Pink Princesses, Blue Commandos

dollsMy daughter is no princess. Loud, assertive, and headstrong, she would just as soon as stomp on a castle drawbridge with her size six feet than pine coyly from it, twirling a dainty lock of hair waiting for a Ken doll suitor. Yet the multi-billion dollar media marketing regime is poised to shoehorn her 2-year-old self into being one. As any parent with eyes and a pulse knows, a trip to Americana’s favorite non-unionized big box retailers is a crash course in the enduring power of gender segregation.

Trundling through the “girls’” toys aisle, maneuvering the explosion of pink frilliness, one expects to bump into June Cleaver or Donna Reed.  Baby dolls, play ovens, play houses, strollers, dress-up kits, make-up and princess accessories, addle the senses. Around the corner in the boys’ commando-in-training section, trucks, science kits, building sets, blocks, action figures, guns and other rough n’ tuff paraphernalia signal a return to the jungle of discovery, adventure, violence and enterprise.In the ostensibly secular democratic West, this surfeit of consumer options represents “choice,” rather than cultural indoctrination.  Unlike in the fundamentalist monolithically repressive Middle East, little American girls certainly aren’t programmed to be subservient.  Women in power broker positions abound and capitalist consumption is politically “neutral.”

Indeed, proponents of shattered glass ceilings point to recent job data that suggest American women are actually making bigger employment gains than are men. The decline of the construction and manufacturing industries has severely limited men’s job opportunities. Coupled with the higher proportion of women in four-year colleges, American women would seem to be making out like gangbusters.

There are serious flaws in this premise. First, the gender wage gap shows no signs of narrowing. According to the Center for American Progress, women are the primary breadwinners in over a third of American families.  Women are still relegated to the lowest paying service industry jobs in child care, clerical work, domestic work, and teaching. And black women, who are more likely to be single working parents than are women of other ethnicities, remain at the bottom of the gender wage ladder.

Secondly, the new job data fail to account for the double and triple burden of women’s work. Regardless of whether they are custodians or corporate execs, women continue to be saddled with the majority of child care, housework, and adult caregiving. The minute a working mother hits the door, down time is sacrificed for cleaning, parenting, cooking and counseling duties.  Sacrifice becomes a woman’s life creed.  And it is this message that store flotillas of pink baby dolls, strollers and play houses instill in little sacrificial princesses in training.

Recently, when my students presented a workshop on gender stereotypes in retailing to a group of their peers, the sole male participant commented that he had been targeted for not conforming to the model of “hard” masculinity because he liked to do hair.  For young men, any activity that is remotely associated with caring or nurturing is feminine and therefore “gay.” As feminist writer Derrick McMahon notes in his article “Boys and Baby Dolls:” “Boys who wish to play with baby dolls are seen as punks, sissies, and weak…parents are quick to tell little boys that they have no business playing with baby dolls.” While young girls who express interest in traditionally masculine pursuits like car maintenance or science are tolerated as tom boys going through a phase, boys are punished with the heterosexist stigma of being less “manly.”

The consequences of this are exemplified by the epidemic of black male homicide. Trained to be hard, aggressive and indifferent to the value of each others’ lives as mere “niggas,” young black males are inured to the violence they inflict upon each other.  What would it mean then for the future of African American communities if there were a paradigm shift, and boys were raised to be caring and nurturing? Biological determinists argue that boys gravitate to cars and guns because they are genetically hardwired to do so. In her groundbreaking book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain , neuroscientist Lise Eliot debunks this assumption, analyzing scientific studies on alleged innate sex differences.  She argues that there is “little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains” and that adult perceptions of gender difference strongly influence children’s behavior.

As my daughter begins to navigate the minefield of gender expectations she’ll be constantly told what is proper for a girl. She’ll be hounded by peers, adults, the media and organized religion to be sexually desirable to men on the one hand and chaste and virginal on the other. In a nation of liberated “post-feminist” women, she’ll be propagandized with the contradictory message that romancing kitchenware, cooing after baby dolls, and being a sweet “daddy’s angel” are the keys to fulfillment. And as a third-generation feminist, she’ll be ably equipped with her loud mouth and big feet to storm the drawbridge of gender conformity.

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.


  1. says

    I am on board with this, but it is clear to me that the feminist movement in the United States is diluted with crossover from those that have no interest in female rights, but only in supporting a position that may benefit them someway in the future, a case of avoiding the spirit of law.

  2. says

    There’s so much to chew on in this post, but first I want to say congratulations for challenging patriarchy, it always makes me happy to see someone doing so. But getting to what you wrote about I share many views with you. This false narrative that some are painting of women TAKING OVER and relegating men to the outskirts of society is a big crock of bologna. Despite the many gains women have made they still only make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. Also, women still account for less than 5 of all fortune 500 companies. The major bastions of power aren’t going anywhere.

    Its a shame that women progressing in society is seen as some kind of ominous threat.

  3. says

    Gee, if boys are hardwired for the trucks, building blocks, homicidal military stuff and girls are hard wired for dolls, hair ribbons, nurturing ta da then why does the toy industry and society in general have to spend so much money, effort and time trying to get boys to buy this or that and girls to buy a different this and that? There is no reason that pictures on cartons couldn’t have girls playing with trucks and boys in the background watching and boys with dolls with girls watching. My son played football and sports all the way through university but when he was young we let him play with anything he wanted and if I remember well there were dolls around and not to his detriment. His daughter, my grand daughter, jumps out of airplanes for fun, lifts weights, uses tools, dresses to kill, surfs is very competitive with men or women and does it all with grace — she is gracious but she don’t take s___ from anyone including. She had trucks, tractors, dolls, and the whole shebang when she was a child with great results.

    The “powers that be”, much of it coming out of religious conformity of sex roles, want boys to be trained to be manly and willing killers for the military and the pushing by the media of the myth of military valor etc is just a continuation of male/strength dominance. Conclusion: most human roles are socially taught, not hard wired, though the long course of evolution may have prepared our species to carry out some roles more easily than others depending on gender but alternative socialization can empower both genders to carry out most activities.

  4. Donna says

    “And as a third-generation feminist, she’ll be ably equipped with her loud mouth and big feet to storm the drawbridge of gender conformity.”

    Love it! Married a mere 2 1/2 years, I was just reminded by a sister-in-law that I’m too assertive, a tomboy, loud, and opinionated. My husband laughed (he’s tough but very sensitive and we complement each other quite well) .

    Seriously, I just completed more than 22 years in the Marine Corps. I managed to make my way through all the expectations of my military commanders while successfully dealing with the perceptions (misperceptions mostly) of my male peers. (There’s quite a story there.) Now, I’m a slimey civilian (that’s military-speak), and I’m having to re-invent myself to deal with the fragile personalities of the women (and the softer/milder men) around me. BS!

    Sure, I can (have/will) make some adjustments; ultimately, however, I am who I am. I am a woman who loves the color pink but doesn’t mind getting brown mud under my fingernails. I didn’t play with Barbie growing up, but I do have a huge collection of the sexy dolls now. I can honestly say that I’ve never said or done anything to intentionally hurt another person; yet, I have a sharp, honest tongue that raises the hair on the backs of most of the dainty women in my presence. (Seriously, the fact that they are so fragile and critical makes me wonder about their true motives. Are they secretly envious of my extrovert personality?? Do they resent their life’s choices? Hmmmm)

    I have the cutest granddaughter (age 6) who loves dresses and knows not to crawl around while wearing one. But put her in a pair of jeans, and she climbs like a monkey. Dolls bore her; she’s intrigued with the world’s animals and can tell you practically anything you want to know about them. She is also rowdy and witty. I’ve overheard observers say she’s a brat and tomboy. Nope, she’s perfectly her, and, like your little “rebel” she’s helping blend the lines of gender conformity!

  5. David D. says

    Even more insidious, i think, is how many cultures inherently favor boys over girls. I have run into many situations where the boys in a family are allowed to say and do nearly anything they want – be rude, loud, break things, talk back – but the girls are chastised for even the smallest infraction against the social order. Without dolls and commercials, girls are being taught that they are different and lesser. It is all so wrong. I have both a boy and girl and although my son likes his nerf guns and War games and my daughter likes her littlest pet shop animals and her barbies – I(and my wife) make sure they are both equally required to be polite and considerate of each other and others AND that they are allowed to experience art and science and music and household chores equally according to their ages.

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