(TRANSLATION) On Blogging about Feminism in South Korea

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Photo by bruce mars from Pexels.

Many thanks to Menelik Lee (@LiMing6859), for all their hard work translating a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang for Qdaily last year.

As you’ll see, unfortunately a lot of nuance is lost when going from English to Chinese to English again. The misunderstandings and factual mistakes multiply too, which crop up even when interviewers and interviewees share the same native language. Most are very, very minor though, which is a real testament to Menelik’s skills, so I’ve only corrected or clarified the most glaring ones [indicated in brackets]. Please pass on your rants or raves, or let me know if you’d like any further information about anything mentioned in the interview. Thanks!

An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room.

Yiyi Zhang, Qdaily, 22/11/2018

Almost 20 years ago, Englishman James Turnbull was just starting his life in Korea. [W]hile traveling through the wild open countryside in his boss’s car [during one of his first jobs there], “I don’t know where it sprang from, but suddenly a hotel appeared in the middle of this vast emptiness.”

Just like every person that harbors a sense of wonderment for the culture of a foreign land, Turnbull immediately blurted out, “What’s that? [What tourist would come here, in the middle of nowhere?]” He learned from his boss that the establishment [actually] functioned like the much-fabled love hotels of Japan.

He soon discovered that in Korea such establishments are actually [common in rural areas, not just the cities]. These unassuming structures facilitate both the sex trade and the secret trysts of [lovers]. They have arisen because premarital sex is still heavily stigmatized in Korean society. However, unlike Japan, Korea’s “love hotels” lack neon signs and themed playrooms. If asked about such things the proprietors will simply evade the question.

“Everyone pretends they don’t exist, but you can tell they have a bad reputation. Anyway, it’s always been something that [just] shouldn’t be discussed.”

After having lived in Korea for 18 years, with a family and two kids of his own now, Turnbull looks back and realizes that the problems surrounding sex and gender in this culture are just like that little hotel in the wilderness. They’re arresting, painfully obvious, yet everyone turns a blind eye and carries on regardless.

In his 7th year in Korea, Turnbull launched The Grand Narrative, a blog sharing and analyzing Korea’s sex, gender and pop culture from the viewpoint of an English author.

Besides blogging, he also holds down a full-time job at Busan’s Dongseo University. He spends so much of his spare time and energy maintaining and updating his blog, it’s almost a kind of volunteer work at this point. Over time, his blog has gained the approval of the mainstream—[most recently, he was quoted for several stories for CNN in 2018]—and Turnbull became something of an authority on Korean feminism and pop culture in Western media. Occasionally, he has even been invited to give guest lectures at Seoul National University and other higher education institutions.

But most of the time he stays in his own wheelhouse, silently typing away under the glow of his computer monitor. Over the past 11 years, he has written hundreds of articles on topics ranging from sex and K-pop, to the politics of body image, from gender in advertising, to abortion and contraception. In the world beyond his writings, the transformations wrought by the Korean women’s rights movement have moved with breath-taking speed.

“This has been the product of the last decade or so of painstaking labor, maybe it’s time to talk about it a little.” Turnbull tells Qdaily.

The first [post] about women’s issues on The Grand Narrative was posted in 2007. [From his Korean female friends, Turnbull learned that when they] graduated and entered the job market the problems they ran into came thick and fast. One of the most prominent issues was the fact that as soon as they fell pregnant they were laid off.

“As soon as a woman has a child she is forced to leave work; after a year it’s basically impossible to go back. The hierarchy in Korean companies is very strict, those who have worked there the longest always have the final say and the most opportunities for advancement. When a Korean woman is married with kids, she simply can’t keep up professionally.” Turnbull also speaks about the low birth rate. Because all women have to face this decision, many women from this generation have decided to simply forego having children.

The BBC reports that because of this, Korea has developed a new social phenomenon: the Sampo Generation. “Sampo” means to abandon three things: relationships, marriage, and children.

Before graduating and coming to Korea, Turnbull [had already had some experience of fitting into] different cultures. Thanks to his parents, he moved from the UK to New Zealand, then to Australia, and from there back to the UK again. [In just three years], he attended six different secondary schools in three separate countries, “it was pretty crazy.”

One may say that the cultural differences between these three countries are small when compared to Korea, but they each have unique values and lifestyles. [When he was a teenager,] every time Turnbull questioned an [adult in New Zealand and Australia about some aspect of their countries, and even in the UK if they knew he’d lived overseas], the answer was always the same: “This is just the local culture.” This answer was rolled out like a panacea. No matter what the situation, no matter the problem, it could be used to explain it away. But when he seriously thought about it, he realized that adults were simply using this because they had nothing else to say. “I’d had enough,” he recalls.

So by the time he got to Korea, he simply couldn’t [let “culture” be used] to explain everything away. “It’s not [unlike] a fish in water, unable to sense the water. Some things are [genuinely unusual and noteworthy, only considered normal by people who’ve known nothing else].”

In his conversations, Turnbull found that many Koreans harbored a strong sense of nationalism [too], and so talking about the negative aspects of the country [with a foreigner met a lot of resistance]. However, this did not mean that they [themselves] were satisfied with everything that was going on.

“If there’s something in Korea that you don’t like, there’s a very good chance a lot of Koreans aren’t happy with it either.” And this is something the [English-language media often chooses not to cover]. Many debates [are to be found on the Korean internet and social media platforms], and the English-language media has trouble [relaying] these trends, so they [can give versions] of Korean sexual culture that are extremely superficial.

“When reporting on cultures outside of Asia, readers generally won’t afford you much credibility or value as a reference if you don’t understand the local language. But when it comes to Asia—China, Japan and Korea—the majority of the [Western experts or reporters] have a very limited understanding of the local languages and cultures, yet the audience is really forgiving—it’s a very strange double standard.”

Turnbull provides an example. In 2013, the South Korean Ministry for the Interior introduced “Pink Female Parking Spaces,” with extra room for the exclusive use of women. In no time, this news was plastered over mainstream media pages around the world. Almost all of them claimed that the policy demonstrated prejudice against female drivers because the spaces implied that the women wouldn’t be able to park properly without them.

“[To be more specific, one report quoted an anonymous source that claimed that the larger spaces were necessary for ‘unskilled women drivers.‘ However, ultimately that source appeared to have been made up.”] Turnbull says that, in actual fact, the spaces were created because the vast majority of child care duties are born by women, and the policy provided larger spaces for them to use prams when they go shopping—[as most of the Korean media accurately reported.]

“There’s obviously [still] a problem here: the idea that the role of primary carer is naturally filled by women. But it’s a completely separate issue to what the [overseas] media were saying. [Had overseas media outlets just taken a little more time to investigate, or, you know, spoken to someone who actually spoke Korean, then this ‘crazy Korea’ news story, which just plays to Orientalist stereotypes, would never have gotten off the ground.”]

Between the cracks of cultural misunderstanding, Turnbull saw his chance. Having been an English teacher for far too long, he was anxious to prove himself and open up further professional opportunities. As a result, when he first began writing about Korean culture, it soon transformed into writings about sex and feminism.

“Turnbull’s blog has continued to focus on female representation in Korean popular culture, including advertisements, soap operas, music videos, and more.” Source, right.

Turnbull’s blog was in its infancy ten years ago, but even just five to six years ago there was [almost] no one else doing the same thing. [“That doesn’t necessarily mean I was writing well, or that I was particularly knowledgeable—just that I was the only one writing about these specific topics. I’m quite serious when I say that, for a long time, I really was pretty much the only person on Earth writing about Korean feminism IN ENGLISH on the INTERNET.”] For the longest time, when opening Google’s search engine, Turnbull’s blog was the first thing listed under “Korea” and “feminism.”

According to Turnbull, he grew up in a very left-wing family, among piles of his father’s psychology and sociology textbooks. At university, he also spent his time on feminist research and sociology projects.

His foreign identity also opens the door for dialogue to some degree. “The reality is, if someone is truly interested in your culture, you’ll also be curious to find out where that interest comes from.”

Furthermore, in a Korean society that has always considered [open discussions of] sex to be taboo, Turnbull exists like a wanderer, beyond the normal customs and social networks of everyday Korean life. Thus, those around him [tend to be] happier to share their views on this topic [compared to how open they would be sharing them with a native Korean], disregarding his age and social position, they can trust him to be discrete. “It’s precisely because you’re a foreigner, people don’t have the same kinds of psychological barriers—they can pour their hearts out.”

This makes everything sound free and easy, but the reason he focused his gaze on women’s issues is because the urgency of the problems they still face simply cannot be overlooked.

“One day, a colleague rushed over to ask me a question: can abortions affect your health?” Upon further inquiry, he found out that this woman had had eight previous abortions, because she had never used—[and wasn’t even aware of]—any contraceptive methods. “I was totally shocked. To this very day, the lack of [adequate sex education in Korea] is astounding.”

Source: YouTube

As a non-academic, much of Turnbull’s understanding of social phenomena comes from his personal experience. His blog articles are written from the first-person perspective, but when compared to other news articles about the same events, he’s [often] much quicker than they are to cite authoritative sources.

