Korean Gender Reader

( Source )

1) Double-standards when marketing sex-themed movies?

Anybody else looking forward to seeing the comedy Pretty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스) next month?

I think it looks like fun myself. And with a very egalitarian first couple of promotional posters, featuring both “sexperts” in their underwear, then I’d hesitate to begin describing the promoters as sexist bigots.

But still, the above is the second poster now to have actress Choi Kang-hee (최강희) wearing a much more risqué costume and/or showing much more skin than actor Lee Seon-gyun (이선견). And this imbalance is repeated across most of the adults-only section of the movie website too:

( Source )

Sure, it’s hardly the most egregious case out there, and javabeans does give kudos to the movie for at least “letting the girl be the aggressor”. But it does raise the interesting issue of how sex-themed movies (presumably) aimed at both sexes seem to be marketed as if they were just for a male gaze, and not just in Korea.

Recall some of the posters for Ogamdo (오감도; see #8 here) last year for instance, which led some female commenters over at DramaBeans to worry that watching it would simply be a waste of time for them:

( Source )

But regardless of if that did turn out to be the case or not (I haven’t seen it myself), can anyone think of any promotional material for similar sex-themed films that fetishized the male form just as much as the female one? Or is only the latter effectively the default and almost universal choice?

2) Filipino student kicked out of Korean university for being gay

Read the details at KoreaBeat. To be precise, he is being kicked out of his dormitory, which effectively means he is being kicked out of the university because his scholarship is contingent upon his residence there.

3) “Life is Beautiful” broke barriers for gays

The JoongAng Daily interviews veteran television writer Kim Soo-hyun (김수현), whose drama Life is Beautiful (인생은 아름다워) was the first to portray a gay couple on Korean prime-time television.

Also see #3 here for more information about depictions of homosexual relationships on Korean television in general (or rather the lack thereof), and #1 here for a recent controversy surrounding the shooting of the drama in a church.

4) Korean schools’ rules on dating and physical contact between students of the opposite sex

I kid you not: not only did 81% of middle and high-schools surveyed have them, but they’re both very detailed and regularly enforced, recently “a male and female student of a high school in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, [receiving] a penalty of three-day service in school for their standing within 50 centimeters of each other at a bus stop” for instance.

See The Hankyoreh for further details. Naturally, there’s no mention of any rules for dating and physical contact between students of the same sex.

5) What socializes and sustains deferential behavior in Koreans?

Neo-Confucian deference to males is at the core of Korea’s poor gender relations, and to outside observers it is often both frustrating and confounding how it persists despite its fundamental conflict with most other ideologies that Koreans espouse to, such as democracy, liberalism, and feminism.

As Gord Sellar discusses here though, recent studies show that part of the answer may be because what one is socialized to at an early age literally becomes hardwired into the brain.

Take this quick quote from Tufts Magazine’s article on the studies, with Gord Sellar’s emphases. And at the very least, I am now intrigued by the implications for understanding Korean advertising:

… what accounts for strong differences in preferences, leading to very different actions in the real world?

Part of the answer might lie in a similar set of studies done by Freeman. He measured the brainwaves of American and Japanese subjects who were shown silhouettes of bodies in postures categorized as “dominant” and “subordinate” (for example, one of someone standing tall with arms crossed and another of someone with head bowed and arms hanging). “It’s been known for a long time that Western cultures encourage dominance and Japanese cultures more subordination in line with collectivist thinking,” Freeman says. “I was looking to see if these East Asians and Westerners perceive dominant and subservient bodies in a different way.”

The results, published in the journal Neuroimage in April 2009, indicate that here, too, people often travel the same route yet end up at destinations miles apart. The silhouettes matching cultural preferences activated another distinct area of the brain in both groups: the limbic reward system. This is the system that releases dopamine into the bloodstream in response to pleasurable stimuli such as drugs, sex, or food. But it’s also engaged whenever the brain wants to tell the body to go after something in the outside world—to pick up a desired cup of coffee or grab a favorite magazine off the rack.

( Source: Pink Tentacle )

7) Top 60 popular Japanese words/phrases of 2010

This selection from Pink Tentacle may seem like a strange choice here at first. But like our discussion of 2009 Korean buzzwords demonstrates, many do ulitmately make it over to Korea.

Here’s my vote for the first of those 60 to do so:

28. Yama girl [yama gaaru – 山ガール]: Yama girl (“mountain girl”) refers to a new breed of fashion-conscious outdoor women who wear cute yet functional mountain skirts, colorful leggings and stylish boots while hiking, camping and communing with nature.

