Is Wanting a Pink Tutu Hardwired?

Or why our romance with biological determinism is dangerous

Posted Jan 29, 2013

A large number of Americans have fallen in love (again) with biological determinism, at least in matters of gender and sexuality. Increasingly everything we do and everything we desire is explained as just hardwired into our brains. This is perhaps even more true for progressives in the US than it is for conservatives. Progressive Americans insist that there should be no discrimination against gay and lesbian citiizens who were "born this way." Previous claims rooted in more philosophical claims to democracy, justice and morality have disappeared in a series of visuals like MRIs that supposedly  explain everything from why little girls want pink tutus to why grown women want big white weddings. Even while liberals embrace biological determinism, conservative pundits insist it's a choice to be gay or straight, masculine or feminine.  "Choice" or "biology" should not be the only two ways of seeing the world. There are other ways of explaining why we want what we want. But those other ways of seeing are being drowned out by cries of "hardwired" vs. "personal choice." 

The liberal bad romance with biologistic explanations for nearly everything was driven home to me last week when I appeared on a Huffington Post webcast on "princess culture." In the segment, a couple of (supposedly not conservative since it is HuffPo) participants insist that girls are just hardwired to love pretty pink things and boys to love trucks. As a mother whose daughters spent years in the princess industrial complex, wearing nothing but pink tutus, sparkly slippers, and fairy wings, I felt relieved to know that it wasn't my fault. But as a sociologist, I was stunned at this dismissal of culture, economy and history to argue that girls are hardwired for pink (and presumably certain academic subjects and certain occupations).

Taste, whether it is for a big white wedding or a pink tutu, is far from hardwired. The slightest glance at the anthropological and historical record will prove this. After all, not all cultures dress their girl children up as princesses since this particular fetish is more a product of Disney than destiny. As for the pink part, it wasn't even considered a feminine color till World War II (since pink's relationship to red made it more manly). Taste, it turns out, is far from hardwired and instead a physical manifestation of culture. That's why it varies by class (e.g. a taste for the opera vs. a taste for a Marilyn Manson concert), by sexual cultures (e.g. the taste for a big white wedding vs. the taste for the single life), by region (e.g. a taste for a pick-up truck and country music vs. a 5th floor walk-up and techno), and yes, history (e.g. a taste for pretending to be princesses vs. pretending to be parents). Needless to say, none of these differences are outside the economy. There is a lot of profit to be made from producing the taste and then producing the products that satisfy that taste. "I need a pink princess dress" and "I must have a $5,000 wedding dress" are both situated in a similar economic field. 

Tastes are produced, not hardwired. But what of the newfound taste for biological determinism among liberals? The same people who would never say race or ethnicity determines a life embrace the claim that sex and gender do. What happened to the political economy of taste that was central to so many liberal movements and philosophies? Marxism, feminism, gay liberation, and civil rights movements were all predicated on the belief that biology is not destiny. Now these same liberals happily get into bed with biologistic explanations in order to explain princesses and brides. Armed with scientific "proof" and historical amnesia about how science has been misused to explain all sorts of differences we no longer believe in, like the inferiority of the "Negro brain," these liberals now insist that girls will be girls and boys will be boys. The fact that science easily shows there is more difference among males and among females than between them is lost in the hurry to show we have no choice but to be attracted to pink or blue.

Rather than opting for "born this way" as the easy explanation of why we like what we like, what if we asked the more complicated question of "how was this taste produced"? The answers would lie in popular culture as well as familial histories and be far less satisfying than "hardwired" since such answers are never as beautifully simple as born this way nor as frustratingly personal as choice. But asking "how was this taste produced" would give us a far more satisfying account of why my girls wore nothing but pink princess outfits as well as whether they'll have a taste for a big white wedding later on. 

About the Author

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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