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Does Mother’s Day really have to be SO pink?

The deluge of pink advertising in the lead-up to Mother’s Day is not only infuriating; it has an important message for those seeking to tackle gender-related health issues.

So says Margo Saunders, a public health policy consultant in Canberra, who also wonders: do women really want a pink computer?

She writes:

“I have been thinking a lot about sex lately. No, not like that – more like ‘sex’ as in ‘gender’.  This is due in no small part to the fact that this year will see Australia’s first National Men’s Health Policy and an updated National Women’s Health Policy.  Both of these are likely to contain strong statements about the need to address ‘gender stereotyping’ and reflect expectations based on flexible and evolving notions of gender.

Two recent and very different advertisements – for a pink computer and for cream cheese  – have prompted two questions. Are the health sector’s visions about gender realistic, given mainstream norms around gender identity? And are we happy that the sexual emancipation of women now apparently gives women the right to treat men as sex objects on prime-time television advertisements?

The first of these questions is considered below; the second will be the focus of a subsequent contribution. The intention is not to provide a sophisticated analysis, but to just raise the issues.

Why the concern about advertising?  I could not help but be struck by the contrast between the visionary concepts contained in recent discussions about health and gender (for example, statements suggesting that the health sector needs to help bring about shifts in ‘what it means to be a man’ so that ‘masculinity’ embraces more health-promoting attitudes and behaviours), and the rampantly traditional gender stereotypes emanating from current advertisements for everything from computers to toys to food products.

Advertisements can be viewed as a sort of societal ‘button-pusher’, as their purpose is to initiate a behavioural response, such as getting us to buy something.  Their success is relatively easy to measure and is based on outcomes: if an ad is credited for increasing sales, it continues, and ads that employ approaches that do not translate into increased sales are scrapped.

The constant barrage of advertisements depicting traditional gender stereotypes to persuade us to buy clothes, toys, housewares and office equipment suggest only one thing: to quote home loan guru John Symonds: ‘It works’.  Through their constant reinforcement of traditional gender stereotypes, these ads also serve as a warning to idealistic public health types who have delusions about their ability to alter concepts of traditional masculinity and femininity: you will have you work cut out for you and are up against the power of commercial advertising.

Yes, some things have changed.  In particular, there are understandable concerns about the effects of raunch culture and porn identities on both boys and girls.  These influences, combined with the fact that girls and boys are under unprecedented pressure to conform to gender stereotypes from a younger and younger age, have led to findings (by author Maggie Hamilton and by researcher Anastasia Powell at LaTrobe University) that girls feel pressured to appear sexually available – to be ”hot” – and that boys have become de-sensitised to sex and violence and are influenced by expectations to appear macho and to treat women as sex objects.

In the midst of these influences, traditional gender identities have held on with a vengeance. John Redenbach, spokesman for the Australian Toy Association, noted last year that, ”Kids today are not really any different to the kids of 20 years ago, with one exception … they are growing up faster, earlier.”  He expected the bestselling toys last Christmas to be the traditional ones: Lego for boys and Barbie dolls for girls.

The accuracy of these ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes is another matter.  Half a century ago, my three sisters and I — in the absence of any brothers and therefore perhaps without the need to stake out any gendered turf — had more interest in board games and bicycles than in dolls (boring).  We played ‘cowboys and Indians’ instead of playing ‘house’.  My mother was a professional speech pathologist who had better things to do than cooking and housework.  And none of us ever had the slightest preference for pink.

But the point, I suppose, is that we believe and accept that the traditional stereotypes are true. And that brings me to the advertisement that caused me to spit the proverbial dummy.

Having recently watched, with jaw-dropping incredulity, the barrage of stereotypically gendered ads on Saturday morning television – tools and action toys for boys, dolls for girls  –  I found a letterbox full of advertising material from various retailers offering me pink sneakers, pink blenders, pink irons, pink vacuum cleaners and pink neck massagers.

But what really convinced me that we have a serious problem was the OfficeWorks’ print advertisement for the Dell Inspiron Mini 10.1 Netbook with the prominent and cheery notation: ‘Available in pink for Mum’.

