Books I Read in 2017

Part 1 of 2. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Image source: Pexels (CC0).

“We love coffee! We love books!”

An amusing mantra I’ve taught my young daughters to recite over the breakfast table, all the stranger to hear considering they aren’t allowed to drink coffee. I do worry how much longer their hearts will be in our little morning ritual though, given the bad example with books I’ve been setting—I only ever read them on the subway these days, while home is for online magazine articles. Hence my first resolution for 2018, which is to grab a book and join them more often when they’re reading by themselves. And to find more books we can read together too.

My second is to commit to buying at least one new Korea, feminism, gender, and/or sexuality related-book a month. Partially, because writing about those subjects as a white cishet man, I have an extra responsibility to learn from as many women and Koreans about them as possible. But mostly, because nothing feels quite so thrilling as dropping their quotes in my writing in order to sound smart, and unfortunately Busan’s second-hand English book stores are just not providing.

What are your resolutions for reading in 2018? What books did you read last year? As for mine, apologies that my reviews are very short and personal, but that’s because many of the books are very obscure, and will only be of interest to very few readers. If you are one of those readers though, please let me know, and I’d be very happy to chat more about them with you in the comments.

#1. Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945-1972 by Joungwon Kim (1976) 5/5

Written while Park Chung-hee was alive, and much of which is devoted to his military regime, I was worried this would be little more than a propaganda piece. Especially as Park was actually interviewed for the book. Yet while it certainly does have its biases, and hardly delves into the democracy and labor movements, it hardly paints a glowing picture of the period either. Indeed, its main strength is in conveying just how economically desperate and politically unstable Korea was even as late as the time of publication, providing numerous anecdotes and facts and statistics that I’ve since used in my writing and classes. Add that it’s chronologically based, giving an extremely detailed political-economic timeline for the period covered, then it becomes a must-read for any serious Korea Studies geek.

But perhaps only for the serious Korea Studies geek though. I’d be the first to admit that the subject can be a bit dry at the best of times, especially in the absence of photographs and grass-roots accounts from the period. More approachable in-depth books on modern South Korean history I’d recommend would be Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation by Hagen Koo (2001) for the labor movement, Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000) for gender and economic development, and Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea by Mark Clifford (1997) for political-economic developments.

Once having read any of those books however, then you’ll have a lot to gain from Divided Korea too. Albeit at a strict maximum of only one chapter per daily commute!

#2. Freud’s Wizard: The Enigma of Ernest Jones by Brenda Maddox (2007) 4.5/5

Reading about Freud for the first time in my early-teens, I quickly pigeonholed him as a complete freak to be avoided, wisely deciding that the “Readers’ Letters” section of my friend’s gifted Penthouse was a much healthier source of salacious reading (“I know you’ve heard many stories about postmen…but this one’s true!). Thirty years later, I still think he’s a complete freak to be avoided. But I’ve come to appreciate his huge impact on society, especially after watching the excellent documentary The Century of the Self (2002)* about “how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” More recently, Cody Delistraty’s September article “Untangling the Complicated, Controversial Legacy of Sigmund Freud” at The Cut is a great account of how he came to exert—and continues to exert—such influence in the first place. Buying this book seemed the natural next step.

But I also bought it assuming I would be learning about the originator of the term “Torches of Freedom,” the infamous advertising gimmick that persuaded suffragettes to take up smoking. That it would end with his dealings with US advertising agencies in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps give me so much renewed enthusiasm for Mad Men that I’d be able to persuade my wife to try it. That person was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays however. Instead, it turns out Ernest Jones was one of Freud’s lifelong closest friends, probably his greatest popularizer in Europe, and ultimately his first biographer. Being the driving force behind the establishment of psychoanalysis in the UK too, biographer Brenda Maddox leaves you fully convinced of the back cover’s claim that he was a “critical, heretofore overlooked, architect of our modern intellectual landscape”, and very much a fascinating figure in his own right—not just because he’s essential for understanding Freud.

Such a noble subject doesn’t necessarily make for a page-turner, but Maddox’s down-to-Earth writing style makes all the difference. Her wry descriptions of Jones’s frequent sexual escapades for instance, are especially amusing, but aren’t there simply to titillate the reader—they’re relevant because they nearly derailed his career. Also, although such inclinations are hardly confined to female biographers, I liked how she seemed to take pains to explain why both Freud and Jones were so popular among their overwhelmingly female patients, despite being reviled by male colleagues, and how she includes a great deal of social history to ground readers and help them appreciate just how scandalous and revolutionary their work was for its time. Let me leave you with an example from Chapter 6, “Hamlet in Toronto”:

Nervousness about sexuality was hardly confined to the United States and Canada. In Dublin in 1907, on the opening night of J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the mention of the word “shifts”, referring to female undergarments, caused the audience to stamp their feet, sing patriotic songs, and shout “Kill the author!” The performance had to be abandoned in the second act. “Shifts” had the same connotations as “knickers” and was not to be uttered on a public stage. (p. 74)

*The Century of the Self can be watched online here.

#3. Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History by Monroe C. Beardsley (1966) 4/5

Bought because of my interest in beauty ideals, under the assumption that the subjects were quite similar. But whereas works on the former tend toward the descriptive and historical, in my limited experience the subject of aesthetics seems more light philosophy, which is not to my taste. Frankly, that means I haven’t retained much from this book then, and feel no closer to answering the questions it raises. But I can still see the merit in asking them, and respect the scholarship that went into what seems a very comprehensive guide to virtually everything that had been written on the subject up to the date of publication.

I would be interested in reading something similar on developments in the subject 50 years since, especially of a more scientific bent. Also, I do have copies of Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (2002 ed.) and Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things (2004), and I’m optimistic that his tying of aesthetics to practical examples will make me much more interested in the subject.

#4. The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics by Nancy Holmstrom (2002) 3/5

Every time I buy a reader-type book, I remind myself of back when CDs were effectively the only way to listen to music on demand. With songs bundled together like chapters, and so much trash alongside hit singles, I learned to take the plunge on an album only if I liked a least a third of the songs on it.

Did I say every time I buy a reader-type book? Actually usually I don’t, because meeting that ratio is harder than it sounds. Variety, which this book has in spades—nearly forty chapters on topics including PMS, queer theory, domestic violence, Guatemala’s sugar industry, intersectionality, and Asian-American environmental movements—doesn’t necessarily mean one in three chapters will be worth paying money for. It doesn’t help that authors’ writing styles vary widely in this particular reader either, some being so informal they seem very out of place for such a title. (Not that I have a hard-on for hard-core socialist theory. But if I did, I’d be very annoyed not to find it here.)

What makes all the difference with The Socialist Feminist Project though, is that the book isn’t at all US-centric, and that the topics tend towards universal themes rather than contemporary 2002 political issues (although of course some chapters are very dated.) So, one out of three useful and readable chapters, 15 years after publication, is a great ratio really. It helps explain why those chapters I did like, I really liked, and will probably be referring to for years to come. See my post South Korea’s Invisible Military Girlfriends for an example, based on the chapter “Militarizing Women’s Lives” by Cynthia Enloe.

#5. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970; with updated introduction, 2001) 1.5/5

It’s easy to see why this is a feminist classic. Much of it is so insightful, taboo-breaking, and confrontational that it reads like it was written today—and must have been mind-blowing to encounter for the first time ever back in the 1970s. Fans of Camille Paglia especially, with whom she seems to have much in common, will appreciate her blunt writing style. Also, for female readers in Korea in particular, her description of UK workplaces then will sound depressingly familiar today.

Like Paglia however, Greer presents many controversial or decidedly odd opinions with little to no evidence, as if they were universal truths; after being moved by a first reading, a sober second reading leaves you deeply questioning. Also, the format of the book—four main chapters of “Body,” “Soul,” “Love,” and “Hate,” subdivided into equally vaguely-titled and focused subchapters—makes for a lot of repetition, to the extent that 200 pages in you’re slogging through more out of sense of obligation to the sisterhood than any expectation of learning anything new in the next 200. Hence my surprisingly low rating, and why, despite what the book may have meant to women once, I’m genuinely struggling to think of anyone I can really recommend it to today.

#6. Princeless: The Pirate Princess (Volume 3) by Jeremy Whitley (Author) and Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt (Artists) (2015) 4/5

Some English practice and wonderful feminist role-models for my manhwa-loving daughters. Need I say more? ;)

I’m very embarrassed to realize that we finished this in April and didn’t follow-up with the next volumes though, so I’m ordering those as I type this.

In addition to the other books in this series, similar, much weightier ones I can highly recommend and wax lyrical about include Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (2010, 2012, & 2014);Target Practice (Cleopatra in Space #1) and The Thief and the Sword (Cleopatra in Space #2) by Mike Maihack (2014 & 2015); and finally Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale (2008), although the Southern-US English in the last will be a little trying for non-native speakers (and sadly discourages my daughters from reading the book by themselves).

#7. The Price of Salt (Or Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (1952) 5/5

Needing no introduction due to the excellent 2015 film, which by all accounts is very faithful to the book, I think the most helpful thing I can do is to pass on my favorite quote from it:

“The wine in her head promised music or poetry or truth, but she was stranded on the brink. Therese could not think of a single question that would be proper to ask, because all her questions were so enormous.” (p. 98)

Evoking the “pregnant with possibility” line from (I think) The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (1989), which I remind myself of whenever I’m about to cross the threshold into some party, if that quote doesn’t speak to your core then you’ll probably find the book too ponderous for your liking, Therese’s character much too self-absorbed and infuriating in her indecision. If it resonates at all though, then you’ll just love The Price of Salt.

I haven’t seen the movie myself yet. Ironically, the more faithful to a book one is, usually the less motivated I am to bother, as I feel it will offer me nothing new (I may never get round to watching Atonement!). Carol (2015) however, is so often mentioned as a stellar example of the female gaze, about which I’m writing a series at the moment, that I guess I’m just going to have to force myself. Oy vey!

#8. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture by Robert G. Lee (1999) 3.5/5

If you’re reading this post, then you’re well aware that stereotypes of race and sexuality in Korean popular culture have a huge impact on foreigners’ lives in Korea. But perhaps you weren’t aware once, so the hows and whys of their influence were a little to difficult to understand upon first encounter, especially if you had never experienced being a minority before. Learning about the Asian-American experience in the US through familiar pop culture examples then, can be very helpful in providing some signposts to the Korean case, as well as revealing surprising and often uncomfortable similarities in one’s own cultural baggage brought here.

Lee’s book is also useful and interesting simply for shedding light on a much misrepresented social group, and for presenting a history of the US from a perspective that many readers will be unfamiliar with. I especially liked the common thread of what we take for granted about a society actually being a perennial source of contention between dominant and subordinate groups, with what Lee writes about the US below being just as true of Korea:

“The mobilization of national identity under the sign ‘American’ has never been a simple matter of imposing elite interests and values on the social formation, but is always a matter of negotiation between the dominant and the dominated. Subordinated groups offer resistance to the hegemony of elite culture; they create subaltern popular cultures and contest for a voice in the dominant public sphere. The saloon vies with the salon, the boardwalk with the cafe, and the minstrel theater with the opera as an arena for public debate and political ideas.

Although it mobilizes legitimacy, the cultural hegemony of dominant groups is never complete; it can render fundamental social contradictions invisible, explain them away, or ameliorate them, but it cannot resolve them. However deracinated, whether co-opted, utopian, nostalgic, or nihilist, popular culture is always contested terrain. The practices that make up popular culture are negotiations, in the public sphere, between and among dominant and subaltern groups around the question of national identity: What constitutes America? Who gets to participate and on what grounds? Who are ‘real Americans?'” (p. 6)

That said, while learning about the Asian-American experience through familiar pop culture examples can indeed be helpful, many of those selected by Lee were rather dated even at the time of writing. Also, one reviewer claims that “you probably won’t find [the book] interesting or appealing unless you enjoy left-wing polemics.” I think that’s an exaggeration, but it certainly was evident in his one-sided discussion of Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Suna pet interest of mine—which Lee shoehorns into racist anti-Japanese narratives of the time. That’s still not enough to put me off recommending the book by any means, but it’s something to bear in mind.

#9. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World by Tina Seelig (2009) 4/5

I’m not a big fan of self-help books. Most just seem full of truisms, leaving me not so much motivated to conquer the world as angry and confused that someone was paid for repeating them. Then bitter, because why wasn’t that person me?

Despite that, it can sometimes help to be reminded of them nonetheless. And a big plus for this book is that the real-life examples used to raise them aren’t dated, nor relevant only to those in the US, nor even just to 20-somethings. Frankly, I’ll feeling a little peppier now having just glanced at my bookmarks for this review, which is not bad for the price of a cocktail.

What if—mind blown—I read it while drinking a cocktail though? Hmm…

#10. Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Adrian Poole (2005) 5/5

I had no love for English at high school, and was nonplussed at the two Shakespearean plays—The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet—I studied there. Older and wiser now though, ironically it’s only through having studied and understood them at school that I understand and like them at all—and find the prospect of learning a third so daunting.

But then in 2016, getting drunk at home while watching the latest episodes of Westworld (my idea of heaven, TBH), I was inspired to overcome my fears, and bought several new plays and books about Shakespeare. Alas, that’s as far as my inspiration ever got with them, but Poole’s book might just give me the final push I need.

