The first image that props up in your mind when you think of the word ‘pink’ is probably a dainty young lady wearing a pretty pink dress. Indeed, for many people, especially girls, this colour represents weakness or ‘girly-ness’ because of what it has been associated with in recent years. The negative connotations associated with being ‘girly’ are very similar to the way in which we perceive most of the other so-called feminine words or traits. We have always associated the female gender with characteristics that are intrinsically inferior to those associated with the male gender. While females are seen as weak, submissive, caring and sensitive, males are seen as brash, well built, hard-working people with strong control over their emotions. “You fight like a girl”, “stop crying like a girl” and so on and so forth are very common in our conversations even today and they reflect the inherent mindset of the people in general.
Pink represents a lot of rather adverse aspects of society in the eyes of many. One of the most important among them is the pink aisle in toy stores. This lane is meant only for young girls and is thus decorated accordingly, using the colour pink. Similarly, the lane meant for boys is decorated primarily using blue. A closer look at the items on display and for sale reveals a lot about us and our society. The blue lane has miniature construction kits, motor cars and so on: all toys that boys are ‘supposed’ to play with. Likewise, the pink lane houses a collection of kitchen sets, dolls and miniature makeup kits. What is happening here is subtle but significant. Not only are we, as a society, pushing a conventional binary structure of the gender system on our children, but we are also dictating what each gender is meant to be like. In other words, we are laying down the basis of gender roles from a very early age. Laura Bates, the founder of ‘Everyday Sexism’ believes ‘pinkification’ spreads the message that “women cook, men work”.
While girls are expected to be obsessed with makeup, enjoying cooking and babysitting dolls, boys are directed towards tech using gender-specific toys. Research by the Institute of Engineering and Technology in 2016 suggests that STEM-based toys are three times more likely to target boys than girls. Jess Day of ‘Let Toys be Toys’ actively advocates for toys to be not categorised by gender for the same reason. In 2016, she was quoted saying: “We previously asked women engineers and scientists about the toys they played with as children and the most interesting find was not that they all played with construction or science toys, but they didn’t recall being aware of a distinction between girls’ and boys’ toys at all.”
This problem has been well addressed by Debbie Sterling in her TEDxPSU speech. She started her presentation by asking the audience to close their eyes and to imagine an engineer. She then asked them to tell her by a show of hands how many imagined a woman in that role. The number was underwhelming. In her roughly 17 minute long talk that followed, she quoted different researches to drive home the point that the problem of the astonishingly low number of women in STEM careers is not a biological issue but a cultural one. She attributed the loss in interest in science and technology among girls to the pink aisle. Sterling explained how she came to this conclusion by sharing stories of her own struggle as an engineering student. Being a very creative girl, she did not expect to find a course titled Engineering Drawing to be difficult and yet she did find it so. This course involved drawing in perspective and the guys in class excelled at it. She, however, had to put in a lot more effort to pass the course. Sterling explained that this is a rather common phenomenon and can be attributed to the fact that most girls have under-developed spatial skills. The majority of those who do well in spatial skills tests grew up with construction toys, irrespective of gender. The market did not, however, have construction toys targeted at girls. It was just not seen and is still popularly not seen as a ‘girly’ thing to do. Sterling went on to build an extremely popular construction toy for girls named GoldieBlox which featured the world’s first girl engineer character in 2012.
Another such pink related thing that women are not very happy about is the Pink Tax. This tax is not always a literal tax. It is a form of gender-based price discrimination observed today. Feminine versions of everyday items like razors and deodorants usually cost more than those meant for males. In fact, feminine hygiene products are astonishingly expensive in most countries. This includes menstruation hygiene products like sanitary pads and tampons. Research in the USA in 2019 by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs revealed that women pay 13% more for personal health care products, 8% more for adult clothing, 7% more for toys and accessories and 4% more for children’s clothing than men. There are a lot of issues with this pink tax, especially since it seems as if the structure is penalising one for being born female. Menstruation is an essential human bodily process just like any other and to pay such high amounts for menstruation hygiene products is borderline oppressive. The main economic impact of this phenomenon is that women have less purchasing power, especially considering the fact that a gender-based pay gap already exists. Although recent activism in this matter has seen some positive outcomes in terms of repealing the pink tax in certain places like in Ohio, the price discrimination continues to exist in most other places in the world.
