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A Belated Note on the Color Pink, and Related Musings

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.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2012 in gender/sex issues, marketing, media

 

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A Wall of Perfect Separation

I was raised as a Lutheran, and it’s quite possible that if my parents hadn’t sent me to an Episcopalian school, I might have remained Lutheran the remainder of my days. But when I was twelve, the local schools went through some kind of upheaval (details of which are still cloudy to me), and so, religious school it was.

It seemed innocuous enough. Some of the elements of Episcopalian services (daily, with communion on Wednesdays) were outside my experience (Sundays only), while others were more familiar. There were many things about the school that I didn’t like, especially the nun who taught science like it was an art class*. I didn’t complain. My father was very ill with the cancer that would soon kill him, and my problems seemed very small in comparison.

Spring arrived, and at a certain point, all the girls in my grade were gathered together and given a checklist** for confession. At no point were we told that we did not have to participate, and my experience at the school so far had led me to believe that if I didn’t do as they said, they’d give me a “mark,” which was sort of a point against students for bad behavior (five marks led to suspension, and I think two suspensions led to expulsion). So, despite the fact that I was Lutheran, I went to confession. I was put in a situation in which I felt compelled to violate one of the practices of my religion (confess directly to God/deity/FSM/what-have-you) in order to avoid bad behavior marks for not engaging in a practice (confession to a priest) that was not part of my religion.

Again, I didn’t think my problems were worthy of complaint. These were people of God. Surely they meant no harm. Surely they were good people. Surely they had my best interests at heart.

The next year, a Jewish girl started at this same Episcopalian school. She didn’t go to confession. So I didn’t go to confession. I was given a mark against my behavior, but they said it was for something else. But these were people of God. Surely they don’t lie.

They can’t claim ignorance. They taught (probably still do) a class on the history of religion, which is a bit deceptive, as it focused mostly on the many varieties of Christianity and the Judaic traditions that informed Christianity. I don’t recall anything on Islam or any of the Eastern religions. At any rate, the Protestant Reformation was covered, the fact that Lutherans don’t confess to their religious leaders was covered, and Martin Luther and his 95 Theses were covered. And they knew I was Lutheran.

It’s a terrible thing to compel a child violate their religious beliefs/practices. They don’t always understand exactly what’s wrong, especially if their parents teach them, as they themselves have been taught, that people of God are always good and trustworthy. (I guess I’m dating myself a bit here; the controversy surrounding pedophile priests in the Catholic church had not yet made headlines. Even if it had, my parents probably would have been relieved that the school was Episcopalian and not Catholic.)

So, on this 3rd day of July, 2011, I would like to thank that school for unwittingly teaching me the importance of the separation of church and state. While it was a private school, they ensured that I learned the principle of not forcing or compelling children to violate their religious beliefs. They ensured that I learned how important it is that society adhere to secular principles so that everyone’s rights and beliefs are protected, that my rights end where others’ begin and vice versa. They ensured that I learned that failure to mention God is not the same thing as denying God’s existence.

My experiences at that school did not make me an atheist, but they did make my atheism a possibility, even if I didn’t know it at the time. They made it possible for me to recognize my doubts for what they were, even though it took a long time to stop fearing the doubts. They eventually made it possible for me to think critically about what my religious leaders were telling me*** and that I could change my mind about my beliefs. They should be proud of these lessons because they are good and valuable, but if they knew they had set me on the path toward unbelief, they’d stupidly hang their heads in shame.

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*Seriously. We used a one of those science coloring books. I had never seen one before, so I read the page titled “How to Use This Book.” I read the lesson, and colored the associated page as the book instructs, so as to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts in the lesson. Sr.ML gave me a C on the basis of my artwork. The next lesson, I didn’t read the lesson at all, and colored a pretty picture. She gave me an A. She’s now running the school.

**Among the possible sins we twelve-year-old girls could confess to were things like murder, adultery, theft, lying, and cheating at games. Being a novice at confession, the only thing I could think to confess to was cheating at games, and that only because I cheated at Solitaire. That’s right: I confessed to cheating at Solitaire. One of my classmates grabbed my checklist out of my hand and started reading it aloud. No one wanted to play games with me after that. Oh, well. It’s their loss. I could have taught them all kinds of ways to fix cards that had been laid down in the wrong order.

***God loves you; Christians are always good people, and if they’re not then they’re not good Christians; and you’ll always find comfort in the Bible. Apparently, they hadn’t read the whole thing either, or they expected me not to notice all the misogyny, which would be kind of like not noticing that you’ve been punched in the face and had your nose broken.

 
 

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