Not just because it’s an amazing introduction to the subject, making even an illiterate like myself finally understand what tragedies even are. But especially because of the explanations of what draws audiences to them, one particular passage intimately speaking to my own personal experience of very literally, physically being unable to speak upon learning of a very close friend’s death 10 years ago:

“What a dream, to be articulate in the midst of passion—anger, desire, grief—yet when we meet it in reality it usually seems specious, a glib and oily artfulness. Great tragic art satisfies our dreams by endowing characters with the verbal resourcefulness we never muster for ourselves, especially when it’s expressed through the body and voice of gifted performers….We remember with gratitude lines and passages, turns of phrase and voice, that seem to grasp the shapes of true passion, the moments when for once, amidst all the inequities of tragedy, language appears equal to what it addresses and expresses.” (p. 90)

On which note, should I delve into Julius Caesar, King Lear, or Macbeth first, the tragedies among those plays I bought? Please let me know in the comments, or anything at all about any of the other books mentioned in the post. Meanwhile, Part 2 will be up in a few weeks, which you can see my Librarything list of for a sneak preview!

Finding the Queer Female Gaze, and What it Says About Anda’s Touch

Part 1 of 3. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube

Face-sitting. A woman’s POV shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda beaming at the viewer in anticipation as she admires another woman’s vagina. The complete absence of any men. Anda lying in bed as another woman appears on top of her. Spinning the bottle. Anda loving all of it, as Touch relentlessly serves-up women to its sensual, strikingly objectifying queer female gaze.

Among self-identified queer female fans of K-pop and allies on social media, I’ve yet to find a critic. And who can blame them? “Queers are generally invisible in South Korean media,” researcher Chuk Tik-sze explains in her 2016 investigation into their representation, “and lesbians are more completely missing.” As if to prove her point, many viewers didn’t even notice the sex in Touch, so low were their expectations of encountering queer content in K-pop.

When they did get what the MV was about though, they really, really got it:

Yet I’ve also read that simply replacing the sex of an objectifier does not necessarily a queer female anthem make. To many seekers of queer content, authenticity is more important, and in this respect Touch seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lack any sapphic elements. None of Anda’s other songs and MVs have any queer themes, nor has she ever given any public indication that she’s at all bi or lesbian. So, not only was it very easy to miss when it came out in June 2015 (I’m no longer embarrassed I only just discovered it via a tweet this summer), but the cynic in me says that the MV was just a failed gimmick aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song. So too, that coy media descriptions—e.g., “The lyrics are about a girl telling everyone to forget their woes and just have fun”—aren’t so much evidence of heternormative conspiracy as of TV producers’ conservatism, or even genuine, albeit unprofessional ignorance of the nature of the MV.

Raising this critique is not an accusation. As a cishet man, I’m not about to argue that queer women who rave about Touch are superficial or desperate. (Spoiler: quite the opposite.) Rather, it’s to introduce the divide that makes the queer female gaze so hard to pin down. But why is it there in the first place?

I was surprised I would have to tackle that question. Originally, I began working on this post seeking a simple list of criteria that I could use to judge MVs with for queer female content, starting with Touch. (Naive, I know.) Something akin to the Bechdel or Maki Mori tests for movies for instance. After all, we all know what the heterosexual male gaze is (hereafter, just the “male gaze”) I thought, and we’re probably in broad agreement as to what that is. So, over 40 years after that concept first appeared, I felt I was on pretty safe ground assuming there’d be a similar consensus on the heterosexual and queer female gazes by now too.

As writer and director Jill Soloway explains though, “[M]edia that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now” (emphasis added). Which, for starters, meant there simply weren’t as many online sources as I expected; with the benefit of hindsight, wider knowledge and discussion of alternative gazes is only just spreading beyond academia. (Which is why I’m now hitting the books instead.) Also, some of those online commentators on it I did find said that they just don’t have enough material to work with. The queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis in Bitch Flicks, for instance, argues that the queer female gaze “[simply] doesn’t have a present or strong enough canonical tradition in media.” As in, “when only 29 percent of current movies have female protagonists, and all women creative teams are rarer than panda sex”, then “[d]efinitions, classic camera angles, a checklist of what the [heterosexual] female gaze might be, are hard to find,” with even worse queer representation meaning the queer female gaze may lack any “real definition or direction” at all.

That said, most don’t share her despondency. A lack of canon hasn’t stopped filmmakers like Soloway from forging their own traditions either, nor them and other commentators from providing their own criteria as to what the hetero and queer female ones should be. Usually, by framing them around the aforementioned much better-known and more generally agreed-upon male gaze, as that provides something the female gazes can be distinguished from.

Which all sounds very logical, yet it’s also the source of all the trouble.

For if you want to stress that women are all about the feels, as it seems everyone I’ve read does want to stress, then it’s difficult to decouple that from the notion that men are much more visual creatures. That truism may or may not be a thing, as we’ll get to in Part 2, but overdo it and you end up simply perpetuating crude stereotypes of both sexes. It’s why so many definitions of the female gazes ultimately prove so useless, completely failing to account for the likes of Touch‘s lascivious queer fans.

It’s time to point fingers. Re-enter Jill Soloway, whose keynote address on the [mostly heterosexual] female gaze at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is likely one of the first sources you’ll encounter when you google the subject. Soloway, who “now identifies as a gender non-conforming queer person“, and is the award-winning creator of the immensely popular Transparent TV series, which has been “a major force in bringing discussions of trans rights to the mainstream“, was clearly a well-liked, very motivating speaker at the festival. What she actually said there though, was a hot mess. But also very useful as a framing device here, as its three main flaws are largely echoed by other commentators. Let’s dive right in to the first of those in this post, and cover the other two in parts 2 and 3 for the sake of length:

The first flaw is in the very reductionist definitions and examples of the male gaze provided, which assume the portrayal of women in popular culture is a fair representation of all hetero men’s actual desires. Here’s her main, actually almost only example, from 4:35-5:12 (all Soloway quotes from a rough transcript on her Topple Productions website; my emphases in all quotes from herein):

My favorite male gaze staple, was like, a shot that you’d see a lot on Love Boat

Scene starts, open on: a pair of perfect tits. A bartender adds the flourish to two pina coladas, said tits place the drinks on the tray, carries the tray to a table where two people are talking. Tits sets down the drinks and – scene begins. Classic male gaze.

Compare a definition and example from Rowan Ellis:

The Male Gaze is two-fold:

1. The sexual objectification of passive female characters, 2. More generally the tendency to default to male protagonists, points of view, and stories.

The Gaze can be seen literally as a gaze, the way the camera interacts with the women it looks on, doing things like introducing female characters by trailing slowly up their bodies rather than establishing them with their face and actions….Alice Eve’s controversial underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness would be a perfect example of how, although she was not a one-dimensional character in the film as a whole, she was given a pointlessly objectifying scene which established nothing about her character, and seemed oddly out of place.

And later:

As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do….It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable. This is the source of a long held observation in the queer world that “lesbian porn” is so obviously and inexplicably made for straight men.

And from film critic Maitresse Hopper (a.k.a. @MsCinephile) at her CinemaVerite blog, quoting writer Dodai Stewart in Jezebel in the first paragraph:

“In addition [to the standard objectification of women], ‘sexy’ images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child. Submissive, pliant, docile.”

