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.)

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 #91: Shameless Hussy Corrupts Korean Youth

With the decriminalization of adultery in February, Koreans seem more open about sex than ever before. But advertisers are slow to challenge traditional gender roles.

Motel, Park Ki-ryang, Yoo Byung-jaeThat Korean youth would include my two daughters, just off-camera in these pictures I took at a local bus stop. And the shameless hussy would be cheerleader Park Ki-ryang (a.k.a. “The Baseball Goddess”), intent on hooking-up with SNL writer and comedian Yoo Byung-jae in their ads for 여기어때 (Yogi-oddae, “How about here”), a motel-finding app. For someone whose first Korean girlfriend had a 10pm curfew, and who arrived in Korea the same year singer Baek Ji-young was disgraced for unknowingly being taped while having sex, it was remarkable to see something so brazen.

Ironically though, they were gone from Busan bus stops the next day; I wondered if they had indeed been too much for the Korean public. But I couldn’t find any news about any complaints or controversy, and found another ad in my local university district the day after that:

Motel, Park Ki-ryang, Yoo Byung-jae University DistrictPerhaps the disappearance was simply because the May campaign was wrapping up. Also, its cable commercials, released in June, remained available on YouTube and Yogi-oddae’s Facebook page. As The Joongang Ilbo explained:

19일 관련업계에 따르면 인터넷서비스업체 위드웹이 운영하는 여기어때가 방송작가 겸 방송인으로 활동 중인 유병재를 앞세운 광고를 ‘tvN’ 등 케이블 채널을 통해 이날부터 방송하기 시작했다. 유병재는 최근 대형 연예기획사인 YG엔터테인먼트와 전속계약을 체결하며 주목받고 있다.

유병재의 광고 파트너로는 ‘야구여신’으로 불리는 롯데자이언츠 인기 치어리더 박기량이 낙점됐다. 유병재와 박기량이 등장하는 광고는 ‘불타는 청춘을 위하여’라는 주제로 숙박업종에 걸맞게 ’19금’ 위주로 내용이 구성된다. 관련 광고방송은 이날부터 유튜브 등 동영상사이트를 통해 검색이 가능하다.

위드웹 관계자는 “지난 4월 개그맨 유상무가 등장하는 첫번째 광고를 내보낸데 이어 이번이 방송광고 2탄”이라며 “광고는 숙박앱을 주로 이용하는 20대와 30대 젊은층의 공감대를 이끌어내고 웃음을 제공하는 내용으로 구성됐다”고 말했다.

According to an industry spokesperson, Yogi-oddae, run by the internet service company Withweb, started airing the commercials with Yoo Byung-jae…on cable TV channels such as tvN from the 19th of June. [He] is getting a lot of attention recently, due to signing with YG Entertainment. [The same entertainment company that has signed the likes of 2NE1 and Big Bang—James].

His partner in the commercials is Park Ki-ryang…the theme is “For The Burning Youth,” and, appropriately for the motel industry, have adult content. They can also be found on YouTube.

A spokesperson from Weedweb explained that, “This is the second series of commercials for this accommodation app; the first series with gagman Yoo Sang-moo aired in April. They are designed to get the attention of 20 and 30-somethings, and make them laugh.”

Motel, Park Ki-ryang, Yoo Byung-jae University District Bus Stop(A few hours before finishing this post, all of the bus stop ads were back up. Clearly, someone at Yogi-oddae is just winding me up.)

Based on the bus stop ads, I looked forward to a cheeky take on Korean sexual double-standards, akin to Korea’s first (and I still think only) example of femvertising from 2009. Instead, Park Ki-ryang is much more indirect than those suggested, and grossly overdoes the childishness and the aegyo:

(For non-Korean speakers: in the first, she needs somewhere to wash up; then, she had a nightmare about ghosts, and doesn’t want to be alone; they’re watching (presumably) a sex scene in the movie, and she asks “Is that possible?”; she says it’s late and the taxi is on a more expensive rate, which means the ride would cost 50,000 won, comparable to a night at a cheap to mid-range motel; and finally, her favorite male perfume is his own smell. For Korean speakers, here’s both discussing the making of the commercials.)

