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Please see here for more information and links for registering.
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
Imagine for a moment, there’s a bona fide reason to open a post about Korea’s female sea divers, known as haenyeo, with this image of iconic K-pop group Girls’ Generation promoting Gangnam.
Many of you will immediately recognize its age: Jessica, in the center, left the group in September 2014, two and half years after they were appointed as honorary publicity ambassadors for the district. Yet still their aura of stylishness, cosmopolitanism, and confidence remains so vivid, and district officials’ desire to link that aura to Gangnam so powerful, that this eight year-old advertisement can still be seen in airports even today.
Now imagine if, at the same time it was produced, it was an open secret that the Seoul Metropolitan Government had begun collaborating with a foreign government to set up brothels in Gangnam. Not necessarily K-pop themed, but brothels nonetheless. That by the time Covid-19 struck, the majority of overseas visitors to the district would not be the starry-eyed hallyu fans you’d expect from the sub-heading on the ad, nor medical tourists. Rather, they’d be stressed businessmen from that foreign country, encouraged by both their government and their companies to let off steam by going on sex tours to Gangnam. For some of the more high-ranking among them, their liaisons with Korean sex workers would even be arranged by Seoul government officials themselves, to better facilitate trade and investment deals.
That sexing-up of Gangnam’s image with Girls’ Generation? One hell of a coincidence. Whatever your feelings about sex work, you could ask serious questions about what choices the members had in their image being used to promote it. So too, if they ever made any profit from doing so, rather than all of it going to SM Entertainment.
You can guess where I’m going with this.
A sex tourism industry really was developed throughout Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, but especially on Jeju Island.
On the mainland, its history is complicated by that of the parallel sex industry set up for the USFK, and complicated further still by the earlier industry for (primarily) Japanese officials and male tourists in the 1930s, as we’ll delve into later. But on Jeju, the story after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan in 1965 is relatively simple.
There, according to Dr. Caroline Norma of RMIT University, prominent Japanese businessmen, private companies, and even the Japanese Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, and Industry were directly involved in the setting up of tourist facilities and infrastructure in the 1970s—all for the explicit purpose of gambling and sex tourism for Japanese businessmen, and all with the full support of Korean president Park Chung-hee who wanted to develop the island as a tourist resort. Certainly, there was opposition in both countries. Yet by 1986, over 1000 women would be working in the 4 ‘kisaeng houses’ established, and the industry would come to be so integral to the island’s economy that the Jeju prefectural government would ask to be exempted from the anti-prostitution law of 2004—and saddled with swathes of abandoned buildings when that request was refused.
You can also guess that Jeju’s tourist brochures from the 1970s would be replete with glamorous photos of youthful models posing as Jeju’s haenyeo. For example, this one below, which at least features realistic outfits for the time (as I’ll explain in detail later):
Here’s another with different models, superimposed over a background of local landmark Dragon Head Rock. This photo was likewise featured on the cover of a tourist brochure, on postcards, and on souvenirs:
But forget about the burgeoning sex tourism industry behind the scenes for a moment. So too, the affected poses. Besides those, what is “off” about about these photos exactly? Which isn’t off about this one below, of genuine haenyeo from the early-1960s?
Recall that I described them as “glamorous.”
It’s true the word can have many meanings, including—ironically for our titular subject—“busty” in Korean. But in this particular case, the first two photos are glamorous because their emphasis is on the models as women, not as haenyeo. It’s on their femininity. That’s why they still look like models, despite the authentic outfits and the equipment. Whereas in the last picture, all but one of the haenyeo are too busy to care less about the photographer, which is a good indicator they’re the real deal. If there’s any emphasis in the photograph at all, it’s on the profession.
If stressing femininity was the purpose in the former photos however, this raises the question of why it was necessary to use a haenyeo theme. Even on the added justification that the haenyeo symbolized Jeju, whereas, say, generic bikini models wouldn’t, there were significant numbers of haenyeo on mainland coasts who would have begged to differ.
The answer is that the decision was merely the continuation of a long, preexisting history of marginalization, exploitation, othering, and sexualization of Jeju haenyeo, as I’ll discuss later. But it was indeed from the 1970s when this stress on their femininity began in earnest.
…femaleness is the most mobilized and utilized aspect of women divers in order to please visitors to the island. Women divers’ femaleness has taken the forefront in the island’s tourism development. The femaleness is pervasive in tourism related materials including magazines, posters, basalt sculptures, FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastics) materialized caricature sculptures, and souvenir items. Indeed, the feminine character of women divers is what one comes across most in traveling on the island, and is particularly pervasive in places where tourists are expected to pass through such as hotels, restaurants, museums, shopping centers, coastline car driving roads, and beaches.
Lest this sound like what some would disqualify as typical feminist overreaction over, say, taking harmless funny pictures in front of a couple of statues (a Jeju vacation ritual), consider that “pervasive” means precisely that. For instance, as of 2010, there were 33 haenyeo statues along the coastal roads of Jeju. Thirty-one of these, Chang notes, were the A to C types in Figure 4 below which emphasize and exaggerate the haenyeo’s “female body lines such as breast, hip, and legs.” Also striking was that 19 were of the A type, which she notes bears a strong resemblance to the 1972 photo of a model in a rather inauthentic and impractical bikini in Figure 5 (but still, as indicated through the picture title and equipment, an ostensible haenyeo):
Moreover, with ubiquity comes familiarity and normalization, and the Korean public, mainland tourists, and foreign visitors alike tending to regard such objectifying as only natural. For example, also consider that last year, the Jeju Women and Family Research Institute released its 2019 Gender Impact Assessment of Jeju Tourism Contents Report (2019년 제주특별자치도 관광 콘텐츠에 대한 특정성별영향평가) in which it identified problematic gender and sexual stereotypes in those contents, and made recommendations on how to correct them. Among the many mentions of haenyeo, one example given was the unnecessary use of those sexualized statues of them used in the background of a video for children shown in the Jeju Dialect section of the Jeju Education Museum (pp. 55-56):
시청각 영상물에서 해녀의 이미지 가성적으로 표현됨. 유두, Y존, 섹슈얼한 포즈 등 지나치게 여성의 신체 일부를 드러냄으로써, 해녀의 신체 에대해 성적인 이미지를 강조하고 있음. 아울러 단어와 문장에 맞지않 은이미지를 사용하고 있음. 해녀에 대한 섹슈얼한 이미지 활용에 대한 문제제기는 이미 많이 진행되어 왔고 개선되고 있는 상황임. 이러한 변화에 맞추어 개선 필요. 특히 어린이/청소년 대상 전시물의 경우 미래 세대에 미치는 영향에 대한 고민 필요
☞ 특정성, 특히 여성에 대한 외모를 강조하는 이미지 활용은 지양. 이미지 개선 필요.
The video includes likenesses of haenyeo. But those likenesses are in sexual poses and show off female body parts such as nipples and crotches, stressing an overly physical and sexual image of the haenyeo. Moreover, they are completely unrelated to the words and phrases of the Jeju dialect that are the video’s focus.
There have been many improvements made in the use of overly sexual imagery of haenyeo, and [this museum] needs to improve in line with these changes. In particular, in the case of exhibitions aimed at children and teenagers, it is advisable to consider the impact of such imagery on future generations.
☞ Special attention needs to be given to the rejection of imagery that emphasizes women’s bodies. Improvements to this imagery are necessary.
Yes, that is indeed unfortunate shading on the second statue, but it’s no fault of the video. It’s hardly prudish to wonder why the sculptor(s) were instructed to take that particular creative direction with it either, when everyone would balk at them doing the same for other professions.
But in addition to their shared stress on haenyeo’s femininity, there are two more common themes to be aware of.
Let me explain them by posing you a question. Do you think a 30-something haenyeo should have been chosen as the face of a tourism competition last year to win round-trips to Korea? When 9 out of 10 haenyeo are now over 60 years old?
