Category Archives: identity

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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Starting point

Each week I will examine one chapter of Orenstein’s book. The first one basically states her starting point, and I put it out here so we can all start in the same page. For those of you who are new to here and wonder what I am talking about, the general review of her book is here.

So, how important is that girls play as princesses? Does it really matter if their clothes and toys are pink and if they have mainly flowers and butterflies? Orenstein thinks about this, and acknowledges the temptation to give this a pass, to think that ‘it is just a phase’, but ends up arguing that it matters, a lot.

In the first chapter of Orenstein’s book, she sets out her aim. She wants to understand the impact of images and ideas that girls absorb as to what they should be, and what roles should they play, and what made them girls, in this mainstream girlie-girl culture. And she asks, what is the first thing she learnt in her ventures into mainstream culture?

‘Not that she is competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants  – or should want- to be the Fairest of them All’

She shows how studies done by the American Psychological Association show how

‘the emphasis on beauty and play sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behaviour’

Well, those are things I do fear.

She points out to some confusing signals: while there are more and more examples of girls’ successes, the push to make their appearance the centre of their identities , did not seem to have diminished, on the contrary, it seems to have intensified, and extended (to younger, and also older ages). And I have read many studies how teenage girls seem under so much pressure these days, much more than boys. Duties have piled up, and intensified.

(Does it not ring a bell with how the role of parents -and the invention of the verb to parent-, and especially mothers, has seemed to intensify in the last decades, just when women have more and more taken other roles?)

And this triggered in her questions about how to help our daughters navigate the contradictions they will inevitably face as girls. Her question is one I worry a lot about:

‘How do you instil pride and resilience in her?’

She gives examples of myriad moments in which we have to navigate the land of toys, clothes, of things. And she argues that answering this question, and navigating this world, is harder now, since the mid-1990s, than it was before. She explains that this is the moment where the Girl Power movement which celebrated ability over body, has its message turned around. Somehow, the body, the pursuit of physical perfection, became the source of empowerment.

This is her starting point. And in one way, much of mine too.

Lucila

The princess phase

I just finished reading Cinderella ate my daughter, by Peggy Orenstein, as I am already thinking about how to handle the looming challenge: the princess stage, which I can already see brewing. R. is only 2 and a half, but she received her first pink glittery fairy outfit for Easter, and she put it on and her face lit up and she said ‘princess’. And she puts towels and any fabric really, around herself and says ‘princess’. She wants to wear dresses, and wants me to wear dresses too, especially flowery ones. She grabs them from the wardrobe, and tells me to put them on.

It is weird, because I never talked about princesses, we did not care about the royal wedding, and she does not have books about them, or anything. Her first encounters with the notion of princesses were with her cousins here in Argentina, where things are much more divided in terms of gender in things such as clothing, colours, activities.  But that wasn’t very intense either. Maybe the nanny too, or other children she plays with. In any case, it is happening.

But, as a mother of a girl, I really want to think ahead, rather than let the steam roller of the marketing machines at work and the flow of mainstream culture pass smoothly (though if I had a boy, I would do the same, but probably my concerns would be different). As Natalia commented before, I get fed up of the limited range of things that boys and girls are meant to do, be, use, or wear. It is limiting, in a bad way, and it does not nurture the amazing range of qualities that these little individuals might have. For instance, I find the importance that body image has in this culture, especially for women, is oppressive. And that is why I am thinking about this, because play is crucial way in which children understand things.

Furthermore, these first years are very important in terms of how nurture then becomes nature. As books such as Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain and Blue Brain shows (or what Cordelia Fine seems to be saying though I haven’t read it yet), babies and children’s’ brain are still in formation, and even though there are no significant differences, these are turned into big gaps, and also into ‘nature’, into adult brain differences.  So what we do now, matters in more than one way.

So when I read in Blue Milk about this book, I ordered it and these last few days had a bit of time to read it. And this book kind of reassured me, but also scared me too. The scale and diversity of shit is much worse than what I imagined….

So I want to arm myself with a way to handle this many faceted issue. Because, as other mothers, I want her to grow up to be a happy, confident, strong woman that does mainly get not her self-worth, as Orenstein says, from the outside in, but from the inside out. And what I don’t like about the whole pinkness and princessy thing – as reinterpreted by Disney for instance -is that it is mainly about looks, about being beautiful, about not doing much, and being rescued by a prince. I am already aware of how she mainly gets compliments a lot on her looks, while boys don’t as much.

