Pink Imperialism?

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Koreans have curious attitudes to pink.

On the one hand, it is by no means considered feminine on adults, nor has it ever been historically. Indeed, far from rejecting it, these days many young men positively embrace pink as a sign of rebellion against the gruff, dull rural roots of their parents. 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 lest that sound like exaggeration, bear in mind that most Koreans lived in villages until the late-1970s. Hence I’ve also made a similar argument for their wearing of (usually pink or pastel) “couple clothes” myself, such a visible sign of affection possibly being a stark rejection of the model of their own parents’ often arranged marriages.

But I haven’t been married for so long though, that I don’t realize that it could just as easily be because men will simply do anything to get laid.

And if that requires caving in to their partners’ wishes to both look cute together and show off their status as a couple, then why not? After all, cuteness is already 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 here?

Probably because, on the other hand, Koreans do 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 largely come from overseas, as Yoon implies? And if so, how and why exactly?

Unfortunately, I don’t personally know enough about Korean fashion history to answer. 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.

But on the other hand, this wouldn’t be the first time Koreans have wholeheartedly – and rather unthinkingly – adopted some aspect of Western culture despite local tradition. Male circumcision for instance, was virtually unknown in Korea before the Korean War, but now it probably has the highest rate of it in the non-Muslim and non-Jewish world. And yet despite being world leaders, both doctors and the general public display a profound ignorance of the practice, most simply associating circumcision with industrialization and improved living standards.

What do you think is responsible?

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


17 thoughts on “Pink Imperialism?

    1. Don’t hold me to it, but I think I read about that a little as I was preparing this post. If I can find anything (again), I’ll pass it on.

      Meanwhile, you reminded me of a question I forgot to ask in the post: I’ve only been to a grand total of 4 trips to Western countries since I came to Korea back in 2000, so I’m a bit out of touch with Western fashions. How is pink on men regarded there these days?


      1. I think it depends on where you live. I live in California, and a friend who’d just moved here from another state was openly laughed at when he speculated a co-worker might be gay because the co-worker had worn a pink polo shirt. I don’t know if it’s the influence of South Asian culture, the influence of East Asian culture, the influence of gay culture, less gender role enforcement in general, or what, but generally speaking, wearing purple/orange/pink/etc. shirts is normal here. No one is going to look twice unless you actually camp it up. But expressing shock over it will actually get you stared at.

        Fine by me–people should be able to wear whatever color they want. (And it does matter. A young male relative [distant] of mine was actually punished by his parents as a child for claiming that his favorite color was pink. Thinly veiled homophobia and/or misogyny. :/)


      2. With the resurgence of “vintage 90’s” color, in general, is very in for both guys and girls, including pink. I would also say Kayne West embracing pink has also neutralized it for men. Especially men in their 20’s/ early 30’s


        1. Thanks. I first suspected I may be out of touch back in 2007 actually, when I was adamant that for their sake, my male students should not take their pink clothes with them when they went on their planned trips overseas. One of them who’d just gotten back from LA rightfully called me out and said that he’d seen plenty while he was there…(but I didn’t see any in 2008 in New Zealand though).


      3. Easy: the 1980s (particularly the early 80s) were a bad, bad time. Look at the music, the hairstyles, the TV shows and films.

        I blame the cesspool of American politics.

        Korea’s embrace of pink may well be, like so many cultural things here, linked to the current embrace of pink for men in the West now, but it likely functions, culturally, in a way comparable to some earlier cultural shift in modern societies.


  1. That article on circumcision was incredible. I’d always been told that Koreans had always circumcised – I just assumed it was cultural. I can’t believe that so many Korean doctors could be so ignorant of the related facts. That said, I’m not surprised at all that the majority of the general population is ignorant of such medical knowledge. Whenever I’ve got into a discussion about circumcision with Koreans (let’s be honest – it’s not often!) I would say that probably all of them have offered up a simple “it’s cleaner” or “it’s healthier” as a reason. It just goes to show what lengths Korea will go to in order to be perceived as “advanced”.


    1. To be frank I didn’t read either article much, already having read something pretty similar about 5 years ago (hell, maybe the same ones for all I know: they’re a little old!). I do recall personally being amazed though, at how many Korean parents didn’t devote any thought to the circumcision at all, one of if not the major reason they had it done to their sons being “everyone else was getting it done to their sons, so I thought mine should get it done too/I didn’t want him to stand out”.

      Full disclosure: I’m adamantly against circumcision, male or female.

      Update: Have slightly edited that part of the post since Seamus wrote.


