How the gender binary is fractal – ‘girly’ blue

// 7 January 2010

We’re familiar with gender as a binary: under this system blue is coded as for boys, pink is for girls, and so on.

But sometimes it does get more complicated. Using the gendering of colour as an example, lisa at Sociological Images sets out how this binary can be fractal: meaning that blue is for boys, but within blue, there are ‘more feminine’ shades – generally lighter or softer blues, and ‘more masculine’ shades. This fractal metaphor really strikes a chord for me. lisa explains:

That means that, for every male or female version of something (say sports versus dance), there is a further gendered split that can be made. If we take sports, we might divide it into the masculine football and the feminine swimming. If we take swimming, we could probably divide it down further. Take education (which is, arguably, feminized): we can split it into physical sciences (masculine) and social sciences (feminine). And we can split the physical sciences into biology (dominated these days by women) and physics (dominated by men). So the gender binary has a fractal character.

She shows how advertisers use this to subtly gender their messages, for example these sports-related ads directed at women. This one, for example:


blue 2.jpg

When I was shopping for boxing gloves recently, the only ones ‘for women’ were pink – or baby blue:


What’s going on here? With the boxing gloves, my interpretation was that manufacturers worry boxing is coded as for men in our culture. Perhaps they are noting some women are interested in boxing, but believe they will be ‘put off’ or need special catering to, or that the best way to sell them stuff is simply to copy the popular tactic of coding the stuff they’re selling feminine by making it pink. Perhaps use of pastel, soft blue performs a similar task for companies who consider men the default market for their products, I’d suggest the messaging they’re looking at is “yep, it’s blue, but still soft and unthreatening” (not for nothing ‘baby’ blue, after all).

Remember pink toolkits? Shiny Shiny posted about this screwdriver with a baby blue handle – covered in a floral pattern too, for extra points:

For a female beginner in the use of screwdrivers, the Flower Power screwdriver is recommended. Its floral ‘English Rose’ design will make it appear familiar and perhaps remind you of your tea towel, china cup or other reassuringly well-known household items, thus rendering the frightening experience of wielding a screwdriver less traumatic.

lisa says of these ads:

Usually the use of a “girly blue” serves to balance masculinity and femininity. It’s no accident that these ads are sports-related, or use copy such as “strong & beautiful” and “I totally have a soft side. You comfortable with that?”

Comments From You

Elmo // Posted 7 January 2010 at 10:46 pm

I never thought about the boxing glove thing before, but its totally true. I have pink ones (quite dark pink, though), and none of the men at Muay Thai have pink ones, mostly dark red or blue. The only colours I can recall women wearing was light blue-maybe its saying they dont want to look girly, but they dont want to look too manly either. Wow, I never thought people put that much thought into the colour of their boxing gloves! Actually, there is a pair of fusty spare ones that you wear if you forget your gloves-as it happens, they are yellow, the in-between gender colour!

Hannah // Posted 8 January 2010 at 10:35 am

I notice this a lot when buying running gear – whereas men’s running clothes and shoes can have red or blue on them, the women’s version will have to be the pastel/’baby’ version of that colour – or otherwise bright pink. It’s frustrating because not all of us want to look like a sugared almond when we exercise and it’s so obvious that the sportswear is being made to look ‘soft and unthreatnening’ so we ‘ladies’ don’t have to worry about looking too ‘masucline’ when we work out. Yuck.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 8 January 2010 at 11:45 am

Of course colours are never simply colours instead they reflect/reinforce the binary system which is either feminine or masculine. Woe betide any woman who believes she can use sports equipment/work tools etc. which are not specifically coloured as ‘feminine apparatus’ rather than ‘masculine.’

Since when was it necessary for screwdrivers to be colour coded in order that men know they are using ‘men’s tools’ and women are using ‘women’s tools.’ Tools/sports equipment are simply objects – but we wouldn’t know that since advertisers clearly believe ‘feminine/masculine’ binaries must be upheld and maintained across the whole spectrum of consumer goods.

Or it could be there is something frightening about the fact numbers of women are ‘invading’ masculine spheres/spaces so the binary ‘feminine/masculine’ must be maintained at all times.

Enforcement of rigid two binary gender roles must be maintained at all times – it is called patriarchal conditioning.

