As a four year crescendo for her live action debut reaches fever pitch, Barbie has a hold on us.
The strength of her grip, perhaps, resides in the fact that – impossible proportions and bimbo boyfriend aside – Barbie’s personal brand can be distilled into one thing. Pink. More specifically, Barbie Pink™. Director Greta Gerwig’s commitment to this Pepto Bismol hue when constructing the set for her upcoming film caused a worldwide shortage of the paint used to achieve it. Promotion for the film has been irreverent, multimode and hard to miss. Perhaps most noteworthy in regard to pink are a series of near-blank Barbie Pink billboards. Not only do they leverage the inseparability of Barbie and pink, they flaunt it – setting up a summer in which any use of pink could be mistaken for a reference.
When a colour is attached to a moment its own histories are resurfaced. Pink has many. Prominent examples in recent years include a slew of searing red carpet ensembles designed by Pier Paolo Piccioli for Valentino, and the more muted ‘millennial’ hue once synonymous with brands like Acne Studios or Glossier and eventually thought ubiquitous enough to define a generation. There are only so many colours to choose from, and inevitably the same shades reappear in a variety of contexts. This can lead to cultural dissonance – red signals prosperity in China, but is more readily associated with sex or danger in Europe – or even legislation. Mattel and Tiffany own trademarks for their iconic shades (Pantone 219C and Pantone 1837) in numerous categories. Less litigiously, use of colour constructs an intricate matrix within which patterns of association emerge based on our conscious and unconscious perceptions. Every day, we make assumptions about the people and objects we encounter, based on their chosen colours.
In the sense that pink can, theoretically, be used for anything, outliers to our expectations are inevitable. But what do we expect? Much like Barbie, pink has a complicated relationship with notions of femininity. In the US, where the doll was born, pink didn’t become the default choice for girls until the 1940s. Prior to this, associations were looser or even – in the case of children’s apparel – inverted. Some attribute pink’s positional pivot to the taste of then first lady Mamie Eisenhower, or to prominent advocates in Hollywood like Jayne Mansfield. Based on the conjecture that more categories equates to more saleable product, it’s unsurprising that something with indeterminable, seemingly arbitrary lineage can become entrenched in public consciousness. Momentum has been maintained by the likes of Paris Hilton, Mean Girls (on Wednesdays), Barbie herself and many others. Today, despite decades of discourse on whether they should, cosmetics, domestic products and ‘girl toys’ still skew pink.
In the aftermath of more willing adherence to such tropes, pink objects conceived for or marketed towards women are often labelled reductive or patronising. Bic's ‘for her’ pens in pink and lilac went viral when their online reviews were flooded with droll satire. For a man, pink within the confines or archetypally-masculine items like collared shirts and neckties might signal a playful or progressive disposition. Too much pink, however, and he’ll likely be assumed queer. This speaks volumes of many things, including the delicate balancing act that pink’s suitors contend with. But how can a colour be so complex? Elsewhere, the Pride Flag designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978 uses hot pink to signify sex. Pink, in triangle form, also became an activist emblem during the HIV/AIDS epidemic – a flipped reclamation of a badge used by Nazi’s to identify gay male prisoners, and another paradoxical appearance for pink. Are colours, like actors, typecast? If so, pink seems a shoe-in for dramatic and divisive roles.
Pink is also of the body, inside and out – albeit in more muted and fleshy forms. Are shades of pink closer to such natural instances able to distance themselves from their saccharine counterparts? Sometimes, yes. Pink is not a monolith. The beige-pink favoured by Acne Studios, for example, isn’t perceived to conflict with the Swedish label's minimal, grungy and genderless aesthetic. No such luck for Barbie. Lurid and artificial pinks are more readily conflated with things that are themselves artificial or constructed – like consumerist visions of femininity.
In the world of fine art each colour has a past too. Pink has been used critically and ironically by feminists, as well as impartially by those drawn to its self-evident magnetism. Portia Munsonarranges pink objects accumulated throughout her life into all-consuming installations that "skirt the line between empowerment and entrapment." The items assembled in each iteration of the Pink Project began as the impulsive acquisitions of a young girl, and evolved into a satire of the products "girls are told they need" by the world around them. By contrast, artist's like Bridget Riley (Op Art) and James Turrell (Light and Space) appear to engage with pink from a purely aesthetic position.
Like Barbie, some artists have managed to make themselves synonymous with a given hue. Yves Klein is tied so closely to cobalt blue that when Daniel Roseberry spray-painted models in the shade for Schiaparelli Haute Couture the reference (much like Barbie’s monochromatic billboards) was immediately understood. Elsewhere, Anish Kapoor became notorious for buying exclusive rights to ultra-absorbent Vantablack. For those in search of a signature – individuals, artists, corporations – colour could be the most direct and intuitive mode of identification on offer and, by extension, the ideal vessel for a cultural phenomenon.
The difference between Barbie and Yves Klein (there may be more, admittedly) is the scope of their reputation. For those versed in European art history, International Klein Blue is recognised as such, but in another context could call to mind all manner of things. Barbie feels more ubiquitous. Culturally, geographically and generationally. Ask someone about her and, whether they see her as a relic of attitudes passed or the apex of 2023’s zeitgeist, the chances are that they know who she is – and could tell you her favourite colour.
The aforementioned conflicts surrounding pink may have something to do with this. True, all colours have their baggage, but for pink this feels more complex. Other colours are used with less instinctive and ideologically-lensed attention to why they have been chosen. Pink, meanwhile, seems bereft of a neutral position. For Barbie, our fragility when faced with pink has proved advantageous. In her willingness to be pink, and stay pink, she is its foremost custodian. Her chromatic commitment has become – with the help of Greta and Margot – a symbol of agency and defiance.
This shade can be delicate, sensual, hedonistic and irreverent. Pink does its best when freed from cultural meaning. It has the quality of being strong, without actually wanting to.Pier Paolo Piccioli
Ultimately, Barbie is not real. Nonetheless, her likeness is being reconfigured in Hollywood, and used by Mattel for a plethora of commercial endeavours. The flipside of pink’s pivotal role in these endeavours however – of colour as trend genesis – is that it is too pure to control, and belongs to no one. You don’t need to buy the official Barbie make-up, glassware, pool float, nail polish, lunchbox, Xbox, electric toothbrush, rug, soft-serve, suitcase, candle, Crocs, nail polish or even roller skates to join the party. As the tagline for her upcoming biopic tells us, Barbie is everything and, by extension, Barbie pink is for everyone.
Even you, Ken.
Read Pier Paolo Piccioli's reflections on why he always comes back to pink in an interview with Vogue.
In New York? Visit The Pink Bedroom by Portia Munson at the city's Museum of Sex – on view until October 01, 2023.
Watch a surreal tour of Barbie's life-size Dreamhouse on Architectural Digest.
Check out this thread by Moshe Isaacian on Twitter rounding up the multifarious stunts and brand collaborations surrounding the Barbie Movie.
Discover all things Barbie, including where to watch the film, on the Warner Bros. website.
Avant Essays are short(ish) opinions on art, written by anyone with an opinion on art. Have something to say? Get in touch.