Category Archives: toys

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

Advertisements

links

As I haven’t finished my review of Orenstein next chapter – I promise to finish it first thing tomorrow morning, it is just that jet lag means that r. is going to bed at 10.30 at night, and I don’t have the energy to work after that! – I will point out some great blog posts on these matters:

one is blue milk’s on bratz and the sexualisation of children. there are many on this theme on her blog, but this one is a classic.

The other one is one by adventures in boogieville, where she talks about race and gender, and ends up with princesses. She points to the crucial thing here. That no matter what we add to princesses: introduce different races, activities, strenghts, the bottom line is that princesses are about being pretty. And this is problematic.

Lucila

Why do parents like princesses?

Review Chapter 2: What’s wrong with Cinderella?

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

Orenstein starts this chapter describing how she was surprised to find her daughter at a party deeply involved in being Snow White, and loving it. She described how she had kept away this story and thought she would not encounter it, or like it, for the passivity of the princess, and her washed out personality. She is good at tidying up, and singing, but nothing else, apart of course, from being pretty, and being chosen and saved by her prince solely on this premise.

And she goes on to explain that she was a Disney kid, but that somehow things have changed since then. The princess phenomenon is a case in point. The Disney princesses as such did not exist until 2000. She interviews the ‘maker’ of this phenomenon, Mooney, an ex-Nike executive who discovered a goldmine at a Disney-on-ice show, where all the girls had princess outfits that were homemade. From this shocking fact, Mooney created the Princess line. It was new in that Princesses had never been grouped together (which is why she says that when they figure together, they never look at each other, but in a slightly different direction). It was like hitting the jackpot, sales soared immensely. Today, there are over twenty six thousand Disney Princess items in the market. Mooney says ‘we gave the girls what they wanted’. Soon after Mattel followed with a princess line, and even Dora the explorer has an episode about turning into a princess.

Orenstein admits that girls might like to play princesses – but 26.000 products? She asks herself where the line between giving them what they want and coercion begins. And most of these are clothes, accessories, and make up: appearance based. Mooney says the typical line for this ‘it is just a phase’, and that there are no studies that show that playing princesses harms girls.

But, as Orenstein points out, there is much evidence that show that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And that those that hold values which emphasise beauty and pleasing behaviour are less ambitious, more prone to depression and less likely to report to enjoy sex or insist partner wear condoms. And this are not particularly withdrawn and passive girls and women, but exposure to stereotypes has been shown to affect girls quite a lot, and quickly too.

Orenstein shows how girls nowadays are under much more pressure, pressure to be perfect. And what this means is that they want to be very good at school and sports but also be kind, pleasing and be thin and pretty. What she concludes is that girls today have much more opportunities, but at the same time are victims of this broadening of expectations. Again, it seems the more girls achieve, the more they obsess about their appearance.

She argues with herself that boys have also limited range of play things, and that fathers tend to police their masculinity much more than girls’ femininity, but ends up concluding that girls are the ones who seem to have their world and possibilities much more circumscribed.

So she asks herself why do parents go for this. As she says

‘princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married […] and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists. They might affect your daughter’s interest in math. And yet…parents cannot resist them. Princesses seem to have tapped into our unspoken, nonrational wishes. They may also assuage our fears: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty may be sources of stability in a rapidly changing world.’

She described how princesses are seen as safe, as inspiring, as helping little girls stay little girls as much as possible. As she points out, maybe it is related to our need for comfort, for stability, for tradition in an unstable world. She looks then at what seems like an antidote: the American Girl Collection. This is because these dolls are well-made, and the author strived to offer an alternative view of childhood, one also linked with history of the USA. In the books that went with the dolls, girls were portrayed as being much more independent and feisty, probably more than what they could possibly be at the time, and also to emphasise character over appearance. Much better than a Bratz doll like Jazmin, who cares mostly about her appearance, gossip and celebrities.

However, this collection is rather paradoxical. She points out how while books advocate against materialism, the products around these dolls were multiple, and very expensive. She concludes that line from both Disney and American Girl ‘promise’ parents to keep girls, girls, and safe from early sexualisation, but do so through introducing them to a material culture that encourages exactly the opposite. And that these imply that intimacy between mothers and daughters is done through consuming ‘girly’ things.

I liked this chapter in that it emphasises what parents might see in this princess culture, what they like in it, and why do they indulge their daughters in it. Furthermore, it shows the contradictions that these kind of ‘desire’ is embedded in: a deeply materialistic culture which emphasises girl’s appearance. And even if she cannot show how this will affect girls in the future, she shows how this emphasis more generally, strongly affects girls and young women. What I still don’t get here is the sense of how much of this immersion matters. What if princess play is only part of what girls do? Maybe mothers or dads with older children could tell me, is this kind of play overwhelming, and ? For instance, can you buy an American Girl doll and a book, and be happy with this? As this does not exist in Argentina, or as far as I know, in the UK, I am not sure how insidious this is. I know Disney is, so I understand her predicament. What I think is that she is trying to show here these contradictions, to highlight the materialistic nature of this ‘culture’ and the emphasis on beauty, which I agree is negative. And I agree with her analysis. I am still unconvinced though about how all or nothing this is. But I might be innocent, since I am not there yet, just incipiently… Any thoughts?

Lucila

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