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.)

Call for Papers: The 3rd World Congress for Hallyu

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

wahs call for papers and contest flyerFrom the accompanying email (slightly edited by me):

…I am emailing on behalf of WAHS to inform you of an upcoming international conference in Dubai on Hallyu Studies. The conference, World Congress on Hallyu, is the third of its kind and aims to bring together academics, students, and organizations who have an interest in the phenomenon of the Korean wave, known as Hallyu. Currently, we have branches of research in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe.

I have a attached a flyer for an official “call for papers” for undergraduate and graduate students. I hope that you can pass it along to students who would be interested in submitting to the conference or contest. The undergraduate student essay winners are eligible to win a cash prize for their research, while graduate students are eligible for free airfare and accommodation to the conference to present their research. Graduate students seriously interested in attending are urged to sign up for a WAHS membership to receive a discount conference entrance fee and possible stipends for our future spring conference.

More information can be found at the official conference website, via the Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Meanwhile, apologies that a bad flu and the start of the new semester has delayed the follow-up to my last post, and I’ll try to have it up soon :)

Addicted to Feminist Media Criticism Monday

In which I almost get carried away with my narratives about body-image and the Korean media—but discover an amazing role model instead.
Ok Tae-cyeon Lee Gook-joo My Ear's Pig(Source: SBS)

Remember My Ear’s Candy by Baek Ji-young, featuring 2PM’s Ok Taec-yeon? It was one of the songs that made me fall in love with K-pop, way back in 2010:

And I’m still quite fond of K-pop, although we’ve long since agreed to see other people. But, thinking about old flames over a drink last night, one thing led to another, and soon the whole family would be dancing to My Ear’s Pig, a parody performed with comedian Gang Ho-dong on the February 21, 2010 episode of 1 Night 2 Days. With lines like “My ear’s pig, number 1 rated wild pig…put it on top of lettuce”, it’s the perfect antidote to a rainy Monday (especially the guy at 1:48), 100% guaranteed to leave you grinning from ear to ear:

Here’s a longer version, which includes scenes from Gang-ho Dong’s month-long preparation for the performance:

But then I saw a 2014 version with fellow comedian Lee Guk-joo, and quickly sobered up:

Why? Because while Gang-ho Dong is often the butt of jokes because of his weight and size, he is also a former ssireum champion, and retains an image as a genuinely strong ex-wrestler…

…whereas Lee Guk-joo is overweight, in a country where a lot of television humor revolves around female comedians’ supposed ugliness and obesity. So, not knowing anything about her, and watching her perform for the first time above, it suddenly felt like I was joining in that all too common chorus of laughing at the fat girl; My Ear’s Pig, suddenly rendered a guilty pleasure at best, until I see Baek Ji-young perform it with people of a range of body types.*

But first impressions can be mistaken. Because Lee Guk-joo, it turns out, is the very last person in need of my pity:

Lee Gook-joo positive body image role model korea(Sources: Hikpop, Naesushi)

To learn why, read more about her cosmetic endorsements, her other cover songs, and her general, all-round spunkiness at Seoulbeats, in a post which I can’t possibly do justice to here. Sorry for the abrupt ending, but it’s true.

To further persuade you (my emphasis):

She is not allowing her weight to pigeonhole her personality, which she has expressed in an interview. Unlike what some would have you believe, she is fully capable of expressing her true self without apology and refuses to be discriminated for superficial reasons. Her physical makeup will neither hinder nor propel her for the simple fact that she has made up her mind not to be marketed through purely visceral means.

Having someone like this come into the market as a new role model for women is a welcome change in Korean entertainment. Lee Gook-joo doesn’t shy away from the spotlight because others would deem her unworthy, but rather she exhibits a glowing confidence that isn’t to be underestimated. She is a role model for those of us who appreciate a fun, outspoken woman who isn’t afraid to work her way to the top…

I’ve never been so happy to be so mistaken.

And how was your Monday? ;)

Related Posts:

  • Are Gorgeous Comediennes Really That Rare? Your Thoughts (The Atlantic)
  • What Donald Duck, Hani, and Big Tits Taught Me About Body-Image in Korean Comedy (The Grand Narrative)
  • “I am a plus sized girl living in Korea and I feel so unattractive.” (Life)

*The lyrics do require meat-lovers, but not necessarily those with the girth to match. And that applies to Baek Ji-young’s lines just as much as her partner(s)’.

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!

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.

Quick Hit: Consent is STILL Sexy

Consent(Source: Heal Yourself, Skeletor)

I’m just sick of Bora’s boobs.

Okay…no, not really. They’re just a constant reminder of the curse of blogging about sexuality and popular culture. Thanks to them, “Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system” is literally my most viewed post—but also, per view, probably one of the least actually read.

You’d never think it took a month to research and write, and that I consider it one of my proudest blogging achievements.

Ironically for the frustration that causes now though, it too was born out of the frustration of two weeks of watching interviews of SISTAR members, naively hoping that they would reveal something about the extent to which they consented to—indeed, hopefully played an active role in choosing—the sexualized costumes, choreography, and so on provided by their management company. Instead, I was left with nothing more substantial than learning their favorite flavors of ice-creams, and a firm resolve never to watch any more of the crap that counts as most K-pop entertainment.

But finally, nearly a year later, I’ve just learned of two interviews where girl-group members were able to talk about their jobs like actual human beings.

The first, on the new show The Spokespeople (대변인들), where Rainbow’s Jisook, Stellar’s Gayoung, and Dal Shabet’s Subin, from roughly 8:00 to 26:00 (it’s—grr—unavailable in Korea; click here to overcome that) discussed their recent ‘sexy concepts.’ It’s a still a little frustrating in places, the MCs being “spokespeople” for the “weaker people who can’t speak out” apparently meaning that guests should shut up while the MCs speak for them instead, with poor Subin barely getting a chance to speak at all. But when they did, all three sounded quite genuine:

Next, as Asian Junkie put it:

Ex-TAHITI member Sarah Wolfgang (Hanhee) did an AMA on Reddit recently, where she answered questions on everything from a group member smelling like shit to eating disorders.

And you can read a breakdown of the interview there, including those eating disorders, her complete lack of input into her image, and the debts members are sometimes left with.

Finally, it’s not a recent interview, but The Learned Fangirl just did a review of Nine Muses of Star Empire (2012), which I also covered in last year’s post. While that documovie may sound dated by K-pop standards, it easily remains the most revealing look inside the industry, and I completely agree with the authors’ conclusion:

Interestingly, Billboard‘s Jeff Benjamin had a very different take than us on the documentary, calling it a film that would cause “k-pop haters [to] completely shift their paradigm.” We doubt that — instead it will make a manufactured music form seem manufactured. It’s a warts-and-all look behind the curtain of music industry, and is an unsentimental look at what it takes to create pop star fantasy.


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