What’s Small and Cute and Pink All Over? Almost Every Toy in the “Girls” Aisle of the Toy Store

31 Dec

When I started We Are SkeptiXX, I was so pumped about the blog—especially after PZ Myers mentioned it on Pharyngula, which resulted in the views on the blog jumping from 18 on its inaugural day of December 1 to 1,604 on December 3 and a whopping 2,249 on December 4. I pretty much invited everyone I know to contribute, male or female. As long as the post is in keeping with the blog’s stated purpose of “supporting women in the skeptics movement,” I would love to consider any and all submissions for the site. When Ben sent me the expanded version of a piece he had done for Discovery News as a submission for SkeptiXX, I hadn’t even read the original post yet and so told him I’d need to look it over before posting it. When I finally got the chance to read it, I was actually pretty taken aback. I was hesitant to post it, but not because I disagree with the majority of what he wrote—after all, a big part of skepticism is civil argument about questioned claims. But I couldn’t figure out what the post had to do with “supporting women in the skeptics movement.” I started to reply to the article on a very long Facebook thread, but then I realized I might as well reply in this forum instead. Below you’ll find Ben’s original We Are SkeptiXX submission that expands on his online article. Below that is my counter-response. I hope you enjoy the exchange and will let us know what you think in the comments section.

Ben Radford’s “Riley on Marketing—Anatomy of an Internet Sensation”:

Riley Maida, a four-year-old New York girl, has become an unlikely feminist and media-literacy superstar almost overnight. She rose to national prominence over the past week after her father captured her rant in the aisle of a toy store, complaining that girls are forced to buy pink-colored items and princess dolls. Riley’s father posted the video on YouTube (where it’s gotten over 2 million hits), and from there it bounced around social media sites, finally landing her a spot on the ABC Nightly News, where Diane Sawyer profiled the plucky girl and referred to her as a “superhero philosopher.”

A writer for ABC News, Maggy Patrick, explained that during the rant “Riley surprisingly turns to very adult logic. She tears into companies for targeting certain toys toward a specific gender. ‘Because the companies, make these, try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy, right?” Riley asks, “Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?” Her skewering of (apparently) sexist marketing has made her a hero among millions.

Rather than metaphorically patting Riley condescendingly on the head, let’s take her seriously, and examine the truth behind her statements and questions. After all, girls’ ideas and opinions should be respected and taken seriously. If her rant is worth discussing, let’s discuss it.

The problem is that Riley is wrong: Girls don’t have to buy princesses, and boys don’t have to buy superheroes. Girls don’t have to buy pink things, and boys don’t have to buy toys that are blue, or any other color. Stores are happy to sell items of whatever color to boy and girls; the only color they care about, especially during these lean economic times, is green. Furthermore, boys and girls don’t buy their own toys and clothes—their parents do. Parents, not kids or marketers, decide what toys to buy their kids.

That does not answer Riley’s basic question: Why are most toys and clothing items for female babies and young girls pink, while many toys and items for male babies and young boys blue? The choice of blue for infants has its roots in superstition. In ancient times the color blue (long associated with the heavens) was thought to ward off evil spirits, and the color distinction between the two genders dates back millennia.

But what about pink toys for girls? It’s an interesting question, and there are several answers. One obvious reason is that dolls are by far the most popular toys for girls. What color are most dolls? Pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-toned. There are, of course, dolls of varying skin tones and ethnicities. But since most girls play with dolls, and most dolls are pink (a green- or blue-skinned doll would look creepy), it makes perfect sense that most girls’ toys are pink.

Pink is also the most popular color for girls’ items for the same reason that white is the most popular color for new cars: that’s what most people prefer. Research has found that girls exhibit a significant preference for the color pink. For example a piece in Time magazine noted that, “According to a new study in the Aug. 21 [2007] issue of Current Biology, women may be biologically programmed to prefer the color pink—or, at least, redder shades of blue—more than men.” Exactly why girls seem to prefer pink is unclear, but if male and female children express a preference for one color over another, why wouldn’t a parent buy a toy that their child is more likely to enjoy? Though color/gender-stereotyped toys dominate the market, parents can find and buy whatever color items they like for their girls and boys.

It’s easy to see why adorable little Riley is an Internet sensation, but there’s no need to invoke a sexist marketing conspiracy; no one is trying to “trick” or force girls into buying (or preferring) pink items. There’s value in raising the issue, I suppose, though what’s the point in raising an issue if you’re not going analyze it thoughtfully, logically, and critically? Riley is not, as Diane Sawyer, suggests, a “superhero philosopher.” Contrary to the ABC News writer, Riley’s logic is hardly “very adult”; it is in fact the opposite. She’s not offering anything new or insightful. She’s making a banal observation—that boys and girls toys and clothes tend to be different colors—and going off on a parent-prodded rant that’s simplistic and mostly incorrect.

It reminds me of Jerzy Koszinsky’s novel Being There, in which the simple musings of a gardener named Chance are treated as profound wisdom. This sort of muddled, superficial thinking is also a hallmark of New Age writings, where people like Rhonda Byrne become multi-millionaires telling people that the Law of Attraction assures that the universe will provide whatever you ask for.

I think a more interesting and productive discussion would be to ask Riley, “What makes you think that you can’t or shouldn’t buy a superhero, or a non-pink toy?” Where did she get that idea in the first place? It’s bizarre. She’s free to pick up a princess or a superhero, a pink toy or a blue one… It’s not like anyone cares.

And why was Riley there in the first place? Did her father guide her to the girls’ section? If so, what does that say about his enlightened parenting? Or did Riley naturally gravitate to the girls’ section, ignoring the model rockets and WWF wrestling dolls? If so, why? No store owners or sexist marketers were leading her by the hand. She chose to go to a section of the toy store with pink dolls and princesses, and then questions why she’s surrounded by pink dolls and princesses. Riley: If you want a Batman or Wonder Woman doll, go to the next aisle!

As long as we’re discussing the media and marketing, there’s another aspect to this video that has been overlooked: why is Riley so popular? Could it have anything to do with the fact that she’s an attractive, a cute-as-a-button precocious White girl? If Riley were a minority child complaining about the lack of minority dolls in a department store, that would actually be a valid, socially-conscious point.

Numerous studies have shown that the news media tend to focus on photogenic darlings. Missing persons are far more to get the media’s attention if they are young, attractive, and preferably blonde. If Riley were a Black girl, or a Chinese child, or even was disabled or had a speech impediment, do you think her video would have gotten the attention it has? Possibly, but I doubt it. The irony is that Riley and her father are benefitting from some of the same media and gender-preference stereotypes and influences she’s skewering.

Little Riley, of course, can’t be faulted for not having an adult’s understanding of the issues. The real issue is not Riley or what she said—after all, kids say the darndest things, truth from the mouth of babes and all that—but instead the how she was used by adults. The only reason anyone heard the famous Riley rants (there are several) is because her father chose to videotape her comments and post them on YouTube.

It’s not clear what her father’s motivations are for posting these videos. Perhaps, like many proud parents, he feels that Riley’s adorableness must be shared with the world. Or perhaps he thinks that Riley is a role model for other four-year-old girls. Or maybe he’s grooming her for a career as an actress or singer, and thought this was an innovative way to showcase her stage presence and spunk (you can be certain that talent agencies have contacted the family, wondering if she could be the next Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, or Vanessa Hudgens). Wouldn’t it be ironic if the girl who rose to national prominence railing about sexism and gender stereotypes later became a celebrity because of her looks, charisma, and stage presence?

Research shows that we tend to trust attractive people, and their words have a halo of undeserved truth to them. That’s one reason that misinformed people like Jenny McCarthy and Sarah Palin get the attention and audiences that do—even when what they are saying is self-evidently wrong. Much of what Riley says in the video is self-evidently wrong, yet pundits and commenters are falling over themselves praising her views as insightful beyond her years, and even “must-see” video material for college Gender Studies classes (see the comments on the YouTube video). The idea that college students would learn something from a four-year-old’s complaints that girls are “tricked” into buying pink toys is troubling.

I’m all for media literacy (I’ve written a book and many articles on it), and I think Riley is a smart kid. I think it’s great that she’s articulate and talking about these issues; I just hope that at some point she harnesses that activist energy and gets beyond superficial thinking. She would make a great skeptic (or president) one day, but until then someone has to point out that the Emperor has no clothes—pink or blue.