7) The dashed dreams of a Gyopo woman

An interesting, if somewhat bitter-sounding take on dating in Korea from the perspective of a Gyopo woman. Anybody have an opinion on how representative her experiences are?

8) Divine proportions in male nipple re-positioning

Not strictly related to Korea sorry, but from what I can gather from the article at io9 says, this is a very underdeveloped field that is only set to grow as societies become more obese. And given existing Korean expertise in cosmetic surgery and its ambitions for medical tourism, then it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a procedure regularly offered in Korea within the next 5 years.

9) Jessica of Girls’ Generation most popular celebrity among Korean lesbians

That’s according to an article in Come Together, a magazine published by Yonsei University’s LGBT club which claims to be “Korea’s first campus association for gay college students.”

Yes, I think it’s an interesting name for a magazine too.

10) Midnight Sun (미드나잇 선) music video by F.CUZ (포커즈) released

But more notable for the way it was promoted, which was by the now standard practice of pre-releasing an overtly sexual teaser of it with the aim of gaining publicity for it by getting it banned and/or generating controversy:

I am unsure if it was actually banned sorry – I’ve been a little distracted the last few weeks – but the finished product is definitively much tamer:

Like Johnelle at SeoulBeats notes of it though, “it’s funny how in almost every Korean (and Japanese) MV that has a sexy concept they have only (or mostly) foreign girls/models tramping it up”. Do you think that’s true, or is it an exaggeration? I can say that it’s definitely the case for advertisements and the print media, but unfortunately I find it difficult to keep up with most K-pop these days.

Update: Gord Sellar saw Pretty Romance, and wishes he’d walked out after 20 minutes!

p.s. Good to be blogging again!^^


29 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. In the F.Cuz teaser, with the two girls kissing, it does seem like one of them is Korean, although her face can hardly be seen. In this case it wasn’t banned, because as far as I understand it’s only released on the web (I saw it pop up on several Korean video streaming sites) and nothing is banned there. The music video was released just a day or two later. So it was really purely a promotional strategy, knowing full well that they couldn’t release a full video with the same content and have it broadcast on regular TV. Not a bad strategy if I may say so, for a relatively low-key rookie group they got a LOT of discussion going on k-pop sites.


    1. Thanks very much for the extra information. And I agree that the strategy is logical too, although I do think we’ll soon come to the point (if we haven’t already) that that particular strategy will backfire, as there’s only so many times a group or groups in general can use it before it becomes boring and routine, and at which point the emphasis on hype and marketing rather than on quality of the music itself becomes all the clearer. Not that I’m necessarily saying that that applies to F.Cuz of course, although the song or MV doesn’t do it for me personally.

      As for seeing a Korean woman in the teaser and/or MV, I think it’s actually quite rare not to have any at all in. But then even having 50/50 Western and Korean women is really quite strange in a Korean MV, let alone 90/10 or even more.


  2. Like Johnelle at SeoulBeats notes of it though, “it’s funny how in almost every Korean (and Japanese) MV that has a sexy concept they have only (or mostly) foreign girls/models tramping it up”. Do you think that’s true, or is it an exaggeration?

    No I don’t think it is an exaggeration. I’ll have to go and mull over this but that was my first reaction.


      1. Thanks as well! Thought it over and still haven’t changed my mind, I needed proof to back it up with.

        RE: Top 60 popular Japanese words and phrases, did you notice K-pop was on that list? Do Korean buzzwords ever make it over to Japan?

        RE: The dashed hopes of a Gyopo woman, I never would have thought the interview was made up but I found it weird the way the woman was characterised as ‘The Angry Gyopo Woman’ from the start of ‘interview’ before we even get to know what made her angry in the first place.

        Congratulations with Boston by the way!


        1. Thanks. I did notice K-pop on the list, and it will be interesting to see if the mania for it there at the moment will make any Korean words crossing over, but I don’t know of any that have done so previously. Surely at least some must have done so over the last few decades though?

          But either way, there is quite a big imbalance. It reminds me of how Japan has been [and in many senses still is] the cultural metropole for the rest of East Asia for most its postwar history, a persistent theme of books like Recentering globalization: popular culture and Japanese transnationalism by Kōichi Iwabuchi (2002) and Cultural studies and cultural industries in northeast Asia: what a difference a region makes by Chris Berry, Nicola Liscutin, Jonathan D. Mackintosh (2010) if anyone’s interested in reading more about it.


    1. Do you mean the teaser? If so then I quite agree, although I won’t lie and pretend that I couldn’t help watching it a couple of times nonetheless. But still, it’s definitely more “sexual” than “sexy” really.


    2. I couldn’t help but not care about the quality of music, not care about whether it’s suspect marketing and just made for shock value/easy PR, and just think “well I’m glad there’s some lesbian scenes in a mainstream production”.


      1. Oh, I hear you, but the same logic about overusing them applies, and indeed lesbian scenes are already very common in MVs, Abracadabra by the Brown Eyed Girls and Because of You by AfterSchool being 2 that instantly come to mind (although admittedly they’re not quite as full-on as in that teaser).


  3. Re: the Angry Gyopo Woman interview

    I’m calling BS. It’s merely a composite of stereotypes about gyopo women. They’re not exactly the endangered species that the author/”interviewer” makes them out to be, and even the most classically “OC” girls I knew at UCLA don’t talk like that. Really, the author is ticking off every single nasty stereotype he can: demanding, racist, picky, not as pretty and put together as “real” Korean girls, and locked in some kind of neverending battle over the gyopo boys (at which point he throws in a whole new set of stereotypes).

    Re: gender socialization – another study has been making the rounds, this time published in Child Development, on the effect that merely telling preschoolers to segregate by gender had on their attitudes:


    Re: Pretty Romance
    I’m just not as enthused about those first posters as you are . . . but then, the whole premise of the movie kind of annoys me. Seriously, WHY CAN’T SHE JUST BE A REAL SEX COLUMNIST?!?! WHY DOES A DUDE NEED TO INSTRUCT HER IN THE WAYS OF SEXY?!? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARG.

    Ok, meltdown over.

    I’m super annoyed with the newer posters though. I don’t think they’re positing her as some kind of strong woman who knows what she wants. They’re showing her as an agressive woman who is plainly turning the man off.

    In ALL the posters, even when she’s alone, she’s still meant to be a sex object (yes, even when the stupid poster is labeling her as inexperienced and unsexy). He’s showing skin, but it’s hardly exciting or tantalizing, and his pose plainly shows that he is turned off by something. She’s sexy to look at for the viewer, but not for him, because she’s plainly after him.

    One final “ugh” – what the hell is she wearing in that poster? Is she seriously dressed in a fake fur leotard?!? I take it back . . . . maybe he’s not turned off so much by her agression as he is by that hideous thing she’s wearing?


    1. Ugh, I just went through the rest of the site. Prestige is some nasty stuff (masquerading as humor) and the interview is completely fake.


      1. Yeah. I was hesitant about linking to the interview considering “her” opinions about various races at least, but I have to admit I was still fooled into thinking it was real though.

        Will reply properly when I’m home from work.


        1. And now I’m finally back at home…

          Re: Pretty Romance

          Oh, I’m not “enthused” about the first posters at all, it’s just that at least what they’re wearing in those are in stark contrast to the poster I include in today’s post and other images etc. on the website as you noted (although the difference in the last one I linked to a few weeks ago may just have been a mistake though, and not that big of a deal anyway really).

          I fully agree about it being strange that she can’t be a real sex columnist. It reminds me of Shortbus in that sense, because in that the main character is a sex therapist despite never having acheived an orgasm herself…and the instant I found that out, I lost all interest in watching the movie.

          It’s interesting that I don’t feel so dismissive of Pretty Romance though. In hindsight, I guess I apply much higher standards to Western movies, especially those on sexual themes.

          Re: Angry Gyopo Woman interview

          By coincidence, the author of The Prestige just wrote a post explaining why some of his posts are true and some not and why he doesn’t indicate which is which: basically, to satire various absurdities and stereotypes of Korean life etc. And to be frank, often he does that very well, and it takes me a few moments to realize he’s writing a spoof. But in this case, I was fooled because I didn’t realize he was satrizing some absurdity or stereotype about Korean life…because I’d never heard of them myself. And naturally so considering that they exist mostly in his own mind, and now that I know that then I think this particular “interview” at best really misses the mark as a satire, and at worst is completely pointless and offensive.

          Re: gender socialization

          Thanks for the link!


          1. Actually, considering the tangled relationship orgasm has to intercourse and sexual pleasure, and the fact that the character in question is really portrayed as a couple’s councilor, not sex therapist, I’m willing to cut Shortbus some slack. You could actually probably be an accomplished couple’s councilor or even a sex therapist without having experienced an orgasm. On the other hand, a fake sex columnist? How could you possibly be a “fake” sex columnist? Either you know enough about sex and relationships to write about them, or you don’t. My guess is that she’s a virgin (although the 20% “experience” rating on her individual poster would seem to negate that?)

            I wasn’t aware of the stereotypes about Korean-American women until I moved to LA for grad school, and it was most current among the Korean-American students themselves . . . even though no one I knew there fit the supposed mold. Oh well. But Prestige certainly follows the path to fail that most of the English-language blogs purporting to satarize Korean social life go down. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” it ain’t. Repeating slurs and stereotypes while saying that Korean society sucks isn’t clever, isn’t useful, and isn’t satire. Prestige wasn’t trying to engage and criticize how anybody views and interacts with Korean-American women, just as Blackout Korea isn’t trying to get Koreans or anybody else to think about and re-evaluate the role of alcohol in Korean society. They’re not really engaging with the society they purport to be examining, just bitching in an echo chamber. And in many cases, it’s just an excuse to say all kinds of horrifically racist and sexist things under the guise of “humor.”


          2. I hear you about Prestige, and how one could possible be a “fake” sex columnist. But to cut myself some slack about Shortbus(!) though, the Wikipedia entry on her does describe her as just as much a sex therapist as a couple councilor sorry.

            Still, we’ll have to agree to disagree on being able to be “an accomplished…sex therapist without having experienced an orgasm.” After all, if a woman is unable to have an orgasm with her partner (which I imagine is one of the main if not the overwhelming reason a couple sees a sex therapist), then it’s either because she is reluctant (or too scared, or too nervous, etc.) to discuss with him or her what exactly she wants, and/or it’s because she actually doesn’t know what to ask him or her to do because she doesn’t know what she wants herself.

            And so, if I were the woman or her partner in that latter situation, then of course like a male therapist, a female therapist that hadn’t experienced an orgasm could still give lots of book advice and practical wisdom from other patients/clients etc., but still: I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d much rather receive help from a female therapist that had (successfully) gone through the process of following her own advice about that herself, or at the very least was still actively trying to. Sure, she could just say she had experienced an orgasm to her patients, most of whom would be none the wiser, but although of course I don’t think the whole gamut of human sexuality should just be reduced to achieving an orgasm or not, I don’t think someone who hasn’t experienced one can properly understand the passions and emotions sex arouses in people, or indeed how it could be more than a simply like any other form of physical affection, or even a chore or their “wifely duty”.

            p.s. Sorry for any typos, which I’ve just realized there were loads of in the post I just put up!


          3. But some women just *don’t* have orgasms, and a huge number don’t have them through partnered intercourse. If she isn’t having one with her partner, it may have nothing to do with lack of communication or knowledge or discomfort with her partner. It may just be the status quo. I think this is easy for men to miss, because most men do orgasm (or at least are expected to) pretty much every time, which definitely doesn’t jive with women’s experiences of sex and orgasm. I agree that having a therapist who *has* experienced orgasm is probably preferable to one who hasn’t . . . but considering the great range of women’s orgasmic experiences, even a therapist who does have experiences of their own may not be able to apply it directly to the patient’s case. By the same token, I wouldn’t assume that a gay male sex therapist wouldn’t be able to help me as a straight female, just that they’d be drawing on something other than their own personal experiences of sex to help me. In fact, while not a licensed sex therapist, propably the best known popular sex advice columnist in the US is Dan Savage, a gay man.
            Which brings us back to the idea of being a “fake” sex columnist, I suppose that a virgin is entirely capeable of giving perfectly reliable and useful information on sex. Certainly most sex columns nowadays address a range of issues and events that they’ve probably never personally confronted. Sue Johansen, one of my absolute favorites, certainly doles out advice to people who aren’t heterosexual grandmothers. Mind you, I’d still find it kind of weird and suspect . . . but not perhaps impossible.


      2. Same thoughts (there’s no way that’s real, and that guy is … not nice). In my imagination he looks like Privilege Denying Dude.


    1. Thanks for passing that on. I’ve often considered covering it on the blog, but as it’s only indirectly related to Korean gender issues, and already covered so well by other bloggers, I’ve decided to give it a pass. But see here, here, here, and here (for starters) if you’re interested in learning more about it.


  4. Funny thing about Ogamdo posters. Which one of the esteemed actresses in this omnibus film was the nude woman on the poster?

    ANSWER: None of them. Some random model posed for it.

    There is actually barely any nudity in the film. That is pretty refreshing for a Korean arthouse film about sex.

    Now, I notice advertising for sex-centric Korean movies differ depending on the genre:

    1.) The Mass Market Sex Drama/Comedy (i.e. Changing Partners)

    These tend to be equal opportunity for marketing reasons. You have a great looking Korean guy in various states of undress for the ladies along with a great looking Korean woman in various states for the men. A lot of Korean couples tend to watch these together.

    For Pretty Romance, maybe the men need more reassurance that the woman will be wearing very little at some point in the film? Something other than my bathroom rug?

    2.) The Arthouse Film (i.e. La Belle, Vegetarian)

    Advertisements and posters usually center around the women since obsession (about a woman or by a woman) is a common topic in these kinds of Korean movies. The male lead usually shares the spotlight with the female but is rarely shown by himself. The movies themselves are pretty democratic about nudity for the male and female leads. These movies usually have a strong, or at least vocal online, female viewership.

    These arthouse movies also make you wonder if the nude modeling industry in South Korea is huge. It seems that just about other damn plot involves a guy feeling jealous because the love interest is a nude model or the female lead feeling inadequate because she or her lover works with nude models.

    3.) The Erotic Thriller (i.e. Temptation of Eve, imagine a bunch of Koreans remaking Basic Instinct… four times over)

    Whether the female is the protagonist or the femme-fatale, the focus is almost always on the women. It’s not that different from American and European erotic thrillers.

    For the Temptation of Eve movies, I’ve read that women were a big demographic which helped the movies get huge ratings on cable television (the movies were shown on the Korean equivalent of HBO before a limited theater release). It makes you wonder if the seduction and adultery aspects were attractive to them. Half of the male leads in those movies aren’t young or particularly sexy looking.


    1. Almost completely off topic, but I would like to warn people away from Vegetarian. It was awful beyond belief – like somebody picked the very worst script from a pile of rejected first-year film student contributions, and decided to chuck some money at it. I was invited to a pre-release screening where several people walked out, and all but about five people declined to stay for the Q&A with the director. I would have left early on myself if I hadn’t been stuck in the middle of a row. Agonizingly bad.


  5. Good to know Come Together is still around. The group got started back in the 90s with support from a few gay and lesbian foreign English instructors and students. Yonsei is an especially tough place for a student or a faculty member to be openly gay as Yonsei is a Christian mission school that used to have compulsory chapel attendance and may still require it.


    1. They still do.
      For a bit more in English, a few issues of the Yonsei Annals indicate that there’s a lot of questioning of the requirement, but it seems to be firmly in place. You have to love an article that basically says, “The content is confused, boring, and useless, students hate going and don’t pay attention, it interferes with other studies, and may possibly trample on human rights. We should definitely keep this valuable part of our education in place.”


  6. In terms of using foreign models, it could also be that Korean models refuse. I was reading a blog of a foreign model in Seoul. She got the opportunity to take part in Big Bang’s GD and TOP’s upcoming High High mv.

    On the 2nd day of shooting, there were suppose to be foreign models and Korean models. The foreign models were wearing waitress outfits (I think, don’t quote me on this one) and the Korean models were suppose to wear Play Boy bunny outfits -this goes with the whole mv theme cause they even had sent Play Boy bunny invitations out. However, according to the foreign model the Korean models refused to wear the bunny outfits because it was too sexy. So they were not put into the scene and she and the other foreign models wore the bunny outfits too for the mv because they didn’t mind.

    That could be part of the reason why it’s mostly foreign models that wear provocative clothing and do provocative things in Korean media -Korean models refusing to do it because they find it demeaning.


    1. Sorry for the long delay in replying!

      I know the blog you mean, and yeah, Korean models refusing to do certain things because they consider them demeaning undoubtedly plays a role in some cases. Indeed, Korean models refuse to do lingerie modeling because of an association with the porn industry for instance (see here and here), and that explains why that’s almost entirely done by Caucasian models in Korea.

      But with the exception of that, then I’d wager that for every Korean model that refuses to do something on the spot because it’s “too sexy”, then there’s at least 5 more that are quite happy to a phone call away, and so when time is not a concern like in the case you mention then the choice of models’ race(s) is a very deliberate choice by the creative team. In particular, when over half of models in many Korean women’s magazines are Caucasian (as explained in those links above), then there’s a lot more going on then the odd Korean model suddenly worrying about her reputation!


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