It is apparent that there are abundant instances where pink has been associated with something that not many are happy about. One thing that is bluntly clear is that this colour has been largely used to describe things, both positive and negative, that are related to the female gender. This notion of pink being only for girls is pushed on us over and over again. The pink ribbon is used to symbolise and raise awareness for breast cancer. The teenage section of Victoria’s Secret is named ‘Pink’. A 2016 Indian film about a molestation case filed by a woman was titled Pink. This recurring appearance of pink in connection with the female gender has successfully established this shade as a predominantly feminine colour. Women are almost expected to like and wear pink and its variations and yet, there are conditions that come with it. People often criticise dark-skinned women seen wearing pink and other related shades. This really does not make any sense and might just be an expression of an additional stereotype that dark-skinned women are loud and confrontational, characteristics that the society does not believe goes well with the feminine gender. Conversely, women who do love pink and sparkles, as the stereotype suggests, are seen as weak, submissive, obsessed with appearance and unprofessional. Many have tried to destroy this image over the years. In 2019, a female scientist named Rita J King opted for an eye-catching sparkly ensemble to give a talk at NASA. This evoked both positive and negative responses from across the world. King later explained her decision later by stating “I came across this gown and remembered the little girls who sent me a letter and asked me to wear something sparkly… so they could believe that scientists could also be sparkly.”
In spite of all this, movies popularly continue to portray women who love wearing pink as rather dumb, mean or maternal and any exception to this rule becomes a big deal - the idea is treated as the most important aspect of the plot and the movie is deemed as unusual and female-centric. All this is in spite of the fact that the nerd of the class, irrespective of gender, in any random school, can be a pink lover. It is almost an unspoken crime to portray them in the regular teen flicks that way and the female lead as a blue lover. The Pink Ranger is always the ‘girliest’ female in the group. The high school princesses who have spent their entire lives waiting to be crowned the Prom Queen and are always mean to other girls are more often than not seen wearing pink. Somehow in the movie world, blue and black lovers are never popular or ‘girly’. Have a look at the posters of Mean Girls and other similar teen flicks for proof of this.
The notable exceptions include movies like Legally Blonde, where a pink loving, makeup obsessed, popular and beautiful fashion student named Elle goes on to become a successful lawyer. However, this transition happens only after she is dumped by her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III. Warner prefers to be with an all-blue or black wearing ‘serious’ woman who is studying law as it would improve his image in the real world. Elle cracks the LSATs and joins her ex-boyfriend’s college, Harvard Law School to win him over. Over the course of time, she realises how much of a terrible person her ex-boyfriend was and the sexism that exists in the world of law. One thing that is praiseworthy about this movie is that although Elle goes on to become a successful lawyer, she does not give up on her fashion-obsessed side-love for pink. In fact, Elle wins her first case using her knowledge of how a specific beauty procedure and its maintenance work and a fashion stereotype involving the gay community. Now, this might seem like she is being portrayed as someone whose knowledge is strictly restricted to the domain of fashion and that her winning the case was a fluke but she is previously shown as a hardworking and knowledgeable law student.
Now that we have established the popular notions about the colour, let us talk about the several problems associated with this narrow view of pink. The laundry list begins with the fact that pink was a masculine colour for a very long time. It was established as a feminine colour only around the 1940’s. In 20th century Europe, the most common practice was to assign colour based on the complexion of the child and thus, any of the genders could be associated with pink or blue. Paintings from the 19th century show young boys wearing pink. In the 18th century, pink was actually seen primarily as a masculine colour as it is related to the ‘war-like’ red colour. A 1918 article published in The Infants’ Department titled ‘Pink or Blue’ stated that the generally-accepted rule was that pink was for boys and blue for girls. It said, “The reason is that pink, being a decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” It is actually very difficult to pin-point when in history this role reversal of the colours took place. Baby boomers were probably the first to be dressed in the modern sex-specific coloured clothing that we are familiar with today. This took a hard hit during the women’s liberation movements of the 1960’s-70’s when the female participants of the movement started developing a view that dressing up stereotypically ‘girly’ would limit their opportunities and consequently, parents started preferring gender-neutral colours. However, the practices involving gender-specific colours are pretty prevalent even today and the numerous fancy gender reveal videos on social media bears testimony to that.
