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 deliberately choosing 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, and 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” of girl-groups and female performers by 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 also. Which gives me an opportunity to 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, which means that “even the most menial task—such as cleaning the pool of the general’s house—falls on the soldiers,” with taking advantage of that massive manpower proving much cheaper and less troublesome than modernization/mechanization. That means it’s long had a reputation for poor living conditions and minimal wages, and its unusually strictly defined hierarchy and secretive nature makes conscripts 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. That said, currently it actually has more men wanting to get their conscription out of the way than there are spaces available, but that’s only because the job market is so terrible at the moment. (Indeed, even women too are very interested in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.) Probably then, the military is now very concerned about softening its image.

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 plausible. For instance:

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 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 later, 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, 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 next week. Then, because not all of you may share my instructive 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.)

Appreciating Assets: When Sex Sells…Retirement Funds?

Gendering Advertising Man 2If you’re reading this, you’re concerned about gender roles in Korea. And with any luck, it’s been a while since you’ve come across any blatant gendered marketing here. Maybe, because the notion is just no longer sustainable, especially when so many boy-bands are now using “girly” aegyo.

So, when this delivery truck passed my daughters and I as we were coming home from school last week, I was off like a flash. After all, my eldest daughter did say she wanted to try walking by herself sometime…

Gendering Advertising WomanAlas, it wasn’t really gendered marketing: as my panic-stricken daughters were catching up, wailing something about abandonment, I realized there was no real difference between the captions “Men’s wise choice: make/gain tax deductions” and “Women’s smart choice: increase your assets.” (And the puns only work in English too; but it’s still a very clever post title, yes?) And both had the same sub-text on the right:

Gendering Advertising ManThat reads “Tax reduction’s smart choice, get tax deductions on your assets,” and in the yellow box “Pension savings account, tax-reduction long-term fund, IRP (personal retirement pension).”

Ultimately then, while they did get my attention, they were just another lame example of sex sells.

Or not. Because with thinking about the crotch or buttocks of your heart’s desire, comes a deep concern about managing your retirement funds, right?

Reminding me of the fruits of those loins though, might have been a little more successful in persuading me to think more about my long-term future. Like what to do when my daughters start pretending not to know me as I snap away at the next yahan ad…

Related Posts:

Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1

The Chosun Ilbo August 7 2015 Korean Women Korean Flag Korean NationalismJoin with me please, in bursting out laughing at the caption to this image on the Chosun Ilbo website

Models pose with the taegeukgi or national flag in front of the Lotte World Tower in Seoul on Thursday, ahead of the 70th anniversary of liberation from the Japanese colonial rule.

…because of its eerie resemblance to a description of a “spontaneous demonstration” given in the TV adaptation of Animal Farm (1999):

Animal Farm 1“And now we go to our leader’s house, where earlier today, a spontaneous demonstration took place.”

Animal Farm 2“A grateful duck has written a new song for our beloved leader, and she is here joined by the chorus of the Animal Guard!”

Animal Farm 4Animal Farm 6Amimal Farm 7Animal Farm 8

No? I assure you, it’s much funnier in the officious, slightly hungover voice of the pig making the announcement. But the fact remains: promotions like Lotte’s are like theaters of the absurd. Because really: what was the point of the models exactly?

Was it because otherwise disinterested heterosexual men and lesbians feel more patriotic if they see attractive women? Was it because they inspire people to learn more about Korea’s history, and to be more concerned about Korea’s image abroad? Was it because other less objectifying, less patronizing methods have been tried and failed?

No? Then why are young female models so routinely used to promote nationalist causes in Korea?

As if Lotte Group was posing the questions to news outlets itself, perhaps half of all the illustrated news articles on its tower flag I quickly surveyed didn’t even mention the models at all. So too the first English article I encountered, which instead offered a borderline advertorial on its deep numerical symbolism.

It’s almost as if wrapping themselves up in the national flag and posing in front of highly symbolic, highly controversial chaebol mega-projects is just something young women spontaneously like to do.

