Can we stop with the pink and the bows already?

by Eszter Hargittai on December 25, 2007

Shortly after I found the great blog outside the (toy) box, its author decided that she couldn’t maintain it, not right now anyway. I completely understand her decision, but it’s still a bummer. There’s some great writing there about parenting, gender issues, and consumerism, and her voice will be missed.

WNBA for her - pink! - ughSo here’s a post along similar lines inspired by my stroll down 5th Avenue in Manhattan yesterday. One could probably write a whole book about the experience on that one street Christmas Eve, but I’ll just restrict myself to the NBA store. I’m more of a college basketball fan than an NBA fan, but I like basketball enough in general to have been intrigued by the store and so I went inside. (Yeah, clearly this isn’t a generic anti-consumerist post.) There’s tons of merchandise likely about any NBA team of interest. Naively one might think that most sports and fan gear could be gender neutral. But no, there is a separate “NBA for her” pink section, because how could a girl or a woman possibly appreciate a green or orange jersey, right? In addition to that pink section, I was really annoyed by the gendering of some playful items. I thought it would be cute to buy a little plush basketball as a gift for a child. Then I thought: hey, let’s support women’s basketball so I’ll buy the one that says WNBA instead of NBA. WNBA toy with bow - can't just let it be, can they?But the WNBA balls all had a bow! Why can’t a little plush basketball with two eyes, two hands and two feet not have a bow even if it is supposed to be female? Uhm, and why does something that supports WNBA have to be female anyway? Or would somebody like to critique me for assuming that the bow and big eyelashes are supposed to represent a girl?

I find this all so stupid and frustrating. Needless to say I walked out of the store not having spent a penny.

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Comment on Can we stop with the pink and the bows already? by vivian | Dora The Explorer
12.26.07 at 4:27 am



Jared 12.25.07 at 5:37 pm

Yeah, Don Imus wins. Depressing.


The Constructivist 12.25.07 at 6:28 pm

I think it’s at least in part an attempt to appeal to (/interpellate) kids. I never thought any of my girls would ever like pink, but my 4-year-old does–and as a result her two favorite golfers are Paula Creamer and Momoko Ueda. At this point, I’m like, whatever, let’s hope she grows out of it (the pink–I have nothing against the golfers who wear it).


P O'Neill 12.25.07 at 7:21 pm

And that set against the sexual harassment across town in the Knicks front office. Oy.


Seth Finkelstein 12.25.07 at 8:55 pm

Regarding “and why does something that supports WNBA have to be female anyway”, I wouldn’t say it has to be female – but if it’s meant as a representation of the players, then that’s a valid reason to gender it as female.

Something I’ve wondered about – how much does the sort of iconography that means “female” for cartoonish characters (eyelashes, bows, big hair, pink) vary by culture? There was an old Bloom County sequence where one of the anthropomorphics animal characters was revealed to be female, to much internal consternation. Seems like someone must have investigated this, it’s obvious paper-fodder.


Ann Bartow 12.25.07 at 10:15 pm


Joshua Holmes 12.25.07 at 10:28 pm

Alyssa Milano was tired of the same thing in baseball, so she helped design a line of women’s baseball attire that kept the colors and logos without pinkifying it.

Also needless to say, she looks smoking hot in Dodger blue.


R 12.25.07 at 10:43 pm

Something I’ve wondered about – how much does the sort of iconography that means “female” for cartoonish characters (eyelashes, bows, big hair, pink) vary by culture?

There was a time when my (then pre-school aged) daughter thought that only girls had eyelashes…


Eszter 12.26.07 at 2:20 am

Seth, sure, if the ball is supposed to be a representation of the players then they can be women, but that still doesn’t explain the bow and eyelashes. Can’t a woman exist without a bow and can’t she just have regular eyelashes?

Regarding your question, I’m sure there are such differences. But not only across cultures, but also across time within one culture.

R, this reminds me of the following quote from Women Don’t Ask (p.28.):
Once, when their daughter was three, Linda stopped in a drugstore for something and the child saw a stuffed animal she wanted. “Do you have enough money to buy that for me, Mommy?” she asked. “Do girls have money, or is it just boys that have money?”
This was in reaction to the fact that the father was always paying when the family went out to a restaurant or was buying something at a store (even though the mother made more). The daughter’s conclusion was that mommies don’t necessarily have money.


Currence 12.26.07 at 2:54 am

When I was very young, I remember thinking (for who knows what reason) that all cats were female and all dogs were male. (Disclosure: up to that age, I had never had a cat or dog as a pet, due to my mother’s allergies.) Perhaps cats are more likely to be portrayed as female in cartoons? Or I was just a very odd young’en.


vivian 12.26.07 at 3:27 am

As a parent I find some of the same frustration in toys that are already pretty egalitarian. Dora the Explorer stuff appeals to boys, but comes in pink and sparkles, no fangear aimed at boys. Then they created Dora’s cousin Diego to appeal to boys. But he (also) appeals to girls. There is less problem that way, because there is no stigma dressing a girl in male-seeming clothes. I’ll even get my son pink shirts if he asks, but frilly, shirred, feminine pink – that’s just a lot harder, knowing what he might face in school.

Seems like toddlers can tell the difference between being a fan of something and trying to become exactly like it. How come marketers can’t?

Although, is there really a stigma against males owning gyno-morphic basketballs with bows? Spongebob also has long eyelashes, and his friend Patric is pink, but they’re already in trouble with the fundies, suspected of being gay.


Seth Finkelstein 12.26.07 at 3:37 am

Yes, but in (US culture?) cartoonish iconography, common shorthand symbols which indicate gendered-female are [eyelashes, bows, big hair, pink]. That is, those items are how you say “female” in that cartoon vocabulary, for things which aren’t human but stylized. If you want to indicate “This thing is supposed to be female, since it symbolically represents a player of the Women’s National Basketball Association” (i.e. the gender aspect is a deliberate message it’s trying to convey), then it’ll likely have a few of those items.

Why this particular symbol-set, that’s the province of people with more media-theory than me. But I’m saying they weren’t just picked out of thin air for the basketball, they’re part of a basic (US?) shorthand for saying “female gender”.

I remember when I read a few manga, I had a difficult time with it, since I didn’t understand a lot of the symbols and conventions it had, they weren’t part of my cultural background.


bitchphd 12.26.07 at 4:18 am

Eszter, you’ll be pleased to hear that PK’s comment on a nightclub scene in one of the Thin Man movies is, “why are the dancers in these movies always women, and the musicians always men?”

He also informed me a couple days ago that the Rankin-Bass Rudolph is “both racist and sexist.”


steven crane 12.26.07 at 4:24 am

i think it’s entirely possible that the pink NBA-gear is probably that way to capitalize on the (now fading, i think) urban-wear trend of pastel-colored track suits and the like. it’s only very recently that baby pink/baby blue team apparel started appearing and i think it’s definitely related to the whole juicy couture track-suit phenomenon of a couple of years ago.


bad Jim 12.26.07 at 9:10 am

Brave, masculine guy that I am, I wore a wrinkly pink linen shirt today as Christmas attire, since darker shades of red are absent from my wardrobe save for a maroon sweater too recently laundered to expose to the concentrated canine presence of nearly any family venue.

We wrap prepubescent females in stiff swaths of tulle, call them “Princess”, praise them when they dance prettily for us, deprecate them when they need help with algebra, and claim that discrimination is a problem that no longer concerns us.

For at least two generations, though, nearly everyone has been sheathing their nether regions in my favorite color, and the consequence of blue universal unisex attire hasn’t been quite as liberating as we once expected. Or has it?


belle waring 12.26.07 at 10:08 am

bad jim: everyone wears blue underwear? is that your theory?


