The Pink Menace

Posted: September 16, 2011 in Identity

An article in today’s (UK) Telegraph, tells us of some new research. The findings of the study show:

‘that young girls do indeed have a special affinity for the colour pink that appears sometime in the second half of the second year’ and that ‘while girls are developing a preference for pink with age, boys are developing an avoidance of pink at the same time’.

According to The Telegraph, the paper,

published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, states that it is often possible to tell the gender of a newborn baby just from the colour of the clothes and toys in their nursery.

As they grow, girls are given everything from computers to lunchboxes coloured pink while boys have the same objects in blue.’

This is useful information – though hardly a surprise- for those of us who have been arguing that gender difference, on the whole, between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ is not innate but learned.   I was born into a militant feminist household in the early 1970s, and I never became attached to the colour pink. I have not even seen a photo of me as a young baby or toddler in any pink garment.

But the article is interesting for another reason. It very much focuses on the colour pink as a signifier of gender difference. Apart from the quoted mention of boys having blue lunchboxes above, there is no discussion of boys becoming ‘attached’ to the colour blue in the article.

The Telegraph states:

‘The academics say that previous studies have shown that between the ages of two and three, children begin to talk about gender and “seek out” information about it.

“Thus, if the colour pink is part of what identifies ‘girliness’, then it is not surprising that girls at this age are attracted to it,” they write.

At the same time, “as boys learn what it means to be a girl, they being to avoid anything that can possibly define ‘girliness’”.’

So for boys, pink  is something to avoid because it signifies ‘girliness’. But blue does not really signify ‘boyness’ does it? This is an example of how, in our culture, being a boy or a man is often defined as being ‘not a girl’ or ‘not a woman’. And boys and men spend a lot of their time avoiding that which might identify them as ‘girly’ or ‘feminine’. Or denying the ‘girliness’ that they themselves display.

As boys grow up, the colour pink also becomes associated with being ‘gay’ but The Telegraph avoids this issue as if it were a boy, shunning all things pink.  Gay rights groups though, have ‘reclaimed’ the colour Pink, and turned it into a sign of their ‘gay pride’. So now we have the ‘pink pound’ and publications such as Pink News, which use the colour to signify gay masculinities. Personally, I am not enamoured of ‘pink for a gay’. It is too similar to the gender essentialism of ‘pink for a girl’. And I do not know of a ‘macho’ or ‘anti-gay’ paper called ‘Blue News’. It is the colour pink that is dangerous and powerful, that men avoid, but also are preoccupied with, like the great big pink throbbing elephant of homo-anxiety in the corner of the room.

This is illustrated quite beautifully and at times poignantly by Sarah Hoffman, on her blog about her son, Pink Boy – a boy who is different. The difference between Sarah’s son and other boys, like the difference between me and other girls when I was growing up, is that he has not chosen to attach himself to the ‘appropriate’ colour for his gender identity, and he has not been ‘coerced’ to do so by his parent(s) either.  He loves pink. And sometimes he wears pink skirts or dresses, and plays with pink toys. But the difference between me and Sarah’s boy, is that even back in the 1970s it wasn’t a big deal for girls to ‘go against’ their allotted gendered behaviours. For boys, even now in 2011, it is seen as weird, as ‘girly’, as perverse, and as potentially ‘gay’ for boys to like the colour pink. So weird that Sarah now spends some of her time writing about her son, in the hope that one day,  people won’t be quite so weird in their obsession with the old adage of ‘pink for a girl, blue for a boy’.

My favourite ‘pink boy’ is Ludovic  from Ma Vie en Rose (Literal translation: My Life In Pink). He dreams of being a girl, and believes he is a girl whose chromosomes got mixed up before birth. He reminds me of something I myself believe, that is not very popular, which is that one reason some trans women go through the painful process of transition, is that they as young ‘boys’, were not free to express themselves in a gender non-conforming way. I won’t expand on that here. But I think the research findings about how two year olds are already being conditioned to think of themselves as ‘pink girls’ or ‘boys who avoid (girly) pink’ supports my theory.

