Whilst browsing the children’s section of a popular chain of bookshops, two twin anthologies caught my eye. The first was bound in a blue cover and featured an illustration of a young boy on horseback galloping across a snowy wilderness. The publisher’s note on the back describes the volume’s collection of thrilling action and adventure stories. This book, titled The Usborne Illustrated Classics for Boys, was sitting directly next to it’s sister publication: The Usborne Illustrated Stories for Girls. In contrast to its male-targeted counterpart, the dust-jacket description of Classics for Girls promises, “fourteen fantastic tales of pretty princesses, determined fairies, brave dolls and clever mermaids.” The front cover is framed by the branches of a bright, sparkling tree and a castle with heart shape door at the centre. All of which are, of course, awash in pink.
From the moment I found out my wife and I were having a daughter, I knew pink was going to be a problem. In one sense colours are meaningless and have no inherent properties, other than what we apply to them. The graphic novelist Alan Moore has pointed out that “words offer the means to meaning”, and in much the same way so do colours. It is our use of colours that gives them meaning and it is how we use them to exclude, predefine and label our children, often before they have had a chance to explore their world, that is a real cause for concern.
A stroll through any toy shop reveals that we have clearly defined paths for our boys and girls. For girls, brightly packaged pink toys hold within them the keys to domestic life whilst they are also peppered with products relating to cosmetic beauty. In this world, girls are devoted to the duties of the home, all the while in constant pursuit of physical perfection. A child surrounded by these types of toys may logically conclude that their place in adult life is in the home and that, no matter where they are, they must look good! The strong association between pink and these types of toys give the colour its particular meaning. And, that meaning is to constrain girls within certain sanctioned roles and to contain them within prescribed standards of beauty.
It’s not just our girls who suffer. Our boys are also limited by toy manufacturer’s visioning of gender-appropriate play. In the toy market, boys are essentially forbidden from exploring (and perhaps enjoying) anything that relates to home life. Toys relating to family relationships, food preparation and the arts are all but absent from the boys’ section. From this absence, boys can only draw one conclusion: these things are a woman’s domain.
What all this means is that all our children, whether boy or girl, are being told to fulfil their potential in only a very limited range of roles. As a result we all lose out.
Being a homemaker is a very valid role but that girls need to realise that it is but one of many options for the modern woman, whilst boys need to know that running a home can be a valid role for them too. Colours are just a small part of the gender machine, but they are easy to focus on, blatant in the gendering project for which they are intended. Of course, pink can actually be a great colour: my guilty pleasure is pink candy floss. Yet, the fact that it has become the only colour to represent girlhood and the possibilities it entails is a real issue. When we surround our girls in pink we are saying that we accept and are willing to reinforce the predetermined, social normative place of women in our society. We are saying this to our friends, to ourselves and ultimately to our children. Personally, I would like my daughter to hear something different.