When, exactly, did we all agree that pink is girly and girly is horrible?
What’s so bad about pink? In fact, while I’m at it, what’s so bad about sparkles, hearts, cute animals and friendship?
For boys, too.
Many friends have sent me the latest victory for gender politics: the wonderful girl who convinced Hasbro to offer a wider range of designs and colours for their Easy Bake Ovens and to represent boys as part of their consumer base. There is no doubt that this is a step forward: the recognition on the part of families, as well as large companies, that children play with all kinds of toys.
It got me thinking, though, about how we are skirting another important issue: some boys would love a pink Easy Bake Oven. Some boys love things that are bright and romantic and cuddly and kind. What is it about the gentler side of play that has become so contrary to what we consider masculine?
The colour pink has got me hooked. As the mother of two boys, I have watched two very different approaches to play in my house. One boy gravitates towards the usual things that are considered ‘For Boys’. The other, while equally intrigued by battles and cars, showed early interest in things cute and sweet and basically coded ‘For Girls.’ He takes the players off our table hockey board and plays with them as though they are friends. And pink: pink was his favourite colour until he became slowly aware that maybe he shouldn’t want a pink shirt, a pink hat, and a pink toothbrush. The pendulum is swinging back, though; he recently informed me that there are 3 boys in his class who also like the colour, although he is careful not to wear his pink shirt anymore. All this, and he is also one of the best young players in any sports team he joins. He proves that masculinity is elastic and flexible if given the chance to be.
A quick trek through the toy section of any department store now offers a radical gender binary: Boy Toys and Girl Toys, with very little intersection between. The boy section offers a range of soldiers, trucks, racing things and fighting things. The girl section offers toys featuring domestic acts such as cooking and playing house, as well as little toy pets with huge eyes, baby dolls and strollers. Much of the packaging in this section features hearts, and the dominant colour is pink. Our friend wanted to buy our son a baby doll for Christmas a couple of years ago, and was hard pressed to find one that didn’t say Little Mommy. There were no dolls for Little Daddies.
I once read an incredibly insipid My Little Pony story to my son, who had chosen it from the library. The plot was about a pony who had helped all of her friends get ready for a party, and then had no one to help her. When she finally arrived at the party (after being aided by a fairy of some kind), her friends gave her an award for being a good friend. My son’s response still strikes me. He said, “I think I might cry. Will you read it again?” It was, in his mind, a touching story about friendship, complete with beautiful, cheery colours and hearts. Something that the world of boy toys and books is lacking.
I am what Caitlin Moran would call a “strident feminist”. I completely understand why many of my friends and colleagues bristle at the world of princesses and the slim variety of toys available to their daughters that seem to offer little more than superficial tropes of rescue and fashion. I have read the site of the Pink Stinks collective with interest. I too was very put off by Lego’s choice to remarket their brand specifically ‘for girls’, eliminating the essence of building that has long been the key to the imaginative toy. I found the My Little Pony story nauseating. But part of me – the part that loved her Barbies as a girl – wants to ask, what is so wrong about toys that are bright and cute, that encourage friendship, compassion, and nurturing? Why are parents of boys so afraid to choose the pink stroller from the ‘girl’s’ side of the toy isle for their little boy? We should all be lucky enough to raise boys and girls who value love. But try finding a heart in the boy side of the isle.
According to Jo Paoletti, gender theorist and dress expert, the codification of blue and pink is a recent addition to the marketing of children’s toys and clothes. Before the 80s, there was little evidence of pink clothes strictly for girls, and there was a time when pink was considered the masculine choice (along with putting your young lad in a dress as a babe). Dr Anne Fausto-Sterling has pointed to evidence that in the 1930s, both boy and girl babies were given pink and blue clothes. Those of us girls raised in the 70s and 80s likely have few pictures of ourselves in pink clothes. I know I look more like I was trying to emulate Ernie from Sesame Street than anything else. We had Marlo Thomas and ‘William Wants a Doll’. Many of my male friends had Cabbage Patch dolls. And I too was drawn to the sunny side of play: I loved the bright pinks of my Barbies, when they arrived in my house, and joyfully played all manner of imaginative games with them alongside my best friend. We cut their hair to make them punk rockers and drew on their faces so they looked like Boy George when we tired of dressing them up for parties.
I have a friend with three girls. He told me an anecdote about the approach that he and his partner took to the world of ‘girl toys’. With his first daughter, they were strictly against princess toys, perceiving them to be tropes of sexism and limited opportunity for learning. By the time they had their second, they realized that they had been robbing her of something she’d be naturally drawn to: fantasy. Now they round out the play with information about women – princesses even – who are leaders, adventurers, explorers.
Sometimes kids are drawn to things for reasons unknown to us. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge pink, or hearts, or fantasy play about nurture or friendship as hallmarks of sexism or evidence that our sons aren’t masculine or our girls are vapid. Maybe we need more athletes wearing pink and more grown men wearing, quite literally, their hearts on their sleeves. It doesn’t mean that we need toy strollers made up in blue for boys, simply because ‘blue means boy’, but rather that we need to break down ridiculous silos that are based on colour and aesthetic packaging. Some boys like pink. Put a pink stroller called Little Daddy in the toy isle, along with a green one, a blue one and a yellow one, and celebrate the fact that your kids aren’t beholden to the same fears you are.