Guidelines for a Beautiful Penis

'Atomic Avenue #1', by Glen Orbik(“Atomic Avenue #1” by Glen Orbik, detail. Via: Dark Roasted Blend)

Remember the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s guidelines forbeautiful breasts“?

By definition absurd, the reaction was vociferous, and the Ministry scrambled to remove the offending post from its website.

Somehow amongst all the commotion though, a response by cartoonist and illustrator @ickjong got overlooked, at least by the English-language media.

That just won’t do. So, for phallus-lovers and/or owners everywhere, let me hereby present his “guidelines for a beautiful penis“. Or as I like to think of it, the “P-line/피라인” (you heard it here first):

Guidelines for a beautiful penis 1

When viewed from the front, it should look like Mr. Elephant, who has a nice personality. [And is from a well-known children’s song.]

Guidelines for a beautiful penis 2When viewed from the side, the head of the penis should be lower than the approximate position of the anus. [“Approximate” because it’s difficult to see from the side I guess. No, I’ve never really thought about it either.]

A response:

“Wouldn’t this be hurtful to someone who couldn’t get it lower?”

“That’s why it’s important to squat. If you squat properly, and maintain it, it’s possible to raise your anus.”

Good to know. Continuing:

Guidelines for a beautiful penis 3Left, top: The number of wrinkles on each testicle should be three times your age.

Left, bottom: As the length of “C’ is the source of men’s pride, it should be measured from somewhere between the belly-botton and the sternum to the tip.

Right: Testicles are different sizes, and are extremely sensitive. You have to take good care of them!

But…THREE times your age? Even for teens, that’s going to require a lot of counting. So, make sure to ask your nearest and dearest to lend a hand, and I guarantee you’ll both have a good day! ;)

Radio Interview on Korean Feminism and the Media, Tonight at 7:30

The Year of the PenisAt 7:30 tonight, I’ll be briefly appearing on Inside Out Busan at Busan e-FM, to talk about Korean feminism and the media. Please tune in if you can, and feel free to ask me here to expand upon or clarify anything I mention in the interview. I’ll also post a link to a download once it becomes available.

(Update: Voilà!)

Open Lecture on “Korea’s Feminist Movement: Past and Present”

Open Lecture on Korea’s Feminist Movement Past and Present.(Source: Critical Korean Studies.)

See the poster for the details, and click here to go straight to the registration link :)

Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 3 of 3)

Tonight is a strikingly sensuous MV about a time of freedom and female friendship. But to what extent is it undermined or enhanced by its many erotic moments? To what extent are those just plain sexual objectification?
SPICA Tonight Cover(Source: 미선씨의 위대한 하루 시즌2)

Time to answer the big questions that have been on your mind since Part 1 and Part 2:

“Wait…is that Lee Hyo-ri? Or is THAT Lee Hyo-ri?”

Tonight may be a great song, but it’s a real headache keeping track of who’s who in the MV, and the one guide I found had two big mistakes. So let’s clear up the five Spica members’ names first:

Spica Members Tonight(From 1:07. All screenshot sources: Youtube.)

Partially, the difficulty is because many sites use Park Si-hyun’s old name of Park Ju-hyun (박주현; she legally changed it). Partially, it’s because Park Na-rae (L) and Park Bo-hyung (R) look so similar in it:

Spica Tonight 1.12(1:12)

But mainly, it’s because there’s so many different costume, hairstyle, and hair color changes throughout, and much throwing of colored chalk dust. Also, it’s because there’s actually six people in the MV: Lee Hyo-ri features in many scenes in the first half especially, and looks a lot like Na-rae (or rather, Na-rae looked a lot like her then, but doesn’t in 2016):

Spica Tonight 0.01(0:01)
Spica Tonight 0.37(0:37)

Adding to that confusion, it doesn’t help that Na-rae was wearing that same white mesh cardigan just a little earlier (or that Yang Ji-won was wearing a very similar one at 0:47):

Spica Tonight 0.23(0:23)

The giveaway is Hyo-ri’s tattoo though:

Spica Tonight 0.38(0:38)
Spica Tonight 2.28(2:28)

Compare this picture from Netizen Buzz last month:

Lee Hyori Tattoo June 2016

As for what she’s doing in the MV, I’ll let Zander Stachniak of Critical Kpop explain (with the tweet and video inserted by me):

In 2013, B2M organized a mentorship between labelmates Lee Hyori and Spcia, the latter benefiting tremendously. The single, “Tonight,” was a return to vocally powerful music, and their first top ten song on the Gaon chart. Hyori and husband collaborated and produced the song, and Spica also seemed to take a page out of Hyori’s book with more of a “sexy” concept…

…It seemed as though B2M saw the Lee Hyori connection as the way forward. Finally they were getting somewhere. In 2014, Spica realeased “You Don’t Love Me,” a ‘60s style jazz number unlike anything they had ever done before, but very much like Hyori’s most recent album. An extension, almost. The song was brilliant, quirky, a joy to listen to. But Spica’s identity was becoming harder and harder to locate. Which might explain why their best song since debuting only reached 16 on the Gaon charts. Somehow, Spica had slid backwards. (End.)

I’m a huge fan of Hyo-ri’s: hearing about her role is what motivated me to check out Tonight in the first place, and the MV’s sensuality is very characteristic of her. But appearing in it herself was surely too much. Let alone being the very first person the viewer sees:

And by coincidence, that was the first time I’ve seen the MV myself for several weeks. Seeing it with fresh eyes, now I realize I may have given the wrong impression in Part 1 and Part 2 sorry: it is not just an endless parade of female flesh. It is very much a sweet, sentimental memory of close female friends on some kind of trip, told in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. It feels almost churlish of me to critique it, when so many women have responded so positively to its charms.

Then I take another look at the following scenes, and don’t feel guilty at all.

The “Passive and Unthreatening Recipients of the Male Gaze” in Tonight

Spica Tonight 0.17(0:17)

If all you knew of Tonight was girl-power hipster road-trip, then this might be the first scene that made you suspect there was just a little more to it than that.

Not that I’m going to criticize it, mind you. That teddy Yang Ji-won is wearing is supposed to be very form fitting. She does happen to have the largest bust of all the Spica members, but so what? If we start tut-tutting just because she’s in the scene, but wouldn’t over a member with smaller breasts in the same outfit, then that’s just body-shaming.

Instead, let me point out that you can’t unsee the ejaculation imagery in the suddenly rising balloon. (You’re welcome.) And, that although we get very brief glimpses of Kim Bo-a also wearing a teddy at the slumber party shown much later, it’s only Ji-won that we get to see like this there:

Spica Tonight 1.40(1:40)

Thinking about why that was the case, and why the other three members were wearing such loose-fitting clothing at that party, I suddenly realized something that had been staring me in the face this entire time.

You know all those lying down scenes I made such a big deal of? It turns out, it’s actually only Ji-won in most of them. And it’s her chest that we get to see the most of too.

I can’t believe I only just noticed. This is what staring at breasts for 10 weeks does to you…

Spica Tonight 0.24(0:24)
Spica Tonight 0.31(0:31)
Spica Tonight 0.31-0.34(0:34)
Spica Tonight 0.36(0:36)
Spica Tonight 0.47(0:47)
Spica Tonight 1.00(1:00; for a change, this time it’s Bo-a.)
Spica Tonight 1.03(1:03)

Of this shot of Ji-won falling back into the pool, I’m thinking that on the one hand it’s a great metaphor for the viewer abandoning themself to their dream of their trip. But on the other that…boy, those are some great boobs.  And we get some great shots of her body too.

I’m not normally so crass. But however sensual, this element of the MV isn’t exactly subtle. Sometimes you’ve just got to call it.

As indeed with this next, very awkward scene with Si-hyun on her back, in which she’s wearing completely normal summer attire for a young Korean woman…if she were almost anywhere except in a swimming pool that is. And whose idea was it to bring a surfboard to a pool anyway, if not to give Si-hyun something to lie on for me to better admire her legs?

Spica Tonight 1.17(1:17)

Yet for all its flaws, it was only through working out this scene that I realized the MV is supposed to be a dream. (Although I acknowledge that was already mentioned by other reviewers.) It was tough, because I took it very literally at first. Who the hell are the five of them supposed to be looking at, I wondered. How could that person be floating several meters above the pool? It only makes any sense if that person is the dreamer, who isn’t really there at all.

Should that context change our interpretation and/or criticism of any of the above scenes? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I do wonder and worry though, how accurately my screenshots are conveying that context, because of something I read recently:

My Women’s Studies class were watching Not a Love Story armed with Ruby Rich’s attack on the film. [It] is a documentary about pornography directed by Bonnie Klein which includes interviews with porn stars and feminist critics…Because Klein deployed traditional cinematic practices, Rich claims that the film cannot be feminist since it uses a camera ‘gaze’ which simulates, through intimate zooms, the typical vantage point of a male consumer of pornography. Rich deplores Klein’s use of a male cameraman and shots which turn the ‘viewer into a male customer normally occupying that vantage point’ (p. 408)…

My class largely rejected Rich’s reading, not because they disagreed with her technical deconstruction, but because, for them, the film’s meaning was lodged in the moving stories told by the women interviewed as much as in the camera movements. A purely visual reading, in other words, did not satisfy these women students. The voices of fascinating and independent women (however problematically presented) won out over the visual construction of spectator relations. The problem, then, for feminist criticism is that cinema identifications are not so easily and simply defined. Any attempt simply to deny that viewers are moved by what they hear, as well as by what they see, will create an imbalance.

(Feminism and Film, Maggie Humm, (1990, pp. 46-47.) My emphasis)

Which I didn’t provide just to sound lurn-ed, but also because it’s a reminder that context is crucial for judging sexual objectification. Which there’s a lot more of to come in the MV.

On Positive Objectification

But I’ve already covered that issue in the post “Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system“, which is just as much of a #longread as this one. Let me confine myself here to highlighting just one source I used there then, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment:

According to Nussbaum, then: “In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship” (Nussbaum 1995, 271) …Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent…And it is benign/positive, when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent…

Nussbaum believes that ‘Lawrentian objectification’ (objectification occurring between the lovers in D. H. Lawrence’s novels) is a clear example of positive objectification. The passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover that she quotes in her article describes a sex scene between two lovers. Connie and Mellor, in a context characterised by rough social equality and respect, identify each other with their body parts, they “… put aside their individuality and become identified with their bodily organs. They see one another in terms of those organs” (Nussbaum 1995, 275). Consequently, the two lovers deny each other’s autonomy and subjectivity, when engaging in the sex act.

However, Nussbaum explains, “when there is loss of autonomy in sex, the context is… one in which on the whole, autonomy is respected and promoted. … Again, when there is loss of subjectivity in the moment of lovemaking, this can be and frequently is accompanied by an intense concern for the subjectivity of the partner at other moments…” (Nussbaum 1995, 274–6) …Furthermore, Connie and Mellor do not treat each other merely as means for their purposes, according to Nussbaum. Even though they treat each other as tools for sexual pleasure, they generally regard each other as more than that. The two lovers, then, are equal and they treat one another as objects in a way that is consistent with respecting each other as human beings.

(Papadaki, Evangelia (Lina), “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition, available online)).

Of course, gratuitous, disembodied jiggly body parts are lecture one of sexual objectification 101; by all means, we can discuss Nussbaum’s perspective on that in the comments, or in that earlier post. But my main intention in quoting her is not quite so lofty.

Rather, it’s to explain why my initial reaction to the MV was as visceral as it was, way back on that subway in the summer of 2013. Because Nussbaum speaks to how, when I’m in the mood, I almost can’t help but stare at certain body parts of my wife’s. Far from feeling objectified, my wife mostly finds it amusing, and relishes the exclusive attention and focus given to those body parts later. Seeing Ji-won lying down in that tent in the MV, the camera gaze lingers on her body very much like I would on hers, as I luxuriate in the feel of her skin and savor her scent. Say, on a rare lazy Sunday afternoon, before we both suddenly realize the kids will be in the playground for—OMG—a whole half hour.

I imagine something similar explains why some lesbian commentators’ appreciation of the MV is so strong too. It’s what makes it so evocative, and explains how what would otherwise strikingly sensuous MV—arousing the senses without the sexual connotation—is really much more of a sensual one, “gratifying the carnal, especially sexual, senses“.

And that’s great. I applaud the sensuality. I scoff at the notion that because men may be more visual creatures than women, that context and atmosphere and—heaven forbid—our actual relationships with the objects of our desire somehow aren’t important too.* Which is not to say I don’t also appreciate some T&A of course, but then that’s all there seems to be to most “sexy concepts” in K-pop these days, which is why they tend to be quickly forgotten. Unlike, say, Bloom, which we’ll still be talking about 30 years from now.

(*Update: Further corroboration of that is demonstrated by VR porn, which transforms the viewer “from being a voyeur to a participant”, and tricks them “into experiencing something like intimacy.”)

