My son loves the color pink, though for the record, he says “blue, green, and all the colors” are his favorite.
Obviously, though, pink holds a special place in his heart. For a while, he painted monotone masterpieces, miniature Jackson Pollocks in shades from fuchsia to bubble-gum. When it came time to pick a new trike, he chose pink over red without a breath of hesitation. And he has cast his eye on a sparkly, opalescent pink “big boy” bicycle for his birthday present. The thing is, my wife and I are pretty sure that the bike isn’t meant for big boys, but big girls.
It’s bizarre how gender and color works in regard to little kid toys. Toss some pink blocks and horse figures in a purple box, stamp it “friend” and viola! you have Legos for girls. Except for the color, they’re the same Legos I played with as a kid.
We’re fans of gender equality around here, so it’s no big deal to us that Felix likes pink, even if those pink objects aren’t being marketed towards boys. But sometimes its infuriating, like when he wore his favorite pink pants and a group of teenagers half a block behind us yelled out, “Is that a GIRL?” or when I overheard some kid at the farmer’s market ask “Why’s that BOY riding a GIRL’S trike?”
It saddens me that at some point my son will hear this on his own, and that his natural inclination toward pink will be judged as a reflection of his masculinity.
Still, having overheard these comments about his trike already, I thought it helpful to sharpen my arsenal, to have a rebuttal prepared in his defense if anyone challenges him about his love of the color pink. To that end, I enlisted the help of Jude Stewart, design expert and author of the forthcoming book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color.
Stewart gave me a thumbnail history of our society’s feminization of the color pink. The “pink is for girls” rule was actually pretty fluid in American culture until the middle of the 20th century. During the period between World Wars, when mothers switched from homemade clothes to store-bought duds, merchandisers found having racks of “girl’s clothes” and “boy’s clothes” boosted sales — if you couldn’t dress Bobby in Suzie’s clothes, then you’d have to go out and buy new ones. Prior to this, babies of either gender wore pale colors, often selected to match their eyes: blue for blue-eyed children, pink for brown. Though girls clothes tended toward pink, that association wasn’t ironclad until feminists rebelled against the color in the 70’s, and in backlash, traditionalists rallied around pink as a symbol for women and girls.
In an article on Slate, “Pink Is for Battleships,” Stewart explores how the color was used to indicate all sorts of so-called masculine things, from dirty movies in Japan, to England’s imperial holdings on official maps, and even war prowess — certain English battleships were painted shades of pink so that they would blend in at twilight. (Nutty Brits. Of course, in the middle of the night they stood out like crazy.) In Italy, there’s even a prestigious bike race every May, the Giro d’Italia, where a pink jersey is the mark of victory for the man who wins it.
“Think of how fascinated (and delightfully distracted) your interlocutor will be when you divert the conversation to all this interesting trivia! They’ll forget all about your son’s pink trike, promise,” Stewart told me.
These days, the stigma against men wearing pink is wearing away to some extent, with celebrities like Kanye West, 50 Cent, and David Hasselhoff, none known for being girly-guys, sporting pink shirts at posh events. And whether you’re shopping at The Gap, J. Crew, or Thomas Pink (of course), you’ll see men’s shirts, from business to polo, in all shades of pink, from hot to pastel, with salmon and lavender thrown in as well.
So I think my little guy is one forward thinking male, unencumbered by social stereotypes, and confident enough to select whatever toy, no matter its color or intended gender, to play with. And if someone isn’t comfortable with that, well, to me that sounds about as logical as camouflaging your warship pink!