I’m probably going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but if I had to describe the Male Gaze using only one word, it would be this: ENTITLEMENT. When women’s bodies get displayed on film for men to enjoy, they’re displayed for a very specific purpose: to sell men on the idea that they can have, own, and enjoy the woman on display.

Next, a bare-bones definition of the male gaze by M.Slade, via Everyday Feminism (click on the panel for the full strip), who joins Hopper in using the term as a pejorative to indicate feelings of ownership:

Source: M.Slade, via Everyday Feminism.

And there’s plenty more where those came from. But I’ll spare you, because you may already be feeling a little nonplussed. If that’s the case, then I understand—this is male gaze 101. So, when I now claim that they’re flawed, and that we need to spend time looking at them more critically, your confusion may suddenly turn to exasperation. Surely only a cishet male author, you’re thinking, would so miss the point as to complain that commenters on the female gazes don’t talk enough about men’s?

Again, I understand. I’m as surprised I’m going in this direction as you are.

Yet if their definitions of the male gaze are flawed, then their definitions of the female gazes, defined in opposition to that, are going to be flawed too.

So a second look is necessary, because they’re saying the male gaze is objectification. The male gaze is ownership. That this is how cishet men look and think about women, because…well, because why exactly?

Because that’s what’s offered.

Wait a minute though. The tits and the drink scene, doing it for me? It sounds cliched and patronizing. (And what are a pair of “perfect” tits anyway?) Loving images of half-naked oiled-up women? Not quite, because—sorry to spring this on readers—I do actually have sex sometimes, and find I need a good grip on my wife for most positions. (Is it just us?). It’s not exactly news that “lesbian porn” isn’t for actual lesbians either, because fingernails that long should NOT go there. And finally, that I’m turned on by passive, submissive, pliant, docile women, finger in the mouth like a child? I wouldn’t kick a nubile example out of bed, but still: let me refer you to my last series on the male and female gazes, in which I wax lyrical about how turned on I am by confident, intelligent, sexually-assertive women.

Source: unknown

That’s enough about my personal perversions though, or my hurt feelings about being told how I look at and think about women. Just listen to Soloway herself (for one), who contradicts herself by likewise railing against what women want being defined by what’s offered (5:15-6:55):

The opposite of the male gaze, if taken literally, would mean visual arts and literature depicting the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure.

​So, okay, I guess in it’s most simple that would be like, Magic Mike if it were written, directed and produced by a woman.

I remember when they tried to sell us that, thirty years ago culture was all WOMEN! HERE’S PLAYGIRL AND CHIPPENDALES!!!???

And so many women were so happy to have anything, something, that they dutifully bought Playgirl – hairy man laying across the centerfold, soft penis, ooooooh.

​Groups of women, going to Chippendales, screaming, laughing hooting….

Anyway okay that’s one version of the Female Gaze that we have been offered:

“Hey ladies! Here’s your fuckin’ fireman calendar!” But it’s kinda –- naaaahhh. Pass. We don’t want that. NOT BUYING IT.

Unfortunately for Soloway’s patronizing narrative, 1.1 million, supposedly desperate US women were buying Playgirl in the early-1970s, until it started being aimed more at gay men instead; more recently, Korea’s shirtless firemen calendars continue to sell like hot (beef)cakes. But these are topics best covered in Part 2. For this post, a better demonstration that (patriarchal) pop culture is a poor barometer for tastes is provided by Girl on the Net in her must-read “What is ‘porn’, according to MindGeek.” Obviously its focus is on pornography, but it’s much more widely-applicable:

It’s hard for me to argue against someone who says ‘porn is degrading to women’ when their primary experience of porn comes from major tube sites. Sites like PornHub, for instance, or YouPorn, or RedTube….

The front pages of these sites reflect, in general, what straight guys want to see from porn.

Or…umm…do they? They reflect what site owners and content producers think straight guys want from porn, but in reality straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people. In fact what they’re doing is similar to what Google does when it picks ‘sexy’ images, or what FHM does when it collects the 100 sexiest women: they’re using algorithms and consensus to reach a shorthand answer that will appeal to as many of their target users as possible.

So far, so obvious. Major porn sites surface the content that they think people will like.

Slightly less obvious: the content that is surfaced will in turn influence the kind of porn people seek out. Like Google telling us what it thinks we find sexy, porn sites are offering people an interpretation of what it thinks they’ll get off to, which in turn will influence what they click on. Because it’s hard to click on something that isn’t there – if more diverse content is never surfaced, it’ll naturally get fewer views.

On top of that, the fact that these huge sites have such dominance in search results and in media references to porn means they will also influences what we think porn should look like.

So too by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who in her highly-recommended Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (2016), points out the disjuncture between this abstract checklist of female beauty ideals, manifested in what is presented for men and women to gaze at in popular culture, with what they would much rather gaze at in reality (pages 94-95; emphases in original. Image source: Simon and Schuster):

There’s a problem with believing that men pursue relationships with beauty foremost in mind. It’s not true. That [aforementioned] study of more than ten thousand people? It asked men and women about their preferences in dating, not their experiences. In fact, most empirical data on “what men want” is actually data on what men think they want….

[We may make such wish lists] in a state of cool rationality—but when faced with a real, live human, what we find ourselves attracted to may have little to do with what’s on that oh-so-rational checklist.

Closer to home, I could also mention the chapter “Mammary Mania” in Laura Miller’s (also highly-recommended) Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics (2006) about how breasts “were not considered critical attributes of women, beauty, or sexuality” (p. 73) in Japan until the 1980s, when attitudes suddenly and radically changed due to the influence of breast-centric US popular culture. (Image source: University of California Press.) Which, for one, upsets the assumptions about men underscoring E.L.‘s contention at Arco Collective that “there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man.”

But there’s only so many ways like this you can point out that—to requote Girl on the Net—”straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people”, and that popular culture does a poor job of catering towards that diversity.

Let alone of everyone else.

Instead, it’s more pressing to acknowledge how much I’m completely generalizing the male gaze, to which there are more components than simply the gaze of the camera. There’s generalizing my sources too, some of whom do acknowledge that the male gaze is but a poor representation of an “average” man’s supposed gaze.

Yet they also have agendas, as well as word limits. Theirs is to draw attention to the grossly underrepresented female gazes. If nuance on the male gaze gets lost in the process, that’s completely understandable.

If nuance is so lost that a caricature is put in its place though? That men only look, which means women only feel? When that’s the fundamental basis of so many commentators’ descriptions of the female gazes, then my own agenda is to challenge theirs with inconvenient examples of men and women not being so different after all.

Those will be in Part 2, followed by incorporating them into my own criteria and applying those criteria to Touch in Part 3. Until then, apologies to Anda fans for the delay, and please all readers let me know what you think of the MV in the meantime, or about anything else in the post :)

(Apologies also for being so busy in 2017 BTW, and for having a terrible case of writer’s block these past few months. But I’m back now!)

