Around a year ago, I became aware of a phenomenon from the world of charitable giving that, try as I might, I just couldn’t get behind. My son had been asked to wear something pink to school to show his support for Pink Shirt Day, an annual event that sees kids in playgrounds around the world pledge their solidarity in stamping out the scourge of bullying.
Now, it’s not that I dislike the idea of an awareness day for anti-bullying — it’s a just and vital cause, and I’m reasonably certain that each year the movement to banish malicious power-tripping from daily life saves lives and childhoods by the hundreds of thousands.
Nor, in theory, do I have anything against the campaign’s choice of the pink shirt as its motif. In fact, it’s a stroke of semiotic genius: The whole idea comes from a heartwarming episode in Nova Scotia in 2007, when a ninth grade student, Chuck McNeill, was bullied for wearing pink to school and two teenagers, David Shepherd and Travis Price, creatively sprang to his defense by purchasing 50 pink shirts and getting male students to wear them in a show of mass contempt for McNeill’s antagonists. Which is great, and must count as one of the best real-life “I’m Spartacus!” moments you’re ever likely to hear about.
No, the reason I felt so conflicted about encouraging my son to take a sartorial stand was that I couldn’t shake the notion that, far from being a peaceful symbol of defiance, a pink shirt really belongs on the other side of the power imbalance — as the standard-issue uniform of the male bully.
Admittedly, this impression has been formed from my own brushes with persecutors. The burly guy who alpha-male’d the community of drinkers and church-goers my parents used to hang out with when I was young, who radiated racism, menace and chest hair and scared the living shit out of me and my friends growing up: Pink shirts. The don’t-cross-him guy in a former office job whose main pastime was the terrifying Terminator-like pursuit of workplace humiliation in others: Pink polos (the kind beloved of pro golfers and British “football casuals” in the 1980s and 1990s). The aristocratically dumb fail-upwards guy who was regularly heard yelling insults and curses at his kids’ poor unpaid au pair: Stripy penis-pink, like they like to wear on Wall Street. The Weinstein-esque boss who literally should be in jail but somehow escaped with a pay-off and a dignified exit: Pink shirts, always. Pale, high-collared and clearly ironed by a psychopath.
I’m aware that when it comes to mainstream perceptions of pink, this is a minority opinion. I’m ready to concede that powdery shades aren’t generally worn in a spirit of viciousness and often tend to suggest less threatening forms of masculinity: Of a man perfectly at ease with the color’s feminine and LGBTQ+ associations, say — as seen in the metrosexual or “millennial pink” menswear trends of the last couple of decades. Or it might be the mark of a more elevated soul who’s keen to reject culture’s outmoded insistence on gendering a very specific segment of the electromagnetic spectrum. Or, of course, it might just be that the dude likes pink and leave it at that.
But all that aside, this more sinister adoption of the color really is at large in culture too. This goes beyond pink’s use as a clubbable insignia of wealth and status among finance bros and preppy socialites that we all know about, and into much grittier territory — and if you squint, it can be just about glimpsed in popular culture going back decades.
For me, Ray Winstone’s retired cockney gangster in the 2000 movie Sexy Beast is the archetype for all time. Here he is as the definitive gorilla-in-flamingo (though himself on the receiving end of some virtuoso bullying from Ben Kingsley in a colossally NSFW scene):
And you don’t have to look too hard to find the American equivalent. The films of Martin Scorsese in particular pick up on pink hues’ hoodlum affinities, with Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas spending much of the movie strutting in mob-tacky pink shirts, jackets and ties, and with Robert De Niro stepping into a pivotal scene in Casino looking like a vomit on its wedding day:
Going back a few decades earlier, Sean Connery established James Bond as a template for toxic masculinity for generations to come — and a lot of that unholy work he did in radioactive pink. In 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, he memorably fights hench-girls in bikinis while wearing a not-recommended-for-espionage bright pink tie, while in 1965’s Thunderball his beach-hounding of another woman in swimwear is conducted in 50 shades of rosé:
Here’s the late Sir Sean in his latter years, by the way, frail but still rocking a coral thug-grandpa look. And, if there’s any lingering doubt about a link between abusive men and a penchant for pink, it’s worth recalling the remarks he made in his heyday in which he defended male violence against women. (In fact, it’s always worth recalling those remarks, whatever the Connery context.)
Oh, and there is, of course (and of course there is), this:
Shitty in Pink
So how does the universally understood color of Barbie dolls and genteel femininity manage at the same time to appeal to a certain breed of virile type-As? Much as I’d love to be able to trace it all back neatly to male baboons’ butts and mating displays in our ancestral past, pinning down the psychological origins of color symbolism is a notoriously haphazard business. Besides, experts in the field have much more straightforward explanations to offer.
“Simple,” says Jo Paoletti, professor emerita at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. For her it’s an open-and-shut case of classic macho posturing and the urge to assert that, “‘I am such a tough guy I can wear pink and still be masculine.’ It doesn’t make pink a masculine color,” she adds. “If anything, it amplifies its femininity.”
