Bullying: the role of gender-based marketing

Author Carrie Goldman reflects on a key theme of her  award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear: the role of gender-based marketing in creating and reinforcing bullying attitudes.

c_goldmanIn November 2010, I wrote a post called Anti-Bullying Starts in the First Grade for my ChicagoNow blog, Portrait of an Adoption. I was concerned because my daughter, Katie, was upset about being taunted for carrying a Star Wars water bottle. Apparently, Star Wars was only “for boys.”

‘Star Wars Katie’

It was the post that launched a thousand geeks, and then five thousand tweets. Comments poured in so fast that they crashed the entire ChicagoNow server. Katie’s story appeared on international and national news shows. Radio talk shows had a field day with the story, and hundreds of bloggers wrote posts about Star Wars Katie.

Feminists, Proud Geeks, Star Wars fans, adoptees, fellow adoptive parents, former victims of teasing and bullying all jumped to a young fangirl’s defense.

The response so overwhelmed me that I spent the next several years studying and researching bullying in our culture. I interviewed parents, teachers, bullies, victims, bystanders, researchers, psychologists, celebrities, school administrators, authors, activists and social workers, seeking to understand why bullying persists in our world and how we can make it better.

Who is at risk? What forms does bullying take? What cultural attitudes lead to sanctioned bullying? How can we heal the victims and rehabilitate the bullies? All these questions and more filled my head day and night!

In my new book, Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear, I share the stories, the research and the actionable steps that we as a society can take to reduce bullying, discrimination and harassment. A powerful theme that runs throughout the book is the undeniable role that gender-based marketing plays in creating and reinforcing bullying attitudes. Colors are no longer mere reflections of light; they are stereotypes.

Pink and blue

Pink means girl. Blue means boy. At times it feels impossible to change this overwhelming cultural message.


Has there ever been a time in history with such strong significance attached to a color, and was it possible to reverse the association? Yes and yes. Jo Paoletti, the historian who authored Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, observed to me, “the interesting thing about pink is that it is like wearing black in the nineteenth century. At that time, wearing black meant you were in mourning. Any woman in a black dress was a widow. It was a very strong symbolic color. But clearly, black has changed and now it doesn’t mean that. Black is a fashion statement.”

Pink is clearly the new black. Pink has stepped in as the most symbolic color in our twenty-first century culture. Pink means female, and woe to the girl that rejects pink or the boy that embraces pink. Paoletti commented, “What marketing does is create symbols that people can use to bully people. It’s almost like having a recipe and saying these are the ingredients for masculinity and femininity, and if you vary from the recipe, you can get bullied.”


How gender-based marketing feeds bullying

How does it work?

It starts at the earliest ages. Imagine you are a 6-year-old boy, and you go to the toy store. All the Star Wars toys are grouped in the Boys section with blue backgrounds. The Barbies, baby dolls, kitchen toys and princess clothes are in the Girls section with pink backgrounds.

As a 6-yr-old boy, you might truly believe that a little girl who plays with Star Wars toys is committing a social transgression. You and your friends yell at her, because she is going against what is acceptable. Maybe you don’t intend to be cruel; you are just confused or frightened because you think that girls are only supposed to like dolls and princesses.

Without education about acceptance, we see these 6-year-olds who follow strict gender rules grow into 12-year-olds who launch more serious attacks against those who challenge gender norms. Schoolchildren may view a boy who likes pink trainers as a threat to what is “normal” and call him cruel names such as fag and beat him up.

Bullying behaviors occur on a continuum, and as children grow older, they move along to more serious aggressions. What starts as a colour – pink, in this case – singles a child out as a target, and the aggression is based in both misogyny and homophobia, which go hand-in-hand.

Pink is not the enemy

Still, it is important to remember that pink is not the enemy; stereotypes are. There is nothing wrong with girls liking pink and princesses, as long as they have equal access – both practical and psychological –  to toys that promote scientific skills and critical thinking.

If Katie likes princesses because society has told her that girls must like princesses, then we have a problem. But if Katie likes princesses as her own genuine choice, and she is not limited in her pick of toys, then we do not have a problem.


Children can like dressing up AND vehicles – even at the same time. Tinkerbell loves her remote-controlled car!

I have noticed with dismay that there is an increasing faction of girl-empowerment advocates who seem to be pitting girly-girls against rough-and-tumble girls, and we do ourselves a disservice if we start to mock girly-girls. Why respond to stereotypes with more stereotypes?

Gender equality does not mean stripping the girliness from frilly girls or the masculinity from rough-and-tumble boys. A better tactic would be to encourage our girls and boys to do more cross-gender play without putting down their girly or masculine leanings. Unfortunately, parents are not well-supported in this effort because toy companies rarely encourage cross-gender play.

It is the responsibility of all of us to teach empathy and understanding. The parents at home; the teachers at school; the marketing execs at corporations; the creative departments in advertising and media – we all play a role in raising diverse, accepting children.

May the force be with us all in this endeavour!

Carrie Goldman is the author of the award-winning Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear


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