(Still) Empowering Korean Women: Over-the-counter contraceptive pills

Increased access to the pill in the US provides a reminder of how good it’s always been in South Korea.
Korea Contraceptive Pill Commercial(Source: YouTube)

Have you heard? Women in Oregon can get hormonal contraceptives directly from pharmacies now, without having to go to a doctor for a prescription first. And in California, they’ll be able to do so from March, whatever their age.

Which is great news. But with health and reproductive rights being such a quagmire in the US, it will be a long time before that’s the case in the other 48 states. Indeed, some supporters think the new legislation will even slow down that extension of access, due to the lengthy FDA approval process required for converting prescription contraceptives to over-the-counter products.

Whatever happens, I was struck by the stark contrast to Korea, where the monthly contraceptive pill has been available over-the-counter for 48 years. As Jordan McCutcheon explains, in her recent article “12 ways Korea ruined me for the US” for Matador Network (my emphasis):

Before I left to go abroad, I was told my insurance wouldn’t cover a year’s worth of birth control at one time (shocker). In Korea, birth control is over the counter, and it’s cheap. I asked for the active ingredient in the medicine I took at home, and the pharmacist found a similar brand. So, for ₩8,000 ($7) I can buy as much as I want whenever I want because I’m a woman who knows what’s good for my body, and what it doesn’t need is another US male politician regulating my right to not reproduce.

That said, only 2.5 percent of Korean women actually use the pill. Probably, due to a combination of aggressive sterilization programs in the 1970s and ’80s, a knock-on tendency to leave contraception in men’s hands, and because of scaremongering by the Korean Medical Association.

Also, there were alarm bells in mid-2012, when the KFDA announced bizarre plans to make monthly pills require a prescription, but morning-after pills over-the-counter. (Basically, the opposite of the existing situation.) But there was no medical justification provided. Instead, it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

In the meantime then, Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial.

The voiceover says “My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title is “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.

Or is that just me? Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments, about these commercials, how they compare to pill commercials overseas, and/or about contraceptives in Korea in general. And if I’ve been reading too much into these two examples too—no matter how much fun I’ve had doing so! ;)

Just in case though, I’m happy to point out that Mercilon’s commercials at least, do seem to acknowledge that they can be used for that thing called sex too (which is also fun):

Update 1: Satire or not, the second commercial is very similar to this genuine one for Myvlar:

Update 2: According to Stuff, there’s a strong possibility the pill is going to be made (more) over-the-counter in New Zealand also. Most commenters are supportive of the move, and question just how useful and necessary visits to GPs are. For instance, according to “BenzyY”:

In my experience, doctors tend not to provide any real advice or counselling about the use of the pill anyway. When you first start taking it they tell you to read the information leaflet. That is all. And once you’re on it, all they do is harass you about your weight and medical history, and when asked about spotting, imply that boyfriends/partners/husbands have been cheating and have given you an STI.

Bring on pharmacy visits.

Meanwhile, the author of Vintage Ads was stuck at “how condom ads [in Western countries] have changed from ‘prevent pregnancy’ to ‘prevent disease’ over the years.” I wonder then, if these Korean pill ads are so coy about their pregnancy prevention because of Korean sensibilities, or whether they’re more a reflection of recent, international trends in contraceptive advertising?

Related Posts:

(Review) Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (2013)

Judy Garland & Lana Turner, Breasts Florence Williams(Source, left: Bombshell Bettie. Source right: unknown)

Many years ago, I was perusing the “Last Word” section of a New Scientist magazine, where readers submit and answer each others’ science questions. If memory serves, that week the questions were about why men are soooo attracted to breasts, and why human females’ are disproportionately large compared to other primates’. Much commentary ensued, in hindsight entirely by men. (And, entirely British men at that—but that’s a subject for another review.) Then, someone who actually had breasts stepped in, and said something along the lines of:

 “It occurs to me that few of the previous commenters have ever suckled a baby. If they had, they’d realize how important the shape is to prevent babies from suffocating while nursing.”

All of a sudden, I realized that much—probably most—of what I’d ever read about the evolution of breasts had been written by men, centered around sexual selection and the all-important male gaze. This lack of women’s voices meant I’d missed out on many obvious observations and insights, which strongly challenged theories I’d long taken for granted.

