Women prefer pink – it’s apparently genetic…. (Additional)

// 21 August 2007

As flagged in a previous post theres much nonsense being spread about “genetic” liking of different colours by men and woman.

On the basis of showing 208 participants 1,000 coloured squares either on a computer screen or flashcards (Reuters and the Guardian disagree here) and asked them to pick their favourites, researchers at Newcastle University are now claiming that biology, rather than socialisation, causes the associations of pink and blue.

Hurlbert and colleagues [actually colleague, Yazhu Ling according to the Guardian] plotted the results along the color spectrum and found that while men prefer blue, women gravitate towards the pinker end of the blue spectrum. “Women have a very clear pattern. It’s low in the yellow and green regions and rises to a peak in the purplish to reddish region,” she said. Hurlbert believes women’s preference for pink may have evolved on top of a natural, universal preference for blue. “When you add it together you get the colors they intrinsically like, you get bluish red, which is sort of lilac or pink,” she said. From Reuters

Now even apart from this “adding the colours together” thing (which ultimately would lead to an evolutionary love of muddy brown – we all remember that experiment from waterbased paints in primary school right?) Hurlbert has some problems with her thesis. She goes on to claim the development of liking the colour “pink” (or lilac or red, she doesn’t seem too sure) is based on the fact that “”Red was the color of a good ripe fruit,” (Also from Reuters). Only it isn’t. Red is the colour of (some) ripe fruit if you grow up in moderate climates like the UK. But in the tropical zones where humans originated ripe fruit would be yellow (banana), orange (the eponymous orange), green (custard/Chinese apples), black/purple (many sorts of berries) and actually many other colours. Red is usually accepted to be a sign of danger in foods because more species of poisonous berries are red compared to other colours.

Such culturally naive comments show the weakness of such evolutionary arguments – it’s a reductionism which takes modern day sensibilities as universal rather than time, geography and culture specific. The logic goes that if modern women mostly chose these colours then there must be a biological, rather than social, explanation completely ignoring that modern women are immersed in gendered socialisation, including colour options, from birth. To further expand this naiviety to claim that the sample of Chinese women also tested shared the colour preference so it must be biological is nonsense and ignores the cultural imperialism of western enforced ideas of the meaning of colours (blue for a boy, pink for a girl, black for a death, white for a wedding) – ideas which are generally quite modern inventioned. Does the Hurlbert and Ling actually believe that Chinese women (resident in the UK we assume) are somehow immune to or divorced from the global spread of western ideas? And why assume that the colour of some ripe fruits in moderate zones of the world in the 21st century is the same as the colour of ripe fruits in tropical zones in prehistory? It’s a leap of logic which defies even the most scientifically illiterate.

There is also the strange disagreement (alluded to above) that Reuters said the study used colours flashed up on compter monitors whilst the Guardian refers to flashcards. Problem being that, as we all know, computer monitors distort colours and homogenize them. So unless the method can be shown as failsafe (or indeed I’ll take the lower level notion of “scientific”) then even the results have to be questioned – leaving aside the interpretation for the moment.

However the newspapers are making a further step in claiming that feminist complaints about icons like “Barbie” can now be dismissed.

“Rather than marking a girlie approach to home decoration or cake-icing, the trait’s roots are more likely to lie in the struggle to find food in hunter-gatherer days, the researchers suggested…The theory is encouraging for Barbie enthusiasts, who have seen the doll attacked for her “anti-feminist” pink clothes and decor.” From Guardian

Obviously what is hated about Barbie most is it’s association with the colour pink rather than that fact that her body is unrealistic and if she were real she’s be unable to walk upright, her minority ethnic versions are still modelled with caucasian features, she was based on a misogynistic cartoon strip, her disabled model couldn’t access the Barbie mansion (so much for the Disability Right Lobby) and she reinforces damaging stereotypes of femininity which lead to lower expectations amongst girls. (More on some controversies can be seen here).

So the basis of the story is that we have apparently dodgy method, strange culturally specific interpretation and bad reporting. Perhaps it’d be better to say that if prehistoric woman had an attraction to red (poisonous) foods it can only be a sign of her suicidalism at gender stereotypes already!

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