Monday, 5 October 2009

The tyranny of pink

Insidious, saccharine, remorseless, nagging, repetitive and above all pink, pink, pink, PINK, PINK, PINK. Adverts directed at little girls - to be found on all commercial cable children's TV channels - have got to be some of the most relentless pieces of commercial propaganda ever produced.

I'm not a believer that sexual differences are wholly, or even mostly, the product of cultural conditioning. I think any fair-minded parent would admit that boys, on average, are more boisterous and aggressive than girls. (Down to testosterone apparently: I learnt from an Oxford endocrinologist that a one-year old boy has proportionately as much testosterone in his body as a fourteen-year old).

However, anyone fair-minded would also have to admit that these innate sexual differences can be widened or shaped through forms of conditioning, that is, how you treat children, what expectations you have for them. And children's TV advertising seems an extraordinarily determined project to describe the self-image of little girls.

I'm not sure I can express strongly enough how the sexes are segmented in children's TV ads: the word apartheid is justifiable. There is virtually no space whatsoever for little girls to define themselves as other than girly. Pink (of course), ponied, primped, vain, sweet, simpering, gossipy. Conversely, no adventure, vehicles, monsters, danger, or indeed anything outside the words comprising the preceding list. Incredibly confining in terms of expectations as to how girls are expected to behave, interrelate and amuse themselves. Sort of Taliban-lite.

It's fair to say that this advertising often plays in distinction to the programmes. One of our eldest's favourites is Dora the Explorer (below), a little girl with a pet monkey who goes on adventures into jungles and mountains usually to help an animal in some way. She's a girl who's doing something that either sex can do and which presumably appeals to either sex.

However, the Dora merchandising, as shown in the inevitable adverts, is led by some sort of doll's house that girls are encouraged to play with in their bedrooms, safe and sound. There's also some shitty hair-braiding thing you can do with a Dora model despite her hair (or any aspect of her appearance) never being raised as a feature in an episode (I feel qualified to make this judgement having overheard or glimpsed above a newspaper what must surely be the whole oeuvre). The merchandising is as stay-at-home-and-make-sure-you-look-nice as it could be, despite Dora spending just about all her time on the road (or jungle path).

Presumably manufacturers must find it effective and profitable to present girls in this way. Is it how little girls really want to see themselves and only commerce has an honest enough motivation to admit it (money talks and bullshit walks)? Is life just easier for toy-makers if they approach their markets in this segmented fashion? Do they find this the best way to establish insecurity and create wants that they can then set out to cater to and profit from? Are they just evil?

The onslaught of these adverts is oppressive enough. But finding the best way to respond to them would require some careful consideration: how do you manoeuvre your child towards the most natural appreciation of what it is to be a girl? Does such a thing exist? Should you even try? One could, of course, ban TV or at least everything apart from CBBC...but seriously. Anyway, all the other girls would be watching it so the peer pressure would be in place and building. I look forward to Brit's take on the subject - he now has something of an interest in the matter and if he hasn't developed an opinion yet, I feel sure one will eventually turn up.

In any event, I'm quite incredulous that this sort of thing appears to thrive in our day. Far from going mad, political correctness in this arena hasn't even begun to feel a bit eccentric. On the other hand, in about fifteen or twenty years time we can expect to have a feisty crop of feminists rebelling against the indoctrination of their childhoods. I look forward to welcoming back the dungaree - in any colour other than pink.

UPDATE: T just found this site: There's more to it than an intense dislike of pink: serious and justified concerns about the impact on girls of body image pressures and celebrity culture. I wish them the best of luck and will follow their campaign with interest.


Sean said...

And what off the feminisation of young males, dont play with toy guns you will grow up to be a killer and a generally hateful bastard ect.

Pinker I think deals with all this in Blank slate, the general philosophy in the west is one of believing in Humes idea that we are born ready to be molded at the rest of societies discretion, which is of course bull shit, I dont think he meant it to be taken to absurd lengths.

The left love this idea of course, it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, if only we write down the right words, we will produce the right results, yet more bullshit.

I think you will find the flip side of the above is the increasingly masculisation of the females, just look how many girls smoke these days, far more than the boys do.

