My favourite colour is pink. I’m not talking dark tones that look more like plum or maroon than anything else, either – no, I’m talking shockingly bright, candy floss pink so effing bright you can see it from space.
Go ahead, call it “brave,” or “strong” (as Barack Obama once did). Isn’t that the reaction most people would have? Actually, that’s precisely the problem – the fact that we gender colours and assign them certain qualities based on outdated views.
Think about it for a moment. What kinds of things do you often associate the colour pink with? Chances are, whatever they are, they’re hyper-feminine – you know, Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde and “girly girls” dotting Is with little hearts and writing “XOXO” at the end of everything (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Or perhaps it calls to mind fragility that says a person is not to be taken seriously and can’t look after themselves. Or maybe it makes one automatically assume someone is gay (of course, pink is a colour often stereotypified as representing the gay community). Or maybe, even, it calls to mind the pink ribbons worn for breast cancer awareness.
Now let’s put the proverbial shoe on the other foot. What does blue call to mind? More than likely, it’s some combination of masculinity, strength, and vigour. And who told you to think that? You guessed it – stereotypes.
The point is that these images conjured up by colours are all assumptions – and they’re all wrong. After all, if you were to make assumptions about me based on the fact that I like pink, you might have a hard time believing I’ve interviewed people associated with terrorist organisations, gone searching for the Ark of the Covenant in Africa, spent Easter crashing with monks in the Solomons, travelled for several days up the Amazon on a boat about the size of a ute, spent these past Christmas holidays sailing through the most pirate-infested waters in the world aboard a cargo ship, made the choice to visit places like Afghanistan, or talked my way into North Korea – twice. And that list doesn’t even include some of the stranger things I’ve done.
The issue at hand goes far beyond making assumptions about someone based on their colour preference. At its core is a heteronormative, patriarchal culture afraid to lose its grip on power – and constantly looking for new ways to hold onto that power.
The idea of pink being a “feminine” colour is actually a pretty recent one, too. Did you know that, until about the 1940s, pink was considered a colour for boys, while blue was for girls? As an article in Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department from 1918 states: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. 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.”
As University of Maryland historian Jo B. Paoletti explains in Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, it was quite common at major US department stores (which also had a big influence on culture at the time) – like Filene’s in Boston, Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago – for adverts to feature boys wearing pink and girls in blue.
There’s plenty more examples, too. As Anna Broadway wrote for The Atlantic in 2013, pink used to be the official colour of Pennsylvania State University’s American football team. The reasoning: the “vigourous” colour suggested that the “manly men” on the team were ready to tackle anything in their way in their pursuit of victory.
The story of how pink became associated with femininity is also more of a coincidence than anything else. With the invention of new chemical dyes in the early 20th century, manufacturers were able to mass-produce coloured clothing that could be washed in hot water without fading. Before then, men and women typically wore white or dark colours like black or grey, unless they were very wealthy and could afford things like several pairs of purple blouses or orange skirts. Blue became associated with masculinity because blue and white sailor suits were a popular costume for young boys, as well as a common colour for school uniforms. Slowly, blue became associated with seriousness and study, while pink became associated with softness and infantilisation.
The issue of assigning certain traits to things – calling them “feminine” or “masculine,” and the belief that certain things make a person “strong” (like power tools) or “dainty” (like makeup) – also goes far beyond colour. Look at children’s toys, for example. If a boy likes to play with Barbies… well, the likely reaction has been written about fairly extensively. And if a girl likes to play with toy trucks or play physical games like bullrush, it’s not difficult to imagine the kinds of comments that may arise.
There are efforts being made to fight these stereotypes about what’s considered “feminine” and “masculine”, however – including efforts targeted at young people. In Sweden, schools, parents and caregivers are actively encouraged not to assign gendered stereotypes to colours (an awesomely progressive move in a country whose very national language has a gender-neutral pronoun). This even extends to toy companies, who are encouraged not to stereotype their products as being “for boys” or “for girls.”
The bottom line is this: if someone likes to wear pink clothes and makeup, why should it have any bearing on their gender identity? Gender is a social construct, which has been set up as a binary that doesn’t take into account people who don’t identify as male or female. All of the “traits” that we assign to colours, like most gendered stereotypes, are entirely in our own heads.
So, no matter what people say, I’m going to keep wearing pink, because I like to. And if I decide tomorrow that magnolia is my new favourite colour, then that would be my choice too. But even though I don’t give a hoot about society’s approval, wouldn’t it be great if we could all judge people by, you know, the content of their character – instead of their sartorial shade preferences?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could be okay with colouring outside the lines?