pink or blue

The color of gender

In our latest blog article titled ‘Why does color matter?’, we introduced the issue of color and the immense symbolic and financial importance it holds for the fashion industry and culture in general. This was an introductory sort of post where we discussed three key points that will hopefully serve as a context for what follows. Firstly, we talked about the regulation of colors, all these globalized mechanisms that determine the dominant colors that get handpicked for us each year, and what they come to symbolize. Here, an interesting paradox emerged: even though at first glance the choice of a specific color seems to be an expression of our personal style, a highly individualizing gesture aiming at setting us apart from the crowds, the decision of these very colors we ‘freely’ pick ultimately belongs to a handful of color experts, marketing strategists, and fashion designers. Our unique style is an impersonal choice.

Secondly, we realized that a whole industry is built around color, and as such the financial stakes are quite high. This has immense consequences for the fashion industry itself, but also for the environment as it feeds on a fast-fashion production model that capitalizes on the abovementioned incessant need of consumers to feel unique. Thirdly and most importantly, we discussed how the colors themselves are branded and marketed along with the fact that they are a powerful tool for marketing other products season after season. It became obvious that the symbolic and financial value of colors rests on the grids of association to which they belong. This way a color comes to signify a certain attitude, an affect, a thought, a worldview, or a lifestyle. At the same time, colors are endowed with a magical power of bringing into existence that which they signify. If red is the color of passion, then wearing red makes one a passionate person.

This last point has significant implications when it comes to the gender coding of colors, how certain colors have been associated along the way with certain genders. This brings us to the matter at hand: why blue for boys and pink for girls? On the one hand, historicizing this dominant visual language helps us denaturalize a series of gender assumptions. In this regard, the psychology behind these two colors speaks volumes not of the colors themselves, but of our heteronormative mentality in the context of which certain colors, emotional states, and cognitive abilities are strictly associated with a specific gender. On the other hand, visualizing our thinking in pink and blue helps us bring into light the relationship between genders that are perceived as an antithetical yet complementary binary. As the story goes, pink matches with blue in our conditioned visual perception because they balance each other even though they are considered to be opposite colors.

This color combination makes also sense in terms of fashion; it is an easy and obvious match! Let’s not also forget that rarely a third color intervenes into this binary. However, on closer inspection, the visual complementarity of these two colors seems to hide behind its naturalized aesthetic commonsensicality the asymmetrical gender dynamics that it comes to visualize, and which is constructed upon. In other words, not only rests our visual and fashion perception of blue and pink on the already preestablished notions of gender, but also the latter capitalizes on its very visual coding in order to further naturalize and consolidate itself as obvious. From this it follows that the visual matching of pink with blue creates a smooth fashionable surface that neutralizes the internal antagonism between the two genders. This matching inevitably misconstrues an unequal gender relation, the mismatching between men and women, while, in the same stroke, it invisibilizes all those who do not neatly fall into this gender binary and those who live their lives beyond a matching heterosexual arrangement.

An extremely telling example is the case of babies where almost everything around them, from clothes to toys and bedroom walls, is color coded in terms of gender, even though it is hard to see this behind the cuteness culture and the beauty ideals that intuitively encourages us to refrain from any criticism. Let us also note here that the ‘pink for girls and blue for boys’ fashion rule has a wider reach beyond the baby clothing industry. Take for instance the pink ribbon that symbolizes breast cancer awareness evoking once again the feminine associations of the color pink. Even before a baby comes into the world, the trending gender revelation parties are full of pink and blue accessories and decorations as signs of the gender of the baby to be born. Here, the (mis?)gendering starts from the wound in a very public ritual that prescribes a set of traits to the unborn child as an always already gendered person. On top of this, the gender-based marketing, which targets men and women as separate groups and assumes the role of each based on stereotypical norms, and the use of gender coded colors for brand logos and logotypes are another two telling cases.

Here, each of these colors come to signify visually these traits, both cognitive and emotive. In this context, the following two infograms provide a sketch of the symbolic and psychological profile of pink and blue. For example, the blue color is associated with security and trust, confidence, and reliability, while the pink color is associated with love and compassion, warmth and romance, among others. A mental list with two columns is created beneath each color: an array of conceptual pairs emerges, a set of binaries that are highly gender coded with one pair synecdochically leading to the other. This way two conceptual chains consolidate a series of gender stereotypes with their evocative force and strong associative bonds.