“Princess park rangers” and “Space princesses”: Because gender stereotypes are inescapable, even on vacation.

The school year is starting. Families are returning home from their vacation travels with souvenirs and many fond memories; children are eager to tell their classmates what they did on their summer vacations.

But unfortunately, many families’ travels brought them face-to-face with the hyper-gendered marketing that now targets children so relentlessly: Princess culture is infiltrating educational, historic sites–even though it has no business there.

For example, last week, Lauren visited Pearl Harbor with her family. She sent me snapshots from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center of “Princess Park Ranger” vests for girls, and “Junior Ranger” vests for boys:

Princess vs Junior Ranger vests

Pink “Princess Park Ranger” vests for the girls; neutral “Junior Ranger” vests for the boys. Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Photo by Lauren Huntoon – @laurenhuntoon

"Princess Ranger" vests. Photo by Lauren Huntoon - @laurenhuntoon

“Princess Ranger” vests. Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Photo by Lauren Huntoon – @laurenhuntoon

Lauren asked a clerk for more information about the vests, which retail for $30 and come in children’s sizes XS – L. She learned that the visitor center began stocking these vests about three months ago. Since then, they have been really popular: “Little girls love them,” the clerk told Lauren. “They put them on and they think they are princesses.”

But–what the heck is a princess park ranger, and why do marketers believe little girls need to feel like they are princesses at all times?

There is no need for gift shops attached to educational and historic sites to capitalize on little girls’ princess fantasies. It’s a safe bet that none of the park rangers at Pearl Harbor wear bright pink vests and tiaras. Here’s a thought: Instead of engaging girls in the shallowest possible way, with pink princess kitsch that has nothing to do with the site or its history, why not engage them authentically, with products reflecting the history of the site or the region? (Queen Liliuokalani shirts, perhaps?)

Sadly, the princessification underway at the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center is not unusual. Last summer, I wrote about how the Boston Museum of Science’s gift shop had recoated the gender-neutral concept of science with sparkly, pink, purple nonsense about princesses and other stereotypically girly traits. Soon afterwards, I heard from another vacationer whose family encountered an entire wall of pink princessy souvenirs at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex, under the label of “NASAGIRL.” A glance around the area was informative for its emphasis on the pink, the pretty, and the sparkly:

NASAGIRL at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger - @kebarger

NASAGIRL at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger – @kebarger

NASAGIRL section at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger - @kebarger

NASAGIRL section at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger – @kebarger

And what do NASAGIRLs aspire to be? Are there science-oriented toys for them to purchase? T-shirts boasting about their intellect and prowess?

No–NASA apparently isn’t invested in products that would boost girls’ self-esteem while they learn about science. Instead, they deliver up “Space Princess” merchandise–which is so odd, really, as I still really don’t understand what that moniker even means. (If someone called me a space princess, wouldn’t it be an insult–a way of saying I’m a girly space-shot?)

"Space Princess" mugs at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger - @kebarger

“Space Princess” mugs at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger – @kebarger

We can glean some information about what makes a “space princess” by considering the other merchandise available. Apparently, space princesses like Hello Kitty–an adorable, pink-loving, girly-girl icon–for Kitty gets an entire section of the NASAGIRL area:

An entire wall of Hello Kitty merch at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger - @kebarger

An entire wall of Hello Kitty merch at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. Photo by Kyle Barger – @kebarger

20120718-DSC_0057

Hello Kitty needs her space. Just like a moody tween. Photo by Kyle Barger – @kebarger

Below Hello Kitty is the NASA Space Crew Barbie. As far as dolls go, I have to say that this one is pretty cool–I would definitely give one of these to the girls in my life rather than so many of the other dolls on the market! I also am pleased to see that her crew uniform is in a realistic blue, not bright pink. (Thank goodness.)

20120718-DSC_0056

NASA Space Crew Barbie, encased in pink packaging. Photo by Kyle Barger – @kebarger

Despite the “win” for Barbie, the section as a whole is depressing, limiting girls to shallow pink-loving princesses–who, likely being stereotypically moody tweens, “need their space.”

