The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Pink Pastel Princesses: Gender Conditioning And Girlhood

Posted by Clem Bastow on August 13, 2008

Melbourne Author Monica Dux had a fascinating piece in The Age this week questioning whether dressing daughters as fairies, princesses and ballerinas – in a range of pinks that would make “blush and bashful” Shelby from Steel Magnolias reach for a sick bag – is healthy, or even whether it might be at the root of the issues surrounding the apparent sexualisation of teens.

We’re living in a period of growing sensitivity about how we depict our girl children, revealed most tellingly in the commotion surrounding Bill Henson’s art, and restated in the objections raised against the July cover of Art Monthly. We have also heard a chorus of commentators passionately condemning the rise of “raunch culture”. We are warned that girls are losing their innocence prematurely in our media-saturated world. Bratz dolls, pole-dancing kits marketed to children, and even David Jones catalogues have all been censured for intensifying the sexualisation of young girls.

Yet amid all this anxiety, we seem to be overlooking the pink elephant in the nursery, the one in fairy wings and a tiara. Like raunch culture, the fairy princess aesthetic and its associated paraphernalia serve to entrench an extremely narrow idea of femininity, impressing on young girls that they are pretty, flighty little objects to be admired and marvelled at, rather than active young things seeking out adventure.

This reinforces a passive understanding of what it is to be female, encouraging fantasies that are focused less on action, and far more on how you look. Of course, fairies and princesses can have adventures, but hyper-feminised modes of dressing put the focus squarely on appearance, teaching girls that self-worth is measured by how pretty you are, and not by what you do.

This is not a new argument. It’s gender-equality 101. What is fresh is the whiff of hypocrisy surrounding those parents who so readily lament the rise of raunch, while at the same time dressing their daughters in ways that entrench objectifying feminine stereotypes.

Next time you join a conversation decrying the “pornifaction” of our society, express concern about teenage girls dressing like strippers or vent your outrage at a billboard featuring a semi-clad woman, ask yourself how all this starts. Isn’t it at least plausible that the scantly clad teenage girl who bases her self-worth on seeking the sexual approval of men started out as a toddler princess being told how pretty she is?

Read the whole thing, it’s a terrific piece.

I have always been highly critical of the whole ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ divide; you need only look in the latest Target toy catalogue to see that little girls’ toys and playsets involve things like kitchens, laundries, fashion and babies. To me, giving young girls baby dolls and mini-kitchens says “This is what you have to look forward to when you grow up.”

When I was little, I wanted to be Pete Venkman from Ghostbusters, and my parents obliged (Dad made me an impressive proton pack out of an old vacuum cleaner, some Duplo blocks and a can of silver spray-paint). I had “princess dresses”, too, but like the proton pack, they were just another part of my many fantasy worlds. I liked Belle (from Beauty & The Beast) and Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and had their corresponding dolls, not because they were Disney Princesses™, but because they were sparky and independent. I wouldn’t say I was a tomboy, more that I was – at least as far as the dominating “theme” of my toys and dress-ups – gender neutral.

Thus, the idea of a pink bedroom full of frills is somewhat alien to me, so I would be interested to hear from women who were “princesses” when they were little. Was it your idea, or did your parents and family provide the fripperies?

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21 Responses to “Pink Pastel Princesses: Gender Conditioning And Girlhood”

  1. Sara said

    I was somewhat of a ‘princess’ before I hit about the age of ten, with this one fairy-type dress that I insisted on wearing all the time (to the supermarket, in the bath, etc, etc). I have no clue if it was my idea to get the dress in the first place or not, and can’t say I quite remember my sense of agency at that age. I was provided with ‘doctor’ Barbie, however (not the pinnacle of gender neutrality, I know, but at least she wore a long white coat instead of a skimpy little nurse’s outfit. She still did have perky unrealistic breasts, and her feet were forever in the position to wear high heels, however). So did my ‘princess’ tendencies carry on into my later life? Well, I guess they did inasmuch as I’m very comfortable wearing dresses (that is, ‘comfortable’ physically as opposed to comfortable-wearing-them-because-the-patriarchy-tells-me-I-have-to) and if my parents dressed me differently then perhaps my feelings of physical comfort might have been different. But as far as my views on marriage, domesticity, raunch culture or sexual stereotyping go, I don’t feel that my childhood upbringing had any particular influence there. It was at school, I would argue, where I developed my views on such matters, and I guess it’s at schools as well as homes that should be scrutinised for overlooking gender equality. Our Phys Ed classes often split up so the boys played soccer and the girls played rounders (never the other way around)…etc.

    On a semi-unrelated note, I never had one of these, and I don’t think they were even around when I was little, but if we’re going to continue to give our children dolls, I’ve always been a fan of the idea of those ones that piss and shit everywhere (did I make this up? I’m starting to wonder)… they send a great realistic message to our kids. Ha!

