Think Pink… For Gender Stereotypes

Sam Robinson

29 April 2021

Are they a boy? Are they a girl? Does it matter?

“Oh what a pretty little girl! Beautiful blue eyes, and such gorgeous long lashes!”

I was at the park recently, and another mum was showering my 10 month old baby with compliments. I beamed with pride. Yes, I thought. My baby is pretty, with beautiful eyes, and gorgeous long lashes. 

“When did she start to walk?” The mum continued.

“Um, well, it’s been about two weeks I think.” I answered, chuckling a little sheepishly. “And uh.. ‘she’ is actually a ‘he!’”

“Oh my mistake,” the mum replied. “That used to happen whenever my little boy was wearing the slightest bit of pink, people just immediately assumed he was a girl”.

I looked at my baby’s outfit of animal print trainers, blue pants, grey cardigan and…light pink shirt.

Interesting, I thought. He was also wearing blue pants. Why not make the immediate assumption that wearing the slightest bit of blue made him a boy? To be honest, when I bought the ‘pink’ shirt for my son, it was such a pale shade of salmon that it didn’t even occur to me that I was making a gendered choice. I bought it online, and under the fluorescent glare of my phone screen, thought it almost looked white. It had the words ‘Baby Bear’ written on it, underlined by one of those little hipster arrow symbols. I just thought it was cute. 

I know there’s nothing wrong with people thinking my baby is a girl, of course. He’s just a baby, he doesn’t care. But still, his pants were a fairly unambiguous shade of sky blue. However that clearly wasn’t enough to cancel out the obviously girly connotations of wearing a very lightly salmon shaded t-shirt under a grey cardigan.

I think this is because we don’t think twice about putting little girls in blue. We don’t mind if people think of little girls as being ‘boisterous’, or ‘tomboys’. In fact it’s kind of a compliment, a label people will proudly  wear for their female children. Putting a little boy in pink, or calling him ‘girly’, however, seems to be an different matter entirely. I mean, when was the last time you heard a grown man proudly declare, “Oh, I was such a tomgirl growing up!”

One of my favourite quotes about parenting comes from feminist activist Gloria Steinem, who said “We’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons.. but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

I believe this is because many of us still subconsciously equate femininity with weakness, frivolity, or being ‘lesser than’ the masculine. To be labelled as a ‘girly’ boy seems to still be loaded with grievous contempt. To label girls as being ‘boyish’ is not generally weaponised to the same extent. For example, we will praise a father regardless of whether he plays catch or tea parties with his daughters, but would the reaction be the same if a man was playing tea parties with their son? Or painted their nails, or dressed up as fairies?

Feminism has come a long way in that we’ve worked hard to open up the world of possibilities for what little girls can be interested in and pursue. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s come at the expense of shaming ‘feminine’ culture, and cemented our little boys even further in a rigid box of gender expression.

For example, I remember as a teenager when the singer P!nk released the video clip for her song Stupid Girls. The end of the music video clip featured a young girl being given the choice of either playing with a pink dollhouse or going outside to play football. Being the feminist hero of the clip, she chose football of course, because she didn’t want to be like one of those ‘stupid girls’ who like pink! I couldn’t help noting the irony of the artist’s message that pink and stereotypically ‘girly’ things were silly and shameful, even though she named herself after that same colour. 

On an unrelated note, check this gorgeous mum and baby

As a proudly feminist mum, I don’t believe in pink shaming, for girls OR boys. Gender equality is not going to be achieved by putting down, or making one colour seem ‘less than’ another. Putting rigid gender labels on a colour really limits how people can express themselves. And yet we do this labelling and boxing-in even before a child is born, the popularity of gender reveal parties being one example (or as writer Clementine Ford more accurately calls them, ‘genital reveals’). 

A simple google search reveals pretty quickly that all this ‘blue for boys, pink for girls’ stuff is just pure nonsense anyway. Before the advent of mass industrial textile dyes, people almost universally put their babies (regardless of sex) in white smock dresses. There were no disposable nappies, so for ease of regularly changing cloth nappies, not to mention bleaching out all manner of baby bodily fluids, white cotton was the obvious fabric of choice. Associating babies’ sex with colour didn’t become a thing until after the Victorian era. In fact, in 1918, the trade magazine Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department wrote, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, blue for the girls”. Some theories suggest that this is because in Western Christian iconography the Virgin Mary has been traditionally painted in blue – therefore associating the colour with femininity – whereas pink, being a shade of red, was seen as a more ‘masculine’ choice.

For whatever reason (the flippant whims of fashion, one might suppose), this colour preference flipped during the post WWII baby boom and era of US commercial expansion, when clever marketers realised that parents would buy an entirely new set of toys and clothing in the appropriately gendered style marketed for each child of a different sex. 

So there you go. Blue for boys and pink for girls is an imaginary concept created by advertisers to make parents buy a bunch of stuff they probably don’t need.

So why let what’s between someone’s legs dictate what colours they should wear? A colour is just a colour, and truly, when a baby is wearing a nappy, you really can’t tell if they’re a boy or a girl. To be truly gender inclusive, we should celebrate all colours in the rainbow, regardless of the assigned sex of the person wearing them. And perhaps, refer to babies we haven’t met in gender neutral terms, or at the very least, not make assumptions about their sex organs based on the colour of their t-shirt.

A few days after my conversation with the mum in the park, I was online shopping for my son again. A pair of track pants caught my eye. They were decorated with a sweet print of frolicking rabbits on a background of a gorgeous shade of dark cherry pink. My finger hovered over the ‘Buy Now’ button. Next to the price, was written the label ‘Girl’s Tracksuit Pants’. 

I bought them anyway.

N.B. The above references to P!nk are in no way a diss on her or her artistic expression, I think she’s fabulous in many ways! I just think it will be a long time before we hear a male artist of the same calibre singing “I don’t wanna be a stupid boy”, and making fun of other boys who like sports & the colour blue in the same way.

Girls’ Locker Room Talk: art, articles and entertainment by women, for women (and everyone else)

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