Pink or Blue: When you Eat, Play, Sleep

If you are a parent who shops at any big box store, you know that most children’s items are gendered, right down to building blocks, baby rattles, sippy cups, diapers, and toothpaste. And hangers! Don’t forget your pink or blue hangers. Why can’t we have rainbow hangers?

Sure you could pick the Spiderman toothpaste for your daughter, or pink hangers for your son, but that is not how they are marketed to our families. Kids take in thousands of advertisements every year. Even if your family does not watch tv commercials, kids receive these messages through color coding of packages and social interactions. Has your daughter ever been handed the Batman sticker at the doctor’s office? Has your son ever been called Prince right after your daughter was greeted with a “Hi Princess!”? Has your daughter ever been greeted with “Hey All Star!”? Do they ever have robot underwear for girls, or butterflies for boys? Our children are growing up in a highly gendered marketplace.

If you have a preschooler, then you’ve surely heard your kiddo come hopping home from school saying “Such-and-such is for boys” or “Pink is for girls”. As gender permanence happens at this age, those are normal statements for your small person to make. They are trying to figure out what it means to be a boy or girl, and the parameters that define such. The problem is, if we let those statements go unchallenged, if we let them get these ideas from marketers, they’ll be forming very limited and stereotyped versions of boyhood and girlhood. I do not believe in limiting our children. And who doesn’t love a lively debate with a three year old?

Let’s take a look….. 

Clearly, items are marketed as being for boys or girls.

Despite the fact that a lunch bag or ride-on car would be used the exact same way by a boy or a girl, our choices are very clearly gender coded.

Start to notice that girls are rarely depicted *doing* anything. In fact, many times we won’t even see an actual girl on an item, instead she has been turned into hearts, rainbows, flowers, tiaras, and ballet slippers. Here we have a princess frog on the girls’ lunch bag. On the boys’ bag is a dirt bike riding dare devil. Girls are delicate and sit still on lily pads, Boys are FULL OF ADVENTURE!

Girls are delicate, Boys are FULL OF ADVENTURE!

If you read the captions for these toy catalog photos, the most adventurous thing a girl is doing is watering flowers (“Let me help you garden, Dad!”), but only as an assistant to her watchful father. I think the playhouse is good, and I love me a good tutu, but couldn’t there be a girl knight? Couldn’t two boys be gardening and a girl be the fire fighter? A tutu-wearing female knight?

Of course the answer to all of these questions is yes, but we very rarely see children’s items marketed this way. Marketers help shape our ideas about products, what we think about people who use those products, and how we think people would use them. And all of these messages are limiting our children.

Remember when childhood was just childhood, it is didn’t seem to matter so much if you were a boy or a girl? We got away from that once companies figured out how much money could be made selling families two different versions of childhood. Pink and blue. A family like mine, raising a boy and girl, would be encouraged to buy twice as many things…from baby gear and clothing, to toys and by goodness, the very mattress they lay their sweet little head on at night (photo below).

Take a look at the backpacks and the back-to-school clothes pictures below. What messages are girls getting? What messages are boys getting? What messages are they getting about each other?

Don’t underestimate how powerful those messages can be, even as subtle as they may seem. I don’t think a Tinker Bell lunch bag is going to undo civilization. But what if it is a Tink bag, and a Princess backpack, and a less active/more delicate childhood, and clothing that delivers a message a girl’s chief concern in life is to be sweet and pretty…….it becomes a definition of girlhood, the only version available. Some parents search for alternatives likePigtail Pals, but for others it is a matter of seeing the forest through the trees and realizing we’ve got some problems when it comes to how our culture is defining girlhood.

Pink isn’t the problem. Tutus aren’t the problem. Tiaras aren’t the problem. Limitation – both in action and in thought, is the problem. A big one.

Let’s change the way we thing about our girls.

School supplies and clothes: Pick boy or girl

Because gender coding is important while you sleep.


  1. Anne-Marie says:

    “Just for Kids” is a phrase I find offensive every time I see it; it’s obviously for adults who want to feel good about doing something “just for kids.” And you know what? Buying *stuff* is not a good way to do something for a kid. Whatever that phrase is attached to is almost certainly something a child does not need or really want. It makes me mad.

  2. Keep singing it! We challenged the pinkiness as we did our first school shopping run. And my heart sang when my tree-climbing princess led an alien invasion of my mom’s house the other day. Why would we want to put limits on that?

  3. Great post !!
    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  4. Just had to chime in here… my daughter has recently begun patching her right eye to increase strength in her left eye. The eye patch company sells boxes of boys patches and boxes of girls patches. The only other option is plain white patches. Since when are panda bears for boys? And, fwiw, the boys versions are just as sparkly as the girls. (We got the “boys” version, because my kid adores pandas, firetrucks, dinosaurs and space.)

    Luckily, my girl does not see them as being for boys. At least, not yet. She picked out her own outer space themed PJ’s from Costco the other day, from the “boys” stack of pj’s! 🙂

    • I love that! And why can’t they just make “kid” eye patches? That reminds me of the pink or blue medicine eye droppers I had to choose from a few months back.

      Also? I want outerspace pj’s. Fun!

