Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-pop (Updated)


Apologies for the slow posting and unanswered emails everyone, but as this post goes up I’ll be en route to the Korean Pop Culture Conference 2011 at the University of California, and preparing for the trip has taken a lot more work than I expected. But I’ll be back and blogging by Wednesday next week, and so until then I thought you might be interested in the abstract of co-author Stephen Epstein’s and my presentation topic, which – assuming no disasters – is likely to become a chapter in the forthcoming book The Korean Popular Culture Reader by Duke University Press:

Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-pop

“The hottest phrase in Korea nowadays is undeniably ‘girl group.’ But girl group fever is more than just a trend: it’s symbolic of a cultural era that is embracing the expulsion of authoritarian ideology.” So reads the content blurb for a story on the rise of girl groups in the March 2010 issue of Korea, a public relations magazine published under the auspices of the Korean Culture and Information Service. Nonetheless, despite official, top-down promotion and cheerful assertions that this phenomenon is a liberating pop movement, a reading of the lyrics and visual codes of the music videos of popular contemporary Korea girl groups raises serious questions about the empowering nature of “Girl Group Fever.” In this paper, we will engage in a close analysis of the music and videos of groups such as the Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, KARA, T-ara and the discourse that has surrounded their rise to popularity in South Korea in order to deconstruct the notion that contemporary consumer society is making a radical break from more traditional, deeply embedded power structures.


We will argue that a set of recurrent tropes in the studied media and marketing presentation of Korean girl groups undercuts claims to a progressive ethos. In particular, as we hope to demonstrate, girl group videos and lyrics often fall into one of three categories: first of all, while girl group singers can express desire in potentially empowering fashion, the viewer is generally constructed as male, and expression of desire is accompanied by a coyness and feigned innocence that returns power to men (Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” and “Oh”; T-ara’s “Like the First Time”; KARA’s “Mister”). A second set of songs and videos suggests exertion of female power, but influence is wielded through recourse to the overwhelming force of feminine sexuality that either embarrasses (After School’s “AH!”, which adds the tease of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student) or renders males helpless in its midst (The Wonder Girls “So Hot”) and thus projects the message that narcissistic desirability is the route to redress power imbalance. Finally, a number of songs have lyrical and video narratives that depict female solidarity in wreaking revenge on callous boyfriends or threatening men (2NE1’s “I Don’t Care”, The Wonder Girls’ “Irony and “Tell Me”, the latter of which has lyrics that are at odds with its visual narrative), but in doing so continue to foster the discourse of a battle between the sexes. As we will show, in noteworthy contrast to J-pop girl group videos from the dominant entertainment group Hello! Project, which emphasize the expression of youthful energy without reference to a validating or polarizing male presence, Korean popular music’s engagement with larger discursive structures has yet to break free of ideologies that pit male and female against one another (end).

(Source: Screen Capture, “Magic Station”, Asahi-TV, 15 October 2010)

Update: Very much the lens through which I’ve been writing about Korean music for the last few months, nevertheless I should really have stressed that the abstract was written almost a year ago, and indeed developments in K-pop and J-pop since then have rendered much of it out of date, let alone the opinions of my co-author and myself growing and changing as we deepened the extent of our research. Also, word limits for the paper precluded necessary related discussions of boy-bands and J-pop, with 8000 words unfortunately barely being enough to even begin to scratch the surface of the subject.

Unfortunately then, in hindsight the abstract isn’t actually a very good guide to our current opinions on the subject and/or what we’ll be presenting on Friday(!), so please understand why it’s necessary to close this post to further comments. Instead, for now at least please accept the abstract simply as something to hopefully get you thinking about possible common themes in K-pop and why they exist, and if it becomes possible then I will definitely (re)open the discussion at a later date.

Finally, my special apologies to those who already commented, and frankly I didn’t expect such a wealth of expertise to be brought to bear on the abstract so quickly!


Female Flesh Under Consumer Capitalism: Meet the Meat?

(Source: Busan Focus, 16 May 2011, p. 13)

Hey, I get it, I really do: ads that make men want the girl, can make women want to be that girl.

Hence the memorable things Lee Hyori did with a hose for Vidal Sassoon back in 2007 for instance. Or indeed this ad, which, despite the English copy, actually says that “the lunch for amazing women has started”, and then proceeds to do no more to sell to said amazing women than simply plonking Kim Sa-rang (김사랑) with a smouldering gaze on it, flanked by Lee Tae-im (이태임) with textbook hair-preening and hand on hip.

Surely there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, although being aimed at women, it’s still squarely aimed at a male gaze?

But if that’s what so bugged me about it, then critically analyzing ads would only ever be an exercise in frustration. And I’m not even against gendered marketing per se either: despite the vast majority of it having no biological basis, and also serving to create and/or reinforcing existing gender stereotypes, admittedly it does sometimes have a genuine financial logic.

Rather, it’s the sheer laziness of this ad that gets me: was this really the best T.G.I. Friday’s could have come up with to get women to eat more steak?

Also, it’s amazing how unnatural the ad suddenly appears if you mentally replace the copy with “amazing men” instead (let alone considering how the ensuing male models would pose). When I did so myself, it really hit me just how much gendered marketing is actually aimed only at women, and how many normative advertising categorizations of female consumers (e.g. Alpha Girls, Omega Girls, Gold Misses etc.) completely lack any male equivalents.

Which is an unfortunate association I now have with T.G.I. Friday’s I guess. But then they’re the ones that came up with such a lame ad!

