‘Barbie’ reminds us that pink is a power color for everyone

Once upon a time, men in Western societies embraced pink. Now, the prolific color is making a comeback across genders and generations.
Barbie and Ken in all-pink outfits driving in a pink convertible in the new movie "Barbie"
"Ken-ergy" rule no. 1: All pink everything. Warner Bros. Pictures

At the Barbie premiere in early July, Ryan Gosling turned heads with his all-pink pastel Gucci suit. The outfit is one of the many blushing styles the actor has flaunted in the lead-up to the film on July 21. 

Of course, in Barbie World, no one would bat an eye at Gosling’s color choices. Barbies and Kens have already figured out that life in plastic is fantastic in an all-pink, judgment-free zone. But in the real world, the fashion statement is driving a bigger message: Pink is for everyone.

For a long time, pink was mainly seen as a color for just girls—an irony considering that gender studies experts say that until the 1980s, it was often worn by men. And while pink is largely still seen as a feminine color in Western societies, this is not a shared universal view. South Korean men have long embraced wearing shades of pink on the regular. In India, sometimes you’ll see pink turbans on a groom on their wedding day. Acceptance of the color depends on the culture and society where you’re living, says Jo Paoletti, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. 

How pink became ‘girly’

We can attribute the popularization of pink to one of King Louis XV’s most famous mistresses. Madame de Pompadour was the closest thing 18th-century French society had to a fashion influencer. Her fondness for pink in the arts shaped the culture and taste of people across Europe. “It became all the rage, and at the time it was gender neutral, so everybody was wearing pink,” says Naomi Greyser, an associate professor of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa. 

Men started wearing pink more often because they saw it as a powerful, attention-grabbing color that would help them stand out from the crowd. Women, meanwhile, often wore blue because it was associated with calmness and had religious significance in the Catholic Church. Paoletti, who wrote the book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, explains that girls wore blue in connection to the Virgin Mary who was thought to have worn a lot of blues.

Gender coding for pink and blue switched in the early 20th century. By the 1930s and 1940s, girls were more often wearing pink than boys. Greyser says there’s a lot of opinions by historians as to why this happened but the prevailing theory is that darker colors came to be associated with masculinity because of military uniforms. “Around the time of World War II, it was seen as a badge of honor to wear military-like tones,” Greyser adds.

[Related: How humans created color for thousands of years]

By the 1980s pink was full-on considered a girl’s color. Prenatal testing allowed parents to buy girl and boy clothes ahead of time, and Greyser says companies saw parents were willing to spend a bit more when they’re getting ready to expand their families. This opened up markets of pink and blue clothing and accessories to decorate the nursery, with the idea that each color is exclusive to a certain gender. 

Another marketing incentive in associating pink with girls was that it forced families to buy multiple products in different colors, Paoletti explains. Take a bike for example: Before the 1980s, the standard options were green, red, or blue. For frugal families or those with limited resources, bikes would be passed down from kid to kid. But placing the idea that a pink bike is for girls makes it harder for a sister to pass down a bike to her younger brother. Companies have also heavily marketed products as “for women” and have taken advantage of this exclusivity. You can even see this today with the “pink tax,” which is when companies charge extra for gendered goods like pink razors—even though they are exactly the same as men’s razors apart from color.

Mattel was just another company that followed the pink-girl marketing trend. When the Barbie doll first debuted in 1959, she wore her signature ponytail along with a black and white striped swimsuit. In fact, Barbie pink didn’t really exist until the ‘70s. But the toy ultimately became so popular, it helped lead the hyper-feminine pink charge in America, Greyser explains.

Pink’s prolific power

With the growing boom of pink and blue products, psychologists in the 1980s tried to study why people have strong feelings about pink. One idea was that Baker-Miller pink reduced aggression and violence—and though the results have been called into question, it motivated several prisons to paint their cells pink

A second study from 1994 suggested the color pink was associated with positive reactions like happiness or excitement. However, more recent color research has found that preferences surrounding pink have to do more with gender norms people impose on young girls and boys than the actual color. 

The reason why it’s difficult to study the psychology of colors is because a lot of it is created by culture. “If you ask a three- or four-year-old girl their favorite color, they’re more likely to choose pink because girls today are surrounded by it,” says Paoletti. 

Breaking the gender norm

Just as pink has shifted to being a girl’s color in the West, it’s possible to turn it back into a color loved by all. Culturally, society’s mindsets need to let go of who’s “allowed” to wear pink. Efforts are already underway. 

[Related: How to use science to talk to kids about gender]

Paoletti has noticed Gen Z are more likely than other generations to play around with traditional gender-coded products and gender behaviors. Additionally, since fashion is always changing, there is always a possibility of a pink resurgence. 

One example is the viral “Barbiecore” trend. Inspired by the new movie, it’s rooted in confidence and channeling good vibes by wearing vibrant hues. It doesn’t single out a particular brand or piece of clothing—just bright colors, especially pink—making it easy for anyone, of any gender, to participate. “It’s a brilliant [and inclusive] way that Mattel is hacking into the hype that already exists about pink and blowing it up even more,” Greyser explains.

But whether you love pink or hate it, Paoletti says the only way society will stop gender coding colors is if we stop using them to perceive female-male differences. “Marketing something for little boys but not girls implies boys are better than girls. There’s a power differential where the colors identify one as being of lower value than the other.” 

While one movie won’t be able to undo decades of sexism, Greyser says the acceptance and normalization of pink in Barbies and Kens is one more example of how we’re inching toward a future where the color represents a celebration of life. Even if we just call it “Ken-energy” for now.