The Gift of Pink

So, the presents are unwrapped, the turkey (or nut roast) consumed and the levels of alcohol in the blood perhaps beginning to recede.  It’s time to regroup, to start drawing up that list of good resolutions for 2012 and to reflect on the festive season. Or perhaps, dear reader, you just think it’s time to sleep in front of the box and try to run away from the horrors of the months just past and the run-in’s you’ve had with everyone from  your mad aunt to the head of HR.   However, I want to prick your consciences once again and consider what may have been so tastefully wrapped up in presents for children this Christmas, and what this tells us about our attitudes to the young and – even more – the attitudes of the toy manufacturers.

My children are long past the point of toys, and I don’t often stray into a toy shop these days, but this year there have been several stories circulating about the toy market which I find depressing. Much earlier in the year there was the illuminating wordle in a blog about toy advertisements which highlighted how advertisements for boys’ toys highlighted words like ‘battle’ and ‘power’ whereas for girls the most used words were ‘love’ and ‘magic’. This has direct parallels with the way in which analysis has shown letters of reference are written for men and women at a much later stage of their lives.  This analysis shows that women are more likely to be described as nurturing, affectionate and kind, whereas men tend to be described using words such as ambitious, dominant and self-confident. Of course that may say as much about the letter writers as those being described, but it also implies an unconscious sense of what might be seen as ‘positives’ about the two genders.  These things appear to be pervasive – but also pernicious – and we should be doing all we can genuinely to level the playing field, in the sense that the individual’s traits should be the only thing that matters, not gender stereotypes. So, reinforcing gender stereotypes by encouraging buyers of toys – as well as the children themselves – to focus on such very different aspects of character at an early age is unlikely to liberate individuals to be fully themselves.

Yet society, or at least the toy manufacturers and suppliers, are doing nothing to facilitate this. Rather, it appears that differentiation between the sexes is instead being pushed at every opportunity. How much of this is cynical marketing ploys, how much reflecting what parents think they should be feeling about their offspring’s preferences, and how much genuine inherent differences in what small children want in their toys seems impossible to tease out. Every study that aims to demonstrate either that such in-built differences really are or are not present seems challenged as to methodology by the opposing side (see e.g Cornelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender).  Hamley’s toy shop has been the subject of dissent because of the way it segregated boys’ and girls’ toys, and not just by colour scheme.  Laura Nelson ran a very effective campaign which appears (though Hamley’s deny it) to have caused a rethink in their strategy.  The shop has moved from distinguishing toys by presumed gender-association to the much more innocuous organisation by type. Laura – who blogs as Delilah which is where I first heard about the issues – has written up what happened in full here and here. This would appear to be victory for, well I would call it common-sense, but at least a neutral presentation of products.  It also got a lot of media coverage which, one would hope, may have raised a few more people’s consciousness to the underlying issues.

People remain divided both on whether this matters and whether it is shocking not to highlight gender differences. To my mind, Laura describes what is wrong with what lurks underneath so much of this extremely well in her most recent account, so I take the liberty of quoting a paragraph of that description here:

The conditioning by children’s toys – and the segregation of toys in shops – is insidious. Gender stereotypes are highly influential and pervasive, and influence children’s and parents’ choices, aspirations and expectations. Instead of encouraging children to pursue activities according to their individual talents and interests, they encourage children to pursue a narrow range of activities, consistent with stereotypes we see in our society generally (women in passive, caring and homemaking roles; men in active, leading and aggressive roles). But it seems to me the fundamental point is that all options should be offered to all children in as neutral a way as possible.

If we are to tackle why there is a shortage of female engineers, or understand at least part of the reason why girls are so significantly in a minority in Physics A level entrants, we need to be sure that those girls with an interest in such topics are not deterred in their early years from ever contemplating these subjects by the stereotypes of the toys they are allowed to handle. If we accept that children (I won’t say girls) want to play with Barbie dolls, I would at least like to see a broad range of career aspirations associated with her stylised figure, as I wrote about before.  It is not sufficient that an astronaut Barbie may exist, if the local shops only stock princess-look-alike versions (or hairdresser or footballer’s wife: I’m afraid I’m not up in the latest models) with a cute pink wardrobe of cute pink clothes.

