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The politics of pink: A brief history of pink

As a Pembrokian, I have an affinity for the colour pink – our college is, affectionately, the ‘House of Pink’. I remember commenting that the horde of Pembroke Freshers meandering down Park End Street on the first Bridge Thursday of Michaelmas, donning our pink freshers t-shirts, resembled a kind of ‘pink tide’. My comment certainly invoked the rich, dare I say colourful, history that pink has, socially and politically. From various feminist causes to centre-left polity, the colour pink calls forth almost a century of political turmoil and turbulence.

The colour has long had a volatile meaning. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, it was a colour of youth; largely genderless, perhaps only slightly masculine by its association with red’s connotations of violence, anger and agression. By turns pink has been associated with luxury, the working class, prostitution, socialists. Indeed, according to Bloomberg, pink only became associated with femininity after the end of World War II, when canny advertisers began directing pastel pink appliances and upholstery towards women as an antidote to the military-inspired fashions and textile rationing of wartime. This was part of a postwar effort to remove women from the workforce and reestablish their traditional homemaker roles, marking out the feminine territories of the domestic and domiciliary and symbolising it within a self-contained pink universe of womanhood. It indicated a specific stratum of feminine experience.

This connotation was extended to baby girls in the 1980s when ultrasound technology was first used. Since then, using colour to mark out identity has become a distinctly 20th and 21st century obsession – take, for example, our preoccupation with the visual symbolisms of gender reveal parties and their perpetuation of blue and pink as gender signifiers. This theme is sustained by its multitude of gendered cultural associations, from the lazy stereotyping of Barbie memorabilia and stuffed Care Bears to y2k chick-lit and Mean Girls. At the same time, though, the 21st century has embarked on projects of subversion and, ultimately, destruction of the constraints of such binaries with only more seriousness. The global lexicon has stretched beyond such reductive gender-binary terms. Certainly, pink has been reclaimed as the unlikely hero of various feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, freed of its gender-normative shackles and given the power to challenge social constructs and existing paradigms. 

Following Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the pink pussycat hat became a key piece of visual imagery employed by the Women’s March that opposed him – defiant and dissenting creations of knitted protest against Trump’s misogyny, namely his infamous ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ comment. The march, which ended up being the largest single-day demonstration in US history, was an expanse of pink. The colour symbolised a story of sisterhood and solidarity in the face of a multitude of threats to women’s rights. Pink had staked its claim in the most divisive US election in living memory. 

The story of pink continued with Nancy Pelosi’s pale pink ‘mask-to-pantsuit colour-coordination’, to borrow the words of Hilary Clinton on twitter. Still the colour maintained its grip on the twitterverse, with the hashtag #AmbitionSuitsYou accompanying the motif of the hot pink pantsuit as part of a 2020 campaign to mobilise American women to vote. A number of celebrities unapologetically donned the pantsuit – Kerry Washington, Zoe Saldhana, Mandy Moore and Amy Schumer among them. One twitter user coined it ‘pink power’. The Guardian named pink ‘the colour of activism’ in an article published in the same year. Pink’s road to reinvention was driven by its reclamation and reappropriation within feminist politics.

Outside the arena of gender politics, the colour pink certainly gives a subtle nod to the ‘new left’ governments of early 21st century Latin America. Left-of-centre administrations in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela formed what the media coined the ‘pink tide’. Pink was adopted as a softer, more muted version of the socialist and communist red, in the same way that the pink tide’s social democracy was slightly more centrist and capitalistic than its radically Marxist counterparts and predecessors. A distinct turn towards progressive social and economic policies, the pink tide saw Latin American politics radicalised and their governments populated with former activists and trade union leaders. It was a resolute move away from the neoliberal model that persisted at the start of the century.

Ultimately, while this turn to the left resulted in significant reforms that worked to lift millions of people out of abject poverty, the leadership of these regimes were unable, in the face of the assault from vested interests, to sustain their hold on power to carry out the more radical changes necessary to realise a more equitable social order. That is not to say that the pink tide didn’t leave a pink shadow. It fundamentally changed the location of the centre of Latin America’s political spectrum, forcing right-wing candidates and succeeding governments to adopt more socially-conscious administrations. In many ways, it challenged the prevailing free-market fundamentalist Washington consensus. Once again, the colour pink functioned as a vehicle for powerful social and political change.

Indeed, as Leatrice Eiseman, Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute asserted, ‘our use of colour is connected to the cultural mood.’ ‘Colours that celebrate our desire to break boundaries satisfy our fervent need for playful creativity and unconstrained visual expression’ she said. Colours don’t have intrinsic meanings – they simply soak up the meanings that we project on them. They exist both within cultural, social and political categories, and across them. In this sense, the ever-changing significance of the colour pink has worked to define and redefine its own politics.

Image Credit: Wales Arts Review/ CC BY 2.0

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