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)

25 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #31: Gender Roles & Korean Holidays

  1. Those ads are awesome! It would be great if they had an effect.
    I’ve always found it a little creepy (and maybe sad?) that not only do so many Koreans agree that there’s a right age to get married, they also give startlingly similar answers as to what that age is. Any beliefs that rigid can’t be good.
    FYI, there seems to be a problem with the link for the women’s hairstyles ad – it’s taking me to the boss/restaurant one.


    1. “Any beliefs that rigid can’t be good”

      Well put, never thought about the getting married at 30 thing like that; for those readers that don’t know, it’s supposedly so bad that many 30-something women will claim to be 29 for years, until their future husband comes along. Or is that just a myth?

      Fixed the link sorry, and hope you like it (my wife did!).^^


  2. Just because I’m curious, what made you translate “다 그래를 뒤집어라” as “turn established social conventions upside down?” In the big scheme of things, I don’t think it’s a bad translation, as in effect that’s hat the ads are getting at, but surely it just means “turn ‘that’s what everyone does’ on its head/upside down?”

    (James – since edited: see below)

    The hairstyle one is hilarious though, someone should really open a cool ajumma salon.

    But I was wondering, do you know why they write 올레 as olleh? I would have thought that ole or olé would be more recognisable and suitable – at least to people for whom the Roman alphabet is what matters – Koreans will obviously pronounce it however it’s written in hangeul regardless.


    1. Showing my lack of exposure to slang and everyday Korean, actually in my original version of the post I was just going to translate it as “Turn Everything Upside Down.” But then I wisely checked with my wife first, and she said that it comes from “원래 다 그래~” which means, well, “the little thing that bugs you [that you’re complaining about] has always been like that [but you can’t do anything about it, so shut up].” That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and unfortunately your pithier “turn ‘that’s [just] what everyone does’ on its head/upside down” doesn’t either, although in hindsight it was probably a better choice!

      I’ve wondered about “olleh” too sorry; I’ll ask my wife or a friend or student (hell, somebody Korean! :D) in the morning.


    2. Olleh is written specifically that way as it is ‘hello’ written backwards, in line with their ‘turning things upside down’ concept. Also, it is meant to be used as a happy greeting either hello or goodbye, like ‘annyoung’ (안녕) meaning both.


  3. The women in my extended family bore a similar labor burden at holiday gatherings. The women prepared the food, set and decorated the tables, fed the very young, and cleaned up afterwards while the men played cards or watched the Detroit Lions lose on Thanksgiving. I recall wistfully the year I forced myself to join the women and teenaged girls in the kitchen instead of watching TV with Dad, uncles, brothers, and cousins in the living room.

    As a member of the first generation to bear children out of wedlock, I never got pestered about marriage. The elders were too distracted discussing whichever cousin was pregnant at the moment.


  4. In my family, the parents worked and cooked; the kids, including the boys, cleaned the house and did the dishes. This included doing the laundry. That was over 30 years ago.

    Now that we are all grown up, if the women cook, the men clean, no exceptions.

    There’s none of this bullshit where the men sit on their asses watching TV and getting drunk.


    1. Is your internet name an indirect commentary on my post, or just generic? No offense meant either way, and I’m happy to hear that that’s what your family is like. But unfortunately it’s not true for the Korean half of my own (I always get shooed away when I offer to help), and a quick straw poll of my 20-something students next to me as I type this shows that it’s not true for them either: for over three quarters of them, the women do most or all of the work. I doubt that KT would have run an ad like that if they hadn’t had thought it would resonate with a majority of consumers either.


      1. Ha! To this day, whenever I visit my extended Korean host family, I’m reminded of the time I asked the very same question as in the commercial. My host uncle chided me, telling me that in the future, if I married a Korean man, I too would have to cook the ancestral rice. I somewhat tartly replied that it didn’t matter who I married, he could cook his own damn jesa rice. This comment was so amusing it had to be repeated to every family member who visited that year, and was usually greeted with gales of laughter.


  5. Ah Seollal, one of two times of year that makes me want to flee the country in terror. The in-laws always come over to our apartment for the Korean holidays, and it’s always my sole responsibility as the new wife and daughter-in-law to cook every meal. Of course, my mother-in-law usually helps wash dishes. She thinks it’s hilarious that I use a cookbook to make Korean food. My father-in-law always throws back several shots of soju and sprawls out on the couch for the weekend. It’s sad, considering my mother-in-law works just as hard as he does throughout the week, often skipping meals and sleep to keep their business running. She never gets a break- not once the entire year.

    About the age of marriage in Korea- it’s odd, because it seems to be very specific. I got married last year at the age of 25, and Koreans always seemed shocked that I was marrying so young. Now my friend who is 27 says she’s starting to feel pressure to get married from everyone around her. All my female friends in Korea have been from ages 27-33, and they all completely dread Seollal for this reason. I tell them, “Just wait. It gets worse.”


  6. Hey uh…this is sorta unrelated to this post but I thought you might be interested about this, there’s apparently this girl named 최은정 who’s 18 (in Western age) right now and she apparently did a “그라비아 모델” which from my impression of the word is something like an explicit modeling thing. I think this shows how Korea, like Japan, is targeting younger women as sexual objects. Could you do a post on this one? Please~?


      1. Thanks for passing that on Azri. I was aware of the name because of this post on her at Brian in Jeollanam-do from December actually, and then again just a few days ago when her giving free hugs to 100 ajosshis was a headline on the front page of Naver. But yeah, like Brian’s post and Naver searches confirm, she has indeed done some shoots as a “Gravia Model.”

        I can’t promise a big post on that specifically anytime soon sorry – most of the information will be in Korean, and I already have 2 very long translations for this week and the next to get through, but I’ll see what I can do maybe early next month. But if you haven’t read them already (I don’t know if you’re a new reader or not sorry) then you’ll soon find many related posts in the “Children and Teenagers” category.

        Meanwhile, see here and then here for more on “Innocent Glamor.”


  7. My name has nothing to do with this post…it’s one of my nicknames because I rarely believe anything I read or hear.

    I spent four years worth of Korean holidays and meals with my ex’s family and I always helped out. They (the women) tried to shoo me away, but I ALWAYS helped out none-the-less. I explained about my family and they were shocked at first, then agreed it was good.

    I mainly did the dishes and cleaned the floors. You just have to be stubborn about it!


  8. A few people suggested “olleh” should have been part of my top ten worst Korean English of 2009 post. I didn’t include it because it’s not really English, but nonetheless I have noticed it’s entering more common use. The show Rollercoaster—which is the worst offender for the overuse/misuse of “Oh Mai Gat”—uses it a few times each skit, and last week my fiance and I were watching a couple get their wedding photos taken, and they were holding big “olleh” signs.


  9. Regarding holidays and women, my theory’s always been that Koreans have imported and fabricated so many of these gift-giving holidays because the big “traditional” ones involve a lot of work (for women), a lot of time stuck in traffic, and a lot of time reflecting on dead people. Valentine’s Day, White Day, Pepero Day, all the other new 14th holidays, and even the Korean Christmas divorced from context are all happy days that revolve around couples and buying things, though paradoxically of course—as we’ve seen in the US when holidays become super commercial—soon the burden of buying gifts will outstrip the fun. In some cases probably already there.


  10. @ Yeahright : Very fortunate to grow up in a family environment like that.

    I think, for most Korean families, Whatsonthemenu describes what’s typical.

    This is something I’ve wondered. I don’t understand why women don’t stop this cycle during the holidays… and I mean the cooking-cleaning from morning to evening for certain days, while the husbands sit in front of the TV.
    Is it because they’ve experienced that so that they must pass it on to the next generation? Perhaps it’s a generational gap in thought…

    I wish there was a more balanced division in roles between men and women during the holidays. Unfortunately when you have an older generation, and the Confucian behavior of following/respecting elders, I think it’s gonna take a long time before any little change can be seen.


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