Pink Imperialism?

James Turnbull's picture


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Koreans have curious attitudes to pink clothing.

On the one hand, they are by no means considered feminine on adults, nor have they ever been historically. Indeed, far from rejecting the color, these days many young men positively embrace pink as a loud and easily visible sign of rebellion against the gruff, dull rural roots of their parents (most Koreans lived in villages until as recently as the late-1970s). As The Joshing Gnome puts it:

Many young guys who grew up in this world find that it’s just not them.  What recourse do they have but to declare loudly and pinkly to the world ‘I am not what my parents are.’  They’re showing people they’re young, they’re modern, they’re not dissolute drunken bums (and how would one know if not for their outfits?) and they’re urbane.  If my two choices of apparel are white pants, a pink shirt, and ‘wax’ in my hair or slippers, track pants, a motorcycle and a case of the soju rosies, then I have to say I would be right there with these preening young men foppin’ it up.

And I’ve made a similar argument for their wearing of “couple clothes”, such a visible sign of affection possibly being a stark rejection of the model of their own parents’ often arranged marriages. But I’m not so out of touch though, that I don’t realize that it could just as easily be because men will simply do anything to get laid, and if their partners want them both to look “cute” by wearing exactly the same pastels and pinks as them, then why not? After all, looking cute is a strong cultural prerogative in Korea, much like the equivalent in many Western countries is to be ‘Xtreme’ and too cool for school.

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But for every 5 male university students I see wearing pink clothes, I might see 1 or 2 men in their 30s, 40s or even older also doing so. How then, could pink ever be considered intrinsically cute?

Probably because, on the other hand, Koreans nevertheless maintain a pink/blue divide for children. And while this is by no means a phenomenon confined to Korea of course, that they do so despite all the above is a telling demonstration of the points made by Korean artist JeongMee Yoon (윤정미) through her Pink and Blue Projects like the above, which were:

…initiated by my five-year-old daughter, who loves the color pink so much that she wanted to wear only pink clothes and play with only pink toys and objects. I discovered that my daughter’s case was not unusual. In the United States, South Korea and elsewhere, most young girls love pink clothing, accessories and toys. This phenomenon is widespread among children of various ethnic groups regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. Girls train subconsciously and unconsciously to wear the color pink in order to look feminine…

…Today, with the effects of advertising on consumer preferences, these color customs are a worldwide standard…The saccharine, confectionery pink objects that fill my images of little girls and their accessories reveal a pervasive and culturally manipulated expression of femininity” and a desire to be seen.

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Currently, her work is being exhibited at The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which is hosting “the first major American showing by contemporary Korean artists living in Korea”: see the Los Angeles Times for more details (via KoreAm). Also, you can see her own website for more examples (and a fuller explanation) of her work.

But does the pink/blue divide though, largely come from overseas as Yoon implies? And if so, how and why exactly?

Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Korean fashion history to tell myself. My gut instinct though, is to reject the notion of cultural imperialism: in my post Giving the Consumer What She Wants? for instance, I demonstrate that far from the plucky Korean magazine industry being at the mercy of evil multinational companies, in fact Korean consumers were very active and willing agents in its Westernization. On the other hand, this wouldn’t be the first time Koreans have wholeheartedly – and rather unthinkingly – adopted some facet of Western culture despite local tradition either.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, for the sake of comparison see my post Sex and the Red Blooded Woman also, in which I discuss how the general redness of most women’s cosmetics at least do have definite biological bases, unlike our clearly socialized ones for clothing!

(Posted at The Grand Narrative)

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