Recently, I was drawn to this article by feminist writer Monica Dux, in which she discusses the phenomenon of little girls dressing as fairy princesses. As I read, I found myself nodding: there’s truth to the idea that garbing small girls exclusively in pink and lauding their beauty above all else can lead to problematic behaviour in adolescence – a bona fide Barbie mentality. And, like the writer, I was a tomboy at school: at seven, I was deeply obsessed with dinosaurs, loved soccer, could hold my own in a handball game with boys three years my senior, burned ants with a magnifying glass, built forts in the bush and played video games whenever possible. I wasn’t Pretty In Pink.
But for all that, I can’t help feeling that Dux has cottoned on to a genuine concern and drawn a flawed conclusion – specifically, that forbidding pink and fairies is the answer. Like other parents mentioned in her article, mine certainly never encouraged the Fairy Fixation, but neither did they actively forbid it. As a consequence, My Little Ponies jostled in my schoolbag alongside Starscream of the Decepticons; I dressed up as the Man from Snowy River for my bookday parade, but also had a tutu in my wardrobe. (I’ll give you one guess what colour.) Diversity isn’t just forcibly steering a child away from the norm, but actively offering them a choice. And if you stint the dominant side for long enough, sooner or later, you end up creating a different kind of imbalance.
There’s nothing inherently sinful about the colour pink: refusing it on grounds of its association with princess-type deviance makes as much sense as declaring that lefhandedness is evil, a pahse I’d like to think this part of the world has grown out of. The problem isn’t the concept of fairies as loved by children, but how adults react to their use. Dux herself makes note of this – parents who praise their daughters as beautiful, pretty, sugar and spice when princessed up – and yet her solution is not for adults to change their own behaviour. Rather, she advocates that they regulate costume use in children. As an approach, this is virtually identical to telling teenage girls not to dress provocatively if they don’t want to be wolf-whistled, instead of, as makes more sense, trying to raise boys who don’t judge women by their clothes. Human weakness and pragmatism allows for some middle-ground, and there’s a case to be made that dolls like Bratz and Barbie capitalise on the colour pink to sell an unrealistic standard of beauty, but ultimately, girls should be free, in the gender-biased sense, to be girls. A truck-hungry tomboy does not lurk within every prepubescent glamour queen – nor should it.
Minus the adult overzealousness, there’s still a distinct bias in the way toys are offered to children. Underneath all the gendered marketing, the fact is (and Dux agrees) that boys and girls are different. What needs to be encouraged is the idea that different isn’t automatically bad – not just between boys and girls, but girls and girls, boys and boys, and that it’s OK to pick’n’mix your interests. Girls who want to play rugby should still be able to frock up in pink, just as boys who’re happy to play with dolls should still be allowed to like cars. It’s also a fact that children are cruel, and police difference within their small communities with a rigour and bias difficult in the politics-conscious adult world. That can’t be changed entirely, but I suspect it can be mitigated by parental behaviour.
Unless we’re talking about the singer, pink’s not my cup of tea (and even then, I have to be in the right mood). There’s a long road yet to travel before society stops marketing towards the biases children have for themselves and starts venturing into new territory; in video games, at least, there’s been some headway. Parental coddling has a lot to answer for, and given the kind of adult I’m turning out to be, I’m glad I never felt pressured to cling to pink and fairydust to win approval. Perhaps, to take a backwards leap, I’m turning into the adult I am precicely because I never felt that pressure. There’s also girls who’d feel similarly uncomfortable if forced towards tomboyishness – not that Dux advocates this, but it’s one potential consequence of her solution.
And the moral of this story? That girls (and boys) can be pretty in pink, or not. The important thing is choice.