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June 13, 2024 People & Politics

Pink: An Interview with Dominique Grisard

In this bonus episode, the gender studies professor discusses the popular color and its history, including ties to prison experiments.

Headshot of woman

The color pink has long been in vogue, and when Barbie hit theaters in 2023, its appeal only increased. But its popularity dates back much further than the Mattel doll. In this bonus episode, Dr. Dominique Grisard, a gender studies professor at the University of Basel, discusses the hue and its ties to femininity, class, and Whiteness, as well as how pink has been used to subdue men in detention centers.

This episode was inspired by our museum exhibition, BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile, on view through August 3, 2024.


Host: Alexis Pedrick
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Associate Producer: Sarah Kaplan
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
“Color Theme” composed by Jonathan Pfeffer. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions

Resource List

Pink Studies


Alexis Pedrick: Hey listeners, it’s me, your host, Alexis Pedrick. While diving into the colorful history of, well, color therapy, we stumbled upon a curious history surrounding the color pink. From class and gender norms entwined with the hue, all the way to twisted prison experiments.

Our associate producer Sarah Kaplan sat down with Dr. Dominique Grisard to talk more about the color’s history. Grisard is a professor of gender studies at the University of Basel and is currently working on a research project related to the history of femininity, sexuality, and Whiteness through and around the color pink.

Sarah Kaplan: Is there like a certain idea around the color pink that maybe culturally we kind of share? 

Dominique Grisard: Absolutely. I mean, in times of globalization, I think the most common connection to pink is, you know, femininity. And mostly, you know, a white kind of dainty femininity, but yeah, more generally femininity. And I think there can be variation, you know, cultural variation and also contextual variation.

I think it’s important to pay attention to that, but there’s definitely this shared understanding of pink as feminine. I think that’s what, that was my main question is like, why does this color, why does pink have a gender when other colors do not or not as strongly, you know, this connection, this connection is particularly strong when it comes to pink and you will not find this same connection with other colors.

Sarah Kaplan: Can you talk a bit more about that history, that kind of like gendered history? Has it always been the way we kind of think of pink? 

Dominique Grisard: No, I mean, and I think that was also something that got me excited is that historically you can show that it’s actually kind of a short history, especially for historians, you know, who think in longer terms and that pink might’ve not always been connected to gender, but maybe to class.

And that’s, you know, when I start my history is in the 18th century when pink and bright colors more generally were the domain of the aristocracy. And this is now speaking, you know, from a European perspective, sort of looking at Europe at the time at the social order of that time and seeing how then bright colors and fashion was the domain of sort of the nobility and all the people living at court.

And there was one particular person, Madame de Pompadour, she was the mistress of Louis XV. Uh, so this is, we’re talking about the 18th century here. She was very influential. She became actually quite powerful as a mistress and more as a politician sort of informally, because formally she wasn’t able to hold, you know, high offices, but she got her relatives into, you know, the important places and she exerted influence through her, you know, her lover, Louis, the king of the time, Louis XV. So she loved pink and she was, you know, dressed in pink. So afterwards, when there was a regime change and the French Revolution and the middle class ascended, so the bourgeoisie, and they’re like, you know, we do not want the excesses of the nobility of the aristocracy.

We want a society that is built on equality and freedom. So with these ideals of the French Revolution, pink came to stand for all the excessive ways and irrational ways of exerting power of the previous regime of the aristocracy and the monarchy. So it wasn’t really associated with gender or femininity that much, even though it was this woman, this mistress who epitomized pink, but it was more associated with sort of a different class, you know, this upper class.

So first it was more bright colors more generally, and fashion, it was important to men at the time, to bourgeois men, middle class men, but they were supposed to dress in dark colors and subdued colors, because that would, you know, sort of distinguish them from their aristocracy. But it was important for them to show that they were empowered, and that’s what they did through their wives and children.

So they dressed them in bright colors, in expensive fabrics, in, you know, fashionable clothing. And to show, you know, oh, my, you know, my wife and my children, they do not need to work. Look, their, you know, dresses are pristine, they’re bright colors, they can also afford to buy new clothing when the colors fade, because at the time, you know, colors did fade much more readily than they would today, even though they didn’t wash as much as we do today.

But it is the time, you know, of this 19th century then, when you would have also industrial dye stuffs made which would eventually become more affordable. 

Sarah Kaplan: Are there other cultural moments that are kind of intertwined with pink? 

Dominique Grisard: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think sort of this very early stuff, a lot of it is very indirect and, you know, one discerns that this must be how, you know, pink became what we know today.

So if we just look at the 20th century, there are a lot of cultural moments. A lot of them are connected to the U. S. history because it’s sort of, I think an important cultural moment is probably the 1950s and consumer culture becoming much more dominant. Hollywood becoming very visible and Europe sort of being, you know, grappling, you know, after World War II and being more occupied with other stuff. So the US was really sort of where we, everybody looked to what to consume, how to consume, and, you know, this, this sheer wealth of the middle classes, of course, there are white middle classes, mostly, and also, you know, a model family or social order that became very visible through film, through advertisements at the time, you know, sort of the 1950s ads of the woman in the kitchen, you know, and the kitchen was actually made out of pink formica and matching basically the apron of the housewife who was just so fulfilled. I mean, you know, ostensibly, right. By just being at home and baking a cake for the husband who would come home after a strenuous day at work and sort of the ideals. These norms that were produced at the time and produced in advertisements and in film are definitely very important.

Also the first lady at the time, you know, Mamie Eisenhower, and she was also sort of a proponent of the color pink. She loved it, I guess. And there was this saying that she had decorated the White House or at least the private chambers in a lot of pink tones. So she kind of stood or was the role model for this pink lifestyle of a femininity that was seen to be quite youngish, girly-ish, very much into consuming and also consuming industrial clothing.

So not just, not clothing that was made at home, made by the housewife herself, but it was actually bought at a department store. But a femininity that was happy to stay home and, and be sort of the protector of the home and of the emotions of all these quite stereotypical things. And who was happy to be also the ornament on the arm of her husband, sort of what one would call arm candy nowadays. So that is definitely also an important moment in, in sort of the strong connection between femininity and pink. 

Sarah Kaplan: Would you say that that kind of time period, that shaping of pink through film and public figures, is that more or less kind of the association we still have with pink?

Dominique Grisard: It’s changed a little bit. It’s become definitely more about beautification and less about being the perfect housewife and cooking and sewing and taking care of children. So it’s much more about appearance and taking care of oneself and yeah, sort of taking advantage of the pinkonomy and buying into the pinkonomy of sort of being attractive, beautiful, or at least pretty in pink, be it, you know, for their partner, one’s partner, or in the workplace.

So I think that is sort of a trend that we see. And, you know, an important cultural moment definitely is also Disney and Disney Princess. So not just Disney, more general, because Disney princesses early on weren’t necessarily pink, but sort of, you know, come the 1990s and later, you would have this pinkification of Disney princess and, you know, the Disney princess line being created.

So that’s definitely also an important cultural moment. And of course, Disney, in that sense, or Disney Princess, also shaped the way we understand pink. So it’s become even more girly-ish, or even younger of a color, and more tied to beautification. 

Sarah Kaplan: What do you think about all the things with Barbie recently and pink? What do you think, like, all the love with pink currently is about? 

Dominique Grisard: It’s a super good question. I’m actually teaching a seminar on Barbie, believe it or not, and looking at how Barbie as a cultural phenomenon changed over the years since its existence in the 1950s and, you know, early on feminism really grappled with Barbie in a very critical and negative way.

And Barbie was basically demonized for many things and also unrealistic body proportions and body norms and beauty norms. And that definitely changed with the Barbie film. And there’s been sort of mainstreaming of it, popular pop feminism that is very strongly tied to this type of Barbie, you know, the Barbie film and pink.

Maybe even earlier though, with so called pussy hat feminism, pink has become a very feminist color, but tied to very popular mainstream kind of feminism that still very much embraces consumer culture, is not very critical of consumerism and embraces femininity, also stereotypical femininity, but sometimes also, you know, especially also in the Barbie film, with a lot of irony and a lot of humor tied to it. So there’s a lot of knowledge there about the pitfalls of stereotypical femininity. So in some sense it’s very smart, but I think it’s definitely not critical or not very critical of capitalism, but feminist nonetheless. So very important also in depicting pink as a strong color, as one that one can use to push women’s and equality issues more generally. 

Sarah Kaplan: Can you briefly summarize the studies first conducted with Baker Miller Pink by Alexander Schauss? 

Dominique Grisard: Yeah. So he started this research, these studies in the 70s and published a few. You know, research papers on what he termed Baker Miller Pink. I think the first one was in ’79.

And then in the 80s, he published some more. The early ones pushed this notion that pink actually used in prisons. And later on, I think he conducted also experiments in, in locker rooms, so connected to sports. But the first studies were in prisons and I think concerning mostly male prisoners. And there he tried to prove that pink, or his particular tone of pink, this Baker Miller Pink, soothes the mind and decreases muscular strength.

And that’s how then it became urban legend, uh, it would weaken strong men or these men, you know, these hyper masculine men seem to be the ones who end in prison. So there’s been a numerous research after that. And even I think his own research from what I know has then disproven what he tried to prove, or he had different results in his research that didn’t really show long term effects of the color.

So he could show, at least in the early experiments, sort of short term or surprise effects of when the men were exposed to pink or this particular shade of pink that they would sort of show a soothed mind, whatever that is exactly, and decreased muscular strength, but it wasn’t anything that, you know, was more sustainable.

And I think what they show, these experiments, is more, how pervasive gender stereotypes are and how important it seems to emasculate men. And I think that’s where maybe pink in prison was quite powerful in the sense that you have this prison population, male prison population with a specific gender order in prison.

Of course it’s a space, a homosocial space with only men present and, and as we know and it’s also, you know, stereotypical knowledge that we know also through film and TV that within prison, there’s also a gender order, even though there is no women present, you would have, you know, sort of so called penetrators and the penetrated.

So not only a sort of a misogyny reigning prison, but also homophobia sort of creating the hierarchies within prison. And of course, in that kind of setting, then pink might develop power and an effect because pink is so strongly associated with femininity and by association also with homosexuality, given also the history of homosexuality also being closely related to femininity.

Also because of sexual practices, but also because of early understandings of homosexuality, where one thought homosexuality was some kind of a gender inversion. So it was kind of like being feminine and the woman in the equation. So due to several historical developments, there is this close association between homosexuality and femininity that then lays out in prison in a particular way.

And of course, in that setting, using pink might develop a certain color effect, but it’s probably less about the physiological, or the physiological is definitely tied to symbols and to gender norms and sexual norms, you know, tied to who’s active and who’s passive in the relationship, who’s being penetrated and who’s the penetrator, who’s deemed masculine and who’s deemed feminine and weak in that by association.

Sarah Kaplan: Do you think these studies, just like the designs were flawed? Like, do you think they could have, they should have maybe tested multiple colors or tested like multiple populations? Do you think like there could have been anything maybe that would have helped the studies prove something? 

Dominique Grisard: Well, I’m not a scientist, you know, I’m a humanities person, but there have been studies, research done in the 21st century showing in the sciences, showing that there have been these studies by Schauss were flawed and that they, there was a lot of bias, especially gender bias that informed the studies. And I would say that’s definitely the case. So there’s a study, I think in 2014 that was conducted that showed, you know, that there is, definitely gender bias, especially also because they often concentrated on the male prison population that didn’t take enough into account or didn’t name the social construction of certain colors.

And so you can see there’s a lot of bias at work informing the studies, but also there’s a lot of gender bias at work in the prison and in this, you know, homosocial world of the prison or also in, you know, in sports, the idea of painting a locker room pink at the locker room of the opponent’s team pink to make sure that they lose the game, yeah, is informed by notions of, of course, ideas around sports and the masculinity of sports and the femininity of this particular color, that if you maybe contextualize it and historicize it, there is some truth to it, but it is, you know, it’s tied to this very specific European history. Or Euro American history of color where black is deemed the more reputable, the rational color or a non color, you know, invisible, but definitely, you know, tied to rationality, to seriosity, to many things that are sort of tied to masculinity and professionalism and bright colors, and especially pink, you know, tied to the frivolous world of women and children.

Sarah Kaplan: The studies were from 40 plus years ago. I know I’ve come across like articles recently about like using pink in your household and like painting walls certain colors.

Why do you think we kind of still hold on to the idea that pink does something when we look at it? 

Dominique Grisard: Yeah, I think it’s a multiple factors that produce this myth or urban legend and keep it alive.

And I think there’s definitely, you know, money involved. So there’s a financial interest in selling, you know, this myth of pink is for girls and blue is for boys. And there is also an interest by, for example, institutions like hospitals or prisons to keep also costs low. So using pink in prison, you know, painting walls pink as they do in certain Swiss prisons now, you know, it’s quite cost effective.

So it’s not as expensive as other therapies would be, or more punitive ways of enacting a prison regime. So that is one aspect. I think there’s definitely something around money and financial gains or financial saving expenditures, but sort of looking at maybe children’s consumer culture or sort of how pink and other colors.

Produce gender stereotypes and a very specific, you know, gender binary of, as I said, you know, blue is for boys, pink is for girls. I think there’s a lot of interest also by people. So individuals, parents of keeping it the way it supposedly has always been, which of course isn’t true. If you look at it historically, you know, there’s been actually a lot of gender variation and a lot of changes happening within gender regimes, and it hasn’t always been so clear cut.

But there is this myth that it’s always been the way one believes the 1950s have been. So there’s a lot of interest by people in producing that. So they celebrate gender reveal parties and coat them in pink or in blue. They celebrate baby showers. They paint the nursery in a certain color that the supposedly then means this child will develop or is already a boy or a girl.

So I think there’s a real desire in the gender binary and making sure we know girls are still girls and they love pink and they love princess stuff. And it’s sort of, is a generational thing also a lot of parents look back at their childhood and then they think, Oh, I was allowed to play pink princess stuff.

So I want this to be possible for my girl. And I want my girl to be like me. And I mean, it’s very complicated the way also nostalgia and the construction of also nostalgia or sort of the way it has always been plays into certain colors being so overladen with gender stereotypes. So there is a lot of still policing around colors and policing the gender boundaries still at play in childhood.

But for sure, there’s also much more acceptance and variety also. So that makes one hopeful. And, you know, also looking at history and seeing how things change all the time.

Alexis Pedrick: Distillations is produced by the Science History Institute. Our executive producer is Mariel Carr. Our producer is Rigoberto Hernandez. And our associate producer is Sarah Kaplan. This episode was reported by myself and Mariel Carr, and mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer who also composed the theme music. This episode was inspired by our museum exhibit, Bold: Color from Test Tube to Textile. You can learn more at sciencehistory.org/bold. You can find all our podcasts as well as videos and articles at sciencehistory.org/stories. And you can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news about our podcast and everything else going on in our free museum and library.

For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick. Thanks for listening.

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