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Femininity Exposed

Mills College Weekly

Lynn Peril wants you to feel uncomfortable and a little angry after reading her debut book,”Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons.” She wants you to laugh at the often ludicrous images, like pictures of dating manuals from the 1960’s and the “thirty-nine cents’ worth of glamour”-a lovely pink sanitary belt. But she wants you to come away realizing cultural expectations for women still exist.

“This cultural ideal that I refer to as Pink Think was particularly prevalent in the 1940’s and 50’s but is still around today,” says Peril.

On a drizzling day at her home, a stone’s throw from the Mills campus, Peril, a young 40 year-old Oakland resident, wears bright red lipstick, a sharp black blazer and dark jeans and is perched on an art-deco leather chair in her family room. She is surrounded by her favorite articles of what has come to be called “femoribilia”: magazines, marriage manuals, board games, toys and other items that illustrate what Peril terms Pink Think.

“Pink Think is a set of ideas and attitudes about what constitutes proper female behavior…[that] assumes there is a standard behavior to which all women, no matter their age, race, or body type, must aspire,” writes Peril in the introduction to “Pink Think.”

In her book, Peril shows the onslaught of products aimed at defining what is feminine. Each section is illustrated with historical advertisements and product images, showing Pink Think in action.

Peril’s artifacts go beyond the beleaguered Barbie doll. Her favorite example is a model train manufactured in 1957 by the Lionel Toy Company to appeal to little girls. It was identical in all ways to their regular model except they changed the color to a “fashion-right” frosted pink accented with robin’s egg blue and buttercup yellow paint. What Peril likes best about this example is imagining the arrogance of the board of directors thinking if they simply changed the train’s color they could increase their market share, yet the Lady Lionel failed miserably and was pulled quickly from production.

But, as Peril points out throughout the book, this type of marketing continued because often it was successful both in sales figures and in impacting women’s own views of femininity.

The most frightening examples, and the saddest, says Peril, are the chemical corporations like Lysol and others who marketed their harsh cleaning products for women to maintain the all-important “intimate internal cleanliness.” One ad Peril includes in her book is a Lysol advertisement from 1948 in which a young Mrs. Cleaver look-alike cries into her hankie as her husband walks out the door with a look of disdain. The copy reads in part, “This foolish wife failed to take one of the first steps important in marital compatibility,” and ends with the tag line, “Keep desirable, by douching regularly with Lysol.”

Peril is particularly angry with this type of advertising she found prevalent in her research for “Pink Think.” “It just blows my mind, the ad campaigns that tied together feminine hygiene with marital happiness or ad campaigns that said if you don’t use this product you are totally undesirable as a woman, which of course, they are still doing today.”

Peril recognizes that “this is the kind of material that helped fuel the anger that started the women’s liberation movement of the 70’s.” But the book doesn’t read like a text. The vintage advertisements and product packaging are often hilarious and startling. Around them, Peril writes personal stories from her childhood as a self-proclaimed tomboy, coupled with her sometimes wry, often humorous, yet underlying serious tone, to make a book that not only entertains as social history, but also exposes cultural expectations still prevalent today.

The last chapter shows several examples of Pink Think still occurring in more recent cultural artifacts. “Just think of the classic toy, the Magic 8 Ball,” she says, which was repackaged as the Magic Date Ball, glittery pink and promising on the box to answer every girl’s burning questions: “Does he like me? Will he call?”

“The material culture of femininity” has long interested Peril. She holds a Mater’s Degree in history with a concentration in gender. She admits she’s been “writing about this stuff forever.” Since 1993, she has written and edited a local ‘zine titled “Mystery Date: One Gal’s Guide to Good Stuff,” named after the most popular board game for girls in the 1960’s where the loser was linked with a boy called “the dud.” “Mystery Date” was the initial sounding board of some ideas in “Pink Think.” Currently, she also writes a regular column for “Bust” magazine, titled “The Museum of Femoribilia,” where Peril highlights a particular historical item, such as housekeeping toys, a 1950’s personal safety device called the “Beau Alarm,” and hair dye.

Keep a look out for Peril on the Mills campus. She will be doing archival research for her next book on the social history of the college woman due out in 2004.