Wednesday, January 22, 2014

In Defense of the Pink Aisle

The other day I was looking at myself in the mirror and complaining to my husband about all those pesky signs of aging, graying hairs, slowing metabolism, etc.  I turned to my husband who, while still very handsome, has been equally affected by aging and asked if he ever feels this way about himself.  He looked up at me and said, “No, I don’t, and you shouldn’t either.” 

He is right of course.  I shouldn’t feel bad about myself for the natural aging process, but I do, and knowing I shouldn’t doesn’t stop me from feeling that way.

Don’t get me wrong, my entire self-esteem isn’t tied up in how I look, but I’ve long since realized that these prevailing messages in the media of idealized female beauty has affected me.  Having two girls, I worry about them.  I never want my daughters to feel this way about themselves ever.  I’m all for social changes that will stop bombarding our girls with the idea that beauty and youth is the most valuable asset they have to offer.  But…there is a problem when we place the blame of this prevailing sexism on all things pink.

I recently read this article in The Guardian, Little Girls Deserve Better Than to be Told to Make Themselves Sexy.  I couldn’t agree more with the title, but the article itself felt like a subtle attack on femininity in general. 

Now to be fair, the article makes some very good points.  A lot of the computer games aimed at young girls are pretty disturbing.  The worse being “Dream Date Dress-up” where the premise is “‘you have a dream date today … wow him with your cuteness’), it's pretty clear that making yourself beautiful to attract a boy is the ultimate goal.”  Yikes!  But the article seems to bash any kind of interest in fashion.  Equating it to “dressing up for boys,” without acknowledging that fashion is a form of expression. 

The idea that any attempt by girls and women to look nice is for the male gaze is pretty insulting.  I am far from a fashionista.  I don’t like shopping and shoes confuse the hell out of me, but I do not think less of women who love shopping and shoes, nor do I believe that they are mindlessly conforming to our patriarchal culture.  They just have different interests than me, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Most of the fabulous fashionistas that I know dress to express themselves and couldn’t care less if their boyfriend/husband hated their shoes.

The article also expresses concerns about the sexualization of young girls by letting them dress up as Disney Princesses.  I do think there is a disturbing tendency of sexualizing young girls in our culture (see here and here), but I’m not sure the puffy, frilly Disney princess dresses are sexy.  Others may disagree, but I think padded bikini’s, bare mid-drifts, and super tight clothing  as sexy, not little girl princess dresses.  Are dresses in general considered sexy?  Is any clothing too girly considered sexy?  I don’t think so. 

The article continues to discuss the damaging nature of princess dress up in discussing an expensive Disney princess make-over at Harrods, an upscale department store.

The Harrods Disney experience, complete with sparkly makeover and deluxe princess dress, is aimed at girls aged three to 12 and culminates in an oath where princesses' vow, among other things, to be ‘kind and gentle.’ Perhaps not the best advice for future boardroom battles or climbing the steely managerial ladder, but of course, those aren't the sort of roles one would expect a princess to aspire to.”

Once again there is some subtle bashing going on here.  This time it is a dig on “feminine” qualities of being “kind and gentle,” and on the traditional female role of being a caregiver because the insinuation here is that any women who doesn’t want to be a high-powered businesswoman is buying into this insidious princess culture.

Additionally, being “kind and gentle” doesn’t necessarily prevent a woman from being in a high-powered position.  I would like to argue that being kind and gentle is a good thing that all humans, male and female, should aspire to.  Perhaps politics or the climb up the corporate ladder wouldn’t be so ruthless if boys were also taught to be kind and gentle instead of aggressive and competitive.  Maybe teaching boys to be more thoughtful and considerate like girls would actually diminish rape culture more than teaching girls to be more like boys. 

Kind and gentle does not mean compliant and voiceless.  You can be assertive and nice at the same time.  You can voice your opinion and stand up for what you believe in and be a strong person and still be kind and gentle and thoughtful and loving.  In fact, that is exactly the kind of leader that I would like to have.  Our society would be so much better if we valued those typical female characteristics.

And finally, because I can’t let myself rant forever, I'll only point out one more jeer at traditional female roles. 

“So to return to those who think that making a fuss about these things is an overreaction, it is only when you look at all of this stuff together that you start to realise the immense impact it might be having on young girls. Everywhere they turn they are bombarded with the idea that their looks are everything, that their place is in the home, that pleasing the male gaze is paramount and that they are riddled with imperfections that need to be ‘fixed.’ As if the constant bombardment of hyper-sexualised, airbrushed media images of women wasn't enough to get the message across.”

While I agree with much of what is being said here, why did the author have to throw in “that their place is in the home?”  I’m not even sure what that has to do with the pressure to achieve these unrealistic standards of beauty.  Working women as well as stay at home wives/mothers are all bombarded with the same message.  

