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Friday, August 8, 2014

Growing good men and competent women, part 1: The problem with pink and blue

I've lived in rural areas for around twenty years now, in two different areas which were down dirt roads and a long way from town. And you know, I noticed something about the people around me in both places.

There were lots of single, deeply unhappy men.

Many of those men had serious substance abuse problems; I wasn't surprised they were alone. I wondered if it was the chicken or the egg. Were these men alone because of the substance abuse, or was the substance abuse their solace to drown their loneliness?

I have no answers for that. But it did make me think about how we, as parents, can try to grow our boys into happy men- men who won't find themselves alone and looking at life through the amber distortion of a beer bottle.

Meanwhile, I'm a member of some all-female Facebook groups. I notice just how many women are miserably single, or deeply unhappy in their relationships. They're angry, bitter, hurt, disappointed. They, too, often comfort themselves with alcohol.

Or shopping.

Or food.

What on earth are we doing wrong here? How can we grow our little girls into women who feel in charge of their own lives rather than crushed, who have realistic expectations of men, who don't keep shooting their own happiness in the foot?

This is a huge and complex subject. But let's just tease out one thread at a time. First of all, let's have a look at the pink and blue issue, because I honestly believe it has an impact.


There are whole websites devoted to fighting the segregation of children's toys along colour-coded gender lines. It's grown like a cancer until nearly every toy retailer is doing it. A pink aisle of Barbies, tutus and home wares for the girls. A blue aisle of vehicles, weapons and action figures for the boys. The toy manufacturers have gone crazy in the same way; even Lego has started to put a wedge between the sexes, designing beauty spas in pink (with all female figures) and building sets in blue (with not a girl in sight).

And many, many parents- and retailers- believe that this is just fine. After all, the kids love it! All the girls seem to love bright pink. Boys generally shy away from pink and are happy with blue. Surely there's a natural preference at work there. Boys and girls ARE different. They like different things. So what's the problem?

I've seen comment threads on Facebook implode over this very issue.

For me- well, I don't like colour-coding toys by gender. One reason is that I believe it works against growing good men who treat women well, and competent women who have realistic expectations.

Do you think I'm pulling a long bow here? Bear with me.


When adults assign a colour to a gender, they make a statement which goes a lot further than they realise. I think it all starts with clothes. Right back before the child is born, many friends and relatives are wanting to know the sex of the child so they know whether to buy pink or blue for the baby.

This pink-blue dichotomy is not some law of nature established at the beginning of time, though some would have you believe so. 21st century Western society gives smiling approval to pink clothes for girls because, in this century, we happen to think that's sweet and feminine. If you do your research, you'll find that red/pink used to be associated with male power, while blue was associated with femininity- think of the Virgin Mary- so it's simply a modern FASHION. Nothing more.

But the modern association of these colours with gender, and our approval or disapproval of their use based on the sex of the child, creates a certain dynamic in that child's head. Pink becomes GOOD, if you're a girl.

But put pink on a boy, and certain types of men (and some women) will rail and stamp and make scathing ignorant comments about the child's sexuality. (Please note: you cannot change a child's sexuality by dressing them in a different colour. That is a scientific fact.) Pink becomes BAD, if you're a boy.

It's all about pink. Girls don't get insulted for wearing blue, right? It actually starts with an ignorant adult prejudice which we teach to children.


And then money enters the equation. Toy manufacturers make a certain sort of toy in a certain colour in response to sales figures. They are profiting from our prejudice, people!

Yes, it's true that many girls gravitate towards dolls and many boys get obsessed with vehicles, but a lot of that is taught (we model gender roles every day). And not all children conform to those preferences, and most children like at least to dabble in something different if there's no adult pressure on them to play a certain way. We have taught girls to seek pink, and boys to avoid it- and once you hook a gendered colour to a certain type of toy, you cut some children off at the knees and you discourage experimentation and exploration in all the others.

By allowing and approving this segregation, we also create approval for a certain type of peer pressure and bullying. Even if a boy is interested in cooking- and face it, the majority of successful chefs are male- while cookery toys are only manufactured in pink, they'll shy away from them. If adults make fun of them for even entering the pink girls' aisle of a toy shop, if other little boys jeer at them for owning a pink stove, what does that do to the inside of their heads?

Those colours are the ultimate form of labelling (and I use that word in its most pejorative sense). Even a child understands it straight away.

And do we really think it grows good men if boys end up unable to cook, groom themselves, sew on a button or clean their own house, simply because their childhood taught them that those were pink tasks, and pink tasks are for girls? Really?

Creating domestically hopeless men with highly gendered expectations doesn't cut it any more. Not in this century. If you want your son to find a happy, stable relationship in adulthood, if you don't want him thrown out on his ear like the single men in my neighbourhood, you'd better be growing a good, balanced man right from the start.

Ask my son. His interest in the kitchen was encouraged, he was given real tools instead of pink or blue gendered toys, and he swears to this day that his ability to cook is one of the things that women find most attractive about him.

And it cuts both ways. If a girl is jeered at for wanting to play with a truck or a car, is it any wonder she loses interest? Is it fair to then make fun of her for not understanding how her vehicle works as an adult, for forgetting to top up the oil or check the tyre pressure? Is it fair to berate her for being fixated on shopping and shoes and being beautiful, when we taught her ourselves that those were cute, pink things to do?

We create helpless, self-involved women too. We create those girls who go looking for a man with a shopping list in their head. Maybe we never asked them to do anything technical, or dirty, or heavy- not because they weren't capable, but because those are blue things. We left them with expectations that they could just do all the pink things, and everyone would love them for it, and men would do the dirty work.

That's not the real world. If you want your little girl to grow up strong and independent and not just waiting for a handsome rich man to sweep her off her feet, you'd better be growing a competent woman with her feet on the ground right from the start.

Ask me. I watch the look in men's eyes when I pick up the block splitter and start taking the bark off a felled tree to use in our building extension. That look is respect- respect for my competence and confidence. I was never told I couldn't do something because it was a boys' domain- never. I played with dolls, sure, but I also went out in the bush and learned a whole lot of bushcraft at my father's knee. Axes and block splitters aren't pink or blue. They're just tools for life in the bush.

And that's it, isn't it? Life isn't divided into pink and blue, and to try to teach children that it IS is disrespectful and misleading. Let's not teach our children prejudice and gender expectation, even if that was what was taught to us. Let's not teach them they have to fit into a colour code created by fashion and big business.

Let's give them a chance to become complete, good and competent beings in themselves. Then they at least stand a chance of being able to walk side by side with a life partner one day, if that's what they want. An adult who knows who they are, who knows they are capable and competent with or without a partner, is the most attractive person out there. Don't you want that for your child?


  1. Yes I need to teach my sons to do 'pink tasks' in the future, and get better at doing 'blue tasks' myself. My oldest hasn't yet noticed or opted-in to the colour culture, toys and items of either colour are acceptable. It will be interesting to find out if he resists or adopts the norm once he realises that pink is allocated to the girls.
    But he does already notice the gender division of labour in our home (traditional), and he's not impressed; declaring that when he's a daddy, he'll stay at home with the children and the mummy will go out to work. So I'll need to get better at teaching those housework 'pink' tasks, if his ambition is to be a SAHF. If I had a girl I know I would have already let her play at baking and vacuuming and sweeping, while with boys I avoid it, with excuses too messy, too noisy, it's faster to do it myself...

    Anyway, these pictures, if you haven't already seen them, will widen your eyes and slightly haunt.

    1. Yes, I've seen some photos like that. Very overwhelming. It does take a lot of effort to overcome our own childhood norms! Good on you for trying to buck the system. :)

  2. Damn straight Annie. And you are able to put it much more eloquently than I am. Another point I would make is that the way we influence our children with such segregation spreads like wildfire. Children learn through socialising as well as by what they see and hear. If a child has been trained (and I use that term deliberately) to believe that certain things in life should be more attributed to one gender or the other then you can be certain that they will impart that message on their peers, both through their actions & also by the words and how they communicate them.

    So for young children there doesn't even need to be an excess of stereotyping in their home environment when they are subjected to it throughout their social interactions. So when one child is taught to discriminate they pay that forward to those around them and unless those other children's families actively work to counter such words and deeds the venom will spread.

    1. So very true! Peer pressure is so influential. It doesn't take long for the whole thing to snowball.

  3. I like pink. I wear pink shirts. I do all the domestic chores at home (including laundry and caring for all outside duties), grocery shopping except cooking (maybe once a week) because I don't like it. My wife works outside the home and I don't have many expectations except cooking (I do love her cooking). The little girl likes pink. I mess with her by giving her a blue car plate and I give boy the pink plate (or pink cup). She knows they are just colors. She likes spiderman so I bought her a spiderman lunch box. She pretends to be spiderman or spiderwoman as I swing her on one arm (am in trouble for this already!). My older son loves cooking, can do laundry, good at grocery shopping, and loves MMA. He wasn't good at manual work like mowing the lawn. My older daughter was good at outside yard work, putting things together (like furniture) and disliked "girly" things. Yes, am traditional in many respects (I don't like sports), but we teach our girls and boys to be self-reliant.

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