In the pink

Pink. Some months prior to August 2008 I knew it was going to be an issue. That was when my wife and I found out that the second child we were expecting was going to be a girl. I was not at all upset about my child’s gender – I was looking forward eagerly to having a daughter. What I was not looking forward to was that invasive, washed out, insipid, omnipresent tint known as “Pink.”

Bridget - age 2 months

Now, to be absolutely clear, I have nothing against pink as a color choice by responsible (or irresponsible) adults. It’s pretty on flowers, striking on certain people, and with Valentine’s Day, it practically has a whole holiday all to itself. What I object to is its use in imprinting certain assumptions, indeed an entire cultural bias, on girls (and secondarily on boys as well).

Those who know me well, or even probably just in passing, are aware that I object to a great many things with a certain display of passion and dare I say it . . . verve (no one uses that word anymore, I’m singlehandedly bringing it back). But that’s generally just  a sort of background kvetching that I do as automatically as breathing. Pink on the other hand brings on a cold-silent anger I generally reserve for great societal inequities or deeply personal slights, and that can occasionally precursor a beserker-type rage that my Celtic and Norse ancestors would totally relate to.

The question many of you have right about now is “Why get so worked up?” and in my experience of discussing this, that’s usually followed by something like “It’s harmless.” or “Girls look pretty in pink” or my personal favorite “Well, if the baby doesn’t wear pink, how can people tell that she’s a girl?”

And that answers my question. Pink is harmless. Pink is pretty. Pink = female. I do not want my daughter growing up thinking the feminine ideal is to be harmless and pretty. However, when I make my opinions known, I get the hey-get-a-load-of-the-crazy-guy stares (or at least more than usual) and then awkwardly ignored for a while. But as it turns out, there is some interesting information that backs-up my point.

First, we’ll start off with a little infographic that was the inspiration to finally write this piece – titled Colours in Cultures, it shows how certain cultures associate colors with emotions/concepts/ideas. It’s a beautiful piece in and of itself (so much so, it was picked as the cover illustration for the book Information is Beautiful (UK) ) and what comes across is the differences and similarities and how it all flows across cultural lines. With a few exceptions, Anger seems to always be red and Truce seems to always be white. Likewise, without exception Hot is red and Cold is blue. Some things like Death are associated with 4 different colors.

So who associates pink and female? Well according to the graph (based on a number of sources), item 27 “Femininity” is pink in Western/American culture . . . and nowhere else. In fact, no other culture listed has a color for “Femininity”. And no culture, including Western/American has a color listed for “Masculinity” – now that may be an oversight by the authors, as certainly the pink/blue dichotomy in current western culture is pretty strong, especially for babies. But you know what, the link between blue and boys is a weak, nebulous one at best compared to pink/girls.

As I said, our daughter is our second child. Our first is my now eight-year old son. And from starting with him as a newborn to him being the ginormous kid he is now, he’s had many outfits that contained the color blue, he also had many that didn’t. No one questioned it, or even remarked on it. But nearly 90-percent (and may actually be closer to 95-percent) of the outfits we’ve been given for my daughter contain pink. You go to the store and you can often not even find clothes that don’t contain some pink. I’m sorry, but this simply cannot be healthy.

I had to wonder when this started, and after some really lackadaisical, cursory research, I discovered who was to blame. NAZIS! That’s right, just like Indy, I hate those guys. As it turns out, the whole pink=girl and blue=boy didn’t really come about until the 1950’s (Gainsborough’s Blue Boy notwithstanding, as there was a companion painting of a boy in pink).

Let me throw some quotes at you:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” [Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918]

Notice the date on that — 1918. But what about the NAZIS you ask? I’m getting to it. A web-page entitled helpfully enough “Historical Boy’s Clothing” has the following:

“Catholic traditions in Germany and neighboring countries reverse the current color coding, because of the strong association of blue with the Virgin Mary…the NAZIs in their concentration camps use a pink triangle to identify homosexuals. The NAZI’s choice of pink suggests that it by the 1930s was a color that in Germany had become associate with girls.”

And going even further back, say pre-Regency England, babies just wore white and there does not seem to be any specific color associated with either gender. In fact, gender identification of anyone before they were older than 5 used to be somewhat unusual. Some references mention that babies and young children were not referred to by “he” or “she,” merely by “it.” (and no, that doesn’t strike me as ideal either) So do your own research if you don’t believe me, but it doesn’t appear that there is any long history or *shudder* natural law that these color associations exist.

I also found the following quote, poorly attributed, so I can’t pass along a good source, but it does reasonably address the timing of this:

“Battleship gray, navy and military khaki ruled during World War II. But once the war ended, so did the somber tones that reflected those serious years of deprivation, and color made a comeback. Having replaced men in wartime industries, Rosie the Riveter of the ’40s returned to being Susie Homemaker in the ’50s. Reflecting the “pink-is-for-girls-mom-in-the-kitchen-father-knows-best” mentality,she was admonished to “think pink” – to wear pink lipstick, drive a pink car, or buy pink household appliances – all of which was reinforced by an all-pink sequence in the classic Audrey Hepburn Technicolor film, Funny Face. The quintessential icon of femininity, Barbie, was born and much of the time, she wore pink.”

So who is finally to blame? I can’t really blame the Nazis as much as I’d like to. And no, I won’t blame Audrey Hepburn or even Barbie (she’s an effect, not a cause — much like Sarah Palin). No, if it started in the 50s as a pop-culture trend, there is generally only one place to put the blame – advertising execs. Women had money and made many of the purchasing decisions, so some ad execs got the bright idea that if they color-coded advertising and products to appeal to women, they’d create a visual brand that let women know “this is for you, buy it” and it probably just snowballed from there.

