“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)

Update: See @lookslikechloe’s blog for a Korean translation of the entire article.

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.

Next:

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:

Finally:

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.

Thoughts?

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!)

(Review) Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (2013)

Judy Garland & Lana Turner, Breasts Florence Williams(Source, left: Bombshell Bettie. Source right: unknown)

Many years ago, I was perusing the “Last Word” section of a New Scientist magazine, where readers submit and answer each others’ science questions. If memory serves, that week the questions were about why men are soooo attracted to breasts, and why human females’ are disproportionately large compared to other primates’. Much commentary ensued, in hindsight entirely by men. (And, entirely British men at that—but that’s a subject for another review.) Then, someone who actually had breasts stepped in, and said something along the lines of:

 “It occurs to me that few of the previous commenters have ever suckled a baby. If they had, they’d realize how important the shape is to prevent babies from suffocating while nursing.”

All of a sudden, I realized that much—probably most—of what I’d ever read about the evolution of breasts had been written by men, centered around sexual selection and the all-important male gaze. This lack of women’s voices meant I’d missed out on many obvious observations and insights, which strongly challenged theories I’d long taken for granted.

Much the same experience can be had from the first chapter of Breasts, greatly aided by Florence Williams’ similar, no-nonsense style of writing. For instance, from pages 22-23:

…there are problems with making sweeping statements about evolution based on studies about male behavior in pubs. For one thing, I am still hung up on the nubility hypothesis, which might as well be called the sag hypothesis [that age, gravity, and successive pregnancies take their toll on breasts, signalling to other men that younger women with perkier breasts might be more suitable mates]. But speaking from personal experience, I can report my breasts actually got bigger and fuller after pregnancy. I really can’t say they are sagging, not yet anyway. I am well past the age of what anthropologists call “peak reproductive value.” Does a man really need breasts to tell him a women is getting on in years? Aren’t there more obvious signs that don’t require awkward social glances? And as anyone who’s been to a public shower or springtime college campus can tell you, there is an enormous, and I mean enormous, variety of breast sizes out there. I’m talking 300 to 500 percent differences in volume, and these are in women of roughly the same age. What other body part is so variable, I ask? If breasts were such important communicators, wouldn’t they be more on the same page?

Further complicating the picture, there is also great variety in men’s tastes. [A male scientist interviewed] conceded that male preferences aren’t as universal as he’d hoped…

Nor does she simply critique such theories, but discusses several other equally plausible ones centered around health, fat deposition, and suckling babies. Indeed, “With breasts,” one anthropologist she interviews concludes, “men are just loading culturally a set of symbolizations onto something that really evolved for more direct reasons. We’ve got to be more scientific about it.” That’s a refreshing new perspective, and much-needed imperative, given all the misinformation about breasts out there.

Yet she overcompensates I think, in ending that chapter by rejecting the combined, complimentary roles of natural and sexual selection. Instead, she goes to the opposite extreme, completely dismissing the (literally snowballing) role of breasts’ sexual attraction to men in their greater and greater size over time (pages 34-35):

What if instead of men selecting breasts, the breasts selected the men? It’s possible that…Early Man loved lots of different specimens of Early Woman, some with no breasts, some with small breasts, some with hairy breasts, whatever. Man, for all we know, is sometimes not that picky. Then, for the [physiological] reasons described earlier…the women with the enlarged breasts and their infants gradually outlasted the others…

Consequently, the people who could talk and sing and have the biggest, best-fed brains were the ones born of women with breasts. It makes perfect sense that we would grow up to appreciate and enjoy breasts, eventually putting pictures of them in eye-trackers machines in universities.

Perhaps, all along, the breasts were calling the shots.

It’s just an off-the-cuff conclusion really, but it reminded me that with a breezy, persuasive writing style, tends to come arguments and examples that are often much more debatable than authors make them appear. It also felt alienating, because here she seems less concerned about scientific plausibility than in playing to her likely overwhelmingly female audience, justifiably sick of men lecturing to them about breasts.

To understand what I mean, imagine, say, a male author dismissing women’s preferences for tall men as having had no influence on humans getting taller over time. Rather, tall men just happened to do better in the competition for mates because of physically defeating shorter, weaker rivals for sexual access to passively awaiting women.

As for women’s own sexual preferences, and what they had to say about who they had children with? Or how those sexual preferences arose in the first place? Pfft.

Maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills. But it helped me realize her book is only a starting point really.

On a first reading though, you’ll be much too busy enjoying it to care.

First, because of the wide variety of topics she covers. I’ve only concentrated on the first chapter here, because of the strong impression it left on me. But, if curves don’t do it for you personally, there’s 13 more topics on various aspects of breasts which may have have a similar impact on you, such as changes during pregnancy, feeding, development in puberty, toxins, cancer, and so on.