I’m not saying that a women’s place is in the home, and I understand that teaching our daughters that they are only capable of caregiving roles or should only want to be stay-at-home moms is very damaging, but once again I feel there is an insinuation here that no woman who chooses to stay at home and raise her kids is naturally choosing to do so.  That she has been manipulated by our patriarchal culture to believe that her only place and only value is in the home, and that if she was stronger and more self-aware, she would choose a respectable male-dominated profession.

Maybe I’m insinuating too much, but I’ve seen this idea presented more plainly in other places, and as someone who chose to stay home and raise her kids, I may be a little overly sensitive about this idea that I shouldn’t want to do what I really want to do. Taking care of children has always been devalued in our society.  It is looked upon as menial and unimportant work.  I’m sure all my fellow stay-at-home moms have felt this when they tell someone what they do for a living.  I can’t even begin to explain how condescending some people can be. 

The thing is about taking care of children is that someone has to do it.  When both parents work, they have to find someone else to take care of their children while they work, and whether they use a family member, friend, daycare, or nanny, chances are that person is a woman and is getting paid very little.  In some ways, women rising up the corporate ladders are doing so on the backs of their fellow women.  Once again, I’m not saying that all women should stay home with their kids, no woman should be told what she should or shouldn’t want.  I'm only saying that we need to respect that caregiving role, whether it is done by a stay-at-home mom or a daycare worker.  Caregivers have immense value and have always been as vital to the survival of our species as any other profession.

And this brings me to the crux of the problem that I had with this article.  In attacking toys geared towards girls and elevating toys geared towards boys, they are sending the message that all things traditionally considered female are bad, and all things traditionally considered male are good.

I feel that there are two battles that need to won for gender equality. The first is proving that women are not lesser than men in any way.  That they can be doctors and engineers and astronauts and politicians, and they should be whatever they want to be, and they can still be amazing mothers while doing it if they choose to have children.  I know we are still fighting this fight.

The other is this pervasive idea that masculinity is superior to femininity in all ways, that in history, men have done the important things while women just benefitted from the men’s hard work, that being aggressive and competitive is better than being nurturing and giving.  That female dominated vocations like childcare, elementary education, and nursing are less important than male dominated vocations, and males who pursue a career in female dominated fields or even more shocking choose to be a primary caregiver are ridiculed.  That men and women, girls and boys should want to embrace all things masculine, and there is something wrong if a girl or boy picks up a Barbie over Legos.

That is the problem with demonizing the pink aisle.  It sends this message that we should all want the same thing, but real gender equality is about not putting people in boxes; it is about not telling boys or girls, men or women what they should and shouldn’t like or what they should or shouldn't be.

I’m not saying there aren’t some insidious messages being sent to our girls from the pink aisle because there most definitely are (fashion dolls are too thin and do frequently dress in clothing that is too sexy), but we need to circumvent these messages instead of shaming girls for liking those pink aisle toys.  If you are interested in some great strategies to combat these harmful messages, check out this awesome article in Forbes, Seven Ways You’re Hurting Your Daughter’s Future.

I know I’m not perfect.  I am a product of this patriarchal culture just like everyone else, so please feel free to share your thoughts.  I think this is an important conversation.  I am raising two awesome girls, and like everyone else, I want to do it right. 




  1. During that whole Merida scandal, where Disney made her look all weird and sexy. Someone (possibly you? I couldn't find it on the blog) linked to an article that made a very interesting point: a lot of people were complaining that Merida didn't have her bow and arrow. Like she was only a strong character if she had a weapon.

    I thought about that a lot. Why must a female character so often be a warrior to be strong? Don't get me wrong, I love all the kick-butt female heroines out there. But there also aren't enough heroines who are smart, love pretty things, and can't necessarily handle a gun or sword - but are still strong. They're out there, but to use the terms in the post, they only seem to be in that first category: they must be equal to men. As if physical strength was the only equality that matters.

    Personally, I hate pink. But I like embroidery, baking, and jewelry. And I don't think that makes me any less of a feminist.

    1. I heard about the Merida scandal, but I never heard the bow comment. That is interesting.

      I like a kick-butt heroine too, but I do think that there are other ways for characters to be strong .

      I loved Hermoine. She wasn't a great fighter, but she very smart and clever and saved Harry and Ron so many times in that series.

      I'm not a big fan of the color pink either, but there are so many other ways that I am so girly, and so many ways that I am so boy-like. Really people are a mish-mash of feminine and masculine characteristics.

  2. I liked this post so much I had to blog about it. Thank you, MaryAnn, for once again giving me something to talk about. :)

  3. I think what is interesting that media gets a lot of blame for enforcing stereotypes but I think really they are just marketing genius selling what the public what to buy. Little girls want to be pretty and be princesses and little boys are more attracted to violence. I have two sons and one daughter. My son's play was always more violent and I even tried to talk him out of it a few times. I told him that doctors don't run over patients so they can operate on them but he still did it. I do worry about both of them when it makes to stereotypes and not fitting in. Research shows that the most healthy humans are a mix of female and males traits, but is it equally wrong to discourage our daughters interest in fashion as it is to encourage it. Lets try to embrace them for who they are.


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