From his perspective, feminism has never existed in isolation, and sex and gender issues are important because they are intimately connected to the everyday lives of all people.

Before becoming an English teacher at a university, Turnbull worked in a regular [Korean] company for almost two years. The hierarchical culture of humiliation in Korean workplaces really took him by surprise. “Every week our department head would make everyone stand up, and castigate each and every [employee] about every aspect of their work [regardless of how good it was]. On some level he had no choice, [because] angry or not, this was [just] how things were done.”

The sense of hierarchical oppression permeates most of everyday life, and in such a stratified society, standing up for oneself can make things even more difficult.

Despite himself, after coming to Korea, Turnbull says he can’t help pondering social stratification and rebellion. This is especially reflected around issues of sexual misconduct. “In Korea, if an older family member wants to hug you, you can’t refuse even if you want to. As a child or a young person, there are many people who can order you to do something even if you don’t like it.”

Once you’re a little older, this evolves into a power disparity between the sexes, “If a boy likes you, you just have to accept it, you can’t complain about it. Because of this, men don’t understand what constitutes “consent,” and women who reject others feel guilty.”

This attitude engenders deep seated emotional resentment, and Korean society is thus plagued by gendered violence and frequent sex crimes by spurned lovers. According to survey results released in 2017 by the Korean Institute of Criminology, 80% of males surveyed admitted to having previously abused a romantic partner.

“This is why I feel so surprised and proud that in the space of just a few years so many young women have come out to demonstrate. Because in Korea just doing that can be incredibly difficult.” He says that many demonstrators have to cover their faces, but the effects are deep and far reaching. Korea is undergoing a dramatic change towards gender equality and sexual minorities.

According to QZ, the watershed moment for the Korean women’s movement came in 2016. A woman was brutally murdered in a public bathhouse not far from the entrance to Gangnam Metro Station, one of Seoul’s busiest transport hubs. Following the incident, women came out onto the streets to protest sexual violence, and women’s rights groups stepped up their online activism. With the global acceleration of the #MeToo movement this year, Korea’s feminist wave has also picked up pace.

While this was happening, Turnbull was observing the heating up of what may be called a “gender war.” As all of society’s feelings of discontent and dismay were foisted off on the shoulders of women.

Source: Arirang News.

South Korea has one of the highest rates of tertiary education in the world, meaning that most young people will attend university. However, without a proportional level of demand in the job market, the youth unemployment rate is almost 10%—that’s three times higher than the global average. After graduating, most people can only find work in convenience stores and coffee shops, relying on the lowest paid positions to make a living. Still others choose to delay graduation despite the fact that there are no more classes for them to take.

Against this backdrop, [a vocal minority of] young men are blaming young women for having stolen all their opportunities. What’s more, some are beginning to question [compulsory] military service, claiming that it is unfair on men and are now seeking compensation.

In 2014, according to a South Korean National Statistical Office report, in the last four years there was a historic reversal in employment rates of males and females aged 20 or older. The female employment rate exceeded that of males for the first time since records began. “A female tornado” is one of the terms being used to describe what has become the latest hot topic.

Turnbull believes it is a term deliberately employed to cause agitation—the disparity in male and female employment rates is actually only 2.1%. However, the male groups of society have reacted swiftly and with mortal urgency in a massive backlash. Some men’s rights organizations have even called for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. In fact, according to a World Economic Forum 2015 report on Global Gender Inequality, South Korea still ranks 115th out of 145 countries. In the “economic participation and opportunities” categories, South Korea is 125th.

Issues of gender equality are always fiercely debated, and the ongoing economic stagnation throws that much more fuel upon the fire. But lines are not only being drawn between the gender camps. In a universally anxious social atmosphere, people will always seek to set up a common adversary to set off against their own in-groups. Turnbull provides an example: this year, over 500 Yemeni refugees were detained on Korea’s Jeju Island, sparking mass public protests. Unlike trends seen before in most other countries, where opposition to refugees is strongest among older generations, in Korea the exact opposite is the case. Against all expectations, younger people are the heart of the movement.

“In April, female MBC news anchor Lim Hyeon-ju caused a stir by becoming the first Korean anchor-woman to wear glasses while on-air. Shortly after this, Korean media released the results of two studies on gender bias.” Image source: YouTube.
“Female idols are frequently depicted in advertisements for the Korean military conscription service.” Source: MMA Facebook page; left, right)

“Middle-aged, white, male, heterosexual; I’m pretty much a member of the most hated group on the planet.” Turnbull jokes during the interview.

Upon first finding Turnbull’s blog, not all readers are supportive. “The main reason they hate me is because of my identity.”

“No one wants to hear about Korean feminism from a middle-aged white dude.” And Turnbull admits that this wariness is not without good reason [James—I put it much more strongly during the interview: when studying and writing about what—who—I do, there are many conceptual and practical issues stemming from my privileged background; I can only always be aware of them and strive to overcome them as best as I can, most notably by relying on as many native Korean sources as possible, and especially on Korean women themselves]. In his first few years in Korea, he [admits he naively and arrogantly] thought that he’d already come to understand everything about the country [partially because, unlike most expats, he’d already studied Korean history and society at university], and was more than ready to lecture others about it. But soon enough, he came to realize that he had been very wrong about this. “I’ve probably deleted about half of my previous articles, just because they no longer reflect my current opinions [and/or later proved to be completely wrong, as often pointed out by my female readers—many of the most vocal of whom would become my best friends later!].”

But the internet has a long memory. A little over a month ago, he received an email, a 3000-word polemic referencing a 10-year-old piece he had already deleted [9 years ago!].

[A significant proportion of those that take] issue with his work are [Asian-American women]. Turnbull mentions a slang term, “yellow fever,” used to describe white men with a [fetishistic] preference for [East] Asian women. [Because of it], many Asian-American women [regularly] have to face [sexual stereotyping and harassment from white men] in their everyday lives, and so talking about sex in Korea as he does often brings him under [immediate] suspicion [of being no different to those men]. [The vast majority of those that actually read his work soon see that he is not, but] some have penned vicious attacks against him, and still others have posted fake pictures of him online. [James—I feel compelled to add that a significant proportion of my fans are Asian-American women too! :) But the actual question was about my trolls, and I wasn’t going to lie. It just is how it is.]

Turnbull’s blog used to provide a popular space for discussion. In the comments section people would air their views, and readers from all over the world would have lively debates with one another. But with the sudden onset of the social media age, people had a great many more ways of accessing news, and the number of hits and comments his blog received decreased significantly—[although] thankfully, the number of attacks decreased accordingly as well.

Nowadays, Turnbull seems to occupy an awkward position. He occasionally attends LGBTQ marches or feminist demonstrations [in Korea], but only rarely. “As a middle-aged white guy [who sticks out like a sore thumb at these], I don’t really want to [draw people’s attention away from the issues the activists are demonstrating about].”

Even today, he can’t envision things as he did when he was starting out. That he could, through his blog, make the outside world believe that a foreigner could be more than just an English teacher.

He even laughingly tells us that these days a decent number [MOST!] of the hits on his blog come from people searching for porn. Unfortunately, most rarely stick around to read the articles!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Manufacturing Outrage Against Feminists: The Cosplay Edition

I read trashy entertainment news stories about women in cosplay and half-naked men, so that you don’t have to. But when they’re all that’s available, it’s netizens with agendas that get to determine what we take away from them.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes. Image sources: 스포츠하국, Pixabay (edited).

Surely it’s a bot that pumps out all these “Controversy Erupts Over K-pop Star’s Provocative Outfit” articles by now?

I’m almost serious. The names and details in the intros may change, but otherwise the articles follow the same pattern. First, you’re told about the throngs of netizens, feminists, and women’s groups who’ve criticized the sexual objectification, who are so great in number that actual names and links are usually deemed unnecessary. Next, responses from organizers of the show or event or from representatives of the star’s entertainment company are given, all of whom are men, and all of whom are stunned by the criticisms. After they recover, they’ll loudly defend her from the prudes, and join fans in praising her creative expression, sexual empowerment, and confidence and pride in her body. Finally, if we’re really lucky, we might even hear from the actual woman herself, providing a vague, suspiciously demure semi-defense or apology, which feels entirely scripted by the same men waxing lyrical about her grrrl-power.

Since Johyun of girl-group Berry Good appeared in cosplay at a gaming event on Monday June 17, “news” articles like this have appeared in the hundreds. Usually, I’d ignore them—give it a few weeks, and there’ll just be hundreds of similar articles about another immodest K-pop star to peruse, with the endless, national hand-wringing over Sulli not wearing a bra being relied upon to fill pages until then. But there’s a story about these stories which made Johyun’s case different.

