Why Women Pay More to Join Korean Marriage Agencies

Women dominate the clientele at Korean marriage agencies, which is often used to justify extra costs for joining. But this differential pricing goes well beyond just sex, both reflecting and shaping consumers’ notions of the “perfect” wife too. And it seems she’s neither highly-educated, highly-earning, nor even over 32.

Estimated reading tme: 12 Minutes. Image source: Duo.

Korea’s largest matchmaking-agency Duo, on the rebound after experiencing massive reductions in sales in recent years, claims to be voicing “the inner minds and concerns of young Koreans” in its latest series of ads. With this particular one though, its “Am I just being too picky?” subhead seems hilariously out of touch. As if young Koreans did have the financial resources to marry, but were just too stuck-up to consider looking for a spouse on the internet. Because damn millennials ruin everything, right?

It’s so awkward, it immediately reminded me of this ham-fisted, Singaporean government birthrate campaign ad that came out in the 1980s, which Asian Studies students have been laughing at ever since:

But my my source didn’t find Duo’s ad so funny, accusing them of gaslighting:

“What amazing gaslighting. Those marriage agencies don’t have many female customers, so they resort to harmful gaslighting tactics.”

Actually, it was difficult to avoid the male version of the ad with the same caption. Yet the wider accusation about marriage agencies begged investigation. Surely there was something much more substantial behind the barbed tweet, I sensed, than merely snapping at one single ad?

My first searches did little to support that gut feeling. In fact, it turned out that until a few years ago, Duo used to have more women than men. Then in the early-2010s the numbers of men signing up starting rising, and by 2014 there were more men than women in both Duo and second-place rival Gayeon. These shifts can be seen quite clearly below in the table for Duo and Gayeon and graph for Duo respectively:

Sources: Yonhap, Chosun.

At the time, Bae Joon-yong at the Chosun Ilbo accounted for the shift by the (alleged) rise of “herbivore men,” whom he defined as men rejecting dating in their 20s, but still open to marriage once they hit their 30s. Statistics speak louder than buzzwords however, and its difficult to argue with Namuwiki’s contention that the increasingly high numbers of female fetuses aborted in the late-1980s were responsible, with the ensuing lonely men coming of marriage age. Especially when those numbers are presented in graphical form:

See here for my examination of the likely effects on Korea’s “gender wars.” Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission. Note that the WHO considers a natural birth sex ratio to be 105 boys for every 100 girls.

Unfortunately, very little information exists for the 2016 to 2019 period. But we are just talking about statistics from three years ago. It would only be natural to assume that the trend for more men continued.

So imagine my surprise at learning that it appears to have completely reversed. In fact, the sex ratios have already returned to their female-dominated 2006 levels.

First, consider this December 2018 interview of an anonymous former matchmaker by Na Jin-hee at the Segye Ilbo (my emphasis):

—결혼정보업체 회원의 성비는 어떤가?

“예전에 비하면 많이 나아졌다지만 여전히 여성 회원이 남성보다 훨씬 많다. 메이저 회사는 여성 대 남성 비율이 6:4에서 5.5:4.5 정도로 추정된다. 영세 회사는 훨씬 더 차이가 크다. 8:2에서 9:1까지 가기도 한다.

남자 수가 적으니 자연히 남자 회원에게 서비스가 훨씬 많다. 전문직 남성의 경우 가입비를 할인받거나 아예 내지 않는다. 만남 횟수도 훨씬 많이 제공된다.”

—What is the sex ratio of customers at marriage agencies?

“The ratios have greatly improved, but there’s still many more women than men. Larger agencies estimate female to male ratios of 6:4 to 5.5:4.5. But the differences are much greater at smaller agenices. Sometimes they’re as high as 8:2 or even 9:1.

As there are fewer men, they naturally receive preferential service. “Professional” men [e.g., lawyers, doctors, and Samsung employees] receive discounts on membership fees, or may have them waived altogether. They get many more dates arranged [than women do] too.”

And another article by the same author published an hour(!) later:

◆아르바이트 회원에 남녀 성비 불균형… 업체는 ‘쉬쉬’

…애초에 남녀 성비가 맞지 않아 결혼 성사가 어렵다는 비판도 있다. 결혼정보업체의 여성회원 비율이 남성보다 상당히 높은 건 업계의 공공연한 비밀이다. 익명을 요구한 업계 관계자에 따르면 영세 업체일수록 이 같은 현상은 심해져 여성 비율이 90%에 이르기도 한다고 전해진다.

◆Fake, “part-time” customers used because of unequal sex ratios…Agencies say “Shhh!”

…There is also criticism that the very first step to finding a spouse—meeting new people—is difficult because of the unequal sex ratios.

The fact that marriage information agencies have considerably higher numbers of women than men is an open secret. According to industry officials who asked for anonymity, it is even worse at smaller companies, where the proportion of women may be as high as 90 percent.

