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? ;)

Guest Post: So JYP Wants to Know Who My Mama Is

For those of you who watched the music video of JYP’s latest hit, Who’s Your Mama, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The entire song is a tribute to big booties. When I first read the song title, I immediately remembered Will.i.Am’s song, I Got It From My Mama, which—surprise, surpriseis also a worship song for killer female bods.

Although the feminist in me wants to point out the fact that JYP’s entire song revolves around sexual harassment at the gym, that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

But first, I need to quickly introduce myself. I’m a half-Korean hapa, who mostly identifies as a Korean. Although I was born in Seoul, the majority of my childhood was spent in Hong Kong because my parents decided to move there when I was 3. But thanks to my mother’s fear of me getting out of touch with my Korean roots, I spent almost every single vacation with my grandmother in Seoul.

Having grown up with in an interracial household, and in a cultural hub like Hong Kong, I considered myself to be pretty open-minded. Literally all of my Korean friends have often told me that my personality was “so American,” and I agreed with them (never mind the fact that I’ve never even lived in the States until I was 18).

But I was still very much tied to Korean culture whether I liked it or not. For example, up until high school, I was naturally skinny. And by skinny, I mean that I was basically skin and bones. But everyone in Korea always commented how my thigh gap was so nice, and how bony my arms were. A friend once casually commented on this by saying, “You have the ideal body—it’s like you have limb anorexia.”

Limb anorexia? Really?

But because the thin ideal is so prevalent in Korean society, I embraced it. I was so glad that I never gained any weight despite eating so much junk. However this “privilege” stopped in high school, when my metabolism completely slowed to a halt. I started gaining weight from my bad eating habits. Having been only used to wearing size 2 clothing, I cried the first time I wasn’t able to fit into my skinny jeans.

The funny thing is, I was never “fat.” It was the fact that I lost my thigh gap and “limb-anorexia look” that upset me. This led me to doing what any normal Korean female would do. I looked up dieting tips on Google and religiously researched any and every diet program I came across.

But this all changed when I chose to attend university in America.

Upon my arrival in the States, I realized that the standard for a “hot body” was much different. Sure, people thought thin people had nice figures, but for the most part—it was all about the curves. Fast forward to Sophomore year, I started feeling so much more comfortable in my own skin. I started weight training at the gym, which led me to discover the amazing sport of powerlifting. Watching my strength and endurance increase with each passing week allowed me to stay religiously devoted to my workout regimen. People started commenting on how “fit” I looked. The best part about weight training was that I could eat a lot more calories without worrying about looking fat. Hello restaurant deliveries.

After committing to a year of serious weight training, I went back to Korea to spend the summer. It was hilarious to hear my family and friends gasp and exclaim at how “big” I looked. My grandma said I looked obese. I tried to explain that it was muscle not fat—but she wasn’t convinced.

I thought I’d find more peace of mind at a gym, so I joined my neighborhood gym right away. It was a rather large chain, so their trainers were all “experienced.” On my first day at the gym, a few trainers came up to me and commented that I was lifting “too heavy.” I just brushed them off.

At least twice a week, some other gym-goer would come up to me to say that I was “lifting too heavy for a girl.” I didn’t care what anyone said. Their comments fueled my workouts. I loved that I was able to deadlift and squat more than most of the men at my gym.

I’d often have ahjussis or ajummas come up to me to say that I was really strong for a girl and that I should probably stop working out too much because I’d likely “hurt myself.”

My girl friends kept commenting on my “huge bicep” and “horse-like thighs” whenever we hung out. They weren’t trying to be mean—they just couldn’t understand why a skinny person wanted to get muscular.

I was in no way large. I finally reached a healthy BMI instead of being underweight. I was finally toned and healthy, and I was getting criticized for it. It’s funny to think that Koreans praise gool-bok-ji, or honey thighs (AKA healthy and toned thighs), but they’re only interested in seeing them on celebrities instead of normal people.

The standard of a fit body for Korea and the rest of the world is vastly different. Let’s refer back to the JYP video—the YouTube comment sections were all filled with non-Koreans exclaiming that none of the girls in the M/V were fit/curvy enough.

JYP Big BootyWhat do you think about these standards? Do you agree with my experience and observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts through the comment section below!

Anum Yoon hails from Korea, where she was raised on spam and eggs (with sesame oil and gochujang of course). She spent the last 4 years in America, tackling her cultural identity crisis, one awkward moment at a time. She’s currently blogging over at Current On Currency.

Update, James: Via Omona! They Didn’t, here’s a video showing model Eom Sang-mi’s reaction to her role in Jay Park’s Mommae MV, which is similarly objectifying. Alas, it’s not about JYP, as I misread when I first saw it, and it’s pretty laddish overall, but Sang-mi’s comments—e.g., “Why are they only showing my boobs?!”—are quite amusing and telling:

Related Posts:

Listen to This Korean Girl’s Perspective on Korean Men’s Absurd Body-Image Standards

왕쥬 가슴 비법 ABCDE(Source: YouTube. See there for her secret method!)

Remember my last post on assessing celebrities’ impact on Korean body-image standards? Where I stressed that it was crucial to listen to what ordinary Koreans thought of them?

I’m going to start with 여신왕쥬 (Goddess Wang-ju), who doesn’t mince words about what impact they’ve had on her. Or, more precisely, about what impact they’ve had on Korean men, who constantly compare her to slim, big-busted K-pop stars.

That’s a sweeping generalization about the men of course (my apologies), but you’ll soon understand her need to rant once you listen. NSFW warning for the Korean swearing:

Wang-ju is a little difficult to pin down: she’s made hundreds of videos, on a wide variety of subjects. Generally though, she seems refreshingly outspoken, and funny, a combination which has won her hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, Facebook, and Afreeca TV.

Unfortunately, this video seems to be the only one a fan has added English subtitles to, so I’ll have to let readers know if I find any more (or please let me know!). In the meantime, for Korean speakers, here’s her most recent one on body-image, from two days ago:

Update: Some great news!

“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!

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!).

Presentation, Yonsei University, Friday 12th: “Give it to Me? The Impact of K-Pop’s Sexualization on Korean Advertising”

Sistar Rice Ad(Source: *cough* Ilbe)

The reason I’ve been so busy in recent weeks, and unable to properly reply to all your comments and tweets sorry. But, I’m happy to finally announce I’ll be presenting in the 2014 Situations International Conference, “Culture and Commerce in the Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Asian Music Industries” this Friday at 3pm, and I’d be delighted if any readers could make it.

If you can’t make Friday though, never fear, for there’s a host of much more interesting presentations than mine on Saturday, and I’m happy to meet up after the conference on Sunday too. Please just say hi there, or give me a buzz here or on Facebook or Twitter.

As for my topic, consider it a direct extension of this post. I look forward to your questions and comments!

Quick Hit: Harassment Framed as Affection

Dummy Harassment(Dummy Harassment by gaelx; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Via The Korea Herald:

Former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae is to be questioned over allegations of molesting a golf caddie, police said Saturday…

…Park admitted that there had been some physical contact, but maintained that he did not “cross a line.” He told a local daily that he poked the woman’s breasts with a finger once, adding that it was an act of adoration because she “felt like his granddaughter.” (My emphasis)

Read the link for more details, or The Korea Times. I mention it because a friend pointed out that they’ve heard that excuse on more than a few occasions in Korea, which rang a definite bell. Sure enough, a few years ago I translated an article by Ilda Women’s Journal writer Park Hee-jeong, who said exactly that in relation to the following commercial back in 2005:

“I touched her because she’s like my daughter”

여성들이 이 광고를 보면서 느끼는 불편함의 한 켠은 ‘몸을 만지는’ 행위에 있다. 우리 사회에서는 가족이라든가 친하다는 이유로 타인의 몸에 손을 대는 행위가 쉽게 용납이 되는 경향이 있다. 나이 지긋한 분이 성희롱 가해자로 지목되면 “딸 같아서 만진 건데 잘못이냐?”는 변명(?)이 나오는 것도 그런 이유다…

