For the first time since I started this blog, I'm going to recycle an old post. I wrote "Pink and Blue" because I got tired of answering the same question over and over and over. Apparently, just writing a book doesn't effect an immediate mind meld between author and reader. Who knew?
I do hope more people do read the book; more and more libraries have it, and as academic tomes go, it's pretty cheap. It's not just about pink and blue. That's just one chapter. Want to know when pink became girly? Here's the short version, originally posted 1/3/2012.
Here's a great post from Kyle Wiley of The Good Men Project (re-blogged via the Huffington Post, but hey, Arianna's rich enough). My favorite line:
It’s not just “a” girl color, but the international spokescolor (yes, a made up word) for the female gender.
Made up words are the best, because like all custom-made items, they fit better than the off-the-rack-versions. That is exactly the idea I have been trying to get across, less articulately, when I talk or write about pink and blue. Blue is NOT a spokescolor; pink is a spokescolor. Why is that, do you think? Is there something magical about pink itself? Mais non.
The magic is one of the oldest known superpowers: giving birth. Stay with me, friends. Here's how I see it: Women used to be powerful because they gave birth. The only way men could be more powerful than women was to control reproduction -- through marriage, through rape, through laws about birth control and abortion. But none of that transfered the magical power from women to men, so a cultural solution emerged instead. Make birth dirty, make sex a sin, make women dirty, weak sinners, lower than men because of their magic power.
Now all you have to do to maintain male superiority is make sure they are not tainted by anything remotely effete or feminine. Punish homosexuality. Raise little boys to be not-girls. Ridicule boys --and men-- who cry, or who are unathletic, or who like pink. It's a small price to pay for a place at the top of the social order.
Why have women put up with this? Many reasons, including a need to protect their offspring, their own survival and this complicated force called "hegemony", which results in acceptance of the dominant culture even when it works against you. (Kind of a cultural Stockholm syndrome.) But all is not lost; there are men and women, mothers and fathers, who believe that all humans have magical powers of love, imagination and creativity, and that humanity will benefit when every baby is valued for its potential to love, imagine and create, not its role in human reproduction.
Peace. (Steps off soapbox, returns to her index cards.)
One of the examples I use to show how pink used to be an acceptable color for boys is Walt Disney's 1953 animated film, Peter Pan. The youngest child, Michael, wears pink pajamas throughout the entire movie. (Don't take my word for it: just search for images for "Disney Peter Pan Michael")
Disney is re-leasing a special DVD version this year, and I've caught a few of their TV ads. It sure looks like Michael's pj's have been re-colored. All I have been able to find online is the cover art (on the left). Has anyone seen the new version?
Please don't tell me they got rid of the pink pajamas and left in "What made the Red Man red".
ETA: I suppose I should be grateful they didn't change Wendy's dress to pink.
I can't decide which was more fun: doing the interview or seeing the "Fast Draw" segment created by Mitch Butler and Josh Landis. My only regret: not smiling more. (I am really not that serious!)
Feminist biology professor Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University contacted me recently about a research note about gendered colors in that struck her as weak on evidence. I had the same reaction, and was mulling over how to respond to the article, but felt competent only to address the author's approach to historical evidence, not his science. (The original piece is behind a paywall, but described in this post at Life's Little Mysteries.)
Fausto-Sterling and I reached across the disciplinary divide to co-authored a response that was just posted on her blog at the Huffington Post. Frankly, we need lots more of this in gender studies. Gender formation and the creative and transmission of gender signifiers are complex, multidisciplinary topics, and the more disciplines enter the conversation, the better we will understand them. And someday, I will even meet Anne Fausto-Sterling in real life! In the meantime, thank heaven for the Internet.
Yesterday, February 12, would have been my mother's 90th birthday. In her memory, I decided take a close look at children's fashion in the year of her birth. As the third child born to a young German Lutheran minister and his wife in rural Canada, I doubt if she ever wore any of the fancier styles shown here, but family photos certainly confirm the rules of appropriate clothing for children under 7.
Babies from birth to around 6 months: long white gowns, ranging from minimally embellished to elaborately trimmed with lace and embroidery.
Babies from six months to a year or slightly older: short white dresses and one-piece rompers. Again, these could be plain or fancy, depending on the occasion and the family's budget and needlework talents.
Gender differences were introduced between one and two years, with little boys exchanging dresses for short trousers, often attached to their shirts or blouses with buttons at the waistline. Little girls stayed in dresses, but in an array of colors.
