Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012

(Sources: left, right; edited from originals)

Whenever someone strips for the sake of drawing attention to some cause, usually my instant, gut reaction is to dismiss it as a crass stunt. Unless it’s for Slutwalk or FEMEN, then I’m just too suspicious of their real motives, especially if they’re not already famous.

That’s why I didn’t cover this woman back in January, who wrote a message of support for jailed Naneum Ggomsuda (나는 꼼수다) podcaster Chung Bong-ju (정봉주) across her breasts; as while she was anonymous herself (ish), other men and women that followed her example certainly weren’t. Although, in hindsight, only a handful of pictures would actually be sent in, despite an audience of millions, and I overlooked that one of the men was already semi-famous as Chung Bong-ju’s photographer, at the time the podcasters’ call for more bikini shots just seemed like an invitation for a repeat of 2006 and 2010, when women vied with each other to become famous by wearing the most revealing Red Devil costumes.

But then Nancy Lang (낸시 랭) paraded around Seoul in a bikini two days before the April elections, which made me sit very uncomfortably in my seat. Because after lauding her as a “pin-up grrrl” back in November, I couldn’t be quite so dismissive this time, even though her street performance was surely just as crass, and its connection to its ostensible cause — encouraging people to vote — tenous at best. Yet other than a long history of doing similar such performances, how was she really any different from those Naneun Ggomsuda supporters that wrote messages on themselves back in January, and for whom she’d even expressed her support? How about all the other similarly-themed protests and/or pledges over the past few months too, including Kwak Hyun-hwa’s (곽현화) above?

(Sources: left, right)

So, wanting to learn more about the efficacy of such protests, and particularly how useful — or possibly counterproductive — they are in a feminist sense, I realized that “Bikini Girl” deserved a second look. Or, more specifically, what her breasts ultimately raised. For as many of you will already be well aware, the reactions of the podcasters to them, and especially their encouragement of more such pictures, was soon critiqued by many on both the Left and the Right…which in turn led to counter-critiques of those critiques, then the Right chastising the Left for not critiquing the podcasters more, and so on — it was all very confusing. What was necessary was a chronology of events, which indeed I provide below.

But think about it: when breasts become not so much a mere body part as a titillating device for political parties and media allies to score points against each other, then to put it mildly you can’t trust just any one source’s interpretation and depiction of events, and especially not just rely on those that happen to be in English. Which is just common sense, but it deserves reiterating (and for another good illustration of partisan reporting, make sure to see the Korean media’s reaction to netizen attacks on newly-elected Philippine-born Jasmine Lee). So, the other posts in what must inevitably become this series will be translations of some Korean ones, starting with this, then this, this, this, this, and/or any more I can find (and/or readers recommend).


Still further complicating matters however, events have coincided with a potential emerging “~녀/girl” meme, in which a series of incidents involving (mostly) young women have left a host of misogynistic netizen reactions in their wake. In particular, for me personally it was this recent incident on a bus, in which a woman in her twenties — out of many angry passengers — was unfairly singled out for criticism, that signaled that something far more pernicious than simple netizen ranting was afoot, and that the backlash against changing gender-relations in Korea that led to the disparaging “beanpaste girl” (dwenjang nyeo; 된장녀) term in the mid-2000s was still very much around.

Even if, ultimately, there are no real connections, it would be strange to analyze bikini and nude protests — some of which arguably very much challenged prevailing conceptions of  “appropriate” displays of sexuality and expressions of sexual subjectivity — without also considering that a potential backlash against changing gender-relations is also occurring. Hence expect more translations about the latter also.


On top of that, as if to taunt me, over the last 2 weeks Uniqlo Korea happened to have a “Women’s Freedom Event“, used to sell their “BraTop”. By this stage thoroughly sick of breasts (okay, not really; but I’m sure you can appreciate the sentiment), this choice of language instantly raised some alarm bells, as it reminded me of the following:

…some advertisers, aware of the objections of the feminist movement to traditional images of women in ads, have incorporated the criticism into their ads, many of which now present an alternative stereotype of the cool, professional, liberated women…Some agencies trying to accommodate new attitudes in their campaigns, often miss the point and equate ‘liberation’ with a type of aggressive sexuality and very unliberated coy sexiness (G. Dyer, Advertising as Communication, 1982, pp. 185-86; quoted in D. Strinati, An Introduction of Theories of Popular Culture, 1995, pp. 187-88)

Or indeed “freedom” rather than “liberation”. And, technically speaking, Uniqlo is simply appropriating the word in order to simply sell more clothes. But even if I have always had a fondness for the company, it did interview some genuinely cool women as part of its campaign, and, recalling the line of inquiry that started this 3-week(!) post, provides a healthy reminder to myself to: a) reconsider some of my prejudices and gut reactions to things; and b) not read too much into things.

And on that note, let me apologize for how convoluted and wooly some of my own understanding and explanations of pin-up grrrls have been in the past, and very briefly give some clarifications and further observations on those before presenting the chronology. Not because they’re the final word by any means, but more because, hopefully, they’re good things to bear in mind as you consider the events of the past few months:


• Being a sex object doesn’t necessarily preclude one from also being a sexual subject. They are not mutually exclusive.

• However, expressions of sexual subjectivity remain a big taboo in Korea. Or in other words, we can have a 25 year-old’s S-line quite literally highlighted for a heterosexual male gaze, but heaven forbid she admit to having sexual feelings and experience herself. Certainly, this does apply to male celebrities too, but I’d argue to a much lesser extent. In turn, while this double-standard is present in other countries, it’s not difficult to think of female celebrities that thrive on challenging such taboos, whereas admissions like Lee Hyori’s seem to be few and far between among their Korean counterparts (although I’d be very happy to be proven wrong).

• While pictures (etc.) of sexually-attractive women are often framed as being exclusively for a heterosexual male gaze, there is overwhelming evidence (see Maria Buszek’s Pin-Up Grrrls, or this shorter essay) that heterosexual women can be just as if not more interested in them, finding the women — rightly or wrongly — to be confident, sexy role models. A good case in point is Girls’ Generation, who surprised many (including myself) with their huge female fan base in Japan, and who in hindsight may have many more female fans in Korea than is reported too. If that does turn out to be the case, then why the media stresses girl-groups’ “ajosshi” or “samcheon” fandom instead is an interesting topic for further investigation, and I’d speculate that it’s a side-effect of entertainment companies’ prerogative to frame that fandom as platonic (source, right).

• Nobody deserves criticism for financially benefiting from their sexual attractiveness. It is basic human nature, and applies equally whether one is a public or private figure. Moreover, while I can certainly respect those ballsy celebrities who are honest about doing so, nobody ever needs my approval for what they wear, and can give any reason they like — or indeed no reason — for their choices.

• Having said that, using self-sexualization to advance a cause is a double-edged sword, and can easily end up more distracting the intended audience than anything else. Which sounds facetious; but as we’ll see, Bikini Girl proves to be a good case in point.

• Nevertheless, it is hypocritical to criticize politically-motivated sexualization without also criticizing commercially-motivated sexualization, and betrays a political agenda. Indeed, given the pervasiveness of the latter, using skin to get attention is an obvious tool, so it’s strange that we don’t see people stripping for a cause more often in Korea.

Finally, the chronology. Sorry that the Bikini Girl protest is actually the only one that I cover in it, albeit interspersed with all the “~녀” incidents, but another purpose in all the coming translations is getting on top of all the (far less well-documented) other ones, and I’ll either update this chronology or produce a new separate one once I do:

December 26:

— Chung Bong-ju jailed (Korea Realtime)

January 20:

— “Bikini Girl” posts photo, which gains much wider public attention over the next week (DKBNews; translation via Korea Bang)

January 21, 27:

Naneun Ggomsudua podcasters Kim Young-min and Choo Chin-woo (주진우) encourage (and receive) more bikini photos (Korea Times)

January 28:

The Crucible/Dogani (도기나) author Gong Ji-young (공지영) demands apology and calls for the hosts to retract those statements (Korea Times):

“I’ve written a novel to call for heavier punishments for child molesters in the Republic of Korea, which is a world of male chauvinism. This is a country where those sexually assaulting a female schoolmate are released with suspended jail terms because they were drunk, the girl was insufficiently dressed, or she was deemed a slut. This is a country where 70 percent of men have bought sex, so it is natural that people’s perspective on women’s bodies is political,” she said.

— See the Korea Herald (here and here) and Modern Korean Literature in Translation for a discussion of this reaction. In the latter, author Charles Montgomery argues that “immediately [going] to ‘child molestation’ and ‘assault’ in her argument against what is essentially a bikini shot” is too much of a jump, and that with her blanket statement of opposition to them, “Gong is doing a different version of what the GNP has tried to do to her – shutting down a clever method of getting publicity.”

February 1 (source, right):

— “Nude Male Campaign Appears After Bikini Girl Protest Criticized” (Daum; translation via Korea Bang):

Nude male photos in support of the imprisoned ex-MP Jung Bong-ju from the campaigning group ‘Jung Bong-ju and Future Power’ appeared on the web today. This was in response to accusations against the bikini protest as female sexual harassment.

Choi Young-min, a professional photographer who worked closely with the ex-MP was equally famous among his followers.

Painting the message ‘I’m dead serious’ and ‘Give back my model’ on his body was to remind the viewer of his support for the ex-MP.

In his interview with Money Today, Choi argued that “the female bikini campaign to publicize Jung’s case was seen as trivializing the campaign by ‘using’ the female body. I wanted to counter those criticisms by using male nudity.”

February 5:

Naneun Ggomsudua podcasters refuse to apologize,  head host Kim Ou-joon (김어준) arguing “that their comments were not sexual harassment, nor were they intended to be” (Korea Times):

Kim said that in order for the comments to be sexually harassing, inequality of power must exist.

“The woman who uploaded the picture must feel like she would be disadvantaged if she said she was sexually humiliated. However, the woman did not feel that way and we don’t have the power to suppress her from saying it. Therefore, sexual harassment did not take place,” he said.

Kim made it clear that they would not retract or regret the comments. “The right to express a political opinion using one’s body should be recognized,” he said.

— But note that The Korea Joongang Daily provides a slightly different, more positive translation of the above (surprisingly, considering it is a conservative newspaper):

“We didn’t have any intention of sexual harassment and she [the female protestor in bikini] didn’t feel in that way,” Kim said. “She has the right to express political issues and her rights should be respected. No one can limit that right because he or she feels uncomfortable.

“It’s true that I was impressed by the biological perfection [of the woman] at first, but at the same time, I was also impressed as a political comrade by this new kind of protest,” Kim said.

— See Korea Law Today for an analysis, where author Nathan McMurray (quite presciently) noted:

I know the whole modus operandi of the creeps is to be irreverent and provocative. But irreverence is only useful when it furthers, rather than hinders, the show’s goals. I am curious if these recent events will have any impact on the upcoming presidential election, where the conservative candidate will likely be a woman (Park Kun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who I briefly mentioned here). Plus, this stuff is just not funny. If you insist on “working blue,” please make me laugh.

— Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, at best the controversy created distracted people from more important issues, whereas at worst it presaged deep divisions in the Left’s support for them, well before years-old misogynistic comments of one of them, Kim Yong-min (김용민) emerged in April.


— On the other hand, it’s important not to judge Kim Ou-joon’s above defense in light of those comments either, or the efficacy of Bikini Girl’s and other protests. That would just be an ad-hominem attack and guilt by association respectively.

February 6:

— Three “of the nation’s liberal online communities – Ssanghwa Tea Cocoa, Souldresser, and Hwajangbal – issued a joint statement on Monday evening that they were disappointed by the reckless remarks of the liberal hosts regarding women (Korea Joongang Daily; see the full [Korean] statement here):

“Their remark related to nosebleeds means they see women with typical male-centric views, considering women as mere tools for sexual entertainment to cheer up men’s political activities,” the joint statement said. “They also fueled controversies once again saying ‘impressed by biological perfection,’ implying that its natural to view women as sexual objects.”

“The show’s hosts should realize their show is no longer a B-level alternative broadcast and has grown into a political representative if they want to become real liberals,” the statement said.

The Web site for Chung’s fan club, called Chung Bong-ju and Future Powers, was filled with posts criticizing the joint statement…

March 1

— “Swearing Woman” slapping man on Seoul subway video goes viral (Korea Bang)

March 9:

— “Hot Soup Lady” proves not to be at fault (Korea Bang).

March 19:

— “And then there was Bundang Line Smoking Girl” (The Marmot’s Hole). See especially this, this, and this commentary on that, linked to earlier, and especially this prescient one from 2010 made at Scribblings of the Metropolitician (via Gusts of Popular Feeling):

I’ve also noticed the trend of collective, public humiliation of Korean Girls Behaving Badly. That’s not to say that the women involved are innocent or that men are let off scot-free. But you definitely don’t see the same reaction when Korean men “act out of line.” There might be public criticism, to be sure, but nothing like the witch-hunts and publicity we’ve seen in the case of women….

March 21:

 — New subway swearing “Cigarette Lady” video goes viral (Korea Bang)

March 27:

— “Beer Girl” smokes on subway, pours beer on pensioner (Korea Bang)

March 30:

— “Soju Girl” debuts, same girl as “Beer Girl”? (Korea Bang)

April 6:

— Kim Yong-min, by this stage a candidate for the main opposition Democratic United Party candidate in the northern Seoul constituency of Nowon-A, was revealed to have made vulgar and misogynistic comments when he appeared on an Internet broadcast in 2004 and 2005 (The Korea Herald):

Some of his recently revealed remarks include: “If all escalators and elevators at the City Hall metro station are dismantled, (conservative) old men and women will not be able to gather around the City Hall to hold demonstrations” and “If we take all U.S. soldiers in Korea hostage and run an armored vehicle over them one by one, Bush cannot help but step down”; and “Let’s release (serial killer) Yu Yeong-cheol and rape and kill (Condoleezza) Rice and kill Rumsfeld and Bush.

The ruling Saenuri Party, women’s rights groups and even liberal figures have piled pressure on the DUP leadership to withdraw his candidacy…

— As readers will be well aware, the DUP decided to keep him, and indeed his popularity before news of these comments emerged should not be underestimated. But with the benefit of hindsight however, this decision is widely considered to have cost the DUP the election (The Korea Herald; see this [small] poll at Korea Law Today also):

…The opposition party should have withdrawn his nomination for damage control, but it did not.

The failure to act decisively against the podcaster turned moderates and swing voters against the opposition party, undoubtedly making it possible for the ruling party to win in many closely contested districts.

If it had not been for the podcaster’s nomination, the main opposition party could have won a majority of electoral districts, if not alone, in alliance with the small United Progressive Party. Instead, the DUP won 127 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, and the United Progressive Party took 13. On the other hand, the ruling Saenuri won 152 under the leadership of Rep. Park Geun-hye.

April 9:

— “Girl in bikini uses pussy to encourage voters” (Korea Bang)

April 18:

—  “Bus Girl” demands driver apologize on knees” (Korea Bang; also source, right):

As the photo went viral, other articles surfaced explaining the what presumably really happened. One such article stated that with passengers getting frustrated and the driver showing insincerity towards the situation, he was asked to get down on his knees. Another blog post claims that as the bus finally arrived at the bus terminal, the ground staff showed indifference to the passengers’ inconvenience, to which they suggested the staff get down on their knees. Refusing, the bus driver did instead. The latest “Ladygate” incident shows how just one photo can be subject to open interpretation, and how netizen opinions in Korea, no matter how far-fetched and ridiculous they may seem, are not taken lightly by news outlets – having the power to change entire news stories or even make new ones.

April 27:

— “Woman Crushes High School Girl Between Two Cars, Does Nothing” (Daum; translation via Korea Bang). The blog post translates (generally) disparaging comments from Daum of the stereotypical female driver described below, echoed by (English-speaking) commenters on the post itself:

Note: Mrs. Kim is a name frequently given to women drivers who hog the road and don’t know how to drive. perceived as a rich house wife who does nothing. Kind of like a trophy wife (but not necessarily pretty). The driver in the video is most likely NOT actually named Mrs. Kim.

— “Poo Girl” does poo on Seoul metro, netizens forgiving (Korea Bang). As The Korea Times explains:

The “poo-poo girl on the subway” incident, which created the latest online buzz, was later found that the woman was mentally unstable.

This case and several others showed Internet users are sometimes quick to harshly criticize and make comments about a situation without learning the exact details or hearing the full story….

Accordingly, the comments selected by the Korea Times do give the impression that the “~녀” meme may well be at an end. But if so, then I think something similar will soon take its place.

In the meantime, apologies for the long wait on this post, and expect the first of those translations next week soon (possibly with a Korean Gender Reader in between)!

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

8 thoughts on “Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012

  1. “But note that The Korea Joongang Daily provides a slightly different, more positive translation of the above (surprisingly, considering it is a conservative newspaper)”

    I doubt the overall inclination of a paper would affect the translation of a quote like this, even if it does affect the overall reporting of the affair. The reporter’s own opinions are likely to be more important.

    On another point, I think Kim’s comments were within the range of what is acceptable for a comedian (although I’d say it’s near impossible to evaluate them beyond that without being a native speaker of Korean), but they were completely unacceptable comments for a politician. I don’t think it’s a good idea for a comedian to cross over into politics like this, because problems like these will inevitably arise. In a way, the same thing affects the bikini protests. They were playing the role of the mischevous outsider when they were directly involved. It changes the context of the protest, which might have come across differently, ad it been for some other cause.


    1. I have to disagree sorry – while I admit that the difference isn’t all that great in this case, that there is a difference at all shows the possibilities for putting different slants on things. Even if no translation is involved, and even with the most scrupulous of reporters, what background is or isn’t provided, how much of the full quote is or isn’t given, and so on can all contribute to give very different impressions of the person being quoted (even if the reporter is trying to be as objective as possible). Sorry if you already know all that, and sorry if you just specifically meant the quote…I’m just saying.

      Once a translation is involved though, then the possibilities are endless. By no means am I an experienced and knowledge translator of Korean into English, but I have done a lot of translations for this blog, and as I’m doing so I’m constantly struck – no, should be always aware of! – at how any one Korean sentence could be written in 6 or even more ways in English.

      As for Kim’s comments, I’d agree if you meant his first ones about Bikini Girl’s “biological perfection” and calling for more pictures like hers, disagree if you’re referring to his earlier jokes about raping Condoleeza Rice. Of course, it’s true we have all said crap years ago that we regret and should be forgiven for, and the fact that it’s preserved in cyberspace to be dredged up at any time nevertheless is a new reality that we all have to live with. But on the other hand, I wasn’t using the word “rape” to mean “beat” or “pwn” even when I was 18 and all my friends were, and neither were any of the comedians I liked ever using it in jokes either. So, if Kim professed his deep regret for them and his actions were consistent with this…then sure, I would forgive him and vote for him. But I’d need a lot of convincing.


      1. Oh it’s definitely possible to change the nuance of a translation. What I’m saying is that this, in my experience, is not something that higher-ups will get involved in. It’s down to the discretion of the writer, who won’t necessarily share the political leanings of the media they work for. Usually, writers also lack the language skills needed for this kind of twists of meaning, and spend a lot more time agonizing over whether the quote is accurate.
        On KIm, I mean that I don’t think any subject should be taboo for any art form, including comedy.That doesn’t give him carte blanche of course. I think its fine to make films about Scottish uprisings, but that doesn’t make Braveheart forgivable.
        p.s. It seems to me that his comments were much more offensive to Koreans in the original language, than the translations are to foreigners.


  2. “While pictures (etc.) of sexually-attractive women are often framed as being exclusively for a heterosexual male gaze, there is overwhelming evidence (see Maria Buszek’s Pin-Up Grrrls, or this shorter essay) that heterosexual women can be just as if not more interested in them, finding the women — rightly or wrongly — to be confident, sexy role models.”

    On this particular point I suggest looking at Ariel Levy’s book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, which may offer a different perspective on the issue. Although written primarily on American culture, and pulling her evidence from there, it still fits this. Despite some problems with her evidence, her overall premise is good and convincing. She argues that women are embracing this sort of what she calls raunch culture (referring to cardio strip tease classes for women, posing for Playboy and Girls Gone Wild, etc.), thinking that this new sexual power, this whole one-of-the-guys-ness that comes with it, is real power, when in reality it is doing so at a cost.


    1. Thanks for the suggestion, but I bought and read it the same time as Pin-up Grrrls, and frankly considered it a very superficial look at the subject. That’s not to say that I disagree with her main argument though, which I think is quite valid, and certainly simply showing off more skin being framed as empowerment is something we always have to be aware of (indeed, I was guilty of *ahem* conflating the two myself back when I first began writing about gender issues). But on the other hand, most of Buszek’s examples predate this rise of raunch culture (her book starts in the 1870s), and a central theme of it is how just how deeply uncomfortable feminism, particularly Second Wave feminism, is/has been with female sex-symbols that don’t fit the typical narrative of objectification and exploitation, let alone their numerous female fans. Indeed, forgive me for sounding glib and/or grossly overgenaralizing, but I think it’s very telling that such a term as “sex-positive feminism” even exists, and very counterproductive – more specifically, very off-putting to the general public – how some very vocal feminists (eg. those at Feministing, which I stopped reading for this reason a couple of years ago) seem to critique just about every ad with, say, a woman in a bikini, and which has contributed to an environment in which every critic of over-sexualization (etc.) in the media is written off as a prude (as M. Durham complains about in The Lolita Effect for instance).


  3. another bitchass cracker imperialist with a blog who has nothing good say about korea! you crackers bitches are nothing but demonic piece of shit! go back to your motherfucking country and criticize how bad britain and europe is! since all evilness comes from europe! killuminati!


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