  2. Clem Bastow said

    I borrowed my best friend’s sister’s Baby Born once, and I made it vomit by “feeding” the food up its bum. Turns out the eating/pooing mechanism was fairly uncomplicated.

    It also turned out I was no longer welcome to borrow toys ;-)

  3. Mel Campbell said

    Oh, I was as girly as you get. A lot of the infrastructure was provided – my bedroom wallpaper was a print of pink roses, with matching bedlinen – but I remember insisting on things like learning ballet, wearing dresses (I refused to wear jeans until grade 5) and Barbies (although I was only ever allowed one). And my first sustained piece of writing, age 5, was called The Three Robot Princesses.

    Because that’s the thing, I might have been into girly stuff but I was also obsessed with robots. And building cubbies. And drawing maps. And dinosaurs. And being an amateur naturalist. And I always identified with He-Man and Astro Boy.

  4. This is one of my pet peeves, also. I struggle every time I hear my brother-in-law call his daughter his “princess”. Her mother is an artist, he’s an animator (and an avid Disney hater), they aren’t married, don’t conform to gender stereotypes and really don’t have any form of a traditional life.

    Somehow, though, he’s still managed to buy into a gender shaping concept before she even hits school. You can already see it shaping her perception of herself and what is expected of her. Which makes me cringe.

    It also makes me examine what you’re up against even if you don’t buy into it or support it with your own daughters. How do you stop other influences? Other family and friends, their children, playgroups, kinder, school… they all shape and create messages. You can try to give them as many positive female (or at least gender neutral) influences, but it’s pretty much you vs. the world. Finding gender-neutrality in books, movies, toys etc is sure to become exhausting. And does it all get undone when they reach that age when what their friends think about princesses and the colour pink matter more than what your parents say?

  5. Mel Campbell said

    I was thinking some more about this earlier tonight when reading a Big Dubs catalogue and realising to my horror that it was an ALL BABY STUFF, ALL THE TIME catalogue.

    I found myself looking at the baby clothes and going, “Yeah, my imaginary daughter would look pretty sweet in that robot T-shirt with those gold ballet flats” or “yes, green is a nice, gender-neutral colour”. Yet there were boys’ T-shirts saying things like “Mummy’s Little Winner” and girls’ T-shirts saying “Daddy’s Little Princess”.

    In a possibly unrelated anecdote, I once saw a pair of goths walking down the street with their baby, who was dressed in fluffy pastels like any other baby.

  6. Clem Bastow said

    My favourite parenting moment of recent memory was the mum who brought her toddler daughter to the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle – baby enjoyed a cracking day out, strapped into her stroller and giggling the whole way… with a SFX make-up gunshot wound to the forehead.

  7. I’ve tried my best to get my daughter interested in transformers and other traditional boy toys- for the selfish reason that I would much prefer playing with them- but instead she insists on My Little Ponies. And while my daughter can belch with the best of them and laugh at fart jokes (she is a very accomplished 3 year old) she still wants to play with kitchen sets, pink ponies, and princess dresses.

    I am not so sure that the Target catalog is is to blame for my daughters interests. I walk her through the whole toy section- both boys and girls- and I’ve almost never seen her gravitate toward the boy toys. And the few times I tried to introduce boy toys (like transformers) she won’t let me do anything with them aside from having them take trips with the ponies to the museum and play with the kitchen set- the transformer usually ends up drinking lots of tea.

  8. Dollface said

    Great post and thanks for linking to that article. It’s an interesting argument. I personally grew up as a tomboy…never wore dresses until high school. If your little girl wants to wear pink dresses, let her, but allow her to play with matchbox cars and G.I Joes too.

    (On the other spectrum of things, my little brother grew up playing with barbies…his favorite was the Ken doll…and it honestly hasn’t made him any less of a guy’s guy)

  9. tina_sparkle said

    a toy and clothing gender-neutral household? ours was not. I was very spoiled by my mother and maternal grandparents, so lots of pink, pastels, dollies, fluff and makeup. I had a pink hollie hobbie bedroom (with mint green walls which I later came to despise). I don’t recall ever being given a ‘boy’s toy’ to play with, nor do I remember my brother getting dolls (even ones with huge potential for hilarious toilet humour and gross-out factor, like clem’s experience).

    I realise now that my dad was embracing his inner feminist by refusing to let me have any more things in pink from about the age of 5 onwards. the downside of course is that as an adult, I now gravitate towards pink and pastels because I feel I was oppressed by my dad in refusing to let me be a true feminist and make my own choice!

  10. audrey said

    Hmmm. I am very much against the phrase ‘daddy’s little princess’ and men calling girls or women princesses in general. I recommend Emily Maguire’s Princesses and Pornstars for a greater analysis on why the polarised stereotypes of female expression are both damaging.