  1. Between ages of two to three a lot of little people are being toilet trained… and from that point the rest of my comment turns into a rambling set of personal anecdotes about parenting.. which I don’t want to clog your comments up with 🙂

    • That is very considerate Lissy. I have a *very* low tolerance to parenting anecdotes. But the toilet training is interesting – I guess that is when children are made aware of their genitalia for one thing.

  2. pullonyourfeet says:

    I agree completely – it’s ‘charming’ for a girl to be a ‘tomboy’, hate pink and complain about wearing dresses but not okay for a boy to play with dolls and wear pink or feminine clothes.

    Something that would be interesting to know is whether there is much difference between boys with and without sisters – often a boy with a sister will be surrounded by her toys (and in my experience / memory will join in quite happily at playtime) as well as his own.

  3. redpesto says:

    …except that in the past it was apparently pink for a boy and blue for a girl…

    I smell junk science, spoon-fed to parts of the media that want to hang on to simplistic gender differences (or, in the case of feminist articles, crude gender stereotypes that support the author’s argument: see this piece of BS cited in this article)

    • I am not sure what you are saying is ‘junk science’ redpesto. I don’t think the research quoted in the Telegraph is supporting ‘simplistic gender differences’. Rather it is saying ‘gender differences’ are learned by children from a very young age. If boys used to wear pink I think in those days, ‘gender difference’ was not taught to children so clearly in terms of colours, and anyway the ‘gay’ identity is relatively recent so men’s horror of pink in relation to that is also relatively recent.

      • redpesto says:

        Hmmm…maybe the red mist rose a bit when I posted. The DTel piece has this bit:

        Academics believe the findings suggest that babies are not biologically programmed to prefer particular colours, nor do they start to like them from a very early age.

        Instead, toddlers become “gender detectives” and as soon as they can understand whether they are either a boy or a girl, they look for ways to conform to the appropriate stereotype.

        I missed that – it makes a change from the usual nonsense.

        I like that phrase ‘gender detective’ – it gives a whole new dimension to Sue Grafton’s heroine Kinsey Milhone.

  4. Great comment on the men looking at women in bikinis and treating them as objects study cif article:

    ‘it just struck me there’s an even more obvious hole in this study:

    Bikinis Make Men See Women as Objects, Scans Confirm

    Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tool use lights up.

    Men were also more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as “I push, I grasp, I handle,” said lead researcher Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University.

    Can we think of an action a heterosexual male might take upon being confronted with images of sexualized women? One that might somewhat correspond to tool use. Involving grasping, handling, pulling. And an ‘object’ which is rather closer to home than the woman in the picture..

    Are these Princeton researchers really so lacking in imagination (or ideologically driven) that they don’t even consider that these men’s brains associate sexy pictures with the physical action of having a wank and the object is themselves?!

    I did just have a brief look at the actual published paper and yep, it does seem that the only possibility they consider throughout is that this region of the brain being activated means they are thinking of using the woman in the picture as an object. I do sometimes despair at some regions of academia’

  5. elissa says:

    Daniel Dennett explores some of these ideas in his texts….

    Just around and beyond the developmental age being discussed, infants have yet to develop the understanding/cognition that “other” minds, meaning other than their own, actually exist.

    The development of the existence of “false beliefs” (see Sally-Anne task) takes hold at about age 3-4. The colors pink/blue are irrelevant prior to the development of the understanding that “false beliefs” exist.

  6. Elise says:

    I’m tempted to suggest that little girls are allowed to transgress gender lines because boy behaviour is more valued. Historically, however, tomboy girls have had to suppress their unfeminine behavior at adolescence. You can see this in literature in which women grow to adulthood from “Wuthering Heights” to “Anne of Green Gables.” But this is increasingly less true (at least for cisgendered, heterosexual women), whereas boys must still violently suppress anything feminine as they develop. For my own part, I was a tomboy who defended myself with my fists in the schoolyard, loved Barbies, hated sports, and had no special attachment to the colour pink, although I was not raised by radical feminists. (My mother did not identify with feminists, she told me, because she thought that they were wrong about men, based on her observation of her brothers… particularly, her brothers’ grooming rituals!) I was mainly deviant for being a reader!

    • ‘I’m tempted to suggest that little girls are allowed to transgress gender lines because boy behaviour is more valued’

      – so are you suggesting that or have you resisted the temptation? I won’t reply unless you are actually making that assertion. Except I will say that the idea boys’ behaviour is more ‘valued’ than that of girls, is to me, an example of a pernicious feminist myth, that illustrates my point there is no such thing as ‘good feminism’.

      In my family, *not* reading would have been the most deviant thing I could do.

  7. This is interesting, and it’s something that I’ve seen with other women who “hate” pink in order to be deviant and long to reject certain aspects of being a girl. As if pink is this great suffocating blanket that all female-bodied individuals must endure. Personally, I like pink – but my gender representation is best described as lazy. I’m not girly in the sense of being femme, which is what pink is often conflated with. And I was so far from being a tomboy, I often wonder what it would be like to have been one growing up.

    This article seems to really show that people really, really want there to be supporting evidence for how/why we treat the gender representation of the sexes. People don’t want to say that we actively participate in gender re-enforcement by giving girls pink things and boys blue things. And even if we delve into the discussion of colors giving off vibes – pink is conflated with femme because we associate events like love and romance with the female experience – versus a universal one. Blue is about calming, but like you’ve pointed out before (if I’m not mistaken) there’s a disproportionate preoccupation with the female experience over the male one. So I think blue is supposed to be the non-girl color.

    Anyway – those are just some of my original thoughts on this post. I liked it! :]

    • hiya!

      I think what I meant about the ‘disproportionate preoccupation’ with the ‘female’ pink, is not that boys are being ignored, but that the significance of pink to boys is not being acknowledged fully.

      Pink is most ‘dangerous’ to boys as it signifies ‘girliness’ or ‘gayness’. But most articles, including the Telegraph one and countless feminist ones, mainly talk about pink in relation to girls.

  8. I think we are more like Cagney and Lacey redpesto

  9. […] not a girl, you must fit in, wipe those tears away, you are not a girl, you must not turn out gay. Quiet Riot Girl has something to say on this, in her blog post The Pink Menace which you should definitely […]

  10. pullonyourfeet says:

    QRG, I have a tengential question (I am not a gender theorist I am a mathematician so if it is a really stupid question that is my comeback in advance 😉 ).

    My question involves whether / why people need things to be gendered to find them “cute”.

    Obviously in many cases the answer is no:

    But with people it is different; here is a cute baby:

    Here is a cute baby girl:

    And here is a cute baby boy:

    Clearly they may as well all be the same baby. But people will describe the baby boy as “handsome” and the girl as “pretty” – why do we gender when to be honest, it’s just not required?

    • gosh that’s a good question. I would say it is required by society, and especially as children grow up. The gendering is somehow laying the foundations for how we organise ourselves as people. we need the ‘male v female’ binary to keep our current society ticking over. Look at how that family got treated how would not reveal the gender identity of their baby, ‘Storm’.

  11. Matthew says:

    QRG I am not sure if you are aware of this but:

    A century ago, baby boys were swaddled in pink—a watered-down version of red—and girls were in blue, evocative of the Virgin Mary. Ladies’ Home Journal said, “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.”

    The reverseal of this gender association is a 20th century one, that has grown ever increasingly stronger in the clothing and toy industry.

  12. […] for the love of men..’) with the emphasis on women persuading their blokes to use girly colours , with the manipulative use of ‘manly’ names, as if men are ‘under the […]

  13. […] not a girl, you must fit in, wipe those tears away, you are not a girl, you must not turn out gay. Quiet Riot Girl has something to say on this, in her blog post The Pink Menace which you should definitely […]

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