Girlie Pens, Again? Why Ordinary Things Go Pink

September 7th, 2012

Score one for the Internet. Not long after Bic launched its new line of “Bic for Her” ballpoint pens—boasting an “elegant design” that “features a thin barrel to fit a women’s hand”—women and men alike hopped on Amazon.com to bombard the product page with hilarious and brilliantly snarky reviews.

One woman writes, “Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I’m swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga.” A man posts, “As if men hadn’t been stripped of everything good already, Bic steps in and piles on by encouraging women to learn to write, just like their male counterparts.”

Thanks to the women’s movement, consumers today often are quick to poke holes in such absurdly gendered products. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, less than 50 years ago, many Americans believed that women did, in fact, need everyday objects to be more elegant, delicate, and pink.

Consumers are having a field day mocking Bic for Her pens. Some have even uploaded photo gags, at right.

Consumers are having a field day mocking Bic for Her pens. Some have even uploaded photo gags to Amazon.com

Between the late ’40s and the early ’70s, everything from golf balls and telephones to toy trains—and yes, ballpoint pens—were made in pastel “for her” colors and marketed toward women. The 1962 pastel Lady Capri pen by Paper Mate was billed as “completely feminine” and “practical for women who demand heavy duty pen elegance,” able to write “even over cold cream.” (See an advertisement at top.)

Feminist writer Lynn Peril, the author of Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons, explains that mid-century manufacturers realized that if you take an ordinary object, turn it pink, and put the word “Lady” in front of the name, then you’ve created a product “for women” that can be sold for more money.

The Lady Norelco from 1962 was the same as the regular Norelco, except it was pink. Courtesy of Lynn Peril.

The Lady Norelco from 1962 was the same as the regular Norelco, except it was pink. Courtesy of Lynn Peril.

In fact, Peril coined the term “Pink Think” to describe this particular phenomenon, which she defines as “a group-think about what constitutes ‘proper’ female behavior,” adopted by advice-book writers and other so-called experts, manufacturers, advertisers, the media, and the general public, starting in the mid-20th century.

“Pink Think assumes there is a standard to which all women—no matter their age, race, or body type—must aspire,” she says. “It’s the idea that women and girls are gentle, soft, delicate, and nurturing, made of sugar and spice and everything nice. ‘Femininity’ is sometimes a code word for this mythical standard.”

Peril, who writes a regular “The Museum of Femorabilia” column for Bust magazine, collects artifacts from the height of Pink Think, including advertisements, sex and dating guides, self-help books, toys, and other “women-only” products. She says this particular version of “femininity” was borne out of the end of World War II.

Author Lynn Peril calls Jayne Mansfield "the patron saint of Pink Think." The late actress and Playboy Playmate had her entire Hollywood mansion done up in delicate pinks.

Author Lynn Peril calls Jayne Mansfield “the patron saint of Pink Think.” The late actress and Playboy Playmate had her entire Hollywood mansion done up in delicate pinks.

“After the war, you had this huge rush of consumerism, and the economy was just humming along,” she says. “People were making scads of money. But returning vets needed jobs. So middle-class women—who had worked in factories during the war—were being not-so-gently prodded to focus on their roles as homemakers and wives. And manufacturers were willing to give them all kinds of new products to make them happy in the home, whether it was washers and dryers, or beautiful pink Princess phones.”

But in the ’70s, the women’s movement brought Pink Think to a halt—or gave it a pause, at least. “The second wave of feminism made women aware of the con that was being pulled on them,” Peril says. “And it gave them opportunities for new career paths outside the home.”

But wait—weren’t women locked into their roles as homemakers way before the 20th century? Well, yes, Peril explains. But the feminine ideal wasn’t always so pink, or so linked with mass-produced products.

In the 1960s, Bell Telephone Systems marketed its Princess phone as a pretty, pastel addition to a bedroom, where a girl could gab with pals for hours. Click image to read the text.

In the 1960s, Bell Telephone Systems marketed its Princess phone as a pretty, pastel addition to a bedroom, where a girl could gab with pals for hours. Click image to read the text.

