The Surprising Reason Koreans Don’t Buy Red Underwear for Valentine’s Day

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Image sources, edited: Summer Yolo Shop, KoBiz.

Go clothes shopping in East Asia at the moment, and it seems impossible to avoid all the red underwear. But it’s not because of Valentine’s Day. It’s because red is considered a lucky color by the Chinese, and the Lunar New Year’s celebration is just around the corner.

Moreover, unlike loud red clothes, red underwear will suit any wardrobe. Those whose Chinese Zodiac falls in the coming year for instance, when ironically they’ll need extra luck, can don it without revealing their age. So too Mahjong Players in Macau, who hope to leave their opponents seeing a different kind of red.

All these associations explain why “Triumph, the biggest underwear-maker in Asia, says its sales of red items are usually ten times higher than usual in Singapore and Malaysia around the Lunar New Year,” according to the following 2015 BBC report (0:35):

But it’s not just those countries with large Chinese populations that fall for red—Japanese stores also have big promotions. And Valentine’s Day can still be a very big deal: as the then Director of Triumph, Doy Teo above brightly noted, Lunar New Year’s fell very close to Valentine’s Day that year, making red underwear not just a good romantic gift. They will be even closer together this year.

Buying red on such an occasion seems a natural fit for young Korean consumers especially. Consider how Valentine’s Day has already been expanded into 11 other monthly holidays on various romantic themes. Other non-native holidays, most notably Christmas, are not so much family occasions as rare opportunities to escape parents and spend time with partners or friends. “Couple clothes” are popular, and worn all year-round. Red is the color of the “Red Devils” soccer supporters, who the Korean media already portrays as young women in red, skimpy clothing. And in particular, red has many of the same lucky connotations in Korean culture too. As explained by Jang Jang-sik, Research Institute Director at the National Folklore Museum of Korea, it’s traditionally been worn by soldiers or those doing something dangerous, gifted to students doing exams, and there is a folk belief that it helps women who are finding it difficult to conceive a son:

국립민속박물관 장장식 학예연구관은 “전쟁이나 위험지역으로 떠날 때나 도박판에 갈 때도 붉은 속옷을 입는다”며 ” ‘수험생이 붉은 속옷을 입거나 지니고 있으면 합격한다’ ‘아들을 못 낳는 여자가 아들을 낳은 여자 속옷을 입으면 아들을 낳을 수 있다’는 속설도 있다”고 했다.

Chosun Ilbo, 7 March 2009.

There’s also a tradition of buying it for good luck from newly-opened stores. It rapidly sold out at the opening of Shinsegae’s Centum City branch in Busan in 2009 for instance, as well as at the opening of the Hyundai Department Store in Pangyo, Seongnam in 2015 (below), and at the re-opening of a Lotte Mall in Busan last July (video below):

Source: Korean Fashion + Tex News

Where then, is all the red underwear for lovers this Valentine’s Day?

To everyone’s relief, I have not done extensive field research in Korean lingerie stores to confirm its absence. The stores’ websites however, display no more red underwear than usual, nor do they have any red-themed promotions. Also, unlike couple outerwear, couple underwear has always been relatively expensive and limited in options in Korea, as I discovered before one frustrating anniversary recently. As friends later pointed out, if something was only for each other to see, then what on Earth was the point?

But if lingerie stores are not even bothering to offer much in way of red at all, on a combined Lunar New Year’s and Valentine’s when it should sell more than ever, there must be some alternative, non-romantic connotations that the color has in Korea.

A tradition of buying red lingerie for one’s mother would certainly fit the bill.

I first learned about this via an inquiry made to the Korea Studies Mailing List by Ron Lieber, a journalist for the New York Times:

…I write the Your Money column for the New York Times — all about anything and everything that hits you in the wallet. I write often about families and money — how not just dollars but also wisdom and values are taught and passed between generations.

On that note, over the years Korean-American friends of mine have told me about a tradition where new college graduates (or teenagers or college students or even some older adults getting their first paychecks at a new, prestigious workplace) buy a gift for their parents after they start their first full-time jobs. I’ve heard about everything from handing the entire paycheck over in cash to buying red thermal underwear for both parents or lingerie for their mothers.

And I was further intrigued by the answer provided by Dr. Barbara Wall, then Research Assistant in Korean Studies at the Asien-Afrika-Institut in Hamburg:

…if you search for first salary 첫월금+ present 선물 many of the results you get mention red underwear 빨간 내복. I am no underwear expert, but what people say is that the custom of wearing “modern” underwear in Korea started only in the 1960s at which time underwear was a luxury item. Dyeing nylon at that time was not easy and worked best with red. That is said to be the reason for the red underwear as symbol of filial piety. Red is also said to have the ability of blocking everything “evil”…

Stephen Redeker at Gwangju News adds:

There is an old saying that one should buy red “long johns” for one’s parents after receiving the first paycheck from your first job. People tend to give other gifts to show appreciation to their parents, but the red long johns have an explanation. Back in the day, when floor heating was not as prevalent as it is now, people wore long underwear at night. Red-colored underwear was more expensive than the other drab colors offered at the time and therefore more desirable. Anyone who still observes this belief will probably buy red boxers, briefs, bras or panties for their parents.

Numerous Korean sources confirm. In addition to the information provided in the video below (apologies to region-blocked Korean viewers), it’s interesting to note that in 2009, over a quarter of respondents would buy red underwear for their parents upon receiving their first paycheck.

Another source however, argues that it’s outdated in 2018, as parents’ memories of freezing winters and 24/7 thermal underwear-wearing in the 1960s and ’70s fade. This association with the middle-aged and elderly is evident in Japan too.

