They just won’t let it go. Some evolutionary psychologists are determined to salvage the idea that “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” has a biological basis. Marco Del Giudice goes digging with Google’s ngram viewer to collect data on whether pink and blue actually have undergone a consistent shift in preferences by sex (something no one has claimed), and thinks he has found evidence to overturn an idea he imagines that EP critics hold. It’s an amazing miss.
The role of pink and blue as gender markers is a source of endless fascination for both academics and the broader public.
Dude. No. We don’t find this pink and blue nonsense fascinating at all. We find evolutionary psychologists constant struggle to find biological significance in cultural phenomena exasperating. What is it with your bizarre obsession?
Five years ago I documented how a narrative that I labeled the “pink–blue reversal” (PBR) had become entrenched in contemporary culture (Del Giudice, 2012).
First, every true American knows that PBR stands for Pabst Blue Ribbon.
But secondly, there is no entrenched “pink–blue reversal” narrative. What is confirmed is that some people have insisted that there is an absolute, biological difference in how men and women percieve the world based on no evidence at all, and they were routed by observations of cultural variations that reveal that these color preferences are not hard-coded by evolution at all, but are conditioned responses to social signals.
There are biases. Visit a toy store; they all have the notorious pink aisle, where toys intended for girls are an eye-burning wash of hot pink. There has been no reversal. The question is whether girls are
The entrenched narrative is that evolutionary psychologists are full of shit. This paper does nothing to show that’s wrong. Quite the contrary: it demonstrates they’re even more full of shit than we imagined.
The PBR maintains that, in the U.S., pink was associated with males and blue with females until the 1940s, when the convention underwent a rapid and complete reversal. At the time, the PBR was treated as established fact in the media and the scientific literature. However, its originator—American Studies researcher Jo Paoletti—never argued that the convention was reversed prior to the 1940s, but only that it was inconsistent (Paoletti, 1987, 1997, 2012).
Oh, look. The point is sailing over the author’s head. I think it’s achieved escape velocity.
Again, that’s the goddamned point. Evolutionary psychologists want to claim a perceptual bias honed by millennia of hunter-gatherer selection on the African plains; everyone else points out that color fads in fashion fluctuate on a time-scale of years or decades, so you don’t get to invoke genetics as a basis for them.
Evolutionary psychologists come back to claim that the inconsistency makes their opponents wrong.
So what does his irrelevant data look like? Here’s a plot of his discovery of pink/blue color references by sex in books, over the last 140 years. He multiplies the frequency by 107 because the numbers are really tiny, but there is an initially small but steadily rising preference for claiming pink is a girl’s color and blue is a boy’s color over that time.
Clearly, this is evidence of a selective sweep for a pink gene in colors over the course of five generations. (No, it’s not). He argues that the UK was much more consistent in claiming that “pink is for girls”, and it’s just a few instances among those weird American books that claim “blue for girls”.
But wait. That’s from books. What about newspapers and magazines?
In total, the database of quotes from newspapers and magazines comprised 34 instances of standard coding and 28 instances of reverse coding. The combined data are plotted in Fig. 2. While the number of occurrences in the figure is too small to draw confident conclusions, the distribution of standard versus reversed gender coding looks approximately even, at least until about 1920.
(I love the way he labels “blue for boys” as
standard coding and “blue for girls” as
reverse coding, despite the fact that his own data shows that they’re approximately equal in frequency. Let your biases hang out!)
So the color assignments are basically equal by sex until about 1920, when suddenly the assignment of pink to boys plummets dramatically! An even faster selective sweep!
Del Giudice finds this significant.
The discrepancy between the two searches raises an intriguing historical puzzle. While the PBR account remains unsupported, quotes from newspapers and magazines suggest a pattern of variable and/or conflicting conventions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see the Appendix section). However, the marked inconsistency observed in newspapers is virtually absent from the books published in the same period; instead, the pattern found in books overwhelmingly conforms to the standard convention of pink for girls and blue for boys.
I repeat: this “PBR” thing is a strawman made of bullshit. What has been pointed out repeatedly is exactly what he says here: “variable and/or conflicting conventions”. His work confirms what EP critics have been saying all along.
He also thinks the difference between books and magazines is a mystery. No, it’s not. He’s talking about a period when color printing was becoming increasingly common.
“When color began to be added to the products themselves,” Banta writes, “advances in color printing and reproduction followed. Starting in the 1920s, American consumers went from a commercial world of white towels and black Model Ts to a range of products with a fantastic palette of hues from which to choose.”
Right. So it wasn’t genes. It was a shift that occurred as the media began to impose color conventions on the public. It’s exactly what we’d expect if sociocultural influences were fixing arbitrary preferences on us.
Thanks to Matt Lodder for bringing this crap to my attention and getting my morning off to a pissed-off start.
Del Giudice, M (2017) Pink, Blue, and Gender: An Update. Arch Sex Behav (2017). doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1024-3