Why are parents of boys threatened by a color?
My friend’s child wants a pink bike.
That’s not a problem—lots of companies make pink bikes. For girls.
Her child is a boy.
It’s hard being a boy who’s drawn to the color pink. Not that the kids see anything wrong with it—it’s just a color, after all. Plus adults are always telling kids to play nicely, so we don’t give them too many options.
The problem is with the adults. They think there’s something “wrong” or “weird” for a boy to like the color pink. Pink is a girl’s color, although there are plenty of girls who wear blue and carry it off quite nicely. But boys seem to only be able to wear pink (in limited amounts) when they reach a certain age, perhaps when their sexuality is clearly apparent.
That wasn’t always the case. In fact, pink was a boy’s color for many years, according to Jo B. Paoletti, a historian at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. As Smithsonian Magazine explains it:
The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out. … Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.
It’s totally cool for grown boys—aka men—to wear pink. In fact, men who wear pink make more money, are more likely to get compliments from female colleagues and appear confident.
But, we’re uncomfortable with boys who like pink because it might mean something. Like, maybe they’re gay (and what, exactly, is so wrong about that?)
Some of that played out in my own family. As a young kid, a male nephew identified with the Pink Power Ranger when all the other boys in the family, including my own sons, related more to the other Power Rangers. The parents fretted but the kids were oblivious; a Power Ranger, no matter the color, was still pretty awesome.
Then a few years later, one of my sons expressed an interest in playing with Barbie dolls. While I still have my original Barbie, Midge and Ken dolls (which might be collectible if I hadn’t used permanent markers and Silly Putty to make them anatomically correct), I bought him a Barbie of his own with two stipulations—that she stay in the house and that he didn’t bring her out when his friends were over. I wasn’t sure if I was more fearful of what his friends might say or what their parents might say when told that, “We played with Barbies all day!” Eventually he lost interest, and yes, I felt sheepishly relieved.
As it turns out, the Pink Power Ranger-loving nephew, now a young man, came out as gay at some point; I’m pretty sure that would have happened even if he’d never heard of Power Rangers. Meanwhile my son, also a young man, by all appearances seems to be 100 percent heterosexual; despite her alluring smile and figuring, Barbie did not “corrupt” him.
None of which makes it any easier for my friend who just wants to allow her preschool-age son to ride around on a pink bike because that’s what he wants.
As her older, presumably wiser friend, I can’t say I have an answer for her. I went for the Barbie without too much struggle; I’m not sure I would have gone for a pink bike.
All of which makes me think of what Sarah Hoffman addressed so beautifully on Salon last year:
Indeed, one of the most popular arguments against letting boys express their feminine sides is that people will make fun of them. Which makes me wonder: should we hide who we are because people are mean? Or should we—parents, teachers, bystanders, infotainment talk-show hosts—stand up and say it’s not acceptable to make fun of people who are different?
Because it isn’t acceptable to make fun of people who are different or who are attracted to different things. If we truly wish to create a society that allows men and women to be free to pursue their passions and that removes gender from “who does what”—whether in a career or a marriage—then don’t we need to start when our kids are young? We do.
If only the parents could learn to play nicely.
A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson’s personal blog, OMG Chronicles.
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Image credit: rumpleteaser/Flickr