But we must address the red elephants in the room. “Underwear” is a wide-ranging term. Buying red thermal underwear for your parents, or long johns, is a far cry from buying sexy lingerie for them; as the Korean sources suggest, I’d wager children’s gifts are almost entirely the former. Also, even in Hong Kong, where the latter is supposedly all the rage, less than 1% of Chinese female undergraduates actually preferred that bra color:

Source: Sujoung Cha and Kristina Shin, “Hong Kong Chinese Breast Cathexis and Brassiere Design Preferences”, The Research Journal of the Costume Culture. 2011. Aug, 19(4): 780-793.

I also couldn’t help but notice that 60% preferred black. Because in An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007), although author Jill Fields frustratingly doesn’t mention red at all, she does have a groundbreaking (albeit controversial) chapter on the connotations of black lingerie in the US, which she tied to stereotypes of African-Amercian hypersexuality. Not only do those obviously not apply to Hong Kong however, but Chinese lingerie-makers themselves boggle at the differences in consumer preferences between borders. This suggests it’s misguided to assume Pan-Asian similarities in tastes:

Guanyun workshops operate their own online stores in addition to producing wholesale stock for other brands. They are increasingly looking to sell overseas, which now only accounts for about a tenth of the county’s yearly output. But understanding the preferences of foreign customers remains an obstacle, according to [lingerie manufacturer] Lei. “There’s a huge gap in the aesthetics of different countries,” he explains. Sexy cop costumes are popular in Brazil, which Lei says is because Brazilians don’t like the police; French maid costumes don’t sell well in Poland because, he theorizes, the two countries don’t have a good relationship; and Japanese customers love any and all seductive outfits. The lingerie tastes of most European countries — except France and Italy — are still riddles to him. “Every collection that we deliberately designed has failed in their markets,” Lei says. “Germany borders France, right? But their taste is the most difficult thing for me to figure out.”

“Unzipping China’s Lingerie Capital,” Sixth Tone.

What do you think then, does explain Koreans’ distaste for red underwear this Valentine’s? Unsexy associations with parents? Associations of red with the psuedo-communist North? Or some other reasons? Please let me know in the comments!

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Teaching Public Safety Through Objectifying AND Slut-Shaming Women Was a Bizarre Low, Even for Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image source: YouTube

The first time I watched the TVs on the KTX, Korea’s high-speed train, I wondered if graphic footage of insects eating each other was really the best way to showcase Korea’s glorious flora and fauna to tourists.

Fourteen years later, now I’m not so much fazed by this curious peccadillo of KORAIL’s, as eagerly look forward to the latest installment in these Boschian tragedies to entertain myself with on my trips to Seoul. And, it has to be said, they make a lot more sense than this safety campaign featuring women in bikinis did that I noticed last summer:

Fortunately, people with backbones complained, resulting in its removal and likely replacement with the same old invertebrate snuff films (can anyone confirm?), as I’ve just learned from the following article:

“비키니 입으면 노출증?”…한수원 공익 광고 ‘성 상품화’ 논란 “Wearing a Bikini is Exhibitionism?” Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Public Service Commercial Causes Controversy Over Sexual Objectification

Chosun Biz, September 20 2017

한국수력원자력이 성을 상품화한다고 볼 수 있는 공익광고를 KTX와 서울 지하철 등에서 방영해 논란이 되고 있다.

A public service commercial by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) that has been playing on the KTX train and Seoul subway has led to some controversy over its sexual objectification.

20일 한수원과 코레일 등에 따르면 한수원은 최근 신고리 5·6호기 공론화가 진행되는 동안 원전과 관련된 홍보를 중단하기로 결정하며 기존에 계약한 광고 시간에는 지난 2015년에 만들었던 공익광고를 내보내고 있다.

According to [a KHNP official earlier today], KHNP and KORAIL [the national railway operator], KHNP decided to halt public relations efforts related to nuclear power plants while a public consensus was being sought on the fate of reactors Shin Kori 5 and Shin Kori 6 [at Kori nuclear power plant, close to Busan.] Three preexisting public service commercials made in 2015 were put in their place.

이 광고는 “당신은 상식적인 사람인가요. 다음 영상에서 비상식적인 점을 찾아보세요”라는 말로 시작된다. 이후 해수욕장에서 여성 3명이 겉옷을 벗어 던지고 비키니를 입은 채 바다로 뛰어드는 장면이 이어진다. 이 때 여성들의 모습은 슬로우모션으로 처리되며 몸매가 부각된다. 이후 자막으로 ‘무엇이 잘못되었을까요?’라는 자막이 나온다.

In the offending example, the text begins with “Are you a sensible person? Try to find what’s out of place in the  following video.” Next, three clothed women on a beach run to the water, throw their clothes off, then jump into the waves in the bikinis that they were wearing underneath. While this is happening, the women’s bodies are focused on and [later] put into slow-motion, followed by the caption “What was wrong?”.

(James—Actually, the video did linger but technically didn’t slow-mo over the women’s bodies, and ended with “Did you find it?”, as the screenshot in the article also shows.)

이어 한 여성은 “아이들이 앞에서 막 벗는 것?”이라고 답한다. 또다른 한 남성은 “흐흐흐”라고 웃으면서 고개를 좌우로 흔들기도 하고, 또다른 여성은 “노출증?”이라고 말한다. 이후 광고 자막에는 “그것도 맞지만, 더 중요한 것은 이것”이라며 수영을 하기 전에는 준비운동을 반드시 해야한다고 알린다.

After that, one woman suggests “Was it getting undressed in front of children?”. Next, a man shakes his head left and right and laughs, then another woman suggests “Is it exhibitionism?”. Then, the text reads “Those are correct, but there’s something more important,” before revealing that it was that the women should have warmed up before swimming.

(James—Yes, really. It then shows the women doing precisely that instead, with the caption “No common-sense is more important than that to do with safety.”)

한수원의 유튜브 계정에는 해당 광고 영상에 대해 “화창한 날씨. 넓게 펼쳐진 바다와 예쁜 백사장. 평화로운 시간을 보내던 가족들 사이로 갑자기 젊은 여성 무리가 나타나 다른 이들의 시선은 아랑곳하지 않고 옷을 훌렁훌렁 벗어 던집니다. 여기서 가장 비상식적인 부분은 무엇일까요?”이라고 설명되어 있다…

In the description of the advertisement on YouTube, it says: “Sunny weather, a wide open ocean, and a pretty white sand beach. A family enjoying the peace is suddenly disturbed by a throng of young women undressing without thinking of anyone else around them. What is out of place here?”

(James—And then, after giving more information about why KHNP had to start running 2015 commercials, a spokesperson explaining the organization wanted to stress public service rather than be seen to be showing favoritism to nuclear power, the article continues:)

…하지만 일각에서는 이 광고가 여성 입장에서 불편하게 느낄 수 있다는 지적이 나온다. 직장인 이지은(27)씨는 “해수욕장에서 비키니 수영복을 입은 여성들이 왜 노출증이라고 비난받아야 하는지 공감이 가지 않는다”라면서 “비키니 입은 여성들을 본 남성이 음흉한 웃음을 짓는 것도 성적 대상화를 하는 것 같아 불편하다”고 말했다.

…Yet it has been pointed out that the situation depicted is uncomfortable for women. Lee Ji-eun (27), an office worker, argued “I have little sympathy for a commercial that says women should be criticized for exhibitionism simply for wearing bikinis or swimsuits at a beach,” adding “It’s already uncomfortable enough for women wearing bikinis to be sexualized and smirked at by men.”

대중음악평론가 서정민갑씨는 자신의 페이스북 계정을 통해 “왜 공익광고에 젊은 여성의 몸매를 관음하고, 그들은 준비운동도 안하고 바다로 뛰어드는 신중하지 못한 존재 역할을 전담하는가”라고 지적하기도 했다.

A popular music critic, Seo Jeong-min, asked on his personal Facebook “Why does the ad so voyeuristically use women’s bodies this way, and why is it young women that are placed in the role of being foolish, thoughtlessly running into the sea without warming-up first?”

한수원 관계자는 “2015년 제작 당시 각 방송사 등에서 문제가 없다는 판정을 받았기 때문에 괜찮다고 판단하고 광고 영상을 상영했다”면서 “여성을 희화화한다는 지적이 있어 광고를 중단할 예정”이라고 덧붙였다.

The KHNP spokesperson explained “No problems with the advertisement were noted when it is made in 2015, which is why we decided to use it.” However, “due to the way women are depicted in it, we will discontinue it.” (End.)

As explored in great depth on this blog, the Korean media and government have a long tradition of sexualizing and/or sexually-objectifying young women for public causes, particularly of girl-groups for the military, so the complaints about this example came as a pleasant surprise. Was it because it was just so inane, and so egregious? Or was it the hypocritical slut-shaming that pushed viewers over the edge? Please let me know what you think in the comments.

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Calling all Korean Conscripts, and Their Girlfriends and Family Members!

The Longest 24 Months

Estimated reading time: 1 minute. Image source: HanCinema

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

My name is Mary Perez, and I’m a Documentary Photography student living in the UK. I am traveling to South Korea at the end of February to produce a photo series on Korea’s military and the ways in which the need for conscription manifests itself in today’s society.

I am looking for men currently serving (or have recently served) and girlfriends/family of military men, to introduce myself to and discuss the project with.

Contact me (15011313@students.southwales.ac.uk) if you or someone you know would like to participate, or if you know someone who will be serving in the near future. I’m a keen student and would appreciate any research sources that you’d also like to pass my way.

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Books I Read in 2017

Part 1 of 2. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Image source: Pexels (CC0).

“We love coffee! We love books!”

An amusing mantra I’ve taught my young daughters to recite over the breakfast table, all the stranger to hear considering they aren’t allowed to drink coffee. I do worry how much longer their hearts will be in our little morning ritual though, given the bad example with books I’ve been setting—I only ever read them on the subway these days, while home is for online magazine articles. Hence my first resolution for 2018, which is to grab a book and join them more often when they’re reading by themselves. And to find more books we can read together too.

My second is to commit to buying at least one new Korea, feminism, gender, and/or sexuality related-book a month. Partially, because writing about those subjects as a white cishet man, I have an extra responsibility to learn from as many women and Koreans about them as possible. But mostly, because nothing feels quite so thrilling as dropping their quotes in my writing in order to sound smart, and unfortunately Busan’s second-hand English book stores are just not providing.

What are your resolutions for reading in 2018? What books did you read last year? As for mine, apologies that my reviews are very short and personal, but that’s because many of the books are very obscure, and will only be of interest to very few readers. If you are one of those readers though, please let me know, and I’d be very happy to chat more about them with you in the comments.

#1. Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945-1972 by Joungwon Kim (1976) 5/5

Written while Park Chung-hee was alive, and much of which is devoted to his military regime, I was worried this would be little more than a propaganda piece. Especially as Park was actually interviewed for the book. Yet while it certainly does have its biases, and hardly delves into the democracy and labor movements, it hardly paints a glowing picture of the period either. Indeed, its main strength is in conveying just how economically desperate and politically unstable Korea was even as late as the time of publication, providing numerous anecdotes and facts and statistics that I’ve since used in my writing and classes. Add that it’s chronologically based, giving an extremely detailed political-economic timeline for the period covered, then it becomes a must-read for any serious Korea Studies geek.

