Does Pinkification Fool Anybody?

Over at Faraday's Cage, Cherish is thinking about gender color codes:

I know I may be in the minority here, but let's look at it this way: if someone might consider getting a microscope or telescope for a girl because it's pink rather than a traditional "girl toy" (read: BARBIE) in the absence of a pink microscope or telescope, hasn't something good been done?

How much of the "pinkification" is as a result of adult notions of what a girl versus boy can do? And if a microscope is colored pink (or a baseball mitt or whatever else) means that the adults around that girl will be willing to concede that a girl just might be able to have an interest in science or baseball, hasn't that done a tiny bit of good because the adults around that girl may not be putting the social pressures on her that many of us grew up with? That is, even if it is pink, the girl has still gotten a microscope where she might not have had one before...

I'm not convinced this would actually work, but I'm not a toy retailer. As the father of a young girl, though, I can say that I have refused to buy the pink-and-white "girl" version of a construction toy set for SteelyKid, because I object to color-coding toys that are by rights gender-neutral. My parents got her a primary-color set, and everybody is happy.

My gut feeling is that anybody who would be more likely to buy a microscope for a girl if it were pink is vanishingly unlikely to buy a girl a microscope of any color. Even if she asked for it. But it might be that "pinkification" (which sounds like a process that ought to leave lots of people saying "NARF!", but I digress...) fools some people into buying the "girly" versions of science tools.

Anybody with useful knowledge, please leave a comment and let me know. Do "pinkified" science sets sell?

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A tale of two grandmothers: My wife's mother bought an all pink and purple plastic Tinkertoys knockoff for the kids to play with at her house. The kids love it, and it has a number of nice pieces not included with an actual Tinkertoys set.

My mother sent us the classic Tinkertoys (wood) for the kids to play with at our house. The wooden ones are easier to work with (they are more consistently machined so parts fit better, and when they don't the wood is more fungible than plastic) and the kids love the wood set just as much as the plastic set regardless of the colors.

I am reasonably sure my point was that kids like toys that challenge them and give them the opportunity to create and explore on their own terms regardless of it the toy is a 'gender appropriate color' or not.

Honestly? What's wrong with screaming "MICROSCOPES ARE FOR GIRLS, TOO!" in hot pink? I'd like to see us living in a more gender neutral society, but it's not going to happen, for a number of reasons. Girls are just as capable as boys, no doubt, but girls are not boys. I don't know how much is nature and how much nurture, but if pink science equipment helps girls feel it's OK to be interested in science, then go for it.

That being said, all other things being equal, when choosing a microscope for my kids color was not a factor, but if a pink option were available (with the same features and price) I probably would have gone for it just for the fun of the color.

Novelty retailer Archie McPhee nailed the pinkification phenomenon this summer when they introduced the Pink Flocked Skull for Girls! (non-commercial review link)

I don't know the answer to your question about whether pinkified science sets sell, but I do know pinkified lab products definitely sell to myself and fellow female scientists. Pink labeling tape, pink markers, pink epi-tube holders - if they made it in pink, my female labmates and I tried to buy it in pink. Of course, we never would have chosen inferiorly-performing pink products, but all other aspects being equal, we would definitly go for pink. We did this consciously to make a tiny statement, but I also did it because I really like the color, and I know I'm not the only scientist being influenced by the asthetics of products for the lab. I've also seen my fellow male scientists eyes light up at the sight of blue LED's or red anodized metal.

So, to more closely answer your question, seeing the choices I and my labmates have made as adults, I suspect we would also make the same choices as children. We would be a little more excited to play with a pink microscope vs. a blue or black or silver one. I know as an adult, if I were shopping for a girl who liked pink and I saw a pink microscope, I might buy it for the girl. Even a girl who had expressed no interest in science. But would I buy that same girl who had expressed no interest in science a black microscope? Probably not.

Pink is a popular color for math team t-shirts, notwithstanding the fact that most such teams are overwhelmingly majority male. I've seen high ranking teams from North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Phillips Exeter Academy all wearing pink t-shirts at math contests. See, for example:

I recall one team (again, majority male) wearing pink team t-shirts that stated "Real mathematicians wear pink."

Sarongs are also popular wear among young mathletes of all genders.

Pink being associated with girls and blue with boys is a relatively recent phenomena. Back in the 1910s, it was the reverse - blue was seen as a tepid, wishy-washy colour (for girls, obviously!) and pink a more vibrant, strong colour (of course, for more appropriate for boys).

The current colour association is likely to stick around given the rabid commercialisation of the toy industry and the impetus to product differentiate ("no you can't give your younger daughter her brother's junior microscope. You'll have to buy her a brand new pink one!").

Yes we want girls to be interested in science, but buying into what seem to be innocuous gender stereotypes do have far-reaching ramifications. This is why some US jails put inmates in pink jumpsuits to humiliate, pacify or deter them from re-offending, because there can be nothing can be worse than being like a woman right?

I feel that all of these little battles need to be won because they contribute to a bigger, wider and more ingrained gender inequality.

Would anyone buy a blue telescope for a boy, just because of the color?

Would anyone buy a blue telescope for a boy, just because of the color?

Science being an Approved Boy Activity, this isn't quite the right comparison. It'd be better to ask "Would anybody buy a cooking set with race cars and rocketships on it for a boy, just because of the decoration?"

I don't buy pink. Unless I absolutely need that particular object and there is no other choice available. I don't buy it for myself; even less so for my grandkids. I refuse to even hint to them that colour preference may be gender-related.

I am old enough to have suffered from the division between girl approved toys and boy stuff. My brothers got Meccano (my absolute favourite plaything); I got dolls and weaving sets. My brothers got train sets. I played with them; the boys didn't.

Colour-coding works in a file system. People are not files.

Not exactly an answer to your question, but revolvers with pink grips (e.g. the Smith and Wesson "lady smith") apparently sell quite well.

Another consideration for the pinkification of traditional boy items is that, in a mixed-sex environment, the pink could serve as effective boy repellent, so that the presumably more aggressive boys don't hog the gender-neutral but traditionally boy items.

I'm not sure about microscopes, but relatedly I could imagine there might be handy women who would appreciate, for example, tools that the men in their lives leave alone, on account of their pinkness.

I don't know about science sets, but my sister did get a pink hammer and screwdriver set for Christmas this year.

I liked the pink Lego sets that were "for girls tm" about the same as I liked most of the other Lego sets, because with a mix of the two I could almost achieve equality in the sex of the Lego people. I need to find them so I can have female train drivers for my Lego trains (that I have been buying as an adult woot).

By Katherine (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

My daughter hates pink because 'it's a piggy color'. Go figure. If someone bought her a pink microscope it would put her off for life. Mind you, most of those kids versions of scientific tools would put anyone off. They are usually rubbish, technically. Our choice was to buy adult versions of microscopes and telescopes for the family as a whole. It's the lens that counts, not the color.

Thanks for the link!

Do "pinkified" science sets sell?

When you ask the question that way, yes. When I wrote the post keeping in mind the daughter of a good friend. She is crazy about anything pink and princessy (and I have a couple friends whose daughters, while not as obsessive, tend to lean that way). She probably wouldn't touch any toy you gave her unless it was obviously girlie. I don't know if anyone in her family will get her a microscope, but her birthday is in a couple months, and I will most certainly be getting her something sciency - and pink.

My little cousin got a pink microscope for Xmas this year and I don't think she cared for it much. She wanted a black/silver one like mine. Of course mine is a bit outside the price range of something you'd buy an 8 year old.
But then I'm a full grown man and I'd buy the rocket ship pots and pans for myself. So we probably don't count as normal.

I think it mostly depends on the girl.

By JThompson (not verified) on 31 Dec 2009 #permalink

So, first, the notion that girls can be "tricked" into liking science, etc. by making pink versions of science toys is offensive. Children develop their own interests, and (as any parent can attest) take to them with great enthusiasm. A kid who likes, e.g. dinosaurs, is going to want to know ALL ABOUT dinosaurs, regardless whether or not those dinosaurs are pink. Likewise, a kid who likes fairies is not going to be convinced to like dinosaurs instead by making them pink.

Secondly, even if the pink version of a toy has the same performance specs as a non-pink version, giving the pink version of a toy microscope to a girl continues to send the general message that girls must be restricted to a subset of activities which are pink-coded, rather than that they are free to engage in *all* activities. A pink-coded microscope, hammer, or shotgun does not erase that essential restriction, and furthermore marks the pink-instrument user as out of the ordinary (and not in a good way).

That being said, if a child's favorite color is pink, by all means get the pink microscope. But don't get the pink one just because she's a girl, and you assume girls naturally like pink.

I have a 20-month old daughter, and despite all of my attempts to keep life a balanced mixture of colors, she loves pink. I don't know why. She wants to wear pink every day, loves her pink blanket, wants to eat out of her pink cup and pink bowl, etc. I don't understand it, but I do know that she chose it for herself. But she's 20 months old. She may well change her mind about her favorite color in a few months. Right now, a pinkified toy just might increase the chances of her playing with a toy. But she's a long way from playing with microscopes. (As I type this, she just looked at her grandmother and said "I've got pink!")

So, the point of this rambly too-early-on-New-Years-morning comment is to say that based on my one child data point, she loves pink and probably would be more likely to pick up a toy based on its color. However, she's not going to spent 100 hours shoving everything she can find infront of a microscope because it's pink. If the color will get a kid to pick up a toy and try something they might not otherwise, I'm all for it. The world might find a great chef because of a rocketship set of blue dishes.

(my daughters favorite toys: dolls and dishes. I promise we didn't push any of this on her. We don't even have toy dishes at our house, but she loves to play with them at the grandparents.)

Why is it so easily accepted that children should have toys (and bicycles, and car seats, and microscopes, and laptop computers) which are overtly and blatantly indexed to their gender, when we would all be horrified to see similar blatant packaging indicating which version of the toy was for white children, for black children, for Asian children, and so on?

As the mother of a daughter who's actually NOT that fond of pink, I still, too frequently, find myself facing the choice of the hot pink bike/toy/whatever, and the camouflage green/brown bike/toy/whatever. Where did the middle ground go?

I'm alone in finding this a problem. All the other girl-moms I know have drunk the pink Disney Princess Kool-Aid without hesitation or question, near as I can figure.

By CanuckChick (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink