Wednesday, January 04, 2012


A short summary of the history of pink as the color for girls:
The use of pink as distinctive of girls can be dated back at least to 1868, in Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women, when after being shown boy and girl twins, Laurie asks:

Most remarkable children I ever saw. Which is which?...Amy put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl, French fashion, so you can always tell.[13]

University of Maryland Professor Jo B. Paoletti, author of book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America considers this was common usage in France orphanages during the 18th century [14], but this was not the case everywhere. In the United States there was no established rule:

In 1855 the New York Times reported on a "baby show" put on by P.T. Barnum, exhibiting "one hundred and odd babies" dressed in pinks, blues, and other colors seemingly without regard to gender. ... A Times fashion report from 1880 has boys and girls dressed alike in white, pink, blue, or violet, and another from 1892 says young girls were wearing a variety of colors that spring, including several shades of blue[15]

There are theories indicating an origin of this costume in the 20th century. Zucker and Bradly say that it began in the 1920s[16] and other authors suggest the 1910s.[17] An article in the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department in June 1918 said: "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."[18] From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary.[19][20][21] Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.[22]

This looks like pretty good evidence of the social/cultural origins for the gendered colors.

The alternative view argues that a preference for pink is hard-wired in women and therefore in girls. But that view is not really supported by the evidence usually presented, as I have also written on this blog.

It is, however, possible that something built-in operates in these types of choices. It's something more complicated than the idea that our foremothers were keen on picking raw fruit:
But a new study purports to show that girls only acquire their preference for pink, and boys their aversion to it, at around the age of two to three, just as they’re beginning to talk about and become aware of gender.


LoBue and DeLoache presented 192 boys and girls aged between seven months and five years with pairs of small objects (e.g. coasters and plastic clips) and invited them to reach for one. Each item in a pair was identical to the other except for its colour: one was always pink, the other either green, blue, yellow or orange. The key test was whether boys and girls would show a preference for choosing pink objects and at what age such a bias might arise.

At the age of two, but not before, girls chose pink objects more often than boys did, and by age two and a half they demonstrated a clear preference for pink, picking the pink-coloured object more often than you’d expect based on random choice. By the age of four, this was just under 80 per cent of the time – however there was evidence of this bias falling away at age five.

Boys showed the opposite pattern to girls. At the ages of two, four and five, they chose pink less often than you’d expect based on random choices. In fact, their selection of the pink object became progressively more rare, reaching about 20 per cent at age five.
The crucial point is, of course, that the color choices become gendered at the age when children start understanding gender as something they have and look for signs of what it entails. And one sign they are offered everywhere in Western countries has to do with color choices. Pink Means Girl. If you are a girl then you pick pink. If you are a boy you don't pick pink.

I think that's what is going on with the current horrible pinkifying of everything having to do with girls' clothes and toys. Children of a certain age police gender more stringently than a Talibani does.

The alternative explanation would be that those hard-wired pink genes in girls just happen to kick in at the same time as gender awareness begins in general. That seems very unlikely, given the actual history of how pink became associated with girls.

Put in other terms, if green was the color used in little girls' nurseries, birth announcement cards, clothes and toys, then we would find an odd preference for green among little girls.

As I have written earlier, all this pinkification would not matter much (except for the impoverished color experiences it offers children) if it wasn't associated with other markers of gender for children, the kind which offer little girls so many passive and beauty-related role images of what their gender means, the kind which now argue that building blocks are for boys, even though playing with them has clear learning benefits for all children.

Given this, it may come as good news that Lego is trying to re-introduce its original idea of Legos being gender-neutral toys! Except not really. Instead, Lego will run a separate campaign to market their blocks to girls:
Then there are the lady figures. Twenty-nine mini-doll figures will be introduced in 2012, all 5 millimeters taller and curvier than the standard dwarf minifig. There are five main characters. Like American Girl Dolls, which are sold with their own book-length biographies, these five come with names and backstories. Their adventures have a backdrop: Heartlake City, which has a salon, a horse academy, a veterinary clinic, and a cafĂ©. “We had nine nationalities on the team to make certain the underlying experience would work in many cultures,” says Nanna Ulrich Gudum, senior creative director.
The key difference between girls and the ladyfig and boys and the minifig was that many more girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig—she became an avatar. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person. “The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them,” says Rosario Costa, a Lego design director. The Lego team knew they were on to something when girls told them, “I want to shrink down and be there.”
The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot. A neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Eliot is the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a 2009 survey of hundreds of scientific papers on gender differences in children. “Especially on television, the advertising explicitly shows who should be playing with a toy, and kids pick up on those cues,” Eliot says. “There is no reason to think Lego is more intrinsically appealing to boys.”
Maybe not, but even Knudstorp acknowledges that Lego’s girl problem will be hard to conquer. Lego sponsors a series of clubs called First Lego League to get kids interested in science. Recently, Knudstorp attended a Lego robotics contest and spoke to a Berkeley (Calif.) professor whose daughter excelled. “We’re seeing lots of girls perform extremely well, but her mother said to me, she won’t say that she’s a ‘Lego kid’ because that’s a boy thing,” Knudstorp says. “I don’t have any illusions that the girls business will be bigger than the boys business, but at least for those who are looking for it, we have something to offer.”

This post partly summarizes my previous writings on gendered color preferences. It's a response to the YouTube video where a young girl complains about the ubiquity of the color pink and also to Peggy Orenstein's article on the topic in the New York Times. The picture Orenstein wanted to find from the 1980s is this one:

I should note that the girls' toys of the 1980s were not free of pinkification. But there were more choices than pink-and-sparkly or pale-purple-and-sparkly.