A few items have caught my eye over the last days. A friend and peer, Michelle Smith, has an excellent piece in The Age about the new Lego range for girls. (She blogs about it here.) What I really love about her approach to the topic is that she begins:
"In a 1970s advertisement for Lego, a small girl holds up a free-form construction, made up of a jumble of different types of bricks and figures. She is wearing a blue T-shirt, a pair of jeans and blue sneakers, and her red hair is plaited."
It's very easy to see issues like this one become linear: somewhat along the lines that 'girls have always been commercially segregated from boys and this needs to change.' In fact, if you go back in history, you'll find that there are many, many periods in which boys had long curls and were fitted into dresses for the first few years and, likewise, that pink was the traditional colour for boys until the last century. Yet, there has been an increasingly aggressive move towards 'pink marketing' for girls and it's difficult to ignore.
Now, this is problematic, not simply because I agree - girls don't always want everything in pink and marketing executives shouldn't assume they do. It's lazy, for a start. But it also inspires campaigns like PinkStinks and while I agree with much of the campaign's argument, I still wince at how the colour, intentionally or not, becomes the crux of the outrage, rather than the marketing approach to the colour. I like pink. Pink isn't the problem. It's the way pink is being used in this commercial context that is the problem.
In fact, I think part of the reason pink creates such tension is that it is an assertive colour. I've blogged about this before. You rarely find someone saying 'I hate blue' with the same vehemence. Pink is divisive. Pink doesn't care what you think. Pink has the potential to be revolutionary. (Note my little joke there.)
I worry when the response to marketing for girls is reduced, essentially, to an attempt to stamp out pink and maybe sparkles and princess dresses too (which would be a shame, because you'd miss stuff like this). Inevitably, immediately following this attempt, is a reassertion of the binary by which all that is offered to girls is 'bad'. What is offered to boys is 'good'. See what's happening there?
I confess, as a girl myself, I insisted on wearing long dresses with puffy sleeves and sashes and playing with dolls. My mother made all my dresses to my exacting standards and my best ever Christmas was when she made me a new wardrobe for my dolls, mostly with scraps from my pretty dresses (they were often in blue, incidentally, and as you can see, I didn't really pay attention to marketing and didn't even know Barbie dolls existed). But before you judge me, I will add that all my friends were boys. I taught the boys how to skip and behave properly at tea parties. I played outdoors with them, teaching them how to chase dragons and hop over alligator swamps. (Yes, I was pretty assertive, too.) It didn't occur to me until the second year of school that I was 'supposed to' play with girls. That is still one of my saddest days ever and I've never entirely gotten over the heartbreak. (Edited to add: That wasn't actually intended as a pointless personal ramble. The point I wanted to illustrate is that each girl's experience is unique, being girly doesn't necessarily mean you lack assertiveness, and that girls and boys can play at a whole range of games irrespective of supposed gender assignations.)
So I watch these debates with some concern. I particularly worry when a voice pops up asking about the boys and whether it isn't also sad that they have a restricted range of toys marketed to them, a range that doesn't include little stoves and mops, and inevitably someone takes that person to task, 'because boys are privileged.' They're not privileged if they can't easily go into the toy shop and ask for pink fairy wings or a plastic saucepan! Patriarchy is bad for girls and boys. We're not going to get rid of the gender binary and create gender equality if we simply insist all girls should wear jeans and play with trucks. We're not going to get rid of the gender binary and create gender equality by outlawing pink. It's rather like saying it's anti-feminist to make cupcakes. And often, it's not what is being said, but how people are interpreting it.
This isn't what thoughtful, open-minded people like Michelle Smith are saying, but just look at the comments to some of these pieces and you see these extremes come into play.
Mind, I also got a little frustrated at a piece in The Guardian on comic books and women by Ben Quinn. Here's a little snippet:
"'There is a certain sensitivity that you find in women's art that just does not appear in a lot of guys' work,' says James Pearson, who edited the anthology, which follows the story of escaped slaves taking refuge in a swamp."
Oh no, I thought, sighing a little. It's not so bad, but I always feel unhappy when emotions or creativity become gendered. We do need to see more women artists and writers in comics, but they don't necessarily have to produce 'feminine' content, whatever that is. Can one truly tell if an artist is male or female? We used to debate in the unit, 'Writing Women,' whether one could tell if the author was male or female and if it even mattered. A student memorably told us about a friend who insisted he couldn't abide women writers. She smirked. He had a poster of George Elliot on his wall.
Finally, it was incredibly soppy, but I really loved this year's Doctor Who Christmas special. As I noted to some friends - spoiler alert - I especially enjoyed watching a woman carry an entire forest in her head without exploding, without dying, and without having to have the Doctor take the burden because she wasn't strong enough. Those who have watched previous series might know what I mean.