Gendered Color Dichotomies-R-Us

A Toys-R-Us advertisement made its way around the Internet yesterday followed by a trail of outrage and discussion regarding gender and science education. The offending ad, blogged yesterday by Lisa Wade from Sociological Images, features side-by-side sets of three microscopes and three telescopes of various colors and magnifications, with the lowest strength equipment corresponding to the pink instrument, AKA the girl’s instrument.

The image is a bit blurry so to clarify, the maximum magnification of the microscopes are black -1200x, red-900x, pink-600x; the two black telescopes featured reach 525x and 250x, while the pink one is labeled at 90x.

As Dr. Isis, who has blogged about the ad over at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, noted, nobody would dare deny that pink is the color most positively associated with the female gender. I also wouldn’t expect to hear any arguments that it is also the color most negatively associated with masculinity (unless you happen to be a Jewish frat boy from New Jersey). The ad gives the impression that the girl version of the science toys are the weakest in functionality, making Toys-R-Us seem to be promoting the idea that science is a man’s activity.

Well, yeah. Men far outnumber women in scientific areas of study and professions, most notably in the top hierarchical tiers. But they shouldn’t (Larry Summers you can eat me). So why not give the girlies crutches like these pink toys to get them involved in science and equalize the discrepancy?

Dr. Isis put it nicely:

I get the alleged altruistic intent, even though it only very thinly veils a heap of patriarchal baloney — we’re showing the girls that they can do boy stuff and still be “girly” too, even if the work they are able to do with the tools will be, by design, subpar… I worry about needing to send the message that science must be fashionable to attract girls, because I fear that fashion is deeply rooted in the patriarchy — rooted in a culture that teaches girls to be subservient, demure, and open to the sexual whims of their male counterparts… Creating a separate but equal dichotomy for children has the potential to be the biggest science FAIL in the history of the universe.

OK. So there’s a few different things going on here, so let’s examine this issue more closely. First, I want to address the question: Is it is correct to assume that the science toys manufactured for girls are less powerful? If so, what are the implications of that? Could Toys-R-Us, a corporation that has the power to majorly influence the perceptions of children, be either intentionally or unintentionally using this gendered color dichotomy to reinforce the idea that science is for boys?

I wanted to give them the benefit of doubt. So I went to the Toys-R-Us website and looked at their entire selection of microscopes and telescopes. They are all part of a Toys-R-Us exclusive line called “Edu-Science” which is listed under the categories of “Learning” and “Science and Discovery”. Using screen shots from the website, I put together these image clusters so you can get a better idea of where the pink products fall in the line-up.

Here we see that while the pink telescope has the lowest magnification offered, it has a black counterpart. It’s not like the lowest-end model ONLY comes in pink. That would would have looked really bad for Toys-R-Us — as bad as it did in their advertisement.

With the microscopes, the pink item is placed at a mid-ranged level and has a black counterpart, so it’s not the case here either that the girls’ instrument is the weakest. So it seems Toys-R-Us is not SO bad after all, although they definitely have a shitty coupon book-making team. They’re a business and their goal is to sell more products, and either they’re testing if pink science tools can do that, or they’ve established that they can and are riding the wave. So with this in mind, I would like to pose these questions to those put-off by the ad: Would you rather see the pink telescope eliminated completely from the product line, or have a pink telescope offered as an alternative to the high-end models? Is the fact that a pink microscope exists offensive? Given that its functionality is the same as the other $34.99 model, would it be inappropriate to give that to a girl?

Not to taint your opinions, but I know what my choice would be, and I’m sure you will be able to guess after I say that I personally despise pink and all it stands for. It’s like the Communist red of Capitalism, inextricable from its associations. What I would prefer is to see the pink=girl association shattered forEVER and have kids’ toys and clothing offered in a range of colors. I really don’t like Apple products because they are all too god damn cute for me, but I’m going to use it as an example and point out that when the first colored iPod line, the iPod mini, was released in 2004, there wasn’t a silver one and a pink one, there was silver, orange, pink, blue and green. Choices, they’re the spice of life.

There’s something else that’s bothering me about this whole thing, and I don’t know if I’ve quite nailed it down. But it’s two-part and one has to do with the answer to this question: Given that the functionalities of the pink telescope and microscope are the same as their black counterparts, would it be inappropriate to give the pink instruments to a boy? Imagine your son or nephew ripping off your wrapping paper to find a pink microscope, or a pink anything, and I think you know the answer.

While the pink items might be marketed towards the girls, who are inclined to pick them because it is aligned with their gender role identity, girls more-or-less have a choice if they want the pink or the black one. But boys can’t choose. If a male chooses something feminine, he is emasculated and ridiculed for his selection, sometimes automatically labeled as gay. And I find this to be very sad.

The second part has to do with all the shit that I get for wearing Dr. Marten combat boots on the regular. I love them, yet a certain Laboratory Goddess who will remain nameless, despises them. She has said that I am far too lovely to be wearing those grungy boots, and I adore her for that because I knew she says it with love, the criticism mostly in jest, but still. But I don’t want to be just a pretty girl all the time. I want to be MORE than a pretty girl. My ability to wear combat boots in the face of criticism comes from the same place that allowed me to excel in math and science my whole life — it’s a place of defiance against norms. And I know some people love high heels and shoes that are girly, and I do too sometimes. (Especially the ones she got me for Christmas last year!) But if we are going to criticize a toy store for pushing pink science toys on girls to keep them aligned with their gender roles, we can’t criticize those girls when they break out of those roles. Then they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and that only leads to neurosis.

To conclude, If we want to stop producing adult women with notions of intellectual and societal inferiority that keep them from pursuing and advancing in scientific fields, we need to stop ingraining these notions in our kids by segregating them with “boy” and “girl” versions of goods based on the notions of gender that create the dynamics we’re trying to change. And then if those kids grow up with the freedom and confidence to break societal modes, we need to support them, not punish them.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for now. One of these days I’ll tell you about my black ballet shoes.

19 thoughts on “Gendered Color Dichotomies-R-Us

  1. Arikia Post author

    I forgot to mention, that I have wanted a microscope for as long as I can remember and I can’t believe they are so cheap! 600X in black, please. Kthx.

  2. Pascale

    I have never particularly liked pink, except really hot fuchsia (yup, I lived through the 80s). I dressed my daughter in a wide variety of colors, including team tee shirts when we went to games (she had a George Brett shirt at 12mo for Royals games in Minnesota).
    I heard some women at my institution a couple of years ago talking about how they wouldn’t wear pink because it was the color of female suppression. Please, it’s a color! It only has the power we give it! If I can wear pink pumps with my taupe power suit and kick butt, I will! Besides, I wear pink well; why would I give it up?
    The only color I avoid is orange, cause it is butt-ugly. Especially that Texas burnt clay color. Yuck.

    1. Arikia Post author

      I think both statements are true: It *is* the color of female suppression, but it also only has the power we give it. I’ll tell you a secret: Sometimes I do wear pink. When I do, it’s with the deliberate knowledge that I’m going to be perceived as more feminine, and it’s usually so I can get something in the business world. And I usually get what I want. However, I wish I could get what I want all the time wearing combat boots. But if you like pink and pantsuits, you should most definitely wear them and kick butt in them.

  3. Miriam Goldstein

    Did you mean to quote Ani Difranco up there? :) Cause either way, it’s awesome.
    I’ve always been sad that my heels are too narrow for Docs. I love stompin’ boots and wore them all the time when I lived in NYC. San Diego is too hot, though.

    Don’t bother getting a microscope from Toys R Us. If you want to see cool tiny things, spend about $40-60 on a 25x or 40x loupe. That’s plenty big enough to see tiny bugs, fossils, rock structure, etc. and you can look SUPER COOL by hanging it on a string around your neck. Say hi to the freshwater snails & egrets in Prospect Park for me.

