Open Thread #7: Candy to my Ears

(Source: Nbbang)

Sorry, but it had to happen eventually: I’ve fallen in love with K-pop.

Well, with 3 more remixes from Greek trance DJ Areia to be precise. With apologies for dispensing with my normal analysis of the songs on this occasion, but I can’t remember the last time that I liked new music so much that I’ve lost sleep listening to it over the next few days.

Seriously, this music makes me feel like a smitten teenager, and hopefully it will some of you too.

The first track is My Ear’s Candy by Baek Ji-young, from her mini-album EGO that came out in August last year (the MV also features Ok Taec-yeon of 2PM). Curious about her music after recently writing about her soju ad, this is the gateway video got me hooked:

But not so much because of the cinematography and costumes, although I confess I have always loved that look with the white wig. More because Baek Ji-young looks like she’s genuinely enjoying herself, which makes a refreshing change from the forced smiles of Girls’ Generation in Oh! for instance, or alternatively the seeming disdain for the viewer that U.S./Barbadian singer Rihanna displays in Shut Up and Drive that SM Entertainment has been accused of plagiarizing.

Granted, Rihanna’s persona is appropriate for the title of the song, and I’m not so naive as to not be aware that Baek Ji-young’s may be just as carefully choreographed for this one also. But still, she does look like someone great to go clubbing with ;)

As for the remix, arguably it is very similar to the original (as is the next song too), so you may well be wondering what the point is. But there are differences, and which, as all trance aficionados are well aware, unfortunately you’re likely to be completely missing if you’re listening via your tinny computer speakers. Please try headphones instead, and you may be pleasantly surprised!

Next is Like the First Time,  by T-ara (say “tiara”). Put off by their simply atrocious Bo Peep Bo Peep (보핍보핍) last year though, and which even Areia’s remix could not save, then I’d never have suspected that this one would become my new favorite:

As happens to many viewers of K-pop these days, you might be very surprised to learn that one member of the group, Park Ji-yeon, is still only 16 (as is one girl in the next video too, but she looks her age). But that’s a long discussion I already had earlier this month; instead, consider this assessment of the of the the dancing and clothing in the video by Areia himself, as it partially inspired the topic of one of next week’s posts, and I’m very curious to hear your own opinions of it before I start writing:

The girls are supercute throughout the video and I find them very sexy at the scenes with the black dresses. The way they slowly move to the melody just kills my heartbeat every single time. To the untrained western eyes the video might just seem a bit cute or even silly. “It’s just some girls with short black dresses trying to look good, so what?” my overexposed-to-western-sexiness friends back home would say. But there is a huge difference here and this difference is very representative of the gap between the eastern and western stereotypes. It’s not okay to express too directly in Korea and that leaves you with only one acceptable weapon to tease your target: charm. And this is exactly what these girls are doing with their moves in this video – I’m not referring to the cute scenes. Whoever did the choreography and the dresses knew very well what they were doing. And the girls of course have done an excellent job at being charming. When I watch some sexy western video clip (let’s say Buttons from Pussycat Dolls) it hits my eyes. But this charm here hits me straight in my heart – I feel like wanting to hug the girls not…. Perhaps that’s the reason I’m into Asian pop in the first place.

Finally, here is Please Don’t Go by CL and Minzy (the 16 year-old) of 2NE1 (투애니원; say “to anyone” or, confusedly, “21”). No music video being made, then this one of a performance of theirs is unremarkable, but this remix at least is virtually unrecognizable from the original song, and in my opinion a vast improvement:

Update: For reasons explained here, unfortunately Areia had to delete that video, but the MP3 is still available for download.

Click on the titles of all the remixes for links to where you can download MP3s of them, and detailed explanations of what when into making them. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, but if not then thank you for bearing with me, and please remember that this is still *cough* an open thread, where you can raise anything on your mind.

Speaking of which, as of yesterday I am now officially in the job market again, and so would very much appreciate any readers help in getting jobs teaching adults in either Busan or Seoul, or of course anything not involving teaching at all. Unfortunately with having a family to support then I’ll need at least 3 million won a month before moving to Seoul especially, but hopefully that won’t prove too difficult?

Wish me luck!

Korean Sociological Image #33: Take the Wondergirls, Lolita Sexy Style!

Source: Wgby

Well, that is literally what it says:

원더걸스를 가져라! 그녀들의 스타일! 그녀를의 매렬에 끌린다면…소녀의 감성과 성숙함이 공존하는 앙비귀때(Ambiguite) 섹시함을 입어라

Take the Wondergirls [with you]! Their style! If you are attracted to their charm…wear Ambiguity’s sexiness, which has both girls’ sense and maturity.

But lest I give the wrong impression, it’s just the name of one line of JYP Entertainment’s new Wondergirls-themed cosmetics brand. And given the essential randomness of the names of the others too, and the fact that English terms routinely get incororated into Korean almost completely devoid of their original meaning, then I doubt that much thought went into it. Certainly it’s difficult to argue for nefarious intent in this case at least.

Still, it’s inappropriate.

Debuting in early-2007 when 3 of the 5 members were only 14 years old, the Wondergirls have been routinely described as Lolitas by the Korean media ever since; as were Girls’ Generation, and presumably as all the teen members of the new girl groups following them will be too. Using that term while simultaneously denying the sexual connotations to it however, is an oxymoron, and part and parcel of the Korean public’s wider refusal to acknowledge the sexual ways in which they’re marketed.

Hence the name is problematic. But granted: this is a tired theme, so for a change, it was very encouraging to see music columnist Kim Bong-hyeon (김병현) challenging that myopia earlier this month. And now I’ve also learned of a famous essayist and surgeon named Park Kyung-chul (박경철) too, who asked probing questions to Girls’ Generation members themselves in an interview nearly 2 years ago. Thanks very much to “A Korean Student” for passing on a partial translation, which I’ve posted with their commentary below:

Source: AsianPopcorn

…[In an interview] ironically subtitled: THEY ALWAYS ASK IF WE REHEARSED OUR ANSWERS. WHY CAN’T YOU BELIEVE OUR WORDS?, Park deliberately asks “difficult” questions and gets guarded and somewhat obtuse/hostile answers in return. Park is an ajusshi but definitely not a fan of entertainment industry, and there was also a chaperon/manager present. Here’s a translated excerpt:

QUESTION: Let me ask you some questions that might be uncomfortable. Do you think the word ‘Girls’ Generation’ is really innocent as it sounds? Don’t you think there’s a disguised sexy code [sic] behind the mask of innocence?

