I grew up in a world where pink was very much a girl colour. It appeared almost as though a warning to boys, the way cautionary signage indicates a hazard of fire, electrical shock, or poison. If something was pink, that meant that it was for girls and boys should stay away. Nothing about it was overtly sexist – they weren’t saying that these things weren’t as good as boy things, just that they were definitely girl things. You know – separate but equal. And that never denotes an ism.
As I grew into adolescence and adulthood, I became more aware of two things: 1) I add a modest ability in terms of art (i.e., I could sketch in a way that I did not find personally embarrassing) and 2) my trusted relationship with girls led to them sharing awful stories about their experiences and started me on a feminist journey. I knew I had to examine my prejudices and uncover my subconscious biases.
What does the colour pink have to do with any of this?
The first domino to topple was the casual sexism of gendered colour. Until the 19th century, it was customary to dress children in white because children are messy scoundrels, and it was far easier to bleach white clothes back to cleanliness. Around the middle of the 19th century there arose an interest in pastels. These were not gendered colours – just a general interest in a whole spectrum of pastel colours for children. That gave way to the earliest notions of gendered colour. Society (men; it’s a patriarchy) regarded pink as “pastel red.” Red was a strong colour; the colour of men. The more passive blue was a feminine colour.
The 20th century is something of a rollercoaster. The 1940s saw the trend flip, and pink went from a casual recommendation for boys’ clothing to a trademarked girls’ colour. Second wave feminists dealt the trend a blow – why limit someone’s potential with a uniform? The 1980s and 1990s, my childhood, saw a resurgence though, with some speculating that the advances in technology (specifically the ability to “identify gender” during pregnancy) being the cause. That is, knowing one was expecting a girl caused parents to prepare with the designated festive colour, which we still see evident in “gender reveal” announcements.
The point of all of this is that “pink is a girls’ colour” is 1000% a social construct. And it’s a construct who harms far outweigh any casual enjoyments I would argue. The psychological impact of, “Men and women are different in the eyes of society and you’re a woman, here’s your pink,” cannot go overlooked.
Artistically, I became fascinated with the colour. When discussing colour in an artistic setting, I typically consider it in one of two respects: a simple prism or a wheel. The prism starts with red and continues to violet, with the red side being “hot” and the violet side being “cool”.
My interest in this sort of colour theory began when I was looking at how we classify colours, and observed that this simple prism omits black, white, grey, brown…and pink. Black, white, and grey made sense to me in a scientific perspective; black was an absence of light, white was un-refracted light, and grey was the gradient between the two absent any refraction. That didn’t work on a simple prism which would be refracted light.
Brown was slightly curious because it does not fit that definition of light and yet does not really appear on a simple prism. I still have trouble defining it perhaps beyond how technology handles it. Traditional methods were to combine red and green, while modern methods involve orange and black. This latter approach makes the most sense – a sort of orange pulled away from the prism by a gravitational force.
That left pink, which I realised had a clear definition and unique position. Pink is between red and violet, and obvious on a colour wheel. On the simple prism, we omit pink because it falls to the left of red and to the right of violet. The prism would have to start and end on pink or, as it often does, omit it.
Which brought me to an interesting observation: pink is a versatile colour. I’m not much into fashion, but I tend to dress in shades of blue. Part of that is my partiality to the colour in general, but part of it is also my skin tone. I look better in blues. My skin, brown hair, brown eyes – they all seem more vibrant and alive next to a blue shirt. Reds and oranges make my Irish skin look harsher.
In more general terms, I look better in cool palettes and not as good in warm ones.
Along comes pink though, this “pastel red” whose closest primary relative is the hottest of the hot colours, but which contains enough of the coolness of violet that it can function as a cool colour. It functions with temperature the way that grey does with light, serving as a gradient between the two extremes. Perhaps that is why pink also looks so stellar when paired with greys – the two complementing one another’s versatility (black and white go with everything as well, but true black and true white have no variation; pink and grey possess a subtlety along with their versatility).
Pink does not belong to any one gender, but rather is an impressive colour that all should enjoy and admire!
One thought on “PINK (Simple Admiration for a Complex Colour)”
I always appreciate reading your social commentary and psychological insights. The way you connect science and history in this piece makes it even more fascinating to me! As always, thank you for sharing!
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