Korean Gender Reader

Abracadabra Brown Eyed Girls(Source: Ningin)

1) If You’ve Got it, Flaunt it? The Potential Mainstreaming of Assertive Female Sexuality in Korea

As the live performance below demonstrates, even sans the sex scene of the music video, the dance routine for the Brown Eyed Girls’ (브라운아이드걸스) Abracadabra (아브라카다브라) remains compelling viewing. Spoken from the perspective of a heterosexual male of course, but also in the sense that it presents a rare, more assertive side of women’s sexuality to the faux coy, innocent, and inexperienced one that is the standard for the Korean media:

But given that, the original furor it generated, and the fact that many much tamer songs have been censored and/or banned from being broadcast on public television and radio recently, then last month I and VixenVarla at Seoulbeats and I naturally expected the same for what is easily the most sexually explicit Korean music video I’ve ever seen. Instead, and in some rare positive news, quite the opposite has occurred: the Brown Eyed Girls have become very much the darlings of the Korean media (see here, here, here, here, and here for just a handful of their recent television appearances), with their dance routine very much mainstreamed in the process. For which I present as Exhibit A the fact that it is starting to be parodied:

Do such parodies dilute the much-needed message that Korean entertainers – and, by extension, Korean women – can flaunt rather than hide their sexuality? To the extent that there was a deliberate “message” in the first place of course, as the music company involved has proved all too ready to make tamer versions of the video for the sake of quick sales. The question is pertinent in the context of Western dance moves and gestures frequently being parroted by Korean performers without being aware of their sexual connotations, of which Extra Korea! recently gave some examples, although the first he gives may be erroneous, as G-Dragon {G-드래곤} has quite a reputation for gender-bending. But the pelvic thrusts at 2:45 in the next one do indeed seem rather forced and awkward:

For more on the disassociation between sexuality and sexual iconography in Korea, see #7 here, to which I would add this observation by Misuda (미녀들의 수다 ) member Vera Hohleiter (more on her in a moment) on the irony of Korean women wearing mini-skirts, only to cover themselves up constantly while doing so, and also the fact that in Korea any blatantly sexual dance move, gesture and/or piece of clothing is instantly rendered cute and innocent in the public imagination merely by being on a teenage girl, as to view it otherwise would be to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality of their sexuality.

I think the criticisms are a little harsh though: if you want to look for dancing that is genuinely “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire” in Korea, then you don’t have to look very hard. And context is very important, as even the most provocative of Western singers would be hard pressed to inject some sultriness into their performance under the harsh, almost antiseptic lights of a Korean talk-show studio, and moreover one in which the 3 year-old above may well have strutted her hips and thrust her non-existent breasts out at the audience 10 minutes earlier (not to condone that by any means, just to point out the myopic asexuality of such shows, which discourages questions of how problematic such performances really are). Finally, there’s the constant repetition and routine that would ultimately render ostensibly sexually provocative dance moves and so on somewhat artificial and forced for any performer. As such, it’s not like they can’t be learned: like I noted in an earlier post, there’s a good reason Singer Son Ga-in (손가인) of the Brown Eyed Girls spreads her legs and rides the stage floor like a porn star in the first video (at 2:06), despite claiming to be a virgin (update: apparently that was all only a rumor).

Son Ga-in2) Misuda: Half of it’s Fake

I haven’t actually seen the show myself, but I get the impression from those that have that the first season of Misuda did have its good points, and in particular sparked a lot of interest by Korean women in—and consequent dialogue with—foreign women living in Korea (easy to overlook if you’re a guy). Unfortunately Vera Hohleiterits more fluent, intelligent and interesting members were replaced in favor of mere photogenic ones and more tabloidish discussion topics in Season 2 though, and in was in this vein that was widely regarded as foreign male-bashing on the show occurred in Season 3 last month, which naturally provoked a vehement response in the Korean blogosphere: see #1 here for links, to which I’d add this commentary at Diffism that I overlooked, which makes the crucial point that much of the vitriol, albeit by no means undeserved, stemmed from from an intentionally skewed Korean newspaper report on the episode.