But wait. With great difficulty, let me tear my eyes from away those screenshots with Ji-won for a moment, and start thinking properly again.

Because while Tonight does have romantic lyrics, the MV itself was about a girl-power hipster road-trip, right? If so, what are those scenes with Ji-won doing there? Why almost only her? And what about all these headless shots coming up too?

The Objectification in Tonight (and THAT Lesbian Scene)

Whose body parts belong to whom? I could find out, but that would be much less fun than it sounds. Besides which, the point is I shouldn’t need to.

Spica Tonight 0.40(0:40)
Spica Tonight 0.53(0:53)
Spica Tonight 0.55(0:55)
Spica Tonight 0.57(0:57)

Again, in an MV actually about relationships and/or sex, all those would be fine. Like I said, I often look at my wife that way, and don’t feel evil when I do. But being so gratuitous here, they do appear to be classic examples to add to that sexual objectification 101 lecture, and strongly remind me of the recent “Headless Women of Hollywood” meme.

And, speaking of things which seem out of place, it’s high time we examined that scene. You know the one:

Spica Tonight 1.23(1:23)
Spica Tonight 1.25(1:25)
Spica Tonight 1.26(1:26)
Spica Tonight 1.27(1:27)
Spica Tonight 1.32(1:32)
ice cream scene comment(Source: Omona)

If any scene can be said to be for a lesbian gaze, this is it. But it’s a terrible execution.

Among other things, Na-rae and Si-hyun are in completely different rooms. So when I first saw it, I didn’t think Na-rae’s undressing was even for Si-hyun at all, but that it was just for the heterosexual male viewer instead, with Si-hyun reacting to the audacity of that. (My opinion is kind of moving back in that direction, TBH.)

Crucially, it just comes out of nowhere too. The only other one scene I can think of that hints at a romantic interest between two women—and I stress only hinting—is this one with Hyo-ri and (I think!) Na-rae:

Spica Tonight 0.39(0:39)

And for sure, Hyo-ri pushes Na-rae down in it, who tumbles onto the bed in a most delightful fashion:

Spica Tonight 0.46(0:46)

Or at least she would, were the MV not to segue into an awkward tumbling of Ji-won on some grass instead:

Spica Tonight 0.47(0:47)

And that’s it. Yes, really, with these next, final scenes most notable for that absence. Because again, they’re very sensual, and I’d venture that lesbian viewers can certainly appreciate them, for the same reasons as heterosexual men can. (See Part 1 for more discussion of reactions by lesbian viewers.) But we see no “intra-diegetic gaze” of a woman in the MV admiring another woman’s body in the same way, despite the many titillating opportunities provided.

Spica Tonight 1.08(Bo-hyung at 1:08)
Spica Tonight 1.09(1:09)
Spica Tonight 2.14(2:14)
Spica Tonight 2.15(2:15)
Spica Tonight 2.16(2:16)
Spica Tonight 2.44(2:44)

Conclusion

When I showed Tonight to a perceptive friend of mine two years ago, he told me it strongly reminded him of I’ve Gotta Feeling (2009) by the Black Eyed Peas. That would be a very interesting comparison to make: both are great songs, and both MVs are very sensual, but with many problematic depictions of the women therein. And both, ironically, seem to have been relatively overlooked by pop-culture writers, at least in that latter respect. That’s no big surprise for Tonight of course, which wasn’t very successful as explained, but it comes as a strange oversight for I’ve Gotta Feeling, which reached #1 on numerous charts worldwide.

The main difference though, is that the MV to I’ve Gotta Feeling matches its lyrics. Perhaps Tonight would have been more successful if it too had embraced its sensuality, rather than making that feel so blatantly pervy and tacked on?

Because, ultimately, it was?

What do you think?

Either way, I’d hate to end on such a despondent note, almost as if I didn’t even like the song and MV, let alone still love both. Let me part with you instead then, by choosing from one of its many charms that I alluded to earlier. This spica-group-shot-tonightscene, say, from 1:12, about which Laverne at Seoulbeats wrote (source, right: Yellow Slug Reviews):

The scene where Spica sway facing the wall (leaving us with a view of their backsides) is an example of a liberating and empowering direction; It’s not framed sexually at all. But the ice cream scene was and the MV would have been improved if it was eliminated.

For comparisons’ sake, a must read is I’m No Picasso’s thoughts about a similar Simone de Beauvoir nude.

And for even more fun, here’s the “male” version of the song:

And here’s the Areia trance remix. I still prefer the original, but I enjoy the slower tempo of this one too, which may be more apt for the MV:

Song Credits

Lyricists: Lee Hyori, Kim Bo-a; Composers: Nermin Harambasic, Anne Judith Wik (both worked on many songs on Lee Hyori’s Bad Girls album), Henri Jouni Kristian Lanz, William Robert Rappaport; Arrangers: 양시온, 김태현(also did Bang! by After School). (Source: Naver Music.)

Music Video Credits

Director: Yong Seok Choi; Assistant Directors: Edie Ko, Jungwoo Yoo, Oui Kim, Wonju Lee; Cinematographer: HyunWoo Nam (GDW); Art Director: Mina Jo; Cast: SPICA, Hyori Lee. (Source: LUMPENS; see here for a list of the many other MVs they’ve worked on.)

Spica Tonight 3.29Thanks for reading!

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Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 2 of 3)

strong women intimidate boys and excite men(Source: Unknown)
“The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more—are more than that.”
(Chally Kazelnik, Zero at the Bone; my emphasis)

Or as the phrase goes, “Patriarchy hurts men too.” Let’s continue that conversation started by Chally, focusing on the very narrow visions of female sexuality and body types that patriarchy deems attractive—and for women to aspire to.

But first, a quick recap. In Part 1, I mentioned being very surprised at other reviewers’ and commenters’ reactions to the MV for Spica’s Tonight. Because generally, they described it as sexually liberating, and/or with definite lesbian undertones. Whereas all I took away from it was the breasts.

Lots, and lots, of breasts.

I’m serious. Every other scene seemed to consist of Spica members lying in their tent, lying on some grass, or lying in a pool, the camera lingering on their chests. And that ogling continues in many of the scenes with the women on their feet too, often with no indication of who the breasts actually belong to.

Don’t get me wrong: breasts are awesome. But you do have to wonder why an MV about a girl-power road trip looks like it was filmed by a heterosexual 15 year-old boy. So too, why something so sexually liberating would feature so many languid women on their backs, when it’s so rare to see men posed like that?

Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the idea, I concluded in Part 1, there are many more active alternatives that are just as effective. Let’s explore some of those in this post, after which the screenshots of the MV for Tonight in Part 3 should (almost) speak for themselves.