      1. I found the bit where they interviewed Korean doctors to be the most informative/telling/surprising/non-surprising. Asked to guess what percentage of men were circumcised in Scandinavian countries they guessed at about 50% if I recall correctly, and also assumed Japan had similar rates as South Korea, whereas China and North Korea were believed to have very low rates.

        It’s also a shame that it’s become so prevalent that all males who aren’t circumcised, young or old, feel pressured or ostracised as a result. And that nobody seems to know that it’s an entirely unnecessary procedure in almost all cases.


  2. I would be shocked if the pink/blue thing were not an import. Like The Straight Dope, I am skeptical of its having any biological origins due to the recentness of its invention in “the West,” but anyway, there’s a pretty good overview of it here, with references:

    (The color for Chinese babies period used to be shades of red, if I recall correctly. I don’t know if they’ve moved away from that.)

    Don’t get me started on the unnecessary gendering of every darned thing for small kids in the US. :| Buying things for friends’ babies is an exercise in frustration. (Why are giraffes masculine? Why are there bibs for infants that say “Lipstick” on them? Why is a cooking kit branded with the “Ace of Cakes” star–a MAN–named Girl Gourmet? Why do you have to choose a gender instead of a color you LIKE when picking out so many infant items? AAAAAUGH)


    1. I agree that it’s probably not biological. But I didn’t always think so, and to play devil’s advocate the first part of the following article does put the onus on the nurture rather than nature advocates to provide a non-biological explanation:

      Sex, shopping and thinking pink
      Aug 23rd 2007
      From The Economist print edition

      The brains of men and women are, indeed, different

      WOMEN really are better than men at shopping. And they really do prefer pink. And, surprisingly, it is possible that these facts are connected. The first conclusion was drawn by Joshua New of Yale University and his colleagues. The second was drawn by Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling of Newcastle University in England. The connecting theme is that in the division of labour that forms the primordial bargain of human hunter-gatherer societies, it is the men who do the hunting and the women who do the gathering.

      Blackberry-picking aside, urban humanity does little gathering from the wild these days, so Dr New decided to look at what seemed to him to be the nearest equivalent-shopping at a farmers’ market. There is a fair amount of evidence that men are better than women at solving certain sorts of spatial problems, such as remembering the locations of topographical landmarks. Many researchers suggest such skills may have been important in the past for man-the-hunter, who needed to be able to find his way round the landscape. If that is the case, then woman-the-gatherer might have been expected to develop complementary skills not shown by males. And that, as he writes in this week’s Proceedings of the Royal Society, is what Dr New found.

      Dr New used the market to test two hypotheses. The first was that women remember the locations of food resources more accurately than men do. The second was that the more nutritionally valuable a resource is, the more accurately its location will be remembered.

      To prove these conjectures he recruited 41 women and 45 men and led each of them individually on a merry dance around the chosen market. In the course of this peregrination, each participant visited six of the 90 food stalls in the market. At each of those stalls, participants were given a piece of food to eat. They were asked their preference for the taste of the food, how often they ate that food in normal life, how attractive they found the stall and how often they had made purchases from that stall in the past. After visiting all six stalls, they were taken to the centre of the market and asked to point toward those stalls, one at a time, using an arrow on a dial. In addition, they were asked to rate their own sense of direction.

      In the pink

      On average, women were 9° more accurate than men at pointing to each stall-a significant deviation if you have to walk some distance to get to a place. This was not because those women had more experience of visiting the market than the men had. Nor did the women rate themselves as having a better sense of direction-indeed the men rated their own navigating skills more highly.

      Dr New suggests that these results show women are better than men at the particular task of relocating sources of food. That contrasts with the idea that men are better at navigation in general. In other words, women’s minds are specialised for their ancestral task of gathering the sort of food that cannot run away.

      That such food is in a different mental category from the one occupied by general landmarks was suggested by the answer to the second hypothesis. The higher the calorific value of the food sold by a stall, the more accurately Dr New’s volunteers were able to point towards it. And that result applied to both sexes, though women still did better than men.

      How much the participants liked the food did not have an effect on this accuracy. Indeed none of the secondary attributes of the food or stall in question (taste preference, the frequency of an item in a volunteer’s normal diet, the appearance of the stall and how often a volunteer used that stall in daily life) were found to affect pointing accuracy. Only the calorific value of the item in question was relevant.

      For their part Dr Hurlbert and Dr Ling, who report their study in Current Biology, used coloured patches flashing on a computer screen to find the preferences of their set of volunteers. These volunteers were men and women of British and Chinese origin who were in their early 20s.

