Saturday, May 16, 2009

Thinking pink: Color preference and gender

Peonies at a Paris flower market

Since we're exploring color this month, let's think about pink for a moment. Why pink? No particular photographic reason. My curiosity about pink has been piqued for personal reasons, namely, my 4-year-old daughter's obsession with all things pink. So I did a little online research...

As it turns out, the color pink made a big splash in the media back in August 2007 when British researchers claimed to have found the answer to why girls prefer pink and boys prefer blue. You can read a more detailed account elsewhere, so I'll give the broad strokes version. Basically, the researchers established gender preference among 206 subjects by flashing colored rectangles on a screen and asking the subject to quickly state which ones they preferred. And guess what? The guys liked the blue end of the color spectrum while the girls preferred colors toward the red end. Tell us something we don't already know.

The study concluded that color preference is an innate biological phenomenon because the 37 Chinese participants showed the same preferences as the Brits. Hmm. Dubious claim, you say? Just you wait, there's more. Apparently through some convenient rift in the time-space continuum, the researches were able to conclude that back in humankind's hunter/gatherer days, a good eye for pink and red helped the women find ripe fruit and assess the health of little baby Aghoo, whereas the men focused on blue to hone their primitive meteorological skills and to divine sources of water. Several thousand years later you end up with genetic predispositions to pink or blue.

Someone should have told all of this to the publishers of Ladies' Home Journal back in 1918 before they wrote:
"There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." (cited here)
I don't know why women decided to paint their girls' nurseries pink circa 1940 (sale at Benjamin Moore?), but I do know that colors seem to have gender identity crises ever couple of decades. If you look at turn-of-the-century photos of young children, your first reaction might be "Why are there no photos of boys?" But once you learn that the pretty little girl in the white dress was great great grandpa Herbert, you may realize that associating gender with color is relatively new (I realize that I haven't showed rectangles to 206 people, but still...). Babies used to all wear white, then about 20 years into the 20th century, the blue for girls and pink for boys thing came along, then it did a flip flop around 1940, and I'm guessing that the gender-bias-free yellow and green (I'm just guessing, here) entered the picture around the 60s, and then...well, we all know how confused the 80s were.

But getting back to the important thing—Eva's pink 4th birthday party—a Princeton study made me better understand how typical the pink obsession is with Eva's age group. Researchers have even given the age-related love of pink its own acronym—the PFD (Pink Frilly Dress) phenomenon. According to their report, children begin to "self-socialize" through gender at about age two. Even when parents actively resist gender stereotypes, the children seek them out in a desire for stability. In the words of the report:
"Before 5-7 years, children tend to believe that gender is something that can change if a person puts on clothing or makes other superficial changes that are characteristic of the opposite sex. One 3-year-old came home in tears because she thought her mother was a girl, like her, but now she knew that could not be true. Why not? Her mother had short hair. She could only be comforted when her mother agreed to change out of her pants-suit and put on a dress before going out of the house."

Between ages 5-7, girls realize that they can do "boy" things and still be girls, and/or they begin to care less about gender difference. For me, the conclusion explains a lot more than the berry-picking cave-women theory.

If you want to learn more about color and gender studies, read the post by Color Matters.
For a fascinating and thorough cross-cultural study, skim through the pages of data at Colour Assignment.

And now for my forced attempt to bring this back to photography with a few questions...

  • If you were to look through your photos with an eye for color, would you find that certain colors appear much more than others, and if so, are those colors your favorites?
  • Do you gender-type photographs? If you didn't know who took the photo of the peonies at the head of the post, for example, would you assume it was a woman?
  • Are you drawn to photography with certain color schemes, or does the subject and/or composition influence your preference the most?
  • What's your favorite color? Why? Have you reassessed your favorite color recently? (Incidentally, I reassessed mine about six years ago and realized that "blue" was merely a default answer. My real favorite color is orange. I like that orange can be energetic, fun, and intense, but that it can also slip into a calm and meditative mode—think Tibetan monk.)