Mating displays do perhaps come into it, albeit from a sideways angle, for another writer who’s thought a great deal about the color and its significance. “I hate to use a term that I fear has been dredged up from terrible dating advice,” says Kassia St. Clair, a London-based cultural historian and author of The Secret Lives of Color, “but it’s a bit like ‘peacocking.’” According to St. Clair, that particular aggressive male subspecies that flaunts its pink plumage is all about “standing out, and being very individual and visible when most other people aren’t wearing that color.”
At the heart of the question is the vexing issue of why it became such a potent trigger for gender assumptions at all — especially since its powerful color-coding influence on us appears to have evolved for completely arbitrary reasons, and is a fairly recent phenomenon.
It’s only over the past 100 years that pink has crept into the West’s collective consciousness as the universally agreed-upon “girls’ color.” And in the half-century or so before World War I, if it held any gender associations for people at all, it was often seen as a tone more suitable for boys.
Both Paoletti and St. Clair stress that gender symbolism in people’s responses to color was a much weaker force back then. “References to pink and blue as gendered colors in the 19th century weren’t consistent; sometimes pink was feminine, sometimes masculine,” says Paoletti. Nevertheless, the balance of opinion seemed to come down on the “for boys” side, and her personal favorite among “the many articles explaining why pink was a masculine color” comes from the June 1918 issue of the American childrenswear trade magazine Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department (still going, by the way). In it, while the war in Europe was entering its final phase and the deadly Spanish flu pandemic raged around the globe, the reporter was able to offer a definitive answer on a pressing topic for a grateful public: “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, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Thankfully, the journal was also able to identify the sources of vulgar rumors to the contrary and scotch them once and for all: “The nursery rhyme of Little Boy Blue is responsible for the thought that blue is for boys. Stationers, too, reverse the colors, but as they sell only announcement cards and baby books, they cannot be considered authorities.”
Vague though it was, the prevailing association of blue with notions of femininity may have had its roots in medieval religious art, according to St. Clair. “Part of the reason for that cultural belief,” she explains, “is that in Western culture blue was very, very strongly associated with the Virgin Mary, all the way from the 13th century. Ultramarine was always the pigment that was used in paintings of the Virgin Mary, and so it really became strongly associated with her — and of course she was the pinnacle of female virtues.”
Pink, meanwhile, didn’t even exist as its own color in our forebears’ imagination. Giving “pale red” its own separate category in the color spectrum is a modern invention, points out St. Clair, and an unusual one at that, since “we don’t have categories for pale green or pale yellow in the same way.”
This helps explain why retailers in the 1910s might insist that pink was “decided” and “strong.” Says St. Clair: “If you think about the kinds of things that we have associated with red in the past, quite often it’s military clothing” — especially in the British context where scarlet “redcoat” tunics continued to be issued to military personnel right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. “Red is a very high-status color, in part because the dyes and pigments used to color things red were often expensive,” St. Clair continues. “And so, if that color is faded a little bit — if it’s seen a fair amount of action — it would still be considered red. We would now think of it as pink, but to people a century ago and more, it seemed much more part of the red category.”
As to why the trends reversed, it’s a perplexing question. “Military uniforms at the beginning of the 20th century almost all start trending khaki — for practical reasons, because guns become more accurate and there’s a change in military tactics,” offers St. Clair, noting that the waning influence of Christianity would have also meant that “the underpinning cultural values that linked pink to little boys and blue to little girls start loosening.”
Ubiquitous and entrenched girl/boy color-coding as we know it today really got underway with the end of World War II. After 1945, says St. Clair, “you get this real push for reaffirmed, strengthened gender norms. Because there’s a push for the economy — particularly in America — to get back up and running, they want women to get out of work and go back into the home.” As a result, there is a “strong cultural pull toward very separate gender realms,” and it’s in this context that “pink for girls” became the convention. In the rising postwar tide of conspicuous consumption, “it made sense to have girls’ colors and boys colors’, because then you can get people to buy twice as much.”
But why the direct swap? What made pink become the new blue? St. Clair says it’s a mystery in the history of color perceptions for which she has yet to see a convincing explanation. Paoletti agrees: “Hard to say. Certainly if you had asked me which way it would go in 1910, I would have just tossed a coin.” St. Clair tentatively suggests that Hollywood iconography might have played a part, floating the example of Marilyn Monroe singing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in 1953, which could well have done something for sales of shocking pink womenswear at the time:
Whatever the reason for the crossing of the streams, mid-century femininity’s drift pinkwards was a gradual and insidious process. “As late as the 1930s, a survey of customers in America reported that only about two-thirds of them associated pink with girls,” says Paoletti. “I found pink clothes worn by baby or toddler boys as late as the mid-1970s. And that doesn’t even touch on international adoption of the symbolism. When my son was born in 1986, one of my students, a woman from South Korea, gave him two onesies that were trimmed with pink.” She dates the “hypergendered period” — when pink became inseparable in people’s minds from prettiness and princesses — only “to the 1990s and early 2000s, when manufacturers and retailers really latched on to the power of pink as a feminine marker.”
Which would roughly coincide with what I’d unscientifically pinpoint as the high point of the color’s toxically masculine guise, when it became such a cliché on trading floors in New York and London, aided by a starring role in finance blockbusters of the 1980s such as Wall Street and Risky Business:
This was also the period when pink shades became an unlikely fixture among the violent tribes of English soccer fans, both the fashion-conscious football casuals and their anarchistic precursors, the skinheads. Here’s that classic magenta skull-cracker look, as modeled in cult British TV show This Is England ‘86:
Bolstering the case for the late 20th century as the dawn of our psychological obsession with pink — both as a gender cue and a trigger for unfocused violence — is the strange phenomenon of “Baker-Miller pink,” which managed to blend both sets of resonances. Otherwise known as “dunk-tank pink,” the shade was widely adopted as interior decor in prisons and other institutions around the world after a 1979 study claimed it produced a significant reduction in aggression among inmates.
As a result, says St. Clair, “Pink became this kind of panacea in the war on crime. Lots of prison bars and prison cells were painted this very particular shade of pink, which had been quote-unquote ‘proven’ to rob people of their aggression.” But it seems the science behind the discovery was itself a victim of pink’s suggestive power in reinforcing gender stereotypes. “Of course, more recent studies have shown that this isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be and that it doesn’t quite have the effect that people believe it does,” says St. Clair, adding that “studies that claim to prove definitively that colors have a particular effect on our psyche are often very flawed.”
One such rebuttal of Baker-Miller pink’s calming aura has suggested that bathing holding cells in bubblegum tones might actually have the opposite effect on the fragile male egos that inhabit them. Having noted that the early studies “often didn’t meet high methodological standards,” and having themselves found no difference between pink-hued and plain white wall colors on aggressive behavior, the author of a 2014 experiment conducted on violent inmates in a Swiss prison goes on to speculate “whether pink detention cells may even have negative psychological effects. Past research has indicated that the color pink is mainly associated with girls and women. … Being placed in a pink detention cell may thus attack inmates’ perceived manhood and/or cause feelings of humiliation.”
Despite being discredited, the idea that the color suppresses carnal urges has stuck around, though, and is proving to have a genuine influence on people’s behavior (if not exactly in the way the original researchers thought). Kendall Jenner, for example, recently had her bedroom painted in Baker-Miller, having been inspired by a visit to a hospital and claims that the color could also subdue your appetite.
Arbitrary though its origins may have been, the constantly reinforced link between pink and enfeebling gendered imagery to do with softness, delicacy, weakness, fragrance and sanitary products — together with all the power imbalances they might imply — is now so deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric we may never shake it off, no matter how pink-averse society becomes.
“Feminine markers are a cultural electric fence,” says Paoletti, “especially for people assigned male at birth, and especially the youngest ones still learning the rules.” For this reason, she thinks we’re not likely to neuter pink’s gender associations any time soon. “As long as there is a power/status differential, the symbols that signify them will be important,” she says. “In this case, marking the lower statuses is necessary so the upper-status folks know what to avoid.” Or perhaps, for the really domineering among them, to revel in and adopt as an ostentatious leisure-wear — as a reminder of who they believe is really in charge.
St. Clair agrees that as a culture, we’ve painted ourselves into a gendered prison it’s going to be tricky to escape from. “We live in a very visual age, where we see a lot of branding and marketing and content all the time,” she says, “and colors are useful shorthand. You get things like charities raising money for breast cancer, for example, and for those organizations it’s always going to be very tempting to use pink.” The hype around “millennial pink” a few years ago is a case in point. “There was a lot of conversation around 2016 with the rise of millennial pink — that this was a new, gender-neutral pink,” says St. Clair. “That was very obviously not the case, because the vast majority of products that it was used on were products that were going to be marketed at, and to, women.”
Nevertheless, she points to a growing rejection of pink and blue babywear and toys among a more color-wary generation of parents. She also cites the arresting work of South Korean photographer JeongMee Yoon, which compares kids’ pink- or blue-saturated bedrooms with their more neutral and austere color choices as teens in later years. These could be, she suggests, hints in the air that pink’s Tinkerbell tiara might one day slip. “It’s changed around once. Could it change around again? Very possibly,” she says, citing her own family’s “journey” in relation to pink.
While she was a child of the 1980s — “and so I had pink foisted on me a lot when I was little” — her father is living proof that for generations, we’ve all been primed to grotesquely overthink pink. “My dad was born in 1925,” she says, “and if you ask him what his favorite color is, it’s pink. He was born before it became a very feminine color. And so he loves pink, and doesn’t see anything odd about that.”
With all the gender expectations, patriarchal coding and brute physical intimidation we’ve projected onto this poor color over the past seven decades or so, it’s no wonder we’re all feeling a little allergic to it by now. But try to imagine being brought up before the war, and seeing pink with unfiltered, unindoctrinated eyes: Doesn’t it seem like that would open up a whole new part of the spectrum for our appreciation, minus the belittling sexist subcurrents and all that pointless cultural clutter?
Or maybe, that’s just looking back through rose-tinted glasses.