Another Hannah // Posted 8 January 2010 at 2:18 pm

There’s a related problem with women’s mountain bikes and the apparently useless diagonal crossbars – what kind of woman is going to be doing that kind of biking in a skirt? They seem like such a relic.

My walking boots are light blue because they were the only ones in the shop that fitted properly, and I find them really embarrassing.

It’s ok to not want to look like a man when you do exercise, and great to have stuff that’s ergonomically designed to be more comfortable for you as a woman, but sports products manufacturers really overcompensate. This kind of gender coding is somehow much more annoying than pink mobiles, pink laptops.

Joanne M // Posted 8 January 2010 at 3:29 pm

I remember a while ago reading some article that claimed young girls were less likely to want to do physical education at school or undertake excercise because they thought it would make them look boyish or too muscle-ly, instead prefering to diet to lose weight :(

karen vaughan // Posted 8 January 2010 at 6:09 pm

Pastel shades of any colour have always been regarded as ‘unmanly’ in the past. I can’t believe that in this day and age we are still arguing the toss about such things, not because we’re ‘picky’ but because the macho brigade still can’t get their heads around all colour ranges being for all people! By the way, my toolkit is a mixture of nice bright reds and chrome, including philips, flatblade and posidrive screwdrivers, I wouldn’t touch the pink sets with someone elses! Tools are ergonomically designed for men’s mitts though so they can make me look clumsy at times because I’ve only got dinky digits!

bloo // Posted 8 January 2010 at 6:56 pm

Part of me just wants to roll my eyes and say “oh for goddess’ sake!” But then I remember that pastel colours show the dirt and I think there might be a whole subtext going on whereby when our pastel sports items inevitably show permanent evidence of wear and tear especially dirt and stains after just a couple of uses, then we get to advertise ourselves as ‘dirty girls’ because we take part in physical exercise. Either that or we have to spend longer on domestic tasks to avoid stains etc. Or we give up on sport and stay clean and pure… Or am I ‘over-thinking’ as they say in Nurse Jackie?

Susan // Posted 9 January 2010 at 3:47 am

What’s upsetting is young children’s clothing stores – it is still footballs and superheroes for the boys and posies and princesses for the girls. Why a little boy who likes nature isn’t supposed to wear flowers or bunnies, why a little girl who loves sports isn’t supposed to wear soccer balls… when will such nonsense stop?

amx. // Posted 9 January 2010 at 1:59 pm

I’ve also found that womens sportswear in highstreet sports shops tends to be of poorer quality and less hardwearing than the mens versions. My partner and myself only ever but mens sportswear for walking, hiking, snowsports, running and rugby. Obviously there are some things like sports bras where we need to go to the womens section but for the most part the pink section of the sports store is a waste of time and money, usually more expensive and pink than the mens section and lower quality. I find the same true of most clothes/fashion shops too. Cold, exposed and uncomfortable is apparently the way we should dress for any occasion.

amx. // Posted 9 January 2010 at 2:15 pm

Sorry that was a bit off topic, after spending the last week looking for sportswear in the sales I just had to get it off my chest!

Sarah // Posted 9 January 2010 at 3:53 pm

I used to work at an expedition/outdoor sports shop and was similarly annoyed at the waterproofs. Men had choices of black, grey, blue, red, green and so on – girls had baby blue, pastel pink, lilac and occasionally red. When I asked, however, I found that some of the manufacturers DID have women’s waterproofs in other colours, but the shop chose not to stock them. I ordered my grey waterproof specially! I’d like to know where else in the world, and to what degree, this happens.

And huge agreement to those who mentioned girls’ mountain bikes, children’s clothing stores, poorer quality sportswear and tools! It’s everywhere!

Rachel H-G // Posted 9 January 2010 at 9:11 pm

There’s the whole thing of the pink/pastel version of things like computing equipment and tools being a bit more pricey, as well. It is absolutely ridiculous in this day and age, and even more ridiculous that anyone trying to debate the subject outside the safe-spaces of the feminist media is accused of being hysterical/having no sense of humour/having nothing better to do.

amx., I’ve found that dancewear suppliers have a surprisingly good range of sports/active clothes for women, which come in a better colour palette and more well-cut than high street versions.

