Korean Sociological Image #13: The Kiss

Everybody Has Secrets Kiss 2004(Source: unknown)

It’s amazing how quickly things can change in Korea sometimes.

Granted, you’re unlikely to see an eye-catching kiss akin to the above on primetime TV at the moment, but at the rate things are going then it won’t be too much longer. It was only at the end of May that Shin Min-a (신민아) for instance, made waves for her first screen kiss with Won Bin (원빈) in the coffee commercial below, and it seems like pop culture blogs have literally been full of similar examples ever since:

See here, here, #10 here, and here if that’s given you for a taste of more. Indeed, in one of those links, I lamented that with so many commercials with kissing appearing these days, it’s difficult to keep track — but it wasn’t really until I saw this next commercial that I realized just how mainstream it had suddenly become:

No, I couldn’t keep a straight face either…

But what might one gain from this, other than merely passing on notice of a new trend? Well, most if not all of those commercials above are aimed at 20-somethings, either explicitly in the tag-line (a new trend in itself) or by the admission of producers. And while they are hardly unique in that regard, the combination of the two personally reminded me of the perceptive point made by Korean sociologist So-hee Lee made in her chapter in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea:

Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States. (p. 146)

Obvious perhaps, but arguably only with the benefit of hindsight, and in the decade or so I’ve been reading about Korean society I’ve only come across a handful of authors making the same point, and never so succinctly. Moreover, despite having been written in the late-1990s, this commercials prove that it is more relevant than ever, and I’d argue that it should be included in the first lecture on any undergraduate course on Korean society.

Won Bin Shin Min-a Kiss(Source)

For more on Lee, see here for my take on her work on female sexuality in Korean popular culture. Meanwhile, I accept that my memories of Korean commercials may be lacking, and so I am happy (and fully expect) to receive earlier cases of kissing in Korean commercials from readers: surely the first wasn’t just this May? And in that vein, I also accept that their recent numbers may also have been inflated by my imagination, and regardless by no means precipitated by that one with Shin Min-a and Won Bin either, which may have been merely the first I noticed.

On a final note, I’m also curious in your opinions on what impact – if any – these commercials with have on the acceptability of kissing in public. Personally I think that that’s some years off yet, but then I rarely go drinking these days, and may well be surprised at what goes on in my local university district on Friday nights!

(For more posts in my “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)

Korean Gender Reader

Photoshop Shoo

One of these pictures from Shoo’s (슈) recent photoshoot is not quite like the others: take a closer look, and if nothing sticks out then see these classics of the genre for hints, or #6 for the solution.

1) In that vein, for me last week really stood out for the number of excellent points raised about the subjects of women’s body images, censorship, and Korean sexuality by Korean bloggers. But first, I should of course mention that a South-African woman was raped in her home in Ulsan by a neighbor earlier in the month, and early indications were that the police were at best lukewarm in handling her case, which naturally provoked lively discussions in the Korean blogosphere about rape in Korea, women’s and foreigner’s safety, and the Korean police ‘s attitudes to both. Lest I appear indifferent by not discussing those subjects in more detail myself though, lengthy but often informative comments threads on these already exist at Korea Beat and The Marmot’s Hole if you’re interested. Moreover, it appears from this Facebook thread devoted to the issue that claims of police indifference were complete fabrications by The Chosun Ilbo, as were quotes from the victim, who hadn’t actually spoken to any news outlets.

2) First up then, in a post I’m embarrassed not to have written myself, VixenVarla of Seoulbeats asks if Korean society is really ready for “women” idols, and thinks not: noting the netizen furor over the above Abracadabra (아브라카다브라) music video by the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스), which features a sex scene (and rather more than the mere lesbian kissing scene I reported last week sorry), she argues that while provocative, both that and Chae-yeon’s (채연) new music video Shake (흔들려) were at least alternative representations of Korean women to the coy, innocent, and sexually inexperienced ones normally presented. But while teenage groups’ blatantly sexual dance moves are usually instantly praised as being “hip”, “sexy”, and “cool,” Abracadabra will probably have to be heavily edited for television (despite protestations that it won’t be), as indeed much tamer Shake was recently (see #1 here).  She concludes:

….when Korean “women” choose to project a more sexualized side of themselves they are looked down upon by censors and neitizens. Is Korea so afraid to show adult women in control of their own sexuality that they would prefer to cast scantily clad little girls in heavy makeup, to play “grown up” in their place?