But perhaps only for the serious Korea Studies geek though. I’d be the first to admit that the subject can be a bit dry at the best of times, especially in the absence of photographs and grass-roots accounts from the period. More approachable in-depth books on modern South Korean history I’d recommend would be Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation by Hagen Koo (2001) for the labor movement, Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000) for gender and economic development, and Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea by Mark Clifford (1997) for political-economic developments.

Once having read any of those books however, then you’ll have a lot to gain from Divided Korea too. Albeit at a strict maximum of only one chapter per daily commute!

#2. Freud’s Wizard: The Enigma of Ernest Jones by Brenda Maddox (2007) 4.5/5

Reading about Freud for the first time in my early-teens, I quickly pigeonholed him as a complete freak to be avoided, wisely deciding that the “Readers’ Letters” section of my friend’s gifted Penthouse was a much healthier source of salacious reading (“I know you’ve heard many stories about postmen…but this one’s true!). Thirty years later, I still think he’s a complete freak to be avoided. But I’ve come to appreciate his huge impact on society, especially after watching the excellent documentary The Century of the Self (2002)* about “how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” More recently, Cody Delistraty’s September article “Untangling the Complicated, Controversial Legacy of Sigmund Freud” at The Cut is a great account of how he came to exert—and continues to exert—such influence in the first place. Buying this book seemed the natural next step.

But I also bought it assuming I would be learning about the originator of the term “Torches of Freedom,” the infamous advertising gimmick that persuaded suffragettes to take up smoking. That it would end with his dealings with US advertising agencies in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps give me so much renewed enthusiasm for Mad Men that I’d be able to persuade my wife to try it. That person was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays however. Instead, it turns out Ernest Jones was one of Freud’s lifelong closest friends, probably his greatest popularizer in Europe, and ultimately his first biographer. Being the driving force behind the establishment of psychoanalysis in the UK too, biographer Brenda Maddox leaves you fully convinced of the back cover’s claim that he was a “critical, heretofore overlooked, architect of our modern intellectual landscape”, and very much a fascinating figure in his own right—not just because he’s essential for understanding Freud.

Such a noble subject doesn’t necessarily make for a page-turner, but Maddox’s down-to-Earth writing style makes all the difference. Her wry descriptions of Jones’s frequent sexual escapades for instance, are especially amusing, but aren’t there simply to titillate the reader—they’re relevant because they nearly derailed his career. Also, although such inclinations are hardly confined to female biographers, I liked how she seemed to take pains to explain why both Freud and Jones were so popular among their overwhelmingly female patients, despite being reviled by male colleagues, and how she includes a great deal of social history to ground readers and help them appreciate just how scandalous and revolutionary their work was for its time. Let me leave you with an example from Chapter 6, “Hamlet in Toronto”:

Nervousness about sexuality was hardly confined to the United States and Canada. In Dublin in 1907, on the opening night of J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the mention of the word “shifts”, referring to female undergarments, caused the audience to stamp their feet, sing patriotic songs, and shout “Kill the author!” The performance had to be abandoned in the second act. “Shifts” had the same connotations as “knickers” and was not to be uttered on a public stage. (p. 74)

*The Century of the Self can be watched online here.

#3. Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History by Monroe C. Beardsley (1966) 4/5

Bought because of my interest in beauty ideals, under the assumption that the subjects were quite similar. But whereas works on the former tend toward the descriptive and historical, in my limited experience the subject of aesthetics seems more light philosophy, which is not to my taste. Frankly, that means I haven’t retained much from this book then, and feel no closer to answering the questions it raises. But I can still see the merit in asking them, and respect the scholarship that went into what seems a very comprehensive guide to virtually everything that had been written on the subject up to the date of publication.

I would be interested in reading something similar on developments in the subject 50 years since, especially of a more scientific bent. Also, I do have copies of Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (2002 ed.) and Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things (2004), and I’m optimistic that his tying of aesthetics to practical examples will make me much more interested in the subject.

#4. The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics by Nancy Holmstrom (2002) 3/5

Every time I buy a reader-type book, I remind myself of back when CDs were effectively the only way to listen to music on demand. With songs bundled together like chapters, and so much trash alongside hit singles, I learned to take the plunge on an album only if I liked a least a third of the songs on it.

Did I say every time I buy a reader-type book? Actually usually I don’t, because meeting that ratio is harder than it sounds. Variety, which this book has in spades—nearly forty chapters on topics including PMS, queer theory, domestic violence, Guatemala’s sugar industry, intersectionality, and Asian-American environmental movements—doesn’t necessarily mean one in three chapters will be worth paying money for. It doesn’t help that authors’ writing styles vary widely in this particular reader either, some being so informal they seem very out of place for such a title. (Not that I have a hard-on for hard-core socialist theory. But if I did, I’d be very annoyed not to find it here.)

What makes all the difference with The Socialist Feminist Project though, is that the book isn’t at all US-centric, and that the topics tend towards universal themes rather than contemporary 2002 political issues (although of course some chapters are very dated.) So, one out of three useful and readable chapters, 15 years after publication, is a great ratio really. It helps explain why those chapters I did like, I really liked, and will probably be referring to for years to come. See my post South Korea’s Invisible Military Girlfriends for an example, based on the chapter “Militarizing Women’s Lives” by Cynthia Enloe.

#5. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970; with updated introduction, 2001) 1.5/5

It’s easy to see why this is a feminist classic. Much of it is so insightful, taboo-breaking, and confrontational that it reads like it was written today—and must have been mind-blowing to encounter for the first time ever back in the 1970s. Fans of Camille Paglia especially, with whom she seems to have much in common, will appreciate her blunt writing style. Also, for female readers in Korea in particular, her description of UK workplaces then will sound depressingly familiar today.

Like Paglia however, Greer presents many controversial or decidedly odd opinions with little to no evidence, as if they were universal truths; after being moved by a first reading, a sober second reading leaves you deeply questioning. Also, the format of the book—four main chapters of “Body,” “Soul,” “Love,” and “Hate,” subdivided into equally vaguely-titled and focused subchapters—makes for a lot of repetition, to the extent that 200 pages in you’re slogging through more out of sense of obligation to the sisterhood than any expectation of learning anything new in the next 200. Hence my surprisingly low rating, and why, despite what the book may have meant to women once, I’m genuinely struggling to think of anyone I can really recommend it to today.

#6. Princeless: The Pirate Princess (Volume 3) by Jeremy Whitley (Author) and Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt (Artists) (2015) 4/5

Some English practice and wonderful feminist role-models for my manhwa-loving daughters. Need I say more? ;)

I’m very embarrassed to realize that we finished this in April and didn’t follow-up with the next volumes though, so I’m ordering those as I type this.

In addition to the other books in this series, similar, much weightier ones I can highly recommend and wax lyrical about include Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (2010, 2012, & 2014);Target Practice (Cleopatra in Space #1) and The Thief and the Sword (Cleopatra in Space #2) by Mike Maihack (2014 & 2015); and finally Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale (2008), although the Southern-US English in the last will be a little trying for non-native speakers (and sadly discourages my daughters from reading the book by themselves).

#7. The Price of Salt (Or Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (1952) 5/5

Needing no introduction due to the excellent 2015 film, which by all accounts is very faithful to the book, I think the most helpful thing I can do is to pass on my favorite quote from it:

“The wine in her head promised music or poetry or truth, but she was stranded on the brink. Therese could not think of a single question that would be proper to ask, because all her questions were so enormous.” (p. 98)

Evoking the “pregnant with possibility” line from (I think) The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (1989), which I remind myself of whenever I’m about to cross the threshold into some party, if that quote doesn’t speak to your core then you’ll probably find the book too ponderous for your liking, Therese’s character much too self-absorbed and infuriating in her indecision. If it resonates at all though, then you’ll just love The Price of Salt.

I haven’t seen the movie myself yet. Ironically, the more faithful to a book one is, usually the less motivated I am to bother, as I feel it will offer me nothing new (I may never get round to watching Atonement!). Carol (2015) however, is so often mentioned as a stellar example of the female gaze, about which I’m writing a series at the moment, that I guess I’m just going to have to force myself. Oy vey!

#8. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture by Robert G. Lee (1999) 3.5/5

If you’re reading this post, then you’re well aware that stereotypes of race and sexuality in Korean popular culture have a huge impact on foreigners’ lives in Korea. But perhaps you weren’t aware once, so the hows and whys of their influence were a little to difficult to understand upon first encounter, especially if you had never experienced being a minority before. Learning about the Asian-American experience in the US through familiar pop culture examples then, can be very helpful in providing some signposts to the Korean case, as well as revealing surprising and often uncomfortable similarities in one’s own cultural baggage brought here.

Lee’s book is also useful and interesting simply for shedding light on a much misrepresented social group, and for presenting a history of the US from a perspective that many readers will be unfamiliar with. I especially liked the common thread of what we take for granted about a society actually being a perennial source of contention between dominant and subordinate groups, with what Lee writes about the US below being just as true of Korea:

“The mobilization of national identity under the sign ‘American’ has never been a simple matter of imposing elite interests and values on the social formation, but is always a matter of negotiation between the dominant and the dominated. Subordinated groups offer resistance to the hegemony of elite culture; they create subaltern popular cultures and contest for a voice in the dominant public sphere. The saloon vies with the salon, the boardwalk with the cafe, and the minstrel theater with the opera as an arena for public debate and political ideas.

Although it mobilizes legitimacy, the cultural hegemony of dominant groups is never complete; it can render fundamental social contradictions invisible, explain them away, or ameliorate them, but it cannot resolve them. However deracinated, whether co-opted, utopian, nostalgic, or nihilist, popular culture is always contested terrain. The practices that make up popular culture are negotiations, in the public sphere, between and among dominant and subaltern groups around the question of national identity: What constitutes America? Who gets to participate and on what grounds? Who are ‘real Americans?'” (p. 6)

That said, while learning about the Asian-American experience through familiar pop culture examples can indeed be helpful, many of those selected by Lee were rather dated even at the time of writing. Also, one reviewer claims that “you probably won’t find [the book] interesting or appealing unless you enjoy left-wing polemics.” I think that’s an exaggeration, but it certainly was evident in his one-sided discussion of Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Suna pet interest of mine—which Lee shoehorns into racist anti-Japanese narratives of the time. That’s still not enough to put me off recommending the book by any means, but it’s something to bear in mind.

#9. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World by Tina Seelig (2009) 4/5

I’m not a big fan of self-help books. Most just seem full of truisms, leaving me not so much motivated to conquer the world as angry and confused that someone was paid for repeating them. Then bitter, because why wasn’t that person me?

Despite that, it can sometimes help to be reminded of them nonetheless. And a big plus for this book is that the real-life examples used to raise them aren’t dated, nor relevant only to those in the US, nor even just to 20-somethings. Frankly, I’ll feeling a little peppier now having just glanced at my bookmarks for this review, which is not bad for the price of a cocktail.

What if—mind blown—I read it while drinking a cocktail though? Hmm…

#10. Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Adrian Poole (2005) 5/5

I had no love for English at high school, and was nonplussed at the two Shakespearean plays—The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet—I studied there. Older and wiser now though, ironically it’s only through having studied and understood them at school that I understand and like them at all—and find the prospect of learning a third so daunting.