Another Hannah (the same one as before though) // Posted 10 January 2010 at 6:40 pm

bloo, I think what you say about pastels looking used really fast is an important point, though I’m less convinced by the ‘dirty girls’ conclusion and suspect it’s more to do with getting women to spend spend spend on new kit…

gadgetgal // Posted 11 January 2010 at 8:39 am

I’m wondering if anyone has done a breakdown of the higher cost of the gender division. I’ve noticed for a long time that the colour coding of products means women seem to pay more for the same (or lesser quality) item. The examples above show how much worse quality the “girly” clothing and sportswear but it pervades every aspect of our lives. I haven’t bought women’s razors, shaving foam, deodorant etc. etc. for a few years now because each item is at the very least 5p more expensive than their male counterparts. I wouldn’t mind if the ingredients were different but they’re not – I’ve compared them when I’m buying and the only difference is one is in girly packaging and the other isn’t. When you take into consideration practicalities such as underwear (women’s is thinner, wears out more quickly, is made up of less material and yet is more expensive), socks (same), shoes (same again), and then add in sanitary products, which most of us have to use and cost us every month, it seems the price of just being female is getting all out of hand now! Someone mentioned the computing equipment – that’s a particular irritation for me because I’m into gadgets – and I’m shocked at how the “pretty” items come with lower specs and higher price tags.

But you know what gets to me the most? That we all still buy this crap!!!! If every woman tomorrow wrote to the companies involved, or stood at Asda and haggled the price down (believe me, they won’t argue with numbers upwards of 10 or so) then we wouldn’t be in this situation, but instead everyone just seems to accept it. Why not buy bloke? Everything we’ve mentioned here you can get cheaper and better quality if you buy the male version, so please please please, buy the male version! And pass it on – tell all your friends to do the same, lets see if we can make a dent in company profits, they might listen to us then.

Another Hannah // Posted 12 January 2010 at 9:51 am

gadgetgal, I don’t know, but suspect that the higher price of women’s sports goods and underwear would be passed off as a cost for the extra ‘design’ that goes into them. At least, this is the argument we heard from M & S for having higher prices for bigger sized bras. This brings up the perennial question of why men are taken as the norm, meaning that women have to pay higher prices for goods that are actually tailored to them.

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 January 2010 at 10:28 am

When I’ve bought sports gear (aimed at women) I’ve found it pretty hard wearing. I’ve still got the same gym shorts I bought nine years ago and they look new. Of course, I only work out in the gym, inside, so possibly I’m not putting stuff through its paces :)

That said, it’s quite striking how much fashion there is going into women’s sports clothing in particular, so it does make sense that manufacturers would make stuff less hard wearing if they’re expecting/hoping women will rotate through a wardrobe of sports stuff.

Kez // Posted 12 January 2010 at 11:31 am

Must admit I do find most of my gear fairly hard-wearing too (at least the better-quality stuff), apart from running shoes and bras, but you expect them to wear out after a certain number of miles. Most of my stuff is black or blue, though admittedly my current running shoes do have a slight pink detail to them, now I come to think of it (never crossed my mind before).

Admittedly I haven’t tried buying men’s sportswear to compare. Maybe I should. And don’t even get me started on sports bras. Why are they so expensive? Why are they so rubbish?

gadgetgal // Posted 12 January 2010 at 11:35 am

@ Another Hannah – I reckon that’s hit the nail on the head. I was one of the ones boycotting M & S because of the price difference, not just because of the money, but the principle that my body was somehow “not normal” therefore I had to pay for the pleasure of having it! And all women suffer this when it comes to men being considered the default setting for most things.

@Jess – I’m thinking maybe there’s a link there, too – I remember when I did dance in my youth (ooh, many, MANY years ago now) and the fashion trends in clothing that changed rapidly even during one season. After you got out of baby classes at age 9 or 10 it ceased to be a leotard, tights and shoes, and turned into having the right kind of pants (leggings, which became cycle shorts, which became track suit bottoms, which became unitards, etc. etc.) and shoes (ballet slippers became jazz shoes became foot thongs became sneakers), so we spent loads of extra cash on looking a certain way. We’re our own worst enemy at times!