Update

Source: Burst@Pexels; CC0

Just a quick update to apologize for the ongoing lack of posts, and to explain.

Basically, I’ve been too busy. The same week my wife’s father died, she started a new job as an interpreter and translator at a rapidly-expanding medical technology company. Every other week since then, she’s been jet-setting to places like Andorra, India, the US, and Indonesia. Also, when she is in Korea, her workplace is across town, meaning she has to leave home at 7:30am, and doesn’t come back until 8pm, after which she’s straight back on her computer. It’s all very glamorous and exciting from my perspective (only glamorous and exciting-sounding, she insists), and I’m very proud of her, but practically-speaking I’ve been a single parent for the last two months. It’s been tough!

Every cloud has a silver-lining though, and it’s been a real eye-opener being forced by the lack of free-time to break down how I’ve been spending my days, and trying to eliminate time-wasting habits. I’m still very, very far from becoming a paragon of discipline of course, but one important change I have made recently is going to bed at 10pm and getting up at 6am, to get in that fabled hour of writing every day. True, so far those hours have more been spent only thinking about writing, while luxuriating in a second cup of coffee and watching the sunrise over the ocean (still totally worth it, IMHO), but the actual writing will surely come soon.

See you next week? ;)

Announcement

Source: Sebastian Voortman@Pexels; CC0 license

Just a very quick update to let everyone know that, tragically, my father-in-law died in an accident earlier today. Which means I’m very busy and stressed right now sorry, so I’ll just quickly say that my planned comeback on Monday will have to be delayed a few more weeks unfortunately.

Until then, thank you very much for your condolences and for your patience, and I promise to be overanalyzing pop-culture with you all again soon (*hugs*). Take care!

Thanks for Reading for 10 Years Everybody! Please Help Me Keep Writing for Another 10!

Source: Pakutaso

It’s the blog’s 10 year anniversary this month. But I’m just too busy to celebrate!

Classes only finished at my university a few days ago. My Gender in South Korea course starts at HUFS in less than 3 weeks. Then I’ll be in Seoul teaching that for 4 weeks, then I’m going on a quick holiday to the UK for 2 weeks (our family’s first overseas trip in 9 years!), then it will be the next semester already, and then my mother will be staying with me for 2 weeks.

So, if there was ever a good time to take a break from blogging, now would be it. And I deserve one after 10 years too!

Don’t worry though, I’ll still be very much around, posting links on Twitter and on the blog’s Facebook page as per usual, and responding to comments. But the next post won’t be up until mid-September.

Until then, thanks very much for reading and for all of your comments over the years, and I hope you all have a great summer. Also, please consider helping me keep the blog going for another 10 years, by clicking on the button below and making a small donation. I do hate to ask, but then keeping the blog going at all costs me $78 a year, and—well, I only received $5 in donations last year, and in the year before that too. So not asking doesn’t seem to be working much! :D

Thanks again!

Free The Nipple in Korea? Why Not? Uncovering the history of a taboo

Earlier this month, the Korean media ignored a Free the Nipple event held by Womenlink. This lack of coverage is just one reason why the campaign may struggle to take-off in Korea. But stranger things have happened. Once, men too were forbidden from exposing their chests in public. As Korean summers get hotter and drier, soon these double-standards may seem as absurd as no-pants laws and the skirt-length police.
(Source: @womenlink)

Boobs don’t get much love in Korea.

If they’re larger than average, their owners are often criticized for flaunting their femininity, and stereotyped as sexually voracious. Those same women also struggle to find comfortable, attractive bras that will fit them.

This, despite Korean women’s breasts getting larger for decades as Koreans’ diets have changed.

Of course, women the world over struggle with these issues. But it’s not just size, it’s exposure in general, and standards in Korea are that much stricter. As I’m no Picasso explains:

“Base line standard in Korea: If you are showing even the tiniest centimeter of a crack of cleavage, you are not dressed appropriately for work. Shoulders are also largely taboo, although we have noticed this changing a bit this past summer. Even too much exposed skin on the chest above the cleavage mark can be considered risque.

It’s a pain in the ass for girls with larger chests, because it’s really difficult to find garments that won’t show any cleavage, no matter what position you are in. I’ve also had to take to having an army of undershirts on hand, in order to be sure that not even the shadow of a bra can be seen…”

That probably explains why, per capita, more Korean women plump for breast reductions than enlargement or lifting operations. Also, why bust-reducing bras are so popular, despite Northeast-Asian women’s genetic tendency to have much smaller breasts than—for want of a better catch-all term—Western women. I suspect why braletteswhich can only be really worn by women with small breasts—haven’t been available in Korea either, as Korean women may not have considered them concealing enough. (Although this recent campaign to start producing them has been very successful, and this Japanese-sourced one is also making waves.)

In the midst of this, the Korean media and K-pop industries occupy ambivalent positions. On the one hand, the latter stumbled onto a strategy of emphasizing female performers’ legs instead, considered a “safer” body part in Korea and its Asian markets (well illustrated by this classic cartoon, and the surprising modesty of these “sexy dances“), which simultaneously sexualized the girls and women while deflecting criticism. On the other, the entire industry is centered around securing endorsement contracts with the advertising and beauty industries, which have vested interests in creating new markets through encouraging bustier, more revealing beauty standards.

Image Source: Rok Kim. Anonymous source (quoted with permission): “What are you, ladies? Personally I am 가슴 B컵 for Boobs Are Great In All Sizes and 얼굴 F급 for Fucks Given About Your Opinion Are Zero.” (Advertisement Caption: Breasts, D-cup; Face, A-grade.

But these are all necessary generalizations. The reality is messy, undercut by age, class, marital status, motherhood, occupation, and region. Every morning while working on this post, the range of women’s fashions and levels of exposure I witnessed even just on the subway would defy any of the neat conclusions I’d arrived at the night before.

So, two weeks of pondering nipples and breasts later, as one does, the only generalization I’m still confident of making is that all women suffer from the inconveniences—and, ultimately, the dangers—of the double standards of men’s and women’s fashion.

Most of the negative effects I’m aware of have been covered in those earlier links. But I also happen to be a guy, so I would appreciate female readers’ input. One I didn’t know about for instance, because I don’t shop for women’s clothes, one anonymous woman told me:

“When I came back here 5 years ago, I was shocked because…dresses and/or skirts were way too short in general even when they were meant for the ‘office look’. When you buy clothes online, often the pictures are very misleading because companies often use very petite models so dresses/skirts look something of a normal length. I’ve learned it hard way and started to double-check the length. Nowadays I tend to stick with only a few sites when I shop my work clothes. I should probably start exploring offline stores again.

I don’t mind sporting short skirts/dresses every now and then when time & place is right—I just don’t wanna be surprised when I expect to receive something in a normal length for my work.”

