There's been quite of bit of back-and-forth about pink lately, Researcher Rebecca Hains summarizes it very neatly:
“What’s the problem with pink, anyway?” griped Yael Kohen in New York. Then, building upon Kohen’s piece, Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt demanded: ”What is it with you moms of girls? I have never met a single one of you who isn’t tortured about pink and princesses.”
Over at Pigtail Palls, Melissa Wardy lays out the counterargument:
There is a difference between being anti-pink and being anti-limitation, and as someone who educates thousands of parents every week on this issue I feel most parents fall into the second camp. We are not anti-pink. We are anti-limitation.
Anyone who studies -- and critiques -- gender distinctions can expect to be accused of one of two things:
Countering the first assertion is a matter of evidence, both scientific and cultural. Biological sex is not either-or. There are as many variations on gender codes as there are cultures in human history. Of course, like other modern controversies, from climate change to vaccination, evidence can not sway the committed unbeliever. My research is aimed at the persuadable reader, and at the embattled advocates for gender equality and acceptance who need the ammunition.
The second accusation is more problematic. People who espouse this view often claim to embrace a more inclusive and accepting view of gender variations. They want their boys to be free to be artists and their girls to be engineers. But gosh-darn-it all this fuss about pink is so TRIVIAL!
Here is where I will take the liberty of substituting "pinkification" for "pink", because it isn't about the color pink itself, but about the cultural pattern of offering children a strongly stereotypical version of gender. Pinkification is what I will call this pattern. Here's why it isn't trivial:
Everyday Feminism blogger Kelsey Lueptow offers smart, constructive advice for dealing with people who insist on sorting your kids into gender boxes. Point "2 ("Expect People and Society Generally To Put Your Child Into Gender Boxes") is spot-on, in particular. So many new parents and grandparents are shocked to discover that in the decades since they were/had a child, the cultural landscape for babies has become much more gendered than they remember. As a historian, I like to remind people that Things Change. (In fact, the entire point of Pink and Blue is to show how dramatically -- and quickly -- gender coding has changed.) Here's the reassuring subtext: Things Will Change. In fact, things are changing right now. Someday pink will be just another color, though probably not real soon. As Lueptow points out,
"Capitalism means that if the public demand for gender neutral toys rises, the toy companies will comply because even more than they care about perpetuating the current mainstream values, they want your money."
I came across some interesting thoughts on unisex fashion in "Looking Good", published in 1976. The author, Clara Pierre, was writing from the perspective of an industry insider observing what she expected to be permanent changes in fashion. In chapter 10 "From bralessness to unisex", she explains the connection between sexual liberation and unisex clothing as a process of increasing comfort various aspects of sexual identity and expression:
"for whatever reason, we began to feel more comfortable first with sex pure and simple, then with homosexuality and now with androgyny"
That was then and this is now, as they say. Clearly, some people thought that the culture wars over sex was over, even as it was just beginning. So, I wonder: what happened?
I read Devan Corneal's defense of gender stereotyping this morning and have been mulling it over all day. Corneal's main argument in defense of gender stereotypes is that she is following her four-year-old son's wishes, not imposing her own. The flaw in basing your beliefs about gender on your four-year-old son or daughter's world view is that it tends to be based more rigidly on stereotypes than at any other time in their lives.
But where is the harm in indulging their four-year-old fantasies about manly men and girly girls? Here's my take:
1. It encourages them to judge others according to those stereotypes. Little kids are the great enforcers of the gender rules as they see them, and they can be downright cruel to kids who don't conform. When your son hears you tell someone he is "all boy", what is he supposed to think of his playmate who isn't just like him?
2. Stereotypes encourage simplistic ways of viewing a complex world. There is a reason humans use stereotypes. They help us make quick decisions in confusing or chaotic situations. But quick decisions are not always the right ones. Which serves your child better in learning to get along with other people: simple thinking or complex thinking?
3. Many of our gender stereotypes are superficial, arbitrary and subject to change. (This is the main point of my book, Pink and Blue.) Boys 100 years ago wore pink and played with dolls. Legos used to be unisex. Field hockey is a man's game in India. Elevating stereotypes to the level of natural law is, well, silly.
4. Stereotypes depend on our believing that sex and gender are binary (either-or). To summarize the last 50 years of research on the subject, they are not. There are babies born everyday who are not clearly boys or girls on the outside, and our insides -- physical, mental and emotional -- comprise an infinite range of gender identity and expressions.
Stereotypes may be cute in a four-year-old, but think of the stereotypes of teenagers, adults and elders we see in our media. How do we feel about those? Are we equally ok with our children believing in racial stereotypes? Before you let your child embrace a stereotype, think it through.
Amidst news of a new prenatal test that can accurately detect the fetus's sex as early as 7 weeks, USAToday ran this article:
Couples throw "reveal parties" to divulge unborn baby's gender
First, an admission: we chose to know -- and share -- our second child's sex in 1985, when "knowing" was still fairly rare. There were a variety of reasons, ranging from fairly rational (our four-year-old daughter was fairly adamant about her preference for a baby sister) to the truly childish (it really annoyed me that our already-arrogant OB-GYN would know something we didn't). What neither my husband nor I believed was that knowing our baby's sex would tell us much about its personality or abilities. I was a tomboy who had truly expected to grow up to be a cowboy; he was a talented pianist with a degree in theater. Moreover, I had already been studying gender and sexuality for nearly a decade, and had a pretty good understanding of the complexities of gender identity. So I don't believe that everyone who throws a reveal party is essentializing their unborn child or longing for a return to the Mad Men era.
