Tickled pink: Why the politics of gendered colours misses the point

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt is the host of Kinderling Conversation.

Before we had our daughter, my husband was adamant she wouldn’t wear pink.

He had visions of her decked out in black, she’d be cool, suave. No frilly, fru-fru “girl’s stuff”.

There was a feeling that pink was somehow anti-feminist. Let your girls wear pink, and they’re on the slippery slide to becoming princesses - waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming.

To reinforce that suspicion, there was a flurry of little girls flouncing about in princess dresses – to the local shops, to the park … and often in the comfort of their own bed.

Photo credit: Daniel Guerra

These dresses were silky, swirling symbols of a deeply ingrained idea of what femininity was, and it was setting our girls up to fail.

I was conflicted about this idea, because while I consider myself a feminist my instinct told me to leave my daughter alone. I wanted to let her pursue and enjoy the things that took her fancy.

It’s not colours that define our children’s gender

Anthony Semann is an educator, researcher and early childhood advocate. He says people get confused when it comes to children and gender stereotypes.

“I often think to myself what is the problem we're trying to solve here? I think it is behavioural problems but we tend to take them back down to gender stereotypes.”

Listen to Anthony on Kinderling Conversation:

The colour pink is not the problem. It’s the meaning we ascribe to the colour pink. We’re saying that if you like pink it makes you submissive, flighty and frivolous. Have you ever heard someone say that if a boy wears blue all the time that they are aggressive, angry and unemotional?

When you look at it in that light it seems ridiculous that something as simple as liking a certain colour defines who a child will be.

But wait, what about toys like guns?

My son has recently developed a passion for guns. Nerf guns to be specific. He talks about them all the time. He currently has two on the go and is asking for more for his birthday.

Does this make him a psychopath in the making?

If he lacked empathy (he has buckets of it), was anti-social (he makes friends everywhere he goes), and if he was constantly getting in trouble for doing mean and harmful things I would be worried.

My son has none of these traits. He likes to play with toy guns. It’s a fantasy, like princess dresses are for my daughter. It doesn’t define who he is.

Photo credit: Daniel Guerra

Anthony says that toxic masculinity is a far deeper problem that won’t be solved by making boys play with different toys.

“The physical aggression that we see out in the world predominantly lives in a masculine domain. We’re not going to solve it by getting boys to stop playing with little cars. That's a very simplistic response to a really big societal problem. It comes back down to parenting and some responsibility we share as a community around how we expect young boys to behave,” Anthony explains.

“We can have boys who like to play with dollhouses who have antisocial behaviour.”

It’s how we parent and how we expect our boys to behave that has a greater impact on whether they grow up with a healthy sense of male identity.

“Make sure that you're not trapping your child into a particular expectation around their behaviour that won't actually suit them or aid them in future e.g. asking young boys to resolve conflict through physical aggression. Telling them to stand up for themselves, to punch back. That's not helping anyone in the world,” Anthony adds.

Step back and look at the behaviour

My daughter has evolved into a gangly six-year-old who doesn’t like to wear dresses.

She’s moved on from pink. Her favourite colour is currently turquoise. Though once it was purple, and before that it was red.

I can no longer look at her choice of colour and predict what kind of woman she will be.

I’m sure my son will outgrow his penchant for shooting me in the bum with a nerf gun (at least I hope he does). He might choose to play the piano, to knit, or start tennis. He might want to wear dresses, just as my daughter has abandoned them.

The point is, it’s his (and her) choice.

What I need to keep my eye on, as Anthony says, is behaviour. Both theirs and mine.

Do I stop my daughter trying things that I would encourage my son to do? Do I speak to them differently because of their gender? And the biggest question I need to ask myself is: what behaviour am I role modelling for them?

Those are questions that I grapple with every day. I’m sure I don’t always get it right. But I’m also sure that it has nothing to do with the colour pink. Or nerf guns.

If only it were that simple.