Much the same experience can be had from the first chapter of Breasts, greatly aided by Florence Williams’ similar, no-nonsense style of writing. For instance, from pages 22-23:

…there are problems with making sweeping statements about evolution based on studies about male behavior in pubs. For one thing, I am still hung up on the nubility hypothesis, which might as well be called the sag hypothesis [that age, gravity, and successive pregnancies take their toll on breasts, signalling to other men that younger women with perkier breasts might be more suitable mates]. But speaking from personal experience, I can report my breasts actually got bigger and fuller after pregnancy. I really can’t say they are sagging, not yet anyway. I am well past the age of what anthropologists call “peak reproductive value.” Does a man really need breasts to tell him a women is getting on in years? Aren’t there more obvious signs that don’t require awkward social glances? And as anyone who’s been to a public shower or springtime college campus can tell you, there is an enormous, and I mean enormous, variety of breast sizes out there. I’m talking 300 to 500 percent differences in volume, and these are in women of roughly the same age. What other body part is so variable, I ask? If breasts were such important communicators, wouldn’t they be more on the same page?

Further complicating the picture, there is also great variety in men’s tastes. [A male scientist interviewed] conceded that male preferences aren’t as universal as he’d hoped…

Nor does she simply critique such theories, but discusses several other equally plausible ones centered around health, fat deposition, and suckling babies. Indeed, “With breasts,” one anthropologist she interviews concludes, “men are just loading culturally a set of symbolizations onto something that really evolved for more direct reasons. We’ve got to be more scientific about it.” That’s a refreshing new perspective, and much-needed imperative, given all the misinformation about breasts out there.

Yet she overcompensates I think, in ending that chapter by rejecting the combined, complimentary roles of natural and sexual selection. Instead, she goes to the opposite extreme, completely dismissing the (literally snowballing) role of breasts’ sexual attraction to men in their greater and greater size over time (pages 34-35):

What if instead of men selecting breasts, the breasts selected the men? It’s possible that…Early Man loved lots of different specimens of Early Woman, some with no breasts, some with small breasts, some with hairy breasts, whatever. Man, for all we know, is sometimes not that picky. Then, for the [physiological] reasons described earlier…the women with the enlarged breasts and their infants gradually outlasted the others…

Consequently, the people who could talk and sing and have the biggest, best-fed brains were the ones born of women with breasts. It makes perfect sense that we would grow up to appreciate and enjoy breasts, eventually putting pictures of them in eye-trackers machines in universities.

Perhaps, all along, the breasts were calling the shots.

It’s just an off-the-cuff conclusion really, but it reminded me that with a breezy, persuasive writing style, tends to come arguments and examples that are often much more debatable than authors make them appear. It also felt alienating, because here she seems less concerned about scientific plausibility than in playing to her likely overwhelmingly female audience, justifiably sick of men lecturing to them about breasts.

To understand what I mean, imagine, say, a male author dismissing women’s preferences for tall men as having had no influence on humans getting taller over time. Rather, tall men just happened to do better in the competition for mates because of physically defeating shorter, weaker rivals for sexual access to passively awaiting women.

As for women’s own sexual preferences, and what they had to say about who they had children with? Or how those sexual preferences arose in the first place? Pfft.

Maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills. But it helped me realize her book is only a starting point really.

On a first reading though, you’ll be much too busy enjoying it to care.

First, because of the wide variety of topics she covers. I’ve only concentrated on the first chapter here, because of the strong impression it left on me. But, if curves don’t do it for you personally, there’s 13 more topics on various aspects of breasts which may have have a similar impact on you, such as changes during pregnancy, feeding, development in puberty, toxins, cancer, and so on.

Those strongly reflect Williams’ background as a science journalist, so readers hoping for in-depth discussions about fashion, lingerie, and/or cultural attitudes may be disappointed to encounter mentions only in passing (albeit frequent mentions). But I’d still encourage them to buy the book. Because these are breasts we’re talking about. Whatever your sex or sexuality, you do have an interest in and/or some opinion about them, in which case there will be something—probably many things—in this book in for you. (I have so many post-its in my The best moments in reading -- Alan Bennettown copy, it looks like I read it during a ticker-tape parade.)

