There was more to it than cheap labor, though. The work of coloring film was seen as a craft similar to domestic, female-coded tasks like painting glass or china. Furthermore, as scholar Joshua Yumibe writes in his 2012 book Moving Color, “women historically have been assumed to be more attuned to color and more susceptible to its sensual influences.” In contrast, form has been associated with the masculine, the intellectual.
The debate over color versus form, which dates back to Aristotle, came to a head in late 17th-century France. Since then, many aesthetic theorists, including the 20th-century philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, have argued that color is indeed inferior to form—a superficial topcoat, a feminine indulgence. Yumibe explains that coloring film was similarly seen as mere ornamentation, similar to the task of applying facial cosmetics, and thus perfectly suited to women.
In part because of the popularity of female dancer films, color also became highly associated with images of women onscreen. There’s something a bit poetic about female artists adorning female performers with bright colors, adding life and vigor to the gray worlds of early film, in spite of the profound limitations experienced by women in both crafts.