By all means, this does not constitute proof. The claims of writers who use such cliched devices as “common knowledge” and “anonymous industry sources” should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially those who won’t acknowledge earlier sources that flatly contradict their claims. Be that as it may, in June 2019 Pyo Ju-yeon at Newsis offered slightly more evidence for the new ratio at Gayeon at least, in the form of “[an unspecified disclosure on the 16th by] the Korean marriage agency industry”:

대부분 회사들은 가입 금액에서 남녀 차등을 두고 있다. 차등이 가능한 이유는 성비가 맞지 않기 때문이다. 여성회원이 남성 회원보다 많기 때문이다. 가연의 경우 여성과 남성비중이 55대45정도다. 듀오의 경우에도 비슷한 수준이다. 이 때문에 결혼정보업계에서는 연애할 때는 ‘여성우위’, 결혼할때는 ‘남성우위’라는 말을 하기도 한다.

Most marriage agencies have different signing-up charges for men and women. The difference is possible because the sex ratio of customers is skewed, with far more women than men. In Gayeon, the ratio of women to men is 55 to 45; in Duo, it is similar. For this reason, people in the industy use the term “female advantage” to describe the dating scene, and “male advantage” for when looking for a spouse.

In addition, in a detailed breakdown of Gayeon members’ “specs” provided by a November 2019 article for the Asia Business Daily, Choi Shin-hye noted that the agency claimed a 53 women to 47 men ratio for first-time members in December 2018.

More authoritative NGO and governmental sources would be ideal, but they too prove lacking: their concerns with marriage agencies are overwhelmingly focused on the abuse of overseas brides instead. (As always, my apologies if I’m missing obvious Korean search terms, and my eternal gratitude to any readers who can pass on further sources.) Therefore, until proven otherwise, the claim still stands. Moreover, again the correlation with changes to the birth sex ratio decades earlier—specifically, the dramatic efforts made to curb the imbalance between 1994-1997—begs us to see causation.

But this opens up many more questions.

First, what of other agencies? While Duo and Gayeon are synonymous with the industry in Korea, they’re only the 2 largest of over 1000 agencies registered with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (as of 2016), and the sex ratios at smaller rivals may be completely different. For instance, two agencies that cater to “VIP” clients—N. Noble and Noblesse Soohyun—explicitly aim for a 50:50 ratio, and both succeeded in doing so in 2017 and 2018. Indeed, the latter prominently displays its ratio on its website, ironically allowing all to see that in fact its streak is now over:

What’s more, click on that “view details” button, and it emerges that the 52-48 male to female ratio is only an average for 2016 to 2019, disguising the fact that the number of female clients dropped precipitously last year:

Why these agencies for one-percenters are bucking the trend, we can only speculate in the absence of any further sources (again, sorry). So too, about the truth of those alleged 8:2 and even 9:1 female to male ratios at all those unnamed smaller agencies. Just like—let’s face it—@bobduryeo’s tweet, these assertions of “common knowledge” may be no more than the thoughtless perpetuation of baseless stereotypes.

Noblesse Soohyun’s exceptional candor, however, is something we can grapple with. Which raises the next question of why any marriage agency would make maintaining a 1:1 ratio a unique selling point.

Why else, if not for problems associated with unequal ratios at other agencies?

The main problem with them is obvious: the more unequal the ratio, the more difficult it is for one sex to find potential partners, as pointed out by Gwak Jong-hyeon’s advertorial for N. Noble in Newsfreezone earlier this month:

결혼정보회사를 가입할 때 확인해야 하는 객관적 지표는 성혼율과 회원수, 회원들의 수준, 남녀회원의 성비 등이다. 어느 하나 빼놓지 않고 중요하지만, 특히 남녀회원 성비가 균등한지, 오랜 기간 유지돼 왔는지를 잘 확인해야 한다. 성별이 한 쪽으로만 치우쳐 있다면, 만남 자체가 어려울 수 있다.

이러한 가운데, 노블레스 결혼정보회사 엔노블이 수년간 50:50의 균형 있는 남녀회원 성비를 유지하며 다채롭고 깊이 있는 만남을 주선해 높은 성혼율을 기록하고 있다.

The crucial things to check when joining a marriage agency are the sex ratio of customers, the number of customers, and the rate of marriages. But while all of these are so important that issues with any one can’t be overlooked, it is the sex ratio that is most crucial, and needs checking for how long it has been maintained too. For if there are problems with this, then getting the desired meetings can be difficult.

In light of this, Noblesse marriage agency N.Noble [JamesI’m suddenly confused too] stands out for maintaining a balanced sex ratio for many years, for arranging a variety of in-depth, meaningful meetings between customers, and for enjoying high success rates.

But that overarching problem spells two big consequences. First, that some agencies simply lie about their ratios, and then they use a variety of subterfuge, tricks, and legal loopholes to avoid compensating (mostly female) customers when their (mostly male) dates’ specs are not what they were told, or when those men fail to show up to arranged meetings at all.

Frankly, I can’t begin to summarize the plethora of articles about those scams and how to avoid them, many of which are sensationalist and provide no sources, like Na Jin-hee’s mentioned earlier (translation). But I can certainly recommend Choi Seo-hee’s comprehensive May 2019 article on the topic at KBS News (it’s the only one I found that mentioned agencies exploiting legal loopholes), and the google translation is more than adequate. Namuwiki’s guide (translation) is also a good starting point, with many further links.