There were good reasons. The Korean Tourism Organization promoted the competition through painfully scripted videos of young influencers in Korea waxing lyrical about literally everything, which automatically excluded all those too old to care less. Also, essentially the same role was envisioned for the eventual winners: a miserly 2 days and 3 nights of hotel accommodation were only provided if they chose to meet with the 1 of 30 Korean “friends” available they’d selected upon entering, of whom Go Ryeo-jin above was one. Realistically, very few young hallyu fans would have opted to spend such a limited time with a more representative haenyeo their grandmother’s age. In fact, in that sense, claiming in her own video that Go was the youngest haenyeo of all may only have further added to her appeal. It’s not like any hopeful competition entrant would have quibbled that it wasn’t actually true.
In fairness, the competition did offer the opportunity to meet elderly “friends” in other professions. But this (mis)representation of haenyeo is all too common. For example, when Go played a similar role the year before:
Hey, no-one’s blaming Go for her side-hustles. But Traveller‘s glamorous representation of haenyeo in particular is problematic. Not because feminists are natural spoilsports, but because, in addition to her relative youth, Go’s wearing one of the much flimsier traditional diving outfits like you saw in those glamorous photos earlier. Which were taken precisely when haenyeo stopped wearing such outfits in favor of wetsuits.
Yes, no working haenyeo has actually worn those for nearly 50 years.
So, unless explicitly set before the 1970s, any modern representation of haenyeo that doesn’t convey the reality that 9 out of 10 of them are elderly women in wetsuits, is misinformed at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. And, again, begs the question of the agendas—or at least stereotypes and cultural baggage—of those choosing the representation.
The logical outcome of the stress on haeneyo’s femininity is then, a stress on their youth. And the flimsy traditional outfits are best at highlighting both themes, which is why we encounter them far more often than wetsuits.
For example, in this fashion show as part of a haenyeo festival in October 2008, which—make of it what you will—I first found pictures of on the misogynistic, alt-right site Ilbe, where members usually post pictures of women only to ridicule or ogle them:
In fairness, young women have already been performing as haenyeo in various capacities for a very long time. Here are two examples from the 1960s:
I would have loved to have continued with more examples here. In particular, of all the instances of haenyeo in Korean pop culture from the last 70 years that I’ve collected these past two months, as all those were surely both strongly influenced by and strong influences on this sexualized positioning of haenyeo. Through their sheer weight of numbers alone, I felt, it would have been obvious to anyone that this combination of femininity, youth, and overabundance of traditional outfits in them has always been a thing.
But that long list would have rapidly snowballed. Better then, to provide you with the tools to judge such representations of haenyeo for yourselves, wherever you may find them.
That’s our cue to discuss the traditional outfit in detail.
Joo-Young Lee and Hyo Hyun Lee, both from the Department of Textiles at Seoul National University, offer a refreshingly simple guide to the traditional outfit in their 2014 examination of the loss of haenyeo’s physiological adaptions to the cold due to adopting wetsuits (p.4.):
Jeju haenyeo wore a bathing suit made of cotton-broadcloth in white or black (100% cotton with 30 counts, about 0.5 mm thick, and 8.5% water absorption at a dry condition) until wetsuits were supplied. Before the broad cotton cloth was imported from Japan [a 99.6 percent monopoly by 1919—James], the bathing suit was originally made of muslin (thin cotton cloth). Haenyeo preferred the broad cotton to the muslin bathing suit because the broad cotton was relatively thicker and stronger in salty water than the muslin cloth.
I’d add that according to the Jeju Weekly, the difference between the white and black outfits is that the former were made from muslin, woven from traditional looms, while the latter were made from broad cotton cloth that was machine-woven, then dyed black. I doubt this difference in material and method of manufacture continued until the 1970s however.
From bitter experience, different romanizations can lead to considerable confusion. So, please take note of the original Korean:
Next, here’s a more detailed breakdown of the mulsojungee from a (Korean) 2013 article by Kim Hyun-mi and Jang Ae-ran of the Department of Beauty & Art at Cheju Halla University and the Department of Clothing and Textiles at Jeju National University, respectively:
Very confusingly, Kim and Jang mention a jjokiheori/조끼허리 at the top rather than a muljucksam. But that length of it above, indicated by the dotted line extending into the mulsojungee, seems to be mistaken. A jjokiheori is a waistcoat-like covering that is so short it almost looks like a bra (see right), and is most commonly used with hanbok. However, much more commonly used on top of both men’s and women’s hanbok are jeogori (저고리), of which the women’s is usually as short as a jjokiheori, but has large loose sleeves that the jjokiheori lacks; indeed, the muljucksam has been described as a kind of jeogori, albeit with much narrower sleeves to prevent them dragging in the water. As I’ve only been able to find a single additional reference of jjokiheori being used by haenyeo then, and no pictures, there’s no reason to consider it further.
Besides which, it’s the maechin/매친 shoulder strap that’s crucial. This ensured that only the upper chest—but not the breasts—would be exposed if the muljucksam wasn’t also being worn. That, plus the fact that the mulsojungee seems to have come in black just as often as white, sharply distinguishes haenyeo from Japanese ama (海女):
Fixating on breast exposure may seem very childish. Not least, because as you can probably tell from the examples below (and as many readers with breasts will already have been well aware), it is obvious that the thin material would have hidden little, and that the functional side-slits for easy adjusting and removal, plus the practicalities of the job (including infant childcare), would in practice have meant frequent breast exposure. It’s also true that the haenyeo would have been working well away from the prying eyes of most men. And even if men did see them—such as fishermen in passing, handlers of the haeyneo’s boats, or men on their shore unloading the haenyeo’s catches—breast exposure was still routine outside of cities in Korea, even as late as the 1950s.
And yet the mulsojungee would rarely have naturally ridden down below the bust, nor the thick maechin shoulder strap come off, without the wearer quickly fixing them when able. Let alone a haenyeo forgoing wearing a mulsojungee entirely.
In other words, there’s a world of difference between photos like these, taken in passing while the haenyeo were too busy working to care less about the photographers, with photos of haenyeo openly revealing their breasts to them.
Rest assured there are multiple alleged examples from English and Korean google searches to be found of the latter. Armed with this knowledge of the outfits though, now you can instantly tell that a good, say, 95 percent of the nude images are actually of ama, whatever their captions may claim. And it is highly likely that those 5 percent that are indeed of haenyeo were staged.
Knowing this last to be a fact is a good basis on which to investigate why.
When doing so, there’s three potential factors to consider.
The first is the influence of sexualized representations of ama. Frankly, I am unfamiliar with their traditional outfits, and can not speak to how realistic Yoshiyuki’s Iwase’s (influential) depictions of them topless were—while most are clearly glamorized and staged, many others seem to be little different from those we saw of haenyeo working, albeit with much less clothing.
Regardless, given Japan’s much more liberal media environment in the postwar era, ama were much more intensively and rapidly sexualized than their counterparts in Korea. For instance, their fetishization in film goes back at least as far Michiko Maeda’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen (1956), which tellingly also contained Japanese cinema’s first nude scene. By the 1970s, there were numerous soft-porn films centered around ama.
This is important, as it’s plausible to argue that the glamorized depictions of haenyeo from the early 1970s were simply due to timing.
Which is ultimately quite mistaken. But still plausible.
In particular, and somewhat inconveniently for branding Jeju as a cishet man’s sexual paradise, that period saw the beginning of the most authoritarian phase of Korea’s military regime. This included a harsh crackdown on burgeoning youth culture, including on its attendant challenges to conservative standards of dress and restrictions on nudity in art and the media. If that likewise affected advertising, then using models in genuinely skimpy haenyeo outfits would have served the same glamorizing purpose as bikinis. Being authentic, they would have helped deflect potential criticism and charges of hypocrisy that using models in bikinis might have incurred.
Military regimes are not well-known for suffering public opinion however. It’s also unlikely women’s movements would have raised such trifling matters when so many of their members were routinely being brutally beaten by factory-owners and police.
Alternatively, many older readers may recall the very successful James Bond movie You Only Live Twice had been released just a few years earlier. While it was set in Japan, and only featured ama characters, the similarities in tone with the glamorized depictions of haenyeo we saw are obvious, particularly the 1972 example of a model in a white bikini (but the existence of which slightly contradicts the military crackdown rationale). Indeed, at least one former Peace Corps Volunteer admits the movie was very, very much on his mind upon his arrival on the island in 1973.