See here for the full post. But please note that by reiterating it’s main points I (and I’m sure VixenVarla would concur) am not attacking expressions of teenage sexuality per se: rather, I’m just saying that they don’t deserve the kid gloves with which they are treated with by the Korean media (see here for my most recent post on this issue). Possibly Abracadabra was a bad choice with which to make that particular point though, as it’s easily the most sexually-explicit mainstream Korean music video I’ve seen in the whole 9 years I’ve lived here:

Abracadabra Brown Eyed Girls( Source )

Of course, 9 times out of 10 such a video would be used to disguise the poor quality of the music itself, but this song is actually good, and – I confess – I heard it on the radio and thought it was (forgive the temporary lapse in sophistication) cool well before I saw the video above. Meanwhile, here is a live performance if you’re curious as to how all that translates to the stage (see PopSeoul! for the details):

3) In case you’re confused by the Korean media praising moves by, say, The Wondergirls (원더걸스) or Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) as “sexy” while criticizing, say, Chae-yeon’s dancing as too sexual though, Brian in Jeollanam-do has an excellent post on how Korean uses of the word have become almost entirely divorced from its English meaning.

4) In related news, while discussing a promotion in Seoul involving women dressed as Paris Hilton to celebrate the Korean airing of MTV reality show “Paris Hilton’s My New Best Friends Forever,” Brian also makes the point that:

…while Korean celebrities are held to pretty high moral standards, you have a woman like Paris Hilton regularly on TV and endorsing Fila Korea.

Like he thought, he’s not the first or the last person to mention that (see #18 here), and after reading this post on her by Michael Hurt at Scribblings of the Metropolitician I would also no longer, well, slag off Paris Hilton as readily as most people are inclined to either.  But still, the point stands regardless of the celebrity involved, and is worth remembering.

5) Also making big news were some Southeast-Asian men being arrested for taking pictures of women at Haeundae Beach in Busan, whereas – as numerous bloggers have pointed out, Korean newspaper photographers regularly (and excessively) do so, and particularly of Caucasian women also. See Brian’s post (yes, again – a productive week for him it seems!) and Korean Media Watch for more.

Choi Ji-woo Vidi Vici6) No, that’s not an alien on the right, but Choi Ji-woo (최지우) promoting cosmetics brand Vidi Vici. Speaking of which, if you haven’t figured out what was wrong with the opening image of Shoo, see AllKpop here for the solution.

7) Also on the photography front, many Korean newspapers (and particularly the ones that denounce Western men as sexual predators and deviants: see #1 here) are increasingly posting “upskirt” pictures of celebrities and members of the public on their websites. Apologies for not providing links (even I have my limits), but I mention this because PopSeoul! has raised the point of PR managers and so on increasingly providing only high stools for stars to sit on at press conferences, which there can only be one reason for given that it is now de rigueur for female stars to wear something short and skimpy to them.

8) Spare a thought for North Korean women: among numerous other frustrations of daily life there, they also have to contend with being forced by government to wear skirts at some times of the year, and traditional clothing at others.

9) A while ago I mentioned a post at Sociological Images about the Tokyo City Government’s appointment of three young women as “cute ambassadors” for the city, the better to promote Japanese kawaii (cute) culture and project Japan’s “soft power” abroad. Now Ampontan – my personal choice for the best blog on Japanese society, politics, and culture – has a great meta post on what issues the policy raises, noting, for example:

I’d rather the Japanese had chosen other parts of their culture to present to the rest of the world—festivals, for example—but might there be a bigger picture that we’re missing?

Plug the word kawaii in English into Google and you’ll get 7,590,000 hits. Do the same with cosplay and you’ll get 24,200,000. Yes, I was astonished too. When the words kawaii and cosplay are so commonly known and accepted around the world, I think it’s safe to say we’re dealing with a phenomenon that transcends Japan.

Read the rest here, and you may also be interested in the Korean government’s recent efforts to promote itself overseas, albeit sans Hello Kitty and Gothic Lolita costumes.