One reason women feel uncomfortable watching this ad is because of the act of the daughter’s body being touched. That is because our society approves of and/or grants permission to men touching them in a friendly manner, like they would their own family members. Indeed, when an older male is accused of sexual harassment, often he fastens on to the excuse that “Can’t I affectionately touch someone like my own daughter?”…

…“딸 같아서 만진다”는 말이 통용되는 사회에서 삼성생명의 광고는 많은 여성들에게 불편한 기억을 환기시킨다. 광고 속에서는 의도된 스킨십이 아니었지만, 불편해하는 딸의 모습을 아름답게 바라보는 시점 자체가 이미 여성들을 불편하게 만들고 있는 것이다.

…“I just touched her like I would my daughter” is an excuse used so much in Korean society, that this Samsung Life Insurance commercial evokes many uncomfortable memories in women. In particular, having something that would in reality be so uncomfortable for the daughter, to be just cutely dismissed instead, already makes women feel uncomfortable. Even though the father’s intention was not skinship. (My emphasis)

See my 2011 post for the full article and translation. Like I argued there, the prevalence of such attitudes in 2005 still goes a long way towards explaining the rise of “ajosshi-” or “uncle-fandom” just a few years later. Or, more specifically, why the media so quickly framed and celebrated middle-aged men’s interest in (then) underage female-performers as purely paternal or avuncular, despite the girls’ increasingly sexualized performances.

But that’s a very familiar topic with readers, so I’ll wisely stop there, and later this month I’ll make sure to write a follow-up post on the important challenges to those media narratives that have arisen since (suggestions as to what to add would be welcome). Also, boys’ performances have likewise become problematic, so it’ll be interesting to explore similar permissive media narratives about “ajumma-fandom“—or curious lack thereof.

Until then, what do you think? Do you feel older Korean men still have a palpable sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, however much it is rationalized as affection? Or is Park Hee-tae’s case an unfortunate exception?

Update: By coincidence, this issue has just been raised in a posting at Reddit’s TwoXChromosomes. An excerpt:

But [my Korean father] would act strangely at times. He commented in public and in private how large my breasts were, and how I could have grown up without him there, how the last time he’d seen me I was so small. He would often say teasingly that he wanted to feel my boobs and he would constantly try but I would be very self conscious and embarrassed and turn away.

I asked him to please stop and get angry. I even cried once because he was making me feel bad and humiliated. He also kept trying to sneak in when I was bathing and kept implying that he wanted to bathe me like when I was young. He would often try to see me when I was changing. I felt very conflicted and always refused. I felt revolted by the whole thing.

Anyway, I admitted to my grandmother that I had felt strange, and kind of traumatized by this behavior. She immediately responded with, “You’re wrong about this. This is normal behavior in South Korea, and you’re just seeing this in the wrong light because you’re American. Your father has a temper problem, but he’s a pure person. I’m one hundred percent sure that he just was being a loving father.”

Read the rest there, as well as the numerous comments. Again, there’s quite a debate as to how common such excuses and rationalizations are in Korea (or not).

Update 2: Clearing out my archives, I came across the following case from October 2007:

An appellate court gave the “not guilty” verdict to a father who had touched his 11-year-old stepdaughter’s breasts, saying it was a “sign of affection.”

Kim, 43, was married in 1996. He became the stepfather of his wife’s daughter, whom he treated as his own child. He had often showed her affection through touching, which the girl did not used to consider as unpleasant…

…However, the Seoul High Court only acknowledged the domestic abuse [of his wife]. He was given a two-year suspended jail term and 160 hours of community service. It ruled: “Kim’s act was a rather excessive sign of affection spurred by alcohol.”

The court made this decision based on the fact that the girl had not reached puberty yet and previously had not felt uncomfortable about such acts as sleeping next to her and touching her hips.

Read the full article at the Korea Times or Waygook.