Breaking Down the Pink Aisle/Blue Aisle Barrier

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If you’re still thinking about last-minute shopping, it’s not too late to stop and consider the No Gender December campaign from Australian organization Play Unlimited. While their tagline, “Stereotypes Have No Place Under My Christmas Tree,” presumes everyone is celebrating Christmas, their message is one that’s gone global as a quick look at their pledge page reveals, with more signatures still pouring in.

It’s heartening to see wider messaging about the limitations of gender stereotyping in children’s toys, as a flurry of recent articles reveals. More heartening would be harder evidence that toy companies are listening and are open to broader understandings of marketing to kids, not driven by a bifurcated blue-or-pink bottom dollar. Some stores, notably Harrod’s in London have stopped divvying up their aisles, and there is reason to hope that other retailers will followSociologist Elizabeth Sweet’s Atlantic article, “Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago,” does a great job of revealing the history of marketing by toy companies and how entrenched gender stereotypes have become. Her comment about the subversive repackaging of toys geared to girls which “emphasizes freedom and choice,” is a great one. She comments, “The reformulated story does not fundamentally challenge gender stereotypes; it merely repackages them to make them more palatable in a ‘post-feminist’ era. Girls can be anything—as long as it’s passive and beauty-focused.”

This juncture is one that has been a sticking point for many who deeply desire change in toys marketed to girls but are left stymied by how to do it. Some of the brouhaha around GoldieBlox’s campaign turned on the point that serving up “sparkle science-type” projects to girls in a gateway-like attempt to lure them past masculine associations with STEM fields does nothing but backfire, nevermind is ultimately undermining. This seems to be the pivot point for those who support diversifying the colors, (and stereotypes that accompany them), in the toy aisles, with supporters of change often facing different directions in terms of approach, even as they stand on common ground.

More recently, a new set of princesses came onto the scene who are also stealthily undermining stereotypes. The Guardian Princesses, who made a splash with their debut last year, are back with newly released titles just this past week. The series is the brainchild of UC Riverside Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Setsu Shigematsu, who found herself at a loss when her daughter began to succumb to the ever-present influence of princess culture and denying access to it only seemed to make things worse. Not unlike Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and her suggestion to “Fight Fun with Fun” through alternatives to princess culture, Shigematsu wrote an alternative princess story and read it to her daughter’s friends and a new legacy was born.

The Guardian Princesses are presented in a range of body styles and are of diverse ethnicities and there’s no fighting the long dresses, necklaces and flowing hair that’s considered part of the princess look. The approach of the Guardian Princess Alliance is firmly in the “ease in and then make a change” camp, something they are likely to be critiqued for by those who see capitulation in any form as not radical enough and even pandering. But, as their peppy video (below) reveals, despite their poufy dresses, the princesses are unhindered in their mobility and the rhetoric used about their mission is hardly passive.

The newest series released features Princess Ten Ten, who is the most gender-fluid in appearance of the lot (or “gender independent” as they term it) and who is bullied and faces rejection within her family.  In a wise move, all of the Guardian Princess books are compliant with Common Core standards, meaning they can be adopted for classroom use, and there is a distinctive environmental focus to their stories. If there’s any risk with this new series it might be making the stories too didactic or pitting the princesses against the evils of corporate greed every time, but, overall, the shift in what these princesses do and what is valued is an exhilarating breath of fresh air. How well they sell, and how long the Guardian Princess Alliance can keep up with demand and generate new work, are perhaps the issues at hand. The desire by visionary small business owners to put what are still alternative toys, books and gender messaging out to the public seems an uphill battle, one mitigated by energy, perseverance and available funds when up against so many cultural barriers, which is all the more reason to celebrate those that do.

Here’s hoping that the messages espoused by the No Gender December campaign extend beyond the shopping frenzy and, optimistically, become part of retailers’, parents’, teachers’ and even kids’ expectations of toys in the new year.

