The Colour Pink: Unpacking Millennial Femininity on Screen

As Arabella (Michaela Coel) sashays down the streets of London in new drama I May Destroy You, her bubble-gum-pink locks pop. Arabella’s eye-catching tresses are the latest in a series of pink hairdos cropping up in contemporary film and television. Think Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) in the first series of Netflix’s Sex Education or Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in the DC Extended Universe franchise. These sturdy female characters channel a displaced femininity, bringing a burst of colour to our screens in drab lockdown life. But why use this most feminine of colours to attempt subversion?

On the one hand, pink is a colour we typically associate with femininity. We christen baby girls with a host of pink gifts, or decorate their bedrooms in the same colour. In film, characters dressed in pink are also at feminine peak. Take Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, whose pretty-in-pink image is one of the main reasons people disregard her in the serious environment of law school. Or the plastics in Mean Girls, who use pink Wednesdays as a bulwark against the non-normative femininity that threatens their pristine, girlish image. Pink is the ultimate fit-in colour for women – emblematic of the socially determined female personality. Fuchsia and the feminine have always been closely tied up, however false that may now seem.

But when seen in hair, the colour pink is suddenly radicalised. To track the trend in all its glory, we need to return to its origins. Pink hair may have made its first significant appearance in cinema on the head of Grease’s Frenchy (Didi Conn). In the cult teen film, Frenchy’s bright pink bob is the apex of beauty school gone wrong, suggesting her ineptitude for the profession. But by messing up, she frees herself from that conventional feminine pathway, instead returning to pursue new options back at high school. Pink, then, does not mould her into a typical feminine ideal. Instead, it allows her to escape that narrow confinement. And a little later, in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) dons a pink wig as an escape from the stresses of her fresh marriage and loneliness in Tokyo. She and the disillusioned actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) share an exquisitely indie night out in the city. Pink is the colour of loosened inhibitions and the ability to, just for a little while, be someone else.

The image is from Grease. Frenchy stares at Teen Angel, sporting a pink curly bob.
Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Clearly, pink on screen isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. But pink hair in contemporary films and shows is suddenly more prominent than ever, and embraces this subversive tack. Take Greta Gerwig’s eponymous oddball in Lady Bird (2017), whose punky dark pink hair differentiates her from her demure schoolfellows and their long, shiny locks. Othered from the strict Catholic environ of her school and the lacklustre setting of shabby Sacramento, Lady Bird is a speck of covetous West Coast culture in the dusty East, and we admire her for it.

Sex Education’s Maeve, too, stands out by virtue of her self-dyed hair, projecting a tough exterior in the face of shiny-haired bullies like Ruby (Mimi Keene). And DC Entertainment character Harley Quinn also re-appropriates a conventional language of femininity with her dual dip-dyed hair. Here, as in Sex Education, a sugary pastel palette is reinvented – no longer insipid, it signifies strength and a feminism that acknowledges its roots. When we consider pink hair’s origins on the 1970s/80s punk scene, we can see how it lends itself to portrayals of youthful backlash. According to writer and music journalist Jon Savage, punk was “an archetype of teen rebellion and alienation”. What better way to stick it to the man, even now, than coloured hair?

In I May Destroy You, Arabella’s pink ends are a firm signpost of twenty-something confidence, tallying with her hedonistic party lifestyle. She’s the woman that shy, screen-bound millennials like me wish they could be – knocking off a book on Twitter, letting loose on wild nights out with friends, effortlessly fashionable and cool. The ‘chewing gum’ of Coel’s first sitcom, here, is resplendent in heady bubble-gum pink self-assuredness. Hair is a way of showing that you are both successful and that little bit different.

But such confidence inevitably marks certain insecurities inherent to womanhood. Coel’s drama centres around Arabella’s sexual abuse after her drink is spiked on a night out, with the fragmented episodes tracking her attempts to piece together this traumatic night she doesn’t fully recall. At the start of the series, we lust after her easy, Twitter-fed self-assurance and world-savvy ways. But as the trust she has in the world around her starts to break down, the confidence of her bright hair is undermined in the very real risk of sexual abuse that women face. Pink recalls the oppression that comes with typifying the role of women.

The image is from TV Show Sex Education. A close up of the character of Maeve, who has dyed blonde hair with pink dip-dyed ends.
Image Courtesy of Netflix

In Sex Education, Maeve’s hair, likewise, is a mark of her vulnerability under that steely exterior. This rings particularly true given her experience of sexual harassment and a lonely abortion in a show that gives voice to uncomfortable sexual experiences. Her hair does not only differentiate her as bold, but signifies the inevitable vulnerability and history of oppression that comes along with being a woman. We might add that, though Charlotte’s pink wig in Lost in Translation liberates her, the similar costume of Alice (Natalie Portman) in Closer, a stripper’s garb, sets her up as a victim of skewed sexual politics.

Pink hair, then, carries the scars of subjugation even as it makes an attempt at liberty. But in the meantime, it’s seemingly made the move from screen to real life. Vogue and Grazia have documented a pinkish lockdown trend in past weeks; celebrities such as Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga are sporting new locks, with Taylor Swift debuting a two-tone look reminiscent of Harley Quinn. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that pink hair on screen has inspired this vogue, especially given the stellar reviews being constantly heaped on I May Destroy You after the first two episodes aired.

So, what does going pink mean in 2020? It’s certainly no facile hairdo. Pink is a means of identification with experiences common to women – not least a conventional feminine language propagated throughout the past, and rising documentation of sexual assault experiences in the wake of #MeToo. But with its post-punk, gently challenging vibe, it also posits women as stronger than that vulnerability. We can learn from our pink-haired screen queens – and from celebrities embracing the trend in real time. Pink hair is the kind of nuanced symbol we need on our televisions in this era of complex femininity.

Header Image Courtesy of HBO