That said, my wife, very much in the target demographic, actually found them quite funny. I warmed to them too, the more I watched, as every guy can relate to that feeling of sudden realization that he’s getting some that evening. But therein lies the problem: not only do the commercials celebrate traditional dating roles, but they’re all done entirely from Yoo Byung-jae’s perspective.

This emphasis on male consumers was indirectly confirmed by Etoday:

지난 19일 공개한 TV CF 5편의 에피소드 중 ‘응원 편’과 ‘꿍꼬또 편’이 박기량의 섹시함을 익살스럽게 표현해냈다는 평가다. 20~30대 남성팬들에게 큰 호응을 얻고 있으며 CF 영상은 여기어때 유튜브 채널을 통해 빠르게 확산되고 있다.

People say that out of the 5 commercials released on the 19th, Park Ki-ryang’s sexiness is humorously expressed and well shown in the cheerleader and ghost dream versions especially. This has had a big effect on male 20 and 30-something fans in particular, who have been rapidly spreading the commercials via YouTube.

Yogi-oddae is in stiff competition with Ya-nolja, a similar, much older company that has also recently launched its own app, and its previous advertisements were much tamer. So, however much I want to read into the campaign, it’s difficult not to conclude that Yogi-oddae was just exploiting the hype surrounding the decriminalization of adultery in February. Nothing wrong with jumping on that bandwagon of course, but it does frustrate with not delivering on its promise of a shameless hussy. (Not unlike Ashely Madison, which turns out to be a rather unreliable source for would-be Korean adulterers.)

I do concede that they’re just commercials though, and that I’ve got nothing but praise for the advertisements. It’s just that it would be nice to see a Korean advertiser place challenging gender stereotypes at the core of a campaign again. Not in a haphazard, conflicting fashion like in this one, or, like Durex Korea, by occasionally copying positive foreign examples, but quickly returning to its normal, very laddish themes thereafter. I’m also confused by the bizarre lack of attention to female consumers in the commercials, which seems to be an increasingly common trend.

The Reader The Lens The Baggage(Source, edited: Laurence Musgrove @The Illustrated Professor; used with permission.)

But my biases are clear, and perhaps I’ve misjudged how positively Korean women would respond to it. What do you think of them? Or this example by American cosmetics manufacturer Benefit?

As pointed out by Lizzie at Beyond Hallyu (see also: Branding in Asia), it’s much more daring, yet again it ultimately falls short (my emphases):  

This change in attitudes can be seen no more clearly than in this advert. A few years ago even the hint at the idea of a woman having the agency to initiate a sexual encounter with a stranger would have been scandalous. But this is not just a woman, it’s a married woman and it’s not just a hint, it’s a full-on kiss scene which takes up a third of the commercial’s one minute long run.

SNSD on Dating, January 2013Clearly the ad is an example of a massive shift in attitudes surrounding women’s relationship with sexuality that has occurred in recent years in Korea. We’ve seen that lately on shows like Witch Hunt where even female idols have been hinting at the fact they may actually have a sex life.

(James: That’s Girls’ Generation on the right, shortly before some of their members—and seemingly every other K-pop idol—either started publicly dating, or admitted that they’d been doing it all along. Source: unknown.)

But even so, condoning adultery is still a bit of an iffy move on Benefit’s part and I’m not entirely sure how this is supposed to entice female viewers. Perhaps this is supposed to make women feel empowered to make their own sexual decisions but I can’t help but feel it serves mostly just to reinforce the idea that women are liars.

Alternatively, it could be Benefit trying to show how in touch they are with the social issues in South Korea. Or maybe it’s just intended as a clever gimmick to show how long-lasting and non-smudging the tint is.

Intentions good or otherwise, the cynic in me sees this as nothing more than a half-hearted attempt at female ‘sexual empowerment’ in order to sell more lipstick.

I agree about the K-pop stars dating of course, best symbolized to me by Suzy, “The Nation’s First Love,” being caught going to hotels with Lee Min-ho after less than a month of dating, and it’s true that celebrities have a disproportionate role in sparking—or legitimating—new social trends in Korea. But, for us mere mortals, has there been “a massive shift in attitudes surrounding women’s relationship with sexuality” though? (My emphasis.) I’m not so sure, and would cite such things as: the female celebrities receiving the brunt of fans’ anger for all those dating ‘scandals’; the government restricting access to the pill for the sake of shoring up doctors’ incomes; the ongoing (re)criminalization of abortion, in order to increase the birth rate (but effectively only making it more inaccessible and expensive for the poor); and Korea’s curious lack of politicians willing to stick their neck out for those and other progressive issues, epitomized by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon backtracking on his support for LGBT rights.

Which, by coincidence, was also mentioned by journalist and author Daniel Tudor, in an interview for The Hankyoreh that appeared as I was finalizing this week-long post:

The New Politics Alliance for Democracy is basically just the shadow of the Saenuri Party. [In most democracies] if you’re progressive, you care about social minorities, weak people, poor people in society. You care about women’s equality, maybe gay rights, you care about things like that. But I don’t see much of that [in Korea]. These two parties are dominating the Korean political scene.

What do you think? How would you assess shifts in attitudes surrounding women’s relationship with sexuality? What criteria should we use? Please let me know, so that I can finally begin working on my follow-up to Korean Sociological Image #89: On Getting Knocked up in South Korea(!) :D

Addendum: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the name Yoo Sang-moo being mentioned as launching Yogi-oddae’s campaign back in April, not Park Ki-ryang and Yoo Byung-jae. For the sake of completeness, he was indeed hired, along with freelance model Bae Da-bin (a.k.a. Lisa Bae), and their own versions of the commercials were talked about in the media in the same heady terms as those by their replacements a month later, with no indication that their endorsements would only be temporary. I suspect they were just quickly and quietly let go then, because:

  • a) Yang Sang-moo looked just a little too goofy in his commercials;
  • b) At nearly 35, he was towards the upper limits of the target market, and had too much of an age gap with 21 year-old Bae Da-bin (whereas Park Ki-ryang and Yoo Byung-jae are 23 and 28 respectively);
  • And finally c), because the popularity of Yoo Byung-jae and especially Park Ki-ryang was just too great to pass up.

Which again points to the campaign being very haphazard, rather than a concerted attempt to smash the patriarchy :(

Addendum 2: Just for readers’ interest, here’s two fun videos about using the Ya-nolja app, found in passing while researching this post. Have any readers also used it, or Yogi-oddae?

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

“She Accused Me With Her Eyes”: The Sexual Politics of Skirt Length on Korean Subways

Remember this picture from a Seoul subway escalator, from last year?

치마는 가려 주세요(Source: 허지은@limpidlimpid)

For those of you who can’t read Korean, the text accompanying the center image read “Please cover your skirt.” Which seemed to blame the victims of upskirt photos, rather than those who took them.

What’s more, even covering up can be a problem too. Because, as Hwang So-yeon of OhmyNews explained in March, apparently that can really upset some men’s delicate sensibilities:

…백번 양보해 범죄예방 차원에서 치마를 가린다고 해도 또 다른 문제에 봉착한다. ‘마치 뒤에서 올라가는 사람을 치한·변태·성범죄자 취급한다’는 사회적(?) 압박에서 자유로울 수 없기 때문이다.

…even if for the sake of argument, we allow that women do have cover up their skirts, they still face the constant fear that the men following behind them may be deviants or rapists.

