Last weekend, the New York Times ran a story about the popularity of pink toy weapons, adding fuel to the ongoing debate over the so-called "pink aisle" at toy stores — that is, the lines of pink Legos, pink science kits, and now pink bows and arrows that manufacturers market specifically to young girls. “The result,” the Times tells us, “is a selection of toys that, oddly, both challenges antiquated notions and plays to them deeply.” Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and play therapist at the University of Massachusetts, who is quoted in the story, generally applauds the toys as a good way for girls to express aggressive impulses but tells the Times: “What I don’t like is the stereotyped girlifying of this. Do they have to be in pink?”
Well, no: Of course they don’t “have to” be pink. But when we treat pink — and the girls who like it — with the condescension that question implies, what are we really saying? No symbol of girl culture is more powerful than pink; from princesses, tutus, and ponies, to Valley Girl accents and high-pitched voices. Today the color reads instantly as feminine, and carries all kinds of baggage about what it means to be feminine in a particular way — to be girly.
And what’s wrong with girly, anyway? Rolling our eyes at pink feels like another way of treating female culture on the whole as a niche interest, somehow secondary to male culture — a.k.a. the mainstream. And when it comes to our toys there’s an implicit message that the pink doodads are only second best to the tough dude versions in black, camouflage, and blue. (A boy dressing up like Iron Man, a narcissistic arms mogul turned superhero, won't be seen as nearly as silly as a girl wearing a Queen Elsa costume, even though they play to the same fantasy impulses). If we’ve made pink the most visible representation of girl culture, and also treat it as a symbol of frivolity, then we’re unwittingly telling girls (and boys) that the girl world isn’t important.
Whether these toys have become lucrative moneymakers because girls don’t have better options, or because their parents and grandparents cling to old-fashioned ideas about what girls want to play with, seems almost beside the point. The fact is, they’re selling — so presumably some girls (maybe many) like the way these products are marketed. According to the Times, Zing’s Air Huntress Bow and Arrow slingshot accounts for over a quarter of its manufacturer's sales in less than a year on the market. On Amazon, more than 80 percent of the 368 reviewers give the Nerf Rebelle either four or five stars. And it’s not just pink weapons winning fans. Until 2011, 10 percent of Lego’s users were girls but less than a year after it introduced the pink- and purple-hued Lego Friends line in 2012 (amid controversy that it was pandering to female stereotypes) the percentage jumped to 27 percent. Last year, the company reported double-digit growth in their Lego Friends division.
As it turns out, despite all the ferocious criticism and consciousness-raising about the "microaggressions" associated with pink, plenty of girls seem to love it. More interestingly, though, once you get past the hue, the products themselves have evolved to reflect subtle, but profound changes in the way our society views its girls and their girlyness. Our princesses are more dynamic, and our action heroines way more fierce and complex. My Little Pony is apparently one of the more feminist kids television shows out there, and has even attracted a following of boys and young men (Bronies). Girly-girl just doesn’t mean what it used to — and that’s a good thing.
No one assumes that boys who grow up playing with Nerf guns believe they’ll grow up to be space-soldiers or cowboys. Why not grant the girls who want all-pink-all-the-time the same sort of imaginative freedom? We shouldn’t assume we know what form their ambitions will take, or what they might be learning with their Rebelles.
Not long ago I stumbled upon a perfume chemistry set for girls. Ostensibly frivolous, sure, but also the kind of toy that could conceivably inspire a chemical-engineering degree down the road. Or a cosmetics empire a la Bobbi Brown or Laura Mercier. (And, for years, Avon chief executive Andrea Jung was among the high paid CEOs in America.) I couldn’t help but smile.