Is This “False Equivalence”?

When men are objectified, it’s often as a male-power fantasy, whereas women are usually objectified as passive objects of a cishet male gaze. Where do you think these ads for a Korean gym fit in?

I stopped outside this Jeju City gym for the terribly photoshopped, giraffe-like figure of the man alone.

Then I noticed the banner of the woman behind me, presumably aimed at encouraging female customers to join. The contrast between his cockiness and her languid pose, seductively pulling down her leggings, immediately reminded me of this classic Shortpacked comic by David Willis:

What do you think? Are these gym ads an example of false equivalence?

Technically, the guy is pulling his pants down too—which took me a long time to notice, because it feels less integral to the concept as added after the fact, unlike the woman who was instructed to pose seductively from the get-go.

Or am I just saying that because I’m a cishet guy, instinctively feeling competitive and so immediately drawn to his pecs? Whereas cishet women reading first noticed his open crotch?

Please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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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)

한국어 교재 충동구매를 했다^^

Estimated reading time: 1 minute.

ㅋㅋㅋ

Just quickly sharing two books I’ve bought to study Korean with, by authors who deserve to be much better known by non-Korean speakers.

On the left, I am a Man, and a Feminist (2018) by Choi Seung-beom, a teacher at a boys’ high school in Gangneung, Gangwon Province (read a translated interview here); and on the right, (lit.) Selfish Sex: Those Bastards Were So Bad at Sex (2015) by sex-columnist Eun Ha-seon, perhaps best known as “the [completely awesome] woman who ‘tricked’ anti-gay Christians into donating money to the Seoul Queer Culture Festival” last year. (And who just accepted my friend request on Facebook! Squeee!)

Alas, I don’t have the guts to read Eun Ha-seon’s book while I’m on the subway, the only time I get to read these days, so it will be a while before I can pass on her insights sorry. But I hope to give you some excerpts from Choi Seung-beom’s book soon!

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

Korean Textbooks for Foreign Brides Teach How to Survive the Patriarchy

It’s difficult to feel much outrage over the inclusion of genuine couple-talk like “I’m having my period” and “Do you want to make love tomorrow?” in Korean textbooks for foreign brides. But “Korean men like women who speak in cutesy aegyo“? “Your spouse’s greater financial power and living standards must be respected”??

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash.

My translation of the following article, as I’ve yet to see any mention of the news in the English-language media. Unfortunately, Korean libel and defamation laws being so draconian, no source actually provides the titles of the offending books, nor the names of their publishers; this makes it impossible to determine what different language editions were published, or which say what exactly. What some of them do appear to say however, is very telling:

“이주여성용 한국어 교재는 가부장제 가이드북?”

“Migrant woman’s teaching materials for learning Korean are patriarchy guidebooks?”

Yonhap, August 26 2019, by Intern Reporter Kim Min-ho (nowhere@yna.co.kr; Kakaotalk: okjebo)

“한국에 온 지 얼마 되지 않아 친정집을 도와달라 하거나 직업을 갖는다고 하면 안 된다”, “한국에서 결혼하면 바로 자녀를 가져야 한다”(한국어-베트남어 교재), “한국에서 결혼한 여성이 술이나 담배를 하면 절대로 안 된다”(한국어-몽골어 교재)

“You should not ask for help for your parents or get a job as soon as you arrive in Korea,” “If you get married in Korea, you should have children immediately” (Korean-Vietnamese textbook), “Women who get married in Korea should absolutely not drink or smoke” (Korean-Mongolian textbook).

베트남어, 필리핀어, 몽골어 등 사용자에게 기초 한국어를 소개한 회화책에 ‘한국 생활에서 신부가 유의할 점’이라는 제목으로 달린 부록의 내용이다. ‘국제결혼을 한 이주여성과 한국인을 위해 집필됐다’고 소개된 이들 책이 왜곡된 사실과 차별적 시선을 담고 있다는 비판이 나온다.

These suggestions are to be found in a suplementary chapter entitled “Tips about Korean Life for Brides” found in various different language versions of a conversation book that introduces basic Korean to Vietnamese, Filipino, and Mongolian readers. These books, aimed at migrant women and overseas brides of Korean men, have been criticized for containing distorted facts and sexually discriminatory views.

이들 한국어 교재는 한국 남성이 좋아하는 여성상을 ‘부모와 자녀를 잘 부양하는 여성’, ‘애교 있게 말하는 여성’ 등으로 표현하기도 했다.

These Korean textbooks extol the virtues of “women who take good care of their parents [in-law]” and “women who speak in cutesy aegyo,” claiming that those traits are what Korean men prefer. (Right: 필리핀어-한국어 회화책 일부, 촬영 김민호; Part of Filipino-Korean conversation book, shot by Kim Min-ho.)

한국 유학 3년 차인 베트남인 A(23)씨는 베트남어-한국어 회화책 속 내용에 대해 “이주여성은 인형이 아닌데 자신의 행복을 비롯해 많은 걸 포기해야 하는지 모르겠다”며 “이 책대로라면 한국에 오면 인간답게 살지 못할 텐데 책을 읽고 한국에 오고 싶을 외국 여성은 없을 것 같다”고 말했다.

A Vietnamese woman “A” (23), who has been studying in Korea for three years, said, “A migrant woman is not a doll. I’m not sure [living or getting married in Korea] should mean I have to give up a lot of things, including my happiness.” She added, “According to this book, I shouldn’t live like a human being if I come to Korea. I don’t think there will be any foreign women at all who would want to come here after reading such a book.”

부록에 담긴 한국 생활 안내뿐 아니라 본문에 실린 한국어 예시문도 비판 대상이다.

“오늘은 생리 날이에요”, “내일 사랑을 나누면 어떠세요?”(한국어-벵골어 회화책)

인도 일부 지역과 방글라데시에서 사용하는 언어인 벵골어-한국어 회화책에는 남녀의 성적 관계에 대한 직접적인 표현이 등장한다.

In addition to “Tips about Korean Life for Brides” in the supplementary chapter, some Korean sample sentences in the body of the book have been criticized. [In particular], in the book for speakers of Bengali, a language which is widely spoken in Bangladesh and parts of India, there are very blunt and direct expressions about sexual relationships between men and women, such as “I’m having my period today” and “Do you want to make love tomorrow?”.

‘yu_hy****’라는 아이디를 쓰는 트위터 이용자는 “한국 남성은 자존심이 강한 편이다”, “배우자의 현재 경제력과 생활 수준을 존중해야 한다” 등의 표현이 담긴 벵골어 회화책 사진을 올리며 “‘한국 가부장제에서 살아남기’라는 부제가 붙어야 할 것 같다”고 비판했다.

The Twitter user ‘yu_hy ****’ posted a picture of the offending page of the book, which also included such sample sentences as “Korean men tend to have a lot of self-esteem and pride” and “Your spouse’s current financial power and living standards must be respected” [James—I feel that a “greater” is strongly implied at the beginning of that sentence]; they felt a subtitle to the book title “Surviving the Korean patriarchy” should be attached to it. (Left: 벵골어-한국어 회화책 일부[트위터 캡처; Part of Bengali-Korean conversation book, from Twitter capture.)

남녀 성관계에 대한 직접적이고 세부적인 표현은 결혼 이주여성이 주로 보는 동남아권 언어를 다룬 교재에는 종종 등장하는 반면 서구권 언어-한국어 교재에서는 발견하기 쉽지 않다는 점이 대조적이다.

프랑스어나 일본어 사용자를 대상으로 한 한국어 회화책을 보면 사랑과 연애에 관한 표현을 싣더라도 ‘좋아해요’, ‘당신을 사랑해요’ 등으로만 표현됐다.

[Moreover], while such direct sex-related expressions are common in language books for South and Southeast Asian readers [from poor countries], who would primarily be foreign brides, they are not easily found in Korean textbooks [intended for speakers from rich countries.] If you look at Korean conversation books for French or Japanese speakers, the only expressions covering relationships that can be found in those are things like “I like you” or “I love you.”

필리핀 결혼이주여성의 한국 정착 생활을 지원하는 비영리법인 ‘아이다 마을’의 현제인(49) 대표는 “이주여성을 한명의 인간으로 보지 않는 시선이 한국어 교재에도 반영된 것”이라며 개선을 촉구했다.

이들 교재를 펴낸 출판사 관계자는 “수정이 필요한 내용이 담긴 것을 인지하고 있으며 수정을 한 것도 있고 앞으로 할 부분도 있다”면서 “팔려나간 책을 회수하는 것은 어렵겠지만 조금씩 고쳐나가고 있다”고 해명했다.

Hyeon Jae-in (49), president of Aida Village, a non-profit organization that supports Filipino married immigrant women in South Korea, called for improvements in the Korean textbooks.

The publisher responded to the criticisms that, “We are aware of the content that needs to be corrected, and we have made some corrections and minor changes and are in the process of reviewing other parts”, but “It is difficult to recover sold books.”

이 출판사가 차별적 내용을 담았다고 자체 판단해 내용 수정을 한 인도네시아어-한국어 회화책은 성적 관계 묘사를 싣지 않고 전화 사용법, 약국 이용법 등 실생활에 필요한 대화를 중심으로 구성했다. 또 ‘한국 생활 중 신부가 유의할 점’이란 제목의 부록도 삭제했다.

The publisher further noted that it had already removed offending content on its own initiative from the Indonesian-Korean conversation book, and that included Korean necessary for daily life such as phone usage and visits to the pharmacy, without that covering sexual relationships. The “Tips about Korean Life for Brides” in the appendix was also removed. (End)

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

The Korean Word for “Stroller” is Literally “Milk-MOTHER-Vehicle.” Let’s Start Using This New Term That Includes Fathers Too.

Like or loathe political correctness, many everyday Korean terms are ripe for modernization.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube.

Similar to how over 60 percent of English words have Latin and Greek roots, over half of all Korean words are of Chinese origin. Once you realize this, learning Korean vocabulary becomes immeasurably easier. Buy this book in particular, which groups Korean words by their Chinese roots, and it’ll feel like all your Christmases have come at once:

From pages 78 & 102 of Miho Choo and William O’ Grady, Handbook of Korean Vocabulary: A Resource for Word Recognition and Comprehension, 1996.

You may become so grateful for all these new connections between words suddenly being revealed to you though, that it’s easy to overlook how problematic some of them may be. To many native speakers too, for whom the words are so familiar that they would have little cause to think twice about their origins.

One such Chinese derivative is “모/母“,  as shown in my scan above-left. Clearly, it is apt for almost all of those examples of its usage given there, and a much better Korean-speaker than I points out that it even makes some sense for the seeming exception of “모음/vowel” too. Learn that it’s also contained in the absent “유모차” (pron. yoo-mo-cha) however, which means “stroller” (N. Am.) or “pushchair/buggy” (U.K.), and suddenly that ancient Chinese root really begins to feel its age.

This video suggests adopting a much more inclusive alternative:

In the first screenshot below, the top line says “stroller,” followed by the corresponding Chinese characters for “milk,” “mother,” and “vehicle.” (Possibly, “breastmilk” may be more appropriate for the first character?) Below those, a definition: “A wagon for carrying a child after it is born.”

These next two are self-explanatory:

“[Because of this], does ‘stroller’ have a sexually discriminatory meaning?”

“Does the person who pushes the stroller absolutely have to be the mother?”

“Other caregivers can push it, yet the meaning of ‘mother’ is still contained within the word. Does this imply the person responsible for childcare is the mother?”

“Let’s not focus on the person pushing the stroller, and focus on the child instead. Please call it ‘유아차’ (pron. yoo-a-cha).”

And FYI, here’s that Chinese character for “child,” from page 149 of The Handbook:

Anyone reading this far needs no reminding of Korea’s plummeting birthrates, or of the gendered stereotypes surrounding childcare that work against remedying those—a mere new word is no solution. But it is logical, inoffensive, easy to remember, and can’t help but work at least a little against those stereotypes. So why not use it?

Naturally then, the YouTube video has many more dislikes than likes. Its origins are suprisingly opaque for a public campaign too (“공공언이 바꾸기 캠페인,” or the “Campaign to change how we speak to other members of the community”) and for a long time my searches only brought screenshots of that video and of various others’ in the campaign, on sites of the sort where things are generally only posted to be ridiculed. The video does end with a note that the campaign was done in conjunction with the Seoul City Government however (or possibly “by”; “함께” can vary according to context sorry), and eventually I realized I’d be able to find the video and others on non-gendered, but still problematic words in the campaign on their website itself, which indeed were posted there in October and September 2018 respectively. But there was still no news or further information available.

With such abysmal promotion, frankly you have to wonder why the Seoul City Government even bothered making them.

But in the process of looking, I was reminded of the Gender Equality Week conducted by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family conducted that July:

Which I’m happy to say did receive a lot of press. Quite possibly, the the Seoul City Government’s campaign was actually one of those efforts alluded to at the end of the press release above (but which didn’t get any mention on the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family’s website either!):

Either way, it was added to by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s awareness video in January this year. Possibly that explains the stroller video’s abrupt appearance on the MBC YouTube channel that same month (used in this post):

From my own experience, using gender-neutral words takes minimal effort, once you make the conscious decision to. That said, I do understand the laziness in not doing so, and the resistance against being told what to do. If you meet such a person then, perhaps start by asking them, say, why “uterus” should be “자궁” (pron. ja-goong) which literally means “子宮/house for a son,” instead of the suggested “포궁” (pron. po-goong), which means ” 細宮/house for a cell/baby.” Once they realize how much work defending that absurdity would be, then surely they’ll realize all the other sexist, archaic words aren’t really worth the effort either!

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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)

“Lingerie Advertisements Deflect the Danger of Homoeroticism by Using Models with Averted Eyes.” Huh?

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes. Source, left (edited): Emm’s Vintage Lingerie (CC BY 2.0). Source, right (edited): Moose Photos from Pexels.

I’m a big fan of Jill Fields’ 2007 book, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. It’s where I first learned of the corset industry’s creation of new body types for women to conform to in the 1910s to 1930s, presaging the Korean media, beauty, and fashion industries’ creation of “S-lines,” “V-lines,” and so on in the 2000s. But I’ve always been skeptical of this common feature of lingerie advertisements she alleges, and especially her explanation for it (page 16):

And in that Chapter 5 (p. 211):

What models do with their eyes is important. When they return your gaze, they seem to own the room. Whereas if they don’t seem to be paying attention to anything in particular, or if they’re depicted without their faces at all, the temptation to dismiss them as people and focus only on their bodies is all the greater.

It can also be a mechanism by which advertisers perpetuate stereotypes of different sexes and races. Take what Kyoungtae Nam, Guiohk Lee, and Jang-Sun Hwang discovered from their survey of Korean girls’ magazines in 2011 for instance (p. 234):

“Gender Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines”, Sex Roles (2011), 64: 223.

No-one’s saying models staring into space is bad in itself. Nor can advertisers of fashion and beauty-related products really be faulted for wanting to focus attention on the products, or on their alleged effects on the consumer. But if you know anything at all about advertising and gender, you’ll know that regardless of what’s being advertised, women tend to be depicted much more passively than men. And herein lies the first of two fatal flaws in Fields’ argument. For she bases her conclusions on no more than (fn. 70) an unspecified “survey of ads” in various magazines and catalogues from the 1900s to 1960s, although she also asserts that “[c]urrent issues of the Los Angeles Times provide almost daily evidence of the continuing importance of these evasive postures in ads.” Or in other words, she provides no evidence whatsoever that the tactics she describes “to dispel the homoerotic impulse” are any more prevalent in lingerie ads than in other kinds of ads, whatever period she’s talking about. And sure enough, those same tactics can quickly be found in other ads just through, say, a simple walk down the average city street. Here’s some with “women alone, turned away from the viewer” and/or averted eyes in Korean soju ads for instance:

I’ve often wondered what on Earth is Jang Yun-jeong looking at exactly…

In 2010, I discussed those and many others using Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements framework. Specifically, those particular ads are illustrations of one aspect of the “Licensed Withdrawal” category, as described by Images of Women in Advertising:

[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others. This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state; they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire. Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation. They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

The point being, although no motivation for these depictions is explicitly mentioned here, advertisers wanting to avoid provoking homoeroticism seems a rather unlikely one—the second flaw of Fields’ argument. Because are lingerie advertisements really so salacious, and really so sexually transgressive, that homophobia needs to be invoked to explain the depictions commonly found therein? Are they really so different to all other kinds of ads, that explanations for the depictions of women in those ads wouldn’t also apply?

I know—boobs. Maybe there is something to them that prevents (male-dominated) advertising teams and advertising standards authorities from thinking rationally. I’m not dismissing any special considerations they have for lingerie ads out of hand, and indeed Fields provides a wealth of examples of precisely those, albeit with expressions of their worries about evoking homoeroticism notable only for their absence. But she hardly persuades in addressing those alternative explanations for lingerie ads’ typical features by deliberately ignoring them. And I do mean deliberately, for in fact she does mention Goffman earlier (p. 210):

And by all means, these are things, well covered in Gender Advertisements (see my earlier post for examples from soju advertisements). But to have read the book and demonstrated that she’s taken note of those various categories of its framework, only to fail to mention that one of its largest categories—Licensed Withdrawal—already well accounts for her claims about lingerie advertisements? She doesn’t have to agree with it, but she does have to acknowledge and respond to it. Otherwise, her shoehorning of an alternative explanation evoking homophobia seems very disingenuous.

Sources: Emm’s Vintage Lingerie, left, right (CC BY 2.0).

In fact, the foundations of the whole chapter may be equally tenuous. Its title, “The Invisible Woman: Intimate Apparel Advertising” refers to the tendency of early-20th Century lingerie advertisers to show only parts of women or not at all. But reviewer Jane Ferrell-Beck argues there was actually a very practical reason for this:

And reviewer Kristina Haugland goes further, arguing that “the author’s interpretation of the material is a serious concern” of the book as a whole. She cites no examples from Chapter 5 though, so let me just leave you with her conclusion:

Words to live by as a colleague, our student assistants, and I wearily plod through our own survey of Korean women’s magazines advertisements this summer, of which this post is admittedly but an extended version of one of its footnotes. Thanks for reading 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)

Less Than 3% of Korean Women Use the Pill. Perhaps These New Commercials That Treat Them Like Adults Might Change That.

Spot the Korean condom! Photo by Min An from Pexels. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last six years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too, and less than 3% use the monthly contraceptive pill, despite rare over-the-counter access. Women’s access to the prescription-only morning-after pill is very much only in name also.

In the midst of this, last year saw an awesome, much-needed commercial for Common Day condoms produced for social media, which focused on how empowering they are for women. Tellingly however, the notion that women could buy condoms triggered a backlash. Nor did the small company ever actually feature its condoms on its site either, although they are available to buy from online shopping malls.

You’ll appreciate then, why this recent fourth sighting of a condom on Korean screens was so important. And the hints its presence gives about the novel approach of the Senseday contraceptive pill commercial in which it can be found:

Released on June 19, a spokesperson for Yuhan (which produces the Senseday pill) said about the appearance of the condom:

…“피임은 남녀가 함께 하는 것임에도 콘돔 광고는 전무하고, 피임약 광고도 여성들에게만 피임을 권장하는 식으로 흘러가는 것이 아쉬웠다”며 “둘이 함께 책임지는 성숙한 피임 문화에 대해 화두를 던지고 싶었다”고 전했다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

…[R]egardless of whether it’s men or women using the contraceptives, it is lamentable that there is no condom advertising at all, and that contraceptive pill advertising stresses only women’s responsibility for contraception. With this commercial, we want to raise the notion that contraception is the responsibility of both partners, and encourage the development of a more mature contraceptive culture.

Journalist Kim Jeong-min at the JoongAng Ilbo notes it follows a pill commercial released in March by Mercilon (produced in Korea by Alvogen Korea), which too is a breakaway from the cutesy pill commercials of the past:

비슷한 시기에 공개된 두 광고는 과거의 피임약 광고와는 여러모로 달라 화제를 모으고 있다. ‘어떤 내가 되고 싶은지’ 고민하는 주체적 여성상을 내세운 점, 피임약 광고 최초로 남성용 피임 도구인 콘돔이 등장한 점 등에서다. 기존 피임약 광고가 수줍은 20대 여성의 이미지를 강조(2013년 머시론 광고 ‘스무살의 서툰 사랑’ 등)하거나 피임을 여성의 몫으로 표현한 것과는 다른 문법이다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

Both commercials…are gaining attention for being very different from the contraceptive pill advertisements of the past. [Mercilon’s] cry of “Whatever I want to be” stressing women asserting themselves and being independent as they think about their future, combined with the first appearance of…condoms [in Senseday’s commercial], present very different messages to that of existing contraceptive pill commercials that feature shy, bashful 20-somethings (such as Mercilon’s “Clumsy 20’s Love” from 2013 below) and/or which perpetuate the notion that contraception is women’s sole responsibility. [James—Alas, generally Korean women believe it is actually men’s sole responsibility, as noted earlier.]

An inaccuracy: the first appearance of a condom on Korean TV was in 2013, not counting a pre-ban HIV/AIDs prevention campaign in 2004. But I share Kim Jeong-min’s optimism about the potential for a sea change in Korean contraceptive advertising. Both because Yuhan and Alvogen are competing more vigorously now, due to various changes made to their licensing agreements as Kim goes on to explain, and because she wasn’t kidding about how twee Korean contraceptive pill commercials used to be. As I noted as recently as 2016, if you didn’t know any better then it was entirely possible to watch them and assume that the pill was actually a medicine, and had nothing whatsoever to do with sex and pregnancy:

“…Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial:

The voiceover says ‘My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with only “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title [in the original 2016 video was] “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.”

What do you think? How do they compare to contraceptive pill and condom commercials in your own countries? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

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

(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)