When I was a child, lo these many moons ago, gender identity was fixed and well-policed by cultural mores and taboos. As a young girl I preferred my brother’s doctor kit to the nurse kit Santa brought me, but my mother patiently explained that I was a girl, my brother was a boy, and we got the toys meant for who we were. How different it was back in the fifties. Or was it?
I read in the Washington Post, in an op-ed by Peggy Orenstein, that Legos, Inc. is aggressively marketing new sets that are aimed at little girls. Primary colors have always been the mainstay of Lego sets but what with the onset of girl-marketing the colors they are a-changing. The new sets, Creative Cakes, Butterfly Beauty Shop, and Stephanie’s Cool Convertible, to name just a few, feature pastel colors to match the pastel themes of each. No doubt these sets will find eager fans.
I teach young children and those of us in this business are deeply aware of the power of pink (and violet) on young girls. I myself recently sponsored a pink crayon/marker drive at school to satisfy this lust among my pink-starved girls. To be fair, I included green in this effort to satisfy my boys who, contrary to popular belief, prefer it to blue.
But what’s to prevent this trickle of pastel blocks from becoming a torrent of aspiration-dilution in girls? Already my girls worship at the altar of the Disney princesses. Once upon a time (my time) Cinderella had her own identity, as did Snow White. Perhaps they were defined by their relationships with men, but at least they weren’t lumped together and interchangeable. How far will this go?
After reading Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain, my commitment to providing learning experiences for girls and boys that allowed for playing in cross-competencies was reinforced. If boys wanted to build, girls would be encouraged to build, and their minds seeded with the idea that Betty could build as well as Bob. If boys wanted or appeared interested in drawing and writing, their minds would similarly be engaged at any level that appealed to them. Perhaps, as Ms. Orenstein writes, this was behind Legos interest in making building kits for girls. Perhaps it was only a profit motive, taking advantage of the tyrannical gender separation that begins at age four. In any case, seeing these sets incites me to a sense of radical commitment to encouraging competencies in every area of children’s creativity, regardless of color (pastel or otherwise). If your students adore the Disney princesses you are not duty-bound to provide them with a steady diet of girly play opportunities (pink markers and crayons are okay).You can educate them in a playful and loving way.
For years I’ve taught the Nutcracker Ballet to fours. My unit always starts with asking children what they know about ballet. The boys invariably state that ballet is for girls (ugh) and the girls begin to pirouette. We talk about story-telling through movement, watch a video of the ballet in stages, and practice the difficult leaps and sprints they see on the video. By the end of the unit the boys might still say ballet is for girls, but leap and twirl to the Nutcracker’s music, asking for toy soldier dress-ups. Minds change gradually. Be a part of the change.