Continuing, I’ve just been wearing short-sleeved shirts to work for the last month, and just long-sleeved shirts before that. In contrast, as a Womenlink activist wrote on her placard at the event (see below), women always have to wear unventilated padding to hide their nipples; to wear bras to hide their breasts; to wear vests to hide their bras; and to wear t-shirts to hide their vests.

No wonder my very well-developed, very active 11 year-old daughter is so reluctant to make the transition from her flimsy training bras. Fortunately though, her school has no uniform, whereas many schools that do have one end up slutshame their female students and forcing them to wear such uncomfortable clothing.

Even more alarmingly, in one 2013 survey of Korean police officers, over half considered revealing clothing to be a cause of sexual assault (indicating little had changed from back in 1996). To those who would make fun of and dismiss Free the Nipple and Slutwalk campaigns in response to such attitudes, and continue to police women’s bodies so unfairly, I’m genuinely curious as to where they would draw the lines. Especially if they claim to still support women’s rights. For to whom else but misogynists, could so much shame and blame hinge on an exposed bra strap or visible nipple?

“I dropped a lot of money on a nice bra…one with frills and made of lace, not like all my other ones that I bought from Uniqlo.” / “Minju! You can see your entire bra! Don’t wear a white t-shirt!” Source, above and below: @bambooblock)
“But what about her? That’s the fashion!!” / Fashion you say… / Jeez… [put this on].” Ironic coincidence: this picture of Korean duo Love X Stereo appeared in my Facebook feed as I was translating!

But where did these attitudes come from? Again, the question is more difficult than it appears, and there’s no handy introduction akin to Laura Miller’s “Mammary Mania” chapter in her excellent book on Japanese body aesthetics.

So, I spent most of those last two weeks laying the framework for what may be my own equivalent chapter on Korea someday. Allow me to present the fruits of that research, in the form of themes and trends I’ve identified that any answer must cover, as well as some highlights from new sources I’ve discovered (please let me know if you have any difficulty obtaining copies of the journal articles). As you’ll soon see, there’s a lot of things to consider, and it can be very difficult—even naive and counterproductive—to separate nipple and breast exposure from taboos surrounding other body parts:

For a discussion of late Joseon Dynasty art, notions of eroticism, and dress codes, as well as a great introduction to a painter who turned out to be quite a maverick and social commentator for his time, see Saehyang P. Chung’s “Sin Yunbok’s Women on Tano Day and the Iconography of Common women Washing Clothes by a Stream,” Oriental Art, vol. 47, no. 5 (2001), pp. 55-69. For instance, consider Chung’s description of Women on Tano Day, painted at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (p. 56; my emphasis):

“[Most striking of all] is the provocative portrayal of semi-nude bathers in the lower left-hand corner, where a woman stands sensually, her face turned in the direction of the beholder. Equally daring is the inclusion of two young monks, who observe the bathers with unequivocally frank poses and facial expressions…Considering that even in the West, the female nude in a contemporary setting—devoid of classical or biblical context (e.g. Diana or Susanna in Her Bath)—did not appear until the 19th century, the representation of bathing women in Sin Yunbok’s painting is all the more remarkable.

(Source: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that the working woman carrying a load on her head is fully-clothed, but has her breasts exposed. This is because, as explained by Hyung Gu Lynn in “Fashioning Modernity: Changing Meanings of Clothing in Colonial Korea” in the Journal of International and Area Studies (2004; pp. 77-78):

“…during the Chosôn period, clothing was not a unifying medium for all Koreans, but rather a means of social differentiation. Considerable scholarly energy has been directed to the study of the regulations that governed what clothes and colors could be worn by [whom]. The results show, for example, that it was only women of the upper class who wore long coats and head covers called chang-ot when venturing outside. In contrast, commoner women who worked outdoors often wore short chôgori [blouses], which left their breasts exposed for ease in nursing their babies.”

In light of the symbolic and unifying role the hanbok plays for most Koreans today, unfortunately there has been considerable opposition to acknowledging that “uncivilized” aspect of Korean fashion history. For more on the controversy, see “The Bare Facts” by Robert Neff and “Time to sex up Hanbok” by Andrew Salmon at the Korea Times, this AskHistorians thread at Reddit, the comments to this well-known photograph from 1945 (update: also, the comments to this 1920s breastfeeding postcard), “Joseon girls gone wild” at ZenKatsuo, and From Fukuoka for more photos.

For a bare-breasted photography series inspired by—and in some cases directly replicating—Sin Yun-bok’s painting, see The Hanbok Project by photographer Kim Jung-nam and hanbok designer Lee Young-hee.

• In the chapter “Female Images in 1930s Korea: Virtuous Women and Good Mothers” in Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, ed. by Aida Yuen Wong (2012), Yisoon Kim notes that women were infrequently depicted in Korean art, even compared to other Confucian societies, but the new “Paintings of Colonial Women” genre exemplified by Sin Yun-bok briefly changed all that. What she writes about the anonymous picture on the left below however, contradicts the notion that breasts were not at all eroticized, a notion further corroborated by “firm breasts” being included in contemporary lists of beauty ideals (p. 93.):

(Sources: Naver, Daum, Vosub. On the right is a poster for the fanciful 2008 movie Portrait of a Beauty, which re-imagines Sin Yun-bok as a woman in disguise.)

“…[this left] picture recalls Sin Yun-bok’s style except for the absence of ornate hair accessories. Donning a short skirt, which tantalizingly reveals the breasts, the woman lifts one hand to adjust her hairdo. Although the hanbok is designed to fully cover the body, these paintings expose the flesh in strategic places. Sin’s picture [in the center] includes a silver knife, a traditional symbol of chastity, hanging from the shirt as a reminder of the sexual potential of the image. [Paintings of this genre] facilitated carnal fantasy. They could be made to hang on walls like Western pin-ups or portable scrolls for the convenience of private viewing, presumably at men’s leisure.”

Perhaps it was the elite status of the women depicted that made all the difference? Or, if the women depicted were actually low-status gisaeng, because of the novelty of seeing them bare-breasted, as opposed to commoners?

As Hyung Gu Lynn goes on to explain in her article, the adoption of Western clothing during the colonial period also had important class components, as well as becoming tied to anti-colonialism and nationalism. It’s difficult to understand the rise of—and misogyny against—the “New Woman” and “Modern Girl” ideals without those, so it’s worth quoting her at some length (p. 87, my emphases):

“[In addition to modernization bringing] increasing numbers of women out the house and into public spaces…the diffusion of technologies of visual reproduction and the development of the culture of tourism allowed for more men to consume more images of women, further multiplying the number of meanings embedded in a given piece of clothing.

Although increasing numbers of urban men wore Western-style suits, the changes in women’s clothing occurred at a far slower pace. The transition for women from Chosôn period ch’ima [skirt] to the “improved ch’ima” with the shorter skirt hem and the longer tops meant that the visual distinction between upper class women who had hidden under the chang-ot and the common women with exposed faces and breasts was eliminated. However, in the place of the exposed breast as a marker of commoner status, the degree of calf exposure became one of the indicators of female proximity to capitalism and modernity—more leg, more modern.

Students and workers were encouraged to wear shortened skirts and longer tops for their purported practicality in the more mobile world, but the exposed calf sparked heated debate over its sexual implications…The increased visual presence of women in public and the diffusion of romantic love imbued clothing with heightened sexual meaning.”

And (p.88):

“New styles of clothing which exposed more skin, legs in particular, influenced ideas of beauty that extended and encompassed to the shape of the female body. By the mid-1930s, articles on beautifying calisthenics for women that would not appear so out of place in twenty-first century magazines were appearing in the mass publications…Other articles introduced the proper way to put on makeup, what to wear for which occasions, and how to behave in the “modern life,” further supplementing the new definitions and ideals of beauty and grace. The changes in clothing clearly helped shape the sexual meanings imbued in various body parts, providing further evidence that the eroticized body parts and ‘proper’ areas of skin exposure changes with culture and time.

Developments in visual technology and tourism added to the intensified sexuality of clothing. Magazines, movie posters, and postcards distributed consumable images of women in various styles of dress…The complete covering of the female breast in the colonial period gradually eroticized what had previously been merely regarded a body part. The tourist and travel literature usually contained images of kisaeng in P’yôngyang, but in the late colonial period, the women sea divers in Cheju Island became increasingly popular subjects for postcards and photographs, usually pictured with their breasts exposed.

The ‘traditional’ ch’ima chôgori, which may have been the only clothes a Korean woman owned, or consciously wore as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule or as a reflection of class and status, could be perceived merely as an exotic costume by the unknowing male gaze. The multivalency of each piece of clothing allowed the ‘traditional’ female dress to symbolize Korean identity, and at the same time distend the exotic allure of travel in Korea by promising different vistas and enticing females to the male (predominantly Japanese) tourist.”

(Sources: Sturmgeschutz, OhmyNews. Left image is actually of Busan divers.)

Many years ago, I read that older Korean men (and women?) fondly remember those photos of semi-nude Haenyeo (Jeju divers) from when they were children, taken before the divers began wearing wetsuits in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, I’ve long since lost the source, so it was good to find indirect confirmation in Hyung Gu Lynn’s article. Actual examples of those photographs however, remain surprisingly difficult to find online, the vast majority actually being of Ama divers in Japan. But they’re out there. The one on the left below for instance, is part of a romanticized series from the 1950s according to the source, although the costumes are authentic; that later one on the right, very likely taken for a Jeju postcard, is much more modest, but remains a good example of glamorization and sexualization.

(Sources: 유자향내를 따라서, hansoo7007)

Yisoon Kim provides a good summary of why a new trend of portraying “virtuous” women then arose, with depictions of breastfeeding in particular becoming the main subjects of paintings for the first time (p. 91):

“…[the 1930s were] the height of colonialism, when conservatism and progressiveness coexisted…Fine artists tended to depict the opposites [of the much-criticized Modern Girls], that is, virtuous women who demonstrated chastity and sexual restraint. Modernization was underway…but unfavorable economic conditions inside and outside the country made Koreans wary of change. [Under the conditions of the Great Depression and coming war], the colonized and impoverished Korean nation took comfort in the idea of women carrying out their motherly duties and grooming the next generation for a more prosperous future.”

In a previous chapter, “The Modern Girl as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea”, Yeon Shim Chung notes that other reasons for the adoption of the virtuous mother as a nationalist symbol include the facts that most of the new beauty products for the Modern Girls and New Women—as well as the original ideals themselves—came from Japan. Indeed (p. 82):

“Commerce and feminism intersected with colonialism in controversial ways. Korea’s access to Western goods was one vehicle for Japan to prove its utility as a civilizer and modernizer. As voracious consumers of these goods, Modern Girls inadvertently participated in Korea’s colonial subordination to Japan, which entailed [heavily] promoting [to both Koreans and to the West] progressive images of Japan while denigrating Korea as a remote, pre-industrial land…”

Which may have included bare-breasted women in hanbok, as the comment threads linked to earlier suggest, and why many Koreans’ understandable first reaction to seeing them is to dismiss them as Japanese propaganda.

• Most ordinary women entering the newly-created jobs open to them, of course, had no time for men’s criticisms of their newfound professional and sexual freedoms, or the shoehorning of their consumer purchases into narratives of nationalist betrayal. Indeed, as Young Na Kim describes in “Being Modern: Representing the ‘New Woman’ and ‘Modern Girl’ in Korean Art“, Western clothes became the norm by the 1930s (p. 222) “…not because they signified modernity, but because they were practical and comfortable.” Also, and in particular, further examples she gives caution against tendencies in previously mentioned sources that neatly categorize trends and depictions into the decadent 1920s vs. the virtuous 1930s (p. 238):

“One of the characteristics of the Modern Girl was her consciousness of her body. There were now attempts to freely express the physical strength or beauty of woman’s body. Nude paintings, which once were banned from being shown in public, now could be displayed at an exhibition with no restrictions, but they were still depicted in the setting of the artist’s studio. However, there is a photograph of famous dancer Choi Seong-hee [left, below] in 1931 which reveals that she exposed her body half naked in a public performance, as if to declare the freedom of the body. Kang Dae-sok’s photograph of a female nude [the first nude photograph in Korea; right, below] should be also noted in this context, in her stretched posture facing toward the sky as if to embrace the whole world, breaking away from the passive reclining or standing nude form.”

(Sources: knnews, 술취한★북극성)

• Moving rapidly to the postwar era, two easy guides I recommend on the transition to the full adoption of Western-style clothing are: Sunae Park et. al., “The Process of Westernization: Adoption of Western-Style Dress by Korean Women, 1945-1962” in Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 3, 1993, which has more on the practical considerations behind the shift, and Karlyne A. Anspach and Yoon Hee Kwon, “Western Dress Styles Adopted by Korean Women” in Home Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, No.4, June 1976.

Next, there is the oft-mentioned mini-skirt fever prompted by singer Yoon Bok-hee, hemlines reaching a peak of 30cm above the knee in 1968. But in my opinion, the liberalization of Korean clothing and attitudes then is exaggerated. While more revealing imagery from the period tends to stick out, it may not be representative, not unlike the aforementioned wide gap between the busty ideals promoted by the Korean media and ordinary Korean women’s attitudes today. Also, not only was Yoon branded a “public enemy” for her bravado, and had eggs thrown at her the very same day she revealed her mini-skirt, but this was hardly the swinging ’60s in Korea. In fact, the country was desperately poor at the time (less than 1 in 10 Koreans had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions), with most of the public unable to spend much on fashion, and possibly deeply resentful of those that could.