However, I struggle with thinking in terms of big powerful machineries at work vs little us. Though I know it is true in a general sense, and it pushes my politics in many ways, I also know that the details, the how things work are also important, and that this is often more full of cracks than what grand narratives allow. So though I know Disney and Mattel are totally retrograde in terms of women, I also think there is a lot of leave in terms of how things are used. And in what you can do about it. However, and this is a big however, we don’t live in a vacuum. R. has already started venturing in the big wide world, and will continue to do so.  And in this, Disney, Mattel and others have quite a lot of money invested so that they presence seems almost unavoidable.

So how to deal with this? Here are my first thoughts…throwing the TV out of the window, keep them enclosed forever, moving to the middle of nowhere, talking about these things with them (or brainwashing – if Disney can, so can you!)… but really, as Orenstein says in her book, we are immersed in it in many ways, and there is a lot of money involved, much much more than even fifteen years ago. So an important question she asks is: how do we deal with this girly-girl culture? Where do we draw the line/s? How?

I will do a review tomorrow, but in the meantime, one thing that really matters and makes a difference is awareness. And as the author declares, to remember that our role is not to keep the world at bay, but to prepare them so that they can flourish in it.  

I will leave you with this nice thought, and scare you tomorrow ; )

Lucila

The materials of mothering

Boyer, Kate and Boswell-Penc-, Maia, 2010, Breast pumps. A feminist technology, or (yet) “More Work for Mother”? In Layne, Linda, Vostral, Sharra and Boyer, Kate (eds.) Feminist Technology, University of Ilinois Press, 119-135. (Women, Gender, and Technology)

Boyer and Boswell-Penc enquire in this chapter whether breast pumps can be considered a feminist technology. I find this article interesting in that it focuses on one example of the stuff, that is,  the materiality, which makes up modern motherhood and examines what roles this technology play, what does it enable, and what are the risks that it brings, through analysing  the cultural context of its emergence but also by analysing its use in practice.

Their work focuses on the use of breast pumps in the waged workforce in the US, one of the countries where women have less maternity leave in the world. One of the questions which frames this study is understanding if the breast pump is a feminist technology or if it is it another device which, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) argues, creates ‘more work for mother’, as many other so-called labour-saving devices.

In this chapter they look at the cultural context in which the breast pump emerged – a time (60s-70s) where there was growing awareness and advocacy for the benefits of breast milk over formula, and a moment when higher number of women were returning to the waged workforce. The latter practice was due to different reasons ranging from economic restructuring, the need for double wages, and the fact that women were occupying better managerial positions. They describe how, in the 1990s, the technology evolved to be lighter, portable and cheaper, and jumped from being mainly hospital-based, to being available for retail.  

The argument for it being a feminist technology stems from the way that using this technology allows more mobility, more temporal and spatial freedom to the mother. The breast pump can bring a much needed break for mothers and it allows for mothers to break the cyclic time loop that new mothers who breastfeed are in – the two hour window to do things!- as well as the necessary proximity to the child. It also expands the choices that women have in terms of infant nutrition, as well as serve other important purposes, such as relieve engorgement in mothers who choose not to breastfeed, and help initiate breastfeeding for mothers who adopted an infant. Moreover, its use in waged workplaces could help push the boundaries of the private/public, by bringing to work an activity normally done in the privacy of the home.

However, these authors point out that much of its liberatory potential in terms of waged work is constrained by attitudes about pumping (and general lactation), issues about the technology, workplace design and the politics around actual pumping. Breast pumps, thus, have to be understood within its actual use, which is something that these authors delve into. They show how attitudes to pumping at work make women who pump, as well as the breast milk itself, feel ‘out of place’. The strong feelings that breast milk brings out is seen, for example,  in the case where women were fired for leaving their breast milk stored in the communal fridge. For women who pumped at work, the search for privacy and the sense of embarrassment around pumping, made them look for different strategies that would allow them not to be seen or heard (electric breasts pumps can be very noisy!), such as going to feed to the car, in the medical centre, in an unused office/conference room. Other constrains also include finding the time for it, as often employers do not structure extra breaks for this. What this shows is that the responsibility of finding a place and a time for this activity is down to the individual. Moreover, it highlights the reasons for the uneven distribution of its use, in terms of class especially, as the possibility of having this extra space and time is most likely to be in middle income jobs, rather than low income ones.

Furthermore, these authors also highlight some of the risks that this technology can bring to feminist struggles. By providing a technical and individualised fix to the question of how to combine lactation with work, it might keep employers off the hook in terms of providing other, and maybe better, alternatives. In addition, as these authors show, this technology has something in common with other technologies, such as communication technologies, in that they give more mobility, more spatial and temporal freedom, but it also raises the expectations of what can be done. The authors show that as much as this technology increases choices and provides flexibility, there is a risk that it could be used against efforts for longer maternity leave or on-site care, for instance.

