Is there any need to decode the colour swatch of the live action Barbie movie? Adrian Pennington analyses the underlying messaging of colour choice in movies, and how a Colourist’s perspective can throw new light on a story.

If you’re already tickled pink to see Barbie on the big screen you will be familiar with the dayglo gloss with which the film appears plastered.


Margot Robbie as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie,” a Warner Bros. Picture release

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

So much so that the entire supply of the fluorescent pink paint available at the time was diverted to create Barbieland at Warner Bros Leavesden, which in turn caused a shortage of stock at supplier Rosco.

“The world ran out of pink,” the film’s Production Designer, Sarah Greenwood, told the Architectural Digest.

In the same interview, the film’s Director Greta Gerwig said the colour was important in “maintaining the ‘kid-ness’” of the film’s aesthetic.

“I wanted the pinks to be very bright, and everything to be almost too much,” Gerwig said, adding that she didn’t want to “forget what made me love Barbie when I was a little girl.”

Barbie is both live action feature and marquee sales generator for brand owner Mattel. A new white paper exploring the psychological impact of colour in narrative storytelling and brand advertising has just been published by New York finishing house Nice Shoes.

Its colourists argue that it is not only creativity that relies on colour: all forms of communication do. The link between colour and human psychology is so established that any communications strategy must utilise its power.

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Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at marketing agency System1 Group helped put the paper together. He said: “If you want to create an environment in which people are happy to exist and spend time, it needs to be an attractive and beautiful one.

“All the available evidence tells us that warmer colours are more successful at doing this than cooler ones. They make us more comfortable, they elicit positive emotional reactions, and we tend to want to continue watching something warmer for longer.”

Clearly the primary-coloured Barbie is intent on bringing us feelgood vibes – even if Ken is having an existential crisis.

There’s something more to the colour in Barbie than just its neon-candy appeal. Colour in visual communications is a code, overt or subtle, and pink itself has an interesting history.

“Millennial pink was one of those important colours that captured the zeitgeist,” Jenny Clark, Head of Color at WGSN, said last year. “It pushed the boundaries to become a colour which was gender neutral and it felt empowering, youthful, playful, and, most importantly, wearable.”


(Center) Issa Rae in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Nice Shoes noted that during the 2016 US presidential election, millennial pink represented resistance with hundreds of thousands of people marching and protesting while wearing pink hats, in contrast to the red MAGA caps of the incumbent president. The shade swiftly became omnipresent across industries and products (interiors, fashion, tech) and soon reached a point of cultural oversaturation.

Its demise was marked this year when the London restaurant, Sketch, redecorated its iconic pink Instagram-destination of a dining room (launched in 2014, the same year as Wes Anderson’s rose-hued The Grand Budapest Hotel hit the cinemas), in shades of earthy yellow.

Pink is the shade most closely associated with femininity and girlhood today. Director Sofia Coppola, most known for her layered depictions of womanhood, used shades of pink in The Virgin Suicides and in Marie Antoinette to interrogate the hyper-feminine nature of her protagonists, bathing them in rosy hues.

Pink’s association with all things feminine, however, is a fairly recent one. As Nice Shoes outlines, the diktat of pink for girls and blue for boys - familiar to anyone who has witnessed ‘gender reveal’ videos - was quite the reverse only a hundred years ago. In 1927, pink was thought to be the appropriate colour for boys due to its association with strength (and the complementary associations to its parent colour, red) while blue was thought to be daintier, prettier, more suited to little girls.


(L-r) Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The historian Jo B. Paoletti thought that the invention of prenatal testing solidified this trend from the 1980s onwards. When parents learnt the sex of their baby, they could ‘emphasise’ it with the colours of the products they purchased before the baby’s birth.

Mattel bought into this with its early ranges of Barbie merchandise though it has swerved from straightforward gender and colour stereotypes in recent times (and in doing so been accused of ‘rainbow capitalism’).

The 2008 animated feature, Barbie & The Diamond Castle is often said to be the gayest Barbie movie yet. Liana, the Barbie, and her BFF Alexa, “are dragged off a rainbow, away from their cis-het partners”.

According to Nice Shoes, the meaning of colour needs to be placed in context and that demonstrates that there’s nothing essentially ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ about either blue or pink: “In another hundred years the trend may be reversed again or done away with altogether.”


(L-r) Margot Robbie as Barbie, Alexandra Shipp as Barbie, Michael Cera as Allan, Ariana Greenblatt as Sasha and America Ferrera as Gloria in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie,” a warner Bros. Pictures release

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Take for instance the arrival of Janelle Monáe’s Make Me Feel video. The 2018 video used neon shades of pink, blue and purple at once (the colours of the bisexual flag), which was dubbed ‘bisexual lighting’ by the media.

The openly queer Monáe spends the video flirting with her girlfriend, played by Tessa Thompson, and playfully running back and forth between her and a man.

“While the use of those colours isn’t itself new, the newfound queer - specifically bisexual - meaning gave audiences a new way of reading moving images,” Nice Shoes suggested.

Films including Moonlight, Atomic Blonde, and the ‘San Junipero’ episode of Black Mirror bathed their protagonists in the ethereal mix of blue, pink, and purple light, “conveying metatextual elements of those characters’ biographies through colour alone,” Nice Shoes’ Colourists suggested


Kate McKinnon as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbue,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Employing the mix of blue, purple, and pink works as a signal to the audience that the characters on screen are bi, without having to spell it out narratively at every point.”

On the surface, Gerwig’s film appears to play to the high camp of Ken living in a Barbie world. In devising Barbie’s fantasy house the director referenced Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of pies to Gene Kelly’s tiny painter’s garret in An American in Paris.

“Why walk down stairs when you can slide into your pool? Why trudge upstairs when you take an elevator that matches your dress?”

For Barbie’s bedroom, the team paired a clamshell headboard upholstered in velvet with a sequined coverlet. Her closet, meanwhile, reveals coordinated outfits in toy-box vitrines. “It’s very definitely a house for a single woman,” said Greenwood, noting that when the first Dreamhouse (a cardboard foldout) was sold in 1962 it was rare for a woman to own her own home.

Set decorator Katie Spencer summed up: “She is the ultimate feminist icon.”

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