Let me be clear: there is no problem with the color pink per se. It's a great color! Pink lights are extremely flattering, pink flamingos are stunning and pink can't be beat in a set of highlighters.
But when it comes to the pink craze for girls? Now we have a problem. As currently used in the marketing of everything from clothing to tools, pink is no longer simply a color -- it is the foundation of a constrained concept of femininity.
Gender has become a key area of study and discussion in a myriad of arenas. In November, academics and professionals on the forefront of thought on gender issues shared their experiences and research at a day of panel discussions called "Gender Rules; Conversations About Access, Outcome, and Equality." The conversation, held on Yale University's campus, was stimulating and thoughtful. There was one question posed during a Q&A, however, that showed how far we still have to go when coming to grips with gender.
A CEO of a toy company whose mission was to encourage girls in STEM told the panel that some of her products were pink and she'd gotten push back from some parents. She said she happened to like pink and her question was simply: What is wrong with pink?
Laughter followed from panel and audience members alike. Two panelists light-heartedly addressed her question with answers along the lines of: "Nothing," and "Pink is good for men too." More laughter.
Now, in a limited time the panelists had raised many thought-provoking ideas grounded in their areas of research and expertise, and the fact is, levity when dealing with these complex subjects can be helpful in diffusing discomfort. Still, this laughed-off query left me with two (probably unintentional) messages: 1) This is not an important question, and 2) there is nothing wrong with pink.
While, as I stated initially, we can probably all agree that there is nothing innately wrong with the color pink, and also agree that it's a perfectly good color for men as well, ultimately this question was trivialized, when it's actually tied to the very issues this panel was addressing -- struggles women face solely due to their sex.
Personally (as a parent) and professionally (as a filmmaker currently working on projects dealing with gender issues), I believe this question is of utmost importance. People often cite examples of girls growing out of an obsession with pink as a reason not to worry about the ubiquity of pink for all things girl. But these anecdotes mean little to me, because by the time our girls grow out of pink, deep damage has already been done. I'll explain.
You don't need an advanced education to see that all of the girls' products are in a pink pastel palette, while the boys' toy colors are as varied as the rainbow. Girls either have to fit themselves into the color-diverse "boys" world, or they are stuck in a monochromatic environment.
My second problem with the marketing of pink toys to girls has to do with a topic brought up several times during the conference: the idea of "effortless perfection." This is a phrase from a 2003 Duke University study describing a phenomenon that one of the panelists summarized as: the internalized feeling that female undergrads are supposed to excel academically while looking "hot."
Surely there are many reasons young women feel this pressure. And I'd argue that this same phenomenon continues into married life -- many women feel pressure to pursue their paying careers, while still "effortlessly" maintaining the unpaid "traditional" careers of childcare provider and CEO of the home. I would submit that these pressures are first actively communicated to girls during their childhood years with pink baseball helmets, pink Disney swords and pink science toys. It's as if we're constantly telling our girls: "Sure, you can do the things boys do, as long as you maintain your femininity with the help of a bold pink."
But the biggest problem with pink is segregation. We want women to compete with men in the marketplace, but we separate them out as children. I understand that there is a massive impetus for businesses to split the genders -- instead of handing down toys from one's son to one's daughter, businesses are marketing the need to buy new, "gender appropriate" (a.k.a. generally pink) toys for one's daughter. But I got the sense from this toy CEO, that she was not solely motivated by finances, but genuinely interested in encouraging girls. So here is my simple series of questions for her -- Why do you think a toy needs to be pink for a girl to play with it? Have you considered incorporating -- instead of pink -- an inclusive marketing plan -- for instance, putting pictures of girls and boys playing with the toy on the box? Using boys and girls in TV ads? Using female voices in ads? Is your toy interesting enough that, if the toy wasn't pink, a boy would choose to play with it? If so, why are you eliminating half your potential sales? If not, why are you marketing a subpar toy to girls?
This toy CEO, with the best of intentions, is marketing too small a slice of science to girls -- the pink slice. And boys, because of the other side of these social pressures, won't, as a rule, play with that slice. So girls and boys are segregated by color. And this segregation starts girls on a path to inequality in more substantive ways in later years.
Boys grow up with a wealth of options, while girls get only a very small section of the color spectrum. Even though our girls may have grown out of pink by high school or college, they have internalized the need to maintain femininity in what they do -- the need that drives them to get up extra early to attain effortless perfection, while their male counterparts feel no need to do so. And then in adulthood, women are again pressured to try to do it all, or chose between career or family, or feel guilty about this or that, or..., while men are again offered multiple options.
Had I been on the panel, I would have urged that CEO to stop gendering her toys. I would have said: You are a toy maker. Make a your toys for all KIDS.
Only then will our children -- boys and girls -- have the chance to develop themselves fully, with a variety of options and palettes, and to live in a world where play is not only color-filled, but also a place where all things are possible.