How Pink Is Too Pink? Raising Daughters in the Age of Disney

Is the Disney princess craze with its endless consumer products just fun for little girls - or does the pink fad send a devious anti-feminist message?

My three-year-old daughter Mika acquired her first princess T-shirt by necessity. Last Passover, Mika’s father went shopping for holiday clothes and came back with the only two short-sleeved shirts he found for her age (she was then two): both were purple and bore a likeness of Rapunzel − pug-nosed, cascading golden hair, big green eyes.

Mika has two older brothers, and for the past six years they’ve put us through a succession of childhood-pop obsessions: Fireman Sam, Spiderman, Ninjago − all accompanied by a flood of matching, expensive merchandise.

When my daughter was born, I knew the day of the princess would come, too. Still, when the moment of truth arrived − earlier than expected − I refused to accept my fate.

“Listen,” I said to the baby girl who was sitting on the diapering dresser and playing with the Wipes, “you don’t need to look like that princess. You are smarter, stronger and a lot prettier than she is.” Mika pointed to Rapunzel and said “bu-ba, bu-ba(doll in Hebrew). Thus was the long alliance forged between my small daughter and Disney’s kingdom of popular blonde beauties.

Whereas in the adult world, equality between the sexes looks closer than ever − women are running for presidencies and premierships − in the world of toys, an industry worth billions is dictating that girls need to be princesses. Decorative, feminine and pink, pink, pink. A visit to Toys R Us in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center tells the story. On the shelves, Barbie and Hello Kitty dolls offer eye shadow and lip gloss to kindergarten girls. A package on the shelf contains a pink plastic makeup table − with the picture on it depicting a little girl sitting in front of the mirror, drying her hair with a pink plastic hair dryer and laughing at her reflection. Pink baby dolls with matching (pink) strollers dangle from stands. The area of the boxed games holds packages with pictures of boys on them containing a science game about soccer, a pirate ship and an electric light kit. The packages for girls show a tea party, how to do “turn-on” hairdos and a “do-it-yourself” bridal salon. There is also a princess jigsaw puzzle and a fairy mosaic. Even Dora, the intrepid explorer with the short pants, appears in a princess version in the store, including dress, magic wand and purple crown.

Never before, it seems, has the culture of little girls been more glittering, princess-oriented, fairy-like and regressive. In 2011, the Princess line of the Disney company − a category that didn’t even exist before the year 2000 − topped the list in sales of entertainment-based brands. According to Forbes, sales of princess products were worth $1.6 billion in the United States and $3 billion worldwide that year − more than Star Wars, Sesame Street or any of the
superheroes.

Of the Disney products, the princesses are the fastest-growing category. Sources in Israeli industry estimate that the category of “fashion dolls” − which also includes characters such as Tinker Bell, Steffie, Winx, Bratz, Moxie Girlz and the latest hit, Monster High − sells $30 million worth of products a year, half of which is accounted for by the princesses. Each of these heroines has a character of her own. The princesses are innocent and pink, Barbie is feminine and well-groomed, the Bratz are fashionable and Hello Kitty is really a cat. But the principles are surprisingly similar: self-definition achieved through external appearance, self-improvement through shopping, loads of accessories. In 2013, why is the world of girls
immersed in pink?

Enter the prince

For Lia, Amalia’s daughter of four and a half (these are not their real names), the obsession began at the age of two and a half, when her preschool teacher got married. “She came home and tried to reenact the wedding, especially the dance of the bride and the groom,” Amalia, who works in communications in Tel Aviv, says. “She was always looking for someone to be her groom, and she would be the beautiful bride.” Lia’s next preschool had books by Disney. “She started to come home and say, ‘I am the Little Mermaid, I am Cinderella.’ She wouldn’t let me cut her hair anymore, because she wanted hair ‘like a princess, down to the waist.’ She always wants to play games of imagination in which she is the beautiful, gentle princess, while her partner in the game is the knight who comes to save her.”

What do you think about the princesses?

“I think the whole thing is terrible,” says Amalia. “First of all, it’s aesthetically wretched. It’s ugly, plastic and American. The hair is always long and blonde, they all look the same. But what is really repulsive is the approach of the beautiful, gentle, passive female who has to be rescued. I find that extremely
problematic.”

Did you try offering her an alternative?