What I found fascinating is that this article makes me think about the different things that make up the practices of mothering, and how each of these things are performative in more than their utilitarian sense. They work to highlight questions of race and class, as it has been shown in this article. I would say that things and technologies also play a role in identity formation, as they act as markers of inclusion in certain groups. In a sense, I think that they are also part of the ways of evaluating a mother’s performance – I am thinking here of the pressure I felt the first times I tried to put up or down the buggy in public, for instance!

We are surrounded by stuff in our practices as mothers: buggies, breasts pads, sterilisers, cots, nappies, dummies, bottles, special clothes for breastfeeding, high chairs, car seats. And the list can go on and on. Leaving out the stuff of motherhood would impoverish our understanding of the politics of motherhood/parenthood, which is why I find what these authors do, that is, questioning the theoretical possibilities but also the complexities that seeing and thinking these technologies and things in practice bring about, is a crucial exercise.

Long term breatsfeeding, maternal identity and risk

 Faircloth, Charlotte, 2010, ‘If they want to risk the health and well-being of their child, that’s up to them’: long-term breastfeeding, risk and maternal identity, Health, Risk & Society, 12, 4, 357-367

One of the members of our reading group sent me this article recently and I just had to read it since I inadvertently fell on this category of mothers, those who practise ‘extended’ breastfeeding (more on this to come…), which has been, let’s say it politely, a topic of conversation and discussion for EVERYONE, of which not much of it was positive or supportive.

What I particularly liked was how she combined several important and related issues: the moralisation of parenting, identity work, parenting tribes, everyday practices and forms of accounting.

Her article starts to show the ways in which the moralisation of parenting, especially heated around feeding issues, relates to the ways in which becoming a parent, and the ‘choices’ made are part of the creation of the ‘self’. This process, because of this wider climate of the individualisation and moralisation of parenting, creates and fuels the divisions between parents, and in this case, mothers, within different ‘tribes’.  However, by analysing and showing how this is done in everyday practices, and the ways in which cultures are created through the different forms of accountability (aka, the ways mothers explain their choices and practices), she also starts to show how this is more nuanced and complex than what can be conveyed by the division in tribes and I would add they ‘mummy wars’, type of analysis.

Based on her work with a group of mothers who practiced ‘extended’ breastfeeding and also attachment parenting,  from La Leche League, Fairchild shows the different ways that mothers who practice ‘extended’ breastfeeding account for their practices. Accounting for this practice becomes important as ‘extended’ breastfeeding  generates strong responses in people, such as a sense of disgust, a sense that it is somehow perverse, and that this is done only for the mother’s benefit (i.e. the ‘mother’s need to be needed’). Indeed, the implication is that by breastfeeding for longer than average, mothers damage their child in terms of their emotional and social development, i.e. not letting them be independent. Health benefits and risk reduction are used to counter-argue with their critics, as well as humour, avoidance, and invoking personal reasons (‘it feels right’). The need for validation and a counter-accounting for their practise, in view of this hostility towards their choices, build and entrenches division between parenting tribes, forming an ‘us’ and’ them’ dynamics.  This is also related to the constitutive effects of rules of behaviour, that is, in the ways that by doing certain things allows others to recognise and situate the person within a particular identity. However, the article also shows the different and complex ways in which women constructed their identities, which sometimes confirms and fuels divisions, but at others show more ambivalence, and and less ‘coherence’.

 The double bind that these mothers find themselves is one in which they can be said to have the moral high ground in terms of fitting in with the predominant health discourse (for instance World Health Organisation and UN guidelines, and ‘breast is best’), but at the same time marginalised in terms of their minority/freak status, apart from those places where they found their ‘tribe’. This resonated strongly with me with the position and debates around working mothers and stay at home mothers that Douglas and Michaels describe in The Mommy Myth: The idealisation of motherhood and how it has undermined all women, where stay at home mothers seem to be given the moral high ground against working mothers, while being made invisible and belittled in their everyday social interactions, and vice versa.

This article hits the spot for me in identifying some of the issues at stake, and the relations between a particular practise of feeding in terms of wider feeding and parenting issues. And in identifying some of the issues, critiques, strategies and feelings, which I experienced and encountered as a mother who breastfeeds a toddler. However, I finished the article feeling it needed a bit more fleshing out of these issues and relations. Her quotations and fieldwork quotes show a more complex and nuanced field of identity formation which I would very much like to see developed. Especially because I feel that many times the ways in which differences between mothering tribes is portrayed is artificially divisive, exaggerated for effect, and in turn, helps create these divisions. A more nuanced approach, which an ethnographic study can provide, might help make this issue less clear cut, and also bring about other issues that are playing a role in these forms of association and identification. Maybe I need to ask her for her PhD thesis!

Looking at her work, I came across this blog, which I need to delve into: http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/parentingculturestudies/