    But when I was a little girl, I loved all the girly shit. I had a mound of barbies, pink pink pink in everything and wanted to be a ballerina so badly I refused to wear anything but a leotard and ballet slippers for about a year. I loved getting into my mother’s makeup and whenever I played games with my friends they revolved around us being secretaries or something.

    So, on paper that all looks really bad. But as anyone can tell, it hasn’t crossed over into my adult life. And my feminist awakening didn’t come from anything my parents did or didn’t do – it just seemed like a natural progression.

    As an aside, my games with barbies always revolved around them having sex.

    I don’t know, I guess I’m just not convinced that these things are always reinforced by parents or society or anything in particular other than that maybe girls, on the whole, gravitate towards pretty things at a young age. It doesn’t have to spell eternal damnation for them though.

  11. 'Lex said

    My mother is a childhood sociologist and raised us in a strictly gender-neutral environment. One of her daughters grew up completely oblivious to the fact that little girls were “supposed” to like pink things, and the other daughter was the most girly-girl you can imagine.

    (Although girly-girl in the 80s was very different to now – there was no disney channel and there certainly wasn’t the wide variety of princess toys and costumes available that you can find today.)

    But in the end, we have grown up to be very similar adults; we dress the same as each other and we have the same kinds of attitudes to work, relationships and families.

    I don’t like the princess mentality or the consumerism that goes with a lot of girly toys and clothing, but a preference for pretty things and toys that simulate domestic work or appeal to maternal instincts aren’t a problem in themselves, whether they’re played with by girls or boys. In my opinion.

  12. Rosetta said

    I am the mother of two girls aged 5 and 7. I, along with their father, take a very proactive, feminist approach in raising them.

    There are no princesses in our house. We don’t buy conventional toys designed with the socialised, gender-stereotyped ‘girl’ in mind. I actively discourage any play acting that might mimic stereotypical gender roles and they certainly don’t witness this at home anyway. There are no Bratz or Barbie dolls, no pretend kitchen appliances, and no pink princess clothing.

    I see so many mothers encouraging their daughters to be like little dolls – pretty, dressed up, and acting cute. Girls tend to receive praise for how they look, not for what they do. I encourage my daughters to play using their imaginations. They read, draw, sculpt, paint, and are generally creative in so many ways. They are not influenced by television as we restrict their viewing to only a few shows.

    I like that Monica states that sometimes parents have to just say no to their children. I believe that it is my responsibility to make decisions for my 5 and 7 year olds that are designed to not only protect, but also enrich them.

  13. Mel Campbell said

    Perhaps ultimately it’s the aggressive princess-flavoured consumerism that is the most repugnant thing, rather than the girly tendencies themselves.

    I also remember Maggie Alderson has devoted many recent columns to her vain attempts to interest her daughter in ‘tasteful’ toys and gender-neutral clothes – the kid demands Bratz and fairy outfits, etc.

    Not being a mum, I tell myself I’d refuse to buy that stuff, but perhaps it’s just really tough to be the bad guy all the time. What if your kids grow up like tina_sparkle, feeling like you’d oppressed them?

  14. dawniedee said

    Thank you, thank you! My sister and I have this discussion often about her two daughters. The g-parents don’t help the cause by purchasing every little pink and girly thing, but Kim (my sister) and I agree that having me as their motorcycle driving, basketball playing, gender-bending influence helps alot. And my gifts to them are always about choice, for example, i sent the 8 yr old both kinds of sneakers for her birthday this year, so she could wear both, or not.

  15. mscate said

    It’s an interesting issue. I had a twin brother and since we already got alot of attention for being twins (including some matching skivies and overalls) we invariably ended up with the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ version of things. I remember being an avid reader as a child more than a doll player though.

  16. Bri said

    I try to make a point of buying my 22 month old daughter clothes in colours other than pink, but it is hard as most the little girl clothing available IS pink. I also haven’t got her any dolls etc. Her grandfather gave her a rag doll for Xmas but she doesn’t play with it. She does however play with her teddy as a baby (she feeds it and puts it to bed). I believe she is just copying what she sees me do with her. Just as when she wants to use the kitchen utensils when either myself or her father cook, so we bought her her own set for the sake of peace. That said she also has toy cars, blocks and an 11 yr old brother who rough houses with her, plays ball with her and all the rest. For every time she is told she is pretty, she is also told she is clever or some other description. She likes to take her “handbag” everywhere with her because she sees me take a bag with me. She has her phone and her purse in it, just as I do. I am very aware that she wants to mimic what I do and I am very aware of not pushing her into traditional roles etc. She sees her father cook, she sees her grandfather clean, she sees me stay at home with her, study and work at times. It will be interesting to see how it all works out in the long run. I was a real girly girl. I hated to wear jeans or track pants (and in fact I didnt from age 5 to 11) and I loved dolls and playing dress up etc. This was not actively encouraged by my parents other than the dolls they did give me when I requested them for birthdays etc. But I also lived on a farm and participated in the farm chores. I also had a train set and toy cars. My mother stayed at home some of my childhood and worked the rest of it. I wouldn’t say she was a staunch feminist but I think she embodied a lot of feminist values. I hope my daughter will see me for the feminist I am and that she will see that I have done what I can to challenge gender stereotypes while raising her.

