Are We Too Isolated To Fight the Pink-v.-Blue Battle?

Ask me five years ago and I’d have told you I’d be first in line to challenge gender stereotypes if ever I had kids myself. I minored in feminist cultural studies! I believe boys and girls are made, not just born! But sixteen months into parenting my boy/girl twins, I’m starting to wonder how I’ll ever ensure that my boy grows up sensitive and my girl stays, as one of my favorite organizations has trained me to say, strong, smart and bold.

It’s an unfortunate moment for complacency. Children are boxed into hyper-gendered categories at ages younger than ever before. Just last month, Disney infiltrated the delivery room. New research shows that girls as young as three are internalizing the thin ideal. As blogger Pigtail Pals reports, a study by Dr. Jennifer Harriger, published in 2010 finds that preschoolers are attributing stereotypes to others because of their weight. The news is distressing. Gender-aware parents can cleanse our daughters’ bedrooms of pale pink and defend a love for Tinker Bell in our sons, yet the clutch of our pink-vs.-blue culture seems only to tighten its hold. Why, we’re all asking, is this so?

There’s ample proof that since the utopian hope of “Free to Be You and Me” in the 1970s, as a culture we’ve slid backwards. As Peggy Orenstein documents so thoroughly and well in Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, things are far worse than they were when we grew up.  The hyper-marketing of gendered purchases target kids at an increasingly vulnerable age, and it’s enough to make any parent tired.

We can blame Disney and we can fight the princesses, but perhaps two additional reasons that a generation of parents raised on feminism feels like we’re losing the war is that 1) we’re confused and 2) we’re alone.

We’re confused by “science.” Fighting gender-based discrimination has morphed into dealing with science, which carries boldfaced authority—and many feminist scientists themselves are now fighting this fight too. Sometimes I wonder about the effects. Have Gen X parents grown convinced of children’s innate gender sensibilities? Decades of media stories hawking the latest in neuroscience have emphasized the nature side of the nurture debate that second-wave feminism famously upstaged. Have the things we’ve heard about gender affected a new generation’s parenting behavior? “The more we parents hear about hard-wiring and biological programming, the less we bother tempering our pink or blue fantasies and start attributing every skill or deficit to innate sex differences,” suggests neuroscientist Lise Eliot in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, (which argues, by the way, that social expectations—not biological differences—have the upper hand in shaping who our children become.) Sensational, whiplash-inducing headlines tell us gender is inborn—no, wait, made—no, born. Unless you’re steeped in this research, it’s often hard to know what’s what anymore.

But our biggest problem, I fear, is that when it comes to resisting the hypergenderfication of childhood, we’re largely fighting it alone.

Over the past sixteen months, as my babies have progressed from a crawl to a walk and now to words, it’s slowly dawned on me how much the premise of my previous book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, applies to my new situation: As parents, and especially as new parents, we don’t always feel plugged into a movement to change the larger culture in which we raise our kids. Instead, we’re left to focus on ourselves—in this case, our familial microcosms—on our own.

To be sure, there’s a burgeoning movement out there. I’m a huge fan of initiatives like SPARK and the Geena Davis Institute and efforts to redefine girly like Pigtail Pals and of course the longstanding work of Girls Inc. I voraciously consume every new book by educators like Lyn Mikel Brown to learn what we can do to resist (See Packaging Girlhood, Packaging Boyhood, and also the resource page at the wonderful Peggy Orenstein’s site.) But these initiatives aren’t as mainstreamed as they might be. I can control my growing babies’ media consumption and control what comes in the house, but control only goes so far. I fear that as a new mother, I’m long on feminist parenting ideals, short on ways to make them stick in the world outside my home.

I hear that change feels more possible once your kids hit kindergarten. My friends there tell me that they feel successful in their attempts to provide a larger context in which it’s natural for their girl to love Star Wars and their boy to take ballet. They feel effective. They feel their actions span far.