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 January 2010 at 11:41 am

@Kez: “Most of my stuff is black or blue, though admittedly my current running shoes do have a slight pink detail to them, now I come to think of it”

My trainers are a horrendous combination of silver and pinky-purple, because I made the mistake of going to Sports Direct during a sale to get them, and it was so stressful I bought the first ones that fit…! My partner calls them my Space 1999 shoes :)

/apologies for threadrot

I’ve got men’s tracksuit bottoms, mostly cos they were the only plain baggy ones I could find with pockets.

Robin // Posted 12 January 2010 at 1:16 pm

This has always really frustrated me, and as I’m 5’1” with size four feet I can’t buy the men’s version of sportswear in protest. I recently went to buy a bike helmet, and when I asked for one that wasn’t pink, the shop assistant gave me an odd look, thought for a while and came back with one that was baby blue. I’m still wearing it, though, because it was the only alternative!

gadgetgal // Posted 12 January 2010 at 2:25 pm

@Robin – I have a similar problem (I’m 5’2″ with size 4 feet) so I’ve started to buy boy stuff. That’s even cheaper than the adult gear and I can get groovy looking socks with Star Wars and Incredible Hulk stuff on them :)

Elmo // Posted 12 January 2010 at 5:33 pm

I went shopping for new trainers on saturday-my idea of hell. JJB sports do two kinds of shoes for women-white ones with pink, or black ones with pink. I went for the black ones, but pink is reaaally not my colour. I did buy some quite nice dark purple stuff from TKMaxx though.

Anne Onne // Posted 13 January 2010 at 9:13 am

Definitely true. I think for a lot of things you see pastel colours being seen as ‘feminine’ whilst darker colours (red, dark red, blue, dark blue, black, grey) are seen as masculine.

@ Robin and Gadgetgal: I have feet small enough that I have been known to buy the KIDS’ versions as well, which sometimes have a better range in terms of choice than adult shoes, sadly. At the end, it doesn’t matter which section it came from once it’s on our feet!

To be fair, there can be more neutral sports footwear out there even in the women’s section (somewhere under all the piles of baby blue and pink shoes), but it would be nice if we didn’t need to wade through all the ‘girly’ stuff if we want a pair of not-gendered running shoes.

Rachel H-G // Posted 13 January 2010 at 3:05 pm

Oh yes Gadgetgal – the boys’ section is the place to go for littlefoots wanting sports shoes.

When I played, I bought a beautiful pair of Adidas Predator football boots in schoolboy size for a quarter of the adult size price, which only started in size 6.

I’m surprised that Adidas haven’t started marketing pink Predators to female players yet. The women’s version used to be the same black and red colourway as the mens’, with slightly more red. They were very cool boots but expensive and hard to get hold of.

teapot // Posted 13 January 2010 at 3:45 pm

this is very interesting. i think in a way it has a positive point, as at least it is getting women/girls into sterotypical “man” activities. one step at a time.x

John // Posted 19 May 2010 at 6:23 pm

I stumbled upon this article and thought it was interesting and then thought I might post my male perspective on it although I think I might be a little far from the mainstream male thinking.

As a man, I am so tired of seeing the colors for exercise clothes offered up in shades of black, grey, red and blue. Enough to the point where I exclusively look in the women’s departments at Nike, Adidas, etc for the colors that are apparently only acceptable for ‘women’. I don’t go out of my way to find girly styles, but I’d much rather have the variety of colors, patterns available whether it be for running shorts, tights, the occassional t-shirt (not always easy to find a women’s top that fits decently on a man, but there are plenty of them)

And while I can certainly see certain cuts being offered up to men vs women, as far as color goes, I’ll never quite understand it.

I look at all of the colors available and not a single one is off limits to me. I have a lot of pink because I think it’s a cheerful color, bright, something most guys would shy away from and it’s what I like, regardless of the comments I might get on it.

I think most men are comfortable with the basic colors of black, blue, grey, etc. Those that might wish for other colors will fight internally with themselves that it’s too girly or ‘gay’ (not sure how colors are gay but that seems to come up often)

And while I have no desire to dress as a woman, I do think you have so many wonderful choices in your everyday apparel to show your own individuality, whereas men have virtually nothing in comparison.

Given that, I find the colors that are more typically marketed to women to be just my thing, though you won’t find me in a dress anytime soon, if you find me out running, chances are the shoes are pink, my tights are women’s, and I have the biggest smile on my face.

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