by Lisa Brewster
Everything “girly” is frivolous and silly… but girls have to like it anyway? Artists and fans alike stand up for more diverse options in girls’ culture.
I recently went through the McDonald’s drive-thru for a snack. When I asked for a Happy Meal, I heard a question that threw me off:
“Boy or girl?”
It took a moment to process why that question was relevant. I was choosing which toy I would receive, and the difference came down to gender.
The question took me back to my youth, when I stared wide-eyed into the display case in the McDonald’s lobby that held all the bright plastic toys. And my eyes were always drawn to the boys’ toys: Hot Wheels in a dozen colorful styles, Jedi Knights with little light sabers, aliens and mutants and action heroes from all my favorite TV shows.
I didn’t want any of the girls’ toys, and why would I? They were always identical blond Barbies with rigid plastic hair and solid skirts instead of moveable legs, only differing in the color of their dresses. Nothing made them unique from each other, much less from the dolls offered the previous month, and the month before that.
It troubled me then, and it troubles me now, that “boy stuff” was so much cooler than “girl stuff.” Manufacturers who market products to boys emphasize excitement, energy, and rough-and-tumble fun. In contrast, stereotypically “girly” products are marketed for their prettiness, not their function. It’s no surprise that “girly” has become a byword for frivolous, shallow, and boring, and that girls who don’t fit the traditional “girly” trope struggle to define themselves in those terms.
There are two answers to this problem: allow girls to join in boys’ culture, or expand the definition of what constitutes “girl stuff.”
Option one was well under way by the time our generation came around; I was young when I identified as a “tomboy,” and by the time I reached my teen years, much of the negative stigma attached to the term had vanished. Parents might still sigh wistfully when their daughters turn down frilly dresses in favor of cameo pants, but it’s hard to justify telling a little girl that she’s absolutely forbidden to play with Tonka trucks just because she’s a girl.
However, there’s a hidden side effect to this option. When females prefer boys’ toys or activities over those associated with girls, it merely reinforces the notion that boys’ culture is just better than girls’. Girls learn that they have to be seen as abnormal or defiant in order to enjoy the things they want, or worse, that they’re intruding on someone else’s culture that doesn’t really belong to them.
Option two—broadening the definition of “girly” culture by creating quality products that defy traditional accusations of frivolity—can bypass this side effect. Unfortunately, this plan is still lagging a bit behind. Everything from Hello Kitty to Strawberry Shortcake perpetuates the stereotype that girly equals shallow.
Enter the solution: story artist Lauren Faust. Her Emmy-nominated work for “The Powerpuff Girls” showcases various interpretations of what it means to be girly and conveys engaging themes even through an abundance of pink.
Most recently, she developed the show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” to combat the perception that products made for girls are always of low quality. “MLP:FiM” features adventurous and sometimes downright frightening storylines, creative designs, and pop culture references to make any hipster proud. The show enjoys high acclaim among young girls and adult women alike.
Moreover—here’s the part that surprised even Faust—teenage boys and young men have developed a subculture of male MLP fans who identify themselves as “bronies” (bro ponies.) They openly discuss the show’s merits, join online forums to get updates about the show, and even dress as their favorite characters at events like New York’s BroNYCon.
A show for little girls has to be pretty amazing to get grown men to like it, especially when their fandom comes with accusations of pedophilia or gender confusion. We’re one step closer to allowing both girls and boys to like whatever the heck they want to like, free of gender stereotypes. It’s high time that we put away the perception that everything pink must be frilly and stupid; artists like Faust are working hard to ensure that great statements can be written in pink.