The Four-Year-Old Feminist Sensation -- Some Questions

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Credit: YouTube

A pint-size pundit named Riley Maida shot to national prominence over the past week after the four-year-old’s father captured her rant in the aisle of a toy store.

She goes off on the unfairness of the idea that girls have to buy pink-colored items and princess dolls and boys are "supposed to buy blue things." Riley’s father posted the video on YouTube where it has already garnered over two million hits. From there it bounced around Facebook and Twitter, finally it landed her a spot on the ABC Nightly News, where Diane Sawyer referred to her as a “superhero philosopher.”

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A writer for ABC News, Maggy Patrick, explained that during the rant “Riley surprisingly turns to very adult logic. She tears into companies for targeting certain toys toward a specific gender. ‘Because the companies, make these, try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy, right?” Riley asks, “Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?”

Of course, Riley is not entirely right when she says, "The companies try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff." (But her four-year-old logic is endearing). Girls don’t have to buy princesses, and boys don’t have to buy (male or female) superheroes. Girls don’t have to buy pink things, and boys don’t have to buy toys that are blue, or any other color. I’ve never heard of a store refusing to sell (or even discouraging the sale of) any color-inappropriate clothes or items destined for a boy or girl.

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Stores are happy to sell items of whatever color to boy and girls; the only color they care about, especially during these lean economic times, is green. Furthermore, boys and girls don’t buy their own toys and clothes — parents do. The decision about what colored items to buy their kids lies with parents, not kids nor marketers.

Why Gendered Colors?

That does not, of course, answer Riley’s basic question, which is a good one: Why are most toys and clothing items for female babies and young girls pink, while many toys and items for male babies and young boys blue?

The choice of blue for infants has its roots in superstition. In ancient times the color blue (long associated with the heavens) was thought to ward off evil spirits. Even today the tradition continues; in many parts of the world people paint their doorways and window frames blue. Originally only boys were swaddled in blue, and girls were later assigned the color pink for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. But the color distinction between the two genders dates back millennia.

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But what about pink toys for girls? It’s an interesting question, and there are several answers. One obvious reason is that dolls are by far the most popular toys for girls. What color are most dolls? Pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-toned. There are, of course, dolls of varying skin tones and ethnicities (the popular Bratz dolls, for example, have a range of skin tones). But since most girls play with dolls, and most dolls are pink (a green- or blue-skinned doll would look creepy), it makes perfect sense that most girls’ toys are pink.

Pink is also the most popular color for girls’ items for the same reason that white is the most popular color for new cars: that’s what most people prefer. Research has found that girls exhibit a significant preference for the color pink.

A piece in Time magazine noted that,

 

According to a new study in the Aug. 21 [2007] issue of Current Biology, women may be biologically programmed to prefer the color pink—or, at least, redder shades of blue—more than men…. speculate that the color preference and women's ability to better discriminate red from green could have evolved due to sex-specific divisions of labor: while men hunted, women gathered, and they had to be able to spot ripe berries and fruits. Another theory suggests that women, as caregivers who need to be particularly sensitive to, say, a child flushed with fever, have developed a sensitivity to reddish changes in skin color, a skill that enhances their abilities as the “emphathizer.”

 

Exactly why girls seem to prefer pink is unclear, but if male and female children express a preference for one color over another, why wouldn’t a parent buy a toy that their child is more likely to enjoy? Though color/gender-stereotyped toys dominate the market, parents can find and buy whatever color items they like for their girls and boys.

It’s easy to see why little Riley is an Internet sensation, but there’s no need to invoke a sexist marketing conspiracy; no one is trying to “trick” or force girls into buying (or preferring) pink items.

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