“That’s exactly where the difficulty lies. I tell her: ‘You can be beautiful but also strong, brave and smart.’ On the other hand, I don’t want the alternative to be weapons and superheroes. I looked for an alternative that would be equally rich, but not a fireman, a policeman or a warrior. There are very few options. There is the Paper Bag Princess, but it is very calculated; there is nothing cool about it. It’s aimed at the category of mothers who want to feel good about themselves. I made a point of bringing in the option of Pippi Longstocking [known as Bilbi in Hebrew]. I bought her the book, we saw the movie, and it’s working. At first she only wanted to be Annika, Pippi’s well-organized friend, but now she understands that it’s more fun to be Pippi.”

Sharon Mayevsky, a theater actress and novice screenwriter from Jerusalem, is one of the founders of the popular Facebook group “Religious feminists with no sense of humor” and writes a related blog called “Dosa Feminista.” She also has two daughters, aged five and a year and a half. For her, the crisis arrived with Barbie. “There is no way to look at that doll without being horrified − by the blondeness, the tits, the thinness, the stiletto, the impossible proportions,” she says. “For me, that doll encapsulates everything that is bad in popular culture. I can already see my daughter tucking in her tummy and saying, ‘Look, Mom, I’m not fat, I’m not fat.’ I don’t want her to become one of those girls whose lives are dominated by the princesses and the Barbies. We are providing her with all kinds of other content, but there’s no way to know where it will hit you from.”

V.L., from Petah Tikva, who has four daughters − twins aged 12, a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old − is drowning in pink. But she finds it perfectly fine. “You know, each of us, as a girl, had a dream about a princess dress − pink, billowing, glittering, along with accessories,” says V.L. “There have always been princesses, the fantasy of a bride, the beauty queen, the flower girl, the queen of hearts. It was an idea one could realize at Purim. I had a stunning dress that my mother got from abroad. I dressed up in it for Purim, one year as a doll and the next as Cinderella.”

When her twin girls were two years old, they dressed up as Cinderella and Minnie Mouse for Purim, with costumes they got from abroad. “It was spectacular,” their mother recalls. Their home is filled with princess bedding and princess bags − “It makes no difference which princess, as long as it’s all pink or purple” − and a huge Barbie dollhouse. “Besides the Purim costumes, there are also two drawers filled with accessories for a royal game, from umbrellas to high heels.” The girls also have light makeup, lipstick and lip gloss, and matching bags, used mainly for going to synagogue on Shabbat. Sometimes, though, the girls wear the dresses to school, or paint their lips red.

What do other people say?

V.L.: “The milieu is very supportive. When I had the twins, the grandmothers and aunts started to bring clothes, chairs and bedding, all of it with princesses, dolls, Strawberry Shortcake. No one bought me anything blue. I am not talking about characters like Spiderman − there weren’t even blue sheets or sheets with stars. It was all princesses.”

When girlfriends visit six-year-old Shiri, the drawers are opened and the costumes come out. “They imagine life in a palace,” V.L. says. “They take textiles and arrange them. They have servants − ‘Bring me this,’ ‘Do that’ − all with the height of gentleness and with legs crossed.”

Is there also a prince in these games?

“A prince? What girl wants to be a prince? They are all princesses. It’s nice, it’s a fantasy, it’s the fulfillment of femininity. The ultimate dream. To be a princess, beautiful and slim, with a gown. Obviously the world of marketing is pushing us into that, but the fact is that girls respond to it and are attracted to it.”

Doesn’t it bother you that there is so much emphasis on external appearance in this culture?

“No, I don’t see that as a threat. I have very clear boundaries. They don’t go around half-naked, but if this is what they want, fine. I’m not going to fight over that, of all things. I am in synch with a world of beauty and the aesthetic, all within the correct boundaries. I grew up in a very careerist and feminist home, where it was clear that you would go to university. The girls know that on the one hand mother works, but on the other, invests in her appearance. There is no way I will neglect myself.”

Yael Teitz, from Herzliya, is the mother of five children, three of them girls. “When Mika, who is now six, started taking ballet lessons, I didn’t buy her a new leotard. I gave her a black one from her older sisters,” Teitz says. “After three lessons she demanded a pink leotard with a muslin skirt, otherwise ‘I’m not going anymore!’ That included a pink top and a pink covering for the hair band. When I was a girl, I danced in a black leotard, but today everything has to be pink in ballet. I bought her all the pink clothes, and a month and a half later she got tired of ballet. She switched to gymnastics, where, to their credit, pink does not reign.”

Teitz’s older girls, who are now 15 and 13, never succumbed to the “princess craze,” she says, nor did they confine themselves to playing with dolls. But the milieu did not fail to remind them what they were supposed to be playing at. “If a smart thief breaks into our house, he will go straight to the collection of Barbies,” Teitz notes. “We have 30 or 40 of those dolls, and we didn’t buy a single one of them − they were all given as birthday presents to the girls. When I took Mika to look for birthday or Passover presents, we went to Toys R Us and she went straight to the all-pink wall. But she didn’t find anything she really wanted. In the end we bought young-scientist kits.”

Teitz also observes the pink culture through the prism of her work as a cake designer. If it’s a girl’s birthday, she says, “Everything has to be pink − the tablecloth, the dishes, the glasses, the decorations. The trendy thing today is cakes with princesses and fairies. I am organizing a birthday party for Mika now, and of course there will be a cake with fairies and knights. I told her that we need to integrate some green amid the pink and the purple. She thought it was odd, but resigned herself to the idea.”

Teitz is not worried. “All that pink is not harmful if you can moderate it and not make it the main thing. All in all, it’s a fun thing, and with us it was balanced with other things and didn’t reach the craze stage. If the girl’s world contains additional content, she will grow up to be what’s right.”

Pink passivity

How much harm do the princess fantasies actually do? After all, there is something very alluring in the pink culture: the beautiful princesses, cute Hello Kitty, Barbie with all those clothes. It’s easy to understand why girls like them and why relatives turn to them for birthday or holiday presents. The Disney vision of passive femininity is definitely not my thing, but I remember a time when I thought Princess Aurora was the most gorgeous thing on earth. Will it be so terrible if my Mika also goes through a pink period?

“We can laugh at this culture, or say it is relevant mostly to girls of four, but it continues to influence us later, too, in the form of a script we have in our head,” says Dr. Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, a clinical psychologist and a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University. “The personification of a princess contains two messages that seem to be different but cohere into one joint message. The first is: I am passive, I am a victim, like Cinderella or Snow White. The second is: I am a queen. Both messages lead to one conclusion: I don’t have to do anything; others have to do things for me.”

The princess culture, Tuval-Mashiach observes, is part of the offensive of messages that are built into the popular culture and instruct girls to cultivate a passive femininity, which is defined through the prism of beauty. “Part of the trap lies in the fact that all the options are seemingly open and the whole range exists and that's what the girls chose, but in practice you will find only pink in the store. It’s like a snowball. Afterward, it's translated into sexuality at a young age, or eating disorders, which used to appear at age 15 but now appear at the age of nine. I'm not saying this is the only cause, of course, but it can definitely be a
contributing factor.”

Peggy Orenstein, an American journalist and writer who published “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” a critical book about the princess culture, in 2011, is even more outspoken. “That stage channels you into other consumer experiences, other ideas of femininity and girlhood, all of them hypersexual and related to consumerism and exterior appearance,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in Berkeley, California.

The spate of reactions to an article Orenstein published in The New York Times in 2006 (“What’s wrong with Cinderella?”), not all of them favorable by any means, showed her that she had touched a raw cultural nerve. The book she wrote in the wake of the article is an indictment of the princesses and the pink culture as a whole. The princesses promise innocence, and that is what makes parents choose them, but they educate for the consumer culture. Disney and Mattel (the world’s largest toy manufacturer, owner of the Barbie and Fisher Price brands, among others) later tap into that indoctrination in order to sell more and more products, including princess-like wedding gowns for real weddings.

Through the princess culture, girls learn that they must be pretty and gentle, and at the age of 10, ahead of adolescence, they start to internalize the notion that sexuality means external appearance alone. As to the argument put forward by the toy industry − that it is only giving the girls what they want − Orenstein maintains that all the options they provide for girls have the same
orientation.