In the meantime, we mothers of babes continue our preparations for the good fight by lining our children’s bookshelves with The Sissy Duckling and I’m So Not Wearing a Dress! and painting our nurseries sage. But short of a massive and visible movement—you know, like the political ones we see right now on tv—sometimes I worry. Are we all just focusing on the equivalent of wardrobes and walls?

What do YOU think?  Do you see a new generation of parents taking on the battle against the hyper-genderfication of childhood in spades?  Is there a movement?  Or are we all basically out here on our own?  If you have strong thoughts on this either way, for a writing/blogging/thinking project I’m working on (The Pink and Blue Diaries), I’d love to hear from you.  Please email me at deborah@shewrites.com or comment below!

Reprinted with permission from Girl w/ Pen.

Comments

  1. We're trying to fight the good fight at LGBabyT.com – the alternative to pink &blue… making gender neutral baby clothes, and hopefully provoking some thought in the process. Step one of the movement is visibility…

  2. I blog @ http://the33rdflavor.blogspot.com/ (sporadically…sigh…time constraints of being a mama) about these thoughts all the time, mostly centered around my now 4 year old son. After dealing with years of folks complimenting me on my beautiful girl (no…sorry…he’s just a boy with beautiful curls), raising an eyebrow when he paints his toenails and snicker behind their hands when he champions Cinderella alongside Lightening McQueen, I am eager and excited to find that larger community of fellow parents (beyond my circle of friends) that will push for the breakdown of gender stereotypes.

    Let’s make ourselves more visible and vocal…why not? Perhaps it would give that parent that is waffling on whether or not to let her son wear pink the push she needs to feel confident and comfortable to do so!

  3. "Children are boxed into hyper-gendered categories at ages younger than ever before. Just last month, Disney infiltrated the delivery room. "
    The thing is, it all comes down to Supply & Demand. Disney isn't to blame, and neither are any of those other companies producing the pink & blue products (I'm not saying you're blaming them, I'm just making a statement). The point is, people vote with their dollars, and dollars are the life-blood of business. If those products are being produced as aggressively as we are seeing them, the reason is because the public at large is consuming it aggressively. Those of us fighting this are in the very small minority…so yes, while there are movements out there, we are alone. I think we all know that change doesn't happen over night, but these initiatives that exist need to just keep on trecking…and they need to become serious experts in the psychology of change – both in individual minds, and in group behavior/beliefs.

    • hi kenia,
      yes actually disney, and the powers that be that design a society ARE to blame, because children are programmed like computers with every single thought,desire and "reality" and they grow up to be parents too and teach the same to their children, unknowingly for the most part, ie like fighting for "freedom" for "your" country (otherwise known as mass murder, rape and theft), or wanting princess barbi dolls., etc
      every book, tv program, every minute of school is part of the CONSCIOUS programming process. if you are curious, lookup the reason why universal education was created. it's not what you think; and it is for the reason i am pointing out.

      • Marianne McNabb says:

        Disney is NOT to blame! That’s like saying your child isn’t learning so it is all the teacher’s fault! My son grew up watching Disney, and grown into a more androgynous, loving, caring nurturing man because of it. Because I was a good mom, and taught him that he doesn’t have to watch Bob the Builder and play with trucks, that is o.k. to love and be gentle to animals and people (Lady & the Tramp, 101 Dalmations, The Rescuers, Lion King, on and on!) and be nurturing to nature and his fellow humans. Thank you Disney for providing me with great tools for him to grow up on! It is up to you, the parent, to be wise enough to choose which tools to use; NOT for Disney to choose for you.

  4. I agree that there is a lot of confusion out there. I can’t tell you how many times in a week I hear phrases like “He won’t talk about stuff because he’s a boy” or “She’s moody because she’s a girl.” In the realm of education, talk of single-sex schools—required, some say, because male and female brains are so different—adds another element of confusion t to the mix.

    I have found that even among parents who are aware of consumerism and marketing messages directed toward children, there is a blissful ignorance of gender stereotypes. Male dominance and egregious stereotypes of both sexes in kids’ pop culture are things that have been with us so long that I honestly think people don’t notice them.

