“An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 10)
panorama-stad-amsterdam-1935-verhaal-ill-trampassagiers(Source: janwillemsen; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Back in August, I was interviewed by reporter Isabella Steger for her article “An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”, which came out at Quartz today. It’s a good introduction to current trends and conditions, as well as being a great read. So for this post, let me just add a few links and extra context to those segments attributed to me. Starting with:

In the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis upended the stability of the Korean “salaryman.” Many men who lost their jobs started to compete with women for work. “A lot of the negative stereotypes about women, a lot of very gendered labels, started appearing in the early 2000s,” says James Turnbull, a long-time resident in the southern city of Busan who writes about feminism.

To be more precise, a large cohort of men lost their regular, full-time jobs between 2002-2004, and started having to compete for irregular work with women, who’d already lost their own regular, full-time jobs five years earlier in the wake of the Asian financial crisis (under the rationale that they would be provided for by their husbands or fathers). Then another point of friction came in 2013, when the percentage of women in their 20s that were working began to slightly surpass that of men.

Tellingly, the media portrayed achieving equality with men as a “tornado” of female power.

For the exact statistics, and my analysis of their implications, see part 6 of this series in the links below. As for those negative labels and gendered stereotypes, see Parts 3 and 4, or Part 7 for a summary.


While overall crime and homicide rates in Korea remain very low, more women in Korea are murdered than men, which is unusual in a developed country, says Turnbull. The United Nations singles out Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea as places with some of the lowest homicide rates in the world but where the share of male and female victims is near parity, with intimate partner violence also an acute problem in Japan (pdf, p.54-56).

In addition to the extra information on that provided in Isabella’s article, see this Facebook post by a friend of mine (which he generously made public) for a breakdown and analyses of the statistics involved, which was originally prompted by the blog post “Women Are More Likely To Be Murdered In South Korea Than The U.S.” by Matt Pressberg.

Reporter John Power also provides some things to think about:


While women have gained some power and independence in Korea, a preference for male children in the 1970s and 1980s has resulted in an excess of men–and the disparity in numbers contributes to tensions. In 1990, thanks to the availability of selective abortion, Korea’s sex ratio at birth was 116.5, meaning 116.5 boys were born per 100 girls, a ratio that since has evened out (paywall). Many of those 1990 male babies are now grown men unable to find girlfriends and wives, says Turnbull. At the same time, more Korean women are choosing not to marry at all.

Again, see Part 6 for more detailed information on those statistics and their implications (also see the tweet below, which graphically shows the number of excess men by age group.) By a huge coincidence, the Korean media would only finally begin reporting on the potential consequences of this imbalance in April this year, just a month before the murder in Gangnam.


An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures: Free online course, starting Oct. 31

boys-order-goro-memo(Source: goro memo; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sorry for the lack of posts everyone: I’ve been insanely busy, and still am in fact. Naturally then, I’ve just decided to make myself busier still, by signing up for the free online course “An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures” provided by FutureLearn and Keio University. Here’s a description from their welcome page, which also has an introduction video:

Subcultures have existed for a long time: the greasers of 1950s America, the mods and rockers of the 1960s and 70s in England, the grunge of the 1980s and 90s, to name a few. Each subculture sits within a broader ‘parent’ culture and can often give us an insight into cultural fears and hopes, especially in the youth of the population.

On this course you will get an introduction to Japanese subcultures that have developed since the 1970s.

Explore different aspects of Japanese subcultures

Japanese subculture has been long considered as ephemeral youth culture compared to authentic traditional culture. It contains, however, subversive power which encourages younger generations to re-create the world they live in. We mainly focus on the significance of immaturity and vulnerability of youth which eventually give permission to younger people (in other words, minorities) to stay as they are.

In this course, together with three other specialists, Professor Niijima, Professor Takahashi and Professor Ohwada, we will explore girls comics, boys comics, the Hatsune Miku vocaloid, cosplay, and J-pop idols, focusing on the themes such as Love, Battle, Technology and Fan culture, in which you’ll learn about the different cultural creations that underpin Japanese subcultures. With materials for cultural analysis, you’ll develop a basic knowledge of key Japanese subcultures, learning the recognisable traits of each.

Understand the historic context of Japanese subcultures

On the course you’ll discover historic background of youth culture in Japan, and understand the enormous impact of World War II.

