Pink or Blue

Posted on: Wednesday 20 August 2014 1:53pm by Gary Pope

Gary Pope Pink or BlueThe Children’s Media Foundation explored gender representation and stereotyping in a public debate in November 2013 and in the recently published Children’s Media Yearbook.

This theme was carried through to the Children’s Media Conference, where Gary Pope of Kids Industries considered Pink or Blue.

View the slide presentation: Research 4

The digital age has served up a level of democratisation never seen before and with it consumption choices that would seem fantastical just a generation ago. We can have what we want, when we want it, in whatever colour we want – unless of course society tells us that we shouldn’t because it’s “not for you”…

Kids Industries wanted to find out what children and parents really thought about the gender stereotypes that society (and marketing) foist upon us, and to discover if there was perhaps a common-sense route through the minefield of political correctness.

In June 2014, we spoke to over 1000 parents in a quantitative survey and 120 parents and 120 children in face-to-face in-depth interviews. They were from all around the UK.  Alongside this we undertook an extensive literature review, encompassing over 56 academic studies. Amongst the many insights we gained we learned some shocking truths…

Please remain seated…

Girls prefer nurturing toys, whilst boys like action toys.

Not a shocked? Neither were we.

Given the choice, children will broadly speaking choose the toys we consider gender specific. Dolls for girls and trucks for boys. It seems to be hardwired…

Here’s the science…

Babies can distinguish a male and female face at 3 months. They can differentiate between a male voice and a female voice at 4 months, and by 9 months children are able to identify male or female by a gender stereotypical accessory (a hammer, or a brooch).  At 15 months children are familiar with the range of nouns that represent male and female, and by 2 years old they are able to clearly articulate that they are a boy or a girl.  At 3 – 3 ½ children gravitate toward same sex peer groups and by 4 playing with toys that are not “gender appropriate” results in ridicule. By 5 children reach the pinnacle of stereotypical gender identification with princesses and knights being staples of roleplay.

Across these early years, gender Identification formation appears to be a blend of nature and nurture, but in general the direction it takes is pretty fixed.  Boys and girls are different. There‘s no point in any pretense that they’re not.

But does that mean that boys and girls can’t play with each other’s toys?

And that blue is always for boys and pink is for girls?

There is a great deal of urban lore around the rise of Pink and Blue. So let’s get some facts down…

150 years ago, Victorian boys and girls dressed in white. There was no colour coding for children at all until the early 20th century. And back then anything pink or red was ascribed to boys as it signified strength (apparently), and blue was for girls as it implied they were ‘flighty’ like the sky. You have to love the Edwardians. The Pink and Blue polarisation that we are familiar with today only truly achieved mainstream presence in the mid-1980s when marketing to children became an industry. And the commercialisation of pink and blue went crazy from there…

Let’s look at the industry that’s struggling most in the new digital order…Toys. Search “Girls’ Toys” on Google images and it’s an ocean of pink. Toy marketers particularly seem to be a little stuck in their ways – “it’s ‘for girls’ so it has to be pink”. We know pink preferencing is a learned behavior but the marketing men and women just can’t seem to shake the pink thing.

In the digital world it’s different.  Search for “Girls’ Apps” in Google and of the 36 images above the fold you’ll see only 4 pink icons. Do the same with boys and there’s not a lot of blue…interestingly it’s a blend of black, red and greens.

In speaking to the parents and children it became clear that the tablet is a gender-neutral device. It’s an enabler and it enables boys to try apps which if they were real toys would, of course, be way out of bounds. All the boys we spoke with said that they had played, and enjoyed playing, “Toca Boca Hair Salon” – a wonderfully whimsical game where you become Nicky Clarke and create and blow-dry the most outrageous virtual bouffants. However, when we showed those same boys images of a “Girls World” mannequin head (where you can brush and style hair for real) they were resoundingly against playing with such a thing. It became apparent that the privacy of the tablet – the fact that no one could see what you were actually playing with – meant boys didn’t feel in anyway exposed by this play. Whereas playing with the head of an oversized doll was  “just wrong”.

And we discovered there are pressures on parents to “conform”.

Throughout our qualitative work dads were always more guarded than mums. They got a little uncomfortable with talk of boys wearing dresses and playing with dolls. Looking at the statistics we can see that dads are far more concerned with their boys exploring dimensions perceived as feminine whilst they don’t really mind if their girls engage in “boyish” activities.

It was clear that parents are concerned that displaying atypical gender behavior at school or in the park – or even at home with friends – could leave their children open to ridicule and bullying. All parents agreed this was a very real issue. Perhaps a sign that we’re not as far forward as we thought…

But if the digital space is capturing the child consumer and is increasingly enabling equality, what’s all the fuss about?

One troubling thing is that the new paradigm emerging in children’s content creation is for large toy companies to own more of the creative process and distribution system. Their ambition is to sell more toys – and that’s ok because there wouldn’t be such plurality in media content if it wasn’t for the licensing funding paying for it. But if, as perhaps not the most forward-looking sector of the industry, they create content in a homogenised and risk averse way, pretty soon the quality of kids’ media experiences will drop.

One of the most interesting findings from the quantitative research was the fact that parents see all the major children’s TV Channels as gender-neutral. Just looking at the upper-age focused channels we find that, unsurprisingly, 87% of parents view CBBC as for both girls and boys, but Nickelodeon is champing at the heels on 85% and Disney Channel is there on 81%. Good for them and their commercial partners – although asking the children during the qualitative phase tells a very different story – whilst CBBC is indeed perceived as for boys and girls, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel were “mostly for girls”.

However, the single most interesting element from this part of the research was both the parents’ and the children’s perception of Disney XD.  Despite it’s well-crafted “boyish” positioning and tone, nonetheless it scored at 75% “gender neutral” amongst the parents and was said to be “for boys and girls” by the children.

So, are we missing the point? Isn’t it really just about content? We’ve known for years that children are loyal to shows not channels. But we seem to forget that girls seek out shows and have attitude too; that they like energetic humour and that shows like ‘Phineas and Ferb’, ‘Mighty Meds’ and ‘Crash and Bernstein’ work very well for all children.

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls but we all have a responsibility to create content that is right for them because it is good content and not because it sells pink or blue toys. In a world where children are always tuned in it is more important than ever that we offer them characters, narratives and images that inspire them to achieve all they can whether they are a boy or a girl or a bit of both.

View the slide presentation: Research 4

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Gary Pope, Director – Kids Industries

About the author

Gary Pope

Kids Industries, Director

Gary has worked with children and parents for over 20 years both as a teacher and as a Founding Partner of Kids Industries. KI provides the full range award-winning Research, Strategy, Innovation and Marketing Services to a global client base including Disney, Guinness World Records, GlaxoSmithKline, PepsiCo and Sony. Gary… Read more