Why Ordinary Things Go Pink

Not long after Bic launched its new line of “Bic for Her” ballpoint pens—boasting an “elegant design” that “features a thin barrel to fit a women’s hand”—women and men alike hopped on Amazon.com to bombard the product page with hilarious and brilliantly snarky reviews.

One woman writes, “Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I’m swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga.” A man posts, “As if men hadn’t been stripped of everything good already, Bic steps in and piles on by encouraging women to learn to write, just like their male counterparts.”

Thanks to the women’s movement, consumers today often are quick to poke holes in such absurdly gendered products. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, less than 50 years ago, many Americans believed that women did, in fact, need everyday objects to be more elegant, delicate and pink.

Between the late ’40s and the early ’70s, everything from golf balls and telephones to toy trains—and yes, ballpoint pens—were made in pastel “for her” colors and marketed toward women. The 1962 pastel Lady Capri pen by Paper Mate was billed as “completely feminine” and “practical for women who demand heavy duty pen elegance,” able to write “even over cold cream.”

Feminist writer Lynn Peril, the author of Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons, explains that mid-century manufacturers realized that if you take an ordinary object, turn it pink and put the word “Lady” in front of the name, then you’ve created a product “for women” that can be sold for more money. Peril coined the term “Pink Think” to describe this particular phenomenon, which she defines as “a group-think about what constitutes ‘proper’ female behavior.”

“Pink Think assumes there is a standard to which all women—no matter their age, race, or body type—must aspire,” she says. “It’s the idea that women and girls are gentle, soft, delicate and nurturing, made of sugar and spice and everything nice. ‘Femininity’ is sometimes a code word for this mythical standard.”

Peril says this particular version of “femininity” was borne out of the end of World War II. “After the war, you had this huge rush of consumerism, and the economy was just humming along,” she says. “But returning vets needed jobs. So middle-class women—who had worked in factories during the war—were being not-so-gently prodded to focus on their roles as homemakers and wives. And manufacturers were willing to give them all kinds of new products to make them happy in the home, whether it was washers and dryers or beautiful pink Princess phones.”

But in the ’70s, the women’s movement brought Pink Think to a halt—or gave it a pause, at least. “The second wave of feminism made women aware of the con that was being pulled on them,” Peril says.

The idea that pink, in particular, is a color for girls is a relatively new concept. Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s novel Little Women is the first-known reference to this tradition: In the book, the sex of fraternal twin babies is identified with ribbons, pink for the girl and blue for the boy. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that this custom was widely adopted in the United States.

“It’s only been within the last 50 years or so that it’s really come down hard on ‘Pink is for girls,’” Peril says. “Even in the late ’50s, pink was a fashion color that was for men or for women. So you had Elvis wearing awesome pink shirts and pink suits and driving a pink Cadillac, because pink is the ‘it’ color of 1955. It’s probably not until after that people started getting into the idea that pink is ‘for girls only.’ And now that’s the only thing that it means, right?”

Pink Think seems to have re-emerged in the new millennium with the popularity of the Disney Princess line for little girls and even “pinkified” products for adults like tool kits and ballpoint pens.

“I’m happy that people are seeing right through the Bic for Her positioning,” Peril says. “But I have to say, I was a bit shocked. I didn’t realize that the level of idiocy that those pens represent was still going on. We’ve really jumped backward with the gendered products introduced in the last 10 years, and it’s disconcerting. I’d thought we’d left this idiocy in the dust, but no, it’s back.”

The last product to cause a similar uproar was Lego’s new Friends sets, aimed at girls. Released six months ago, these sets came with pastel blocks and larger Lego “dolls,” with purses and accessories like brushes. These sets provide instructions to create beauty shops, cafes and animal shelters.

“Again, they’re taking this completely non-gendered toy that’s totally fun just as it is and trying to make it girly,” Peril says. “The hope is to create another market that’s based on the assumption that if you’re a girl, you can’t just play with the regular stuff. Then the regular stuff, which is non-gendered, will be the default toy for boys.

“When I was growing up everyone played with Legos,” she adds. “Nobody had to direct my play to make sure it was up to gender expectations.”

Excerpted with permission from Collectors Weekly.

Photos courtesy of Collectors Weekly.

