The sweet J. Crew ad I celebrated last week has ignited a “pink scare,” with socially conservative commentators outrageously upset. The ad features a mother– J.Crew’s creative director, Jenna Lyons–and her son delighting in one another’s company on a Saturday afternoon by painting their toenails hot pink (and thereby selling J. Crew’s Essie nail polish). The ad doesn’t make much fanfare of the nail painting and is fairly inconspicuous. As Melissa Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals- Redfine Girly, comments on Good Morning America‘s coverage of the gendered hoopla:
The camera has to zoom in SO much on the toes to make the news story, you completely lose sight of the delightful moment between loving, doting mother and happy, beautiful son.
In, what Nikita Blue calls, “ominous paranoid ramblings,” Dr. Keith Ablow goes off in a “conspiracy-theorist tangent,” claiming this ad contributes to “psychological sterilization,” erases gender differences and homogenizes males and females by propagandizing them to choose a gender identity that is not the “natural” one they were born with:
Well, how about the fact that encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil—not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts?
Media Research Center’s Erin Brown claims the ad exploits Lyons’ son, Beckett, through the “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” According to Brown, ads like these and irresponsible mothers such as Lyons will create more confused boys, much like the controversial “Princess boy.”
Sexist and homophobic concerns like the ones expressed by Ablow and Brown raise several important points worth exploring. First and foremost, the notion that there is a direct correlation between color, gender and sexual identity is ludicrous. Color codes are recent social inventions, constructs originally inverse. Phyllis Burke’s Gender Shock and Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter trace the sociohistorical origins of pink and blue segregation–gendered coding that wasn’t instilled until the early 20th century. Prior to that, glancing at a babies clothing didn’t reveal any trace of gendered identity: They all wore white gowns. Photographs of my great-grandparents, both born circa 1902, are identical and indistinguishable. Check out this photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1884!
Once color coding got underway in earnest, the colors were reversed. Pink, a color close to red, was equated with strength and masculinity. Light blue was a “natural” sign of femininity and, according to Orenstein’s reasearch, equated with “intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy, and faithfulness.” Given that history, it becomes clear that color codes are arbitrary, socially constructed and have no bearing or impact on one’s “natural” gender or sexual identity. As Dr. Logan Levkoff explains:
Dear Fox, colors don’t have genders. Colors are just colors. Liking certain colors [doesn't] mean you like girls or boys, or want to be either of them, now or in the future.
Secondly, there’s nothing “natural” about gender. Gender is a social construct reflecting cultural dictates within a specific historical context and those gendered prescriptions change as the culture changes. Just as culture is dynamic and fluid, so are gendered expectations. Obviously, Ablow and Brown aren’t familiar with the difference between the biological concept of sex, referring to maleness and femaleness and the continuum between the two, and gender, the socially constructed definitions and expectations of masculinity and femininity. Their critiques of J. Crew’s ad demonstrates rampant essentialism–the idea that one’s biological sex is destiny while ignoring historical and contemporary contradictions to that idea. If having a penis “naturally” led boys and men to embody “masculinity” and a vagina “naturally” equated with all things “feminine,” we’d see much more historical and cultural uniformity.
Third, not only is the idea that the J. Crew ad squelches “naturally” assigned gender identity ridiculous given the difference between biological sex and socially constructed gender, but Ablow’s quote doesn’t address the real culprit in stifling natural and healthy explorations: the color-coded assault by marketers on children’s play. It seems to me that the hyper-segmented pink world of the princess and the blue world of the boy warrior is much more responsible for shaping gender identity than an ad featuring hot-pink toenails on a boy. In that way, J. Crew is a small sign of opening up gendered possibilities–possibilities that represent authentic personal choice.
In Brown’s opinion piece, she goes on to say that mothers such as Lyons or Sarah Manley are setting up their sons for a hard time in the future. There she’s right, and this gets to the crux of the issue. The system of patriarchy values masculinity and devalues femininity. In fact, within patriarchy, masculinity is a fundamental mainstream cultural value. In the Good Morning America segment, Manley rightly points out that if the ad featured a girl playing with trucks in the mud there wouldn’t have been this type of outcry. While girls are awash in a sea of pink, they are more likely to be encouraged and celebrated for exploring and developing “masculine” characteristics, while boys are discouraged and shamed for developing “feminine” characteristics precisely because of masculinity’s cultural capital. What Ablow or Fox don’t acknowledge is that these are simply human characteristics, gendered one way or the other and thereby differently valued. As I wrote on my Feminist Fatale blog last week:
J. Crew’s ad doesn’t depict misguided and dangerous decisions made by J. Crew or parents like Jenna Lyons. The reactions and social outcry against it depict the dangerous world of gender policing within the system of patriarchy.
My toddler son has a thing for all things wheeled. He can easily distinguish a skip loader from a backhoe and a semi-truck from a dump truck. He’s also intrigued by my jewelery box, stacking bracelets high up his pudgy arms. After watching Mommy’s daily morning ritual of applying some eyeshadow and liquid liner on countless occasions, it’s none too surprising that he’s fascinated by my make-up box, eager to smear eyeshadow across his eyelids (forehead, nose and cheeks). My friend’s little boy loved sparkly ballet flats and dollhouses while another’s had a penchant for his sister’s pink tutu and glittered angel wings.
These boys are commonplace-and not represented in mainstream pop culture. There’s no room for these normal explorations in our hyper-segmented world of marketing. And, as a tragic example further down in this post will show, these normal, healthy childhood curiosities and small pleasures are usually quickly beaten out of boys, figuratively and literally.
And, advertising happens to be a major player in the active construction of culture and the socialization of it’s members (us!), a socialization process that shapes our expectations of ourselves and others, our desires and our relationships. In other words, the values and norms of a society are framed by the branded images and lifestyles consciously and carefully constructed by advertisers seeking to maximize profit.
J. Crew’s ad presents the idea that pink isn’t just for girls, just as blue isn’t just for boys. It expands the range of possibility for what girls and boys can do and be. It may be one ad running counter to a stream of narrowly defined ads that eliminate a full range of possibilities for boys and girls, but there it is.
And it makes me hopeful. And, sometimes, given the material I regularly work with, celebrating small victories and becoming hopeful is vital and necessary.
What year is this? 1880? 1922? 1957? 1963? 1978? 1982? 1997? 2010?
Well, according to the titles, it could be any of those years because not much has changed. Gender socialization is alive and well, folks. My former student, Jessie, wrote this after coming across more of the same:
Isn’t it lovely how Scholastic Books is publishing books that enforce gender-segregation (complete with “girl” and “boy” colors) which essentially maintain: little girls should be solely concerned with physical appearance and maintaining a relationships. Is adventure and greatness not suitable for little girls? I flipped through each of the books and found sections on “How to dress like a celebrity even if you’re not one” and “How to tie knots”. Guess which one was for little girls.
We often begin projecting socially constructed gender expectations on children before they’re even born, decorating the nursery in a specific color scheme. As soon as that child enters the world, the color codes, pierced ears, head bands on nearly bald heads and other clothingitems designed for infants erect the gendered foundation that will provide the template for much of their lives. Add in toys, books, cartoons and video games and that foundation sprouts a framework for their identity, their relationships with others and their world view. Throughout this process of gender socialization, beauty (with a disturbing increasing emphasis on “sexiness“) and relationships are emphasized for girls while independence and adventure are emphasized for boys.This trend continues well into adulthood through various agents of socialization, primarily the mass media which advertises normative masculinity and femininity.
Boys and men could learn a thing or two about cultivating and nurturing relationships. Enough with the lone adventurer- lets raise sensitive, strong and emotionally attuned boys and men. Simultaneously, beauty and relationships aren’t enough for girls and women. We need to redfine girly, offering our girls intellectual and physical challenges beyond the vanity and devalued emotional work.
We have much to gain from offering a full range of choices to boys and girls and valuing them equally.
I’m not ashamed to admit, I have a bit of an obsession with the 80′s. I grew up in the decade, spend plenty of time listening to the music of the time, and have seen VH1′s entire I Love The 80′s series more times than I can count. I toted my books to school in my Lisa Frank backpack, wrote on the stationary, used the pens and pencils, all decorated with trippy-neon penguins, polar bears, dolphins. So last week when I read on Jezebel, that Lisa Frank school products have received an update, I was incredibly disappointed to learn that the brand has traded in fushia and purple unicorns for images that better resemble Bratz dolls.
Unfortunately this is just the newest in a string of recent “makeovers” that 80s toys and cartoons have received:
Polly Pocket’s wardrobe now consists of high heels, miniskirts, midriff tops, and knee-hits, and she’s no longer, uh, pocket sized.