Another very popular pink symbol from the past is the pink triangle. Back in the Germany of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Nazis not only prosecuted the Jews but also several other groups of people. Homosexuals were one of them and this symbol was used for identification just as the David’s Star was used for the Jews. Bisexuals and transgenders were also included in this category. Back then, it was a symbol of utter shame. Later, in the 1970’s, it was revived as a symbol of protest against homophobia. Its popularity increased manifold in the 1980’s as the pink triangle established its place as a positive icon: a symbol of self and community identity. It commonly represented both the gay and the lesbian communities. The rainbow pride flag that we have come to popularly associate with the LGBTQIA+ community was originally designed by Gilbert Baker for the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day and had eight stripes. This version was soon replaced by the seven stripe version that we use and see today. The original flag had an additional pink stripe that was symbolic of sexuality. In fact, pink is very popularly associated with all kinds of love. No wonder Taylor Swift’s Lover era pieces are an explosion of pink.
Today, pink is fast-tracking its way to become a symbol of the feminist movement. Various activists and artists have made generous use of this colour to complement their views and activism. Let us take an example: American singer, P!nk aka Alecia Moore. She declared herself as a feminist long before any other popular artist, long before it was ‘in’. In 2006, she criticised Republican President, George Bush in her song titled, Dear Mr President. The song’s lyrics like “What kind of father (parent) would take his own daughter’s rights away? What kind of father (parent) might hate his own daughter (child) if she were gay?” is an expression of her beliefs, her support for women’s rights activism and her support for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Over the years, she has shared several stories of struggle and change on different platforms. The most memorable of these is perhaps her 2017 MTV Video Music Awards speech after she won the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award. She shared a story of her daughter who had once conveyed to her, “I’m the ugliest girl I know” and that she thought that she looked like a boy with long hair. That day, Pink sat down with her and talked to her about great artists who look very different especially androgynous artists, like Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and so on. She also told her about the negative comments that she herself receives about her rather boyish look and the fact that that does not stop her from making great music and selling out arenas. Her message is clear: how one looks or dresses has nothing to do with one’s capacity to excel at something. Similarly, wearing pink does not make anyone any less of a capable person or any less of a feminist as the title of Scarlett Curtis’s book, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies’ suggests. By extension, being fashionable and ‘girly’ does not intellectually handicap anyone.
Alas, we are pretty far away from this realisation. In 2016, a young graphic designer named Katherine Young re-created the cover of Girls’ Life magazine. The original cover that featured Olivia Holt and articles like ‘Your Dream Hair’ and ‘The ‘New’ Denim Checklist’ changed into one that featured Olivia Hallisey (2015 Google Science Fair winner) and articles like ‘Your Dream Career’ and ‘The ‘New’ Dreamer Checklist’. This was widely appreciated. However, what I don’t understand is this: why can’t a life magazine targeted at young females feature both ends of the spectrum- articles on fashion and other career choices? Secondly, it seems rather demeaning to view a successful actress with perfectly done make-up and fashion-forward outfit less accomplished or symbolic of an empowered woman than a girl with a successful STEM career. I agree that STEM girls are fewer in number and they do not get as much support, but bringing down one girl to pull up another is a bad strategy. What is required is a balance - women should be represented in all fields and all kinds of interests should be equally catered to and appreciated.
It is clear that most of the pink related problems that exist today exist because of our distorted perceptions of the colour and the undertones that cling onto the word. Associating the colour with conservative notions of gender is an utter disrespect of a shade that for years has symbolised love of all kinds and has represented all genders. While the issue will continue to persist until men start wearing pink casually in movies and in real life and women proudly wear feminine clothing in pastel shades without getting undermined, a lot of progress has been made over the last decade. Only time can tell us if we are capable of reaching a pedestal where we no longer associate a specific colour with a particular gender or certain traits
Subscribe to The Pangean
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox