What Color is Gender?

When I was young, probably around first grade, I remember having a conversation with a couple of friends about which colors were “boy colors” and which ones were “girl colors.” Blue, green, brown and black were definitely boy colors. Pink, purple and yellow were girl colors. I think I remember a small debate about red, since it fits with both fire trucks and hearts, but I believe the hearts won out. Red was a girl color, but a boy could probably wear something red and not get made fun of for it, depending on what it was.

As an adult, I know that the idea of colors having genders is absurd. Colors don’t play sports, play with action figures, get their nails done or do any other stereotypically gender-specific activities. Colors are colors. The problem is, even if colors aren’t capable of performing an action, they do carry meaning. The old NBC sitcom Friends1 filled a part of one episode by having the characters tease Ross about his pink shirt, which Ross tirelessly persisted was “salmon-colored.” That episode originally aired 12 years ago and I’ll admit that our society has become increasingly more accepting of the blurring lines between these social distinctions. But I would bet that if you showed that Friends bit to a six or seven year old child today, they would understand that it’s intended to be funny because a man is trying to get his pink shirt.

Clothes are only part of the issue. The bigger area where gendered coloring comes into play is regarding kids’ toys. Kids may not necessarily realize – or care – about the colors of their toys when they’re little; I’ve heard from a significant number of parents who buy their kids toys that their kids like, regardless of the color. But, as they grow, kids pick up on the messages being sent to them by the adults in their lives. Too often, those messages include judgments about the degree to which a person conforms to social norms. “Why would you let him play with Barbies? Aren’t those for girls?”

A few weeks ago, I came across an image on Facebook that described the different Spider-Man toys McDonald’s was including with its Happy Meals. The toys in the first group – a car, an action figure, a Spider-Man mask – were colored red and blue, Spider-Man’s typical colors. The toys in the second group – a headband, hairbrush, bracelets – were purple and pink.

mcdonalds-genderbiastoys (Borrowed with permission from www.daddydoctrines.com)

Before I get into the reasons why this bothers me, let me say first that I have no problem with two separate groups of toys, one of which is designed to appeal to boys and the other to girls. Kids like the toys that they like and it’s important for McDonald’s to make sure that their toys appeal to as many types of kids as possible. Businesses are out to make money and McDonald’s is a business so that’s fine with me.

The first problem I do have with these toys is how they are presented to the customer: “Would you like the boy toy or the girl toy?” The idea that toys can be labeled as “for boys” or “for girls” might have made sense twenty, or even ten, years ago, but it’s just inappropriate in 2014. If my son wants to wear a headband, it’s fine with me. If I have a daughter and she wants to play with action figures, she will. But my child should be able to make that decision without being told beforehand that there’s a right and a wrong answer.2 And, while we’re on the topic, if my daughter wants to have a Star Wars-themed party or my son wants to have a Disney princess party, no birthday supplies store is going to stop them.3

IMG_2079IMG_2078

The other problem I have is the use of the color pink, particularly in examples like this one. If a girl wants a Spider-Man headband, why does it necessarily have to be pink? Why can’t it just be a red and blue headband with a picture of Spider-Man on it? I don’t have a problem with appealing to a female demographic using specific toys or other objects, but I do take issue with the forced use of the color pink in order to do so. I get just as worked up about this topic regarding professional sports teams producing pink jerseys and hats. There is no pink in the red, blue and white Chicago Cubs’ logo; nor is there any pink in the navy pinstripes of the New York Yankees or in the orange and blue4 of the New York Mets. Maybe I’m a purist when it comes to sports jerseys and comic books characters, but pink is not one of the original colors and I can’t help feeling like the use of pink in these cases sends the messages that girls and women will only purchase something if it’s pink. Like they’re not “fan” enough to wear something that stays true to the original and it has to be pink for it to be worth their time. Give women a bit of credit here.

I realize that there is a part of my argument that seems to sit on both sides of the fence. On one hand, I say that I understand that these are all businesses that are out to make money and that they should be able to sell demographic-specific merchandise to be able to do so; then I say they shouldn’t use pink to appeal to women. I don’t have a problem with using pink to appeal to women; I have a problem with changing something to become pink in order to appeal to women. If Marvel and McDonald’s want to attract women using the Spider-Man character, they should work harder to promote Spider-Girl (link) or they should write slightly different stories for Spider-Man that will appeal more to women. If teams want more women in the stands, put on promotions like discounted women’s jerseys during certain games or team-sponsored ladies nights at a local restaurant. But don’t change the character’s or the team’s colors just because you think girls will only choose something pink.

Maybe I’m a purist. Maybe I’m too rigid. Maybe I just take sports too seriously. Please tell me what you think in the comments section below. But, I’m definitely not the first to raise concerns about gender-specific colors on toys so maybe, just maybe, I’m right.


1. I’m sorry if calling Friends “old” makes you feel uncomfortable about your age. It makes me feel old too, but let’s face it: the last episode aired ten years ago and the series is being re-run on Nick at Nite. It’s old.

2. To be fair, I’ve actually heard some encouraging news on this front. Many of the people I’ve spoken to have actually said that when they’ve gone to McDonald’s with their kids, they’ve been asked a question more along the lines of, “Which toy would you like?” No judgment, just a choice.

3. “Let’s call this store Party C. No, that’s too obvious. Let’s go with P. City.”

4. And, apparently, black. Ugh.

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9 responses to “What Color is Gender?

  1. Many sports teams have pink colored logos and items for fans that would like them, but they are given a choice between the pink colors and the regular colors…but I completely agree Spider-man didn’t need to be pink and purple to appeal to girls.

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    • I’m glad the teams still produce women’s versions of the apparel in the regular colors; I’m sure they’d be in even hotter water if they didn’t. I just don’t see the need for the pink ones. If the female fans want to buy stuff with the team logo on it, they should want the logo with the correct colors.

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  2. hmmm… well, how would you feel about the Cubs playing in pink uniforms? Otherwise, as you say, these are businesses designed to make money. They use these gender-specific colors for their toys and the like because they believe they will sell more that way. i think the data indicates that they do, whichis why they continue to do so. Of course, this could be a chicken and egg “which came first” argument, but the present reality is still the present reality.

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    • It’s a fair point. If the Cubs suddenly decided they were going to change their colors to pink and white, I would probably stay a fan; I’ve been cheering for them for 31 years and gotten to know and appreciate a lot of the people involved, regardless of their color scheme. I would still probably feel weird wearing a pink jersey, although I realize that’s more my insecurity than anything else.

      That being said, if their colors had been pink from the start, it’s more of a question. On one hand, I might not have chosen the Cubs so I wouldn’t have to root for a “girly” team, as the elementary-school-age version of me would have no doubt seen them. On the other hand, we were still living on the north side of Chicago at that point, so maybe I would have chosen them anyway just because of the regional connection.

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  3. I was aware of this 30 years ago, and allowed my kids to choose whatever it was that they wanted, I myself never having wanted to wear pink when I was a kid, or for that matter, until not that long ago. Let’s just say that they were free to choose until they got old enough for other kids to make fun of them… and there was nothing I could do about that! I agree wholeheartedly with you. The right to choose is the all important factor!

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  4. Pingback: Brushing Up on Color and Gender | Sleeping on the Edge

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