I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.

When K-pop Gets Under Your Skin…

city of girls' generation gangnam(Source)

My latest piece for Busan Haps, on the contributions that K-pop has made to cosmetic surgery medical tourism.

I chose the topic because I’d always assumed that K-pop was easily Korea’s #1 cultural export. And, building on from that, that surely most medical tourists to Korea would be coming for cosmetic surgery. After all, what would this blog be without all the posts on dieting and body-image narratives in K-pop songs? On stars’ cosmetic, beauty, and dieting-related endorsements? Or, of course, on the ideals set by their bodies themselves?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First, because K-pop only accounted for just five per cent of the revenues from cultural content exports in 2013, as demonstrated in this Arirang news report from January. That worked out to $255 million, out of a total of $5.1 billion.

Korean Content Industry Exports for 2013(Source)

Next, because cosmetic surgery tourists only comprised seven point six percent of medical tourists in 2012. Yes, really.

When I wrote the article, I mistook that for the 2013 percentage, which isn’t available yet. But, assuming it remained the same (although the trend is for rapid growth), that would have resulted in a paltry $7.6 million in revenues in the January to November 2013 period, based on these figures that incorporate revenues lost from Korea’s surprisingly high numbers of outgoing medical tourists (unlike the grossly inflated KTO figures).

No wonder “a renowned business professor” recently dismissed the economic benefits of K-pop.

Frankly, another reason I chose this topic was because I expected I’d quickly prove him wrong. Instead, I soon found myself chagrined, forced to concede that perhaps he had a point.

But the long-term benefits? He’s dead wrong about those. To find out why, please see the article!

Why the Japanese Don’t Illegally Download Music. Much.

Bodacious Space Pirates(Source)

For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough for K-Pop.

The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song.

Bernie Cho, head of music distribution label DFSB Kollective, says online music sellers have dropped their prices too low in a bid to compete with pirated music sites….

….With downward pressure on music prices at home, “Many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea.”

(BBC, June 2011)

With many implications for the Korean music industry, and raising many questions about the curious preferential treatment given Korean fans over international ones, I’ve been quoting Bernie ever since. So too Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton and Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore on movies, the latter of whom suggested that cultural differences are the main reason that Koreans illegally download so much more of them than the Japanese:

…governments around the world are subsidizing and promoting the ubiquity of high speed broadband to make their economies more efficient and competitive. With this increase in speed, content will travel that much more easily on the Internet. But without restraints, much of that content will be contraband.

I’ve already seen it happen in South Korea, which has one of the most highly developed broadband networks in the world. But piracy has also become so highly developed there that we and virtually every other studio has recently had to curtail or close down our home entertainment businesses. It’s hard to sell a legal DVD when it can be stolen without any repercussions.

(Michael Lynton, The Telegraph, May 2009; source, below)

Iron Man 2 Japanese Poster…Paramount is holding back the release of “Iron Man 2″ in Japan for several weeks, having little fear about the country being swamped with bootleg copies of the film.

However, when it comes to Korea, it’s a different story. “For better or worse, there are certain countries — notably like Korea — where it’s culturally acceptable to download movies online pretty much right away,” said Moore. “By the third week of a movie’s release, you’re starting to see a large part of the audience who will start consuming the film online. It’s why Korea has almost no home video business anymore.”

(Rob Moore, Los Angeles Times, May 2010; via The Marmot’s Hole)

Given Lynton and Moore’s frustrations, readers — and myself — can be forgiven for accepting that culture must have something to do with it, and that this would necessarily apply to music too. However, I’ve just finished reading Ian Condry’s brilliant Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006), a must-read for all Japanese and — yes — Korean music fans (I’ll explain in a review later this month), who adds two crucial economic and technological reasons that few outsiders to Japan would be aware of:

Ian Condry Hip-Hop Japan(Source)

