On pink, blue, and science sets

Color is a powerful primer for humans. Red sparks people’s appetites, making it an ideal logo color choice for everyone from McDonald’s to Safeway. Blue does the opposite – precisely because there are few naturally-occurring blue foods in nature, our body doesn’t develop the same physiological and psychological reactions to it.

But our relationship with color transcends our stomachs. It provides valuable clues on gender – particularly for bodies that aren’t distinctly gendered already, like infants. We see a newborn wrapped in a pink blanket and assume that that newborn is a girl – and react to her accordingly. We see a blue blanket and are primed for a score of other behaviors that we believe are in line with how we should treat baby boys. All this, from a blanket or bib.

And it’s not just pink and blue onesies that trigger these thought processes. The kinds of toys children play with send implicit messages – both in the kinds of jobs each gender can have (a lab set versus a model kitchen) and the value these positions have in our society (the adventurous scientist experimenting with chemicals versus the demure and diligent housewife cleaning the kitchen). So, like pink and blue, style and type of toy are embedded with messages and values…things that children might not know right off the bat, but rapidly etch into their own minds.

Lest it seem like I’m reading too much into Legos and Barbies, Peggy Orenstein points out that children’s brains are most open to experiences and influences around the time when they’re in preschool. Orenstein and Jo Paoletti are quick to point out that this is the same developmental period when children are keen on asserting rigid views on gender (possibly because they associate with the colors they’ve been exposed to from day one). But that doesn’t mean this gender binary is the only thing they should be exposed to. It certainly doesn’t mean that the value-laden judgments on these roles need to be tacked on with it. It’s a time when experimentation should be encouraged, to prepare children for a lifetime of challenging accepted norms and embracing their own independence and individuality.

It goes beyond the playground age, too – the kinds of toys and activities children are exposed to as children translate into affinities or aversions to certain fields in school. Dana Goldstein of The Nation suggests that the best way to learn math and science is through “tinkering”, or hands-on contact with the subjects. Children who have been tinkering with science sets or machinery from a young age (which, overwhelmingly, has been a “boy” thing) have a leg up when it comes to chemistry courses in middle and high school, then. Plus, if you’re raised to think a certain activity or hobby isn’t “for” your gender, you’ll be less inclined to pick it up later in life. It’s no wonder we face a gender gap in math and science – we’ve not only girls’ exposure to it, we’ve actively ingrained the idea that it’s a field with a giant “No Girls Allowed” sign on it.

But despite the powerful influence of these self-imposed boundaries, these are largely invented and relatively new phenomena. Paoletti points out that the blue/pink color line wasn’t drawn until the 1940s – and even then, it was due to manufacturers wanting American consumers to buy, buy, buy. Since then, she adds, we’ve seen a near extinction of gender-neutral clothing for children…as well as a ratcheting up of highly gendered toys (complete with a host of gendered and sexist messages).

Gender norms are constructed – and they always, always benefit someone. While colors and toys are ascribed arbitrary meanings, we place a premium on these messages (even when we don’t always recognize them, as in the example of red being a primer for hunger). I don’t necessarily believe we need to do away with the pink Lego sets of the world, but we do need to question why we’re gendering toys – and what messages accompany them.

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