Those strongly reflect Williams’ background as a science journalist, so readers hoping for in-depth discussions about fashion, lingerie, and/or cultural attitudes may be disappointed to encounter mentions only in passing (albeit frequent mentions). But I’d still encourage them to buy the book. Because these are breasts we’re talking about. Whatever your sex or sexuality, you do have an interest in and/or some opinion about them, in which case there will be something—probably many things—in this book in for you. (I have so many post-its in my The best moments in reading -- Alan Bennettown copy, it looks like I read it during a ticker-tape parade.)

Also, because however science-focused, it’s so humorous that you won’t want to put it down. For instance, take how she describes undergoing an examination in a cosmetic surgery clinic, to better understand what it’s like for patients (page 60):

The robe came off, and [the surgeon] pulled out a small tape measure, He measured me from collarbone to nipple, from nipple to under-breast fold, and from nipple to nipple, calling out numbers to [the assistant]. He took a step back and mashed my breasts together with his hands, then squeezed each one like a club sandwich. I felt like I was awaiting the word of St. Peter. I was secretly hoping one of the world’s foremost experts on flawed breasts would be so vexed by my nice, very normal breasts that he’d tell me he had nothing to offer.

That also stood out for me because while reading the first sentence, I had a feeling that if I had breasts, I’d like to walk into a cosmetic surgery and be told that mine were different, better somehow. Maybe even exceptional.

Then with the last sentence, Florence Williams literally spoke my mind.

As well as being funny, it gave me a simultaneously eerie and warmly empathetic feeling. One which I hope I’ve sometimes given my own readers in my own writing.

Or, if not, that’s something to aspire to. Helped along, by also providing much more readable—i.e., shorter—and relevant posts for you in 2016. Starting with reviewing only the books I think TGN readers would be interested in, instead of every book I read.

Any thoughts or questions on Breasts? How about on breasts in general? Anything you’ve been meaning to get off your chest? Please let me know in the comments.

Next Review: Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, by Anne Allison (1994).

Related Posts:

One Size Fits All in South Korea, As Long as That Size Is Small

body parts psychologist couch(“Une illustration pour cet article sur le site d’Urbania.” Source: Pierre-Nicolas Riou, via
Illustration-ilustración
)

Sorry for the slow posting everyone: exploring some interesting side-possibilities revealed after embarking on last month’s project, I tumbled headlong into an aegyo-filled labyrinth, from which I’ve only just emerged. (Also, I’ve been grading.) Rather than present the treasures I’ve discovered now though, when everyone’s busy with Christmas and New Year’s, let me round off the year with some shorter posts instead.

This first is a link to Maxine Builder’s article of the above title at Racked, which I was interviewed for. It’s a good read, and quite thorough. So, assuming you’ve read it, I’ll just elaborate on my own comments:

According to James Turnbull…”There are almost no average-sized female K-pop stars.” This matters when these idols’ images are plastered on every TV screen and billboard. Turnbull estimates that approximately half to three-quarters of all advertisements are celebrity endorsements.

“Time and time again, I see opportunities for Korean entertainment companies to take some plus-size woman… or just someone different, and celebrate their difference. But they just don’t do it,” said Turnbull — because that skinny, sexy look sells. “It doesn’t give them any incentive to take that risk, and that’s why we get the same again and again.”

Frankly, I was worried that my comment about no average-sized female K-pop stars might have been a bit of an overgeneralization, and/or revealed that I’m out of touch with new groups. But if Omona commenters didn’t call me out on that, then I guess it still holds true. (Yay?)

Amber Sulli(Source: Pinterest)

As for not celebrating difference, I was mostly thinking of the Piggy Dolls debacle, and S.M. Entertainment’s and advertisers’ overuse of the very young, very thin Sulli—despite f(x) also including Amber, just about the only “tomboyish,” non-thin, and frequently mistaken as lesbian woman in K-pop, who appeals to many demographics otherwise completely ignored. Although I haven’t really followed the group in a while (partially because of that, partially because of poor Luna’s dramatic, ongoing weight loss and excessive cosmetic surgery), I’ve always been struck by the waste, and would be happy to hear she’s finally been receiving more endorsements and greater attention now that Sulli has left.

And/or, of any other entertainment companies that are diversifying their groups’ make-ups, however tentatively. One I do know of is DR Music, who added half-Caucasian, half-Black Alexandra from the US to Rania last month. Does anyone know of any more?

Korean Sociological Image #93: Korea’s Dark Circles

Very busy with work and deadlines these days (sorry), I picked up these daily planner post-its to try to make more efficient use of my time:

Daily Planner(Source: ebay)

Korean Sleep Deprivation 1I don’t recommend them: at 8cm in diameter, they’re much too small to write in, whatever language you use. Much more interesting than my frustrations with my pudgy fingers though, is that example daily plan provided. It reads:

  • 11:30pm to 6am: Sleep
  • 7-9: Prepare for Conference
  • 9-12pm: Attend Conference
  • 12-1: Lunch
  • 1-3:30: Attend Exhibition
  • 3:30-6: Attend Hagwon (Institute)
  • 6-7:30: Skip 300 times
  • 7:30-9: Memorize English Vocabulary
  • 9-11:30: Watch Online Lectures

Did the copywriters consider that a typical worker’s daily plan? Or more as one the ambitious professional should aspire to, starting with the strategic investment of 1500 won for a pack of 30?

