Gender Stereotypes Thrive in Grey Matter and Pink Wear

Wendy Norris is a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado now working on
assignment for RH Reality Check. She was previously a New Journalist
Fellow for the Center for Independent Media and managing editor of The
Colorado Independent. She is editor/founder of

They’re marketed as "extremely funny" but the
underlying message is much more disturbing — baby shoes resembling stilettos
and "ima shopper" embossed on hot pink-colored rubber teethers
designed as mock credit cards.

Sadly, girls, even at infancy, are being subjected to
messages, both direct and subtle, that their worth is inextricably linked to
attractiveness and stereotypical feminine behaviors.

One would hope after decades of social progress in the
workplace, at school and home that the gender stratification of toy stores,
clothing racks and extra-curricular activities would be relegated to the
dustbin of history.

Not so. And according to some experts in cultural studies
and biology the influences that perpetuate gender stereotypes are as pervasive
as ever.

The pink and purple
princess mafia

Melissa Wardy became so frustrated with the clichéd "ubiquitous
pink and purple princess-diva-drama queen" clothing options for her
pre-school-aged daughter that she founded Pigtail Pals, a T-shirt company to
redefine the term "girly."

"I’ve done many amazing things in my life but I’ve
never met a princess. I’ve never met a real ballerina," said Wardy, who
was a cold case homicide investigator before deciding to become a stay-at-home
mom. Her designs promote girl-affirming messages about non-traditional career
options, healthy body images and being brave, intelligent and independent.

But it’s not just girls that are being bombarded with
formulaic identities ripe for Madison Avenue exploitation. Wardy, who now has a
son, also finds that boys clothing is as fixated on unattainable muscle-bound
physiques, sports and macabre figures.

Navigating the local discount super store makes it even
tougher for parents trying to raise confident, socially-aware children. The
friction between families’ urging their children, especially girls, to pursue
their dreams is directly contradicted by the virtually inescapable
consumer-culture mores of prescribed clothing styles, overtly gender-based
entertainment and the annual onslaught of holiday toy commercials that
reinforce strict role expectations.

Try as we might to avoid these mini-Men are from Mars/Women
are from Venus dichotomies, there’s growing evidence that we’re actually
inadvertently hard-wiring some of these stereotypes into our kids’ brains.

Nature versus nurture
or both?

Until about age two, most young children are unaware of
gender roles and exhibit no toy preferences between trucks and dolls until
cultural pressures kick in.

Neurobiologist Lise Eliot argues that despite
conventional wisdom, "We don’t have evidence that the brain is different
at birth but we do know that the brain is strongly affected by learning."

In Eliot’s new book, Pink
Brain, Blue Brain
she also posits that if there are behavioral
differences between boys and girls there must be a correlated neurologic
difference — ones that are frequently incited by cultural influences.

For instance, Eliot’s research confirms that certain play
activities favored by parents and schools for young children help to create
neural pathways that magnify minute biological differences between boys and
girls that augment learning stereotypes. Encouraging boys to play with building
toys, sports and video games improves visual-spatial acuity that is linked to
math and science performance. Diverting girls to language dominant and small
motor activities, such as reading and coloring, builds another set of skills
more commonly associated as feminine.

While the strides made by the implementation of Title IX to
ensure equal access to academic and extra-curricular educational activities,
most notably female athletics programs, are undeniable in their benefit to
girls’ spatial skill development there still exists cultural manifestations of
gender-restrictive toys and play that curb such learning.

The complex duality of nature and nurture’s affects on
children’s gender identity and embrace of stereotypical behavior, says Eliot,
creates as an intersecting and self-perpetuating Venn diagram rather than two
distinct ends of a spectrum.

