In the Pink
December 13, 2009
Way back in 1980, there was an advert for Lego: it showed a girl of about five, with red pigtails, dressed in scruffy jeans and blue trainers, proudly holding an unidentifiable construction made out of multi-coloured bricks. The caption read: "What it is is beautiful."
Today such an advert is unthinkable. Thirty years on, so-called "girls" Lego is branded Belville, comes in pink and purple boxes, and involves building up "girl-friendly" scenes such as Hollywood-style mansions and horses' stables. And it's not just
Lego. As Christmas present buying reaches its zenith, walk into virtually any toy store, browse through any toy catalogue and you enter a bizarre world of colour and gender apartheid: on the blue/camouflage side there are the boys' toys: dinosaurs, space rockets, cars, Meccano and Action Man; on the pink are the girls' toys: Barbie, Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, Polly Pocket and anything that glitters.
Goldfish come in gender-specific tanks: the girls' pink with mermaids and the boys' blue with pirate ships. Even on the internet, children are sent off in different directions, with websites, Miss Bimbo and Little Hooliganz spelling out exactly what is expected from each of the sexes.
For twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore it is all too much. They have launched a campaign to challenge the way in which they believe toy manufacturers and retailers are force-feeding children narrow and damaging images of what it means to be male and female. Angered by the way the girls' toys focus almost exclusively on beauty and wealth (while the boys' toys involve doing and making), the pair launched the Pinkstinks website, urging parents to boycott pink toys and singling out the Early Learning Centre for particular criticism.
"We want to inspire, excite educate and to liberate them from the negative stereotypes that increasingly saturate the world of toys," the campaign states. With this in mind, the founders put together a list of alternative female role models – such as photographer Annie Liebowitz and architect Zaha Hadid to counter the cultural obsession with the likes of Cheryl Cole – and started developing a sister site Cooltobe.me for children.
The website, which sells I'm No Princess T-shirts, was an immediate hit and the sisters won a Sheila McKechnie "Women Creating Change" award. But while Abi and Emma knew there were frustrated parents and children out there, nothing could have prepared them for the furore their website would eventually cause.
In the past few weeks, Abi, who works for Amnesty International and is the mother of two boys aged three and six, and Emma, head of information and publishing for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and mother of two girls aged three and seven, have been deluged by e-mails from grateful girls and their parents, won support from high-profile campaigners, such as consumer champion Ed Mayo and junior justice minister Bridget Prentice, and had their message publicised across the globe.
But they have also been the focus for wild criticism, with commentators such as Vanessa Feltz ridiculing their aims and insisting girls' love of pink princess toys is both instinctive and harmless. Vitriolic and personal comments – branding the women dour and humourless and questioning their motives – have been posted on their website. Then last week Pinkstinks was mentioned in the House of Lords.
Clearly, the Moore sisters have hit a nerve. But are they right? Does the "pinkification" of girls' toys set the tone for their lives, forcing them to conform to cultural preconceptions of what they should be? Or is trying to discourage girls from playing at fairies and princesses patronising and prescriptive? And how did we get to the stage where toy manufacturers believe even gender-neutral games like Scrabble and Monopoly need "girl-friendly" makeovers?
Abi Moore was working as a producer for CNN when the idea of Pinkstinks first began to germinate. "I had been in the states filming the Nobel prize-winner Naomi Halas who was developing a new way of treating cancer," Abi says. "I was on my way back to London when Paris Hilton was released from jail – and the story was getting blanket coverage and the injustice of it seemed unbelievable.
"There was this amazing woman I had been talking to, virtually unknown outside her own field, and then there was this woman famous for being rich and an heiress, being bombarded with publicity. I rang my sister to sound off and we started talking about a website that would show girls that there are better role models."
Looking at the toys their children played with, they realised girls and boys were being set on different journeys from an early age and that girls were being force-fed pink goods and images of unattainable beauty. "We believe the messages are so ubiquitous, unquestioned and powerful, and the marketing so expertly done, that we have started to believe this is natural," Abi says.
In fact, according to Mayo, the blue-is-for-boys/pink-is-for-girls phenomenon is a relatively new one. On his blog, he points out that, in 1918, The Ladies Home Journal, advised mothers that "there has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."
Suggesting this may have been because pink was a watered down version of military red, while blue was traditionally the colour of the Virgin Mary, he says the cross-over didn't happen until as late as the 1950s. So completely have we been conditioned to see blue as for boys and pink as for girls, it may be difficult for us to envisage it any other way. But most of us over 35 will remember a time when girls' toys came in other colours.
"I did have dolls, but not big pink castles and I don't remember wanting them," says Abi, 38. "We had fewer things back then anyway and what I remember most was playing in the dirt under the apple tree."
She and Emma have been inspired by the story of 13-year-olds Philip Johansson and Ebba Silbert from Sweden who took action against US company Toys R Us in 2008. Furious that the Christmas catalogue that the boys in the catalogue were portrayed as active and the girls are passive, they reported the store to the country's advertising ombudsman. Agreeing with the children, the authority declared the Toys R Us's catalogue discriminated "based on gender and counteracts positive social behaviour, lifestyles, and attitudes", and the company was issued with a public reprimand.
Yet the pink invasion rages on unfettered. "When you look at marketing to children, it's as if the women's movement never happened," says Mayo, secretary general of the Co-operatives Network and co-author of Consumer Kids. "When I was writing my book one of the things I found out was that women were twice as likely to run businesses or be a professional in real life than they are in the kind of films that will be on our televisions over Christmas. I think most parents know they are having to trade off their values for the commercial ones of big companies who use techniques such as pester power and direct marketing to spread their message."
Of course, there are many who vehemently oppose the Moores and accuse them of trying to tell them how to bring up their children. Richard Dodd of the British Retail consortium called the campaign "pointless", adding: "Shops stock goods in response to customer demand." But, on the Pinkstinks website and the BBC Newsround website, there has been plenty of positive feedback from those whose opinions count most: young girls.
"I think there should be a choice. It is very annoying that everything for children only comes in two colours in general: pink and blue. I like blue better," says Megan, ten, from Dundee. Roisin, ten, from Aberdeen adds: "I think pink is OK, but now most girl toys are only pink! I mean, come on! I like all the boy colours much better."
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, also believes the way in which toys are marketed does have the potential to be deeply damaging. "In the last few years we have had marketing people who have realised that at the age of around three two things click in," she says. "The first is the desire to be included – which leads to peer pressure – and the second is recognition of gender.
"Children want to be seen as belonging to their own gender group, so shops divide into two aisles, with pink things on one side, and grey, metallic bleeping things on the other. And I know there are a lot of parents who will say: 'Oh it's just a bit of pink, they'll grow out of it', but really it's the beginning of an assault that goes on until adulthood; an assault that means that by the time girls are nine or ten, many of them will be highly sexualised, have body image problems and want to dress like dockside tarts."
For a while last week – when the frenzy over Pinkstinks was at its height – Abi and Emma, who work full-time, were tempted to run away from the limelight. But they kept coming back to a single e-mail they received from a nine-year-old girl. "I am nine years old and I think that the pink stinks campaign is my voice," it read. "Two girls on my class table are obsessed with pink and make-up, but I think that girls like me shouldn't be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don't want to be girly girls but aren't tomboys?"
They have also received plenty of support from teachers who have asked them to produce some kind of pack for schools. So – despite a lack of funds – they are going to press ahead with their campaign. "We don't want to ban pink, or tell parents how to bring up their children," says Abi. "We just want girls not to feel pressurised into being one thing; for them to know it's OK to be different and that the most important thing is not how they look, but how they feel; that they are happy and fulfilled."