Learn about Japanese subcultures and the youth of Japan

Finally, this course will give you a new perspective on the young people of Japan, exploring how they can be seen to elaborate the world of “immaturity” and “vulnerability.” You will see the reason these characteristics of Japanese subculture attracts “global” attentions.

This post isn’t an endorsement of course, but the course does sound interesting, and hardly demanding at 3 hours a week for 4 weeks. Please let me know if you sign up too (we can be buddies!), and/or if you’ve done any other FutureLearn courses and what you thought of them.

Meanwhile, seeing as we’re on the subject of Japan, I do very much want to give an endorsement of Cecilia D’Anastasio’s interview of Amelia Cook, about her new site Anime Feminist. Frankly, Cook’s answers really spoke to me about the work I do in Korea, and especially most recently on the male gaze, which just goes to show how universal some of the pop culture issues she addresses are—so I’m sure you’ll have lots to take away from the interview too. Make sure to check it out over at Kotaku.

“Spring Girls,” by Sunwoo Jung-a, Is Both Feminist and as Sexy as Hell. Lets Give It the Attention It Deserves.

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-opening-collage(Source, all screenshots: YouTube)

Spring Girls, by singer-songwriter Sunwoo Jung-a, is literally dripping with sex.

For starters, take the word cheonyeo (처녀) in its Korean title. Many sources do give “young unmarried woman” as one meaning, so “girls” seems fine for the English. (When they’re obvious, Korean usually omits plurals.) But most translate it as “virgin” first.

Why would Sunwoo choose something so loaded? The neutral term agasshi (아가씨) is far more common.

Possibly, she simply hoped to capitalize on the name-recognition, as she acknowledges being inspired by a well-known folk song of the same title. It’s also true that the lyrics are really quite chaste.

Perhaps I just have a dirty mind?

But then there’s the MV. Watch it, and by its end you’ll have a dirty mind too. Add that there’s no connection to the folk-song whatsoever, and it’s difficult not to think that Sunwoo deliberately primed Korean listeners with a blatant double entendre:

In that vein, I’m tempted to describe the MV as a continuation of this cultivated ambiguity. But that would be to underplay its sheer spunk, and to detract from how refreshing that feels compared to the bland, repetitive, profoundly unarousing “sexy concepts” of most K-pop. For suggestive and full of symbolism it is, but “ambiguous” those symbols are not. Add the frequent shots of partially-exposed breasts, the luscious lips, and the hands pulling up skirts and dresses, then I’d be hard-pressed to think of such a striking and shocking depiction of female bodies and sexuality since Bloom by Ga-in (2012).

To pretend otherwise is to willingly ignore the obvious. Like Arirang TV once did for instance, with hilarious results:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-arirang(2:08, Pops in Seoul, April 5 2015)
%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-reaction-video-2-15(2:15, gfnkpopular, MV reaction video)

But audacity aside, are scenes like that something to celebrate? Perhaps as much as a third of the MV is of headless women (especially if you count scenes that only go up to models’ mouths), the camera by definition focusing on their body parts. Which, you don’t need me to explain, is widely considered one of the most basic and common forms of dehumanizing, sexual objectification.

On the face of it, shouldn’t it be criticized, rather than applauded?

Instead, I’m here to argue that context is everything with the male gaze, and that this MV is proof of that.

And first, as a crucial part of that context, I’ll give my translation of the lyrics, as I’ve been unable to find one online.

Lyrics: Spring Girls by Sunwoo Junga-a (선우정아 봄처녀 가사)

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

너는 날 보네 ,나도 널 보네 (Verse 1) You’re looking at me, I’m looking at you

불꽃이 튀네 (Verse 1) Fireworks are exploding

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

하늘은 파래, 바람이 부네 The sky is blue, the wind is blowing…

다시, 입을 맞추네 추네 …again. We are kissing.

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

봄처녀 제, 오시네 (Verse 2) Spring girls are coming

새 풀옷을 입으셨네 (Verse 2) In new outfits

Part 2 [Yes, this is actually said.]

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-sceenshots-collage-2(Source: Groovequai)

(Verse 1)

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

앞서서 걷네, 뒤따라 걷네 You’re walking in front of me, I’m following you

같이, 장단 맞추네 추네 Together, we are keeping a beat with our steps

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

(Verse 2)

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-sceenshots-collage(Source: Lost Over You)


형형색색 널 뒤흔드는 칼라 Many colors are shaking you

각색각양 다가오는 몸짓 Gestures are coming in all kinds of colors and shapes

가지가지 처치곤란한 밤 Nights are hard in so many ways

뒤죽박죽 도시의 봄이라 This city’s spring is so mixed

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)


볼엔 진달래 An azalea on the cheek

눈은 민들레 A dandelion on the eye

입술은 쭉 철쭉 A rhododendron on the lips

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

목련 파우더 Magnolia powder

라일락 칙칙 A spray of lilac

마무리는 에이취 Rounding off with “H”~ [I don’t get this part sorry!]

