“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!).

The Women’s Issue

Groove May 2014Sorry for the slow posting everyone: I recently had food-poisoning, some editing deadlines and my students’ end of semester exams are looming, and on my days off I’ve been on a mini-whirlwind tour of Korean universities giving presentations about body-image. But I hope to be posting again soon, and, until then, the latest issue of Groove Magazine will easily provide more than enough insights and new information to whet your appetites!

If you can’t get a physical copy, please click on the image above to read it at Issuu (a quick registration is required), or to download a PDF (click on “share” to get the link).

Update: I forgot to mention that I was interviewed for Annie Narae Lee’s article on page 58, but it may not appear online unfortunately. Also, I’m still too busy to listen myself, but Groove’s recent podcast on abortion in Korea sounds useful and interesting.

Corée du Sud La quête du galbe

Corée du Sud La quête du galbe Eva John(Source)

For French speakers, a Libération article about body image and cosmetic surgery in Korea that I was interviewed for recently. Many thanks to Nouvelles d’Asie ‏for and A G on Twitter for passing it on, and for the above photo.

Unfortunately, it’s one Euro for a month’s access. But you can’t ask for much cheaper than that!

Update: The article is freely available now.

Radio Interview on Australian Immigration Tonight, 7pm

White Australia Policy(Source)

Tonight I’ll be on Busan e-FM’s Let’s Talk Busan again, this time talking about Australian immigration, working holidays, and multiculturalism, prompted by the recent, possibly racially-motivated murder of a Korean woman in Brisbane. You can listen live on the radio at 90.5, online here (please note that you’ll have to download Windows Media Player 10 first), or via an archived version here later in the week.

Unfortunately(?), there are precious few links to Korean feminism, sexuality, or pop-culture to explore, except perhaps in so far as Australia has become a destination for Korean sex-trafficking. As The Joongang Daily explains, “some data say that about one-sixth of all women providing sex for money in Australia are Korean,” a surge in 2012 “largely attributed to legal loopholes in the working holiday visa system and a lack of administrative monitoring” according to The Korea Times. From experience though, probably there’ll be little time or opportunity to cover that angle, especially as the emphasis will be on racially-motivated attacks.

One personal link however, is that by coincidence my last job was teaching English to and preparing students for working holidays in Brisbane, just like the victim was doing. Teaching them for 4 to 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, I got to know them very well, and read the recent news with wide-eyed alarm, before remembering that they’ve all long since returned.

Another link is that as a former immigrant there myself, Australian immigration policies and multiculturalism have long been big interests of mine, and I devoured Stephen Castles’ books on the subjects as an undergraduate. Likely, many readers themselves have heard of the White Australia Policy (1901-1973), which figures prominently in Australia’s history. So, in keeping with the themes of this bog, let me pass on an interesting Australian ABC podcast about how its contradictions coalesced in a national “rapture” over Chinese-Amercian Anna May Wong’s visit in the late-1930s. Fascinating in her own right, I’d appreciate any suggestions for how and where to watch her movies:

Annie May Wong Australia(Source)

Anna May Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star. Her career started in the silent movie era, peaked in the interwar talkies and faded in the early years of television. Racist censorship laws meant she could never be cast as the romantic lead, instead she shone in sinister vamp and villain roles alongside the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks. It’s a little known fact that this icon of Hollywood’s golden age spent three months in Australia on the eve of the Second World War.

Anna May Wong was at a crossroads in her career when she came to Australia to appear on stage as the star attraction in a vaudeville show on the Tivoli circuit, Highlights from Hollywood. She was sick of the typecasting and wanted a chance to reflect on her career at a distance from Hollywood. As it turned out, Australia was her last taste of the high life.

Since Federation, Australian national identity had been formed around the exclusion of the Chinese, but for Anna May Wong the red carpet came out. This feature traces the vivid details of her time in Australia and explores the contradictions of White Australia’s rapture over Anna May Wong.

Naturally, as Koreans’ experiences of racism in Australia will be very different to my own, and as I haven’t actually lived there since 1990 (my father still does; my last visit was in 2008), then during the show itself I’ll be deferring to other guests for most of time, particularly one who has just returned from a working holiday in Australia. Here’s looking forward to learning some new perspectives tonight!

“This is why Korea needs people like Velvet Geena and the RockTigers”

The Rock TigersClick on the image to find the reasons, in an Paste Magazine article by Rachel Baily I was interviewed for this summer (and promptly forgot about — sorry!). Make sure to check out Busan Haps for a 2011 interview too, or here, here, and here for more on Waveya, Ga-in, and Wonderbaby also mentioned by Rachel.

Meanwhile, sorry for the slow posting everyone, but I’ve had — still have — a lot of offline deadlines, and the new semester is proving a lot of work. But I aim to have a big post up next week! :)

Update: Make that the week after next — I ended up catching one of those frustrating, lingering colds sorry.