Despite pink’s high profile as a ‘girlie’ colour, in Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, Jo B. Paoletti points out: ”For centuries … children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6.’ Colours as sex/gender signifiers did not take hold until just before the first world war. Paoletti cites the June 1918 issue of trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants Department: ’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, … more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’ Other publications considered blue to be ‘flattering for blonds’, whilst pink was the colour for brunettes. Alternatively, ‘blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for [the] brown-eyed … ’ . Stores carrying infants’ clothes and associated products took the ‘pink is for boys’ line.
Contradictions inherent in ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ exist, too, in directives as to ‘appropriate’ attire for boys and girls. Jeanne Maglaty of Washington’s Smithsonian Institute observes that childhood photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt are ‘typical of his time’. Photographs from 1884 show him at two years, wearing an ankle-length white dress, his head a profusion of ringlets. Not until age 6 or 7 was a distinction made in dress: frocks for girls, short pants – later trousers – for boys. Within the last fifty years, dress distinction was neutralised by the coming of rompers – a trouser suit, generally with bib and braces. Then, both girls and boys wore trousers – reverting to the gender neutrality of Roosevelt’s time, albeit in the opposite direction.
Pink features not only in baby clothing. In the pop world, pink’s illustrious aura has no sex/gender distinction. Pinkney Anderson came out of South Carolina and the Indian Remedy Company’s travelling road as major force for jazz and blues. ‘Pink’ Anderson’s major albums include American Street Songs and Carolina Medicine Show Hokum & Blues. Anderson’s force as a musical power lives on through Pink Floyd, where ‘Pink’ is for Anderson, Floyd a tribute to Floyd Council.
Meanwhile, musical men have no ‘pink’ monopoly. Known universally by her stage name rather than ‘Alecia Beth Moore’, Pink turned victimisation in to survivorship, powerlessness into power. Like Anderson, she took her title from childhood, converting a bad experience into an expression of confidence:
‘It’s just a nickname that’s been following me my whole life. It was a mean thing at first, some kids at camp pulled my pants down and I blushed so much, and they were like, ‘Ha ha! Look at her! She’s pink!’ and then the movie Reservoir Dogs came out – and Mr Pink was the one with the smart mouth, so it just happened all over again … ’
Yet negative connotations have been attributed to the colour pink: pink has been getting a bad name as in PinkStinks, ‘the campaign for real role models’ where ‘the culture of pink’ is challenged in seeking to give girls ‘inspiration to achieve great things’.
The Observer’ s Zoe Woods reports on PinkStinks’ ‘… campaign against the toy industry’s narrow view of gender roles’ with Hamleys ceasing to label its floors in blue for boys, pink for girls, and rearranging toys ‘by type rather than gender’. Concerns about the commercialisation of the ‘pink is for girls’ phenomenon has made Disney shops a target, filled as they are with row upon row of pink tutus, pink fairy wings, pink wands, pink make-up cases with miniature pink lipstick tubes, powder puffs, hairclips, bows – alongside shops featuring lacy pink underwear including ‘trainer bras’.
Yet should the feminist fightback against what Peggy Orenstein, in Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, terms ‘the princess industrial complex’, be directed toward labelling pink as powerless and pernicious?
Pink’s association with power and strength is notable. Girl babies survive at far higher rates than do boy babies. Stanford, Yale and Brown medical schools’ research shows girls born preterm do better than boys, with premature birth creating ‘greater problems’ and producing more lasting brain effects in boys. Far from being ‘passive’, ‘submissive’, flaccid, inert or any of those other antonyms decrying pink, girl babies and girl children have strengths which may be overlooked. This does not mean these strengths are not there.
‘Tomboy’ exists because girls climb trees, swing from monkey-bars, play rough and tumble games including softball, basketball and hockey. Far from being ‘sissy’, skippy or skip-the-rope requires coordination, agility and muscle power. Even activities placed firmly into the domain of the ‘weak’ by those who abjure the tutu, dance is far from lacking strength and power. The ability to move to music is recognised, too, as a potent factor in gaining psychological equilibrium and sense of self, both vital to well-being.
So are affirmations of pink as a power signifier anti-feminist? Do those affirming pink’s power undercut girls and women’s ability to grow-up as humanbeings of strength and fortitude? Is there a generational divide here, as asserted in the controversy surrounding the ‘Slut Walk’ movement?
The controversy over ‘slut’ was not that those demurring or objecting did not support the original marchers in Canada, where a police officer unwisely asserted that rape was a caused by women ‘dressing like sluts’. Clearly, he was wrong. Rape is a consequence of male assertion of ‘right’ over the woman who says no or who does not say yes. Rather, the controversy related to whether ‘slut’ could be ‘reclaimed’ as a word affirming women and womanhood.
Unlike ‘mistress’, ‘spinster’, ‘loose woman’ and ‘pink’, ‘slut’ has never had a positive meaning, nor positive connotations for women. Once, a mistress was a woman of power in the household, a woman holding the larder and cellar keys, who ordered household operations, wielding strength through management and administration: no mean skill there. Once, a spinster span – preserving her independence through earning her own income, and spinsters challenged ‘men’s right’ to auction their wives in the marketplace. Loose women had agency and autonomy – walking free and independent, the property of no man.
Pink is a word of power. In the past, this was recognised. No reason for not doing so now.
‘Slut’ has ever meant ‘slattern’ – a dirty, sloppy, smelly and slovenly woman. Can that having no redeeming feature, applied against women by those having no capacity for recognising, or acknowledging, women’s strength, power, autonomy and agency – in general or in sexual terms – be ‘reclaimed’?
PinkStinks has supporters of all ages. Its ingenious inventors are sisters of 40, operating through social networks Facebook and Twitter. The Slut Marches did not comprise young or younger women alone. Nor did the divide fall on one or other side of generational lines.
PinkStinks’ concern is understandable. Yet will it advance young girls’ perception of themselves to be told their wish for pink is an indicator of a lack of identification with power and self-worth? Rather than put down pink – and girls with it, let it take its historical place as a colour of strength. Rather than putdowns in the playground, let’s encourage a culture affirming girls and women as indomitable.
The professional woman may be garbed in black, navy or red – whilst also recognising that pink is powerful.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s books include Growing Up Feminist – The New Generation of Australian Women, Growing Up Feminist Too – Raising Women, Raising Consciousness, Living Generously – Women Mentoring Women, and Breaking Through – Women, Work and Careers. She is presently researching the history of women’s bodies.