During the 19th century, upper- and middle-class society bought into the Cult of True Womanhood, which promoted the idea of Separate Spheres, that dictates men are better suited to the “public sphere” of politics and business, while women are only fit for the “private sphere” of the home. True women were pious, virgins until marriage, domestic, and submissive, like obedient children.

But around 1890, the women’s suffrage movement started in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Novelist Henry James coined the term “New Woman,” which historian Ruth Bordin describes as affluent ladies who “exhibited an independent spirit and were accustomed to acting on their own. The term New Woman always referred to women who exercised control over their own lives be it personal, social, or economic.”

The Lady Lionel train set, introduced in 1957, was a failure, even though the text claims, "Girl railroaders are in love with this exclusive Lionel set!" Click image to read more. Courtesy of Lynn Peril.

The Lady Lionel train set, introduced in 1957, was a failure, even though the text claims, “Girl railroaders are in love with this exclusive Lionel set!” Click image to read more. Courtesy of Lynn Peril.

Peril credits the invention of the safety bicycle, which replaced the penny-farthing as the forerunner to the modern bike in the late 1880s, as a big influence in this first wave of feminism.

“Take an ordinary object, turn it pink, add the word ‘Lady’ to the name, and you have a product ‘for women.’”

“In the 1890s, there was this huge craze for bicycling,” she says. “If you were a woman, the first thing you learned when you got on a bicycle was riding a bike in a full skirt was just stupid—and undoable. Early feminists had been working since the 1850s to get women out of corsets and skirts into what they called ‘rational wear.’ It just took one bike ride, and a woman went, ‘This skirt is ridiculous! I need pants!’

“Suddenly, things started to change, and women were going outside of the house to work. By the ’20s, you had flappers and different styles of womanhood. I think there were a lot more ways to be female in the ’20s and ’30s than there were in the ’50s.”

And the idea that pink, in particular, is a color for girls is a relatively new concept. Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s novel “Little Women” is the first-known reference to this tradition: In the book, the sex of fraternal twin babies is identified with ribbons, pink for the girl and blue for the boy. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that this custom widely adopted in the United States.

While Elvis had a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood painted pink as a gift for his mama, he ended up driving it.

While Elvis had a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood painted pink as a gift for his mama, he ended up driving it.

“It’s only been within the last 50 years or so that it’s really come down hard on ‘Pink is for girls,’” Peril says. “Even in the late ’50s, pink was a fashion color that was for men or for women. So you had Elvis wearing awesome pink shirts and pink suits and driving a pink Cadillac, because pink is the ‘it’ color of 1955. It’s probably not until after that people started getting into the idea that pink is ‘for girls only.’ And now that’s the only thing that it means, right?”

“I didn’t realize that the level of idiocy that those pens represent was still going on.”

Peril, who was born in the ’60s, says being a little girl at the tail end of the first big push to “think pink” had a big impact on her. “I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, and watched a ton of TV,” Peril says. “From an early age, I was aware that who I was—a girl who thought pants were more comfortable than dresses and hated playing with dolls—and that I was different from what little girls were ‘supposed’ to be: dainty, frilly, and content to watch instead of do.

“I thought it was ridiculous that on ‘Bewitched,’ Darrin wouldn’t let Samantha use her powers, and that on ‘I Love Lucy,’ Ricky treated Lucy like some kind of not-very-smart child. Luckily, I turned 16 in 1977, and punk rock gave me role models who did femininity in ways I could relate to: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and Ari Up of The Slits.”

Spalding's hot-pink Flying Lady golf balls are still sold today. "Lady" golf balls tend to have a different compression than normal golf balls.

Spalding’s hot-pink Flying Lady golf balls are still sold today. “Lady” golf balls tend to have a different compression than normal golf balls.

However, the second and third waves of feminism have obviously not scrubbed Pink Think from our culture completely. In fact, Pink Think seems to have re-emerged in the new millennium with the popularity of the Disney Princess line for little girls and even “pinkified” garden-variety products for adults, like tool kits and the new line of Bic for Her ballpoint pens.

