Korean Sociological Image #42: Sunset for the Red She-Devils?

( Source: ROKetship. Reproduced with permission. )

Like Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi fame says of the above cartoon, either way, it’s a win for my gender, so I was surprised that this was the first time I’d ever really noticed this curious Korean social more.

For those of you still at a loss however, yahada (야하다) generally means “too revealing” if it’s about clothes, and “too sexual” if it’s about anything else, like a conversation topic; alternatively, nomu pa-ee-da (너무 파이다) could have been used instead, which literally means “dug too much”. So, it’s a commentary on the difference in what is considered revealing clothing by Koreans and Western expats, and something which of course expat women have long been well aware of, congratulating ROKetship artist Luke Martin for his astuteness in droves on his Facebook page. One of them, Kelly in Korea, wrote on her blog:

So true. Showing your shoulders or chest will definitely get you stares from the older crowd and young men, while lotsa leg is okay. That being said, I feel like I see more Korean girls showing shoulder this summer than last—is that just me? Regardless, now that the full heat of summer is upon us, I have stopped worrying so much about societal dress codes and just wear whatever keeps me from passing out in the midday sun.

And for all my lapses, I think that there’s definitely something to that change. How long-lasting it is however, literally remains to be seen.

Why? Because as I’ve written here, here, here, and here (for starters), squads of daring female soccer fans known as oppa budae (오빠 부대) did have a dramatic and permanent effect on what were considered acceptable standards of dress for Korean women during the 2002 World Cup. But then it’s also true that many people that had tolerated their croptops, say, were much less willing to do so the next summer once they were no longer in the service of a national cause, which again just goes to show that revealing clothing (or suggestive dancing) should never be taken as a proxy for female sexual liberation.

In that vein, I’ve often wanted to do an empirical study of advertisements in various men’s and women’s Korean magazines for the summers before, during, and after the 2002, 2006, and 2010 World Cups, hypothesizing that there would be definite peaks in World Cup years. But note that those would not just be because of young women hoping to emulate Shin Mina and “Elf Girl’s” examples, who become famous overnight for, well, little more than having good bodies and wearing skimpy “Red Devil” (붉은악마) costumes like those above (source): that isn’t why oppa budae women were wearing them in 2002, and surely only accounted for very few in 2006 and 2010 too.*

Moreover, for anyone lucky enough to have been in Korea during any of the summers of 2002, 2006, and now 2010, you don’t need me to tell you that Koreans tend to let their inhibitions go during the World Cup, and that at the very least the normal standards for clothing didn’t apply; indeed, it would be very strange if – à la Rosie the Riveter – Korean women returned to their formally conservative ways afterwards. Accordingly, I’d also expect that study to show an increase in revealing advertisements for the period overall (although of course many factors would be responsible), and so while I don’t expect to see many croptops on Korean streets in the summer of 2011 unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the fashion in, say, 2015, or 2016. After all, recall that women didn’t even use to wear bikinis at the beach just 8 years ago!

What do you think? Either way, I’m perfectly serious about that study, in which I would using Erving Goffman’s 1979 Gender Advertisements framework (see here, here, and here), and would publish the results in a journal article; unfortunately I can’t do it alone though, so any Korea Studies geeks, please contact me if you’re interested (but be warned it would be rather more tedious than it sounds!). Meanwhile, see here, here, here, here, here, and here for more insights from ROKetship about Korean attitudes to fashion and body-image, (the last may be a little confusing though: see Scribblings of the Metropolitican for an explanation), and of course there’s many more about other aspects of Korean life that all expats will identify with!

* That’s unlikely to be repeated in light of entertainment companies using it to market their female stars in 2010, prompting a backlash)

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


15 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #42: Sunset for the Red She-Devils?

  1. ooh, I was going to write about a related topic! writing now… see it here! ^^

    on this post: first, interesting about the cultural differences for what is considered revealing – i always wondered why people didn’t run up to all these celebrities with blankets to cover their legs. secondly, i think it’s a somewhat common cultural theme that certain periods of celebration are often times for social norms to relax a little, and then go right back to normal afterwards. e.g. in Nigeria, girls wearing skimpy traditional clothing to perform cultural dances at special occasions, but then having to cover up on other days. The World Cup seems to be a similar sort of thing for Korea. It’s never meant that norms are actually changing, it just means there are times when people decide to overlook it. maybe things will change, but it seems unlikely that events like the World Cup will hasten that change.


    1. Great post, although it has to be said about Choi Eun-jung: what else would one expect from someone who became famous for appearing in a nude photo-shoot at the age of 17, albeit less famous than the 14 year-old appearing alongside her? Not that that means her arguments can be dismissed out of hand of course (however tempting) but on the other hand she’s hardly a dispassionate objective observer on the Korean entertainment industry.

      Meanwhile, I fully agree about certain periods of celebration often being times for social norms to relax a little, and we could both come up with many current and historical examples. But I’d have to completely disagree that there haven’t been and won’t be long-lasting effects in Korea because of the World Cup(s) sorry, for the reasons mentioned in the links in the post (especially this one). Not that there’s that much scholarship on it in English of course, but still, I’ve yet to find a commentator on it that has looked at it from a sociological perspective that hasn’t described the 2002 one at least as a watershed in Korean feminism (see that post for names), and the effects on popular culture are still being felt today.


      1. Oh, I don’t doubt that the 2002 World Cup had significant effects on Korean feminism – I’m definitely convinced that it did – I guess I’m just skeptical about the effects of the World Cup alone on subsequent advances in Korean feminism after the first big change. Globalization could also be causing such changes, right? I may just be disillusioned though. I mean, things are still crappy, for women all over the world. I’m feel like they won’t necessarily get better, they’ll just be less crappy :[ I like the idea that global sporting events can really make that much of a difference in the lives of spectators, but I don’t want to get my hopes up.


  2. while i find it interesting and mildly annoying that society in general is more willing to tolerate women wearing revealing clothes during special occasions (why can’t they just be tolerant every other normal day?), i’m with mellowyel when she says that the norms may actually not be changing as it is just people overlooking it. i’m not a fan of society and culture policing what women wear so i don’t have much to say.


      1. Check the Fall 2009 Korea Journal (vol. 29 no. 3) . . . several of the articles apply, but particularly Lee and Cho’s “Performing Nation-ness” article


  3. The assumption underlying the cartoon is half-correct. Low-cut tops and spaghetti straps were no-nos in Korea while I was there in the 90s. Don’t know if that is still true. Koreans might be bothered by cleavage and bare shoulders, but Westerners are not offended by bare legs as long as the legs are nice to look at. Western women are not bothered by short-shorts per se. Many young women do, in fact, wear them. It’s that showing off your legs is okay, but showing off your boobs is not. Differences in exposure between Korean and Western women largely reflect differences in body shapes, both showing off their best features.

    Korean women used to wear pantyhose under shorts, and Chinese women still do. Supposedly this was to prevent naeng, a coldness that may bring about illness. Some Korean customs regarding childbirth are also to ward off naeng. On a bus in China, I saw a young woman whose shorty shorts weren’t long enough to cover the ribbing on her control-top pantyhose. How sexy is that? Chinese women also wear ankle-length nylons or socks with sandals because they think wearing sandals alone is unhygienic.


    1. I don’t think it’s fair to say “Westerners are not offended by bare legs as long as the legs are nice to look at.” Taking offense at the sight of bare legs [appealing though they may be] depends on a lot of criteria other than whether or not one is from a Western country. For the Westerners who do take offense, often it’s how nice the legs are that determines how offensive they can be.


  4. A Brazilian colleague told me that in her country, it was acceptable for teachers to wear camisoles with spaghetii straps, but not short skirts.


  5. When I was a freshman in college in Seoul, girls wearing shorts were very rare even in summer. Then over the years, shorts became nothing noticeable. I think strap tops or deep cut shirts will slowly become mainstream like shorts.


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