Pink vs. Blue: Gender roles amongst children

From apparels and toys to tv shows and other media, kids today are developing a certain idea of gender roles and stereotypes, constantly learning from our environment.


Gender role development, with a bifocal view of how a man or a woman ought to behave, happens during the very formative years for a child. The immediate environment and societal influences tend to develop a certain understanding of gender identification, very much in alignment with the much-accepted gender binary. Besides that, stereotypes about masculine and feminine behaviour tend to condition a child to grow up with a degree of rigidity about social preferences a young boy and a girl must have. 

According to a case study published in the Indian Journal of Psychology in 2015, gender-distinct clothes, blankets, toys, books and other items provided by the parents, tend to influence children’s perceptions about gender identification. The society has been identifying ‘she’ and ‘he’ differently right from the very birth. Children are aware of their sex by the age of two and develop a fundamental understanding of sex distinctions by the age of three. 

The immediate environment of the children is skewed towards a more blue and pink outlook. From defining the ideal feminine or masculine behaviour to conditioning them to a certain way of dressing and the games to play, children are brought up with a certain idea about their boundaries as a girl or a boy.  

Girls are exposed to a set of rules which define appropriate feminine behaviour in the given cultural context. Boys, on the other hand, are told to behave in a non-feminine way, which is more robust, less emotional, masculine, and seemingly more intelligent. The messaging on their clothes are more empowering, energetic and responsible as compared to girls’ clothes. 

According to these gender norms, she is brought up playing with dolls and kitchen sets rather than trucks and robots, mimicking the role of a mother. Their understanding of gender is limited to rules such as growing long hair, wearing frocks/skirts and managing the household.

As obvious as it may sound, the research also mentions that the children begin to actively select the behaviour consistent with their gender in the environment. Once a girl sees herself and others as gendered, she gets self-motivated to engage in feminine behaviour, and to model herself on other people she identifies to be women in her environment.

However, it wouldn't be apt to say that gender distinction is wrong. The problem does not lie with gender roles but the gender stereotypes attached to it. Identifying yourself as a certain gender is good as long as you do not see yourself as the superior category or see the opposite sex as lesser. 

Dr. Kuldeep Datey, a Mumbai based psychologist expressed his views on the same saying, 

You need to give a gender identity to the child. We don’t have to make a male child wear pink compulsorily. Make him wear blue but make him aware that pink is also a colour and that he can wear that also. Unfortunately, that is precisely what we fail to do. We need to give the children an anchor point, an identity. If we are not going to keep distinct gender roles, they will end up getting confused. It’s a role. It is not something you are born with. I agree that there shouldn’t be any stereotypes, but at the same time, there should be some anchor point. For instance, when we take a toy for a child, we take one which fits with the gender role and one which doesn’t. I don’t know if a societal change will ever happen but what you teach at home can be different. It is about exposing them to the fact that what is being portrayed isn’t necessarily true. This is not the only way. Children should be conditioned to such a thought much before adolescence."

Talking of the environmental influences, apparel makers dwell on pink and blue colours for the male and the female children. Clothes became more gender-specific from gender-neutral gradually over a period of time. When pink and blue colours arrived with other pastel shades for the babies in the mid 19th century, they didn’t promote any gender. The popular culture took some time to sort things out gender-wise.  

Initially, pink was for the boys and the blue for the girls, unlike the current scenarios. A 1918 article in a trade journal called Earnshaw's Infants' Department stated that pink was a strong, distinct colour, suitable for the boys, and blue was delicate and dainty, suitable for girls.  Despite the distinct interpretation, the parameters and stereotypes for assigning these colours were all the same that girls are pretty and dainty and boys are strong and brave. 

Men in the 18th century used to prefer wearing a pink silk suit with floral embroidery as a perfect display of masculinity. It was considered to be slightly masculine as it was derived from the colour red, which was considered to be the colour of war, symbolising strength. 

The meaning of the colours drastically changed after World War II, when corporate marketers started promoting gender distinctions on the basis of colours. This was to prevent parents from sharing the same clothes amongst siblings from different genders.  

In the 1960s, marketing for children's apparels and toys started the trend of gender-specific colours. The more specialised a product was, the higher the premium it could demand over its competition. Hence, distinct colours and toys for boys and girls were aggressively marketed to parents. 

Besides these, children are exposed to different ideologies about how they should spend their childhood, depending on their gender. Toys for boys are more about strength and outdoor and toys for girls are more about prettiness and indoor. From dolls advocating the ideal body type and hair styling and kitchen sets promoting the pristine and motherly ideas, the world for little girls is strikingly different from that of the opposite sex. For the boys, on the other hand, being vulnerable is considered as a sin. Exposed to toy cars, airplanes, sports, and even doctor kits, it's more about skills toughness and responsibilities.  Moreover, they are brought up with the well-marketed idea that 'Boys don't cry.'  Of course, with media and many brands tapping on the topic, the lines are dissolving and the awareness about this social conditioning is increasing. However, the general mentality is far from transforming for now. 

Moreover, some TV shows, cartoons and films for kids, even today show a damsel in distress rescued by a prince charming to advocate the patriarchal philosophy that women are vulnerable and men are strong. Why is it that a man in these stories never needs a saving? This tends to develop a social pressure on the boys to always be tough and powerful. 

According to Common Sense Media, children’s media reinforces that masculine traits and behaviour are much more valued than the feminine type. This tends to develop a sense of masculine superiority amongst young boys. 

However, with the introduction of characters like Superwoman and the existing cartoons like the Powerpuff Girls, the scenario is not all that bad for the female gender. But the other external influences affect the children subconsciously, developing social conditioning and gender biases. So, even if they do support such characters, there is a certain psychological understanding of these gender roles which can't be done away with so easily. 

It is true that both men and women are to be blamed to condition young boys and girls to abide by these stereotypes. Men and women are equally responsible for these notions against their own gender. It’s time we start mending what’s already gone wrong with the society than to simply preach to people favouring age-old conditioning. It’s time to raise a generation which is much more conscious, responsible and with a mind of their own. 

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