On pink and other toy segregation

Review of Chapter 3, Pinked! of Orenstein, Peggy, 2011, Cinderella ate my daughter. Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture, New York:  HarperCollins Publishers

If you want to read a general summary of the book read here, chapter 1 here and chapter 2 here.

The problem with pink, this author argues, is not obviously the colour itself but how little a portion it is of the rainbow. This is representative to her of how limiting a range available there is for the creation of female identity in the mainstream toys and colours for children.

In a way, one could be happy for the celebration of girlhood through all things pink. But she argues that this celebration of girlhood, just as with princesses, celebrates a very limiting and limited portion of what it means to be a girl/woman. It essentially fuses girl identity with appearance. 

Orenstein traces the history of the use of pink and blue for girls and boys and shows that until recently children weren’t colour coded –white was used for all as it made sense for better cleaning and saving. When it did start, pink was actually for boys – sublimated red- and blue for girls- which related to the colours of the Virgin Mary. In any case, what she shows is how strong is the power of marketing to impose these colours, and also in the ways in which more and more they create different developmental stages. She shows how people in the retail business invented the ‘toddler’ phase rather than child developmental research, for instance. The same goes with ‘tween and all the different separations that now exist. The bottom line is: separating (in age and sex) boosts profits. Pink makes business sense.

She shows next how toys have fallen into this game of prettifying themselves to sell. Sesame street had trouble with finding a girl figure that was successful, until they made a ‘pretty’ one (there are very few girls in the programme, one which has addressed many issues such as race and disability, but gender…it still struggles). The same with Dora the explorer, the one aimed at 5-8 years old: is suddenly tall and elongated, more ‘pretty’. The excuse of manufacturers is always the same ‘we are honouring children’s pattern of play’. But are they honouring or imposing? Where’s the line?

The author ponders about the importance of toys for children, can’t we just say ‘oh this are just toys, let’s not worry about it’? You could, of course, but she argues, again, that what we have, own and wear says a lot about ourselves, these things in many ways reflect who we are. So she asks then:

‘What do the toys we give our girls, the pinkness in which they are steeped, tell us about what we are telling them? What do they say about who we think they are and ought to be?’

So, if we buy our children these toys: what are we telling them about who they are, what they should value, and what it means to be female?

With this in mind, she analyses the evolution of dolls. From dolls that were meant to boost the ‘flagging maternal instinct’, to Barbie, who entered the scene in the 60s, toys reflected parental values and/or societal values. She shows how Barbie was, in the 60s, a moment when gender values were in flux, in a way revolutionary, as it reflected a whole new idea of what women could be that differed in some ways from the washing machine and irons that came with other dolls. Barbie was single, fun, free to hang out with boyfriends. But Barbie has changed over the years, its features softened, its palette of colours reduced, it was made more ‘pretty’ as its public changed – instead of the 8-12 year old market, more and more its consumers are in the 3-6 market.  And older girls, in rejection to anything babyish, look for ‘cool’. In this case Barbie is left for Bratz. Bratz are dolls that exude ‘sassiness and attitude’, which in another words means sexy. From pretty to sexy, that’s the line to walk on for girls.

So the ‘innocence’ of princesses’ and even of Barbie now fades away to give way to what was behind it more clearly: narcissism and materialism. And Bratz more bluntly clearly define appearance and consumption as hallmarks of female identity. And Bratz were very successful, taking up to 40% of the doll market.

She states that she does not think that these companies have a plan to brainwash our children…but that they do it because it works, and in a way parents pay for it. So the question becomes then ‘why does it work and why parents pay for it?’

What she asks is:

‘why do parents need to apply such difference between male and female?

 ‘what is the anxiety that accounts for the surge of the pink and pretty?’

She answers with more questions.

She shows how what it seems is that the more freedom women have, the more polarised a culture’s ideas about the sexes becomes. But, how is this to be interpreted?  Is it fear of sameness? Or is it that now we can enjoy difference without fear? Or is the segregation biologically driven?  Even if so, she asks herself what is the impact of separate but equal might make on children’s perceptions of themselves. This is the next chapter theme: nature and nurture.

This chapter is one in which I agree with loads of what she says, and the dilemmas she struggles with, but one in which I would have liked to have been analysed more in depth.. or let’s say I would have liekd more ammunition towards corporate practices🙂.

 This chapter is supposed to show the transition from the innocence of princesses to the ‘coolness’ of sexy. And in a way, it is clear through her description of the ‘dolls war’ that there was something here in that transition that worked, if not Bratz would not have been such a phenomenon. So it is a phenomenon. The more popular toys are ones who encourage first prettiness and now sexiness for girls. And as she says, when we buy these toys we are telling them something about themselves, about what we think they should be.

In addition, the chapter showed clearly how the segregation of toys into boys or girls and ages, boosted profits enormously. As she says, pink makes business sense. She criticises the answer of most toy producers…but then at the end in a way it feels as if she lets corporations off the hook a bit.

As I desribed above, she ends up the chapter saying that she does not think there is a great conspiracy from these companies to brainwash our children, which we can probably agree with, but that they do it because it works. Because children want it and parents pay for it. But even though this is a very valid point, I would say that you don’t need a conspiracy to say that these companies should be responsible for what they produce. And although parents are a crucial factor here, putting the concluding focus on parents and culture more generally for buying these produce seemed to let the companies off the hook a bit.

In any case, as I said before, this book sparks more questions than gives many answers to in a way. It made me want to know more: but how are these toys used? How do parents justify their buy? How does peer pressure and gender policing have a role in this? TV? How does it differ in different contexts where the marketing machine is not so developed? What can we do about it?? Some of these questions she answers in other chapters, but some are left lingering.

Lucila

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