Katherine 12.26.07 at 10:58 am

Yes Seth, I think many of us women understand that gender shorthand exists, and even why – we’re just don’t think they are very good reasons…


Seth Finkelstein 12.26.07 at 12:20 pm

Katherine, certainly not everything that is gendered has a good reason to be gendered – but a basketball mascot toy for the WNBA seems like something that reasonably is gendered, because it’s representing something that is explicitly gendered. That is, (W)(NBA) -> (“female”)(“basketball”)


Dan Kervick 12.26.07 at 12:52 pm

Alyssa Milano was tired of the same thing in baseball, so she helped design a line of women’s baseball attire that kept the colors and logos without pinkifying it.

You mean the woman’s baseball attire with spaghetti straps and rhinestones?


KCinDC 12.26.07 at 4:06 pm

Seth, it’s a basketball with a face and limbs. Why should it be male by default (since there’s apparently no need to add, say, a mustache or a pipe as shorthand for maleness)?


Witt 12.26.07 at 5:19 pm

One of the most frustrating things to me is that it feels like backwards “progress.” It’s a lot harder to buy gender-neutral baby clothes than it was twenty years ago.

A friend went shopping for overalls for a 13-month-old and found not one set in the girls department in Babies R Us — had to go to the boys section. Sure, toddler girls may like pink and like skirts, but is this desire so universal that manufacturers do not need to create any alternatives?

(N.b. I know lots of small companies that do make gender-neutral clothing, but my point is that you have to actively search them out, and they’re mostly online-only. No last-minute shopping there!)

It really did use to be better. That’s part of why I don’t see the recent trends as accidental, harmless, or innocent. They’re a backlash.


Witt 12.26.07 at 5:20 pm

everyone wears blue underwear? is that your theory?

I read it as a reference to blue jeans.


KCinDC 12.26.07 at 6:36 pm

And I read Belle’s comment as a joke, Witt.


Rambuncle 12.26.07 at 6:54 pm

I remember when I read a few manga, I had a difficult time with it, since I didn’t understand a lot of the symbols and conventions it had, they weren’t part of my cultural background.

When I first started watching anime, I was confused as to why the male characters kept getting bloody noses in risque situations.


Eszter 12.26.07 at 8:38 pm

KCinDC, thanks for making that point about defaults.

Witt, I agree with you, it seems to me to be going backwards. But part of me doesn’t know if I just wasn’t paying that much attention before. (Granted, didn’t someone in an earlier related thread – here or on another blog:) – point to an article about the recent push of princess merchandising all around?) I can’t really generalize from my own childhood, because I only spent a few years in the States and I figure in Hungary there just wasn’t nearly as much consumerism period so that may explain why I don’t recall such levels of differentiation between the genders.


Seth Finkelstein 12.26.07 at 8:54 pm

KCinDC: The male-by-default issue is an “is” vs “ought“. I’m all for people making a new symbolic vocabularly, but it’s a lot harder to get usage than simply declaring one (like constructed languages don’t seem to get wide adoption, e.g. Esperanto). My point is that the toy-maker was likely intending to make a definitive assertion of gender, rather than having it ambiguous or undefined. And that actually makes sense in this particular case, given that women’s basketball is much less publicized.


magistra 12.26.07 at 9:06 pm

I think gender stereotyping of clothes for girls has definitely increased in the UK. When I was a child in the 1970s, I wore pink sometimes and purple rarely. Now it’s hard to find girls’ clothes that aren’t pink and/or purple.

But I think this increased emphasis on external signs of gender may be a reaction to the fact that girls’ and boys’ actual attitudes and interests are arguably getting closer (based on survey evidence). And I’m not sure whether it’s a good or bad sign that at one UK toy shop you can now buy a pink mini rugby ball. Is it simply stereotyping, or is it also a sign of acceptance that girls do want to play such sports?