What’s the harm in pink? Well, there’s always the fact that it’s just a marketing scheme that continues to be pushed down our throats by people interested in selling us crap for our kids. But honestly my biggest issue is that it reinforces for girls (and when I say that, I really mean my daughter, because she’s the only one that matters on a gut level) the idea that the most important identity she can claim is her gender. The ever-present pink tells girls, no matter what you do, you can never just be the best doctor, lawyer, President — you’ll always just be the best female doctor, the best female lawyer, the best female President.

This offends me on a deep emotional level. I saw my mother elected to the Virginia state legislature in 1985 – a woman who had been a stay-at-home mom and who had not completed college, went on to start her own business and got involved in politics because she wanted to change things. Of course none of that stopped the “boys” in Richmond from calling her “honey” – despite the fact it was quickly apparent she was one of the smartest, most able legislators to come along in quite a while. She went on to be elected to the U.S. Congress as the first women elected from Virginia in 1992. And because she was opinionated and smart, she got a reputation for being “difficult” or “abrasive” — or at least that’s what was said publicly. In private, she was “bitchy.” Universally though, I’ve never heard anyone refer to her as a lightweight or disparage her skills as a politician or legislator.  My mother has never let anything other than her intellect, her skills, and her actions and personality define her. She’s not a great female politician, she’s just a great politician, period. No other modifiers needed or wanted.

I feel that how pink is currently used is the antithesis of that. It says, just by the sheer weight of its presence in their lives, you are a girl first, and everything else second. You must conform to the pink ideal, or you are somehow damaged or outre. It makes my skin crawl — especially as it literally starts from the day they are born.

Bridget - age 20 months. Notice how well I

Again, I have no problem with pink as a color. What I object to is the nonstop marketing barrage that is what pink means in terms of identifying what items in a store are for girls. I want my girl to be able to play with trucks if she wants to and not get strange looks. Just like I want my son to be able to enjoy cooking and not have people thinking it’s effeminate.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is this one by Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

This is just as applicable for women as it is for men. Notice Heinlein, hardly a feminist, didn’t differentiate between men and women in the quote – he specifically and quite intentionally used “human being.” Now I’ve done quite a few of these items listed and I hope, if needed, I could follow through on the others. But it’s not about the specifics of the list, it’s about the ideal behind it – accept no limits on what you can do; there is no boundary between you and anything anyone else can do and it is up to you to push yourself. That is the lesson I want to teach both my son and my daughter.

Pink feels like it gets in the way of that most the time. It says – “Here’s the girl world” and by its absence, there’s everything else. I totally get teenage girls and women using pink as a badge of empowerment though – but that’s a conscious choice arrived at by a maturing or mature mind. And I don’t think women or girls should not wear pink or cut it out of their lives — as with everything else in life, it’s a choice and for the 3 billion – 1 females on the planet, it’s not a choice I have any input on.

But for that 1, for my daughter, I want her options to be as unbounded as they are for her brother. I want her future to be uncolored (as it were) by biases in the thinking of others, or those created in her own mind by a culture that sometimes seems obsessed with pigeonholing everything and everyone. I never want her to think “I’m a girl, I can’t do that.” So I’ll put up with people thinking I’m crazy, and I’ll put up with the eye-rolls every time I complain about an outfit she’s been given having pink in it, and I’ll even put up with her being embarrassed about it when she’s older and I’m still holding forth on the subject.

I’m her Dad – that’s my job.

One credit I forgot to give when I first posted this was @UberDorkGirlie whom I follow on Twitter. She also has a blog and reading her post about pink some weeks ago was definitely one of the wedges that finally pried this piece out of me!

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6 Replies to “In the pink”

  1. I just started following you yesterday, and then this showed up. Thank you for repaying my attention immediately. People need a lot of room to be who they’re going to be, I think, and as we grow up it gets harder and harder to keep that in mind. Modifiers can be used proudly but they can also be dangerous if the modifier is all we let ourselves see. Your children are very lucky.

  2. color..names..sports..it’s all gender biased!
    I have an 11 yr-old girl named Aidan who will happily kick your ass while wearing a beautiful dress..GIRL POWER!

    thanks Jason..I love it!

  3. Wow. This piece is amazing Jason. Really.

    I have one boy and one girl. My daughter loves taking apart cars and playing with ponies. My son loves talking about feelings and pretending to sword fight….

    We have gotten a huge amount of grief from family and friends who think it isn’t right how we entertain our children with such foolish notions as equality and respect. Never once have we imposed roles on our little nerds. When my boy grows up he wants to be an “off shirted map maker” and my girl wants to be a “builder and design castles” …

    You really hit something there with color association. We are trained in marketing to produce specifically colored products to produce and profit off sub conscience emotional ties. Another reason I wont watch TV. Its all mind control. *shakes fist* MIND CONTROL!!!!

    I’m not paranoid. I am prepared.

    I have always wanted to rant on a blog. Glad it is yours!
    Really great work. I truly envy the discussions you and your wife must have!

    1. Thank you sooooo much! You know I respect you very much as a parent, and so your comment means the world to me! As for discussions w/ wife, she would probably agree that they’re great, except when I keep them going too late and we both have to get up early the next day 😉 However, I did propose to her at about 3:30am, so she knew what she was getting into!

      Funny thing about TV — I made a conscious decision to expose my kids to a variety of stuff, but we talk about it (especially the commercials!) and my thinking is that it’s like a vaccination. Now my 8-year old constantly comes up with ways that claims in commercials or on shows couldn’t possibly be true, or identifies the half-truths for what they are. Of course, his favorite show is MythBusters, so I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s my lil’ skeptic 😉

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