    We who are working to raise awareness are in the minority at this point, but I think we are succeeding in getting our message out, especially where girls are concerned. I have certainly heard talk among the parents I know about “princess culture” and the clothing and makeup marketed to young girls. We still need to work on the boys’ side of the equation (my area of specialization), but we are making some progress.

    Sadly, we are not yet at the critical mass required to hit the producers of kids’ pop culture where it hurts i.e. the bottom line. As long as adults keep taking their kids to the multiplex for the latest damsel-in-distress or male-dominated animated film, making poor choices on television, and buying the toys that reinforce stereotypes, nothing will really change.

  5. Short of living rurally where adults and older children model positive "opposite gender" life-giving behavior daily and as a matter of course and no tv and school exposure, children will become what the government, the corporations and the designers of the society have laid out for them: from mercenary ("soldier") participating in genocide, rape and theft; to barbi with all the surgical necessities; to the bully; the rapist; the one giving their body away to be accepted; to the exploitive (of humans and the earth), hoarding (of the world's resources) capitalist.

  6. ZoeBrain says:

    How many dead kids are an "acceptable price" to pay to adhere to the idea that kids are born as blank slates?

    How many more David Reimers must there be?

    If sex identity is malleable, then psychotherapy must be effective at treating transsexuals, and the anatomical differences in trans brains visible in PET or MRI scans must be inconsequential, or at least, changeable if only we were using the right psychiatric tools. Tools such as "operant conditioning" – using cattle prods in nonconforming toddlers, that has to work, our ideology says it must. Or the torture/beating vs reward system pioneered by George Rekers at the UCLA "feminine boy" project in the 70s. It *must* work, and if the patients stubbornly refuse to change and suicide, that's their fault, not ours. Or cognitive theraoy, neuro-linguistic programming, pstchotropic drugs, ECT, leucotomy, lobotomy, we just haven't tried hard enough over 60 years, the 100% failure rate cannot be true, our ideology says it can't be. Maybe we just need to up the voltage, apply the electrodes to eyeballs as well as genitalia.

    How many deaths are acceptable? Currently, it's running at 41% attempted suicides for patients who don't transition. Plus an unknown number, measured as 30% in Northern Ireland, who complete, and an unknown number of premature deaths (90% in Western Australia) from stress-related illness for those who don't transition.

  7. In the UK the Girls' Schools Association runs an advice website – http://www.MyDaughter.co.uk – due to the number of parents asking questions about raising (not just educating) their daughters. That in turn led to a book which has just had a really successful launch here in the UK – Your Daughter, A guide for raising girls. Most girls' school head teachers would say that being in a single sex school reduces the pressure on girls to act, look or think a certain way, particularly in those vital puberty years. It's ok to think of yourself as a leader, as a scientist, as the prime minister and not to be worrying what you look like – for the boys – when you get ready for school. That kind of confidence goes a long way in life.

  8. Thank you so much for this post, and for including Pigtail Pals in it! I think parents are just starting to put everything together. Through continued outreach we are helping them put together their thoughts on things like makeup for tweens, sexy dolls, trampy clothing in the kids' department…but they didn't know the terms sexualization or media literacy. I get SO many comments on the blog and emails saying "You've opened my eyes, and now I see it everywhere." I truly believe parents are getting ready to take up the fight!

    A rebuttal to the Supply & Demand comment above: There is only one Supply. It is nearly impossible for parents to find better options, specifically if you are in suburbia and the Midwest. Some of them aren't even thinking yet to Demand something different, because there are such narrow, limited choices out there.

  9. For parents of littles, Lyn Mikel Brown and I worked on a post of how to start fighting all of the gender stereotypes and sexualization for the toddler stages: http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2011/02/media-literac

    And she didn't mention it above, so I'll do it for her, but Crystal has just published a brilliant book called "Achilles Effect" that focuses on the effect all of this mess has on our sons.

    Thank you again for including my work!