It’s not the fact that they make it in pink – it’s the underlying assumption.  Would a Mum who wants and uses a netbook – say, a multi-tasking senior public servant or small business owner — really want one in pink?  (Mine’s shiny black – very classy.)

Am I the only one who feels insulted that advertisers are treating me as if I am a little girl hankering after a spangled pink tutu?  Or do I just need to watch more Saturday morning tv ads?”

Comments 7

  1. Holden Back says:

    Turn the television off.This stuff only works if you look at it.

  2. Doctor Whom says:

    I learnt the other night whilst watching QI with Stephen Fry (one of a few programs that give me hope for TV – the other is Inspector Rex) that pink was originally a colour for boys until around the 1900 and even as late as 1920. So even culturally determined stuff changes radically at times.

    My daughter at a very young age would wear nothing but pink. So much so that at one stage she had a pink tutu, fairy wings, stockings and ballet shoes and a pink wand – all pink and wore them for two weeks. To kinda, down the street, to bed until they were so grubby they had to be peeled off.

    Others were horrified we let her wear pink. We were pretty sanguine about it. Now those same people are a bit horrified shes a self described radical feminist lesbian.

    I’m not sure that there is a lot of evidence that the advertising works. (the old cliche is about half of the spend on advertising works – now if we could only figure out which half)

    I can remember case studies showing that some firms sponsorships of sports teams,mostly male, was linked to directors and CEOs interests and had bugger all to do with return for $$. That is if directors and CEO were male sports fans then they could come up with figures to justify sports sponsorship – when the directors or CEO changed and sponsorship was dropped the bottom line often improved rather than slumped.

    I’d be willing to bet that you can get a bigger discount on a pink notebook than a shiney black one. The pink market will be small and intense niche and they’ll be hard to shift.

    The stereotypes are there in health campaigns too – breast cancer etc.

    Then look at the stereotypes in media and health campaigns about anyone over 50 – silver haired couples all retired comfortably in well tailored tracky dacks and on the beach – who are these people?

  3. Holden Back says:

    Wow, I didn’t realise radical feminist lesbians were still being made!

  4. Doctor Whom says:

    Its a work in progress she tells me

  5. Doctor Whom says:

    In Western culture, the practice of assigning pink to an individual gender began in the 1920s.[6] From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary.[7][8][9] Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.[1

    From wiki no less:
    6 Zucker, Kenneth J. and Bradley, Susan J. (1995). Gender Identity Disorder and Psychosexual Problems in Children and Adolescents. Guilford Press. p. 203. ISBN 0898622662.

  6. Doctor Whom says:

    ^ Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?”, The New York Times Magazine, 24 December 2006, retrieved 10 December 2007. Orenstein writes: “When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split.”

  7. Tania says:

    Naomi Wolf made an interesting argument re: engendering (pardon the pun) of gender stereotypes at a recent Conference (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2010/2891053.htm). Her basic message was that the mass media is shaping what we perceive as the ‘ideal’. She argued that historically, when women are about to get a giant portion of freedom there is a backlash in the form of images of beauty e.g. when women got the vote in the 20s, the body shape that was ideal immediately changed (curvy to skinny). These ‘ideals’ change the way in which women perceive themselves and in which society perceives them and also extends to the way in which women are perceived and treated by men. This is not unique to women though, and increasingly males are also being affected by what society perceives as the ‘ideal’. I’m not saying that it is all the media’s fault, it clearly is not, but images of beauty and the ideal (both positive and negative) that are portrayed by the media contribute to the creation of societal gender stereotypes. I mean you only have to look at other countries in which the media is noticeably absent to know that this issue is much broader than the media and that there are broader societal determinants at play here. But the media has to accept at least some form of responsibility for engendering stereotypes in modern Western society.

    As Todd Sampson (The Gruen Transfer; CEO Leo Burnett Ad Agency) recently pointed out, the only safe ‘gender stereotype’ bet for advertising these days is the stupid, middle-aged white male – for some reason everyone gets a laugh and noone seems to get offended…yet….

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