Queenie 12.26.07 at 9:32 pm

re: the ball- by nature of the difference between the NBA ball and the WNBA ball, the item is gendered by its nature. If you pick up a plush orange-and-oatmeal ball with a shield-shaped logo in its general vicinity, it’s a WNBA toy. It doesn’t need long eyelashes, or a bow, or lipstick, to be female.

As a proud Liberty fan, I wander into the NBA Store every so often. I usually walk out seething. At least they’ve stabilized the section’s location…

For one thing, NBA for Her? DOES NOT EQUAL WNBA. I hate that they mix the sections together. I do not give a flying cow flop about the NBA, but I love my Liberty. Not to mention that I have major, major issues with pink team gear- WTF, wear your team colors, and unless you’re an Italian soccer fan, I’m pretty sure your team colors don’t include pink.

Then there’s the fact that they don’t really take the section all that seriously. I remember all the times I’ve gone in there and said “but that doesn’t go there! And she got traded two months ago! And damnit, that’s a Phoenix jersey with Sacramento shorts!” Sure, they’re both purple. But do you think they’d make the same mistake with the Raptors and the Kings?

What ticks me off is how much of it is for kids, to be honest. And a couple of the guys I know are also steamed because they can’t get gear (because, y’know, men don’t watch women’s sports; I must be hallucinating them, then).

The worst part about all this? The WNBA’s league office is in Olympic Tower. That’s maybe two blocks away. This is going on under their noses. Go women’s lib, huh?


joseph duemer 12.26.07 at 11:52 pm

Maybe the problem is not that some objects — toy basketballs — are gendered, but that the shorthand used to gender them is so one-dimensional & clichéd.


Seth Finkelstein 12.27.07 at 5:34 am

Queenie – the symbols aren’t transitive like that. I don’t mean to imply that all WNBA toys would necessarily have to be gendered like the one under discussion. Just that this one has a valid reason for being the way it is.

joseph duemer – But any widespread shorthand will almost by definition be one-dimensional and cliched. It has to be simple and not require a lot of thought to process.


Eszter 12.27.07 at 3:06 pm

Seth, I don’t see an argument here for a valid reason.


Katherine 12.27.07 at 4:15 pm

Yes Seth, we get it – gender signalling, simple and straightforward etc etc

However, I find it (a) somewhat demeaning that I and my fellow 50% of the population are seen as a secondary version of humanity (male as neutral/normal, female as, well, something else) and (b) stupid and somewhat insulting that the signalling seen as so necessary (what, the letter “W” didn’t give it away?) takes the form of bows and eyelashes, those well known accoutrements of basketball players.


mpowell 12.27.07 at 7:15 pm

Consumer products like these are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in consumers. That leads to a lot of gendered products. Get mad at the company, I guess. It is a positive feedback loop. But I don’t think this is where you’re going to break the loop.


Katherine 12.27.07 at 9:16 pm

Well, that’s us told then. We’re not going to break the loop here, so let’s just shut up. Remind me again what blogging is for?


joseph duemer 12.27.07 at 10:11 pm

Katherine: I don’t know about the bows, but as someone interested in women’s sport, especially the LPGA but also the WNBA, I can tell you that there is a “sports chic” that involves the big eyelashes, etc. Not that all players subscribe & not that it is necessarily a Good Thing, but it is an empirically verifiable fact. Maybe it’s a form of false consciousness, but then so, perhaps, was the way Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, & Janis Joplin toyed with symbols of femininity & in the process both reinscribing them on the culture & blowing them to pieces.

Seth: Right, I thought of that when writing my comment above, but wanted to suggest that we desire or ought to desire a bit more with in our cultural shorthand. I believe piopular culture is capable of high wit.


Seth Finkelstein 12.28.07 at 1:20 am

Eszter / #31 – I’m saying the valid reason is basically to emphasize the “women” in WNBA. I see replies saying, I’ll paraphrase, it doesn’t need to be stressed because it’s implicit, or it should be done in a more clever way. But I think those underestimate the constraints on what’s workable for a popular commercial product in this particular case.


sara 12.28.07 at 2:50 am

When I was a kid (some 30 years ago) it was still possible to buy clothes other than pinkandpurple for little girls. Now it’s all pinkandpurple and I am glad that I have a 2-year-old nephew instead of a niece. Of course, in a few years I’ll have to explain to him why I don’t want to buy him war toys.