치마를 주로 입는 여성들에게 씌워지는 잣대 역시 문제가 된다. “아니, 저 사람은 치마를 입고도 가리질 않네, 경박해라”와 “아니, 왜 내가 뒤에 있는데 치마를 가려? 나를 치한으로 보는 거야 뭐야?” 등의 시선이 동시에 여성을 옭아맨다. 치마를 입은 사람들이 뒷모습을 가리는 것이 아무렇지 않게 받아들여지는 것은 기대하기 어렵다. 가리지 않는 것도 마찬가지다.

Yet while women who wear short skirts are also pressured by people saying things like “That woman isn’t covering up, how trashy”, at the same time they face accusations like “Why is she looking at me like that, for standing behind her? Does she think I’m a pervert?”. It’s hard for women to live up to such conflicting standards and expectations.

이는 온라인에서 이미 오래된 논란 중 하나다. “나를 치한이나 변태·범죄자로 보는 기분”이라며 불쾌해하는 사람들이 많다. 물론 앞에 가는 사람이 뒷사람을 치한 취급하는 듯한 말을 한다면 기분 나쁜 건 당연하고, 나아가 항의도 할 수 있다. 그러나 정말 치마를 가리는 게 뒷사람을 모욕하는 일일까. 대화도 아닌, 단지 행위만으로 ‘일면식 없는 사람들을 무안주는 일’이라고 판단할 수 있는 근거는 어디에 있는지 의문이다.

This has been a long-standing point of controversy online, as some men feel uncomfortable by women covering themselves up in front of them. Of course, if women do treat the men around them as such, and go so far as to verbally accuse them of being perverts, then the men will be upset and complain. However, is just the act of women covering up really so offensive? You really have to ask why something so innocuous could make some men so angry.

나 역시 이 도식을 보고 치마를 가려야 하는 것 아닌가라고 판단했다. 그러나 곧 내 잘못도 아닌데 왜 치마를 가려야 하며, 더 나아가 ‘치마를 가리든 말든 무슨 상관인가’라고 생각했다. 둘 모두 개인의 선택이며, 모두 누군가에게 피해를 주는 행동이 아니다. 애초에 ‘어그로'(짜증 나는 행위를 하는 상대방에게 위협수준을 높인다는 뜻의 인터넷 용어)가 되지 말아야 할 이야깃거리가 바로 ‘치마 가리기’다.

At first, [when I considered this sign], I thought women should indeed cover up. But then I started thinking, “[People’s problems with it] are not my fault, so why should I?”. And, furthermore, “Who cares if women cover up or not? It’s a personal choice, and, whatever they decide, neither choice harms anyone.” So, really, this shouldn’t be an issue at all.

여성이 경험하는 이런 동시성은 에스컬레이터 벽에 붙은 문구와 다르지 않다. ‘치마 속을 촬영하는 것은 범죄지만, 일단 치마를 입은 사람이 나서서 가려야 한다’는 논리가 그렇다. 치마를 가리는 여성에 대한 왜곡된 시선은 ‘범죄는 스스로 예방해야 하지만 내 기분 나쁘지 않게 치마는 적당히 가려달라’는 어투의 연장선이다. 치마를 가리는 일도 어렵지만, 이 모순된 시각 속에서 행동을 결정해야 하는 과정은 더욱 어렵다.

These conflicting standards women are faced with are no different to those underlying the controversy surrounding this sign. So, while it’s a crime to take upskirt pictures, it’s women who are wearing skirts that should cover up? That’s part of the same view that women who don’t cover up are trashy, yet at the same time should never cover up so as to make a man feel accused as they do so.

Covering up can be certainly be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But it can be even more so just trying to figure out what is right to do! (end)

치마는 가려 주세요 A4(Source: Olive@spinach_olive)

Meanwhile, for those of you who were wondering what happened to them, a couple of months later the Segye Ilbo explained that in most Seoul subway stations the offending image and text had been covered with A4 paper. It also added that:

…이에 대해 안행부 관계자는 “에스컬레이터 안전 홍보물을 제작하면서 불법적인 촬영을 하지 말라는 취지로 만든 것인데 표현이 부적절했다”며 “문구가 잘못됐다는 것을 인지하고 ‘촬영은 안 됩니다’로 수정하기 위해 잘못된 부분만 따로 다시 제작하고 있다. 며칠 내로 수정하겠다”고 해명했다.