Korean Sociological Image #59: Childcare is (Still) Women’s Job!


Do crosswalk lights with only male-shaped figures really discriminative against females? That’s a hard sell on any occasion, let alone when it would cost 21 million dollars to replace them all with both male and female ones instead, and so netizens have rightfully “responded with merciless mockery” to the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s plan. As has the cartoonist Ju Ho-min too, whose humorous extension of the city’s logic needs no translation!

Instead, a much better candidate for signs to replace would be these ubiquitous reminders that it’s only women that should look after children:

Women do look after children of course, and so technically signs like these aren’t discriminatory in themselves. But as this photo and those below make clear, they’re not just not countered by equal numbers of signs showing men taking care of children, but in fact female figures are only used when a child is also involved:

Lest I sound like I’m singling Korea out for criticism however, note that such images are almost universal, and indeed the above ones look almost exactly the same as those in Dublin airport. Moreover, once you move away from signs to language instead, then, possibly following overseas examples, actually discriminatory English slogans are sometimes chosen rather than making Korean ones, such as with airline Asiana’s “Happy Mom Services”. Or alternatively, consider the 부산국제임신출산육아박람회 that I learned about today, which would simply be “The Busan International Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Childcare Exposition” in English, but which somehow got translated as “The 9th Busan Mom & Baby Fair” instead:

As it’s not just for moms and babies if you can read the Korean though, then accordingly there are many fathers and would-be fathers featured on the website, and actually I was one of them myself back in either 2005 or 2006 before my first daughter was born. I don’t recommend going though, as I recall finding some of the services being promoted there – stillbirth insurance for example – just a little cold and off-putting!

Finally, for some Korean takes on subway signs that I managed to find, see here and here. Unfortunately, they’re a little old (2004 and 2006 respectively), which suggests that no-one’s really thought about them in a while. But on the plus side, the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s misguided plans have at least brought national attention to the issue of (potential) sexual discrimination in signs, so now may well be the best opportunity ever to suggest that something be done about them. Ideally, by using the money earmarked to change the crosswalk ones to change the subway ones instead.

If anybody knows how to go about contacting them, then that would be much appreciated!

Update: On Becoming a Good Feminist Wife has more commentary on the planned new crosswalk signs here.

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


The Grand Narrative’s Facebook Page Launched!

For about a year now, I’ve been tweeting about all the interesting Korean gender issues, advertising, and pop-culture stuff (and much more) that I don’t get a chance to blog about, but a lot of readers have suggested that it’s high time I created a Facebook page also. With apologies for the wait then, here it finally is, and I definitely hope to make it a site in its own right, not just a glorified RSS feed for the website proper.

To that end, I’ll not just be providing cool stuff that you won’t see here, and taking advantage of the opportunity to interact more with readers, but I plan to let my hair down and be a little less intellectual on Facebook too.

For instance, as a dispassionate critical commentator on Korean girl groups K-pop, normally I would never ever reveal that there’s something about Love Alone (러브얼론) above by Miss A (미스에이) that has me smiling radiantly almost every time I listen to it. Indeed, although I was initially very disappointed that there wasn’t a proper music video produced for it, now just seeing the members being themselves in it has me smiling all the more!


Granted, all of them being attractive women certainly helps,  but I genuinely think that some unique combination of the music, voices, and lyrics makes this an incredibly warm song, especially for what can often be very tinny and artificial-sounding K-pop.

Any other fans?^^ Call me naive, but I’ll be investing 660won (US$0.61) in the MP3 as soon as I finish typing this!

Update: See here for some high quality screenshots of the video.


Korean Gender Reader


1) Sunny (써니) Now Playing in Theaters

And all about girl power, according to Dramabeans. Judging by the trailer, my first impression is of a comic version of the excellent Take Care of my Cat (2001; 고양이를 부탁해).

Meanwhile, does anybody know of any similar coming-of-age movies for guys? Other than the violent and overrated Friend (2001; 친구) or pornographic Plum Blossom (2000; 청춘) that is?

2) May 11th was 6th Annual Adoption Day in Korea

See Ask a Korean! for the details. Also, Korea Real Time has more on the controversy created by soon to be aired commercials encouraging more domestic adoption.

Update: Yesterday was also the first Korean Single Moms’ Day, Busan Haps had a good photo-essay on adoption last month, and the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network has translated a December article on how unwed mothers are not necessarily poor, but society ultimately forces them to become so.

3) Only Foreign Staff Made to Attend Sexual Harassment Seminar at Korean University

After all, it was actually a Korean professor that was fired for having a sexual relationship with one of his students, so I’m sure you can see the logic. What’s more, the seminar was given by a completely unqualified speaker too, according to blogger Supplanter clearly both uncomfortable with and clueless about the subject he was presenting.

Ironically, the very next week after enduring that, Supplanter himself would be accused of sexual harassment at his local swimming pool.

4) A Normal Night Out in Seoul?

See Banana Milk to learn more about it. Call me sentimental and/or trying to (mentally) relive my twenties, but I subscribe to a lot of Seoul social, fashion, nightclubbing, and/or dance-music sites like it (in particular, M.S Photography always has *ahem* very interesting pictures), and am thoroughly jealous of people unencumbered by kids that get to actually enjoy it!

Speaking of which, tomorrow Paul Van Dyk will be performing in Seoul, only…sigh…10 years too late. See 10Magazine for the details.