I’ll let Danny Kim and David Kim of Youtube Channel DKDKTV explain, who covered the responses to her cosplay in their K-pop news video the next day (from 0:49 to 5:19):

Specifically:

Danny (in purple), (from 1:38): “Basically, this caused an alleged uproar led by a journalist, who called her out for promoting sexual objectification….And you know the funny thing was? She also happened to write an article about, like, how hot these male idols abs and boobs were about two years ago. Basically this one journalist wrote an article calling her out, and then all these different news outlets started covering this alleged ‘controversy’…but the weird part is it’s just that one journalist, and no-one really gives a shit. But I feel that this is like, what we call media play.”

David (in blue): “So what you’re saying is that there was one news article from that journalist, and the news just kept kinda reproducing—”

Danny: “Maybe she was, maybe the original article was allegedly offended by this outfit, but afterwards, all this like, a constant cycle of this controversy being covered when it’s not even a controversy, I think got media play. But anyway succeeded…”

David, (a little later, from 3:40): I saw the internet community reacting to her, and they were saying, like the headline was, ‘Do You Think it’s the Chosun Era?‘…Have you looked at the comments? Because, like, the most voted comment, for every article I’ve checked, is saying like, ‘Oh, it was all empowerment and strong for Hwasa [of MAMAMOO] and now you come for her, and which is all like ‘Provocative!’ and ‘Sexually objectifying!’…The comments are allegedly calling the journalist or the people who are criticizing [Johyun], like, radical feminists, because when they’re saying when like Hwasa did it, it was all fine, it was all like powerful and you know, all that stuff. But when a relatively Korean standard beauty person doing it, now, they’re like ‘OMG! She’s selling herself! OMG! That’s sexual objectification!’ Those are like double standards [too].

To summarize the charges: there was never any real controversy; the catalyst for the alleged controversy was one female journalist’s critical article; and that she hypocritically sung the praises of topless male actors in her previous articles. Let’s examine each in turn.

The first can be confirmed almost immediately. While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, I’ve read dozens of articles that simply quote anonymous critics as discussed, and I’m not going to read dozens more in the vain hope that—heaven forbid!—one journalist actually does back up what they say. If that evidence of feminist outrage exists then, the onus is on believers to provide it. And they haven’t been doing a very convincing job so far:

Source: Netizenbuzz.
Source: Netizenbuzz.

The second charge that a female journalist’s critical article sparked the whole media play though, is completely wrong. And that’s also very easy to prove.

The article in question, which I’ll give my translation of in a moment, was “‘Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.’ In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent?” / “‘완벽vs불쾌’ 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까”, written by Jo Yeon-gyeong (조연경) for Ilgan Sports (일간스포츠) and published at 8:37pm on Monday the 17th; from there, it was syndicated to Daum, where it currently has 1700 comments. The timing is crucial: do a search with the words “Johyun,” “Berry Good,” and “Controversy” on Naver, Korea’s biggest portal site, and it’s evident that numerous articles with that key final search term were published throughout the day, well before Yeon-gyeong’s in the evening. Moreover, that search is just of Naver and just with the word “controversy” attached to Johyun’s name; there’s also some earlier ones that mention, say, “sexual objectification,” with or without the specific word “controversy” too. Hell, even if you don’t speak Korean, just by clicking on the links to the four articles Netizenbuzz covered you can see that all of those preceded it as well.

To point out Danny and David’s mistake isn’t intended to imply anything: they’re busy YouTubers pumping out three videos a week, of which this story was just one short segment of one. Also, I appreciated their comments that Johyun’s smiling and easy demeanor at the event in no way implies her consent with the outfit chosen for her, which speaks to the difficulties in judging exploitation within and reporting on the notoriously controlling K-pop industry, a topic I’ve covered in depth elsewhere.

That said, their sloppy mistake, however inadvertent and lacking in malice, does perpetuate the stereotype of the interfering feminist, outraged over trifles that normal people couldn’t care less about. To understand why that version of events came about, and snowballed to the extent that that’s the one Danny and David took notice of, let’s examine what the journalist actually said:

“Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.” In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent? “완벽vs불쾌” 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까

Jo Yeon-gyeong, Ilgan Sports, 2019.06.17 20:37

이쯤되면 입힌 사람도, 입은 사람도 잘못이다. 반짝 이슈에 이미지를 홀라당 날려 버렸다. 응원하는 이들만큼 불쾌감 섞인 비난도 뒤따른다. 후폭풍을 전혀 예상하지 못했을까. 그 또한 패착이다.

Whether Johyun chose the outfit, or whether it was chosen for her, we cannot say. Either way, the hot issue that suddenly arose from it is the question of if she has ruined her image. There are as many people supporting her as there are critics or those made to feel uncomfortable by her outfit. We can not know yet what to make of the aftermath. Or if the choice was misguided.

베리굿 조현이 노출 논란에 휩싸였다. 과감한 코스프레 의상이 문제였다.

Because of her daring, provocative outfit, Johyun has been engulfed in controversy.

조현은 17일 서울 상암동 에스플렉스 센터OGN e스타디움에서 열린 ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’ 행사에 참석했다. ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’는 게임을 즐겨하는 아이돌 스타들이 게임 실력을 겨루는 아이돌 e스포츠 대회로, 이날 행사에는 약 40명의 아이돌 스타들이 참석했다.

On Monday the 17th, Johyun participated in OGN’s Game Dolympic 2019: Golden Card event at the Seoul OGN e-STADIUM in Samam-dong, along with approximately 40 other idols. As part of the event, idols showed off their skills competing against each other at e-games.

조현은 ‘리그 오브 레전드’의 구미호 캐릭터 아리 코스프레 의상을 차려입고 카메라 앞에 섰다. 게임 행사인 만큼 게임 속 캐릭터 의상을 착용한 자체는 문제가 되지 않는다. 하지만 가슴과 엉덩이가 훤히 드러나는 의상은 분명 과했다. 떨어지는 퀄리티에 스타킹 라인도 고스란히 노출됐다.

Johyun cosplayed as the nine-tailed fox character Ahri from League of Legends, and stood in front of the cameras [on the red carpet]. That she cosplayed is not a problem. However, her choice of clothing clearly exposed her breasts and bottom to an excessive degree. The outfit was poor quality too, and fully revealed her suspenders. (Source, right: Bias Wrecker.)

섹시와 저렴은 한끗차이다. 조현은 의도했든 의도하지 않았든 스스로 목적 뚜렷한 눈요깃거리가 됐고, 조롱의 대상이 됐다.

There’s a fine line between sexiness and looking cheap. Whatever Jo-hyun’s intentions were, she’s plainly just there as eye-candy, and is now an object of mockery.

물론 ‘완벽한 코스프레’라 극찬하는 이들도 있다. ‘코스프레일 뿐인데 왜 난리냐’ ‘하다하다 별걸 다 갖고 논란. 예쁘기만 하다’ ‘뭐가 과하고 뭐가 야하다는건지 모르겠다. 코스프레 무식자들’ ‘캐릭터 의상이 원래 저런데 어쩌라고’ ‘잘 입었다. 칭찬해 주고 싶다’ 등 옹호 반응도 쏟아지고 있다.

Of course, there are people who speak highly of this “perfect cosplay.” Those rushing to her support have made such arguments as “It’s just cosplay. What’s all the fuss?”, “Whatever she does, there’s controversy. Can’t you just acknowledge she’s pretty?”, “I really don’t know what’s revealing or excessive about her outfit. Only people who know nothing about cosplay would say such things”, and “She’s just dressed like the original character is dressed. I want to compliment her for that.”

특히 조현이 입은 의상은 주최 측과 사전 상의한 결과였다. 취지에 어긋나지 않고, 자리를 빛내기 위한 선택이었다는 것.

Crucially however, the choice of outfit was in made in prior consultation with the organizers and hosts of the event. It was not inappropriate for the event, and was chosen to lighten it up.

소속사 제이티지엔터테인먼트 측은 “평소 게임을 좋아하는 조현이 게임 행사에 참여하게 됐고, 주최 측과 협의 후 코스프레를 완벽히 소화하기 위해 준비한 의상을 착용했다”며 “조현이 평소 게임을 좋아하기 때문에 팬들과 더 많이 소통하고 싶어 했다”고 전했다.

A source from her entertainment company JTG Entertainment [further clarified] that “Johyun is a big fan of games, and that is how she came to participate in the event; the outfit that was chosen in consultation with the event hosts worked out for her beautifully. Also, that “Through wearing the outfit, Johyun hoped to better communicate her love of games to her fans.”

그럼에도 불구하고 ‘성상품화를 자처했다’는 목소리가 더 높은 실정이다. 이에 따른 네티즌들의 갑론을박도 점점 더 격렬해지고 있다. 의도가 무엇이었든 단발성 이슈 몰이에는 성공한 모양새다. 이후 조현이 보여 줄 행보가 그녀의 진정한 이미지를 결정짓게 만들 것으로 보인다.

Despite this, the accusations that she was sexually objectified have grown in number, and netizens have intensely debated the pros and cons of her choice of outfit—whatever her intentions [James—or those of JTG Entertainment], she’s certainly been successful in becoming the issue of the week. After it dies down, her true image will be determined by the paths she takes in the future. [End]

Source: 5:18, TopStarNews.Net@YouTube

Whatever you make of Jo Yeong-gyeong’s opinion piece, it’s only slightly harsher than those by many other journalists. Yet it’s her that has been made the figurehead for feminist outrage and overreaction by the more tabloidish and alt-right corners of the Korean internet, buttressed by her alleged hypocrisy and double-standards:

Sources: MLBPark (1; since deleted); 2)

Her haters generally provide five of her previous articles as evidence. I won’t translate them fully sorry (my first one above probably already pushes the limits of fair use), just those parts about “how hot those male idols abs and boobs were.”

First, one from October 2016, about a scene from the drama Sweet Stranger and Me, in which Kim Young-kwang appears wearing only an apron on top in front of Park Soo-ae:

주목할 것은 김영광의 차림이다. 상의는 입지 않은 채 빨간 앞치마만 걸치고 있는 그의 모습은 궁금증을 유발하기 충분하다.

특히 김영광의 태평양 어깨와 힐끗 보이는 잔근육, 팔의 힘줄은 시선을 압도, 여심을 흔들게 할 전망이다.

또 수애 앞에 바짝 다가선 김영광은 남성미를 폭발시켜 미묘한 긴장감을 형성한다. 이에 앞으로 두 사람에게 무슨 일이 생길지 기대감을 높인다.

Man of the drama title Kim Young-kwang is getting a lot of attention for a scene in which he’s topless but for a red kitchen apron.

In particular, he’s aroused the interest of women with his broad shoulders and the veins on his bulging muscles. Also, as he approaches Park Soo-ae, we suddenly become aware of his masculine beauty, and the building tension between them. With bated breaths, we wait to see what will happen next.

Next, from March 2017, about an episode of the Law of the Jungle reality TV show, in which the male guests took off their tops in the rain:

이에 따라 예상치 못하게 병만족의 숨겨왔던 초콜릿 복근도 공개됐다. 상의를 벗은 병만족은 함께 목욕탕에 온 것처럼 서로의 등을 밀어주기도 하고 장난도 치며 돈독한 우정을 다졌다. 다들 “자연인이 된 것 같아”, “진짜 시원하다. 대박이에요.” 등의 반응을 보이며 행복해했다고.

그 모습을 멀리서 지켜보던 홍일점 경리는 “나도 같이 벗고 싶었다. 그러나 여자라 참았다”며 알몸 샤워하는 남자 병만족을 부러워했다는 후문이다.

As they took off their tops, the “chocolate abs” of [host] Kim Byung-man‘s “tribe” were revealed, and the men began massaging each other’s backs and getting friendly as if they were in a bathhouse back at home. They were very happy, saying things like “It’s great to get so close to nature,” “This is so refreshing. It’s just the best!”

Watching from a distance, the only female member of the tribe, Nine Muses’s Park Kyung-ri, later revealed, “I really wanted to take off my clothes too. But because I was the only woman, I just had to put up with it. I was really jealous of the men being able to shower half-nude.”

From September 2017, when several members of Korean-Chinese boy-band Exo appeared on variety show It’s Dangerous Beyond The Blankets:

Source: @EXOXiuminTurkey; all other images from their original articles.

물놀이를 해본 지가 언제인지 까마득한 집돌이들은 계속 한참을 머뭇거리다 수영장에 들어갔는데, 이후에도 무엇을 해야 할지 몰라 하며 당황하는 모습을 보였다. 하지만 곧 자신들만의 물놀이에 빠져들어 상의 탈의를 감행, 그동안 그들이 소중하게 간직하고 있던 근육까지 공개하는 열의를 보이며 열띤 시간을 보냈다는 후문에 기대감을 증폭 시키고 있다.

At first the homebodies hesitated to get into the water, not having been in the swimming pool for a while. And once they did get in, it was like they didn’t know what to do. But in the end, they got so energized by the water that they took off their tops and showed off their hidden muscles with alacrity. Viewers’ expectations for the episode [which had then yet to be aired] will be high!

Then again on the Law of the Jungle reality TV show in February 2018, with Kim Yu-gyeom, Lee Tae-gon, and Kim Yun-sang enjoying themselves in a stream:

유겸의 상남자 매력은 다음날 과일 탐사에서도 어김없이 빛났다. 이틀 만에 소금기 없는 민물을 발견한 유겸은 거침없이 상의를 벗어 던지고 물속에 몸을 내던져 정글에서의 첫 샤워를 즐겼다. 이를 본 김윤상 아나운서는 “역시 아이돌이라서 그런지 몸매가 훈훈하다”며 눈을 떼지 못했다.

[After catching a fish with his bare hands the day before], Yu-gyeom’s masculine beauty was on his display while fruitpicking. In just two days, he found a fresh water source, threw off his clothes to dive into some water, and enjoyed a shower in the jungle. Kim Yun-sang [James—a cishet guy, in case of any confusion!] couldn’t keep his eyes off him, explaining his figure was just so admirable.

And finally in May 2018, about an episode of The Return of Superman in which volleyball player Moon Sung-min visited the bathhouse with his son Shi-ho:

…문성민 아빠와 시호 부자는 목욕탕에서 완벽한 몸매를 자랑하며 몸짱에 등극해 시청자들의 이목을 사로잡을 전망이다.

방송 전 공개된 사진 속 문성민 아빠와 시호는 목욕탕에서 신나는 시간을 보내고 있다. 만점 비주얼의 문성민 아빠의 훈훈한 미소와 완벽한 초콜릿 복근은 심쿵을 유발한다. 시호의 깜찍한 웃음은 매우 사랑스럽다.

이날 시호·리호는 배구선수인 문성민 아빠의 직장에 방문했다. 그곳에서 시호는 문성민 아빠와 공놀이를 하며 즐거운 시간을 보냈다고. 운동을 끝낸 두 사람은 흘린 땀을 씻기 위해 목욕탕으로 향했다. 목욕탕에 등장한 문성민-시호 부자에 모두가 심쿵했다는 전언이다. 문성민 아빠가 완벽한 식스팩을 자랑하며 모습을 드러냈기 때문.

…Moon Sung-min captured the audience’s attention by showing off his perfect body in the bathhouse.

Shi-ho and Sung-min had an enjoyable time there. Sung-min got hearts racing with his perfect visuals, charming smile, and perfect chocolate abs. Shi-ho’s cute laughing was very lovable too.

After having an enjoyable time at Sung-min’s workplace, the two of them went to the bathhouse to wash off their sweat. It was said that all the other patrons of the bathhouse almost stopped in their tracks at the sight of Sung-min showing off his perfect six-pack.

Making the big assumption that it’s not actually her editor that chooses the slant of all of her articles, perhaps from those you could indeed argue that Danny and David Kim’s third charge is correct: she was being hypocritical about Johyun. Against that however, you could respond that much of her concern about Johyun’s image stems from how unusual the cosplay was for her, in contrast to the male actors and boy-band members for whom taking their tops off for the cameras is a matter of routine. To which you could counter that, whether through choice or coercion, Johyun is actually very used to being objectified, as are the other members of Berry Good. And so on.

But to engage in that debate means not seeing the forest for the trees. Because if even we do concede the double-standards, all these articles are still just trashy entertainment news. Those short excerpts above? They’re actually half or more of the entire “news articles” in some cases. That’s not to single Jo Yeon-gyeong out, or imply that she’s bad at her job. Quite the opposite—it’s to point out that as a producer of quick, throwaway clickbait (hey, she makes more money from writing than I do), that in each case above, everything she said about the man boobs and chocolate abs was also made by dozens or even more other journalists like her. Many of who might even be men.

Forgive my own hypocrisy in not providing links to them; frankly, as I type this I’m just exhausted after a week of unpaid research, translation, and 3200 words on this myself. So, if you do have your doubts on that last, please indulge me with the two minutes of googling necessary to confirm.

That’s something the paid journalists were not prepared to do. Instead, we were asked just take to their word for it that Johyun’s cosplay was controversial.

Is it any wonder that people would form their own narratives instead?

Or that the version of events by the group with the biggest axe to grind would come to dominate the story?

For make no mistake: singling out a female journalist for articles that she may have had no choice over, which were replicated by many other male and female colleagues, is as misogynistic as they come.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Why We Need to Stop Talking about “Asian” and “Western” Women’s Bodies

Setting arbitrary standards for what makes an “Asian” or “Western” body type punishes the vast majority of women who don’t fully measure up to either.

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes. Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash. Post has one NSFW image.

What is it with people ever talking about “Asian” and “Western” women’s bodies?

If the conversation is in Korean, usually only Korean and white women will actually be meant; the latter, as women of color that don’t present as Korean tend to be referred to by their race or nationality instead. But even reduced to just those two groups of women, how could the idealized figures described in those conversations possibly embody the mélange of real, flesh and bone Korean and white women’s body types and features? Let alone actually have something useful to say about them?

I get that the habit mostly boils down to the natural, human tendency to overgeneralize groups in everyday speech. We’re all guilty of that sometimes. But on this topic specifically, the usual common-sense and restraint seem to get thrown out of the window. For one, because women of color are usually not considered “Western” as mentioned, a subject we’ll return to in future posts. Then take the alacrity with which various bodily features are pigeonholed as Korean or white by Korean journalists from all levels of the Korean media, who regularly come up with such pearls of wisdom as: “the most notable trait of Kim Yuna’s “golden ratio body” is her long limbs, just like those of a Westerner’s“; that “Lee Hyo-ri has an Asian bottom [and a Western chest]“; and that “female idols with ‘Western type bodies’…get praised by foreign fans.” Or how there’s items of women’s clothing that Korean women’s bodies are widely considered simply unsuitable for, which can present somewhat of a challenge to Korean companies trying to sell them:

Left picture: I’ve watched Western women wearing leggings, and I’ve had heated discussions about leggings with Western friends. After a month of that, I’ve come to realize why it’s so difficult for Asian women to wear them.

Right picture: When Asian women don’t have wide pelvises, flaps of skin in their “Y-zones” get bunched together and exposed. (James—Yes, there’s a slang word for that in Korean too; understandably, the company chose to avoid it.) “Embarrassing!” / Instead of your skin looking soft, it looks thin and lacking in firmness; the underside of your bottom looks flabby. “I’m ashamed!” / Compared to Westerners’ long and slender legs, Asian women’s legs are short and many Asian women have stout lower bodies. “It’s upsetting!”

Shopping in New York’s Chinatown can sometimes be a minefield too:

There is resistance to this line of thinking. In response to Temple Leggings’ sponsored tweets for instance, Twitter user “데데” (@merrydede) argues above that Korean women’s reluctance to wear leggings actually has nothing to do with their perceived body shapes or too short legs vis-a-vis Western women, but is more because of a culture of constant evaluation of their bodies and “gaze rape,” with commentators in the ensuing long thread often echoing sentiments about leggings raised in both sides of recent controversies over them in the US. And probably she’s got a better handle than I do on why she doesn’t wear leggings, and has spoken to far more women about them too.

But Temple Leggings wouldn’t have mentioned Korean and Western bodies if they didn’t think it would resonate with their target market. And I have spoken to some Korean women on the subject of Asian and Western bodies specifically, and they’ve all been quite blasé about making such distinctions. I regularly hear women loudly doing so in coffee shops too, and my students aren’t shy about it either. Also, it may well just be confirmation bias, but it feels very telling that the very first result from my YouTube search for “동양몸매,” the “다이어트천재 동양몸매 vs 미친골반 서양몸매 구경하고 가세요” video (“Genius Asian body diet vs. crazy [wide?] pelvis Western body challenge”) that I couldn’t resist inserting the thumbnail from below, was titled and captioned thus without either woman ever actually mentioning Asian or Western bodies in it. Add journalists’ enthusiasm for raising the subject too, then I’m going to go right ahead and say this way of thinking is totally a thing.

Source: 파쿠아-PAQUA.

But that gives absolutely no-one permission to engage in Orientalist eye-rolling at the habit. For the Western, English-language pop culture, media, cosmetic, and medical industries are equally guilty of perpetuating such cringeworthy distinctions. More so even, as they’re frequently underscored by racist assumptions that Asian women aren’t just fundamentally different, but actually yearn to look white too.

If that’s news, I recommend reading Professor Ruth Holliday’s (Leeds University) and Professor Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s (University of Western Australia) 2012 Body & Society article “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea” on the subject, in which they present numerous examples—and which read like a withering manifest of the intellectual baggage Western observers can’t help but bring to the subject. But read it even if it’s not news too, both for their critiques of other journal articles and especially for the stark clarity with which two strong themes of English-language discourses on the subject emerge from their discussion.

First, is the hypocrisy and absurdity of raising the subject of race and a supposed desire for “westernization” at all when discussing the motivations of say, Korean-American breast-augmentation patients in the US, but never doing so for their white counterparts, who are ascribed completely different reasons—again, perpetuating the notion that each group is fundamentally different, both physiologically and psychologically. And second, the fact that Korean-Americans in the US, they point out (let alone Koreans in Korea), are hardly immune to specifically Korean beauty ideals, whether they retain them when they come to the US, they are exposed to them through relatives and the wider Korean-American community, and/or they are encouraged to adopt them by following the examples of increasingly visible Korean celebrities. In fact, they may be motivated more by those ideals than whatever Western reporters, cosmetic surgeons, and academics insist they are instead (who’d have thought?), with “V-line” surgery, for instance, being very popular in Korea, but which cannot possibly be described as making Koreans look more white.

Put like that, it seems astounding that the narrative that Koreans just want to look white persists.

But it’s not that simple. Spend any amount of time in Korea, and actually you’ll quickly encounter overwhelming evidence that seems to support it, which few people have the inclination and time necessary to debunk. This is why the stereotype is so strong.

Allure Korea took ten years to feature its first Korean cover model. Source: unknown.

For starters, consider how many ostensible Western beauty ideals such as pale skin are indeed heavily valued in Korea, Holliday and Elfving-Hwang explain, albeit largely only because they “entered Korea fitting pre-existing notions of class and status.” Also, among many, many other potential sources of confirmation bias:

  • Instead, it’s because they’re somewhat less likely to sue than Korean models, as once hilariously revealed by a nightclub owner that refused entrance to non-Koreans, despite featuring foreign women in the club’s posters. Indeed, as if to stress that it’s not always about white people, back in 2011 I thought the model in this poster for another club was Korean, and there was no reverse image-search available then; only now can she be revealed as the very white supermodel Miranda Kerr, photographed a few weeks previously by Seth Sebal. To the best of my knowledge, neither of their lawyers have gotten in touch with the nightclub yet.
Source: MS-Photograph.

Believing that Koreans want to look white then, does make a lot of sense. Right up the moment you read, or are personally informed through the clenched teeth of Koreans and colleagues, of how sick and tired they are of such assertions—and you suddenly realize that all this time you’ve been talking about Koreans rather than with Koreans, and can no longer rely on the convenient narratives you’ve being telling yourself to help understand the place.

By no means does this only apply to body image either: realizing how important it is to just STFU and listen is a very important process that every expat, observer, and commentator on every group or culture they are not native to must go through. And, if you didn’t personally need reminding of that, and feel I’ve actually been completely projecting all this time? With all the points mentioned so far reading like signposts in my own much too long journey through that process? Then you’re absolutely right.

Source: Mei Mei Rado, “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China“, p. 193.

You’ll appreciate then, my uncomfortable surprise when I recently read Professor Mei Mei Rado’s chapter “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China” in Elegance in the Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s (2014). In that, Professor Rado (Parsons School of Design, NY) explains that in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Kuomintang government officials and male intellectuals did explicitly view white women’s bodies as ideals for Chinese women to aspire to. Which not to say Chinese women necessarily did themselves, or even at all, but Professor Rado’s argument that it dominated discourses about women’s bodies at the time is very convincing.

This post was originally intended to be a discussion of the numerous questions that raises: what other scholars can confirm her arguments? What influence, if any did those discourses have not just in China, but also in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea? What did people in those countries think of foreign bodies and beauty ideals then?

Those questions proved to be far too much for one post, so now my answers will be spread over several in a series. Always hanging over covering this topic at all though, was the fact that I’m still basically a middle-aged, cishet, white guy explaining that (he was shocked to read that some) Asian women (once) want(ed) to look white (maybe). To avoid being lumped in with every other pig-ignorant Orientalist commentator that genuinely believes that then, all my own baggage as a Western commentator needed to be laid on the table first. And there was a lot to unpack.

With that out of the way, Part 2 next month will be a discussion of Professor Rado’s chapter and other sources on discourses about women’s bodies in 1920s-1930s China, while Part 3 will be on those in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea at the same time, extending to a Part 4 if necessary. Until then, is there anything else that I’ve missed or been misguided about, or you think needs an alternative perspective? Please let me know in the comments!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Event Announcement: #FEMALEPLEASURE Screening, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, 1pm Saturday June 1

Sorry for the long break everyone, which was because of reasons. But I’m happy to say I do have an epic post in the works. And, while you’re waiting for that, I’m delighted to help a former student publicize this event in Seoul this weekend (하단으 보세요):

#FEMALEPLEASURE

– 5 cultures, 5 women, 1 story

A documentary about female sexuality and autonomy in the 21st century – film screening and discussion

An event organized through: Lecturing Program of the Robert Bosch Foundation in Asia (German Foundation)

(Sign up here)

#FEMALEPLEASURE portrays five courageous and smart women, breaking the silence imposed by their archaic-patriarch societies and religious communities. With incredible strength and positive energy, Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav are fighting for sexual liberation and autonomy for women, beyond religious rules and cultural barriers.

#FEMALEPLEASURE shows the universal mechanisms at work that determine the position of women until today, spanning cultures, religions and continents: from Japan and India and the Somali muslim diaspora to the Hasidic community in New York and the Catholic clergy in Europe.

What can we learn from them? What do we have to talk about in Korea? How can men and women establish fruitful understanding and mutual respect?

