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May 17 2011

Pink is for girls, blue is for boys

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.

2 comments

  1. 1
    Glendon Mellow

    Actually, prior to the 20th century, blue was often a colour for girls.

    In Western art history, one of the most expensive painting pigments you could buy from medieval times through the Renaissance until the 18th century, was Ultramarine. Real ultramarine pigment was made from lapis lazuli. A patron would give the artist a budget for a certain amount of this pigment, usually when commissioning a Christian painted altar or something similar to donate (and thereby show off both piety and wealth.)

    The blue was to be used on the most important figure in the painting: typically, this was Christ. However, since the most popular scenes in his life tended to portray him as either a baby or crucified on the cross, he was essentially nude. The Virgin Mary was then typically the assumed to be the 2nd most important person in a painting, and so: she would have the expensive pigment. Over time, this came to be codified with ideas of purity, heaven etc.

    Pink was often considered equal to red and its connotations: blood, power, violence and Mars. That stuff. Around 1920, some of these associations were reversed, probably just due to fashion. By the time colour tv came along, it became entrenched.

    I’m recalling a lot of this from my art history classes. Found a link to some of this here at SpringerLink if anyone would like to check my recollections.

  2. 2
    CyberLizard

    Damn, Glendon beat me to it. Here’s a case where Google Answers actually has a decent “answer” complete with cites: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=238733

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