“I’m happy that people are seeing right through the Bic for Her positioning,” Peril says. “But I have to say, I was a bit shocked. I didn’t realize that the level of idiocy that those pens represent was still going on. We’ve really jumped backward with the gendered products introduced in the last 10 years, and it’s disconcerting. I’d thought we’d left this idiocy in the dust, but no, it’s back.”

Lego Friends sets, marketed toward girls when they were released earlier this year, caused outrage. But the toys were a sales success.

Lego Friends sets, marketed toward girls when they were released earlier this year, caused outrage. But the toys were a sales success.

The last product to cause a similar uproar was Lego’s new Friends sets, aimed at girls. Released six months ago, these sets came with pastel blocks and larger Lego “dolls,” with accessories like purses and brushes. These sets provide instructions to create beauty shops, cafes, and animal shelters.

“Again, they’re taking this completely non-gendered toy that’s totally fun just as it is, and trying to make it girlie,” Peril says. “The hope is to create another market that’s based on the assumption that if you’re a girl, you can’t just play with the regular stuff. Then the regular stuff, which is non-gendered, will be the default toy for boys.

“When I was growing up everyone played with Legos. They were great, they were fun, and you could make whatever you wanted out of Legos. I had this little toy felt mouse, and I made a house for my mouse. But nobody had to direct my play to make sure it was up to gender expectations.”

SLIDESHOW: The Dumbest Products Made ‘For Her’

1. The Lady Capri Pen by Paper Mate (1962)

1. The Lady Capri Pen by Paper Mate (1962)

"The ad has some great language about how it's supposed to provide 'heavy duty pen elegance' and how you can write over cold cream with it"," says "Pink Think" author Lynn Peril. "So it's very ladylike."

1. The Lady Capri Pen by Paper Mate (1962)

1. The Lady Capri Pen by Paper Mate (1962)

"The ad has some great language about how it's supposed to provide 'heavy duty pen elegance' and how you can write over cold cream with it"," says "Pink Think" author Lynn Peril. "So it's very ladylike."

pink_ladynorelco

2a. The Lady Norelco Razor (1962)

"The idea is, you take a men's product, like this electric razor," Peril says. "If you turn it pink and you put the word 'Lady' in front of it, you can sell it for more money. In all other respects, they products are exactly the same." Image courtesy of Peril.

pink_norleco

2b. The Norelco Razor (1962)

"There's absolutely nothing saying you can't shave your legs with this item," Peril says. Image courtesy of Peril.

pink_lionel

3. The Lady Lionel toy train (1957)

"Sometimes this stuff just fell completely flat on the market," Peril says. "Lionel was the manufacturer of toy trains for most of the 20th century. In 1957, they decided they needed to conquer another part of the market, so they decided to make a train for girls. It wasn't enough to show girls playing with trains and having fun, they need to make one specifically for girls. So they made a train in pastel colors with a pink engine called the Lady Lionel train. It turned out that girls didn't want to play with a stupid pink train. It was a huge flop, only made for two years, and now, there's a big collectors market for them." Image courtesy of Peril.

pink-gilbert

4. A.C. Gilbert's Lab Technician (1958)

"It's just so genius." Peril says. "It's pink and it's not a chemistry set, because, you know, men are chemists. Women are not chemists, right? A.C. Gilbert made a pink "lab technician" set, which has the words 'For Girls' prominently displayed on the outside of it. Not only do you create a secondary market to sell a product to girls, but you're also selling gendered ideas that women can only do certain jobs. After all, a woman's true career is wife and mother. If she wanted to be a chemist, she could be a lab technician. Instead of being a doctor, she could be a nurse. Instead of being an attorney, she could be a legal secretary. All this stuff is happening in this lab technician kit."

pink_wowpillow

5a. Wow Pillow Fight Game for Girls (1964)

"In 1964, a board game called Wow Pillow Fight Game for Girls came out," Peril says. "The board is divided down the center into two rooms, and then each room gets a little plastic bed that's actually a catapult. And you catapult pillows over the top at girls at the other slumber party."

pink_powcannon

5b. Pow Cannon Game for Boys (1964)

"I just learned that the same year the same company released a game for boys came out called Pow Cannon Game for Boys," Peril says. "It's the same concept, but the opposing sides have little plastic cannons that shoot marbles at soldiers. Whereas, the girls are shooting pillows at an opposing slumber party. It's like, 'What?' The boys' is fun, and the girls' is stupid."