Two other aspects that distinguish Japan’s music market are rental CD shops and low rates of online piracy. These characteristics further demonstrate that abstract markets do not operate separately from their concrete settings. In Japan, recorded music sale rose steadily during the postwar period, peaked in 1998, and then began a sharp decline that continued through 2004. The start of the decline coincided with the emergence of Napster in 1999, but there are reason to think that online piracy offers only a partial explanation for the decline in sales. As I discuss elsewhere, online piracy is less prevalent in Japan than in the United States. In Japan, most young people access the Internet using cell phones, which as yet tend to have neither broadband connections not substantial hard drives. In addition, ubiquitous CD rental shops make it relatively easy and inexpensive to sample new music without relying on unauthorized downloads. CD prices are high in Japan, generally between ¥2,500 and ¥3000 (US $23-27), but renting a CD is very cheap, generally around ¥300 ($3). The widening availability of CD burners contributes to this “sneaker net” for passing around music and also limits the attractiveness of online file sharing. This suggests that the lack of online piracy arises less from a national respect for copyright than from the combination of a business setting in which rental shops make it easy for consumers to sample music cheaply and a technology environment dominated by Internet-ready cell phones that make downloading over peer-to-peer networks unfeasible.

(pages 190-191; my emphasis)

Written well before smartphones had made their debut, clearly that description is a little dated. Indeed, by 2012, the Recording Industry Association of Japan estimated that only 1 in 10 music downloads were legally purchased, prompting the Japanese government to introduce harsh fines and jail times* for — uniquely — the illegal downloading (rather than the more usual uploading) of content, which in turn provoked an attack on government websites by Anonymous.

However, the Japanese are notorious for stubbornly sticking to outdated technology. Common-sense dictates that looking only at digital downloads would give a very skewed impression of the Japanese music market, which is still the second biggest in the world.

Japan Smartphone(Source)

For just last week, Japan Realtime reported that CD sales are booming:

“The Japanese market is very different from the rest of the world,” said Mr. Minewaki [CEO of Tower Records Japan]…

….While global sales of physical CDs have been plunging under pressure from the digital download market, Japanese CD sales bucked this trend in 2012 with a 9% rise from a year earlier, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Tower Records Japan is majority-owned by Japan’s largest wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc.

Mr. Minewaki said CDs continue to do well in Japan because of legal constraints that curbs rapid discounting, a lag in consumers switching from feature phones to smartphones, and the popularity of rental CD shops where consumers can rent then copy music, a cheaper alternative than buying songs or albums online.

But the compact disc business isn’t completely immune to the marching popularity of digital downloads…

Meanwhile, here in Korea, I don’t think I’ve even touched a CD in the last year. Although I do have hundreds, being 37 years old and all…

How about yourself? Are CD rental stores also still around in Japan?

*Like most articles praising the rapid rise of the Korean digital music market and the supposed success of Korean anti-piracy efforts, this article completely fails to mention how absurdly cheap Korean digital tracks are, as noted by Bernie Cho in the opening quote.

Revealing the Korean Body Politic: Links

So Ji-sub Vivian(Source)

In Part 4 back in February, I mentioned that Korean women were getting less breast augmentation and more breast reduction procedures than their counterparts in the US and Brazil, despite having a genetic predisposition towards small(er) breasts. Add that North Koreans think busty women are “intentionally and lewdly stressing [their] femininity,” and that Wacoal’s ‘Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small’ would probably be just as popular in Korea as in Japan, then I wrote that all signs point to “a big disconnect between ordinary Koreans’ — and even models’ — attitudes to fashion, body image, and sexuality and what you may see on Korean TV.”

Won Bin Beyond 1As Dr. Roald Maliangkay at the Australian National University points out however, it’s very much the same with men:

….The majority of men appearing on posters and billboards are celebrities. Although the wide use of cosmetic surgery is making men look increasingly similar, they are often associated not merely with a product, but also with a popular drama, and in some cases, a steamy bed or bathroom scene. That is not something the average worker would ever seek to emulate, nor be able to, as the nation’s corporate dress code remains conservative.

See “The bra boys of South Korea” at World News Australia for more, which is mostly about the kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon, or here for more on the disproportionate role of celebrity endorsements in the Korean media (source, right).

Next, in Part 4 I also discussed how official North Korean attitudes to women’s clothing have been changing in response to women increasingly becoming breadwinners, generally becoming more restrictive. For more on this “Female Face of North Korean Capitalism,” see Andrei Lankov’s recent lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul:

Third, via Lisa Wade at Sociological Images, here is:

…a great short clip instructing women workers newly employed in industrial factories during World War II on how to do their hair to maximize safety. It assumes both ignorance and vanity on the part of women and speaks to the lack of efficiency caused by efforts to remain attractive on the line.

