“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

Lee Hyori Bad Girls SBS Inkigayo 인기가요 25 May 2013(Source)

Ahem. But really, they’re just a very small part of my July interview with Colin Marshall for the Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast, where we also discuss:

…what Westerners find so unappealing about Korean plastic surgery; the associations of the “double eyelids” so often surgically created; why he used to believe that Koreans “want to look white”; the meaning of such mystifying terms as “V-line,” “S-line,” and “small face”; the uncommon seriousness about the Western-invented concept of the “thigh gap”; how corn tea became publicly associated with the shape of the drinker’s jaw; Korea’s status as the only OECD country with young women getting thinner, not fatter; Korean advertising culture and the extent of its involvement with the “minefield” of Korean irony; the prominence of celebrities in Korean ads, and why the advertisers don’t like it; how long it takes to get tired of the pop industry’s increasingly provocative “sexy concepts”; the result of Korea’s lack of Western-style reality television; how making-of documentaries about 15-second commercials make the viewers feel closer to the celebrities acting in them; why he doesn’t want his daughters internalizing the Korean sense of hierarchy; why an expat hates Korea one day and loves it the next; how much homework his daughters do versus how much homework he did; the true role of private academies in Korea, and what he learned when he taught at one himself; the issues with English education in Korea and the oft-heard calls for its reform; the parallels between English test scores and cosmetic surgery procedures; the incomprehension that greets students of the Korean language introduced to the concept of “pretending to be pretty”; and how to describe the way Korean superficiality differs from the Western variety.

Apologies in advance for not being much more succinct when I spoke (I’m, well…er..uhm…working on that), and by all means please feel free to ask me to clarify or elaborate on any of those topics.

Also note that Colin has interviewed over 30(?) other expats and Koreans, men and women, and Korea and overseas-based speakers for the Korean component of his series, all most of whom are much more articulate and entertaining than myself, so I strongly encourage you to browse his site. I myself was blown away by Brian Myers’ interview yesterday, which was full of insights and observations that all long-term expats will be able to relate to (and will be very useful listening for those thinking they may become one), and Bernio Cho’s is essential if you want to understand the Korean music industry better. And those are just the two I’ve listened to so far!

A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

Friday Fun? Korean Women Putting Shoes on Their Heads (Updated)

EXID‘s Hani Star1 shoe on head(EXID’s Hani. Source: Asian Junkie)

When I think of my shoes, nothing repulses me more than imagining sticking them on my head.

When I think of ads and magazine photoshoots, nothing infuriates me more than seeing so many women sticking their shoes on their heads. I don’t care how clean they are.

(The shoes I mean, not the women).

Most cases, naturally enough, are by shoe manufacturers—or in magazines heavily influenced by the prerogatives of shoe manufacturers. Presumably, their motivation in having the models fondle the shoes, play with them, and generally put them anywhere but their feet, is to make the shoes appear as much more interesting, fetish-worthy objects than they really are. Which is all well and good.

But for every guy that gets a faceful of rubber, I’d wager there’s at least 10 women. Combine that gender difference with the playing, and it becomes one of a host of childish representations of women in advertising, so ubiquitous that we come to take such behavior as only natural. As explained in A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose:

“Look at these images. What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

Men Childlike Expressions Ritualization of Subordination“What about these images?”

women childlike expressions Ritualization of Subordination“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”

See my post ‘Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements‘ (or the Gender Advertisements tag) for many more Korean examples. Lest we forget though, that oh-so-feminine charm sometimes involves women sticking their shoes on their heads.

Their shoes. On their heads. In 2015.

Wondergirls So-hee Reebok Shoe on Head(The Wondergirls’ So-hee. Source: Unknown)
Go Joon Hee - Oh Boy! Magazine Vol.53 shoe on head(Go Joon-hee. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)
After School Shoe on Head(After School. Source: Focus Newspaper, 8 May 2012, p. 14)
Lee Hyori No Touch Puma Shoe on Head(Lee Hyori. Source: zziixx)
After School Nana - Xtep 2015(After School’s Nana. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)
sooyoung shoes ceci(Girls’ Generation’s Soo-young. Source: soozarr@minus)

It’s not all bad though. With the proviso that advertising is a very broad subject, with sometimes huge differences between different mediums, my own impression is that while sexualization has greatly increased in recent years (albeit by no means a uniform evil), it’s rare that I’ll find a glaring gender difference (à la Goffman) worthy of mention here. That’s what makes these ads stick out so much, and why they’re so infuriating. Cute, yes. But still infuriating.

