Friday, 3 April 2015

Pink Herring

By Maria Smith

As Selfridges launch a gender-neutral fashion campaign, Sweden add a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary and Yvette Cooper pledges to look into gender X passports, the first televised election debate centred around Kay Burley's pink dress. Oh dear. The world said she looked like she was hosting a cocktail party, like she was going to a Wetherspoon’s hen night, and like she was ovulating.

Pink seems to rile people up in a very special way. The drama with Labour's pink election battle bus last month illustrated this perfectly. Harriet Harman created a pink bus to travel the country to talk to women about women’s issues and oh how we went wild. It was so much fun hating on the pink bus: so much permissible indignation. Too much perhaps, perhaps revealing that what we’re really cross about is something not quite so permissible.

My suspicion is that the colour of the bus is a Pink Herring and our excessive anger is actually about whether or not it’s even ok to talk about ‘women’s issues.’

Countless commentators made the comparison with a Barbie bus and many of us are keen to distance ourselves from typically girls’ toys.  But hidden behind 'I don’t even like pink toys' is there: 

'I don’t feel that I live in a world rife with sexism and I’m starting to worry that going on about it all the time will become a self-fulfilling prophecy'?

Many felt it was insulting and patronising. But hidden behind 'It’s condescending to assume that all women like pink' is there: 

'I want to believe that women differ from each other as much as people with brown eyes differ from each other and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the thought that as long as there is a concept of gender we are inherently grouped and will have a raft of commonalities'?

Several critics took issue with the underlying assumption that women like pink. But hidden behind: 'pink shouldn’t be exclusively for girls' is there: 

'I feel that issues of work-life balance, maternity pay, or domestic violence should be issues that we all worry about, and billing them as women’s issues besmirches them as special treatment for the weaker sex'?

It’s difficult to say these things without fear of coming off a bad feminist. It’s difficult as a Gen Y to talk about gender issues without seeming ignorant and ungrateful to our foremothers. It’s easy to rage against pink. 

Pink is never neutral. We can't wear pink without meaning it. Pink has become such a loaded colour that whether we choose to wear it or not we are inevitably making a statement about our attitudes and even values. 

This happens in two main ways: 1) Wearing pink; and 2) Not wearing pink. 

If we’re feminine and adorn pink – as Kay Burley did – then not only do we risk being told we look like we’re out on the pull, but if we surprise people by then saying something intelligent we gain easy and often immense power. That power is not only troublesome because it’s borne out of low expectations associated with femininity, but it’s also dangerously addictive. But damned either way, if we’re masculine and avoid pink, we’re still supporting the dominance of masculinity over femininity, which though arguably less problematic than male over female, is still perpetuating the patriarchy. 

Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, was released 25 years ago this week. The poster showed Gere in a black suit, his tie tugged over his shoulder by a smiling Roberts in a pink crop top, black mini skirt and patent thigh highs. The title of the film stands next to the pair like a third protagonist in the hottest of pinks.

A quarter of a century later and story of a girl deemed beautiful enough to be worthy of class ascension by a rich businessman feels dated to the point of nostalgia. 

Now we have Frozen, whose use of pink  The use of pink is interesting. The message in the film about true love in sisterhood provides a strong counterpoint to the Pretty Woman school of power games, but Anna still wears pink. Sure, it’s a dark purpley hue, but is there a conflict between the empowering message of sisterhood and the use of stereotypical pink to create a brand that appeals to the little girls the message is intended to reach. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe this means pink is being reclaimed now.

Anyway, Harriet Harman said the bus was magenta, while Gloria de Piero called it cerise. Kay Burley tweeted that her dress was coral. 

Also in the news this week, these two mysteriously turned up in Portland, Oregon. One day, we will live in a world where we can all adorn pink as joyfully and casually as these chicks.

Maria Smith is a founding director of Studio Weave

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