But who can blame anyone for not paying attention? The trend for flag-wearing in (then) revealing clothing was set way back during the 2002 World Cup, when Korean women of all ages did indeed choose to do so of their own accord. A sexually subversive act then, it’s been debased by advertisers and wannabe media stars ever since, building on the already widespread use of young women as doumi (도우미/”assistants”) and “narrator models” to promote the most everyday and mundane of consumer products (indeed, one source described the Lotte models as “PR doumi”). It’s also been a good fit with the sometimes quite literal use of K-pop girl-group members’ bodies to promote Korean governmental and business interests abroad.

Also, no-one supposes that these models weren’t hired by Lotte Group, as part of an obvious ploy to counter criticisms of excessive chaebol power in Korean political and economic life, and that Lotte Group is not even a Korean company at all. Some tweeters I found via the seong sangpoomhwa (성상품화/sexual objectification) search feed on Twitter I subscribe to (who doesn’t?), for example, said:

“Lotte Group’s solution to weaken public opposition to its power: patriotic marketing + sexual objectification = a tall building with the flag and thin models wearing flags. In Korea, patriotism is used like this. Oh, how bold!”

“Who are these women? Don’t use yourselves as tools of sexual objectification. Especially on a meaningful day like today. How come you can use our national flag like that, which was used to support and give courage to the Korean independence movement?”

Which was in reaction to:

“[Here’s some] women in hot pants wearing the Korean flag like a skirt, in front of the Lotte Tower, which has been accused of causing problems with the the air force’s flight paths and [consequently] implementation of strategy during wartime. How wily: even Lotte Group’s promotion strategy is Japanese-orientated.” [James — Eh? Because Japan would be the enemy in the event of a war? And surely he means the building location, rather than the promotion?]

Sigh. Of course, I don’t pretend for a moment that a twitter wordsearch represents everything being spoken about a subject. So I’m sure that, somewhere, people are asking such questions as:

  • Why is it almost always only young female models are ever chosen for promotions like these?
  • Why only models with a very narrow range of body types?
  • What kind of gender and sexual roles are they promoting, when women are mere decorations for a cause?

As always, I’d be grateful for any pointers to where people are doing so. But, if it turns out people aren’t really talking about such a widespread phenomenon or belief though, then that’s precisely why we should look more closely at it. Because, as Amy Wharton explains in her book The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research (2005):

…understanding gender requires us to go beyond the obvious and to reconsider issues we may think are self-evident and already well understood. Challenging the taken-for-granted is one essential component of the sociological perspective. In fact, sociologists argue that what people view as unproblematic and accept as “the way things are” may be most in need of close, systematic scrutiny.

So to encourage further conversation along those lines, and to highlight the issues raised by this example, next month I’ll examine another highly symbolic instance of Korean “patriotic marketing [through] sexual objectification” then demonstrating why it’s more problematic than it may at first appear (apologies for the split, but it’s necessary for 5000 words). Until then, I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the flag-wearing promotions, and any other questions they raise.

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

If you can’t wait though, I encourage you to read “Angry Green Girl: Sexualizing Women for the Environment” at Sociological Images, to which I acknowledge my debt and inspiration for this introduction.

Update: Ultimately, that next post became a mammoth, 10,000 word series in itself!

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

Calling all Korean-Western Couples!

A Mixed Relationship(Source, edited: ufunk)

I’ve been asked to pass on the following by Dr. Daniel Nehring, a British sociology lecturer:

My project looks at the experiences of Korean-Western couples currently living in Korea, of any sexual orientation. It involves conversational interviews of approximately one hour, covering various aspects of everyday life in a transnational relationship; I interview the Western participants in English, while my Korean (female) colleague interviews the Korean participants in Korean. I work according to the code of ethical conduct of the British Sociological Association, so participation is confidential and anonymous, which includes not divulging one partner’s responses to the other(!). I am looking for participants aged 25 to 45 who are settled in Korea and currently live in a long-term transnational relationships. I could meet participants in a place of their choice; alternatively, the interview(s) could take place on Skype. I would be happy to answer any further questions about my research; my e-mail address is d.nehring@worc.ac.uk.

I’d add that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Daniel several times, and that he has conducted similar projects in Mexico and China; see here for one of his journal articles on the latter, which is still ongoing, while the Mexican interviews ultimately became part of a book.