  5. Yesterday, I was roaming about IKEA helping a friend looking for a bookcase. I flipped through one of their catalogs while my friend was measuring and browsing. As I reached the children’s section, it struck me why I found it so strange: there was virtually no gender stereotyping in their catalog whatsoever. The closest I found was of a little girl imitating her mother at a toy kitchen set, but honestly, what child doesn’t want to help out mom the kitchen? There were pictures of children (of both genders!) running around on lawns, a little boy standing on a chair to help his mother mix something in a bowl, a little girl in front of a set of building blocks, and (my favorite picture of the whole children’s section) a little boy with various stuffed toys having a tea/picnic party using a children’s plate and cup set. The image of the boy having a tea party particularly stuck out to me because American advertising would never do such a thing; also because there was a distinctly pink cup at the forefront of his tea part! (it was a multicolored toy set; I remember this set clearly because I once bought it for a niece)

    Another striking thing about that picture was how the little boy was “feeding” his stuffed toy (which appeared to be some sort of vegetable with a face). Nurturing males? When was the last time I saw that in an American ad?

    Eventually, my friend and I wandered through the children’s section the IKEA. Both of us being huge stuffed toys collectors, we spent a long time browsing there. It dawned upon me that many, if not all, of the items in children’s IKEA were gender-neutral! Blues and pinks did exist, but they were pleasant neutral shades that complimented cheerful greens, light yellows, bright reds, pastel oranges, and neutral whites, blacks, and natural birch. More importantly, they were usually mixed together. None of the children’s furniture came in distinct “boy’s” and “girl’s” lines. Unfortunately, I did not take the catalog home with me (I thought it had to be purchased) so I cannot show you the pictures. Their website is intentionally sparse in order to not distract from their products (Scandinavian clarity at its best!) but you can still see gender-neutral feel of their children’s products. Their catalog is a massive contrast to the Target catalogs you have shown here; children in the IKEA catalog were given no roles beyond being inquisitive, exploring, growing children.

    It is no wonder that the countries of Scandinavia are well-known for very women-friendly and women-positive policies. I think of one of them has the best paid maternal leave system in the world.

  6. I love this article. I don’t have a girl, but a 4 year old son (and pregnant with son #2.) My son loves his longish, curly hair. He wears purple butterfly pajamas (because they don’t make butterfly pajamas for boys….) His favorite color is pink glitter. He plays “house” with his friends instead of football, because that is what interests him. My hubby and I both agreed if we had a girl and she wanted to dress up like a football player or fireman, no one would say anything. So why would we say anything to our son, who clearly chooses the items marketed for girls?
    Love you blog. thank you for having this and for being so pro-choose who you want to be. 🙂

  7. Maren Ahlberg says:

    Great post. It got me thinking about when I was little, and my best friend was a boy named David. We played together a lot, sometimes at my house, where I’d dress David up in frilly dresses with barrettes in his hair, and paint his nails, and we’d parade down the street together all fancy. Other times we played at David’s house, where we’d play cars. I loved them both. Remembering this made me wonder how much of being a “girly-girl” is just an innate (-vs- learned) characteristic. When I played cars with David, I would always pick cars to play with that I deemed prettiest. No one told me to do this, I just did. And then when we’d play with them, I’d make the cars into families…the very prettiest car would be the mom. Again, no one told me that this was the way to play with cars– it was just what I WANTED to do, how I wanted to play. I grew up with no TV and very limited exposure to marketing, so I know that this wasn’t a result of being bombarded with the commercials & advertising the kids see now, and my parents didn’t impose strict gender roles on our family. It just seemed to be inside of me, part of who I was. I also loved nature, getting dirty, and playing sports. Interesting to think about how much of the way girls act and what they like comes from outside influences and how much is just THEM. Now that I have 2 little girls, this is definitely in the forefront of my mind! Thank you!

  8. You’re totally in my brain! 🙂 I wrote a blog entry on this same topic this week, but I referenced another I wrote a few years ago. Now that my kids are 9 and 7, it’s a different ballgame, and I’m starting to see the effects of my work…but I don’t understand why the world has to make it such an uphill battle.

  9. So glad I found this blog. I have 3 year old boy/girl twins so I am constantly reminded of how differently kids are treated/marketed to based on gender. The sentence in your second paragraph, “Has your daughter ever been handed the Batman sticker at the doctor’s office?” really resonated with me because the answer is no. That bugs the hell out of me. Last time we were at the doctor (and we live in a VERY progressive town), the nurse asked my daughter who her favorite princess was, and asked my son who his favorite Cars character was. Argh. I’d love suggestions from others about how to gently address this issue with nurses, dentists, checkout clerks, without seeming like a bitch. Often I’ll just chime in and ask additional questions such as, “and son, who is your favorite princess,” or “daughter, do you want a dragon sticker, or princess or kitty or a car?” But I’d love any other suggestions, b/c sometimes I just stand there dumbfounded at how people don’t even think twice about perpetuating such stereotypes.

  10. This post confirms and impression I had that gender stereotyping is MUCH stronger in the US than elsewhere: so that girls/boys who do not fit the stereotype are almost forced to doubt their sexual identity. Hence gender confusion, and people’s decisions ‘o, so I do not fit the stereotype: I must be ‘gay’. Not true: girls and boys are people, and interested in widely different things not necessarily restricted defined by gender. Being a delicate, nurturing boy child does not make you gay: being a treeclimbing pirate imitating girl child dow not either. My great nephew is very tender to, and eager to nurture his baby brother: but that does not make him less of a bruising boy in other contexts. Down with damaging gender stereotypes!

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