Korean Gender Reader

( Se7en, via Omona! They Didn’t )

With so many stories this week, I’ve decided to organize them by categories to make it easier to keep track.

Pop Culture

1. Social change through comedy?

Not a fan of dramas, normally I’d pay little attention to the news that yet another one is about to premiere. But I did a double-take when I read the following description of Nanun Jonsol Eeda (I am Legend; 나는전설이다) at DramaBeans:

Kim Jung-eun (김정은) plays Jeon Seol-hee (전설희) who leaves her society-wife identity behind after a divorce to front a rock band.

These photos picture her in the early part of the drama, when her character is the put-upon wife of a prestigious lawyer. Jeon Seol-hee was once the popular singer in a band when she was in high school, but over the course of her unhappy marriage, she has learned to speak quietly and act in a manner befitting her uppity in-law family.

Why my interest? Because it sounds a little like the 1996 movie The Adventures of Miss Park (박봉곤 가출 사건), which on the surface was an average romantic comedy, but actually had a radical message for its time. As So-hee Lee notes in her chapter ‘The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture’ (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002):

…unlike the convention of most films in the genre, this one ends with a women running away from a domineering husband, achieving her dream of becoming a singer, and finally entering into a happy second marriage, “thus subverting a traditional morality that expects the runaway wife to come back home to restore everyone’s happiness and family security”. (p. 156)

And as such, Lee notes the film director was concerned about how a conservative audience might respond to the uncommon story and its unexpected ending, and hence in many ways the movie was a guerrilla attempt to sneak a serious social message into Korean cinema by presenting it as comedy. Not that Nanun Jonsol Eeda necessarily will attempt to of course, but I’ll keep an eye on it. Meanwhile, see my post Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s for more examples and an analysis of “sexually subversive” popular culture from that era.

2. Common Tropes in Korean Popular Culture

Again by Dramabeans, this new and ongoing series is not just indispensable for understanding dramas, but much about Korean daily life and gender roles too.  For starters, try the posts on the meanings of adults giving each other piggyback rides, and then when and where to use jondaemal (polite language) or banmal (informal language). As you might expect, men are allowed to use banmal to women much more than vice-versa, and Korean broadcasters often repeat that practice when dubbing or adding Korean subtitles to foreign movies and dramas too, even though no such distinction is made in the original language.

( Source: Dramabeans )

3. Feminism through Translation

Via Korean Modern Literature in Translation, I’ve found a review of Theresa Hyun’s Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period (2003), which begins thus (my emphasis):

Theresa Hyun’s Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period takes up the intriguing and fresh theme of the woman translator in colonial Korea. Although it is commonplace to argue that Western notions of feminism were translated into Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, this is the first study to examine this process through the historical figure of the woman translator. Translation here is no metaphor, but a material practice through which women transform themselves and Korean writing. Women, the author argues, made a decisive contribution to the development of modern Korean nationalism and feminism through their translation activities and their own fiction writing, which developed in correlation with their translation practice.

4. The Millennium Trilogy

Not strictly related to Korea, but naturally I became very interested in buying these books after reading the following review at The Global Sociology Blog:

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy should be required reading in any sociology of gender course because it is a strong demonstration of the way patriarchy works at all levels of society: individual, interactive, institutional, structural and cultural.

The whole trilogy is a fictional demonstration of what happens to women who don’t know their place and won’t conform to patriarchally-established gender roles and even worse to those who fight back against patriarchal control….

Have any readers read them? I’d really appreciate hearing from you before I buy them!

( “The Woman Who Shaves”. Source )

Body Image

5. Leg Shaving

From Drifting Focus, a blog by a former teacher in Korea:

Women are constantly told by the media, our mothers, and our friends that men don’t like women who don’t shave their legs.  “You won’t find a man that way” they say. I call bullshit.

I would have predicted that it would have been men who had problems with my lack of leg-shaving. Presumably, they’re the ones we shave for, right? Nope.  No man I have ever dated has had much, if any, issue with my shaving preferences.  It’s possible that they’ve just been nice, but from more in-depth conversations I’ve had about that habit with them, that does not seem to be the case.  They simply don’t really care as long as it’s not “totally out of control”.

So where does this “huge amount of flack” that I’ve gotten over the years come from?  Well, that’s the surprising part: other women.

Read the rest here. With the proviso that Northeast Asians don’t tend to have as much body hair as other ethnicities, would readers say that that is also the case in Korea?

6. “What? Use some NORMAL-sized models??? I quit!”

Sociological Images looks at the issues raised when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week in February, which prompted his stylist and creative director to quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements. As they explain, it is “possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career,” but on the other hand it says a great deal about an industry “that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, ” that “it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.”

Can anybody think of any similar initiatives and/or reactions in the Korean fashion industry?

