Growing up, JeongMee Yoon had one teddy bear and one Barbie doll. She’d ride bicycles with her older brothers, they’d play table tennis or the Korean board game Omok.
The children in her ongoing series The Pink & Blue Project show a vastly different picture. JeongMee photographs little girls in their pink bedrooms and little boys in their blue bedrooms surrounded by an overwhelming sea of their pink or blue toys.
“I was born in 1969 in Seoul, South Korea, there were no such pink things and no big market like these days,” she says. Her project highlights how children and their parents are influenced by advertising and popular culture, whether they realize it or not.
Pink for girls and blue for boys became especially popular in the 1980s when doctors started to use prenatal scanning to determine a baby’s sex in the womb. Today gender reveal parties, where expecting parents cut open a white-frosted cake to reveal pink or blue sponge, are becoming increasingly trendy.
JeongMee started her project in 2005 to document her five year old daughter SeoWoo’s obsession with the color pink. SeoWoo only wanted to wear pink clothes and play with pink toys. Like a museum display, JeongMee spread all of her daughter’s playthings, clothing and accessories across her bedroom. “It was amazing to see,” she says.
When she discovered that her daughter’s case was not unusual — other girls had the same obsession, and many young boys had a lot of blue possessions too — JeongMee opened the project up to other children. Some of them were just babies, their preference decided for them before they were old enough to make a choice.
“When I saw children wearing pink or blue clothes on the subway, the street or at convenience stores in New York, I asked their parents if their children could model for me,” she says. Only half of the people she approached said yes. “They have to open their home for a few hours, and I take out their stuff from wardrobes and drawers. It’s hard for them to open their private space and give time to an unfamiliar artist.”
Photographing children is unpredictable and JeongMee uses up to eight rolls of film, shooting 90 proofs to choose one image from. “First, I leave the children alone, but some children move constantly, so I have to take as many photos as possible,” she says. “In contrast, some children don’t move, so sometimes I suggest some poses. Their subtle gestures and expressions are important in choosing the best shot.”
In the beginning, JeongMee would organize the objects without a plan, but she soon discovered that by placing the smaller items in the front of the scene, the room would look more crowded.
Seeing the sheer number of items, especially in gender-loaded colors, surprised most of the parents. They didn’t realize just how many toys their child had, and promised to not buy them any more.
Yet, anyone who walks into a children’s clothing or toy store knows how difficult it is to escape the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. “The saccharine, confectionary 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,” JeongMee says.
She doesn’t always feel in control of what is marketed to her children. “When my daughter was around five to seven years old, I’d ask her to buy toys of other colors, but it was useless,” she says. “In the case of my eleven-year-old son, even though he does not seem to particularly like the color blue over other colors, whenever we shop for his clothes, the clothes he chooses are from the many-hued blue selection.”
Throughout the project, JeongMee has noticed that color is not the only difference between toys marketed for girls versus boys. Many of the girls’ things she photographed are related to make-up, dress-up or cooking, while the boys’ toys are related to robots, dinosaurs, science and industry.
These examples show the imbalance in today’s society when it comes to what’s reserved for girls and what’s considered a boys domain. With the rise in awareness and conversation around gender non-conformity, The Pink & Blue Project has been included in exhibitions, text books and magazines to urge people to rethink the gender binary. JeongMee hopes her project prompts people to think about our customs, habits and systems.
Sometimes JeongMee revisits some of her old subjects to take their portraits again. Over the years, their taste in color changes tremendously favoring a range of various colors. Her own daughter’s taste for pink changed to a love of light blue and purple when she entered elementary school. She’d tell her mother, “Mom, some friends still love pink. Pink is childish.”
Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.