The science of pink and blue

At The Conversation, neuroscientist Melissa Hines talks about what little biological basis there is behind the idea of heavily gender-coded toys for children. It’s true that male and female fetuses are exposed to different hormones before birth and that might affect what kinds of toys they’re interested in later. But it’s also true that there… READ THE REST

I know that as a little boy I was extremely drawn to pink and yellow blankets with fringes, as well as a little pink baby doll that you fed water to that would cry when you laid it down. I remember my family being a little weirded out by my behavior, but, to their credit, they went along with it. This was way before the current era. I don’t know what the whole pink v. blue thing is frankly. I find it a little creepy. Children are largely sexless from a gender perspective. Its the parents and culture that impose these dichotomies.


HIGHLY recommend Jo Paoletti’s excellent book “Pink and Blue” on this subject. You can read a condensed/preview version of it here.

Of course, if toys and other children’s things are heavily gendered, there’s a reduced chance of the second child in a family being “able” to inherit toys and clothes from the older sibling. The needs of children and the nature-nurture debate all pales into insignificance when compared to the need to get people to buy more stuff.

I don’t doubt that the pink/blue dichotomy of colors is an arbitrary social construct, but gender seems to be an actual part of who we are. I once read a very interesting book called “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl”. It gives the lie to the idea that you can raise a boy as a girl, or vice versa. I doubt there are any health professionals – or parents of actual human children – who would sign up to this idea.

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This was what I wanted to bring up. While obviously people of different sexes are, on average, different, pink vs. blue is 100% cultural. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t real, or that hormones don’t play a role, it’s just that hormones could play the exact same role they are playing, passes through a different cultural filter, and end up with a purple vs. green debate instead.

I have boy/girl twins who share most of their toys so it’s been interesting to watch their development from that perspective even if it’s largely anecdotal. My daughter will sometimes play with action figures in a nurturing way, such as an action figure and its larger counterpart she used to refer to as “Iron Man and her mommy.” Meanwhile my son will enact martial arts battles between toy ponies.


A really good book I read that talked about gender differences was “Whipping Girl.” It’s by a trans woman and mostly about trans issues, but reading it you really learn about unconscious gender, which is what goes wrong with raising biological boy as a girl (most of the time, a small percentage of those biological boys will be quite happy you raised them as girls).

Add to that a great NYT article on the exportation of American concepts of mental health. Whether you are a boy or a girl is not a mental health issue, but the article spoke about how the same underlying dysfunction would produce different results in different cultures - as if different cultures had different menus of ways to mentally ill. While that applies to mental illness, it can also apply to non-disordered mental states. In our culture boys often like trucks and guns while girls often don’t. This can be both inborn and cultural. The culture has a complex system that channels the way that masculinity feels into a love of trucks - and that channels the way femininity feels into a love of pink.

At any rate, I didn’t think this was a very open issue. The mechanisms behind it may be interesting, but the fact that pink vs. blue is cultural can be seen by looking at different cultures and different time periods where things are and were different.

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I remember seeing, a few years back, that some evo psych idiot was trying to show how gender preferences for pink and blue were evolved traits. Which is pretty amazing, as they’re not only culturally specific, but they’re temporally specific. Previous to the 20th century, pink was considered a boy’s color, and blue for girls.


[quote=“Shuck, post:9, topic:3916”]
Which is pretty amazing, as they’re not only culturally specific, but they’re temporally specific. Previous to the 20th century, pink was considered a boy’s color, and blue for girls.
[/quote]I largely agree with you but I’ve never seen any evidence to back up the oft-repeated claim that those cultural associations were reversed prior to the 20th century. For example, consider the two most famous paintings in the Huntington Library:

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I have a very clear memory of being four years old and telling my mother pink was my favorite color. She said, “Oh no, you can’t like pink. It’s a girls’ color.” Even though I really couldn’t articulate it I think I found the idea of colors being assigned to different genders unbelievably stupid. In fact, many years later, it still ranks among the stupidest things I’ve ever been told.


Ha, ha! When I was five, my friend and I played “Batman and Robin’s girlfriends.” We did all kinds of crime-fighting ourselves. This was in the 60’s.

I’m an olive green kind of guy. What does that imply about my sexuality?

You like it shaken or stirred.

From the linked article:

If given sex-typed toys, female monkeys spend more time with the girls’ toys, and male monkeys spend more time with the boys’ toys. It is not too surprising that female monkeys like dolls, given that they give birth and do most of the parental caring.

If you read the study that the article links to, you will see:

Although female vervets preferred “feminine” toys over “masculine” toys, male vervets did not appear to prefer “masculine” toys over “feminine” toys.

and that both the male and female vervets had more contact time with the pan than with the doll (the study’s “feminine” toys").

Also, I read this:

However, as we found no sex differences in response to toy categories based on an animate-like (doll, dog) or inanimate-like (car, ball, book, pan) distinction, it appears that other characteristics contributed to the female object preferences we observed.

as meaning that their data does not show that the female monkeys preferred the dolls any more than the male monkeys … is that incorrect?

This is where my brain went.


Strongly recommend the excellent Atlantic article:

The problem with Egalia and gender-neutral toy catalogs is that boys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: “Boys and girls are different.”

We have one boy (4½) and two twin girls (1½). While there are obviously ranges of temperament, it is abundantly clear from even the most casual observation early in a child’s life that girls and boys have very different ways of approaching and interacting with the world.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go blow some shit up.

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I highly recommend Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender on this subject. She goes into fascinating (and readable) detail about so many studies – and the problem with them.

For example, the study where male vervet monkeys liked “boy toys” and female vervet monkeys liked “girl toys”: One of the “girl toys” was a toy cooking pot. What the hell does a monkey know about cooking?

Fine argues that if female monkeys preferred to play with a toy cooking pot – when there’s no possible reason that female monkeys would like to play cooking, because monkeys don’t cook – then that suggests maybe something else is going on with the toy preferences. Maybe it has to do with what colors the toys happened to be. Maybe it has to do with some other aspect of vervet monkey behavior that we don’t know about. But the cooking-pot thing makes it really questionable to say that this study proves toy preferences are somehow inborn.

I really can’t recommend Delusions of Gender highly enough. It’s just awesome – amazing science writing.

[Edited because I’d misremembered vervet monkeys as rhesus monkeys.]


Oh yeah, gender is definitely important and I believe, genetic. However, it can assign in any way in any combo to the physical sexes – nature is certainly polymorphically perverse. I loved “little girl” baby dolls and pink and yellow blankets, but I’m definitely hetero, though I can notice a good looking man without discomfort, unlike may guys I know. And most gay guys I know knew they were gay from a very young age.

A guy like Eddie Izzard must get so many questions – feeling comfortable dressed in women’s clothes but definitely being hetero. But to me its just nature creating every potential combination, some of which will be “successful” and others not so much. Its really wonderful frankly, especially because as human beings we don’t have to struggle for survival, and most of these rare adaptations can flower and grow without nature destroying most of them.

As far as trying to mold a child of one sex as the other, that sounds like child abuse to me. Letting a child express and discover who they are in a safe and non-judgmental environment is the job of a parent IMO.

Actually it seems to be more of an early 20th century versus post-1940s thing. Previous to that, there doesn’t seem to have been any real consistency in terms of gendered color, though blue was associated with the Virgin Mary.

For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s
Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the
boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more
decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue,
which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other
sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or
blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according
to Paoletti.

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors
for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston,
Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New
York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.