(One NSFW image follows.)

The Male Gaze is NOT Monolithic

If you figured one obvious improvement would be to have women standing on their feet, then you’re in good company:

In Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, a book written by Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese, he quotes [sociologist Erving Goffman] saying “People in charge of their own lives typically stand upright, alert and ready to meet the world. In contrast, the bending of the body conveys unpreparedness, submissiveness and appeasement”.

(Source: Who Sets the Standards?)

I’m thinking “people in charge of their own lives” don’t stand around picking their noses and looking at their watches though, wondering what to do. Probably, they stand much more like this, especially when their busy schedule suddenly includes bedding the person who just came into view:

Body Language Hands on HipsThose images come via Body Language by Allan Pease (1981; link is to a PDF), who explains of Figure 99 that:

The aggressive-readiness [body language combinations] are used by professional models to give the impression that their clothing is for the modem, aggressive, forward-thinking woman. Occasionally the gesture may be done with only one hand on the hip and the other displaying another gesture.

(pp. 79-82.)

It’s this next one on the right though, that instantly came to mind when I read that quote of Goffman’s (#sociologyissexy):

Body Language Sexual AggressionHere’s Pease’s explanation of both:

Thumbs tucked into the belt or the tops of the pockets is the gesture display used to show a sexually aggressive attitude. It is one of the most common gestures used in television Westerns to show viewers the virility of their favourite gunslinger (Figure 103). The arms take the readiness position and the hands serve as central indicators, highlighting the genital region. Men use this gesture to stake their territory or to show other men that they are unafraid. When it is used in the presence of females, the gesture can be interpreted as, ‘I am virile, I can dominate you’.

This gesture, combined with expanded pupils and one foot pointing toward a female, is easily decoded by most women. It is this gesture that non-verbally gives the game away for most men, as they unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind. This [body language combination] has always been predominantly male, but the fact that women wear jeans and trousers has allowed them to [also use it] (Figure 104), although they usually only do it when wearing pants or trousers. When wearing dresses or the like, the sexually aggressive female displays one thumb tucked into a belt or pocket (Figure 104).

(pp. 83-84.)

But why would “a hands on hip gesture [be] used to make clothing seem more appealing”, and why would a cowboy stance “unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind”? Good questions:

Body Language Figure 146 Feet signalling what's on the owner's mindNot only do the feet serve as pointers, indicating the direction in which a person would like to go, but they are also used to point at people who are interesting or attractive. Imagine that you are at a social function and you notice a group of three men and one very attractive woman (Figure 146). The conversation seems to be dominated by the men and the woman is just listening. Then you notice something interesting—the men all have one foot pointing towards the woman. With this simple non-verbal cue, the men are all telling the woman that they are interested in her. Subconsciously, the woman sees the foot gestures and is likely to remain with the group for as long as she is receiving this attention. In Figure 146 she is standing with both feet together in the neutral position and she may eventually point one foot toward the man whom she finds the most attractive or interesting. You will also notice that she is giving a sideways glance to the man who is using the thumbs-in-belt gesture.

(p. 120)

By all means, decoding body language like this may seem very subjective, and more amusing than hard science. But things I learnt from Pease’s book helped me overcome difficulties I was having with my Taiwanese classmates at high school. Then a few years later, it was really unnerving at a meeting once when I suddenly realized I was making obvious lying gestures as I was, well, lying. Anyone with a basic knowledge of body language could have seen right through me—but my audience were none the wiser.

I’ve been a true believer ever since.

And, having read my mother’s copy at about the same time as I was discovering girls, have always been at the utter mercy of confident, sassy women with their hands on their hips. This woman in particular, because she’s been stalking me on the Busan subway for the last two years:

Busan Women's College Advertisement 25.08.2015Informing the viewer of the confident, dignified, awe-inspiring beauty you can dream about by enrolling at Busan Women’s College (which sounds much more inspiring in the original Korean), it’s no less appealing to my male gaze for only being aimed at women.

And, if I’ve finally been given a legitimate excuse to post that, then I should get on a roll and also post Leena McCall’s magnificent “Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing” (2014) too. In which the model is so sure of herself, and her gaze so mesmerizing, that you almost don’t notice her brazen nakedness:

Ms. Ruby May, standing by Leena McCall(Source: Leena McCall)

But as always, really I’m being quite serious. I include it because it was in fact removed from the Society of Women Artists’ 153rd annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in the UK. (Ironic, I know.) As Rowan Pelling at The Guardian explains, this reaction was quite telling:

When I tracked down the painting online I was so flummoxed as to the likely cause of disgust that I thought it must be the fact Ms May was depicted smoking a pipe. Few things cause more umbrage now than someone wantonly enjoying tobacco. But further investigation revealed it was the way the sitter’s short waistcoat and undone breeches framed a luxuriant dark V of pubic hair – not to mention, the “Come hither, if you dare!” expression on May’s face, as she coolly scrutinises the viewer – that seemed to be the problem. The painting smacks of Isherwood’s Berlin with its cabaret noir sensibility: Ruby May is a demi-clad femme fatale in pantomime boy’s clothing, channelling Liza Minnelli and EF Benson’s Quaint Irene – as alluring to women as she is to men. You can just about see how it might épater la bourgeoisie, without feeling for a second any outrage is justified.

Supposedly, it was removed for being unsuitable for children. Yet:

You can’t help wondering if the affronted viewers frequenting Mall Galleries have ever sauntered over to the National Gallery, where Bronzino’s erotically charged Allegory with Cupid and Venus (showing the boy archer fondling the naked goddess’s breast) is on display to visiting school parties; or whether they feel the Tate should dispose of Sir Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait, with its unsparing depiction of the artist’s flaccid penis and his wife’s hirsute mons pubis.

Mind you, the Society of Women Artists was permitted to replace McCall’s work with another less provocative nude: one where the model wasn’t tattooed and standing hand-on-hip, all unbuttoned. It seems the Mall Galleries’ clientele can cope with nudes, so long as the model is a more passive and unthreatening recipient of the wandering viewer’s gaze.

In light of that, the contrast between these recent pictures of the girl-group Sistar is interesting. On left, via Imgur, (much, much leggier in the unedited originals) is one of the teaser photos for their summer comeback; on the right, via soooo_you on Instagram, who’s on far right and left of the pictures respectively:

Sistar Passive vs. Assertive Female SexualityAlso, with these two advertisements of So-hee’s:

Body Display So-heeMy fetish aside however, of course I’m not saying the solution to overthrowing the patriarchy is simply for women to stand up at point at their vaginas. Nor, that it’s a betrayal of that struggle to also like or even prefer examples where “the model is a more passive and unthreatening recipient of the wandering viewer’s gaze”, whether that liking is based on a sexual attraction, admiring their hair (à la Suzy’s contact lens ad in Part 1), or for whatever reason. But I do know which ones have more sass, and that they appeal to my male gaze just as much as those with women contorting themselves to sexual positions at my feet.

Surely I’m not the only guy? Surely many female readers prefer them too?

But wait, I hear you cry: there’s plenty of ads like that out there. Or is there? Maybe it’s “midriff advertising” that you’re thinking of, which has indeed become quite a trend worldwide. Especially in Korea, where there’s still taboos about breast exposure but not of legs, as is the case in most of the Asian markets that the K-pop industry is reliant on:

Midriff Advertising K-pop KoreaHyo-seong Beyonce Midriff AdvertisingYou are beautiful, stop hating your body(Source: 숭실 총여학생회 다락 Facebook Page. The fan reads “You’re different because you’re beautiful. Don’t feel bad or uncomfortable about your precious body based on other people’s stereotypes. Because you are you, you are beautiful. The 23rd Soongsil University Female Students’ Association: we are different, and we respect you.”)

Hani EXID California Beach Summer 2016 Midriff AdvertisingSexy Hani JeansKorea Midriff Advertising TwiceKorea Midriff AdvertisingAs discussed by Rosalind Gill in “Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising” in Feminism Psychology, February 2008, vol. 18, no. 1, 35-60 (email me for a copy), midriff advertising specifically can be problematic because, briefly:

  • It tends to exclude non-white, LGBTQ, and “non-attractive” individuals.
  • The considerable difficulties of obtaining and maintaining those flat midriffs are rendered invisible.
  • It frames women’s agency as something that is tied to their appearance, and exercised through consumerism.
  • It frames liberation feminism as the fulfillment of a male fantasy.
  • It morphs an external, male-judging gaze into a self-policing, narcissistic one.

Also, as the first image in that series above and this next one shows, I’d add that it’s disproportionately required of female models and K-pop stars. (Without disputing for a moment that young male celebrities—both Western and Korean—are also increasingly required to have six-packs.) See Seoulbeats for a wider discussion of those points in relation to K-pop specifically.

Korean Midriff Advertising(Ironically, the main appeal of the rash guard swimwear being sold is that beachgoers don’t have to be so self-conscious of their bodies. Surely cropped versions defeat that purpose?)

But confidence doesn’t require any one specific body part or type. Nor even body exposure at all:

Bang Bang Ha Ji-won 2004 sexitive or sensitive(Of examples like this though, Erving Goffman notes that to an extent the women’s sass is—sigh–only possible because she is “shielded” by her much warier male companion. See “Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1” for more discussion of this surprisingly common motif.)
vivian geeyang kim 66100 Ha Ji-won(Sources: Plus Size Model Vivian Geeyang Kim, edited; ask K-POP.)
66100 Big and Beautiful Self Makeover(Source: 66100 Facebook Page)

I’ll also add that of course there’s much, much more to these wonderful things called sexuality and sexual attraction than whats been seen in the examples given so far in this post. For instance, consider:

Mise En Scène: The Sexiest Korean Commercial Ever?” (and here’s me thinking all the images of Ha Ji-won I’ve used here were just a coincidence):

No Skin Required: Healthy Images of Couples in the Korean Media“:

Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads“:

And see the round-up of links at the end of Part 1 for many more. And all that’s where I’m coming from when I watch Tonight. Ta-da!

Spica Tonight 3.29Please let me know your thoughts, and Part 3 on the MV proper will be up on Friday Monday :)

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Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 1 of 3)

Tonight has been interpreted as an uplifting, carefree song about female friendship, maybe even about a lesbian awakening. So why is the MV soo male-gazey?
Spica Tonight 1.26(All screenshot sources: Youtube)

Introduction: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spica

Released in August 2013, Tonight by Spica is the perfect short summer song. It’s fun, breezy, and simple to understand for a Korean learner too. Just take a listen for yourself:

Though most K-pop songs don’t age well for me, I do still soo love the music and vocals of this one. But its sales were poor, and it won no prizes on music shows. It received few substantive reviews. Then the same happened again with You Don’t Love Me, which came out in January 2014. Crestfallen, I lost track of Spica after that, but I remember being further disappointed by their misguided US debut that summer, then the news in November 2015 that a manager of their former entertainment company was being sued for embezzlement, which derailed their planned comeback. Add that they haven’t uploaded a video to Youtube in over a year, then I started this post half-expecting they’d disband before I finished it.

Spica, it seems, have always been plagued with bad luck.

But there’s hope on the horizon. I soon learned that they’d switched entertainment companies in December, and that they’d quickly followed that with the announcement that a mini-album would be released in April, later cancelled in favor of the release of a full album in June. Also, while their Twitter, Facebook page, various Instagram accounts, and (Korean) fan cafe were only being updated every few days, they were still being updated. An hiatus on those updates since April was cause for alarm, but it was likely only because the group is very busy working on the album. Sure enough, soon after I wrote that they’ve since resumed posting, and have just reconfirmed their comeback and released new member photos.

So, I’m optimistic that they’ll announce a firm release date any day now. Which makes them a perfect choice for my own return to writing about K-pop.

Who could write a simple review after watching that MV though?

I think I'm addicted to feminist media criticism(Source: Guerrilla Feminism)

There’s only so much that can be said about the generic lyrics of the song, or added to what other reviewers have already written about the dreamy, memory-like atmosphere. Who has time for such banalities, when the MV is so sensual, but also soo blatantly aimed at heterosexual men? When the first half mostly consists of the Spica members lying on their backs in bikinis or tight clothes, the camera lingering on (especially) their breasts? And much of the rest, just that lingering gaze, with only occasional shots of the actual faces of the various body parts’ owners?

I’m serious. For teaching the concept of the male gaze, and the rights and wrongs of objectification, this MV is the perfect K-pop example.

Spica Tonight 0.31(0:31)
Spica Tonight 0.53(0:53)

No, I’m not a prude, I don’t think those are negatives (necessarily), and I’m not complaining. No way in hell, did I plan to spend six weeks on researching the male gaze before I got a post out either.

But I felt I had an obligation to discuss what no-one else was. Because when I first saw the MV three years ago, it was on my phone while I was on the subway; I had to stop watching, lest other commuters think of me as just another typical, sweaty uncle fan. When I showed the MV to a coworker to get a second opinion, he burst out laughing at how shameless it was. When I showed it to my wife, she just rolled her eyes. When I went online for fourth and fifth opinions though…?

