Pink stinks - let's stop colour-coding our kids

BY FINLAY MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 13/12/2009

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DESPITE THE best efforts of the international gay community to reclaim it, the undeniable truth is that pink belongs to little girls. So ingrained is society's monochromatic gender stereotyping that a campaign has emerged in Britain to end it. It's called "Pinkstinks". Given the season, maybe it's time we too had a look at the way we colour code kids.

Take a stroll into your local Warehouse and see how all pervasive it has become, particularly in the toy section. The aisles dedicated to boys are a riot of various hues, whereas girls are siphoned down corridors of the purest pink packaging. Over in the clothes section a similar phenomenon occurs: hideous day-glo variations on the same pink theme.

Assiduous research on behalf of this column reveals the following items for sale in time for Christmas: Fab Girl Barbie ("Living the Pink Life"), My Little Pony ("I'm Pinkie Pie! I love to crawl"), pink plastic toy ovens and fridges, pink gaming consoles and even a pink violin to "rock your world!" Well, at least that last one isn't an inducement to early domestication. But there's no avoiding the tyranny of pink.

The Pinkstinks campaign does not confine itself to colour alone, however. It's aimed at the entire insidious commercial culture of girl branding. All of the vapid imagery targeted at little girls (and their parents' pockets) gets a good going over: fairies, princesses, tiaras, Barbies, Bratz, fake ballerina nonsense – in short, the contents of your average female under-10's toy and dress up boxes.

But Pinkstinks isn't just shooting Barbies in a barrel. The campaign recently set its sights on major UK retailer, the Early Learning Centre – one of those pseudo-educational outfits that prey on parents' desire to fill their little darlings' lives with good things that will improve their tiny minds rather than merely add another layer of junk to the plastic middens in their bedrooms. The Education Learning Centre's girls' range was pale – pale pink, in fact – compared to the boys', who were offered all manner of creative and challenging products.

Pink, in other words, is shorthand for the general commodification of girls as passive, shallow and saccharine sweet. By conditioning them so young to consume such a limited palette of colours and options, we risk consigning them to an equally limited view of themselves and their potential. As the authors of a book about these issues put it, "Girls are besieged by images in the media that encourage accessorising over academics, sex appeal over sports, fashion over friendship."

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Many of these concerns are not new, and have informed some of the post-feminist dismay at what happened to the promise of women's liberation.

The Pinkstinks campaigners – a couple of sisters from London – were inspired in part by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who last year wrote of the betrayal she and others of her generation felt at the stalled progress of gender equity.

Noting the still dismal representation of women in the upper levels of politics and commerce, Toynbee wondered about the origins of contemporary female under-achievement. She mentioned the handicaps working women suffer when they become mothers, of course, but went on to observe, "it doesn't begin then, it begins in infancy, when little girls learn where they belong as soon as they draw their first breath. The pink disease is far worse than it was 20 years ago".

Such arguments spill over quickly at this point into the wider context of the media's sexualisation of pre-teens, the rise of the self-oppressed porn-star model of modern femininity, the whole body image industry, and the truly troubling statistics around eating disorders and low self-esteem in teenage girls.

Yes, there is something reductionist in all this. To ascribe the professional and social boundaries placed on women later in life to the supposedly constricted consumer diet they were fed early on is a little too pat. It also fails to register the relatively better performance of girls over boys at school. Not to mention the gender role modelling boys are subjected to with their own power-warrior-dinosaur-rocket-launcher-superhero-atomic-blaster leisure options.

My own former princess/fairy/ballerina seems to be emerging into a new phase seemingly without her grey matter stained permanently pink – proof, at least to me, that such a trained response can be discarded as easily as it was acquired if it's just one part of a richer and more varied childhood experience.

That said, I'm all for the Pinkstinks campaign this Christmas. An industry intent on packaging its customers as horribly as it packages its products has surely earned our contempt.

finlay.macdonald@star-times.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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