That new thinking stands in contrast to the bookstore
shelves that groan with tomes on raising boys and reviving Ophelia. To which
Eliot takes aim at the stacks of popular parenting guides which she warns are
too often "simply making stuff up" to substantiate preconceived perspectives
on differences between boys and girls that are not supported by scientific

Taking sides in the
‘pink wars’

While parents suffer conflicting messages about how to best
raise their children, Elline Lipkin thinks that girls are encountering their
own complicated set of social expectations that’s engendering contradictory

Lipkin, an author and researcher at the UCLA Center for the
Study of Women, mentions that the groundbreaking study, "Packaging
"  by Lyn Mikel
Brown and Sharon Lamb deconstructs the "selling of pink" or mass
clothing marketers attempts to sexualize young girls based on the intensity of
a pink hue chosen for clothing — light pink connotes the innocent good girl
while hot pink signals a sexy diva.

"That’s a very confusing conundrum for a lot of people
who don’t realize it," said Lipkin. "And girls are often left feeling
these pressures coming at them from all sides but they can’t articulate the
disconnect. It’s really confusing and really, really frustrating."

In her forthcoming book, Girls’
, she examines the impact of pop culture and media on young
women. One effect of those pressures is the trend toward revealing,
age-inappropriate clothing and cosmetics for pre-teen girls designed to attract
male attention, that evokes the derisive term, "prostitot."

"From birth onward we are being shepherded along a
gender spectrum and there’s very little choice involved," said Lipkin
about the unrelenting cultural mixed messages that assail girls.

And that moment now seemingly begins as infants when they
slip on their first pair of high heels.

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  • lynnsdecor

    EXACTLY….I am so SICK OF PINK clothes for my girl! (her favorite color is green and we have a hard time finding it on clothes!)
    And why is Wonder Pets, a TV show for all preschoolers, only on t-shirts in the BOY section of Walmart. It is ridiculous. Know what is worse, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys…darn Barbie comb for girls or cool cars for boys…guess which one we ask for and get very strange looks about.
    Why is the cooking toys in the ‘girl’ section of stores when most top chefs are men?
    Why cant girls play with dinosaurs and robots?
    Dont boys need to know how to care for a baby doll? (heck it might just teach them to BE NICE to others)
    More parents need to step up and voice that these dumb stereo types be done away with.

  • wendy-norris

    The experts I talked to for this piece had some great suggestions for parents, grandparents and caregivers on how to avoid unknowingly imprinting gender stereotypes on our children:


    Learning through play:  Be sure to offer kids a variety of toys, books and play opportunities. Be doubly sure that your girls are given and encouraged to play with building toys and computer games or get involved in active pursuits, like sports, that teach visual-spatial skills and eye-hand coordination. Talk to your baby boys and give them crayons, pencils and books that help improve small motor skills. These critical skills can help mitigate the math/language  deficits our girls and boys too often enter school with and are perpetuated through the education system.


    Don’t freak out:  If your son wants a doll or a pink bike don’t succumb to stereotypes about "boy" toys or colors. Likewise, for girls who want to play house or dress up. Relax. It’s okay. Play teaches them life-modeling and decision-making skills. Just make sure they have a variety of toys and opportunities.


    Think:  Talk to your kids and family about your own gender boundaries. What’s okay? What’s not? What cultural or family-based expectations do you want to use as a touchstone for raising your children and which ones are best left in the past?

  • wendy-norris

    The toy store gender apartheid is particularly gauling.


    I avoided buying toys at the big box stores when raising my daughter and focused on speciality retailers that sold scientific toys and  handmade crafts from small collectives. 


    As a result, she had an impressive collection of rocks and fossils (definitely not a typical girl hobby) and beautiful dolls and toys with a great story behind them.