It seems @bobduryeo was onto something after all. Just not on the causes of all the gaslighting.

Making much more of an impact, however, is the second consequence: not having enough men to choose from is used to justify higher prices for female customers—another unofficial extra tax for women if you will, like those for maintaining their appearance and wardrobe and for finding safe accommodation. And then, to add insult to injury, the higher prices are usually not just for women in general, but are especially for those who don’t fit very traditional notions of what constitutes a “good” wife.

I’ll let Pyo Ju-yeon explain:

Photo by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels

결혼정보회사의 수익모델은 남녀를 소개해주고, 남녀 모두로부터 서비스비용을 받는 방식이다. 이때 대부분의 업체들은 남성보다 여성에게 약간 더 비싼 금액을 받고 있는 것으로 확인됐다.

16일 결혼정보회사 업계에 따르면 듀오는 150만원에 5회, 가연은 99만원에 5회 소개를 가장 기본적인 서비스로 운영하고 있다. 물론 이 금액은 가장 기본 가입비다. 듀오나 가연 등 다소 대중적인 결혼정보회사들도 1000만원이 넘는 상품을 판매하기도 한다.

…그렇다보니 업계에서 공공연하게 여성의 가입비가 더 비싸게 책정되고 있다. 만약 가입비가 같다면 만남의 횟수가 다르게 제공된다는게 이 업계 ‘불문율’이다. 결혼정보업체들은 계약서 상에는 남녀 같은 금액을 적어도, 무료 소개 횟수를 남성에게 더 부여하는 방식으로 가격에 차등을 두고 있다. 이때 ‘조건’이 좋은 남자는 무료 소개 횟수가 훨씬 더 많아진다.

Marriage agencies’ profits come from the charging of customers for arranging introductions. But most companies charge women more than men.

According to [an unspecified disclosure on 16 June 2019 by] the Korean marriage agency industry, Duo charges 1.5 million won (US$1,268) for arranging 5 meetings, while Gayeon charges 990,000 won (US$837) for the same. But of course, those fees are only for the most basic of services. Most of the larger agencies offer a variety of packages, some of which cost over 10 million won (US$8,451).

…[Because of the unequal sex ratios], it can be more expensive for women to sign up. Or alternatively, if the sign-up fees and number of arranged meetings are the same, men will be rewarded with more free referrals, particularly if they have good specs.

Spotted in a Seoul bookstore: “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] wife’s face will change”; “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] husband’s job will change.” Source: Jinvas, left, right; edited.

And here’s how agencies’ traditional gender norms have an impact:

재미있는 점은 여성의 경우 조건이 좋을수록 가격이 비싸진다는 점이다. 남성의 경우 학력이나 소득이 높을수록 횟수가 증가하지만, 여성의 경우 그 반대다.

이렇게 가격이 책정되는 이유는 간단하다. 결혼정보회사들이 자체 기준으로 남성은 자신보다 조건이 약간이라도 낮은 여자를 선호한다고 판단하기 때문이다. 고학력, 고소득 여성의 경우 매칭이 가능한 남성 인력군이 더 적어져, 소개가 쉽지 않다고 보기 때문에 더 비싼 가격을 물린다는 이야기다.

또 여성의 경우에는 나이가 많아질수록 가격이 비싸진다. 역시 계약서 상에는 같은 금액을 내더라도 무료 소개 숫자를 줄이거나 없애는 방식으로 가격을 차등화하고 있다. 예를 들어 28살 여성이 200만원을 내고 소개 받는 횟수 5회를 계약한다면, 32살의 경우에는 4회, 35살이 넘어가면 3회에 계약을 할 수도 있다

Curiously, the better quality of specs for a female customer, the higher her fee and the fewer meetings she will be able to have. Whereas for men, the opposite is true.

The reason is simple: marriage agencies believe men prefer women who have worse specs than themselves. So marriage agencies will struggle to find men willing to meet highly-educated, high-earning women.

In addition, things become more expensive for women the older they get. Once again, one difference is through reducing or eliminating the numbers of free referrals. For example, whereas a 28 year-old woman may pay 2 million won (US$1,689) to get 5 free referrals, a 32 year-old woman may only get 4 for the same price, and 3 for a 35 year-old woman.

Pyo Ju-yeon goes on to mention that female customers often get told they’re “a little old” once they reach 32, are gaslighted about what they can expect for their money at that age, and that costs rise substantially for women once they reach 35. Also, that some companies only allow divorcees to join (a quite separate service) once they reach 35. (For the sake of perspective, note that as of 2017, the average marriage age for Korean women was 30.2, and for men 32.9.)

Ironically for one of the most highly-educated populations in the world, unfortunately that distaste for highly-educated, high-earning women is very much a thing, and is one major reason why so many young Korean women now shun marriage. (Indeed, such women were stigmatized in 2012 too. And even as far back as in 1998 also, as that excellent resource on the right discusses in detail.)

It also leads to three further interesting, concluding questions that I’d like to pose to readers.

First, do you think agencies like Duo and Gayeon are merely responding to traditional Korean gender norms, and have little ability or incentive to challenge prejudices against (especially) women who don’t conform to those? Or alternatively, are they actively complicit in perpetuating those gender norms for the sake of profit? Or both?

Whatever your opinion, there’s a surprising parallel in the form of major pornography portal sites, in which the categorizations used and forms of content offered have a big impact on how the public and the media come to think about and frame pornography and sexuality. In other words, rather than, say, feminist porn being the norm, the degradation and exploitation of women is seen as normal and acceptable because that’s supposedly what both men (and women) want.

According to whom? That would be the pornography portals. Why? Because they make more money if consumers think that way.

It really is as simple as that sounds. Sourcing material only from producers that ensure decent pay for actors, their continual consent, and that provide them with safe, hygienic working environments, all of which should be the norm across the entire porn industry, simply costs more. But I digress.

Do marriage agencies then, have similar impacts on their own customers’ feelings about what makes the “perfect” spouse? Do Duo and Gayeon, which like to tout their large customer bases and tens of thousands of successful matches, have any impact on how Koreans as a whole think of marriage and gender roles? Or is their impact strictly limited to only their customers, who arguably are already well aware of the agencies’ very traditionally-gendered categorizations and notions of married life, and who already—by virtue of signing-up with those agencies—largely share their values?

To ultimately judge complicity, it would be interesting to do further research on how and if costs for women decreased in those few short years male customers became the majority. Or, on determining if marriage agencies were so—cough—wedded to traditional gender norms that they still made signing-up for women more expensive nonetheless?

Never to be repeated? A Duo advertisement from 2008. Source: All4MAC.

Finally, something I really wanted to find the answer for you here, but couldn’t sorry. Why do you think Korean marriage agencies “naturally” tend to have more female members, to the extent that that cohort of extra male customers in the 2010s seems to have been no more than the exception the proved the rule? Is the same true in other countries?

Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Single Korean Women Already Have to Pay Extra to Stay Safe in Their Homes. They Don’t Need to be Infantilized in the Process.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source: Remark Vill.

If I was advertising literally anything to university students, “Don’t Worry Mom!” would probably be the very last headline I’d use. But until recently, this ad for Remark Vill serviced apartments really did tower over the Pukyong and Kyungsung University district, a small but popular nightlife district in Busan.

Its paternalism rankled immediately. In particular, it had the exact opposite message to this campaign by the accomodation-finding app Zigbang, which trumpeted the independence and sexual freedom for women which comes with leaving home. And it just feels odd for any real estate service to target potential customers’ parents, rather than the customers themselves.

Upon further reflection however…it still rankled. Because as can be better seen in the full version, she’s also in one of the numerous, surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable poses almost only ever seen on women in ads. For sure, that’s hardly something to break the pitchforks out for in itself. Yet, as sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in Gender Advertisements (1979), such nuances do subtly diminish the women involved. As whereas men’s usually more natural poses render them literally much more ready for action, and are thereby more authoritative looking, actor Im Se-mi above would have to uncross her legs in order to be able to do, well, anything. Or in Goffman’s own words about the similar ‘bashful knee bend,’ her pose “can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, [as] the position adds a moment to any effort to flight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”

Pose like Lee Min-jung on the left, and it’s difficult even just to keep your balance. Stand more naturally like Gong Yoo instead, and you’re much quicker to spring into action.

But one should pause after somehow arriving at phrases like “flight or flee” after pondering a sweet, innocuous-looking ad. Also, Korean mothers (and fathers) have good reason to be concerned about their daughters’ safety when living alone. The 2016 Gangnam murder case, in which a 23 year-old woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet for simply being a woman, is still very fresh in people’s minds. Korea’s spycam epidemic continues unabated, which is a big concern for women when using motels and public toilets. In May 2019, a security video shows a woman literally only just avoiding a stalker forcing himself into her apartment as she closed the door behind her. Moreover, before the video went viral, he was originally only going to be charged with trespassing, characteristic of a justice system widely considered to be very dismissive of women’s sexual harassment and violence claims.

Source: @koryodynasty

Naturally, daughters themselves are worried about the safety of their accommodation too. According to a recent study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that surveyed 3,000 single-person households, 11.2 percent of female respondents cited safety as the number one difficulty living alone, against 0.8 percent of men. Also, according to a research paper by Kang Ji-hyun, a professor of criminology at the University of Ulsan, young women living alone are more than 11 times more likely to suffer from home invasion than men. Consequently, according to D. M. Park at The Korea Bizwire, they “have to pay relatively high housing costs [compared to men] as they prefer houses in safe locations and with security facilities, as well as additional money for anti-crime goods.” This difference is ignored in Korean social welfare and housing policies, as is the reality that women also make less money than men to pay those extra costs. One woman interviewed for the article described it as yet another ‘pink tax’ for women, being an example of the extra money women sometimes have to pay for a swathe of services and consumer items that men don’t, including what they have to put into grooming for their jobs.