Barbie is a cultural icon. With her long, silky, blonde hair, perky breasts, cinched waist and mile-high legs Barbie represents mainstream definitions of physical perfection, the paragon of beauty and ideal femininity. Her shiny pink corvette, swanky townhouse, and oodles and oodles of perfectly accessorized outfits indicate her success within the consumer culture machine. Collectively, her physical and material assets (Eurocentric beauty, white-skin and class privilege rolled up into one statuesque doll), represent the collective dream spun by post-WWII advertisers and reinforced by the culture at large.
For more than 50 years, she has not waned in popularity (gained a pound, developed a wrinkle or gray hair) even in the face of mounting criticism.
Despite some of the negative headlines Barbie is still a hit with girls across America and the world.
More than one billion dolls have been sold since her inception, and according to the dolls makers, Mattel, 90% of American girls aged between three and 10 own at least one.
While Barbie is a manufactured fantasy, she remains an emblem of idealized femininity and a key element of gender socialization.
Barbie fan Danielle Scott, 16, said: “Playing with the hair, the brushes, switching outfits. It really just made girls be girls.
“All the characteristics of what to look forward to and what girls really could do…” she said.
While it is true that Barbie has had approximately 125 jobs over the last half-century (jobs that presumably allowed her to purchase her multiple homes, extensive wardrobe etc. etc)., Barbie is not famous for her resume. She is most well-known for her flawless figure and coveted beauty.
The list of products that pigeonhole girls in the clothes and makeup category goes on and on. Disney sells pink vanity tables for girls as young as 3, for example, and the European retailer Primark stocks a T-shirt in a 2-year-old size that’s emblazoned with the motto “S is for Super, Shopaholic, Soon-to-be-Supermodel.” Even old classics now offer girls’ versions, such as an all-pink Monopoly game in which the houses and hotels have been replaced by boutiques and malls, and a “Designer’s Edition” Scrabble that has letters on the front of the box spelling out fashion. It wasn’t always this way. A couple of decades ago, children’s clothing mostly came in primary colors and princesses were confined to the occasional film or Halloween costume. But as marketing to children has burgeoned into a multibillion-dollar industry, and our consumerist ethos has saddled kids with mountains of stuff, the gender divide has grown wider.
There are serious ramifications to all this marketing, the Moores say. The tidal wave of pink toys and clothes suggests there’s only one way to be a girl — pretty, princessy and fashion-minded. And this segues disturbingly quickly into often sexualized images of tween girls a few years older, says Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the book Packaging Girlhood. The not-so-subtle pressures of this marketing can damage self-esteem and feed worries about body image and appearance later in life, the sisters say. They also link it to a celebrity-obsessed culture that undermines adult women by glorifying glamour figures like Paris Hilton while neglecting those women engaged in more serious pursuits.
The Jezebel article questions the long-term effects of these toys that promote what Lynn Peril terms “pink think.“
Yet here we are, studiously deployed in the combat of such messages to girls and women. We somehow emerged intact — not immune to internalized sexism, of course, but able to think clearly and beyond it. Was my love of Perfect Wedding a form of Stockholm Syndrome, its effective antidote parents who expected me to be more than a future wife and an internship at Ms.? Or was it just a really, evilly fun game and not much more?
To answer the question posed above, I say no. My students analyze children’s toys and clothing utilizing a critical gendered lens every semester (in fact, I graded this semester’s papers this afternoon). In many ways, toys created and marketed to children today are more sexist and confining than those from my childhood. To say that the writers at a critical and conscious blog emerged unscathed from the messages promoting beauty and domesticity as the sources of happiness for girls and women is not a conclusion that is representative of the mass population. Those Jezebel writers are sassy, smart and conscious. They can sniff out things like misogyny, sexism and sexist stereotypes quickly and easily.
Like the writers at Jezebel, I consider myself conscious and equipped with the ability to detect double-standards, sexist stereotypes and gender expectations. And, like the writers and individuals commenting at Jezebel, I liked my girl toys. I owned over 40 Barbies, the vacation home and the 3-story townhouse with elevator. I had the pink corvette and bags full of clothes and accessories. I loved grooming and dressing my Barbies, getting them ready for parties and dates (and engaging them in naughty behavior with Ken). Given a choice, I would have played with and had my Barbies proudly on display well into my teens. My mother eventually convinced me that it was time to put them away when I got my first boyfriend at 14.
