Gender Bender: Boys Who Love Pink

Media and society have adhered to stereotypes forever. But recent news shows it can be detrimental to kids who don’t quite “fit”

As a little girl, I was a tomboy. I had the girly toys—the Barbies and the Polly Pockets—but usually preferred building with Legos or playing Nintendo alongside my brother to playing “house” with Barbie, Ken and Skipper. I guess I was lucky my parents didn’t push me to be more girly than I was. And also lucky that, for whatever reason, it seems like people accept girls who don’t neatly fit the norm more than boys who are a little different.

The recent backlash about the (absolutely adorable, mind you) boy in a J. Crew ad whose mother is painting his toenails pink illustrates it perfectly. But outrage over this—and people claiming that the mother is encouraging the son to “become gay” or “be transgender” are absolutely horrifying, not to mention ridiculous.

Seriously, is this the best thing people can find to be upset about? They have to pick on a little kid for liking the color pink because he isn’t a girl?

Coincidentally, before I heard about this, I had already started working on a post about gender stereotypes in advertising. The Achilles Effect, a blog about the gender bias as it relates to boys, looked at ads for children’s toys and made word clouds to show how companies market differently to girls and boys.

The most-often occurring words in boys’ ads? Battle and power. In girls’? Love, fun and magic.

It’s no secret that we live in a culture where stereotypes are a part of everyday life. But reading this post about advertising, I found myself wondering: How much does this affect kids and how damaging can it really be?

I couldn’t really settle on an answer to that, but luckily, Justin Sitron, a professor of human sexuality at Widener University, was able to break it down for me.

“I don’t know that it’s good or bad,” Sitron explains. “The most important thing is that we recognize the dynamic it creates. The gift of being an adult human is having the ability to make choices about how we respond to our environment.”

Sitron cautions that while stereotyping may not be an inherently bad thing, it often causes kids who don’t fit into the designated “boxes” to be ostracized by their peers.

“It sets up this whole dynamic so that when they are adults and start to think more abstractly and develop a sense of who they are as individuals, options are often cut very short,” he explains. “What happens to the sensitive, nice, caring guy or the strong-willed, independent girl? Are they able to receive reinforcement and nurturing and support that the other kids who fit the norm are getting?”

It’s food for thought. We’ll never live in a stereotype- or gender-binary-free society, but media messages like the ones found in children’s advertising and the obnoxious uproar about the J. Crew boy’s nail polish are certainly transmitting a risky message to kids: It’s not okay to be who you are if who you are is different from everybody else.

Do you feel that stereotypes in the media adversely affect your children? Would you paint your son’s nails pink if that’s what he wanted?