Anyway in defence of Pink, I was watching the cricket club finals last week with the new pink ball, and I was very impressed, its good under lights and does not get too dirty, its a winner.

worm said...

totally totally agree - and thank god my fiance does too, we have already set up a pink moratorium where we agree to do everything in our power to ensure that a hypothetical daughter of ours is not allowed to get into the wearing of pink or the princess syndrome.

I think the main thing that you've missed is the parental input into the pink phenomenon. I think that it is the parents themselves who are the propagators of the whole thing, both fathers and mothers alike projecting some form of imagined childhood idyll onto their offspring.

Is it the insecurity of the offspring that the toy manufacturers play on or the insecurity of the parents? After all it is normally the parents who start the whole thing off by reading the child 'classic' tales of dragons and princesses.

The peer pressure is a by-product of that.

They fuck you up your mum and dad..

Brit said...

Great, a whole load of new things to worry about - thanks Gaw!

Hypothetical daughters are a lot easier to make decisions about than real ones, I've already found. You can ban trashy TV but you can't ban peers who watch trashy TV. I do think this depends on the girl though. Some love all this girly crap but others are resolutely tomboyish or offbeat and heap scorn on their pink ponyish chums. My sister was like that, ploughed her own furrow, like.

worm said...

totally understand what you're saying Brit, its easy enough for me to get on my hypothetical high horse about it, but much harder when the little blighter's standing there in the entirely pink toy section of Tescos with pleading eyes begging you for the Barbie Perfect Princess Folding Botox Clinic(tm)

by the way Gaw, there's a great article on night terrors over at the guardian, think you might like it

Sean said...

I have 2 boys and 2 girls. I am proud of them all, there is no magic formula for parenthood, just enjoy it as best you can, even the pink periods.

I am struggling at the moment to cope with one of my girls black periods, but the boots are really terrific I have to admit.

Kids grow up I think trying on different personas, if it fits they stick with it, if not they move on to the next thing. TV might give them ideas of what to try out, but thats as far as it goes, when they hit 13 the game moves into turbo mode so look out, then the fun really begins.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Very interesting. Not having sprogs, pink or blue, this sort of thing seems a world away, but whatever you do please don't advocate the return of dungarees, except for lady plumbers, and even then they should fit snugly. Sorry.

Bunny Smedley said...

Ever since he started school slightly over a year ago, my son has required reassurance that it's not particularly outré for a boy to like pink, any more than it's particularly sensible for girls to refuse to colour with brown or black crayons. Here's how I see it: on one side we have conventional socialisation, and on the other hand we have me, fighting it tooth and nail, complete with heavy volumes of art history etc.

When, I wonder, did the idea that pink is a feminine colour turn up? It clearly postdates the Civil War, and certainly there's nothing effeminate about hunting in 'pink' (accepting always that the words we use for colours slip vertiginously over the decades, let alone centuries) - anyway, it's an innovation, hence I'm happy enough to dismiss it.

And on a related note, for the benefit of the presently childless, it is, by the way, entirely possible to raise a child, even today, without recourse to present-day television. My son, who turned five in the summer, has no idea what CBBC is, let alone the rest of whatever it is that's laid on for him by commercial broadcasters. Instead, he's been raised on the Today programme (I know - that's probably Social Services knocking at the door now, isn't it?) and BBC News 24 - in other words, on what his mother would plausibly consider keeping on in the background while cooking breakfast or dinner - cheered up with DVDs of children's classics of another age: 'Bagpuss', 'Trumpton', 'Clangers', and 'Mary, Mungo & Midge' for a touch of bracing urban realism.

I was told by neighbours that this would be fine until he started school, when the serpent in the garden would begin its insistent hissing regarding the merits of Ben-Ten etc. In truth, however, this has not happened. He started school more than a year ago, whereupon I discovered that actually quite a few parents have adopted a very similar tactic, in some cases simply avoiding television altogether.

The result, no doubt, will be a volume or two of incandescently grumpy memoirs in due course, a real misery-memoir of a childhood deprived of contemporary popular culture - probably tapped out with the 2030 equivalent of 'Strictly' blaring in the background - but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

worm said...

found this on t'internet, from another blog entry entitled 'the tyranny of pink':

"Blue and pink weren't originally "gendered" colors. Prior to the mid-19th century, babies usually wore white. Then a trendsetter in France got the bright idea to identify girls with pink and boys with blue. In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), artistic Amy March puts blue and pink ribbons on her sister's newborn twin boy and girl "French fashion, so you can always tell" them apart.

But these arbitrary color assignments didn't stick. In the U.S., blue and pink were appropriate for baby boys or girls well into the 20th century. When Nancy Pembroke, College Maid (1930) and her friends decide to impress the upperclasswomen of Eastport College by dressing up as babies (a ploy that works, by the way), Nan says, "I thought we'd make up the blue stuff for you, Janie, as one-piece dress, using your night-gown for a pattern; and I'll be a boy in pink rompers." Meanwhile, some authorities counseled adult women against wearing "too young" baby blue. "Many women go through life clinging to the mistaken notion that 'blue is my color' simply because they were dressed in pale blue from babyhood up," wrote the author of Color and Line in Dress (1934). In 1948, a fad was born when college girls started wearing pink Brooks Brothers' dress shirts—for men.

So what happened? Mamie Eisenhower, for one thing. When she wore a pink silk ball gown spangled with 2,000 pink rhinestones to hubby Dwight's inaugural ball in 1953, the press went wild. Karal Ann Marling reports that by 1955, "First Lady Pink" (also known as "Mamie Pink") was "a bona fide color" for a raft of clothing and consumer products."

So it looks like all this stuff really kicked in during the sixties, meaning that there's no real reason at all for girls to favour pink apart from what we imprint upon them

Gaw said...

Sean: I just think both boys and girls should have a fair crack at trying (and being encouraged to try) whatever it is that all children enjoy. I'm sure that boys and girls will probably end up liking rather different things on average. But that doesn't mean that the process should be completed for them and that they should be forced into pre-shaped moulds.

BTW I'm all in favour of encouraging boys to play killer-ball, etc. The little blighters need it.

Worm: You've identified a weird aspect of this whole thing. On the streets of Islington, you'll sometimes see a mummy dressed all in black, with minimal make-up with a little pink princess in tow. As you say, a strange sort of wish-fulfillment?

Great article on night terrors - clearly I got off lightly!

Brit: What's so encouraging is that a lot of kids do seem to have a refreshing in-born cynicism about some of this stuff. I suppose it's the more easily led ones I would worry about. What's more, girls' peer pressure seems to be of a totally scarier order than boys'.

Gadjo: I'm planning to strike a blow purchasing a pair of pink dungarees. I will wear them proudly around the streets of London, thereby proving that people of any sex can look like dicks.

Bunny: You are clearly one of these virtuous people who I'm slightly in awe of (Roger Scruton follows a similar regimen). I don't have the will power to follow your path. But I think probably more pertinently I possess too much of a sweet tooth for trash myself, so finding it difficult to deny my offspring the same opportunity to indulge this venial sin. Not ideal, but we are where we are.

Worm: Your latest comment just popped up. Fascinating stuff. Makes me think the main driver is commercial, pink being a vector for marketing. Makes me feel even more resistant to it, just like Father's Day cards. Trash.

Hey Skipper said...

When, I wonder, did the idea that pink is a feminine colour turn up? It clearly postdates the Civil War ...

Presuming you mean the US Civil war, I think not.

I was in the Louvre a month ago. Lots of paintings there suggest the feminine predilection for pink (as well as a whole host of other colors)goes much further back.

Also, exhibits of Egyptian and Greek antiquities show a decided feminine bent towards accessorizing.

I'm not sure I can express strongly enough how the sexes are segmented in children's TV ads: the word apartheid is justifiable.

What and why are two different things.

There is virtually no space whatsoever for little girls to define themselves as other than girly.

Oh, but of course there is. Little girls can watch all manner of shows that are not girly, just as little boys could switch the one-eyed brain sucker to a girly show.

In the wild, though, that rarely happens.

If pink in particular, and pastels in general, did not resonate with the female brain, then those advertising appeals would not work.

To put it alternatively, if there was any money to be made off of not pink, then there would be a marketer catering to that need.

Taking a step back, gender apartheid is just as prevalent in movies, books, and, well, blogs.

Years ago, my wife bought me an air compressor and an impact wrench for my birthday. My son, then 4 was quite literally quivering at the prospect of using the thing. Looks like a gun! Makes great noises!

