Pink as Protest: The Rebellious Spirit of Barbiecore

21 September 2023

7 Mins Read

During the release of the Barbie movie, theaters were abuzz with moviegoers donning bright pink and glitter, fully embracing the trending aesthetics known as ‘Barbiecore.’ This resurgence and celebration of all things pink and glittery have sparked a deeper conversation about the cultural significance of this color and its intersection with feminism and visual design. Subverting norms has long been a powerful tool within feminist movements, and from feminist artists to media, there has been a constant exploration of how women are presented in society.


In this article, we will delve into the historical significance of the color pink, the way its meaning transforms alongside feminist discourse, and how it has evolved from a symbol of domestic charm and femininity to become a color of political protest in recent times and how might designers and brands approach pink. 


The Gendering of Pink

Believe it or not before pink was for girls and blue was for boys – it used to be the other way around. At the beginning of the 20th century, at the dawn of advertising and mass production of consumer goods, the 1918 trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department stated ‘generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls.’ The 1927 issue of Time supported this, noting that department stores in major cities like Boston and New York marketed pink toward boys.  The reasoning behind this was that pink was a softer shade of red which was a color that signaled virility and intensity, thus being more suitable for boys and too aggressive for girls. On the other hand, light blues were calming and dainty which was deemed more suitable for young girls.


It was not until around the 50s that pink became the color of femininity. The historical significance of pink as a symbol of femininity is often attributed to Mamie Eisenhower, the United States’ first lady (1953-61) who donned a feminine and domestic persona, playing a big part in her husband’s campaign. This persona and its appeal was a response to the end of World War II, in which women were finding their place after being able to work during the war and society’s expectation to see gender roles reinstated for women as housewives now that the war was over. There was also a yearning for a softer and more luxurious way of life after hard times. Thus, Mamie sporting a lush, bright pink ball gown dotted with rhinestones to the first inaugural ball after World War II was a bold statement especially after World War II, capturing a feminine ideal of the times. This is further perpetuated by the persona she embodies in her husband’s presidential campaign with statements such as “Ike runs the country. I turn the pork chops!” and “I have a career. His name is Ike,” (thinking of Ken’s-job-is-beach, anyone?) as an indirect response to the underlying discourse of women’s role after the war. 


Mamie Eienhower in her pink rhinestone studded gown.

From there, pink became a staple for femininity in pop culture, solidifying its symbolic meaning through pop culture.  Icons like Jayne Mansfield, who painted her pets’ fur pink and decorated her mansion with pink faux fur carpets, perpetuated this idea. As media and advertising grow in their influence in defining how we consume and see the world, pink thus became the symbol of femininity as we see it today. 


So What’s Rebellious about Pink? How does that tie to Barbiecore?

With pink established as the symbol of femininity in the pop media zeitgeist, we see the way pink transforms to reflect the evolving notion of femininity. Think of Legally Blonde, where the iconic Elle sported a sparkly pink suit as she tackled a legal case, the movie reflecting 90s feminist discussion at the time where a reclaiming of the girly girl was shown as capable and strong without being contradictory to her female identity. However, pink truly took on a rebellious undertone during the 2017 Women’s March. As the feminist narrative began to shift, the iconic pink pussy hat emerged as a symbol of resistance and solidarity. Feminist politicians like Hillary Clinton also embraced the color, donning pink power suits to highlight both their femininity and political power. Pink became a color of political protest, challenging stereotypes and reclaiming feminine attributes as sources of strength, empowerment, and community.

Barbie and Barbiecore embody this arch of pink within feminist discourse in a similar way. While the doll is often synonymous with critiques of gender roles and beauty standards, Barbie is revolutionary in its origins. Before Barbie, toys that were marketed towards girls often facilitated the playact of motherhood and being a housewife – toys related to domestic chores and baby dolls. Barbie was different as it was aspirational – Barbie has multiple careers, her own house, and her car. While Barbie is often the subject of many feminist critiques, it also mapped out what female aspirations could look like in a landscape where the only toys available to young girls only let them play becoming mothers.


Today, we see how the LGBTQ+ community and younger generation use pink as a foundation to build subversive discourse as they embrace bright hot pink as an act of radical acceptance and celebration of the feminine. The amplification of pink is used to reject the notion that femininity undermines one’s credibility in society, giving rise to Barbiecore as young people embrace all that is glittery and pink as a form of power, solidarity, and the rejection of gender binary. 


The Pink Tax - The Darker Side of Commercializing Female Empowerment

As empowering pink is there is also the much-discussed Pink Tax where the darker side of pink in advertising is used to create unnecessary gendered marketing, selling products to women at a higher price by slightly feminizing the design and packaging, usually dipping it in pink and calling it a day. There is also the issue of brands co-opting female empowerment messaging for marketing benefits without actually embodying it in their practice. This application of shallow empowerment discourse for the sake of more sales condescends feminist discourse to mere trends when it is something that concerns real lives and personal rights. 

So given this, how might we use pink in visual design and branding in a genuine way?

How do we ethically embody Barbiecore?

Harnessing Pink in Visual Design and Branding

Often at the heart of ethical contradiction in design and branding is the question of how one might relay an authentic and meaningful message rather than a shallow and cash-grabbing approach. Taking inspiration from The Barbie Movie and its conclusion where Stereotypical Barbie seeks meaning and becomes human, pink and Barbiecore messaging could be used to embody inclusive femininity, utilizing its over-the-top and kitsch aesthetic to create space for identity that is often oppressed and not celebrated by what is considered normal and stereotypical. Just as Stereotypical Barbie found their identity limiting and gravitated towards being a real-world person, pink and Barbiecore aesthetics should not be used to perpetuate the gender binary but rather symbolize fun, freedom of expression and a zest for the celebration of self and desire inclusive of whether or not you are female-identifying.