Also, because however science-focused, it’s so humorous that you won’t want to put it down. For instance, take how she describes undergoing an examination in a cosmetic surgery clinic, to better understand what it’s like for patients (page 60):

The robe came off, and [the surgeon] pulled out a small tape measure, He measured me from collarbone to nipple, from nipple to under-breast fold, and from nipple to nipple, calling out numbers to [the assistant]. He took a step back and mashed my breasts together with his hands, then squeezed each one like a club sandwich. I felt like I was awaiting the word of St. Peter. I was secretly hoping one of the world’s foremost experts on flawed breasts would be so vexed by my nice, very normal breasts that he’d tell me he had nothing to offer.

That also stood out for me because while reading the first sentence, I had a feeling that if I had breasts, I’d like to walk into a cosmetic surgery and be told that mine were different, better somehow. Maybe even exceptional.

Then with the last sentence, Florence Williams literally spoke my mind.

As well as being funny, it gave me a simultaneously eerie and warmly empathetic feeling. One which I hope I’ve sometimes given my own readers in my own writing.

Or, if not, that’s something to aspire to. Helped along, by also providing much more readable—i.e., shorter—and relevant posts for you in 2016. Starting with reviewing only the books I think TGN readers would be interested in, instead of every book I read.

Any thoughts or questions on Breasts? How about on breasts in general? Anything you’ve been meaning to get off your chest? Please let me know in the comments.

Next Review: Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, by Anne Allison (1994).

Related Posts:

One Size Fits All in South Korea, As Long as That Size Is Small

body parts psychologist couch(“Une illustration pour cet article sur le site d’Urbania.” Source: Pierre-Nicolas Riou, via
Illustration-ilustración
)

Sorry for the slow posting everyone: exploring some interesting side-possibilities revealed after embarking on last month’s project, I tumbled headlong into an aegyo-filled labyrinth, from which I’ve only just emerged. (Also, I’ve been grading.) Rather than present the treasures I’ve discovered now though, when everyone’s busy with Christmas and New Year’s, let me round off the year with some shorter posts instead.

This first is a link to Maxine Builder’s article of the above title at Racked, which I was interviewed for. It’s a good read, and quite thorough. So, assuming you’ve read it, I’ll just elaborate on my own comments:

According to James Turnbull…”There are almost no average-sized female K-pop stars.” This matters when these idols’ images are plastered on every TV screen and billboard. Turnbull estimates that approximately half to three-quarters of all advertisements are celebrity endorsements.

“Time and time again, I see opportunities for Korean entertainment companies to take some plus-size woman… or just someone different, and celebrate their difference. But they just don’t do it,” said Turnbull — because that skinny, sexy look sells. “It doesn’t give them any incentive to take that risk, and that’s why we get the same again and again.”

Frankly, I was worried that my comment about no average-sized female K-pop stars might have been a bit of an overgeneralization, and/or revealed that I’m out of touch with new groups. But if Omona commenters didn’t call me out on that, then I guess it still holds true. (Yay?)

Amber Sulli(Source: Pinterest)

As for not celebrating difference, I was mostly thinking of the Piggy Dolls debacle, and S.M. Entertainment’s and advertisers’ overuse of the very young, very thin Sulli—despite f(x) also including Amber, just about the only “tomboyish,” non-thin, and frequently mistaken as lesbian woman in K-pop, who appeals to many demographics otherwise completely ignored. Although I haven’t really followed the group in a while (partially because of that, partially because of poor Luna’s dramatic, ongoing weight loss and excessive cosmetic surgery), I’ve always been struck by the waste, and would be happy to hear she’s finally been receiving more endorsements and greater attention now that Sulli has left.

And/or, of any other entertainment companies that are diversifying their groups’ make-ups, however tentatively. One I do know of is DR Music, who added half-Caucasian, half-Black Alexandra from the US to Rania last month. Does anyone know of any more?

Talk: Sympathetically, Gravely? North Korean Spies in Recent South Korean Cinema (SungKongHoe University, Monday 4pm)

North Korean Spies in Recent South Korean Cinema -- Stephen EpsteinSorry for the short notice. Please check out the posters for the details (click to enlarge).

Talk: Daejanggeum and “the Impossible Country,” Seoul, Thursday December 3rd

SOOHEE KIM INVITATIONI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

WOMENLABKOREA (여성 연구)

Daejanggeum and “the Impossible Country,” Thursday December 3rd

Description:

A #WMLABTALKS event—inspirational thought-provoking lectures.

SOOHEE KIM SCHEDULE PROGRAMAt womenlabkorea, we are inspired by remarkable women and women’s organizations, and so we set out to tell stories that highlight women’s lives and their role in South Korea.

We believe that one voice or one story can make a difference and that is why we are rallying female entrepreneurs, expat women, nonprofit founders, bloggers, and more to share their voice and insight.

This time our speaker will be Soohee Kim, a Korean entrepreneur and Korean Language teacher. Inspired by the true story of Jang-Geum, an apprentice cook that became the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty, Ms Kim will tell us her own story of perseverance and her own vision of this fascinating country’s impressive achievements.

All proceeds will be donated to programs supporting North Korean refugees and participants´ support will make an enormous and powerful impact.

Schedule: 10:00 AM-12:30 PM

Venue: Hillside Residence

Registration: Ana Dols, 010 4119 7790 (womenlabkorea@gmail.com/blog)

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 1

Canadian Women's Army Corps vs. Apink(Sources: Left, Big Forehead Kisses; Right, 병무청 Twitter. The heading reads, “Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early],” the subheading, “You are Korea’s real men.”)

What could be more Korean than girl-group members in high heels and camo one-pieces, blossoming with aegyo for their big, strong oppas doing their military service?

What else but seeking out the cutest, most virginal group possible, then making them representatives for your entire military?

Last March, I learned that Apink had been selected as the first female PR “ambassadors” for the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), which administers Korea’s conscripts. Despite everything, it still felt jarring: what was a girl-group—any girl group—doing representing such a male-dominated (and notoriously sexist) institution?

Apink military 1(The subway ad that sparked this post. Source: 23throom)

Not realizing that appointments like theirs actually had a long precedent as I’ll explain, my first thought was to compare their recruitment posters to some of their (Allied) World War Two equivalents. I expected that most that featured women would present sexual access to them as a motivation for fighting, and/or the denial of that access to the rapacious enemy. But to my surprise, most of the posters with women were actually for women, with the purpose of recruiting them for ancillary organizations and factory work. Borrowing “the seductiveness, sass, and self-assurance” of pin-up girls, Maria Elena Buszek explains in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (2006), they reminded women of their choices among active, formerly “masculine” paths in the public sphere, “in what must have felt like an abundance of They're all topssubversive opportunities.” And the contrast with Apink’s roles in the MMA’s campaign for men was striking. (Source, right: Pin Up: The Movie.)

For Apink were not just some random girl-group. When they debuted in 2011, only one member was over 18, with another was as young as 14. So, whereas most entertainment companies relied on ever more provocative “sexy concepts” to get their groups noticed, Cube Entertainment emphasized Apink’s cuteness and innocence instead. Those personas came across strongly in the campaign, indicating they likely played a big role in why Apink was chosen.

And that’s where it became problematic.

Not just because I’m a grouch who thinks aegyo should only be enjoyed in moderation. But because the Apink members themselves, by then almost all grown women, increasingly complained about literally not being allowed to mature. Also, because it was disingenuous, those personas being very much at odds with the sexualized manner in which girl-groups are (naturally) viewed by conscripts, and are presented to them in practice. But most of all, because dig past the many, many layers of bullshit that can and probably will be used to disguise and/or justify this instance of Korea’s pervasivelolita nationalism” (a.k.a., samcheon fandom for a cause), then what you’re left with is one damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality deliberately being promoted to the 250,000 young Korean men conscripted every year.

For years I’ve described Korea’s universal, mandatory male conscription as a profound socialization experience, which practically—and to an extent even legally—has or still excludes a great many groups from effective participation in Korean economic and political life, most notably LGBT individuals, the disabled, mixed-race children, and, of course, women. But sorry—it’s been a while since I’ve given an actual example of how that works in practice. Also, while it’s a still a must-read, it’s been ten years now since Seungsook Moon’s Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea came out, and, in hindsight, she barely mentioned the role of popular culture in supporting and propagating the ideologies outlined therein. So, to compensate for both, here’s Part 1 of a #verylongread below, and one which I hope Apink fans will realize has nothing against Apink themselves…

Supporting the Troops—A Quick History

(Something) For The Boys(Sources: left, @ThemeTimeBob; right, dcinside)

There are many reasons no-one should be surprised by the appointment of a girl-group to represent the MMA. If anything, it’s stranger that it didn’t happen much sooner, because:

1) Korean girl-groups and female entertainers performing for the military in Korea is a significant part of Korean popular-culture, with roots going back to the Japanese colonial and US occupation periods, and with spillovers into performances for schools. So the notion that one such group would come to officially represent the military is hardly a radical step.

