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by Lynn Peril
W.W. Norton, 2002
Review by April Chase on Jun 30th 2003

Pink Think

I always hoped to be ladylike when I grew up, but somehow, I never quite made it. Despite a fascination with etiquette books and flower gardens, and a whole closet chock full of little black dresses, I still turned out to be a tomboyish creature, just as much at home in the pool hall as the PTA.

Nonetheless, I just love the trimmings and trappings of girliness, even when, like the author of this book, I don't personally use them. Peril collects what is sometimes referred to as "femorabilia" -- those ubiquitous how-to books with titles like "Always Ask A Man" (a beauty guide) and "I Want to Be A Homemaker," a helpful vocational title; the pink female items like shavers and, ahem, feminine supplies; those giddy all-girl games like Mystery Date; in short -- all the paraphernalia that was supposed to teach a girl how to be a girl up until very recently.

It is fascinating to read about the evolution of feminine propriety, which Peril illustrates throughout Pink Think with abundant quotes from books and magazines of the period, along with sample quizzes and copies of old ads selling the concept. Products ranging from deodorants to savings bonds targeted the young female market with copy proclaiming the need to be dainty, feminine, pretty and marriageable. For that, of course, was the goal -- a good marriage, and a happy life as a wife and mother.

"When a young girl goes to work, she is apt to look on her job pretty much as a fill-in between maturity and marriage," proclaims the savings bonds ad, encouraging the youngsters to go ahead and buy a few for back up, even though "she's confident that a handsome breadwinner will come along...to provide her with a nice combination of bliss and security."

Now, mind you, its not that I don't believe a woman can be perfectly fulfilled as a homemaker -- if that is what she wants to do. Peril and I share a certain skepticism about the benefits of living just to catch a man, however, which no doubt many readers will pick up on. Yet young girls of the "pink think" era -- which would be roughly the mid-19th century through the 1970's -- were so thoroughly indoctrinated in an inflexible regimen of behavior from a very early age that many of them could conceive of no other life. They were trained in how to think, talk, walk, sit, stand, dress, shop, and virtually every other aspect of daily life in the proper girlish way. The quote Peril chose as a heading for the book's introduction, from a 1956 Parents magazine article, is most revealing: " Long before it's time for Mom to help plan the wedding dress of Dad to give the bride away, it's time to be raising a future wife in your home. Because wives aren't born -- they are made. Your daughter is born a female, but she has to learn how to be feminine."

The odd thing about the whole phenomenon and its connection to the color pink, which appears so abundantly in female clothes, products, and ads, is that until about the mid-nineteenth century, there was no connection between pink and females. Pink was a nice unisex color like any other, seen with equal frequency in male garments and products. Then, a French fad assigned pink to girls and blue to boys, and gradually spread.  "Color-coding babies pink and blue according to their gender didn't become widespread until the post-World War II baby boom, when the arbitrary color assignment of a century or so before turned into a new mass habit..." writes Peril.

I highly recommend this book; it is a terrific pop culture study and captures the "home'n'hearth" essence of the post-War years with great accuracy. It is also laugh-out-loud funny in many places. Both the old texts themselves and Peril's witty takes on their messages are often hilarious. One of my favorites was a sidebar devoted to an advice guide by Alfred L. Murray entitled "Youth's Courtship Problems: Youth's Problems No. 2," published in 1940. In this guide, Murray apparently cautioned young girls against being picked up lest they be kidnapped by "professional white slave traffickers" and defined various supposedly common terms for different sexual activities, among them "flinging the woo" or general love play.

Similar absurdities appear in the other topics, including the chapter on "A Manly Shade of Pink: A Brief Guide to the Other Side," which hits the highlights of some of the equally prolific guidebooks aimed at turning out manly men and not "ne'er-do-well Bohemians, criminal psychopaths and...Beatniks," as one tome cautioned could happen, if a mother wasn't careful.

The book is primarily aimed at females, and is particularly pertinent for them. Those who grew up in the "pink think" era will be nostalgic, and perhaps a bit amazed at the recollection of this formerly predominant trend. Those growing up in later generations will be amazed at how far women really have come in the battle for equality. Oh, sure -- as any ardent feminist (and most women in general) could tell you, there are wage disparities, and many females still would never be caught dead outside the house without makeup because of the cultural pressure to be pretty at any cost, and there are plenty of other issues, too -- but, when was the last time propriety demanded you wear a corset, unless you wanted to? Think about it!

 

 

© 2003 April Chase

 April Chase is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Western Colorado. She is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including The Business Times of Western Colorado and Dream Network Journal.