Alice Bell has written before about the downside of selling sparkly – and pink – chemistry sets badged as appropriate for girls. Chemistry knows no gender when it comes to bangs and smells, and I can see no logic and certainly nothing desirable in trying to pretend ‘girls’ chemistry’ is different from boys’; there can only be damage for the next generation of scientists setting out to solve the problems we face. But, since Alice has already done such a good job on that particular product range, I will now turn to the latest toy story I ran into just before Christmas: Lego is about to launch a range called Lego Friends aimed, you guessed it, at the female market, the story being written up here. These include new figurines (appropriately reshaped to appeal to what girls think they should look like) and the backdrop of a city (Heartlake City), with a salon, a horse academy (I quote, but I presume this is a riding school for UK readers), a veterinary clinic, and a café.

Now, I applaud Lego for consciously reaching out to the other 50% of the population (even if driven by the profit-motive), encouraging manual dexterity and construction skills, but I deplore the fact that they choose to produce toy ranges so clearly reinforcing stereotypes. Their marketing teams may have spotted that girls don’t want to be associated with the kits they currently sell, but since these were explicitly targeted at boys that should be no surprise.  Why cannot they revert to the more generic kits my children were brought up with? It used to be that the pirates were unisex (at least I always thought of them as such) and pink was not in evidence. Do we really need a new pastel palette for these toys, and the figurines depicted as living in a city with ‘Heart’ in the title and hearts on their shirts, working as vets. Why can’t boys be vets? As I’ve said before, the gender distinction imposed on career aspirations can be as damaging for the animal-mad boy as for the would-be physicist girl.

An example of the new range, cute and pink

So, as you look around at the toys the children you know have received for Christmas, can you feel comfortable that each and everyone has received something which will not implicitly cut off aspirations but will merely reinforce the stereotypes that the media ram down our throats every day? Pink in itself is not inherently bad, but its association with stereotypically ‘feminine’ aspects can become self-fulfilling. I would like to see toys (and clothes) come in a range of shades, so that each child can choose what fits with their tastes freed from the imposition of cultural values. Maybe boys would like a little pink in their world if it wasn’t negatively associated for them by grown-ups and that distaste conveyed to them.  Conversely, by all means encourage girls who want to be vets to pursue their dreams, but don’t imply that that is the only sort of choice they can make and that driving a helicopter is beyond their sweet pink little brains.  We need a much less polarised society, and much less segregation in the way we aim to educate and enthuse the next generation. I wish.



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22 Responses to The Gift of Pink

  1. I got really mad with lego as I much preferred the generic stuff. However, I needn’t have worried – the kids simply never made whatever was on the box and managed to lose the instructions without ever reading them. They then proceeded to build whatever they pleased with the bits 🙂 After that they proceeded to do the same with the on-line version. The various games they have played since got the same treatment and were rated mostly by how much ‘other’ stuff you could make them do. Consequently I now have an aspiring artist/computer/musician and a ballet dancer and for the record they are both boys.

    I should add that I severely restricted commercial tv when they were young and, when they were old enough to understand, gave them a few lessons on mass media influences. Unfortunately neither show any interest in science despite being exposed to it along with all the other stuff. But the choice is theirs.

    viv in nz

    ps Happy seasons greetings etc.

  2. Cloud says:

    I’ve been writing about this recently on my blog, and had a very interesting comment from someone who works in publishing. Her company makes “books plus”- books plus some sort of toy or something, and she described how the retailers dictate that they want boy books and girl books, not gender neutral books.

    Which is similar to what I’ve read about how some retailers intend to put the new LEGO kits in the “girl” section and not the “LEGO” section (which at my local Target is in the boy section. At my local Toys’R’Us it is in a neutral section).

    So some of the gender segregation in toys is being driven by the retailers, who are presumably organizing things in order to sell more. As disheartening as it is, I think the toy companies do a lot of the pinkwashing and other nonsense because that is what people will buy.

    I’m not a big fan of gender segregation in toys at all, but I have also made peace with the pink and purple and princess invasion that has happened in my house. To me, the most important thing is that I find toys that will help my girls stretch the skills they’ll need later in life, like spatial reasoning. I’m annoyed but less worried by the profession stereotyping, at least for my own girls, because I figure that the living examples of me and my friends will counter them. Which is not to say that I won’t be buying that computer scientist Barbie for my daughters at some point, just to make a point….

  3. Klaas Wynne says:

    Hi Athene

    I do agree with you on pink. However, on the plus side, there has been a previous girl Lego set consisting of horses and a pink/purple castle, which my 5 year old son uses as the pieces are great for constructing towers from which to wage Lego wars. We bought the new girl Lego set last week (it was on sale by accident in Glasgow for one day) and, although it is all very pink and girly, at least it does include a serious looking camera and a computer. So perhaps the Lego girls can be persuaded to do computer simulations on quark glon plasmas…? Perhaps the pink thing is bit of a red herring: it’s more important that the parents and teachers explain to all kids how interesting science is.

  4. Klaas
    Although the pink thing may be a ‘red’ herring in one sense, it is symptomatic of the segregation which is why I see it as a problem. At 5 children should be being given a range of things to try out – of colour and type – so they can find their own way. Hence the importance of generic kits and imagination as Knutty Knitter says.

    Cloud and Knutty Knitter
    I realise most of the readers of this post are likely simply to be the parents who encourage a diversity of toys, activity and imagination and are probably not the ones who need to be given a prod to think about the problems of toy segregation. Children with imagination are able to turn anything into anything, pink or not. What worries me most is those whose parents don’t do the encouragement and say something along the lines of ‘oh your little Lego friend is meant to be a hairdresser not a construction worker, you can’t ask her to build that tower’ and so remove the ability to extemporise and think outside the box. It happens.

  5. Owen says:

    Pink and segregation may be a problem, but say you’re Lego and you know that your kits have always been perceived as “boys’ toys”. Your research finds “girls want pink and more girly settings and don’t like the standard Lego person”. Perhaps these girls have already been rewired by the pink mind control lasers, but at that point what is Lego to do? They could ignore what they’ve found but they want to sell toys and they think Lego and construction is good for children. Is perpetuating the pink an acceptable loss if the win is that you might get more girls playing with Lego?

    Of course if this attempt at getting girls to buy Lego fails like the previous six then possibly not…

    • Owen
      I think part of my problem with the Lego story is that in years gone by it wasn’t seen a a boys’ toy. They set out to market kits more aggressively to the male audience some years back when rethinking their strategy, and now are compensating by creating Lego friends for girls. I don’t understand why they need to do this differentiation in the first place. By all means make a variety of kits, but the stark distinction between toys for the two sexes seems completely unnecessary. Likewise pink is not inherently a problem, as long as there is choice. Why shouldn’t boys play with pink toys? Because culturally we no longer seem to think that is appropriate, but this is a very recent phenomenon.

      • Owen says:

        In my childhood it was definitely a boys’ toy. I can only recall one girl who actually played with Lego. (Curiously enough she had the 1970s “Homemaker” series of Lego sets aimed at girls: Lego kitchens, hair salons, etc.) The kids in the Lego section of the local toyshops I frequented were all boys.

        Anecdote, not evidence, I know, but Lego wouldn’t have made girls’ Lego in the 1970s if their sales figures didn’t tell them that they weren’t reaching enough girls. Wherever I find this conversation on the web people evoke a golden age where girls and boys played equally with gender-indifferent Lego sets, and I’m deeply unconvinced that such a golden age actually existed, at least in my lifetime.

