From the Archives: Bagel Girls, Banking, and Babies!

(Source)

…[the character of] Chi-Yong’s mother sees marriage as a way to achieve social advancement and material prosperity, as it was in the Victorian era. These ambitions have come to the forefront in Korea since the 1970s, due to rapid economic development and consequent aspirations to class mobility and consolidation during the last thirty years. This novel [Marriage/결혼 by Kim Su-hyeon, 1993] is a good illustration of how, given the pace of change of change in Korea, everybody has a different point of view on marriage, depending on their gender, class, and generation. The issue of communication across generations has become a serious matter. Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States. (My emphases.)

(So-hee Lee, “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Popular Culture” in Under Construction: The gendering of modernity, class, and consumption in the Republic of Korea, ed. by Laurel Kendell, 2002; page 146 of 141-164)

With apologies to So-hee Lee for variously attributing that quote to either her editor, to Hyun-Mee Kim, or to Nancy Abelmann over the years, it still very much applies 10 years later. It’s also why studying and living in Korean society can be so exciting sometimes.

For someone who’s been writing about the place for over 5 years though, it means that many of my posts need updating. Let alone mercifully deleted as reader feedback, further research, and greater use of Korean sources have exposed gaping holes in my knowledge and confident preconceptions. And from a practical standpoint too, links will die, embedded videos will get deleted, and my theme will always highlight recent posts at the expense of older ones, no matter how good they may be after going through my culling process.

With all that in mind, once a month I’ll be highlighting posts from the corresponding month in previous years. Not all of them of course (hey, I’ll still like some material to work with in September 2013 and 2014), and to some there’s no new news to add; I include them just to draw attention to for new and old readers, especially as they’ve since been slightly edited for this post with the benefit of several year’s of hindsight. Others though, I’m adding a great deal of new news and commentary below, as you’ll see.

Please let me know what you think!

2011

Alas, not really my own article, but about Grace Duggan’s for Bust Magazine. While I’d often criticized the body-labeling craze in South Korea previously, I didn’t realize just how offensive this particular term was until she pointed it out (source, right):

Sexualizing young women for having childlike features sets off all kinds of alarms, regardless of whether or not they are over 18. The “bagel girl” label does more than infantilize women. It compartmentalizes them by applying two irreconcilable ideals: looking like a baby and a full-grown woman at the same time.

Granted, that may make it sound no more harmful than any other “line.” But, as I explain in a later comment, in the context of how it’s actually used it ends up sounding almost pedophilic:

…there’s nothing wrong with looking young per se.

But consider who the label is applied to: not, say, women in their 30s and 40s and older, for whom – let’s be real – wanting to look younger than they are is understandable (hell, for a 35 year-old guy like me too), but rather it’s women barely on the threshold of adulthood that are being praised for looking like children. And, not to put too fine a point on it, what the FUCK is great about a 21 year-old looking younger than she is? And when her body is simultaneously praised for being developed? That is a seriously flawed ideal to aspire to, and, moreover – as I hint at in the post – it’s no coincidence that it occurs in an environment with strong expectations of childish behavior from women too. Indeed, the end result strongly reminds me of child and teenage female manga characters, with personalities appropriate for their age, but somehow the sex drives and physiological development to act on them of women 10-15 years older.

(Source)

Meanwhile, by coincidence just yesterday I finished the excellent An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality by Jill Fields (2007), which explains how the word “glamour” — where the “gul/글” in Bagel Girl comes from — came to be closely associated with large breasts by Hollywood in the 1930s to 1950s. Something I’d previously chalked up to a Japanese and then Korean mistranslation of the word, see the above pages for more on that, or all of Chapter 3 on brassieres at Google Books here.

If I do say so myself, I’m very proud of the way I describe my feelings when child singers do aegyo:

…cutesy aegyo is bad enough coming from a 21 year-old singer, but simply surreal when you see it done by a 14 year-old.

Yes, surreal, not merely awkward and inexperienced: essentially, you’re watching a child pretending to be an adult pretending to be a child.

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to the (necessarily anonymous) reader who wrote about her experiences, and I’ve had dozens of inquires about the Seoul clinic she used since. Please just email me if you ever need to know the details yourself.

(Source)

2010

Once someone points out the “head cant” to you, it just can’t be unseen. Usually inoffensive in itself though, and frequently done simply for photographic and stylistic reasons (which I’ve under-acknowledged in the past), it’s the fact that it’s overwhelmingly women it that makes it problematic. Just one of a number of typical poses for women in ads, ultimately it serves to reinforce gender stereotypes.

Probably, that’s why these recent Giordano ads stood out to me: in the example above for instance, Shin Min-a (신민아) is the one in control, staring at the viewer, while So Ji-sub (소지섭) is distracted (it’s usually the guys that are presented as more focused). And, desperately seeking examples of pro-feminist advertisements for a TED presentation I may be giving next month, in which I have to — grrr — conclude with a positive message rather than just criticize, this made me realize that feminists and advertisers don’t necessarily have to be at odds with each other. Just a sense of balance by the latter would be a huge step forward.

Really about “lewd” advertisements, 2 years later (this June) I translated another article about how their numbers had surged 3 times over the previous 12 months. With no apparent sense of irony, just about every news site that reported on that had so many examples themselves that the text was difficult to read.

One of my most popular posts, anybody (especially men) who thinks street harassment isn’t a problem should just reflect on the opening cartoon, let alone female readers’ comments about their own negative experiences.

(Source: unknown)

2009

A short, harmless commercial for Shinhan Bank at first glance. But, once you take the time to analyze it, it has a clear message that men do the thinking at Shinhan while the women simply look good. Indeed, it’s such a classic example of gender stereotyping that I’m still using it in presentations today.

Here’s the slide I would present after providing that analysis:

But in the next presentation, I’ll be updating it with the recent news that the banking industry still has the largest gender pay gap in Korea, with women making an average of only 57% of what men make.

Not that I’m against skin by any means. But these remain very sweet ads!

Again one of my most popular posts, ironically soon after writing it trends in the Korean entertainment and music industries meant that Koreans would replace Caucasians in many of the modelling roles that sustained those Occidentalist stereotypes. Also, in my own (admittedly limited) experience, there’s far fewer Korean male – Western (invariably Caucasian) female pairings in popular culture now, after a spate of them in the years after Misuda first appeared. (There were never very many of the opposite.)

However, of course many of the stereotypes still do remain.

(Sources: left, right)

2008

When I read on Yahoo! Korea this week about pregnant Hollywood star’s “D-lines”, for a moment I did try to hold my tongue about seeing the label.

After all, this, for example, is just an advertisement for an event for expecting mothers (albeit one where likely body-shaping products are promoted); these D-line fashion shows were surely perfectly harmless; many of those Hollywood stars were indeed glowing, as was pregnant Moon So-ri (문소리) in Cosmopolitan last year; and finally, yes, I can see the humorous side — it is often applied to extremely obese men.

But although the Western media too promotes pampered celebrity mothers-to-be as ideals to follow, and I can certainly accept that pregnant women overseas may likewise feel under some indirect pressure to watch their weight, that post is about how pregnant Korean women were dieting as early as the late-1990s. One can only shudder at what things are probably like now.

Suddenly, talk of D-lines sounds a lot less funny.

One of my first attempts to grapple with the origins of the kkotminam phenomenon (꽃미남; lit. flower-beauty-man), which culminated in this piece by friend and ANU professor Roald Maliangkay 2 years later.

By coincidence, both of us will be quoted in a related news article to be published next week. Watch this space! (Update: and here it is!)

2007

And indeed there was. Unfortunately however, attitudes didn’t change with it, so fathers feel compelled by management to either ignore it entirely or to come back to work early, despite it only being 3 days (source right: unknown).

Note though, that the “paternity leave” in the original article I translated was a bit of a misnomer, it really meaning time off for a child’s birth. “Real,” paid paternity leave has been available since 2001 (or possibly 1995), but sources vary on specifics. Sung So-young in the Korean Joongang Daily, for instance, wrote in April 2011 that:

According to Korean law, all employees with a child under the age of 3 are eligible to take a year off to care for their children. Up to 1 million won ($919) in salary is provided monthly.”

But that is contradicted by a slightly later report in the Chosun Ilbo, which states that:

…those on leave can get up to 40 percent of their salary, or a minimum of W500,000 and a maximum of W1 million, and parents can take leave until the child is 6 years old.

And both in turn are contradicted by Lee Hyo-sik’s earlier report in the March 4 2011 Korea Times, which says:

Regardless of income levels, both male and female salaried workers are currently given 500,000 won per month during parental leave. This is expected to go up to one million won next year.

As for the maximum age of the children in order to be eligible, the same article states that it was 6 rather than 3. This is confirmed by an earlier February 2010 article by Kwon Mee-yoo, again in the Korea Times, which stated:

The Ministry of Labor passed a revision on Wednesday to the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation, or the Employment Equity Act for short, which will expand the range of workers eligible for parental leave. Now parents with preschoolers under six years old can benefit.

The leave allows employees to take a certain number of paid days off from work to care for their children. The parents can also take unpaid leave if they use up all of their paid days. This includes maternity, paternity and adoption leave. Currently, at private firms only workers with children 3 years old or less qualify for the leave.

Surprisingly, parents with adopted children weren’t eligible before this revision, and still, “only those who gave birth to or adopted children after Jan. 1, 2008 [were to be allowed] parental leave,” despite those (then) 2 to 6 year-olds obviously being of age. Which all sounds very tight-fisted, although logical during the worst of the financial crisis.

Kwon Mee-yoo also notes that it was in 2008 that the government increased the age restriction for (only) public servants, allowing them “to take time off for parental purposes if their children were under 6 years old.” I’ll assume that it previously only applied if their children were under 3 years old, like Kwon notes was the case for employees at private firms.

Finally, quibbles over details aside, Sung So-young’s and Lee Hyo-sik’s articles in particular remain excellent discussions of why Korean fathers are forced to avoid taking paternity leave, despite wanting to spend much more time with their kids. Against that though, just like in most other countries there’s still a pervasive attitude that childcare is primarily women’s work, with insidious manifestations in our daily lives.

And on that note, have a good weekend, and the Korean Gender Reader post will be up on Sunday!

2 thoughts on “From the Archives: Bagel Girls, Banking, and Babies!

  1. “you’re watching a child pretending to be an adult pretending to be a child”
    Indeed, this is a marvelous way to put it… And good job with the review and update of older posts!

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