On this day we will gather to see the movie and share a safe space to talk about important questions and feelings related to the topic in Korea. Everyone interested is welcome! 😊

When? Saturday, 1st June, 1pm – 4.30pm

Where? Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Main Building, Room 329

Language: Korean & English

Contribution: 3000WON – we organize Pizza & Drinks 😊

UPDATE: A Facebook event page has just been created!

본 이벤트는 Robert Bosch Foundation in Asia(독일 재단)의 교육프로그램을 기반으로 제작되었습니다.

21세기 여성의 성적 자기결정권에 관한 다큐멘터리 영화를 감상한 후 토의의 시간이 마련되어 있습니다. (5개의 각기 다른 문화에서 자란 여성들이 하나의 이야기를 하는 내용입니다.)

(여기서 등록하세요)

#FEMALEPLEASURE는 구시대적인 가부장 사회와 종교 커뮤니티들에 의해 강요되는 침묵을 깨뜨린 용감하고 똑똑한 다섯 명의 여성을 보여줍니다: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav. 이들은 놀라울 만큼 강인한 모습과 긍정적인 에너지를 통해 종교 율법이나 문화 장벽을 뛰어넘어 여성의 성적 자율성을 위해 싸우는 중입니다.

#FEMALEPLEASURE는 또한 일본, 인도, 소말리아 이슬람 디아스포라 에서 뉴욕의 하시디즘 커뮤니티와 유럽의 카톨릭 성직자들에 이르기까지 문화, 종교, 대륙 전반에 걸쳐 여성의 지위를 결정해 온 보편적인 메커니즘이 무엇인지 보여줍니다.

우리는 이들에게서 무엇을 배울 수 있을까요? 한국과 관련해서는 어떤 이야기들을 해야 할까요? 또 남성과 여성은 어떻게 해야 유익한 이해관계를 확립하고 서로를 존중할 수 있을까요?

함께 모여 영화를 감상한 후에 이 주제와 관련된 한국의 중요한 이슈, 궁금증 혹은 감정을 편하게 공유하는 시간을 가질 예정입니다. 관심 있는 사람은 모두 환영입니다! 😊

언제? 6월 1일 토요일, 1:00 – 4:30 (오후)

어디서? 한국외국어대학교 본관 329호

language: 한국어 & 영어

참가비: 3000원 – 피자와 음료 제공에 사용됩니다 😊

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Today I Read About an Awesome Feminist Japanese Painter and Was Reminded Of My Favorite Soju Poster

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Sources: Reiodori, LotteLiquor.

In the spirit of today’s title, let me direct you straight towards the moment I learned why Uemura Shōen was so amazing:

Shōen successfully turned her passion to creating a life worth living through her paintings. The themes and main subjects in all her paintings are women. Moreover, the women depicted in her paintings of this period are decisively different from those that appear in paintings done by men in the tradition of the Kyoto school of Bijinga, whose tradition dates back several hundred years. The major characteristic of women in the paintings before Shōen was that they were treated as the object of men’s sexual interest. Shōen painted working women for the first time in the history of Japanese painting. One of the masterpieces along that line is Yugure (Dusk). Here a middle-aged woman opens the paper-covered sliding door of her room to get enough light to thread a needle. Her plain kimono, the needlework, and the weak sunlight of the dusk impressively create an atmosphere of daily life. Japanese painting portrayed the reality of working women for the first time through Shōen’s works. They are as significant as the works of Millet, who painted working women instead of bourgeois women. In the late 1930s Uemura painted another middle-aged woman shown repapering a door to prepare for the coming winter in Banshu (Late Autumn). In another painting in a series titled Yuki no naka (In the Snow), she described women walking in the severe cold with heavy snow on their umbrellas. The clean, sharp, uncompromising lines of her drawing supported by her accurate drawing ability and the use of just a few colors clearly show the painter’s integrity of mind. It took Shōen a long time to reach this heightened state. Shōen received a great many awards for her noble and innovative art.

Page 71, “Three Women Artists of the Meiji Period (1868-1912): Reconsidering Their Significance from a Feminist Perspective” by Midori Wakakuwa (trans. by Naoko Aoki) in Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present and Future ed. by Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda (1995); my emphases.

Which really did immediately remind me of modern rock singer Kim Yoon-ah‘s 2006 unique poster for Cheoeum-Cheoreom soju above. Like I wrote in 2010, and sadly still remains the case today, it’s “the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man.” Which is not to say that sultry and seductive is bad in itself, but just a small sampling of soju posters over the years reveals how monotonous that theme can be, and how truly exceptional this soju poster is. Made more even more so, by the text in white at the bottom that I missed nine years ago (apologies for the poor quality):

It reads: “김윤아씨의 모델료는 가정폭력 피해자들에게 기부됩니다. 여성으로서 락음악의 새로운 가능성을 연 가수, 김윤아”/ “Kim Yun-Ah’s model fee is donated to domestic violence victims. Singer Kim Yoon-ah, who paved the way for new possibilities of rock music as a woman.”

Turning back to Uemura Shōen’s own depictions of women actually doing something, here are the paintings (and one from the In the Snow series) mentioned above by Wakakuwa:

At Dusk. Source: Japanese Painting Gallery
Late Autumn. Source: Fine Art America.
Feathered Snow. Source: Japonica.

I include the difficult to find full images, rather than the much more numerous, higher-quality close-ups of the women’s faces available, because of what I read about the importance of the paintings’ empty spaces at Japan Objects:

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Japanese painting when contrasted with its European counterpart is the use of empty space. And of course, this distinction was carried into the twentieth century….In Shōen Uemura’s Feathered Snow, the great blankness of the paper successful conveys the sensation of inclement weather, where the horizon reduces to edge of your umbrella as you try to shelter from the cold.

Inspiration aside though, I do wonder if the distinction between Shōen and her predecessors was as sharp as Wakakuwa suggests? In hindsight, her passage sounds a little hyperbolic. And my frustration with locating the full images among all those close-ups was a foreshadowing of what I’d read about Shōen online later, which tended to place her work very much on a continuum with other Bijinga (literally, “paintings of beautiful women”). That said, Jeff Hammond in The Japan Times notes her subjects weren’t the courtesans from the pleasure districts usually found in the genre. Also, in a must-read account in Japanonica of a 2017 exhibition of her work, historian and curator Roisin Inglesby finds subtle but important differences to works by her male contemporaries, despite her indeed very much sharing their emphasis on beauty:

 …[Shōen’s] “outsider” status as a woman enabled her to acquire a deeper understanding of her female models and employ different approaches from male artists—a quality which, the curators argue, elevates her paintings by portraying women not just as objects created through the lens of the male gaze, but as thinking, feeling subjects who invite us to admire their inner beauty as well as their outward attractiveness.

In her efforts to show female beauty in what she believed to be its purest form, Shōen’s paintings are characterized by both a lightness of touch and a depth of feeling. [The tour guide] invited us to take time to look closely at the works and consider the emotional complexity beneath the peaceful expressions of Shōen’s subjects.

I wince at the crude characterization of the male gaze—admiration of outward attraction is not mutually exclusive with that of inner beauty—but that’s a subject for another post. Continuing later:

One of the most interesting aspects of [the] tour was [the] explanation of how Shōen gives agency to her subjects through a variety of techniques. In many paintings, she used a splash of red pigment on the women’s earlobes and fingertips to animate their otherwise placid demeanor. This small, yet visually enlivening, detail signals activity: these women hear; they touch. Often beautiful women are painted as objects of desire and admiration, yet through the composition of her work it seemed to me that Shōen invites her viewers to question their interior thoughts as well as appreciate their external beauty. The sparse background of Feathered Snow (1944) not only gives the impression of a punishing winter wind which beats its subjects back to one side of the painting, but encouraged my eyes to follow the movement of the composition and rest on their faces. What are they thinking as they trudge through the snow?

I recommend reading the article in full, and to watch this slideshow for many more examples of her work. Please feel free to add to (or correct) anything above also—including on Bijinga’s influence on Korean art, which I’m now about to look for more information about in my modest library, rather than preparing crucial PowerPoints for tomorrow’s classes. Damn you, Uemura! ;)

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Why Does Korea Have so Many of Those Damn Smutty Ads?

Government inaction on Korea’s ubiquitous, sexually-explicit internet advertising undermines claims that its citizens need protecting from pornography, and has helped shape the Korean #Metoo movement.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels. One NSFW image later.

When even the ad industry itself is calling for greater government regulation of sexual imagery in ads, you know Korea’s got a problem.

The main issue is that there’s just no escaping them. In the most recent survey of 155 major web portals, social media services, and online news sites conducted by the Korea Internet Advertising Foundation (KIAF) in 2016, 94.5 percent of the middle and high school students surveyed were found to have been exposed to sexualized ads. Frustratingly, the 69-page report (PDF, Korean) doesn’t also mention what proportion those ads were of the total ads examined. But, maybe the authors simply felt that was unnecessary, as everyone already knows that their numbers are just insane:

See the thread for many more examples. Or like Raphael says, almost any Korean news website. Even alongside the cutesy, assumed safe webtoons my preteen daughters read too, I recently learned, sometimes there’s invitations to meet horny divorcees in our area.