Here's a video I created for the occasion:
In the last few years, there's been a growing trend for pink clothing for men. For far, it hasn't affected the diaper demographic, but it's encouraging. This article from India suggests that color reversal promises to be big news there this year.
Baby announcements, gift and greeting cards from the UCLA Biomedical Library collection of Baby Books. The shower cards were received before the baby was born. Announcements were often purchased or made in advance, and filled out afterwards. Notice the use of blue for girls and pink for boys in the 1910s and 1920s, and the use of pink and blue in combination for both boys and girls.
The most frequent question I am asked is "When did pink become a feminine color?" It may seem simple -- it certainly did to me when I first went looking for an answer about thirty years ago -- but the answer actually depends on several factors. I have noticed that even when an article about my research is based on an interview with me, the author may try to settle on a single date rather than relate the whole messy tale. I completely understand. It took me an entire chapter in my book to answer that "simple" question! Here goes:
If you mean "When was pink first considered a feminine color by some culture somewhere in the world", I have no idea. Color symbolism is highly culture-specific and variable. (Consider, for example, that white was the traditional color of mourning in Japan at the same time that black had the same meaning in most of Europe.) It is clear that in most of Europe and America in the 19th century and early 20th century, pastel colors were considered "youthful" and were used more often to flatter the complexion, not denote gender. Pink was considered more flattering for brown-eyed, brown-haired people and blue for blue-eyed people. (Green and yellow were preferred for red-heads, and I have anecdotal evidence that lavender was sometimes used for African-American babies, but not enough to be confident in that claim.) When pink or blue were used in gendered ways, it seemed to be a matter of fashion -- a temporary trend -- not a tradition. Nor were they used consistently the way we do today (pink=girl, blue=boy).
Between (very) roughly 1900 and around 1940, there was a movement towards more gender distinction in clothing, first for toddlers and then for babies, including more frequent use of pink and blue to signify gender. There was also quite a bit of confusion among clothing manufacturers and retailers about which was which, as they tried to settle on one rule for the entire country. (See the table from 1927 in the image gallery)
Between around 1940 and the mid-1980s, the pink=girl, blue=boy convention was nearly uniform, but not completely so. This was still variable by region in the United States. There were German Catholic areas in Nebraska which used blue for girls as late as the early 1980s, and I have seen pink clothes for boys from the deep South from the 1970s. In addition, it was not yet the very rigid use of pink we've seen recently. Pink was an option for girls, and it was quite possible to avoid it. (I seldom wore pink or pastels as a little girl in the 1950s; my mother preferred to dress me in deeper colors, especially shades of blue.) Pink was by far the most common color used for first birthday cakes, for example, and pink and blue were used together in baby announcements, receiving blankets, toys and clothing for both boys and girls.
What has changed since the 1980s? First, pink became so strongly associated with femininity, that when a boy or man wears it is is no longer "just a color", but an act of defiance or personal expression beyond the aesthetic. Second, it eventually crowded out other colors in the options for babies and little girls. Finally, pink has been adopted by manufacturers of thousands of products as a way to differentiate their wares and sell more items, especially for children.
So there it is. Before 1900, pink and blue were two of a range of pastels appropriate for babies and children, symbolic of gender to the same extent that shamrocks symbolized luck -- in a light-hearted, fanciful way, not a moral imperative. From 1900 to around 1940, their modern associations were taking shape, but were often reversed in some parts of the United States, and still not taken too seriously. From around 1940 until the mid-1980s, pink and blue had their now-familiar associations, with regional exceptions and lots of other options. Since around 1985, pink has been not only a strong symbol of femininity, but neutral and non-pink options have been gradually edged out.
Sorry this is so long. But as you can see, the question may seem simple, but the answer is not!
I am in Boston for the Social Studies History Association conference, where I gave a paper on (surprise!) the history of pink as a gender signifier. Dominique Grisard, a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago, organized the (amazing) panel on girls as consumers and gave a paper drawn from her current research on pink. It's part of her own book-length project, "Pink. En/Gendering a Color", which can't be published soon enough. In it, she will bring a more theoretical consideration of pink"s complicated symbolism from a transnational perspective. The morsel she offered at SSHA was a tasty preview. Looking at Jenna Lyons and her son's pink toenails, Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter and the movement to accept gender nonconforming boys, Dominique observed the following (my paraphrasing):
When princess boys adopt stereotypical signifiers of femininity, it is defended as performing their authentic selves. When girlie girls embrace the same signifiers, it is critiqued as adopting an artificial construction imposed by consumer culture.
So which is it?