vintage_princess_phone_ad

6. The Princess phone (1959)

"The Princess phone was really marketed toward teenage girls," Peril says. "The idea being that they talked on the phone more. So Bell created this 'fashion phone' that came in colors like pink and turquoise and charged people more for having them in their homes."

pink-flyinglady2

7. Spalding Flying Lady golf balls (available now)

"Because everybody know a woman needs her own special golf balls, and they have to be pink," Peril says.

pink_computers

8. The Barbie computer (1999)

These working toy computers were made in two distinct designs, one for boys and one for girls. The girls' computer was Barbie-themed, naturally. Image courtesy of Peril.

pink_toolkit

9. Little Pink Tool Kit (2011)

It's hard to be churlish about a product that benefits breast cancer research. But Peril says she's known breast cancer survivors who've gotten fed up with all the "pink ribbon" items pushed at them. The Little Pink Tool Kit boasts pink tools with handles designed to fit women's hands. "But don't you want a hammer to be heavy?" Peril asks.

pink_legos

10. Lego Friends (2012)

"Again, they're taking this completely non-gendered toy that's totally fun just as it is, and trying to make it girlie," Peril says. "The hope is to create a other market that's based on the idea of 'You're a girl, so you can't just play with the regular stuff. The regular stuff, which is non-gendered, we're going to turn that into the default toy for boys.' "

pink-bicforher

11. Bic for Her (2012)

The reviews on Amazon.com say it all.

Lynn Peril’s other books include “Swimming in the Steno Pool” and “College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now.” Find out more at her web site.

15 comments so far

  1. Stefanie Says:

    I’m a toy designer, I design girl’s toys. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I can tell you, pink is, and has been for a long time, the most popular color for girls. I wish it were something that we could just magically *poof* change, and automatically girls would love orange, green, and other ‘non girly’ colors. I suppose it IS cultural, but there’s no arguing with what sells. As a designer, I love doing things that AREN’T pink… but in the bigger picture, there needs to be pink somewhere on each toy line. Generally the dolls in pink sell better than the others, even if you give lots of choices. Girls pick pink and purple more than any other colors. How can you overcome that completely?

    But the Lego example? I applaud Lego for coming out with a fun line for girls. It’s a big seller, and little girls love it. And if you think it’s easy to find a ‘regular’ Lego set, think again. Nearly all the Lego sets are very gender specific: Pirates, space ships, licensed (boy) sets, like Star Wars, Cars, Super Heroes, etc. There are some basic builder sets, but at retailers like WalMart, Target, and Toys R Us, they are hard to find.

  2. Anne-Marie Says:

    I still get burned up that my grandmother would not allow me to be Robin Hood at Halloween but instead forced me to be Peter Pan because that was more acceptable for a girl. I wasn’t interested in kissing Maid Marion, but I sure wanted to swashbuckle a little, but nooooooooooooooooo…..

  3. Jane Says:

    The Lego example? In response to the first commenter, my daughter loves the so-called gendered Lego sets of pirates and space ships. I don’t think she considers them ‘boys only’ toys – at least, not yet.

    Excellent post – I will definitely be following up Lynn’s book.

  4. amalia Says:

    As a child, I loved black. It was my favourite colour. I used up all the black crayon and wanted black walls and black nails. Five year old girls don’t get to have that, of course. I wanted to play with legos and yet had a lot of barbies. I still play with my nephews star wars lego set.
    It is ridiculous how easy it is to gender bend. We have these tiny little boxes and claim girls want to be in them. Some girls will always love pink, but so will some boys. And we shouldn’t shame them by making only girl toys pink.

    It’s also sad that ‘fun’ is packaged, sold, and colour coded.

  5. Lauren Says:

    In response to toy designer Stephanie above, I would like to say that as a mother of a girl, my concern with the girl line from Lego is not that they are pink/pastel and encourage gendered thinking, because let’s face it, ALL toys do that. My concern is really the change in the mini-figs. The mini figures for the girl line are bigger than the regular ones, and have been given breasts. The change in size bothers me a little because I feel like it implies that girls need “dolls” rather than just mini figures, which is silly, but the inclusion of extra chest on a child’s toy really gets me. My little girl is a GIRL, not a woman, and I don’t want her playing with sexualized toys. I want her dolls to look like she does, because if they don’t, she WILL imitate them.

  6. L. Says:

    Okay, to be perfectly honest, I’d really kind of like a pink tool kit–provided the tools are not “daintified” in any way. It’s a shame that pink=girly=not-as-good-or-fun in today’s society. I like pink. My bedroom is pink. Pink is a color and I’m tired of the associations that come along with it, and I’m even more tired of the idea that anything associated with femaleness is weaker, less intelligent and less fun. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it’s come to thanks to the fact that pink, boringness and girls have all seemed to become synonymous in children’s marketing.

  7. Nam Says:

    I agree with the basic idea of what you’re saying- that women don’t ‘need’ everything pink- but it’s only an option, after all. The vast majority of objects I use are unisex colours- my phone, laptop, household utensils, car- but I love pink (amongst many other colours, of course) and I’d think having a pastel pen set would be pretty.

    Perhaps the problem likes within the name of the pen set, implying it’s a pen ‘for women’, which of course it’s not. If they had called it ‘soft pastels’ for instance, we wouldn’t have all this drama, because women who don’t like soft pastels wouldn’t notice the set and women who do could go, ‘ooh pretty!’ (as I unashamedly would) and buy it if they wanted.

    I don’t think any traditional concept of feminity is something to be stomped out- I think it should be celebrated. I also think not fitting into traditional feminity should be celebrated. I guess I’m saying- some of us ARE girly girls, and that’s alright too, and we can still have brains and stand tall.

  8. Celia Says:

    Kids aren’t born thinking pink’s for girls and blue’s for boys. You can refer to a huge branch of mass product marketing designed around garishly artificial extremes of gender orthodoxy. Why sell one thing when you can sell two? The current model is to discourage ambiguous toys — they don’t pencil out. It’s not cultural. It’s corporate. And companies can grow lifelong customers habituated to meticulously engineered His & Hers purchases. The training starts early. As “The Lorax” would say, “That’s a woman?” Incorrect answers get a fist in the face from a fuzzy troll.

  9. Julianna Says:

    Well, I am about as liberated as they come — having striven since the late 60s to literally and figuratively burn every bra in my path! Must I cower and hide my face in shame because I think it would be fun to have a pink “Lady Bic”? (though not the chinchilla, as I am vehemently against animal fur anywhere other than on the animal!) What if I promise to use said Bic only in the privacy of my own home and only when wearing my usual black?
    I mean really!

  10. Laura Says:

    Let me precede this by saying I am far from a girly girl, and never have been one. My hobbies include target shooting (and a love of firearms and weaponry in general), archery, fishing (and yes, I know how to gut, clean, and cook them myself), video games, anything shark related (my dream is to cage dive with great whites, I’ve already done cage diving with other species, and am obsessed with marine biology in general), and horror films.

    However, in the last month or two, I’ve been browsing the market for a kayak to purchase, and ultimately the one that I liked most was Ocean Kayak’s Venus series which comes in bright pink. Certain aspects are altered especially for women kayakers. The seat area is wider (hardly insulting, women just often have wider hips), lighter than many other models (in many cases, men are stronger, and I’m not going to pretend like it’s not hard as hell to get ANY kayak on a car top, even for many men!), I happen to really LOVE the hot pink/magenta color, which almost all other kayak models come in neon yellow, orange, and green, which I don’t care for, save for the rare option of blue. It’s also been proven that sharks are drawn to high contrast colors (the yellow option is often called “yum-yum-yellow” for exactly this reason), so I simply feel safer in a kayak that has a blue or pink hull.

    Additionally, it still serves major stability for kayak surfing (being a sit on top), much narrower keels than other sit on tops which offers faster speed on flat water, and other aspects that take the best from recreational and SOT’s offered in a single kayak.

    Now, I learned about the design aspects later, but should I feel ashamed that the magenta color is what first made me take a closer look? I don’t think so.

    With all that said, I will add that I am vehemently against the trend of pink guns, or bejeweling them, or plastering Hello freaking Kitty on shotguns. The only argument for the pink that I agree with, is that if having that color available, get’s more women into firearms, and results in more women able to protect themselves, then by all means, have at it. Generally though, I think any woman should feel just as entitled to enjoy firearms and target shooting as any man does regardless of her weapon (and frankly, I find that women that bring these pink guns into the range, aren’t considered serious marksmen if they chose their weapon based on color). Also, I feel like it takes away the seriousness that they are still holding LETHAL WEAPONS. I don’t care what color, or grips, or designs are on it…if they ever take even the tiniest bit of seriousness away from the firearm…than they have made it more deadly and may as well put a hare-trigger on it.

  11. elaine miles Says:

    Victoria’s Secret! “Pink”, the tag line, is pushed to the next generation via sexy lingerie and the word pink on pajamas, sweatpants, tote-bags (girls are using them for book bags), etc. Was this omitted from the article for legalities? Surely, the astute author would know of it’s billion dollar influence.

  12. Les Says:

    I’m surprised I didn’t see the ultimate of Pink Think: the 1950s Dodge LaFemme, it came complete with pink umbrella! (BTW, it failed spectacularly)

  13. Cookie Kinns Says:

    The Little Pink Tool Kit has an advantage, though. The men in your life will not walk off with your tools. The only tool I have ever owned that hasn’t disappeared is my flower-handled screwdriver, because my husband and my son wouldn’t be caught dead using it. And, since I have much smaller hands than the average guy, I think I like having tools made to fit my paws.

  14. Hannah Norris Says:

    I am in my mid-fifties, and when I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to play with boys toys – cars, trains, Scalextric etc, but Lego and horse-riding was ok because it was gender neutral. I’ve had my own motorcycles, and now have my own model railway and a big car – brrm, brrm! I love rally-driving, and would like to try race-track driving one day. I have brought up four children – mainly single-handed – and my sons and daughters played with dolls (but not Barbie), Lego, farm sets, tea sets, cars and all sorts of vehicles, Meccano and Brio, and I got on the floor with them and played, too! We also enjoyed board games of all sorts. They could all cook by the age of 16 and knew the basics of housekeeping and managing money.
    My elder daughter is an after-school supervisor, my younger a childminder; my elder son is a chef and my younger a fitness instructor, and I have seven grandchildren aged 15 down to 2, and I get to play all sorts of things with them all :)

  15. Marina Says:

    I seriously doubt the theory that little girls are hardwired to prefer pink over other colours. When I was a kid, back in the 70′s and 80′s, I can’t remember any girls having pink as their favourite colour, and it certainly wasn’t mine.
    I was given a pink sweater for Christmas when I was 4 or 5. It was cute and fluffy (fake angora) but I secretly envied my sister’s yellow sweater. Some time later I was shopping with my mother, and got to chose which dress to buy. I ended up with a blue one. Can’t remember if pink was even an option, but I’m sure I didn’t miss it.
    I can remember arguing with my sister when we were maybe 5 and 7 whether yellow or green was the coolest colour, and that we considered red a colour for children younger than ourselves. In our teens we both considered blue our favourite colour.
    I can also remember a girl and a boy in Sunday School who were fighting over red; the boy arguing that red was for boys while the girl insisted it was for girls. They were probably elementary school age at the time.
    At about 10 years of age several of my classmates had a huge crush on purple; this included both girls and boys but I think it was stronger among the girls.
    In the late 90′s I went shopping with my cousin and her two prepubescent daughters; neither particularly wanted pink clothing or things. One liked blue, the other liked glitter which her mother didn’t think appropriate for a 10-year old. But when the oldest of the two had a daughter of her own a couple years ago she went overboard with pink, saying she felt it was expected that the girls should have pink things.
    I think when popular culture stresses pink as the colour for girls as much as has been done the last decade, girls just capitulate and want things pink to not violate society’s standards. Few girls want to be perceived as unfeminine in a society that tells them this is the ultimate bad. In my childhood we were spared that, and we acted accordingly.


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