The Daeyeon Remark Vill apartments advertised are symbolic of this: while the buildings won a special prize for their security features upon completion in 2017, nowhere on the Remark Vill website are the rental prices of any of their apartments in Korea listed—suggesting that they’re very expensive indeed (and, despite the area, unlikely to be actually aimed at university students). Moreover, given the dire job circumstances of Koreans in the late-20s and early-30s at the moment, even 32 year-olds like Im Se-mi might require parental assistance to live there. Who could possibly gripe about an ad then, that appeals to both potential female tenants and their parents?

A couple of subway stops from the Daeyeon Remark Vill apartment buildings, an alleyway for “women to go home safely” that is “specially patrolled by police.” It’s the first I’ve ever encountered in Korea, but likely only because I have the male privilege of never needing to look for them. How common are they?

But I was reluctant to let this one go. I would have loved to have deferred to what Korean women thought of the ad, if only I could have found any opinions they’d offered. In their absence, I had to rely on my gut. And that told me that if something instantly rankles, there’s usually a good reason for it.

After all, recall how odd “Don’t Worry Mom!” sounded?

Just because daughters would share parents’ concerns about their safety, doesn’t necessarily mean the ad should be targeted towards the latter. Someone—a single copywriter perhaps, or maybe a whole creative team—made a conscious decision to do so. And, sure enough, even if this particular ad is relatively harmless, just a cursory investigation shows the campaign as a whole is rife with traditional gender stereotypes.

The smoking gun comes from the Remark Vill homepage itself. On it, there are four themed commercials available to watch. Two of them—about the gym facilities and various safety measures, conveniences, and business services available to tenants respectively—you don’t need my translations for. The “Mom’s Relief” one below however, is simultaneously sweet and cringey, for you sense that you would never have a 32 year-old man portrayed in the same manner. And under that, the “Teasing” one, which—spoilers!—suggests that the formerly virginal daughter is now free to invite male guests for casual sex.

Yes, really.

Unless you’re targeting parents like myself, who is very cool with that, it’s probably wise not to run a campaign tugging at parents’ heartstrings, only to present those parents who do visit your website with a reminder of how much wild sex your daughter will soon be having in your absence. Indeed, at your expense too.

Maybe, just maybe, the “Don’t Worry Mom!” campaign was ill-conceived in more ways than one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the “Mom’s Relief” commercial:

And my translation of the captions:

Mom, you’re bringing that up again?

I’m taking care of things myself now!

I can get lightbulbs changed if I need to, and the toilet unblocked too.

I don’t need to call Dad!

In fairness, of course there are many young people in any country who have to rely on others for simple household tasks; even back in 2009, when the single-household rate was much lower, there was already a plethora of such services available in Korea. My experience of the reporting on the trend, however, is that it tends to stress the alleged lack of adulting by female customers. And as for advertising, if the fact that a 32 year-old not knowing how to change a lightbulb or unblock a toilet doesn’t strike you as embarrassing enough—and who still doesn’t know after leaving home, the Remark Vill staff replacing the role of her long-suffering father—I invite you to consider how unlikely and unnatural-seeming it would be to have a male actor in Im Se-mi’s place.

The next screenshots reveal she gets her laundry and cleaning done by others too. Nothing wrong with that, and great if you can afford it, but—if she can’t even change a lightbulb, could she do those herself either? You really have to wonder.

(Ironically, earlier posts from the Remark Vill Facebook page actually include tips for such things as unblocking toilets by yourself—which just goes to show how much of a step backward this particular campaign is.)

There are copying and fax services available on the first floor.

I don’t need to go out at night.

If I want, there’s even cleaning or laundry services.

I can even borrow an umbrella when it’s raining.

Don’t worry!

But still, please come over often.

They don’t make kimchi for me here…

[You’ll come] Right?

I’ve got to admit, that’s pretty damn cute. Then I remember…

SHE’S THIRTY-TWO.

And on that note, on with the “Teasing” commercial:

And the captions:

It’s so good to be home!

What do you think? It’s good, right?

This is the first time I’ve had a man come over.

There is a state of the art security system in this building…

[…So] No unwanted visitors can come in [the building].

The building staff receive everything for me, like mail and deliveries.

If something dangerous happens…

A quick response from the security office is just a phone call away.

From the Remark Vill Facebook page, a highlight of that safe pick-up and delivery system (which can also be seen in the “Features and Services” video, as can real-time monitoring of one’s parking space):

Wireless delivery system. A smart delivery system makes this a very safe place to live alone.

Continuing:

There’s CCTV, and a tight security system overseeing everyone that enters the building.

[So] I don’t need a boyfriend!

Why are you looking like that?

You like me??

Wake up! I’ve never thought of you as more than a friend.

(No caption) Do you want to Netflix and Chill?

Technically, that the male viewer is the first to come to her apartment may only mean precisely that. But the hint of previous inexperience, combined with the desire suddenly awakened by his presence, sounds very familiar:

From Stephen Epstein’s and my chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop” in the Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014), alas, K-pop ages very quickly. Most of the 100 songs we analyzed for it, the young women of 2020 would only have vague memories of hearing as girls.

Perhaps it’s time Remark Vill realized they’ve grown up now too?

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

The Future is Now: Shin Min-a’s Dystopian Dust Mask Commercial Is Straight Out of Robocop 2

Estimated reading (+viewing) time: 3 (+4) minutes. Source: YouTube.

It’s become routine these days, trite even, to point out the many ways we are now living in the dystopias of once only imagined futures. So, when Shin Min-a’s endorsement of ETIQA dust masks came out back in February, reminding consumers there was no reason you couldn’t also look fashionable while trying to survive the climate apocalypse, I bit my tongue at the obvious resemblance to a spoof commercial from the Robocop 2 (1990) movie. Ten months later though? Again there’s much talk of fashionable ETIQA dust masks in the wake of the blinding, choking, toxic dust storms raging across the peninsula, yet a certain cyborg remains notable only for his absence. It seems this aging Generation X-er may in fact have been the only one to have made the connection.

Specifically, it was the Sunblock 5000 commercial that instantly came to mind. Because no need for the loss of the ozone layer to spoil getting that perfect tan, right?

And, with a nostalgic wink to fellow Gen X-ers, here it is in a compilation of some other spoof commercials from the first and second movie to give it some context:

In reality, without the ozone layer we’d all soon be dead; like much about the original movies (e.g., did you know the first was accidentally set in 2043?), with slightly more thought put into the commercial—as in having the voice-over claiming there was still slightly more than none of the ozone layer remaining—it would have been much more plausible. But at least, way back when I was 14, it did instill in me the first inklings of the sense that we were fiddling while Rome burned. And indeed, 30 years later, now we have a very real commercial that is in much in the same spirit.

What impact will this one have?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Is This “False Equivalence”?

When men are objectified, it’s often as a male-power fantasy, whereas women are usually objectified as passive objects of a cishet male gaze. Where do you think these ads for a Korean gym fit in?

I stopped outside this Jeju City gym for the terribly photoshopped, giraffe-like figure of the man alone.

Then I noticed the banner of the woman behind me, presumably aimed at encouraging female customers to join. The contrast between his cockiness and her languid pose, seductively pulling down her leggings, immediately reminded me of this classic Shortpacked comic by David Willis:

What do you think? Are these gym ads an example of false equivalence?

Technically, the guy is pulling his pants down too—which took me a long time to notice, because it feels less integral to the concept as added after the fact, unlike the woman who was instructed to pose seductively from the get-go.

Or am I just saying that because I’m a cishet guy, instinctively feeling competitive and so immediately drawn to his pecs? Whereas cishet women reading first noticed his open crotch?

Please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Korean Textbooks for Foreign Brides Teach How to Survive the Patriarchy

It’s difficult to feel much outrage over the inclusion of genuine couple-talk like “I’m having my period” and “Do you want to make love tomorrow?” in Korean textbooks for foreign brides. But “Korean men like women who speak in cutesy aegyo“? “Your spouse’s greater financial power and living standards must be respected”??

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash.

My translation of the following article, as I’ve yet to see any mention of the news in the English-language media. Unfortunately, Korean libel and defamation laws being so draconian, no source actually provides the titles of the offending books, nor the names of their publishers; this makes it impossible to determine what different language editions were published, or which say what exactly. What some of them do appear to say however, is very telling:

“이주여성용 한국어 교재는 가부장제 가이드북?”

“Migrant woman’s teaching materials for learning Korean are patriarchy guidebooks?”

Yonhap, August 26 2019, by Intern Reporter Kim Min-ho (nowhere@yna.co.kr; Kakaotalk: okjebo)

“한국에 온 지 얼마 되지 않아 친정집을 도와달라 하거나 직업을 갖는다고 하면 안 된다”, “한국에서 결혼하면 바로 자녀를 가져야 한다”(한국어-베트남어 교재), “한국에서 결혼한 여성이 술이나 담배를 하면 절대로 안 된다”(한국어-몽골어 교재)

“You should not ask for help for your parents or get a job as soon as you arrive in Korea,” “If you get married in Korea, you should have children immediately” (Korean-Vietnamese textbook), “Women who get married in Korea should absolutely not drink or smoke” (Korean-Mongolian textbook).

베트남어, 필리핀어, 몽골어 등 사용자에게 기초 한국어를 소개한 회화책에 ‘한국 생활에서 신부가 유의할 점’이라는 제목으로 달린 부록의 내용이다. ‘국제결혼을 한 이주여성과 한국인을 위해 집필됐다’고 소개된 이들 책이 왜곡된 사실과 차별적 시선을 담고 있다는 비판이 나온다.

These suggestions are to be found in a suplementary chapter entitled “Tips about Korean Life for Brides” found in various different language versions of a conversation book that introduces basic Korean to Vietnamese, Filipino, and Mongolian readers. These books, aimed at migrant women and overseas brides of Korean men, have been criticized for containing distorted facts and sexually discriminatory views.

이들 한국어 교재는 한국 남성이 좋아하는 여성상을 ‘부모와 자녀를 잘 부양하는 여성’, ‘애교 있게 말하는 여성’ 등으로 표현하기도 했다.

These Korean textbooks extol the virtues of “women who take good care of their parents [in-law]” and “women who speak in cutesy aegyo,” claiming that those traits are what Korean men prefer. (Right: 필리핀어-한국어 회화책 일부, 촬영 김민호; Part of Filipino-Korean conversation book, shot by Kim Min-ho.)