While admitting that no specific study has yet been conducted on the influence of the pink culture on prepubescent and adolescent girls, Orenstein is able to cite an array of studies done in recent decades that show what happens when girls are constantly reminded that they are girls. For example, there was an
article quoted in a report of the American Psychological Association about teenage girls and body culture, in which a group of female students was asked to take a test after trying on a sweater or a bathing suit. The participants who tried on the bathing suit − and were thus reminded of their femininity and body image − performed worse than the ones who tried on a sweater. In another test, it was sufficient to have girls indicate their gender in the answer form for them to do less well than girls who were not asked to provide that information.

According to research cited in Orenstein’s book, the more girls consume mainstream media, the more importance they attach to beauty and sexuality. Adolescent girls who espouse conventional concepts of femininity, particularly those who emphasize beauty and pleasant behavior, tend to be less ambitious and more depressed than their peers, and also enjoy sex less. “None of that bodes well for Snow White’s long-term mental health,” Orenstein writes in her book.

After growing up with the princesses, Orenstein argues, girls progress to the cinematic heroines of Disney: Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus and even Britney Spears, who started her career with the company. They learn that the way out of childhood passes through sexuality and “naughty behavior,” and what Orenstein calls “a confusion between self-confidence and obsessive self-occupation, a culture that expresses strength through narcissism and constructs a self-identity through an external identity. That’s bewildering to adults, let alone to girls.”

Brave and submissive

The critique of concepts of femininity in the media is not new: critical viewings of Disney films is one of the pillars of doctoral students in gender studies departments. The new element 13 years ago was the big bang known as “Disney Princess” − the world’s biggest media franchise for girls aged two to six. Until then, Orenstein relates in her book, Disney characters were never marketed apart from the movies in which they starred. The company’s consumer products division was in trouble until Andy Mooney, its newly appointed director, went to check out a “Disney on Ice” show and found himself surrounded by little girls in princess costumes that were homemade − in other words, not made by Disney. The next day, Mooney started to work on a Princess brand that would, for the first time in the company’s history, collect characters from different movies under one logo (which is also the reason why, as Orenstein notes, the characters never make eye contact when they appear together).

Sales hit $300 million within a year. The princess craze quickly spread beyond Disney. In 2001, Mattel released a line called “World of Girl,” which included Barbie dolls, princesses, toys, apparel and other products. It goes without saying that the line was a huge success. Even Dora was granted a princess doll, following a two-part episode in which she was crowned a “true princess.”

“They are very familiar with the princess stories,” V.L. notes of her daughters. “But the scary part is of less interest to them. It’s more interesting to be a princess for a day.” Mothers in Orenstein’s book say the same thing: It’s not about the movies − it’s about being a princess. And that’s a shame − because in recent decades, in an effort to remain relevant, Disney’s heroines have begun to display a modicum of courage, initiative and smarts. True, it’s difficult to call “Rapunzel” a progressive movie, but its heroine does fight the prince and also fights alongside him. Mulan is a brave warrior, Pocahontas stands up for the environment, and Tiana, from “The Princess and the Frog,” dreams of opening a restaurant.

But the princesses on the products never fight, hug trees or order supplies; they just stand there, looking pretty.

As Orenstein revealed in her blog, before the heroine of a movie becomes a “Princess” and has her image emblazoned on products, she is given a makeover to make her look prettier and more feminine. Snow White appears in a glowing dress and gives the viewer an enticing look; Aurora’s eyebrows were fixed, the shape of her eyes was changed and her modest dress was replaced by one that reveals shoulders and arms; Belle had a bit of a nose job and her hair was lightened; Cinderella now looks “a little bit [like] Taylor Swift”; Mulan never appears on the products in comfortable martial arts clothing, as in the movie, but is stuffed into a kimono she hates and has a layer of lipstick. The result is that the near-feminist message of the movies is totally absent from the nightgowns and bed sheets.

“The Disney people are not dumb,” Orenstein says. “They will not make a movie in which the lead female character is not intelligent. But the products are something else: they are a $4 billion industry. Rapunzel has an ‘escape from the tower’ lip and nail set. The consumer products revolve far more closely around beauty and grooming than do the movies themselves.”

The peak in this regard is the makeover undergone by Merida, from the 2012 movie “Brave” − the first princess film released by Pixar, Disney’s sophisticated animation studio. Merida, the daughter of a Scottish king, has a mane of red curls, likes to ride horses and is good with a bow and arrow. On top of that, she spurns her mother’s orders and refuses to get married. (Spoiler: In the end she does not get married.) But when her renovated image was revealed ahead of her entry into the “Princess Hall of Fame,” it turned out that the unruly tangle of hair had been replaced by a fashionable hairdo in light shades, her waist was narrowed, her chest enlarged, and her blue eyes were more intense and had a different shape. The bow and arrow had disappeared and she was outfitted in a tight blue dress (which she hates in the movie and which restricts her movement). Furthermore, the dress was given fashionable cleavage, and Merida casts an alluring gaze at the viewer.

The makeover of Merida, a saliently feminist character, generated a campaign by a female empowerment website called “A Mighty Girl” and sparked a media furor. Disney was forced to backtrack and restore the merchandised Merida to her original form. One of the most significant voices in condemnation of the makeover was Merida’s creator, Brenda Chapman. A veteran animation director, Chapman worked as a story artist on “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” and was the director of “The Prince of Egypt.” She was also the original director of “Brave” − and the first woman ever to direct a film for Pixar − until she was fired midway through the project over “creative differences.”

In an email interview, she told me that the model for Merida was her daughter, Emma, mostly her “fierce stubbornness and her fearlessness in standing up for what she wanted. I was having trouble with that, as I was much more ‘docile’ toward my parents. Yet I admired her strength and confidence.”

Emma loved princesses as a girl, Chapman notes. “We let her watch our old favorites of ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Snow White’ and those my husband and I worked on − ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I wanted her to enjoy the magical feeling of watching a world come to life that I had experienced as a child, but I wasn’t thrilled by the message that girls need a prince to be complete. Romance isn’t a bad thing. I just didn’t want her to think it was the only thing.”

Why is Merida a princess? None of Pixar’s male characters was from a royal family. Were you trying to convey a message?

“I was trying to break a mold. Disney marketing had sadly made those beautiful old stories that boys and girls alike enjoyed when I was a kid and turned them into a ‘girlie’ line. I wanted to give the kids something that changed the way kids looked at a princess, not only showing a strong female role model, but also taking out the excuse that boys wouldn’t like a princess movie.

“It was important to me that she not look like eye or arm candy for a man, and that she had a more realistic body for her lifestyle. She is athletic and has an athletic body. I also didn’t want her to try and look like a boy − as so often in movies they try to depict a ‘tomboy.’ She has no issues with being female − she sees no reason she can’t do what she wants to do being a girl.”

Chapman was at a film festival in Chile when the Merida makeover battle erupted. Someone sent her a copy of the petition against the redesign.

“I was shocked, horrified and furious,” she relates. “Disney completely undermined the character traits that make Merida who she is. She is not interested in looking sexy. Merida was created to break the mold of the princess who wants to attract a romantic relationship. She was meant to portray a young girl who is confident in who she is. In fact she fights to maintain her identity. Giving her that sexy makeover was a complete betrayal of who the character is and why so many people love her.”

Do you see other figures in popular culture who recall Merida or send a similar message to girls?

“Unfortunately, not many. Katniss in ‘The Hunger Games’ was a very strong and admirable character − one of the few.”

A spokeswoman for Disney Israel said in response, “The animation that was used in the official sites of Merida, the heroine of ‘Brave,’ is taken from the movie. We routinely use different animation styles for our characters, and this portrayal of Merida in her ball gown was a special, one-time effort to mark her coronation. Merida exemplifies the meaning of being a brave Disney Princess, enthusiastic and sure of herself, and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie − traits that will constitute inspiration for mothers and girls throughout the world.”

Maybe the real problem lies in the fact that we have become accustomed to the world of children being divided into pink and blue − sweet and passive for girls, aggressive and tough for boys − almost without other options. In Toys R Us, a black, blue or green item is placed next to almost every pink item. Next to a pink Smurfs backpack there is a blue one. Next to a pink Cinderella push bike is a red one of Lightning McQueen from the movie “Cars.” The children themselves grasp this division, even without our intending it. My middle son, who is four, got home from kindergarten one day and declared, “I hate Kitty!” For about a month after that, whenever he saw a girl in the street with a [Hello Kitty] item, he would scream at the top of his lungs, “Ugh! Kitty!!!” Possibly the boy really can’t abide Kitty, but perhaps, in the race to define himself as a ‘boy,’ he decided to forgo everything that is pink and cute, even if it looks like fun.