Clearly, I loved Barbie and all the pink paraphernalia associated with Barbie. But I also remember the scale that was perpetually fixed on 110 pounds. 110. The last time I weighed 110 was when I was 5′ 2″ and in 6th grade. But that number, Barbie’s impossible measurements and “perfect” body were stuck in my mind as examples of what a woman should weigh and look like. I am not blaming Barbie and her pink scale as the sole variables that impacted my distorted and negative body image through most of my life. But I do recognize Barbie as one toy and one aspect of gender socialization that is part of a larger cultural onslaught (see here and here) that encourages girls and women to focus on beauty and relationships (the former as a way to nab the latter).
I agree with Irin Carmon’s statement “We somehow emerged intact — not immune to internalized sexism, of course, but able to think clearly and beyond it” only because I spent years deconstructing and decoding the messages reinforcing these gendered themes my entire life. I don’t blame my toys alone and I don’t pretend that these toys didn’t bring me hours of immense satisfaction and fun. But I also don’t discount these toys as agents of gender socialization that helped frame my expectations of my self, my place in the world, my relationships and possibilities. I recognize my ability to transcend these messages and “think clearly and beyond” them thanks to Sociology and Women’s Studies courses and becoming media literate.
Elizabeth Banks posted a great article on the Huffington Post yesterday. She drools over Zac Efron while simultaneously acknowledging the awesome power of the mass media and teen icons to influence public consciousness and the construction of norms. Zac Efron is hugely popular with teens (and, apparently 3?-something women, according to Banks). In the same way that Rihanna and Chris Brown are role models, so is Zac Efron.
I had a huge problem with Knocked Up! even though I had a few chuckles and, overall, I likeSeth Rogen. That film basically presents the possibility of a pregnancy as the result of a one-night stand with a loser working out and the couple falling in love. Yeah, right. 17 Again makes teen parenting seem Ok. It doesn’t take the opportunity to send a realistic message about teen parenting albeit a brief comment from Margaret Cho. Shit, I’m 36, I have a career and an incredible man that is committed to our relationship and our child and parenting is STILL hard for both of us. I can’t even imagine being a teenager in high school. Holy smokes.
I can ( and do, quite often, thanks) enjoy the (eye) candy that the popular culture churns out in the same way Banks can while acknowledging the fact that too much of it can make you sick.
Here’s the thing though — the message of the movie seemed to be (and again, I may just be reading too much into the twirling fingers thing): knocking up your high school sweetheart is A-OK! Especially if you give up that Syracuse scholarship to marry her! F College!
Now, I am all for taking responsibility. I am. Which is why I wish this flick had dealt more directly with this little situation that served as the jumping off point for a PG-13 movie (attended by lots of kids not yet in the double digits). It tries to make up for it with a scene in which Margaret Cho tells us that “abstinence is best but let’s get real: just use condoms when you’re screwing around with each other.” Now, that statement at least gets close to something: if you are going to have sex, be safe. (Question: Why didn’t Hunter Parrish also take his shirt off in this flick?)
Unfortunately, this scene would have had a lot more impact if Zac Efron’s character not only acknowledged that sex can lead to babies but also that having a kid when you’re 18 is hard, hard, hard. (Spoiler alert: he should know, see, ‘cuz that’s what got him into this crazy mess!) Also, he doesn’t want his daughter (again, born when he was 18) to have sex with her high-school sweetheart yet his most powerful argument against it — HAVING A KID WHEN YOU ARE JUST GRADUATING HIGH SCHOOL IS HARD — I KNOW, I’M REALLY YOUR DAD! — never comes up. He’s just like, “fingers crossed!” Now, of course, the daughter does not have sex (totally unrealistically) and ends up lusting after Mr. Efron (totally realistically, who wouldn’t) and it’s creepy and weird.
My point here (sorry, I was looking up “image Hunter Parrish” on Google and got off-track) is that this movie pretty much glamorizes teenage parenting. It basically says: Go for it! Have a kid when you’re 18. Throw another one in for good measure right after and you’ll get a nice house, deck and hammock included, your baby mama apparently won’t need to work, your kids will eventually have iPods and get into Georgetown and the person you picked (when you were 17) is actually your soulmate! Don’t worry if the condom breaks — it’s cool! It’s totally worked out for Bristol, ya’ll! (Is it me or is Levi cute?)
The problem with this message is that, according to unreliable online sources and my own anecdotal evidence collected over my 3?-something years: this is crap. It’s a great Hollywood story (I really enjoyed this movie, did I say that?) but in reality, teenage parents (mothers, especially) face increased levels of poverty, lower education rates, and higher chances that their daughters will also end up teenage moms and their sons will end up in jail. (I would like to see Zac Efron and Hunter Parrish fight Channing Tatum in a jail flick).
In many ways, popular culture is seen as superficial, silly, stupid, “just entertainment,” and, if you critique it, you’re “too serious” and you need “to lighten up.” Well, considering the amount of romantic comedies I have ingested and ridiculous sitcoms I have thoroughly enjoyed, I’m not trying to be a stick in the mud or take away anyone’s viewing pleasure. I love romantic comedies. I’m a freakin’ sucker for them. But, I also know that these romantic comedies have had and continue to have an influence my own expectations and desires. Shit, who wouldn’t want some hot guy like Ryan Gosling wait for you for 8 years, build you a house and then make love to you in the rain. No wonder I have complained about the men in my past. That really set the bar high. A house?!
But, considering the level of mediation we are exposed to, we are foolish to dismiss the content of popular culture as irrelevant. The mass media does shape and actively construct culture. With that said, it’s irresponsible to make teen parenting seem fun considering the adverse side effects of teen parenting in 2009.
On September 11 and September 24, I wrote about the gender socialization of young boys and girls, specifically the construction of sexuality.
One of my students turned this advertisement for House of Dereon’s (Beyonce and Solange Knowles’ clothing company) children’s line. This is the first I had heard of it. Apparently, it made a debut back in May and there are numerous responses to be found online that echo the same sentiment: disgust.
Research showed that in 101 top-grossing G-rated movies released between 1990 and 2005, three out of four characters were male. Girls accounted for only 17 percent of the film’s narrators and 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes. Only seven of the 101 movies were nearly gender-balanced, with a ratio of less than 1.5 males per 1 female character. “Although many people would argue that things seem to be getting better, our data shows that this is not the case,” says the principal investigator, Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where the research was carried out.
What was revealed was not only the disparity of images between male and female characters but the typical gender socialization that continues throughout adulthood. As media analyst George Gerbner pointed out many years ago, it is not the introduction of one image or message that causes a change in one’s attitude of one’s self or the worl they inhabit that is worth noting. It is the repetitive and continuous stream of images that consistently reinforce the same values and norms from our earliest years throughout the life course. This concept is know as cultivation. Cultivation refers to the stability of these prolific messages versus the change-oriented model.
When one considers the process of cultivation in a media saturated culture, it is the seemingly benign, obvious messages that we don’t consciously take note of that constructs our sense of reality. In turn, this framework informs and shapes our expectations of who we and others should be and we consider these attitudes and behaviors as normative and natural.
Considering the work of Stacy Smith, Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne and many others that have actively studied gender and the media, it is not surprising that media directed at children hardly differs from media directed at adult men and women. Cartoons aimed at girls and boys carry the same messages/plots/themes/characters that “chick flicks” and “dick flicks” reinforce in adulthood.
Girls/women are encouraged to focus on beauty and relationships with men, After all, you must be beautiful to get a guy. Boys/men are encouraged to be tough, adventurous and independent. Considering the prolific and ubiquitous nature of the contemporary media, it is no surprise that young girls strive to be beautiful through more and more extreme measures. They are repeatedly told early on that girls/women must be beautiful in order to be validated in order to be considered worthy of a relationship. Boys/men are told repeatedly that real boys/men are tough and independent or they are considered weak and effeminate.
Essentialism, the notion that gendered behavior is inherent and “natural,” is not surprising considering a climate that cultivates attitudes, behaviors and expectations of girls/women and boys/men within a structured environment that provides a steady stream of images that constantly reinforce themselves. The images become unremarkable or un-noteworthy.
In this mediated cultural climate, negative sanctions in the form of derogatory names and physical punishment is also unsurprising. If gendered characteristics and their expected behaviors are sen as inevitable and natural, punishment for one’s transgression is seen as inevitable. And, that’s where the danger resides.