  4. microfool

    Who drives the purchase of pink-colored microscopes and telescopes, children or well-intentioned-but-mind-clouded-by-patriarchy parents/friends/family members?

    IMHO, it’s the patriarchy-influenced gift buyers, and that’s why it’s the mid-range that has a pink option. There are a certain number of gift-buyers who only buy “girl” gifts for female children. The edu-science marketers know this, so they make a pink option to draw that market in, and they make it the mid-grade and not the low-grade to make them pay more.

    I think most things that are pink-ified for female children exist for this reason–it’s easier for gift-buyers, but the gift buyers need to be made aware of the damage this does.

    My solution as a parent receiving one of these into my home would be to return it for the gender-neutral version (of another brand) so that these manufacturers stop making pink stuff. Also to complain loudly to manufacturer.

  5. RocketScientista

    I agree with microfool that this is mostly the patriarchy-influenced, well-meaning gift buyers. Even though my parents were awesome and always supported my science tendencies from a young age, they didn’t want to give me a racecar set that I wanted when I was young because it was too masculine. My mother eventually realized the err of her ways and bought me one when I was in college. BEST.GIFT.EVER.

    As much as I think the need for pink toys is ridiculous, I have to say is that it might make these things not too scary for some parents to buy for their little girls. Not that I think that’s ok, either, but it is how it is. And as enlightened as my parents were, they may have been more inclined to get me that racecar set had it been pink. Or more outwardly girly.

    What if there’s some girl out there who doesn’t know she might like science? Her parents have decorated her in a room with lovely purples and pinks. And whilst Christmas shopping, they happen past the pink microscope or telescope. It would go in little Sally’s room and she could look at things like flower petals or pretty stars! So they buy it. Maybe they wouldn’t have if it was black and big and tech looking? While I realize how preposterous it is to offer things like this in non-gender neutral colors, it might help get two girls more interested in science. I do think they should offer a variety of colors in each range, though, but that’s up to the manufacturers.

    As much as I hate pink, there are others who rather like it.

    1. Arikia Post author

      Word up Rocket Scientista. Thanks for the comment! I know, people do like pink…. If my mom decorated my room with taxidermy, I would probably like dead animals now, and be really fucked up. Just sayin…

      It’s hard to distinguish what we like because we really truly like it and what we like because we’ve been manipulated. I don’t have the answers for how to tease out which is which, but it is going to start with me offering any future offspring of mine, or any other kids I encounter for that matter, a wide variety of options (like my mom offered me when I was little) and let them pick instead of preselecting things based on gender.

  6. becca

    The solution is obvious. ONLY sell microscopes in pink. Whahahahahaha!

    And yes, this made me think about whether I’d get my son a pink microscope. I think so.

  7. leigh

    i agree that the differential versions of toys for the sexes isn’t getting us anywhere. establishing that we somehow need different/separate equipment is not what is going to teach girls that science is something they can do just as well as the boys.

    and to take it a step further, a pink microscope is nothing when compared to a real asskicking female scientist role model.

  8. CL

    To me, the pink toys only reinforce the idea that girls can’t grow up to be scientists. The pink microscopes look nothing like the real ones that scientists use, unlike the others—the boys can pretend that they’re real scientists, but the girls only get a tacky, “girlified” version that would look ridiculous out of a little girl’s toy chest. I would never have thought of myself as a scientist while using that thing, since it looks like a silly little girl’s toy. It’s like that for a lot of girls’ stuff: always pink, always fashionable, but never practical.

    1. Arikia Post author

      Yeah. If I was a kid and someone gave me a pink microscope, I would probably break it way faster than the alternative because I wouldn’t take it as seriously.

      Gonna have to disagree with the “always fashionable” part though, unless it’s being worn by Pascale.

  9. Tamara

    I wish the world was such that I could give the pink microscope to a (transgender) little boy I know who would really appreciate it…

    Ooooh, how about a white microscope and a set of craft paints? That would be really cool…I wanna decorate a microscope with renderings of Ediacarans.