Also, there is the elephant in the room that is the historical role of prostitutes around US bases, originally with official approval. That’s a far cry from K-pop performances of course, but, if nothing else, it’s indicative of the Korean state’s long-standing, very collusive, and very objectifying view of women vis-à-vis the military.

Here’s Apink performing on a base themselves, shortly after they debuted in 2011:

(Watching the conscripts, no-one can blame them for their over-the-top reactions to, well, females. But it all comes across as a little creepy when you realize they’re professing their love for middle-school girls, and begs the question of what such a young group was doing there.)

2) Just a cursory examination reveals a host of regular, albeit usually temporary “honorary ambassadorships” by girl-groups and female performers for a range of organizations. Examples include the Ministry of National Defense appointing 4Minute as ambassadors for its Korea Armed Forces’ 29 Seconds Film Festival; the appointment of Hello Venus to make the music video/dance/song Soldier for the recent 6th CISM Military World Games;

…the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, which also relies on conscripts to a large extent, appointing BESTIE to make a stirring song about stamping out school violence;

…and the appointment and later promotion of IU as an honorary police officer by the national police agency. Indeed, that was over a year before the appointment of Apink by the MMA, which makes me wonder how far back using women to advertise and promote still overwhelmingly male organizations goes?

I’m thinking probably quite far, given what I’ve just been learning about regular girl-group performances for the police. Which gives me a chance to totally stan this amazing 2NE1 video by way of example:

3) Korea, along with Japan, has one of the highest rates of celebrity endorsements in the world (among developed markets). This includes being the face of public campaigns and/or for governmental organizations, which sometimes have a profound impact on public opinion.

One memorable example is the National Election Commission’s choice of The Wondergirls to encourage voting in local elections in April 2008, which was somehow best achieved by outfitting them in faux, tight-fitting school uniforms, and despite—notice a trend here?—two members still being of middle-school age (15):

Two years later, Girl’s Generation would do something similar (although by that stage, no members of that group were underage). As described by Yeran Kim in “Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies” (Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 2011):

At Korea’s 2010 national election, the most famous girl idol group, Girls’ Generation was recruited for the campaign to promote citizens’ participation in the vote. Girls’ Generation released a single, album and music video of the campaign song titled ‘LaLaLa’. Girls’ Generation also appeared on TV campaigns in which each girl member was visualized as a Tinkerbell-like mini-sized icon, while the citizen voters were represented by male citizens. Girl idols are equally utilized for important international events; for instance, Girls’ Generation were appointed as Customs Promotion Ambassadors in preparation for the G20 Summit Conference in 2010 in Seoul. The girl idols are, at least in appearance, presented as agents who have the power of motivating, seducing or interpellating citizens to become involved in the project of global nation building.

Also, to get yet another elephant in the room out of the way early on. (With K-pop, they tend to come in herds.) Yes, a lot of the things described in this post were modeled on Japan:

Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend .. Old people up, young people down.(“Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend: Old people up, young people down.” Source: Fusion)

4) Though (probably) few in number, there have been some prominent gender-bending Korean ads in recent years. Examples include: Kim Sa-rang endorsing Gillette razors; Hyun Bin endorsing a tea-drink that supposedly gives you a V-line (albeit part of a process to encourage men to get hitherto “feminine” V-lines, thereby increasing the market); various male celebrities endorsing lingerie; and Yoo Yeon-seok endorsing feminine-hygiene products:

Korean Advertising Celebrities(Sources: Nemopan, 초아의 퍼스트드림 이야기)

5) The Korean military currently has one hell of a PR problem. In short, because it is still very much stuck in the 1970s. Let me explain.

Seventy-five percent of Korean soldiers are conscripts, who are paid minimal wages, and have to endure “abysmal living conditions.” Essentially, they’re a huge, convenient slave labor force, who not only “have to pave roads in the mountains or dig up snow” for the government, but have to do even the most menial of tasks too—”such as cleaning the pool of the general’s house.” This discourages expensive mechanization and modernization, as well illustrated by the following anecdote given by Ask a Korean!:

…the Korean has a friend who spent his military years in the eastern mountain range in Korea. One day, the general decided that he would have fresh sashimi for his guest. The Korean’s friend and his squad mate drove in a truck for two hours to the shore, and managed to acquire fresh, live fish. But how to bring them home fresh and alive?

