Korean Gender Reader

Yoon Eun-hye Vivien's Summer Collection1. Korean Stars Exposing Themselves?

Or not as the case may be, for while Yoon Eun-hye’s (윤은혜) latest advertisements for lingerie company Vivian certainly made quite a splash in the Korean blogosphere last week, again the products she is supposedly advertising are conspicuous for their absence. And just like, say, restrictions that existed on showing couples in the same bed on television reveal a great deal about the (repressed) sexuality of Americans in the 1950s, that very few major Korean stars are prepared to wear lingerie in lingerie advertisements is noteworthy in a sociological sense.

True, perhaps my voyeuristic male gaze compels me to return to this subject more often than most, but lingerie advertisements are ubiquitous in Korea, and it’s a rare commute when I don’t have the slightly surreal experience of seeing advertisements featuring scantily clad Caucasians in one subway car, then seeing others with Koreans like this one of Eun-hye (source) in another when I transfer (sometimes, you can even see both in the same car). Seriously, it’s no exaggeration to say that Koreans’ convoluted and often contradictory notions of sexuality and race literally stare me in the face everyday, and in a form that means that I’m particularly likely to sit up and take notice.

As I’ve discussed previously, lingerie modeling’s associations with porn stars remains the most compelling explanation, especially as the same Korean stars that don’t deign to appear in lingerie advertisements have appeared in quite skimpy bikinis in films and on television. Indeed, how else but shame explains even unknown models at lingerie fashion shows feeling compelled to hide their faces (see #3 here)?

Yet via commenting on the contradictions between sexually explicit Western films recently allowed to be screened here, but a rather tame music video by a Korean singer being banned by broadcasters, Eric Strickland has recently reminded me of the false dichotomy many Koreans have between themselves and supposedly more provocatively-dressed and acting Caucasians, and hence that – herein lies his insight – in many ways standards and expectations for the latter have yet be transferred to the former. Moreover, it doesn’t logically follow from Korean models not appearing in lingerie advertisements that their replacements would overwhelmingly be Caucasians either.

Choi Shi-wonYes, the various institutions and individuals involved with censorship in Korea are hardly a monolithic bloc, and this points to the need for restraint *cough* when interpreting decisions like the above, or, indeed, individual advertisements or even collections of them like Eun-hye’s also.

Something to always bear in mind next time you hear that Korea is rapidly becoming a more (or less) liberal and democratic place over time – depending on the commentator’s perspective – not least from myself! And for me personally, it means that the jury’s still out on the clothed-Korean/unclothed-Caucasian phenomenon.

Meanwhile, other notable cases of stars strutting their stuff last week were Choi Shi-won (최시원) of Super Junior (슈퍼주니어) on the left (source), apparently “the first idol star” to appear on the cover of Men’s Health (Korea) magazine, and also Rain (비), who has recently signed a 2-year, 1.5 billion Korean Won modeling contract with cosmetic brand Nature Republic to be its exclusive model (see here and here).

2. Taiwan Sees Rise in Domestic Violence

For an excellent introduction to the subject, see here. And if you’re interested in that, then please also see here for a video introduction to domestic violence in Japan; here for the first post in my five-part series on domestic violence in Korea (which I hope to resume later this week); and finally here for information about a recent Korean movie exploring the subject.

3. Number of Newborns Falls for 13th Consecutive Month

I’ve written so much about this subject also, I’ll defer from commenting this time! Amongst all the otherwise depressing news in this Korea Times report though, was the fact that the:

…number of divorces totaled 10,600 in March, down 5.9 percent from a year ago, due mainly to a mandatory system under which couples are required to take a one- to three-month cooling off period. The scheme was introduced as part of government efforts to reduce divorces.

Call me old-fashioned, but I see that as a good thing. However:

The fragile economy also appears to have made disgruntled couples more reluctant to go their separate ways because of the costs associated with divorce.

Although I do think that the cooling-off period will still have a palpable effect in the long run. And, lest you think that it is too long, consider that in New Zealand it is 2 years!

