Elisabeth Camp teaches at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her research focuses on thoughts and utterances that don’t fit standard propositional models, including metaphor and sarcasm, slurs and insinuation. She also works on the varieties of imagination, the theory of concepts, non-human animal cognition, and maps.
I’ve been spending a disproportionate amount of time in the past year musing about pink. I have a daughter who just turned 2 and is quite vocal in her opinions. High among these is the general gloriousness of pink and the intrinsic goodness of things that happen to be colored pink: for instance, that strawberry ice cream is maximally delicious, in virtue of its color. Her passion for pink is, most obviously, a form of comeuppance being visited upon me by an irony-loving universe; but it also raises some puzzles at the intersection of aesthetics, semiotics, and the politics of gender. How can she be so inexorably drawn to pink, even before having any peers to mimic? Why am I so irked by pink? Why do I even care what she wears? What should I do about it?
The daily ritual of dressing is a prime locus for negotiation and reflection. Most of her clothes are hand-me-downs, and pink is heavily represented; but the various donation streams present different families of pink reflecting their different socioeconomic origins, ranging from Carter’s all-American hot pink to DailyTea’s dusty rose:
My daughter seems not to differentiate among these pinks, generally adopting a policy of “the more the merrier”; but I find myself repelled by some, and not merely reconciled to but attracted by others. While some pinks strike me as tacky, flat and one-dimensional, others look delicate, or resonant. Some go nicely with blue or grey leggings, while others demand white, or maybe stripes. Some make her look cute and spunky, others washed-out and dumpy.
These are aesthetic judgments with a vengeance: situational, perspective-dependent, richly evaluative. I’ve tried bracketing them, telling myself that none of it matters – a thought that was especially plausible when she was too small to care or even notice – and that it most definitely isn’t worth spending money on. Pink is fine, I mutter. She’ll just cover it in paint and applesauce anyway.
But those aesthetic evaluations are maddeningly persistent. It turns out that the ‘pure’ phenomenal property is anything but: pink – or rather, various pinks, otherwise close neighbors in hue and/or saturation – are imbued with thick, sticky, if largely intuitive, cultural significance. They are allied to, and in tension with, other colors in ways that make them suitable components of some overall styles and not others: hot pink fits with zebras and metallic silver stars; ballerina pink with tulle and hearts; dusty rose with gingham or Art Nouveau flowers. And those styles in turn fit with different personalities: sassy; sweet; elegant.
Pink matters, then, because it is embedded in aesthetic structures that are themselves bound up with ways of being in the world that are partially aesthetic, but also personal and political. Colors encode aesthetic norms that run straight through to style, personality, and culture. These norms are difficult to articulate; but like everybody else, my daughter and I are sensitive to them, and (already) dispute about them. As Arthur Danto says,
The structure of a style is like the structure of a personality… This concept of consistency has little to do with formal consistency. It is the consistency rather of the sort we invoke when we say that a rug does not fit with the other furnishings of the room, or a dish does not fit with the structure of a meal, or a man does not fit with his own crowd. It is the fit of taste which is involved, and this cannot be reduced to formula. It is an activity governed by reasons, no doubt, but reasons that will be persuasive only to someone who has judgment or taste already.
Moreover, my daughter cares about pink because, even in the absence of obviously gendered toys, without anyone urging her to be “a good girl,” with her only peers encountered fleetingly on the playground, she’s figured out that pink is for girls, which is something she wants to be. Her first forays in the world of aesthetics are also explorations in self-identity. And this is also why I care about pink: my aesthetic judgments about color, direct and immediate as they are, are now charged with my hopes and fears for her and her place in the world. I want her to be beautiful and kind and smart; I hope she grows up to be strong and self-determining; I fear she will be drowned in a sea of girlitude, as in JeongMee Yoon’s 2006 portrait of her daughter, See Woo and Her Pink Things:
Construction, Reality and Meaning
Of course, it wasn’t always so. Maybe pink was always freighted, but it wasn’t always for girls. According to Jo B. Paoletti, white clothing was common for children of both sexes well into the 19th century, because color dyes couldn’t sustain the rigors of repeated washing. When colors did become more common, the gender affiliation went in other direction, in virtue of aesthetic color judgments that might have seemed just as obvious but differed starkly from our own. Thus, a 1918 article in a trade publication intoned that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” The contemporary gender association emerged in the 40’s but retreated from the 70’s – when feminism helped popularize a more uni-sex style – until the mid-80’s, when marketers began promoting strongly gender-differentiated clothes, diapers, cribs and toys. Our contemporary palette of pinks is also of fairly recent vintage. The instability of dyes made pale pink the only viable option until chemical advances enabled Elsa Schiaparelli to launch Shocking Pink in 1937, which she featured in her avant garde designs, often in collaboration with Surrealists like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and Man Ray.
Evidence for constructedness can demonstrate lack of inevitability, and hence the possibility of change. But it doesn’t show that what is constructed isn’t real, for us, now. My aesthetic responses to pink, like my daughter’s, are direct and immediate, something I can’t easily alter or put aside. Moreover, my taste for some pinks over others, and for other combinations of colors, textures and patterns, is part and parcel of a more encompassing set of tastes extending to food, furniture, turns of phrase, music, and ‘high’ art. These visceral, unreflective judgments hang together in a complex habitus, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, which is itself the product of my own meandering navigation through the socioeconomic environment. As a result, every time I dress myself – and my daughter – I signal to the world, and to myself, who I am, where and how I fit in. These signals matter, affecting what people expect from and how they respond to me. Conforming to and flouting these expectations has real, concrete consequences about how others treat me; and I ignore them at my peril.
