Monday, December 6, 2010

Rethinking Pink (the Misogynist Within) (Babble)

Pink.  Pink is the current most identifiable symbol for what is girlie.  Pink is nothing in and of itself, but it is the tip of an iceberg.   I have been, on some level, struggling with the color pink in different ways for most of my life, and I may have finally come to terms with it.  Maybe.  But it’s taken accepting some hard truths about myself to get there.

Anyone with any proximity to someone raising little girls in our culture knows that pink dominates the girlie girl landscape.  For those who love pink this is wildly convenient.  For those buying clothes or toys for girls who do not care for pink it can be problematic.  Then there are parents like myself who personally have tried to push back against the avalanche of pink based on our own tastes and preferences, regardless of what our particular girls want.

My girls have both been through fluffy looking princess phases, and they both like pink, but they like other things too.  We’ve never had a problem with them insisting on any particular color, so I never felt as if they had been brainwashed by society to choose one.  But I resisted the onslaught of Disney princess related movies and merchandise as much as I could, and I was thrown into a mini crisis in my mind one Christmas when a relative gave my girls Barbies and I debated whether I should let them keep them.

I have never thought of myself as particularly feminine.  I’m always surprised when other people see me that way, since I don’t wear makeup, I live in clothes that could double as sleepwear half the time, and I don’t have pierced ears or interesting shoes or a cute purse.  (Actually, I own one cute vintage purse I found in an antique store, but I’ve never found a time to use it and I likely never will.)  Many of my interests have put me in environments dominated by men.  When I gave a lecture about violin making to the local Woodworkers’ Guild a man actually came up to me afterward just to say how jarring it was at first to listen to a woman talk about tools, but that the longer I talked the more he got over it.  So I’m used to moving in circles where I don’t feel I’m being judged by particularly feminine standards.

I fretted a little for my girls because I don’t want them to feel limited in this world.  I want them to tackle whatever interests them and not be held back.  The princess stories bothered me because they struck me as promoting images of women that were passive and weak and dependent on men for happiness.  Barbies seemed overly focused on physical beauty as a woman’s greatest attribute.  Everything wrapped in pink hit me as mildly distasteful and unhealthy for these reasons.

Then I had a boy.  And you know what?  He’s a boy who adores his older sisters and when he was two his favorite shirt was a hand-me-down that made him feel included.  And it was pink.  I had to stop and reassess for bit.  Because it started to dawn on me that there was bigger issue with pink that I hadn’t considered before.  The bigger issue was misogyny, and I was guilty of it.

That may sound extreme, but when I started to look around at the larger society for cues about how my son would be treated walking out into the world in a pink shirt I did not like what I saw.  Among my family and friends there was no problem, but once you are attuned to stories about boys in pink you start hearing some very scary things.  The intolerance in some cases is frightening.

And that’s when I began to come to the defense of pink.  Because what I see all too often now is that girls and the things they like are considered inferior.  If a girl aspires to partake in things more stereotypically associated with boys–anything to do with weapons, or sports, or tools–she is viewed by many as taking a step up.  Conversely, if a boy wants to pursue something regarded as feminine–like sewing, ballet, or organizing a tea party–this can still be controversial.  It’s okay and often encouraged if a girl wants to play with boys’ toys.  We think it’s cool if a girl can throw a football or fire a gun.  If a boy wants to play with girlie things–with pink things–the reaction can be incredibly negative.  It might be tolerated, but seldom encouraged.

I became offended by the idea that somehow the toys my girls liked were contaminated.  Pink was lesser.  I was guilty of having thought that too.  I had avoided pink for myself because it lumped me in with girls.  I wanted to be better than girls.  That’s misogyny.
I began to really look at things differently.  I started with Cinderella.  I had remembered the Disney movie as a sad example of a woman waiting to be rescued by a prince and not much more.  But I sat and watched it with my kids and that’s not what I saw at all.  I saw a variety of different female characters, from the scary step-mom to the silly step-sisters, to some industrious mice, to Cinderella herself who was strong and decent.  She was in an impossible situation without real options and she worked hard and looked for the good in life despite her circumstances.  Yes, she’s eventually rescued by a prince, but he’s more a symbol of the ultimate prize of love and wish fulfillment.  The prince is part of her reward of the better life she deserves.  (I still can’t stand the Little Mermaid, though.  You don’t relinquish your voice.)

Next I looked at Barbie.  I never liked Barbies and my kids aren’t particularly interested in them either, preferring snuggly stuffed animals as I did, but when I took a look at the Bratz dolls suddenly Barbie was looking pretty good.  Barbie at least seemed to have an education and could hold a variety of jobs.  The Bratz dolls just looked trashy.  I tried to pinpoint what bothered me about Barbie, and I realized it was unfair to essentially dislike her because she was many people’s idea of pretty.  Yes, I know the problems associated with unrealistic body image and emphasizing looks over substance, but isn’t it wrong to discount people because of their looks either direction?  If I dismiss Barbie the veterinarian because she’s blond and wears heels, how am I likely to treat a real woman vet who is pretty and wearing heels?  If all I had against Barbie was her looks, well then I’m being shallow.  (I’m still trying to figure out how I came to feel I need to stick up for Barbie, but there we are.)

When I started looking at any number of female figures from past and present with the perspective that feminine did not equal less valid I learned something.  What looks like passivity is sometimes really patience.  Being polite and gentle is not the same as weakness.  To blame a woman for being judged by her beauty is to blame the victim.

But where does this sense of the feminine as lesser come from?  I think it’s a power imbalance.  The worst insults you can throw at a man are all some way of calling him a girl.  At its core, I believe it comes down to the fact that typically during sex the woman is the person who is ‘done to.’  I’m not saying I don’t understand about all the different varieties of intimate behavior possible between people, but at a basic level it’s understood that women are at the receiving end of the sex act, and there is a sense that that is lower.  It’s not considered a position of strength.  For the same reason I think for many men the underlying root of homophobia is really misogyny.  The idea of a man accepting a feminine role is intolerable to some, because it flies in the face of accepting the masculine role as superior.  I don’t think it is.

But the masculine role can be more threatening.  And women are so disproportionally the victims of violence that I think a lot of misogyny is not wanting to be vulnerable out of a sense of self-preservation.  When you witness abuse you see two sides–the abuser with the power, and the victim who suffers.  Many people don’t want to identify with victims because it’s an unsafe place to be.  When you choose masculine pursuits you are choosing power.  You are choosing safety.  Choosing pink means needing protection.  We don’t respect the vulnerable as equals.

I want all children to have the freedom to choose what interests them.  I don’t believe in girl toys and boy toys.  There are just toys.  I don’t think my son’s toys are inherently better than his sisters’.  And I don’t think pink is a sign of something weak simply because girls like it.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to think a tea party game is more boring than a wrestling match–everyone is entitled to his or her personal preferences–but it is wrong to use your personal preferences to judge something as negative.  The tea party is different but not less valid.  I may still have no interest in Barbie, but I no longer harbor any sense of disgust about her either.

Freedom to choose does not make my less-traditional choices better, it just makes them truly mine.  I want my kids to have choices and sometimes they choose pink.  Pink is fine.  For anyone.  Even me, finally.

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