Pretty in pink

From  Only You Can Be You!  by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019) Illustration © 2019 by Tim Warnes

From Only You Can Be You! by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019) Illustration © 2019 by Tim Warnes

[Biological differences] have a tiny effect on gender roles compared to conditioning. We love to think that boys are ‘naturally’ more physical, less well behaved, more stoic. I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook. It lets parents off the hook for the gendered ways we treat our children ... It lets society off the hook for how we encourage gender stereotypes, and it lets us all off the hook for acting them out every minute of every day.
— Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man

It fascinates (and sometimes shocks) me how we make associations and judgements about things based on culture. 

Take the colour pink, for instance.

As a young boy, I wore (and loved) a salmon pink two-piece denim outfit - jacket and trousers. Fair play to my parents. As a teen, I was inspired by Miami Vice, modelling myself after Don Johnson in a pink jacket (with rolled the sleeves up, of course).

Pink shirts; pink tee shirts. Nope. Pink has never been a problem for me. But the pervading culture tells me that pink is for girls.

Remember that episode of Friends - the one where Ross has lost his favourite shirt?

The poor guy was born in the wrong century! Because a little over a hundred years before, his friends would have thought differently. Back then, pink was viewed as a masculine colour (‘a kind of boyish version of the masculine colour red’ of military uniforms). Blue (in Catholic countries at least) was regarded as a feminine colour because of the association with the Virgin Mary's traditional attire. In June 1918, the Ladies’ Home Journal, an American publication, stated that ‘pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’

But that was before the 1950s, when ‘there was a huge advertising campaign by several advertising agencies pushing pink as an exclusively feminine colour.’

Ahh, the power of persuasion.

Fast forward several decades, and while some parents at the toddler group were debating whether their boys should be encouraged - allowed even - to play with dolls or anything remotely pink, my boys grew up being allowed to express themselves with few limits.

Noah adopted the persona of Tina Turner (complete with pink glitter wig and tutu) and would make a big show of entering the room - “Presenting! Tina. Turner!” (at which point onlookers were expected to pay attention, cheer and marvel at ‘Tina’s’ guitar playing). We have a photo of him somewhere, grubbing around outside with Scoop the Digger wearing that outfit. (He was the inspiration behind the illustration used in last week’s post of the kid wearing a pink tutu with an army camo top.)

Earlier this year I visited my godson. He was playing with a doll in a pink pushchair. It reminded me of our other son, Levi. When he was about two, he chose a doll (Baby Dave) - and a pushchair to go with him. It started out as rinky-dink pink, but by then, Noah was about eight years old and conditioned by society that pink was for girls. So Jane pimped Baby Dave’s ride and made an army camouflage sling for it. All that remained of its former glory were the handles, wheel hubs and frame clips.

Michael Reichert, author of How To Raise a Boy, sums up my feelings in this quote:

We wanted a boy who had his own mind, who was picking up that who he was mattered to us, that we were going to get to know him rather than merely requiring him to fit into what we expected a boy to be.

- Raising Boys With a Broader Definition of Masculinity (The Atlantic)

Here’s how it affects children’s books. I’ve heard publishers say that boys won’t read a book with a pink cover. Really? Not in my experience. One of the boys’ favourite picture books was one of the pinkest books imaginable - Dear Tooth Fairy by Alan Durant (Walker Books 2004), illustrated in shades of pink throughout by our friend, the late Vanessa Cabban. Other pink covered favourites include Big Rabbit’s Bad Mood by Ramona Badescu and Delphine Durand (Chronicle Books 2007) and Lavender by Posy Simmonds (Red Fox 2004).

I think it’s more likely that boys are dissuaded from pink stuff by cues they have picked up along the way, and well meaning adults (which harks back to last week’s opening quote by Grayson Perry). I imagine - but this is pure speculation - that the same is likely to be true of the current rash of books about unicorns and mermaid.

Here’s a rare example of a boy wearing pink in a picture book - Ezra Jack Keat’s character, Peter, from 1964’s Whistle For Willie (Viking).

From  Whistle For Willie  (Viking 1964) © 1964 by Ezra Jack Keats

From Whistle For Willie (Viking 1964) © 1964 by Ezra Jack Keats

I am against labelling books by age or gender - a practice that I’m glad to note (here in the UK, at least) appears to be dying out.

This is largely in part to the Let Books Be Books campaign, which has pushed for an end to gendered book titles in the UK. A recent movement, it has persuaded eleven children’s publishers to remove the words ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ from book covers since 2014.

We should be breaking down gender stereotypes. But by labelling books, we are, by default, enforcing those stereotypes, sending the message, This book is not for you. You’re the wrong gender. You should read this instead. A short-sighted marketing ploy on the part of publishers which tries to eliminate half a book’s potential readers. That’s crazy!

How can we tell girls that they can grow up to be whatever they want - engineers, astronauts, explorers etc., yet at the same time say, Here, this book is just for girls ?

How can we tell boys, Come out of your man cave? It’s okay to cry - then turn around and say, Sorry. That book isn’t for you. You’d better put it down. It's only for girls ?

[Such] books send out very limiting messages to children about what kinds of things are appropriate for girls or for boys. Blue covers, with themes of action and adventure, robots, space, trucks and pirates contrast with a riot of pink sparkles, fairies, princesses, flowers and butterflies. But real children’s interests are a lot more diverse, and more interesting, than that…

Children are listening, and take seriously the messages they receive from books, from toys, from marketing and the adults around them. Do we really want them to believe that certain things are off-limits for them because of their gender? They’re not ‘getting it wrong’ if a girl likes robots, or if a boy wants to doodle flowers. These artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.

- Let Books Be Books


Let books be books. Let kids be kids.

Yes, introduce them to books that you rate highly. (Unsure where to start? Take a look at my Good to Read recommendations.) But don’t force a story time. Follow their lead. If your daughter wants nothing but pink princess and unicorn books, that’s cool. But don’t be too concerned if your son does as well. Likewise, if he wants to read about trains and diggers and warrior knights, then go with it. Let them be inspired to become who they want to be. And using books - all sorts - you can help them work it out.




Pink used to be a boy's colour and blue a girl's – here's why it all changed - Business Insider (Oct. 7, 2017)

Raising Boys With a Broader Definition of Masculinity by Julie Beck (The Atlantic, April 15, 2019)

Whistle For Willie by Ezra Jack Keat (Viking 1964)

Let Books Be Books

Tim WarnesComment