Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Response to "Pathetic in Pink"

 This was originally a stream of consciousness Facebook post but I have reproduced it here.

NOTE: This is an image of the article that was circulated online - I
 did not make the highlights myself.

A lot of people are commenting on Robin McGrath’s bizarre column in the Northeast Avalon Times “Pathetic in Pink.” Here are some thoughts:

As you may know or assume, I am indeed against excessive reinforcement of gender norms for children. To me, telling a little girl she can’t play with “boy toys” or a little boy that he can’t play with “girl toys” is on the same continuum that found trans teen Leelah Alcorn’s parents forcing “conversion therapy” to try to make her live as the gender she was assigned at birth.

This is because, 1, I think kids should experiment with their gender identity and expression to find a gendered way of being in the world that suits them and feels right. 2, because playing with toys marketed towards one gender or the other shouldn’t even be imagined as experimentation – they’re toys! There is not necessarily a correlation between make-believe and play and gender identity.

I was assigned female at birth, I always played as a prince, soldier, knight, warrior as a kid, and I still identity as female. I played with medieval Legos and Barbies side by side. Let kids play with any toys but encourage them to not believe their assigned gender restricts their creativity and play.

Next, this column isn’t just suggesting the more liberal minded perspective that girls need not only play with Barbies and butterfly wings to be girls. It’s depicting the things long associated with femininity (for better or worse!) as inherently bad, lesser, “pathetic.”

This is a very misogynistic sentiment. Instead of criticizing the systems that invalidate or restrict femininity, that make it into something perceived to be lesser, she is attacking femininity and feminine expression itself.

As Julia Serano writes, “We must move beyond seeing femininity as helpless and dependent, or merely as masculinity's sidekick, and instead acknowledge that feminine expression exists of its own accord and brings its own rewards to those who naturally gravitate toward it.”

The mental illness / eating disorder shaming of Princess Diana is disgusting and hateful. People with mental illness, who have battled eating disorders, can't be good role models? Thanks for that.
You can dislike the social imperative to change hair colours and the fact that many people have taken on the hair colour “blonde” when few have it, in adulthood, “naturally.” But don’t shame blondes, least of all children who haven’t made a choice what hair colour to have!

I colour my hair blonde and started doing it at age 11. I’ve lived more than half my life with blonde hair. I guess I’m a “fake blonde” and it’s important to you that I know it.

Finally, as Kelly Rippa says, “some of us were born blonde, and some of us were born to be blonde.

Part 2

I had to write my initial reaction in a hurry, but would now like to further respond to some problematic elements of McGrath’s opinion piece.

Pink does not send the wrong message to small girls, as she suggests. Pink is a colour, a variety of shades on a spectrum that we have labeled pink. It is red + white together. Pink is nothing in and of itself. Perhaps she could make an argument that a sense of entitlement could be taught to children through princess make-believe, but I think that’s pretty weak too. I think, even as kids, most little girls know they are not princesses and probably quickly grow out of any desire to be. They also probably make-believe they are other characters, animals, and people just as much.

I also want to emphasize that, in my opinion, being open minded about gender and how children play isn’t about permitting the girl to play with cars and the boy to play with dolls – it’s moving beyond the gendered association with toys and forms of play altogether. My partner and I recently got our nephew toy food to put in his toy kitchen. Males use kitchens too, right? Break down the idea of forms of play and gender, and promote all genders to play with all or any toys, games, and imaginative scenarios. 

Yes, Robin McGrath, let’s not limit our girl children to thinking it’s pretty princess or bust, but let’s also not invalidate or belittle the fun and creative play of wings and a fairy wand. Also, boys play with wands too – have you heard of Harry Potter?

By vilifying pink, linked most superficially and yet pervasively to femininity, you’re vilifying femininity itself. We can be critical of gender norms and the social strictures that dictate and regulate “proper” expression of gender without denouncing feminine expression as inadequate, lesser, or wrong. That is just about the worst message I can think of sending to any feminine identified child.

I sense that underneath McGrath’s abrasive approach to this topic, there is a modicum of sense that could be elaborated upon. I sense that she worries that pink, princessy things may be harmful and teach girls that they are weak and reliant. But I also think she needs to update her “Princesses of Pop Culture” library to get a viable sense of what’s out there currently. 

There are many problematic elements in the character princesses of yesteryear – Ariel is willing to give up her voice and become mute to meet her prince, wtf? But look at all the role models that have come out in more recent Disney films, from Mulan (not that recent – 1998) to Brave and Frozen.

On a separate and yet intertwined thread, McGrath ridicules blondness. Now, the white, blonde haired and blue eyed people of the world hardly need an advocate and no, this isn’t “reverse racism.” It is, however, prejudicial and frankly nasty. Being a (fake) blond haired, (naturally) blue eyed woman I am used to the cultural concepts of bimbos and dumb blondes.

I don’t even entertain that nonsense, but I do have a certain amount of educational privilege that allows me to feel invincible to such stereotypes, and the verbal capacity to shut down anyone who tries to ridicule or provoke me in this terrain. Not everyone does. Whether you’re a little kid who can’t help having light hair, or an adult who is blonde or chose to be blonde with hair colour (she deliberately writes “the peroxide” to try to diminish and ridicule the choice of colouring one’s hair), you are not (necessarily) an attention craving narcissist. There is no correlation.

McGrath has a real hate on for blonde women. It’s a prime example of women against women sexism. But remember, anyone can be blonde; get out the peroxide - you can be blonde too!

I don’t know, but I imagine, on some level, McGrath considers herself a feminist. Degrading or invalidating femininity is not feminist.


  1. If this is the poet Robin McGrath I'm inclined to believe there's more satire to her piece than you give her credit for. McGrath is a long-time advocate for Labrador and First Nations people, writing on northern culture and publishing aboriginal poets. I felt her article was mocking irrational hatred of non-white-skinned children through over-the-top disgust for a group that surely is among the safest, discriminatorially speaking. You highlighted one line that I thought made this clear: "I don't call them names or spit on them or do any of the offensive things that have been done to my daughter."

    Pink is not in danger. Her article will not cause its readers to unanimously abandon it as an option for girls or boys or. In fact it is still very much dominant. As such, I can't see McGrath's position as anything more than a forceful (yet feeble) gesture in the other direction. She's walking into the wind; I don't think there's any need to add the disclaimer that well-actually-pink-can-be-ok-and-doesn't-have-to-be-a-girl-thing-but-if-girls-like-it-thats-fine-you-see-etc. Why spare pink's feelings? It would make the piece weaker, not being a serious and straightforward critique of gender norms.

    I don't have a defense for the Diana comments. I know nothing about the princess or McGrath's claims.

    In conclusion, I would try reading this again as more than a literal tirade against femininity. Consider that McGrath may be well aware of the concerns you've raised. A lot of the visceral reactions to this piece have completely overshadowed its nuances. I realize that "this person is usually very good/smart" is not a defense of any one piece of writing, but it can inform a reading.

    If this is a different Robin McGrath consider me thoroughly embarrassed.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I'm not familiar with her other writing or activism and actually made a point not to Google her to see it in a larger context but rather decided to react directly and specifically to the piece itself. A suggestion of its potential satirical qualities is interesting and though provoking for me - still, if most people (who have expressed a response to it) did not interpret it that way, can it still be called satire? If the satirical elements are not clear or transparent, perhaps it is ineffective. I think calling out irrational hatred for darker-skinned or racialized people through reversing roles and depicting an irrational hatred for blonde girls could have been a great approach if the satire was more evident. Still, the mixing of this topic with other threads, such as denigrating Princess Diana as a "suicidal, bulimic, pitiful manipulative neurotic" hurts any overall message. As a person who has battled disordered eating and mental illness, it's hurtful. As I tried to suggest, I think there is an underlying sense of the column which I would agree with - I agree with empowering girls to be strong, independent, and fierce and to see possibilities for self-expression beyond pink and princess costumes. But her column fails to articulate a stance that shows that those options are OK, too. I also found the comments about blonde women to be reinforcing a stereotype of shallow, dumb bimbos. Like I said, I don't need to defend blonde, white people, against whom discrimination is either non-existent or, when present on occasion, not a symptom of systemic oppression and inequality. But that doesn't mean her stance, satirically infused or not, shouldn't be challenged.

  3. Part of her is still on the playground(as her daughter) and she is angry that she is not the blonde, blue-eyed girl who is never teased or treated badly. The other part grew into a bitter, disillusioned woman who sees nothing but the negative and warns all of those whom she despises of the nasty fate(reality) that is coming their way.Some time with a Psychiatrist "might" help sort out her issues. I am amazed that this was published. It is the rantings of a child woman.

  4. Why do we assume that those who are blonde ahs blue eyed or the "pretty" girls are not picked on? Everyone has their battles everyone has their demons they are each our own and not for others to judge who's hardships are harder.
    I was considered a pretty girl in school and i had more girls poke fun of me and try to bring me down purely because they felt my life was perfect solely based on the conclusion that i was pretty. Most of them had circles of friends and came from a loving home as for me behind my "pretty" face was a ten struggling with depression a father who'd given me up and a step father who i watched mentally and physically abuse my mother. My looks certainly did not make my life perfect and it's pretty small minded to assume everyone who society views as beautiful has a soft comfy ride in life