What can we make of all this princess marketing? From a marketing perspective, this is true laziness: Marketers, unsure of how to engage with girls in authentic terms, are using “princess” as shorthand. It means, “Hey, girls–over here! This is for you. Buy this.” Therefore, “Space” + “princess” = space stuff for girls.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. For example, during my family’s trip to San Francisco last week, we did not encounter princess marketing at The Exploratorium: Their gift shop categorized items by age and interest, not by gender.(Even the Exploratorium’s online gift shop is set up in a similarly gender-neutral way: their major product categories include “make,” “play,” “read,” “see and hear,” and “wear,” rather than the ubiquitous “boys” and “girls” segregation by sex.)

And, guess what? The Exploratorium gift shop was filled with children who were excited by its offerings. No one seemed confused by the lack of gender-based directives. I didn’t see any children scratching their heads, wondering which products were meant for them. It was clear: like the exhibits at the Exploratorium, these products were for everybody.

But clearly, our experience is in danger of becoming the exception to the rule. Why is it so hard for gift shops, ESPECIALLY those attached to educational institutions, to wrap their heads around the idea that kids are kids–not diametrically opposed “opposite sexes”? Boys and girls have more similarities than differences between them. If an institution’s mission is to educate and inform children, they should reach out to all kids with their souvenir offerings. Engaging in the divide-and-conquer tactics used by mainstream retailers is unnecessary–and insulting.

Tell the gift shops what you think:

—-
Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

20 Comments on ““Princess park rangers” and “Space princesses”: Because gender stereotypes are inescapable, even on vacation.

  1. It is so sad to see, my daughter doesn’t even like pink, but gets sucked in because all the major store resort to such unimaginative setups within their stores. It feels like an uphill better, thanks Rebecca for continuing to fight the good fight.

  2. My oldest granddaughter now 23, loved the Pink Power Ranger when she was a little girl. My youngest granddaughter , now 10 has referred to herself as The princess the last 2 years. It was their own choice. She was wild about Hannah Montana and now she loves One Direction. I find out what they like a give gifts according to their likes.

    If these mega billion dollar corporations weren’t selling these items listed, they’d change it and try something else. Henry Ford had a huge seller in the Model T but only made it in black. Chevrolet and others came out and offered buyers more color choices and the Model T went south. If you have a better idea , step up the plate and invest in a new business to challenge the status quo. Whining about it on a blog is not going to change anything.

    • This issue here isn’t with the color pink or princesses or girly girls. The issue here is with multi-billion dollar corporations force-feeding little girls pink princess stuff everywhere. Because, although the Supreme Court seems to think so, corporations are NOT people. They have no interest in helping your children develop into well-rounded individuals. They have no interest in encouraging your child’s healthy habits, worthwhile goals and dreams (unless it is most effectively done by selling them junk). In short, all of those good influences that adults should have on children and the whole “it takes a village” raising of the next generation is all lost in the noise of the modern marketing machine.

      When good parents try to broaden their children’s horizons by taking them to museums and galleries, why do we think it is in any way acceptable to let their efforts be undercut by the corporate bottom line?

      • “They have no interest in helping your children develop into well-rounded individuals. They have no interest in encouraging your child’s healthy habits, worthwhile goals and dreams (unless it is most effectively done by selling them junk). I”

        I agree and that is why it is up to parents, with some help from grandparents to guide their children.

        “When good parents try to broaden their children’s horizons my taking them to museums and galleries, why do we think it is in any way acceptable to let their efforts be undercut by the corporate bottom line?”

        Ok then what do you suggest? Outlaw corporations/ Arrest their CEO and Board and burn them at the stake in the Public Square? Ever read Orwell’s book Animal farm?

        • Discussing gender stereotypes and the cultural environment that impacts our kids is not “whining”.