But then in 2016, getting drunk at home while watching the latest episodes of Westworld (my idea of heaven, TBH), I was inspired to overcome my fears, and bought several new plays and books about Shakespeare. Alas, that’s as far as my inspiration ever got with them, but Poole’s book might just give me the final push I need.

Not just because it’s an amazing introduction to the subject, making even an illiterate like myself finally understand what tragedies even are. But especially because of the explanations of what draws audiences to them, one particular passage intimately speaking to my own personal experience of very literally, physically being unable to speak upon learning of a very close friend’s death 10 years ago:

“What a dream, to be articulate in the midst of passion—anger, desire, grief—yet when we meet it in reality it usually seems specious, a glib and oily artfulness. Great tragic art satisfies our dreams by endowing characters with the verbal resourcefulness we never muster for ourselves, especially when it’s expressed through the body and voice of gifted performers….We remember with gratitude lines and passages, turns of phrase and voice, that seem to grasp the shapes of true passion, the moments when for once, amidst all the inequities of tragedy, language appears equal to what it addresses and expresses.” (p. 90)

On which note, should I delve into Julius Caesar, King Lear, or Macbeth first, the tragedies among those plays I bought? Please let me know in the comments, or anything at all about any of the other books mentioned in the post. Meanwhile, Part 2 will be up in a few weeks, which you can see my Librarything list of for a sneak preview!

Finding the Queer Female Gaze, and What it Says About Anda’s Touch

Part 1 of 3. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube

Face-sitting. A woman’s POV shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda beaming at the viewer in anticipation as she admires another woman’s vagina. The complete absence of any men. Anda lying in bed as another woman appears on top of her. Spinning the bottle. Anda loving all of it, as Touch relentlessly serves-up its women to its sensual, strikingly objectifying queer female gaze.

Among self-identified queer female fans of K-pop and allies on social media, I’ve yet to find a critic. And who can blame them? “Queers are generally invisible in South Korean media,” researcher Chuk Tik-sze explains in her 2016 study on their representation, “and lesbians are more completely missing.” As if to prove her point, many viewers didn’t even notice the sex in Touch, so low were their expectations of encountering queer content in K-pop.

When they did get what the MV was about though, they really, really got it:

Yet I’ve also read that simply replacing the sex of an objectifier does not necessarily a queer female anthem make. To many seekers of queer content, authenticity is more important, and in this respect Touch seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lack any sapphic elements. None of Anda’s other songs and MVs have any queer themes, nor has she ever given any public indication that she’s at all bi or lesbian. So, not only was it very easy to miss when it came out in June 2015, but the cynic in me says that the MV was just a failed gimmick aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song. So too, that coy media descriptions—e.g., “The lyrics are about a girl telling everyone to forget their woes and just have fun”—aren’t so much evidence of heternormative conspiracy as of TV producers’ willing ignorance of the real nature of the MV.

Raising this critique is not an accusation. As a cishet man, I’m not about to argue that queer women who rave about Touch are superficial or desperate. (Spoiler: quite the opposite.) Rather, it’s to introduce the objectification-authenticity divide that makes the queer female gaze so hard to pin down. But why is it there in the first place?

When I began working on this post, I never expected I’d have to tackle such a question. All I’d wanted was a simple list of criteria that I could use to judge MVs with for queer female content, starting with Touch. (Naive, I know.) Something akin to the Bechdel or Maki Mori tests for movies for instance. After all, we all know what the heterosexual male gaze is (hereafter, just the “male gaze”) I thought, and we’d probably in broad agreement as to what that is. So, over 40 years after that concept first appeared, I felt I was on pretty safe ground assuming there’d be a similar consensus on the heterosexual and queer female gazes by now too.

As writer and director Jill Soloway explains though, “[M]edia that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now” (emphasis added). Which, for starters, meant there simply weren’t as many online sources as I expected; with the benefit of hindsight, wider knowledge and discussion of alternative gazes is only just spreading beyond academia. Also, some of those online commentators on it I did find say that they just don’t have enough material to work with. The queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis in Bitch Flicks, for instance, argues that the queer female gaze “[simply] doesn’t have a present or strong enough canonical tradition in media.” As in, “when only 29 percent of current movies have female protagonists, and all women creative teams are rarer than panda sex”, then “[d]efinitions, classic camera angles, a checklist of what the [heterosexual] female gaze might be, are hard to find,” with even worse queer representation meaning the queer female gaze may lack any “real definition or direction” at all.

That said, most don’t share her despondency. A lack of canon hasn’t stopped filmmakers like Soloway from forging their own traditions either, nor them and other commentators from providing their own criteria as to what the hetero and queer female ones should be. Usually, by framing them around the aforementioned much better-known and more generally agreed-upon male gaze, as that provides something the female gazes can be distinguished from.

Which all sounds very logical, yet it’s also the source of all the trouble.

For if you want to stress that women are all about the feels, as it seems everyone I’ve read does want to stress, then it’s difficult to decouple that from the notion that men are much more visual creatures. Whether that truism is actually a thing, we’ll get to in Part 2. Well before reaching there however, it’s easy to see how arguing too forcefully for it can end up simply perpetuating crude stereotypes of both sexes.

