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The phoney war on pink

Stereotypes, not colours, are the problem

Good news, ladies! You know that thing when feminists — the bad, old-style ones — insisted you couldn’t wear pink? Well, that’s over. Pink is allowed again. 

The Women’s Prize for Fiction has just revealed a “brand-new, dazzlingly pink logo to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day”. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Pink for girls? Isn’t that a bit, well, sexist? Well, no. It turns out that’s a very old-fashioned, unsophisticated take on things. 

As the Women’s Prize organisers tweeted, now it’s all about reclaiming the colour, “in the vein of the brilliant Feminists Don’t Wear Pink And Other Lies by @scarlettcurtis”. Get with the programme, pink-phobes! You have nothing to lose but those drab dungarees you’ve been wearing since 1973!

As a middle-aged woman who occasionally wears pink, I am familiar with this type of exhortation. Indeed, I think I have spent a good part of the past thirty years listening to women earnestly claim that the superficial trappings of femininity — wearing pink, applying make-up, putting on high heels etc. — are in desperate need of rehabilitation following the excesses of feminism’s second wave. In my book Hags, I’ve described how this already formed part of the liberal, Wonderbra-boosted third-wave feminism I encountered as a young woman in the nineties. Honestly, I was busy “reclaiming” fuchsia and magenta before many of today’s pink-defenders were born. 

Pink is not problematic until pink becomes a ‘woman thing’

In 1999’s The New Feminism, Natasha Walter described “the new feminist” as “a confident creature, who both embraces and exceeds old notions of femininity. She may be feminine in her dress, or feminine in her desire for marriage and children, but she is feminist in her commitment to equality”. I understand this argument, and I used to buy into it myself. Discomfort with the concept of femininity is presented as a second-wave hang up, if not something which overlaps with the patriarchal policing of femininity in males. Perhaps there was a time when it made sense, but the feminist critique of femininity as a social construct was always a temporary measure, one which can now be set to one side. Anyone who has an issue with it, so we are told, is simply behind the times. 

Only things are not so simple. As anyone who has given the issue more than five seconds’ thought might have noticed, second wave critiques of femininity were never just about the things in themselves. Opposition to pink and blue colour-coding was not just based on the idea that boys got the better colour (after all, as many feminists have pointed out, the allocation used to be the other way round). As Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote in 1980’s The Sceptical Feminist, “all the fuss about femininity (and to a lesser degree masculinity) is obviously not about inherent differences between the sexes”.

It must, therefore, very differently, be about what it is thought that the sexes ought to be like, and about what measures need to be taken to achieve whatever that is. … The feminist concern about femininity is not about … inherent characteristics. It is rather the fact that men and women are under different social pressures, encouraged to do different kinds of work, behave differently, and develop different characteristics, which is important.

Wearing pink does not make a woman oppressed. However, a culture which codifies women as feminine and men as masculine — regardless of what colours, modes of dress etc. are identified as “feminine” at a particular time — seeks to elevate socially constructed differences over the material differences that matter. Pink is not problematic until pink becomes a “woman thing”. 

The feminist critique of femininity rests not just on questions of practicality (grooming is costly; high heels are painful) but also on the ways in which differences between men and women are exaggerated and made to appear “natural”. When a thing that has been used to exaggerate difference is supposedly “reclaimed” for the same group as before, what we are witnessing is a missed opportunity to make it available for everyone. 

Pink/blue coding has enabled othering and marginalisation

The consequences of this are not only that sex-role stereotypes remain in place. Pseudo-feminist attempts to “rehabilitate” femininity have also had the effect of undermining the most basic principles about whom feminism should be for — that is, female people. In 2007’s Whipping Girl, the trans activist Julia Serano makes the ludicrous claim that “today, while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudiced to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered fair game”. Serano goes on to complain that “even many feminists buy into traditionally sexist notions about femininity — that it is artificial, contrived, and frivolous; that it is a ruse that only serves the purpose of attracting and appeasing the desires of men”.

This is an entirely male-centric view of how sexism operates. Femininity is not arbitrarily devalued; it is devalued because it is a mechanism by which female people’s low status is reinforced, positioning them as frivolous and manipulative themselves. Since femininity is constructed to appear natural to those lowly creatures, the females, it should not be surprising that it is more openly and aggressively policed in males. This does not mean that femininity is more “openly discriminated against” than femaleness; it just means that it looks that way if you’re male and entirely lacking in empathy for anyone who happens to be female. 

The supposed reclaiming of pink — and with it, the positioning of those who fetishise femininity as “the most oppressed” — puts me in mind of the lyrics to Pulp’s “Common People”. It’s the feminist equivalent of being told, in relation to socio-economic class, that it’s not the dominant class’s theft of your time and resources that is the problem — it’s the stigma associated with renting a flat above a shop, smoking fags and playing pool. Actually, such things are even more stigmatising for those who haven’t always “lived like common people”, as it makes it incumbent on those born into disadvantage to put the needs of the poverty tourists first.

Contrary to the claims of the Women’s Prize, pink is not “an attitude”. In isolation, it is just a colour. It becomes more than that when it is used to enforce a femininity-based definition of womanhood, one which ignores sex-based differences in order to focus on sex-role stereotypes. Liking pink does not make an individual woman trivial, but pinkification — the “feminine” branding of anything associated with women — trivialises what it means to be a woman. It keeps us at one remove from recognising all the depth and diversity of female inner lives. 

Recognising this depth and diversity should be central to how women’s writing is understood and celebrated. We do not have separate prizes because women’s work is more feminine; we have them because the work of female people has been othered and marginalised. Gender — pink/blue, feminine/masculine coding — is one of the key mechanisms that has enabled this othering and marginalisation. 

Those of us who value women’s words should resist it. Wear what you like whilst doing so — dress like Barbara Cartland, for all I care. Just don’t pretend “pink for girls” shows how far we’ve come. On the contrary, it shows how far we still have to go.

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