Looking Beyond “Pinkification” and Other Gender Stereotypes

by Marsha Rakestraw

In March 2014, a couple of essays appeared in Slate and New York Magazine, castigating mothers of girls for complaining about the “pinkification” of girl stuff, citing it as an example of girl blaming. Author Yael Kohen wrote, “No symbol of girl culture is more powerful than pink.”

There was a significant counter-response from people such as media studies professor and author Dr. Rebecca Hains, whose blog post said the problem lies not with moms, but with the messages sent by marketing and our culture.

As she wrote, The marketing is so insidious that the moms I interviewed complained that it is virtually inescapable — and to very young children, it implies that pink and princess are the ONLY good choices for girls. In other words, it wasn’t that they didn’t want their daughters to like pink or princesses. Far from it. It was just that they didn’t want their daughters to only like pink or princess.”

Hains also wrote, “Pink princess marketing is so forceful, backed by so many billions of dollars, that it’s not really a choice anymore. It’s proscriptive, it’s coercive, and it takes deliberate advantage of a developmental phase that industrial psychologists are well aware of.”

Blogger Avital Norman Nathman succinctly summarized why she is concerned about “the co-opting of pink for all things girly.” She writes:

“1. It boxes girls in.
2. It boxes boys out.”

Abundantly encouraged (and perhaps often led) by corporate marketing, we unconsciously give children messages about appropriate behavior and characteristics for boys and girls.

Boys are told “Don’t cry!” and “Man up!”

People often comment on the physical appearance of girls –“Look how pretty you are!” — instead of on their skills or achievements.

With our subtle words and actions, we can put children into confining categories that tell them who they’re supposed to be and discourage them from being any different.

A couple months ago, I read about an elementary school that has started hosting Boys Night Out and Girls Night Out events to build character and relationships and increase community involvement — all admirable goals.

Boys were offered activities such as a karate demonstration and some “challenging tests” administered by local college football players.

For girls? Zumba, bracelet-making, and challenges from high school cheerleaders.

What about all the girls who’d love karate? Or the boys who like making crafts?

Buzzfeed recently created a brief video, “If We Used Childhood Gender Roles on Adults,” which adds a little humor to the issue and serves as a great springboard for discussion with older students. (And it’s important to note that we still often use these gender roles as adults.)

As humane educators, we need to be aware of the impact of our words and actions.

In a 2013 blog post, Paige Lucas-Stannard, author of the book Gender Neutral Parentinghighlighted the implicit bias that we have about children and gender and offered some suggestions for addressing it, including:

1. Pause before telling girls to “be careful.”
2. Engage girls in physical activities.
3. Pause before shrugging off boys’ tears or pain.
4. Spend at least 20 minutes a day in positive interaction with boy infants.
5. Allow safe expressions of anger in boys and girls.

There are several steps we as humane educators, parents, and citizens can take to make a positive difference.

We can pay attention, bringing mindfulness to what we say and do that may inadvertently push children toward those cultural labels.

We can refrain from making assumptions about what kids like.

We can also consciously create an environment that welcomes diversity and individuality and promotes equity.

We can help support children in becoming whomever they are, and help nurture their crucial critical thinking and media literacy skills.

And we can educate others and work to transform systems, so boys can wear pink and blue, play with dolls and trucks, cry and be kind, climb and jump, and still be celebrated as themselves; and girls can be princesses and presidents, play with toys of many colors, be active and strong, outspoken and compassionate, and still be celebrated as themselves.