Comments

  1. So, When do we get to lose these patronizing pinks? I am okay with many of the Pink covered products. Their is rally one that drives me up a wall. Have you seen those Breast Cancer Trash Cans, To me, they are just taking the pink thing way too far by plastering Susan G. Kolman, “Support Breast Cancer” and the pink ribbon onto the solid pink trash cans. I think they have caused nothing but rude jokes to be made rather than doing any good for the woman who’s fighting the battle of her life. Instead of supporting Women in this condition, they’ve done the opposite. Now, Were is my 1970′s era pink princess phone…

  2. If you get your knickers in a knot over a colour or some company deciding to push a product toward a particular sex or age, as they do everyday, then you clearly have nothing else going on in your life to worry about.

    Let things like this just go over your head. It isn’t hurting anyone and with far greater and more meaningful things going on in the world, this is nothing to give air to.

    And it has nothing to do with sexism!

    • Your opinion, doesn’t change the ongoing irrational thought that “boys and girls are really that much different” IS Sexist. Did you read the article? Or were you born in the time when being literate was a man’s exclusive education (If ‘Lady’ is any female indication.)? Hence, “will you teach me how to write” joke exists, on the upper left corner of the article.

      And again with the sheepish suggestion “there are more important things- so just take the oppression or constant disrespect.” This is a Feminist site because sexism exists. Women’s Issues are Human’s Issues, so this is important. And yes, pointless female products like ‘Bic For Her’ is a little annoyance, literally, but how else does the system of Patriarchy put itself together? The same would be for an identical male advertisement.

      Every seemingly innocent ad that exaggerates physical differences between people usually is part of an oppression system that makes one of the compared, “superior” to the other. Women and men are both taught that women are weak, stupid, and at fault (Such as Eve in Adam and Eve), and yet, women have never had the problem of a pen lacking “features [such as] a thin barrel to fit a women’s hand,” as described by Bic. Bic is stereotyping women, apparently as extremely small-handed. That’s the problem here.

      And if you call yourself a Feminist, taking sexism apart, little by little, is part of the de-patriachy process. So, complaining and criticizing about pointless male and female products based on senseless differences between the sexes is required.

  3. A nonny mouse says:

    Actually, in the last 15-20 or so years, LEGO sets have become increasingly “masculinized” in terms of who the consumer is supposed to be. So calling LEGO non-gendered is partly right, but also partly out of date. Too many people are ignoring the trend that LEGO has been becoming increasingly aimed at boys.

    LEGO Friends: “Released six months ago, these sets came with pastel blocks and larger Lego “dolls,” with purses and accessories like brushes. These sets provide instructions to create beauty shops, cafes and animal shelters.”

    Also the first series of Friends sets include a great treehouse, a quality house, extensive horse stables, a dog show, an invention workshop (with robot and tools), a fashion design studio, etc. The “animal shelter” is in fact a veterinary building set.

    Some of these sets are actually pretty awesome: treehouse, house invention workshop, etc. For their size, they are just as intricate and build-demanding as other LEGO sets.

    I agree that there is a big problem with the colour restrictions of the sets. LEGO should have pastel colours in many sets, not mainly in sets aimed at girls. And there is a stereotype problem with the subjects of too many of the sets.

    But there is also a stereotype problem with the subject of too many of the “normal” LEGO sets.

    Second Friends series includes: pontoon plane, speedboat, camper, horse trailer, etc.

    So let’s give credit where credit is due. Some of the sets are gender-stereotypical. Some of the sets are NOT gender-stereotypical.

    At the same time, what about race? Why does the black girl have the music set??? ugh.

  4. Evelyn McMullen says:

    My house had pink walls & carpeting when I bought it. I rather like it but would never go out & buy pink “stuff” just for the sake of “femininity”.

  5. You know where this all starts right. When little girls are born. I can barely find a stitch of clothing for my 11 month old niece that doesn’t have pink in it. My Mom still had my sister and I’s receiving blankets from when we were born and both were pink. It’s hard to find anything gender neutral because so many things have become gender specific. For instance, why does almost every razor blade, I pick up at the store have hearts, flowers, or some other “feminine” design on it. The main problem with our society is not only is it consumer driven, but that drive to sell has put gender specific idiocy such as pink pens into overdrive. It’s a reenactment of Lynn Peril’s observations in Pink Think. We’re trying to come back from an economic slump(war) instead of World War II. I really destest pink by the way.

  6. It’s nice to have things made for you but to girlify it for a whole gender is not needed. We can direct our own life course without corporate america telling us what we want or how to think or dress. If we don’t stand together and speak our minds then that will continue to happen. Those making the most wave direct the motion, so lets rock the boat.

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