Korean Sociological Image #90: Watch Out For Those Italian Men…

Two back-to-back YouTube commercials for SK Telecom’s “T Roaming” Service, which have a blatant double standard:

In the first, actor Son Ho-jun freaks out when his girlfriend tells him she’s going on an overseas trip with her old college friends. First, he asks if any men are coming with her, but relaxes when she reminds him that she went to a women’s college. Only to freak out again when he learns she’s going to Italy:

T Roaming Italian MenWhatever your gender or sexuality, if your partner can’t trust you not to bang your friends or the natives when you’re more than a few days away from each other, then in my book that’s your excuse to move on and do precisely that.

But I’ll grant that it’s just a commercial, and that Son Ho-jun’s reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. Also, provided you’re not too clingy, there’s nothing wrong at all with staying in touch while your partner’s away.

The double-standard lies in the huge contrast with the second commercial, which shows what Ho-jun needs the roaming service for when he’s overseas: access to a translation app, without which he doesn’t realize the local women are throwing themselves at him.

T Roaming French WomanOr, once he does realize that “With T Roaming, [he] can translate, take pictures, and do anything [he likes]”, that he can set up his own harem:

Foreign Women T RoamingAgain, it’s innocuous in itself, and I’m all for taking advantage of technology to make sure people don’t miss out on any potential liaisons. Given the selling point of the first commercial though, it’s a bizarre choice of follow-up.

Instead, I would have plumped for a more provocative, much more memorable version with his girlfriend and foreign men, showing Ho-jun exactly what she thinks of insecure boyfriends who want to keep electronic tabs on her.

Or, if that was indeed deemed too provocative, then simply two more commercials with the sexes reversed. As the only extra costs would have been the additional male actors and the extra shooting time, then you really have to wonder why not.

Because without those versions, these ones not only seem entirely aimed at men, but it’s very difficult not to contrast his Korean girlfriend’s childishness in the first—and lack of an angry response to his question about her male friends—with the boldness and confidence of the foreign women in the second. It’s also difficult not to place the commercials in the Korean media’s long history of depicting foreign women as sexual conquests, but foreign men as something to defend Korean women against. (Although this has been improving in recent years.)

What do you think?

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

Two Must-Listens About Korean Popular Culture

Flower of Capitalism Olga Fedorenko(Source: The Korea Society)

First up, I wouldn’t usually make an announcement about an event in far-off New York, but I have no hesitation in making an exception for friend and fellow Korean Popular Culture Reader contributor Dr. Olga Fedorenko, who’s lecturing at the Korea Society on Tuesday evening. As the FB event page and Korea Society website explain:

Advertising in South Korea is often referred to as a “flower of capitalism.” Rather than calling attention to the inherent links between commercial advertising and capitalism, this clichéd metaphor presents advertising as a wholesome, creative medium of public good and positive contribution to society. South Korean’s consume advertising as a product of popular culture and celebrate it for the humanist societal ideals it often promotes, instead of viewing it as an intrusive commercial message. Dr. Fedorenko explores the origins of such attitudes toward advertising through some notable contemporary examples, and considers challenges of using advertising for public good in the twenty-first century South Korea.

I owe a lot to Olga for much of what I’ve written about Korean advertising over the years, most recently referencing her work in my post “Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads” about Korean femvertising, so you have my personal guarantee that her lecture will be very interesting. (You may also find this review of her dissertation interesting, let alone her dissertation itself.)

As I type this I’m unsure if her lecture will be recorded unfortunately, but it probably will—most Korea Society lectures are made into podcasts, and increasingly online videos are provided too. Either way, I’ll provide a link once her’s is/are ready later this week.

Update: Here is the video. It is also available as a podcast here or here.

Next, for those of you who were unable to attend Aliosa Puzar’s lecture in Seoul last month, and frustrated that it wasn’t recorded, I’m very happy to announce that he has just been interviewed on the same topic(s) by the Korea and the World team. (Full disclosure: they’re the cool guys who also interviewed me back in November). Make sure to visit Beyond Hallyu for an excellent review of his podcast first, then you can listen to it directly on the Korea and the World website. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Aljosa Puzar Coming of Age in South Korea(Source: Facebook)

Once again: what are you waiting for? ;)

Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads

Korea’s first ‘femveritising’ campaign was a fun take on sexual double standards, and popular among women too.
uee heart(Source: Celebrity Republic)

A request from a reader:

      Hello Grand Narrative readers! I’m reaching out for some help for a research project I’m working on about female empowerment trends in Korea and opportunities for brands to play in that space.