If pink – or pinks – are systematically embedded in complex, intersubjectively robust semiotic structures, do they mean those structures? The parallel with names is instructive. Piles of empirical evidence show that names embody and transmit complex socioeconomic signals, with significant real-world consequences for factors like employment and promotion. Beyond the relatively coarse-grained categories of gender, ethnicity, and class, names can evoke more specific schemas, as the psychologist Tania Lombrozo discovered when she deployed Mechanical Turk to help name her second child: “Katia” sounds like a supermodel; “Austen” like a rich white tomboy. But none of this pushes me as a philosopher away from direct reference orthodoxy for names. This is not because I reject the possibility that something as messy and amorphous as a schema or habitus could belong to semantics; I’ve argued that slurs are conventionally associated with perspectives or schemas. But in the case of slurs, unlike (most) names and colors, the connection is tight enough to engender an indefeasible commitment: using a slur commits the speaker to endorsing a certain way of thinking about the targeted group. If we call to account someone who uses a slur in ignorance of its associated perspective, they need to retract their statement on pain of remaining on record as a bigot. By contrast, someone who names or dresses their child in ignorance of their associated schemas may end up regretting her choice, but doesn’t normally stand liable for endorsing that schema. More generally, associations and schemas are pervasive, powerful aspects of our cognitive and social lives, to which philosophers would do well to pay more attention; but we shouldn’t just lump them in with concepts or ignore important differences among varieties of meaning.
Heteronormativity, Heteronymy, and the Revaluation of Values
Still, even if pinks don’t mean sassy or sweet or sexy – or surreal – in any sense recognizable to analytic philosophers, pink is clearly freighted with sociocultural significance. And much of it isn’t pretty.
On the one hand, my gut reaction against my daughter’s wearing hot pink and zebra stripes is clearly an expression of snobbery. But like it or not, one of my tasks as a parent is to transmit the ‘cultural capital’ I have accrued, so that my children can locate themselves in the world – so that the most doors can be open to them, by knowing what signals they’re sending. Further, part of my aversion to hot pink derives from my (justified, I believe) aversion to its associated schema: to girlhood as heavily featuring cupcakes and poodles, and manicures and shopping as intrinsically entertaining, self-actualizing activities. By contrast, I can embrace more of the connotations surrounding dusty rose: gardens, tea and crumpets, woodland fairies.
On the other hand, both hot pink and dusty rose are bound up with gender codes that are at least stifling and plausibly repressive. Many of the boys at my son’s preschool liked pink, at least up through age 4. Maybe it struck them as a “decided and strong color,” or maybe they just liked it, though part of their attraction often seemed to be precisely to its associated schema. (As a child, my husband seems to have deemed it his favorite largely out of sheer cussedness.) By the time they reached kindergarten, though, these proclivities had been largely extinguished or at least repressed, except in those few who have doubled down with nail polish and ruffles. (Just before our daughter’s birth, our son announced that he was “allergic” to pink. Now, he exhorts his friends “We don’t like princesses and pink, do we?” Which, on the one hand, Right. But on the other, No.)
The exclusion of boys from a wide range of perfectly viable, even important forms of dress and play because of their association with femininity is bad enough. But in a patriarchial society, the confinement of girls to a limited set of permissible ways of being is considerably worse. In particular, empirical evidence suggests that highly gendered clothing can serve as a trigger for stereotype threat, leading girls and women perform worse on tests of stereotypically male abilities, like math and engineering.
These seem like decent reasons for my daughter not to go around constantly swathed in pink. At the same time, she just does really like it. And it’s not as if she’s engaged in a form of false consciousness, glomming on to something she doesn’t genuinely enjoy because other people tell her she should. She’s too hard at work constructing who she is in the first instance. And a crucial form of self-construction is feeling one’s way in to a style, finding what’s fitting for your own particular personality. She likes pink because it helps her to actualize her self; if anything, it would be heteronymous for me to banish pink from her wardrobe.
So what are we, as right-thinking, over-educated, squarely upper-middle-class parents, to do? One option is to actively appropriate pink, much as targeted groups have done with slurs like ‘queer’, by “revaluing the values” of schema-associated properties. We do attempt this with the princess mania that besets pre-K girls, giving Xena the warrior princess figurines for birthdays instead of the flouncy Disney royalty they would clearly prefer (not that Xena is entirely unproblematic in her own right). But reappropriation can’t be achieved in isolation; in the absence of a coordinated counter-cultural movement it just perpetuates established stereotypes. Besides, “pink pride” is easily coopted, so that apparent re-valuation becomes a more insidious form of accommodation. (I’ve decided this is why I hate Frozen.) I’d prefer my daughter to play with regular construction tools and LEGO, not cutesy heart-embossed pink ones; and Victoria’s Secret’s PINK Nation seems like a thinly disguised attempt to sexualize tweenhood by marketing thongs alongside sweatpants and bedding.
Mostly, I think, we just grit our teeth, indulge a wide multiplicity of pinks, and wait for first grade and the advent of the school uniform. We can play some of P!nk’s “big-voiced, tough chick music.” We can extol the beauties of blue and yellow. I can be less of a snob, accepting hand-me-downs of every color with much-merited gratitude. We can watch our daughter become herself, embracing and rejecting the various expectations that surround her. I’m confident she will have navigated the Five Stages of Gender Acceptance by the end of high school (ok, college??), moving from the shockingly short-lived phase of blissful ignorance to her current rather full-throated embrace, and on to more nuanced forms of negotiation. Hopefully, she’ll be comfortable wearing the pinks that I’ve often eschewed as too girly, including them as one strand in a multi-hued wardrobe. Ideally, she’ll convince her brother to spring for some snazzy pink high tops all his own.