But information about the movie’s (unlikely) popularity in Japan itself is hard to find, and regardless, Japanese businessmen traveling to Jeju for sex would undoubtedly have been much more influenced by ama characters in homegrown soft-pornography films. It’s also reasonable to assume that despite the outlawing of pornography in Korea, and despite official restrictions on direct cultural imports from Japan specifically, Japanese sex tourists’ stereotypes and objectification of ama would still have filtered across to the Korean public through various means, and influenced their preexisting notions of haenyeo.
This would have been especially true after Korean films and photos featuring semi-nudity became widely available in Korea, most notably after President Chun Doo-hwan’s “Sex, Screen, Sports” policy began in 1980. These haenyeo-themed examples from the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper for instance, which have a very similar feel to Japanese examples from 10 or even 20 years earlier:
Meanwhile, Japanese pornography itself had become much more explicit by that stage. I’ll leave interested readers to find ama-themed examples themselves however, confining myself here to passing on the trailer of the (comparatively mild and amusing) Nympho Diver: G-String Festival (1981) instead. Partially, because of its conspicuous Korean subtitles, which title it as Lustful Haenyeo, and partially because it’s quite typical of the sort of adult movies I’d find playing on very late-night Korean television in the 2000s.
Lest I have come across as too critical and prudish in this post, for the record I’m actually a strong supporter of ethical pornography produced in safe environments, by and for consenting adults, and which focuses on women’s pleasure just as much as men’s. Yet I’m hardly ignorant and naive either, and am well aware that most pornography presents women as all too eager to have sex with just about any cishet man who bestows his gaze upon them. So I’m not surprised then, that the aforementioned Jeju Women and Family Research Institute’s 2019 report on tourism materials found numerous cases of voyeurism being normalized as both completely natural for men and just clean harmless fun, which I’m astonished haven’t been torn down yet in the wake of angry protests against Korea’s spycam epidemic. One of these examples (p. 58), from Jeju Loveland, depicts a haenyeo in all but name:
The next factor to consider is that the 1970s weren’t the first time haenyeo had been used to sex-up the island for the tourism industry. One prior attempt comes from the 1950s:
Clearly, these photos are part of a series, of which more are available at the single source. Frustratingly however, no extra information about them is provided (my bad for not contacting the owner yet). Also, while the one at the top-right is available elsewhere, most notably in the KRPia Database, I lack the institutional access required to see if any additional information is provided there. (I’ll return to this practical issue later.)
An additional source of frustration is that although some of the outfits appear inauthentic, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in an earlier picture of genuine working haenyeo from the 1960s I provided, some of them too wore outfits with two shoulder straps.
After spending so much time researching and familiarizing myself with the traditional outfit, I frankly throw my hands up in despair at that observation. (And so miss that they could simply be a kind of tank-top?) Yet the fact remains that those 1950s photos above were obviously completely staged and glamorized, particularly of the bare-breasted woman. But why?
A tantalizing hint can be found through the following photograph in a June 2012 article in the Jemin Ilbo. Not only because it’s very similar to the above (albeit still very uncertain if it’s related at all), but because the caption there claims it was for a tourism shot:
Again frustratingly, that’s the entirety of the information about it. But if true?
Likewise, what to make of the following photo, which is also very staged, but with authentic outfits? Curiously, an authoritative source dates its production to exactly July 21, 1958, but doesn’t say on what that date is based. Nor indeed, any other information about it:
Considering Jeju had just seen 10% of its population killed in a brutal repression of an uprising in 1948-1949, and Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the decade after the war, then the very notion of producing tourism photos for the island seems absurd, let alone such titillating ones. And yet they stubbornly exist.
I apologize that the pictures raise more questions than answers. But I’m on much firmer ground with the final factor to consider, to be considered when viewing images 20-30 years earlier from the colonial period: that generally, Japanese colonial representations of Korean women were used to dangle the possibility of sex with locals, to present them as primitive and in need of civilizing, or both.
Alas I can not possibly do justice to the extensive literature on the development of the sex industry in colonial Korea driving that, let alone dare to publicly take a stance in the politically-charged debate on its links to wartime comfort women. So, I will confine myself to making two points about its scale, as this was a big factor in why postcards and posters of Korean women were so prolific.
First, among colonial empires, the Japanese one stood out for the number of men from the home country working in its colonies. To give a specific example: according to politics and international affairs Professor Atul Kohli of Princeton University, “there were 87,552 government officials in Korea in 1937, 52,270 of whom were Japanese, whereas the French state in Vietnam (relatively large itself compared to British colonies in Africa) only had 3000 French officials. In other words, for geographically-similar sized colonies the Japanese had fifteen officials for every French one.”
I don’t mean to imply that Japanese officials were the bulk of the clients, which wasn’t the case at all. But those numbers do suggest that, per capita, the sex industry catering to such a colonial presence would have been comparatively large. Also, secondly, why regularly visiting sex workers was considered completely normal and unremarkable.
Yet for Japanese living in the Home Islands, why travel to Korea for that?
One reason was the relative ease, both because of the geographical proximity and because a huge industry for Japanese tourists was developed in the interwar years. Another was the persuasiveness of the ensuing extensive advertising. Also, as Hyung Il Pai of the University of California explains (p. 73), there were “millions of train schedules, pamphlets, and guidebooks estimated to have been distributed at major piers, train stations, and department stores throughout the empire.” Unfortunately, being designed to be disposable, very few of those have survived. But it’s unlikely their contents would have differed much from the sturdier pocket-size guidebooks and attractive postcards that do remain, and these had consistent themes. As Okpyo Moon from the Department of Anthropology at the Academy Of Korean Studies explains (p. 151):
While actual places visited by Japanese travelers concentrated on urban centres and newly constructed modern colonial facilities, many of the postcards printed and circulated during the Japanese colonial period emphasized images of pre-modern exoticism. For instance, most of the tourist postcards of the time depicted Korea with images of rural rather than urban, female rather than male, elderly people or children rather than lively young men, passive and static rather than active and moving, traditional and past-oriented rather than progressive and modern. The continuous reproduction and wide distribution of these images helped Japanese travelers to perceive colonial Korea as something to be conquered, enlightened, modernized, desired, and consumed.
In the last two decades, a big online market for these postcards has developed, driving up costs and making access more difficult. Also, most of the universities and museums with digital archives of the postcards, and, presumably, as much verifiable information about them as is available, either require institutional access or visits in person—and most are in the US. Add that such painful, emasculating depictions of Korea may not be a favorite subject of Korean historians, so the vast majority of scholarship on the postcards appears to be Japanese (which I don’t speak), then unfortunately it feels extremely difficult, here in Busan, to pursue the subject in as much depth as I’d like.
An informal survey of what material is publicly available however, demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of glamorous pictures of Korean women in them are of kisaeng. It would be very hypocritical and misleading to perpetuate their own stereotype that they were largely sex workers; however, the colonial (male) tourist gaze didn’t discern their internal distinctions and artistry, stressing their alleged sexual skills and availability instead. This context should be borne in mind when you see examples like those two a moment ago, and Moon (pp. 153-4) notes their obvious similarities with later tourism materials:
An apparent continuity can be observed between the pre-war and the post-war Japanese perception of Korea and in the ways in which tourism was later promoted in Korea. The tourist posters printed and distributed by the Korean government in the 1970s, for instance, invariably depicted women in Korean traditional dress either dancing or playing musical instruments such as [12-stringed Korean harps]. The continuity with kisaeng images in the postcards of the colonial period cannot be missed.
This depiction of Korean women in traditional outfits, accompanied by the tools of their trade, but in which it’s ultimately their femininity that is being highlighted, does sound somewhat familiar.
Meanwhile, of the other colonial postcards featuring women, many of the others were like that of the somewhat wizened-looking rural woman with exposed breasts. In an era when the adoption of Western dress was rendering breast exposure increasingly taboo in the cities, and covering them a signifier of (Japanese-led) modernization and civilizing, then the intention of the photographer was clearly to shame. For this reason, many Korean historians and the public have—not unreasonably—refused to accept that breast exposure was nonetheless still routine in the countryside then.
