Korean Gender Reader


For anyone interested, auditions for the 3rd annual Busan performance of the Vagina Monologues will be held on the weekend of January the 7th and 8th at the HQ bar in Kyungsung (the performance itself will be at the end of April). See Busan Haps for the details.

1) Single Korean Female, 30. Not Seeking Marriage.

Over at Seoulist, Stephanie Kim has written a great article on the pressures Korean women her age come under to get married. An excerpt:

Much like writer Kate Bolic, I also left a long-term relationship at the age of 28. It is never an easy explanation as to why a relationship doesn’t work out, but more disconcerting than my ambiguous story are the perplexed looks on the faces of my more conservative friends, especially those who believe that certain things must happen at certain times in one’s life….

…My Korean friends tell me that there is a very bad stereotype for a man who dates and then leaves a woman in the twilight of her twenties, letting her waste away into what my Chinese friends call a Leftover Woman. This was hardly my case. My ex-boyfriend was, and still is, a wonderful man. Smart. Caring. Supportive. The easiest answer I can give as to why the relationship fell apart is that things did not “feel right,” and that I was not ready for the next level of commitment, the marriage-minded track. It’s a scary feeling we all experience: everyday you feel one step closer to fulfilling a perfectly planned life, and it’s damn comfortable, but deep in your gut something tells you that that’s not what you truly want. I simply had the courage to act on that feeling. Though I don’t regret my decision, the stereotypes I face every day remind me that I took a non-traditional path.

Read the rest there. Note though, that unfortunately her message is a little confused by her referring to herself as a “Gold Miss” (골드미스), which she mistakenly thinks refers to an unmarried woman in her thirties or above. As regular Grand Narrative commenter Gomushin Girl points out however, actually it refers to women also highly successful in theirs career and/or financially well-off (the Joongang Daily says an income of 40 million won or above is required), which you can read about in depth in this discussion of the Japanese origins of the term at Ampontan: Japan from the inside out.

(Sources: left, right)

Not that I endorse the use of the term in any way: as even the Joongang Daily indirectly concedes in that above link, Gold Misses have little in common besides their salary and marital status, and one wonders at all the media attention on them a few years ago considering there were only 27,000 of them in 2006 (2 years before the article was published).

The explanation is that a Gold Miss is simply an invented role model for 30-something unmarried women to aspire to, all the better to sell them products that (supposedly) help them achieve that goal; or in other words, it’s normative rather than descriptive. This financial motivation becomes obvious when you realize that Japan-based Ampontan overlooks that the term is actually suspiciously similar to the “Missy” (미씨) term first used in 1994, about which So He-lee explains in her chapter “Female Sexuality in Popular Culture” in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laurel Kendall, 2002; my emphasis):

As soon as it came out [in a Seoul department store advertisement], it was adopted widely to indicate a particular kind of housewife, a married woman who still looks like a single woman. Even the copywriter was surprised at the speed with which this term took on social meaning and evoked specific images of women and femininity. “Missy” rapidly permeated the Korean language once the advertising industry recognized the consumerist implications of this target age groups’ flamboyant desires.

The essential condition of being a Missy is a preoccupation with being looked at….Another fundamental condition of membership in the Missy club is her professional job.

You could argue that that this was simply luck by the copywriter rather than being part of a grand conspiracy between advertisers and the media, but then both are constantly inventing new terms in order to find one that’s likewise happily adopted by the public, as the never-ending creation of new “bodylines” makes clear. Tellingly, the terms also tend to be quite broad and vague, conveniently leaving others free to further define them as they see fit: say, when they want to blame all Korea’s modern social ills on working women for instance, in an appalling Korea Herald report on “Alpha Girls” that I eviscerate here. So I think So He-lee is a little misguided in assuming that Missys’ “flamboyant desires” came before rather than after that 1994 ad.

2) Questions on Korean LGBT Literature

As explained by Charles at Korean Modern Literature in Translation:

Chasing down a question from long-time commenter Charles (not me^^) and some interesting information about Yi Kwang-su, I came across some interesting work by Gabriel Sylvian at The Three Wise Monkeys, .