As I pointed out in — yes, again — Part 4, those assumptions about vanity need to be placed in the context of wartime shortages, when attention to beauty and fashion were viewed as extravagant and unpatriotic. But despite that, women’s anxieties about both were still explicitly encouraged, preyed upon, and/or encouraged by industry, and actually even by the government itself. The ensuing contradictions, double-standards, hypocrisy, and backlash are very similar to what has been occurring in South Korea since the 2000s with women’s rapid entrance into the (part-time) workforce, and make comparisons very useful and compelling.

world war 2 women workersFor more on the backlash in Korea specifically, see “The hate underlying the ‘__ Girl series’ and criticism of women’s organizations” at ILDA (in addition to all the links in previous posts in the series). Finally, for more on the wartime US case, first see “The Impact of War on 1940′s Fashion in the USA” at Glamor Daze for a primer on women’s fashions in the period; then, see Bored Panda for rare color photographs of women working in aircraft manufacturing plants in World War Two, taken by:

“Alfred T. Palmer who worked for the Office of War Information (responsible for promoting patriotism, war news management and women recruitment)” whose photos “had to lure young women into the factories by showing women workers as glamorous and even fashionable.” (My emphasis).

Update: also see Kathryn M. Brown’s 2010 MA thesis Patriotic Support: The Girdle Pin-up of World War 2 (it can’t be directly linked sorry—type the title into the searchbar) for more on how malleable and adaptable — and, as explained, ultimately hypocritical and contradictory — the language, prevailing standards for, and attitudes towards beauty and fashion proved to be for the needs of government and industry (see Part 3 for modern Korean and earlier US parallels also).

Related Posts:

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 4: Girls are different from boys

Ha Ji-won Breast Size Korean Attitudes(Sources: left, right)

The JoongAng Ilbo reports that having a full rack is seen as a disadvantage for women in North Korea.

This is in marked contrast to the South, where a thin figure and big breasts have become symbols of beauty.

According to defectors, if a woman appears well-endowed in the North, people think she is intentionally and lewdly stressing her femininity, and she can easily come to be regarded as a slut. You have an atmosphere that doesn’t allow women to wear revealing clothing, and the North is still a male-dominated society.

One defector from Hoeryong said she had a work friend with large breasts who often ate chives because she’d heard they make your boobs smaller. She added that she was surprised upon learning that women in the South actually have operations to make their breasts bigger.

(The Marmot’s Hole)

Alas, The Joongang Ilbo provides nothing to verify those claims. But, I see no reason why the defectors would lie, and negative stereotypes of large-breasted women are by no means confined to North Korea. Also, who would ever question that “a thin figure and big breasts have become symbols of beauty” in the South?

Korean Women Revealing Clothing AttitudesFortunately though, Liminality did, who in a must-read response shows that however much the Korean beauty industries and media promote such an ideal, and however much East Asian-women may have a genetic predisposition towards small breasts, female cosmetic surgery patients at least hardly consider themselves lacking in that department. In fact, quite the opposite:

  • Per capita, far more breast surgery operations are performed in European and North and South American countries than in Korea (or Asia)
  • Despite having the highest per capita number of cosmetic surgery operations overall, Korea only came 22nd in the number of breast surgery operations performed per capita
  • Of those operations, Koreans had slightly less augmentation and lift operations than their counterparts in the US and Brazil, and slightly more reduction surgeries (source, above; reproduced with permission)

Similar attitudes may exist in Japan too, where even lingerie maker Wacoal was surprised by the number of women who told told them they wanted a bra that made their breasts look smaller, and then by the huge popularity of the — yes, really — ‘Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small’ design they developed in response. Also, Japanese mail order fashion magazine Bellemaison has developed a ‘Chest Line Cover’ (see second image below) that “promises to be a cool alternative to wearing a real camisole as Japan prepares for another hot summer made even hotter with another year of power rationing,” which I’m sure readers of both sexes can confirm would probably be just as big a hit in Korea.

Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small(Source)

But readers don’t need me to tell them that showing cleavage is still a big taboo in Korea, or that there’s a big disconnect between ordinary Koreans’ — and even models’ — attitudes to fashion, body image, and sexuality and what you may see on Korean TV. And I can’t claim any special expertise on ordinary North Koreans’ attitudes either.