***

We Are SkeptiXX founder Julia Lavarnway responds:

Early in his article, Ben suggests, “Rather than metaphorically patting Riley condescendingly on the head, let’s take her seriously, and examine the truth behind her statements and questions. After all, girls’ ideas and opinions should be respected and taken seriously. If her rant is worth discussing, let’s discuss it.” Strangely, Ben seems to contradict this call for seriously examining what Riley says near the end of his piece when he says, “Little Riley, of course, can’t be faulted for not having an adult’s understanding of the issues. The real issue is not Riley or what she said—after all, kids say the darndest things, truth from the mouth of babes and all that….” But at any rate, one doesn’t need to focus on exact word choice to examine “the truth behind…statements and questions.” In fact, it’s often detrimental to do so. There are whole professions (like, say, marketing , advertising, and political speech-writing) that are dedicated to using euphemism and doublespeak to suggest things without literally saying it (“I never ACTUALLY said that. What I said was…”) And in Riley’s case, there’s a particularly good reason for focusing on the gist of her complaint rather than the literal words coming out of her mouth: she’s four year’s old. Maybe Riley has not yet learned logical rhetoric or mastered correct word choice, but that doesn’t mean that she is not expressing a valid concern that she has come to after personal observation.

Ben insists, “no one is trying to ‘trick’ or force girls into buying (or preferring) pink items. There’s value in raising the issue, I suppose, though what’s the point in raising an issue if you’re not going to analyze it thoughtfully, logically, and critically?” Even besides the unreasonable expectation that a four-year-old analyze something “thoughtfully, logically, and critically,” Ben is incorrect. The entire marketing/advertising profession is dedicated to manipulating people into buying one item over another. Sure, “manipulate” might have been a better word choice for Riley to make than “trick,” but again, she’s four. “Manipulate” and “trick” have similarly negative connotations.

Ben suggests “a more interesting and productive discussion would be to ask Riley, ‘What makes you think that you can’t or shouldn’t buy a superhero, or a non-pink toy?” Where did she get that idea in the first place? It’s bizarre….[Riley] chose to go to a section of the toy store with pink dolls and princesses and then questions why she’s surrounded by pink dolls and princesses. Riley: If you want a Batman or Wonder Woman doll, go to the next aisle!” But Aisles in the toy store are often specifically labeled “Boys” and “Girls.” This is a fact. That is what Riley is really complaining about. The store is telling her in black and white (well, pink and blue) that the aisle she belongs in is the “Girls” aisle. Imagine the following conversation between a four-year-old and her dad:

“You can pick any toy you want, Sweetheart!”

“I want a Ninja Turtle!”

“Ok, they’re in the next aisle, honey.”

“But that aisle says ‘Boys.’ I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.”

“It’s okay, Sweetie, you can buy a toy even if it’s in the Boys aisle.”

[Very confused as this point] “But I’m a girl!”

But maybe a forward-thinking young lady like Riley doesn’t care whether her toys come from the Boys aisle or the Girls aisle. Her Barbie-happy friends might. If they find out she shops in the Boys aisle, that will very likely open her up to ridicule over the cooties she picked up there. That’s preposterous, you say. Not really; something very akin to that happened to me when I was in Kindergarten. I proudly told a girl in my class that my new Ninja Turtles shirt, which was totally kick ass by the way, came from the boys’ section. Her reply was a dead earnest “EWWW GROSS!” accompanied by the same look I had seen her give a boy who tried to flick a booger on her earlier in the year. I still remember this exchange as clear as a bell these 22 years later.

When answering what he calls Riley’s basic question, “Why are most toys and clothing items for female babies and young girls pink, while many toys and items for male babies and young boys blue?,” Ben explains that “In ancient times the color blue (long associated with the heavens) was thought to ward off evil spirits, and the color distinction between the two genders dates back millennia.” I’m not sure what the contested fact that the blue/pink distinction has been around forever has to do with anything. “Because that’s the way it’s always been” isn’t a reason any more than “Because I said so” is. Also, Riley’s basic question is not why does pink=girls and blue=boys, and she is certainly not interested in the fact that blue has been “long associated with the heavens.” The only questions Riley asks in the just over a minute-long clip are “Why do all the girls have to buy princesses?” and “Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff [and] all the boys have to buy different-colored stuff?” Her actual basic question is “Why is there a Girls aisle and a Boys aisle at all? Why aren’t all the toys presented in the same aisle so that boys who like princesses can buy them without being blatantly told they’re in the ‘wrong’ aisle and girls can buy superheroes without being told they’re in the wrong aisle?”

One YouTube user uploaded a video reply to Riley’s video to answer that question. Unfortunately, his reply makes as little logical sense as separating “boy” toys from “girl” toys in department stores. “Well the reason why the stores are like that is because it’s easier for you to find things.”  He then makes an analogy between trying to find princesses in a store that doesn’t have them grouped together and trying to find a particular box of cereal in a grocery store that doesn’t have all of its cereals in the same section. But this analogy is spurious. Cereals are grouped together in grocery stores because they are all cereals. You don’t have cereal shaped into balls (Kix, Trix) in one aisle, cereal shaped into flakes (Wheaties, Corn Flakes) in another, and cereal shaped into “O”s (Cheerios, Fruit Loops) in yet another. All the cereal is together in one spot, so if you want cereal you head to the cereal aisle. Princesses and superheroes are both dolls, but unlike cereal at the grocery store, they’re not found in the same section in the toy department. Why, then, are they placed into separate aisles? The only reason I can come up with is that Princess dolls are “for girls” and superhero dolls are “for boys.” And it’s not like I conjured this conclusion out of thin air. The aisles are clearly labeled as such.

Ben remarks, “Exactly why girls seem to prefer pink is unclear, but if male and female children express a preference for one color over another, why wouldn’t a parent buy a toy that their children is more likely to enjoy?” Of course parents buy the toys that their children are more likely to enjoy, i.e., the toys that the children ask for. This is why Ben’s earlier comment of “Furthermore, boys and girls don’t buy their own toys and clothes—their parents do. Parents, not kids or marketers, decide what toys to buy their kids” is absurd. Parents give their children what they want. But society, marketing, their parents, peers, and teachers are the ones who are telling the children what is and is not appropriate for them to want.

Then Ben also makes the rather circular assertion: “Since most girls play with dolls, and most dolls are pink … it makes perfect sense that most girls’ toys are pink.” Really? It makes “perfect sense” that almost all girl toys are pink because a particular girl toy is pink.

Dolls are pink

Girls play with dolls

Therefore, all things girls play with are pink.

I’m not an expert in logic, but that is not cutting the mustard with me.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Ben’s “Why is Riley so popular? Could it have anything to do with the fact that she’s an attractive, a cute-as-a-button precocious White girl? If Riley were a minority child complaining about the lack of minority dolls in a department store, that would actually be a valid, socially-conscious point. Numerous studies have shown that the news media tend to focus on photogenic darlings. Missing persons are far more to get the media’s attention if they are young, attractive, and preferably blonde. If Riley were a Black girl, or a Chinese child, or even was disabled or had a speech impediment, do you think her video would have gotten the attention it has?”

First off, it smacks of Dawkins-esque “There are more serious problems in the world, kiddo, so why are you wasting your breath talking about this?” Secondly, YES, I think the video would have gotten the same amount of attention if it had come from a nonwhite child, but that is beside the point. If Ben is so intent on critiquing THIS video and staying on topic to what is literally and specifically said in THIS video, why is he bringing up an entirely speculative hypothetical point about Riley’s race? It feels like he wanted to throw a line in from his previous research and so shoved it into a discussion in which it’s not relevant but almost sorta kinda seems like it could be relevant if you read it through squinted eyes. We don’t have a similar video by a black or Chinese child. We’re talking about Riley’s. Implying that her arguments and observations are not “actually valid” because she’s a white girl talking about the fact that there are princesses in the girls aisle and superheroes in the boys aisle rather than a black girl lamenting the lack of black baby dolls in a sea of white baby dolls is absolutely ludicrous.

Although it’s not a perfectly stated or thoroughly thought out rant (how many off-the-cuff rants are?), Riley presents some very valid concerns that she has come to from her own personal observation, which is far from Ben’s label of “banal.”