4. Big Mama…Not So Big Anymore?

Big Mama Korean Group

Shame on me for not hearing about this group earlier! Apparently Big Mama (빅마마) are a very talented music group, but they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve in Korea because – as the name implies – they’re normal-sized neither thin nor young like the vast majority of popular female singers. Ironically Lee Young-hyun (이영현) though, third from the right above (source), was recently in the news for losing weight.

5. Historic LGBT Festivals to be Held Next Week

In the words of Korea Beat:

From June 5th through 7th in Busan will be held the “Stonewell Celebration” to protect the rights of sexual minorities.

Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riot, Korean gay rights organization Chingusai and others announced on the 26th that they will hold a Stonewall Celebration in Busan, Gwangju, and Daegu to call for protection of the rights of sexual minorities.

See the original post for more details. Unfortunately, browsing through the links in that post there appears to be little to no information available in English, and if you’re confident enough with your Korean ability to attend regardless…then you won’t need my Korean wife me to translate anything for you before you do!  But for any non-Korean speakers still interested in the subject of LGBT rights in Korea, then I recommend the Autumn 2005 Korea Journal article “Intersectionality Revealed: Sexual Politics in Post-IMF Korea” by Cho Ju-hyun as the most recent and comprehensive guide, available here. Among other things, it mentions that unfortunately lesbian activists have been restricted from membership from mainstream umbrella Korean Women’s organizations, thereby having to form their own from scratch.

In passing, here is information about two short Korean films that screened at the recent San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

Update: here and here are two more recent blog posts that are also good introductions to LGBT life in Korea.

Update 2: Lost among all the attention being given to the former president Roh Moo-hyun’s (노무현) suicide last week (belying a huge social problem in Korea), well-known transgender star Harisu (하리수) has set up a transgender performance cum support group.

Update 3: It’s two years old, and a translation of an article two years older still, but otherwise Korea Beat has an excellent (and surprisingly long) post about teen homosexuality in Korea here.

Jo Shin-ae Pre Wedding Pictures6. On Being A Princess in Korea

I was tempted to include this image (source) of Jo Shin-ae (조신애) in my “Korean Sociological Images” series, but then it really illustrates a cultural feature of Korea rather than a sociological phenomenon really, and that is the almost universal practice for engaged couples to hire photographers to take pictures of them in various outfits and locations before their wedding, then to prominently display those pictures at the event itself. And while I chose not to get them for my own wedding as I’ll explain, that is not the same as saying that they can’t be quite nice and/or classy, and I don’t think it’s patronizing or in any way a criticism to say that women probably enjoy having them taken more than men because of the fantasy/dress-up element to it either.

Personally though, after wandering through parks full of couples romantically looking into each other’s eyes at sunset…accompanied by a team of two photographers and four assistants, and perhaps 10m away from two other couples and their own photographers on either side of them (and so on, completely surrounding lakes and riversides!), or alternatively seeing couples taking pictures like these at Gwanganlli Beach in Busan (scroll down)…with my big, smelly, sweaty, and unshaven self quite possibly jogging less than 6m away from them at the time, then I found the whole concept too expensive superficial and cheesy to consider taking them for my own wedding.

Having said that, having spent most of my adult life in Korea then it’s Korean weddings that I’m most familiar with, and in fact I never actually attended any in New Zealand before I left when I was 24. Am I correct in assuming though, that most Western countries still lack this pre-wedding custom?

As for Shin-ae, she got married on Thursday (see here also), as did actors Seol Gyeong-gu (설경구) and Song Yoon-ah (송윤아) (see here for pictures).

Update: If anyone’s into that sort of thing – and judging by number of clicks on the links above, then a surprising number of you are – then here is some extra information about Shin-ae’s wedding dress!

7. Old, Heavily Censored Korean Movies…Censored Even More by EBS!

korean censorshipThis certainly puts what I wrote in #1 into some perspective, and deserves to be much better known. From Seen in Jeonju:

For many years I have enjoyed the late night Korean classic series that airs over the Educational Broadcasting Service on Sunday night. Through that I have gotten to see many old movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s and for that I am forever grateful.  However, I now have a question for whomever is in charge of the show–please don’t think me disrespectful but I have to ask.  What the hell have you been doing?  For the last four weeks, whenever I watch the movies selected, I wind up turning it off in disgust. Why?  Because some idiot has decided to censor the films that are being shown!  Movies from the 60s and 70s were subject to enormous amounts of government interference and censorship.  Now some moralist over at EBS has decided to restrict these films even more! There was so much government control in the earlier decades that I didn’t  think there was anything left to censor.  Apparently I was wrong…

Read the rest here. While the re-censoring is restricted to blurring out knives and cigarettes (yes really, and all in movies playing late at night), there is perhaps no greater indictment of the Lee Myung-bak Administration’s moves to restrict media freedom than feeling the need to examine movies already censored by military dictatorships, let alone finding their efforts inadequate! The arbitrary nature and ineffectiveness of it are also annoying, and ultimately very worrying.

In related news, albeit slightly old, this post on a German English-language site about Asian movies discusses the differences between the international trailer and the tamer Korean trailer for the movie Thirst (박쥐).

censored Korean trailer for Thirst

8. “Working Wives and Incompetent Husbands” in North Korea

Part 4 of a series on “the ideal model of North Korean Housewife.” The site is a little difficult to navigate, so if you want to read more then Part 1, 2, and 3 are available here, here and here also.

9. International Marriage: Links

For a thorough introduction, see posts by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling here and here (for starters, and this is also interesting). Meanwhile:

10. Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon

In a short and very readable interview for The Jakarta Post on Wednesday, with many interesting tidbits about the history of the ministry (여성부) and Korean feminism as a whole.

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14 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. James,

    For your information, in France couples hire a photographer to shot the whole day (ceremony at the town hall, church is very optional, wine reception and dinner until wee hours in the morning). Unlike in the USA, there are no rehearsals, which would seem to defeat the important purpose of catching the events as they unfold.

    Ah, by the way, you are old-fashioned:-) There is nothing wrong with a healthy divorce, just like there is nothing wrong with a healthy marriage. Many middle-aged Korean women do not dare to divorce because they would have to face disapproval from both families and are likely to find themselves in poverty. That may explain in part why many women in this case “let” their children in their ex-husband custody. Perhaps the Korean government does not want to remedy this dire situation. In France, each major reform of the divorce laws is made in order to simplify and speed up the procedure but single mothers with a child are amongst the poorest citizens as well.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Some couples in the US have more casual shots taken by a professional as an engagement series, which may or may not be displayed at the wedding, but the large scale formal engagement shots that we see in Korea are primarily absent. The also almost never feature the bride and groom dressed for a wedding, perhaps because of the prohibition on grooms seeing their brides in the gown prior to the wedding (or indeed the dress being worn with all the various pieces together prior to the wedding ~ some people will still leave a few stitches of the gown undone until right beforehand).

    As I see it, there are a few major factors that contribute to the popularity of this kind of photography. First is the actual system of obtaining dress for weddings: Nowadays many women rent their dresses as part of a package deal ~ a former roomate had her engagement photos, wedding, reception, and honeymoon all arranged for her. For the photos, she was given an option of selecting four dresses to be photographed in, only one of which she would actually wear to her wedding but not photographed in at a studio. Three of the four were rented directly from the agency, and a fourth was the hanbok she wore for the reception (although the more elaborate overdress for the pyebaek was also rented) Oddly enough, this means she has no formal portrait shots of the dress she actually wore on the day itself.

    The system of churches and wedding halls also makes this kind of photography relatively more popular here. With very limited time at the wedding and reception itseslf, these shoots help guarantee good shots. Some wedding ceremonies last as little as ten minutes, followed by a buffet where mutliple wedding parties fight it out. There’s simply no time or place for the kind of wedding photography you get in the west.


  3. @ Christian: Rehersals in the US are not usually photographed, they’re simply a run-throu so everybody knows where to stand and when to do what the next day.

    Custody of children went by law to the man in almost all cases in Korea until recently, so it wasn’t women “letting” the husband keep custody of the kids in exchange for financial help. Legally they had very few options until very recently.


    1. Christian–Maybe I am old fashioned :) , but liking the divorce rate going down isn’t quite the same as saying that couples shouldn’t divorce if they really want to: although I’m sure I would have hated it at the time, in hindsight my own parents should have divorced closer to when I was 13 rather than 18 for instance. But marriages definitely lead to happier children and more stable societies though, and the Economist for one has noted that women’s lives improving over the past 50 years or so because they now have the financial resources to live independently has definitely been at the expense of children’s happiness. But again, that’s not to say that clearly unhappy couples should ever stick together “for the sake of the children.”

      Among other things, I’d reiterate Gomushin’s Girl’s point about child custody here.

      Gomushin Girl–How did I ever write a post without you?! Everything you say makes a lot of sense, and I kicking myself for not seeing those links myself.

      Sonagi–In hindsight, not really, but they would have been a bit out of place with the whole vibe of our wedding – avoiding the tacky, garish routines, and having a traditional Korean wedding rather than going to a wedding hall – which I insisted on, and she conceded to for the sake of inviting 250 of her close personal friends. Also, we got married before we could really afford to, not even having the money for a honeymoon outside of mainland Korea (yes, not even Jeju-do!), so photographers weren’t really an option. Any single people reading this, heed my advice and no matter how much in love you are wait until you can afford something decent: you will regret it otherwise!

      On the other hand, every time I see a wedding on TV or go to a wiser friend’s, I feel slightly ashamed and resolve to work that bit harder for my wife and kids. A slight trade-off then? :D


    1. Well it was big: didn’t you see the note about the 250 guests?

      To be more precise then, if I could do it all again, I would have waited until I/we could afford: *cough* rings; at the very least two weeks on some tropical island paradise in a luxurious hotel, say, for a honeymoon (hopefully, you only ever get to have one, so it may as well be the very best); a proper reception rather than everyone buggering off to a local restaurant as per usual in Korea; and finally, in lieu of two actual separate ceremonies, then at least many photos (yes, contradicting myself) of her in an expensive white wedding dress, which even the most militant of feminists will happily admit(?) that is what a wedding is really all about!


  4. Sorry, but I don’t consider myself a “militant” feminist, and don’t know many others (and truly despise the term itself, as it was likely made up by the same enlightened souls who created the term “femi-nazi”). And I got married in a nice pale bluish green dress, no white anywhere to be found, and it was lovely. Several of my married friends also opted out of the white dress.


    1. In hindsight, I probably should have chosen different words sorry, and am definitely projecting: unfortunately, I didn’t realize until after the event how much my wife would have loved a white wedding.

      I (obviously) don’t mind the term “militant feminist” myself though, as if you can have individuals and groups for any social cause that use more militant and/or extreme and/or physical methods than the majority of activists, then why not this one? But I grant that it was indeed probably invented and is most often used by the inventors of the term “femi-Nazi”, and which I also don’t like and would never use.


  5. James-

    I guess I feel that the difference between, say, “militant feminist” and “militant communist” is that whoever made up or popularized that term for feminists was definitely manipulating people’s ideas of gender roles– because “militarism” tends to conjure up images of masculinity (how many female soldiers do you know? They exist, but are much fewer in most parts of the world than male soldiers). So a “militant feminist” is somehow masculine, and yet scary because she is apparently against all men. Just my two cents…


  6. James,

    This video made me a Big Mama fan several years ago, long before I thought about coming to Korea. The gist of the video is that Big Mama is too ugly to sing in public; thus, they serve as the unseen background vocalists for a hot-looking K-Pop group.

    It was quite heartbreaking when I first saw it and realized what it was saying.


  7. Just to chime in on Big Mama. Ever since their debut in 2003, they have enjoyed both commerical and critical success to this date in Korea. While they are not as popular as say Girls Generation or other such talentless pop acts, their talents didn’t go unnoticed. Of course their popularity isn’t in proportation with their talent, but that’s nothing new in Korea.

    The fact that it was NEWS that Lee Young-hyun lost some weight (i didn’t think she looks THAT different) only confirms Korea’s obsesion with body image and appearance. No wonder the group wanted to lose weight. Who can stand such scrutiny day and in day out?

    By the way, very interesting article on the


  8. oops didn’t finish the thought before i hit sumbit .. was going to say that I enjoyed your article. It was an interesting read.


    1. Decour–Well, I don’t know if it was “news” beyond Big Mama’s fans and/or a handful of netizens, but I certainly hear you about the obsession with body image and continual scrutiny here.

      Thanks for adding that info about them, and for the compliment.


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