It’s time to point fingers. Re-enter Jill Soloway, whose keynote address on the [mostly heterosexual] female gaze at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival ranks high on the first page of google searches. Soloway, who “now identifies as a gender non-conforming queer person“, and is the award-winning creator of the immensely popular Transparent TV series, which has been “a major force in bringing discussions of trans rights to the mainstream“, was clearly a well-liked, very motivating speaker at the festival. What she actually said there though, was a hot mess. But also very useful as a framing device here, as its three main flaws are largely echoed by other commentators. Let’s dive right in to the first of those in this post, and cover the other two in parts 2 and 3 for the sake of length:

The first flaw is in the very reductionist definitions and examples of the male gaze provided, which assume the portrayal of women in popular culture is a fair representation of all hetero men’s actual desires. Here’s her main, actually almost only example, from 4:35-5:12 (all Soloway quotes from a rough transcript on her Topple Productions website; my emphases):

My favorite male gaze staple, was like, a shot that you’d see a lot on Love Boat

Scene starts, open on: a pair of perfect tits. A bartender adds the flourish to two pina coladas, said tits place the drinks on the tray, carries the tray to a table where two people are talking. Tits sets down the drinks and – scene begins. Classic male gaze.

Compare a definition and example from Rowan Ellis:

The Male Gaze is two-fold:

1. The sexual objectification of passive female characters, 2. More generally the tendency to default to male protagonists, points of view, and stories.

The Gaze can be seen literally as a gaze, the way the camera interacts with the women it looks on, doing things like introducing female characters by trailing slowly up their bodies rather than establishing them with their face and actions….Alice Eve’s controversial underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness would be a perfect example of how, although she was not a one-dimensional character in the film as a whole, she was given a pointlessly objectifying scene which established nothing about her character, and seemed oddly out of place.

And later:

As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do….It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable. This is the source of a long held observation in the queer world that “lesbian porn” is so obviously and inexplicably made for straight men.

And from film critic Maitresse Hopper (a.k.a. @MsCinephile) at her CinemaVerite blog, quoting writer Dodai Stewart in Jezebel in the first paragraph:

“In addition [to the standard objectification of women], ‘sexy’ images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child. Submissive, pliant, docile.”

I’m probably going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but if I had to describe the Male Gaze using only one word, it would be this: ENTITLEMENT. When women’s bodies get displayed on film for men to enjoy, they’re displayed for a very specific purpose: to sell men on the idea that they can have, own, and enjoy the woman on display.

Next, a bare-bones definition of the male gaze by M.Slade, via Everyday Feminism (click on the panel for the full strip), who joins Hopper in using the term as a pejorative to indicate feelings of ownership:

Source: M.Slade, via Everyday Feminism.

And there’s plenty more where those came from. But I’ll spare you, because you may already be feeling a little nonplussed. If that’s the case, then I understand—this is male gaze 101. So, when I now claim claim that we need to give them a second look, your confusion may suddenly turn to exasperation. Surely only a cishet male author, you’re thinking, would so miss the point as to complain that commenters on the female gazes don’t talk enough about men’s?

Again, I understand. But really, the focus hasn’t changed at all. This reexamination is necessary only because the discussion is so rooted in the male gaze. To state the obvious, if commentators’ definitions of that are flawed, then their definitions of the female gazes, defined in opposition, are going to be flawed too. If they hold up though, then we can happily move on.

But we’re stuck, because remember when I said the male gaze is well-known and generally agreed-upon? None of the commentators really challenge what I’ll call that layperson’s understanding of the concept, which is that it’s simply the way that hetero men look at women, and that it’s vastly overrepresented in popular culture. Instead, they simply repeat feminist dogma in their definitions. So, their takeaway message is that all cishet men objectify women and feel like they own them.

I know—this sounds suspiciously like the lead-up to a “not all men”-style argument. And you’re not wrong. But please let me roll with it a moment. Let me be inconvenient, and ask what actual evidence the commentators give for what they say about men. For when they say things like the male gaze is “objectification for straight male enjoyment” they do so because…well, because why exactly?

Because that’s what’s offered.

Hold on a minute though. The tits and the drink scene, doing it for me? It sounds cliched and patronizing. (And what are a pair of “perfect” tits anyway?) Loving images of half-naked oiled-up women? Not quite, because—sorry to spring this on readers—I do actually have sex sometimes, and my wife and I find I need a good grip on her for most positions. (Is it just us?). It’s not exactly news that “lesbian porn” isn’t for actual lesbians either, because fingernails that long should NOT go there. And finally, that I’m turned on by passive, submissive, pliant, docile women, finger in the mouth like a child? I wouldn’t kick a nubile example out of bed, but still: let me refer you to my last series on the male and female gazes, in which I wax lyrical about how turned on I am by confident, intelligent, sexually-assertive women—and much prefer to see them in my pop-culture, thank you very much.

Still, I feel you. The temptation to throw in jokes about my not all men rebuttal is real. But whatever you think of my own personal perversions, or my hurt feelings at being lectured to about how I supposedly look at and think about women, surely it’s disingenuous to describe men’s most intimate feelings and desires without asking even a single one of them?

Source: unknown

Alternatively, just listen to Soloway herself (for one), who contradicts herself by likewise railing against what women want being defined by what’s offered (5:15-6:55):

The opposite of the male gaze, if taken literally, would mean visual arts and literature depicting the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure.

​So, okay, I guess in it’s most simple that would be like, Magic Mike if it were written, directed and produced by a woman.

I remember when they tried to sell us that, thirty years ago culture was all WOMEN! HERE’S PLAYGIRL AND CHIPPENDALES!!!???

And so many women were so happy to have anything, something, that they dutifully bought Playgirl – hairy man laying across the centerfold, soft penis, ooooooh.

​Groups of women, going to Chippendales, screaming, laughing hooting….

Anyway okay that’s one version of the Female Gaze that we have been offered:

“Hey ladies! Here’s your fuckin’ fireman calendar!” But it’s kinda –- naaaahhh. Pass. We don’t want that. NOT BUYING IT.