      Mostly, the two researchers found that people of different sexes and from different continents did not differ in their colour preferences. But there was one exception. Among both the British and the Chinese, women preferred reddish hues such as pink to greenish-blue ones. Among men it was the other way round.

      Moreover, though anatomical sex is binary, mental “gender” is more pliable. To see how masculine or feminine the brains of their participants were, Dr Hurlbert and Dr Ling used what is known as the Bem Sex Role Inventory, which asks about personality traits more often associated with one sex than the other. This showed that the more feminine a brain was, regardless of the body it inhabited, the more it liked red and pink.

      All this suggests a biological, rather than a cultural, explanation for colour preference. And Dr Hurlbert and Dr Ling have produced one. They suggest that their result may be connected with the fact that the colour of many fruits is at the red end of the spectrum. An evolved preference for red, pink and allied shades-particularly in contrast with green-could thus bring advantage to those who gather such things. And if they can also remember which tree (or stall) to go and visit next time, then so much the better.

      Long-term readers may recognize it: I first posted it back in November 2007, in a post I’ve since deleted, and was tempted to put it up again here but unfortunately am much more respectful of copyright than I was back then. Now as opposed to then, the harking back to men=hunters women=gatherers (yet again) makes me cringe (mainly because of this), but I’m still unable to see how the result of the experiment in the market could be the result of socialization.

      While I’m here, a couple of the more informative comments to that post:

      amy said, on April 19, 2009 at 11:17 am

      I love all your other posts, but this one was a bit bogus. As a Fine Arts major I am required to take an entire class dedicated to color theory, not to mention the multiple discussions of it brought up in painting and art history classes. I would say the study you sited provides a less than accurate assessment, and that the researches found information to fit their original hypothesis.

      Even the idea of purple as a feminine color is a very recent cultural construct. Without getting too much into it, have you never considered it odd that pink, which is really a dilution of red into white, is viewed as feminine—as opposed to similar dilutions is green, yellow, or blue? In Russia, for instance, the equivalent to pink in most western cultures is pale blue. They do not distinguish pale blue as diluted a diluted example blue, and in the same sense that most westerners say ‘pink,’ instead of ‘pale red’, have a different name for light blue. The western inability to distinguish ‘pink’ and ‘red’ as the same hue is a recent cultural evolution, and is not based in evolutionary biology.

      Also, studies that link back to ‘hunter gather’ conventions are overused and generally should be regarded cautiously by the casual reader. Studies of this type generally start with a hypothesis that tries to enforce cultural conventions on a biological basis. While there are many biological differences between men and women that factor into culture, the way we react to colors as masculine or feminine is, without even much effort, historically disproved.

      The masculine Korean comfort with pink is cultural, just as your discomfort with it is. (and my refusal to wear it as a western female also is.)


      Kay said, on January 12, 2010 at 10:56 pm

      That “shade of red” popular today with women- and some men – (just search “pink” in google) – is nearly never a light red. It is actually approaching the true magenta if not in it – it has some blue in it – partiularly hot pink.

      When our eyes look for complementary colors, we tend to use the additive-luminescent color scale (red -green-and blue) and not the subtractive one for red, yellow and blue which we use for mixing paints. Our brains are sentive to the additive – not the subtractive.

      Sometimes our confusion with color comes from the fact that we use words for colors that that are not strictly tied to the hues they represent. (for example, olive green is really a dim yellow, but we tend to think of “deep yellow” in America as looking like macaroni and cheese, which is more towards the orange.) i remember when “light purple” hoodies were sold for a while, back around 2004 or something and some [i] boys [/i] among teens were actually buying them, I noted that they were probably a very luminescent shade of the purest magenta you could get on a fabric!

      Othertimes confusion it that fact that the pigments we use as references for color, when diluted- or diffused throughout a medium such as paper of fabric, do not necessarily give us pure hues of what the pigment appears as in its strongest form. For example, the indigo flower is “purplish.” This flower has been histircally used as a source of blue dyes – like our blue jeans. The dye extracted from this flower is deep blue, but the color under the HTML color name for “indigo”, #4B0082, seems to be be a little of both. But if you search indigo in google again, you will find that a number of the result look a little like both as well. What is this?

      Before we start discussing the significance of color, and which “ones” appeal to the sexes, we need to learn and keep in mind the color map our brains are using to categorize colors.


        1. Oh, sure: unlike the authors, I didn’t see how the second experiment proved a biological basis to the color preference at all, albeit presuming that pink and red for girls is just a big a thing in China as it is elsewhere.

          The results of the first experiment remain a bit more difficult to chalk up to socialization though.


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