Korean Gender Reader


1) Korean Attitudes to Arranged Marriages

Probably everybody reading knows a Korean person who married someone just one or two months after meeting them. Of the three women I know that did, all enrolled the services of a professional matchmaking marriage agency like Duo (듀오) above to find them, two just the week after they split up with their heartbroken long-term boyfriends.

Needless to say, that sits uncomfortably with modern Western notions of romance and marriage. Yet despite most readers’ distaste, not all such pairings are doomed to loveless failure, and indeed all three of those women I know seem perfectly happy with their new spouses. But what compels such hasty arrangements?

See Dana in Soko for an answer, and for anyone further interested I highly recommend Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity (1996) by Laurel Kendall too, although it is a little dated.

Also, a confession and a question: the third woman I mentioned was actually a very close Korean friend of mine, but I was so surprised and disappointed with her for getting an arranged marriage that I didn’t try to keep in touch when she moved to a new city afterwards (although we both became much too busy with our respective families anyway). Do you think I was too judgmental? Have any other readers also had their intelligent, confident, ambitious female friends suddenly surprise them with an arranged marriage like that? Did you stay friends afterwards, despite that “traditional” Korean elephant in the room? Please let me know!

2) Korean Gay Community Warns of Assaults on Twitter

According to reports on Twitter there seems to be a group of men in Jongro assaulting gay men at night. See Asian Correspondent for more information.

3) Koreans’ Teeth and Cosmetic Infantilization

Five times a week, I’m greeted with the above advertisement for my workplace as I leave the subway. It may sound a little harsh of me, but every time I see it, I can’t help but ponder why the advertisers didn’t choose a model with nicer teeth (rest assured they look much worse when they’re the size of your palm!).

Possibly, it was felt that a using a “real” person would be more appealing to potential students than an obvious professional model. But on the other hand, good teeth aren’t really a requirement even for Korean celebrities either, as this post by Johnelle at Seoulbeats makes clear. In it, she speculates that good affordable orthodontic treatments weren’t really an option for the current generation of 20 and 30-something celebrities, and/or that they didn’t correct them once the option to do so did become available because crooked teeth are a good sign of being a fabled “natural beauty”, in particular of not having undergone jaw surgery to obtain a V-line.

Without disputing those at all though, the news that some Japanese women are deliberately making their teeth look crooked (known as yaeba) suggests a third, strongly gendered possibility. As explained by Sociological Images (source, right):

Michelle Phan, who blogged about the trend, explained:

It’s not like here, where perfect, straight, picket-fence teeth are considered beautiful. In Japan, in fact, crooked teeth are actually endearing, and it shows that a girl is not perfect. And, in a way, men find that more approachable than someone who is too overly perfect.

Communication Studies professor Dr. Emilie Zaslow had something different to say.  She argued that the trend represented a fixation with youth, the sexualization of girls, and pressure on women to infantilize themselves:

…the naturally occurring yaeba is because of delayed baby teeth, or a mouth that’s too small.

In other words, having a crowded mouth makes you look younger, like a girl instead of a woman.

In short, I’d argue that this possibility means that Korean men with crooked teeth are more likely to correct them than Korean women, and indeed that matches my own observations. But although it’s too early for confirmation bias to have an effect here(!), of course that result may simply reflect my being much more interested in women’s mouths than in men’s. So, what are readers’ own observtions? And if there is indeed a gender imbalance, can you think of alternative reasons for why that would be the case?

Related, Leanne of Hello Korea! laments the popularity of “Asian poses”, and how it perpetuates Orientalist stereotypes of childish East Asian poses (including among East Asians themselves). As she writes:

Now, to be fair, your common everyday Korean woman is not posing for a camera all the time, but it’s still disturbing that they do this stuff when a camera gets put in front of their face.

That really struck a chord with me, because, the same day I read that, I happened to be presenting the following video (albeit by an Asian-American I think) to an all-male class of computer-gaming students. Perennially bored and sleepy (the students that is), I thought a cute young woman imitating various feelings would spark some interest in studying English for a change. Indeed, it worked so well, I decided I’d do something similar for my other, mostly female classes…but, tellingly, soon gave up trying to find a cute young guy doing the same sort of video!

4) Korean Attitudes to Women Working While Pregnant

Msleetobe, of On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife, discusses her realization that her Korean students and coworkers seem to find pregnant women essentially useless, or at least poor workers. While she is careful to not to generalize from that small group though, she also raises the important point that with so many pregnant women expected – or forced – to resign from their companies (see #2 here), then unfortunately very few Koreans actually get to meet anyone who could challenge that stereotype.

5) Police Arrest Individuals Behind Solbi’s Fake Sex Tape

I confess, I know little about Solbi (솔비) beyond her name, and certainly not that a fake sex-tape of her had been circulating for over two years, and which led to her breaking up with her boyfriend. Does anyone also know how the tape affected her career? (For comparison, see what happened to Ivy [아이비] because of her own alleged sex tape in 2008)


Finally, it’s not related to Korea sorry, but do let me pass on this excellent In Our Time podcast on Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People above, with a lot of discussion of how it has been appropriated as a Feminist symbol ever since. Which is kind of ironic, because as guest Tamar Garb of University College London especially points out, French women had almost all no rights at all at the time, and accordingly the woman depicted was definitely only intended to be an allegorical – and not Feminist – figure.


27 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

      1. Indeed! Even though she spoke very little in the 40 expressions video , I didn’t think she was American or Canadian, so I visited her blog. She mentions her hometown of Belfast and her Chinese heritage quite a bit. Plus, she has other youtube videos where she speaks and her accent is more noticeable.


  1. I don’t know if these will be at all useful for you, but they’re the first videos I thought of with Asian-American guys posing for cameras and speaking English.


  2. Funny enough, I think I believe in the ability of people to have happy marriages too much to discount the posibility of finding happiness in an ‘arranged’ marriage. I’ve known people who have met their significant others in so many strange ways – why not through an agency in some cases? My husband’s best friend is approaching 40 and is desperate to get married partly because of social pressure but also because he just really wants a wife, family, and ‘that life’. We’re encouraging his interest in women he knows over match making agencies, but if he found a nice girl through an agency, we would just be so happy for him. I have an inexplicable connection with my husband, but I also feel love for him because he is respectful, honest, supportive, and tries to find ways to make me happy even if it means going out of his way to do so. I feel like these things are also possible in an arranged marriage although it is harder to tell a person’s character after knowing another person for a short amount of time.

    And thanks for linking once again1^^ One small correction – my coworkers have been quite supportive of my pregnancy. All the negative comments have come from (certain) students/classes.


  3. I first noticed the “cute little fang” in Japanese anime. At first I thought, “Wait, what’s going on with that one tooth sticking out.” Sooner or later I realized OMG THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE CUTE. (<<<major revelation there) Sometimes I would see pictures of Japanese girl models and notice that there teeth were not even close to being straight. In the U.S people usually aim for perfectly straight and white teeth, so it really interested me that apparently japan does not place that kind of importance on teeth. I actually can't even recall seeing a photograph or footage of a person in japan with braces.

    I remember reading a study, I'm sorry it was quite a long while ago so I don't have the link or a citation for it. It was basically a study about frequency of crowded teeth in japan. Japanese people tend to have smaller jaws which causes them to have crowded teeth at a high rate. So if crowded teeth is a pretty common thing in japan, a woman on TV, celeb, etc. with crooked/crowded teeth would give off the appearance of the everyday down to earth woman. It's just another way of some women conforming to a desirable trait in society. In America you have women spending money on braces, teeth whitening procedures and veneers in order to appear attractive to others. In Japan you have some women who don't have crooked teeth desiring them because it makes them look like the everywoman. Apparently men are professing their attraction for the everywoman. So maybe because women in society are pressured to be attractive, being approachable is attractive to men, having crooked teeth is approachable, so some women would desire to have crooked teeth if they don't already have them. Plus it's CUTE. Everybody knows japan loves cute things. I don't think it is much different than women in America getting veneers. Although I do think there are a larger percentage of women getting veneers in the U.S than there are women in Japan deliberately making their teeth crooked.

