I’ve always been taken aback by the barrage of pink in the ‘girls’ aisle of the toy store or the lame stereotypes in the media about what my gender’s likes and values were supposed to be. Unlike all my pink-loving female classmates, my favorite color as a small child was brown; the color of my eyes and hair, my childhood home, and some of my most-beloved characters on Sesame Street. (I come from a small town in Massachusetts and didn’t get out much as a child, so it was television that first introduced the concept of other races to me.)
My son’s favorite toy is a pink stroller. It was given to him for “Big Brother Training” when he was about 19 months-old. I honestly tried to buy him one with some sort of gender neutral color like say, green. However, I live in macho Italy and all the toy strollers that I saw for sale were pink and therefore intended for girls. Little boys apparently don’t need to play at being good daddies.
It didn’t always use to be this way. Up until the mid 19th century in the US and Europe there were no specific colors designated to differentiate the sexes. All children used to wear white dresses and diapers (which could easily be bleached) and boys didn’t get their first haircut until they were aged six or seven.
It wasn’t really until the early 20th century that the media and clothing manufacturers began to assign colors to the sexes. A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “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.”
Pink remained the preferred color for boys and blue for girls until after World War II, when the color recommendations were reversed and children and babies began to dress like their parents. There have also been a number of recent studies that suggest that male and female color preferences (blues for males and reds/pinks for females) are a biological trait and have nothing to do with culture.
For the record, my son’s pink stroller has not deterred him from also being obsessed with cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, and any other form of transportation you can imagine. What I found interesting was that my otherwise enlightened German husband and a few family members were rather opposed to me purchasing the pink stroller. To this day, my wonderfully feminist and progressive husband somehow still refuses to take our son for walks outside when the stroller is in tow.
And yet the color pink for the male sex has made an astonishing comeback in recent years. In 2006 my most macho Roman cousin came to Easter dinner in the US sporting a stylish Italian pink shirt. Predictably, my husband, brother, and father mercilessly teased him about it. But lo and behold, what were all three men wearing the following year? Pink shirts! In my husband’s case, he bought his at a special men’s store in Manhattan called, you guessed it, Pink.
Alas, a backlash was almost inevitable. Askmen.com recently had this to say about the matter: “Keep in mind, however, that adding color (to one’s wardrobe) does not, under any circumstances, allow a man to ever wear a pink shirt. The pink dress shirt has had its time and there shall not be a 16th minute of fame for this silly-looking color on a man.”
In any case, here in Italy, one of the most macho places around, men can still be seen daily wearing not only pink shirts and ties, but also lavender and purple, as well as tight jeans featuring sequins on the back pockets, all while kissing each other on the cheeks and greeting each other with “Ciao Bello!” (hello handsome!). As luck would have it, my son is also not the only male toddler pushing a pink stroller in the park and around our neighborhood. Maybe the real dolce vita (good life) for my son and other children is having open minded parents, the freedom to explore their world, and the right to enjoy playing with a full variety of toys regardless of which gender they were supposedly designed for.
Kristen Palana is a Professor of Digital Media at The American University of Rome. Visit her online at kpalana.com.