Among the hundreds of comments on those sites, I’d imagine that some would have argued to the effect that much of what is said on the show was scripted and for the sake of playing to its vacuous audience, and it turns out that that is indeed the case, as revealed in a book by German panelist Vera Hohleiter on the right. Unfortunately though, Korean netizens, albeit hardly representative of Koreans’ opinions as a whole, are concentrating on the few negative comments about Korea in it. Even though, as commenter Martin at Brian in Jeollanam-do’s post on the subject puts it:

….I am German and have read Vera’s book a few weeks back. When I bought it, I thought it would be the usual crap that we normally get from books about Korea but it was a decent read and the picture she draws of Korea is VERY positive. The few negative aspects she points out do not stand out at all, though I’m not surprised that some random Korean netizen picks up on them and the Korea Time publishes a story based on that person’s opinion/interpretation. Unreal….

….Anyway, the whole story is unsubstantiated as the book really doesn’t say much negative about Korea or Koreans.

On a positive note though, for its flaws Misuda is belatedly producing a male version. And Javabeans notes that foreign men are already becoming more prominent in the Korean media in recent months, increasingly portrayed positively and in romantic relationships with Korean women (see this movie also).

Update: And even the negative comments about Korea in Vera’s book may have been deliberately mistranslated and/or taken out of context. For more information, see doggyji and orosee’s comments on this forum thread.

3) Does Korea Need Cheaper Childcare?

Very much so, according to the The Chosun Ilbo (hat tip to WangKon936):

Last year 465,892 babies were born in Korea, 27,297 less than in 2007. As a result, the national fertility rate, which is the average number of babies that a woman gives birth to during her reproductive years between age 15 and 49, has declined from 1.25 children per woman to 1.19. Kim Hee-sun Marie ClaireAfter shooting up in 2006 and 2007 because of the belief that those were auspicious birth years, the rate has fallen again. Moreover, 10,000 fewer babies were born during the first five months of this year compared to the same period a year ago. This has prompted dire projections that Korea’s birth rate could fall to 1.12 this year….

….In order to boost the birth rate we need to create a social environment favorable to child birth and raising. Child-rearing costs must be lowered, while women should not be the only ones responsible for raising children. Corporate practices must also change so that women with babies are not discriminated against. But it will take quite some time and effort as well as a change in public thinking to create such an environment. The most practical measure at present is to provide reliable low-cost, high-quality childcare facilities for parents. In a 2005 report on Korea’s low birth rate, the OECD said that increasing childcare facilities alone could boost the rate by 0.4….(Source above: Naver).

And as someone who’s written about Korea’s exceptionally low birth rate and childcare issues for quite some time (see here, here, and here for some lengthy posts), then my instinctive reaction was to agree, but I have to admit that this response to it had some merit:

That’s a load of crap.

If child care was any cheaper in Korea, it would be free. Most daycare centres and kindergartens receive government subsidies, and for that reason, fees normally hover at around 200 000 won per month. Moreover, the government offers additional subsidies to families whose total income is less than about 3.6 million won per month, granting up to a 50% reduction in fees (so, about 100 000 won per month) and even offers additional subsidies to families that have more than one preschooler enrolled.

Sure, there are many daycare centers and kindergartens that charge more (one of the most popular gimmicks used to double and even triple fees being lessons in English), but they are not the norm.

Let’s be more specific. At the moment my wife and I send our 3 year-old daughter to a kindergarten (유치원) from 9:20 am to 4:40 pm Monday to Friday, and that costs us 420,000 won a month (340,000 if we only sent her until 2), which we consider a small price to pay for the sake of our sanity! Her kindergarten is unusual in that it accepts 3 year-olds instead of the standard 4 years, and also as a kindergarten it provides more of a structured educational program than a daycare center (어린이집), but unfortunately that means that we receive no subsidies from the government. If we sent her to the latter though, on my single income of, well…embarrassingly not much more than a 21 year-old new English teacher would make, then we’d only have to pay something like 50-60% of that. As far as my wife knows, there is actually no threshold on the percentage of subsidies that can be received on even lower incomes.

The Cultural Desert of Childcare(Source: Unknown)

I grant then, that costs are not the issue per se, at least to those on a double income and/or with much higher ones than mine. Recall that Korea has the lowest rate of working women in the OECD though, and that Korea has among the longest hours in the world spent at the workplace (note: not working, which is why Korea’s productivity per hour is only average), and I’d be surprised if there is childcare of any sort available at the late hours required. Or indeed if there ever will be, regardless of how many new facilities are created (albeit still urgently required), and so it behooves me to yet again point out that this aspect of Korea’s workplace culture, presenting a stark choice between motherhood and a career, arguably remains Korean society’s biggest stumbling block to raising its birth rate. In the meantime though, as the 2004 Social Policy and Administration article “A Confucian War over Childcare? Practice and Policy in Childcare and Their Implications for Understanding the Korean Gender Regime” makes clear, just actually enforcing the childcare and maternity legislation already in place would be an important first step:

We ask about the development of childcare policies in Korea and what these mean for our understanding of the gender assumptions of Korean governments. Women’s labour market participation has been increasing rapidly, with married women now much more likely to be in the labour market. The provision and regulation around support for women’s employment, and especially for mothers’ employment, is a key issue and problem for Korean women and for governments. A number of policies give the impression that the Korean government is moving rapidly towards a policy for reconciling work and family based on a dual-earner model of the family. But we argue that a close inspection of these policies suggests that the state is still playing a residual role, legislation is not effectively implemented, and government is giving way to the private sector and to the family in responsibility for childcare. Mothers’ accounts of their lives centre on a childcare war played out beneath the apparently harmonious Confucian surface, with resisting husbands supported by powerful mothers-in-law, and daily struggles over the management of services. The Korean government and its policy-makers, far from moving rapidly towards a dual-earner model of the family, are still rooted in Confucian ideals.

Unfortunately that is just the freely available abstract, as I’ve long since lost my electronic copy of the article (update: thanks to reader John Bush for passing this copy on). But I discuss it in detail here, and provide examples of the regular scandals of poor or even rotten food being provided to school students, and the fact that at the time of publication at least civil servants only had the resources to inspect facilities once a year, if at all, with the net result that finding a reliable facility among the insufficient number available plays no small part to play in Koreans’ decision to (not) have children. Things may well have changed in the 5 years since that article was written of course, but given that the Lee Myung-bak administration originally planned to abolish the then Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family (see here and here), only to retain it as the Ministry of Gender Equality (여성부) at the last moment, handing its family-related responsibilities to what became the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (보건복지가족부), then I highly doubt that there has been the political will to make the necessary changes.

Update: See this Korea Times article on for more recent information on Korea’s declining number of newborns.

Heroine(Source: Unknown)

On that note, apologies for the relative lack of subjects this week, less than I intended, but it’s been extremely difficult to write with both the heat and the 2 Energizer Bunnies masquerading as my daughters. And to be frank, the data-collecting for the Korean Gender Reader posts meant that writing them was becoming more of a tedious chore than something to look forward to – never good for the longevity of a blog and/or readers’ enjoyment of it – so from now on I’ll be sticking to the original format, which lets me both look at things in depth and have my own voice. I hope you enjoy the change!

25 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. I was also disturbed by the pelvic thrusting of preteens in bras and panties, grinding on the tiny cocks of old men… I’ve asked a number of Korean people about it and they just say it’s funny.

    Moreover, I wonder about sexuality and Korea… Or, specifically, sexuality and Korean entertainment. Is there anything to read into the girls thrusting their cunts in our faces? Having guys fawn over them on stage like Britney Spears… Is that liberating, suggestive… Or does it mean anything at all?

    I think we’re reading too much into this. Koreans are sexual people, like everyone else, although they’ll deny it. They fuck and fuck and that’s why there’s porn on TV and barber poles on the street.

    We read into their dress and dance routine that maybe there’s some element of feminism or liberation going on. Maybe it’s even repression. Maybe the women are saying something or maybe the men are making them do something.

    I think that’s all redundant.

    Look at Korean culture over the past few years… It’s one big mockery of American culture. They see something, misinterpret it, and recreate it in their own image. Half my kids think Korea invented rap, breakdancing and the clothes they call style, but which are global well out of date.

    (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not American, hate rap, have no interest in breakdancing, and also am well out of style – I’m not judging, just observing)

    Koreans are simply copying what they see in wealthier nations so that they can gain the same success. One day they’ll grab that inspiration, turn it and create something new and original. Until then, we’ll probably keep reading meaning into their meaningless pursuits.


  2. Maybe it’s just my experience, but most Korean exchange students I’ve worked with aren’t pretending to be cute or innocent, or necessarily repressing a desire to flaunt their sexuality. I would argue that “cute and innocent” look is actually arousing, a kind of “sexual grammar” that has a different ethos from the west.

    Keep in mind that I am an Asian male in America and I subjectively perceive the differences daily when I switch between watching Korean and American dramas on tv. I recall sitting in a high school class where the teacher asked the girls whether they liked shy boys? Only the Japanese girls who had spent time in Japan said yes. (And I think they were slightly embarassed for even having voice this kind of preference.)



    1. Oh, I quite agree that the cute and innocent look can be arousing, in an Asian version of the Catholic Schoolgirl sense, and certainly is part and parcel of an entirely different sexual grammar to the West, as you aptly put it.

      The point though, is that such a sexual grammar exists at all. Or rather, that it is overwhelmingly the cute and innocent form that women’s sexuality is presented in the Korean media, with what can often be quite vocal and vehement opposition to alternative, more assertive representations, the video by the Brown Eyed Girls being an exception that proves a rule (hence its inclusion here). In that sense, of course many of the Korean exchange students you’ve met aren’t merely pretending to be cute and innocent, nor are they necessarily repressing a desire to flaunt their sexuality (although I’d argue that a significant minority would consciously be). But it definitely is a social and cultural norm to do both, acculturated since childhood, so however unnatural and unlikely it is for people to admit that they do or don’t do something because of their background rather than their free will, it still has a big impact on their actions.


      1. “… in an Asian version of the Catholic Schoolgirl sense, and certainly is part and parcel of an entirely different sexual grammar to the West…”

        Thanks for the reply. Call me a cultural essentialist, but I think the “texture” of the Asian sense of cute and innocence is not like “Catholic Schoolgirl” per se, because there is a lack of guilt about having sex. I think showing sexiness and having it are two different things in this part of the world. I know it’s probably counter to what you’re saying in your articles, but I personally don’t think that females nor males exhibit any real guilt about sexual pleasure if they so pursue.


  3. For me, the issue with regards to the impact of the Brown Eyed Girls on attitudes towards sexuality are largely dependent on whether they were the driving force behind the dance and the video, or whether they were just doing what they were told.

    I know you’ve made this point before, but one of the biggest problems with the sexualisations of teenage singers is that they don’t fully understand what they’re doing or suggesting, and so people are able to get away with just saying it’s “cute,” and how could it possibly be sexual, they’re only young after all.

    In that case, if the BEGs knew exactly what their video was suggesting, and the attitudes and sexuality it portrays, then this must also be accepted in the thinking of people who see it. There’s no denying the sexuality of someone who’s intentionally displaying their sexuality to you. So I think that it’s not so much the video that will influence attitudes towards women displaying their sexuality, but hopefully that the women of BEGs will respond in public in a way that claims all aspects of the video as their own. That is powerful, and taking control of one’s own sexuality, and is so much better than young girls mimicking the dance moves of other women with no sense of the attitudes and intention behind them. Unfortunately, I have such a little interest in KPop I’ve never seen the BEGs interviewed about this video, or confronted with questions about its controversial nature. I would be very keen to see how they respond.

    As for the significance of parodies, I think it could go either way. It either means that the original message is striking a chord with the audience, and so people are trying to explore it further, or it means that the audience in general can’t cope with the original message in its original context, and so they have to warp it and turn it into something to laugh at as a way of avoiding dealing with it properly.


    1. All very good points, and I’d only quibble ever so slightly with the second, on people “getting away” with saying what teenage girls do is cute rather than sexual and so on, as the teenage girls (or younger) don’t realize understand what they’re doing or suggesting.

      Given my reputation for prudishness when it comes to discussions of Korean teenagers’ sexuality, I’d err towards most of them knowing fully well what they’re doing in this day and age (much less so of the potential consequences unfortunately), so my issue is more with the problems arising from many adult Koreans refusing to acknowledge that Korean teenagers do have and act upon their sexual urges (but your point is still valid for children and some teenagers of course). I agree completely though, that people do use such excuses to justify the increasing sexualization of Korean teens in the media (here’s a good, albeit brief article on the subject I’ve just found by Javabeans by the way)

      It would be very responsible of me to follow up on the questions about BEG and the video you asked…groan…so I’ll do my best, although my starting 40 hour weeks at work this week won’t help! I’ll start humbly then, with a translation of the song itself sometime this week, provided someone hasn’t already!


      1. Personally, I don’t really need you to translate the song if it’s only to answer the questions put in my comment. I will, however, search out some interviews myself at some point. I have to admit, though, that that comment I made was done quite late at night, and I was very tired, and I don’t think it makes much sense – I’m surprised you even managed to work out enough of what I was going on about to formulate a reply. Now it’s late and I’m tired again, but I’d like to sort of combine briefly what we both said, and come up with the statement that whether these girls/young women/children are or are not aware of what they’re doing, the degree to which it is accepted as sexualised or non-sexualised is not determined by the girls themselves, but rather by the people who produce the videos etc, and the adults who watch them and pass it off as merely “cute,” or who don’t really know what “sexy” means.


        1. Not at all, I was going to translate it just out of curiousity even before I wrote this post. Back when I didn’t really have a focus for the blog I used to give translations and grammar explanations of Korean songs quite often as it happens (see here and here for example), and with this particular one I have more than just Korean practice to motivate me now.

          And but for the 3-line paragraph I mentioned, I would have had no idea that you wrote your comment when you were tired. Wish my own made that much sense when I was!


  4. The only thing that is 100% true is that nothing in a korean pop video is ‘authentic or original’. Everything is a repetition of something or somebody else. We can’t agree if they are imitating an american stripper, or just imitating another Korean Pop group, but as over produced as these groups are, nothing can be an accident.
    -In other words, what ever it is they are doing, be it sex or soft-core, sells.


  5. Well, the old guys in government and the bureaucracy (and the populace as a whole) had better have some fairly radical changes to their attitudes on motherhood and women soon, or there won’t be many South Koreans in a matter of decades.


  6. According to my wife who loves to sift through Naver news stories, the Vera topic is giving way to more important discussion on how the mass media is taking one student’s comment on a blog and turning it into a “news story” – We obviously need to address and review journalistic standards.

    (Thanks for the links!)


    1. You’re welcome, and that’s the impression I’ve been getting too. I’m an atheist, but the phrase “God moves in mysterious ways” seems apt, yes?

      p.s. You meant Koreans by “we,” right?
      p.p.s. Anyone know a secular equivalent of that phrase?


      1. I meant “we the people who live in Korea, including Koreans.” My personal identity is all over the place with quasi-foundations in at least 3 countries, and possibly a 4th!


  7. Korean Rum Diary

    I was also disturbed by the pelvic thrusting of preteens in bras and panties, grinding on the tiny cocks of old men

    Jesus, if it weren’t for that I’d get NO satisfaction! ;-)

    I think the question of intent is in some ways secondary. Because a feedback loop develops in which the media content pushes ethos and as ethos changes it pushes media content. I’d say the development of MTV in the US and the pornification of culture are two examples of this outside of Korea, but that it is coming here. I’m trying to work out in my mind how this process is diverted or stopped, and all I can come up with is revolution (France) or dynasty fall (Rome). Then again I’m a big catastrophist. ;-)

    Chris’ point is one with whopping implications and I have my doubts that the current elder generation is ever going to get out of the paralogia that has led us here. I note, as James often does, that the generational changes in Korea have been vast and suspect that some accommodation will be made in the next 10-20 years. Otherwise this is going to turn into a very different country..

    LOL – which in itself would be nothing new..


  8. “All very good points, and I’d only quibble ever so slightly with the second, on people “getting away” with saying what teenage girls do is cute rather than sexual and so on, as the teenage girls (or younger) don’t realize understand what they’re doing or suggesting.”

    Is that true? Some of the middle school girls I taught several years ago seemed to have a keen awareness of their power of sexual attraction and a strong desire to use it to get a boyfriend.

    I’m wondering how the first photo showing two scantily-clad women prone with limbs extended expresses “assertive female sexuality”? Those poses look more like the usual passive plaything of men stuff.


    1. Is that true? Some of the middle school girls I taught several years ago seemed to have a keen awareness of their power of sexual attraction and a strong desire to use it to get a boyfriend.

      In the middle of preparing classes at the moment sorry, but just very quickly, I did say that in the very next paragraph!


      1. Oops, you did. Sorry I didn’t read the whole comment carefully. I have to leave for work in a few minutes. I see you also made the valid point that adults delude themselves into thinking teens and kids don’t know what they’re communicating.


        1. Thanks. And in hindsight, that was indeed a bad choice of opening image, which to be honest I chose as it was literally the only large, high quality screenshot of the music video I could find after an inordinate amount of time spent looking (I wonder if the difficulty is just a coincidence?).

          Mostly thanks to commentors such as yourself, I always try to bear in mind these days that more skin and sexually suggestive poses from women in the means by no means represents sexual liberation and assertiveness per se (which suddenly rings a bell about feminist critiques of Western advertising in the 1970s), and taken in isolation at least those submissive poses (albeit just a split second of the dance routine) definitely wouldn’t be, but the narrative of the video is very much of lead singer Son Ga-in initiating and taking control of sex (another reason for me to translate the lyrics soon!).

          On the other hand – although I don’t think you’d disagree with me here – passive sexual poses don’t indicate a lack of female sexual assertiveness per se. Even Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) acknowledged that the basic physiology of sexual intercourse requires men to be the more active partners, and so it’s not like woimen have to always ride and/or dominate their partner for them to be the aggressive initiators of having sex, and sexually assertive in general (although So Ga-in pretends to in the stage version of the video, like I noted). I acknowledge that passive sexual poses overwhelmingly dominate media images of women’s sexuality in Korea though, which is surely telling, and I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on what balance exists in the US.

          By the way, I wouldn’t recommend anyone reading Brownmiller’s book: admittedly it’s been 10 years since I read it, but I found it simply turgid and extremely repetitive, in particular never actually addressing the “all men are rapists” quote for which she became so famous.

          Come to think of it, what is it with 2nd-wave feminist classics? My wife still hasn’t forgiven me for giving her Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch for a birthday, which even I couldn’t get through more than about 10 pages of.


  9. I just watched that video link. More than the simulated sex acts, I’m deeply disturbed by the emasculating outfits of the young men. Their pale, hairless, exposed legs make them look prettier than the girls.


  10. Sadly, Roboseyo appears intent on griping about the BEG video on his blog . . . sad, since I’ve come to a) agree that the video actually does represent a change in image, and b) I’m cheered by the seeming interest in a song that does not make me want to stick sharp pointy things in my ears to end the pain. The more I watch the video, too, the more I’m struck by how agressive some of the dancing seems. While not being too removed from typical MV dancing here in Korea, there’s a somewhat stronger pattern of movement than what you see in, say, a 소녀시대 bit . . .


    1. Yes, he does seem to be being deliberately snotty about them (albeit probably just for fun), and you echo my own thoughts with your comments there. I’d only add that the Brown Eyed Girls themselves make an appearance towards the end of the Dirty Eyed Girls parody, so as people and celebrities at least they can’t be all that bad really!


  11. the gratuitous manic pelvic thrusting in the first (variety show?) vid – where they’re vibrating it at anyone in the line of sight, hosts, each other, etc – reminded me of Japan’s
    ‘Hard Gay’ (revs up around 1.00)…

    the comedian behind ‘Hard Gay’ knows the implications of his mad thrusting (uses it to poke fun at extant Japanese mores), but like you said, in the Korean example the kids don’t seem to realize its suggestive nature/subtext – they probably learnt it as a new dance move. hence the frantic-energizer-bunny quality to their thrusts. the result is more like an endurance competition than a seduction.


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