10) I’m still generally against cosmetic surgery, but largely through reader’s comments I’m much more sympathetic of it and understanding of people’s reasons for having operations (especially in an appearance-obsessed society as Korea) than I was before I started the blog. In that vein, see AllKpop here for winner of the title of “prettiest celebrity after female surgery,” with the important point that contestants were only those that openly admitted their surgery.

Meanwhile, the Korea Times reports that young Korean men are apparently becoming keener on having cosmetic surgery (see #7 here also).

11) Given the amount of photoshopping that was necessary for him to do so, I possibly was a little harsh in my opinion on Park Ji-sung’s (박지성) appearance in this post on his modelling for Gillette Korea. But I have to say, he looks quite dapper in his latest photoshoot for Gentlemen’s Quarterly (via KP Culture):

Park Ji-sung Gentlemen's Quarterly( Source )

12) While apparently sexual relations with 13 year-olds are okay (see #3 here), Extra Korea! notes that from next year, solitciting teenagers for sex will be punishable, even if no sexual act takes place. Hey, at least it’s consistent with laws for adults…

13) Widely reported in the Korean media, Koreans as a whole are becoming more overweight. Considering that Korean women were among the lest obese women in the OECD (let alone the world) as recently as 2005 though, then the new data needs to be taken with a grain of salt (no pun intended).

Update: Extra Korea has some additional links on the latter.

Ironically, this news comes as North Korea opens its first fast-food restaurant.

Asian Man Redefined 2010 Calander14) With apologies for this being the largest picture I could find, Andrew Lim recommends you buy the (self-explanatory) “Asian Men Redefined 2010 Calendar,” the proceeds of which will go to charity. For the details, see Ningin here.

15) Singer Ivy (아이비) is trying to make a comeback after being forced to put her career on her hold by a sex-tape scandal…which didn’t actually exist. If the latter is news to you, then see DramaBeans for the background.

16) Somewhat predictable, but still sad, the economic recession is resulting in many fathers running away from their families in shame at not being able to get a job and/or support them, and also the number of 2-child families is decreasing as women’s wages decline. Hat tip to Alex for the latter, who makes the following perceptive points about the article:

I’m wondering if they’re insinuating the wage of female workers should decrease to save the national birthrate…

“Working mothers who prefer to offer quality education or living environment rather than having more children has also contributed to the declining number of second children.

The report said the increase in the women’s wages has negative impact the births of a second child but the increase in paychecks from husbands increases the chances of having more than one child. “

That’s quite the justification for the disparity in salaries.

Meanwhile, see here for Tom Coyner’s article on the effects of the recession on young people, to which he adds in his email on it in his “Korean Economic Reader” mailing list that:

To be candid, one of the ulterior motives to write this column was to plug my firm’s “Rising Star Coaching” program that helps organizations lacking the budgets to go out and hire specialists while needing to recycle bright, younger employees to assume new roles as their employers adjust to new challenges.

Should the reader know of anyone who lacks internal mentors for developing a specific skill set in a younger manager or employee, please let me know.  We can provide senior Korean executives who have been trained in coaching skills to mentor junior employees on a short-term contractual basis.

And in some rare positive news, Korea Beat reports that women are advancing in the government and legal professions.

17) Finally, in news that I should have placed much earlier in the post sorry, Brian notes that a pregnant 18-year old Cambodian woman was given a 4-year sentence for killing her abusive husband, and also that 2 sisters-in-law and a stepdaughter of a Vietnamese immigrant wife were fined for beating her after she allegedly failed to tend to her mother-in-law’s needs. That second link is just factual really, but in the first has many interesting points about Southeast immigration to Korean and the international marriage trade.


Hunks Get More Sex, BUT…

Everybody Has Secrets 2004 누구나 비밀은 있다

If you’re a long time reader of this blog, then you’ll be aware that I’m a big advocate of people’s preferences in the opposite sex being very much biologically determined. For instance, the almost universal appeal of an hourglass figure to men is undoubtedly a reflection of the fact that women blessed with both large breasts and a relatively low waist to hip-ratio are by far the most likely to get pregnant, as they have 30 per cent higher levels of the female reproductive hormone estradiol than women with other combinations of body shapes (see here and here). Similarly, for men high levels of testosterone can result in them having a well-defined “masculine” jaw, but the flip-side is that testosterone also compromises the immune system, and so therefore a man with such a jaw that has survived to adulthood – say, Harrison Ford – must have particularly high resistance to disease, a valuable survival trait for mothers to pass on to their children.

