The colour of truth is gray

It’s back again… Well, actually I suppose it never left. We still seem to be obsessed with the genderization of colours -as if it were an established biological given; as if it were as obvious as handedness, or as necessary as the assignation of gender at birth. ‘Pink is for girls and Blue is for boys’ -its self-evidence is once again being called into question; it seems an endless, pointless cycle.

There have been many attempts to link gendered colour preference to Weltanschauungen, genetic atavisms, and of course, persistent, market-savvy fashion manipulation (even I attempted a commentary in a previous essay: -but none seem adequate explanations for its persistence in our culture. Indeed, those studies that have sought to resolve the issue seem to have canvassed opinions from predominantly western cultures. And apart from the probable sampling bias, there are other factors that likely come into play, as suggested in a 2015 article in Frontiers in Psychology: ‘… red symbolizes good luck in China, Denmark, and Argentina, while it means bad luck in Germany, Nigeria, and Chad (Schmitt, 1995Neal et al., 2002). White is a color of happiness and purity in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, but symbolizes death in East Asia (Ricks, 1983Neal et al., 2002). Green represents envy in the USA and Belgium, while in Malaysia it represents danger or disease (Ricks, 1983Hupka et al., 1997).’ In other words, ‘this variation in the symbolism of color could lead to variation on color preference between cultures.’ We’d best choose our colours carefully.

But, I suppose what got me interested again in this perpetual, gendered debate was a rather lengthy and thoughtful article (extracted from her book Gender and Our Brains) in Aeon by Gina Rippon, an emerita professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, UK:

I have to say I was lured into reading the entire article when she quickly introduced me to the dreadful concept of ‘gender reveal’ parties. They apparently come in two varieties: in one, the pregnant woman for whom the party is held, does not know the sex of her fetus as do the organizers (the ultrasound sex, by agreement, has been sent only to them) -it is guarded in a sealed envelope as is the colour motif; in the second variety, the mother knows and reveals it with all the appropriately coloured hoopla at the party.

And why, apart from the puerile attempts to colourize the event, do I find it so disagreeable? Well, as Rippon suggests, ‘20 weeks before little humans even arrive into it, their world is already tucking them firmly into a pink or a blue box. And… in some cases, different values are attached to the pinkness or blueness of the news.’

I also read further, in hopes that the author had some convincing insights as to whether the colour assigned to each gender was biologically or culturally determined. Unfortunately, the evidence she cites seems able to support either -or neither- side. One study, however, did make some progress in resolving the problem: ‘American psychologists Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache tracked more closely just how early this preference emerges. Nearly 200 children, aged seven months to five years, were offered pairs of objects, one of which was always pink. The result was clear: up to the age of about two, neither boys nor girls showed any kind of pink preference. After that point, though, there was quite a dramatic change, with girls showing an above-chance enthusiasm for pink things, whereas boys were actively rejecting them. This became most marked from about three years old onwards.’ This suggests a cultural rather than biological explanation: ‘once children learn gender labels, their behaviour alters to fit in with the portfolio of clues about genders and their differences that they are gradually gathering.’

But why, then, the cultural preference? There was recently what may be an Urban Legend suggesting that at one time, the gendered colour preferences were actually reversed and ‘that any kind of gender-related colour-coding was established little more than 100 years ago, and seems to vary with fashion, or depending on whether you were reading The New York Times in 1893 [pink for a boy]… or the Los Angeles Times in the same year [pink for a girl].’

But, at least in our current milieu, the issue is not so much the colour as what it has come to suggest, consciously or not: ‘Pink has become a cultural signpost or signifier, a code for one particular brand: Being a Girl. The issue is that this code can also be a ‘gender segregation limiter’, channelling its target audience (girls) towards an extraordinarily limited and limiting package of expectations, and additionally excluding the non-target audience (boys).’

Of course, as Rippon points out, the fact that Pink may be a signifier of what is acceptable to females, allows it to bridge the gender gap: colour a toy truck pink, and it becomes acceptable for a girl to play with it. Unfortunately, the other side of the permission can be that ‘pinkification is all too often linked with a patronising undertow, where you can’t get females to engage with the thrills of engineering or science unless you can link them to looks or lipstick, ideally viewed through – literally – rose-tinted glasses.’ And viewed through prevailing stereotypes as well, I might add.

And yet, what determines what constitutes a ‘boy toy’? Is it what the child sees -or what their parents and grandparents saw in the world in which they grew up? In the world today, women drive trucks, operate diggers, become doctors and lawyers -not just secretaries, teachers, and nurses.

There is also a danger to pandering to ill-conceived remedies, of course. Take Rippon’s example of the STEM Barbie doll (STEM -for the older, more naïve readers like me- stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics -traditionally male-dominated fields, apparently): ‘efforts to level the playing field get swamped in the pink tide – Mattel has produced a STEM Barbie doll to stimulate girls’ interest in becoming scientists. And what is it that our Engineer Barbie can build? A pink washing machine, a pink rotating wardrobe, a pink jewellery carousel.’

Only in the penultimate and last paragraph of the article does Rippon come close to answering the question on the reader’s lips from the beginning of her 4500 word document: ‘It is clear that boys and girls play with different toys. But an additional question should be – why?… The answer to these questions could lie in our new understanding of how, from the moment of birth (if not before), our brains drive us to be social beings – to understand social scripts, social norms, social behaviour – to make sure we understand the groups we should belong to and how we can fit in… our brains are scouring our world for the rules of the social game – and if that world is full of powerful messages about gender, helpfully flagged by all sorts of gendered labelling and gendered colour-coding, our brains will pick up such messages and drive their owners to behave ‘appropriately.’’

Perhaps Rippon is correct, but I wonder if it’s more accurate to say that we were stuck with gendered colours; I think there is room for hope: what the child sees when she looks around is changing. So I am instead inclined to the view of André Gide, the French author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947: ‘The colour of truth is gray,’ he wrote.

May we all be free to mix our own colours…