Please tell me about any more examples you know of, of either sex, and I’ll post them here. Or, shoes on heads aside, what ads bug you the most these days? Please rant away!

Update: Hat tip to reader chocole, who found a variation on the theme with a guy:

Hong Jong-hyun handbag on head(Hong Jong-hyun. Source: I love Hong Jung-hyun)

It’s not a shoe of course, and it’s specifically the thought of putting a dirty, smelly shoe on one’s head that bugs me, and which prompted me to write this post. But I acknowledge that Hong Jung-hyun above looks equally childish, stupid, and/or cute (or whatever) as the women do in the other examples, and indeed in the photoshoot as a whole. This raises an important point mentioned in the comments to that old 2010 post of mine I linked to, which I began incorporating into my presentations:

Slide219“As noted, Korean men are increasingly shown semi-nude and/or with confident and assertive poses. But…”

Slide220“…they are more likely than Caucasian* men to be shown behaving cutely and childishly.”

*As is still the case today, it is very rare to see non-Caucasians among foreign models in Korean advertisements.

Slide222(A much more detailed version of my caption): “According to Nam Kyoung-tae et. al. in Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines (from 2011; but I was using a 2007 version), Korean men were:

‘…more likely than Western men [and even Western women] to be associated with many female stereotypical behaviors such as self-touching, canting postures, smiling, and childlike and cute expressions. This might indicate that in contemporary society men are not immune to commercial and sexual objectification and this phenomenon was more evident in Korean advertising.'”

Slide221“They concluded that if young Koreans usually only see strong, confident, sexy, and assertive Caucasians, then they may feel that their examples don’t apply to them”.

But that’s based on an old study, so I’ve been working on getting more recent data. To quickly sum up my findings for you here (no link sorry; it’s in the process of being reviewed for a journal), through my tedious, mind-numbing examination of 2329 fricking ads in various selected months of Metro newspaper between 2007-2013, I determined that K-pop stars at were sexualized at about the same rates as Caucasians, and that both were sexualized at much higher rates than other celebrities, so there’s no longer so much of a gap between those two groups at least.

Unfortunately though, there were actually so few ads with either that it was difficult to draw any definite conclusions, not helped by Metro declining in page numbers and circulation over the period because of the advent of smartphones. Also, I didn’t specifically look for assertiveness and childishness and so on (not the focus of my study, which was more on the numbers of celebrities), and of course Metro is very different to Korean adolescent girls’ magazines too, so we should be very, very wary of making comparisons between them. Sorry!

Korea and the World: My Podcast Interview

Brown Eyed Girls Japan(Source: Danny Choo; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Korea’s entertainment industry has become extremely popular abroad and conveys the image of a modern and attractive country. Watch any K-Pop video and you see plenty of skin and sexiness; but look into Korean culture as a whole, and you witness the dominance of traditional values. Does the way women are depicted in Korean popular culture tell us something about gender politics in Korean society? How persistent are traditional gender roles? Does the entertainment industry empower women or does it merely represent the reality of gender patterns in Korea’s conservative society? To answer these questions and more, we sat down with media specialist James Turnbull in Busan.”

A big thank you to the good folks of Korea and the World, for being such pleasant podcast hosts back in November. Unfortunately though, frankly I had a terrible cold at the time, so apologies in advance if I sometimes sound a little incoherent during the interview!

Either way, make sure to also check out the interviews of Robert Kelly, Daniel Tudor, and Andrei Lankov, with many more to be added in coming weeks.

Update: If you’re interested in hearing more about K-pop specifically, also check out the first episode of Anonymous Said, a new podcast series in which the host aims to “talk to anonymous guests each week, and together…comment on recent events in Korea, and the experiences the guests have from behind-the-scenes of entertainment and life here.” This blog gets a brief mention at 21:50 (squee!).

Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61
Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)

Announcements: A Rare Film About LGBT Asian-Americans, Bras for a Cause, and a Survey on Street Harassment in Korea

Spa Night(Source: Kickstarter)

Some worthy causes which would really benefit from just a little of your time or money this week:

Spa Night – A Korean-American Film about Coming Out

From the Kickstarter Page (my emphasis):

WHY THIS FILM IS IMPORTANT

I have always associated Korean spas with my childhood, my family, and my Korean identity. As a kid, I would go to the spa with my dad. It was a cultural ritual; we would clean ourselves.

A few years ago, I discovered that Korean spas in Los Angeles are used as a space for underground gay sex. As a gay Korean-American man, this discovery felt strange, thrilling, and very wrong! It’s very easy for me to separate my identities. I can either be Korean or gay. But here is this place where I have to deal with my identities at the same time. I’m forced to be whole.

I knew immediately that a Korean spa would be the perfect setting for a film about a gay Korean-American identity. There aren’t enough films out there about Asian-Americans, let alone LGBTQ Asian-Americans. It’s important to me that I share this story so that people understand that we exist and that our community holds a diversity of people, voices, and experiences.

If this sounds like something you’d like to support, please do so soon: as I post this on Tuesday morning Korean time, unfortunately it’s still $7000 short of its $60,000 goal, with only 3 days left to go. See Kickstarter for further information, or the Facebook page.

Bras for a Cause 2014Bras For a Cause

From the Facebook Event Page:

Bras for a Cause (Seoul) is a fun event in November that raises money for the Korea Breast Cancer Foundation while promoting breast cancer awareness. According to the KBCF, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer affecting Korean women.

Please contact the Korea Breast Cancer Foundation if you are aware of a breast cancer sufferer in your community who has been unable to receive surgery or treatment due to financial hardships. They offer funding for breast cancer surgery anticancer and radiation treatment after a patient undergoes evaluation. The Korea Breast Cancer Foundation is dedicated to helping encourage patients with breast cancer to continue treatment despite financial difficulties and to helping them escape the pain of breast cancer.

Survey on Street Harassment in Korea

Via Hollaback! Korea:

Have you been to Korea in the last year? Please respond to this important global survey on street (sexual, gendered, racial, homophobic) harassment. It takes about 10 minutes but contributes in a very important way to spreading awareness of this issue. Please spread widely.

Please participate in our global study of street harassment by following [this link]. We appreciate your participation!

See the links for more information, or here for my February story about Hollaback! Korea itself.

Hollaback Korea(Source: Facebook Group Page)

As always, if any readers also have any event, worthy cause, video, or just about anything else they’d like to promote, please just shoot me an email (but please add as many pictures and details as possible!) and I’ll add it in a later post.

Sunday Fun: Bottoms!

Hidamari Sketch EscherGirlMy 8 year-old daughter Alice is really into comics these days, often hiding our home phone under her pillow to keep reading when she’s supposed to be asleep. To my chagrin, she couldn’t care less if the female characters have huge eyes though, and/or no noses. But yesterday, I noticed the above while she was watching the opening to the anime adaptation of Hidamari Sketch. It was a great opportunity to start teaching her about female characters’ typical poses too.

Cue 20 minutes of giggling at the bottoms in the Escher Girls blog, which ultimately had the whole family trying—and failing—to imitate some of the pictures (although I was pretty good myself actually). Naturally, we quickly skipped past some of the more inappropriate ones, and Alice still has no idea why female characters are so often drawn in a “boobs and butt” style. But at least she’s aware of the phenomenon now, and, with gentle prodding from me, will hopefully think more about it herself as she gets older.

For now though, she’s still very much a 8 year-old girl, and I can hardly fault her for that. Much of those 20 minutes were also spent by her and her 6 year-old sister Elizabeth saying “와! 예쁘다…” (Wow! They’re so pretty…), and today this post took a long time to write because she kept on stopping me to tell me all about the characters in Hidamari Sketch. Including Yoshinoya above, who’s supposedly a high school teacher (sigh)…