    But seriously, know where I can get a sturdy dissecting scope for a nine year old and a four year old?

    1. DuWayne

      I would recommend going to Amazon for one. The Celestron 44302 is a great tool for the price, but would probably be too touchy for a four year old. It is a digital hand held and moderately rugged – a friend of ours has one and he has used the hell out of it. Downside is ease of use and lack of portability.(abt $60) Eldest’s first was a Meade 900x beginner microscope 28 piece kit – it is pretty rugged and includes standard supplies to teach kids basic slide making.(abt $30) We currently use the Vivitar microview 1200x, which is not quite as rugged and also not really as much the beginner scope – more powerful and more touchy.(abt $40) We have a friend who had the Smithsonian 900x, which is pretty much the same as the Meade, excepting – I would assume – it probably cost more. Not in stock on Amazon, so I am not sure of the price.

      Given my druthers, we would have the Galileo 1200x, which is pretty much the one that I had as a child – rugged as hell, powerful and while it is not as simplified as the Meade, it isn’t as touchy as the Vivitar. But that one is fifty bucks which unfortunately is more than this student can afford.

      In all honesty, there aren’t really any good scopes that would be easy to use and rugged enough for most four year olds. The advantage of the Celestron is that it is digital and therefore the child doesn’t have to figure out the closing of one eye, to look into it (most four year olds I have known have a lot of trouble with that. The Galileo is handy for that, because it comes with the photo attachment that functions as a basic screen, but that is somewhat unsatisfactory as far as the image quality goes. Stereo microscopes are probably the best, but I haven’t actually seen many for much under $200. Learning Services has a student stereo microscope by Ken-A-Vision (never heard of) for $75, but I am skeptical of one at that low of a price. At the same time, it is advertised as a student scope, which may mean it is rather heavy duty.

      Honestly, my recommendation would be to go for the Galileo if it is in your price range, because it is a really sturdy piece of equipment and comes with the photo attachment. Short of that, the Meade is pretty damned sturdy too and I am sure you could find a photo attachment – or could look for a digital viewer, which may not be too hard on the wallet – though if you can do that, I would go for the Galileo to attach it to.

  10. DuWayne

    My eldest really wanted a CD player of his very own at one point when he was rather small and prone to abusing things (I will note that money is a serious issue). One of my clients had a box going to goodwill, that she suggested I peruse for books (awesome pop-up book of the solar system, including a brief history with excellent pop-up explosions and implosions) and there was a rugged, child friendly, pepto-bysmol pink CD player. Three year old boy loved it and kept on loving it until he got into my toolbox at four and managed to get it apart – but could not reassemble it (unlike his leap pad, which was disassembled and successfully reassembled a week later with a screwdriver he had squirreled away, unnoticed. He was truly traumatized when I had to inform him that he had wrecked the lens and that not even I could fix the CD player.

    But then he also grew up often seeing papa lying around the house in a skirt and sometimes wearing one in public. One of our best friends before we moved to Portland was Star, a black lab who lives with a male born woman. One of the people who worked on my roofing crew for a couple of summers was a woman. He played with Polly Pocket with his mother. He also willing to play pretty pink princess with one of his best friends, as well as playing archeologist and construction worker with the same girl friend. It is only since he got into regular public school (head start didn’t manage it) that he has become somewhat gender conscientious and that as much because we have tried to ensure that he doesn’t get picked on – he still occasionally likes to put on nail polish, but pretty pink is now gauche. He is also rather prone to adding Poly Pocket to his little armies.

    I am absolutely certain that if the only option he had for a microscope was a pink one, he would totally rock with it. He really loves having one (not actually pink, because they are cheap now) and I am pretty sure if it were pink with little hearts and ponies painted on, he would deal with it – he might be inclined to paint machine guns and the like on with the ponies, but he is more concerned about having the equipment he wants, than he is about what it looks like.

  11. Pingback: Corporate Babysitter » Blog Archive » On pink toy microscopes

Leave a Reply to Kellsie Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.