I emailed him some questions and the answers were interesting (and lengthy!) enough that I decided to run them individually, with some comments they evoke from me.

Gabriel, a grad student in Korean Literature at Seoul National University, founded The Korea Gay Literature Project  in 2004, and you can read more about him here. In any case, my first question was for background:

Read those questions and answers there, continued in Parts 2 and 3 here and here.

In other Korean LGBT-related news, a gay Korean man recently received refugee status in Canada because of the abuse and discrimination he would be expected to receive during his mandatory 2-year military service (see here also for more on sexual abuse in the military in general); anti-gay art caused a stir at a recent Seoul National University exhibition; and – sorry for not noticing earlier – the Korean gay movie 알이씨REC below came out last month, which you can find many links about here.


3) Japan’s ‘Mancession

As Tokyo-based New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi put it:

Very interesting in its own right of course, that Bloomberg article referred to is also particularly useful in contrasting the Korean government and businesses’ decision to fire women in droves in response to the financial crisis, as in the US and – now Japan – it was actually men that suffered more. Indeed, in the former working women came to outnumber working men for the first time in its history (see story #5 below also).

4) Another Reason to Hate Naesoong and Aegyo

Via Tumblr Kitty Kitty Korea (but actually written by Party in the R.O.K.):

I can’t count all the times I’ve said “I’m going home” and attempted to leave wherever I was, and the Korean guy would be like “Oh, no you don’t!” and grab my wrists or shoulders or take my phone or hold me against a wall so I was physically unable to get out. No, man, I’m not just saying I want to go to be cute; I want to go. It’s not until I start thrashing around and yelling at them that they let go, and then they just act really confused. (I’m guessing that it’s a thing for Korean girls to pretend they want to leave a man so they can watch him beg for them to stay. Korean couples go on all sorts of weird power trips I just don’t get coming from the relatively sane world of American dating.)

Read there for her discussion of what lay behind that confusion. Also, I don’t mean to cause and/or perpetuate negative stereotypes about Korean men, and should be(!) the very last person to ask for dating advice, so please let me know how that does or doesn’t match your own dating experiences.

Update – By a wonderful coincidence, 5 minutes after I published this post this one appeared at Seoulbeats, about how seemingly every Korean drama features the male lead grabbing the female lead by the wrist and literally dragging her away with him like she was his property and/or child, despite her screams and protests. Sound familiar?


5) What do Women’s Groups Think of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF)?

Not much, according to the Hankyoreh, citing:

…its passive approach in the cases of the comfort women who had been coerced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II and a sexual harassment victim who was dismissed from a Hyundai Motor subcontractor. In the latter case, the occurrence of sexual harassment was acknowledged in January by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and the victim held a nearly 200-day sit-in protest in front of the MOGEF building when she was not reinstated. The ministry made almost no efforts to offer support, merely reiterating that it was “not within our legal authority to help victims.”

And also that:

In addition to its failure to do its job, the ministry has also added fuel to existing conflicts in the most bewildering of places. A case in point was its embarrassment after indiscriminately handing out “19 and older” ratings to songs with references to alcohol in their lyrics. Meanwhile, a late-night Internet shutdown system for those aged 16 and under has stirred up a controversy over violations of freedom.

Hey, I’m no fan of the Lee Myung-bak administration, and indeed I think its mixed performance in other areas of governance pale in comparison to its appalling record on women’s rights, which will be one of its most enduring legacies. Having said that, it’s a real struggle to find a Hankyoreh article that doesn’t criticize the present government in some form or another, whereas MOGEF does have a point about its relative powerlessness (it has only 0.12% of the total government budget for instance), the editor’s assertion that “if its authority is limited, then it can only survive by constantly raising issues and making its voice heard” proving my own point that this is the very impetus behind its constant censorship of K-pop (but not that I’m for that either!). Also, when Lee Myung-bak himself encouraged the firing of women in 2008 (see #3 above), then it deserves at least some praise for its recent efforts at job creation (source, right):

On December 23, MOGEF presented its plans to provide individually tailored job assistance programs for 130,000 people in 2012 before the Korean Youth Counseling Institute with President Lee Myung-bak in attendance.

The plan stipulates expanding the number of job training centers for women to 111 by next year and developing more in-depth programs for those with less access to employment opportunities, such as migrant women and women with disabilities. Furthermore, the Women Friendly City program, which currently counts 30 cities among its members and has received growing interest from regional administrations, will expand to 40 cities. MOGEF will also perform assessments, differentiating for gender, to measure the effects of such programs.

Read the rest at Korea.net. It does have to be acknowledged though, that still much much more is needed to boost female employment in Korea, as today’s final link – this comprehensive report from the Korea Herald – makes clear.

22 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. Also, the students rights bill in Seoul was passed, with clauses about LGBT and pregnant students rights against discrimination included.


    1. Thanks, glad to hear it. Someone emailed me about a petition to make sure that that was included, but unfortunately I only read the email a couple of hours before its deadline, so it’s relief to know that those clauses still got included.


  2. 1. “Missy” sounds a lot like the (in the US-term) “Ms.” (pronouced mizz) for a young, professional woman. Age was not related to the term, but it did signify a woman who had chosen her career and, by extension, herself as the focal point of her life. A woman who went by “Ms.” was not necessarily avoiding marriage, but she was not seeking it either. If you look at it in a Mazlow sort of way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs) you might consider the slice for family was moved to a higher level after the other needs had been satisfied. This untraditional track isn’t necessarily bad either. What’s wrong with making sure you (alone) are professionally happy, and financially successful, before combining your life with that of another through marriage and parenting?

    But, as an observer I still see that Korea has not embraced this concept. Instead I hear my friends talk about that invisible line of getting married before the magic age of thirty. Many of them did marry in their late-twenties. It is very strange to me. Come on, we’re not talking about Cinderella trying to beat the stroke of midnight. Nobody’s going to turn into a pumpkin. But the perception is still pervasive: there must be something wrong if you aren’t married by thirty. Two of my closest friends had lamented to me that (at 35) they doubted they would ever get married solely because they had “missed their time”.

    3. (With a tinge of irony to my comment) It sounds like a capitalist’s dream: you can have the company fully staffed and save a bundle on labor costs.

    But seriously, it certainly does raise broader questions of how successful the total economic expansion of the last half century was if the current recession turns into an extended period of deflation with more and more being under employed and/or under paid solely in the pursuit of work.


    1. I would have to disagree that the use of Ms indicates a career-orientation – especially since I use it myself. The term has a long history as a way to avoid the problems of addressing women by the wrong term (mrs./miss) and later was used by women to deliberately obfuscate their status as a political tool during the feminist movement in the 70s, but it’s not used by even those of us who use it politically to say anything about careers.

      Korea hasn’t adopted the concept of “ms” because linguistically it already has a marital status (and gender) neutral title (씨). There are titles that indicate marital status (아가씨 assumes a young unmarried woman, 사모님 is the wife of your teacher/superior), but most terms are concerned with age or occupation rather than marital status (아주마, 할아버지, 선생님, 사장님) and are gender-neutral. Service workers usually use 고객님 of name-님. You also shouldn’t conflate Missy as identified by Kendal (and now virtually absent from public use) and Gold Miss – James has pointed out a point of similarity, but they don’t mean the same thing.


  3. Oh my God, did you guys read the story about the American woman living with her in-laws in Stephanie Kim’s essay?! I almost just broke up with my boyfriend out of fear after reading that. *shivers*

    Ah, though now I just saw Gomushin Girl’s comment that it’s unusual. I sure hope so.


    1. Until a year ago, I would have said most younger wives no longer live with their inlaws, but I’m now part of an online group of Western women married to Korean men and I’ve been astonished by how many live with their inlaws. The percentage seems much higher than my husband’s 30/40 something year old friends and coworkers. Now, not every woman living with her inlaws has the kind of experience as in the article, but some have pretty insane stories/living situations. I can thankfully report that my MIL has no interest in ever living with me, and my husband would never be okay with the kind of treatment the woman in the article faced, but I now realize that it happens much more frequently than I had expected.


      1. Thanks for letting me know, and yeah – I’m astonished too, and have a renewed appreciation for why Korean women don’t want to date first-borns.

        In contrast, only 1 out of the 15 or so guys in our office with Korean wives lives with his mother-in-law, and often jokingly tells us about the problems that causes. Nothing major (it sounds more like many minor annoyances rather than anything serious), but still: nobody can understand why on Earth he agreed to it!

        (Disclaimer: he reads this blog sometimes!)


    2. I can’t say how unusual it is among foreign women who marry Koreans, but it is increasingly uncommon among Koreans. Out of all my married friends, I would estimate that only about 10% currently live with their in-laws, and only 25% or less lived with them at any stage. Certainly none of them are getting up at 6 am to wait on their father-in-law! To be frank, the only living situation I’ve heard of that required that kind of level of devotion was described in the memoirs of Lady Hyegong . . . at the late 18th century Joseon court. According to this Chosun Ilbo article (http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2011/07/30/2011073000289.html), the number of women who live with their in-laws halved in the past twenty years to under 200,000. I’m also a bit skeptical of the idea that they’d be living with in-laws who openly opposed the marriage in the first place ~ I can’t see a guy willing to date and marry a foreigner against his parent’s wishes putting his wife in a living situation where she’s expected to perform such a distinctly odd role. To be clear, I do know several foreign women who have married Korean men, including a few who live with their Korean in-laws. The relationships are sometimes stressful for a variety of reasons (language barriers, cultural differences, financial strain, what have you), but what she describes is downright bizarre, even for more traditional Korean families.


  4. PartintheROK’s blog is rich with overblown caricatures and stereotypes of Korean people. Did you know Korean women purposely wear short skirts in the winter so that they can whine to their boyfriends about how they are cold so that they seem cute and in need of their protection? You didn’t? PartyintheROK can inform you about that, as well.

    I’d take it with a grain of salt. I’ve never had a Korean man push me against a wall or drag me anywhere, ever. And what you’ll also notice in a lot of Korean dramas is the female lead kicking, slapping, punching, shoving and hitting the male lead. So maybe we should investigate the link between that and Korean women abusing their boyfriends, for a change.


    1. Thanks for the heads-up – I admit I haven’t read any of PartyintheROK beyond the paragraph quoted. And also for letting me know about your (counter) experiences with Korean guys.

      I’d be happy to look at any possible link between Korean girlfriends abusing their boyfriends and the same in dramas. I haven’t dated in 10 years though (or talked about it much with others since), and the only thing I know about dramas is what I get from glancing at the post titles at Dramabeans, so please pass on any links etc. I could use to write something!


      1. Yeah I was being a bit of a smartass. I just mean, I don’t think anyone assumes Korean dramas are inciting Korean women to beat their boyfriends, although the behavior is often depicted, so maybe we could be a little more generous about the assumptions we make based on our viewing of male drama characters as well.

        Anyway. I’m getting tired of hearing about this subject lately being written about in really shoddy terms especially around Tumblr so I’ll probably just do a post on it a little later. But the gist of what I’m trying to say is, being yanked by the arm or pushed up against a wall at a club does not mean that you are experiencing some intrinsic and cultivated part of Korean culture. It means you’re experiencing a jerk.


      2. I hate the wrist grab meme, and I *have* occasionally seen it in real life, but I have never seen anybody dragged around like in a drama or physically prevented from leaving a place after expressing a clear desire to leave. And to add to INP, I’ve never had a Korean man push me or drag me anywhere.


        1. Oh, I’ll also add that the majority of the sort of mild (playful) violence seems to occur among younger couples. I see it a lot with teenagers, sometimes couples in their twenties, and almost never among people in their thirties or older.


          1. I’ve also seen this with younger couples, especially if there’s alcohol involved. But it definitely goes both ways and, as Gomushin Girl said, it’s very mild and playful, and it’s something I’ve only seen on occasion. And I’ll also add myself to the list of women who’ve never been pushed or dragged or held against my will by a Korean man.


        2. I have also seen it on occasion in real life and on reality shows, always with the younger set and always out of friendliness or good humor. It seems to me that if you’re allowed to address a person in banmal, you’re at liberty to lead them by the wrist at some point. I can’t imagine it working the other way around, but it admittedly is just a theory.

          Meanwhile, I am excited to report that I just finished watching Birdie Buddy (2010), and in 24 episodes, it managed to entirely avoid the wrist-grab. There was a hand-grab near the end, but that gives off a very different feel, don’t you think? Actually, the show managed to avoid 7 or 8 of the 11 tropes listed here: http://thundiesprattle.com/2011/12/08/ten-laws-of-the-kdramaverse-a-survival-guide-for-heroines/ (yes, I know it says 10, but the author is quick to amend it in the comments), so I’m a happy camper!


          1. Here’s a video about the ‘wrist-leading’ thing and general violence in Korean dramas:

            There are a lot of differing and interesting reactions in the comments section. I assume it’s mostly younger fans who are obsessed with the dramas and actors and aren’t really viewing them objectively. Also, notice how the women’s faces usually express visible pain when they’re being hurt. However, I do understand that in some instances the violence is supposed to be funny; however, not in most of them by a long shot.


          2. Sorry, I missed the notification for your reply until today. I want to give you the response you’re looking for, but I can’t quite figure out what that is; I don’t really see a common thread between my comment and yours, nor do I seem to see in the youtube video comments what you do. Again, sorry.

            If my reaction to the video is what you wanted, you’re welcome to it: The wrist-leading in the compilation actually came across as less disturbing to me than it did the first time around, perhaps because I’m familiar with the context, or perhaps because it is juxtaposed against the much more serious forced-kissing and pales in comparison.

            Don’t get me wrong – I do think the wrist-grab is highly overused and undercriticized in Korean media and possibly also in everyday life, but I also don’t seem to think it’s as big a deal as you do. However, I think your opinion probably carries more weight, as you appear to have quite a bit more experience under your belt.


    2. When I wrote about Korean women dressing inappropriately in the cold weather, as you might recall, I was merely quoting what several Korean people had told my friend, and I made that clear in the post. Also, just because you’ve never experienced being slapped around by someone doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’ve never experienced it either, luckily, but I’ve seen it happening enough to realize it’s not an entirely made-up issue. Also, I agree that people usually ignore domestic abuse when the woman is the perpetrator. Especially in East Asia, where hitting and slapping is oftentimes considered cute and playful if the woman is doing it. Every time I’ve seen a Korean couple in a full-blown fight, the violence goes both ways.


      1. Well, of course it happens. I don’t think whether or not domestic abuse occurs in Korea is really the issue here, though. What’s being discussed is whether or not there is an aspect of Korean culture at play that is encouraging or condoning domestic abuse. That’s different. And entirely worth discussing. All I was saying is that when someone else is reporting an experience that is vastly different from that of you and everyone else you, it’s worth looking into the reliability of that source. Especially when you’re going to use that source to make statements about an entire culture, and especially when that information is being transmitted to others who have no firsthand experience in that area. You’ve represented your side of the issue, and now I’m representing mine, which is that more times than not,when I’ve


      2. Well, of course it happens. I don’t think whether or not domestic abuse occurs in Korea is really the issue here, though. What’s being discussed is whether or not there is an aspect of Korean culture at play that is encouraging or condoning domestic abuse. That’s different. And entirely worth discussing. All I was saying is that when someone else is reporting an experience that is vastly different from that of you and everyone else you, it’s worth looking into the reliability of that source. Especially when you’re going to use that source to make statements about an entire culture, and especially when that information is being transmitted to others who have no firsthand experience in that area. You’ve represented your side of the issue, and now I’m representing mine, which is that more times than not, when I’ve been ready to go on my way from a Korean man’s company, I’ve been politely walked to the door, a taxi or the bus without a fuss. Only once in my entire three years in Korea, nearly two and a half of which were spent single going out nearly every weekend, have I had any guy put his hands on me when I tried to walk away. So. That’s my experience.


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