It is more scary when women old enough to know better (you would think) go on dressing in pink. Maybe not with purple and glitter, but certainly pink. I live in, despite its cosmopolitan and megalopolitan pretenses, a Southern town. There are sorority girls and preppy wives. They wear Lilly Pulitzer dresses in summer. A couple of years ago, Kitchen Aid’s entire line of appliances included pale pink.

I tell myself, “I have got to move back to Greater New York City, where even the good girls wear black leather.”


Katherine 12.29.07 at 12:21 pm

Seth, you may well think that that is a valid reason. Nevertheless, the point being made is that “what’s workable for a popular commercial product” doesn’t preclude analysis of what’s workable for a popular commercial product. I think, in fact, that putting a bow on a basketball to represent “female” is a weak-arse excuse for “workable”, and simply helps to perpetuate a stereotypical and inaccurate representation of “female”. It’s insulting, and stupid, in one lovely package.


Shaping Youth 12.30.07 at 7:11 pm

Great media stereotype slams & worthy deconstruction here; I teach a session called ‘Squashing Stereotypes in Media’ and it’s amazing what’s continually perpetuated…we (Shaping focus on media/mktg’s impact on kids, so you’ll find tons of articles along these lines about ‘packaging girlhood’ and dollar-driven ways this gets played out as marketers try to gender tag and mine for profitability. (see category/stereotypes)

From Pink Dreams & Pink Fairytale Princess Flakes to the bigger picture of media messages being delivered through film and TV on role expectations. (amazing stats in the Annenberg gender equity study at DadsandDaughters’ org and their “See Jane” division) It clearly needs a look-see in a big way on the content front, far beyond glittery eyelashes and color palettes…

Gender-tagging basketballs for WNBA represents yet another form of ‘other’ (and I tend to agree w/Katherine throughout this post; plus the differentiation of setting the boy bball as the ‘norm’ and the girls as the ‘other’ is what disturbs here)—

For parents and kids, the key is not to buy it, or buy into it, and it will ever so slowly grind to a halt, with people shrugging, ‘huh? That’s dumb, why would they do that?’ as my daughter (a bball player) just did when I told her this story.

Mind you, she also received a basketball-shaped clear lipgloss in her holiday stocking, unadorned, no bows no frills, which sent the message, “I can be an athlete and like lipgloss too” which captures her personality much more accurately than some contrived anthropomorphic fluff-n-stuff.

Strongly feel media/mktg are defining kids before they can even define themselves…so parental economic backlash and a hearty slap on the wallet is the only change agent that moves as fast as a Rutgers bball game, as you can see by my post here on how to end racial stereotyping by ‘going for the gold’ in the ad arena:

Raising awareness through media literacy can BEGIN to ‘counter-market’ the blatant stereotyping that’s impacting kids at a raw/profound level, (see APA early sexualization study and our Shaping Youth advisory board members at Packaging who have tackled the ‘pink think’ machinations on the marketing front in a big way:

Sorry for the long blog-hog, but this hits a huge hot button for me, (esp. since our nonprofit, Shaping Youth, is partnered with —I strongly believe persistence is key if parents/purveyors want to pushback on what’s being served to us on a pink platter time and time again…

After all, even Imus felt the sting even with his ‘comeback’ as advertisers are not eager to align w/’tainted products’…whether that product is people, or a bunch of bow bedecked bballs in the ‘on sale’ bin due to rejection…

Economics via cultural mindshifts are what ultimately bury products and create change in the media maelstrom.

Thanks for the great conversation, Katherine, Seth, et al…as THAT is what blogging is about! :-)

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