A normal person’s answer would be, “Rent a truck with equipped with a tank and an air compressor, the kind that would deliver live fish to sushi restaurants.” But remember, this is the Korean military. It does not have the money to rent such a truck, but it does have the manpower of two soldiers.

So what did the Korean’s friend do? He sat in the back of the truck, churning the water in the tub so that air would go in and the fish would be kept alive. (His squad mate got to drive the truck because he joined the military a few months ahead of the Korean’s friend, therefore outranking him.) This was in the middle of winter, and the truck bed was exposed to the freezing wind as the truck drove into the mountains. The Korean’s friend nearly froze to death, but the fish were alive until they were served on a plate that evening.

Stories of this type, coming out of Korean military, are dime a dozen.

But for the victim, probably only amusing until well after his service was completed. Because with such perverse demands on conscripts, comes an unusually strictly defined hierarchy and secretive nature to ensure compliance. This leaves them vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse, which has culminated in a spate of high-profile suicides and killings in recent years. (Including on the very day I typed this.)

What’s more, this unprecedented media scrutiny comes at a moment when it’s increasingly struggling to maintain its numbers, as Korea’s low birth rate begins to make its impact felt. Probably then, the military is now very concerned about softening its image.

(That said, currently it has more men wanting to sign up than there are spaces available, but that’s only because they want to get their conscription out of the way while the job market is so terrible. Indeed, so terrible in fact, that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.)

When the Korean police had the same problem, this was one of their solutions:

Podori, Posuni, Riot Podori(The male is called “Podori,” the female “Ponsuni.” Yes, that’s really Podori in his riot gear on the right. Source, left: Chuing. Right: unknown)

Did I say I was surprised to see a girl-group in camo? I didn’t say that, someone else must have. Because anyone up to speed on K-pop and the Korean media could have seen the time was ripe for a girl-group to represent the MMA. The cutesier, the better.

But Why Apink?

Apink MMA(Source: APinkPanda)

To many of you reading, who are already aware of Apink’s reputation, probably I’ve already answered that question. However, you could argue that Apink was chosen simply because of their popularity at the time. You’d be wrong, but I admit it’s a plausible first explanation. For instance:

Apink Military Charts(Source: TickTalk)

Technically though, all of those were after their appointment in March (although they’re still indicative). Possibly more influential then, was their winning the military charts in January, which apparently are a thing. Here’s a video about that and some screenshots of their reactions to the news, which give strong hints of the sort of roles they’d be performing for the MMA campaign two months later:

Apink Military 1Jung Eun-ji: We are like [the soldiers’] little sisters next door…

Apink Military 2…the soldiers must have felt we were familiar…

Apink Military 3Park Cho-rong: (To the soldiers) Girl-groups are like the star candies in the hardtack snack

Apink Military 4…We will try to sing a lot to help keep your spirits up…

Apink Military 5…Cheer up! We love you!

Apink Military 6Further adding to the notion that Apink was chosen simply for their popularity, in the year and a half since their appointment the MMA has been happy to have a range of girl-groups pass on cutesie messages or songs to cheer the troops up. Regardless of where their reputations fell on the virginal-cutesie-aegyo to slutty-sexy-concepts scale:

For example, from 9Muses this September:

From two members of SISTAR (I can’t identify the male rapper sorry):

From EXID in July:

From Hyeri of Girl’s Day:

From GFriend:

Indeed, check out the video history of the MMA Youtube channel, and barely a month goes by without some girl-group making an appearance. Here’s 4Minute in September 2014:

And here’s Ladies’ Code in a video uploaded in December 2014. Somewhat strangely and tactlessly, that was actually two months after two members (2nd and 4th from the left) had died in a traffic accident:

Add that Apink’s popularity rapidly moved on to other groups, the implication of these examples is that any girl-group would have done really, and may well have been chosen if they’d been more popular at the time. And sure, why not? After all, despite the constant bullshit about girl-power from the Korean media, the Korean government, and Korean entertainment companies, most supposedly “sexy” and “mature” girl-groups seem to combine their revealing costumes and erotic dances with off-stage personas that are just as saccharine as their “cute,” “innocent” counterparts.

As one might expect with, usually, everyone but the women themselves telling us how grown-up and independent they are.

