Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pink and Blue and Gendered All Over

When my daughter was young, I fought the good fight on gendered clothing and toys. From what I can tell, it may have been a bit easier to find relatively neutral clothes in the '90s -- baby and toddler apparel seems even more gendered today than it was then.

People in the '90s weren't having any of that gender-neutral crap, however. My daughter was continually thought to be a boy by the unknown people who continually interact with parents of young children. And I remember the early years of gendered fast food toys, too.

I was reminded of all this while reading a Psychology Today blog post by Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University. (Ironically, the link was sent to me by my now-16-year-old daughter.) Sommers, who has two young daughters himself, makes some well-worded points about his experience with being asked to identify his children's gender at a fast food drive through:

What I did say was "two girls, but why do you ask?" He explained that he needed to know which toys to include with their meals. Presumably he was hoping to avoid the embarrassing mistake he had made a week earlier, when he had given a Fisher Price's My First Testicular Self-Exam Kit to a girl who would have much rather had a Magic Ovary-Shaped 8-Ball.
He also shows a photo of the label placed on one of his daughters' hospital bassinets, where the words I'M A GIRL are larger than any of the other, more pertinent, information (blood type, parents' names, among other things):
And I actually think there is something to the bassinet photo. It speaks to what seems to be a pressing need people have to know instantly the gender of babies they meet. My experience as a parent of newborns is that most strangers I met would have been happier had I stapled the pink "I'M A GIRL" card to my daughter's scalp for the first several months of her life....

...where does this insatiable need to know gender come from, if not, at least at some level, an inclination to act on preconceived notions or societal stereotypes? Psychological studies have shown that new parents' perceptions of their newborns vary by gender, with parents seeing daughters as smaller, more "fine-featured," and less attentive than sons, despite the absence of any objective gender differences among said newborns. Parents also react differently to their children's behavior depending on gender. So I think there's a case to be made that unnecessarily emphasizing a child's gender is not innocuous.
The article closes with an example of two alphabet quilts from the same manufacturer, which were given as gifts to his daughters. Because the gift-giver didn't want the girls to have matching quilts, one child got the "girl" quilt and the other the "boy" quilt. The boy quilt includes letter/image matches like P/Pencil, R/Radio and S/Star while the girl quilt has P/Purse, R/Ring and S/Shoes.

Which brings me to the work of JeongMee Yoon. Her Pink and Blue Projects have been ongoing for the last five years, as she documents the color divergence she sees in the lives of children.

Two photos of young children, girl on left surrounded by pink toys and stuff, boy on right surrounded by blue
That's a whole lot of color applied to enforce a part of identity that's supposedly a "natural" to each child's identity. As Yoon tells the history of how these colors came to be used this way:
Pink was once a color associated with masculinity, considered to be a watered down red and held the power associated with that color. In 1914, The Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers to “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” The change to pink for girls and blue for boys happened in America and elsewhere only after World War II.
So all this is not to say that some little girls don't honestly like pink, while some little boys like blue. But I think it's hard to tell why someone likes something when they've been conditioned to like it and see it as a part of their identity since birth.

My own daughter's favorite color from toddlerhood until preadolescence, on the other hand, was green.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Buying clothes for grandkids in the last couple of years, I'm amazed at the amount of gender stereotyping on kids' clothes. Toddler boys' clothes are all about monsters, vehicles, and sports, while girls' are about flowers and "I'm so pretty." During the women's movement, we put a LOT of thought and effort into figuring out how to open up the greatest freedom and possibilities for kids. Seems like that's been erased.

Barbara said...

Buying baby clothes for friends recently, I noticed that the yellow and green choices are still readily available for infants (presumably since there are still some people who either don't know or don't advertise the gender of their offspring before birth). But yes, by the time the kid can walk, you have to look really hard to find gender neutral.

Now that my boy is approaching teenhood, buying shirts usually goes like this: Nice color--oops, skull--good material--oops, sports logo...and so on. Even bathing suits are tough to buy. What I do notice is that the more expensive stores have more options. It seems to me that K-Mart is pushing the gendered clothing more than, say, Lands End. I like to think that I would still have shopped in the boys section if I had had a girl, avoiding the same images on the shirts and avoiding the whole pink section just as thoroughly as I did with my boy.

When he was a baby, people usually guessed that he was a girl. When I corrected them, the common response was that he was so beautiful that they guessed girl. It's hard for a new mother to take offense at being told she has a beautiful baby, but can't he be a beautiful boy? Why yes he can, thank you very much.

elena said...

Once again, DN3, thanks so much for a thought-provoking post, with interesting links. It prompted some reflections at my blog:

Ms Sparrow said...

I also have noticed the overwhelming trend toward gender-identified kid's clothing. I think trying to buck the trend can be an exercise in futility, however. It seems to be getting worse instead of better!

Daughter Number Three said...

When my daughter was younger and not interested in picking out her own clothes (a state that lasted longer than average, I think -- she was about 11 when it finally changed), I would shop the second-hand kids' stores and go through the girls and boys sections looking for appropriate clothes.

I really do believe that if there was more range of color/style choices available in mainstream retailers, people would buy a wider range. But I'm sure the buyers at these stores would tell us that they buy these types of clothes because they are what sell.