Think pink

In June 1918 the United States’s Ladies’ Home Journal had this to say: “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 colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

No longer. For at least the past decade, little girls have inhabited a universe of pink princesses and fairies and ballerinas and fluffy bunnies, but also pink books, bikes, lunch boxes, board games, toy cookers, cash registers, even games consoles.

This Christmas is no exception.
Scrabble has been repackaged in pink (the tiles on the front of the box spell FASHION). Monopoly has gone pink, with the dog, thimble and shoe pieces replaced by flip-flops, a handbag and a hairdryer, houses and hotels becoming boutiques and malls, and utilities turned into beauty salons.

“There’s been,” says Abi Moore, a 38-year-old television producer, “a wholesale pinkification of girls. It’s everywhere. And it needs to change. It sells children a lie—that there’s only one way to be a ‘proper girl’—and it sets them on a journey at a very early age. It’s a signpost, telling them that beauty is more valued than brains; it restricts ambitions.”

Eighteen months ago Moore launched an anti-pink campaign with her twin sister, Emma. For some time the pair had been struck by how different their houses were beginning to look: Abi has two boys aged seven and three, Emma two girls, born at almost the same times.

“I was coming back from filming an interview with Naomi Halas, a remarkable woman scientist who’s developing a cancer treatment,” she says. “And the media was completely obsessed with Paris Hilton’s release from prison. I just cracked.”

The campaign, PinkStinks, started out with the aim of offering girls alternative role models, says Emma, “women who do amazing things—scientists, sportswomen, musicians, businesswomen and activists”.

Then two weeks ago they devised a Christmas campaign denouncing the oceans of pink on show at Britain’s Early Learning Centre, which claims in its own publicity that its toys are designed to “help children explore the boundaries of their imaginations and creativity”.

PinkStinks has since featured in hundreds of television and newspaper reports, in 22 countries around the world—and not always in a good way. In Britain one paper derided the Moore sisters as “dour and humourless feminists”. Sky News had presenter Nina Mishkoff dress entirely in pink to interview them.

They’ve been most shocked, though, by the emails. “Do you sell campaign T-shirts in pink?” one respondent wrote. “And do you have any with ‘I am a leftwing communist loony trying to brainwash girls’?” Another calls the sisters “lesbians” who “can’t leave normal young girls alone”. “We’ve tapped into something very deep and powerful,” says Emma. “Some people plainly feel attacked.”

Why? Back in the 1800s gender differences weren’t really apparent until children could walk or later: boys and girls both wore dresses or skirts until they were six or so.

By the end of the century, as the Ladies’ Home Journal noted, boys’ and girls’ clothing styles began to diverge. Professor Jo Paoletti of the University of Maryland says pink emerged as an appropriate colour for boys because it was “a close relative of red, seen as a fiery, manly colour”. Blue was considered better suited for girls because of its associations, in art, with the Virgin Mary.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the colour code was reversed. In 1948, as one newspaper noted, “royal watchers reported that Princess Elizabeth was obviously expecting a boy, because a temporary nursery in Buckingham Palace was gaily decked out with blue satin bows”.

Some claim the tide turned for innate biological reasons. Research into colour preferences in monkeys has apparently shown that females prefer warm colours such as pink or red, perhaps because baby primates’ pink faces stimulate the mothers’ maternal instincts.

A study at the University of Newcastle, UK, in 2007, which asked 200 men and women to choose their preferred colour from rectangles on a computer screen, found that women showed a distinct preference for reddish colours. The researchers speculated that the gender differences may be genetically determined: “Evolution may have driven females to prefer reddish colours—red, ripe fruits, healthy, reddish faces.”

But the study failed to take full account of cultural factors: parental preference, peer pressure and, above all, consumer marketing.

The feminist writer and broadcaster, Natasha Walter, says the scientific case that such preferences may be biologically determined is “far from proven. I was struck when I had my daughter by how girls are expected from birth to live in this world of tutus.

“I was brought up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a mother interested in gender-neutral education, and I had just assumed that things had moved on from there. In fact, they’ve moved backwards.”

A kind of fatalism, Walter says, seems to have crept in. “The view seems to be: ‘Oh well, in the 1960s and 1970s people tried all that non-sexist, anti-stereotyping stuff and it didn’t work. There’s obviously nothing we can do about it, it’s all laid down in our genes.’ Whereas that’s not true: we never got the equality we set out to achieve.

“And now we all have to accede to the notion that little girls are naturally drawn to pink and you’re old-fashioned and over-serious and boring if you suggest otherwise.” —

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