“I imagine your son doesn’t hate pink fundamentally,” Tuval-Mashiach says. “He possesses sufficient cognitive ability to understand that there is something good and bad here, and to identify himself with the correct gender. Children are capable of understanding even earlier that there are boys and girls in the world. After the cognitive stage comes an important emotional stage, a stage of identification. They want to be the way things should be, and they are very rigid about that. The question of whether they will come out of this or not depends on the milieu in which they grow up.”

The feminine secret

The contemporary encoding of the childhood environment ensures that no boy or girl will have any doubt about where he or she belongs. That seems natural to us, but it is not. Until the 20th century, according to a review on the Smithsonian Institute website, children of both sexes wore dresses, usually white, until the age of six, and boys wore patent-leather shoes and hats with feathers. The notion that it was necessary to identify a child in terms of gender did not exist until after the First World War. In that period, blue was considered a feminine color, because of its identification with St. Mary, while pink was a boys’ color, being a hue of the strong and virile red.

As for the separation between girls’ and boys’ toys, that is an invention of the last century, according to the researcher of gender and children’s toys, Elizabeth Sweet, from the University of California, Davis. Sweet became interested in the gendering of toys after the birth of her daughter, 11 years ago. “I was born in 1973,” she says in a telephone interview, “and I don’t remember such an extreme separation in my childhood. I decided to investigate the subject, because for me it is a social, economic and also political riddle. Why, just when we are close to equality, have toys become so
gendered?”

Sweet went through Sears catalogs, which for decades reached many homes in America. She analyzed the advertisements for toys in the catalogs of 1905, 1925, 1945, 1975 and 1995. At first, toys accounted for only a small fraction of the catalog items, because children then were not considered consumers. At that stage, only one toy was clearly designated for a specific gender: a farm cart, which was meant for boys.

By the middle of the century, 50 percent of the toy ads were aimed either at boys or girls, and the girls’ toys had become increasingly “feminine.” However, in the 1970s this trend was reversed. Only a quarter of the toys were gendered, and some of the ads showed a gender turnaround. For example, girls with Lego, or boys playing with kitchen utensils. Sweet attributes this development to the feminist revolution, which was then reaching its peak.

Twenty years later, the situation had reverted to what it was before: in 1995, 60 percent of the toy ads were aimed either only at girls or only at boys. A study conducted last year at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, examined the gendering situation on the Disney site. The findings: 86 percent of the toys were earmarked either for boys only or for girls only; just 14 percent could be termed gender-neutral.

How do the princesses fit into this picture? Until 1995, only three of 2,500 toy ads were for princess dolls, and even they looked just like any other doll. In 1995, 9 percent of the ads were for princesses − and then came the massive princess commercial offensive. Another significant difference is that ads in earlier catalogs showed girls playing with princess dolls, not girls who are themselves princesses. Sweet attributes girls’ dreams of being a princess largely to Disney.

What brought about the separation regime between the world of boys and the world of girls? In a word, segmentation. “How do you increase sales when a market reaches saturation? You segment it more and more, you introduce more categories,” explains the CEO of Toys R Us in Israel, Adi Regev. “Let’s take bicycles as an example. If a bike is green, you can sell it to both boys and girls, and both brother and sister can ride it. But if you sell pink bikes only to girls and black ones only to boys, you sell twice as many items.” This strategy is dubbed the “pink factor” in Orenstein’s book.

Lego adopted a similar strategy last year. The company’s products are marketed mainly to boys, but with more parents now wanting to imbue their daughters with engineering skills, the company started to sell Lego Friends, a line in pastels for building a dollhouse. One of the reasons for the shift, according to an article in The New York Times, is that more fathers are buying presents for their daughters. Still, even a girl who wants to develop skills with the aid of the new engineering models will do so within the familiar, nonthreatening pink
framework.

Six kilos of pink

What happens to the Meridas in real life? An American psychologist, Prof. Sharon Lamb, immersed herself in the pink culture of girls for year and in 2007 published her findings in a book titled “Packaging Girlhood,” co-authored by Lyn Mikel Brown. Their conclusion is that today’s culture offers girls one of two options: to be “with boys,” meaning to be a tomboy, or to be “for boys,” meaning to be pretty and sexy. “In a clothes store, you will see a pink blouse for the little girls, then the same blouse with a little lace, or with sparklers, and afterward with cleavage. That’s where it leads,” Lamb says by telephone.