  • equalist

    We have this problem with my mother and my two daughters. She insists on buying them only pink, princesses and baby dolls, and refuses to get them anything designed as “boy toys”. If they ask for blocks, and there isn’t a pink and purple princess set, they get baby dolls or other toys. We’ve tried talking to her about this, and she just doesn’t seem to get the point of what we’re trying to accomplish with them.
    As a child I was the only girl of 7 grandchildren, and was raised this way, only dressed in pink and frills, discouraged from sports, climbing trees, and the girl scout version of camping that I was allowed to do was watered down to say the least. I was taught that girls should never fight for themselves or anyone else, and should never try to defend themselves, verbally or physically, and should always remain subdued and submissive to stronger male influences. I was taught that girls should always depend on a male to protect them, and as such, I had no idea how to defend myself or escape when I found myself in an abusive relationship a few years ago. I threw myself into subjects pertaining to the strength and power of women, and in this way was able to build myself back up and pull myself and my daughters out of that situation. Others aren’t so lucky. As a result of my experiences, my boyfriend and I are working on teaching them of their own strength, and how to rely on themselves to keep them from getting trapped in the same circumstances I found myself in five years ago. Gender stereotyping is at the least detrimental to a girl’s self esteem and keeps her boxed off from her abilities, and at worst, sets girls up to be abused by those who would take advantage of their stereotyped mind.
    Equal rights, equal responsibilities.

  • equalist

    We prefer to buy our girls an even mix of toys, both "boy" and "girl" items.  They have dolls and princesses, but also have video games, trucks and cars, building blocks, and the like.  I don’t shy away from the "boys" clothing section either.  If I see something that will fit her, and that she likes in the boy’s clothes, then she gets it.  As my boyfriend and I have descussed when we met, if we were to have a boy, the same would go for the girl’s section.  I plan to teach my children to have extensive faith in themselves and their own strength and to embrace their individuality, no matter what path that leads them down.  If they choose to be "girly girls" then that is their choice, but it is my duty to ensure that they have all options available to them.  


    Equal rights, equal responsibilities.

  • feminazi

    I’m proud to say that I refused to ask whether the happy meal toy was for a “boy or girl”…I instead asked whether they would like Hot Wheels or Barbie, or whatever. Then again, I absolutely loved my matchbox cars when I was little, although I played with Barbie as well. Call me well rounded.

    The thing that’s frustrating to me is how my three nieces that are of this age–almost 4, 3, and almost 3–are all three obsessed with Disney princesses, despite having completely different personalities. Has Disney discovered visual crack and inserted it into the ads for these things? It’s insidious. I’m also appalled at the amount of toys that I see that are the “doctor sets” and science sets that have boys enjoying them, and then I notice that the ovens and toy kitchens all have pictures of little girls. No wonder a lot of men wouldn’t know what to do with a spatula and would pretty much starve if they weren’t married or living with their mother.

    How disappointing that it’s 2009 and the backlash is still alive and well.

  • jayn

    Can’t help you with your mother, but as far as building blocks go, how about some lumber, paints and a scroll saw?  Voila, blocks in any colour you want–and as an added bonus you have an excuse to teach your girls carpentry.  (It does kind of suck that the retail ones are usually aimed at boys, but there are some generic sets available, which is what I preferred anyways.)

  • wendy-norris

    Great story about the Happy Meal toys. It’s incredible how insidious the stereotyping is in our consumer culture.


    I constantly had to search my little brother’s bedroom to retrieve my play oven. Cooking with a lightbulb as a child didn’t seem to stunt his sense of masculinity or prevent him from a successful hitch in the military or career in electrical engineering.

  • equalist

    I love the idea of making the building blocks!  We usually just get them whatever the generic legos are and they like those, but I like the idea of having a toy that everybody made for them to play with.  I think it could be something special, and good wooden blocks last forever, and handmedowns are always good too.  :D


    Equal rights, equal responsibilities.

  • cksieloff

    Hi Wendy,
    This is a great piece. Do you have links to Melissa Wardy’s new company? This sounds like the type of company I would like to support. I have a new niece, and I would love to find non-princess, feminist gifts for this little girl. It’s so important to start young, before they can be hyper-sexualized as children!

  • wendy-norris

    You can check out Melissa’s company at