Either way, it’s an interesting example of how Korea’s study-hard, work-hard, sleep-when-you’re-dead norm gets manifested and perpetuated in daily life, and one that would probably be little changed for consumers in other (developed) East Asian countries. In contrast, US adults, for instance, may also get less than seven hours daily sleep in practice, but the eight-hours ideal is an enduring myth. And very, very few aren’t achieving that ideal due to attending hagwons.

Korean high school students sleepAnother manifestation of Koreans’ attitudes to sleep comes from a high school teacher friend of mine, who says a common saying students there goes something like “Four hours sleep, go to a SKY university; five hours sleep, you fail.” I was recently reminded of it by the second “dark circle” on the right, which you can read more about at the Hankyroreh.

In both cases, frankly I’m surprised that the sleeping time is so high

How about you?

Update: Some statistics, via The Korea Bizwire:

Toz, a business that rents meeting rooms, conducted a survey on 1,800 high school seniors who used their study center. Results showed that 31 percent of the respondents slept five to six hours a night, and 30 percent answered that they slept four to five hours.

In other words, six out of 10 high school seniors were only getting five hours of sleep every night. Those who slept more than seven hours represented only five percent of the respondents.

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

Addicted to Feminist Media Criticism Monday

In which I almost get carried away with my narratives about body-image and the Korean media—but discover an amazing role model instead.
Ok Tae-cyeon Lee Gook-joo My Ear's Pig(Source: SBS)

Remember My Ear’s Candy by Baek Ji-young, featuring 2PM’s Ok Taec-yeon? It was one of the songs that made me fall in love with K-pop, way back in 2010:

And I’m still quite fond of K-pop, although we’ve long since agreed to see other people. But, thinking about old flames over a drink last night, one thing led to another, and soon the whole family would be dancing to My Ear’s Pig, a parody performed with comedian Gang Ho-dong on the February 21, 2010 episode of 1 Night 2 Days. With lines like “My ear’s pig, number 1 rated wild pig…put it on top of lettuce”, it’s the perfect antidote to a rainy Monday (especially the guy at 1:48), 100% guaranteed to leave you grinning from ear to ear:

Here’s a longer version, which includes scenes from Gang-ho Dong’s month-long preparation for the performance:

But then I saw a 2014 version with fellow comedian Lee Guk-joo, and quickly sobered up:

Why? Because while Gang-ho Dong is often the butt of jokes because of his weight and size, he is also a former ssireum champion, and retains an image as a genuinely strong ex-wrestler…

…whereas Lee Guk-joo is overweight, in a country where a lot of television humor revolves around female comedians’ supposed ugliness and obesity. So, not knowing anything about her, and watching her perform for the first time above, it suddenly felt like I was joining in that all too common chorus of laughing at the fat girl; My Ear’s Pig, suddenly rendered a guilty pleasure at best, until I see Baek Ji-young perform it with people of a range of body types.*

But first impressions can be mistaken. Because Lee Guk-joo, it turns out, is the very last person in need of my pity:

Lee Gook-joo positive body image role model korea(Sources: Hikpop, Naesushi)

To learn why, read more about her cosmetic endorsements, her other cover songs, and her general, all-round spunkiness at Seoulbeats, in a post which I can’t possibly do justice to here. Sorry for the abrupt ending, but it’s true.

To further persuade you (my emphasis):

She is not allowing her weight to pigeonhole her personality, which she has expressed in an interview. Unlike what some would have you believe, she is fully capable of expressing her true self without apology and refuses to be discriminated for superficial reasons. Her physical makeup will neither hinder nor propel her for the simple fact that she has made up her mind not to be marketed through purely visceral means.

Having someone like this come into the market as a new role model for women is a welcome change in Korean entertainment. Lee Gook-joo doesn’t shy away from the spotlight because others would deem her unworthy, but rather she exhibits a glowing confidence that isn’t to be underestimated. She is a role model for those of us who appreciate a fun, outspoken woman who isn’t afraid to work her way to the top…

I’ve never been so happy to be so mistaken.

And how was your Monday? ;)

Related Posts:

  • Are Gorgeous Comediennes Really That Rare? Your Thoughts (The Atlantic)
  • What Donald Duck, Hani, and Big Tits Taught Me About Body-Image in Korean Comedy (The Grand Narrative)
  • “I am a plus sized girl living in Korea and I feel so unattractive.” (Life)

*The lyrics do require meat-lovers, but not necessarily those with the girth to match. And that applies to Baek Ji-young’s lines just as much as her partner(s)’.