But girls have so many role models out there: athletes, politicians, physicians.

“Girls from families with an education do in fact have many options. But what about poor girls, for whom the way to break through is to be sexy and pretty? The culture doesn’t give them many
options.”

Outwardly, at least, the pink plague seems less acute in Israel than in the United States. “In Israel, Hello Kitty and princesses are finished by the age of five, far earlier than in the rest of the world,” says Miri Dalizky, vice president for marketing and licensing at Saban Brands Israel, who was formerly employed by Disney. Dalizky maintains that, in contrast to the international scene, Israeli girls also like brands “of boys,” such as Digimon − short for Digital Monsters − and the Trash Pack (both represented in Israel by Saban Brands).

Still, in Israel, too, it’s not easy to be a girl who does not conform to the standard. “I couldn’t find anything for girls that suited my taste and my 10-year-old daughter’s taste,” says Liat Bartov-Sadeh, an announcer and copy writer. “Even in preschool she refused to wear pink clothes or clothes with images of princesses. In the end, she managed to tell herself that Tinker Bell is all right.”

Bartov-Sadeh took photographs of the girls in the first Purim celebration attended by her daughter in the municipal kindergarten. “It was a pile of tulle and sparklers and one beetle − my daughter. There was a dissonance between what she received at home and what she internalized in the kindergarten. She loves soccer, and at school she had to wage a lengthy struggle, which required the intervention of the principal, so that the boys would let her play on the field, and on the way she was subjected to a great many abusive remarks.”

“Half a year ago, I was doing laundry and I noticed that everything was pink − blouses, pants, skirts,” says Sharon Niv, a resident of Modi’in and the mother of four daughters who is a postpartum doula. “Let’s see if I can succeed in doing a completely pink load,” she recalls saying to herself. “Do you think I didn’t? Six kilos of pink, without a problem. Last winter, I was looking for a sweatshirt for my eldest at Fox. She didn’t want pink or purple. In the end, I bought her one in dark blue and one in phosphorescent green from the boy’s shelf.”

Niv’s daughters like princesses, but they also like Playmobil. “I don’t like all this branding. I am looking for a jigsaw puzzle for girls, and there is either one of fairies or one of Robotrix. What’s in the middle? Maybe only Winnie-the-Pooh.”

Isabelle Cherney, a professor of psychology at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska has studied the toys-gender connection. In a 2010 study, she examined the power of color coding by asking girls and boys of kindergarten age to look at a picture of a pink car and a picture of an identical blue car. When they looked at the blue car first, they said it was a girls’ toy, because mother and child dolls were inside the car. They also identified the pink car as a girls’ toy. However, when they saw the pink car first, they said it was for girls and the blue one was for boys. “By letting them look at the pink first, we primed them. They saw mainly the color and did not observe the details,” Cherney told me by telephone from her office.

Who loses by the division? According to Cherney, both sexes. Playing with dolls or playing family (even if it’s a family of princesses) encourages a more complex social game, and the fact that boys avoid the pink shelves brings about a reduced development of verbal, social and emotional skills. On the other hand, the toys earmarked for boys, including Lego, science kits and balls develop spatial and visual skills. This may also partially explain the absence of women from faculties of engineering and computer sciences. When Cherney gathered children aged 18 to 24 months in a laboratory and gave them a selection of toys to play with, most of the girls opted for the boys’ toys: they moved, could be wound up and, in short, were a lot more interesting.

It is actually boys who are more affected than girls by the division, because socially it is preferable to be a tomboy than a “feminine” boy. A study conducted at Harvard and published last year found that boys who displayed indications of gender nonconformity were at three times the risk of experiencing psychological or sexual abuse than boys who obeyed gender stereotypes. For girls, the likelihood that gender nonconformists would suffer abuse was 60 percent greater than for “feminine” girls.

All in all, maybe it’s best to listen to Peggy Orenstein. “Seven years ago, when I wrote the article in the Times, everyone was amazed: ‘What are you talking about?’ Now I don’t even have to explain,” she says. “Women − journalists and bloggers − are writing about it. People like you are doing articles. The truth is that there is no reason to notice the phenomenon until you have a daughter and it’s in your interest to pay attention to what girls of three are doing.”

Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov