Korean Gender Reader


1) Because one can never talk too much about Playboy…

Admittedly it’s only tangentially related to Korea, but then Playboy bunny ears were very popular with Korean women last summer, and then in January you also had American film critic Roger Ebert criticizing Korean groups for not really understanding all the Playboy references they were using. So, it was really interesting to hear just this podcast from the British sociology program Thinking Allowed (previously mentioned here), which in its own words says:

Carrie Pitzulo, the author of a new history of Playboy claims it has “a surprisingly strong record of support for women’s rights and the modernisation of sexual and gender roles”. Are Bunny Girls and Playmates of the Month really allies of the feminist cause? [Host] Laurie is joined by the author Carrie Pitzulo and the sociologist Angela McRobbie to discuss the secret and surprises of the bunny brand.

Continuing with the tangents, I’ve ironically become much more interested in Western pop-culture since presenting at the Korean Pop Culture Conference 2011 in LA last month, and so on Gord Sellar’s recommendation have just ordered Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen, on “general culture across the Anglophone world in the 1970s”. To any 30-somethings like myself especially, who were too young to really know anything about that decade, it sounds like riveting reading (and it would be good to hear our parents’ takes on it too).

2) The pitfalls of being pregnant in Korea

Any other “Western” women with Korean husbands get stared at by old men? More so than before they were pregnant that is? Shotgun Korea is about to explode, in more ways than one!^^

Update: Shotgun Korea also has a post on a strange virus that seems to be killing pregnant women in Korea.

(Source: Sinfest, one of my favorite comics. Hope that was okay!)

3) Funny or offensive? Sports show asks why Korean women are good at golf

Judge for yourself at CNNgo. Not being a golf fan, then normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to this sort of thing, but Rachael Miyung Joo of Middlebury College piqued my interest in them with her presentation Traveling Ladies: Korean Female Athletes and Global Korea at the Korean Popular Culture conference. A quick excerpt from the abstract:

…Within the context of U.S. nationalist discourses, Korean female athletes exist as a “yellow peril” threat to the elite white traditions of professional golf. The extraordinary growth of Korean and Korean Americans within the Ladies Professional Golf Association have produced racist responses to Korean golfers including an attempt to institute an English Only policy in the league. Nevertheless, the LPGA has grown due to the celebrity of Korean golfers, and their impact on the growth of the LPGA has translated into policies that work to get all female golfers to emphasize female charm for the pleasure of male fans. Furthermore, hypersexualized Korean female golfers work to assuage anxieties around lesbianism in professional women’s sport…

Read the rest here. Unfortunately there’s not much information about it, but I’m also looking forward to her book Transnational Sport: Gender, Athletes, and the Making of Global Korea that’s coming out sometime this year.

4) Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 5

Or rather, the news that Girl’s Day (걸스데이) recently performed in costumes so high that their panties were exposed could easily have been the next post in that series (one member only turns 17 tomorrow). But I don’t really have anything to add to what Michael Hurt says at Yahae! about it except to say that, unfortunately, I feel somewhat vindicated by it(!):

…this is a bridge too far. The skirts have now come up above the panties. I mean, I know that competition from the many girl groups that now exist must force some serious marketing decisions such as the one to make underage girls truss around in skirts that don’t cover their jibblies, but you gotta draw a line somewhere!

See Part 2 for more on the issues raised by performers dancing and/or dressing in sexual ways when the age of consent is as low as 13.


5) Discussing cosmetic surgery With Koreans

Is it also your experience that you just can’t win? See On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife for a long and thoughtful post on the subject.

Related, see Sociological Images for the self-explanatory recent post “Race and the Problems of Measuring Beauty Objectively“, and you may also like the “Ethnic Comparisons” section of the Feminine Beauty site (NSFW).

6) Foreign children sexually and physically abused at Haeundae Beach

See Koreabridge for the details. Also, while I’m always prepared to give the police the benefit of the doubt considering how the Korean media will simply make up stories about their incompetence, they do indeed seem to have acted extremely unprofessionally in their handling of this case.

7) Corporate life in Korea

…is no picnic for women, who tend to be lower on the totem-pole, but it’s important to remember that it can be pretty bad for men too.  See these posts by I’m No Picasso and New Yorker in Seoul for some first-hand experiences.

8) I like big butts and I can not lie…

Usually I’m loathe to quote entire posts, but then everyone on Tumblr is doing it so I can too. Here then, are some very wise words from American actress Tina Fey (found via Hot Yellow Fellows):

But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when J.Lo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and J.Lo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.

Much the same can be said of Korean women of course, but with an important possible exception:  the doll-tits. Not because Korean women tend to be less busty than their Western counterparts though, but rather because there seems to be a genuine taboo against breast exposure which even the Korean media is wary of. Lest that sound simply absurd however, then consider the case of G.Na (지나), whose – to put it bluntly – most marketable assets seem strangely underplayed by the otherwise extremely exploitative and objectifying Korean music industry.


9) “Secret (시크릿) will show off their innocent and cute selves with a sexy and powerful dance in Japan through Madonna

As it turns out, that was a mistranslation of the original Korean – “청순과 귀여움은 물론 섹시미와 파워풀한 댄스를 모두 겸비한 시크릿은 일본 시장에서도 충분히 통할 수 있다는 전망이다” – by Koreaboo, and something like “They’lll show off an innocent and cute image of course, but combine it with sexiness and powerful dancing” would be much more accurate. But the Korean media does indeed say such things all the time, which speaks volumes about how female sexuality is presented by Korean girl-groups, and of course the sentance still remains a bit of an oxymoron (but kudos to Koreaboo for at least providing a link to the original article to check, unlike – grrr – allkpop).

For more on that, see, well, just about all of this blog(!), but if you’re after something more specific then this and this recent post at SeoulBeats are good introductions (and for some background to the latter, see here).

10) Essential reading on Korean Feminism

Even if I’m No Picasso hadn’t *cough* praised this blog in it, I’d still describe this as one of the best posts I’ve ever read on the subject (or technically speaking, English discussions of the subject). And it behooves me to say that I have certainly been (and probably still occasionally am) guilty of discussing Korean women, feminism, and/or gender issues through an overly generalizing, patronizing, and – for want of a better word – Orientalist lens, and so this post of hers will seriously provide a checklist for me for maybe years to come! (And Roboseyo’s post on “Mansplaining” is very helpful too).


15 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. the skirts on the girls day video showed their panties.(is this the performance you’re talking about?)…

    … but they weren’t sexy panties — they were ruffly lacy grandma bloomers — honestly, it didn’t make me think so much of a strip-tease as a three-year old, especially given the aegyo poses and affectations that came with the performance. I can’t bring myself to watch the video again (I quit two-thirds through) because the singing was so awful, but from what I saw, I’d argue that I was presented with infantilization, not hyper-sexualization.

    thanks for the link there, by the way.



    1. Actually, I just meant the picture I linked to at Yahae, but yeah, they look the same. Agreed about the infantilization rather than hyper-sexualization per se. And man, I don’t know how you made it through 2/3rds of the video…that singing was just atrocious, let alone everything else.

      You’re welcome for the link!


  2. Re:5)
    Always nice to read someone else that the goal of the plastic surgery craze isn’t to “look more white” (at least not explicitly).

    I have to ask though. Is societal pressure and even personal desire amongst Korean women to get cosmetic surgery really that high? I can understand such attitude more from a group of teenagers in a class room, though that is no less problematic, but fir those attitudes to carry forward into adulthood without being left behind with some maturity is at least disheartening.


    1. Societal pressure isn’t so straighforward though that we can get rid of it with a little maturity. As I’ve said before, you can understand that the societal ideal or pressure to be a certain way is disfunctional and wrong – but you’re still left with the knowledge that if you don’t diet/get double-eyelid surgery/wear the right clothes, you’re going to pay social consequences – and it’s not an irrational choice to say that you don’t wish to pay the social price for being fat/round-faced/insert “unattractive” feature here. Often it’s not that Korean women buy wholeheartedly into the ideal (although a great many do – there just isn’t the same kind of public dialog about it that you need for substantive change right now, I think) but that they don’t feel like the social cost is worth it.
      And particularly because plastic surgery is cheap, safe, and readily available, the bar is set lower. Plastic surgery in America, unless you are particularly wealthy, is expensive and comes with fewer social guarantees. Plastic surgery in Korea is cheap, widely available, and widely accepted. In America, you have to be pretty committed to getting whatever it is you want done, where in Korea you can be much less invested in the process.
      I’m trying to think of a good reversed example, and really the only thing I can come up with is waxing. Lots of American women wax, virtually no Korean women do. Part of this is just that Korean women are generally less histrute, but also because body hair isn’t such a big deal here. In the meantime, there’s fewer places that provide waxing services and they’r relatively more expensive. A Korean woman would really, really want to get something waxed before she’d actually do it, and certainly her potential dates are not expecting to find her fully bare should things head that direction. Meanwhile, lots of American women who don’t care anywhere near as much as our mythical waxed Korean woman do it anyway, because there’s lots of salons that will wax you and the cost is reasonable. They might have a slight preference for not removing their pubic hair, for example, but potential dates are now more likely to expect it and it’s just not that big a deal, so they do it anyway. You have to be a bigger believer in staying hairy now.
      Ok, that was a weird and not near perfect analogy, but still . . .


      1. “Part of this is just that Korean women are generally less histrute, but also because body hair isn’t such a big deal here.” I think the former explains the latter. There are Korean women with hair on their arms and presumably on their legs, too, although I don’t recall seeing hair on the legs, only the arms, so women with hair on their legs may shave it off. I don’t recall seeing Korean women with moustaches either. Asian men have commented in conversations to me and on K-blogs that they think body hair is an unattractive feature on Western women.


        1. Actually, there are quite a number of women here with upper lip hair, underarm hair, arm hair, etc. and I’ve been told that it used to be considered a positive sign, and that women with body hair were considered beautiful. Any adversion to it is probably fairly recent. I’ll also note that a fairly common beauty utensil here are eyebrow and face razors, which seem to have been introduced from Japan, along with special razors for the bikini area and just general shaving. Trust me, there are women with body hair. Maybe fewer people have as much, but it’s still there.


  3. #4: how short will the skirts/shorts get? and how young will the girls be? don’t korean parents see this? i swear i see ass cheeks these days…


  4. Thanks for the link to Gordsellar’s post. I was unsuccessful in leaving a comment over there, so I’ll post it here instead:

    I know nothing about what the UK was like in the 70s but am old enough to remember life in the US during that period. My parents and most other adults put Reagan and the conservatives in office owing to a number of factors: the need for a confident leader after two bungling presidents, Ford and Carter, whose failed rescue mission to Iran probably sealed his fate; a depressed economy, which almost always results in the other party getting the White House and control of Congress; and a feeling of confusion over rapidly changing norms, values, and behaviors. The other day I commented to a 30-year-old Brazilian colleague that the generation gap in the US was probably the widest between parents who came of age in the 50s and the children they raised in the 60s and 70s. She wondered whether every generation felt that way, and I cited to her divorce and remarriage, unwed parenting, illicit drug use, and nonattendance at major Christian churches as examples of big cultural changes that arose in the 60s and became rooted in our mainstream culture in the 70s. I don’t know how much paranoiacs and their ideas impacted or reflected mainstream culture. Kennedy conspiracy theories were around, but they weren’t a topic of conversation among adults I knew. We were fascinated and frightened by the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Amityville Horror, but these myths had entertainment value only. They’ve been modernized and updated as urban myths about Wal-mart or gang initiation rites.

    And yes, the music did die, right around 1980.


  5. The notion of Playboy as feminist has been around for a long time. Sexual liberation was good for both sexes overall, but Hef himself lives like a medieval potentate with his harem of women who are expected to be sexually faithful to him while he is free to engage in sex with multiple female partners. Ex-girlfriend Kendra Wilkinson, who remains on friendly terms with Hef, commented in an interview that she “had to sneak out just to have sex” because of curfews, activity logs, and other means that were used to keep tabs on the women staying in the mansion. Other former residents have complained about the way Hef would dole out monthly allowances, using money to control his women. Hef rejected traditional Western Judeo-Christian sexual practices in favor of non-Western male polygamy, female monogamy. Nothing modern or feminist about that.


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