7. Koyote’s Shin-ji has no plans to go on a diet

Nice to see a positive role model for a change:

As is evident through K-pop’s many girl groups, Korea’s entertainment industry consists of a long line of ridiculously thin girls. (It doesn’t help that netizens are hawks when it comes to capturing the slightest bit of belly fat). In a recent interview, Koyote’s (커요태) Shin-ji (신지), who is known in Korea for being more on the chubby side, was asked if she was ever saddened by the harsh comments and jokes she received regarding her weight.

Shin-ji answered:

“I feel blessed to be a singer that older audiences like. In the past when I was thin, many said that it was unattractive. Now, I don’t plan on going on any diets. It really damages your body. Since I debuted when I was in my teens, I received a lot of stress regarding diets. It really weakened my health. These days, if I were to diet I would not be able to endure.“

Read the rest at allkpop. Admittedly the image above is a little old (source), but then much thinner celebrities are also regularly criticized for their weight: see #28 here for instance).


8. Queer in Seoul

The 3 Wise Monkeys pass on a rare 2005 overview of the evolution of the gay community in Seoul over the last few decades.  As explained there, “Gabriel Sylvian, the founder and torch-bearer of the Korean Gay Literature Project at Seoul National University, recommended it for all readers to get an idea of the LGBT life in the capital.”

9. Queer in China

Over at The Peking Duck, Richard discusses an article entitled A modern tragedy: Pressure on Chinese gays to marry that he was surprised to see in his local Arizona(!) newspaper. Meanwhile, Gender Across Borders provides a review of Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary by Fran Martin:

…Exploring popular media produced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, author Fran Martin addresses the ways in which same-sex love between women is commonly depicted, and the ways in which those depictions simultaneously reinforce and challenge the conventional discourse on homosexuality in China.

On the surface, many of the novels, television dramas, and films Martin analyzes do not appear to be particularly transgressive. A common theme among the media she explores is memory; stories of same-sex desire between women are often presented as a fleeting childhood fantasy, something that perpetually exists in the past and can never be fully realized by adults in the present…

10. Snakes are victim of men’s search for sexual prowess

See The Korea Times for the current mania for snake soup in Korea, openly praised by some celebrities despite snake soup restaurants being illegal and many of the snakes endangered spaces.

While I usually try to avoid generalizing and stereotyping, I can’t help but always be simultaneously amazed and appalled at how virtually anything that’s phallic is considered an aphrodisiac in this part of world.

11. Korea’s Low Birth Rate Continues to Decline

When even government-propaganda channel Arirang begins to report the following, things must indeed have reached crisis proportions (paraphrased slightly):

…according to the government’s internal assessment report on childcare policy, new measures lean too heavily towards childcare support and fail to address other major issues such as the disadvantages women face at work after taking maternity leave. Fear of discontinuities in their careers is currently the second biggest reason why Korean women refuse to have more than one child.

The other major problem with government policies mentioned is that financial aid is heavily targeted towards low-income families, with little funds left over for middle-class families that comprise 65% of the population. This is discussed in more depth in a Chosun Ilbo editorial.


12. Possible serial killer of sex-workers in Pohang

See Korea Beat for the details.

13. Vietnamese bride killed by mentally-ill husband after only 8 days in Korea

Like the original Dong-A Ilbo report from Monday says, since 2002 the man had been hospitalized or treated for depression and mental illness 57 times, so whether whether the matchmaker had prior knowledge of the man’s condition is crucial for determining wider responsibility. But however unethical, would the matchmaker actually have committed a crime?

Possibly: Extra! Korea mentions that police are investigating, but an editorial in The Chosun Ilbo also says that only from November must they “unveil records of previous marriages, health conditions, occupations and criminal histories of both the brides and grooms,” so the issue of criminal fault remains a little unclear. Regardless though, there will still be no way to check the validity of information about grooms provided from November, and the industry as a whole remains very unregulated, with virtually anyone able to open an international matchmaking business: 44% of the 1250 companies in Korea are staffed by just one person (and 33% by husband and wife teams), the ensuing intense competition not exactly encouraging companies to make their clients look any less marriage-worthy.

On a slight positive note though, the government now requires all prospective Korean grooms to attend “marriage ethics” classes before heading overseas to find wives (image source).

( Source )

14. Curbing Sex-Offenders

From The Korea Herald, an update (see #3 here) on moves to enact retroactive legislation aimed at sex-offenders in the wake of a perceived spate of sex crimes against children and teenagers:

Prosecutors will be able to request that sex offenders who were not already given an electronic anklet be electronically tagged after a legal revision takes effect Friday.

The revision allows authorities to retroactively apply the anklet to criminals convicted before the law took effect in 2008.


Some, however, argue that the anklet is not the answer.

Earlier this year, a convicted rapist cut off his anklet and escaped, though he did not commit any other offense before he was apprehended.

The ministry will introduce stronger anklets by the end of August, said officials.

The new law has met some criticism for the retroactive application of the anklet system.

Meanwhile, KBS announced that the police are also going to enlist the (volunteer) help of community leaders to protect youths, and last month a law for allowing chemical castration as a possible punishment for child sex offenders was passed in South Korea. See The Marmot’s Hole for more details.

Work & Economy

15. Young People Face Continued Employment Crisis

Further compelling young Korean adults to live with their parents until marriage, recent improvements in the economy that have meant that more than 10 million Koreans are legally regular workers for the first time have largely bypassed those in their 20s or 30s, the only demographic still losing jobs. And to add insult to injury, not only was the minimum wage only raised 8 won (US$0.01!) last month, but 4 in 10 young people stuck in irregular and part time work weren’t even getting that anyway.

Hell, no wonder they have to be specially taught to smile at customers (source).

16. “More college girls work part time at massage parlors performing sexual services”

And who can blame them considering the above?

17. S Korea posts lowest employment rate for educated women among OECD countries

See here for details. Also recall from this book that in 1998 at least, the more educated a woman was the less likely she was to be employed, the only country in the OECD in which this phenomenon occurred. As far as I am aware, this is still the case today.

18. Korea lags behind in economic opportunities for women

Not unsurprisingly in light of the above, compare Korea’s latest dismal figures from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey with the UNDP’s “gender empowerment measure” last year also (see #2 here), both of which demonstrate that despite living in a developed country, in fact women in many developing countries have far more political and economic power.

This is both cause and effect of Korea being one of the rare exception to the worldwide “mancession”, which prompted headlines like “Is female dominance a success for feminism?” in many US feminism blogs. Also see The Wall Street Journal‘s report on Japan for an alternative sense of perspective, as it is a country with many of the same structural and ideological impediments to women’s employment; as you read how bad it is there, bear in mind that unfortunately the Korea situation is actually much worse!

19. Korea lacks gender-parity in education

This graph came as a big surprise, as I’ve frequently read that the equal provision of education to both sexes was one of Korea’s crowning achievements of the post-war period:

Originally found via Surprises Aplenty, the graph comes from Marginal Revolution, which unfortunately has only a minimal discussion of it. Assuming that the result is accurate (Korea is the green dot at the top left), then what do you think accounts for the gender difference?

East Asia & Overseas Koreans

20. Twenty-three percent of female homestay students from East Asian countries reported being sexually abused in Canada

Much more complicated than that headline suggests however, see Extra! Korea for an excellent summary for a summary of all the newspapers on the topic, and The Marmot’s Hole’s post for its typically vociferous (but often informative) comments thread.

21. Japan split over granting married women the right to their maiden names

A big difference with Korea, where married women retain their names, unfortunately the Democrats’ plans to allow this have stalled in light of recent political setbacks. See The China Press for more details.

( Source: Korean Lovers Photoblog )

Enjoy the rest of your weekend folks!

Prosecutors will be able to request that sex offenders who were not already given an electronic anklet be electronically tagged after a legal revision takes effect Friday.The revision allows authorities to retroactively apply the anklet to criminals convicted before the law took effect in 2008.


22 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. #3 on the Pop culture section looks awesome! I just took a class on translation and east asian literature, and we talked about this topic a lot in the Japanese and chinese contexts, but Korean examples were scarce. i think Theresa Hyun is one of the few people writing in English about women translators in Korea, or translation in korea in general. will definitely be checking that book out. i also really like that Dramabeans series – very informative


    1. Ahem…to be frank I thought it sounded a little dry myself, but your enthusiasm for it is a little infectious!^^

      Regardless though, there’s so few gender-related books on Korea out there anyway that it would have been quite strange if I hadn’t picked it up in the next couple of years anyway…


      1. LOL to be honest if I hadn’t taken that class i wouldn’t be this interested, and i didn’t even really begin to appreciate the topic until the end of the semester anyway… if you do end up reading it, be warned that the translation theory can get pretty boring. The history and feminist theory is always interesting, though


  2. James, I really enjoyed the Millennium series. If you’re going to be on-campus in the next little while, I will put the first one on your desk. I think the Swedish title is something like, “Men who hate women”. There are a lot of men who have issues with women but it was only when I read the second one that I could see a clear trend. I am not sure if the trend is about ‘men who hate women’ or ‘don’t mess with Salander!’

    Anyway, I like the books enough to want to keep them, but you’re definitely welcome to borrow them. Again, the first one will be on your desk later this week.
    About the gender parity school life expectancy: First, what’s up with Australia? Averaging 21 years of education? Hmm. 12 years of public schooling, add on a year each of pre-school and kindergarten…and another year of pre-school. Does the average Australian have a Master’s degree?

    In Korea, do women go to university for bachelor’s degrees and men for professional degrees? I took my son to the hospital recently (he’s fine, it was jus a check up) and there was a woman in the doctor’s office. I didn’t say, “Nurse, when will the doctor be here?” but I was a little surprised.

    Or, is military service somehow included as education?


    1. Was very confused with your comment until I read more of your blog sorry, which I only just found via Koreabridge a couple of days ago: I had absolutely no idea you were my coworker! Summer greetings from the 5th floor staffroom then, albeit via a rather unusual route!

      Thanks very much for the offer of the loan, but I’m not back at work until August, teaching brats delightful children for an hour 3 times a week. And besides which, I’m a real posession freak when it comes to books, and would probably particularly want to hold on to a copy of these ones to pull juicy quotes from for years to come. Also helps that they’re all less than 10,000 won from What The Book too of course.

      Look forward to chatting about them with you next semester.

      Update – Oops, almost forgot. Yeah, there’s so many uncertainties with that graph that it’s virtually useless really. In hindsight, I shouldn’t really have bothered posting it.


  3. 1. leg shaving:

    I don’t shave, except in the summer, but I have very little hair on my legs anyway. It has never been an issue with men of any nationality.

    2. plus-sized models

    Size 8-10 is NOT plus-sized in the US. Plus sizes officially begin after size 16, but this does not take height into account. My perception of overweight starts at a lower weight than US BMI charts and at a much lower weight than the perceptions of many other women, judging by comments about who’s fat and who’s not. A 5’2″ woman who wears a size 8 is a little overweight. She probably weighs around 60 kig if that helps you visualize. Jessica Simpson is 5’2″ and probably weighs a bit over 60 kg, mostly due to big boobs made even bigger by implants. Take out the implants, and she would be a size 8 at around 60 kg. Jennifer Love Hewitt was probably around the same size and weight when the infamous photos of her in a black bikini were taken. She is a classic pear whereas Jessica Simpson is a classic apple with implants. I’m 5’2″ with an adult weight fluctuation of 10 pounds give or take, so it’s pretty easy for me to estimate the weights of these women.

    A 5’8″ woman wearing a size 8 is NOT even close to overweight.

    Those plus-sized models in the photos are indeed plus-sized. If they are as tall as other models, and they appear to be, they do not wear size 8-10, I’m sure of that. Taking height into account, I would estimate those women to wear size 12-14.

    What bugs me about this whole plus-sized model issue is that it’s just token diversity to stir up controversy. Where the heck are the average sized models? A few Rubenesque tokens alongside rail-thin women with masculine faces is hardly an improvement. I quit buying women’s fashion magazines a long, long time ago because I could not relate to the models or their clothes. A fashion show featuring women with fit bodies, not too thin, not overweight. Now THAT would be shocking!


    1. One more thing to add: before the rise of online clothing retailing, a few vendors of petite clothing used to publish catalogs. I LOVED seeing pictures of clothes worn by shorter women. It helped me judge whether the garment or outfit would flatter my proportions. Petite models are even rarer than plus-sized models as many clothing chains specializing in those sizes use such models. Very few stores specialize in petite clothing. Most petite clothing is sold as a size option for regular clothes modeled by tall women.


      1. Thanks for the clarifications and information (I know very little about women’s clothing really), and my bad for the “plus-sized models” point, which I copied almost verbatim from the post from Sociological Images without thinking much about it.


  4. These books had been getting rave reviews, and so I read “the girl with the tattoo dragon” to try it out. I felt that the writer was screaming “women are mistreated, raped and degraded in Sweden and it’s WRONG!!” but not following through with a story that backed up that claim. His main character was supposed to represent an alternative, forward-thinking man. However, he was still a flat character, dismissive, and casual in his relationships with women. The characters were all caricatures of what you think they should be– over the top, unchanging, stagnant. It tried to educate the reader about rape statistics but was just a rape fantasy novel where the main character hooks up with lots of women but is supposed to be sympathetic because the sex is consentual. But he’s still just a chauvinist who’s convinced he’s not. It was mostly disappointing and generic.


  5. These things are getting a bit hefty, wouldn’t you say?

    Why not chop them in, say, half…. easier for retards like me to comprehend it all, and you’d have more posts….





    1. Yeah, this one definitely got a bit out of hand. But still, I like having as wide a mix of stories as possible: it encourages discussion over the weekends when I post them, and they replace my now quietly retired Open Threads (which never really took off unless I provided some topics for discussion).


  6. More than two months after you posed this, I just read something interesting about Stieg Larson. As you may recall, he died before his Millennium series was published.
    Via CBC’s The Current (Oct 12, 2010), under Swedish law, the books and the millions they have earned belong to his brother and father: his life partner is now fighting for some recognition – ironic that a woman would have to fight the patriarchy for her due regarding these books! – Oh, whatever she might be due, I guess would be more accurate but less sensational.


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