Wednesday, May 14, 2008

pink at the rink: some thoughts on children and gender

It's official: I am becoming my mother.

Okay, let's back up. A while back, I started taking ice skating lessons. Or rather, re-started. When I was in elementary school I was a half-decent figure skater, but then I stopped when I was about eleven. I was 4'9". Now I'm 5'9". So I thought I would re-learn some of the skills now that I'm a lot farther from the ground than before.

Anyway, one day I was at the ice rink lacing up my skates, observing a group of young parents and their group of young skaters and their siblings; about ten children, mostly girls, maybe ages 2 - 5. Every single girl was wearing something pink. I counted. At least one article of clothing each, but in some cases a lot more. Pink shoes, pink scarves, pink jackets, pink gloves. Jeans with pink-themed embroidery and appliqu├ęs. Pink barrettes. All of them.

Why? Are they afraid people won't know they're girls? Or, the more likely explanation--pink is hard to avoid when you're buying girls' clothing.
I don't have anything against pink itself. It's an inherently nice color, one that occurs in nature in the form of beautiful cherry blossoms, seashells and birds' feathers, not to mention all of our own bodies' mucus membranes (okay, maybe not the most pleasant image). I will also freely admit that despite this claim, I own hardly any pink clothing.

Many people I know have made the good point that rejecting pink because it's a "girly" color is just as bad as insisting on it. It's still an acceptance of the idea of pink as feminine, when really you should just choose according to your preference no matter what. This makes sense, and it would make more sense if our preferences weren't completely skewed by the culture we live in. If we could all make truly unbiased decisions, don't you think that some men and boys would prefer pink and pastels too (I know, besides the frat guys who wear pink polo shirts to be ironic)? Why should it be women's responsibility to reject or reclaim something when the point is ultimately that color shouldn't indicate gender?

A couple years ago, I spotted a posting on Craigslist:

Looking to trade Bumbo seats, I'll take any color! Just can't stand putting my boy in purple!

Really, I think this is interesting. It's remarkable to me that pink is so completely inescapable in the girls' section, but even more telling is its conspicuous absence from the boys' section (does anyone ever wish there were just a kids' section?). At least girls can wear "masculine" clothing (those are huge incredulous quotation marks) if they want, and no one's really the wiser. It's cute if a girl wears boys' clothing. It's tomboyish. It's endearing...sort of in the way that it's endearing when a child dresses up like an adult. (You'll see what I mean in a minute).

But heaven help the boy who wants to wear girls' clothing. Heaven help that Craigslist parent who got stuck with the lavender (yes, it's actually lavender) Bumbo seat. I honestly wonder what this person envisions--how this lavender apparatus might scar his or her child so. Will he take on "feminine" qualities from this piece of obviously girly plastic? Will he become...sensitive? Nurturing? Artistic? Vulnerable? Sympathetic? Reserved? What a failure this child could become! A blue Bumbo seat, stat!

I think it's the universal undesirability of "femininity" that says the most about our culture. We could look at things like careers, but let's stick with appearance to keep it simple. Comfort and practicality aside, a woman wearing "masculine" clothing (work overalls, a loose-fitting Oxford shirt, or a necktie) in our modern context is seen as strong, daring and even intelligent. A man wearing a skirt, however, is generally considered bizarre and sometimes perverse. Parents can feel free to buy red, yellow, blue and green for their daughters, but they wouldn't dare put their sons in lavender or pink. What this tells me is that it's fine for the subordinate group to try and emulate the dominant, but put the other way around, it seems...backwards. And that means that (surprise!) women are still an inferior class.

I don't know. Call me stuck in the second wave, but I don't think it's so great that girls and women (or rather, the large companies that manufacture our clothing) are reclaiming pink. A real change with have come when a) men can feel comfortable being "feminine" as much as women are comfortable being "masculine" and b) eventually the current concepts of masculine and feminine have blurred to the point of being almost indistinguishable.

I realize that it seems completely counterintuitive that women should somehow need validation from men to prove that femininity is obsolete, but that's just it: it's just gender. I'm not looking to preserve it. Sex, for the most part, is undeniable. Women will always be women. Men will always be men. Adult men and women have some physical differences that make certain clothing more practical for one sex than for another, but guess what? When you're a kid, those differences are much fewer. Children's bodies are almost exactly the same until they hit puberty. Separate kinds of underpants should be pretty much all you need. The rest is all gender. It's noise. It's an empty signifier.

I've been thinking a lot about all of this recently, because it seems like a lot of people in my life are having babies, and I've been hearing a lot of, "It's a good thing/it's too bad _____ is having a boy/girl because ______." If it's not their first child, there's talk of hand-me-downs and whether or not they'll be useful.

Today, the comments on SouleMama's latest post said it all over again: multiple uses of the words 'sweet' and 'adorable', and lots of people either being grateful they have a girl so they can make sweet, adorable clothes, or wishing they had a girl for whom to make sweet, adorable clothes. (To be fair, Amanda Soule's sons have beautiful clothes, too, and they seem to love the domestic arts as well, which I think is great). But it left me thinking, boys (little, baby boys even!) can't be sweet, delicate and adorable?

Wouldn't it be great if there were just kids' clothes, and nobody had to buy a whole new wardrobe for an opposite-sex younger sibling? What a victory against consumer culture that would be!

The reason I say I'm becoming my mother is that gender in children's clothing has been one of her main research areas since before I was born (at this point, she could write a book...hmm). I guess I've learned to notice stuff like this.

Notice is one thing, practice is another. I've never had a baby and I don't fully know the questions gender can present. My stepdaughter came into my life at age four, with a full wardrobe and some preferences already in place. I'm interested in hearing about the experiences and thoughts of parents who have had small children, especially those who have had both boys and girls. What place does gender have in this 21st-century generation of kids?


Jo Paoletti said...

You write so well; do you mind if I plagiarize you?

maria said...

you created me; i think you can take a little credit.

Allie said...

This is so interesting!

A child I knew insisted on having pink patent leather shoes just like his big sister, because he LOVED his big sister so much. His mom got them for him, but made him take them off before his dad got home from work. I always thought that was so sad. He was 3 or 4 and he had shoes that made him feel like a big kid. Why did it matter that they were pink?

Howling Hill said...

When I was in college I noticed a lot of men wearing pink collared shirt (not polo). That never would've happened when I was younger because for guy to wear pink meant he was a f*g.

One clothing trend which irritates me is women wearing ties. This happens most in restaurants, especially in fancy restaurants. I always wonder why women are wearing ties in such establishments but men don't wear skirts.

Great post.

Kan said...

I've been thinking about this topic for years and am excited that you raised it. When I was pregnant with my first child, we did not find out the gender and received all manner of yellow and green items. Now that I'm deep into pink and purple with my baby girl, it has me thinking that it really doesn't matter so much when they're babies. Building both my children's self esteem is paramount for me as their mother, so I see clothes merely as a means to that end.

Mama Monster said...

Baby Monster's not that into pink but he LOVES purple- purple t-shirts, purple crocs. Big Girl Monster on the other hand is very anti-pink, purely on principle I think because I suspect she might actually like it as a color.

am7 said...

My mother went out of her way, when Bets and I were little, not only to avoid dressing us in "sweet little girl" (read: pink) outfits, but also to dress us in different colors from each other. (Okay, there is one very cute picture of the two of us in puffy pink dresses, but I think they were a gift.) So not only did she have to avoid pink, but she had to find two different ways to do it at the same time.

Lately we've been laughing about how she's a nurse and I'm a teacher -- the only two careers that have been open to women for ages -- but I've really grown to love the color pink. I know that your post mostly concerns the choices people can and do make for their children, but I really hope it's possible to divorce aesthetics from culture at least somewhat, as adults.

aphrodite said...

I have a fourteen month old son. Presently, his favourite sort of clothing (from the way he grabs things on racks at the shops, and doesn't want to let go!) is anything pink and glittery. I detest pink because of how anything "for women" seems to get slapped with it these days, but I love that he has his own tastes, as yet unaffected by the rest of the world.

I begged my family NOT to give us blue things when he was born, and it turned out he was a he. But they didn't listen - and half his wardrobe is blue, or worse, khaki. I can't imagine why, when there are so many amazing colours out there, you'd choose to dress your child in all shades of dirt.

Rambling Rachel said...

Interesting point--"women are still an inferior class." So sad.

I scoffed at pink growing up, likening it to weakness. I told my sister, who loved pink, that pink is for pigs. Nice, huh?

She wears pink now. And so do I.

But your post goes deeper than just pink. Thanks for writing.

1001 Petals said...

Soon after having my baby I accidentally invoked the drama llama as a result of commenting that a post on this baby community was sexist due to the assignment of specific colours to gender:

It was awful.

Rambling Rachel said...

This post continues to circulate the Internet. I just posted with your inspiration about pink. Not as deep and as cool as your post. But what can I say? :)

maria said...

thanks, rachel! i'm glad you liked it. i liked yours, too :)

Madame Meow said...

Very insightful post; thank you for that.

Just for the record, though, I will state that my 3-year old son actually wanted pink Dora girls' underpants. He thought they were super cool, and there really is no difference between girls' and boys' underpants (except that boys' underpants are actually made with nicer cotton and sturdier construction).

Anonymous said...

i think it is interesting that in asian & some european countries, pink is totally acceptable for either husband likes wearing pink, and he's a rather tough sailor in the US navy (physically fit, tattoos, etc.)

we've lived in southern italy and now are in southern japan; we have two young [outwardly male, inwardly who-knows-yet] boys and we don't mind if they want to wear pink! heck, my oldest son's yochien class colours have been dark pink, light pink & now red and i think it's greast that his favourite colour is pink & he likes to wear fairie costumes just as much as the knight costume my friend's mom bought him.

my baby wears whatever i can find at our base Navy Exchange & i wish it there were just a kids section and not girls or boys. i personally don't like cars, monkeys, dogs, etc., and that is all i can find if i don't want to dress my baby in solids all the time.

i hope my sons grow up to love colours, any and all colours, and know they are free to do what they want (arts, sports, etc.) and i will always encourage and love them!