Chest Line CoverHowever, when I read that original post at The Marmot’s Hole, by coincidence I’d also just finished The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s by Susan M. Hartmann (1983), in which she explains that the massive social dislocations of that decade — in particular, women suddenly entering the workforce in large numbers — were responsible for big changes in women’s fashion there, as well as preferred breast sizes. And, as it happens, North Korea is also going through a very turbulent period at the moment, with power relations between the sexes undergoing especially dramatic change:

Imagine going to work every day and not getting paid. Then, one day, you’re told there’s no work to do — so you must pay the company for the privilege of not working.

This is the daily reality facing Mrs. Kim, a petite 52-year-old North Korean. Her husband’s job in a state-run steel factory requires him to build roads. She can’t remember the last time he received a monthly salary. When there are no roads to build, he has to pay his company around 20 times his paltry monthly salary, she says.

“He had to pay not to work for about six months of last year,” Mrs. Kim told NPR, sighing. “You have to pay, even if you can’t afford to eat. It’s mandatory.”

So she is the one who must keep the family alive, as her husband wrestles with this state-sanctioned extortion.

Welcome to the Orwellian world of work in North Korea. In this reclusive country, profound social change is happening beyond the view of the outside world. The demands of politics have dramatically redrawn gender roles, forcing women to become the breadwinners.

(National Public Radio, December 28; hat tip to Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling)
North Korean Women Bikes(Source)

The NPR goes on to mention that one major consequence of that emasculation is skyrocketing domestic violence, against which speculating about ensuing changes in fashions can admittedly sound frivolous. But those have changed regardless — indeed, by state decree. First, in July last year:

Supreme leader Kim Jong-un appears to be loosening the government’s grip on how women dress by allowing them to wear pants, platform shoes and earrings, ABC News reported.

Previously, pants were only permitted as uniforms for females in the factories or the fields — and not for making a fashion statement.

“If caught, sometimes they would cut your pants right there in public to make it into a skirt,” Park Ye-Kyong, who defected to South Korea in 2004, told ABC News.

That doesn’t mean North Korean women don’t enjoy preening, Park added.

“Yes, we were hungry but desire to look beautiful lies in any woman,” she said.

North Korean Female IdealIn addition, the next month a 20 year-ban on women riding bicycles was lifted. Ostensibly imposed for women’s safety, numerous sources also mention its supposed incompatibility with juche, related educational television promoting “the idea of a woman wearing a skirt while riding a bicycle [being] contrary to socialist custom.” (See NK News {source, right} for more on North Korean ideals of women). Moreover, in 2009 Human Rights Watch also noted that:

…the ban on pants and bicycles for women is symptomatic of a range of other, often-overlooked, problems.

Across North Korea’s conservative, male-dominated society, there is discrimination against women, a knowing disregard for the consequences of such policies, and an opportunistic manipulation of power by police officers trying to make easy money by preying on an undervalued and underprivileged population.

In light of that, most likely the lifting of the bans was mainly simple populism on the part of a new leader, as well as — despite those state gender ideologies described above — a reluctant concession to the new realities of female breadwinners. Sure enough, in typical North Korean fashion (pun intended), just 5 months later the ban on women riding bicycles would actually be reinstated. Also, while technically they can still keep their pants on, in practice opportunities for women to beautify themselves remain limited, with both sexes punished for straying from officially-sanctioned hairstyles; sharp divisions in what is permissible for married and unmarried women; and a general lack of (beauty-related) resources overall, including such simple things as hairdryers.

Perhaps, things are not changing in North Korea as much as they first appear?

One Million Yen Girl Part Time Woman(Sources: left, right)

Yet in South Korea at least, it’s true that the last 15 years have seen a vast increase in the numbers of women competing with — and increasingly displacing — men for irregular and part-time work, despite the (extremely low) overall female workforce participation rate remaining unchanged. This has spawned quite a backlash, and — à la The Beauty Myth (1991) — a rapid increase in (overwhelmingly female) objectification in popular culture. So, while again I stress my ignorance and lack of knowledge with anything North-Korea related, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that, surely, the sudden large influx of women into the workforce may also be having some sort of impact there.

The Home Front and BeyondEither way, reading about similar experiences elsewhere can inform an understanding of what’s happening in both countries. So, with the obvious — but still necessary — caveat that of course both countries are very different to the US in the 1940s, for the remainder of this post let me try to pass on some of what I’ve learned about what happened there.