    I can't really tell if that many women in japan are actually getting this procedure done or if it's being over reported by news sources. Because if crowded teeth is commonplace in japan, I don't think a huge population of women would be getting it. I hope all this made sense.

    P.S. See this link:


    1. I’d have to argue that women in America don’t spend money on braces to appear attractive to others – braces are usually part of adolecence, and not a particularly gendered one, either. Boys and girls get them at the insistance of their parents, who do it because dentists and orthodontists tell them to, because bite problems can cause significant health difficulties later in life. Dentistry has been very long established as a part of medical care in the US, and getting your bite corrected isn’t seen particularly as a way to enhance beauty for women, just basic preventive medicine. Veneers and bleaching don’t seem to be terribly strongly gendered in the US, although they are aesthetic rather than medical proceedures.
      In the end though, I suspect that the crowded mouth phenomenon is simply that dentistry doens’t seem to have the same medical prominence in Japan as in the states. In the states, I know exactly nobody who didn’t have their wisdom teeth removed, even going back to my grandparents’ generation. People who are now in their fifties and sixties had braces as teens. Their kids have braces. Their kid’s kids are getting braces. The experience is totally normalized. But Japan had a shortage of dentists in the fifties, and didn’t achieve needed levels until the 1980s. That means people my age would have been the first generation in which snaggle-tooth correction would have been widely available.


      1. Gomushin Girl: I’m in the states and have not had my wisdom teeth out – but my dad was self-employed and my mom was single and medical care was usually considered a luxury (besides being born, my siblings and I have been to the hospital exactly zero times). I do know a few others who haven’t had their wisdom teeth out, but can corroborate that this seems to be extremely uncommon, even in my economically depressed area.


        1. I do agree with some points you made that getting braces has been an insisted upon procedure for children in order to prevent crooked teeth in the future. But I think somewhere along the line it became a marker of beauty. I do agree with you that boys and girls do seem to get braces at the same rate, but I think once you become an adult crooked teeth become much morissues beauty issue for women. The various commercials that I’ve seen for Invisalign braces and veneers have only featured women. I think straight teeth in the US have become a marker of health and beauty, and in some places economical wellness. Whereas in Japan maybe the dental health industry hasn’t been around long enough to have that kind of influence.


          1. I agree that straight teeth are a sign of health and beauty in America, but I think that it’s not a particularly strongly gendered one. I’d be willing to speculate that perhaps more adults who get braces are women, and they’re doing it at least partially for aesthetic reasons (probably because women are subject to more pressure to be generally attractive anyway), but the vast, vast majority (something like 70-80%) of people in America who get braces are teens, and they’re virutually always doing it at the behest of dentists for medical reasons (teeth with poor alignment can result in a pretty spectacular array of health problems later in life, including increased risk of heart disease).
            Again, not that I think that standards of beauty play no role in the use of braces and dental care in the US, just that I think you’re over-emphasizing the gender angle in this one particular case. I still think it’s moot, because I’m very suspicious about the article and largely think that as LQ says below, it’s more of a “weird Japan” article than an actual trend.


  4. As I posted over on SI’s site, I’m pretty uncomfortable with their acceptance of Phan’s post. See my comments and Lori’s for more context. Reminds me all too much of Kyung Lah’s all-too-credulous, vaguely Orientalist, definitely sensationalist, and absolutely behind-the-times “weird Japan” etc. articles frequently found on CNN websites.


    1. It doesn’t really sound like this is a wide-spread phenomena, does it? I would guess that the explanations given for why those particular kinds of teeth patterns aren’t corrected may hold true, but I really doubt that tons of Japanese women are getting their teeth purposefully pulled out of alignment.
      Also, for what it’s worth, my Japanese roomate is not snaggle-toothed, nor has she heard of this as a beauty trend beyond a vague idea that some dudes find it kind of cute.


  5. Re arranged marriages… I’m American and married my Korean husband after knowing him for a very short time. He proposed after we’d been dating for a month. It wasn’t arranged, but my friends were shocked, and quite a few of them (both male and female), to my surprise, were angry. They thought I was throwing my life away and getting married just for the sake of it. They said, “You don’t know him!”

    I think this is because of ideas that marriage is about burning passion and that there’s only one soul mate out there for everyone and you have to date a lot to find that person (unless you’re super lucky) and then spend a lot of time getting to know him. It never occurred to me before that these might be specifically western ideas. I didn’t know Koreans still did arranged marriage.

    I thought my husband (then boyfriend) was just impetuous. I thought, “I love him, so if getting married will make him happy, I’ll do it.” Marriage is not the army. Deserting is painful, but not illegal. But also, it seemed to me that a good relationship was not only about finding someone you think is right for you, but also about deciding to commit to that relationship. I met my husband’s (many) friends and family. I could see they were good people and that they loved and respected him. I examined his home. My instincts were telling me, “This is a good man”.

    You can live with someone for years and not really know him. How many couples live with each other/stay engaged for years, only to finally get married, then divorce after a couple of years? A lot, right? My parents divorced after more than a decade of marriage.

    My husband didn’t fill me with lust within minutes of meeting. We didn’t like the same music and movies and clothes. We didn’t do the same things in our spare time, or agree on food. We didn’t always get each other’s sense of humor. But I trusted my instincts and senses about his character. We’ve now been married for 4 years. People say marriage is hard but so far ours hasn’t been at all. We love being married to each other. I always forget we made our decision after only a month.


  6. Haha, I’ve been watching Bubzbeauty’s videos for years, that video is quite unrepresentative of her character I would say, she is very intelligent and thoughtfula nd would be the first to point out her own cuteness schtick, (some of her videos also discuss gender issues) she also enjoys making fun of herself/doesn’t mind looking unattractive or extremely un-cute. Anyway you could call me a fan.You seem to have a make-up guru theme in this post haha :)

    I’ve always suspected about the teeth thing, it’s sort of the kind of ‘flaw’ that people might pretend they dislike when really they know it makes them stand out and look ‘cute’. An equivalent might be a slightly turned up nose or pointy ears.


  7. Also, indeed, I think that was a little harsh of you to abandon your friend! I realize the American and European history of arranged marriages is more distant, and so perhaps there is or you perceive that there’s less baggage, but people here DO still sometimes use introduction services/matchmaking. They’re just more discreet about it. (More socially acceptable services like “It’s Just Dinner” and so on are definitely somewhere between introduction services/matchmaking and less pre-arranged services, so there’s that, too.) Would you drop a New York friend who revealed that she’d been on the receiving end of a breakup and signed up with a matchmaker? (or a yenta–they still exist!)


    1. I’m still really busy with editing sorry, but let me just quickly clear up a big misunderstanding (all my own fault!). I’m not at all against people using dating and/or marriage agencies and so on, quite the opposite: it’s just the speed that people (especially Koreans it seems) get married after meeting someone through them that I’m uncomfortable with. Not that why anyone should have a problem with that isn’t still open to debate of course, as tippi’s comment makes clear (sorry that that got shunted to moderation btw), but I really don’t mind at all how people meet (and of course they don’t need my “approval” anyway!).


      1. While I’m primarily in the “there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with arranged marriage if freely chosen by both parties” camp, I have to agree that in some cases, arranged matches take place with unseemly speed. Not all, and I’m inclined to say that there’s no real reason to NOT speedily arrange things if you’re skipping other aspects of modern dating as well . . .but. Pretty much every case of arranged matches that I’ve personally witnessed have been people either a) after major relationship disappointments or b) to appease parents. These are less than healthy reasons for getting into any relationship, but arranged relationships let things proceed at pace that makes it hard to really think about whether it is really the right path. Also, I know a pretty large number of people who ended up in arranged marriages here despite being unenthusiastic about their partners, simply because they’d gone on a minimal number of dates and felt it was too late to back out. Again, not healthy.

        I’ve seen arranged marriages work. I’ve seen people end up very, very happy – but always people who were proactive and sure that this kind of arrangement was what they wanted. But lots of people in Korea just sort of fall into these arrangements because they don’t really know what else to do, and social pressure to get married by a certain age is immense.


    2. It’s important to differentiate between different kinds of matchmaking arrangements, though – lots of Koreans use services that are similar to eHarmony, It’s Just Dinner, and other similar paid and unpaid services. Just like in the US, there’s free and paid computer matching sites, and more expensive and comprehensive personalized dating services. These offer a great deal of flexibility, and allow you to reject partners at many stages of the process – the worst consequence being that the agent in charge of finding you matches will decide you’re too picky, and start sending you “lower quality” matches. You’re free to meet multiple people at once, and they’re basically meant to facilitate dating.

      However, 선 (Seon) matches are pretty different. Most of the time the people proposing the arrangement are close family or friends (of your parents), and parties are expected to make up their minds pretty quickly. Delaying too long or changing your mind after the first few dates is strongly frowned upon, and may even cause major social riftts. This means that women especially are pressured to marry people before they’re comfortable with them, and even if they’re not really what they’re looking for. Seon is serious, and you’re expected to commit yourself pretty quickly.

      It’s also expected to override existing social relationships. My Korean host mother once called me up to ask if I’d go down to Busan to meet a friend’s son, who was interested in a seon meeting with me. I told her I’d just started dating someone, and her response was essentially, “That’s wonderful! When can you come to Busan?”


  8. Koreans’ Teeth and Cosmetic Infantilization

    In a modern society, and especially the generations after the 80’s, miss-formed or bad teeth are rare or almost non existent.
    In country’s where the social health-care is high enough, even the less fortunate people can afford healthy looking teeth.

    Having watched a few K-Soaps and productions, one of the things that stand out the most -in a rather bad way- are the porcelain -straight as a line- teeth of the femmes.

    They are eye-catching, because they seem so out of place in that face/mouth.

    Here too, is a crooked teeth or two considered a rather charming/roguish thing in young people, as long as it’s part of a overall healthy chewing-apparatus.

    But it’s the first time I read, that some people may deliberately deform their teeth for a young-ish look.


  9. Are you kidding me? My impression was that Koreans, men or women, liked straight teeth.
    A common way of female actors skirting around the issue of plastic surgery is for them to say, “Oh, I only had braces done”. Now, that may be true for some, but as you can see here it’s suggesting that except for a few exceptional cases where crooked teeth can work as a charm point (not many can pull that off admittedly), straight teeth seems to be an expectation or a desired trait for many Koreans.

    I also believe that the Japanese ‘yaeba’ trend has been around for far longer than Westerners are aware, it is just that somehow, somebody decided to write an article on it and it blew up on the Western hemisphere, along with the vaguely Orientalist “Japan, you so weird” aspect going for it.


  10. I’m in Vietnam and crooked canine teeth are considered charming (and only crooked canine teeth). Just like a molecule at the right place or a pair of dimples.


  11. Cant agree more with Ys’s comment. Koreans prefer perfect, straight teeth and regard it as a beauty than crooked teeth, unlike other Asian nations (such as Japan and VIetnam). Most of parents these days, in Korea, send their kids and make them wear braces so that they can have straight teeth line. Not only that, adults like me also go for it because some of us have straight but forwarded teeth line. Just look at Korean celebs. Most of them have straight teeth rather than crooked teeth. Those ‘v-shape’ advertisement you see are probably for those people with long, forward chins. (Like those who have Hapsburg’s jaw kinds) So that they have shorter, less forward chins. Thus they can have face shape that is rounder and smaller face.


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