…An official from the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs said, “Our intention was to make people aware that it is illegal to take upskirt pictures, but the accompanying text was unwisely chosen. The signs will be changed to ‘No pictures allowed’ in a few days.”

안행부에 따르면 이 홍보물은 지난해 12월 산하기관인 승강기안전관리원이 200장 가량을 제작했다. 이후 지하철을 운행하는 전국 광역도시 지하철공사에 배부해 주요 에스컬레이터 벽면에 부착했다.

According to the Ministry, 200 copies of the sign were made in December 2013 by the Korea Elevator Safety Institute, and distributed to cities with subways all over Korea. (end)

Don't Take Upskirt Photos Busan SubwayAnd which brings me to why I’m suddenly talking about this sign over a year later: I was leaving Seomyeon station in Busan recently (Exit #9, if you’re curious), and noticed the changed version above. It was actually the first time I’d seen the sign in person, which I’d assumed had only been distributed around Seoul.

Don't Take Upskirt Photos Busan Subway -- Close-upHave any readers also noticed the changed signs? Or originals that subway staff didn’t get around to? Please let me know in the comments. I’m also curious if men being offended by women covering up in front of them is really a thing, or if you feel that Hwang So-yeon was exaggerating. Have any of you ever encountered such attitudes in Korea, or elsewhere?

Update: To clarify, I’m not talking about simple misinterpretations of men’s gazes by women, which of course do happen, and which, like me, I’ll assume most guys just shrug off. If (some? many?) Korean women are so worried as to not want to offend men by covering up in front of them however, as Hwang So-yeon claims, then I’m guessing that a vocal minority of Korean men aren’t shy about complaining about false accusations of ogling, nor in exaggerating their frequency.

Either way, note that the sign was still well-motivated, as the numbers of cases in Seoul have been increasing rapidly in recent years, as explained by Hwang So-yeon below; also, subway sex crimes in general, of which these upskirt photos make up about a third. However, the increase may also reflect greater policing, awareness, and willingness for victims to come forward:

…서울지하철이 걱정해야 할 정도로 치마는 위험한 옷차림일까. 계단이나 에스컬레이터 아래에서 카메라로 촬영하는 사람들이 당국의 골칫거리이긴 한가 보다. 지하철 역사 내 ‘도촬’ 범죄는 증가 추세에 놓여 있다. 몰래 카메라 성범죄 발생 건수는 2009년부터 807건(검거 인원 716명)에서 2010년 1134건(1051명), 2011년 1523건(1343명), 2012년 2400건(1816명)으로 꾸준히 증가했다. 지난해 8월 말 기준으로는 2766건(1816명)의 몰래카메라 촬영 성범죄가 발생했다.

…Are short skirts so provocative and dangerous that Seoul subway companies have to worry about? It is true that people taking upskirt pictures on escalators and stairs are an increasing source of concern for authorities. The numbers of people being caught for it have been steadily increasing. In 2009, there were 807 cases perpetrated by 716 people; in 2010, 1134 by 1051; in 2011, 1523 by 1343; in 2012, 2400 by 1816; and; up to August 2013,  2766 by 1816.

(Hat tip to Suzy Chung, whose tweet about the original sign first alerted me to the controversy last year.)

Busan Drag Prom This Saturday!

2015 Busan Drag PromSee the Facebook event page or community page for the details (English and Korean). All proceeds to go to ISHAP, an amazing human rights group who provide anonymous and free HIV, AIDS and STI testing; and Queer in PNU, Busan’s first university founded LGBT human rights group, who strive to make the city a safer and brighter place for at-risk gay youth.

I’ll be there again, and mingling. So please make sure to say hi! ;)

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)