Fears of the ensuing social conflict are one big reason for the implementation of the highly authoritarian “Yushin System” of 1972-1981, which included forced haircuts for men, minimum skirt-lengths for women, and strict censorship of sexual media content.

(Sources: Joongang Ilbo, 나르샤)

This censorship would not just end in the early-1980s however, but in fact sexual content would ultimately be encouraged by the government, as part of its “3S” policy of “sex, screen, and sport” to distract people from politics. Accordingly, Madame Aema, “the most explicit of Korean movies ever made,” would hit the theaters in early-1982.

• In the late-1980s, the government began to lift restrictions on the use of foreign models in advertisements. First, they were allowed to appear in advertisements for foreign products, then in 1994, for domestic products also. Their use exploded after that, particularly after the liberalization of the magazine market in 1999.

This is relevant for understanding exposure taboos, because both Korean and overseas-sourced advertisements with foreign, overwhelmingly Caucasian, models tended to—and still tend to—portray them in more revealing clothing and/or sexually-themed advertisements than their Korean counterparts, perpetuating long-held stereotypes of Western lasciviousness and Korean modesty. In particular, various developments in the fashion industry meant that for roughly 10 years from 2000-2010, it was extremely rare to see a Korean lingerie model, until the entertainment industry began to see the attention-seeking possibilities and financial gains from having its girl-group members and female actors become endorsers.

That said, I remain unaware of any Korean female nipples that have ever graced any advertisements here.

(Sources: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7., ckmania)

In the summer of 2002, record numbers of Korean women would take advantage of the soccer World Cup to go out and have a good time, and weren’t modest about what they would like to do with the soccer players; in the process, they directly challenged conservative standards of dress, as well as taboos against assertive representations of female sexuality in the media. Although both developments had in fact already begun in the mid to late-1990s, and were accelerated by the sexual politics of the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, unfortunately the “movement” was then largely co-opted and channeled into narratives of support for the national soccer team by the media and government.

This set a modern precedent for the very literal use of women’s—and also men’s—bodies for Korean military, nationalist, economic, and soft power purposes, roles which would come to fit the K-pop industry like a glove.

Finally, in addition to the K-pop industry and government censorship regimes perpetuating the notion that breasts are bad, but women’s legs and men’s abs are good clean harmless fun, there is the dramatic rise of the cosmetic surgery industry over the last few decades to consider. Fueled, I’d go so far as to say primarily by, Korea being one of only two countries in the OECD where photographs are required on resumes, despite multiple attempts to stop the practice. And this is the same industry that, as previously noted, is heavily encouraging bustier body ideals.

Exhausted after reading that? You’re not the only one(!). Yet that potted history of the taboo is still just the bare-bones, and needs considerable fleshing-out. Not least, from all the Korean-language sources I’ve also discovered and barely scratched the surface of, as well as the voices of Korean women and men themselves. I also acknowledge the almost complete lack of mention of men, and eagerly await your suggestions for further scholarly sources on Korean men’s nipples in particular ;)

Despite all the generalizations and gaps however, a clear theme of fluidity and rapid change in Korea’s exposure taboos emerges from all the above, and there’s no reason to suppose those won’t continue. Indeed, to those that feel that women walking around with exposed breasts is too much of an extreme to ever return to, it was once considered just as outlandish for men to expose their chests too, as pointed out by activists in the Free the Nipple campaign:

(Via: Astronomy in Reverse)

Moreover, to those that feel that such a campaign has chances for success in Western countries, but that a Korean equivalent will inevitably lag far behind, I’d point out how recent the call for change is in Western countries too.* And nobody who was in a crowd of Red Devils in Korea in 2002—or, indeed, in a candlelight democracy vigil in 2017—can fail to appreciate what ordinary Koreans are capable of when decide they can no longer tolerate other people’s bullshit.

Kudos then, to the activists from Womenlink earlier this month. You can read more about their event (and see many more comments) in two posts on Womenlink’s Facebook Page, or on their homepage, and here’s my translations of their posters and placards to round off this post:

*As friends have rightly pointed out, the puritan standards of the US referenced in those links do not represent those of all Western countries. In particular, nude beaches have been popular in much of continental Europe for decades, and standards for the workplace and presenters on television are much more relaxed. Also, nudity is common on French daytime and primetime TV. 

(Source: @womenlink)

(Speech Bubbles): Your nipples are showing! / Arrgh! (Women’s) Nipples! / Your nipples are too dark!

(Source, this image and following 3: @womenlink)

Those aren’t eyes there.

(lit.) Nipples have a wide language.

(Source, this image and following two: @womenlink)

We wear padding (which isn’t ventilated) to hide our nipples, we wear bras to hide our breasts, to hide our bras we wear vests, and to hide our vests we wear t-shirts…this prickly heat is so frustrating! We can’t live like this! Free the Nipple!

Q) If you have a lot of sexual experience, do your nipples get darker? A) No way!

Free the nipple / Why is looking at only women’s nipples restricted to over-18s?!?! Let’s stop the sexual objectification of women now!!

Update: Korea Observer reported on a very similar event in 2014, although I’m unsure if it was connected with Womenlink in any way. Here’s a video from that:

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

Quick Hit: Feminist Artist Artemisia Gentileschi

(Source: 묵음‏ @dlklee)

Have I told you how awesome Korean Twitter is?

Trick question: I’ve raved about it many times. Who wouldn’t, when after years spent looking for quality, accessible Korean-language commentary on feminism and sexuality, now they’re inundated with it?

It feels so energizing to discover all the fresh perspectives, events, trends, and activists that I’ve been overlooking these past 17 years in Korea. And to think about where learning about them will take me (and this blog) in the future.

It also explains why I haven’t been writing much recently sorry: when you have so much material to work with, it’s difficult to settle on just one thing at a time. Other reasons include preparing my upcoming Gender in South Korea course this summer, my wife starting an exciting and glamorous new job which keeps taking her on long business trips overseas, and my angst over my blog’s 10 year anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks.

But more on that in an upcoming anniversary post. Until then, let me pass on how I stumbled upon feminist icon Artemisia Gentileschi, who’s inspired me to revisit the—for want of a better phrase—subjectivity vs. objectivity debate in K-pop, to seek out more examples of sassy Korean pin-up grrrls, and to learn more about Western art history.

Which, in my book, makes for one pretty damn awesome tweet:

Sleeping Venus (a.k.a. Venus and Cupid), by Artemisia Gentileschi.

This female artist painted a masterpiece of female nudity.

In particular, the model has no interest whatsoever in the viewer’s gaze—indeed, she seems to be ignoring it almost entirely. Instead, she has an unaffected air about her, her eyes closed and sporting an ever so slight smile with her lips turned up. Rather than simply being the object of the gaze, she’s revealed to be the master of her own body.

(Source: 묵음‏ @dlklee)

I know, right?

Any more old or newfound fans of Gentileschi out there, please say hi in the comments. Also, does anyone know of any paintings with similar motifs by different artists, especially Korean ones? Thanks!