5) Ending Bias Against White Male and Asian Female Couples

Like Shanghai Shiok! says:

Women with a preference for black men get a thumbs up. Women with a preference for Asian men get a thumbs up. Women with a preference for Middle Eastern men get a thumbs up. Women with a preference for white men get a thumbs down. Generally true?

Unfortunately, yes, and it took a lot of persuasion from her readers to get her to open the comments on that post!

6) “Prostitution Thrives on Twisted Entertainment Culture”

While I don’t mean to sound facetious, particularly not in light of seven bar hostesses committing suicide since last July, this is an unusually good article on the subject for the otherwise appalling Korea Times, and I look forward to reading more articles from author  Kim Tae-jong (see Extra! Korea also).

7) Korea: Sex Criminals Easily Become Taxi Drivers

Again I don’t mean to sound facetious, but, like Asian Correspondent explains, the fact that taxi-driving is one of the few occupations open to ex-convicts in Korea does explain a lot about their wild reputation.


8) Desert: A Movie About Kiwi-Asian Marriages

If you’re living in Auckland, New Zealand, make sure to see Desert while you still can. First shown at PIFF last year, it:

…reveals the untold story behind many Kiwi-Asian marriages….Based on real life events, Desert follows the story of Jenny, a young pregnant Asian girl living in Auckland who is left to fend for herself; when she is abandoned by her Kiwi boyfriend just before they are about to get married. Jenny is rejected by her Asian community for getting pregnant to a westerner out of wed-lock and after unsuccessfully searching for her run away boyfriend; she is forced to look inside herself to find a positive solution for her and her unborn baby.

Jenny’s story is a reality for the growing number of Asian women in New Zealand. The Asia NZ Foundation recently recorded that there are 26 per cent more Asian women than Asian men, aged 25 to 49, living in New Zealand and nearly a quarter came to New Zealand to get married. [Director Stephen Kang’s] inspiration for the film came from observing the struggles facing many Asian women living in New Zealand and Desert is the first film of its kind to give a platform and voice to these common challenges and personal stories.

While I take exception to the title of the article that that’s from, the movie itself sounds really interesting, and you can see its Facebook page for more details, interviews, and a trailer. There’s also its webpage of course, but unfortunately the designers made a big mistake not providing a mute button(!),  and the trailer should really have been uploaded onto YouTube too.

9) The Changing Face of Cosmetic Surgery

As always, South Koreans have the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries per person in the world, but an increasing number of people receiving them are from China and Japan: 80,000 per year in fact, with many of the most famous clinics reporting 20% growth rates in their numbers of medical tourists.

As The Economist notes, Korea is a “nation that often struggles to attract foreign visitors, [so] it is hardly surprising that the authorities have begun actively encouraging this trade. It is now aiming at a target of 400,000 such visitors in 2015”.

The author BTW, also has a fine Korean blog of his own here.

10) Skirting the Issue

For those few of you that don’t know by now, a local education board in Gangwon-do is confronting the “issue” of female school students wearing shorter and shorter skirts by…spending $700,000 installing new desks with boards to stop teachers and male students being distracted by them.

For much more on this, see (in no particular order): Gusts of Popular Feeling; the BBC; Extra! Korea; and BusanHaps. But in particular, see Michael Hurt’s comments on Facebook here (roughly the 12th down), who notes the glaring absence of the opinions of the girls themselves in most discussions.


Seniors Routinely Sexually Harass Juniors during “Membership Training”?


When I first came to Korea in 2000, I soon got used to the notion that people should use nopimmal (높임말; respectful language) to their obvious “superiors”, such as their parents and bosses. But also to friends, even if they were just a year or two older? Call me a cultural imperialist, but I still balk at the notion that such people are genuine friends, and God knows what they’d make of the usually whiskey-fueled language my late friend and I, then twice my age, would use with each other (let alone what we usually talked about).

Still, it came as a real shock to hear students using it to some of their classmates at my university, even though the recipients were only just a few months older (I asked). In fairness, that didn’t happen at all at my wife’s university when she was a student, but suffice to say that I’m no longer particularly surprised when I hear of “seniors” taking advantage of “juniors” in various forms at Korean universities. And especially not on “Membership Training” (MT), which as you probably know involves a lot of drinking and various orientation and initiation rituals, as explained in the following report:

(As translator Marilyn notes, makjang means “extreme, in a negative way”, and is usually used to describe dramas where crazy things happen. Meanwhile, with thanks to SuzyinSeoul, the “OT” in the title means “Orientation Training”, one’s first MT)

(Sources: left, right)

막장 OT? ‘학내 성희롱’의 문제 보아야 / Makjang OT?  The problem of “school sexual harassment” must be considered

성희롱문제의 사각지대에 놓인 학생간 성희롱 / Sexual harassment among students is an unseen part of the problem of sexual harassment

얼마 전 인터넷 상에서는 서울 소재 모 대학의 신입생환영회가 논란이 되었다. 지난달 26일 인터넷 포털사이트 게시판에 “대학교 오리엔테이션, 이래도 되는 건가요?”라며 오른 글이 시작이었다.

Recently, the welcoming ceremony for new students at X University in Seoul has become a controversy on the Internet.  It was started by a post, titled “At a university orientation, is this really okay?” and put up on an Internet portal site’s message board on the 26th of last month [February].

