“Hate” might be a strong word, but it’s closer than not to my regard for the color of pink. It’s not that I have particular distaste for pink, but rather all the pastel colors. Remember Lady Foot Locker stores anyone? Oh yeah, I remember the buzz when athletic shoes were finally made for girls and women, but only so long as we liked pastels! Those stores looked like a giant Easter basket had exploded in the mall. Sorry, but I’d like more footwear choices with primary colors.
Tuning into the PBS Newshour the other day, I heard a segment titled What does it mean to be a girl? How parents can help daughters decide for themselves. The piece started out by reminding the viewers of Disney’s $3B princess business and giving examples of girl toys have become more girlie over time such as Holly Hobbie and Strawberry Shortcake. When Gwen Ifill, PBS Newshour host, turned to interview an author on the subject of pink, I found the following exchange to be particularly insightful.
GWEN IFILL: .. Why is that a defining and powerful color for girls?
PEGGY ORENSTEIN, Author, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture”: Well, I think the thing that concerns me about pink, if that’s what you’re asking, is the way that it narrows the idea of what it means to be a girl and puts it in this little box of pink and pretty.
So, for example, when my daughter was little, I remember — you know how you hear your best stuff when you’re driving in the car and the kids are in the back seat? I remember driving with my daughter in the back seat and her little friends. And I was taking them to go scootering.
And my daughter’s helmet had a fire-breathing dragon on it. It was green with flames on it. And the other little girl looked at her helmet and said, that’s not a girl’s helmet. It’s not pink. And my daughter looked down at it and she says, well, I think it’s for a girl or a boy. And the other girl looked very dubious.
And I had this — just felt that there was a lot in that little interchange of what we expect of girls, the potential to be excluded if you don’t toe the line, and just this ever-narrowing pink box that defines femininity through — from the outside in, through appearance.
Wow! It’s Lady Foot Locker circa 2014, except that it’s not only the manufacturers who have weighed in on the issue, but the prepubescents whom they have brainwashed. It’s not just the availability of choices now, but the acceptability of those choices vs. a stereotype. What options do kids have when other kids judge them so harshly?
If I fast forward a bit, I found myself in a children’s book writing class the other day. Who are the famous children’s authors that pop to mind? Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, Robert McCloskey? It wasn’t until I thought of Good Night Moon, authored by Margaret Wise Brown, that a female author even popped to mind.
What about children’s book characters? One of the participants discussed that girls would read books about boys, but boys would not read books about girls. The best example of a crossover book was Olivia by Ian Falconer, a picture book about a female fictional pig authored by a man. The character seems to appeal to both genders, at least according to the instructor.
Do publishers print boy books and girl books like the toy industry? Sure, they print many books hoping to target specific genders, but it turns out there is another form of deception going on. The cute and cuddly animals and make-believe creatures that adorn the pages of picture books mask gender identity. Heck, why not market to both genders with one book? Expand the market and expand sales–it’s business 101.
It turns out that an academic research team has studied the subject and the results are pretty damning with respect to gender representation in books. The Huffington Post Reports in What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books are Still About White Boys? that twice as many books feature boys as girls. The same article shares that 57% of books published each year have male protagonists vs. 31% female. Yikes.
It appears that the commanding research on the subject of gender bias in children’s literature was conducted by a research team led by a Florida State University professor with results published in 2011. Another article titled From Peter Rabbit to Curious George, FSU study finds 100 years of gender bias in children’s books reports that “No more than 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books.”
I am sure that there are plenty of examples of strong female characters that aren’t wearing pink somewhere in children’s literature. Clearly, The Hunger Games set a precedent for a strong female lead in the YA (young adult) market that was a market success, but clearly there is room for more. If we, as a society, are so intent on customizing toys and books by gender, then let’s at least have more choices.
For the record, my favorite color is green.