Of scenes like the above, almost every other reviewer and commenter only mentions the ice cream one, if at all; instead, they talk about the strong vibe of sexual freedom they get from the MV, and/or the lesbian undertones. For instance, Alexandra Swords at Music Matters:

[The MV is] just plain fun to watch. It’s also incredibly sexy, the sensual movements, the outfits, the skinship . . . all of it contributes to a great idea of personal liberation, including sexual freedom and comfort with that sexual freedom. It’s great because very few music videos period, let alone the ones in Korea, express that not only is it okay to be a sexual creature, but that being so is not strange or special, it just is and we can just accept it with ease and comfort as an aspect of the world in which we live.

And commenters at Seoulbeats, after reviewer Laverne originally mentioned she found the sexual undertones of the ice cream scene unnecessary and distracting:

Seoulbeats Spica Tonight commentsAll of which is still cool of course: we’re all free to interpret the MV however we like, and a male gaze isn’t mutually exclusive with their reading of it. I should have made more of an effort to look for Korean reviews too.

But…sexual freedom? Tasteful lesbian undertones?

I’m just not seeing them. If a lesbian coming-of-age story was the intention, then it seems poorly executed at best, as I can identify only two scenes that hint at potential romantic interest between the members, and just barely at that. (Frankly, I think it’s just wishful thinking really. And, just off the top of my head, think Because of You by After School is a much, much better K-pop example.) In the absence of that narrative though, what I’m seeing in its place is the presentation of a very passive, come-hither version of female sexuality, much like that which already overwhelmingly dominates the media.

Again, that’s not necessarily bad, in the right context. Nor, as Womantic’s and ChencingMachine’s comments demonstrate, are the resulting scenes necessarily for the exclusive pleasure of heterosexual men. Yet while a lesbian appreciation of this MV is no less valid than a male heterosexual one, I still think it’s only incidental.

But I’m not a lesbian. As you’ll see, I still have lots to learn about the (heterosexual) female and lesbian gaze too. And, whatever your sex or sexuality, I can’t and won’t presume to lecture you that any feelings of sexual empowerment to be gained from the MV are simply a form of false consciousness either. Instead, let me just present my own biases and intellectual baggage first then, before the scenes from the MV, to show you why I interpret them the way I do.

That makes for a very, very long post, almost a presentation really, which readability dictates that I split into three. Also, for an uneasy segue into a discussion of men and women in advertising next, to be continued in Part 2, and ironically not returning to the MV again until Part 3. But if that’s what it takes to demonstrate the very narrow vision of female sexuality being presented by the MV, and of male tastes in turn, then so be it.

Hopefully, you’ll be too intrigued by the hundred or so images to notice the length anyway. And, ultimately agree or disagree with my interpretations, hopefully we’ll still have a fun discussion about the male gaze and/or Tonight too, and both learn a lot in the process.

Here goes…

(One NSFW image follows.)

The Male Gaze: A Gender Advertisements Perspective

Gender Advertisements South Korea(Source, right.)

Whatever your experience with analyzing advertisements, you can appreciate that the sizing and placing of people in them is a fundamental part of photographers’ and designers’ jobs. With that in mind, consider these images of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana:

charles higherMost people wouldn’t think twice about them. Unless, they already knew that Diana was actually the same height as Charles, or even slightly taller:

Diana TallerWhy make Charles appear taller? Lisa Wade at Sociological Images explains:

This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.

Is that social commitment also operating in these Korean advertisements? You be the judge:

Gender Advertisements Womem Taller than MenNow, those examples were pretty obvious. However, that social commitment to men’s greater height can be said to be part of a wider commitment to presenting conventional, in many ways unequal gender roles by the media. Which may sound like hyperbole, but literally just about any survey looking at how the sexes are portrayed can confirm.

In advertisements, that commitment is usually achieved in much more subtle ways than simply giving high stools to short men though. Fortunately for us, the late Erving Goffman outlined many of those ways in Gender Advertisements (1979), and his framework has been considerably expanded upon and modified by scholars since.

Concentrating on the two ways most relevant to the Tonight MV here, the first is by positioning men and women (and races) differently, which comes under the “Relative Size” category in Goffman’s framework. (Note that in addition to being positioned differently, they are frequently doing different things and/or have different jobs too, which comes under “Function Ranking”). For example:

Gender Advertisements Men at Front, Women at BackGender Advertisements Relative Size and Position(Source, left: Korea Times, 25/06/2009; see Korean Sociological Image #8 for a discussion.)

Gender Advertisements Relative Size South KoreaNone of those examples are particularly objectionable in themselves, nor is there a real case to be made that the teams behind them were deliberately or even subconsciously sexist: there could have been any number of legitimate aesthetic reasons and other considerations which came into play when they placed the men and women (and Koreans and Caucasians) the way they did. It’s also true that I deliberately selected all the advertisements in this post to make certain points, which in turn are necessary generalizations; of course you see men standing in the back sometimes, and so on. That said, do surveys of multiple advertisements, and, for whatever reasons, men tend to be front and center more often than women, and tend to have better jobs and/or take more active roles than the women behind them.

In that vein, take a look at these two:

Gender Advertisements Ritualized Subordination Mother Child Man WomanIn the left (technically half of an advertisement), of course the mother is taller and of a higher social status than her young daughter. Also of course, there’s no implication that the teenage boy on the right is of a higher social status or in any other way superior to the teenage girls in any way simply because he’s standing while they’re sitting.

Look at multiple advertisements however, and it turns there’s a lot more ads like the one on the right than vice-versa. Or, of ones that elevate the men above the women in some other way:

Gender Advertisements Ritualization of Subordination Man Standing Woman SittingGender Advertisements Ritualization of Subordination Men Standing Women SittingKim Su-hyeon and Shin Sae-kyeong Man StandingAlternatively, if the men themselves are sitting, then the women end up on lower furniture (remember the stools earlier?), in beds, or even on the floor or ground:

Giordano Wallpaper Shin Min-a So Ji-sub(Source: Giordano. See also: Shin Min-a Shows Us How to Pose Like a Woman)
Goffman Gender Advertisements Rituatlization of Subordination Kate Moss Chris Kremer(Source, above and below: The Fashion Spot)

Goffman Gender Advertisements Rituatlization of Subordination GucciThis is the part of second category of Goffman’s to bear in mind for the MV, which he termed the “Ritualization of Subordination” (but with obvious overlaps with “Relative Size”). He explained it thus:

Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example.) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)

And in particular:

Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)

A note of caution. In lectures in the past, I’ve explained that Korea provides an interesting counterpoint to such interpretations. As in this part of the world, age and status trumps everything:

Korea Status Trumps Relative Size and Ritualiztion of SubordinationGender Adverisements Status Trumps Ritualization of SubordinationVictorian Husband and Wife ungyo looking away(Source, left: Etsy)

And indeed maybe it does. But after rereading the original book, I found that Goffman had already indirectly addressed this:

An interesting contrast is to be found in turn-of-the-century portrait poses of couple [example above], wherein the effect was often achieved of displaying the man as the central figure and the woman as backup support, somewhat in the manner of a chief lieutenant. (p. 40)

Which is to say, it’s important to bear advertisements’ contexts in mind, and not interpret them dogmatically. But whether they’re Korean or from Goffman’s native Canada, examples like these seem to be the exceptions that prove the general rule.

Another thing to bear in mind is one of the biggest changes since Goffman’s day: that fewer and fewer couples and mixed groups are depicted in advertisements. Despite that, women are still less likely to be standing in them than men:

Ha Ji-won and IU lying downsnsd baby g 2015(Source: S♡NE | INDESTRUCTIBLE)
Seol-hyun subway advertisement gmarket(Source: 퍼펙트 월드)

The sides of buses, I’ve noticed, are frequently used for full-length shots of people on their sides. It’s just that those people rarely seem to be men:

Swagger Hyo-seong on Bus(Sources, edited: Swagger)

And finally, some examples of women on the floor, in beds, and/or lying down. Which, like Goffman said, are considered to be expressions of sexual availability:

Park Min-young jeans floor(Source: Tcafe.net)
Honey Lee Venus lingerie lying on bedKang So-ra Ad Objectification through reduction to sexual availabilityGa-in EgoistJunghwa - Mizuno Summer 2015(Source: IsM, K-pop in Greek)
Seol-hyun SK Telecom GMarket(Sources: FM Korea; Imgur. Ironically, there was some controversy about the one on the left. But only because of its supposed resemblance to a BDSM scene.)

This example with Bae Su-ji for Clalens contact lenses is particularly interesting. When I showed it to a female friend, who’s very au fait with overthrowing the patriarchy, I pointed out that it looked like I was hovering over her as we lay together in some sunny, secluded glade. (Su-ji that is, not my female friend; let’s not go there.) That didn’t occur to her at all though, and instead she admired what the advertisers had done with her hair, the black lines serving to highlight the clarity of vision brought about by the contact lenses (although in hindsight, I think the intention was to highlight that they’re color lenses):

Ritualization of Subordination Male Gaze Suzy ClalenI include it then, partially as an example of where my background is possibly clouding my judgement. Also, as a reminder that I’m not the target audience of most of the advertisements I critique.

But still: with this ad, I think my friend wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.

Because consider the similar one in the middle below too. At that more usual scale, only a blogger with a bone to pick would notice the black lines at all. Add the slightly scared expression on her face, which seems out of place for a contact lens ad, and I’m right back to my original interpretation. Neither exactly scream “Now that I can see properly, I can finally do shit and get on with my life!” either, which is why I much prefer the one on the left. (Even Seol-hyun’s on the right is an improvement.)

Korean Contact Lens Advertisements(Apologies for the reflection of some ugly bald guy in the picture on the right.)

But okay, so what? So we see many more women than men in beds and on floors in advertisements, frequently in sexualized poses. Is that problematic?

Well, if we put aside for a moment that not every ad needs to be sexualized, and that when it is, it’s usually the sexualization of women by and for heterosexual men? Then not so long ago, I would have said no. Not necessarily.

Yes, I know I say that word a lot. But hear me out.

In my lectures, I used to point out that basic biology meant that heterosexual men found women in beds more sexually attractive than vice-versa. Whereas you have lots of time, energy, and most importantly no kids, I would wistfully explain to my 20-something audience members, so you make it a point of personal pride to try new and exciting sex positions everyday, the reality is that the missionary position is overwhelmingly the most popular male-female one. (And besides which, if we’re talking about penis-in-vagina, all those new and exciting sex positions are all just variations of the same six basic positions anyway.) Ergo, if sex sells, and, rightly or wrongly, sex is always going to be used to sell, then that sexual difference is always going to be reflected in advertising.

To reinforce that point, and get some laughs, I would show some photos of men parodying women’s typical poses:

Men in Women's Poses(Source: English Russia)
Men in Women's Poses Men-Ups(Source: kyliedpeterson)

But sometimes after the lectures, women would point out that the men above weren’t as (conventionally) attractive as the women they’re mimicking. And they had a point. So too, if they’d asked how come I’d just enthralled them with numerous images of scantily-clad women in beds or lying down, for which they were eternally grateful, yet failed to provide any examples with men to prove my original point? Like some from two Instagram collections recently featured at Bored Panda say, which have a much wider range of guys than normal too?

Instagram @brosbeingbasic(Ewww, men on their backs. How unmanly and unattractive. Source: @brosbeingbasic; left, right)

What they really should have done though, is told me to just shut the hell up. Because what the fuck would I know about what poses turn women on?

I like to think I know a little. This blog is about sexuality after all. I do have lots of books about sexuality in my bookshelves to impress guests at my cocktail parties with, and have even read some of them too. Obviously, I have no qualms about talking explicitly about sex. Obviously, I do so with my wife and did with my former partners. Probably, you can guess, that lack of inhibitions extends to conversations with my friends too. (Consider that a heads-up, if any readers want to hang out.)

But had I really talked to my female friends about what turns them on? Exactly what turns them on? Had I really talked to enough heterosexual women, or read enough about female sexual desire written by them? Could I really stand there as a cisgender, heterosexual guy and tell heterosexual women that I know they aren’t as attracted to men in beds as men are to women, which is why we don’t see men in beds so much in ads?

No.

Instead, it took the following image to make me finally realize my utter foolishness. Seen back while I was still naively expecting this post to just be a normal review, this image is a big reason for the way it developed the way it did. Because just between you and me, I can see the attraction…

Sleeping Beauty Bare Men Paper(Source: Paper)

I’m sure it would have been more to the point to post a picture of a eager, expectant-looking guy in bed, with a much prouder erection; alas, it’s that picture that really, really does it for me. I mean did it for me. Enlightened me I mean.