성적 수치심 느끼게 하는게임시킨 선배들 / Seniors who make games that cause [juniors] to feel sexual shame

글 쓴이는 몇 장의 사진과 함께 “오리엔테이션에서 선배들이 후배들에게 성적으로 부담스럽거나, 수치심을 느낄 수 있는 행동들을 많이 시킨다”고 고발했다. 사진 속에는 남녀 신입생들이 몸을 밀착시키고 성행위를 연상시키는 동작을 취하는 모습들이 담겨 있었다. ‘게임’을 명목으로 강요된 것이었다. 글쓴이에 따르면, 술자리에서는 “정말 심한” 벌칙들도 많았다고 한다.

The writer of the post put up several pictures and charged, “At orientation, seniors force their juniors to do sexually embarrassing or shameful things.”  In the pictures, new male and female students press their bodies against each other and make sexually suggestive movements.   This was coerced under the pretext of a “game.”   According to the post’s writer there are also many “really severe” penalties at drinking parties.

(한 포털사이트에 성적 수치심을 느끼게 하는 ‘게임’을 강요하는 ‘신입생 오리엔테이션’ 문화를 고발한 글이 올라와 논란이 일었다.)

(Caption [to above image]: A post charging that a “new-student orientation” culture forces the playing of “games” that cause sexual shame was put up on a portal site and became a controversy.)


문제의 사진들은 ‘막장 OT’라는 이름이 붙어 여러 게시판들로 퍼져나갔고, 몇몇 언론에서도 이 사건을 보도하면서 관련 학교와 학생들에게 비난이 가해졌다. 이후 사건은 해당 학교 총학생회가 사과문을 게시하는 선으로 마무리되었다.

The pictures were named “Makjang OT” and spread to several message boards, and as several media outlets reported on this story as well, the school and students involved were subjected to criticism.  After that, the student government at the university brought the incident to a close by posting a written apology.

이 사건은 인터넷 여론이 흔히 그렇듯 사건의 선정성에만 초점이 맞춰져, 관련 대학을 공격하거나 폄하하는 데에만 치중되었다는 인상을 준다. 그리고 논란의 열기는 금방 식었다.

As usual, public opinion on the Internet has focused on the sexual aspects of the story and so given the impression that it has only concentrated on attacking or disparaging the university in this area. Also, the heat of the controversy cooled down immediately.

이 사건이 문제인 것은 건전해야 할 대학 내 행사에서 선정적인 행위를 했기 때문이 아니다. 선배들의 권위를 내세워 신입생들에게 원하지 않는 성적인 행위를 강요했다는 점이 본질적인 문제다. 명백한 학내 성희롱이다.

The problem in this matter is not that there were sexual actions at university events that should be wholesome.  The essential problem is that seniors asserting their authority forced new students to do sexual actions they didn’t want to do.  This is unmistakable school sexual harassment.


하늘같은선배 작아지는 신입생들 / New students that shrink in front of ‘god-like’ seniors

이제 막 대학을 들어온 신입생과 ‘선배’들 사이에는 막강한 권력관계가 작동한다. 대학생활에서 선배는 어떤 면에서 교수보다 더 어려운 존재다. 더구나 신입생 오리엔테이션은 이제 막 대학을 입학해 어리둥절하고 동기들과도 서먹할 때 치러지니 1학년들은 선배들 앞에서 심리적으로 위축되기 쉽다. 더구나 ‘전통’이라고 우기니 ‘참아야 되나’ 헷갈리기까지 할 것이다.

These days there is a strong power-imbalance operating between students who have just started university and their “seniors.”  In university life, relationships with seniors are more difficult than those with professors in every way.  Moreover, new-student orientations happen when students, having just started university, are dazed and still unfamiliar with their peers, so it is easy for first-year students to shrivel psychologically in front of their seniors.  Furthermore, seniors insist that it’s “tradition” so students become confused and think “Maybe I have to endure this?”

성희롱은 권력관계 안에서 일어난다. 이러한 속성 때문에 남학생이 많은 과, 권위주의적이고 위계질서가 강하게 잡혀 있는 과일 수록 신입생 환영회 때 이러한 ‘게임’을 즐기는 경향이 강해지고 ‘게임’의 강도도 높아질 것이라 추측할 수 있다.


Sexual harassment arises inside power-imbalances.  Because of this attribute, it can be supposed that the more male students a department has and the more authoritarian and the stronger the hierarchical structure in the department, the stronger the tendency to enjoy this kind of “game” and the more intense the “games” are at new-student welcoming events.

시대가 변화한 부분이 있으니, 아마도 이러한 신입생 환영행사는 일반적으로 행해지는 수준의 것은 아닐 것이다. 그러나 아주 극단적인 예만도 아닌 것 같다. 관련 게시물들의 누리꾼 댓글에서도 비슷한 경험을 털어놓는 것을 심심치 않게 발견할 수 있다. 남성에게 구강성교를 해주는 여성의 모습을 연상시키는 동작을 하는 남학생들이 찍힌, 모 체육대학의 신입생 오리엔테이션 사진을 올린 이도 있었다.

Though there is the element of the changing times, this kind of new-student welcoming event probably isn’t common. However, it doesn’t seem to be an extreme example, either.  In the replies of the visitors to the message boards in question as well, it is not hard to find confessions of similar experiences.  There were also pictures from the new-student orientation at X Sport University [a university for athletes and coaches] which show male students making movements suggestive of women giving oral sex to men.


