More Spice

I’m pleased to announce that the anthology Courts of the Fey, in which my

Courts of the Fey

story “Hunting the Unicorn” appears, is now out.  (For more about this story, see WW 2-16-11, “Breaking Off, Coming Back.”)  The cover isn’t exactly to my taste – a bit too soft and Tinkerbell.  Now that I think about it, that actually ties into what I want to wander on about today.

Although I didn’t indulge in Black Friday shopping, as an anthropological exercise, I did go through the advertisements.  It’s always interesting to see what marketers are trying to tell us is essential.

Even more interesting to me is what advertisements tell us about how our culture views itself.  Today I want to wander on about something that has been a peeve of mine since I myself was a little girl: What the toys sold to little girls tell little girls about their expectations for themselves.

First of all, there is the prevalence of pink. I’ve known very few little girls who select pink as their favorite color.  Purple usually comes first, followed by the brighter shades of blue and green.  Yes.  There are girls who like pink, but they are usually fair-haired and look good in it.  They should like pink.  Moreover, they should be free to like pink.

However, the fact that little blond girls look good in pink is no reason for so many of the toys marketed to young girls to be colored pink.  Is this any reason that even the backdrops for advertisements for girl’s toys are often pink – even if the toy itself is not?

Leading the trend for promoting pink is Barbie.  Mattel has been suffering reduced sales figures for these dolls.  They’ve also been horrified to find that girls outgrow their Barbies at younger and younger ages.  Could this have anything to do with the pink?  One ad shows an entire three-story townhouse, all in pink: walls, furnishings, floors, and all.  There’s a little white and purple, true, but only as accents.

Okay.  Barbie’s a blonde, but I don’t know a single blonde of my acquaintance who would decorate all in pink.  Maybe if Barbie didn’t look like a baby toy, little girls would be more interested in staying with her.

Even where toys for girls show some interest in activity, the message is different for boys and girls.  In the Target ad, the boy’s bike is red and black with a carry basket.  The girl’s bike is pinky-lavender and white (with white tires).  It has streamers on the handle bars and is provided with a baby seat.  Let me tell you, this is one former little girl who would have begged for the boy’s bike.  It says action and adventure.  The girl’s bike says “plug up the leg holes in the basket if you want to use it to carry anything other than baby dolls.”

Glancing through other advertisements, I see two different ride-on vehicles presented in pink for girls.  One is even called the “Pinkalicious” and is pink right down to the tires.  Gee, those tires are going to look good once they’ve been ridden on outside a time or two.  Maybe that’s part of the message.  Little girls should only ride their toys inside on carpet to keep the pink or white tires clean.

In contrast, all the vehicles for little boys are done in what you might call “real” vehicle shades.  Oh, and not a single pink (or even baby blue) tire in the lot.  These are road ripping vehicles, steeds of adventure and excitement.

This brings to mind the old rhyme about what are little girls made of: “sugar and spice and everything nice.”  Seems to me, the message little girls are getting through their toys is all sugar, no spice, unless maybe the spice is weak vanilla.  This continues until they reach the age when they are supposed to dress provocatively and play with dolls that look like hookers, but I’ll save that topic for another time.

I think most of you have gathered by now that I don’t have any kids, so you might be thinking “What does she know about little girls?”  Well, frankly, quite a bit.  For one, I’m an aunt.  I have two nieces, both of whom are wonderful, both of whom are definitely more spice than sugar.

This year for Christmas, I’m making one niece her “grown-up” stocking.  (This

Stocking: Top Panel

is a family tradition started by my mom.)  When I asked what Rebecca wanted on top of her stocking (these parts are chosen by the recipient), her response was prompt: “Wolves and horses.”

Now Rebecca is far from the hopeless tomboy her aunt was.  She likes dressing up and has had a distinct fashion sense since she was small.  At age ten, she’s already showing an interest in jewelry.  But she’s nonetheless full of spark and sparkle.  So – as you can see from the attached picture – I figured out how to do wolves and horses for her.

And not in pink.

I’m hoping there are toys out there that say “spice” and not just sugar.  Maybe you can recommend a few that are fun and not transparently educational.  And I’m wondering, how do the boys feel about “frogs and snails and puppy dog tails”?


9 Responses to “More Spice”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I don’t know. I’ve never liked boxes, in any category. Who says girls should live in pink while boys make a mess all the time? I sure wasn’t a “typical” boy. I never played in the mud or tossed around lizards or any of that stuff. Cowboy? Not really. I preferred the action-adventure type stuff. The hero fighting evil where ever I can find it.

    Although it is funny to note: My mom dose this soldier’s angels thing where she sends gift packs to soldiers overseas. One female soldier, I kid you not, did ask for PINK. She almost didn’t care, so long as it was pink. I can only imagine the scene in her barracks when she pulled out the cameo-pink fleece blanket we sent her. I pity the jock that teased her about it.

    I guess exceptions do apply sometimes.

    Still, I’ve never liked to be described. I definitely don’t like what the world tries to say is what I want. I doubt kids are that different. I’m sure more than a few kids get a gift hearing “Here son, they say every kid wants this.” He opens a deck of Yugioh cards, and just glares at his dad thinking, “yeah, sure. Did you miss the time I pointed excitedly at the Beyblade stuff last month?” If we could predict what “everyone” wants that easily, humans would be a pretty boring bunch.

    As for a gift, I understand the vast majority of kids really do enjoy those silly bandz (or whatever they’re called) bracelets. I could be wrong, but it’s the best I’ve got. 😀

  2. Peter Says:

    Of course this can go both ways. A good friend of mine likes pink – it goes well with my friend’s colouring, and my friend finds the colour soothing, so has a fair amount of pick in the home.

    Did I mention he’s a straight man? High school was a living hell, and even as an adult confusion still abounds.

  3. heteromeles Says:

    A couple of notes. First, I’d point out the latest in Wired’s “Artifacts of the Future” contest, at Would it be good if Mattel actually made this doll?

    Second, I finally came to the conclusion that pink is for programming. Many designers use pink as a code for feminine, whether its in the grocery store or elsewhere, and I figure that the emphasis on pink girl’s toys was simply (and probably unconsciously) designed to condition everyone that pink was for girls. Blue for boys doesn’t work as a code, because so many people wear blue jeans, and even the sky’s blue (at least occasionally). Then again, this plays into the subconscious programming of “masculine=normal,” which is equally problematic.

    Finally, my mom the engineer hates pink with an unholy passion. I think she takes it a bit too far, but considering she was one of the only two women in the engineering school when she was there, I do understand where she’s coming from.

  4. John C Says:

    Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy News has been doing what he calls “gender critiques” of various catalogs by mass-market retailers.

    The short version is that only Toys-R-Us approaches anything like a modern sensibility about gender and toys. In most of the catalogs, boys were more prominently featured, and girls, when in the photos, generally watched the boys play. Toys-R-Us had a girl playing with LEGOs (best toy ever?) and the boy watching.

    Here’s a link to the final entry, on Toys-R-Us, which includes links to his previous articles in the series:

    Looking through all this, I realize I was very fortunate to be raised a male in a matriarchy, and have called my mother to thank her.

  5. Dominique Says:

    I am not sure how I feel about this subject. I just wonder if we are pushing our feelings about these gender stereotypes onto little girls. I wonder if you asked little girls if they would prefer the “boy” bike or the “girl” bike which they would actually choose. I think think that most would choose the girl bike at that age. These feelings seem to change as we age. (mind you, I am sure this generality fails in a certain minority) I think at a young age we are still figuring out what gender means, watching our parents and looking to society to figure out what it means to be a “boy or a girl”. And the extremes work for kids. Later in life is when we seem to bend these rules with the development of self.

  6. Sean Says:

    I am the proud father of three girls and two boys. Two of the girls are older, and while not twins are fairly close in age. My youngest is a girl. My wife is not crazy about pink, though she does were it occasionally. We have Barbies, but they are usually not played with, taken out maybe once a month. Likewise I have lots of “play” kitchen items in my house. When they were younger the girls would play with them, but now they are used only about once a month by youngest son and youngest daughter. All my children prefer to come help make real food, rather than play at pretend food.

    My 2nd oldest, a girl expressed a prefernce for purple when she was younger, but now perfers pink. Usually a “delicate” flower around strangers, she is the one most likely to engage in full contact sports with her brothers. She also loves fairies but likes the softer “tinkerbell” and girly type of fairies over other depictions. She self identifies with Tigers (and she hasn’t even read the breaking the wall series yet).
    The baby (age 3) loves little ponies and dolls, yet also insists on participarting in fencing and mock karate with her brothers. She will also spend hours outside digging holes, chasing the cats and playing in the mud. Both of them prefer to wear dresses over pants even while climbing trees and wrestling. She also prefers purple over pink, but only by a slight margin. She believes she is a ladybug, however since she was a baby that is what her mother called her, and the rest of us enforce that animal identification.
    The oldest girl once loved pink, She now prefers reds and blacks. One of the toys she expressed the most interest in when she was younger was Thomas the Tank Engine. She now is big into Littlest Pet Shop yet looks with envy on all of her siblings Legos. Since she was little I called her my “little rabbit” and she still humors me this way, though her interests in animals is wide and varied.

    Of my sons, the oldest is the ‘stereotypical’ boy prefering “boy” toys – superheros, star wars, baseball, football, swords, guns, cars, robots, etc.. He oscilates between self identifing as a monkey and an elephant. My youngest son plays the same amount of time with “boy” toys as with “girl” toys (the later assuming his sisters will let him). He also prefers yellow and pink over the traditional “boy” colors. My youngest also took over his sister’s “girl” bike, though I think it was more the case of him wanting the bike and her no longer interested in bikes. He prefers to be called a koala bear, though often is more like a rhinocerous or a bull in a china shop.

    My biggest concern in not in ‘enforcing” their gender roles, but rather making sure they have active imaginations and spend more time outside and less in front of the TV or Computer. That and in making sure they don’t do each other in.

  7. Alan Robson Says:

    I suspect it’s parental influence, at least in the early stages. If the children don’t know they are supposed to like pink (or whatever) they probably won’t gravitate towards it naturally. But if there is reinforcement in that direction then they’ll probably follow it. I have a small friend called Ashleigh who is besotted with pink, almost certainly for just that reason.

    My godson Jamie is 8 and his sister Kathy is 4. They both like doing boy things and girl things and make no real distinction between them. Last night they both decided it might be fun to dismantle some old computer equipment that their father had lying around so he dug out his tool box, supplied them with screwdrivers and hammers, and left them to it. Both of them enjoyed themselves hugely. Jamie managed to stick a screwdriver into his hand, but that wasn’t unexpected.

    Their parents try very hard not to follow gender stereotypes with them. But if we are talking nature versus nurture there does seem to come a time when nature simply can’t be bypassed. It is quite noticable that Jamie’s dolls tend to fight in armies and travel on spaceships whereas Kathy’s are much more likely to have a tea party.

    Jane — you are right about purple. Robin never outgrew purple. Even today it is by far her favourite colour.


  8. Paul Says:

    At least things have changed to the point where girls don’t *have* to choose from the girly stuff. A woman I know who is an SF fan still gets angry over the school librarian who told her, when she tried to check out SF novels, those were “boys’ books.” And there was a time when workplaces forbade women to wear pantsuits or slacks! Now you see more of those than dresses. We’re getting there, but one can’t help but be impatient at times.

  9. janelindskold Says:

    I loved these comments and I really would love to learn more.

    It’s neat to see how many men had thoughtful responses. Many women believe that men don’t care about these things. I’ve always believed otherwise and am thrilled to see I’m right!

    Dominique, though, was very brave to stand up for the view that some girls are just girly.

    I didn’t want to mention this in the main piece, but my good buddy Chip is another guy who insists on his right to wear pink. He’s heterosexual, but fair-skinned and fair-haired. It looks good on him.

    Really, to have equality, it must go both ways.

    As Nicholas noted, boxes that people feel they must fit into are the real problem.

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