        Lego did target boys aggressively in the first decade or so of this century (with quite a bit of sales success) but the “boys’ toy” perception was present long before and I think it’s a mistake to see the Lego Friends thing as just compensating for the recent “boy” strategy.

        • Grant says:

          Lego was mainly a boys’ toy in my time, too. My memory has girls getting dolls & accessories (both for their dolls and themselves!) Then again, this was the era of the ‘Action Men’ figures… I can’t bring myself to say ‘dolls’ here… 🙂 Remember those?

          • Difficult to know if these things have been cyclical. In the ’60’s, when I was a child playing with Lego, the kits that I recall were mainly simply buildings: shops, garages that sort of thing. I have no recollection of figures at all, nothing that was obviously gendered either. The most exotic things were curved bricks and roof tiles, and everything was either white or red.
            Then when my children played with Lego in the 90’s I don’t remember thinking of things as gendered either: there were pirates and police helicopters, but the figures I think of (possibly incorrectly) as sexless. Maybe I avoided buying the gendered kits semi-consciously, I don’t know.
            But Lego definitely set out to capture the ‘boy’ market a few years back, as Owen says, so I guess the new range is an antidote to that. But I don’t believe it’s necessary to package things quite so overtly for one gender or the other.
            In the meantime see this story about the LHC being built in Lego. I rather like this and would like to think that this will appeal to both sexes, though built by a male engineer on the project.

          • Grant says:

            (Hope this follows your comment; the nesting has gone too deep and there is no ‘reply’ link for your comment.)

            Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that Lego itself was ‘gendered’ (then), but just that most of those I knew playing with it were boys. That may say more about boys and perhaps how they were/are taught than the Lego itself or, perhaps, that my sample set was too small and/or biased! Some might even suggest it may partly reflect that boys are more prone to ADHD-type behaviour – making little stacks of blocks and “all that” 🙂

            Lego only just started bringing in the ‘special’ blocks towards the end of my time using them – I know what you mean there. I’ve two minds about the really specialised pieces as to my mind they break some aspects of the spirit of the thing.

            FWIW, the few adults I know of who play with it are all women. What gives?! 🙂

          • Grant, I’m afraid your comment also shows the paucity of imagination of some parents: if they don’t give the girls Lego to play with they aren’t so likely to try it out.

  6. Rachel’s comment apparently refers to a ‘Wild Science Moisturising Lab’, a fairly astonishing title for a toy. The packaging is, needless to say, pretty pink. In the same range is a Beauty Spa Pampering Boutique, a Wild Science Bath Bomb Factory and a Wild Science Perfume Laboratory, all in pink packagaing. Not featuring pink are a Wild Science Hyperlauncher Rocket Ball and Action Science Crystal Clear. I have no idea what is inside of any of them, but the last one is the only one that sounds intentionally reasonably gender neutral.

  7. Rachel says:

    I tended to buy Playmobil as it seems less gendered than lego. Of course, there is less construction in it too. I could not agree more about the increase in gendered branding. And pink washed clothes. Socks and pants are unbelievably colour gendered – I am unsure why this ins necessary (you think they’d know, with pants, at least).

  8. BB says:

    Happy New Year Athene!

    This topic is very painful for me at the moment and I seem to spend more time than is healthy on mumsnet having arguments about it.

    A big grudge of mine is that babygros are racked up as ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ and I am forever asking the sales assistant what makes the boys babygros unsuitable for my baby girl (usually causing much puzzlement).

    The toys thing is worse however as the colour of a babygro is unlikely to have anywhere near the same impact on development.

    I got in touch with the ASA about these issues to clarify if reinforcing gender stereotypes comes under their special protection for advertising to children. Apparently it doesnt at the moment because the whole of the ASA process is driven by the causing of offence. So essentially if enough people are offended by gender stereotyping of children in advertising then it will become a thing and they will start to deal with it.

    As with the Hamleys business I think the best idea might be to pick something high profile and try to organise a campaign to force them to pull an advert etc.

  9. BB Happy New Year to you too. I hope the joys of motherhood – pink or blue (or green or yellow) – are suiting you. I’d be interested to hear what sort of reaction you are getting from Mumsnet. In the US I think they were quite active about the ‘I’m too pretty to do math’ Tshirts, but I haven’t heard much here. It might be worth touching base with Delilah to see how she organised her successful Hamley’s campaign, but that was focussed and it is much harder to target a diffuse problem like pink. There is the Pinkstinks group too who are entirely focussed on these sort of problems, though I haven’t followed their actions closely.

  10. Rachel says:

    I’d like to think the moisture science box inside had some nice chemistry educational value but…. the description wasn’t promising…. it didn’t promise to get me chemical patent so I could become the managing director of L’oreal et al…. but maybe one day I could be running a day spa…. every little girl’s dream, glamourously squeezing the pores of sweaty strangers…..
    “Make beauty products like the experts with the Wild Science Moisturiser laboratory. Follow the simple full-colour instructions and in no time you’ll be creating your own rich, nourishing creams that’ll leave you refreshed and revitalized.With the moisturiser laboratory, you’ll be using the same ingredients, equipments and techniques as professional beauty labs. You’ll even learn how to diagnose skin types and create the best custom cosmetics to suit you and friends.Follow 4 exciting experiments for unique results every time. With lots of different beauty sets in the Wild Science Range to collect, you could even open your own Luxury Day Spa!”

  11. Rachel says:

    I think LEGO was more gender neutral in the past but so were a lot of things. Computer Science is the only science dept. at Cambridge that manged roughly 50/50% female/male… BUT that was in the early days…. once the toy makers, home computers, schools got involved computers, games, hacking became more male biased. In the early days a lot of data theory and coding (almost typing) was very female biased…. now comp. sci has one of the worst male/female imbalances. I’m pretty sure too that the entry requirements are a bit more leniant for girls (I entered as a comp. sci.) – simply by the time girls leave school they don’t want to do a comp. sci. degree as a result of their childhood exposure to aspects of it. In the old days the lack of experience made it a blank canvas.

    I think there is an argument for pinky-fying things to some extent because girls do tend to have slightly more bias towars some aspects of science / computing that others. User interface design, workflow and event handling coding is technically as hard as network protocols and very human/people oriented and quite dense on female-comp scis. but it’s a side of an industry that you don’t see so many bright but people oriented scientists/mathematicians veer to more consultancy like roles…

  12. A wonderful letter to Lego from a 14 year old girl has just been brought to my attention. Do read it! Maybe if Lego CEO received a deluge of such mail the company would start to pay some attention?

  13. Toys should be manufactured as an educational aide for children relative to their age even if it just involves a fluffy stimulant. I am of the self formed belief that a truly objective intellect is asexual and if we want to develop that most human of traits in children, toys ought to be non gender based. In contemporary human culture boys get threatened with teasing a lot if they want to play in the company of girls and girl are labelled with being masculine if they eschew the conceptual pink burqa. In a BBC documentary it was shown that male intra-sexual competitiveness increased in a group of young male skateboarders if two young females suddenly appeared so as to join their company. This was ascertained by the boys in recorded increased levels of testosterone a hormone largely responsible for aggressive fighting and competing. Married men, whether fathers or not, have much lower levels of testosterone than single men. Thus being the case perhaps educational bodies including toy makers should focus more on children of either sex doing activities together especially from an early age to avoid any sexual apartheid. The only foreseeable activity in which there will be a marked difference in performance will be in physical sport but surely there will be at least some overlapping.

  14. Over on DoubleX Science, Jeanne Garbarino has posted a very thoughtful and well researched piece on the trouble with pink Lego and a host of other gendered toys.

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