But because of what we know about the traditional outfit, we know that it was indeed for shaming purposes that the haenyeo below was told to pull down her mulsojungee to expose her breasts, in this, the single verifiable postcard featuring a haenyeo I’ve been able to find:
My source, to whom I’m eternally grateful, gave a little more information about its origins in their message to me:
[This] is part of a set of eight postcards which I bought from a Chinese dealer some 15 years ago. As you will know, postcards produced by Japanese businessmen in Korea for sale mainly to Japanese tourists and collectors are an important—and very often the only—source of photographic material of the colonial period. They often came in sets of several cards held together by a colourful printed envelope. The Cheju-do set also includes an explanation sheet (in Japanese, of course). These are the only Cheju-do postcards in my collection, so it seems Cheju-do was not popular with Japanese tourists at that time.
Actual tourists aside, it has been argued that glamorized posters and postcards of young, nude Jeju haenyeo were also produced, but I have yet to find any actual examples. Also, for readers’ interest, another similar, shaming depiction of topless Jeju haenyeo can be found in a Japanese newspaper from 1934 (p.24).
(Update) And then the following appeared. Alas, not from a Japanese postcard, but intriguing nonetheless:
With my considerable thanks to historian JiHoon Suk for passing it on, this topless, alleged Jeju haenyeo comes from the cover of the June 1928 edition of the Korean literary-intellectual magazine Donggwang (동광), with the caption:
“濟州道 海女들이 감(柿)를 드린 바지를 입고 潛水질하는 거슬 海邊에서 볼ᄯᅢ에는 꼭 南洋에 간 感이 잇다. 女子들은 어찌나 健康한지 젖가삼이 쑥쑥 나오고 血氣잇게 다니는 그 女子들은 陸地의 男子보다 몃배의 힘이 잇을 것이다. 市長에는 女子뿐이고 巨里에 낭구(木) 팔러 오는 사람도 女子이고 심할 것은 牛馬의 力으로 回轉시킬 돌방아까지 女子 3, 4人의 힘으로 도는 것을 보앗다. 陸地의 女子들이 濟州島 女子들의 하는 活動을 볼 때에는 참 놀랠것이 만흘 것이다. (寫眞은 濟州에서)”
Suk explains that, basically, “the intention here is to emphasize how strong and healthy the women of Jeju (including haenyeos) are compared to (even) men of the ‘mainland’,” and that specifically “when the caption mentions ‘젖가슴이 쑥쑥 나오고’ (Their breasts are well-built and protruding),” he is “quite positive that this is alluding to the common complaint that the Korean (mostly male but some females as well) intellectuals were talking at that time that Korean women lacked healthy postures and development and [were] thus inferior to more healthy (i.e. ‘Western’) bodies.”
Indeed, this was a common complaint at the time in China, Taiwan, and Japan, too, and I’m looking forward to covering the topic in more detail in the next post in my series on that.
I stress only alleged haenyeo though, as she’s clearly not wearing the traditional haenyeo outfit, and her bottoms closely resemble those of the ama featured in Iwase Yoshiyuki’s photographs taken 30 years later. We also only have the caption writer’s say-so that the woman was a haenyeo (there was no related article), and the editors were probably not all too concerned about accuracy when they were conjuring up a rationale for putting a nude woman on the cover. So, I’d wager that she was indeed an ama—or a least a haenyeo working elsewhere in the Japanese empire, of which there were many. Alternatively, the adoption of the ‘traditional’ outfit in the 1920s may have been much more piecemeal and gradual than I suggested. Either way, it just goes to show haenyeo’s long history of being sexualized, and my thanks again to Suk for passing it on.
But frankly, it’s high time to move on from (over)analyzing tantalizing, but ultimately very frustrating single examples the further back in time we go. Let’s conclude instead, by addressing four elephants (whales?) in the room.
The first is that simple geographical isolation meant that Jeju residents were inevitably marginalized and othered throughout Korean history. And Jeju haenyeo in particular, about whom most mainland Koreans would have known very little beyond that they dived and wore skimpy outfits, would have been very easy to conjure exotic, sexualized narratives about. An internal Orientalism, if you will.
The isolation driving this was significant until surprisingly recently. As the island is just a quick, cheap flight away today, it can be difficult to appreciate how difficult it has been to get to for most of its history, and that what later became the standard practice—flying to Jeju for honeymoons—only really began in the mid-1980s. In stark contrast, when the glamorized pictures of haenyeo were being produced in the early-1970s, the Seoul-Busan highway had only just been completed. Only 1 in 100 Koreans had cars then. Also, consider Koreans’ abject poverty at the time: still less than 1 in 10 had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions. Not for nothing would the Minister of Education in 1973, in a rare moment of candor, publicly praise sex workers for bringing in so much foreign exchange “with their cunts.” (Which is not to imply the sex workers weren’t still treated appallingly by the government, and aren’t still awaiting compensation even today.)
Next is the stereotype of Jeju women as feminist Amazonians, which does not jibe well with much of what you’ve read so far. By all means, gender relations on Jeju have long been much more complicated and interesting than on the mainland, and today at least Jeju women do indeed generally have more equitable gender relations compared to their mainland counterparts. But I also invite you to read this journal article from 1976 for an academic perspective on those from the time, in which the author Soon Young-yoon bluntly concludes “Jeju martriarchy does not exist.” This assessment has not changed over time, Dr. Norma also noting that Jeju women were not particularly empowered in the 1970s (p. 417):
Even with [the income from tourism]…the island was still significantly poorer than the rest of South Korea. Women living on Jeju were, therefore, even more vulnerable to the demands of the Japanese men who traveled there in large numbers in the early-1970s.
Nor were haenyeo in any more of a position to challenge the sexualized narratives being written about them by the Korean and Japanese governments. Consider that even while celebrating haenyeo history and culture for instance, this short 2016 Arirang video also features the now elderly women themselves describing the realities of their dirty, difficult, and dangerous job. In particular, they point out that it was not at all their choice to do the work, and that they were always looked down upon for doing it:
I highly recommend Joey Rositano’s blog about haenyeo for many more in-depth interviews in that vein, and his recently released book Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual. (And if you’ve just read 6000 words on haenyeo, how can you not buy it?). Full disclosure: I am especially grateful for his giving me time for an interview, and regret that so little of what we talked about made it into this post. But one thing we did talk about, and which was also mentioned to me by my other friends living on Jeju, leads me to my third point: that the image of haenyeo held by most actual Jeju residents is much more folksy than sexualized. Moreover, that haenyeo are far more concerned about increasingly severe pollution and other existential threats to their livelihoods caused by Jeju’s tourism industry, than about nipples on a few statues.
I am happy to defer to his and others’ experience of Jeju, let alone of the voices of haenyeo themselves, and look forward to hearing readers’ own impressions and stories as visitors or residents. I also acknowledge that most of the sources used here are somewhat old, and that there have been important developments in the last decade or so in the preservation of haenyeo history and the amplification of their voices.
And yet, while their modern image may indeed be moving well beyond the sexual stereotypes discussed here, their lack of control and profit from it sounds depressingly familiar. As a young haenyeo explained in an interview on Rositano’s blog in 2017 (my emphases):
Q) Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.
A) I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama…are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.
Q) How about when you are photographed?
A) That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer….
Two months ago, I was inspired to start writing this post by reading that in fact, the haenyeo had been topless over a century ago, our final elephant in the room. Frankly, my choice of title is a little misleading (sorry), but I was just too attached to the double-entendre to give it up.
A century is a long time though, and realizing why the image of topless divers endured nonethless, and who it was for, I couldn’t help but recall Seungsook Moon’s must-read below. For it was from her that I first really grasped how the Korean government, military, and industry has long used, and literally even broken women’s bodies for nationalist and developmentalist ends. All too often, with little to no input or agency from women themselves, and over their desperate opposition.
It’s very difficult now, not to place the sexualization of haenyeo on the same continuum.
With that, I am absolutely not saying every young, attractive woman in a traditional haenyeo outfit you’ll see will have been placed there with ulterior motives. But the next time you do encounter one in a tourist brochure, webtoon, talkshow, television series, or movie, I urge you to consider who chose to represent haenyeo that way, and ask why exactly.
