Why is there an irrational fear of pink? Why, more than any color, is pink something that has the ability to so directly feminize and so completely immasculate?
When I was growing up in my rather small town (at least at the time it was), I remember when Victoria Secret moved into town. Now there was no controversy about the store itself – a purveyor of traditionally small lingerie aptly displayed in front windows for all those who passed by to see…. But you see, they had painted their store front using the traditional Victoria’s Secret Signature Pink. Oh how this pink enraged. How it put people up in arms. It was too bright. Too in your face. It could cause people to stare and maybe even get into car accidents. Really? The color pink is going to do this. Completely disregard the mannequins with the equivalent of dental floss running up their backsides…. It has to be the pink. The “rage” against Victoria’s Secret was so great that people organized petitions… which ended in the store ultimately repainting their façade. All because of… pink.
In my twenties, I bought a pink dress shirt and my fashion forward roommate told me that it was nice… but that pink wasn’t really a “manly” color and I should consider that when trying to wearing this around… particularly with my suit. The insinuated conclusion being that no one in the business world would respect a man wearing a pink shirt… because, well, that pink shirt makes him somehow less manly. I maintained that I had read somewhere that pink is a good color because it brings out skin tone. Nonetheless… she would not budge on her opinion nor her recommendation. After all, she was only thinking about my career – my future. And all of this could come crumbling down… all because of… pink.
I left Chicago sometime ago, but I recently read that back in 2006 they expanded the transit system with a new line. The Pink Line. The city line was named through a contest that they ran for local school children to name it by giving it a color related name. and explaining why that color was appropriate. Why that color had meaning. The fact that we got a Pink Line based on the recommendation of a 12-year-old girl should right there make you smile… but that wasn’t the case it appears. According to what I have read, the city papers and local blogs lit up with outrage over the decision -- much of it tongue-in-cheek, granted, but all of it expressing the same message: A pink train would be humiliating to the good people of Chicago. I mean this is Chicago afterall – a city of hardworking, meat-eating, bar-brawling, sports-loving, dirty-politicking people. This is a city of men, except for the slightly more than half of the citizens who are women… but they fit the bill of the previous line even if they don’t fit the gender so they too must be insulted by the color pink. And if you drill this all down, what respectable person would pay good money to ride on something called the "Pink Line?” Why not just put a tutu on the Sears Tower, or fill Soldier Field with tampons, or change the Cubs mascot from the cute little cubby bear to something more like a Care Bear?
A recent slide show by Jude Stewart calls pink "the most politicized color of our age." Today, "when we think pink, we think Disney Princess, Barbie and Fifi the poodle," but according to Jo B. Paoletti, author of the forthcoming "Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America," this is not “a tale as old as time” as we seem to believe. This is something new. Something that we have really pushed into existence. Something that started from a rational place but has since become completely irrational.
Quick history less… get ready… prior to the second half of the 20th century, babies were dressed in all sorts of light colors ("so clothing could withstand frequent hot washings," according to Stewart and I am going to go with that), and when a pink-blue gender divide emerged, it didn't automatically go the way we'd expect it to. In France, pink was considered feminine and blue masculine, but in Germany’s catholic community, little girls were dressed in blue in honor of the Virgin Mary, while little boys wore pink, considered a watered-down shade of the most masculine of colors – red, the color of blood. Here in the states, it appears we had both camps. But then a choice was made – probably one that would make even Anna Wintour of Vogue fame tip her hat – in 1918 Ladies' Home Journal decreed, "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." Wait. Did I get this right? The answer is yes. This is not a typo but a true declarative decision on fashion and, arguably, gender identity.
Let’s take a minute together, shall we? Let’s step back and let that quote marinate. Less than 100 years ago, blue was thought to be manifestly the girly color. Now think about the fact that today, we have scientists telling us that girls and women are hard-wired to prefer pink. Because it reminds us of lady bits (and not those we see in National Geographic).
How did this happen? There's certainly no way that marketers shifted the whole culture away from seeing pink as a gender-neutral color because it was more profitable, or that the people making up the rules were originally divided on which color should go with which gender, as though it wasn't obvious at all. Oh, wait….
“Merchandisers liked how color-coding babies' clothes bolstered sales -- after all, whatever rule you were following, color-coding meant you couldn't dress little Johnny in Sally's hand-me-downs. Department stores began competing to establish a color-coding rule: In 1927, Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, Marshall Field's in Chicago, and Maison Blanche in New Orleans all pushed pink for girls, but other stores -- Macy's and Franklin Simon of Manhattan and Bullock's of Los Angeles -- positioned pink as a boy's color.”
Stewart also explains that Pink is "also the provenance of powerful men, both gay and straight" -- the wealthy, exquisitely dressed ones, anyway -- and has appeared on battleships and bombers; basically, it's no more inherently feminine (or masculine) than any other color. And yet, we seem to think it does. Returning to my roommate Kate’s strong feelings – my pink shirt was even elicited one of my favorite responses from her, “Are you sure you’re not gay?”
Perhaps this little essay is not about the color itself. If Macy's had pushed a little harder in the '20s, we might be having this conversation about blue. But the fact that pink has so much power to illicit such responses has to make you wonder. This is nothing more than the color red cut with white. The color itself should have no intrinsic meaning, but anything "girly" is still automatically identified as frivolous, delicate, dainty, weak and downright embarrassing – and most of all pink.
And with all this… I would like to close with a key author’s note, if you will. About 6 months after I brought home the infamous pink shirt, I came in from work and was heading up the stairs to my room. As I passed Kate’s room along the way, I was greeted with a rather timid, “Jake? Is that you?” I stopped in her doorway to catch her glance and toss a friendly “hello” of a smile her way. My greeting was quickly chased down by an unsolicited response from her, “I think I owe you an apology. I was reading GQ this morning and they had a whole article on why GQ “endorses” the pink shirt. So I have been doing some thinking and, well, GQ is the go-to for men’s style. I guess I was wrong.”
I guess I still wonder if GQ will push a bit harder than Macy’s. Its been over five years since Kate and I went to war over the pink shirt and the color still seems to “push buttons.”
Pink. It is, well, controversial. I wonder which side you fall upon.