When I offered my 5 year old daughter a chance to use it, her reply would not have come as a surprise to Sean, or Dr. Pinker: "No daddy, that's boy's work."

Oh, and she loved (and still does) pink.

This in a TV-free house run by a very not-girly mom.

P.S. Good to see you are feeling better and writing again.

Gaw said...

Skipper: I must be feeling better as I'm sitting down to respond to one of your classic interrogative comments! Here goes...

- I think Bunny would have meant the English Civil War.

- My comments re definition of girls related solely to the adverts. I agree there are plenty of counter-examples (such as the one I provide).

- I'm sure these adverts work commercially - as you (and I) point out. Otherwise they wouldn't be shown. However, effectiveness isn't a sufficient justification for showing an ad. For instance, over here you can't advertise alcohol by suggesting it makes you funnier or better looking (which of course it does). You can't advertise tobacco at all. I'm not arguing for a ban, I'm just saying that it's possible to sell things by appealing to our worse natures and that this should be discouraged.

- Finally, I've no objection at all to girls liking pink. It's just that I hate the pink girly world of these ads, which are suffocating in their totally one-sided view of what it is to be girl. I feel those girls who aren't attracted to this path will feel marginalised and possibly a bit weird. As I say, they represent no other way of expressing what it is to be a girl.

Hey Skipper said...

I must be feeling better as I'm sitting down to respond to one of your classic interrogative comments!

Hmmm. Not sure I like the sound of that.

I feel those girls who aren't attracted to this path ... As I say, they represent no other way of expressing what it is to be a girl.

And of boys we shall not speak?

If there is a universal human behavior, it is gender distinction. The forms it takes are culturally dependent, but that it happens is certain.

If it wasn't pink (and blue), it would be something else with precisely the same effect.

Brit said...

It's a bit of both, isn't it?

Of course pinkworld works commercially because it appeals to basic girly instinct. But then advertisers can endless reinforce that pinkworld in a narrow, tedious, exploitative way.

The whole High School Musical thing is another example. Yes of course girls like singing and dancing, but do we have to be sold High School Musical waffle-irons and what have you?

Gaw said...

Boys would require a whole new post.

As I say in the post, I do think there are significant innate sexual differences. However, these can be accentuated through cultural conditioning. I object to the sort of conditioning being undertaken by the advertisers as it's incredibly narrow and prescriptive. This works for them commercially but not for me ethically. It also appears to be something that was launched relatively recently. My guess is that it began in the 1960s.

Interestingly, the Ploughman's Lunch was launched at the same time by the breweries to encourage people to go to the pub at lunchtime. It was so successful that people now think this combination of bread, cheese, pickle and salad is age-old. Girl's entirely 'natural' penchant for pink has the same source and the same utter fakeness.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I came here via Pinkstinks and wanted to add by twopennerth.

I have two boys, 9 and 11. Both have been raised to be intelligent and curious, and are both relatively mature for their age (in comparison with the children of friends). The 11 year old has always loved pink - for a number of years it was his favourite colour and he wore pink gloves to school. A friend asked me why he didn't get bullied, and I pointed out it was because he didn't give a stuff about fitting in, so everyone just accepted him as he was.

Now he has decided it is more politically correct to prefer red over pink. It is his own solution to the peer pressure solution.

My younger son is much more keen to conform (older one wouldn't recognise conformism if it bit him on the nose!), and much more picky about the clothes and colours he will wear.

My two love watching the TV, but I ditched Sky over a year ago, because I was sick of the cartoons and the advertising. Mostly, they love animal programmes and science/history programmes, and I'm proud that they love to watch intelligent stuff, though I'll let them watch dross as well. The most important thing I find is that we TALK and discuss things.

As for toys, the boy range with its predilection for violence is as bad as the girl options. Luckily, apart from the TV and the Mac, the boys both spend hours on Lego.

My friends with girls swear that they teat boys and girls the same, but girls veer towards pink. I am sure they do, but I do feel parents could be a little more vigilant in discouraging that trend. It's not about giving them boys' toys and hoping for the best, but about encouraging self-confidence, curiosity and talk, in my experience.

Gaw said...

Thanks for sharing your experience.