Anyyyway…

If it doesn’t enlighten you personally though, then here’s some eye-opening links I was also reading at the time, which provided the thousands of words of background that picture told me:

  • Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze? (The Conversation; make sure to read the comments also)
  • Gaze Upon Me, and Despair!: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, S2E2 (The Learned Fangirl)
  • How music videos challenged the male gaze in 2015 (Dazed)
  • How is this painting ‘pornographic’ and ‘disgusting’? (The Guardian)
  • ‘Neighbors 2’ is a middle finger to anyone who thinks feminism can’t be funny (Fusion)
  • Hollywood Men: It’s No Longer About Your Acting, It’s About Your Abs (Jezebel)
  • The Male Gaze vs. The Female Gaze (CinemaVerite)
  • NSFW: See Images From “Bare Men,” A New Photo Book on Male Nudity (Paper)
  • A New Tumblr Calls Attention to “Headless Women” in Film & TV Marketing (Bitch, Feministing)
  • NSFW: 10 Images That Take The Female Nude Back From The Male Gaze (Bust; my Twitter and Facebook conversations about them)
  • Empowered Young Women Star In These Portraits Of Chinese Girlhood (The Huffington Post)
  • How did ‘Playgirl’ magazine go from feminist force to flaccid failure? (Fusion)
  • An Earl in the Streets and a Wild Man in the Sheets: Tarzan and Women’s Sexuality (Bitch)

That said, of course there’s still many differences in what heterosexual men and women find sexually attractive in the other; it’s just that I’m no longer convinced that lying in bed (etc.) is one of them. And if I’m right, that social commitment to literally keep women in their place seems to be the biggest reason for the discrepancy in the media.

Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the modus operandi, there are many more active alternatives, and/or alternative body types, that are just as effective…

vivian geeyang kim 66100 Ha Ji-won(Sources: Plus Size Model Vivian Geeyang Kim, edited; ask K-POP)

Which I’ll present in Part 2, before discussing the MV proper in Part 3. Thanks very much for reading this far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (By all means, feel free to jump ahead and talk about the MV too!)

Morning-after Pill Remains Prescription Only

In the continued financial stand-off between doctors and pharmacists, Korean women’s health and sexual freedom remain a low priority.
MV 010 - 2 - SBS Family's Honor (2008-2009) - This I Promise You(Source: withhyunbin; CC BY-NC 2.0)

Remember back in 2012, when the Korean FDA announced the monthly birth-control pill would become prescription only?

In isolation, there are many reasonable arguments for such a change. In the context of the criminalization of abortion though? Plus the slut-shaming that compels many women to rely on their male partners for contraception, combined with Korea’s woefully-inadequate sex education? Then that freedom of access was important.

What’s more, while the monthly pill was to become prescription only, the morning-after pill was to be made over the counter.

That made no sense, whatever one’s feelings about either pill. And indeed, there were no sudden new medical reasons provided to justify the changes. Instead, as I wrote this January:

…it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

Four years later, she still hasn’t. And it’s wonderful that the monthly pill remains over the counter.

Alas, that doesn’t mean the government hasn’t been busy. Earlier this week, it decided that the morning-after pill would remain prescription only. As the Korea Bizwire reports:

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that after a comprehensive review of contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness, it would continue to categorize emergency contraceptives as ethical drugs.

Ethical drugs, also referred to in Korea as ETC drugs, are defined as drugs that require a doctor’s prescription for usage, and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that the decision to keep emergency contraceptives under the category of ETC drugs was due to serious concern over the possible abuse of these contraceptives by the public.

On the other hand, the ministry will maintain its categorization of regular contraceptive pills, which are to be taken prior to sexual intercourse, as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

Recent trends show that the production and imports of emergency contraceptive pills are both increasing – growing from 2.8 billion won to 4.4 billion won in 2014 and then 4.2 billion won in 2015 – according to a study on contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness conducted between 2013 and 2015 by the Korea Institute of Drug Safety & Risk Management on 6,500 individuals of both genders between 15 and 59 years of age.

And yet, the study also found that only 44 percent of females in the study had accurate knowledge about emergency contraceptive pills, such as their side effects.

[Emergency contraceptive pills have] a high risk of side effects compared to regular OTC contraceptive pills in that the drastic hormonal change could be a considerable burden on the female body.

The Korea Herald adds that only “36 percent of female teenagers were accurately informed about the drug and its possible side effects” (as opposed to the 44% of women mentioned above). Unlike in 2012 though, now it appears that the Ministry has Korean women’s and teenagers’ health very much in mind.

I call bullshit.

This is dubious, retroactive justification of a decision made entirely on ideological grounds.

First, consider the track-record of the Park Geun-hye administration, which is unusually beholden to conservative vested interests. In the absence of (sufficient) political pressure from the Korean Pharmaceutical Association, and/or the ever-dwindling pool of young female voters, it would be extremely unlikely to ever make such a female-friendly, sexually-progressive move as increasing access to the morning-after pill.

Next, recall that under-18s aren’t actually allowed to access information about contraception on the internet, in which case that figure of 36 percent could even considered a positive. (Search on portal sites, and a social security number login will be required.)

(Update: It turns out, that login may only be required for information about condoms.)

Finally, and in particular, the Korean Medical Association has a long history of scaremongering about the pill, which likely plays a big role in why only 2.5% of Korean women actually use it. This makes me very, very wary of the Korean government’s claims about the dangers.

Sure enough, just this week Fusion offered a damming rebuttal of those, via an article on why US universities don’t offer the morning-after pill to students:

…Medication abortion is really, really safe. Since 2000, more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. have used it to terminate early pregnancies. While the pill can cause side effects such as nausea, fever, and cramping, it has an adverse effect rate of only 0.2 percent. That’s way less than adverse effect rate for the asthma inhaler Advair (27 percent), the antidepressant Wellbutrin (22.3 percent), the anti-anxiety drug Xanax (13.9 percent), and the cholesterol medication Lipitor (12.9 percent).

And just two months ago, the FDA revised its label of the abortion pill mifepristone to match the evidence-based protocols already being utilized by physicians nationwide—a protocol that allows for the drug to be given up to seventy days into a pregnancy, instead of forty-nine days and states that a smaller dose can be given to efficiently terminate a pregnancy.

But I’m clearly biased in favor of over the counter access, for just about every non-invasive/non-surgical contraception really, so please let me know what you think. Also, let me pass on the following video report for Korean speakers, although it doesn’t add much to the English articles already linked sorry (unless readers spot something I missed?):

Update:

Claire Lee at the Korea Herald has just penned a must-read on the angry response of Korean women and Korean women’s-rights groups, and the utter uselessness of visiting doctors for the morning-after pill. Not least, because of the frequent slut-shaming involved.

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