대학사회, 성희롱 문제제기 여전히 어려워 / In university culture, making sexual harassment complaints difficult as ever

이번 사건을 문제제기한 학생은 학내 게시판이 아닌, 포털사이트를 이용해 글을 올렸다. 이는 문제의 ‘게임’이 ‘전통’으로 굳어질 수 있었던 배경과 관련된다.

The student who reported this incident used a non-university portal site to put up his/her post. This is related to the setting in which the “game” in question was allowed to become “tradition.”

지난 해 1월, 소위 ‘명문대생‘이 1학년 여학생들을 성추행한 사건이 논란을 일으켰다. 당시 한 피해자가 익명게시판을 통해 문제제기 하자 다른 피해자들이 나타나면서 피해자는 20여명까지 불어났다.

In January of last year, an incident in which so-called “students of a prestigious university” sexually molested first-year female students engendered controversy.  At that time, a victim made her complaint on an anonymous message board; other victims then came forward, until their number reached around 20 women.

왜 20여명에 달하는 피해자들은 성추행을 당하고도 입을 다물고 있을 수밖에 없었을까. 여전히 성희롱‧성폭력은 대학 사회 내에서도 쉽게 공론화하기 어려운 문제이기 때문이다.

Why is it that though the number of victims who were sexually molested reached about 20, they couldn’t do anything but keep quiet?  It is because even in university society, it is still difficult to publicly discuss sexual harassment and sexual violence.


‘명문대생‘ 성추행 사건이 문제가 되었던 당시, 취업전문 포털사이트 ‘커리어’가 이틀간 대학생 768명을 대상으로 진행한 설문 조사에 따르면, 전체 여성 응답자 중 33.3%가 대학생활 중 ‘성희롱이나 성추행을 당했다’고 답했다.

When the “students of a prestigious university” incident became a problem, the job portal site “Career” surveyed 768 university students over the course of two days, and found that 33.3% of female respondents said they “have been sexually molested or harassed” during university life.

주된 가해자(복수응답)는 78.0%가 ‘선배’였다. 흔히 학내성희롱의 주된 가해자로 떠올리게 되는 ‘교수’를 지목한 대답은 33.3%였다. 대응방법을 묻는 질문에는 응답자의 66.5%가 ‘그냥 참고 넘겼다’고 답했다. 대응하지 않고 그냥 넘어간 이유는 ‘가해자와의 관계를 유지하기 위해서(66.9%)’가 가장 컸다.

The main perpetrators (more than one response possible) were “seniors,” at 78.0%.  “Professors”, who usually come to mind as the main perpetrators when one thinks of university sexual harassment, were pointed at by 33.3% of responses.  When asked how they dealt with it, 66.5% of respondents chose, “just bore it and moved past it.”  The biggest reason that they just let it go was, “To maintain a relationship with the perpetrator,” at 66.9%.

이렇듯 학생과 학생 사이에 발생되는 성희롱은 학내 성희롱 문제에 있어서 실질적으로 큰 비중을 차지하며 문제제기 하기도 어렵다. 그런데 교사와 교사, 교사와 학생 간 성희롱의 경우 성희롱 관련법의 규제의 대상이 되는 반면, 학생 간에 벌어지는 성희롱문제는 제외되고 있다. 따라서 학칙에 의존할 수밖에 없다.

Though this kind of student-on-student sexual harassment makes up a relatively large part of in-university sexual harassment, it is also hard to make a complaint.  Unlike in the case of sexual harassment between professors, or between professors and students, [public] regulations leave out sexual harassment that occurs between students.  Therefore, there is no choice but to rely on the school’s rules.


그러나 성희롱을 ‘전통’으로 미화할 수 있는 대학사회에 이러한 미온적인 처치가 얼마나 큰 변화를 이끌어낼 수 있을까.

However, in a university culture that glamorizes sexual harassment as “tradition,” how big are the changes we can hope to effect to this kind of mediocre situation?

앞서 언급한 설문조사에서 전체 응답자 중 51.3%만이 성희롱 문제해결을 위한 대학 내 전담기관이나 담당자가 있다고 답했다. 대학사회에서 학생간의 성희롱이 사각지대에 놓여 있다는 사실을 이를 통해서도 유추해볼 수 있다. 관련 대책이 시급해 보인다.

In the survey mentioned above, only 51.3% of all respondents said that there was a special organization or officer for dealing with sexual harassment in their university.  Through this, as well, we can infer the fact that sexual harassment between students in university culture is not well-recognized.  Relevant measures appear to be urgently needed.

Writer: Park Hee-jeong (박희정), 3 March 2011.


A disclaimer: I’ve never attended MT or even talked about it with students, so, students’ normal proclivities aside, I’m sure many or even most events are perfectly fine, and indeed Joe SeoulMan – ironically the source of one of the above images – has an account of a very nice, almost heartwarming one here. On the other hand, Extra! Korea argues that “it’s well-known among Koreans that sexual harassment is widespread at MTs”, and there’s certainly enough news stories in the Korean media to back that up.

What do you think? Have any readers attended MT themselves? Would you say that sexual harassment is indeed widespread at them, or is that just an impression created by the Korean media and *cough* bloggers, who tend to focus on the negatives?

(Thanks again to Marilyn for the translation)


Reading The Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 3: A Wave of Middle School Girls Wearing Make-up…Is it all Girl Groups’ Fault?


It’s such a struggle being a feminist parent.