  10. LGBabyT.com is an awesome idea! All the products are silk-screened by these creative young women and the quality is first rate! Most importantly they are serving the very idea you speak of in this blog, gender nuetral for babies. They also have a "don't raise bullies" t-shirt for adults and kids and donate to LGBT youth programs. Sounds like an article about these women and others like them is in order! I'm a longtime MS fan! Thanks for all you do!

  11. Thanks, everyone, for these comments! It's wonderful to learn of the resources folks are mentioning. So that they're all in one place for those just joining in, thought I'd recap here (with commentary of course):

    @Melissa Wardy – I am a big fan of Pigtail Pals blog and store — and all that you do! Thank YOU! Badly wanted to put your badge on my Tumblr (http://deborahsiegel.tumblr.com) but the template I'm using there doesn't make it easy so far. And I loved that post you did with Lyn btw Check it, people: http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2011/02/media-literac

    @Crystal Smith, I'm off to check out your book, and hope others do too (Achilles Effect)

    @Shellie, I adore LGBabyT.com and am going to tweet it like crazy

    @Avi – eager to check out your blog: http://the33rdflavor.blogspot.com/

    @Rachel – thanks for the intel on initiatives in the UK – http://www.MyDaughter.co.uk and the book Your Daughter, A guide for raising girls

    Other resources (blogs, projects, stores) people know about that promote a more gender-neutral childhood ideal? Keep 'em coming. I'd love to hear!

  12. http://hueconsulting.blogspot.com/2007/03/why-is-

    I’m a girl who absolutely loves blue. I’m also gay. So…is it because I like blue that I’m gay? Am I too boyish? But then, I was making dresses for my Polly Pockets and my Barbies from when I was very young, I always wanted the barbie dolls, one christmas an uncle made me a barbie-sized wooden bunkbed, plus a table and two chairs, and I wore them out playing with them. I had the barbie playhouse that was three stories tall and wasn’t made out of plastic, it was taller than me until I was in my mid-teens, and I’m 19 and still have a hard time seeing the top of the darn thing. I buy shirts from the boys side of walmart, because the girls side shirts show off too much cleavage and it’s uncomfortable. But then I buy the slinky blue dress with the padded top and too much cleavage and silky skirt. I went to prom in my lavender dress with the floofed-out skirt and my ivory heels. It was a masquerade theme, so I made a pink masquerade mask and found ribbon the same color as the dress, which I used to tie the mask on. But I took my blue purse along with me. The only bikini I own is green camouflage with pink lacy trimming, but I attribute my fondness for camo to my parents both being military veterans, while my one-piece suits are both green…one military-green and one sea-green. I have accounts on dozens of virtual pet sites, and I created the girliest pets available on the sites. On one site, I recently turned one of my pets into a faerie version of itself, complete with huge, translucent pink wings. But another pet looks like an otter and is plain blue. When I name my pets, they tend to be “AlexandraMay” or “Belle” or “Lutralina” (that last is the otter-pet). I go by Sassygirlygirl3792, or I go by bukwrm3792 (pronounce it bookworm).

    So what am I? I’m a girly-girl of the highest order, who loves frills and lace and skirts that floof out when I spin. I also adore blue, especially sky blue and robin’s-egg blue. I paint my nails, but I don’t like lipstick very much. Let loose in a walmart with money, I’ll buy the comfy tops that don’t hug anything, the dresses with poofy sleeves and embroidery along the neckline, and a few coloring books just for good measure. Care Bears or princesses, most likely.

  13. Iliana Echo says:

    A little sick of the demonizing of pink. Don’t force it but don’t eradicate it either. My parents put me in a yellow bedroom with yellow stuffed animals. Now every third item I own is pink. Doesn’t make me less of a feminist.

  14. I agree with Iliana Echo. Pink is not the enemy. Stereotypes are. Also, by demonizing the colour pink, we’re neglecting the other side of the equation: the number of boys and men who like pink. Plus, it’s playing into the patriarchal belief that anything traditionally feminine is “weak” or “bad”.

Speak Your Mind

*