First, it’s important to get a sense of the numbers (pp. 77-8):

  • The female labor force grew by 6.5 million during the war
  • In 1944, 37% of all adult women were reported in the labor force, but nearly 50% of all women were actually employed at some time during that year
  • The greatest changes took place among married women
  • 1 in 10 married women entered the work force during the war, representing over 3 million of those 6.5 million new female workers (3.7 million, according to Marilyn Yalom in A History of the Wife {2002; p. 320})
  • 2.89 million were single, the rest widowed or divorced
  • So, for the first time in US history there were more married women than single women in the workforce.
  • Note however, that the war resulted in many more marriages than there would have been normally — approximately 1 million more, according to Yalom. Moreover, wives of absentee husbands were twice as likely to seek jobs, with half of all servicemen’s wives being in the labor force
  • The percentage of wives that worked grew from 13.9 in 1940 to 22.5 in 1944 (Yalom says 15 in 1940 to over 24 in 1945)
  • The percentage of women with children that worked grew from 7.8 in 1940 to 12.1 in 1944
  • By 1945, half of all working women were over 35; slightly more than 1 in 4 were 45 or older
  • The typical female worker had shifted from younger and single to older and married, a pattern which was maintained in the postwar years

Should Your Wife Take a War JobAs Hartmann elaborates throughout her book, these figures represent an ensuing era of relative opportunity and freedom for many women (including sexual freedom; see Pin-Up Grrrls {2006} by Maria Busnek, pp. 213-224; see below also), even if it was usually simple economic necessity that compelled them to work in the first place (and usually at tedious, menial, and unfulfilling work at that). Accordingly, it definitely set the stage for second-wave feminism in the 1950s and ’60s, and deserves the place it’s gained in the Western historical imagination.

However, it’s also true that despite the huge public and private need for women to enter the workforce, that need was still considerably tempered by both sexes’ preexisting gender and racial ideologies, with both official propaganda and popular culture glamorizing women’s work and stressing its patriotic importance on the one hand, yet emphasizing its strictly temporary nature on the other. Not least, to nervous male workers and servicemen, who: lacked our knowledge that the war would lift the US out of the Depression (source, right); were very much judged by their ability to provide for their families, in an era where many simply couldn’t (note that one big difference between the Depression and the current financial crisis is that many people were literally starving during the former); and who sometimes had genuine difficulties with employment after demobilization, particularly in the shrinking war industries in which the women had been recruited (Hartmann, p. 63).

Buszek summarizes the contradictions of this era well (pp. 214-5):

Pin-up Grrrls pp. 214-5And in particular:

  • Despite the huge demand for workers, and the ultimate, relative flexibility both employers and male employees would demonstrate in incorporating Caucasian women into their midst, African-American women remained largely unwelcome (e.g., 10 months after Pearl Harbor, there were fewer than 100 out of 3000 women in Detroit war industries). So, while the numbers of them working did increase from 1.5 million in 1940 to 2.1 million in 1944, their share of the female labor force actually dipped from 13.8 to 12.5. By 1950, their employment patterns were very similar to those of 10 years earlier, albeit partially because by then their husbands were making more money. (Hartmann, pp. 60, 78-9)
  • Women of Britain Come into the factoriesPartially, the huge numbers of wives that entered the workforce is because there were previously bans against them by many companies, let alone being against social convention; even schools discriminated against them. It’s amazing how quickly bans were dropped once the need for labor arose though, with some previously hostile managers coming to express a “preference for married women as more stable and conscientious than their single sisters” (pp. 59-60). And this provides encouraging news for Korea, which unfortunately still largely retains those conventions, and where as recently as 2009 I was working for a company that — yes, really — fired women upon marriage (source, right).
  • Nevertheless, there remained extreme public and private ambivalence about working mothers. Officially seen as more of a social problem than something to be encouraged, officials did recognize “that financial need compelled some mothers to work and that in localities with severe labor shortages production goals would requite the employment of mothers,” and urged employers not to discriminate against them (p.58). But on the other hand, the government would also constantly remind them that homestay mothers were essential for children’s development; popular culture was full of stories of child neglect; and daycare provision, while expanded, was ultimately completely inadequate, paling behind that which was provided in the UK, and prompting frustrated managers of some defense plants to set up their own (Yalom, pp. 324-6).
Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi Check Out Katy Perry(Source)