한국 유학 3년 차인 베트남인 A(23)씨는 베트남어-한국어 회화책 속 내용에 대해 “이주여성은 인형이 아닌데 자신의 행복을 비롯해 많은 걸 포기해야 하는지 모르겠다”며 “이 책대로라면 한국에 오면 인간답게 살지 못할 텐데 책을 읽고 한국에 오고 싶을 외국 여성은 없을 것 같다”고 말했다.

A Vietnamese woman “A” (23), who has been studying in Korea for three years, said, “A migrant woman is not a doll. I’m not sure [living or getting married in Korea] should mean I have to give up a lot of things, including my happiness.” She added, “According to this book, I shouldn’t live like a human being if I come to Korea. I don’t think there will be any foreign women at all who would want to come here after reading such a book.”

부록에 담긴 한국 생활 안내뿐 아니라 본문에 실린 한국어 예시문도 비판 대상이다.

“오늘은 생리 날이에요”, “내일 사랑을 나누면 어떠세요?”(한국어-벵골어 회화책)

인도 일부 지역과 방글라데시에서 사용하는 언어인 벵골어-한국어 회화책에는 남녀의 성적 관계에 대한 직접적인 표현이 등장한다.

In addition to “Tips about Korean Life for Brides” in the supplementary chapter, some Korean sample sentences in the body of the book have been criticized. [In particular], in the book for speakers of Bengali, a language which is widely spoken in Bangladesh and parts of India, there are very blunt and direct expressions about sexual relationships between men and women, such as “I’m having my period today” and “Do you want to make love tomorrow?”.

‘yu_hy****’라는 아이디를 쓰는 트위터 이용자는 “한국 남성은 자존심이 강한 편이다”, “배우자의 현재 경제력과 생활 수준을 존중해야 한다” 등의 표현이 담긴 벵골어 회화책 사진을 올리며 “‘한국 가부장제에서 살아남기’라는 부제가 붙어야 할 것 같다”고 비판했다.

The Twitter user ‘yu_hy ****’ posted a picture of the offending page of the book, which also included such sample sentences as “Korean men tend to have a lot of self-esteem and pride” and “Your spouse’s current financial power and living standards must be respected” [James—I feel that a “greater” is strongly implied at the beginning of that sentence]; they felt a subtitle to the book title “Surviving the Korean patriarchy” should be attached to it. (Left: 벵골어-한국어 회화책 일부[트위터 캡처; Part of Bengali-Korean conversation book, from Twitter capture.)

남녀 성관계에 대한 직접적이고 세부적인 표현은 결혼 이주여성이 주로 보는 동남아권 언어를 다룬 교재에는 종종 등장하는 반면 서구권 언어-한국어 교재에서는 발견하기 쉽지 않다는 점이 대조적이다.

프랑스어나 일본어 사용자를 대상으로 한 한국어 회화책을 보면 사랑과 연애에 관한 표현을 싣더라도 ‘좋아해요’, ‘당신을 사랑해요’ 등으로만 표현됐다.

[Moreover], while such direct sex-related expressions are common in language books for South and Southeast Asian readers [from poor countries], who would primarily be foreign brides, they are not easily found in Korean textbooks [intended for speakers from rich countries.] If you look at Korean conversation books for French or Japanese speakers, the only expressions covering relationships that can be found in those are things like “I like you” or “I love you.”

필리핀 결혼이주여성의 한국 정착 생활을 지원하는 비영리법인 ‘아이다 마을’의 현제인(49) 대표는 “이주여성을 한명의 인간으로 보지 않는 시선이 한국어 교재에도 반영된 것”이라며 개선을 촉구했다.

이들 교재를 펴낸 출판사 관계자는 “수정이 필요한 내용이 담긴 것을 인지하고 있으며 수정을 한 것도 있고 앞으로 할 부분도 있다”면서 “팔려나간 책을 회수하는 것은 어렵겠지만 조금씩 고쳐나가고 있다”고 해명했다.

Hyeon Jae-in (49), president of Aida Village, a non-profit organization that supports Filipino married immigrant women in South Korea, called for improvements in the Korean textbooks.

The publisher responded to the criticisms that, “We are aware of the content that needs to be corrected, and we have made some corrections and minor changes and are in the process of reviewing other parts”, but “It is difficult to recover sold books.”

이 출판사가 차별적 내용을 담았다고 자체 판단해 내용 수정을 한 인도네시아어-한국어 회화책은 성적 관계 묘사를 싣지 않고 전화 사용법, 약국 이용법 등 실생활에 필요한 대화를 중심으로 구성했다. 또 ‘한국 생활 중 신부가 유의할 점’이란 제목의 부록도 삭제했다.

The publisher further noted that it had already removed offending content on its own initiative from the Indonesian-Korean conversation book, and that included Korean necessary for daily life such as phone usage and visits to the pharmacy, without that covering sexual relationships. The “Tips about Korean Life for Brides” in the appendix was also removed. (End)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

The Korean Word for “Stroller” is Literally “Milk-MOTHER-Vehicle.” Let’s Start Using This New Term That Includes Fathers Too.