But of course, cultural factors and one’s upbringing play a huge role in one’s preferences too, as is the fact that the vast majority of sexual encounters are no longer for the purposes of reproduction (were they ever?). In addition, friends of mine have justifiably argued that if certain body and face shapes confer such huge reproductive advantages, then why don’t all men have large muscles and well-defined jaws and all women have large breasts and hourglass figures (and so on), and my answer that there is always natural variation and that, once evolved, advantageous traits take a long time to become standard in a population, felt somewhat unsatisfying even to me, despite both being true.

Lucky Lee Jae-yoon Men's HealthHence I should have paid much more attention to this study when it came out last month, which found that while beefier men tended to both lose their virginity at an earlier age and have more sexual partners than their skinnier counterparts, on the other hand those muscles both increased their appetites and meant they tended to produce fewer infection-fighting white blood cells. In a nutshell, this means that for the over 99% of human’s evolutionary history that occurred before the advent of modern medicine and an (over)abundance of food, beefier guys often either starved to death or died from an infection before having children, or alternatively before helping in raising them. So, I don’t think it’s presuming too much of women to say that in fact skinnier men could sometimes have been more of a turn-on for them(!), particularly in times of scarcity.

I’d image that other traits that are advantageous in modern times similarly had their downsides in the past, and perhaps still do: hence the variation. I’ll be very interested in finding them out, and if any readers do know of any parallels then please pass them on.

(First image from the 2004 Korean film “Everybody Has Secrets” {누구나 비밀은 있다}: see here for a review)

Korean Gender Reader

Ha Ji-won Jinro Chamisul

Granted, that soju posters have been becoming increasingly risqué in recent years is by no means news (see #1 here), and it’s also true that advertisers tend to rely more on consumers’ baser instincts during recessions…but still, even I did a double take when I saw this latest one (source) with Ha Ji-won (하지원), and it makes one wonder what the summer of 2010 will bring if present trends continue.

Ironically however, it is actually rather tame compared to what Korean musicians have been doing recently to get themselves noticed, such as the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스) having a lesbian kissing scene in their latest music video, or former “race-queen” Jung Eun-joo (정은주) producing a music video that is literally soft porn, her management agency (not unreasonably) arguing that she wouldn’t get noticed otherwise. And yet while the latter in particular is complete trash that will never make it to Korean screens, and like Chae-yeon’s (채연) new music video Shake (흔들려) for “suggestive dancing” (see #1 here) and  TVXQ’s songs for their “lewd content” (see #2 here), the Brown Eyed Girl’s effort may similarly also end up being banned from television, those represent just a handful of cases that have cropped up just this year, as cultural producers really do seem to be testing the limits these days. Hence, although Korea’s various state bodies involved with censorship certainly do have corporatist interests in exerting their authority, they may well have their hands full at the moment, and I wonder if as a result we might be about to witness a tectonic shift in the liberalization of the Korean media similar to what happened in 2004, when the following commercial for Hong Kong clothing company Giordano with Jun ji-Hyun (전지현) and Jung Woo-sung (정우성) was banned:

But which resulted in so many clones shortly thereafter that censors seemed to give up on them. Here’s an example from the following year for 17차 for instance, again with Jun Ji-hyun:

True, the former is very sexual, whereas the latter merely glorifies objectifies the female body…a distinction that I’m only just realizing as I type this, and one that I suspect I really haven’t given enough thought to previously: it deserves further exploring. Regardless, lest you think that I’m exaggerating about the potential for a shift, recall that it also occurs in a context where the Lee Myung-bak’s increasingly authoritarian policies towards the media are creating a backlash, and standards for movies have been liberalizing without pause for breath (see #1 here, #8 here, and #7 here for starters).

In other news:

1) Bending over backwards to satisfy his readers, Ask the Expat provides a very comprehensive and clearly well-researched guide to cruising for gay sex in Korean bathhouses.

2) Approaching things from a different angle, Korea Beat translated a lengthy article from The Chosun Weekly about Lesbian clubs in Hongdae, a major night-life area of Seoul.

The Price Of Sin3) Lee Myung-bak pledged Thursday to increase state subsidies for working mothers and provide more nurseries and daycare centers in an effort to boost the country’s birthrate, but given that (among numerous other things) married women have been overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs in the current recession, then I suspect that this will have minimal effect (see numerous past Korean Gender Readers for more information, but best are #1 here, #2 here, and #2 here, and here is the most recent newspaper article on the subject). It also doesn’t help that, with dwindling numbers of newborns, women’s hospitals are blatantly refusing to deliver babies in favor or easier and more profitable skin care and cosmetic surgeries either.

4) Again, Korea’s adultery laws continue to be baffle: apparently one can have sex with others if one is in the process of a divorce, but not if one’s husband or wife puts “proceedings on hold.” As a commenter at Extra! Korea reasonably points out, in this latest case did the husband even know his wife had done so? Indeed, what if the estranged spouse is in the act while being informed? Hopefully, upon hearing that the recipient is otherwise occupied, then the FedEx guy would have the decency to wait for a few minutes before knocking on the door and handing over the legal documents…

No seriously, it’s hypotheticals like this that demonstrate the law’s absurdity, let alone the arbitrariness with which it is by definition applied in a country with one of the world’s largest prostitution industries.

5) The issue is a little old (see here for an earlier discussion), but still, Kim Heung-sook does a good job of summarizing what is problematic about the choice of Sin Saimdang on the new 50,000 won bill.

6) With parallels to affirmative-action politics in the US, some male students preparing to enter law school are preparing to file a petition with the Constitutional Court against Ehwa Womans University Law School for only admitting, well, women. I can see both sides’ arguments, but given that only 17% of the Korean legal judiciary are women, then personally I’m more in favor of retaining the restriction. It is after all, the only law school in the country that has it.

7) I’m usually very wary of articles about polls in Korean newspapers, but for what it’s worth this one of 921 university students revealed that 30% planned to get some form of cosmetic surgery this summer. Broken down by gender, the figures are 40% of women and 19% of men.

Choi Han-bit8) Choi Han-bit (최한빛) on the right (source) has passed the preliminary stage of the 2009 Supermodel Contest. Nothing remarkable about that you might say, except that she was actually born a man, undergoing a sex change in 2006. See here and here for more pictures of her, including when he appeared dressed as a woman on a television show in 2005. To their (rare) credit, the consensus of netizens is that she is no more artificial a woman than all the other contestants that have had cosmetic surgery operations.

9) Korea Beat has translated the Chosun Ilbo’s response to the avalanche of criticism to its week-long attack on foreign teachers, which naturally created some lively discussion (165 comments and counting); don’t miss Korean Media Watch’s take on it also, and for those few of you that all this is news to, see #1 here for many links to get you started.

10) In a strange article that may well have been written – ipso facto – with the intention of actually creating the trend it is ostensibly merely describing, the Chosun Ilbo reports that 30-something salarymen are now avid shoppers and consumers at department stores. I’m not sure I give much credence to an article that prints the opinions of someone who attributes this to the fact that “men in their 30s are for the first time able to go shopping without the help of a woman” though, even if it did come from a professor at SNU.

11) Completing the transitions between the sexes as it were via the images in this post, let me finish here by passing on two photoshoots of Korean men that both made waves last week. First, these pictures of SHINee (샤이니, pronounced “shiny”) from Vogue Girl (source):


(Update: Here’s an interview where SHINee explain the concept behind the photoshoot)

And then these of Hyun Bin (현빈), from Cosmopolitan (source):

Hyun Bin Cosmopolitan

While it’s not for me to judge women’s tastes, I am sorely tempted to mention that, lacking pictures of actual transexual men with which to complete the set of woman-transexual woman-transexual man-man, then SHINee certainly provide a pretty decent alternative…!


Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality and Popular Culture in the 1990s

The Adventures of Mrs. Park 박봉곤 가출 사건

For those of you that are interested in the title topic, then let me mention that I’ve finally finished the rather lengthy post on it that I started back in May, which you can read here. Apologies for taking 2 months rather than the promised 2 days to do so, and by why of compensation you can expect a flurry of related posts from me over the next 3 weeks, which by complete coincidence I’ve just realized is all the time I have left to prepare a presentation on the subject for a conference in Daejeon

Seriously though, while it is a much more academic post than usual, even if you just give it a quick scan then you may be simply amazed at how much Korean television and movies have changed in the last 10-15 years, and how important dramas in particular have been at subverting traditional ideologies of female sexuality. This provides a precedent for the impact of things like Friends and Sex and the City on Korean gender relations and consumerism a little later, and hence also myself a newfound respect for them: see here for some recommendations for more recent ones in the same radical vein as the ones mentioned in the post.

Koreans, Westerners…and Sex: A Follow-up

Jessica Gomes Lee Min-ho Kiss

Remember this video? While flawed, it made a decent effort at highlighting the hypocrisy of the Korean media, which by dint of a lack of criticism can be said to generally condone relationships between Korean men and foreign women (like that of Lee Min-ho and Jessica Gomes above, from this commercial for “2X” beer), but which on the other hand often explicitly portrays Western men as sexual predators and the Korean women that enter into relationships with them as either naive and in need of protection, or alternatively as cold and calculating, providing sexual services in return for English lessons and/or, eventually, foreign citizenship.

Well, the creator “Steroidmaximus” has created a new video, and with it he has clearly taken into account some of the (justifiable) criticisms of the first, while still retaining its positives:

Most importantly, he has also created a Korean version:

What do you think? As I type this I’ve yet to have my first cup of coffee, and in all seriousness have my daughter on my lap drawing trains and asking me to help, so my own analysis will have to wait until later this afternoon I’m afraid. But I would like to look at it much more closely than I did the first video, so I’ll come back and update this post later accordingly.

(Image sources: above – 이기적인 여자의 이기적인 세상 {A Selfish Woman’s Selfish World}; below – Baby Black)

Kang Ji-hwan Esquire

Update: Charles, K-man and Seamus have already done most of my work for me! If I might add things to the discussion that people haven’t already then:

- Like Charles said, I would remove most the American back-story, particularly the part about Neo-Nazis from 0:20-0:45. While I naturally don’t consider myself a racist, I and 99% of other foreigners in Korea have probably never even seen a Neo-Nazi, let alone confronted one,  so this comes across as very contrived, and strains the video’s credibility, particularly given that it’s in the introduction. There were other, shorter and more believable ways to get the message across that the vast majority of foreigners in Korea do not support racism.

- Somewhere at about the 1:00 to 1:10 mark, I would have written something along the lines of “Just like Koreans would [work and have an adventure abroad rather than work in a cubicle] if they could.” Its absence is not critical of course, and in fact you could well argue that that specifically would be superfluous, but still, it’s the first of numerous cases of careless wording and sloppy editing (eg: putting “but” before “After their marriage…” at 3:00), the cumulative effect of  which is to seriously detract from the overall message.

- Still laughing at the scene from Daespo Naughty Girls (다세포소녀) at 2:00…soooo true!

- It would have been better to have placed the 5:50 Gangnam club picture with an almost-naked Korean hostess entertaining a Korean man before beginning the shots with Westerners and their similar debauchery at 3:13 instead, which would better highlighted their similarities and the implied fact that, unlike the latter, all Korean men are not portrayed as sexual predators etc. because of the actions of a few. This message is lost a little by jumping straight from an ad and a photoshoot for a men’s magazine featuring Korean men and Caucasian women instead.

- And finally, from 3:27 I found the narrative really gets lost and the message somewhat repetitive personally. In particular, the “certain incongruities:” that Jerry and Ji-eun noticed from 5:09 are, well, a bit incongruous, because I don’t think the fact that the Korean media demonizes Western male English teachers as sexual deviants and molesters has been adequately demonstrated previously. So even if the titles of the (overused) untranslated Korean articles – which untranslated are of little use in the English version anyway – then things like “sexual abuse of disabled woman” at 5:37 seem a bit out of place.

But still, a much better second attempt, and I too look forward to further videos from Steroidmaximus, and not just on this issue either.