Or indeed, to always ask who and why about any cultural text. Especially when you’re not entirely sure the people in them are the ones calling the shots.
Thanks for reading.
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
No offense Kim Sa-rang, but why would W-Angle hire a professional golfer to model its men’s clothes, but an actor for its women’s?
Just kidding—I know it’s because most Korean female golfers just don’t have the “right” bodies to appeal to the Korean public. This, despite Korea producing far more elite female golfers than male ones, and the South Korean women’s tour drawing many more spectators than the men’s equivalent.
Apropos of that only one woman’s body-size and shape will do attitude, which has driven many female golfers overseas in search of sponsorship, even W-Angle’s advertorial in GolfBiz (I refuse to call it an article) is not shy about stressing that its new, ‘W-Ice’ women’s clothes are all about showing off the wearer’s body, whereas the men’s will help with their game (my emphases):
광고 속 김사랑이 착용한 ‘여성 W-Angle 긴 소매 블록 티셔츠’는 여성미를 강조하는 과감한 절개선과 배색으로 볼륨감 있으면서도 날씬한 몸매 연출을 도와준다. 냉감 기능성 소재를 사용하고 땀이 많은 등 부분에는 통풍이 잘 되도록 펀칭 소재를 적용해 쾌적하게 착용할 수 있다. 긴팔 디자인으로 자외선으로부터 상반신 전체를 보호할 수 있다. 블루와 마젠타(심홍색) 두 가지 컬러로 출시됐다.
The ‘Women’s W-Angle Long Sleeve Block T-Shirt’ worn by Kim Sa-rang in the commercial helps to show off a slim, voluptuous look with bold cut lines and colors that emphasize feminine beauty. Made of a functional, ‘punching’ material that removes sweat from the back through ventilation, it produces a cooling, comfortable feeling for the wearer, while the long-sleeved design protects the entire upper body from ultraviolet rays. It has been released in two colors, blue and magenta (crimson).
홍순상이 착용한 ‘남성 HSS 버티컬라인 냉감 긴팔 티셔츠’는 실제 홍순상 프로의 착용 피드백을 반영해 필드 위 최상의 플레이를 제공하는 ‘홍순상 프로 라인’ 제품이다. 고기능성 냉감 소재를 사용해 땀의 흡수와 건조가 빠르며, 팔 부분에 신축성이 뛰어난 냉감 나일론 소재를 적용해 부드러운 스윙이 가능하다. 홍순상 프로 라인의 시그니처 로고를 활용한 세련된 디자인도 특징이다. 색상은 네이비와 화이트로 출시됐다.
The ‘Men’s HSS Vertical Line Cool Long Sleeve T-Shirt’ worn by Hong Soon-sang is a ‘Hong Soon-sang Pro Line’ item that was developed with feedback from the athlete himself in order to create a product that enables the best play on the field for wearers. It [too] cools through use of a high-performance material that absorbs sweat and dries quickly, and a soft-feeling nylon material with excellent elasticity is applied to the arms to enable a smooth swing. It also features a stylish design that utilizes Hong Soon-sang’s signature logo. The colors are available in navy and white.
Apropos of those “men act and women appear” attitudes, the first half of W-Angle’s latest commercial presents a smorgasbord of gender stereotypical poses. With the advertiser’s determination to cram them all in to just eight seconds however, the result is almost like a satire of sociologist Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements, the go-to guide for how women are are subtly diminished vis-à-vis men in ads:
Blink and you’ll miss them though, so let me break those poses down.
First, Sa-rang shows off her profile to the viewer. Nothing wrong with that of course. But if you haven’t noticed it before, the contrast between her demeanor and Soon-sang’s is bizarre. It’s almost like he’s the dominant male gorilla, keeping a wary eye on possible competitors for her affections in the distance.
Having gained the attention of the viewer, she turns towards them and shows her romantic interest.
Finally, Soon-sang notes a rival mate for Sa-rang is close at hand.
At the same time, Sa-rang signifies both ownership of and protection by Soon-sang by placing a hand on and standing behind him respectively. As in, she’s interested, but you’ll have to prove your worth by going through Soon-sang first. And he makes sure you know it.
I realize a nature documentary seems a lot to read into just four seconds. But how else to describe the blatant cockblocking above, which—once you notice it—is astonishingly common in ads:
As I’ve discussed in more depth in earlier posts, Erving Goffman places this shielding in his—no pun intended—’Licensed Withdrawal’ category, meaning it’s a method by which women are subtly moved into a passive role and/or the background, compared to the men often literally standing guard over them. It’s further emphasized by the women using the safety and security they provide to express curiosity or even romantic interest in the viewer, giving even greater reason for her male partner to be wary:
Ironically, the effect is immediately ruined in W-Angle’s commercial by Soon-sang suddenly warming to his homie in the next shot, begging the question of what purpose the pose served:
Again, such a cross-legged pose is ubiquitous in advertisements and commercials. But this and many others like it are much more awkward than the models make them look (hence Sa-rang’s need for Soon-sang’s support here), and are far more commonly found on women than on men too. For instance, in the “Don’t Worry Mom!” ads and commercials for Remark Vill serviced apartments I recently discussed, which—notice a certain conception of women emerging?—also sell themselves on the notion that their incoming 30-something female residents are so impractical and girly that they haven’t learnt how to adult yet:
Erving Goffman places such poses in his ‘Ritualization of Subordination’ category. By which he means that whereas Gong Yoo on the right below, for example, is posed naturally and ready to spring into action, Lee Min-jung on the left will be having trouble just keeping her balance. She is, quite literally, one step removed from being in control of the situation, and is thereby subordinate to Gong Yoo.
Admittedly this is much more subtle than most. But it’s there, and it’s reasonable to ask why it’s far more common for women than men to be posed in stances that would have them falling over in real life, and what the effects of constantly seeing such ads might have on our notions of gender roles.
Finally, as if to further remind the viewer who’s the subordinate partner in W-Angle’s commercial, Sa-rang cants her head onto Soon-sang’s shoulder:
Yes, it probably is more aesthetically pleasing than having both simply standing straight. And yes, she is 10cm shorter in real life. But she just wouldn’t have been hired had she been taller. Moreover, Goffman notes that simply being shorter frequently isn’t good enough—women are subordinated further still by the tendency for female models to be posed to make their bodies as diminutive as possible relative to their male counterparts. Usually, by sitting or lying down while the men stand or sit respectively, or by canting their head like Sa-rang:
On top of that, even though men and women appear much less often together than when Goffman wrote Gender Advertisements in 1979, still the drive to quite literally put women in their place remains. Hence the uncomfortable-looking example by Gong Hyo-jin below for example, despite there being no man in Uniqlo’s ad campaign that she needed to elevate:
That example was from 2010; in all the time I’ve spent researching ads since, it’s been my overwhelming experience that ads that diminish women in some way—especially the minor ones like those showcased in this post—are more due to advertisers’ simple laziness and following of convention than any deliberate sexism.
Yet it’s also true that Korean internet ads are notoriously unregulated, with even advertisers themselves calling for more regulation of sexual content. That women are almost 60 times more likely than men to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean TV commercials. And that the Korea media industry as a whole and upper echelons of ad agencies are dominated by men.
So, change is needed. And this example of digging a little deeper into W-Angle’s commercial hopefully provides some ammunition for that. Shielding, awkward crossed feet, and a female model resting her head on a male model’s are not ‘sexist’ per se, but a knowledge of those cliched poses can help translate gut feelings of distaste into legitimate questions to pose to advertisers. Also, a reminder that where there’s smoke there’s usually fire, and that in 2020 it’s often very possible to find evidence that the people behind problematic ads do really do harbor less than helpful gender stereotypes. Like an advertorial, say, that explicitly says the clothes being advertised are for men to act and women to appear in.
Probably, many of the people behind this commercial would be just fine with that. But I like to think that many others, unable to dismiss criticisms of the clichéd, “feminine” posing and forced to acknowledge their sexism, would be embarrassed enough to try a little harder with their next effort.
Thursday, May 11 2000, was Buddha’s Birthday—a national holiday. Which was a blessing, in hindsight. If I’d arrived any other weekday afternoon, it’s likely my new boss would have demanded I teach the evening shift. As it was, he had to be content with driving me straight to his hagwon from the airport, then lecturing me on minutiae about the textbooks—despite knowing full well I’d just spent the last 18 hours traveling, and that I had a terrible flu to boot. After putting up with about half an hour of this, even falling asleep at one point, it finally dawned on me that this was no simple cultural misunderstanding. He really was being that thoughtless, and had no intention of letting me shower and sleep in the apartment I’d be sharing with my coworkers first. So, I had to insist. That was when I found out I’d be teaching at 6:30AM the next day, rather than 8:30AM as I’d been told by my recruiter, and would only be getting six hours sleep a night for the next year.
My boss thought he was being reasonable. Maybe he was. Due to my recruiter’s incompetence, I’d arrived two weeks late. And it was my recruiter who’d lied to me about the horrendous split schedule, he insisted, not him.
So, when my boss broke into my apartment a few months later, and stole all my female coworker’s lingerie, he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for that too.
You see, a few days earlier a male coworker had wisely fled back to Utah upon receiving his first paycheck. (He still owes me 50,000 won, so let’s call him Alan.) My boss’s reaction was to use his key to the apartment to sneak in while my female coworker, her fiance, and I were sleeping in our bedrooms, go into Alan’s old bedroom, take all his belongings, then ransom them when Alan inevitably called from Salt Lake City to demand my boss send them over.
That Alan would have taken everything of value, and would not be all that heartbroken over a few tourist maps of Jinju, some odd socks left under the bed, and dirty ashtrays, never seemed to have occurred to him. Nor, that all the bras and panties hanging up to dry probably didn’t belong to Alan either, but rather to my female coworker taking advantage of the newly-vacated bedroom.
With great reluctance, the next morning my coworker’s fiance and I had to physically restrain her from punching our boss, and her underwear was rapidly returned to her. Genuinely confused as to why she couldn’t understand it had all been just a big misunderstanding though, let alone why she’d scream at him in front of the entire staff and students of the hagwon that she’d beat the shit out of him if he ever pulled anything like that again, the only remorse he could offer was in the form of a gift of a whole can of Pocari Sweat a few days later. Then, by asking her to teach Alan’s classes for free.
I’m surprised I lasted the whole year there, considering.*
Fortunately though, my boss wasn’t the first Korean person I’d met on my travels. That would be the very friendly ajeossi sitting next me on the plane. Who, correctly perceiving that I was completely freaking out over my first solo trip and move overseas, warmly welcomed me to Korea, told me how delighted he was I’d chosen to teach in his country, and then gave me several warm, affectionate, lingering pats on my inner thigh to make sure I knew it. The first time I’d been touched there by a man, I quickly realized, since my father had dressed me as a child.
Did I mention the plane hadn’t even taken off yet?
Again fortunately though, I’d already read that Korean men were much more physically affectionate than New Zealand men. I’d also just happened to have spent the last 18 months living with stereotypically, flamboyantly gay sex workers, who’d all been convinced I was also gay really, and who constantly vied with each other to prove it (let’s just say my boss’s break-in wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to find underwear had gone missing). So, truthfully, I didn’t need to think twice about giving him the benefit of the doubt. And, sure enough, he gave no other indication that it was meant as anything other than genuine friendliness. Later, at Gimpo airport (no Incheon back then), instead of going home to his family he spent well over an hour of his time ensuring my zombie-like self got on my connecting flight to Jinju first.
I really regret now not holding on to his business card.
But it would be an exaggeration to say that my experience of meeting him would inevitably lead to this blog 8 years later. I already knew there were healthier alternatives to New Zealand’s (then?) homophobic, toxic masculinity—that was precisely why I was leaving. Still, it’s a nice story I like to pretend that did, which always gets laughs from students as I use it to break the ice at the beginning of the semester.
The one about my hagwon boss though, which is just too surreal to be made up? I wisely reserve that one until the end of the semester, when we all know each other a bit better.
Maybe one day, one of those same students will then feel comfortable enough with me to suggest that my current university photo above, taken for my recruiter in April 2000, is a little out of date? ;)
*Update: Perhaps I should add that it’s only so easy to laugh now, because the break-in was only the latest and most egregious in a series of equally bizarre displays of behavior by my boss. Also, because his shortness and waif-like physique meant that, despite everything, it was still very difficult for any of us find him physically threatening (my female coworker was much taller than me).
But of course, people coming into your home while you’re sleeping is no joke, no matter who they are. And unfortunately, even if the same thing happened to a young teacher today, the particulars of Korea’s teaching visa, which ties you to your employer, mean there’d be still very little they could realistically do about it. Specifically, if we’d quit our jobs, even with the required month’s notice, then our visas would have been instantly revoked and we would have been forced to leave the country, not being able to work in Korea again until the period of our original contract had expired. And perhaps not even then, considering how often such “uncooperative” teachers got flagged by immigration.
So, we all stayed. But actually things improved a great deal from then on, because we’d well and truly burned our bridges with our boss through everything said and done that morning. But that’s a story for the comments section!
Face-sitting. A woman’s point-of-view shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda admiring another woman’s vagina, beaming at the viewer in anticipation. 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 the MV to 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 explained 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 when it came out in June 2015, so low were their expectations of ever encountering queer content in K-pop.
Yet as any lesbian perusing heterosexual porn can attest, 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 the MV seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lacked any sapphic elements. Before it came out, none of Anda’s other songs or MVs had any queer themes, nor have any since. If she is queer, then she’s yet to come out publicly, nor given any other indication of that beyond this MV.
In short, it may have been nothing more than a gimmick, aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song.
I can appreciate that desire for authenticity. In spite of that, Touch is still for queer women’s gazes.
Why? Because queer women said so.
Touch would be no hit. But the reaction from queer women, of which the above represents just the tip of the iceberg, was overwhelmingly positive. Whereas any haters were remarkably silent for the internet.
That doesn’t mean queer women seeing it for the first time have to like it. It’s sweaty, it’s crude, it’s bush league compared to guaranteed queer female film classics like Carol and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But as a cishet man, I don’t need to think twice about prioritizing the feelings and reactions of the queer women who have actually opined on it. So, no matter however shallow it may be, it is still on the same spectrum as those. It’s there.
I wasn’t content with simply relying on fan reactions to determine if any future queer-looking media text spoke to the queer female gaze or not though. I wanted some sort of framework anyone could apply, or a list of questions to ask. So, I googled.
I wasn’t completely naive when I did that. I did expect there to be much less out there than for the heterosexual male gaze (henceforth, “male gaze”).
I definitely didn’t expect that discussions about the heterosexual female gaze (henceforth, “female gaze”) had only really taken off in the last few years though, not that on the queer female gaze (or lesbian gaze) still barely at all. That over forty years after Laura Mulvey got the ball rolling with the men, that writer and director Jill Soloway could plausibly claim that “[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” (my emphasis). And especially not that, during that process of invention, Soloway and just about every other commentator on the female gazes would be so concerned about stressing that women are all about the feels, that they would forget that women do also like looking too, whether at men or at women. Let alone that men who look at women can also have feelings too.
If only I was exaggerating. Ultimately, I had to come up with those questions myself. (Skip to the end if you’d like to read them now.)
*Update: It’s been pointed out to me that my notion of the term ‘queer female gaze’ perhaps has some issues. To clarify then, my specific meaning by it is “the gaze of all people who identify as women, who are (not necessarily exclusively) sexually attracted to people who also identify as women.” I hope that clears up those issues, but am happy to be educated as to if any remain, or if my clarification has inadvertently raised new ones.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I’ll provide truckloads throughout this series. But what am I claiming exactly? So that there’s no confusion, let me devote this opening post to outlining the gist of my arguments, and provide some definitions.
In so doing, I repeatedly accuse commentators on the female gazes for making sweeping generalizations…only to lay myself wide open to the charge that I’m doing exactly the same about them. So, I will provide some examples here as I go along, which may mean some some repetition in later posts. But that’s no biggie: I encourage readers to take absolutely nothing of what I say at face value, and I am happy to provide dozens of links in the comments now for anyone who doesn’t want to wait for them until later posts.
First, it can be a surprise to learn that commentators on the female gazes often devote a lot of time to the male gaze first. But it makes sense: the male gaze is much better known, and it helps in forming a contrast. Unfortunately, that also means there’s already a natural tendency to stress differences rather than similarities.
Next, it turns out there’s actually two male gazes evident in many of those discussions.
First, there’s the literal male gaze, which refers to how cishet men look sexually at women, and the perspective which is prioritized to the exclusion of almost all others in the media. In my experience, this is what the overwhelming majority of people think of as the male gaze, unless they’re educators or writers, and is the definition of male gaze I’ll overwhelmingly be using too.
(Yet another use of the term is to refer only to that domination of cishet male perspectives in all forms of media. Like when Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma said that “Ninety per cent of what we look at is the male gaze,” for example, or when cinematographer Natasha Braier argued it’s so inseparable from cinema, that a female gaze is simply not possible.)
Next, there’s the abstract, academic male gaze (henceforth, “Male Gaze”). To explain what it means, consider the source: Mulvey’s book chapter “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975, which I’m sure you’re all of aware of and many of you may even have read too.
But, if you are one of those who’ve read it, then I’ll wager…only once or twice perhaps? As a freshman, many years ago?
Because even if I’m really only just projecting, please do check out it again now, and admit it—it’s dense. Despite what it’s best known for, it’s mostly devoted to extremely esoteric, psychological topics like ‘phallocentricism’ and ‘fetishistic scopophilia.’ Colleagues of mine, who’ve assigned it as tutorial readings at the beginnings of their careers, have learned the hard way from their student evaluations to avoid it later.
Frankly, most of it is entirely above my head, as is much of the voluminous scholarship it’s given rise to.
That is not necessarily a criticism, or even a problem—we all use many concepts to understand the world without understanding all their nuts and bolts. As Lindsay Ellis diplomatically puts it below (2:44), the chapter really shouldn’t be considered “so much as a holy text as a jumping-off point.”
However, it does mean there’s a very abstract, academic Male Gaze of all that scholarship out there. And in my experience, one that’s frequently used interchangeably with the literal male gaze by non-academic writers. This leads to a lot of confusion, and, given the authority with which the Male Gaze comes, can easily come to dominate our understanding of the former.
Or, in other words, something about the abstract concept that may sound—and indeed be—perfectly reasonable in a Film or Gender Studies journal, but absurd if it was spoken of in a non-academic context about living, breathing, flesh and blood cishet men, nonetheless easily can and often does get done so anyway.
Take queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis‘s very first line on the subject in Bitch Flicks for instance, that it means “(t)he sexual objectification of passive female characters.” She doesn’t follow my m/M convention, so which gaze was she referring to? If her comment is about the Male Gaze, then that sounds very plausible—it sounds very much like something a Gender Studies scholar would say, and which I’m not knowledgeable enough to critique. But was that the type of gaze Ellis was referring to? Only by specifically asking ourselves that question and looking can we determine, indirectly through her saying the concept under discussion “can be seen literally as a gaze,” can we resolve that she was indeed referring to the Male Gaze—and realize just how easy it would be to take away from her original comment that men’s literal sexual gaze is inherently objectifying.
Or take the panel above from M.Slade‘s cartoon in Everyday Feminism entitled “Am I a Queer Woman Looking Through the Male Gaze?”. Again, I think it’s the Male Gaze, but it’s much more unclear this time.
Either way, it’s true that perhaps most readers wouldn’t need reminding of Suzannah Weiss‘s rare caveat, also in Everyday Feminism, that the Male Gaze “is not necessarily the perspective of most men, but rather, society’s notion of a ‘normal’ man’s perspective” (my emphases), and it’s patronizing of me to imply they would. I hope so. Given my professed ignorance, I’m not going to claim that Ellis or Slade are necessarily wrong about the Male Gaze either, or that a hell of a lot of men do indeed negatively objectify women. And yet somehow, a hell of a lot of commentators on the female gazes genuinely do seem to believe that cishet male desire is nothing but that overwhelming urge to objectify. The Male Gaze is the male gaze as it were. And again, because as I’ll demonstrate, I’m only confident in making that accusation because they literally say so. And/or, indirectly by outright denying that women can objectify too.
Perhaps they arrive at that position because, as Alina Cohen explains in The Nation, much like ‘white privilege’ and ‘heteronormative,’ the term ‘male gaze’ is “utilized mostly by those who seek to destroy the phenomenon it identifies.” I’d put it even stronger: absolutely no-one reading this has ever used it in a positive or even neutral sense until now, myself included. Indeed, it comes across as so utterly tainted in my readings, that I completely understand why commentators would feel compelled to distance female desire from it—and to ignore, dismiss, or vilify those women who exhibit the “male” traits they associate with it, as I’ll give an example of a little later below.
À la The Onion’s classic article about “empowerment,” further adding to all the confusion is that the female gaze has recently become somewhat of a catch-all buzzword. As Cohen puts it, the term “simply functions according to its users’ needs,” to the extent “when women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing [it].”
Just about every link in this post leads to many examples of the many fruits of all the discussions now being had about what difference the sex of the person behind the lens makes. Important and overdue questions are being raised about what it means to be a male artist of the female nude in the #MeToo era too. But all these conversations are diminished by numerous touted definitive female gaze photo collections sharing no more commonality than having been taken by women, and with few obvious differences with how men would have approached their subjects either.
Even photo collections by men have been exhibited as examples of the female gaze too. Which actually isn’t as absurd as it sounds—another topic to be raised in this series is to what extent men, with sufficient input from women, can create content for the female gaze, as well as cishet people for queer content—but it does go to show how the term can mean just about anything.
On top of that, in the last two years especially, it seems that every other commentator on the female gazes—and almost every reviewer of Lady on Fire(!)—uses the terms not just in a literal sense, but also to describe the movement to challenge the aforementioned erasure of women in general, WOC, queer women, and so on in popular culture, and especially their under-representation in its production. (The “Female Gaze,” I’ll call it.) I’m 100 percent on board with that, but it doesn’t help when that meaning is used interchangeably with its literal one.
(In an excerpt from her book Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, editor Charlotte Jansen seems to be saying she was originally angry about the picture ‘Yani, New Jersey, 2015’ by Mayan Toledano, but changed her mind because the photographer was a woman. If so, is that identity politics gone mad, or does she have a point? Image source: Maiden Noir)
To better understand why commentators on the female gazes (and hence male gaze) make the calls they do, I’ve really tried hard to place myself in their shoes. I’ve noticed over 99 out of 100 of them identify as women (prove me wrong). That they’re justifiably outraged about the under-representation of women, their stories, and their ways of seeing the world in popular culture. That they’re sick and tired of the camera encouraging both men and women to look at the latter through an objectifying, domineering, leering lens.
But now, they have a chance to do something about that by writing or talking about the female gazes, or even by making their own media texts themselves.
They have very limited time or space to do so though. People will surely understand if they make some necessary generalizations about men in the process, who are not even their focus.
Unfortunately, sometimes those generalizations really do go too far. Time and time again, confident, matter-of-fact declarations about all cishet men and male desire get provided that are often no more than caricatures.
To complain about that may seem like I’m just making a typical, unhelpful “not all men” retort. But I’m really not. Its not deflecting the conversation, because the women themselves are already talking about men. Also, it’s not missing the point, because like them, I only talk about men with the aim of better understanding the female gazes. For if those are defined largely in opposition to stereotypes of men, then those of women are surely going to be just as crude and useless, utterly failing to account for the likes of awkward, lascivious Touch fans.
It’s time to start pointing fingers.
Re-enter Soloway, whose keynote address on the female gaze at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival occupied the top spot in google searches until articles about Lady on Fire recently displaced it. 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. This, despite shitting on so many women so quickly into her address (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 breezy narrative, at one point 2 million women were buying Playgirl every month, and readership only dropped in the wake of the conservatism of the 1980s (as did that of men’s adult magazines). If she was so quick to just write them all off as desperate, as well as fans of Magic Mike and the Chippendales, I don’t need to ask what she would make of Touch fans.
Was she unaware? Unlikely, given her expertise. Why then, would she make such insulting claims? Why did no-one in the Q&A call her out on them?
As a sometime guest lecturer myself (invite me to your campus!), I’m painfully aware of how presentations encourage overgeneralizations and hyperbole that speakers may regret later. Also, with the benefit of hindsight, her talk—much of which actually consists of the reading of a poem—is very much an example of the call to arms-type Female Gaze. So, I can completely understand the emotional reaction of the audience, and normally I’d very much give her the benefit of the doubt.
Not Soloway. Again, there’s her prominence to consider, and her ensuing position as the very first person many people listen to about the subject. There’s her own invitation to scrutinize her, by virtue of how earlier in that keynote address, she wasn’t shy about her hope that it would anchor her name to the female gazes, like Laura Mulvey’s is to the men’s. There’s the stream of consciousness-like feel to her talk that emerges from such scrutiny, so replete is it with bizarre, dubious claims, including such sophistry as “I mean, what is gang rape? It is men wanting to have sex in the same room as one another, but using [a slut] so they don’t have to name and own their own desire for each other.” But most of all, and ultimately the only reason I’m so focused on her instead of ignoring her entirely, there’s the fact that most other commentators on the female gazes generally agree with her that women don’t ogle or objectify—and share the utter bullshit she spouts about men’s gazes and sexuality that’s required to take that position.
I realize that’s quite a statement to leave you hanging on. My apologies. Those commentators will be covered in later posts. For now, I invite you to watch Soloway’s talk for yourself (or even better and quicker, the stark transcript), and ask you what actual evidence she presents for her many confident comments about “chismales.” Or, what proof Ellis provides for this one:
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. But while they may just see the object of their desire, I have to also see myself. So when I see sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot or power, I don’t get anything positive from that. 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.
Er…I don’t love images of half-naked oiled-up women. I didn’t when I was still a virgin. Alas, since then I’ve actually never encountered any half-naked, oiled-up women to help change my mind. (Sigh.) But my experience has taught me that a good grip is needed for most positions. That lotions, cosmetics, perfumes, and (within reason!) even showers can be a turn-off too, because they stop women feeling and smelling like women (yes, perish the thought—smell and touch can be important to men too). So, I’m going to take a wild guess that oiling women up wouldn’t help with either.
Nor do I get anything positive from sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot, or power—my fetish is for the exact opposite. For sure, if I was single, and encountered a nubile and willing “pliant sexual object,” then I probably wouldn’t kick her out of bed. But I’d much prefer an assertive and confident woman who took some initiative—which is why I married one.
Do all cishet men share my tastes? Absolutely not. But I’d venture I know a hell of lot more about their desires than Ellis does. Because I’m a cishet man? Yes, of course, but absolutely not only. Rather, because I’ve actually asked other men about their tastes too. A lot. Whereas Ellis gives no indication of having asked so much as one.
Can you imagine what social media would do to me if I said something so crude and stereotypical? That fat wallets say, turned absolutely all women on—and without having asked even a single one of them?
I may have said a lot of controversial stuff so far, but nothing remotely as absurd or disingenuous. All I’ve said about women’s tastes specifically is that they like looking too, and even that—which shouldn’t even be controversial—has been based only on what women have said themselves. I’ve been very careful about that.
Why do Ellis and her colleagues not realize their own hypocrisy? Where does their confidence and certainly about what men want come from? Where, for that matter, does yours?
To make the revolutionary claim that women do ogle men and/or each other however, doesn’t necessarily mean they do so in the same ways as cishet men, or to the same degrees. For example, in 2015 Esther Yu, Editor in Chief of the feminist site Arco Collective, wrote in one of the rare more nuanced takes on the female gazes out there, 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. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic—an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.
What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.”
Indeed, in this series I’ll also discuss transmen’s and transwomen’s experiences of changing libidos, sexualities, and desires in their new bodies, which strongly suggest that these differences are fundamental. Still, let me say it again for those in the back—that there are differences between women and men, possibly big differences, that still doesn’t mean that women don’t ogle, a lot. Or wouldn’t ogle, were they not socially sanctioned for doing do.
For understanding the female gazes, all these issues raised would seem to present quite the conundrum. They don’t, really. Queer fans of Touch, or other MVs like it, aren’t going to stop loving them simply because gatekeepers think they can’t or shouldn’t. That said, this series is about finding the female gazes. It’s about being proactive, not simply waiting around to hear whatever Twitter has to say about any given media text. Specifically, it’s about formulating a series of questions with which to judge if something is aimed at cishet women, queer women, or neither. By all means, if anyone who is neither a cishet woman or a queer woman makes a determination based on those questions, but members of those groups overwhelmingly decide otherwise, then that person should do a major rethink. But the point remains that anyone can ask those questions.
If that accessibility sounds like the height of cishet male privilege, then, again, I feel that’s more than a little hypocritical: over 99 percent of commenters on something being male-gazey identify as women, and no-one seems to have a problem with that. No, I’m not being defensive, you’re being defensive. And yes, there’s a lot more uncomfortable truths like that to come in this series. All for the sake of challenging what you and I thought we knew about male and female desire.
Did I say “finding” the female gazes though? I lie. I think I’ve already found the necessary questions, which really aren’t that complicated:
I know—many of you may be already be ROTFL at the first. So let me clarify:
This series is about justifying those questions, exploring their implications, and finally applying them to Touch and other texts in the future. Part Two, which will hopefully up next week (but probably not frankly, considering this one took me two years!), will be about those many more claims that men are all about looks and women are all about feels, and why they’re wrong.
Until then, if I’m wrong about anything above, which is entirely possible for a cishet man writing about these subjects, then please do let me know!
I’m not a woman though—neither a lesbian, a heterosexual, nor any other on the glorious spectrum. So, before I got started, I needed to hit the books. But no sweat, I reasoned. The concept of the male gaze has been around since 1975. It’s well-known enough that no-one who’s already woke has to explain it to another. Surely over forty years later, I thought, there would be just as extensive a literature on what women want? With helpful lists of clear criteria to guide even the most hapless of cishet male reviewers?
You can already guess the answers. But, absorbing what was out there proved addictive. And, as some of you may recall, I did eventually feel that I had enough of a handle on it to write a review.
Only to delete it in consternation as I realized the queer female gaze was a much broader, much more contentious subject than I’d first imagined. In fact, one requiring an epic series to do it justice. Humbled, I resolved to keep researching and gathering all the information that would be necessary, not putting pen to paper again until I was absolutely certain I’d covered all my bases. I duly created a second “Anda + Queer Female Gaze” folder on my Firefox toolbar, and set to work.
That was over two years ago.
That folder now has three hundred bookmarks in it, with thirty more bookmarks added today in the wake of the recent release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
All of a sudden, adding to that morass finally made me realize what a fool I’ve been. All this time, the effortless collecting and reading of articles has been an albatross around my neck, providing an easy out from the harder work of actually writing.
And, if I wasn’t going to start just as soon as I had that epiphany, then when? And if making such a public commitment wasn’t motivation enough to actually see it through too, then what would be?
I admit, a strange post. But if it gets the job done. I also felt it would be more helpful to explain than just ghosting you until the 27th, chosen for when I’ll hopefully no longer be teaching from home.
Thank you very much for indulging me then, and I’ll be back here soon. And please stay safe!
Update 1, Monday, April 27: All completed, but it needs some ruthless editing after a good night’s sleep, so I’ve postponed publication until Wednesday. Sorry for the slight delay!
Update 2, Wednesday, April 29: Arrrgh! Sorry *again*, but real life has intervened in the form of sudden urgent editing projects from my boss, and my post still needs a *lot* more work than I thought it did on Monday.
TBH, I think it’s going to be controversial—I really want to challenge people’s assumptions about the male & female gazes—so I really want to make sure I get it right. Let me just call it for *next* Mon then, with my promise to do my best to make it worth the wait. Thanks!