EllineLipkin

Elline Lipkin is a research scholar with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. The author of Girls’ Studies and The Errant Thread, she teaches creative writing in Los Angeles and is active with advocacy groups for girls. 

Comments

  1. Sherry Blackman says:

    GoldieBlox is A great toy! Getting better all the time! The new action figure is fantastic!

  2. Princy Singh says:

    This is a very important step in the right direction. We shouldn’t box in our children to stereotypyes. I tried to be mindful of this when I purchased items for my girls.

  3. My fiance and I plan on having children in the future. He’s white and I’m black. It’s refreshing to know that by the time we do have children, they will find representation and a positive message in at least one of the options we now have to share with them in childhood.

  4. As a Para-educator in a multidisciplinary setting, I get excited when I see books like these in print. The heroines in these stories are not just run-of-the-mill, “Brothers Grimm” pretty faces waiting to be rescued by a prince, but are instead cunning champions of social, environmental, cultural, and interpersonal challenges. The fact that the book series was designed with common core curriculum in mind makes it an invaluable at-home and in-class reading supplement for parents and teachers looking to challenge their students with relevant and engaging material. The Guardian Princesses series is making a strong push in the right direction for our students.

  5. The appeal of beauty being the heroine always is disappointing keeping the image of women’s bodies at the forefront. As someone who actually provided instruction n details of the native princess which was a challenge to make her as real as possible as it was an opportunity to tell a story of young native women was totally missed. I left because a native woman whose expertise was porn replaced the vision held for that princess. I was asked to return to complete her regalia n did so with the warning from friends that I would be used n dismissed again when the director found an Allie that would agree with the perfect body princess look. As a longtime friend I trusted her to return only to dismiss a critique of the light skinned Hispanic princess by a light skinned Hispanic military veteran woman only to insult her and be dismissed by the non Hispanic writer of the story. I had to walk away.. I am saddened by years long of a friendship to be lost because you don’t hear what you want. As an elder in my community I would be careful of what is seen on the suffice n what is behind the creation. It’s what I pay attention to n share w my community.The projection of the founders issues with weight and beauty is hazordous to young girls who begin with issues of weight n beauty is not any less dangerous to there self image. The lesbian princess is not announced as so which is not a problem only if you keep it a secret. I agree that it is women who will rise up to save the planet n that is a good vision but the potential to address the issues young girls face with the media about body image and beauty was missed n culture n color of these princess is white washed. A few words in another language to represent ethnicity misses the mark totally. It’s a step however small but in the end they still look like Disney princess and the stories don’t encourage an understanding of differences between women of color a very important aspect for young people to understand. I am waiting to see how the Native princess gets white washed.

  6. Hello,
    I see that there are various positive comments about Guardian Princess Alliance and we would love for you all to stay connected! Here’s a little more about Guardian Princess Alliance and our latest projects.

    We are the Guardian Princess Alliance. We advocate for children’s empowerment and independence. Our organization, founded by UC Riverside Professor Setsu Shigematsu, aims to create better role models for children. We aspire to teach young children through our stories and events that their value is not predicated on outward beauty and that each child can be their own hero. Our books promote racial, cultural, and gender diversity.

    We wanted to let you know that we are releasing a bilingual version of Princess Mariana and Lixo Island, which features a Latina princess who saves the seas from pollution. The bilingual version will be released as an eBook in English and Spanish very soon.

    We are also launching our fifth story about a full-figured Pacific Islander healer, Princess Leilani. Princess Leilani and The Lanu Tree is a coming-of-age story that deals with the themes of loss, greed, forgiveness, and healing. The story also teaches children about Pacific Islander culture.

    Feel free to stay up-to-date on our website http://www.guardianprincesses.com/ and check out our first four stories. For (questions/inquiries/book sales/signings/readings/events/features), don’t hesitate to contact us at guardianprincesses@gmail.com.

    Best,
    Marisol Prado

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