Remember the ridiculous levels of outrage sparked by this image of J Crew’s president painting her son’s toenails pink? The outrage is being tempered somewhat by the passage of time, but it’s still got some steam left. From The Guardian: Are pink toys turning girls into passive princesses?
So why the proliferation of pink in the toy aisles? Colour researcher Stephen Palmer thinks he might have the answer. He has been investigating how people respond to colour on an emotional level, associating different things – both negative and positive – with different colours.
His study suggests that adults lean towards clean, blue colours (reminiscent of clean water or sunny skies) and shun yellowy-brown or khaki shades that remind us of unpleasant things, such as faeces or vomit.
He also found that it’s relatively easy to twist people’s colour preferences, depending on how they feel about objects of a particular colour. Giving people differently coloured sweet or bitter-tasting drinks can skew their colour preferences. And you can shift someone towards or away from liking red by showing them either pictures of tasty berries and cherries, or yucky blood and guts.
The same link between personal preferences and colour also shows up outside the lab. Students at the University of California, Berkeley – whose branding is blue and gold – show stronger preferences for those shades than the colours of UCB’s arch rival Stanford University (team colours red and white), and vice versa.
If this holds true for children’s toys, then it could simply be that girls like pink because the things they like (regardless of their colour) are pink, and there’s no underlying biological reason for the rampant pinkification of their toys.
I can’t help but be skeptical of evolutionary explanations for cultural conventions like “pink is for girls and blue is for boys”. The color preference studies are interesting, but they certainly don’t rise to the level of explaining why a self-perpetuating meme like gender assignment for colors might be scientifically provable. The null hypothesis, that color/gender conflation is simply cultural rather than evolutionary, holds in the absence of any actual scientific data. I believe that stating as though fact that pink causes passivity and “princess-like” behaviour in girls is pretty much stating that the association is entirely cultural. The fact that the color is not universally associated with females or femininity is good corroborating evidence that rather than being a genetic preference, it is a self-perpetuating cultural meme, probably one whose origin was a very long time ago.