From the “pink tax” to “Millennial pink” to baby-clothes, our notions about color are hurting us.

Pink sky at sunset.
The sky should always be this color. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.

I’ll admit it: I like the color pink, in its many hues and tones, from dawn-sky to dog-nose to flaming-azalea-springtime. I even like to wear it, near my face, preferably, because it makes me look young and awake. But I can barely stand what it’s come to mean in America, and for that reason, I wish we could hit “restart” and take it all, from blush to fuschia, back a few hundred years, and in the process, move our thinking about things like color and gender and power forward some unknown number of years, into a future that I like to think will have learned from the past we’ve created for it.

In my own past is a childhood love of the color pink. I can remember telling people that pink was my favorite color; I remember admiring ballerinas decked in blush and rose, and my bedroom, first painted a pale pink, was later wallpapered in what I thought of then as a gorgeous and sophisticated pattern of pink roses with green leaves. By the time I was a high-schooler, I was beginning to be embarrassed by the blatant girliness of that wallpaper, its childish interpretation of prettiness. The more I came into my own as a young woman, the more uncomfortable it made me. In my twenties, with a little help from the rise of grunge, I eschewed pink entirely, vowing never to wear it again. Of course, like so many other things, that conviction has softened a bit with age.

But I joke on the surface of a phenomenon that roots deeper, into the layers of gender and class discrimination that are feeding our particular moment’s garden of culture. Things that produce lovely pink blossoms can be as toxic to ingest as lilies are to housecats. The status that the color pink holds in America now has some ugly, oppressive roots.

It starts in the cradle: “it’s a (blue) boy!” and “it’s a (pink) girl!” In fact, these days, it often starts with a gender-reveal party, long before a baby is born. A look at images online of ideas for such parties leaves no doubt that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. With pink come bows and ruffles, lace and ribbons, and these days, lots of glitter. A sturdy system of gender-signification is born.

Screenshot of a search for “gender-reveal party”.

Although it was only in the post-WWII period that the firm association of pink with femininity and blue with masculinity materialized (see this article from the Atlantic for a little history), it has become ingrained enough that people take it to be something like a fact. That has allowed us to use these colors as easy symbolism, as code, and in certain situations, as instruments of control — even as weapons. It has also allowed advertising to move us implicitly, without our intellectual consent, because the “rightness” or “wrongness” of something for us can be easily signified with color.

Thus, the phenomenon now known as “the pink tax” (see here for one of many articles on it) becomes possible: I know that this razor is right for me and that razor is not because this one is pink and that one is blue. Simple. This bottle of body wash is pink and white, adorned with flowers, and has a scent named something like “floral ecstasy,”; heaven forbid I mistakenly reach for the blue-and-silver bottle of “sucker-punch.” That’s for my very masculine boyfriend, of course. We need different soap products because, you know, men and women are so different. His items cost less, but since their packages are slightly different sizes, maybe, I may not notice that I’m paying a premium for the pink that befits my X chromosomes. That premium, barely noticeable on a single item here or there, adds up over a lifetime of purchasing pink.

From the marketing of artificially marked-up toiletries and items of clothing, it’s not a long leap to marketing items supposedly meant to support charitable causes. This article (among others) discusses the way in which the Komen foundation for breast cancer awareness used the easy association of pink and femininity, involving consumers who believed they were contributing to research on and education about breast cancer in generating profit for organizations whose products, in some cases, were known or thought to be carcinogenic. And in the case of breast cancer as with so many things, when we can easily buy something we were probably going to buy anyway and believe that if we choose this (pink) version over another, we might not give much thought to the cause we believe our nickel is supporting. That’s good news for businesses trying to increase sales by jumping on a bandwagon, but it isn’t great for either the sufferers of, in this case, breast cancer, or for consumers.

(You’ll never guess, by the way, what color the ribbon for prostate cancer awareness is.)

Speaking of “blue is for boys,” pink’s counterpart, all is not rosy there, either. Another ugly dimension of the “essentialist” association of pink and blue is the ease with which boys, like girls, can be shamed and controlled through their tastes and preferences. Although pink was reclaimed politically by the LGBTQ community starting in the ’70s, it can still be deployed with homophobic intent, to shame and belittle. With the sudden emergence of “Millennial pink” a few years ago, I had hopes that the under-forty set was making progress in deconstructing the legacy of the 1950s’ repressive gender roles and dismantling some of the vehicles of homophobia and sexism. Finally, pink was being embraced as a symbol of chic, and it started jumping across the gender-divide. Yet the persistent dismissal of Millennials and Gen Z in the media lets me know that the battle is still on, with no easy victory in sight. Pink as stigma is still powerful here. Pink, read by those who wish to maintain the status quo as the banner of girliness, aligns Millennials with softness, weakness, unwarranted emotionality, and dependency. It bespeaks, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, effeminacy. And still, still, in 2019, because the color pink can mean these things to so many people, we have to face up to the fact that this belief persists: there is something shameful in being associated with the feminine, or rather, with the limited and shallow characteristics that have been ascribed to femininity and topped with a pink bow.

Millennial Pink Drink. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.

I wish every manufacturer of every toy, costume, and clothing item for girls and women, but especially for girls, would stop defaulting to pink as the defining color of femininity. In equal measure, I wish boys and men could choose to wear any color they like without having to defend or explain themselves. I wish I could anticipate the new season of running shoes and other athletic gear without having to prep myself for the real likelihood that what’s available in my size and style will be pink, or pink-accented. I wish I could do something, anything — think, speak, lift weights, have an opinion about movies and their directors, or write a poem — without either having to signal that I’m still “womanly” while doing a “manly” thing or having to tolerate implicit or explicit comparison of my actions to male-oriented standards. I wish children didn’t enter the world color-coded and learn, through shaming and disapproval, that they were stuck with the single color they were born with. I truly hope, with Millennial pink in my heart, that we are on the road to a future that offers all the colors of the rainbow to everyone, way beyond ROY G. BIV, a dazzling and unlimited spectrum we can’t yet see but are starting to imagine.

My favorite: dog-nose-and-ears pink. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.