Sexually Harassing Girls’ Generation: The Manufacture of Outrage


“People in their 30s and 40s are emerging as the main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation specifically targets the men in that age group,” says Lee Soo-man (53), CEO and producer for SM Entertainment. (Chosun Ilbo, November 5 2008)

Words to bear in mind as you consider the storm in a teacup that preoccupied Korean entertainment news last week: Girls’ Generation were sexually harassed. Or were they?

In brief, the alleged sexual harassment comes in the form of the cartoon of them below, drawn by Yoon Seo-in (윤서인) and posted on his daily webtoon site Joyride (조이라이드) on the 2nd of January. Outraging fans and attracting a great deal of negative publicity, it was soon withdrawn, and an explanation of the cartoon posted in its place.

Threatened with (unspecified) legal action by SM Entertainment however, that was in turn replaced on the 18th with a much more detailed explanation and also apology for any misunderstandings caused (see both in Korean here). But this has not mollified SM Entertainment, who were expecting a direct apology to Girls’ Generation.

Unfortunately, this whole affair raises more questions than answers, which I’ll throw open to readers in a moment. But first, a quick look at Yoon’s background, as very few commentators on the cartoon wouldn’t have taken that into consideration. Indeed, it is difficult not to, some of the more notorious cartoons appearing on his usually sexually-themed site including: reacting to the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연) — to a large extent caused by having to prostitute herself to entertainment industry executives — by drawing old men in heaven grateful that a young woman with a good body has come to join them; equating fans of Japanese culture (chinilpa; 친일파) with collaborators during the Japanese colonial period; poking fun at feminists advocating children take a combination of both their father’s and mother’s surnames; implying that by being cute, wearing uniforms, and liking guns (note the innuendo), female police officers are all you need in a woman; and, last but not least, that people only care about the 3 pretty members of the 9 members of Girls’ Generation, and ignore the rest.

To play Devil’s advocate for a moment however, given that background then there is little evidence to suggest that he was deliberately courting controversy with this particular cartoon; or at least, no more so than with others. Moreover, there has been a great deal of confusion as to what its joke is exactly, caused by many websites (both English and Korean) unknowingly using a version of the cartoon which had the title and first section removed for some reason.

In that part, the title reads “Past Pictures of Girl’s Generation” [from before they were famous] and — like fans anywhere — in the first section the two characters have suddenly found them and are eager to look. Unlike the pictures of them from before they were famous as expected though, in the second part that you see all nine members doing the jangwon gupjae (장원급제), the old examinations to become a civil official in during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) instead.

This supports Yoon’s claim that the cartoon was intended to be a comment on the practice of “fishing” on popular websites, or giving links to pornography or various advertisements false titles in order to get people to click on them. And in fact, a Korean friend of mine complained of that very thing on, the day before we tried and failed to understand a version of this cartoon without the first part, so I was easily persuaded when she came back with the full cartoon and explanation the next day.

Presumably, that surprise is one element to the humor, as is that fact that the word gwageoh (과거) or “past” in the title also means jangwon gupjae, making a pun. Also, considering how members of Girl’s Generation are invariably dressed in order to appeal to their fan base, then arguably a third element is that if the group had existed 100 years ago, that is indeed how they would have dressed. Fans have been incensed by their outfits, sexual poses(?), and Im Yun-ah’s (임윤아) lewd expression though, and especially by them pounding ricecakes in the final picture, well-known slang for having sex.

Which brings me to my first question: does this qualify as songheerong (성희롱), or sexual harassment?

Actually that may be a moot point, as despite numerous claims by both Korean and English sources that SM Entertainment is threatening to sue Yoon on that basis, I’ve yet to see that specific charge mentioned by any Korean news source. Which raises the additional question of whether the concept of sexual harassment is different in Korea, but I’ve yet to see any evidence for that either, these recent cases for instance very much sexual harassment by anyone’s definition (see here also).

(Source: Unknown)

Regardless, upon first coming across the cartoon at Seoulbeats, I quickly agreed with Vixenvarla’s argument that:

…based on the entire concept and marketing of Girl’s Generation, I don’t feel that this qualifies as sexual harassment. Everything involving this idol group revolves around images of extreme innocence (with sexual innuendos) or extreme sexuality. If we had never seen Girls’ Generation in these types of barely-there outfits or sexually suggestive poses, then the accusations of sexual harassment might work. But, like many other K-pop girl groups, Girls’ Generation was created to be “ogled” over by their target audience- male fans. How can you be angry at the cartoonist for drawing the women in the way they are constantly presented to him?

And I was content to leave it at that. But then I remembered that last year, I paid little attention to the claim that the new term kkulbeokji (꿀벅지) or “honey thighs” was sexist, only to have my opinion changed by this post of Matt’s at Gusts of Popular Feeling, who hadn’t dismissed it as readily as I (mentally) had. Lest I miss something like that again, I decided to give the cartoon a second look. While I’m still intrigued as to what exactly SM Entertainment may ultimately file a lawsuit against Yoon for though, and will keep you informed of developments, I’m afraid I still can’t see the sexual harassment. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to have it pointed out by readers more knowledgeable than I.

(Source: Unknown)

But perhaps a more important question is to what extent cartoonists here have the same rights to lampoon public figures as they do in Western countries? Again, I am on unfamiliar territory, and would be interested in hearing people’s opinions. But I am aware, at least, of how different libel laws are here, as revealed by this famous case among long-term expats. And for those of you interested in something a little more academic, consider Kyu Youm’s 2009 paper “Defining Freedom of the Press and Libel Law: Korea’s Sociopolitical and Legal Experience” which I’ll be poring over this week, and more than happy to discuss!

26 thoughts on “Sexually Harassing Girls’ Generation: The Manufacture of Outrage

    1. Oh, don’t worry: Lee Soo-man doesn’t say how Girls’ Generation targets middle-aged men, so the possibility remains open that they are simply made to appear innocent and pure, all the better to appeal to men’s parternal instincts…

  1. Korea also has ridiculous laws for internet censorship. I believe I am still correct in saying (although I will check and get back to you) that the only countries in the world that have real-name registration laws are South Korea and China. On top of that, I’m fairly sure it’s still the case that something posted on the internet only needs to be officially complained about once and there’s a government body that can order it to be removed at the very least until it’s proven that it contains nothing illegal. That means if somebody complained about the post you’ve just written here or the comment I’m writing, that would be enough for the South Korean government to censor it, regardless of content, at least until it was proved that it contained nothing illegal.

    The Lee Myung-bak regime has increased censorship of all types, especially internet censorship, and so I think essentially they’ve now created ways to get away with removing anything from the internet. If they took a particular disliking to that cartoonist, he could become the next Minerva. shocking, I think, especially in a country whose constitution protects freedom of speech – although evidently in certain situations only.

    In answer to your final question, then, in South Korea on the internet at least, nobody has the same rights as in countries that might be called “western” to “lampoon public figures,” as long as the wrong (right?) people take offense to it. And also, something which I think many expats slightly misunderstand, is that although the word libel might be the one that makes it into the English language news, there’s actually a whole list of violations you can be pulled up for on the internet. A quick example, if you were to be very critical of a politician, or encourage people to vote for a particular one outside of election time, I believe that can be illegal (I have to double check that as well, although the law I’m referring to is actually a relation of the one used in the attempted impeachment of Roh Moo-hyun – evidently a favourite little trick law of the GNP).

    1. I can’t remember the details either, but yeah, I think you’re quite right about the guilty-and-unviewable-until-proven-innocent de facto censorship also. I think it applies to websites with a daily visitor count above some absurdly low number, and that Korean portal sites were up in arms about it when it came in perhaps last year (or the year before?).

      I’m only just scratching the surface of the libel laws here, so thanks for the suggestions. One thing you might be interested in in turn – although I’m sure you’re already aware of it – is how eager the Lee Myung-bak government is to turn usually completely unrelated events into a narrative of out-of-control netizens needing real name registration and so on in order to be reigned in. I confess, I didn’t really it recognize as such until I read this comment of Gord Sellar’s about the death of Kim Daul.

  2. Many people don’t like Yoon because he is TOO Korean. It is almost like looking at oneself in the mirror, I guess. He is kind of an average, not-particularly-bright, typically unrelfective and un-pc run of the mill post-386 Ajosshi with an almost-pretty wife and rather unimpressive educational background. And he produces one cartoon a day all by himself.

    In the hypothetical collective mind of the Koreans someone like him should stay in the background, I imagine. (Web cartoon is now a big thing in Korea. Turned very political in the last few years, too.) That he’s done idiotic things in the past, such as advocating himself online with a fake handle name AND getting caught in the process (again, very average sort of thing), didn’t help, either. Desipite this conspicuous mediocrity, Yoon has a definite passive-aggressive streak that tends to infuriate many, especially those with left-leaning sentiments. (The most notorious incident is with his former cartoonist colleague ONE SOUND.) Sometimes he seems almost perplexed.

    Nowadays he is busy asking various blog administrators to ‘censor’ his bad-mouthed anti-fans—-and succeeding partially, producing more anti-fans in the process. I guess he needed to blow off some steam after the SNSD incident, in which he was forced to apologize twice. ;-)

    I don’t think the cartoon in question can exactly be construed as sexual harassment either, at least legally, but that rice cake pun is done so tastelessly as to make no difference in my opinion. The guy is criminally unimaginative! (His cartoon style is pretty cute, though. Cognitive dissonance?)

    1. Thanks for the info, and especially the interesting perspective: I could’ve have guessed a lot about him just from looking at a few of his cartoons, but not that.

      Personally I don’t mind the rice cakes per se, but I do think that they detract from the joke about how a Joseon Dynasty era Girls’ Generation would have been depicted doing the 장원급제, which was actually rather good. Beating the rice cakes though, really is a lot blunter than the way in which Girls’ Generation is marketed, so it can’t really be described as satire.

  3. Can I avoid all sociological commentary and just say how amused I am that the “civil exam” answers are “gee gee gee gee” in the cartoon? Awesome.

      1. Yeah, me too. Of those people who didn’t see the first part though, you simply wouldn’t believe all the virtual ink spilled on whether they’re supposed to be Girls’ Generation or not…as if one them writing “gee gee gee” on the exam was supposed to mean anything different!

  4. Actually, there was an interview somewhere (I’ve forgotten where to find it unfortunately) in which Lee Soo Man himself admitted that Girls’ Generation was targeted for middle-aged men. Just saying.

    I can find no indications of sexual harassment in this. What interests me is that SM Entertainment resolved to take this to court readily, while disregarding the lawsuits that their other artists have filed against them. You’d think they would be concentrating on trying to keep their other artists from leaving instead of “protecting the reputation of Girls’ Generation”

    From this cartoon, I don’t see what there is to protect. I don’t blame the cartoonist for portraying them in this way from how they are being marketed either. So…. charges, shmarges….

    1. Actually I link and quote that interview at the very start of the post, but that’s cool. I’m interested in finding out more about those other lawsuits that other artists have filed against them though: can you think of any specific examples? Thanks in advance!

  5. I think that a member of Super Junior (SM Ent.’s other big cash cow) has also filed some kind of suit against SM Ent. I’m not completely sure, though.

    1. Yeah, the chinese member Hangeng, who happens to be the leader of the chinese market sub-group, Super Junior M. He claims that for the past few years he has been denied a proper vacation. As well as some time off due to health issues with his kidney or something…

      1. He should know by now that he only gets time off if he collapses (usually due to over work or a health issue created by such) and is rushed to hospital! No time for unnecessary things like holidays, one’s health, or doing anything but performing and rehearsing. The big companies want to squeeze as much out of them as they can after all…

  6. 와~ 댓글 다 달아주시는 구나 >ㅁ<
    한국가수 그룹들 좋아하시나요???
    Q.umm… America…is..Girl's generation…popularity..About how much?
    <<서툴지만…제 열어실력 한계입니다ㅜㅜ

    1. About what exactly? About whether it’s sexual harassment or not? If so, then yeah, I guess I do still think it isn’t, as like Vixenvarla points out it hardly depicts Girls’ Generation in a manner that they aren’t/weren’t already depicted on a regular basis by SM Entertainment. That said, I’m no fan of Yoon Seo-in’s, as it’s tasteless, not funny, and doesn’t really make any sense either!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s