The XX Factor

The Problem With Your Problem With Pink

A girl dressed as a princess

Future scientist

When my oldest son was 4, I took him to a princess-themed birthday party. The birthday girl was dressed in a pink tutu. Instead of pin the tail on the donkey, the kids played pin the tiara on the princess. And everything from the decorations to the cupcakes to the gift bags was pink. My son was not into it. The birthday girl’s mother was also not into it—or, at least, she felt like she shouldn’t be. Even though the mom organized the entire princess extravaganza—she’s the one who set out the pink plates and put up the pink streamers and spread on the pink icing—she spent much of the party rolling her eyes, apologizing about all the princess stuff, and saying things like, “The pink thing, I know—it’s crazy!”

What is it with you moms of girls? I have never met a single one of you who isn’t tortured about pink and princesses. It is a given that if you are a mildly feminist mother (or father, but more mother), you are going to do everything within your power to steer your daughters away from anything that has the stink of “girly” on it. I shudder to think how many pink ruffled onesies, gifts from less enlightened relatives and sexist friends, have gone unworn because America’s feminist mothers could not stand to dress their 3-week-olds in the color of oppression.

This reflexive disgust has always struck me as some weird sort of female self-loathing, but I have never been able to articulate why as well as Yael Kohen did earlier this week in her New York piece, “What’s the Problem With Pink, Anyway?” She writes in response to an earlier New York Times story about the growing popularity of pink toy weapons, like the Nerf Rebelle Pink Crush Blaster dart gun and Heartbreaker crossbow, in which child psychologist Sharon Lamb is quoted as approving of the concept of weapons for girls, but says, “What I don’t like is the stereotyped girlifying of this. Do they have to be in pink?” Says Kohen:

Well, no: Of course they don’t “have to” be pink. But when we treat pink — and the girls who like it — with the condescension that question implies, what are we really saying? … Today the color reads instantly as feminine, and carries all kinds of baggage about what it means to be feminine in a particular way — to be girly.

And what’s wrong with girly, anyway? Rolling our eyes at pink feels like another way of treating female culture on the whole as a niche interest, somehow secondary to male culture — a.k.a. the mainstream. And when it comes to our toys there’s an implicit message that the pink doodads are only second best to the tough dude versions in black, camouflage, and blue. (A boy dressing up like Iron Man, a narcissistic arms mogul turned superhero, won’t be seen as nearly as silly as a girl wearing a Queen Elsa costume, even though they play to the same fantasy impulses). If we’ve made pink the most visible representation of girl culture, and also treat it as a symbol of frivolity, then we’re unwittingly telling girls (and boys) that the girl world isn’t important.

It’s true. I’ve been trying for years to get my son to like princesses, not because I care about princesses, but because I don’t want him to think that the things girls in his class like are lame. So far, it has been a losing battle. And no wonder! Most of the adults around him also think that the stuff that girls like is lame. (Unless the girl likes superheroes or cars, which plenty do—then the child, and the parent, are praised for achieving gender nonconformity.) But I have seen no evidence that the girls in our neighborhood who like Spider-Man are cooler than the girls in our neighborhood who like Sofia the First.

“No one assumes that boys who grow up playing with Nerf guns believe they’ll grow up to be space-soldiers or cowboys,” Kohen writes. “Why not grant the girls who want all-pink-all-the-time the same sort of imaginative freedom? We shouldn’t assume we know what form their ambitions will take, or what they might be learning with their Rebelles.”

This is so smart. Why is it any likelier that your daughter is going to end up thinking that a prince will save her than it is that my son will think he should kill bad guys? Why is one of those fantasies considered harmless and the other damaging?

The color pink, Kohen writes, “carries all kinds of baggage,” but pink-hating mothers are at least partly to blame for giving that baggage so much weight—for saying that the pink crossbow is lame because it’s pink. “Maybe it’s because I equate sparkles and precious pink princess stuff and painted fingernails and tiaras with something less smart, less dynamic, less interesting, less strong,” my friend Adina told me when I asked her why she doesn’t want her girls to like pink. “I know this isn’t true, though, and honestly, I watch them get dirty and roughhouse while wearing pink tights (they insist!), and I realize they contain multitudes, and I need to chill out.”

“Chill out” is very good advice. The pink phase will pass like anything else, and if it doesn’t, well, then, you have raised a human being who really likes pink. Which is the same as raising a human being who really likes green. The meaning of the color is what we make it mean. By steering our daughters away from the pink aisle to subvert dangerous gender norms, we’re reinforcing them.