  17. Ruby Murray said

    As a child, I refused to wear anything that wasn’t pink or red. It drove my staunch feminist mother beserk. We famously had a fight one day when I insisted on wearing a pink taffeta dress to the park in the rain. Mum spent two hours trying to force me into track pants while I screamed as if blue would burn me. In the end, she gave up, I wore the dress to the park, and from that day on I dressed myself.

    With varying degrees of success.

    Why can’t girls be attracted to pink? I’m a feminist, I wear pink, and as a child I played with dolls and thought I was a princess much of the time, and I don’t think any of these things are mutually exclusive.
    Sometimes, the way we talk about the role of the feminine implies that pink, because of its feminine connotations, is somehow dangerous for girls, as if it’s the act of BEING GIRLY is dangerous.

    I think we need to be careful that, in addressing the way children play, we not tell girls that they’re ‘not allowed’ to perform certain acts of play because they might be considered feminine and therefore somehow inferior.

    Just because it’s feminine doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad.’

    Furthermore, girls who dress up as princesses aren’t being submissive. Watch them doing it and you’ll see the bossy little hell-child coming out. They’re running kingdoms, waving their wands, issuing commands, changing worlds. Just like girls who play with dolls turn into control freaks, organising societies, dealing out punishment for bad behaviour, constantly breaking and recreating the norms and structures they see in the surrounding social world in an attempt to understand it.

    And playing at cooking is something both sexes should be encouraged to do, isn’t it? Because understanding about food preparation and nutrition early on is pretty awesome, really.

    Shouldn’t real feminism support a girl’s right to be a mechanic if she wants to one day, and a princess ruling a kingdom the next?
    When did it become more feminist to play with cars than to play with dolls? Bratz are disgusting and sexualised, but that doesn’t mean that playing with dolls is bad… it means that playing with Bratz is bad.

    I guess what I want to say is: I don’t think we should throw the princess out with the bath water. She’ll rule the kingdom one day, after all. Just try and teach her to be aware, compassionate, and involved in the politics of her world.

  18. audrey said

    Ruby Murray, I could not agree with you more! You’ve articulated this perfectly – I have reservations about Rosetta’s comment up above because it seems as if anything remotely ‘girly’ is discouraged in her house.

    But the thing is – what if her little girls want to occasionally play at being mothers, cooks, teachers, nurses, princesses etc? With the possible exception of the last one (purely in terms of connotation) what’s wrong with these things? By denying access to these things, you do create an impression that they’re ‘bad’ – and that’s just not the case. Why is it that boys toys are supposedly so much healthier for little girls to play with?

    As an aside, I’ve often noticed that some women seem to bend over backwards to highlight their tomboy histories. There seems to be an element of pride in being as un-girly as possible. I can only imagine that stems from feeling that to be girl-like in any way other than anatomically is somehow a bad thing.

  19. Clem Bastow said

    Audrey, I think “boys'” toys that are specifically pitched as being “male” are just as bad – all the tool kits and knives and guns. The whole “boys section” and “girls section” at the toy shop/catalogue is worrying to me (even if this post/piece is specific to little girls’ experiences).

    I think – and this is coming from a perspective of someone for whom the idea of parenting/having kids is a million miles away – that maybe what’s a good idea is just removing any sense of “gendering” from toys; throwing them all in the toy basket at once, so whether it’s G.I. Joe day or My Little Pony day, it’s the child’s choice depending on what they pull out at the time.

    This is key, I think – if a little girl wants to play as Tinkerbell, fine; it’s when it’s assumed/dictated that that’s what she should/will want by parents/relatives that things get sticky.

  20. audrey said

    Clem, totally agree.

  21. Rosetta said

    Audrey and Ruby Murray – you’ve both made some interesting points here. I suppose I am trying to take a gender neutral approach with regard to play.

    I certainly don’t regard anything feminine as inherently ‘bad’, but I am conscious of not being influenced by stereotypes. I prefer to encourage imaginative play and constructive activities. Reading is a favourite activity and there are certainly a great variety of books available.

    My primary objective is not to project gender stereotypes onto my daughters. I don’t want them to experience any expectation that they should behave in certain ways just because they’re female. At their ages gender shouldn’t matter.

    I should add that this is just how we live and it’s not a problem for us. My daughters have not expressed any desire to be princesses or play with Bratz dolls. It just isn’t part of their lives.

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