I have two daughters: Alice, born in June 2006, and Elizabeth, born in August 2008. Fortunately, Elizabeth at least is just fine in the girl-power department, and is “second-sex” to no-one. Rather, it’s my own sex-life that comes a far-distant second to catering to her demands 24/7, but let’s not go there.

Alice however, will regularly stroll down the toy aisle at the supermarket, and loudly proclaim that she doesn’t like the black and blue cars and trucks on one side because “they’re for boys”, to which I’ll have to gently remind her—yet again—that she actually has many she regularly plays with at home. She’s also started constantly posing and asking if she’s pretty, and it’s honestly starting to feel tiresome, almost pedantic to always reply “Yes, and strong and smart too!”.

This literally came to a head yesterday morning when she used those smarts to look for the clip-on earrings that her well-meaning but misguided kindergarten had given her for Children’s Day, eventually devising an elaborate system of stools and chairs to climb to the top of the chest of drawers and see if we’d hidden them there. Very proud of herself for finding them, she jumped on my face at 6:00am to wake me up and show them off (source, right).

I didn’t scold her though (at least not for the earrings), as nothing could faze me after seeing what had been done to the poor girls that grace (소녀나라; “Maiden Country”), which I’d found the night before while researching this post. Seriously, just take a look for yourself.

But in just a few years, will Alice and then Elizabeth also be among the alleged wave of middle and even elementary school students spending 30 minutes a day applying makeup? Hell no. But will they want to? Probably. Is that a bad thing? That depends. And why are so many students doing it now in particular?

All questions to bear in mind as you read the following story from The Chosunilbo below.^^ Found via Asian Correspondent, it was the second most read “society story” on Naver last week:

[오늘의 세상] 초등생까지 화장 열풍… 학교, 두 손 들었다

[Today’s World] Even Elementary Schools Raise Hands in Surrender at Wave of Students Using Make-up…

지나친 ‘얼짱 신드롬’… ‘걸그룹’들이 큰 영향 줘… 등교시간에도 30분씩 화장 / Excessive “Best-Face Syndrome”…Girl groups’ big influence…Even at school, spending 30 minutes at a time applying cosmetics

학칙 있으나마나… 화장하는 아이들 워낙 많아… 쉬는 시간 화장실은 파우더룸 / Whether or not there’s school regulations…Children are putting far too much on…In break times, the toilets become powder rooms

식약청의 경고… “어린이들은 피부 약해 트러블 생길 위험 크다”/ The Korean FDA warns…”Children’s skin is weak, and there is a big danger of problems developing”

“그 틴트(입술에 색을 내는 화장품의 일종) 나도 발라 볼래” / “Let me put on that tint too (tint: a kind of cosmetic that gives color to lips)”
“와~오렌지색 되게 예쁘다” / “Wow~the orange is really pretty”

(Source. Discussed here)

경 남지역 여자 중학교에 근무하는 국어교사 김모(34)씨는 며칠 전 교실에 들어서자마자 한숨이 나왔다. 학생들이 각자 화장품 파우치(작은 가방)를 꺼내놓고 ‘신제품 품평회’를 벌이고 있었다. 한 학생의 파우치 속엔 파우더, BB크림, 틴트, 아이라이너, 마스카라, 매니큐어 등이 가득 들어 있었다.

A few days ago, Kim Mo, a 34 year-old Korean teacher at a middle school in Gyeongsang Nam-do, walked into a classroom and saw something that took her breath away. In the classroom, there were children with a makeup pouch each (a small bag) and had taken everything out of them to have a “new makeup show”. In one student’s case, her pouch had been full of such things as powder, BB Cream, tint, eyeliner, mascara, and a manicure set.

화장한 학생들 얼굴도 제각각이었다. 어떤 학생은 파우더를 발라 얼굴이 뽀얗고, 어떤 학생은 액(液)을 발라 쌍꺼풀을 만들고 아이라인까지 그렸다. 틴트를 발라 입술이 빨간 학생들도 여러 명이었다.

Of the students who had put the makeup on, their faces were all different. Some had used powder to make their faces milky-white, while some had used a liquid to give themselves double-eyelids, even going so far as to use eyeliner. Several had also applied tint to their mouths and now had red lips.

쉬는 시간이면 이 학교 화장실은 ‘파우더룸’으로 변한다. 10여명의 학생들이 거울 앞에서 머리를 만지거나 화장을 한다. 서로 눈썹이나 아이라인을 그려주는 것도 흔한 모습이다.

If it’s break time, the toilets change into powder-rooms. Around 10 students will gather in front of the mirror and fix their hair or apply cosmetics. Drawing eyebrows on each other with eyeliner is a common scene.


김 교사도 처음엔 화장이 학칙에 위배되기 때문에 화장한 학생들이 눈에 띌 때마다 “화장을 하지 마라”고 했다. 클렌징폼을 건네주며 “당장 세수하고 오라”고 하기도 했다. 소지품을 검사해 화장품을 압수하기도 여러 번. 그래도 나아질 기미가 보이지 않자 요즘엔 “어린 나이에 화장하면 피부에 안 좋다”며 달래고 설득한다.

At first, Kim would tell students using cosmetics that they were against school rules, that they shouldn’t use them, and would immediately give them cleansing foam to clean the cosmetics off. She also checked to see if students had any cosmetics and would confiscate them if they did. As there was no sign of improvement however, then these days instead she tries to persuade them that “if you put on cosmetics when you’re young, then your skin won’t be good”.

