READER REPORT:

Fifty shades of pink

JESS JENNINGS
Last updated 10:33 24/03/2014
barbie
Getty Images
THINK PINK: Barbie's colour palette is a little limiting.

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Beware the beast that's lurking in your local toy store.

No, it's not a gremlin, the Loch Ness monster or a bogeyman. It's not even the corporate suits upping the prices of already-exorbitant plastic.

This creature, fierce in its ubiquity, goes by the name of gender typing.

One only has to stroll down a toy aisle to have their eyes assaulted by "femininity". The over-representation of princess characters in books and figurines, dolls, plush teddies, lifelike babies, faux-cooking implements and jewellery, dress-ups, all swathed in a sea of pink, and splashed with hearts, flowers and shiny things for good measure.

You're a girl? Here, have a shiny pink thing!

Mosey over to the personal stationery aisle to pick up a congratulatory card for your new-mum friend; bub happens to be a boy so you may either choose a blue card, a blue card or a blue card.

Or you might like to confuse your friend with one of the 63 pink cards celebrating the arrival of baby girls.

There is nothing sinister about the colours pink or blue in and of themselves.

I certainly have no opinion on their innate merits or drawbacks, or those of any colour for that matter.

But there is something deeply disturbing about the fact that we continue to create and reinforce such unnatural differences between genders through items that are so innocent.

We live in an age that decries patriarchy and strives against any subordination of women to male counterparts, yet the dress-up costumes available for girls remain as nurses, fairies and princesses.

Contrast this with the doctors, firemen, and policemen designed for boys and it isn't hard to discern which gender is the trivialised spectacle and which is the respectable master of the universe.

Why do such stark and arbitrary differences in children's toys persist along gendered lines in what we so proudly declare as an enlightened age?

Numerous studies have suggested that the play behaviours of 3-year-olds are noticeably different between boys and girls. Girls supposedly prefer relationship and nurture-based play while boys prefer destruction and physicality.
Some use these trends to support such obvious differences in toys, but I can only conceive that this difference in play-style is precisely the result of the gender differences that we as a society produce by imbuing everyday toys with gender-role stereotypes.

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Tough luck if wee Wendy would like to battle stealthy combat trucks. Silly Wendy! Trucks are for tough boys but you're a girl and girls play with perfect, fun, magical things filled with lovely, stylish, glitterbaby-ness!

It has long been accepted that there is a difference between sex and gender, with sex being anatomical and gender being learned.

Doing Gender, a 1987 work by Candace West and Don Zimmerman is but one of the many pieces testifying to this concept. At 3-years-old, a child has had ample socialisation with parents and other adults who have treated them a certain way, based on their own ingrained gender stereotyping.

Through simple observation, encouragement and praise, the child has accordingly learnt what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl.

Pop a baby in a room with an adult, announce that said baby is a girl and overwhelmingly, the adult will commence gentle play with a doll or teddy, use a softer voice to speak with "feminine" adjectives, and pander to the child if she falls and hurts herself.

Baby learns that a particular set of traits, words, toys and behaviours are the way that she performs her role as a female. Perhaps more importantly, she learns that this performance is valued and not to be deviated from.

Alternatively, announce that baby is a boy and an average adult will engage him in hammering, building and other supremely manly, goal-oriented play. They will speak in "brum brummmm" dialect while assertively thundering some super-duper ultramobile around the room, and break this deep hum only to tell baby boy to brush himself off and get up in the event of a tumble.

We train our girls for dependence and approval, our boys for decisive action like mini-commandos. Yet, we wonder why our dithering young girls are afflicted with such low self-esteem and our aggressive young boys are so quick to bop a stranger on the nose when they feel like it.

This may surprise some people so don't be alarmed: contrary to popular belief, having a womb does not predispose you to shopping, and a high level of testosterone does not diminish your ability to see things behind other things in the fridge.

That gender is learned really isn't news, it isn't located in some top-secret filing cabinet to which only few elites have authorised access.

I find it incredibly bizarre then, that we still endow gender with specific and non-negotiable qualities, and that we so fervently insist on a particular gender performance flowing from a particular sex.

It's an icky self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a young girl who sobbed with disappointment when the mall Santa gave me a Barbie, I resent that choice for kids does not abound and would applaud the marketer who goes against the grain to simply produce great toys, without sly gender differentiation tacked on.

I'm writing this whilst searching online for a personalised rattle for my young cousin and alas, perhaps I've been too harsh, it seems that I actually have a range of colours to choose from! Hmmm, which to choose, carnation pink, tutti-frutti pink or hot pink? 


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