When I was very young, maybe four years old, my mother owned and operated a fabric store. This was convenient for a number of reasons, but it came in especially handy when I decided that I wanted a rag doll. My mother allowed me to choose whatever fabrics I wanted from the remnants, and there were plenty of choices. An off-white for the face, an orange and yellow stripe for the body, green for the legs, and an alternating medium- and dark-brown herringbone fabric that I cut into strips for the hair. It was a pretty ugly doll, but I loved her.
And there wasn’t a stitch of pink.
Later, after I’d been exposed to more advertising aimed at little girls, I decided that I wanted my room painted pink. Pepto Bismol pink, but a little more garish, if you can imagine. After my father and brother had put in the time and effort of coating my walls like an esophagus and nearly had their vision permanently altered, I pretended to like the result. Later, when I was able to change the paint myself, I painted it a light blue. I still wasn’t happy, but it was a significant improvement.
I remember being enamored of the pink on pink on white on pink rooms for girls that I saw in advertisements, but now I wonder if that “preference” wasn’t just distaste for the boys’ rooms that were being advertised. I don’t think I’ll ever know with any certainty. Regardless, I now look back with regret on the ease with which I allowed advertisements to affect my taste.
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the pink phenomenon and the little girl (Riley Maida) whose complaints about the uniformity of pinkness in girls’ toys got so much attention on YouTube and on the news. I’ve also been thinking about Benjamin Radford’s response that girls are supposedly biologically predisposed to like pink because dolls are pink, or some nonsense like that. I’m not going to extrapolate from my experience with my rag doll onto every other girl, because that would be stupid, but if I were to do that, it would at least be an extrapolation from a real experience, whereas Radford’s conjectures are based on… nothing.
After considering my ugly ragdoll and the fondness I still have for her, I realized that it was my involvement in making her that made her special to me. And I felt sorry for my friends who didn’t have a mother or sister or aunt who could make them ragdolls of their own. They didn’t get to exercise their imaginations with the creation and design of their dolls. Even Build-A-Bear doesn’t fully address the problem, as everything still has to fit a standard template.
The inhibition of children’s imaginations isn’t limited to girls. Target had an ad this past Christmas that featured a boy giving growling voice to a destructive monster that turned out to be a stuffed reindeer. Cut to the father, watching with dismay, as his son has to settle for using his imagination. Cut to toy dinosaur, the solution to Dad’s problem. And it was Dad’s problem, because the kid looked like he was having fun.
There’s a reason children like to play in cardboard boxes: They can be anything. You want a fort? Here’s a cardboard box. You want a tank? Here’s a cardboard box. You want a cave? A dollhouse? A car? An airplane? A haunted house? Here’s a cardboard box, and it can be all of those things and more.
The inhibition of imagination doesn’t stop at childhood. Look at menswear in any department store. The color palette is pretty limited, and it takes a daring man to wear anything but the most conservative of colors to an office job.
Or consider romance. Valentine’s Day is next month, and the ads will reflect advertisers’ own limited imaginations. Men should buy the women in their lives jewelry, flowers, and/or chocolate. You might see some ads pushing cars or travel, and there might be ads by small businesses trying to push their wares.
Madison Avenue has been so successful at pushing the Big Three of “romantic” presents for women that when Howard Dean ran for President of the United States, Diane Sawyer took him to task for buying his wife a rhododendron for her birthday. I don’t remember his answer, but I hope it was something along the lines of “You’re not my wife.” Dean is a true romantic: He ignored all the advertisers, he listened to his wife, and then he bought her something that she said she wanted. What could be more romantic?
So, why do advertisers try to condition people, starting in early childhood, to limit their imaginations? If I’m going to speculate on the basis of nothing, I’ll have to say that it’s either because the advertisers themselves lack imagination, or they think that our lack of imagination will make their jobs easier. I could be wrong. If there’s a better explanation, I’d like to hear it.
In the meantime, I’m going to use my imagination.