          Along with providing alternative-positive messages, this blog (along with the Brave Girls Alliance) is shining light on a subject to inform and support parents and also as a method to pressure corporate marketers to provide alternatives to consumers. Creating demand for alternatives and calling out corporations to listen to customers are core to the free-market?! It’s really a misuse of hyperbole to imply that stating facts and concern is akin to burning the CEOs. Although parents and caregivers have a tremendous amount of influence on their children’s direction (another good reason to educate them and let them know they are not alone via a blog like this), they are not the exclusive influence on our children. The cultural bombardment on girls and boys to fit into specific stereotypes is also a significant factor – the research via APA and other highly reputable sources is conclusive on this. Providing alternative products and is one great idea and that’s exactly what some are doing. But not everyone is passionate or skilled in developing kids’ products. I say bravo on the blog, keep doing this important work, and thank you for this well-informed data.

          p.s. The worse offender from the summer was at a hotel in DC – girl’s pink t-shirt “future first lady” – boys, blue – “future president”.

          • “The cultural bombardment on girls and boys to fit into specific stereotypes is also a significant factor – the research via APA and other highly reputable sources is conclusive on this. Providing alternative products and is one great idea and that’s exactly what some are doing. But not everyone is passionate or skilled in developing kids’ products.”

            Corporations are not dictating our western culture. That culture has been in place for many years. Corporations make what sells. It’s really that simple. I agree there may well be an alternative market for parents who want that. And it may be that some entrepreneur is making such plans as we type. I also agree to be successful one should be both skilled and passionate in whatever business they choose to open. I also agree it would be great if parents had more choices in all kinds of things related to their children. But like the old Rolling Stones tune, “You can’t always get what you want”, we all just have to make the best of what we do have.

            • “Corporations make what sells” is actually completely absurd. Corporations make and sell what they market us to want. Marketing has always been the biggest part of pop culture (because, really, I can think of no other possible reason for fake moustaches and owls everywhere in recent years). The danger in the whole Princess Culture war is that it’s horizontally integrated and across every possible market share. This is bigger than girl toys and boy toys, much bigger. And working with preschoolers? It’s been my experience most indoctrinated are least skilled at imaginative play. It’s really gross to me that places that should be promoting a love of science and learning have gone down this dark road.

  3. My 9 year old next door neighbor just yesterday mentioned that there were now Nerf guns “for girls.” Instead of asking him which part of the gun is operated by a vagina (which is how I handle these statements when made by my 8 year old daughter), I simply asked what made it “for girls.” He stated (yes, you know the answer) that it was pink. This pinkification only furthers the idea that girls can’t do the same things that boys can do (and vice versa)- girls need a pink whatever it is in order to participate. It segregates and separates. And since we do live in a patriarchy and being a woman is to be the “other” sex, pink is no longer some value-neutral color in the spectrum, it’s girly, and therefore less-than. Maybe, just maybe, if we stop making something separate and different for girls they might grow up believing that they do belong in the same space as their male counterparts.

    And @grampmk- the author, who is pointing these examples out, and providing a forum and links to educate the industries that are proliferating this discrimination, is not “whining.” Consider what your reaction would be if your son and/or grandson wanted pink nerf guns (or pink anything) would you buy those for him?

  4. First, I would straight up play with that Barbie. Even now.

    Second, I can give you some insight as to the gift shop at the Museum of Science in Boston. It used to be that the shop was museum operated. The buyers were museum employees and the actual stock in the store related directly to museum content. There were special items to represent a variety of traveling exhibits, as well as original exhibits and a collection of science themed items you could find at many museums. Then, the museum jobbed out the store to a large company that supplies many museums. Gone was the original content, replaced by more generic stuff, including small sparkly purses with tiny dogs in them. Gender marketing became more common with many of the “girl” items not relating to science at all (hence the sparkly purse doggies). In other words, girls hate science but they sure do love dogs! And purses!

    As to the post above, I don’t think the point is that no girl should like princesses. I think the point is that doesn’t have to be all they like. My girls loved the whole princess thing. They loved modern girl power style princesses, as well as more traditional ones. They also loved hiking, dancing, digging up fake dino bones, riding bikes, mystery games, reading, music and a whole host of non princess related activities. They didn’t need to wear pink princess hiking boots or play with princess dinos. The activities were enough on their own. Well rounded children should have the chance to experience all kinds of play. Young girls should dream of being astronauts, engineers, rocket scientists if they want. Not “space princesses” (unless that comes with really cute shoes? Or a sparkly doggie filled flight bag?)

