Pink: How Capitalism & Sexism Shape Culture


Curtesy of Leia Harper

Zoe Toperosky (she/her), Editor

Pink for girls, blue for boys. Before one will even speak their first word, take their first step, or support their own head, they are labeled with a color: pink or blue.

A baby born as a female is overwhelmed with the amount and variety of pink items one can own. Anything and everything given to a baby girl must be pink, so as to not confuse the greater population of their gender. And while some embrace this patriarchal color trend, others feel it is their duty as a feminist to despise the color pink. 

Like so many things in our society, this gender-specific color spectrum boils down to two things: capitalism and sexism. 

Up until the early 20th century colors weren’t associated with gender, they were simply colors. Babies were typically dressed in a neutral white color, and young children were dressed in attire very similar to that of their parents. And well into the 1920s pink was a color worn by both men and women. 

Eventually, companies realized they could brand specific colors to clothing, beginning the trend of gendered colors. It is much speculated and widely unknown what sparked this change in branding. But when these capitalist schemes began, blue was usually seen for women and girls, due to its light and delicate aesthetic, and pink was most commonly associated with men and boys because of its strong and bold presence. 

Then, after World War ll, there was a switch, and we began to see what we now recognize as the gendered colors: pink for girls and blue for boys. Again, there is much speculation but it is not quite known what sparked this. However, there are a few influential women who may have influenced this change in gendered colors. 

First lady Mamie Eisenhower, often known as the “mother of pink,” was one person who had an impact on the feminization of the color pink. Known for wearing big, elegant, pink ball gowns, for famously repainting the white house bedroom pink, and for filling the white house with pink accents, Eisenhower was a trendsetter for her time. Soon following this, pink kitchens, pink bathrooms, pink cooking utensils, and accessories became a popular trend that many housewives embraced. 

The message that Eisenhower spread for women was that their job was their husbands, hence the association between the color pink and housewives came to be. 

While Eisenhower set the pink trend with the traditional housewives, others around that time  used the color pink to achieve their look of femininity, carving out the association between pink and women once again. People such as actress/movie star Jayne Mansfield were trailblazers. Mansfield wanted to separate herself from any masculine association and show the sexuality of women in the mid-1900s, she used the color pink to do so. She appeared on covers of magazines in pink outfits and said things like, “Men want a girl to be pink, helpless, and do a lot of deep breathing.” 

As more women’s rights movements started to pick up traction, women tried to avoid associating themselves with the color pink so as to not be associated with weakness or being helpless. But of course, their efforts of removing themselves from the color pink dissolved as the uproar in manufacturing continued to color code their gendered clothing. 

Eventually, pink became a uniform for women. As they started to mix with men in what was traditionally “male territory,” women presented themselves wearing pink. There was a viewpoint on the color pink that visually looked less intimidating and more delicate; perhaps due to the strong connection between the color and women. 

Women’s uniforms began appearing in pink colors, while our male counterparts were seen in traditional, professional, colors. This was another way companies could profit off of targeting the color pink at women. This was also a way for women to stand out and not be held to the same level and respect as men. 

Oftentimes in sports, women’s uniforms or equipment are pink, as opposed to the more subdued colors that men use. If you go into a place like Dick’s Sporting Goods, you will find that the overwhelming majority of the equipment in the softball section is pink, as softball is traditionally a sport played by women. But if you venture over the baseball section, it is nearly impossible to find pink anywhere. 

Modern-day feminism shows us a mix between femininity and the strength of the color. There are still dilemmas that come with the color, however. Even when used as a sign of strength and resistance, it can still be difficult to accept the color due to its deep roots in oppression. 

My former journalism adviser, Andrea Patton, faced the moral dilemma of whether or not she could love this color. And I recall this one instance where she got me thinking about the complexities of the color pink and all the different representations it brings. 

As we did at the beginning of every class, we went around to check in with all the staff. Because our class was small and intimate, we were able to take a few extra minutes to hear from everybody. On that day, our question was: what is your guilty pleasure color? We all went around amusing ourselves with the colors each of us secretly loved. People shared anecdotes, and we laughed, and once more got to know each other a little bit better. 

When it came around to Ms. Patton, she took a second, pondering the lessons she could teach us, even though it seemed like just a fun exercise. Because, well, she always wanted to teach us in any way she could, never failing to help us understand and question society more than we had when we walked through the door that day. 

She then stated that her guilty pleasure color was pink, followed by an explanation that only Ms. Patton could have given. She went on to explain that although she loved the color pink she felt it was her right as a modern-day feminist to despise it. She explained how she thought that because pink symbolized overt femininity — bringing us back to the time when women wore fancy, pink ball gowns and their sole purpose was to serve their husbands — that as a feminist liking the color pink felt morally wrong. 

Ms. Patton went on to explain the complicated relationship between feminism and pink. Explaining that pink was used to be a symbol of women, everything women loved, wore, and did should be pink, and that there was a patriarchal system surrounding the color pink. While it may not be quite as common as it once was, pink is still used as a way to label women. 

These comments got me thinking; is pink used to suppress women? Maybe it once was. But have women reclaimed the color to symbolize feminism? Perhaps this is the case, or maybe it is a mix of both.  

When I have pink items or wear pink things, I often find that I criticize myself and fear that I will appear weaker. I try to avoid the association between pink and myself because I don’t want to come across as a “girly-girl” or as helpless. Instead of embracing the color, I shame it. 

But perhaps it is just me who thinks this. Others will proudly wear pink and love it just for the color that it is, often the thought of capitalism, sexism, oppression, and femininity don’t even cross their mind. Maybe I am just reading too much into it, overthinking, as one might call it. 

So at the end of the day, is pink simply just a color? Or is it a color that symbolizes the existence, strength, oppression, and reform of women? 

To me, when we assign a color to match to a specific gender, we eliminate individual identity, we isolate those who do not fit into the binary genders, and we exclude the exorbitant number of other colors people are drawn to and love.