Tag Archives: sexism

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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You choose from what you’ve got

There’s been a political kerfuffle about the photograph of Michele Bachmann on the cover of Newsweek. Perhaps you’ve heard. There have been complaints of sexism because the photograph seems unflattering. It’s the eyes. And the hed on the cover: “Queen of Rage.”

The Daily beast has a collection of the photographs from the article. I don’t think they were all used (I could be wrong about that), but they show she has a habit of holding her eyelids a little too high. Many of the images look candid and not posed. If the cover is from a candid shot, it may have been the only cover-worthy image of her from those photographs.

The posed photographs do not look much better. In fact, some of them, while possibly more flattering, are more frightening. The photograph with her hands pressed together like she’s about to pray tells me she isn’t interested in representing me or other atheists/unbelievers, even though that is part of the description of the job she supposedly wants. I get that her faith is important to her; my right to my beliefs is important to me. I respect her right to her beliefs, but I doubt that she would return the favor. To me, that’s more frightening than any silly photograph.

I wish I could attribute the photo selection to sexism. I sometimes enjoy arguing about sexism. I just don’t think it applies in this case, at least not to Newsweek. I have seen some sexist comments about Bachmann in internet comments (no, I’m not going to link to them), but those people would have made sexist comments about her regardless of how the photograph looked. And given how she looks in the other photographs, I have to conclude that that’s just how she looks. Newsweek can’t be sexist for showing her the way she looks.

I also don’t buy the argument (if one can call it that) that the same kind of photograph would not have been used if it were a man. I seem to recall some magazine photos of George W. Bush that looked like they played up the blankness in his eyes. I also remember quite a lot of fun was had at the expense of Michael Dukakis, Howard Dean and John Kerry when they ran for President, so it isn’t even all partisan.

After re-reading the text accompanying the photographs, one question I have about this piece is, why the hell aren’t Lutherans pissed off about her? Read the text accompanying photo 4 (the prayer shot):

Raised a Lutheran, Bachmann says she converted to a “living faith” at the age of 16 after attending a prayer meeting with a friend. “All I can say is that, you know, the Holy Spirit knocked on my heart’s door,” Bachmann recalls. “I literally got on my knees with some of my friends and then confessed my sins… I gave my heart to Jesus Christ.”

Is she implying there that Lutheranism is not a “living faith”? If it isn’t, what the hell is it? Is she implying that any faith other than hers is not a “living faith”? What’s the difference between a “living faith” and whatever she thinks her lost Lutheranism is?

My First Amendment Threat Alarms go off when I see or read anything about Michele Bachmann, and that has absolutely fuck-all to do with her eyes.


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Here there be “Language”

Recently on twitter, @drskyskull and I had a bit of back-and-forth about whether “testicular” was an appropriate description of the GOP (he said that while it’s good to have testicles, it’s not good to be them; I think testicles might disagree, but the science there would be… challenging). Also recently, Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels wrote a post about sexual epithets and (white male) privilege. It got me thinking.

It’s a peculiar thing to use the names of sex organs as insults. These are the fun bits of the human body, but are we supposed to be reviled by them? The Abrahamic religions (and several other religions as well) will say yes, of course, because… well, because some 4,000 years ago, some dude got squicked out by a woman’s vagina, or something. Believers wouldn’t put it that way, though. They’d dress it up in florid language about how Yahweh/God/Allah/Thor wants people, especially women, to be pure and holy and the only way women can be pure and holy is by remaining virginal at least until marriage (and if she can swing it, even after giving birth the first time).

How does this ever not mess people up? Before you get married, sex is badbadbad. It’s so bad, you shouldn’t even call it “sex.” You should call it “making love,” or something even more euphemistic. You shouldn’t use the proper terms for sex organs, because if you were to say “penis,” some delicate flower of a woman might swoon, and we can’t have delicate flowers swooning. That would be too tempting for men, who for some reason can’t control their “manhoods” in the presence of a woman who can’t offer resistance. Or something.

(I’m saying “or something” a lot in this post.)

However, once a (heterosexual) couple is married, sex magically becomes a beautiful expression of one’s love for one’s mate. That’s a major frameshift. And it occurs the instant someone in funny clothes says some magic words. (In the exceedingly unlikely event that I get married, I’d like the Elvis impersonator to replace “I now pronounce you husband and wife” with “abracadabra.” If it’s about magic words, I want magic words.)

I think it would be a fine thing for people to refrain from using the names of the fun bits of human anatomy as insults, especially the names of the fun bits of female anatomy as extra-strength insults of men. History is against me. Even the words “woman,” “womanly,” “girl” and “feminine” are used as insults, so how can the names of our sex organs not be epithets as well? We have been denigrated for thousands of years just for being women. The epithetical use of our sex perpetuates our second-class status, and I can’t help thinking that people who spit words like “cunt” and “twat” like it that way.

Years ago, when I was preparing for college, I participated in a seminar or class that was supposed to prepare us for the SATs. The instructor of this class digressed a bit from his plans and asked the students to come up with as many words we could think of that were insults of men. We filled up one of the four chalkboards in the room. We then repeated the exercise with insults of women. We filled up all four chalkboards, and could probably have filled another if we’d had one.

As a matter of principle, I try not to insult people, and especially not by reducing them to their body parts. It doesn’t help anything, and it usually hurts more than just the intended target of the insult. And in the case of using the names of sex organs as insults, it reinforces the attitude that sex is sinful (in a bad way).


Posted by on August 6, 2011 in language


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