1981 Lego ad

**UPDATE** Ben’s response to Julia’s response (submitted 1-1-12):

 1) “Strangely, Ben seems to contradict this call for seriously examining what Riley says…”

I don’t see any contradiction. The first statement says that we should listen to what she says and examine her claims; the second is that, in the process of examining those claims, we must remember that she’s four years old and doesn’t have an adult’s understanding of the issues. They are not mutually exclusive; we can examine the accuracy of her claims, and also examine the broader implications of her statements, and the issues she brings up: That’s exactly what Julia writes: “Maybe Riley has not yet learned logical rhetoric or mastered correct word choice, but that doesn’t mean that she is not expressing a valid concern that she has come to after personal observation.” So we agree on that.

2)  “Even besides the unreasonable expectation that a four-year-old analyze something “thoughtfully, logically, and critically,” Ben is incorrect.”

Actually it’s the discussion among adults, not Riley, about this video that I feel lacks analysis that is “thoughtful, logical, and critical.” I wrote about her in the context of being “an Internet sensation,” i.e. on blogs, discussion boards, etc.

3) “No one is trying to ‘trick’ or force girls into buying (or preferring) pink items… The entire marketing/advertising profession is dedicated to manipulating people into buying one item over another.”

A) I agree with you, and also that “manipulate” is a much more accurate word for what advertising does, while “force” and “trick” are incorrect. No advertisement “forces” anyone to buy anything, and though some deceptive advertisements may “trick” people (for example using bait-and-switch tactics), that’s not what Riley’s talking about.

B) Let’s examine the marketing aspect, since you brought it up. Of course marketing and advertising is going to feature pink toys (since many girls prefer pink—whether it’s genetic, cultural, or both is another matter) and girls playing with dolls and princesses. Most TV commercials don’t depict girls playing with gender-stereotyped male toys like WWF action figures and rockets—and why would they, since girls prefer dolls? If you’re a company marketing to girls, you’re going to depict girls playing with toys that girls prefer to play with; you could of course make gender-contrary ads (boys playing with princesses and girls playing with racing cars, or even men in lingerie), but why would you? No advertiser in their right might would do that–not because they are part of some sinister sexist stereotyping marketing conspiracy, but because there’s little point in funding a marketing campaign that will appeal to a minority of consumers. Rule #1 in communication and marketing is “Know Your Audience”; you don’t pitch BMWs to teenagers, beef to vegetarians, or princesses to boys. There are lots of toys that girls rarely appear in commercials playing with…. I’m not sure where the assumption comes from that girls only play with toys that they see girl actors in commercials playing with.

4) “But Aisles in the toy store are often specifically labeled “Boys” and “Girls.” This is a fact.”

A) I agree that stores often have signage telling customers where to find items geared for specific genders; stores also have signage for any number of other things, including Men, Misses, Womens, Electronics, Home Office, Music, etc. That doesn’t mean that you can only find items that fit under that category in that section; for example items marketed specifically for girls can also often be found in the Stationery section (e.g., Hello Kitty erasers and notebooks), in the Music section (e.g., Hannah Montana & other kids’ CDs and music), and so on. In reality, boys’ and girls’ items are scattered throughout most stores.

B) “Aisles in the toy store are often specifically labeled “Boys” and “Girls.” That is what Riley is really complaining about.”

I watched the video again, and I didn’t see or hear Riley explicitly (or implicitly) complaining about store aisles being labeled “Boys” or “Girls.” At no point does she say anything about where items are located, or not feeling welcome to be in the Boys section, or anything like that; her entire conversation is about boy and girls wanting pink items, and the manufacturers (not the retailers) trying to trick girls, or telling boys what color items to buy. Maybe I missed it, but if you can quote something she said that makes you think her central point is about signage or segregated sections maybe I can re-examine it.

I should point out that other people who saw the video have a different interpretation than you. For example, a woman posting at Discovery News as Kara Stern says, “I think Riley is angry at being labeled and she sees herself being forced into a specific role by society…. In the store she sees the princess dolls in pink boxes and the superhero figures in blue boxes. The assumption that pink is for girls and blue is for boys isn’t hard to make.” For Stern, Riley’s comments aren’t about the boys or girls signs in aisles (as you suggest), but instead about the stereotypical gender assignations on boxes that convey that “pink is for girls and blue is for boys.” I’m not saying she’s wrong and you’re right (or vice-versa), just that different people are reading different things into Riley’s comments, and the interpretations seem a bit subjective, and different interpretations may be equally valid.

C) Even if it were true that Riley is complaining about aisle signage (and I don’t think it is), what, exactly, does she want done about it? How can we as a society address her complaints? Not have “Boys” and “Girls” signs or sections in retail stores? How will that benefit girls like Riley? Should parents and consumers have to guess where the Boys and Girls toys are? (Frankly I don’t see any point in making that distinction—why not just say “Toys”? And many do, but a retailer has a right to put up whatever signs they like.)

5) “Maybe a forward-thinking young lady like Riley doesn’t care whether her toys come from the Boys aisle or the Girls aisle. If her Barbie-happy friends… find out she shops in the Boys aisle, that will very likely open her up to ridicule over the cooties she picked up there.”

I’m not sure I follow: if Riley’s friends see her playing with a “boys” toy and ridicule her, that’s the toy industry’s fault? Or the fault of the toy store for having “Boys” and “Girls” aisle signs? I’m honestly not following you here. If I walk down the street wearing a leotard and tutu (or a loud Hawaiian shirt) and I get mocked and ridiculed, that’s not the fault of the people who sell and market leotards and tutus (or loud Hawaiian shirts). If Riley’s friends abuse or ridicule or mock her, they are responsible for their own behavior, and no one else. Blaming marketing or society for an individuals’ behavior is skating on pretty thin ice.

6) “I’m not sure what the contested fact that the blue/pink distinction has been around forever has to do with anything. “Because that’s the way it’s always been” isn’t a reason any more than “Because I said so” is.”

I think you are confusing an explanation for a justification. If someone asks me why racists dislike Jews or Blacks (or bigots disapprove of gay marriage), the reasons I give are factual and historical. If I explain the reason why people in Europe drive on the opposite side of the road, I’m not justifying it, or explaining why it’s better than our way, but merely explaining the history.

7) “Parents, not kids or marketers, decide what toys to buy their kids” is absurd. Parents give their children what they want.”

I disagree. Parents (responsible ones anyway) regularly deny their children what they want; friends of mine who have kids routinely tell them what to eat, to stop misbehaving, what toys they can and can’t have. It happens all the time; I see it all the time. Your blanket claim that “parents give their children what they want” is simply false. Parents deny their kids things all the time; in stores I often her the phrase “You can’t have that, put it back.” If “parents gave their children what they want,” families would be broke buying every new toy and game their kids see.

8) “Ben also makes the rather circular assertion: “Since most girls play with dolls, and most dolls are pink … it makes perfect sense that most girls’ toys are pink.” Really? It makes “perfect sense” that almost all girl toys are pink because a particular girl toy is pink. Dolls are pink / Girls play with dolls / Therefore, all things girls play with are pink. I’m not an expert in logic, but that is not cutting the mustard with me.

It doesn’t cut the mustard with me either, because you changed the premises and created a logical fallacy by eliminating the qualifiers and making them universal statements. All of your premises are false, therefore your conclusion is false. I’m not sure why you changed the equation (except maybe to make it false), but this is valid:

1) Most girls play with dolls

2) Most toys that girls play with are dolls (i.e. they are by far the most common girls’ toy)

3) Most dolls are pink

4) Therefore most girls’ toys are pink.

I can do a Venn diagram for you, but it’s valid. If you don’t believe me, feel free to run it by a logician.

9) “First off, it smacks of Dawkins-esque “There are more serious problems in the world, kiddo, so why are you wasting your breath talking about this?”

Can you explain this? Where in the argument (that because Riley is a cute White girl she’s getting more attention than a minority would) do you find the suggestion that “more serious problems” outweigh other issues? I have no idea where that came from; I brought the subject up for the reasons discussed in the piece, and below.

10) “Why is he bringing up an entirely speculative hypothetical point about Riley’s race?…Implying that her arguments and observations are not “actually valid”… is absolutely ludicrous.”

I agree. You seem to have assumed that the relevance of the photogenic/attention issue was to the validity of Riley’s comments; it was not. The relevance was to why the video was popular with the public, which is a completely different issue. That’s why the discussion you quote is introduced with the question, “As long as we’re discussing the media and marketing….Why is Riley so popular?” Also, the point was not just about Riley’s race (as you state), but also about her attractiveness and cuteness. If the conversation is about marketing, image, sex/race stereotyping in media biases, and cultural expectations, I think that including a brief discussion of this is very relevant. I’d be interested to know if a female member of a minority dismisses this racial bias so easily… Maybe skeptic of color in this forum will comment. You may not agree with my opinion, but I think suggesting that I shouldn’t have even brought it up is off the mark.

11) “We don’t have a similar video by a black or Chinese child.”

Indeed it seems so; that’s exactly my point. This is circular logic: “I’ve never seen a similar video by a minority (or one that’s become such a sensation), therefore they don’t exist.” But just because you (or I) haven’t seen (or don’t know of) a similar video by a Black or Chinese child doesn’t mean that they don’t exist—instead they may be out there, but we haven’t heard of them because they haven’t gone viral for the reasons I suggest. In any event this is a minor point; I never claimed it was a proven fact that Riley’s race was crucial element of the video’s success. I stated that it was my opinion, backed up by plenty of research on racial and beauty biases in the media. As I said, this is a minor point and I can’t spend hours searching for published studies on whether or not attractive Caucasian kids dominate viral videos (though I’m certain it’s true). Here are links to a few pieces about popular viral kid videos:

http://www.momlogic.com/2009/02/viral_videos_funny_or_not.php

http://www.lilsugar.com/Funniest-Kid-Videos-2011-20996435

http://www.parenting.com/gallery/best-parenting-viral-videos?pnid=65719

A few minutes of watching reveals that they are dominated by attractive Caucasian babies and children, and that unattractive and minority kids are underrepresented, exactly as I suggest.

11) “Although it’s not a perfectly stated or thoroughly thought out rant Riley presents some very valid concerns that she has come to from her own personal observation, which is far from Ben’s label of “banal.”

A) There seems to be some selective quoting here. The “banal” description specifically refers to the statement “that boys and girls toys and clothes tend to be different colors.” Here is the quote: “She’s making a banal observation—that boys and girls toys and clothes tend to be different colors.” I think that it is indeed a banal and obvious observation, but you may disagree.

B) In contrast to your suggestion that I dismiss Riley’s questions and concerns, I state that she raised “an interesting question,” which I proceeded to research and answer for the next three paragraphs. That’s hardly dismissive. Obviously I wouldn’t have spent hours of my time writing thousands of words about this if I thought all of Riley’s comments and this topic were banal.

***

I was originally going to wait to post Ben’s response to my response until I had formulated a response to Ben’s response to my response (anyone else having Friends flashbacks? “But they don’t know that we know they know!”), but considering the wave after Rebecca’s Skepchick post and Ben’s response to it I figured I’d better get this up lest I be accused of not representing the whole story. In his original emailed follow-up to my response, Ben also had a few paragraphs addressing some claims that Gwyneth MacRae made in the one of the Facebook threads and her on the actual post itself. I’ve omitted them here as irrelevant to the back-and-forth conversation between Ben and me. I welcome Ben to post any replies to We Are SkeptiXX reader comments in the comment thread.

My response to Ben’s response to my response to his original post is forthcoming.

72 Responses to “What’s Small and Cute and Pink All Over? Almost Every Toy in the “Girls” Aisle of the Toy Store”

  1. Gwyn December 31, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Whew! Julie, you covered a lot of ground there! Here are a few more (hopefully brief-ish) points:

    Ben, you’ve said a few times now that toys are pink because girls clearly prefer pink. This is a classic case of “which came first?” and I think it’s at the core of why a lot of women are disagreeing with you. You are assuming that girls are born with a predisposition towards pink, which is encouraged/exploited by marketers. Meanwhile, a lot of women believe that girls are LED to prefer pink at a young age because that is what they are encouraged to believe is right and socially acceptable for them to like. If you’re surrounded by pink toys as a babe, then when you take your first trip to a toy store, you’re probably going to gravitate toward the aisle filled with more pink things, because it’s familiar and you assume that’s where you belong. Girls are not being FORCED to buy pink toys, but they are being ushered into the pink aisle by a society that equates femininity with ruffles, ribbons, delicacy, and (let’s face it) general helplessness. Later on in their lives, pink toys are replaced by long, fake fingernails (so that a woman is unable to even open a jar of pickles on her own), stiletto heels (so that she can barely walk–and certainly can’t run, unless she’s some sort of superwoman), tight skirts (so she can only take tiny steps), and many other things that are marketed as being essential for any woman. Why? Because “that’s what men like.” Apparently no male is going to look at you twice if you keep your nails trimmed and wear pants to the office. I can’t tell you how many times men have encouraged me to grow out my hair or wear more skirts. It gets really old, and when we follow the pink trail back to a child’s trip to a toy store that has a “girls’” aisle filled with nothing but miniature models of women wearing sparkly, tight-fitting, restrictive outfits, then seeing a video of a young girl flouting these restrictions is pretty heartening.

    • Julia Lavarnway December 31, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

      Great points, Gwyn! I especially love your concluding sentence (I am a sucker for the word “flout”).

  2. Ben Radford December 31, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Good post, Jules! I’ll read it carefully and respond ASAP, but I think some of your questions are addressed in the second half I sent, taking off on the New York Times piece.

  3. JT the Girl (@Jalyth) January 1, 2012 at 4:48 am #

    When pink vs blue comes up in my personal life, I always share the info that before 1940, pink was a boy’s color, and blue was a girl’s. Pink used to be manly, because red = strength, and blue was feminine because Virgin Mary.

    Even when I was 4, (1979) pink wasn’t nearly as popular. At the very least, you were “allowed” to grow out of a pink phase and not be confronted with pink tools or pink smartphones as adults.

    I haven’t looked into the assertion that “women prefer pink”, but on wikipedia, they say that study was criticized. I thought men were supposed to prefer pink or red, and that’s why women (often) color their lips/nails/etc? Highest level of skepticism needed here.

    I do agree with Ben’s point that little girls are considered cute(r) if they are white, but I think that’s another post.

    • Noadi January 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

      Uggghhh… don’t get me started on pink tools. I’m a women with small hands, most tools are not the right size for my hands. But tools made “for women” while having smaller handles and the like are usually the most awful bubblegum shade of pink and of inferior quality to other tools. Honestly it’s the quality less than the color that pisses me off, the assumption that women only need tools to hanging pictures or a one time job so they don’t need to hold up to any abuse (while still costing the same or more than the “mens” tools).

      • Villy January 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

        Seriously! Just recently someone I know was complaining that she’d asked for tools for Christmas, and her husband got them for her. “Real” tools. “But I wanted the little pink ones!! He got me MEN’S tools, and I wanted WOMEN’S tools!” What’s worse is, when asked if she had told him her preference when asking for them, she said, “Well, no. He should have KNOWN, because I’m a WOMAN!”

        Well, I’ll admit that I’m not the handiest of women. But I’ve done my fair share of handiwork in my day and I would want tools that are of a good quality that will last.

        Darn. This rant was completely off-topic, and I apologize.

    • harrync January 2, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

      I blame it all on Gainsborough and the Huntington Library. I swear that growing up in LA in the 1940′s all the time we were bombarded with “Pinkie” and “Blue Boy”. I think my third grade class even took a field trip to the Huntington just to see them.

  4. Veronica K. B. January 1, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    In my previous blogpost here I linked to a study that looked into when children start to understand gender and to distinguish who’s a boy and who’s a girl. The development of gender expression is very much an interaction with the environment – reinforcement by older children and adults. Children learn to distinguish gender based on clothes and hairstyle. The research, or at least the chapter in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book where I got the reference, explains that small children will not label gender correctly if you dress another child as the “wrong gender”. Further suggesting this is very much learned behaviour – i.e. what is acceptable for your gender. The colour pink as the female stereotypical preference has become a symbol of this whole binary genderisation. So much so that it has become politically incorrect – to an extent – for women to like the colour pink. A topic I covered the other day on my own blog.

  5. slpierce January 2, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    I’d also like to add that the functions of the toys are just as separated as the colors are (also, P.S., the boys’ aisles have SO many more colors than blue, while the girls’ aisles are almost all pink).

    SO many of the toys marketed for girls are about appearance and how to look “pretty” – “Comb this one’s hair!” “Change this one’s clothes!” “Put makeup on this one!” Even the toys having to do with being a pop star are more about appearance than about actually singing and being successful at it.

    Meanwhile, in the boys’ aisles – “Help this one fight the bad guys!” “Help this one save endangered animals!” “Go on a pirate adventure with this one!” The toys marketed to boys are a lot more about being active.

    I think that the best example of the obvious gendering of toys is Dora and her cousin, Diego. The Dora the Explorer dolls used to look just like they do in the cartoon – she was in a t-shirt and shorts and sturdy shoes, like she was going to go outside and explore and find some things. Now, since Diego came along, he’s sold along with an ATV, or a Ski-Doo, ready to explore and save animals in danger. And Dora is now in a princess outfit.

    • Buzz Parsec January 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

      Re: Dora. Arrgghh!

    • marfknox January 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

      slpierce, yes, as the mother of a 2 year old girl who loves both Dora and Diego, I have noticed this shift, and it saddens and frustrates me.

  6. vIQleS January 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Imma put this here as well:

    QI:
    http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/qi/episodes/7/7/

    “The people who were traditionally dressed in pink and called girls were boys. Pink was considered the traditional colour for boys and blue for girls in the 19th century. In 1927, there was a report about Princess Astrid of Belgium who had decorated her son’s room pink, only for her to give birth to a daughter. Part of the reason why blue may be seen as the traditional colour for girls is because the Virgin Mary is dressed in blue. Right until the mid-15th century, all children were referred to as girls, boys were called “knave girls” and girls were called “gay girls”. The word “boy” originally meant “servant”.”

  7. Lynn January 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    Mildly tangential, but what the hell… a few months ago, I was looking for new weight lifting gloves. I had to go to 3 stores before I found some that were sized right and that had no pink on them.

    • Noadi January 2, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      I’ve found the best way to find stuff like that is to look in the junior boy’s section rather than women’s.

  8. penn January 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    Ben’s response is very puzzling to me. He seems to be somehow ignorant of gender roles and societal norms and the punitive consequences of violating them. How much anxiety and stress in our lives is caused by trying to answer the question “What am I supposed to do?”, which can often be rephrased “What does society expect me to do?”. We learn the answer to that question through our interactions with other people and through the media. Girls from a very early age are shown little girls like them wearing pink clothes and playing with dolls and other pink things. They quickly realize that little girls are supposed to wear pink clothes and play with dolls and other pink things. If they don’t do that, they will often times be quickly reprimanded by other children and often times by adults. This is also obviously true for boys. Being a boy who likes to play with dolls past a certain age typically leads to verbal abuse and harassment and even violence. I truly don’t understand how all of this isn’t obvious to Ben. You have the right to violate social norms and gender roles, but that doesn’t mean it’s free.

  9. Woozle January 2, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    I see gaping logical holes in just the first few paragraphs of Ben’s argument, which I will be happy to shred thoroughly on request.

    Short version: he completely misses the point in his condescending argument that nobody has to do X; the whole point of Riley’s fabulous rant was the social pressure carefully engineered and nurtured by the toy companies.

    • Cara January 10, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      Word.

  10. Beth B January 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    I am the same age as “JT the Girl,” and I’m surprised by how much things have changed since I was little. There was some pink in girl’s toys back then, but now EVERY freakin’ toy for girls is pink — even toys that have nothing whatsoever to so with dolls. Walk down the aisles that are labeled for girls, and you are assaulted by all the pink. I really don’t understand why things have changed this much in the past 40 years. That would be an interesting thing for someone to investigate.

    • JT the Girl (@Jalyth) January 3, 2012 at 4:06 am #

      I want to blame Susan Komen and her breast cancer awareness outreach, but I’m sure I’m wrong. And possibly offensive.

  11. elly January 2, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    “Ben insists, “no one is trying to ‘trick’ or force girls into buying (or preferring) pink items.”

    Yes and no… it may not be intentional, but the cultural imprinting runs deep.

    For example, when my daughter was born, I made no attempt to communicate her sex via her clothing, accessories, infant toys or hair ornaments. This seemed to cause mild anxiety in strangers who approached us in public places (like the grocery store)… she was obviously a cute baby, but there was nothing about her appearance that unambiguously proclaimed her to be either a boy or girl. Interestingly enough, that anxiety seemed to be centered on me – not the baby. People brought up the subject very, very delicately, it seemed. I suspect they were afraid that I might be upset if they guessed “wrong.”

    Like I cared!

    But it’s obvious that – even today – many parents do. It’s not the least bit unusual to see infants with tiny pink barrettes in their wisps of hair, or little elasticized pastel ribbons around their heads. And – of course – they’re wearing pink (or else have other pink accessories, like blankets). When someone walks past me with an infant, 9 times out of 10, the baby’s sex is obvious at a glance.

    Point being, “pinkification” starts from birth. Other than the difference in their genitals, baby boys and girls look virtually alike, and needless to state, baby boys don’t care if they’re mistaken for girls or vice versa. Parents, however, do… so there’s an entire infant/toddler clothes/accessories/toy industry set up to make sure that those “mistakes” don’t occur in the first place. Thus, by the time a girl hits kindergarten, it’s highly likely she’s made the association between “pink” and “girl,” regardless of any intentional “tricks” or “force.”

    For the record, as she grew, I let my daughter take the lead in selecting her toys and clothes – I made no attempt to influence her in any particular direction. Nonetheless I can count the number of pink items she chose on the fingers of one hand. Even when she insisted on wearing “pretty dresses” to preschool every day, she invariably chose bold – usually primary – colors. For most of her primary school years, her favorite color was royal purple. Now that she’s 19, it’s black, lol.

  12. Garnetstar January 2, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    Come on, Ben, what’s next? Girls showing biological preference for pink “Too Pretty To Do Homework” shirts?

  13. Physicalist January 2, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    My three-year-old boy complained today that McDonald’s gave him a “girls” toy in his happy meal and not a “boys” toy. By the time kinds have the relevant concepts, they’ve already been indoctrinated.

  14. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) January 2, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Ben’s dead wrong about the pink/blue thing. It’s not even a century old. Up until the period between the two world wars, pink was a boys’ color and blue was for girls. The reason being that red was a manly color, and pink was “the little red”. Blue, on the other hand, was associated with the Virgin Mary (still is, but somehow that doesn’t figure into the equation anymore).

    I read that on Sociological Images. Hopefully Ben will use a little more empiricism and less just-so stories next time he tries to address feminist issues.

    • ellid January 3, 2012 at 6:43 am #

      It’s confirmed by textile studies as well. Clearly Ben didn’t do much research…..

  15. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) January 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    Oh yeah, and, Mr. Radford? I was so unimpressed with your piece that I really, REALLY don’t want to read any defense of it. I don’t want to hear any sort of response from you about this piece or Rebecca Watson’s unless it’s to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I’ll shut up about gender issues now.”

    Some people say that you’re a fairly big name in the skeptical community. If that’s true, then it’s one more piece of evidence that the skeptical community has a sexism problem.

  16. Bob January 2, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    I’m pretty sure that the blue/pink gender assignments have reversed only fairly recently. Blue was the feminine color forever. It’s why the Virgin Mary is always dressed in blue. It was the girl color. I want to say that the reversal was late 19th century or early 20th century.

    • JT the Girl (@Jalyth) January 3, 2012 at 4:09 am #

      1940-ish. I searched “pink” on wikipedia. Then I searched “blue”….which is a way longer entry, for which I’d joke “it’s sexism!”, but blue is a primary color with a space on the light spectrum, and nobody would know I’m joking. Anyway, interesting that colors are so well defined on wikipedia. Seriously, like, all of them. I may have spent a few minutes reading. :)

      • SG January 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

        Red is also a primary color with a space on the light spectrum. Pink is just light red.

        But this raises the question: Does anybody know why PINK and RED are thought of as separate colors but none of the other light/pastel colors (eg: LIGHT BLUE) occupy a completely separate space in our minds from the primary version of the color?

        • Rilian May 14, 2012 at 5:56 am #

          Erm, does lavender count as a separate color? That’s light purple, right?

    • ellid January 3, 2012 at 6:42 am #

      You’re absolutely right. Pink used to be the preferred color for young boys because it’s a lighter version of red. Blue was preferred for young girls. It’s rather like wedding dresses – they used to be whatever the bride’s favorite color was until Queen Victoria wore white, and even then working class or lower middle class brides wore what would be their “best dress” until the 1940s and 1950s, when suddenly everyone HAD to wear a white gown.

    • Nazani14 January 3, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      Art history nerd in the house… Blue was associated with several Middle Eastern goddesses with sea/fertility aspects before Mary took it over. In painting, blue made from lapis lazuli was the most expensive and durable pigment, red the second most expensive, thus these colors were reserved for the most important figures in the religious drama. In the dying of fabrics, strong, bright reds and blues were hard to produce in Europe, and kings and important clergy were almost the only people with access to the bright silks of the Orient. The Tyrian purple of Lent was the most expensive of all dyes.

  17. shefightslikeagirl January 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

    I think the color issue has gotten blown out of proportion. Color-coding is used as a convenient shorthand. Take a look at what happened this winter when Coca Cola produced regular Coke in “winter white” cans: people flipped their little wigs because lighter colored cans are expected to be DIET COKE.

    Making pink out to be the villain is silly and pointless. If we all suddenly decided that all “girly” stuff should be green tomorrow, then green would become the “faggy” color that boys would avoid. Give less of a shit what the kids are playing with and more of a shit that they are getting scientific literacy at school and social balance at home.

    • Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) January 3, 2012 at 2:25 am #

      That IS the issue with the pink thing–there’s nothing wrong with pink per se, it’s that pink gets coded as feminine, and feminine is inferior to masculine.

      And you can’t really separate what kids play with from what kids are learning. Playing is learning. That’s early childhood development 101: that kids don’t just learn what you deliberately set out to teach them. Not that I’m an expert or anything. That’s a pretty basic concept.

      Can’t really grasp what made you think the it was valid to distinguish between how kids play and how they learn. If you give them science toys, they’re more likely to learn science. But science toys are coded as masculine. As are building toys, and anything not having to do with babies or barbies or princesses. That is the problem.

      Funny how you set out intending to debunk the existence of a problem, but ended up demonstrating it instead.

  18. Bonnie Toney January 2, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    Well, I have noticed Dora getting more “princessy,” but she certainly still does plenty of active, animal-and-whatever-saving things . . . I do despise the fact that so many girls’ toys are all about appearance, rather than substance, and we try to fight that attitude in our house.

    On the other hand, I have no problem with my daughter wanting her things to be pretty, and while I myself prefer jewel tones (or if we’ve gotta go pastel, blue or purple), right now she prefers pink. And sparkly. Well, what the heck, I like sparkly myself. :-) And while I hope that she’ll eventually outgrow pink, I’m not trying to force her, one way or another. She came into this world strong-willed, and I’m picking my battles – color choice is not one of them.

    I’m also thinking that at Target, while the aisles do show plenty of gender separation, they’ve gone to a simple labeling of the aisles/sections within aisles with the manufacturer’s (or product’s) name, like “Lego” or “Barbie.” Small amounts of progress, maybe?

  19. psanitymt January 3, 2012 at 12:02 am #

    So, Ben Radford missed the kid’s two major points — one, that girls are supposed to get pink, while boys get all different colors; and two, that she may be just a four-year-old kid, but she recognizes obvious marketing manipulation when she sees it, whereas Radford, an adult, apparently does not.

    Regarding point one, Radford’s assertions about traditionally gendered colors are as ridiculous as they are incorrect — and anyone who has shopped for clothing for small children has seen the problem (plus, “boys’” clothes are better made, because boys are, y’know, so hard on their clothes, and girls are more, um, careful, right?) Just try finding toddler and preschool clothes for girls in bright primary colors.

    On point two, by age three or four, both genders of our children would see a toy ad on TV, narrow their eyes, and say, “They just want people to give them money.” In the late seventies/early eighties toy packaging was briefly less sexist; now, it’s almost worse than it was in the fifties. Toy stores scream to kids, “Look, here’s a whole store full of stuff for boys! Oh, and the pink aisle for the girls.” That is not OK, and it’s a battle to raise kids and minimize the warpage from that bullshit.

  20. yellowsubmarine January 3, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    I just wanted to add something to the point you made about girls being encouraged to like things that are pink and girly. I work in a bakery and I cannot tell you how often I see this very thing played out between parents and their young children. I have actually seen parents ask their children how they want their cake decorated only to overrule their decision as being not in line with the socially acceptable choice for their gender. Little girl wants an Ironman cake? Too bad. It’s hot pink zebra stripes for you, kiddo. Occasionally I do help a parent who will let their child cross the gender line and get what they want, but then they feel the need to apologize or justify their child’s choice. Just today I had a lady apologizing (literally apologizing!) that her little girl’s favorite color was green and that’s why she was having me write the birthday greeting in green. Needless, to say, I’m not at all convinced that a preference for pink is an inborn thing.

  21. shefightslikeagirl January 3, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    @sallysrrange:
    The only “sexism” I’ve experienced when in the company of skeptics is from women who behave as though refusing to be weak/submissive simply because they are women automatically makes them “strong” and deserving of preferential treatment. In stating my own opinions, experiences, and analyses — exclusively without questioning anyone else’s intelligence or denying them their own experiences — I’ve been called a sexist troll because I apparently am not the kind of female skeptic these women think I should be.

    THIS is the only sexism problem I have had in this “community.”

    • Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) January 3, 2012 at 2:20 am #

      Bully for you. And what a tragedy that your experience is not identical to everyone else’s experience.

      Empathy: try it sometime.

  22. Gabrielle O. Thorndyke January 3, 2012 at 2:48 am #

    Although Ben states he’s a professional writer, I find it difficult to fathom he gets paid for this caliber of work. His article is disappointingly incomplete. Where are his citations? Where are the reasoned arguments in support of his assertions? Speaking as an editor, I certainly wouldn’t consider this finished work. At best I’d call it a first draft.

    Bottom line: Ben’s article isn’t very well-written. He begins his article with one premise, which he promptly abandons. He indulges in circular logic and his oversimplified logic is more than a little condescending. He hasn’t researched his points: his explanation of pink and blue preferences isn’t remotely accurate. His musings on celebrity are clearly personal opinion presented as “fact”. I could go on, but you get the idea.

  23. cyranothe2nd January 3, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    @ She fights,

    It’s *almost* like you think your antedata means something…

    Also lol that you so little understand the actual argument that you think this is about the actual colors, rather than gender-norming.

  24. Heinrich Mallison January 3, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    Sorry, Ben, but you’re sounding like a bad lawyer defending a lost case.

    Let me pick one example:

    1) Most girls play with dolls
    2) Most toys that girls play with are dolls (i.e. they are by far the most common girls’ toy)
    3) Most dolls are pink
    4) Therefore most girls’ toys are pink.

    Well, in fact – this is not valid. It is internally consistent and logical, but you start with a premise that is wrong (Most children play with dolls; it is the adults including marketing who pressure boys away from doing so), add another false premise (most toys girls play with are all sorts of toys, including toy animals, dolls, sports gear, etc; it is the adults including marketing pressuring girls away from non-doll toys).

    Your nitpicking and strawmanning the debate is not helpful. In fact, it makes you look stubborn – and wrong(er that you are).

    or this:
    “Exactly why girls seem to prefer pink is unclear, but if male and female children express a preference for one color over another, why wouldn’t a parent buy a toy that their children is more likely to enjoy?”

    I can tell you that I have not seen a single toddler who did not go for the pink toys. Gender played no role. There were exceptions: if parents strictly followed the prescribed pink/blue division in decorating the baby’s room, then girls went for pink, boys for blue. Left their own choice, ALL children love pink.
    Starting kindergarten, this changes: slowly, the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure makes boys reject pink, and girls to prefer it. Obviously, this triggers a self-strengthening marketing circle…….
    This is even cultural: many German parents try to de-genderize things, and some of their boys play with pink dolls, too, and some of their girls play football. Croatian immigrants here tend to go for the pink/blue scheme, and their children follow stereotypes a lot more.

  25. Roel January 3, 2012 at 4:23 am #

    There is a period in life, around the age of four, when children become aware of the difference between the sexes and the importance of that difference. Most girls want to be girl-like and boys want to be boy-like, which makes them susceptible of whatever role model we offer them. Girls start preferring pink, because we tell them pink is girlish, which makes “pink is for girls” a self fulfilling prophecy.

  26. sg January 3, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    That Current Biology article is interesting, but it does not demonstrate (nor even attempt to demonstrate) any genetic basis for color preference. Here’s the basis of their argument:

    Principal component analysis reveals that three factors alone explain 79% of the variance across the entire population. The first two factors strongly resemble the cone-opponent contrast components of the stimuli — the fundamental S–(L+M) (‘blue–yellow’) and L–M (‘red–green’) neuronal mechanisms which encode colors.

    That’s neat. But what it might tell us is that it’s easiest to socially teach color preferences which correspond most strongly to these contrasts. That much ought to be expected, like musical preferences for pure tones. What remains to be seen is whether the particular color preferences exhibited by men and women (participants in this study were aged 20 to 26) are due to a genetically predetermined weighting of one hue over another. And this study did not investigate any genetic mechanisms.

  27. ellid January 3, 2012 at 6:38 am #

    Well, I don’t know who this Ben Riley guy is, but he’s 100% wrong about blue being the quintessentially masculine color forever and ever and ever. Up until the early 20th century PINK was preferred for boys because it’s a dilute version of red, which was associated with blood, courage, and prowess in battle. Barbie pink has been associated exclusively with girls only in the last twenty years.

  28. Julezyme January 3, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    Qualifier: I’ve only read half of the rebuttal so far, but cannot resist smacking some Google-Fu down re the pink/blue dichotomy:
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Did-Girls-Start-Wearing-Pink.html
    The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.

    For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti.

    In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

  29. Nazani14 January 3, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    I always thought the use of pink for certain toys was like a radioactive symbol warning boys not to play with these things, more than telling girls they had to prefer dolls, etc. Anyway, color coding didn’t work with my Daughter or most of the girls she grew up with in the 90s. They’re all nuts about dragons, elves, J-rock musicians, zombies, and violent video games. I gave my girl several Barbies, but stopped when the only time she played with them was to use them as soldiers “guarding the ramparts.”

  30. rosh January 3, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    “Cereals are grouped together in grocery stores because they are all cereals.”

    Except when they aren’t. I like Puffins cereal, but where I shop, it’s nowhere near the cereal isle. (It’s way across the store in the organics section.)

  31. Grimalkin January 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    I had to laugh at the part about toy stores not caring about pink or blue, only green. The first thing that popped into my head when I read that was the Pink Princess Celestia issue that My Little Pony fans had to deal with. For non ponyfans, it was basically case of “well the character is white on the show, buuuut if you turn the toy pink we’ll buy more of it!”

    So yeah, “Stores are happy to sell items of whatever color to boy and girls” my ass.

    Also, he’s entirely wrong when he says that children teasing others about playing with the wrong gender’s toys can’t be blamed on the pink-girltoy blue-boytoy thing. Where else do children get the idea that there’s such a thing as a “boy toy” or a “girl toy” if not from the separated toy aisles and toy commercials that tend to show ONLY boys or ONLY girls playing with a toy? Yes the parents have a part in it, but there’s a difference between “my parents say so” and “My parents and all toy manufacturers everywhere say so”.

  32. woodsong January 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Notice what color Riley’s wearing: green!

    I suspect she wanted a princess doll wearing green (or at least, something other than pink), and was upset that there aren’t any, while the superheroes in the boy’s aisle are dressed in every color available. And she correctly observed the fact that things are deliberately marketed that way.

    By the way, Ben, I take issue with your comment about Men, Womens, and Misses sections of department stores as compared to Boys and Girls toy aisles. The adult-gender-labeled sections are all CLOTHING sections, which SHOULD be segregated by gender. Have you ever tried on a pair of blue jeans (or other non-stretchy pants) that were made for a woman? I once loaned a pair of pants to a male friend on a camping trip, and he noticed at once that the butt was a completely different shape than he was accustomed to. I would not have been able to close a pair of his pants had the loan gone the other way. I’ve worn men’s shirts, and been unable to button them since they are not made to accomodate breasts.

    This is a completely different situation to what is marketed in the toy aisles! You won’t find jewelry or cosmetics in the Womens section, or sports equipment in Mens, but the analogous toys are in the Girls or Boys aisles, respectively. And why should a toy oven be pink, instead of black or white like the oven in the kitchen at home (or brushed silver, or whatever)?

    This IS an issue worth noticing.

  33. James K January 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Radford: “Parents, not kids or marketers, decide what toys to buy their kids.”

    Does this guy have kids? What a sap.

    • Rachel Wells January 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

      I’m fairly confident that I have a child, and that I decide what toys we buy her.

  34. Anthropologist Underground January 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    One (probably tangential) thing that’s missing from the discussion is that people buy this stuff for their kids. Go to the hardware store and buy a small gender-neutral kit of actual tools for your girl if that’s what she wants. Or just buy her a hammer and safety glasses and show her how to pound nails onto scrap wood. Or show your boy how to safely iron napkins with a real iron set on low if that’s what he’s interested in. It’s more time consuming and often more expensive to source alternative items, but well worth the effort in my opinion.

    The added benefit is that although our kids don’t have a ton of toys (Lego excepted, there is probably a cubic yard of those in our house) they don’t have many cheaply manufactured noisy toys either. Does this solve the larger problem? No, but it does teach our children to think independently about gender and consumer issues, thus ushering in a cultural sea change.

    • Rachel Wells January 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

      Anthropologist Underground- well said! Favorites around our house are rocks from the gravel driveway (those are endlessly fascinating to our daughter, and we look up what we found to learn about how they were formed and what they are) and anything inviting open-ended imaginative play. Boxes, blocks, all manner of art supplies, and Mega Blocks. (our daughter is a liiiitle bit too young for Legos, but believe me there are two 500 piece sets in my closet just waiting for the day!)

    • ivyleaves January 7, 2012 at 12:39 am #

      I have another recommendation for a cultural sea change – don’t watch broadcast or cable TV. I stopped when I moved somewhere with no reception available without cable and the cable bills started getting more and more ridiculous. I figured I wasn’t going to pay for the privilege of watching tons of advertising, so I cancelled it, and I am so glad I did. I really didn’t miss it. There is so much bad indoctrination going on there, be sure to watch with your kids and point it all out to them.

  35. Cthandhs January 3, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    Ben Radford’s article seems poorly researched. A quick internet search is sufficient to learn that boy-blue, girl-pink color choice is modern. His definition of “dolls” seems blithely unaware that many, many products for boys are also dolls, or that the concept of social pressure even exists. And finally his argument suggests that he is color-blind, when he suggests that dolls are pink-skinned. Pink and Caucasian flesh can easily be recognized as distinct colors to anyone with color vision. This article reads like Mr. Radford decided in advance what his position was going to be and then scraped together a few (incorrect) factoids to support it. Frankly I’m surprised it was found to be worth posting.

  36. Stephanie January 4, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    White cars? Ben says you see lots of them on the road because it’s a popular color. The Reason it’s a Popular color is because so many of them left at the dealership at the end of the year when the the dealerships want to get rid of last years’ cars to make room for the newer models. They’re not popular, they’re just cheap.

  37. gwen January 4, 2012 at 3:06 am #

    I can tell you that as a girl in the 50s, we did NOT wear pink! Little girl baby dolls wore pastel dresses of various colors, usually white, green or blue, NOT pink. I cannot remember ever having pink clothing, nor did my friends. No one ever thought of pink as a girl’s color in the 50s. Even Barbie and Midge didn’t have an overly pink wardrobe (they were invented in the early 60s) until long after their emergence. When my sons were growing up, there was NO boy and girl aisle in the toy store. That is another recent development. When I was a little girl, if you wore pants and played with boys, you were affectionately called a ‘tomboy’, and it was assumed to be a phase. If a little girl dared to do that now, she would be called a ‘dyke’ or ‘butch’, and there would be no affection involved. We seemed to have substituted the boxes we took the women out of, with the feminist movement, by putting our little girls into even smaller and more confining boxes.

  38. Yiab January 4, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    As a logician, I feel I must comment on the “girls play with pink dolls” argument; Ben, you’re wrong and here’s an example to prove it.

    1) Most girls play with dolls
    This is actually irrelevant to the argument.

    2) Most toys that girls play with are dolls (i.e. they are by far the most common girls’ toy)
    Let’s assume that 60% of toys girls play with are dolls.

    3) Most dolls are pink
    Let’s assume that 60% of dolls are pink.

    4) Therefore most girls’ toys are pink.
    Actually with the information presented so far we can draw no conclusions at all about the colour(s) of girls’ toys. There is no information here about how many dolls are manufactured vs how many are bought, and no information about correlation between doll colour and likelihood of purchase by/for a girl.

    Let’s add two more assumptions so we can actually get a statistical conclusion from this:
    5) Girls select dolls independent of their colour (so we can expect that 60% of the dolls that girls play with are pink).

    6) 30% of non-doll toys which girls play with are pink.

    Then the percentage of toys which girls play with that are pink is 0.6*0.6+0.4*0.3 = 0.48, or 48%.

    Notice that I did not assume the most extreme possible values in this example either.

    I have no knowledge of what the actual statistics are for any of these points, I just pulled numbers out of thin air. I would also like to point out the possibility that dolls might not be counted as pink by skin colour, rather they might be counted instead by the colour of their clothing and/or packaging.

    Also also, I recommend that before constructing another argument like this one you consult a statistician.

  39. hannafriden@hotmail.com January 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    Hello Ben. Please excuse my english, I live in Sweden and I only write in english now and then. On to the point.

    “If Riley’s friends abuse or ridicule or mock her, they are responsible for their own behavior, and no one else. Blaming marketing or society for an individuals’ behavior is skating on pretty thin ice.”

    Since when is it not society’s responsibility when a child gets mocked? Society has a responsibility to teach and take care of our children, this includes to protect them from mockery. This protection should not have to be based on limitation: It should be based on the child’s right to choose when it comes to which clothes to wear, toys to play with and hobbies to evolve – within reasonable extent, of course. Within a correct price range, and of course we won’t give them alcohol or let them play with knives, but well, hopefully we can assume that no one went to such extremes to presume I meant such things. Kids should be able to play with dolls or Turtle’s if they want without having to live with ridicule. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. And that is our responsibility, as adults, whom else´s could it possibly be?

    Regarding the colour pink:

    “If I explain the reason why people in Europe drive on the opposite side of the road, I’m not justifying it, or explaining why it’s better than our way, but merely explaining the history.”

    If you’re going to make claims on history, please do include a source. Making claims like this always require a source. If you’d looked, you’d fount that your presumption is in fact wrong. Pink for girls and blue for boys became standard in the 1940s, before that, it was in fact the other way around. Here’s one source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/dec/12/pinkstinks-the-power-of-pink, if you want more of them, and want more proof, you may google “pink and blue boys and girls history”. Have fun.

    Regarding the study on biology earlier, well, I can fully understand why you didn’t include any source links to that one since it was ripped to shreds by other scientists. A study like this requires a thousand or more people, if you have less, you cannot not present it as proof. They had far less, but they claimed it was proof anyways. But that’s not all, the study was accused of confirmation bias, since none of the results acually produced anything that could prove any point what so ever – But they filled in the gaps with their own views, their own presumptions. Do you wan’t a hundred source links? Because I will be quite happy to comply.

    “. Your blanket claim that “parents give their children what they want” is simply false. Parents deny their kids things all the time; in stores I often her the phrase “You can’t have that, put it back.” If “parents gave their children what they want,” families would be broke buying every new toy and game their kids see.”

    Please, exagerate more, more, more! Yes, of course parent’s will deny their kids things that they can’t afford. Of course parents won’t stuff their kids full with candy they shouldn’t eat. Of course parent’s don’t give their kids EVERYTHING they want. But when a kid want’s a present, for christmas, or for the birthday: Do you think that most parent’s will ignore a wish within price range, which is suitable? Because most parent’s won’t. However, what is regarded as suitable? Well, a boy who want’s a baby doll probably won’t get it, since his parent’s are aware of the fact that he will get mocked by the other boys in kindergarden because a baby doll is a girl’s toy, and not for boy’s, and the boy who plays with the girl toys get mocked and beat up.

    “I can do a Venn diagram for you, but it’s valid. If you don’t believe me, feel free to run it by a logician.”

    Do not, please, say things like this to people when you make false claims regarding history, science and such. It opens up the path for mockery.

    “The relevance was to why the video was popular with the public, which is a completely different issue.”

    There are thousands of videos with small kids which are not popular at all. But, regardless of that, if you didn’t mean to make her statements seem… uninteresting, banal and such – Why even bring up the popularity thing and try to explain it with her age? Why can’t you presume that people just find her admirable for the level of though she presents at such an early age?

    “Indeed it seems so; that’s exactly my point. This is circular logic: “I’ve never seen a similar video by a minority (or one that’s become such a sensation), therefore they don’t exist.” But just because you (or I) haven’t seen (or don’t know of) a similar video by a Black or Chinese child doesn’t mean that they don’t exist—instead they may be out there, but we haven’t heard of them because they haven’t gone viral for the reasons I suggest.”

    No, it’s not circular logic since she’s not claiming that they don’t exist, she’s just pointing out the fact that you’ve slipped from the subject matter and started talking about etnicity instead of Riley’s video.

    “A few minutes of watching reveals that they are dominated by attractive Caucasian babies and children, and that unattractive and minority kids are underrepresented, exactly as I suggest.”

    Oh, in the same way that dolls are popular because they’re popular? In your first statement you clearly wrote that things are popular just because they’re popular. You were clear in your view that you didn’t consider this to be wrong in any way whatsoever. Clearly this does not apply in all areas. Your argument that things are popular because they’re popular only seem to matter concering matters you don’t agree on, and therefore, you should never again use that as a point in your arguments since you obviously see that there’s a problem concering areas you DO agree on. You are, I’m afraid, contradicting your own arguments.

  40. Hanna Fridén January 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Oh, sorry, some bug there when I wrote my name. My name is in fact Hanna Fridén, not a hotmail. Thank god.

  41. echidne January 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    You might be interested in my take on the topic of pinkification. It links to important critiques of the biological arguments and also to a study which shows that the color preference is created during the time when children become gender-aware.

  42. Cara January 11, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    This guy’s supposed to be a “paranormal investigator”?

    I think Scooby-Doo could do better, especially with “The Mystery of the Pink Toy Aisle”.

  43. Harriet Vered April 10, 2012 at 4:50 am #

    I recently ‘eavesdropped’ on a pretty little girl in our local library picking up a book her mum had reserved, it had a bright pink cover and was about a princess. She had a library’s worth of books to choose from, (not divided into boys/girls, just the children’s section). She must have been following a kids’ ‘chick-lit’ trend i.e. the publishers know how to market their products.

    The most interesting point in the above discussion is the cuteness of the little girl. She isn’t blonde or particularly pretty beyond the general prettiness of all four-year olds so it may be that she’s already aware that some girls need attributes other than prettiness.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Stop embarrassing me, Old White Guys! | Pharyngula - January 2, 2012

    [...] makes me ashamed of my tribe. I’m sorry, Ben Radford, you are so wrong, and look! Two girls, Julia Lavarnway and Rebecca Watson, just kicked your ass in public. They kick it hard. They kick it up and down the [...]

  2. De ondsinta feministerna | Designerdrömmar - January 3, 2012

    [...] rosa bara är för tjejer och var är det så, versus ett slags svar som författats av skeptikern Ben Radford där han menar att Riley har helt fel eftersom: Girls don’t have to buy princesses, and boys [...]

  3. An Open Letter to Ben Radford « Unapologetic Maker - January 3, 2012

    [...] is an open letter in response to Ben Radford’s article over at Skeptic XX about this video. [...]

  4. Purple NoiZe - January 3, 2012

    The Riley Chronicles – Episode II…

    The last couple of days the skeptic-blogosphere I follow has been very concerned with the colour pink. It all started when Ben Radford from CFI (Center for Inquiry) wrote a piece for the new blog We Are SkeptiXX about a video by a little girl called Ri…

  5. Gender Bullying on the Other Foot « We Are SkeptiXX - January 5, 2012

    [...] the recent back-and-forth over the Riley Maida video, I thought sharing a post where the gender bullying is on the [...]

  6. Free inquiry v commitment to equality | Butterflies and Wheels - January 8, 2012

    [...] Ron Lindsay wrote a post about freedom of expression and critical inquiry a couple of days ago, prompted mostly by the controversy over Ben Radford’s post (this is getting too meta already – so often the case) about pink toys and sexism. [...]

  7. Color Wheel by Halves « Haukipuddin' - February 7, 2012

    [...] recent brouhaha over the color pink (see “Ben Radford vs Riley”, initial SkeptXX post here, follow up commentary here and here). I wanted to post comments and a pertinent blog post, but in [...]

  8. Gosh, the grapes sure are sour over here | Pharyngula - June 22, 2012

    [...] unhappiness: he has been the victim of blogging. The poor man last got on our radar when he wrote a most ludicrous and appalling piece of pseudo-skeptical, evo-psych bullshit to justify sexism. It was piece that ignored reason and evidence, what few scientific articles he used to support his [...]

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