김 교사는 “화장하는 애들이 워낙 많아 쫓아다니면서 일일이 지적하기도 힘들 정도”라며 “전쟁도 이런 전쟁이 없다”고 말했다.

Kim says “Chasing after students that use too much cosmetics while pointing out everything [that’s bad about using cosmetics?] to them is so exhausting”, and that “it’s such a battle”.

학생들은 백화점 화장품 코너에서도 주요 고객으로 떠올랐고, 화장품 회사들은 인기 캐릭터를 그린 상품을 쏟아내고 있다.

Students have risen to become the main customers at cosmetics corners at department stores, and cosmetics companies are having popular [manhwa?] characters on their products.

화장 붐에 교사들 / Teachers Raise Their Hands in Despair at Cosmetics Boom

교사들은 “화장하는 학생이 한 반에 몇 명이라고 세기 힘들 정도”라고 말한다.

Teachers say “there’s so many students using makeup in each class, it’s difficult to count them all”.

서울의 한 중학교 1학년 담임교사는 “학생들끼리 마스카라나 아이라이너를 생일 선물로 주고받을 정도로 화장에 대한 관심이 많다”며 “초등학생 때부터 화장을 시작해 피부가 어른처럼 엉망인 애들이 갈수록 많아진다”고 말했다.

One homeroom teacher for a first-grade middle-school class [for students roughly 13-14 years old] said “Students are interested enough in mascara and eyeliner to give them to each other for birthday presents”, and that “There are many students that, starting to wear makeup in elementary school, are ruining their skin like adults”.

학 부모들은 걱정이다. 중학교 2학년 자녀를 둔 김순옥씨는 작년부터 딸아이가 각종 화장품을 사 모으는 것을 보고 깜짝 놀랐다. 김씨의 딸은 바쁜 등교시간에도 30분씩 스킨·로션 등 기초 화장품부터 BB크림, 파우더까지 정성껏 바른다. 김씨가 야단을 치며 화장을 못하게 했더니 딸은 “화장을 안 하면 부끄러워서 학교에 못 가겠다”고 반항했다. 김씨는 “딸아이가 사춘기여서 그러려니 했지만 공부에 대한 집중력이 떨어지는 것 같아서 걱정”이라고 말했다.

Parents of students are worried. Kim Soon-ok, a mother of a 2nd grade middle school student [14 or 15 years old], has been very surprised at how her daughter has been buying and collecting all kinds of makeup since last year. Despite being busy, every school day she spends 30 minutes at a time applying everything from toner, lotion, and other basic cosmetics to BB cream and powder. Kim says that she scolded her daughter to make her stop using it, but her daughter resisted and replied that “If I don’t wear makeup, I’ll be embarrassed and won’t be able to go to school”. She added that “although this sort of thing is natural for a girl entering puberty, I worry that her ability to concentrate on her studies is decreasing”.


이처럼 학생들의 화장 문제가 심각해지자 얼마 전 식약청은 교육청과 학교에 색조 화장품 등의 사용을 자제하게 해달라는 요청문을 보내기도 했다. 식약청 화장품정책과 양준호 사무관은 “어린이들은 어른보다 피부가 약해 립스틱이나 매니큐어 등 색조 화장품을 사용하면 피부 트러블이 생길 수 있어 조심해야 한다”고 말했다.

Accordingly, the FDA sent schools and the Ministry of Education a letter requesting that they restrict student’s use of color make-up, and so on. Yang Jun-ho, and official within in the FDA’s Cosmetics Policy Department, said “Children’s skin is weaker than that of adults, and so if they use lipstick, manicures, or color makeup they have a [greater?] chance of skin problems developing, and should be careful”.

과도한 ‘얼짱 신드롬’ / Excessive “Best-Face Syndrome”

성적이 상위권이거나 모범적인 아이들이 화장하는 경우도 늘고 있다. 이처럼 학생들 사이에 화장이 널리 유행하는 현상에 대해 전문가들은 ‘얼짱 신드롬’과 10대 멤버들이 많은 ‘걸그룹’이 큰 영향을 미치고 있다고 분석한다. 건국대 이동혁 사범대 교수는 “요즘 10대들은 과거 세대보다 자신을 잘 포장해서 당당하게 드러내려고 하는 성향이 강하다”며 “그런 학생들의 특성이 외모를 중시하는 사회적 분위기와 어우러져 나타나는 현상 같다”고 말했다. 한국청소년활동진흥원 김용대 부장은 “예뻐지고 싶어하는 것은 사춘기 여학생들의 자연스러운 특징이지만 화장을 통해 자기만족을 추구하려는 청소년의 집단적 현상은 심각한 문제가 아닐 수 없다”고 말했다.

Even model students with high grades and rankings are increasingly using makeup. An expert on this phenomenon attributes this “beauty-face syndrome” to the influence of girl groups with members in their teens. Professor Lee Dong-hyuk of the Education Department of Konkuk University says “compared to past generations, these days social trends mean that teenagers attach a lot of importance to their appearance and want to show them off.” And Kim Young-dae, head of the Korea Youth Work Agency, says “it is a natural trait of female students entering adolescence to want to look pretty, but this mass of girls trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment through make up is a serious problem”.