Unfortunately for Soloway’s patronizing narrative, 1.1 million, supposedly desperate US women were buying Playgirl in the early-1970s, until it started being aimed more at gay men instead; more recently, Korea’s shirtless firemen calendars continue to sell like hot (beef)cakes. But these topics are best covered in Part 2. (Sorry.) For this post, a better demonstration that patriarchal pop culture is a poor barometer for tastes is provided by Girl on the Net in her must-read “What is ‘porn’, according to MindGeek.” Obviously its focus is pornography, but it’s much more widely-applicable:

It’s hard for me to argue against someone who says ‘porn is degrading to women’ when their primary experience of porn comes from major tube sites. Sites like PornHub, for instance, or YouPorn, or RedTube….

The front pages of these sites reflect, in general, what straight guys want to see from porn.

Or…umm…do they? They reflect what site owners and content producers think straight guys want from porn, but in reality straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people. In fact what they’re doing is similar to what Google does when it picks ‘sexy’ images, or what FHM does when it collects the 100 sexiest women: they’re using algorithms and consensus to reach a shorthand answer that will appeal to as many of their target users as possible.

So far, so obvious. Major porn sites surface the content that they think people will like.

Slightly less obvious: the content that is surfaced will in turn influence the kind of porn people seek out. Like Google telling us what it thinks we find sexy, porn sites are offering people an interpretation of what it thinks they’ll get off to, which in turn will influence what they click on. Because it’s hard to click on something that isn’t there – if more diverse content is never surfaced, it’ll naturally get fewer views.

On top of that, the fact that these huge sites have such dominance in search results and in media references to porn means they will also influences what we think porn should look like.

So too is the following by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano in Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (2016). It provides a taste of her lengthy discussion on the big gap between the abstract checklist of female beauty ideals, manifested in what is presented for men and women to gaze at in popular culture, with what they would much rather gaze at in reality (pages 94-95; emphases in original. Image source: Simon and Schuster):

There’s a problem with believing that men pursue relationships with beauty foremost in mind. It’s not true. That [aforementioned] study of more than ten thousand people? It asked men and women about their preferences in dating, not their experiences. In fact, most empirical data on “what men want” is actually data on what men think they want….

[We may make such wish lists] in a state of cool rationality—but when faced with a real, live human, what we find ourselves attracted to may have little to do with what’s on that oh-so-rational checklist.

Closer to home, I could also mention the chapter “Mammary Mania” in Laura Miller’s Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics (2006), about how breasts “were not considered critical attributes of women, beauty, or sexuality” (p. 73) in Japan until the 1980s, when attitudes suddenly and radically changed due to the influence of breast-centric US popular culture. (Image source: University of California Press.) Which, for one, upsets the assumptions about men underscoring E.L.‘s contention at Arco Collective that “there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man.”

But there’s only so many ways like this you can point out that—to requote Girl on the Net—”straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people”, and that popular culture does a poor job of catering towards that diversity.

Let alone of everyone else.

Instead, it’s more pressing to acknowledge that I too have been guilty of generalizing the male gaze here, to which there are more components than simply the gaze of the camera. I’ve been overgeneralizing my sources too, one of whom—unfortunately since lost—was so bold as to point out that the male gaze is but a poor representation of an “average” man’s supposed gaze, and who in reality didn’t exist.

Yet my sources also have agendas, as well as word limits. Theirs goal is to draw attention to the grossly underrepresented female gazes. If nuance on the male gaze gets lost in the process, that’s completely understandable.

If nuance is so lost that a caricature is put in its place though? That men only look, which means women only feel? When that’s the fundamental basis of so many commentators’ descriptions of the female gazes, then my own agenda is to challenge theirs with inconvenient examples of men and women not being so different after all.

Those will be in Part 2, followed by incorporating them into my own criteria and applying those criteria to Touch in Part 3. Until then, apologies to Anda fans for the delay, and please all readers let me know what you think of the MV in the meantime, or about anything else in the post :)

(Apologies also for being so busy in 2017 BTW, and for having a terrible case of writer’s block these past few months. But I’m back now!)

Update

Source: Burst@Pexels; CC0

Just a quick update to apologize for the ongoing lack of posts, and to explain.

Basically, I’ve been too busy. The same week my wife’s father died, she started a new job as an interpreter and translator at a rapidly-expanding medical technology company. Every other week since then, she’s been jet-setting to places like Andorra, India, the US, and Indonesia. Also, when she is in Korea, her workplace is across town, meaning she has to leave home at 7:30am, and doesn’t come back until 8pm, after which she’s straight back on her computer. It’s all very glamorous and exciting from my perspective (only glamorous and exciting-sounding, she insists), and I’m very proud of her, but practically-speaking I’ve been a single parent for the last two months. It’s been tough!

Every cloud has a silver-lining though, and it’s been a real eye-opener being forced by the lack of free-time to break down how I’ve been spending my days, and trying to eliminate time-wasting habits. I’m still very, very far from becoming a paragon of discipline of course, but one important change I have made recently is going to bed at 10pm and getting up at 6am, to get in that fabled hour of writing every day. True, so far those hours have more been spent only thinking about writing, while luxuriating in a second cup of coffee and watching the sunrise over the ocean (still totally worth it, IMHO), but the actual writing will surely come soon.

See you next week? ;)

Announcement

Source: Sebastian Voortman@Pexels; CC0 license

Just a very quick update to let everyone know that, tragically, my father-in-law died in an accident earlier today. Which means I’m very busy and stressed right now sorry, so I’ll just quickly say that my planned comeback on Monday will have to be delayed a few more weeks unfortunately.

Until then, thank you very much for your condolences and for your patience, and I promise to be overanalyzing pop-culture with you all again soon (*hugs*). Take care!