It’s pink, it’s sparkly, it’s princess, it’s fairies, it’s all for girls. From board games to clothing, shoes, computer games, school accessories, lunch boxes, and even books, children’s products are more gender specific than ever before and there seems to be nothing that cannot be given the pink treatment.
But I hate this trend. And my sister and I wanted to do something about it. Our campaign Pinkstinks challenges what we call the ‘culture of pink’ which invades girls’ lives as they grow up. We are two mums from South London. Not experts or psychologists or educationalists. We’re just two ordinary mums. We are twins as well. One of us has two daughters and the other two sons. So we got to thinking about why our experiences as parents were so starkly different. My house was full of pink sparkles and my sister’s with dinosaurs and action toys.
Out of this our campaign was born.
We’ve kicked up a bit of a stink in the last year or so. Our first targeted campaign focused on the Early Learning Centre. A high street retailer which stocks an amazing range of pink, plastic toys aimed at girls which firmly tell them that being pretty and aspiring to be a princess is what being a girl is all about. The campaign caused rather a stir. We ended up in the printed press across the World – 43 countries at the last count. We found ourselves on the Breakfast TV sofa, the tabloids had a field day on it (and us) and we received hate mail! Yes. Hate mail!
But we were also inundated with emails of support from parents, teachers, grandparents, experts and children themselves. At the very least we knew we had touched a nerve and hit on something which – whether you agree with us or not – was clearly an issue which people recognised and had an opinion on. Once the dust had settled, and we had recovered from all this, we had some time to examine why on earth we had provoked such a strong reaction.
We maintain that while the pink phase may seem to be harmless and innocent, it’s the messages that girls are receiving which can have long-term effects. Because these messages tell girls that being a girl is about being passive and pretty. And while of course there is a ‘choice’ – this choice is an illusion. The signposts which the majority of retailers and brands use tell girls what is for them in no uncertain terms. It’s clearly labelled and packaged for them. It shouts, “Girls! This is for you – this is yours”. And it creates a culture which reinforces these messages at every turn.
And it’s not just girls who feel the impact of this. Boys are not immune to these messages either. They too are assigned their roles and characteristics by marketers from the moment they are born as each of the sexes learns not only how they should behave but also how they should see each other. The cumulative effect of this messaging is that girls and boys are segregated in their play and typecast as little horrors, divas, shopoholics, monsters, princesses or monkeys. And this is taken with them into later life.
Even a trip to the bookshop these days involves navigating through shelves which are pinkified and fluffy. Row upon row of books all aimed squarely at girls and featuring an endless supply of stories about fairies whose ‘adventures’ involve dressing up, chasing stardom and shopping. Yes, of course shopping. Now on the face of it this is innocuous and harmless. Pure innocent fun. But it’s sad that this type of marketing has seeped onto the bookshelves because it diverts many girls away from reading all the wonderful stories which both girls and boys have shared and enjoyed for decades. And it plants the idea that girls’ interests are limited to a narrow and predictable and ultimately damaging range of subject matter. And that is a tragedy.
One of the most powerful letters we received during our ELC campaign was from an 8-year-old girl who explained to us that since learning about the Pinkstinks she now felt that it was “OK to be different”. She didn’t want to spend her time talking about make-up and shopping. She wanted to be herself and to be different. She finished by saying, “Please carry on with your campaign. You are my voice”.
We were humbled by this and it was striking to hear of the real impact that all this messaging has on our children. My sister and I want to ensure that all children are able to be whoever they want to be. That means they need to explore, have adventures, have fun, play together and experience a whole range of toys, games and books together. It means that they understand that being themselves and exploring all the possibilities open to them is OK. It doesn’t mean that we should be telling girls that their lives will be fulfilled by visiting beauty salons in a never-ending quest to live up to unattainable beauty ideals.