ANSWER: Anyhow we are not the ones who created that code. We know there are people who see it that way. It hurts to read ogling comments about us on the internet sometimes. But presenting the innocent girls’ image as it is—that is what has made us [successful.] We’ve shown you an image of girls who are growing up, and we will continue to do so in the future. Of course when we get older, it will be different. But that time hasn’t come yet. If they choose to see us like that, that is not really our problem. Why do you/they want to do it anyway? We are still kids. Don’t you think the real problem lies not in the way we show ourselves as we are, but in the fact that you/they compulsively see what us kids don’t actually possess?

Source: Unknown

And here Park thinks to himself:

But the girls’ rather uniform make-up style, obvious traces (to my trained surgeon’s eyes, that is) of cosmetic surgeries, their miniskirts, and the way they sit and dress—-all this “processed” feel leads me to think of the unknowingly worn facade of ‘ladies,’ not ‘girls.’

Whew. Talking about double entendres. Frankly, the girls react like hard-bitten soldiers who live in barracks. (Like most teenage idol groups, they’ve actually lived together in a dorm-apartment for many years.) Park even likens them to slippery politicians. So I guess you can throw away the notion of naivete, at least in GG’s case. I’d say they are fully aware, perhaps more so than the others, of the contexts surrounding them. Not sure about the interviewer though. The guy’s kind of ambivalent, though not as unreflective as the music columnist.

Imagine that, next we’ll be hearing that they eat and fart too!

You are not too far off the mark, but probably not in the way you mean. LoL (end)

James: Thanks again for the translation, and very much a healthy reminder to myself of how much I may have missed before I started regularly using Korean-language sources on this blog!^^

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements

It’s not often that I laugh at soju advertisements.

Flying in the face of decades-old traditions that they should feature demure and virginal-looking women though, this one with singer Baek Ji-young (백지영) for Yipsejoo (잎새주) literally had me in tears.

Indeed, if it’s not a deliberate satire, then it at least prompted me to reexamine those traditions, making me realize just how ridiculous many are. And being exclusively designed for a “male gaze” too, they also prove to be a very good guide to it, giving pointers to the ways in which a wide range of advertisements seem to be based on the assumption that their audience are entirely heterosexual men, especially by focusing on and sexualizing women’s bodies.

Even when the products are aimed at women.

But first, the humor of this one, which is on several levels. First there is the caption, which reads “In autumn, rather than your lips (kiss), please give me some strong-tasting Yipsejoo!,” (가을, 입술보다 진한 잎술주세요!), and is a pun based on the fact that yibsool (입술), or lips, sounds very similar to yipsool (잎술), shorthand for Yipsejoo.

And as an added inside-joke for fans, a popular song on Baek Ji-young’s 7th album Sensibility, released five months before she was hired by Yipsejoo’s parent company Bohae (보해양조), even had the name Give Me Your Lips (입술을 주고) too.

But context is everything.

Previously on a fast track to stardom, Baek Ji-young was the innocent victim of a sex-scandal in 2000, and had to fight hard against Korea’s double-standards in order to revive her career. But while this severely limited her advertising options, perhaps one silver lining was the ability to disregard the high moral standards Koreans usually apply to their celebrities (especially women), and indeed it is very difficult to imagine anyone else appearing in advertisements like those she has so far for Yipsejoo.

For instance, recall that when she was chosen in an online poll to model for Yipsejoo in March last year, I remarked that her first advertisement for the company below was:

…not to put too fine a point on it, literally the sluttiest soju ad I’ve ever seen….

With apologies for sounding crass (then), but I still can’t think of a better way to describe it:

I also discussed the fact that while she did mention how happy she was to have been chosen to appear in soju advertisements like top stars Lee Hyori and Song Hye-gyo, one still sensed that they wouldn’t have consented to appearing bra-less and with an open zipper in them, which smacked of desperation. Judging by the soju advertisements that emerged that summer however, I was quite wrong, but then I’d already concluded of Beak Ji-young that:

however unfair or unwarranted, she’ll always be stuck with her promiscuous image, so she may as well play into it.

Still, I didn’t realize that she would take my advice quite so literally!

To be precise, I laughed so hard when I saw the opening image because I thought she looked like a prostitute who’d been plying her trade for rather too long now, and which were quite a contrast to, say, these earlier ones for Yipsejoo featuring Jeong Ryeo-won (정려원), for whom her evening of drinking soju with her male partner will be her first time in more ways than one:

But this post is not about that shift, which I’ve more than adequately covered elsewhere, although I do want to stress 2 things about it here before moving on: that however impressed I was by the changes when I first noticed them back in 2007, it was still extremely naive of me to have ever equated it with (female) sexual liberation(!); and that while an empirical study would undoubtedly demonstrate an increase in soju advertisements with – in the sociological framework that I’ll be using below – “body display” – in recent years, there is by no means an linear progression of racier advertisements over time.

Even just Yipseejo itself for instance, makes both forms of advertisements with the same models, and/or seems to alternate which ones it primarily makes with them, such as traditional, virginal ones with Jeong Ryeo-won and Han Ji-min (한지민) in 2006 and 2008 respectively, but then racier ones with Kim Ok-bin in 2007 and Baek Ji-young in 2009.

Regardless, both types are still designed for the male gaze. In the interests of full disclosure however, I have never studied that formally, and so here I shall be quoting liberally from the excellent A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose, part of the Semiotics and Advertising Web Site of the University of Vermont, and I also highly recommend this post by Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician after that for an analysis of Korean women’s body images using that perspective.

But it does dovetail nicely with the work done by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising (and indeed referred to repeatedly in A Web Essay). In earlier posts, I’ve already analyzed Korean advertisements using one motif of that: “Relative Size”, or how and why it is extremely rare to see women taller than men in advertisements despite being women being taller than men in 1 out of 6 randomly matched pairs. It’s high time to start using others, beginning with “Ritualization of Subordination”:

Under this broad category, Goffman actually described a great number of symbolic ways in which the women’s behavior in advertisements displays the subordination of females to males, many of which involve women acting like children. Why this is more problematic than it may sound is because:

Given the subordinated and indulged position of children in regard to adults, it would appear that to present oneself in puckish styling is to encourage the corresponding treatment. How much of this guise is found in real life is an open question; but found it is in advertisements. (Goffman, p. 48)

And indeed Korean society strongly encourages grown women to act like children, so it is probably not surprising to hear that in Korean adolescent girl’s magazines for instance, Korean female models are portrayed in such ways much more often than Western ones. From Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines by Nam, Kyoungtae., Lee, Guiohk. and Hwang, Jang-Sun (2007):

Korean women were more likely to be portrayed in smiling, pouting and childlike or cute expressions than Western women. This result is similar to the findings of [this 1999 study] in which many Japanese girls in magazine advertising were portrayed as happy, playful and childlike. Understanding that gender displays in advertising reflect cultural orientation in a society, these findings indicate that in Korea and Japan, cuteness is an important virtue for women. (p. 18)

And yet to complain about those advertisements with Yoo In-young (유인영) and Shin Min-a (신민아) above, especially when they’re aimed at men, might still seem a little excessive. But then consider the following images from A Web Essay, which poses the questions “What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

“What about these images?”

And as you probably expected:

Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?

Not childlike per se, but as the next part points out, such expressions are often done with a head cant, for instance by Chae Yeon (채연) and Han Hyo-Joo (한효주) below:

The effect of the head cant is to lower the level of the head:

“…relative to that of others, including, indirectly, the viewer of the picture. The resulting configuration can be read as an acceptance of subordination, and expression of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement.” (Goffman, p. 46)

And A Web Essay adds that it is often combined with putting a finger in the mouth or otherwise touching the face in a childlike way, and so common in advertising as to be barely noticed:

The difference between those and the soju advertisements however, is that they’re all from women’s magazines and presumably aimed at women, and so what is actually going on in those is:

…not that the viewer is looking at a woman who is actually subordinate or childish. Rather, the models are posed so as to show that they know that they are being looked at — belying the otherwise childlike pose — and they are controlling or mastering this act of being looked at. The childish, submissive postures are represented as strategic, as a sign of control of the gaze.

This mastery and control over the gaze might explain why the highly accomplished and wealthy women you see above would strike submissive, deferential poses for the camera that no accomplished man would strike. For in so doing:

…[they are] not at all signaling to others that [they are] actually subordinate; on the contrary, [they are] showing that [they], too, can be successful in this arena, the arena where the goal is to attract and control the power of the gaze by striking a subordinate pose. And were this an occasional event, if we regularly saw images of women that were of a different sort, the effect might be innocuous.

The problem is, however, that most women make less money and have less power than most men, and the message that goes out to women without power is that to get some, you need to gain control of a male view of women — which means to get power through male power, rather than on your own.

This is where the theory of the male gaze becomes important…

A Web Essay also briefly mentions women’s typical advertising poses in much the same vein. But I think that that’s a little misguided, as a distinction needs to be made between those that are sexually appealing to heterosexual men and others, the basic physiology of sexual reproduction ensuring that men will almost always look ridiculous in the former. Hilariously demonstrated by these pictures from English Russia for instance:

See Sociological Images for a wider discussion of those. Of course, by no means are women (or men) always placed in sexually appealing poses in advertisements, but for some reason women in particular frequently are placed in completely bizarre, often comical ones instead. Goffman notes of them that:

The note of unseriousness struck by a childlike guise is struck by another styling of the self, this one perhaps entirely restricted to advertisements, namely, the use of the entire body as a playful gesticulative device, a sort of body clowning. (Goffman p. 50)

With the possible exception of that with Kim Ok-bin, admittedly these following examples from soju advertisements can not really be described as “childlike.” But however natural they may appear though (again because of our frequent exposure to them), in fact some are extremely awkward to perform: just try them and see!

Starting with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) and Song Hye-gyo (송혜교):

Then Chae Yeon and Kim Ok-bin:

And finally Shin Min-a and Lee Hyori (이효리):

Those with Chae Yeon, Kim Ok-bin, and particularly Shin Min-a also display the “bashful knee bend,” which women frequently but men only infrequently are posed in a display of. Whatever else, it:

…can be read as a forgoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. (Goffman, p. 45)

But I’ll wisely move on to the second and last motif for this post, that of “Licensed Withdrawal.” In the words of Images of Women in Advertising:


[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others.  This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state;  they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire.  Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation.  They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

But I’d never given it much thought until I saw this composite of four soju advertisements with Jang Yun-jeong (장윤정), which I also laughed out loud at. What on Earth is she looking at?

More examples with Kim Tae-hee (김태희), and Ku Hye-sun (구혜선):

And to which can be added Han Hyo-joo’s from earlier. Arguably Ku Hye-sun is merely lost in her enjoyment of her drink though, and in that sense the advertisement could even be used to appeal to women(?). But then with the possible exception of the second one of Baek Ji-young’s, no advertisement featured here is particularly objectionable in itself; rather, this post has been about noting recurring features of soju advertisements that – if I may be so presumptuous – now that you’re more aware of, are likely to see across the entire Korean (and Western) media.

It is the pervasiveness of these features that is objectionable, and so rarely countered by alternative images of women.

But on that note, I should point out that I notice and pay attention to soju advertisements with skin just as much as the next guy; actually probably more so (call it an occupational hazard). Still, based on the opinions of the men and women in my classes at least, this one with Song Hye-gyo has the greatest universal appeal, although that is probably simply because of her attractiveness:

And after writing this post, in fact this one with Kim Yoon-ah (김윤아; not the skater) of the rock band Jaurim (자우림) is my favorite: it’s the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man. Baek Ji-young’s does come close of course, but then it’s even more unflattering, and all she is doing is drinking!

Finally, while it’s technically out of place, I would be remiss in not providing the one which, well, literally had my female students squealing in delight when they saw it. Featuring Kang Dong-won (강동원) for Bom Bom (봄봄; “Spring Spring”), that will be music to the ears of manufacturer Daesun (대선주조), creators of one of the first ever soju brands aimed at women:

See here for more information on the consequences of that for soju advertisements so far; given all the above, it is perhaps no surprise that most soju advertisers still can’t restrain themselves from using womens’ bodies!

(Soju advertisement sources:, or directly from manufacturers’ websites)

Ajosshis & Girls’ Generation: The Panic Interface of Korean Sexuality

Girls' Generation's Ajosshi Fans…Gender matters in the ways that it shapes social interaction. Identities, of course, are products of and sustained through interactions with others. Social interaction thus is an important setting in which gender emerges and is enacted. As Ridgeway (p. 219) observes: “It is striking that people are nearly incapable of interacting with one another when they cannot guess the other’s sex.” That the identification of someone as male or female facilitates social interaction testifies to this category’s power in social life. (Amy Wharton, The Sociology of Gender {2005}, p.10)

And throw in my age, ethnicity, and language difficulties into the mix too, then you’d think that discussing gender issues and sexuality with Korean women would be quite a trying experience sometimes (source, above).

Ironically though, I usually find them to be better informed and more willing to talk about them than men.

One reason might be because women the world over tend to be better language learners, and as my Korean speaking ability is much worse than my reading ability, then my conversations with Koreans on abstract subjects are confined to those with relatively good English.

But that doesn’t explain the relative disinterest of Korean men at the same level,¹ and so more much likely is that whatever their degree of interest originally, sooner or later all women are invariably forced to deal with at least the consequences of Korea’s systematic sexual discrimination, perhaps the first time being when they’re deliberately shunted into non-advancing career tracks as they enter the workforce, under the assumption that they’ll no longer work (or be fired) upon marriage or childbirth.

In contrast, such things usually impact men at a much later stage in their life cycles, if at all. Perhaps when trying to decide with his wife if they can afford to have a second child for instance, and/or if it’s worth her returning to work when she will likely only bring home 41% of the wages he does, the highest gender wage gap in the OECD. Indeed, if my wife — a 31 year-old mother of two — wasn’t lucky enough to be able to work from home as a recruiter, then we’re not entirely sure what she could do, and even that is hardly an advancing career.

That is not to say that Koreans are only ever interested in issues that directly concern them of course, or that there aren’t parallels in other countries. But there are still yet more factors working against Korean men being interested in gender issues. Most notably the profoundly patriarchal ideology of Neo-Confucianism that is all-pervasive here,² buttressed by the the socialization experience undergone during their mandatory military service.

(Source: unknown)

Admittedly these are generalizations, and to an extent they become self-fulfilling: as I’ve gotten older, I find it more and more difficult to find the effort to befriend Korean men, so different do I expect our work-family priorities and opinions on gender issues to be. This inhibits me from raising such issues in free-talking sessions with advanced students also, although in that case it’s more because I respect that their purpose in attending my classes is not for me to lecture to or argue with them.

But surely there must be some feminist Korean men out there? If you are one, or know of one, then by all means let me know! But unfortunately the differences are real, and a good illustration of the difficulties in finding common ground on gender and sexuality issues are our opinions on — you guessed it — teenage girl groups like Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) and the Wondergirls (원더걸스).

Why the focus on them specifically? It’s a reasonable question, as they’re not the first young girls groups in Korea. What distinguishes them though, is that they are the first groups explicitly created to appeal to men 20 years their senior, and as such they are very much at the forefront of the increasing sexualization of young girls in the Korean media in recent years, setting the tone for the wave of 15, 16 and 17 year-olds following them.

Where I and most 30 and 40-something Korean men — ajosshis — differ on them is that I don’t buy into the collective narrative that we all like these girl groups because we have a brotherly, paternal, or avuncular affection for their members. Instead, while I can’t imagine having any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with them in reality, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to bang them whenever I see them on stage…and so would those ajosshis. Try to get one to admit that though, even one you know well and in a bar just with other men like themselves, and you’ll soon realize that not for nothing do I use the term “panic” in the title of this post.


I also use “interface,” because acknowledging things like why 15 year-old f(x) band member Sulli’s (최설리) shorts are so high above, for instance, or why she is pulling her dress up in the other pictures in that photoshoot, are very literally where commercialized teenage sexuality and conservative Korean social mores meet. And I seriously doubt that pressing issues of teenage prostitution and abysmal sex education can even begin to be rectified while the collective Korean establishment — read: ajosshis — can’t admit to something so blatantly obvious.

But this is on old, tired theme for regular readers, and not what this post is about. Rather, I’m belatedly concerned with the question of why it is the case.

One possible reason is Occidentalism, for as blogger Michael Hurt argues, this platonic rationalization:

…parallels the notion in idea that in Korea, people are all good, clean Confucians who don’t do dirty things (but just save it for the love motels and leave that “skeleton bone” there – hehe, yes, I meant for a double entendre to be read there!), while Americans apparently hump everybody, according to everybody not American.

And recall that Occidentalism doesn’t actually need a physical Occidental in the room in order to be operating: indeed, it’s better that there isn’t, for greater distance gives greater leeway to imagine an “other” with which to advance a domestic agenda. And that proves to be the crucial point here, for as the following translation of a Korean music columnist’s thoughts reveals, all of this is by no means merely a face-saving device employed to obscure unsavory aspects of Korean society from inquisitive foreigners.

I warn you: the translation is rather long, a little melodramatic in places (less so in the original Korean, my wife assures me), and doesn’t actually offer an answer as to why. But still, I’m glad to have made a start by removing the “wild card” of the foreign observer from the equation:

(Zhang Wei, 2006?)

“‘섹 시한소녀시대 좋아하는 죄 인가요?” (or 대한민국평균아저씨소길동 고백)

Is it a Sin to Like Girls’ Generation Because They’re Sexy? (or The Confession of an Average Korean Man)

Kim Bong-hyeon, 4th February 2010

이제 고등학교에 입학하는 조카가 있다. 조카는 ‘소녀시대’의 팬이다. 당연히 이번 달 단독 콘서트 예매도 이미 끝냈다. 조카는 특히 서현을 좋아한다. 한정판 소녀시대 카드 중에서 다른 멤버들 것은 줘도 서현의 것은 끝내 안 준다. 소신이 뚜렷한 녀석이다. 크게 될 놈이다.

내가 글쟁이인 것을 아는 조카는 며칠 전 이번 새 앨범 음악이 어떠냐고 물어왔다. 해줄 말 중에는 좋은 것도, 나쁜 것도 있었다. 어차피 나쁜 말하면 귀담아 듣지 않을 테니 대충 좋은 말만 하고 넘어갔다. 실은 내가 오히려 묻고 싶은 게 하나 있었다. 하지만 묻지 않았다. 이것이었다.

“네가 진짜로 소녀시대를 좋아하는 이유가 뭐야?”

At the moment, I have a nephew entering high school. He’s a fan of Girls’ Generation. Of course, he has already reserved a ticket for their concert this month. His favorite member is Seo-hyeon, and while he will happily exchange picture cards of other members with his classmates and friends, he won’t trade any of her. Clearly he is a man of his own ideas, and is destined for great things!

Knowing that I was a writer, my nephew asked what I thought of their new album. It has good and bad points, but guessing that he wouldn’t have listened to the latter, I just talked about the good things. But actually there was something I wanted to ask him (although I didn’t), which was:

What is the real reason that you like Girls’ Generation?


이걸 묻고 싶었던 이유는 간단하다. 나 자신에게 물어봤는데, 나에게서 나온 대답이 정답인 것 같아서 다른 남자(!)에게도 확인해보고 싶었기 때문이다. 한마디로, 나는 소녀시대가 ‘섹시’해서 좋다. 물론 기본적으로 귀여운 매력이 크긴 한데 섹시한 매력도 나에게는 그 정도 크기는 된다.

이게 무슨 뚱딴지같은 소리냐고? 노파심에 말하자면 나는 변태도 아니고 과대망상증 환자도 아니다. 그리고 이제는 자신 있게 말할 수 있다. 소녀시대는 분명히 섹시하다. 정확히 말하자면, ‘섹시하지 않은 척 하면서 섹시’하다.

내가 소녀시대에게서 섹시함을 느낀 건 ‘Gee’ 이후였던 것 같다. 그전까지 소녀시대는 나에게 그저 귀여운 여동생에 불과했다. 그러나 소녀시대가 Gee로 컴백해 딱 달라붙는 배꼽티와 스키니진을 입고나오자 ‘소녀’는 ‘그녀’가 되었다. ‘소원을 말해봐’는 ‘Gee’의 심화판이었다. 핫팬츠와 하이힐, 제복을 입고 그녀들이 내게 ‘소원을 말해보라고’ 외쳤다. 신곡 ‘Oh!’는 한술 더 떠 치어리더 콘셉트다. 더 무슨 말이 필요하나.

The reason I wanted to ask this was simple. I knew why I liked them – and all men like them – but I wanted to confirm that he would give the same answer: that it’s because they’re sexy. Of course, they do also have a cute charm about them, but they’re at least as sexy.

What foolish talk is this you ask? But no, asking this does not mean I am a pervert, nor that I’m a mental patient having excessive sexual fantasies about Girls’ Generation. Rather let me say this: of course, Girls’ Generation are sexy. Or to be more accurate, they are sexy while pretending not to be.

It was with their song Gee that Girls’ Generation really started appearing sexy to me; before that, they were merely like little sisters. But then they started wearing tight, clinging croptops and jeans, and the girls had changed to women. This was even more so with their song Tell Me Your Wish, combining hotpants, high-heels, and uniforms while crying “tell me your wish…”. And with their new song Oh!, they continue that theme with a cheerleader concept. What more is there to say? (Source, below).

여기서 중요한 건 섹시 그 자체가 아니다. 소녀시대보다 섹시한 가수들은 얼마든지 있다. 포인트는 소녀들이 ‘더없이 순수한 눈망울’을 하고선 남성의 성적 판타지를 자극하려는 의도가 분명한 옷과 액세서리, 그리고 노랫말과 춤동작을 선보인다는 점이다. 나는 고민에 빠진다. 그 순수한 눈망울들이 나를 죄책감의 구렁텅이로 몰아넣는다. 내가 저 천사 같은 아이들을 두고 대체 무슨 상상을 한 걸까. 나는 변태인가. 난 누군가 또 여긴 어딘가.

분명히 맞는 것 같은데 증명할 방법이 없다. 섹시함을 주 무기로 삼으면서 겉으로는 그렇지 않은 척한다. 그런데 더 가관(?)인 건 그렇지 않은 척하니까 대놓고 그러는 것보다 더 섹시하다는 거다. 낮에는 현모양처, 밤에는 요부를 바라는 어쩔 수 없는 남성의 본능이다. 가히 최악의 상황이다.

이런 상황에서 ‘기획사 너희들! 일단 남성의 성적 판타지를 정확히 자극한 것에는 10점 만점에 10점을 주겠어. 대단히 유효한 전략이었지. 하지만 어린 여자애들 데리고 더 이상 교묘하게 섹스를 팔지 마! 이제 더 이상 당하지 않아!’, 이렇게 외친다면 (비록 속은 다를지라도) ‘아니, 어떻게 이렇게 귀여운 여동생을 보고 그런 천박한 생각을…’, 하며 경멸어린 시선으로 변태 취급당할 가능성이 다분하다.

The important point here is not how sexy they are: there are many female singers sexier than Girls’ Generation (James: I think he means more “sexual” than sexy). Rather, that despite their innocent expressions, Girls’ Generation’s clothes, accessories and lyrics are all designed to provoke men into having sexual fantasies about them. But this leaves me feeling a little perturbed and guilty: how can I think like that when I see those angelic faces? Am I a pervert? Who am I…where am I?

This is all true, but it is impossible to prove. While deliberately being sexy, Girls’ Generation pretend that they aren’t. Which proves to be even sexier than it they just admitted it, for every man’s instinct is to have a woman who is a wise mother and good, virtuous wife by day, but a shameless hussy at night.

This is a very bad situation.

About this, I say “To the people that work at the company! First, I give you 10 out of 10 points for knowing what stimulates men’s sexual fantasies so well. But please stop using these young girls to sell sex so skillfully! I won’t put up with it anymore!”. And I do so even though many people may scorn me and label me as a pervert, asking how I can think such things of such cute, innocent girls.

과연 나만 이런 생각을 하는 걸까? 나만 섹시함을 섹시함이라 말하지 못하는 ‘소길동’의 덫에 걸린 걸까? 아니라고 본다. 모르긴 몰라도 적지 않은 대한민국 성인 남성이 나와 비슷한 고민을 하지 않으려나?

여기서 두 가지 고민이 발생한다. 그리고 그 전에 하나 전제되어야할 것이 있다. 바로 ‘소녀시대의 기획사는 어린 소녀들을 통해 남성의 성적 판타지를 자극해 교묘히 섹스를 판매한다’는 합의다. 물론 이 같은 판단에 소녀시대의 팬이나 어린 학생들, 그리고 여성들은 동의하지 않을 수도 있다.

이유는 여러 가지다. 우선 소녀시대의 팬들에게 이 같은 지적은 소녀들에 대한 모욕일 수 있고, 어린 학생들이나 여성들의 경우에는 진심으로 이러한 부분을 체감하지 못했을 수 있다. 그러나 이것은 엄연히 현존하는 사실이다. 양해를 구한다. 그렇게 사실로 인정하고 넘어가도록 하자.

Well, am I the only person that thinks like that?Am I the only guy to have fallen into the trap of not recognizing sexiness when I see it? I don’t think so. In fact I think that all Korean adults suffer the same.

Based on the premise that Girls’ Generation’s company is skillfully encouraging men to have sexual fantasies about the group and basically selling sex then all this raises two problematic issues to worry about. But I don’t expect many fans, young students and women to agree with me, for many reasons: first, because to Girls’ Generations’ fans, this sort of opinion is considered insulting to the group; and in the case of young students and women, they can’t really understand these physical feelings of men. But while I seek their forgiveness, the facts remain. Let’s continue on that premise (source, left).

첫 번째 고민은, ‘욕망하는 것은 과연 나쁜가’이다. 더 정확히 말하면 ‘의도된 자극에 예상된 욕망으로 반응하는 것은 나쁜가’가 되겠다. 말이야 바른 말이지 은근슬쩍 성적 판타지를 자극해 오는데 모른 척하며 억지로 속으로 눌러야 하나? 오히려 그게 솔직하지 못하고 자신을 속이는 것 아닌가? 남에게 피해를 주지 않는 솔직함은 미덕이라고 배우지 않았나. 굳이 말을 하자면 자극받는 쪽보다 자극하는 쪽이 나쁘지 않느냐는 말이다. 하아, 나는 왜 불필요한 죄책감에 사로잡혀 있었을까. 문제는 개인이 아니라 구조이고 시스템인 것을.

두 번째 고민은, ‘어린 소녀들을 통해 섹스를 파는 행위는 과연 나쁜가’이다(‘미성년자’라는 법적 개념으로도 판단할 수 있겠지만 여기서 논하려는 건 그러한 차원은 아니다). 어떻게 보면 누이 좋고 매부 좋은 거래가 아닌가. 기획사는 돈을 벌고, 소녀들은 스타가 되고, 대중은 욕망을 충족한다. 소녀들이 특별히 공공질서를 저해하는 음란 행위를 하는 것도 아니고, 대중이 소녀들에게 위해를 가하거나 범죄를 저지르는 것도 아니다. 상부상조하는 좋은 거래다.

The first thing to worry about is the question of if desire is a bad thing. Or to be more precise, is getting sexually stimulated bad when that is the deliberate and expected reaction? Does the fact that it is done indirectly and stealthily mean that we have to pretend that we don’t feel aroused? Isn’t that being dishonest and deceiving yourself? We all know that as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others, honesty is a virtue. And surely it is worse to so insidiously arouse men than to feel aroused. Why on Earth was I feeling guilty about this? This is not a problem with myself, but more a systematic thing.

The second worry is that the act of using young girls to sell sex is bad (I don’t want to discuss the legality of using minors for this though). But if you look at it in a different way, it is can actually be a good thing. The company makes money, the girls become stars, and men’s sexual desire is satisfied. Nor are the girls committing indecent acts, or the public harming ordinary girls in any way or commit crimes against them. So in a sense, everybody helps each other.

그러나 이렇게 간단하게 정리하고 넘어갈 문제가 아니라는 게 바로 문제다. 기본적으로 나는 욕망하는 주체다. 그리고 욕망하는 나 자체는 건강하다. 그러나 내 욕망을 충족시켜주는 것들이 모두 옳은 건 아니다. 다시 말해 나는 내 욕망의 정곡을 찔러주는 소녀시대의 무대를 보면서 기획사의 의도대로 욕망을 느낀다.

하지만 그 반대편엔 욕망의 크기만큼이나 커다란 이성 역시 자리 잡고 있다. 나는 소녀시대가 내 성적 판타지를 충족시켜준다는 점을 인정하면서도 동시에 그들 기획사의 전략이 야기할 부정적인 단면들을 고민한다. 즉 나는 끊임없이 욕망하면서 동시에 그 욕망을 충족시켜주는 것의 올바름에 대해 끊임없이 의심한다.

그렇게 의심해본 결과, ‘섹시하지 않은 척 하면서 섹시한’ 소녀시대는 몇 가지 문제점을 내포하고 있다. 먼저, 이것은 기획사의 입장에서는 분명 대단히 효과적인 돈벌이 전략이지만 사회적으로는 성의 이중성을 더욱 공고히 할 뿐이다. 성적 판타지를 자극하도록 설계된 소녀들에게서 당연하게(?) 예정된 욕망을 느끼더라도 남성들은 그것을 제대로 표출할 수 없다. 욕망 표출의 해방감 대신 그들에게 부여되는 것은 일종의 죄책감이다. 욕망은 점점 안으로 파고 들어가고 겉과 속은 달라진다. 그렇게 섹시한 것을 섹시하다고 말하지 못하는 소길동이 되어간다.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t as simple and easily resolved as that. Basically, because I have sexual desire. And that is healthy and good, not a sin. But not everything that arouses me is correct and proper (James: should be acted on?), and one of those is watching Girls’ Generation dancing on a stage.

On the other hand, while I do have sexual desire, I have just as much logic and rationality to me. So although I admit to at the fact that Girls’ Generation arouses me, at the same time I worry that I am just being manipulated by their company. Or in other words, while I am unceasingly aroused by them at the same time I think seriously about if both that and what the company is doing is correct and appropriate.

As a result, I realize there are many problems to Girls’ Generation being sexy while pretending not to. First, while it is undoubtedly a very effective strategy for the company to make money, to society it reaffirms that there is a public and private face to put on sex. For while the group is designed to stimulate men’s sexual fantasies, they can not admit to this. Rather than expressions of sexual liberation, they must instead have guilt about how differently they feel inside and what they must actually say. This is why you have men like me saying that sexiness is something else entirely.

(Source: unknown)

또 하나. 다름 아닌 소녀들 걱정이다. 윤아 걱정, 유리 걱정, 무엇보다 우리 조카를 위해 서현 걱정이다. 어쩌면 이게 제일 중요한 문제일지도 모른다. 나는 소녀시대의 무대를 볼 때마다 매번 이런 생각이 든다. 쟤네들은 자기가 어떻게 소비되는지 과연 알고 있을까? 남성들의 시선과 속마음에 대해서는 얼마나 알까? 만약 알고 있다면 그게 쟤네들이 원하는 걸까? 혹시 기획사의 의도와 속내가 충돌해 괴롭지는 않을까?

이게 무슨 오지랖이냐고 웃을지도 모르겠다. 하지만 ‘소녀들도 이제 엄연한 법적 성인이니까 자기 일은 자기가 알아서 하겠지’라고 안일하게 생각하기에는 아직도 소녀들은 많이 어릴뿐더러 소녀들 개개인의 힘에 비해 시스템의 권력이 너무 크고 거대하다. 또한 ‘자본주의 사회에서 소녀시대 역시 하나의 상품이며 상품이 된 것 역시 소녀들의 선택’이라고 치부하기에는 머릿속에서 ‘인간의 존엄성’이라는 단어가 자꾸만 아른거린다.

서현. 가장 순수할 것 같고 실제로도 가장 어린 서현. 지금, 상처받지 않고 있을까? 그리고 앞으로도 상처받지 않을 수 있을까?

글을 마무리하면서 문득 지금의 내 메신저 대화명을 떠올렸다. ‘소시 앨범 득템! 화보 쩐다.’ 화보가 쩌는 건 사실이지만 아무래도 당장 다른 대화명으로 바꾸어야겠다. 갑자기 이 저열한 욕망의 바다에 물 한 방울 보태기도 싫어졌으니까.


One more thing: I worry about the girls of Girls’ Generation themselves. I worry about Yuna, about Yuri, and most of all about my nephew’s favorite Seo-hyeon. This may be the most important issue of all, and whenever I see them on stage I think it: do they know how they are being consumed? Do they know how they are viewed and felt by men? If they do know, is that what they really want? By any chance, do they suffer from their own wishes and their company’s clashing?

People will ask why I worry about them. After all, they are legal adults. Despite that however, the system they operate in is far more powerful. And against the argument that they are in the music industry – just the product of a capitalist society – and that it’s their choice, I still frequently pause to think if it’s not an affront to human dignity.

Seo-hyeon: she looks the most innocent, and in reality she is the youngest too. To her I say are you getting hurt at all now? Or is there any way you can avoid it in the future?

As I was writing this article, I added some words next to my name in my messenger program: “I’ve bought Girls’ Generation new album! Their pictures are fantastic!”. While that is true though, I have to change it. I suddenly really don’t want to add one drop to this ocean of base, vulgar sexual desire. (end)


As always, apologies for any errors with the translation (there’s bound to be with something of this length), and I’d really appreciate it if you could let me know if you spot any. And what do you make of Kim Byeong-hyeon’s “confession”?

Or, hell, my own? Not that I think that mine is any great surprise to long term readers of course(!), and I don’t mean to imply that I’m embarrassed at only having Korean female friends now. Indeed, most of my Western male friends here also had equal numbers of male and female Korean friends in their first few years here, only to lose the former for much the same reasons I mentioned earlier; or at least, those that like myself came in their early to mid-20s,and have stayed for 5-10 years since. And they’re by no means gender studies geeks either, although I confess that we do still talk mostly about women when we meet! ;)

What is your own experience? How are things similar or different for Western women here also?


1) Rereading this in November 2013, nearly 4 years later, I cringe at the numerous generalizations I make based on only my own personal experience; I would be much more careful to avoid those and/or acknowledge my biases were I to write on the same subject today. On the other hand, unfortunately it’s also true that my personal experience remains largely the same.

2) I also try to avoid the “C word” these days. Although this is hardly the most egregious example, Confucianism is very overused as a catch-all, explain anything and everything device in English-language writing about Korea.

Korean Sociological Image #32: Censorship and Indirect Advertising

(Source: unknown)

Ever find yourself wondering at the logic behind some of the blurring and mosaicing on Korean television?

No, I’m not talking about that recent scene from Chuno involving a fully-clothed Lee Da-hae (이다해) I’m afraid. Rather, the proclivity with which Korean broadcasters will disguise the logos of products visible in television programs. Indeed, it’s so taken for granted here that frankly I’ve had trouble finding examples (without simply watching television and waiting for something to pop up that is).

The reason is to prevent indirect advertising, known as ganjeob gwango (간집 광고) in Korean and PPL (Product Placement, or Embedded Marketing) in the industry. But it is usually ineffective, the blurring in the following segment from the talk-show Giboon Joeunnal (기분좋은날) for instance, or A Day That Feels Good, providing little impediment to this Korean blogger in identifying the brand-name and model of the baby monitor and recommending it to her readers (update: see here for a video that provides a collage of much better examples):

Instead of cases like those though, the majority of articles on the subject discuss deliberate, unedited PPL instead, such as this case with the Bon Bibimbap food chain in the drama City Hall (시티홀), this case with actor Jang Hyuk (장혁) and various Canon cameras in an unidentified drama and film below, and especially a recent episode of the comedy show Paemilli-ga Ddottda (패밀리가 떴다), or Family Outing, in which some Nepa (네파) outdoor clothes were used (see here, here, and here).

Family Outing Nepa(Source)

At the end of that last link, the laws regarding PPL are mentioned, the gist of which is that it should not: influence the content or story of the program; be the focus of viewers’ attentions; be mentioned by anyone in the program; and finally, that the program should not persuade you to buy the product in any way. While all sound reasonable however, they are also very open to interpretation, and Korean broadcasters frequently receive warnings or fines from the Korean Broadcasting Communications Committee for falling afoul of them.

Adding even further confusion to the mix, since 2006 PPL of specifically Korean products has been increasingly encouraged as a means to capitalize on the success of the Korean Wave abroad, one recent example being Kia Motor’s deal to provide cars and other paraphernalia for the hugely popular drama IRIS.

Given that context, then broadcasters’ decisions to ban singer’s (제이) new album from the airwaves simply because of the lyrics of some songs seems particularly hypocritical:’s New Album Rejected by TV Stations

Returning to the music business after three long years must not be as easy as she thought.’s new special album, “Sentimental,” was ruled unfit for broadcasting by KBS and SBS. MBC is currently reviewing the song to announce the result next week. Broadcasting review panels at the leading national networks said that the lyrics of the title song “No.5” contained direct references to commercial brand names, like Chanel and McDonalds. Network stations are concerned that naming certain brands could cause debates over indirect advertising.

“No. 5” was written by Lee Ji-rin of the indie band Humming Urban Stereo, who was inspired to write a song after seeing an ad about Chanel No.5 perfume on a bus. The song may have succeeded in grabbing the interest of listeners with its unique lyrics, but could not escape from the criticism of indirect advertisement. Jae’s agency said that it’s most unfortunate that her year’s work failed to meet the industry standards, but it will apply for another review after changing some parts of the lyrics.’s latest album will be out on the market on February 10th. (Source: KBS Global, via Omona They Didn’t)

One wonders what they made of Aqua’s Barbie Girl back in 1997? Sentimental .For those of you further interested in herself, you can read two interviews of her (conducted before the banning) here, and listen to one of the problematic songs No. 5 here (source right: unknown).

Meanwhile, unfortunately this is by no means the first time that artists’ songs have been banned in Korea simply because their lyrics could be construed as PPL, a case involving Epik High (에픽하이) back in April showing that even indirect mention of the artists’ own website can be considered problematic. Moreover, against the argument that both cases are merely inane but innocuous, they do add to the essential arbitrariness of censorship in Korea, English song lyrics acceptable on 1950s American television banned because they could sound vaguely sexual to non native speakers for instance (see #2 here), and accordingly it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to imagine a time when censors will ultimately use PPL as a convenient excuse to ban a disagreeable but otherwise completely legal cultural product.

Or perhaps they already have? If you know of any previous cases of banning based on PPL, then please pass them on, whether the PPL was used as a ruse or otherwise!

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

Korean Sociological Image #31: Gender Roles & Korean Holidays

With apologies to teachers of Korean children everywhere, tired of their Korea Gender Lunar New Yearproclivity for repeating the nonsensical foreign words found in Korean advertisements, there is actually much to be admired in KT’s recent olleh (올레) campaign. For under the rubric da gu-rae-rul dwee-jeeb-ora (다 그래를 뒤집어라), or “turn the things that bug you on their heads,” it has a definite self-depreciating streak, poking fun at various groups of Koreans and their habits in a way that feels curiously similar to British humor (source, right: Paranzui).

Coming from a society notorious for always presenting itself in the best possible light, this is very refreshing.

Examples on TV so far have included: elderly women being encouraged not to all have the same boring, monotonous hairstyle; men to nap on travel rugs in parks with their children playing next to them rather than always lazing around at home on weekends; Koreans not to always say the same reflexive English phrases to foreigners that they learned at school; and employees to choose their own meals rather than meekly ordering whatever the boss is having.

And there are many more like it. But all pale in comparison to the directness of the latest in the series, which targets the disproportionate burden placed women during “holidays” like Seollal (설날), coming up this weekend:

Incidentally, it shows another interesting aspect of Korean society: their lack of embarrassment (some would say alacrity) in showing bodily functions. Already having rather too much of that sort of thing at home with 2 young daughters to look after though, then I’ll wisely refrain from further commentary on that here.

Instead, I’ll look forward to possibly seeing another that covers a second reason many women hate Seollal: if they’re in their late-20s or older, being pestered by their relatives to find a partner and get married, and indeed I have a 29 year-old friend and a 32 year-old sister-in-law that will be staying well away from home because of precisely that. A phenomenon hardly confined to Korea of course, as is women doing more domestic work than men, but then I’d wager that many foreign women at similar ages reading this can attest to the sheer amazement Koreans experience when they learn that they’re not married!

On that note, apologies if all this sounds familiar to many readers. But while the Korean media will be full of similar commentary this week, this is the first time I’ve seen something like it in a Korean advertisement, and as part of a particularly popular series at that. And as they say, a picture tells a thousand words…

Or perhaps there have been earlier ones that I missed, or alternatively others by different companies playing at the moment? Please let me know!

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)