The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

The pastel divide

Posted by Nic Heath on November 11, 2009

Code Pink, posted by Lauren Sandler at Mother Jones’ Culture & Media blog, examines the implications of the gendered pink-blue split among children. Gender as represented by pink and blue goads me particularly because it is emblematic of the first step of applying gender to an individual; the first aesthetic step in a socialising process that will ultimately determine or at least heavily influence lifelong behaviour, relationships, occupations, treatment at the hands of others, education etc.

Dressing a newborn in either pink or blue is not a benign social tradition. Like expecting a woman to change her name upon marriage, it is an unquestioned convention that is hugely symbolic – in this case of the enormous gulf between sex and gender, and the widespread indifference to this disparity. In contemporary society pink and blue each carry codes of behaviour that children comprehend at a very young age. From Code Pink:

“Pink itself isn’t the problem; it’s the message it conveys. That troubling message…is that girls and boys are deeply dissimilar creatures from day one. Lise Eliot [a neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It] argues that the pink-blue split shapes some enduring assumptions about babies’ emotional lives—at a time when girls’ and boys’ brains are almost entirely alike.”

A girl in pink will be encouraged to be passive and appearance obsessed. She will have different opportunities to her brother in blue, and different expectations placed upon her. Despite her own personality, she will have been shaped by forces beyond her control all her life – without ever really exercising her choice.

Monica Dux highlights how dramatically young girls can be affected by adherence to gender colour-codes and its accompanying behavioural baggage.

“Like raunch culture, the fairy princess aesthetic and its associated paraphernalia serve to entrench an extremely narrow idea of femininity, impressing on young girls that they are pretty, flighty little objects to be admired and marvelled at, rather than active young things seeking out adventure.

“This reinforces a passive understanding of what it is to be female, encouraging fantasies that are focused less on action, and far more on how you look. Of course, fairies and princesses can have adventures, but hyper-feminised modes of dressing put the focus squarely on appearance, teaching girls that self-worth is measured by how pretty you are, and not by what you do.”

The gender split that begins with the pink/blue dichotomy has other more sinister effects.  Kate Townshend, a British primary teacher, has written about ‘gender in the playground’ for the F-Word. Calling on her experience in the classroom, she links infant pink to the sexualisation of young girls – a topic which has had a great deal of media attention in recent years.

“They don’t call it grooming for nothing, and it starts with the indoctrination of ‘pink’ for girls from infant-hood onwards. Or so say the organisers of Pink Stinks, “a campaign and social enterprise that challenges the ‘culture of pink’ which invades every aspect of girls’ lives”. They argue that by the time they reach their teens, female children have a life-time of learning to become sexual objects behind them, so perhaps we should be far from surprised when 10-year-olds start clamouring for the latest porn star t-shirt, or worrying that their legs are too short…

“These kinds of attitudes hurt children of both sexes, not least because they leave them bereft of positive examples of male-female interaction in the media world they tend to worship and adore. But though they lack the words to articulate it, it seems obvious in some of the schools I go into that the boys know things are weighted in their favour, at least in the short term. By 11, they have already learnt that calling a girl fat effectively finishes the argument. It doesn’t matter whether she is actually fat or not. It has become a code word which makes it clear that since female self worth is built upon looks, it is easily destroyed by male indifference or antagonism.”

All of this is fairly self-evident. What is illuminating is that this convention, so entrenched as to be accepted as reflecting human nature, is a relatively recent social development:

“Assigning colour to gender is mostly a twentieth century trait. It should be noted that it is a practice limited most often to Western Europe and the Americas. It would also seem that the effect of colour-coded gender differences (pink for girls, blue for boys) existed oppositely initially.”

As Sandler explains in Code Pink, “this was a nod to symbolism that associated red with manliness; pink was considered its kid-friendly shade. Blue was the color of the Virgin Mary’s veil and connoted femininity.”

