In a Different Sea

At Lowe’s the other day, I stumbled upon these books of wallpaper samples for boys’ and girls’ rooms. Having spent the past three weeks talking in my class about the recently hardened pink-and-blue dichotomy reigning in the world of children’s clothing and toys (for more on this, see Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Line of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, or Jo Paoletti’s upcoming Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America), I couldn’t resist exploring these, while taking some (admittedly terrible) cell phone pictures.

I wasn’t surprised to see that the categories of wallpaper offered for each gender reflected the same division between aesthetics and action that Orenstein noted when she visited a toy convention for her book. Boys’ wallpaper is movement-oriented: “Out of This World,” “Sea Breeze,” “Action Packed,” “Go Team Go,” and “Cars” (that’d be the Disney/Pixar Cars). Girls’ walls are all about pretty: “In Full Bloom” (flowers), “Dare to Have Flare,” “Everything Nice,” and the inevitable Disney Princesses. (I also found out from this expedition into kids’ wallpaper that Disney now sells Disney Fairies, bundled together in the same way as the Princesses. Here is the website. It’s happening.)

As somebody interested in the way that science and nature get represented to children, I lingered the longest on these two contrasting ocean offerings.

How can it be that each represents—in some tangential way—the same actual underwater world?

I would have been terrified to have the boys’ ocean on my wall as a child, but I don’t think that’s because I’m a girl. I found sharks amazing and awful; in an episode famous in family lore, my sister once chased me around the house with a National Geographic, opening it to a picture of a great white surfacing, as I shrieked and shrieked.

The boy-ocean, per allen + roth, is full of challenges, drama, and teeth. Although it looks more like the actual ocean than the girl-ocean—at least it’s brown and blue—it’s still Disney-fied, giving the impression that the undersea world is charismatic and bloody; the frame is literally full of characters. Sharks have never achieved exactly the same status as dinosaurs in kids’ culture, but they have many of the same attributes: powerful, scary, bizarre, living in a world very far from our own. This wallpaper seems almost to issue a challenge to a boy: can you swim with the sharks, day after day? Wouldn’t you be scared to wake up at night and see their teeth shining in the glow of your nightlight?

I much prefer the sky wallpaper included in the “space” section of the boys’ book; although an entire room papered in this might provoke feelings of existential angst, that might be better than the fight-or-flight instinct those sharks provoke.

The girl-ocean, on the other hand, looks like a jewel-box, filled with friendly pastel accessories. Again, there is no action, only decoration. This is unrealism of a different stripe. While the boy-ocean makes the false promise of endless startlement, this wallpaper gives the impression that all parts of nature can be reinterpreted through a pink lens, and can be pleasing insofar as they are pretty.

Perhaps the two oceans are simply an extension of an old division; surely 1910s girls were encouraged to study botany, while 1910s boys read Ernest Thompson Seton on wolves. My students and I have been trying hard to avoid the alarmist “kids’ culture these days is degraded” approach to analysis. But there’s something about the immersive nature of these two visions, and the pinkness of the girl-ocean, that seems new to me, and—I’ll say it—unwelcome.