I’m looking for recent examples of brands, organizations and entertainment personalities empowering girls and females through products, campaigns, messages or services in Korea, similar to Nike’s Seoul Women’s Race, Whisper’s #likeagirl campaign or femvertising campaigns abroad.

Unfortunately, these are hard to find as Korea hasn’t quite embraced the trend like other nations. As such, I’m also looking for the opposite — recent examples of who is doing it completely wrong and sending messages of conforming to male-informed and limiting traditional stereotypes?

Any help, examples, or opinions are greatly appreciated! Please email me at amynwilliams@gmail.com.

James: Alas, all the examples I can think of are quite old. Still, to get the ball rolling, and because I think its empowering aspects deserve to be much better known, let me take this opportunity to quickly mention the best, and possibly first and only well-executed one: Lotte Liquor’s ‘Think Casual’ campaign for Cheoum Cheoreom (“Like the First Time”) Cool soju, from back in Autumn 2009:

I admit, that hardly looked like a bra-burning moment. Nor even all that different to any other soju commercials before or since, for which a young woman dancing in revealing clothes is de rigueur. And Uee, then 21, was no fledgling feminist icon either, reveling in the increasing attention she gained through her objectification. (Albeit likely having little choice in the matter.)

Frankly, I completely dismissed it at the time.

But it was different. That “Am I really your first?” question, and the men’s reactions? Those may seem pretty innocuous from a Western perspective, but they still got netizens riled-up. As did messages in posters like the one below, easy to reject as just another soju pin-up if you—ahem—didn’t take the time to read the text. Because ultimately, not only was the campaign breaking strong taboos on openly acknowledging this thing called sex, but it was directly challenging the double standards for women too.

UEE Soju Cool Honest(The text reads: “Q: When you travel with your boyfriend, which is cooler: admitting it to your parents, or lying and saying you’re going on a trip with your university friends? A: Think Casual”. Source: Naver blog, untitled.)

Rather than backtracking in the face of the ensuing negative publicity however, the advertisers were justifiably proud of what they were doing, as explained by Olga Fedorenko in her chapter “South Korean Advertising as Popular Culture” in The Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014, p. 356):

…[Uee’s] ‘cool shot dance’ achieved a viral popularity, young women recording their own versions and posting them online. Many other [netizens], however, were offended by what they saw as encouragement of promiscuity, noting that Uee looked “too easy,” that her coolness about sexual matters was inappropriate for her young age and “innocent face.” As I investigated the campaign, I was surprised to learn that the advertising team behind it included a few young and well-educated women who saw the ad as empowering and were hoping that young people, whom the ad targeted to broaden the traditional demographics of soju consumption, would perceive it the same way. In other words…they pushed for individual sexual freedom against oppressive norms, and the ‘Think Casual’ campaign became a site for negotiating parameters of female sexuality. The advertising agency took a leading a role in challenging patriarchal mores — reflecting the worldview of advertising workers, who saw themselves as representing the worldviews of the target consumers.

To put those patriarchal mores in some perspective, ironically just this February Uee would again be chastised for admitting to sexual experience and desires, this time in real life. (Note: she was just about to turn 27.) Also, it’s female celebrities that have received the brunt of fans’ anger for all the dating ‘scandals’ of the past year.

That said, things may have reached a tipping point. Because, given their overexposure in popular culture, Korean celebrities are very much considered role models, who are expected to follow high moral standards accordingly. With so many revealed to be in relationships now though, and getting caught spending their limited time together in hotels, it’s just getting too difficult to defend the notion that us mere mortals can’t or shouldn’t be able to do the same, or pretend that we haven’t always been doing so anyway.

But that’s a subject for another post. In the meantime, good or bad, please pass on more examples of femvertising to amynwilliams@gmail.com, and/or mention them here, even if you can’t remember all the details. (I’ll follow them up.) Also, if it emerges that there haven’t really been any femvertising campaigns in the last six years, or at least none as provocative as this one, then I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on why. Thanks!

Update: One more recent example of positive femvertising could be Zigbang’s campaign aimed at 20 and 30-somethings stuck living with their parents — something which again points to the need for evaluating empowerment in terms of its cultural context, and for preparing campaigns accordingly. But I still draw the line at anything that includes aegyo!