I recently went through an experience that I’m sure many of you can relate to—buying a gift for a girl and having to navigate the pink dilemma. I wanted to get a Channukah gift for my two-year-old granddaughter that her older brother wouldn’t want to play with. I knew she’d love a remote-controlled car, one with controls that were simple and large for her tiny hands, but to make it uniquely hers, I bought the pink one.
And all the while, I’m thinking, are we back in this place, where we box in our girls with stereotypical colors, not to mention the princesses and dolls? Having spent decades personally and professionally working to free women from limitations and constraints put on them by society (and by their parents, spouses, friends, and even themselves), I felt disheartened that our little girls (and little boys, for that matter) were still being categorized and limited, where certain colors and toys were acceptable for each gender, regardless of the child’s individual preferences.
Lego jumped into the gendered toy controversy recently with its new Lego set, Lego Friends, deliberately aimed at young girls. The set comes with larger girl figures (who can hold handbags and hairbrushes), back stories for the characters, pastel pinks and lavenders, and buildings like a hair salon, veterinary clinic, and a horse academy (“With New Toys, Lego Hopes To Build Girls Market”). According to Lego, the new series is based on research into how girls play, but this research doesn’t tell us whether these girls learned to play in certain socially acceptable ways or whether these preferences were innate—the good old nature vs. nurture debate.
The association of pink with girls is most likely completely society imposed. As a recent Smithsonian article points out, before World War I, pink was considered the boy color and blue the color for girls (“When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?”).
Researcher Lise Eliot, who recently published her research in Sex Roles and in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, found that even parents who are careful not to encourage gender stereotypes tended to model them in their interaction with their children, particularly in play. And of course, we need only look around us to see that these girls grow up into women who continue to conform to what a woman is “supposed” to be, right down to what is considered sexy.
But here’s the catch: Rejecting gender stereotypes isn’t simply a matter of girls avoiding pink, or buying dolls for boys and trucks for girls. Doing so is to be just as constrained by stereotypes—in this case, reacting to them—as it is to follow the gender “rules.” We need to instead free ourselves and our children and grandchildren to be who we are as individuals, to be a girl free to like pink and cars, a boy who won’t be mocked for wanting the pink microscope, a woman who dresses sexy in ways that she finds sexy, a man not afraid to wear flowered boxer shorts—to be women and men who embrace their inner feminine and their inner masculine in unique ways that stem solely from who they are, not who society says they should be.
To free the world from the sexism of gender stereotypes, we must first free ourselves, to get to know who we are and what our individual preferences are, to examine our choices and tastes and determine whether they come from inside or from external influences, and to have the courage to embrace our individuality without worrying whether we conform too much or rebel too much against cultural expectations. If we don’t do this first for ourselves, no matter how careful we are not to reinforce stereotypes, we will continue to model them subtly for our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews. We don’t have to choose either girly girl or tom boy, either being sexy or being strong, either being feminine or being masculine. By choosing both/and over either/or, we can free ourselves and the generations to come.
In what ways do you make choices based on or reacting to gender stereotypes? If you were to make those choices free of those stereotypes, what would you choose?
Image credit: Photography by Daniel Wildman