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Thinking Pink

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In western culture pink has become synonymous with femininity and homosexuality and is often used as a signifier of gender or sexuality. Historically, this has not always been the case. For a long time there were no such gender-colour relationships. Then, in the 1920’s, blue was aligned with girls, because of it was associated with the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness and seen as dainty. Pink was seen as being suitable for boys and men because red was a masculine, more definite colour. In the 1940’s this became inverted into the norm that we now experience. This is surprisingly recent, considering how imbedded in our culture this relationship between colours and gender and sexuality is.

Whilst in the past many 2nd wave feminists may have sidestepped pink in order to avoid conforming to stereotypes, for sometime now many different voices have been reclaiming pink and femininity. Femininity is not less legitimate or ‘good’ than masculinity so why shouldn’t femininity be a valid choice?  After all, feminism is about equality and freedom. If a feminist cannot choose to wear make-up, jewellery or pink, then this is not really freedom. So we have girlie feminists. We have CODEPINK. Under its hot-pink cover, Ellie Levenson’s The Noughtie Girls’ Guide to Feminism, carries the message that “you can be feminine and a feminist”. We also have Pink, the singer, who is involved in ‘take back the night’, amongst other charities and who took back control of her own career when she felt that her image was not true to her. The colour is good and bright and fun and strong.

But sometimes we are not getting the freedom to choose pink; sometimes it is forced upon us when companies stereotype to such an extent that the pink options far outweigh the others. This is especially noticeable if you try to buy sportswear. When I looked for trainers in the “suitable for sport” category in a large sports shop, if I wanted pink on my feet, there was LOTS of choice; if I didn’t, there were plenty of others… so long as I wanted touches of baby blue instead. The ladies’ footwear corner was awash with pastels. The large men’s footwear selection was a mixture of neutrals and primaries. When I have looked online, pink is actually used to designate that you are in the women’s department, even if the options are much better than those I experienced bodily in a ‘real-life’ shop.

 Elsewhere the choice is worse. The ‘UK Boxing Store’ do sell ladies’ gloves, pads, headguards and shorts. But if you want the headguard or shorts, the only option is for a certain bubblegum hue… because obviously a girl who chooses to box would definitely want to wear pink (maybe she would but maybe she wouldn’t). I don’t know if these  stores are trying not to stereotype sporty women as ‘butch’ or they presume that women will want to balance the supposed masculinity of sports with a pretty feminine touch… I just find it weird: pastels do not dominate other high street shops in the same way. Fashion shoe and clothes shops do have a much wider choice.

The choice again becomes narrower if you are shopping for children. Whether you want clothes, toys or general toot, children’s goods are highly gendered. I suppose it starts with babies. We can’t tell which gender babies are automatically so we label them. I imagine, that even if you decide to clothe your offspring in yellows and greens that you will presented with other less neutral items as gifts (not having a baby myself please tell me if your experience differs to my assumption). In my local tesco, if you want to buy party bag fillers, there are primary-coloured toy fighter planes, bright green bouncing balls and fluorescent water pistols. Alongside these, there are hot-pink glittery pens, pale pink and purple plastic pencils and pink lipstick-shaped rubbers. The ‘feminine’ colours are used mainly for stationary and the solid masculine colours are used for more active toys. In Victorian tescoland little girls sit and write passively and little boys do not. Obviously we know that this does not reflect the real world which is thankfully not so simple. Many of the young boys I know, love to write and would have loved a pen instead of a ball… but not pink one!

Whilst I think Ellie Levenson must approve of her new book’s pink design, I also remember at a Ladyfest discussion on feminism a couple of years ago, politcs lecturer Sarah Childs expressed deep frustration that  the books she authoured were automatically put in pink jackets because the titles featured the word ‘women’ as well as ‘politics’.

 Although I like pink, I also like other colours. I own some things that are pink and many things that are not. But pink is still used to signal ‘female’ and to stereotype us. Turn away from one stereotype though and you slam headlong into another: girls like pink vs feminists are not feminine. So, I’m wondering… how does this impact on our ‘freedom of choice’? If we wear pink whilst living as feminists will we be able to change the image of feminists and feminity? Or will the number of pink products increase until we’re drowning in a sea of cerise? Whether you love it, wear it, hate it, shun it or aren’t really fussed, I’d like to hear: what do you think about pink?