“On Wednesdays, we wear pink,” an iconic prophetess once claimed. Of course, you only wear pink when you belong to Regina George and her Plastics. But what if everyone wore pink on Wednesday, not only the Mean Girls? Would pink still be gendered?
This might not be a surprise, but colours are not an exception to concepts that are gendered. Even before we are born, colour has a big impact on the way we are perceived, as exemplified by the popular rise of gender reveal parties. Suddenly, a bright blue piece of cake or a vivid pink popping balloon defines a whole set of gender expectations for the soon to be born.
Whether or not your parents did a gender reveal party for you, gender differentiation through colours starts right after you are born at the hospital. The newborn girl receives a pink bracelet or some other (pink) trademark, whereas the newborn boy receives something blue. A seemingly futile little splash of colour will define how the baby is perceived, treated, and how their masculinity and/or femininity is constructed. Has it always been the case though?
Spoiler alert, no.
Before the mid-19th century, such pastel colours were of no importance. Instead, babies wore white dresses, which were more convenient for parents because white is easily bleachable, and dresses make diaper change much easier. Yet, at the beginning of the 20th century, it all changed, and sex-specific colours began to gain popularity, albeit not the way we see it now.
Before the 1940s, pink and blue were used in a reversed manner across various contexts, especially in Western culture. Yes, you read that right. Little boys would lavish in pink and girls would play in blue. Isn’t that strange? Let me explain why.
In many cultures, the colour red denotes ideals of masculinity, strength, battle, and bloodshed. This colour is, for instance, associated with Ares, the Greek God of war and bloodlust. Since it is a shade of red, pink was called ‘the little red’ and assigned to boys. Soldiers’ bloodstained uniforms, bearing this shade of pink, helped grow the relationship between the colour and ‘manhood’. On the other hand, blue seemed more suitable for girls, due to its delicate and prettier nature, according to the 1918 trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department. Additionally, the colour blue is associated with motherhood in Christianity. In Catholic symbolism, Virgin Mary wears a blue dress, representing her purity.
However, not long after, the baby boomer generation became the first to experience the switch to gender-specific colouring as we know it now. Multiple theories have tried to explain how such a change came to be. One popular idea is that the blue uniforms worn by sailors and craftsmen made them appear more ‘manly’. Blue came to symbolise authority, stability, and reliability, which are often seen as more ‘masculine’ characteristics. Think about police uniforms or traditional workmen’s clothes: the shade of navy blue is still used in traditionally ‘masculine’ professions.
But what about the colour pink and its association with femininity? Well, there are many theories. One link relates to women’s garments, such as the former first lady’s, Mamie Eisenhower, rhinestone-covered pale pink ball gown and opera gloves, which she wore to her husband’s 1953 inauguration. Supposedly, Mamie was the first influence who showed that pink is a feminine colour and, ultimately, she became the mother of pink. The White House turned into ‘the Pink Palace’ due to her interior design choices, and with that, other people’s kitchens and bathrooms took on the colour pink. Moreover, it seemed to make women appear as delicate creatures. For instance, Lynn Peril reflects on professional race car driver, Donna Mae Mims, who competes and wins against men, but as she calls herself the Pink Lady, she appears less intimidating and more girly.
By 1959, pink finished its final evolution as a marker of femininity when the first Barbie arrived on the market in bright pink packaging. And (stereotypically) only girls play with Barbies.
Through such developments, colour became an attribute of gender stereotypes. Only girls are allowed to wear pink, own pink items, and engage in anything that is associated with pink. Pink is not considered appropriate for boys, as it is ‘too girly’. This gender coding affects the forming of gender identity right from the beginning. The use of gender-coded colours in marketing and advertising is the perfect example. The colour of the packaging or the item will define whether a child can play with it, wear it, or have it.
Pink has other significant influences in marketing, even though most of us do not notice it. When it comes to day-to-day products, we find a high imbalance in the pricing between the products that target and are advertised to women versus those for men. This is called the pink tax. Especially personal care products fall under this tax, such as soaps, razors, and deodorants, which are more expensive for women. For instance, in the United Kingdom, research shows that women’s facial moisturisers are 34.28% more expensive than men’s. The pink tax also includes products that are mainly necessary for women, like menstrual products. While some countries hold one to that tax, others try to eliminate them. For example, Scotland now offers free menstrual products trying to fight period poverty as well.
Nonetheless, pink has also become an empowering colour for feminism. For instance, in the United States, during the 2017 Women’s March, one item stood out in the crowd of people: pink knitted hats. The so-called ‘pussy hats’ became a symbol of feminist resistance. Pink was also reclaimed by Evelyn Lauder of the Estée Lauder Companies, who got diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989. Lauder joined forces with the editor of Self magazine pack and created a pink ribbon as a symbol of the fight against breast cancer. Even though pink is associated with femininity, and thus characteristics such as nurturance or beauty, the pink ribbon actually represents the traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities of strength, courage, and survivorship.
Throughout modern history, the colour pink has also been associated with sexual and gender diverse people. Nazi Germany used pink triangles to mark queer people before sending them to concentration and extermination camps. While the symbol has now been reclaimed as an empowering sign, it remains a reminder of queer persecution and discrimination. In today’s queer community, pink has become a symbol of empowerment, reclaimed freedom, and equality. Yet, the association between sexual and gender diverse people and pink do not stop there. Nowadays, people use the term pink money to talk about this community’s purchasing power, or donation power (to political campaigns) in the United States. Seeking to access that capital, many corporations and businesses now gear some of their marketing towards the queer community, especially around pride month in June. When done in the name of profits, this capitalisation of queer events and symbols fall within a broader issue of pink capitalism or rainbow washing in which profit-making rather than supporting queer folks and their struggle becomes the leitmotiv.
While it is just a colour for some, pink sits at the core of emancipatory struggles for many. Pink is a deeply gendered colour, but society should not let a shade determine personalities or the degree of expression of one’s masculinity and femininity. Like Elle Woods, you can love pink as well as be a successful, smart woman in a men-dominated workforce and this is real life, not an excellent movie.