Pink isn’t for this girl

LAST weekend I tried to buy my daughter a toy tip-truck. In our inner-city see-saw zone, Tonka-type items are crucial for the moving of playground bark from one spot to another, an activity that can absorb the average attention-deficited ankle biter for a truly gratifying number of minutes.

In our inner-city see-saw zone, there’s also a lot of heated chit-chat about nature v nurture when it comes to gender stereotypes. Parents often say there’s no point trying to raise kids in a gender-neutral fashion because the boys just end up using their Barbies as swords while the girls wrap their water pistols in blankets to make them feel better.

Another common complaint is that gender-neutral parenting can only work for so long. The other day an Ellen DeGeneres-ish mum moaned about her daughter’s choice of slippery-dip outfit. (For the record, it was a hot pink dress with spaghetti straps over a hot pink frock with puffy sleeves teamed with hot pink love-heart tights and hot pink rubber boots with sparkles.)

“Zoe’s favourite colour used to be purple,” this mum said wistfully. “Then she started pre-school and insisted on pinking-up like the rest of the girls. I’d hate her to get picked on for looking different but now she says that when she grows up she wants to be a mermaid. Before pre-school, it was `spaceship driver’.”

At 21 months, my daughter, Alice, doesn’t act like a stereotypical girl or boy so much as a stereotypical category five cyclone. But finding her clothes and toys from the gender-neutral middle ground is getting harder and harder.

In big clothing shops, the girly section is Tinkerbelled to within an inch of its life: everything is plastered with cutesy flowers, giddy frills and glittery love hearts, and the colour choice is limited to pastel pink, shocking pink or, if you’re the parent of a total tomboy, pink with a bit of white.

In the boys section, all items are blue and branded with an image of a car, bus, train or roaring animal (males, apparently, being the only members of society who commute or notice lions).

The discount toy warehouse we went to on our tip-truck mission was even worse: a wall of pink flotsam and Bratzsom marked “girls” and a wall of everything else marked “boys”.

In the former were itsy bitsy kitchen sets, talking vacuum cleaners, vanity mirrors with make-up, princess and fairy paraphernalia, and a zillion dolls including one that required nappy changes.

In the latter were weapons such as guns, swords and space pistols, as well as plastic cash registers and ATMs, building equipment, toy computers, kites, the mandatory range of transport units and “educational toys” such as alphabet jig-saw puzzles and abacuses (males, apparently, being the only members of society who spell or add things up).

Unlike Zoe’s mum, I doubt whether gendered clothing and toys alone have the power to transform little girls from aspiring astronauts into helpless princesses who require rescuing by handsome male commuters. Still, I can’t help thinking that something dreadfully wrong is going on.

Why, when working women are now the rule rather than the exception, is kiddy consumer culture encouraging the antiquated notion that the role of girls is strictly Stepford?

Alice, meanwhile, was delighted with her new boy-section tip-truck and spent many happy minutes pushing it round saying vroom before yoking it violently round her neck and announcing it was a scarf. Another mum, whose daughter was a crystal-ball carrying member of the crimson corps, smiled brightly and said that when my little princess grew up she was obviously going to be a fashion model.

I wanted to ask what part of vroom she didn’t understand. I wanted to ask why she didn’t encourage her kid to choose from a balanced range of clothing colours and toy types in the same way parents are supposed
to encourage eating from a healthy range of food groups.

Instead, Alice and I moved off to another corner of the playground where she could wear her earth-moving equipment in peace. My secret hope is that when she grows up she’ll continue to be the El Nino effect regardless of the colour of her clothes.

- originally published in The Australian on 25-09-2008.

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