Which makes pseudo-scientific breakthroughs that support an evolutionary basis for every perceived gender difference, from a woman’s predeliction for shopping to a man’s fear of commitment, look ridculous – such as this one linking the pink/blue split to blue skies and blushing berries in our prehistory.

Still, pink for girls and blue for boys remains the dominant code used to consider sex and gender, and this stereotype is exploited and perpetuated by advertisers.  

So colour-coded gender and the ideology it represents – clearly such an effective marketing tool – is not likely going anywhere soon.


Venus women's razor


Schick Quattro Titanium men's razor


8 Responses to “The pastel divide”

  1. Dolores said

    Great post! Monica Dux is spot-on in pointing out the similarities between the “fairy-princess” culture and “raunch culture”.
    Another terrific book on this topic is “Pink Think” by Lynn Peril — a hilarious and terrifying history of “femorabilia” from the 1940s-1970s — advertising, advice columns, home-economics textbooks, etc, all promoting this narrow idea of “femininity”. Peril points out that in “Little Women” (written in 1868/9), there’s a reference to dressing little girls in pink and little boys in blue as a new “French fashion” — it seems it was only just beginning to spread.

  2. […] November, 2009 · Leave a Comment Nic Heath over at The Dawn Chorus on the ubiquitous custom of parents colour-coding their children according to gender: Dressing a newborn in either pink or […]

  3. Stuart said

    My mother had a habit of dressing her boys in pink and her girls in blue. She also deliberately often referred to her sons as beautiful and her daughters as handsome. I guess she was doing her bit to try and address gender-based socialisation.

  4. Mel Campbell said

    Hey Nic, I wrote about gendered consumer products for Crikey a little while ago.

  5. blu-k said

    This is one of the main reasons I am not finding out the sex of my baby – I have a number of relatives who would fill my house with pink items if they knew i was having a girl.

    (and it frustrates me that they now think they can’t buy anything that is pink or blue, as heaven forbid a baby that can barely focus beyond 10 cm or recognise colour be dressed in a gendered colour not for their sex)

  6. Annarose said

    I found this article interesting. As a child I LOVED ‘playing house’; that is, having a mini kitchen set, a baby doll and so on. My mum, an original bra-burner was happy for me to play however I wanted. My sister was total opposite; it was all action toys, meccano and mud houses for her. Now being a uni student, I am far more career focused and do not (at this stage) see myself having a family for MANY years. The idea of ever being a housewife makes me puke. Was my mum ‘enforcing gender stereotypes’ by letting me play housewife? I really don’t see how her not letting me would have been in any way positive, and it obviously hasn’t (in later life) caused me to believe that the kitchen is my homeland. I also remember getting my fairy princess costume on my fifth birthday. I was SO HAPPY. Nowadays, I have a happy healthy body image. If I hadn’t had my fairy costume, I’d be without a happy memory and nothing more.
    I’m not taking an opinion either way though, really I’m just trying to say it’s a complicated issue. I think body image and raunch culture is far far more affected by the body obsession of tweenie years that toddling. Just in my experience.
    Despite me being girlie as can be, I never felt insecure or inferior about my body. I owe this to my mum, who paraded around starkers all the time, caring not a bit about sagging bits or hairy bits or any bits at all. She loved her body simply for being her body and so I never thought to not love mine.
    Also, I think that final image example is wrong, considering the womens’ ‘schick’ products come in both blue and pink, as do the Gillete Venus brand.

  7. Annarose, the bra-burning thing was a myth, just so you know. None of us ever actually did it.

    And it really isn’t a complicated issue – the anxiety that tweens experience about body image stems directly from the socialisation they experienced as toddlers.

    Just about every product now is marketed in a gendered way – the Venus razor might come in blue but it’s a very fem blue – if it came in black then you’d have a point.

    You’re doing that thing where you universalise from your own personal experience. If you’re doing fine that’s great but in no way does it invalidate the argument against the gender dichotomy.

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