Pink Princesses and other Errata

I intended to compile research on the origins of genderized colors and their reversal about 100 years ago. Instead, I found a well researched piece on the subject. What follows are quotes from a few articles and images. I highly recommend reading the Straight Dope article linked below.

A 100+ year old photo showing a girl in a blue gown and a boy in a reddish-pink outfit. The image is hand-colored.

The above photo was shot and hand-colored (the girl in light blue, the boy in reddish-pink) between 1905 and 1913. It was obtained from images of the Vester and Whiting families, an American colony in Jerusalem, via the Library of Congress.

In the 1800s most infants were dressed in white, and gender differences weren’t highlighted until well after the kids were able to walk. Both boys and girls wore dresses or short skirts until age five or six. Differences in clothing were subtle: boys’ dresses buttoned up the front, for example, while girls’ buttoned up the back. Why no attempt to discriminate further? One theory is that distinguishing boys from girls was less important than distinguishing kids from adults. Childhood was a time of innocence, whereas adulthood typically meant grueling physical labor. Perhaps mothers decking out their little boys in dresses thought: They’ll get to be manly soon enough.

–From The Straight Dope: Was pink originally the color for boys and blue for girls?

Check this Vester/Whiting family photo that better shows the physical differences between boy and girl clothing at the turn of the 20th century.

Maybe it was the dentist’s Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” I lost it.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?”

She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother.

[...] My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?”

–from What’s wrong with princesses? New York Times opinion.

Photo of a sign from Hamleys in London that points shoppers in traditional directions. The boys section has action figures. The girls section has dolls, dress up clothes, arts and crafts and Barbie. A middle section for hobbies has remote control cars, planes and trains, soldiers and Hot Wheels. Photo by Frank Baron /

The above photo, taken in a toy store, is from the UK Guardian website which has a section of articles about the gender gap in schools.

“I mentioned it to a studio head whose movies were largely family fare,” [Geena] Davis told me in Los Angeles. “I said, ‘Have you ever noticed that in kids’ programs there are fewer female characters than male?’ and he said, ‘No no, not US! We’re all over this issue!’”

“What he meant,” Davis said, “was this: ‘We have ONE female in our movie; we make sure we have one female that everyone can approve of.’ I realized then that if we were going to address this question seriously, we needed facts. We needed data.”

[...] Geena Davis Institute’s results in three succinct points:

  • Gender imbalance reigns across the media.
  • System wide, when females are presented they are shown in a hypersexualized way.
  • The highest concentration of this imbalance is in animated films and G-rated programming, where parents might assume their children are safest.

–from Where are all the girl ninjas? (a background article about the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media)


9 Responses to “Pink Princesses and other Errata”

  1. Anon says:

    Before the industrial revolution, and I think probably into the 1800s, there wasn’t really much of a concept of children in western culture. Once a working-class child was old enough to work, they worked, and there wasn’t any concept of childhood innocence. I read about it in a psychology textbook, didn’t know it before, so maybe other people didn’t too.

    In regards to gender in popular culture, I think part of the problem is that girls are still the other gender. If you have a family of cartoon animals, the ones with bows in their non-existant hair are the girls, and the ones without are boys.

    January 20th, 2009 at 2:40 am

  2. Ticia says:

    I go back and forth on this subject. On the one hand, I do believe there are differences between girls and boys. I can see that just from how my 3 kids act. On the otherhand I also believe that most all things boys can do, girls can also do, and vice versa.

    So, getting to what you’re talking about, part of me would like specific examples of what they’re talking about. Because, I look at Cinderella and don’t see her as hypersexualized. Now, I look at the modern day Bratz dolls, and I think oversexed toy not coming in my house. I also was a great reader in my childhood and found lots of great female examples of character, and there was always a girl in the cartoons I liked to be when playing with my friends. It may just be all in what you’re looking for.

    January 20th, 2009 at 6:09 am

  3. Tiffany says:

    Interesting articles- thanks! One thing to think about also is that books for young adults tend to be the opposite of the media- while there are certainly plenty of not-so-good ones (gossip girl, for example), there are a great many authors writing wonderful books for girls, with very strong, powerful, imaginative female characters (Tamora Pierce, for example). The boys selection seems to be much more limited, unless you like manga with half-dressed women wanting nothing but a man….NOT. Needless to say, I have a son… Thank goodness for old standbys like C.S. Lewis!

    January 20th, 2009 at 6:24 am

  4. AJ says:

    Ticia, Disney’s Cinderella was produced in 1950, so there’s no hypersexualization, just the I-need-a-man-to-save-me message.

    Bratz, as you mentioned, is a modern portrayal.

    January 20th, 2009 at 8:03 am

  5. Allison says:

    Wow, that New York Times Opinion piece really connected with me. I am totally sickened by some of the deliberate marketing efforts described in there. It also highlighted well how hard all this is for parents. Where do you draw the line? I think my family is still very much trying to figure that out.

    January 20th, 2009 at 10:12 am

  6. KGS says:

    In professions, clubs, or other groups in which being strong, tough, or smart are seen as more desirable than being “sweet” or “nice,” I think pink in its most traditionally feminine, frilly guises is a dangerous path, but one with interesting potential too. In those circles at least, wearing lots of pink and highly “traditionally feminine” frilly things means you may have to try a little harder to be taken seriously. If you succeed in being the best at what you do, the fact that you do it while wearing (or in spite of?) pink fluff makes you seem even more awesome. If you end up in the middle of the pack, however, it’s easier for you to be overlooked as a piece of pink fluff than for an average woman who dresses in attire more traditional to that job/group. To me, this makes pink potentially
    cool in some ways, but also fraught with peril.

    As an example, consider the pink baseball glove. If a really talented female player uses one to win the game, that glove becomes a cool accessory and symbol of “girl power.” If, however, a run-of-the-mill female player uses it to perform adequately but not well , she’s “oh-so-cute,” not taken seriously, and likely passed over in favor of an earnest tomboy when it comes to picking players for the next team.

    Perhaps “pink princess” type stuff is okay for some kinds of play at home, but I’d be very cautious about overloading a little girl with lots of these sorts of accessories for real-life situations (school supplies, sporting goods). Unfortunately it appears that a lot of the “princess products” are aimed at precisely those niches.

    January 20th, 2009 at 1:41 pm

  7. wwbd says:

    This is a topic that is near and dear to me. My dissertation experiment focused on gender differences and it is the topic that I most enjoy lecturing about in my psych classes. Meta-analysis shows that the variation between sexes in most areas is less than 1%, but we let ourselves be convinced that there are wide gaps between men and women. I wish that we could remove gender from the way we parent our children, but it is impossible. Who knows what gender differences would exist if people didn’t need to label the sex of a baby before it is even born!

    January 20th, 2009 at 3:48 pm

  8. Ticia says:

    Yeah, see I”m a sucker for fairy tales, so I tend to like all of them, even if they mostly have a “I need a man to save me theme.” However to get a fairy tale that isn’t a man needs to save me, look at Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. She’s the one who goes in and saves everyone, and it also isn’t love at first sight, which is a general weakness of most fairy tales and chick flicks.
    See, I guess I’m not seeing the hypersexualization as much, because I’m avoiding most of the newer stuff.

    January 21st, 2009 at 6:27 am

  9. Peter says:

    When I was born, in 1958, my mother was sent something pink by a Danish friend (who knew I was a boy!). My mother thought it odd, so she associated blue with boys by then, but it was apparently pink for boys in Denmark.

    May 21st, 2009 at 1:41 am

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