I had a piece on the ABC recently, 'A boy's world through rose coloured glasses'.
It tackles the controversial topic of pink, and the colour-coding of gender. Here's the text:
I saw the advertisement in a glossy home magazine: a young boy, grimacing in horror and shame. His once-white karate uniform is now pink - someone put red in with the wash.
An older boy in a pristine white uniform towers over him, threateningly. But the advertisement reassures us: with their product, we can throw together red socks and a white karate uniform in the machine ‘with gay abandon’. Get it? Gay, because the uniform’s pink? Tee hee.
While fashion-conscious celebrities like David Beckham can wear salmon shirts with a swagger, pink is still a no-go for many boys and men. To the understandable frustration of feminist columnists, little girls like my daughter are bombarded with pink clothes and toys from the get-go, just in case their gender’s in doubt. Recently, a waitress at a café even reversed my daughter and her brother’s marshmallows – she had to have the pink one.
Like women, men are still expected to abide by certain unwritten rules, including those of colour. For many, pink smacks of effeminacy, hence gayness. The logic’s twisted, but it’s common. Pink’s not for martial artists, and other ‘manly men’.
Or is it? Wrestler Gene Lebell, often called ‘the toughest man alive’, is known for his pink Judo uniform, or ‘gi’ in Japanese. Well over a generation ago, competing in conservative Japan, Lebell’s uniform was washed with something red. His gi was pinkified. But he still competed, and won his division. Since then, it’s become a hallmark: tough-man in pink cotton pyjamas. ‘It was something different,’ he told an interviewer, ‘and when people teased me about it, it was a good excuse to get them on the mat and stretch their bodies a bit’.
While a seemingly trivial anecdote, Lebell’s wardrobe malfunction makes some straightforward points about colour and gender.
First, we do live in a colour-coded world, and this is particularly true of gender. Lebell’s story is remembered, not only for its upset of Japanese tradition, but also because it juxtaposed tough, physical masculinity with ‘feminine’ pink. As Cordelia Fine puts it in her excellent book, Delusions of Gender, ‘children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation, and symbols.’ If more men are wearing pink nowadays, this hasn’t changed the ‘pink equals girly’ logic in the minds of many. The associations are unconscious, immediate and widespread.
Second, Lebell demonstrates how arbitrary these associations are: pink has no genie’s wand to turn men into women, wrestlers into winged fairies. It connotes, it does not control. As Cordelia Fine points out, pink was once thought a strong, masculine colour, then fashion changed. Neither is ‘natural’ in any way, and blind deference to custom is closer to magical thinking than independent thought.
Third, Lebell’s victory suggests what’s necessary to recognise and reject arbitrary custom: confidence, bloody-mindedness, courage. Gene Lebell could depart from the white orthodoxy because his character wasn’t in doubt - the ‘toughest man alive’ was no less so in white, fuchsia or cerulean.
The point is not that macho masculinity is always something to be lauded - at its most shallow and narrow, it can be a destructive thing. And perhaps it’s easier for a brawny black-belt to play with pink than for an awkward primary-schooler.
The point is this: colour is meaningful, but this meaning is derivative, flexible. By all means, discover colour’s aesthetic qualities. We might accept pink because it shows off dusky skin, highlights hazel eyes. We might reject it because it makes skin pasty, clashes with ginger hair. Either way, its significance is up for grabs. Earnestly condemning pink is as misguided as earnestly giving it. The point of equality is not knee-jerk colour correctness, for or against. It’s the cultivation of liberated people, who help to shape and reshape meaning, often by struggling for what they value.
Which brings us back to the boy in the pink gi. It might not be a fashion triumph. His teacher, if traditional, might not approve. But like cricketers on pink day, he needn’t be embarrassed. He’s there to cultivate strength, restraint, trust, not to bow to fashion orthodoxy. Better to fight on in fuchsia pyjamas than to surrender in white.(Photo: David Young)