franchise of films: uh-uh).  


 The way to counteract gendered pigeonholing is not to give a figurative cookie to girls who say their favorite color is blue and roll our eyes at the “false consciousness” of girls who say their favorite color is pink. As I said earlier, challenging though it may be, we need to divest these empty symbols — pink, princesses, frippery — of their connotative power. It’s adults who enthroned them, and adults who need to topple the regime. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tastemakers don’t care about this in the least … or , even more discouragingly, are so convinced of the importance of upholding gender codification that a kindergarten-aged boy wearing pink nail polish makes international news.

It does, then, need to be an individual effort. If your daughter is offered a pink balloon without being asked what color she would prefer — something that offended Orenstein — you ask her what color she would like, thereby giving her permission to state her selection with impunity. Shopping with your child for his or her friend’s birthday gift? Don’t simply stick to the “boy aisle” or “girl aisle” as a matter of course. And, importantly, when confronted with a transparently objectionable message, point it out for what it is and tell your child why it bothers you.

Arguably the hardest part of all this is avoiding the temptation to get sucked into an “either/or” fallacy. You don’t “win,” as a parent,  if your daughter loves construction machinery and karate, and “lose” if she favors butterflies and cheerleading. There is an undeniable desire, especially among those of us whose tastes run in a countercultural vein, to have kids with an enviable coolness quotient.  But, in the end, their lives are their own, and their likes and dislikes will probably follow a very circuitous path before cementing. Just like ours did.

Your daughter can still win, though: provided she knows you support her ability to make choices, and demonstrate this by giving her the latitude to do so. Even if she is wearing a tutu, brandishing a fairy wand, and twirling, twirling …

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6 Comments

Filed under Amanda

6 responses to “Pink Apologia

  1. Jen

    “Just like, in their minds, I would be a doctor if I donned a white lab coat and wore a stethoscope.”

    Hahahahaha! Excellent!

  2. I’m going to blame the brevity of this comment on my recent return from a mind-melting (in the good way) academic conference on Motherhood and Activism, on being 25 weeks pregnant, and on this Cold Which Will Not Leave, but for all its brevity and lack of substance, it is, nevertheless, accurate:

    I think I love you.

  3. deborah b.

    holy you-know-what. this post is a knockout. thank you for it. i missed it when you first wrote it for some reason, so i’m glad you linked me on facebook. love. sharing.

  4. OK, I came back to read this (because I wanted to reference in a post I’m working on), and, in addition to going “hells yeah!” all over again, wanted to reply to this:

    “On the other hand, if taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?”

    Well, yes. And no.

    While there’s a very big and important difference between anticonformism and nonconformism (as I’ve written before, the former is simply running the same path the opposite way from the herd, while the latter is finding one’s own path, even if it goes along with the majority for a bit), the cultural indoctrination around gender (among other things) is so very strong that to a certain extent, we need to lean far the other way just to make a difference in the overall trajectory of our children’s lives — and in part because we unconsciously, will we or nil we, aim them toward the gender typical ourselves. (I’m apparently fond of the travel metaphor today.)

    Which isn’t to say it’s ok to belittle (or feel ashamed of) a daughter’s desire for pink (your whole last section? LOVE), but that it’s probably not a bad thing if we do a little more conscious pushing of our assigned-boy children toward dolls and pretty things and our assigned-girl children toward blocks and big physical activities, at least before they show a clear preference (and to a small and gentle extent afterward). Because they don’t need to hear from us encouragement toward gender-(stereo)typical activities or preferences when they’re going to hear such 10,000 times a day from the rest of the world. Un-begrudging support for, if that’s what they do indeed, for however long, feel drawn to: yes. Encouragement toward, or acquiescence to the first glimmers of probably-socially-inspired leanings: maybe not so much.

  5. Yes, I definitely feel you, here. I think that I draw some distinctions between “steering” and “inculcation.” The former? I do it all the time, even with non-ideologically-based situations (e.g. moving the less-favored[-by-me] movies to the furthest reaches of the DVD shelf). I agree that it’s our parental imperative, in fact, when it comes to leaving the door open for gender-diversity. (Don’t know if you coined that term, but you introduced me to it; and it perfectly synthesizes all of my messy, verbose thoughts on the matter!).

    What I’m equating with “indoctrination” are the value-laden counter-messages that mirror those that are transmitted by the Big Bad (“the Dominant”). E.g. if my daughter is fixated on unicorns (or “acorns,” as she’d have it), and expresses some sentiment like, “Dragons are for boys,” I would certainly offer correction — but in the vein of “anyone can like anything,” highlighting the many fascinating attributes of dragons (heh) without resorting to unicorn-defamation (double-heh) to do so. (Relatedly: my family is nerrrrdy!).

    Something I also really neglected is the power of capital in our gentle per/dissuasive efforts, especially when chidlren are pre-verbal and as passive/receptive in their information acquisition as they’ll probably ever be. The short version: don’t buy things for your child — or other children — just because you want to make sure zie is “correctly” identified as a boy or girl, or because the perceptual dissonance makes you uncomfortable.

    Sigh. Gender is such an expansive topic. I just mentioned to someone the other day that it’s something I’ve been thinking and learning about (in earnest) for over half my life, and there is still so much more to consider!

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