Color stories

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

I.

Some years ago, when my son was about four years old, his pre-school organized its annual raffle, with objects that each one of us brought from their houses, objects we no longer had any use for. A minor incident occurred that I still vividly recall. His best friend, among other things, got two ribbons (to hang keys from, or something similar). One was blue, the other was pink. His mother encouraged her son to offer one, since my son had gotten nothing up to that point. The child generously offered him the pink ribbon, which my son eagerly took. Upon which, his friend pointed at him and called him a ‘girl’. It was not mean, rather a friendly jest, and my son did not react to it; he had yet to associate the color pink with girls, and most of his other friends at the time were girls anyway.

The incident made me thought (then, and in years to come) about the gender color ‘coding’ that takes place from a very young age, and how a parent, even when actively trying to avoid similar stereotypes, is still bringing up a child in a society that is flooded by them. As my son came more into contact with products and commercials addressed specifically to boys or girls (I can hardly recall toys in large stores that are gender-neutral), he came to intensely dislike the color pink and eventually chose blue as his favorite color (although green was his pick in the past). When I tried to explain to him that there was nothing inherently wrong with the color pink, that liking the color pink does not make you a girl, and that there is nothing wrong with being a girl anyway, I had to make a small concession: I do find most of the products addressed to girls of exceedingly poor taste (and gender propaganda more blatant), and when confronted with the choice of what to buy a little girl for her birthday, I always end up with books, playmobil or lego. I remember though an instance when I expressed distaste for a toy that my son was trying to convince me to buy, and him retorting that perhaps I did not like it because I was a girl.

My arguing that he didn’t like the products addressed to girls not because they had anything girl-specific about them, but because they were of bad taste in general ultimately backfired, as my son inferred that things of poor taste are mostly addressed to girls. But he also started noticing things that had escaped my attention, such as the fact that there is apparently a far greater number of commercials addressed to girls than they are to boys – which had me thinking of the role of women as consumers in society. I guess what I am trying to say is that colors represent larger realities and contribute to the construction of identities in crucial ways. The seemingly ‘innocent’ packaging of products (ranging from shampoos to clothes and toys) has effects that are not only long-lasting, but far more erosive than we realize. Since this gender stereotyping goes so far back in someone’s childhood, one tends to naturalize its effects, and accept it as inevitable. It is not.

II.

In 2011, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published a book entitled Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education. In an enlightening interview, the university professor and activist discussed the ways Palestinians were represented in Israeli textbooks (all published after the Oslo agreement) and the effects of these representations in the formation of young Israelis, who move from school to the army, and are prepared to make the transition from children and students to soldiers. Peled-Elhanan argues that the dominant representation of Palestinians is as either the ‘problem’ (terrorists, refugees), or ‘primitive’ (as farmers, working the land with antiquated methods) – or simply absent. ‘You never see a Palestinian doctor, or teacher, or child’, she says. This practice aims at dehumanizing the opponent, reducing them to a menacing collective of non-individuals. One of the various ways this is achieved is through the use of color. Peled-Elhanan analyzes maps in geography textbooks, for example, and the way that Palestinian land is shown as a blank spot in population maps, reenforcing the myth of the uninhabited land. Another way this is achieved is through the colors more generally associated with Palestinian villages as opposed to Jewish settlements. When showing the former, this is always done in a color palette of ‘natural’ colors (olive green, ‘dirt’ brown, yellow), while Jewish settlements are shown like ‘Swiss villages [with] saturated green and flowers’, even when they are in the middle of the desert. Thus, the natural colors of the land are associated with backwardness and primitivism, while the color palette used to represent Israel is associated with progress and with civilization brought to the land that was empty before the return of the chosen people. The symbolic meaning of color is placed in the service of a racist narrative, aiming to uphold the occupation of Palestinian land and actively prepare students for the fulfillment of their military duties. Color divisions as politicized tools.

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Portrait of Sir Francis Ford's Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy exhibited 1793 by Sir William Beechey 1753-1839

III.

There is a painting by William Beechey at Tate Britain, currently not on display, although it was part of the latest installation of the permanent exhibition when I saw it back in 2013. The painting, called “Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy” was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1793. It portrays two wealthy children, finely dressed and bathed in bright light, as the girl tends her arm to offer a coin to a beggar boy. There is a long tradition in Western painting of representing beggar children and poor people, in various states of occupation, or simply of carefree being (Murillo’s beggar boys eating fruit is a case in point).

There is, however, something striking in this particular portrait and the way the painter has constructed his composition. All bright and warm colors (red, pink, yellow, the luscious black of the almost comically inappropriate black hat of the boy, the exaggerated rosiness of the children’s cheeks) are concentrated on the right side of the painting. This is further stressed by the use of light, which singles the two wealthy children out as if they were angelic apparitions, sent to alleviate the misery of the beggar boy. Upon closer observation, it becomes clear that the beggar boy and his attire are barely distinguishable from the landscape. The dark brown rags that he is wearing integrate him with his surroundings, subtly suggesting that his poverty is as natural a phenomenon as the very existence of earth and trees all around him.

The choice of color serves a purpose. The representation of an act of mercy is not construed as social criticism, but, on the contrary, as token for the unchangeability of the current class status (the distancing of the participants in the scene also contributes to the effect). The entry on the museum’s site (written by Martin Myrone) sheds some additional light on the scene. Although very careful in making direct associations between what is known of their father’s history and the possible meaning of the painting, Myrone informs the reader that Sir Francis Ford (1758–1801) was a wealthy plantation owner in the West Indies (Barbados), who ‘upheld a strong pro-slavery stance in his activities as a Member of Parliament’. An explanation hinging on Ford’s opinions on slavery is not paramount here (Myrone hypothesizes that the painting may be linked to the pro-slavery defenders’ position that slaves were better off than the British working class). But the source of wealth depicted in the painting does lend it another layer of meaning: empire is once more the silent absentee (as in so many works of art), in a scene that could not appear more removed from it. Yet in the heart of rural England, a beggar boy and the emissaries of imperial wealth will forever keep their places, immortalized in color that distracts the viewer from the fact that the coin being transferred is the actual reason of their difference.

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