But, lest we forget, this post is about breasts. And changes in women’s fashions which came with the contradictions involved with entering the workforce, with women having to confront rampant sexual harassment on the one hand, and often being blamed for the “distraction” they posed, but on the other relishing their newfound freedoms (Buszek, pp. 216-7):

Pin-up Grrrls p216-7However, the combination of war-time shortages and women’s entrance into the workforce meant that people suddenly became used to women in functional, masculine clothing and with more practical hairstyles, and that women’s fashions became more simplified, comfortable, less overtly sexual, and changed less frequently than before. So, when you learn that popular culture stressed the exact opposite, for example…

  • I pledge myself to guard every bit of beauty that he cherishes in meThat female workers were still “glamorous” and feminine despite their new roles (Hartmann, p. 199)
  • As were female sport stars, women’s sports enjoying a lot of popularity while their male counterparts were occupied (p. 194)
  • Lingerie manufacturers coped with wartime shortages and new demand by producing much practical bras, yet these coincided with pinup photographs that emphasized their subjects’ breasts (Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality, 2007, p. 106). As explained in Part 3 of this series, this ultimately led to the fashion for large and uplifted breasts that remains to this day.

…then it is very easy and natural — indeed, this is my very strong impression from the books discussed here, although exact page references are suddenly proving maddeningly elusive(!) — to argue that this alternate ideal was imposed by, for want of a better word, the patriarchy, to encourage women to enter the workforce yet at the same time remind them that their place there was unnatural and temporary. And, to be clear, not for a moment am I arguing that this wasn’t very much the case (source, right).

However, as Hartmann explains on p. 198 below (echoed by the other sources), it’s also true that women themselves were just as passionate about preserving their femininity (indeed, they would understandably revel in impractical but much more feminine fashions once war rationing ended):

Hartmann, The Home Front, p.198In particular, and especially in light of the new opportunities open to them as mentioned, I think it’s both overly dogmatic and patronizing to dismiss choosing to use those feminine adornments as mere false consciousness and women’s own mindless incorporation of patriarchal values. Also, although it’s true that the period was rife with pop psychology theories (it was conveniently claimed that women like boring, monotonous work much more than men for instance) it’s very unlikely that men and women rationalized and articulated their choices and concerns in such patriarchal terms. Even if those did operate on a subconscious level, and patriarchy is still the only thread which can bring otherwise disparate developments in the period together, surely men did not think, for example, that if they saw more big-breasted women in popular culture, emphasizing the differences between the sexes as increased use of lipstick did in the workplace, that this would make them feel more secure in their jobs.

In addition, while changes in attitudes were certainly quick, they didn’t happen overnight, Jill Fields (p. 106) noting that “uplift” and “separation” trends in bras for instance, which accentuated the projection of the breast silhouette, had actually already started back in the 1930s. Finally, if you’re confused like I am, because I just noted above that bras actually became more practical during wartime, and am now stating that women could simultaneously be censured and praised for wearing distracting clothes, that’s because contradictory and competing trends coexisted simultaneously, the 1940s being just as messy, complicated, and contradictory as modern life.

Busty Girl Comics Double StandardAnd on that note, thank you very much for bearing with me in this admittedly equally messy, complicated, and contradictory post, the result of me personally trying to understand what patriarchy means in practice as well as theory. And, with the proviso that my relief — and frankly joy — at discovering historic parallels (and especially English-language historiography!) to modern North and South Korean developments should make me wary of projecting too much, and not blind me to the significant differences, I’m very happy to have pointers towards further study, and very much welcome readers’ own suggestions! (source, right)

Related Posts:

Update: See Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty for “the medical condemnations of women’s cycling [which are] fascinating for what they tell us about what people thought (and maybe still think?) about women’s athletic capabilities and potential.”

Update 2: “Saudi daily al-Yawm cited an unnamed official as saying women can now ride bikes in parks and recreational areas. According to the official, the ruling stipulated that women must wear a full-body abaya, be accompanied by a male relative, and stay within certain areas. They are allowed to bike for recreational purposes only, not as a primary mode of transportation.” (Aljazeera)