But Korea’s smutty ads problem goes much deeper than just their scale, or their astonishing inappropriateness. For the KIAF surveyors also found that one in four of the offending ads promoted sex work, and/or even showed sex acts. Which is heinous not because either are unethical, but because such ads exist so openly in a society where sex work and pornography are both illegal, and which would never see the light of day if they were placed in traditional media.

Which begs the question: just how did Korea’s internet ad problem get so bad?

In the first instance, it’s simply down to advertisers’ algorithms, combined with the inattention and unconcern of site owners. This was ironically and hilariously revealed by the reporting of a similar survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) in June 2012, when many news sites displaying precisely the kinds of ads the Ministry was railing against alongside the articles about the survey. Even more spectacularly, a few weeks previously many news site editors curiously chose to pixelate the bikini tops and bras of women who had written political messages across their breasts (as in only their clothing, not the messages or exposed skin), while those in the accompanying ads were left untouched:Fast forward to April 2018, when representatives from major Korean shopping portal sites were queried by The PR News reporter An Seon-hye as to why their Facebook ads for products such as headphones and men’s shoes tended to show women with exposed cleavage and/or in their underwear first. They simply blamed the algorithms, implying that somehow those absolved their companies of any responsibility:

페이스북에서 남성 이용자들에게 노출된 쿠팡 광고 이미지 “Coupang advertisement aimed at male users of Facebook.” Image source: The PR News.
티몬(왼쪽) 및 gs샵이 sns에서 남성들에게 집행한 광고 이미지. “Images of Timon(L) and GS Shop advertisements aimed at men.” The woman on the right is Ai Shinozaki, a Japanese gravure model. Image source: The PR News.

…하지만 해당 업체들은 결코 고의성이 없다는 점을 강조했다. 티몬 관계자는 “저희 같은 경우 19금 용품 광고는 아예 노출이 안 되도록 막는 등 선정성 측면에서 신경을 쓰고 있다”며 “자동 로직으로 광고 집행이 이뤄지기에 임의로 자극적 이미지를 사용한 게 아니다”고 해명했다.

“…However, industry representatives stressed that, in the end, there is never any deliberate intention to use sexualized imagery. A representative from Timon said, ‘In our case, from the outset we do work to ensure that no adults-only products are selected to be advertised [on Facebook],’ and that ‘the provocative images that do appear are not random, but are chosen automatically by the algorithm.'”

기본적으로 특정 시간대에 특정 연령 타깃군이 어떤 상품을 많이 봤다는 데이터가 쌓이면 이를 해당 타깃에게 동일하게 추천하는 방식으로 로직이 짜여 있다는 설명이다. 이번 노출도 이같은 설정 때문에 벌어진 현상일 수는 있지만, 의도한 건 아니라는 설명이다.

“Basically, when collected data on a site suggests that a certain time is the most heavily frequented by a targeted demographic, the algorithm automatically recommends products that demographic is likely to be interested in. The same logic applies to the revealing images accompanying them, but has never been the deliberate intention [of our company.]”

쿠팡 관계자 역시 “쿠팡이 고의적으로 선정적인 광고를 남성에게 보이도록 조작하지는 않았다”며 “활용되는 이미지 역시 판매자가 올린 것을 활용한 것”이라고 밝혔다.

“A representative from Coupang also claimed that their company ‘did not deliberately manipulate ads to target men with sexualized imagery,’ explaining that ‘the images of products [available from our site] are simply taken from available sellers.’ (end)

By all means, gratuitous T&A does sometimes work, especially when those objects belong to popular K-pop girl-group members. Yet it infuriates me when some, more radical feminists—especially anti-pornography activists—start from the position that such narrow portrayals of women are an accurate reflection of most—or even a significant minority of—cishet men’s tastes; examples like these demonstrate just how disingenuous and utterly unfair that assumption is. It’s also very patronizing for companies to advertise this way, says Sejong University Professor Kim Ji-heon elsewhere in the above article, and has the potential to put men off offending brands. Accordingly, evidence of sexualization’s effectiveness on Korean consumers is mixed, one 2017 study by Yonsei University researchers (PDF, Korean) for example, discovering that young Korean men actually preferred cute to sexy female models in game advertisements (which may be problematic for other reasons, but that’s a story for another post). Also, lest we forget, not all consumers are young men, with another study from 2012 (PDF, Korean) by Sungkyunkwan University researchers demonstrating that despite soju companies specifically targeting female consumers at the time, somehow women just weren’t responding to the ensuing “sexy” advertisements.

I can’t imagine why:

Screenshots from this summer 2009 commercial for ‘Cool Soju 168’; the logic was that “168” referred to a low 16.8% alcohol content, which supposedly helped women maintain their figure vis-a-vis stronger brands. One NSFW image follows shortly.

Nevertheless, Coupang’s algorithms at least, have hardly been tweaked since The PR News report came out, as any male Facebook user in Korea can confirm. Take this advertisement I was blessed with on the subway a few weeks ago for instance:

Facebook has given me 24 hour bans for far less.

Of course, in reality, no algorithms are value-neutral, so can’t be used as an excuse. Yet, to reluctantly play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, perhaps one reason Korea’s algorithms have the settings they do is that advertisers generally lean more heavily on sex-sells tropes during recessions, and one indication of how bad Korea’s is at the moment would be its highest youth unemployment rate in two decades. Another explanation of why they tend to be sooo eye-catching is that Hangul, the writing system, lacks capitals. This, which has factored into Korean webdesign from the get-go, is why Korean websites tend to be so GIF-heavy and cluttered to Western eyes, but is familiar to and preferred by Koreans. (Japanese websites are very similar, due to similar issues with kanji and kana.) Ingrained media culture and consumer habits go some way toward explaining why Japanese and Korean advertisers over-rely on celebrities to get your attention too.

But all of these contributing factors are decades old. I first noted the alleged link to the economy ten years ago, and the numbers of smutty ads have only increased since. Korean websites have overwhelmed me with GIFs since I first started having to navigate them in internet cafes here nineteen years ago. And the over-reliance on celebrities dates back to the early-1980s, when fifteen seconds became the standard length for TV commercials.

If so many features of Korean advertising are products of ingrained culture and long-term habit then, surely this over-reliance on sexualization could be as well? So too, that it just so happens to be a very stereotypically male-gazey version of it at that?

Noteworthy in this regard is men’s domination of multiple sectors of the Korean media:

However, the Korean advertising industry is absent from that Twitter thread, and I’m personally unaware of its male-female make-up as I type this (sorry). So, let me defer to someone with inside experience: Seoul National University Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, who conducted fieldwork in winter 2009-2010 at the agency responsible for the delightful Cool Soju 168 commercial from summer 2009 above. And in fact, in that agency at least, women made up roughly half of the employees. But it was indeed male-dominated, as no women there were above level five of the eight ranks within its internal hierarchy, “with truly managerial responsibilities [only] beginning at level six.” Also, the ensuing work-culture there could certainly be described as male-dominated too:

To assert that “sex sells”—the axiom that no one doubts in advertising and perhaps few do in society at large—was the usual way to deflect my criticisms of sexualized portrayals of women in much of Korean advertising, and women repeated that adage as eagerly as men.

Still, despite their professional embrace of the “sex code,” women showed a certain distance towards its centrality to advertising. They occasionally mocked male managers who favored sex-appeal strategies by default, “just because they like to look at pretty women,” as Chin’a put it, as she vented about wasting an afternoon the day before because her team’s Creative Director asked her to accompany him to help pick a female model for a commercial. “He said he wanted a woman’s opinion but in reality he just picked the model who he personally liked and who was flirty with him,” she said rolling her eyes in front of me and four other women as we were having lunch. Chin’a thought that the selected model was not the best choice, but the Creative Director never asked Chin’a’s opinion and even went as far as to re-schedule the shoot around the model, without consulting the convenience of other team members. Chin’a wished she had spent that afternoon working on their team’s other accounts.

Technically however, Fedorenko does not state if the same agency was responsible for the Cool soju commercial I criticized; I should have only said it “probably” was, because it was responsible for a new campaign for same product during Fedorenko’s time there a few months later. Ironically, a largely women-created and targeted, sexually-progressive, feminist, and therefore controversial one:

Which would seem to contradict the points made about work culture above. So too, that they’re from a snapshot of just one agency, and a decade old.

However, it’s also telling that there’s been almost nothing quite like that campaign in Korean advertising since, by any agency. Despite my fetish for Korean ads showing actual grown women with sexual desire and experience, I’m only aware of less than a handful produced in the last decade. Meanwhile, compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean TV commercials, a figure that is over twice as high and nearly ten times as high as their Japanese and Hong Kong counterparts respectively.

And yet, despite everything, I’m reluctant to attribute all that simply to the likely dominance of men in the industry.

Yes, we can all bet good money that the coders behind offensive internet algorithms are indeed sexist pricks. Or their bosses. Or at best, that they’re unoriginal and conservative.

But to claim that Korean ads are the way they are because men dominate the industry, is to make the assumption that most of the men within are also sexist pricks.

Hey, I’m not dismissing the possibility. In fact, I’d bet good money on that too. Given what we know about Korean ads, and that Korea has the biggest gender gap in the OECD, and comes 121st out of 193 countries in the ratio of female legislators to males, then there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that Korea’s toxic, patriarchal work culture hasn’t also infected the Korean ad industry.

But where does that accusation get us? If we want to persuade industry insiders to embrace change, what good would simply calling them sexist pricks actually achieve?

And cishet men’s sexuality, I can’t stress often enough, is so much richer and broader than its blokey, infantile stereotypes suggest. There are men of other sexualities in the ad industry too, not to mention (probably) equal numbers of women. I refuse to believe that all the admen, by definition among the most creative and artistic men in Korean society, all chose their careers based on no more than a shared dream of putting more boobs on phone screens, and that every man and woman who doesn’t share that grand vision is simply forced to acquiesce.

The issues raised in this post may even be well-recognized problems within the industry already too, but are intractable due to the influence of Korea’s patriarchal work culture as alluded to earlier, one big influence being the rigid hierarchy and visions of women and male-female relations learned before entering the industry from that vast socialization experience known as universal male conscription.

Or not: my apologies again, for lacking the money and time to translate dense Korean advertising tomes to find out. But either way, suggesting practical, actionable steps that the industry may already be receptive to does sound much more helpful than simply rolling our eyes at THE MENZ.

I think this is where we came in.

Recall that we started with the industry itself calling for more regulation. Specifically, the KIAF, responsible for the 2016 survey:

“Although there are guidelines for the level of sexuality permitted in online advertising, they lack effectiveness since they tend to be too generic and ambiguous,” said the KIAF official. “Regulations that manage such advertisements are scattered across government departments, and they need to be revamped.

A state of affairs which sounds suspiciously similar to the messy censorship of K-pop in the early-2010s:

The recent guidelines by the Fair Trade Commission are demonstrably inadequate, and laws are required instead. But considering that any limits on such a vague concept as sexualization are by definition arbitrary, then it is crucial that 1) the ensuing legislation process is transparent; 2) that implementation of the laws is consistent; and 3) that only one, preferably independent, organization has the power of censorship. Currently, that last is divided between a plethora of competing media and government organizations, and the ensuing unpredictable and often bizarre decisions ― including banning a music video for the singers driving without wearing seat belts, or allowing exposed navels on men but not on women ― have thoroughly undermined the credibility of attempts to curb the sexualization of teens in K-pop. A fresh start is urgently needed.

“Restrictions Imposed on 18+ Controversial ‘Wide Leg Spread Dance’”, April 2011. Source.

This segue into K-pop is no mere confirmation bias from a trusted source: for the body with the most responsibility for censoring K-pop then was MOGEF, which it did with a relish. As Lee Yoo-eun at Global Voices explained in 2014 (links added by me):

The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being “hazardous” whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as “inappropriate for youth under the age 19″ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet. Many young people get around this by using the IDs of their parents to login to Korean portal websites or watch on YouTube.

Music industry people…say it is troubling that the censorship is applied only to some randomly selected albums after they have hit the market, and not universally to every album. Many people see this as part of a new reality where the South Korean government is tightening control over citizens and free speech.

And this zealousness was in stark contrast to the complete inaction by MOGEF over smutty advertisements, despite raising the alarm in 2012 about their surging numbers as discussed. Indeed, it wanted the industry to do its own work for it instead:

여성가족부는 작년과 비교해 유해 광고는 늘었지만 법 위반 언론사들이 대폭 감소한 것을 감안해, 언론사에는 우선 자율 규제를 촉구하겠다는 입장이다. 청소년매체환경과 관계자는 “작년에 34개 언론사가 법을 위반했는데 올해에는 다 시정됐다”며 “언론사들을 직접 규제하기 보다는 인터넷신문협회 등에 자율규제기구인 인터넷신문광고심의위원회의 설치를 촉구하겠다”고 밝혔다.

“Although MOGEF points out that the numbers of harmful advertisements have increased since last year, the fact that there are actually less media companies breaking the law also needs to be taken into consideration, so first MOGEF is going ask media companies to regulate themselves. The official in the Division of Youth Media Environment continued: ‘The 34 media companies that broke the the Information and Communications Network Law last year have all since rectified their mistakes,’ and so ‘a self-regulatory system is preferable to direct regulation, and we demand that the Korean Internet Newspaper Association and so on establish an internet newspaper advertisement consideration committee.'” (end)

Further inaction still is evident from how, in the 2010-2016 period, MOGEF’s Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) was given the task of monitoring mass media for cases of sexual discrimination, sexual prejudice, and sexual insults, but was given extremely limited resources to do so, and didn’t even cover the internet; ultimately only four cases were ever acted upon in those entire seven years. A subsequent study in 2016 found an undisclosed number of issues, of which the KIGEPE said “the results from their monitoring [had] resulted in 19 cases of corrective action [as of March 2017], insisting more education and appropriate measures need to be provided for TV show makers to achieve gender equality in the TV industry.” (More recently, this January the Korea Communications Standards Commission {KOSC} noted problems remained in variety shows specifically, without suggesting any measures to combat them.)

Yet that’s just MOGEF, which—without absolving it for its inaction—admittedly had very low resources and was in a precarious political position under previous conservative governments. If we look at the Korean media and its various overseers as a whole however, inaction over misogyny and problematic content is endemic, Korean dramas in particular being notorious for depicting dating violence as romance, but which the KOSC has washed their hands of. And don’t get me started on the media’s constant framing of the sexualization of minors in K-pop as good, clean, harmless family fun.

Source: Netizenbuzz.

In that wider context, inaction on smutty ads emerges as less the exception than the rule in the Korean media, and underpins a pervasive culture of indifference and desensitization towards degrading images and videos of (overwhemingly) women. That culture is evident in the decade-long foot-dragging in the shutting-down of Soranet, a hugely popular pornography site notorious for the sharing of hidden camera videos, as well as in the Korean #MeToo movement’s unique emphasis on punishing the purveyors of such videos, a central component in the current Burning Sun scandal. I can’t help but ultimately see links to the culture of indifference and desensitization towards sexual abuse by teachers in Korean schools too, with over 40 percent of perpetrators in the January 2013 to September 2018 period still teaching, and again only, finally, being aggressively challenged due to the Korean #MeToo movement.

Nextshark: “The School of Performing Arts Seoul, the alma mater of numerous well-known K-drama and K-pop stars, is facing co‌ntrov‌ers‌y after its former students a‌‌c‌‌cu‌‌s‌e‌‌‌d the school of c‌o‌rrup‌tio‌n and se‌x‌u‌al ‌ex‌‌pl‌oita‌‌tion of minors [through a music video].”

But perhaps it’s a too much of leap from boobs on my smartphone to tolerating “asking students for ‘sexiness’ and ‘inappropriate touches’ during school performances”?

Or not. Either way, if the government started to enforce the same standards for internet ads as it does for all other forms of pop culture, that would surely be the perfect way to find out.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Hyundai Fit-Shaming Korean Girls

“In the 18th century, it was often assumed…that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. Women, it was believed, were too susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly.”

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

These days, I’m generally loathe to lead with quotes. Especially when I’m forced to admit I haven’t read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman since university, and had to rely for that line on its Wikipedia article instead.

But the video below deserves the hyperbole. Because ten years ago, I wrote a post about the widespread practice of calf-reduction surgery in Korea. It really got to me, learning about the literal slicing away of muscle and nerves to make legs slimmer and more “feminine” and “attractive.”

Afterwards, the women literally have to learn how to walk again. Why, oh why, is this still a thing?

For sure, technically Hyundai isn’t promoting operations. But it is contributing to their normalization by reminding everyone that muscular calves are “ugly,” thereby discouraging schoolgirls from exercising.

Like my 12 year-old daughter, who starts middle-school in two weeks. Thanks, Hyundai.

Part of a series (#1, #2, #3, #4) for cars fitted with Hyundai’s “SmartSense” system, the voiceover for the segment with the schoolgirl says:

우리 산중턱여고 나왔잖아

3년내내 아침마다 등산한 것 기억나?

이제 다왔다 올려다보면 고지가 저~기야.

그러다 문든 내 종아리를 봤는데,

헉 다리가 이게 뭐냐?!!

Our girls’ high school was on a mountainside.

Do you remember climbing it every morning for three years?

I’ve arrived, but if I look up I’m still not at the top.

Then at the gates I happened to look at my leg…

OMG, what’s this on it?!!

Are Korean girls and women still shamed for muscular legs though? Please let me know your own thoughts and experiences in the comments. It’s been ten years, so I would just love to learn that it’s actually a very outdated stereotype, and that Hyundai is just being lazy by relying on it.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)