    • But you totally “get” that pink is quietly crowding out whatever else. I’m NOT a pink kind of girl. I would have probably had major gender identity issues from all this (even though I’m a perfectly normal person). The message has almost become that you aren’t allowed to be a girl unless your entire world is pink, purple, various shades of pastel, and sparkly. Everybody needs a little sparkle, but the idea that this is “normal” and the only socially acceptable option disturbs me.

  5. Pretend you’re a bear or something for a minute. Which vest would you attack first? The green one which you could easily mistake for a bush, or the pink one? Keep in mind that being a wild bear or something this is probably the first time you have ever seen pink and it probably hurts your eyes. Whoever made a PINK vest for outdoor adventures (I don’t know what they’re called. I don’t go outside) is a sick bastard!

  6. I was going to say the exact opposite of Nigel. I think they may have hit on something here. I think all the park ranger stuff should be pink shouldnt it? Wouldnt this just be a variation on the dayglow orange designed to warn hunters? I wonder if these gender issues have a flipside to them… i.e. are some things made NOT pink because of stupid over emphasis on engendering colors?

  7. Thank you for your efforts. I appreciate your thoughtful commentary about this issue. It’s been my experience that girls are pretty diverse in their interests…some love the princess stuff, some not so much. My daughter doesn’t want to have anything to do with “bling” (which makes shopping for clothing pretty difficult). I agree – it seems that retailers are taking the easy road and not putting much thought into the design of their products. Over simplification of gender interests and reliance on stereotypes doesn’t do girls or boys any favors.

  8. Pingback: How Big a Deal Are Gender Differences?

  9. The reality is that more and more of these educational sites rely on their gift shop sales to help keep things running. If it didn’t sell, they would stop carrying it. If people complain, they might stop carrying it (shoot them an email!) What bothers me about posts like this is that you would probably fight to the death for my little boy to wear a pink Nasagirl shirt and carry a Hello Kitty lunchbox if he chose, but if my little girl wants too, than that is just reinforcing gender stereotypes. My boys and girls switch effortlessly between super heros, princesses, construction worker, ballerina, or knight dressups all the time. I don’t think it is how stuff is marketed, I think it is how kids are parented that influences their views on gender.

    • I agree–people need to speak up! That’s why I included links to contact each site mentioned in the article.

      Re: what you said bothers you about this post: Well, your assumption is incorrect. In fact, I do support little girls’ choices. They can wear pink and buy Kitty products if they like!

      No, what I *don’t* support is marketers assuming that pink is the only color girls want, and giving them no option *besides* girly-girl items. The girls aren’t reinforcing the stereotypes; the marketers are!

      • As much as I hate this kind of marketing, one place where it is GENIUS is Hello Kitty on team sports shirts. The cool thing is, sometimes Hello Kitty plays the sport. I’m cool with Hello Kitty playing baseball, thanks. I think there is a difference because being a sports fan is not on the same level as an actual job or scientific interest. Most four year old girls can find an interest in science if you talk to them — kids are born scientists. Trying to convince a four year old girl to wear some unfortunate team color (and let’s face it, some of the team colors are pretty unfortunate) for a sport they don’t always fully understand is a harder sell. Hello Kitty is sort of this tantrum-free genius meeting ground for the folks who deck out the whole family on game day. 😉

  10. While I see what you are saying, I kind of want to see a children’s cartoon show called “Princess Park Ranger” now.
    I’ve been trying to decide whether I would have gone for this as a kid. I’m guessing “no.” While I was into the pink princess stuff, if I was going to pretend to be a park ranger I probably would have wanted the more authentic looking costume. Not to mention my parents probably would have started making gagging noises if I had asked them for the pink one.

    • Ha, that’s a fun idea! And an interesting question as to whether you would have gone for this. I’m guessing that for girls today, it might depend in part on whether they had ever planned to play park ranger *before* seeing the vests. Right? Maybe?

  11. That hippie-style rainbow hoodie at the NASA store is pretty cool, and I like the pun on the Hello Kitty lunchbox.

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