Korean Gender Reader

Chae-Yeon in her underwear cropped1. Chae-yeon’s Music Video Banned by Korean Broadcasters

Personally, I think that the K-pop blogs (see here and here) have been too harsh in their criticisms of Chae-yeon’s (채연) new music video Shake (흔들려) as being more skanky than sexy, and while it’s certainly true that at the ripe old age of 31 she’s much older than most Korean pop stars, any c0mments to the effect that the video is a sign of desperation on her part are rendered false by her being no stranger to sexy outfits and provocative dances and music videos since…well, pretty much since she first rose to fame in late 2003.

Now, I’m not so naive as to think that her management company, now humbled into editing the video to make it suitable for television, didn’t deliberately seek this ban for promotional purposes, nor do I so dogmatically associate sexual liberation and it’s expression in the media with democratization that I see Chae-yeon as a feminist pioneer merely for showing us some cleavage either. But if you actually see the video, then like I imagine what most Koreans are doing you will probably ask yourself what all the fuss is about. And coming on top of the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs recent banning of music group TVXQ’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin from TV and radio on the one hand (see #2 here), but also the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of the import and distribution of the very sexually explicit U.S. film Shortbus on the other (see #1 here), then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that this latest banning just adds to Koreans’ increasing frustrations with a completely arbitrary, often contradictory, and almost always completely ineffective system for determining what is and isn’t “suitable” for them to watch.

2. The Changing Role of Women in Korea’s Past

Andrei Lankov writes an amusing column here about stereotypes of widows and the prohibitions against their remarriage in Korean history, and how these proved unsustainable in the 1950s in the face of their huge numbers and inability to make a living. After all, considering that they were well-known to have voracious sexual desires, all the better for them to remarry and have a man to provide for them rather than satisfy themselves with married men (but remain destitute).

Meanwhile, here Don Southerton discusses how paintings of the late-18th and early-19th Century reflected changes in women’s roles in the late Joseon dynasty (대조선국).

3. Female Climber Conquers Top 11 Himalayan Peaks

South Korean Oh Eun-sun, 43, became Korea’s first and the world’s third female mountaineer to conquer the 11 highest Himalayan peaks, her agency said Friday.

On top of that…*cough*…she aims to be the first women in the world to climb the 14 highest, and will on her way to Pakistan to do just that as soon as July!

4. “Making Pregnancy Unglamorous”

jung hye-young uncomfortable pregnancy D-line(Source: Cloudnain)

Skinny Bitch Bun in the OvenAs a father of two, then I don’t know how anyone could ever describe pregnancy as “glamorous,” although if one doesn’t have any direct experience of it then I suppose that Byun Jung-soo (변정수) and Son Tae-young (손태영) did manage to pull that image off, or at least within the confines of a photo studio and then with later retouching by Photoshop that is (see here and #11 here respectively).

Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said of Jung Hye-young (정혜영) in photos of her pregnant figure in Elle magazine here, here, and here, and which with her squashed belly in some and high heels in all of them, beg the question of what Elle’s purpose in taking them was exactly. To highlight how uncomfortable pregnancy actually is in reality? :D

Update, right: A book that all these recent celebrity pregnancies reminded of (see here for the details).

5. Koreans’ Bodies Are Changing

Obviously Koreans are getting much taller as a result of their better diets, and these days it’s not at all unusual to see children literally a foot (30.48cm) or more taller than their parents because those have improved so rapidly. Personally, whenever I see such a stark contrast I’m always reminded of sociologist So-Hee Lee’s point that ” Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States” (p. 146 of this book), and something always good to bear in mind when thinking about Korean society, although it was intended as more of a comment on how that was changing so quickly rather than on Koreans’ actual bodies themselves!

But the shape of their faces changing also? Apparently so, according to this article, but it seems counter-intuitive, and without further access to the original data and descriptions of the methodology of the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards behind the research, then the first thing that comes to mind is the possibility – but I stress, only possibility – that researchers may be projecting today’s desired face shapes and/or changes onto the data.

Just something to bear in mind: it would be good to have more information. In the meantime, for more discussion of that and other related issues, see here and here, and let me highlight Sonagi’s point that “Nutrition can explain changes in bone and facial structure” especially.

6. The Five Prettiest Male Entertainers

A description to be taken literally!  See the results of a netizen poll here.

7. Traditional Feminism

“Traditional” in the sense that some people are actually doing something about women’s inequality here rather than *cough* merely writing about on the internet. First, see here for more information about a group of Korean women that “envision a global network of local feminist activists that they are calling the Glocal Activist Network (글로컬액티비즘), and are traveling the world to recruit organizations and individuals to join up,” then here for a little about members of the Korean Women’s Trade Union who are campaigning for a 1000 won increase in the minimum wage (I believe it’s at about 3500 won at the moment, or US$2.80), and finally here on the rising inequality in Korea behind the latter, which has disproportionately affected women (see #2 here).

8. Love, Marriage, Babies…and Taxes

As I discuss here, with Korean women still being “encouraged to resign” once their bosses discover that they’re pregnant, then I’ve often made the point that minimal tax incentives and/or one-off cash payments for recent parents are unlikely to encourage many women to have more children, and indeed – lo and behold – Korea has had the lowest birthrate in the world for the second-year running.

Moreover, it turns out that while “conventional wisdom holds that married couples with children pay less income tax than singles, with multiple-member households enjoying greater tax deductions,” in fact “the nation’s tax system still favors single-member households over married couples,” according to this report.

On top of that, Korea already has the third most dangerous roads for children in the OECD (and is the sixth most dangerous to drive in overall), and Korean children and teenagers are the unhappiest in the OECD also.  Which begs the question of why I chose to raise two here myself…

9. Seoul Going Woman Friendly

I’ve already mentioned the increases in the numbers of women’s toilets, and a more comprehensive list of the changes being made is available here. Many are logical and positive steps, but most attention has (naturally) been given to the “women-only parking spaces, ” conceived under the explicit assumption that “women are worse drivers” (see here and here). That is sexist and just plain wrong, like I noted in #3 here, but the following extra information in that first link above draw my attention to yet another, overlooked sexist element:

…Seongdong and Dongdaemun in Seoul offer women-only parking spaces designed to help female drivers. The parking spaces are a bit larger than ordinary, giving consideration to children and baby carriages, and are also arranged in bright and open places.

On the one hand, it’s good that they’re in bright and open places, and women may well enjoy the greater room for children and baby carriages also. But then, as this image from Thailand reminded me, it also reinforces the notion that childcare is only women’s work.

10. Kim Yu-na: Most Overexposed Performer in Korean Commercials

I’ve nothing against ice-skater Kim Yu-na, and in fact quite like the new sultry and sweaty side of her presented in the image on the left (source, and see here also), quite a contrast to the childish image of her that is usually presented in the media (and of Korean female celebrities in general). But the idea of drinking milk while exercising is so incongruous that I soon wake up from any fantasies Maeil presumably wanted me to have, although it has to be said that that probably wouldn’t put most Koreans off, whom will in my experience drink it at some distinctly odd times and occasions (such as with spicy kimchee-stew (김치찌개), and after a hard day’s hiking!).

More to the point, Yu-na appeared in more commercials than any other Korean celebrity in the May 2008-May 2009 period, and yet is merely the latest – and certainly won’t be the last – in a string of Korean personalities to suddenly become famous overseas and thereby immediately overexposed in the Korean media. For more on that, and on Koreans’ collective passionate embrace of a sport once a Korean person – any Korean person – becomes internationally successful in it, and their just as abrupt abandonment of all interest in it after their fame dies down, see here, here, here and here.

(By the way, “Kim Yu-na” is a very bad Anglicization of  “김연아”: the official one of “Kim Yeon-ah”, with the “eo” sounding like the “o” in hot, would be much better)

10 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. I wondered, too, what data was used to support the claims. Plastic surgery is not uncommon, but it wouldn’t explain shrinking heads and some of the other observations. The other day The Daily Mail featured a story on Bonnie and Clyde, both of whom were short in stature. Bonnie was only 4’11” and had a large head situated on a small body with narrow shoulders, narrow hips, and short legs.


    1. Sonagi–Here’s the story, and quite interesting for a non North-American like myself who’s heard of them often but didn’t really know anything about them. And Bonnie did look a little strange, yes.

      Bob–Interesting that you mention those parallels, as I’ve often heard the Korea is like the US of the 1960s and ’70s in other contexts, particularly with regards to feminism and gender relations.

      Thanks for that quote: I’ve heard it in relation to photographic art vs. child pornography debates when I was writing this post about a belated crackdown on child pornography in Japan, but didn’t know who said it. It’s curious how it’s so difficult to define which is which, and so how that’s still the best guide.

      Eric–That’s quite an insightful point, and thanks for it. I’d noticed that false dichotomy in advertising before (see here), but never thought to apply it to this case.


  2. Looks like the Koreans are going to have to go thru what we in the US had to go thru in the ’60’s and ’70’s. I saw nothing in Chae-young’s video that seemed even remotely ‘bad’. But I have lived thru years of MTV videos and have become somewhat immune to this sort of thing. Years ago, US Justice Potter Stewart in trying to explain hard core pornography – stated, “I know it when I see it”. This appears to be where South Korea is today.


  3. On the apparent double standard of allowing the import of more sexually explicit films from Hollywood in, while banning the seemingly more innocent music video of Chae-yeon, I think the reason may lie in how the Korean censors (conservative representatives of Korean society at large) view westerners and their own people.

    I remember being somewhat taken aback the first time I heard a Korean male express this sentiment: “American movie stars are very sexy, but very odious.” ‘What’s so odious?’ I thought. But over time, I gradually came to understand what he meant. It seems that there is at the core of this declaration an expression of ethnocentrism. ‘Westerners are more primitive in the way they show off their bodies.’
    Therefore, it is all right for Koreans to view westerners engaging in such behavior, but it is not acceptable for them to imitate it.

    Another Korean man once remarked to me about how ridiculous he thought all of the outdoor sex scenes in American movies are. “Don’t they have beds? They’re acting like animals!”

    I’m guessing that the censors are not so worried about whether young Korean women will imitate the sexually provocative behavior of foreign women, who are after all, foreigners. ‘They’re not us, we don’t really relate to their ways, so what they do does not represent a big threat to our society.’ But if Korean singers and actresses start doing that . . . , then the guardians of public morality must step in.


  4. I know that people get to Romanize their names however they feel like, but the first time I saw 김연아 written in Korean I had absolutely no idea who it was talking about. Although, I was also perplexed by some newfangled drink called “Coke Jello” for a long time, as well…


  5. my shopping today was similar to running a marathon or an hour of exercising..and afterwards I drank a litre of cold milk. very refreshing..and best with spicy food…soothes the burning a bit^^

    it is scary how this manly men all look prettier than me, even if I am a huge lee junki fan I wouldn’t want to stand beside him.

    and for the banned video. well..nothing special, I almost got a headache watching it and seriously don’t see any reasons for it to be banned. but well, some people obviously do.


  6. What childish image?? I think there’s a difference in perspective for you to label her image childish, when in fact there is nothing childish about the images you linked to. And there’s also really nothing childish about her image presented in the Korean media. She’s like a queen to them. Not a child, but a mature, young woman.

    “their just as abrupt abandonment of all interest in it after their fame dies down”

    Right. So when Pak Se Ri shot to fame in 1998, Koreans embraced her, but then all interest in golf came to an abrupt abandonment when her fame died down… yup, Korean women sure are hard to spot in the LPGA.

    It’s no different than any other country. Obviously in their prime, athletes will be adored, but when they retire, their glory days become memories. It’s only natural for attention to shift towards new athletes who step into the spotlight.

    There isn’t going to be an abrupt abandonment in figure skating or Kim Yuna when she retires. In fact, it’s highly probable the boom in figure skating will follow the same pattern as Pak Se Ri has done for golf.

    I do agree she is extremely overexposed. Overexposed and exploited. She did just win the world title, so it’s expected. Now it’s the off season for figure skating and it’s time for that other, young sports star, Park Tae Hwan, to take his turn in the blinding lights of the Korean media.


    1. Chile–Spare me your outrage about my labeling Yu-na’s image as childish: you’ve already indicated in earlier comments that you’re a big fan of her’s, and like I’ve already said in reply to those – and you acknowledge here – we’re entitled to our different opinions. And if you believe that there’s “nothing childish about her image presented in the Korean media. She’s like a queen to them. Not a child, but a mature, young woman” despite her already looking much younger than her 19 years, dressing like a 13 or 14 year old in most of the images I link to (which are just a handful of hundreds of others I could have linked to), being in an environment well known for infantalizing female celebrities, and finally being noticed in this recent show precisely for her unusual more “mature” look, then I doubt there’s much I can do to persuade you otherwise. You’re going to have to do a lot more than say “in fact” to convince me of the validity of your own arguments in turn though.

      You may well have a point about Korean golfers. But far from things being “no different than [in] any other country,” I’d like you to name just one case where a majority of the population suddenly went crazy about a sport, and dominated the airwaves, based on no more than someone from that country succeeding internationally in it: the only one that comes to mind personally is the American Bobby Fisher winning the world chess championship from a Russian at the height of the Cold War…and that was back in 1972. Other than that, my adopted homeland of New Zealand is definitely a country that is maniacal about sport because it is really the only way in which it gets noticed on the world stage, but although athletes that succeed internationally in previously unpopular and/or unknown sports do get acknowledged from time to time, there is nothing like the sudden public obsession with them that is automatic here.

      You’re also confusing what I said about Koreans’ fickle interest in sports with their interest in athletes. Of course it’s natural for the public’s interest in an athlete to wax and wane like you describe. I challenge you to find an overseas case like that of the abrupt and almost complete neglect of Korean soccer after 2002 though, a much bigger deal at the time than Yu-na ever will be, and which resulted in Korea’s miserable result in 2006. Likewise, I seriously doubt that any boom for figure-skating, weightlifting, or swimming will occur in Korea, as these things need the investment of a lot of time and money in building training facilities, hiring expensive overseas trainers and coaches, allowing as many athletes as possible to get exposure to international competition etc. etc. after the initial public interest has died down, and that one didn’t occur for soccer just indicates that people were interested in the players and their sudden international fame…but not the sport itself.

      Need I add that golfing is largely an individual sport also, and one that you have to be relatively well-off to pursue in Korea? The golfing boom you describe is probably the exception that proves the rule.

      Alex–You remind me of the fact that there’s no law (in the UK at least) for the sound of one’s name to have anything to do with the spelling. Like you say, Koreans can Romanize their names any way they like, as I think they should be able to, and probably 9 times out of 10 they do roughly match up. Which begs the question of who on Earth came up with “Yu-na” and why?

      Sorry, but I’m still perplexed by “Coke Jello”…? Please elaborate!


  7. I think he means Coke Zero . . .which is indeed close in sound to jello in the pronunciation of some Koreans, and a fairly easy mistake to make if you just read the hangeul.


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