Toy Guns And Dolls, And My Pink-Loving Son
The father of a four-year-old boy thought the idea of colors and toys for boys and girls was a thing of the past. Turns out he was wrong.
“Papá, is pink for girls?” asked Lorenzo, my four-year-old son.
Lorenzo usually listens attentively to the stories we read at home. Sometimes, I think it seems like a paradox, because the rest of the time he can't sit still (literally, I'm not exaggerating). I wonder if it's that, as he listens to the stories, his body is relaxed but his head is doing somersaults.
He often interrupts his night-time stories — I suspect in the hopes of stretching the ritual out as long as possible so as not to fall asleep. “I don't want to sleep anymore, I just want to play,” he told me last Sunday, as we were walking home at night after having spent the whole day playing with his friends.
But back to pink. This time, his interruption of the reading had an edge of concern — his frown and serious tone showing a mix of sadness and distress.
Pink has been Lorenzo's favorite color for a long time, since he learned to say the colors. At home, he chooses the pink plate to eat, the pink crayon to paint, the pink fork, the pink teaspoon. Even with food: “helado pink,” he says, mixing the word for ice cream in Spanish with his beloved color, which comes out faster in English (and it's easier than saying “de frutilla,” strawberry).
Do I need to say that I always feel a lot of tenderness towards him in those moments? He is both effusive and joyful, especially when it comes to asking for ice cream. The point is that everything was going well with the colors until Lorenzo encountered the world outside our home. And a question emerged in my mind: how long will he be able to feel comfortable choosing pink?
The book we were reading was The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. It's about a little boy who gets letters from each of his crayons. Each color has something to tell him: whether he used it too much or too little, whether he painted within the boundaries or not or what the true color of the sun was.
Until the pink crayon’s letter appears, which refers to the fact that the boy's sister uses it (and that he didn't use it even once). That's when Lorenzo asked me if pink was for girls. “No, why? Here it says that his sister wears it a lot, and that he could wear it too.”
After talking for a while, he ended up telling me that he had been told so at kindergarten. This seemed to take a weight off his shoulders. For him, it was a serious thing: this was his all-time favorite color, and apparently it was wrong. How was this possible?
Both homophobia and misogyny played a role in denying boys anything associated with girls.
I immediately told him no, all colors are for everyone. And then, trying to anticipate something that could happen — or guessing that it was not the first time he was questioned — I added: “Well, there are people who think that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. But I don't agree. I think everyone can choose the color they like the most. If you like pink, it's perfect.”
There was silence. “Ah, OK,” he said.
As an article in El País points out, “We must not forget that conventions about the meanings of each color are arbitrary, and changing over time.”
The next time we have a conversation about pink, I'll tell Lorenzo something I've just discovered: pink was not only related to masculinity for a long time, and only started to be seen as a “girl’s color” in the United States around the end of the Second World War — a perception that solidified in the 1980s.
Why? “I think both homophobia and misogyny played a role in denying boys anything associated with girls,” said U.S. historian Jo Paoletti, who has dedicated her career to studying the construction of gender stereotypes through fashion, in an interview with Argentina’s Clarín newspaper.
Boys will be boys, girls will be pink?
Pink, the tip of the iceberg
Let me add a disclaimer here: I am not making a big deal about a color, because it is not "just about a color." This is about what is behind the words and, above all, about the ideas and everything surrounding them.
Pink was the first episode of this type with Lorenzo. In the weeks that followed, he was again questioned about his tastes and desires. First, the color; then toys and games.
“The teacher told me I can't play with Barbies, because they're for girls.”
Again, unnecessary discomfort. The messages from the outside world are starting to pile up. I ask him the same question: “Do you like Frozen and playing with Barbies?”
“Yes, I like them, but I can't play because they’re not for boys, they’re for girls.”
So, back to the same chat, to try to help him to do what he enjoys the most, without feeling shame. But this time, the talk is more difficult.
“No, papá, Frozen is for girls,” he says, a little nervous. He’s holding a Frozen folder he had bought a few days earlier.
“But do you like Frozen?”
“Yes, very much. But it’s for girls.”
The harm of denying choice
“If children are denied the ability to choose, their ability to choose becomes limited, because choosing is a learning process. If we limit this ability to choose, we limit citizens,” warns Argentine political scientist Esmeralda Siuffi, author of Todos los colores son tuyos (“All the Colors Are Yours”).
Siuffi draws attention to the social pressure on girls and boys to “choose” toys and clothes according to the color assigned to their gender.
In the story, based on real events, a concerned girl looks for answers to questions that arise from what she is told outside her home about colors. “One of those concerns is linked to the differentiation of the overalls in the kindergarten, the difference in the bathrooms, the different games. Why could my cousins go play in the mud when it rained and I could not?" asks Georgina Salas, the story’s illustrator.
A 2019 report by the Argentine Center for Political Economy (CEPA) found that 40% of toys aimed at girls are linked to care tasks. Baby dolls, with all their variations such as bath accessories, "learning to talk," breastfeeding and so on, are the most common toy categorized as “for girls.” In other words, since childhood, toys are made to create nurturing mothers.
What seems like a simple color is much more than that.
When it comes to toys “for boys,” the CEPA report says 30% of toys are related to sports, 26% are associated with violence — mostly guns — while 19% are linked to cars and accessories and 9% are brain teasers.
“If 40% of the toys for girls are designed to make them perform domestic work, for boys, this type of toy represents a resounding 0%," the report concludes. This is not only an Argentine reality: my family and I live in Greece, on the outskirts of Athens. Or take a look at the press in Spain, where there are regularly reports and articles about it.
In the end, I believe, as Siuffi points out, that “Colors are the starting point to be able to think about a topic that may seem to be as abstract as inequality, and to make it understandable for children — not only to describe what generates inequality, but to transform reality.”
“Many of us learned to make choices based on restrictions, which also closed off other possibilities for thinking and living our lives. This restriction of our world began with a root phrase such as 'Don't wear pink because it's for girls' and 'Don't wear light blue because it's for boys' ... and extended in an unlimited way to condition our entire lives, from don't play this, don't study that, don't work there, don't think like that, don't practice that sport and an endless list of refusals that began with an apparently innocuous initial prohibition,” says Siuffi.
The point is: if we stop to think about it, what seems like a simple color is much more than that. It's far from innocuous. So, Lorenzo dear, use the colors and toys you like the most. But when you're done, please tidy everything up, okay?
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