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

속눈썹 위로 봄바람 A spring wind over eyelashes

머리카락에 봄바람 A spring wind in your hair

옷깃을 펼쳐 봄바람 A spring wind with collars opening

걸음은 좀 더 가볍게 (x3) Our steps become lighter


Chorus (x2)

Next, another crucial part of that context would be some background provided by its songwriter, lyricist, arranger, guitarist, and mixer Sunwoo Jung-a, who very much owns the room in the MV too. But very few interviewers ever ask her about Spring Girls specifically. In fact, surprisingly little about it has been said about it at all, in Korean let alone in English, and much of what does exist only focuses on the fact of Sandara Park’s participation in the MV.

That said, there is one more common theme to what I have found. That is, whenever it is featured or discussed, it seems to gets stripped of all meaning:

For non-Korean speakers, what Sunwoo was actually doing there was promoting Earth Day last spring, as well as an environmentally-themed music event she was to perform in. But the only connection whatsoever was the song title. And, perhaps learning from Arirang’s mistake three weeks earlier, KTV made sure to avoid showing the naughty bits of the MV too.

I don’t bemoan Sunwoo taking advantage of the opportunity for more publicity. Yet even in her very own self-interview, featured on her YouTube channel and Facebook page, she only really discusses the lyrics to the song. Which as you’ve already seen, are quite chaste compared to the MV:

Apologies for lacking the time to provide and translate a transcript, but I find she adds little there to, say, Rachel’s brief description of the song already at Seoulbeats:

Spring Girls is just a cool song, plain and simple. It’s got sass, a little jazz, and a dash of funk thrown in, feeling both old and new at the same time…The lyrics talk about seeing and being seen as the girls of spring come out “dressed in fresh new clothes.” Variety is really emphasized in the lyrics, with four Korean synonyms for “all kinds” being used to describe the flood of different spring girls in the “mixed-up” city. Each girl has her own charm which can light a spark. Like the song, the video also feels old yet new at the same time. It has some different spring girls, each with her own style, personality, and flower.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE TITS??” I want to tweet at Sunwoo, but wisely I started by asking her if she has a link to an interview about the MV instead, and I’ll update you if she responds. In the meantime, my eyes briefly lit up at the “instinctive” in the (awkward) title of this Genie article—”Sunwoo Jung-a’s Spring Girls Taps the Beat of Women’s Instinctive Spring” (여자들의 본능적인 봄을 두드리는, 선우정아 ‘봄처녀’)—but it too waxes lyrical about banalities. Desperate, I turned to Sportsworld, a tabloid that is not exactly shy about discussing female body parts, and indeed it did prove to have the most substantial interview of her I’ve found so far. Alas, yet again with no real mention of the MV.

Still, it does give some extra background. She at least hints at the tone of the MV. And frankly, it’s only through this interview at all that I learned there’s a very well-known folk song of the same name:

…현대적이라고 표현하는, 그런 봄의 여자들을 보이고 싶었다. 이 노래는 되게 현대적이다. 비트나 사운드도 일렉의 느낌이 느껴진다. 시종일관 여기 저기서 ‘모던’을 찾았다. 자칫 방심하면 구수해질 수 있어서 회의 때도, 편곡 때도 계속 ‘모던’ 타령을 했다. 정말 세련된 한국팝의 느낌을 보여드리고 싶었다.

…I wanted to show spring women who express modernity. This song is very modern. You can really feel that the beat and sounds are electronic. In every aspect of it, I tried to insert an element of modernity. If we hadn’t taken great care with it, it could have sounded old, so I made sure to mention the “modern” constantly while we were working on it. I really wanted to show a new, very sophisticated version of K-pop.

Q) ‘봄처녀’를 만들게 된 계기가 있나? What was your motive in making the song?