But with sexy groups, there is always the danger that their provocative costumes and choreography will overstep the limits of favorable netizen and public opinion. Also, and in particular, at about the same time Apink were appointed, many K-pop groups were beginning to suffer from dating “scandals”—that is, being revealed to be in relationships at all—with the women receiving the brunt of fans’ anger (from female fans for dating “their” male idol, from male fans for not “waiting” for them instead). Without condoning the double-standards behind that backlash, and indeed deploring those fans whose liking of a celebrity is contingent on his or her sexual history, I can appreciate why relationships are a sensitive subject for conscripts, many of whom either split up with their girlfriend before enlisting, or constantly fear that she’s cheating on him while he’s serving. (See the 2008 movie Crazy Waiting for an exploration of this.)

(That being said, the girlfriends have equal cause for concern, as it’s not uncommon for conscripts to visit prostitutes.)

So if a cute, innocent, non-dating girl-group was required, why not select the group with the strongest reputation as such, and the least likely to radically change?

Indeed, one so strong as to be blatantly contrived for ajosshi/samhcheon fans? For instance:

  • While promoting their third mini-album in July 2013, Apink told an interviewer that Cube Entertainment suggested that they transition to more mature concepts, but they wanted to maintain an innocent one. They also pointed that several members were underage, preventing the group from doing those sexy concepts. (Although only one—Oh Ha-young—still was as of March 2014, and she turned 18 that July.)
  • In April 2014, it was revealed that 20 Fei yeah rightyear-old So Na-eun had never dated. Yes, technically after they’d been hired by the MMA, but again it’s indicative (I’m sure I could dig up earlier examples).
  • Also in April 2014, and in particular, they claimed that as no members had ever even kissed, then “they [had to think] of their fans while dancing the key choreography moves for Mr. Chu.
  • That was because they described it as “a pop dance song about a first kiss shared with a loved one, featuring Apink’s bolder but still shy way of confessing love.” But not so bold though, as to further stress the sensibilities of delicate fans, who had been concerned about a possible concept change ever since they saw the members wearing—wait for it—red lipstick on the album cover.

That is to say, the Korean media made that last claim, which is never shy of putting the concerns of ajosshi/samcheon fans front and center; click on the GIF to see what (generally quite knowledgeable) Omona They Didn’t commenters thought of all that, and for more examples of the Lolitaesque subtext to Apink’s repeated claims of innocence. I’ll return to those in later posts, as I will the third elephant of the herd: that, all that time, the Apink members may have just been parroting the lines provided to them by Cube Entertainment, as indeed they may have been later when they started expressing their frustrations with their continued infantilization—an issue at the heart of how we judge K-pop, yet something that we usually just don’t know.

But we do know that, whether speaking for themselves and/or their employers, the change in tone is significant, and, having just made a deal with the MMA, not exactly in the latter’s interests. We also know that, even just judging by the campaign alone, that a cute, innocent group was indeed required for it, and obviously so:

Apink military(Source: MMA Facebook Page; left, right)

These poster templates were used often, with the text changed as per necessary. The titles in these ones say:

Left: Those soldiers who make the bold choice to make the army your career (and get paid), we cheer for you.

Subheading: You can also choose to be in the special forces.

Right: Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early].

Subheading: You are Korea’s real men

Apink Letters(Source: CSBNTV)

The MMA’s tweet reads (the poster is about the same thing):

If you write a letter, you will receive a mobile voucher [you can spend at coffee shops etc.] #MMA So let’s write a letter to the soldiers! #Apink #Nam-ju wrote a letter too!

And Kim Nam-ju’s own “letter” reads (see here, here, here, here, and here for similarly-themed messages in the series from other members):

Hello, this is Nam-ju from Apink! You are having a hard time, right? Aww…But I want you to always cheer up and find strength. Hee-hee. While listening to our songs, always cheer up and eat well and plentifully…I hope you get stronger. Ha ha ha…since friends the same age as me (in our 20s) are also doing their military service I worry more and more (cry cry). Always cheer up! If you laugh, you’ll be happy! Smile! I love you Korean soldiers! (Salute!)

Apink PR MMA Ambassadors(Source: Mogahablog)

Rest assured, there’s much more where that came from.

But why didn’t I just lead with all these examples? Why have I so labored the point that Apink was so well suited to the cutesie MMA campaign, when probably nobody, not even the most dedicated of Apink fans, needed convincing in the first place?

Good questions.

