Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Tyranny of Pink

I was going to wait until I spruced things up a bit before opening this blog for business, but that was before my friend Bruce sent me an article announcing that neuroscientists in the U.K. have completed a study showing "scientifically that there are gender-based colour preferences." Researchers showed men and women 1,000 pairs of colored rectangles on a computer screen and asked them to choose the ones they liked best. And whaddya know? It turns out that boys like blue and girls like pink—or at least "gravitate towards the pinker end of the blue spectrum" (huh? doesn’t that mean it's still blue?) because it reminds them of "riper fruit and healthier faces," presumably reflecting a biologically determined interest in cooking and caretaking.

There's no mention of whether the researchers took into consideration the fact that blue and pink weren't originally "gendered" colors. Prior to the mid-19th century, babies usually wore white. Then a trendsetter in France got the bright idea to identify girls with pink and boys with blue. In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), artistic Amy March puts blue and pink ribbons on her sister's newborn twin boy and girl "French fashion, so you can always tell" them apart.

But these arbitrary color assignments didn't stick. In the U.S., blue and pink were appropriate for baby boys or girls well into the 20th century. When Nancy Pembroke, College Maid (1930) and her friends decide to impress the upperclasswomen of Eastport College by dressing up as babies (a ploy that works, by the way), Nan says, "I thought we'd make up the blue stuff for you, Janie, as one-piece dress, using your night-gown for a pattern; and I'll be a boy in pink rompers." Meanwhile, some authorities counseled adult women against wearing "too young" baby blue. "Many women go through life clinging to the mistaken notion that 'blue is my color' simply because they were dressed in pale blue from babyhood up," wrote the author of Color and Line in Dress (1934). In 1948, a fad was born when college girls started wearing pink Brooks Brothers' dress shirts—for men.

So what happened? Mamie Eisenhower, for one thing. When she wore a pink silk ball gown spangled with 2,000 pink rhinestones to hubby Dwight's inaugural ball in 1953, the press went wild. Karal Ann Marling reports that by 1955, "First Lady Pink" (also known as "Mamie Pink") was "a bona fide color" for a raft of clothing and consumer products.

Mamie helped feminize the color, but pink still hadn't attained its girls-only status. In the late 1950s, men could select from a range of pink or pink-and-black shoes, socks, and dinner jackets, among other items of clothing. Elvis represented its flashy rock 'n' roll roots, but by the time pink men's clothing appeared in the staid Montgomery Ward catalog, it was safe for suburban dads, too.

Certainly, many of us who grew up in the mid-20th century saw reproductions of Thomas Lawrence's Pinkie and Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy hanging in our homes and those of our friends. Perhaps familiarity with these paintings helped to subliminally reinforce the equations of blue=boy and pink=girl in our young minds.

In any event, by the time the baby boom was in full force, color coding babies in pink or blue was becoming an established habit and modern "fact."

The tyranny of pink has only grown in the past couple of decades. The girls' aisles at big box toy stores are screaming repositories of all things pink. Of course, Mattel's famous fashion doll has her own proprietary shade of "Barbie pink." Barbara Ehrenreich has eloquently written about the "cult of pink kitsch" surrounding corporate breast cancer awareness campaigns.

Up until now, I haven't minded the color pink—I even own one of those "breast cancer awareness" stand mixers (it was gift and I love it). But I know plenty of women who were told to act like little ladies (i.e., sit down and shut up) as they were forced into pretty pink dresses—and they hate the color with a passion. Given the new report that pink is my biological birthright, I'm considering joining their ranks.