A) 어린 시절부터 좋아하는 곡이었다. 그때부터 클래식 피아노를 쳤는데 악보 보는 걸 좋아했다. 남들이 만화책 볼 때 나는 악보를 보면서 곡을 재생해보는 취미가 있었던 것 같다. 그러던 중 어머니의 가곡집을 보게 됐다. 클래식보다 간단한데 가사가 있어서 재밌었다. 특히 ‘봄처녀’는 가사가 정말 예뻤다. 그러다 어른이 되고 기타치고 놀다가 비트를 만들고 ‘음음’ 까지 붙인 곡이 만들어졌다. 야하기도 하고 귀엽기도 하고 여자의 걸음걸이가 생각나면서 문득 ‘봄처녀’ 가사가 생각이 났다. 다행히 써도 된다고 허락을 해주셔서 ‘봄처녀’가 탄생됐다.

This is an old folk song that I’ve liked ever since my childhood. That’s when I started learning to play the piano and read music. When other children were reading comic books, I read music—that was my hobby. During that time, I once find my mother’s book of folk songs. Compared to learning classic music, the songs in it were much more fun because they had lyrics. In particular, Spring Girls had pretty ones.

Later, when I grew up, one day I just sort of played with the beat of the song on my guitar; as I did, I added some “hmmm”s as I did, and one thing led to another. Later still, I got thinking about women walking in a sexy and cute style, and that’s what led to the lyrics. Fortunately, the composer of the original song said it was okay to use the same title [and a couple of words in the lyrics]

If readers scoff at my perennial struggles with searching for substantive Korean articles about the MV, and can instantly provide a dozen to show just how pathetic my skills are, then nothing could make me happier. Until then though, or until Sunwoo replies to my tweet, we’ll just have to settle for the further context of the rest of the MV!

To make that easier to discuss, here’s a collage of the models’ faces and names:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-models(Women appearing in the MV, clockwise from top-left: Model Lee-seon/이선, Model Su-hyeon/수현, Tattooist Nini/니니, 2NE1 Member Sandara Park/산다라박, Model Ji-eun/지은, Model Jaejae/제제. Not shown: Sonwoo Jung-a. Source of names: By. Yeees.)

But really, most of that context is obvious, and already semi-covered through the numerous screenshots provided above. So I’ll just provide highlights here, as well as point out some things that readers with less dirty minds who haven’t watched the MV 30 times may have missed:


1) First, the identity of this model stumped me for a looong time. I thought it might even be a secret cameo of half African-American Insooni, known for looking much more youthful than her age.

It turns out to be Jaejae, seen wearing that black mesh top and gold earrings for just for a (very easily-missed) split second later:


2) Poor Ji-eun barely appears, literally getting no facetime at all:


3) This flower is a vulva, and gets ejaculated on. What, you didn’t see that? Don’t worry, you will now. Like I said, literally dripping with sex:


4) This flower though, almost seeming to pulse when shown, doesn’t look all that yonic…


Especially in light of all those bowling pins earlier, standing tall and proud…


As well as the phallic-looking, rapidly-engorging shadow of a statue of a (headless!) nude woman, with the breasts conveniently highlighted:


Not to mention that Su-hyeon gets her mouth covered in white icing sugar or flour in between those shots (and don’t forget Nini’s lollipop-sucking either):


5) I’ll address a potential criticism of that in #7. But, not unrelated, a potential criticism of all of the skin-exposure in the MV is qualified by the fact that almost all of it is actually done by just one person:

(One NSFW image appearing after this one.)


Certainly, you could argue that Nini has been brainwashed, and internalized the values of the patriarchy. You could also argue that she wears so little in the MV simply because she has the largest breasts of all the models, just like what happened with Yang Ji-won of Spica in their MV for Tonight.

But you shouldn’t, because Nini is a tattoo artist who dresses much the same way in real life, and especially in all her magazine photoshoots. Her tattoo designs tend towards the revealing too:

tattooist_nini-small(Source: tattooist_nini@instagram; left, right)

By all means, her brand may just be a persona, carefully-crafted on Instagram. But it’s a much more consistent, much more convincing one than that of the K-pop stars usually presented as girl-power icons. It’s also very, very difficult to believe that Sunwoo or MV director Lee Sang-deok is forcing her to wear clothes that are more revealing that she’d like, which is something that happens to girl-group members all the time.

6) Yet while Nini stands out, that is not to say that the other models aren’t just as haughty in the MV. Jaejae for example:


7) Finally, whether in defiance, whether they’re caught up in the joy of spring, and/or whether they’re relishing the attention, crucially all the models (but Ji-eun) return the gaze at many points:


Lee-seon in particular, seems determined to confront the viewer (again, there’s many more examples above):


I’m so impressed, I’m tempted to veer into hyperbole and cliches at this point—that these models “own the gaze,” and so on. (Although they totally do.)

But I want to avoid that, because we all bring a lot of baggage to the concept of the male gaze, which can make for a lot of misunderstandings and talking past each other.

Instead, let me be very specific with my praise, and why.

Whenever I talk about the male gaze personally, I simply mean the way heterosexual men tend to look at women. That way is, of course, vastly overrepresented in just about all forms of media, and those representations of the male gaze usually degrade and diminish the sexualities of both the viewer and the viewed—let alone vastly underrepesent people of different body types, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ages. And, because of those problems, for many commentators the term “male gaze” has become a pejorative for all sexism and objectification in the media.

But the mere act of heterosexual men looking at women is not responsible for those problems—the people in those industries are. Rather, it is a integral feature of human (hetero)sexuality, and one that can be represented while retaining complete respect for the viewed, recognizing them as sexual subjects just as much as objects.

Spring Girls does that.

And, to reinforce that point, but also raise some uncomfortable and inconvenient questions, let me conclude by briefly contrasting the MV with the similar “Double Exposure” series of paintings by Korean artist Horyon Lee (이호련):

horyon-lee-male-gaze(Source: Luxury)

Originally, my intention for this post was to give equal attention to Sunwoo and Lee. But Spring Girls rapidly proved to be a more deserving subject, and not just because Lee’s work has had enough written about it to fill volumes, both in English (#1, #2, #3, #4), and in Korean (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9). Rather, it’s because whereas individual paintings of his may strongly resemble some screenshots from the MV, a crucial difference is that Lee has made a whole series (NSFW) of almost nothing but such headless images of women, most of which are much more sexually explicit than the examples given here. Whats more, and very unusually for an artist, Lee provides no titles or descriptions of those paintings either, as if to even further stress the dehumanization and objectification of the women in his work.

horyon-lee-double-exposure(Source: Vingle)

Fred McCoy, a rare critic of Lee’s, has written at CF Magazine about the artificial and harmful distinctions the art world maintains between erotica and pornography that he feels Lee exploits, which I recommend reading. Especially damming is his discussion of the similarities between one of Lee’s painting and one of American Apparel’s (many) notorious ads:

american-apparel-adhoryon-lee-comparison(Source: CF Magazine)

In which he writes:

What stands out is the purposeful removal of the female’s face in both the advertisements and paintings. If you were to include the face, you would then place the viewer in a precarious spot where they would have to make a conscious decision as to whether or not they wanted to objectify the woman. By removing the face, as well as any emotion it might carry, objectification becomes easy. We are simply looking at a dressed up piece of flesh and bear no responsibility in how we choose to engage it.

Yet without disagreeing with the sentiment, it is more correct to say it is easier. As I discussed at length in my review of Tonight, removing a face does not make negative objectification and disrespect of that person inevitable, nor does including a face automatically ward off both. In Spring Girls, objectification is certainly occurring, but it is not negative objectification because of the context of the rest of the MV. And, because so many screenshots from that MV so closely resemble Lee’s paintings, I can’t prima facie proclaim all the latter to be “disgusting,” as McCoy and his colleague do:

“[His Work] is dirty and uncomfortable [as well as] is grotesque and demeaning. I think what makes it worse than just portraying women as a piece of meat is that he felt the need to make an entire series out of it.”

(Zola Paulse)

“Dirty”? “Grotesque”? This too is hyperbole. His work is repetitive, certainly. It is baffling that he never paints pictures of women with faces, and he may well do so because he really does think of women as sex objects.

Yet compare that painting of a woman in red above for example, with this (NSFW) photograph of a real woman in a very similar pose. Evidently, the latter is very happy with her sexualization.

I don’t need to ask which one you prefer, whatever your sex or sexuality. You don’t need to hear about why I love it so much either.

But to dismiss the other one as disgusting, because it lacks a face? That feels much too simplistic.

the-male-gaze-headless-women(The Male Gaze by Nikko, edited; CC BY 2.0)

On the other hand, perhaps I’m just creating strawmen here. Also, if I’m arguing that we can judge similar screenshots from Spring Girls by looking at the context of the rest of the MV, then surely we can judge a painting of Lee’s by the context provided by his series as a whole. In which case, he abjectly fails his test.

So far so good. Yet still, somehow I can’t bring myself to outrage.

How about you? If you can, why?

I admit I feel hypocritical. And I do find it troubling that Lee’s received so many accolades, and so many invitations to exhibit. Again, McCoy is a good read on what that implies about the art world.

I’m strongly reminded of my series and lectures on Gender Advertisements too, in which I’ve often pointed out that it’s the trends towards sexism and gender stereotyping in advertising that are problematic. Those trends should be called out. With individual ads though? Unless they’re really egregious examples, especially of unnecessary (and negative) sexual objectification, often it’s simply incorrect to label them as sexist, and unhelpful to do so.

Gender Advertisements Relative Size South Korea

(It is harmful that men tend to be depicted more actively than women in advertisements, and that Caucasians are given such prominence over POC. But it’s implausible to describe these individual examples as sexist and racist respectively.)

But I’ve spent many years on Gender Advertisements. Perhaps too long, and it’s high time I learned more about other conceptual approaches, especially of different media like music videos and art (I’d appreciate suggestions and recommendations). Alternatively, perhaps I’m untroubled by Lee because it’s “just” esoteric art we’re talking about, so a painting of his would never have the impact that a similar ad would.

What do you think? Of my dilemma, or about any other interesting questions raised by Sunwoo and Lee? Please let me know in the comments!

Song Credits

Songwriter, Lyricist, Arranger: Sunwoo Jung-a; Guitar: Sunwoo Jung-a; Bass: Baek Gyeong-jin; Mixing: Brad Wheeler, Sunwoo Jung-a @ Union studio; Mastering: bk! of Astro Bits @ AB room; Special thanks to: The Barberettes, realmeee, chch.

Music Video Credits

Director: Lee Sang-deok; Assistant Director: Kim Hoon; Director of Cinematography: Lee Han-gyeol; Cinematography Team: Park Chi-hwa, Oh Min-shik, Im Hee-joo; Lighting Director: Lee Jung-ook; Lighting Team: Lee Ji-min, Ji Hyeon-jong; Colorist: Jo Hye-rim; 2D: Lee Sung-hoon; Art Directing/styling: Gu Song-ee; Photography: Rie; Design: Seo-ro; Marketing: Jo Eun-bi, An Seong-moon.

(Credits via Mutual Response)

(Apologies for all the technical issues with the blog this week!)

To Understand Modern Korean Misogyny, Look to the Modern Girls of the 1930s

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 9)
1930s Korean New Girl Modern Girl Stereotypes Criticism(Source, edited: 살구나무 아랫집)

Wasting money on frivolous Western things, gaining financial independence, following their hearts instead of the wishes of their families, and not making enough babies.

All these criticisms of Korean “modern girls” in the 1930s sound eerily like those of “beanpaste girls” today. In so doing, they have much to teach us about the origins of modern Korean misogyny, and why their stories resonate so deeply with its victims over 80 years later.

Take 강심바 for instance, who begins describing the caricatures above as:

“Fucking asshole men’s traditional misogyny. A cartoon from The Chosun Ilbo in the 1930s…”

And then:

“Even back then, stereotypes like the ones in this cartoon were controversial. Wow, there were even labels like today’s “beanpaste girl.” It was prophetic.”

But what does it say exactly? Not recognizing some of the hanja characters, I consulted 예쁜 여자 만들기 (Making Pretty Women) by Lee Yeong-ah (2011). From left to right, the legs read:

Ahn Seok-yeong “If the Age of Woman Comes (2)”, The Chosun Ilbo, January 12, 1930.

1) Any guy is okay for me if he buys me a piano.

2) Any guy is okay for me if he builds me a house. Even a 70-year old.

3) I’m still single.

4) I want to marry a man who has been overseas to study.

5) I love chocolate. Only that one box.

6) I didn’t pay my rent. Please help me.

7) I am a virgin. [But] I like anyone who has lots of money.

8) I am hysterical. You have to understand this.

(p. 242)

Naturally, Lee finds the criticisms unfair, arguing that the cartoon says just as much about the cartoonist and the men who laugh at it as it does about the women so caricatured:

안석영의 이 만문만화는 “물질을 매개로 한 자유연애와 자유결혼의 속내를 ‘선전propaganda’이라는 상상의 장치를 통해 드러낸 작품이다. 만화 속 여성들은 자신의 몸을 내걸고 남성들에게 돈, 선물, 집, 사치품 등을 요구한다. 안석영은 이 만문만화에서 아마도 당시의 상품화한 연애와 결혼을 돈만 밝히는 허영심 강한 여성들의 책임으로 돌리고자 한 듯하다. 그러나 남성들은 어떤가? 위의 그림에서 여성은 다리만으로 표현되어 있다. 프레임 안은 남성들의 시선이 머문 지점이다. 즉 남성들은 여성들의 영혼이나 지성이 아니라 몸과 다리만을 보고 있었던 것이다. 그런 점에서 남성들 역시 왜곡된 연애나 결혼에서 ‘결백’을 주장하기 어려울 듯하다.

(p. 243)

In this cartoon, Ahn Seok-yeong uses an imaginary device called “propaganda” to criticize modern girls by showing their real, very materialistic feelings and motivations behind their embrace of free love and free marriage. The women in this cartoon are asking for money, gifts, presents, luxury items, and so on by using their bodies. It seems that Ahn criticizes the women for being greedy, blaming them for self-objectifying themselves for love and marriage. But what about the men? In the cartoon, the women are faceless. It only shows their legs, as the objects of the male gaze. In other words, men are only looking at women’s bodies, and are unconcerned with their personality and intelligence. In that regard, surely men are equally culpable for a distorted, perverted view of love and marriage?

Lee goes onto describe that, spearheaded by modern girls, the 1920s and 1930s were very much the period when Korea’s modern notions of free love, sexuality, and marriage were first formulated. (As well as the tendencies to judge women in terms of their appearance, and men in terms in their earning power.) Much closer to American flappers than their relatively conservative, usually less financially-independent Japanese counterparts, such notions were especially radical in Korea, where arranged marriages were the norm—and, alas, continued to be for many decades thereafter.

But Lee writes in Korean. For an excellent English source on that instead, see “Sensational Politics of Desire and Trivial Pursuits: Public Censure of New Women in Private Lives in early 1930s Korea“ by Park Bongsoo, who explains:

In the early 20th century, “love” and “love marriage” were new concepts in Korea. When arranged marriage—determined by one’s inherited class and financial status—was the only legitimate way to form a heterosexual union, women’s sexuality were confined in heterosexual relationships for procreation only, and love had no place in it. People of a lower class, who usually freely mingled with each other more than those in the upper class freely mingled with each other, no doubt fell in love and got married; however, middle and upper-class women had no right to assert their will in a matrimonial process. Therefore, the goal of new women’s contestation was not only to change the customary practice of marriage but also to bring a fundamental shift in people’s way of thinking about heterosexual unions. The women of the 1920s sought to overcome the prescriptive definition of women’s sexuality through writing publicly about their personal lives. Without a doubt, their demands were heavily criticized as immoral by elite male. Even today’s scholars criticize their demands as “too individualistic and extreme” and their approach to women’s liberation as “bourgeois feminism” that were said to turn blind eyes to class oppression operating within a gender structure.

(p. 2)

What fascinate though, are the uncanny parallels between the subsequent backlash and modern misogyny. For more on those specifically, see “How Women Are Represented within the Patriarchal Nationalism in (neo) Colonial Times” by Yewon Lee, who describes how critiques of modern girls first arose as a result of the increasing militarization of Korea’s Japanese colonizer:

Western thoughts such as the concept of natural rights of the individual and equality among man and woman were denied in the ’30s, and the so called “Old women” that stands in the opposite of the “New women” [신여성] that used to be criticized as old fashion, submissive, and dependent were reevaluated as those who retain the virtue of the past tradition. On the other hand, the “modern girls” who voiced their subjectivity on issues such as sexuality were blamed to be ‘selfish’ and ‘morally  corrupted.’ This is not irrelevant with the fact that the Japanese colony was conducting a war that goes beyond their capacity and needed all the resources it can pull, thus, needed the women to become the ‘strong  mothers’ to give birth and raise the ‘strong soldiers’ and be ideologically loyal enough to send their son’s willingly to war. This is the well known explanation of why the discourse of “New women” suddenly shifted to a conservative one in the 1930’s.

(pp. 9-10)

In particular, she argues that Korean men made them the scapegoats for forces over which neither sex had any control:

…not only did the discourse change due to the need of the Japanese colonialism but also it reflects the frustration of the colonized. Many of the Korean men were forced to join the army against their will. There was not much they can do when their mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers were harassed and mobilized as comfort women during the war. The sense of helplessness and powerless the colonized men had to put up with as the rule of the colonization harshens, made them in needs of a object, the women of the nation, to be kept under their control and for times to take out their anger. Thus, the women were safe from reproach as long as they were labeled as the ‘mother’ that gives birth and raise the child of the nation; however, once they insist on their rights as a woman they become an object of criticism. Thus discussions about women’s subjectivity on sexuality and gender equality almost disappear in the public scene by this time.

(pp. 10-11.)

And with that criticism, came a host of body and/or lifestyle labels and ideals for women to aspire to, and/or stereotypes to be criticized for. For an instance of the latter, take the “stick girl” at the top left of the left image below, so-called because her much older partner uses her body as a walking cane. Whether she’s with him for love or money, I imagine that the cartoonist’s real issue is less with the age disparity than with the woman’s brazen freedom and sexual agency. Because would he have criticized a similar marital union arranged between two families of the same class, with the woman getting pregnant shortly thereafter?

Korean and Japanese Modern Girls(Left: “The various types of ‘girls’ in the 1920s to 1930s”; scan, 예쁜 여자 만들기, p. 245. Right: Actor Hideko Takamine, Japanese White Powder Foundation advertisement, 1930s; via The Flapper Girl.)

Either way, the parallels continue, for this label-making has been a strong trend in the last decade too. Also, whereas those feelings of helplessness and powerless are now because of “Hell Joseon” rather than colonial rule, nevertheless they still get channeled by the media into anger against young women, supposedly for taking over “men’s jobs” while the men suffer their mandatory military service. Writing in 2007 though, well before some important developments in Korea’s demographics (an excess of teenage boys turning into men) and labor market (more young women doing irregular and part-time work), instead Yewon Lee stresses the strong anti-American components to the misogyny she witnessed. Her paper is worth reading for that alone, and I’d be very interested in hearing readers’ opinions on how important that component remains nearly ten years later.

So, I encourage readers to check out both papers (actually conference presentations), which deserve to be much better known. Unfortunately PDFS are no longer available online, so please contact me if you’d like me to email them.

What are you waiting for? ;)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Update: A must read is “Sweet Dream” at Gusts of Popular Feeling, about the strong critique of modern girls in the form of—sigh—Korea’s oldest surviving movie.

Guidelines for a Beautiful Penis

'Atomic Avenue #1', by Glen Orbik(“Atomic Avenue #1” by Glen Orbik, detail. Via: Dark Roasted Blend)

Remember the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s guidelines forbeautiful breasts“?

By definition absurd, the reaction was vociferous, and the Ministry scrambled to remove the offending post from its website.

Somehow amongst all the commotion though, a response by cartoonist and illustrator @ickjong got overlooked, at least by the English-language media.

That just won’t do. So, for phallus-lovers and/or owners everywhere, let me hereby present his “guidelines for a beautiful penis“. Or as I like to think of it, the “P-line/피라인” (you heard it here first):

Guidelines for a beautiful penis 1

When viewed from the front, it should look like Mr. Elephant, who has a nice personality. [And is from a well-known children’s song.]

Guidelines for a beautiful penis 2When viewed from the side, the head of the penis should be lower than the approximate position of the anus. [“Approximate” because it’s difficult to see from the side I guess. No, I’ve never really thought about it either.]

A response:

“Wouldn’t this be hurtful to someone who couldn’t get it lower?”

“That’s why it’s important to squat. If you squat properly, and maintain it, it’s possible to raise your anus.”

Good to know. Continuing:

Guidelines for a beautiful penis 3Left, top: The number of wrinkles on each testicle should be three times your age.

Left, bottom: As the length of “C’ is the source of men’s pride, it should be measured from somewhere between the belly-botton and the sternum to the tip.

Right: Testicles are different sizes, and are extremely sensitive. You have to take good care of them!

But…THREE times your age? Even for teens, that’s going to require a lot of counting. So, make sure to ask your nearest and dearest to lend a hand, and I guarantee you’ll both have a good day! ;)

Radio Interview on Korean Feminism and the Media, Tonight at 7:30

The Year of the PenisAt 7:30 tonight, I’ll be briefly appearing on Inside Out Busan at Busan e-FM, to talk about Korean feminism and the media. Please tune in if you can, and feel free to ask me here to expand upon or clarify anything I mention in the interview. I’ll also post a link to a download once it becomes available.

(Update: Voilà!)

Open Lecture on “Korea’s Feminist Movement: Past and Present”

Open Lecture on Korea’s Feminist Movement Past and Present.(Source: Critical Korean Studies.)

See the poster for the details, and click here to go straight to the registration link :)