Writer: 김연주 / Kim Yeon-ju –


While the headline clearly exaggerates a little by mentioning elementary school students, only then to talk about middle school ones, that’s probably one of the better articles I’ve read in the notoriously tabloid Korean media (update: apparently that same tabloid media has considerably lowered my standards!^^). Is the popularity of makeup among students as recent as the article suggests though? Let’s discuss that in a moment. First, let’s see what Meenakshi Durham has to say about cosmetics in The Lolita Effect itself, the book that inspired this ongoing series (p. 126):

Studies have suggested that little girls enjoy emulating fashion trends, using makeup, and attracting boy’s attention by wearing skimpy clothes. In social settings where girls are not going to be penalized or targeted for these behaviors, it’s easy to see how these things could be completely harmless, fun, or even empowering. Clothing and makeup aren’t problematic.

While I wasn’t joking earlier about what I saw on Sonyunara, reading that the night before was the real reason I didn’t (visibly) react negatively to seeing my daughter wearing earrings: children are always going to emulate what they see adults and/or other role models doing. Rather, it’s how we adults react to that that is the problem:

It’s the corollary assumption—that youth is sexy, that little girls are sexy, and that because of that they can be seen as having the same sexual awareness as adults—that’s of real concern. The problem is not with children, but with adults: with marketers who knowingly sell products and images with powerful sexual overtones to young girls, and with adults who then interpret girls’ bodies as sexually available. And there’s a larger, social problem, too, in that because of the increased sexualization of girlhood, children are engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages. This has fallout that is expensive both to the kids and to society as a whole.


At first, that probably sounds much more relevant to the US and other Western countries than it does to “sexually conservative” Korea. But you may be surprised. Not so much that Korean children too are engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages of course, albeit not quite at the rates of their US counterparts, but rather that the Korean age of consent is 13 (see here then here), and that Korea has a huge teenageprostitution problem, known as wonjo gyojae (원조 교제).

Moreover, not only is this exacerbated by the extremely low age of consent ensuring that many clients are not prosecuted, let alone teachers that have sexual relationships with their students, but until very recently, the Korean public – with important exceptions such as music columnist Kim Bong-hyeon and Professor Sooh-ah Kim at Seoul National University (see abstract below) –  was generally reluctant to acknowledge the increasing sexualization of particularly girl groups’ clothing and choreography in recent years, what effects that might have on teenagers, and, however indirectly and/or or marginally, on sustaining demand for the teenage-prostitution industry.

And if they were reluctant to discuss the music videos, then naturally there was a similar reluctance to discuss the same in ads featuring teenage members of girl groups:


As discussed elsewhere, Korean entertainment companies have strong incentives to sexualize both girl and boy’s groups clothing and choreography in order to help them stand out from other groups, and they also have financial incentives for groups to endorse as many products as possible; in a symbiotic relationship, this naturally combines well and perpetuates the Korean advertising industry’s heavy reliance on the use of celebrities.  Consequently, not only does the number of ads featuring girl group members likely show a direct relationship to the proliferation of girl groups in recent years, but also they too are increasingly sexualized, and – crucially – naturally have messages that resonate with teenage girls. After all, this is the heart of the Lolita Effect: that especially cosmetic and fashion companies want younger and younger girls to embrace the notion that hypersexual body display and obtaining a narrowly defined physical ideal are at the core of – nay, the only things required for – social and romantic success, and that these can best be achieved through purchasing those companies’ products.

This logic, of course, is nothing new. But, if you can forgive my naivety, I’ll never cease to be amazed at the audacity at some of the ensuing advertisements. On the far left in the school uniform advertisement above for example (discussed in more detail here), Victoria of the group f(x) is praised for her height, thinness, and, well, large breasts and buttocks (all of which is contained in “쭉쭉빵빵”, the old term for “S-line“). Meanwhile, in another one further up the page (this one) fellow group member Sulli (17) says “Romance will start in a semester without pimples”, and in the video below that she proclaims the efficacy of using skincare products to get your man over other methods such as: getting cosmetic surgery to get double eyelids; working on getting shiny, billowing hair; or even getting an S-line.

Granted, correlation doesn’t mean causation, and one additional factor may be the considerable relaxing of many rules about school uniforms over the past decade (skirt lengths are 10-15cm shorter than in 2000 for example, which—sigh—the Korean Federation of Teachers Association says “can make students more vulnerable to crimes”). But…naah. Provided the report is accurate, then of course middle school girls are suddenly wearing make-up because all these girl groups are suddenly endorsing them. It would simply be a bizarre coincidence otherwise.

(Source: unknown)

What to do about it? Beyond educating children on the hows and whys of advertising and/or forcibly taking their cosmetics off them, I’m open to suggestions. One think I certainly don’t think will work though, is complaining to the companies themselves, which have a strong vested interest in making their products appeal to young girls as explained. Indeed, this was recently indirectly demonstrated by Iconix Entertainment, the producer of the very popular Korean cartoon Pororo the Little Penguin (뽀롱뽀롱 뽀로로) above, which, despite the pleas of Korean parents, besieged by their children demanding breads and cakes like those in the show, politely declined to depict the characters eating healthier meals (I believe the characters are also on all manner of junk foods). And God knows how they would have reacted to my own suggestion that pink Loopy above, the only female character in the first season, do something other than constantly make said breads and cakes for the boys.

For more on the trails and tribulations of being a feminist parent, then I recommend following Baby Gender Diary on Twitter here, in their own words “A Mother and Father. Tweeting about our 3 year old girl and 6 month old boy and how people treat them differently”, and/or purchasing Cinderalla Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, next in my own wishlist. Or, for more posts in the “Reading The Lolita Effect in Korea” series, please see below.

The “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea” series: