Very Pinteresting: Does Pinterest Perpetuate Female Stereotypes?

Editor’s Note: This piece took second place in the Larry L. Stewart Prize For Critical Essay On Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who entered this year!

Coming from a background in theatre and communications, I interpret “entertainment” in more social terms. While some of you reading might unwind after a long day by playing a video game or watching a movie, I come home and log onto Social Media. I find great pleasure in sharing content I find relevant, humorous, and important with my friends and followers. That said, I’ve been with the social bookmarking site Pinterest since its initial beta-testing and have watched it grow into a must-have social networking tool among my friends and colleagues.

Pinterest has become so popular that many websites on the internet have tried to copy its successful concept, including a website called “Manteresting,” which pokes fun at Pinterest’s overwhelming female user base, boasting that it’s a “no girls allowed” club. You might be wondering what my hang up about this is — after all, men just want their own space, right? It is clear in the data that Pinterest must appeal directly to women. According to a recent Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project survey, 19 percent of female Internet users are on Pinterest versus 5 percent of male web users. In the United States alone, 87% of the user base is female.

It is not that I don’t understand the need to have a space dedicated to men when the current platform is vehemently opposed to their gender (you know, like most Internet websites are towards women, i.e. 4chan, Reddit, Google+, etc.). The problem is that Pinterest isn’t hostile towards the male gender, but for whatever reason men are still refusing to be associated with “the women of the Internet.” The tech world claiming that Pinterest is a place for women on the Internet insinuates that being where the women are makes you less of a man, and yet the existence of these knock-off websites like Manteresting proves that there is a marketable demand for men to organize their ideas.

With such a stereotype actively applied to the website, one would think the website’s color scheme would be pink and shiny, with female-focused language. Quite the contrary — Pinterest has a tidy, gender-neutral interface from the moment someone signs up. A careful analysis of the site reveals Pinterest to be extremely useful when looking to purchase or sell a product or service: you can find dozens of photos of a product or item pinned by other users. The site is especially well known for its usefulness in wedding or event planning, where one can collect cakes, centerpieces, and dresses that they like and organize them in one easy-to-access space. Because of this, Pinterest is stereotyped as a place solely for women. However, while categories range from weddings to fitness, the most popular categories are food and drink, DIY and crafts, and home decor, things many people, regardless of gender, subscribe to in magazines and RSS feeds. Additionally, the sign up page samples some of the cool pins a user can find on the site, which appeals to a wide range of tastes. We are shown a rock-climbing site, garden inspiration, modern kitchen décor, film photography, muscle cars, and even a vintage robot collection. For a site that is considered to be aimed exclusively at women, the first page is fairly gender neutral, or at least appeals to many tastes and interests.

Continuing on, we see a gray and white dialogue box with a list of categories to choose from, encouraging the new user to subscribe to boards that they are most interested in. This is how Pinterest determines what kinds of pins to send to a user’s home screen. The more a user pins and follows specific boards, the less likely they will encounter content that they are not interested in. With customization so easily achieved, it is a wonder that the rumors of Pinterest perpetuating female stereotypes even exists: you could just as easily create a personalized Pinterest home screen focused on beards and plaid as you could create one focused on jewelry and sparkly wedding gowns.

Despite Pinterest’s neutrality in design and programming, men (or, at least, marketers focused towards men) seem to feel the need to escape to a completely separate website with identical functionality. Manteresting was created to reinforce stereotypical masculinity by telling users to “nail” something they like into their “workbench,” suggesting that “pins” and “pin boards” have an underlying feminine connotation (though the items themselves, digital or otherwise, are gender neutral). This also serves to further devalue the female image (women can’t or don’t use tools). According to its FAQs, Manteresting is “not the first social bookmarking website to hit the Internet, we are the first to specifically cater to the male population. Last time we checked there were 3.4 billion men on earth. It’s about time.” A quick glance at the site reveals pictures of guns, hot rods, scantily-clad women, home improvement projects and bacon. When we start creating websites that cater exclusively to one type of gender (i.e. the manly man, the girly girl), society will find itself in a tricky situation of overcompensation, evident in these man-oriented Pinterest knock-offs.

I have to hand it to the boys’ club of the internet, though, for pointing out the strangely obvious fact about Pinterest’s female userbase. While it should be accepted and appreciated that women are participating in a new social website, there is no doubt that it is strange. After all, the majority of users on the Internet are male. …Oh, wait. According to the 2012 Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, the majority of internet users (67%) are actually adult women between the ages of 18-29. Although I cannot agree with someone’s belief that Pinterest was built for women, I can make the statement that the developers of Pinterest are sexist, or at least participated in sexist activity, as is evident in their initial United States launch campaign. During beta-testing, the creators targeted influential online female presences to start feeding content into their website’s network, causing an influx in female-generated content. They zoned in on users of Etsy, who were primarily female based, to begin growing the interaction taking place on the new social sharing site. However, when Pinterest launched in Britain, the beta-testing campaign did not single-out specific genders, and the user base actually weighs towards male users., an Internet user-data collection website, shows that 56% of British Pinterest users are men. So what are those young men (ages 24-35) pinning? Marketing techniques and design inspiration. Coincidentally, these are the same things that I am pinning as a woman in America.

In conclusion (and I can’t believe this needs stating): women are interested in a vast array of subjects that extend well past the social surface of glitter and baby animals! Women like bacon and mustaches and politics and building furniture, too. Gender stereotyped marketing in today’s world has backfired (see BIC’s pen design for women for a relevant example), so it may be time to drop the assumptions about “girliness” and “manliness” altogether. Pinterest is a powerful tool for planning and gathering information, no matter what your passions are. How you use that tool is up to you. Don’t shy away from using it because you are afraid of stumbling across interests that are new and foreign to your gender or sexuality.

About The Author

Katrina Alexis Robinson graduated from Saginaw Valley State University with bachelor’s degrees in Professional and Technical Writing and Theater. She spends most of her time producing short films and videos, snapping photos, and singing show tunes. Her goal is to work as a Creative Director for a dynamic multimedia company. This summer, you can find her presenting her first professional research paper, "From Blindness to Sight: Environmental Epistemology of 1990s Disney Films," at the 2013 International Communications Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
  • Sara Goodwin

    I like your article! :-) Whenever I see anything about whether or not
    something perpetuates stereotypes, I have this kneejerk reaction of, “Is
    that inherently bad all of the time?” There are girly girls and manly
    men who exist, and lots of in-between. I don’t see anything wrong with a
    business choosing a niche market to market product to when it comes to
    clothing and other physical objects. Even if a company has an image I’d
    consider to be negative, I still appreciate that it is there so I can
    more actively avoid it. :-) I wonder why it seems to be different with
    social media than with physical products? Just curious.

  • Emily Krueger

    Katrina, I definitely see where you are coming from: My Pinterest feed is almost entirely wedding inspiration, crafty things, child-rearing ideas, and recipes–all things “traditionally” associated with women. And yet, I have a few art school graduates who use Pinterest for inspiration for their art. I know when they have been on because there are naked bodies with animal heads and bizarre erotica drawings. These are “surprising” things for Pinterest, I suppose. But my biggest surprise is always that my Master’s program at the University of Michigan has a Pinterest account, and they post recommended readings, articles that faculty have written, new technological advances important to the program, and photos from program events. It is completely gender-neutral, and every time I see posts by my program, I am surprised at the content I am seeing, but pleasantly so. Pinterest really could be for any gender, and I try to tell my male friends that but it’s difficult when the perception of Pinterest is all “girly.” Thanks for the insight. :)