The main reason is that to critique the MMA campaign, and specifically to demonstrate that it was disingenuous, you need to show the disconnect between the intent and the reality. But I can’t definitively claim that Apink wasn’t just chosen for their popularity in early-2014 of course. Or, for that matter, that they weren’t just chosen because of some special financial arrangements between the MMA and Cube Entertainment, that simply weren’t offered to and/or possible with other entertainment companies for their own groups. Again, we just don’t know.

What we can say though, is that entertainment companies and the military are joined at the hip. That away from the performances on bases that get most of the media’s attention, girl-groups of all stripes are constantly presenting the same sorts of cutesie messages to conscripts, and acting like children in front of them. That, even if Apink wasn’t necessarily the only group able to fulfill that role on a permanent basis, that it was the most reliable choice to do so. And, lest we forget, that the companies or institutions doing the hiring of K-pop groups that call the shots, and that entertainment companies are only too willing to compromise their groups’ brand images or concepts for the sake of the hard income their advertising campaigns provide. A lesson I personally learned from DSP Media, who quite literally presented a new, very womanly side to KARA through the choreography to Mister back in the winter of 2009, only then to have them acting like my children in a commercial for Pepero by the following spring:

KARA Butt Dance(Source: FLV)

Ergo, the MMA wanted a cutesie, virginal girl-group, and that’s what they got. But how about the conscripts themselves?

I’m sure you can guess. But it’s always best to get first-person accounts, so I’ll provide two in Part 2. Then, because not all of you may share my instinctive distrust of all things aegyo, in Part 3 I’ll consider an interesting perspective on Apink’s from May 2012, which—dare I say it?—demonstrates it can have some positives when done willingly by and for teenage girls…but which makes the negatives of young women performing it unwillingly for men in 2015 all the clearer. Finally, I’ll discuss the alternative gender roles the MMA could have presented in their campaign, as suggested by those World War Two recruitment posters.

I really don’t like making the split, as frankly this post has been a real labor of love for the past *cough* three months, which I feel works best at a whole. But at a combined total of over 10,000 words, it’s a necessary, reluctant concession to reality. Please help me make the best of it then, by adding your own thoughts in the comments, which I’ll consider and maybe incorporate as I finalize the remaining post(s). Thanks!

(p.s. Before it acquired a life of its own, this post was supposed to be the follow-up to Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1.)

Screening Tomorrow: Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community (2002) and Us & Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-pop World (2014)

us and them korean indie rock in a k-pop worldVia the event’s Facebook page:

Please join our screening on Saturday 17th October. We will be showing two short documentaries about the Korean indie and punk rock music scene. Producer Stephen Epstein will be there to introduce the documentaries and take part in a Question and Answer session after the screening. This is your chance to hear all about the vibrant Korean indie rock and punk scene. FREE ENTRY & ENGLISH SUBTITLES.

서울필름소사이어티의 10월 17일 토요일 영화상영회에 초대합니다. 이날 상영드릴 영화는 한국의 인디 음악과 펑크락 음악을 주제로 한 두 편의 다큐멘터리입니다. 상영을 마친 후에는 본 다큐멘터리를 감독하신 스테판 엡스타인 감독을 직접 모셔 다큐멘터리에 대한 설명을 듣고 관중들과 함께 질의응답을 하는 시간을 가질 것입니다. 한국의 다채로운 인디 음악과 펑크 음악의 현주소를 알아볼 수 있는 좋은 기회입니다. 입장은 무료이며 영화는 영어자막과 함께 상영됩니다.

Stephen Epstein, you may recall, wrote most of was my coauthor for our chapter in The Korean Popular Culture Reader, and I’ve linked to many of his articles over the years; suffice to say, I’ve no hesitation in recommending literally anything he’s produced. See the link for more information about his and Timothy Tangherlini’s documentaries screening tomorrow, and for further details about the event schedule and location.

Meanwhile, apologies for the late notice, and for the lack of blog posts. Both are because, sadly, my wife’s grandmother had a stroke over Chuseok, and while she’s recovering (relatively) well from that, she’s also been diagnosed with cervical cancer, which little can be done about at her advanced age of 86. Specifically, Korean patient-care being what it is, my wife has been spending much of her time in her hometown taking care of her, leaving me to look after our daughters. That can’t be helped of course, and I’m managing, but it does mean it’ll be a few more weeks before I’m able to start writing again sorry.

Until then though, sorry for the downer, and you still keep up with the news via my Twitter and/or the blog’s Facebook page :)