But I wonder. When all you know is your child's sex, based on a test that reports it only as either M or F, what do you actually know? Consider:
I am pretty sure I would still be inclined to "find out" if I were pregnant today. After all, I was the sneaky kid who ferreted out the hidden Christmas presents and carefully unwrapped (and re-wrapped) them. I'd probably share the news with friends and family. I might even throw a "reveal party", because I LOVE parties. But I would still let my son be a person first and foremost.
Whew! A few months ago I was interviewed by Jeanne Maglaty of Smithsonian Magazine online. It promptly fell off my radar (I'm a professor! It happens all the time.) and suddenly it was online last Friday. I posted it to me friends on Facebook and Twitter, who posted it to their friends, who posted it to their friends and suddenly it's everywhere I look. Exciting and scary.
Many of the bloggers who have picked it up have made insightful comments and rather than sprinkle the answers all over the 'net, I thought I would try to respond here. If you have additional questions, post or email them. I am in the final month of the semester -- AKA Grading Hell - but I will try to answer as many as possible.
UNC Sociologist Philip Cohen asks the $64,000 question:
"So, what would a gay 5-year-old in 1884 have done?"
That's a great question, and one that I was only able to raise -- and not to answer definitively -- in the book. My guess is:
Now that the manuscript is out of my hands, I an eagerly turning to my next project. On April 22, I'll be in San Antonio, Texas to give a paper at the Popular Culture Association conference. The title is "Pink Boys and Tomgirls: Raising Gender Variant Boys in the Twenty-first Century", and it's giving me a chance to delve more deeply into a phenomenon that is emerging so fast I couldn't cover it adequately in the book. here's the abstract, for starters (sorry, it's a tad jargon-y):
For the last twenty-five years, parents who prefer neutral or androgynous styles for their children have had very few options in the retail market. How do these gender rules effect children who do not conform to dominant gender expectations, including not only the 1 child in 100 who is born intersex, or the 2-10% (depending on your sources) who will be sexually attracted to partners of their own sex, but all the girls who dislike pink and the boys who want to play princess? My own research strongly argues that clothing does not “make the man” when it comes to babies and toddlers; there is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuality is any more or less prevalent now than it was when boys wore dresses until they were five, or that lesbianism spiked among the first generation of girls to wear pants. But that does not mean that children between one and six may not use clothing to help explore and express what their biological sex in the cultural landscape into which they were born. In this presentation I will offer an overview of this emerging trend and discuss its connection to the current system of gender binaries in children’s clothing, in the context of contemporary psychological thought. I will place special emphasis on the appearance of blogs and organizations that provide support to parents with “gender non-conforming” or “gender variant” boys.
I have collected some resources in my Zotero library, and will be working through the presentation here. Stay tuned!
I just got a great email from commenter Andi, AKA "Feministjerk" (no, he really isn't!). He offered an expansion of his theory that the connection between pink and femininity is the result of post-World War II capitalism and branding. I think he's partially right, but one of the arguments I make in the book is that children themselves are actors in the process, and any theory that does not take children into consideration as consumers is going to be incomplete. The more adults have listened to -- and marketed to-- children, the more clothing for children under the age of six has become gendered. The typical 4-year-old is about the most ardent believer in gender stereotypes you can find, because that is where they are developmentally. Thus the princess craziness, for example. Disney knows 3-6 year-old girls.
As infants grow into toddlers, they become active participants in the gender binary fashion show, much to the amusement, chagrin or dismay of their parents. For boys and girls whose gender identity generally conforms to their biological sex, this participation appears likely to be enthusiastic embrace. These are the girls who insist on wearing nothing but pink and prefer dresses to any form of pants, and the boys who clamor for buzz-cuts and ubiquitous sports imagery. One of the most puzzling questions raised by the gendered clothing of the last generation is, “What about the others?” What about tomboys, the little girls who for decades could wear plain girls’ styles or their brother’s hand-me-downs without appearing out of the mainstream? (In a study of college age women in the early 1970s, 78% described themselves as “tomboys” as children, though the age to which they referred was unclear.) What about the one person in 100 classified as “intersex”, whose body differs from standard male or female and whose sense of identity may not conform to the gender chosen for them by their parents? What about boys who, like tomboys, feel more comfortable in the clothing of the other sex, but for whom the English language has no positive term? Certainly, one of the outcomes of a strong gender binary in children’s clothing is the lack of expressive options for children whose identities may be more fluid or contrary to stereotyped images of masculinity and femininity.
According to recent research, 41% of expectant parents are choosing not to find out the sex of their baby before it's born. Many of those who do would prefer to have it both ways: keep the surprise but also get gender-specific gifts for their offspring. A Texas entrepreneur has solved the problem with an online gift registry that caters to these "NFO" parents. This video explains how it works.
I am finding in my research that planning and purchasing is one of the top reasons for finding out the baby's sex in advance. Of course, the question remains: why does having the right pink or blue wardrobe matter so much, at 20 weeks or 40?