Like or loathe political correctness, many everyday Korean terms are ripe for modernization.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube.

Similar to how over 60 percent of English words have Latin and Greek roots, over half of all Korean words are of Chinese origin. Once you realize this, learning Korean vocabulary becomes immeasurably easier. Buy this book in particular, which groups Korean words by their Chinese roots, and it’ll feel like all your Christmases have come at once:

From pages 78 & 102 of Miho Choo and William O’ Grady, Handbook of Korean Vocabulary: A Resource for Word Recognition and Comprehension, 1996.

You may become so grateful for all these new connections between words suddenly being revealed to you though, that it’s easy to overlook how problematic some of them may be. To many native speakers too, for whom the words are so familiar that they would have little cause to think twice about their origins.

One such Chinese derivative is “모/母“,  as shown in my scan above-left. Clearly, it is apt for almost all of those examples of its usage given there, and a much better Korean-speaker than I points out that it even makes some sense for the seeming exception of “모음/vowel” too. Learn that it’s also contained in the absent “유모차” (pron. yoo-mo-cha) however, which means “stroller” (N. Am.) or “pushchair/buggy” (U.K.), and suddenly that ancient Chinese root really begins to feel its age.

This video suggests adopting a much more inclusive alternative:

In the first screenshot below, the top line says “stroller,” followed by the corresponding Chinese characters for “milk,” “mother,” and “vehicle.” (Possibly, “breastmilk” may be more appropriate for the first character?) Below those, a definition: “A wagon for carrying a child after it is born.”

These next two are self-explanatory:

“[Because of this], does ‘stroller’ have a sexually discriminatory meaning?”

“Does the person who pushes the stroller absolutely have to be the mother?”

“Other caregivers can push it, yet the meaning of ‘mother’ is still contained within the word. Does this imply the person responsible for childcare is the mother?”

“Let’s not focus on the person pushing the stroller, and focus on the child instead. Please call it ‘유아차’ (pron. yoo-a-cha).”

And FYI, here’s that Chinese character for “child,” from page 149 of The Handbook:

Anyone reading this far needs no reminding of Korea’s plummeting birthrates, or of the gendered stereotypes surrounding childcare that work against remedying those—a mere new word is no solution. But it is logical, inoffensive, easy to remember, and can’t help but work at least a little against those stereotypes. So why not use it?

Naturally then, the YouTube video has many more dislikes than likes. Its origins are suprisingly opaque for a public campaign too (“공공언이 바꾸기 캠페인,” or the “Campaign to change how we speak to other members of the community”) and for a long time my searches only brought screenshots of that video and of various others’ in the campaign, on sites of the sort where things are generally only posted to be ridiculed. The video does end with a note that the campaign was done in conjunction with the Seoul City Government however (or possibly “by”; “함께” can vary according to context sorry), and eventually I realized I’d be able to find the video and others on non-gendered, but still problematic words in the campaign on their website itself, which indeed were posted there in October and September 2018 respectively. But there was still no news or further information available.

With such abysmal promotion, frankly you have to wonder why the Seoul City Government even bothered making them.

But in the process of looking, I was reminded of the Gender Equality Week conducted by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family conducted that July:

Which I’m happy to say did receive a lot of press. Quite possibly, the the Seoul City Government’s campaign was actually one of those efforts alluded to at the end of the press release above (but which didn’t get any mention on the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family’s website either!):

Either way, it was added to by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s awareness video in January this year. Possibly that explains the stroller video’s abrupt appearance on the MBC YouTube channel that same month (used in this post):

From my own experience, using gender-neutral words takes minimal effort, once you make the conscious decision to. That said, I do understand the laziness in not doing so, and the resistance against being told what to do. If you meet such a person then, perhaps start by asking them, say, why “uterus” should be “자궁” (pron. ja-goong) which literally means “子宮/house for a son,” instead of the suggested “포궁” (pron. po-goong), which means ” 細宮/house for a cell/baby.” Once they realize how much work defending that absurdity would be, then surely they’ll realize all the other sexist, archaic words aren’t really worth the effort either!

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

“Lingerie Advertisements Deflect the Danger of Homoeroticism by Using Models with Averted Eyes.” Huh?

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes. Source, left (edited): Emm’s Vintage Lingerie (CC BY 2.0). Source, right (edited): Moose Photos from Pexels.

I’m a big fan of Jill Fields’ 2007 book, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. It’s where I first learned of the corset industry’s creation of new body types for women to conform to in the 1910s to 1930s, presaging the Korean media, beauty, and fashion industries’ creation of “S-lines,” “V-lines,” and so on in the 2000s. But I’ve always been skeptical of this common feature of lingerie advertisements she alleges, and especially her explanation for it (page 16):

And in that Chapter 5 (p. 211):

What models do with their eyes is important. When they return your gaze, they seem to own the room. Whereas if they don’t seem to be paying attention to anything in particular, or if they’re depicted without their faces at all, the temptation to dismiss them as people and focus only on their bodies is all the greater.

It can also be a mechanism by which advertisers perpetuate stereotypes of different sexes and races. Take what Kyoungtae Nam, Guiohk Lee, and Jang-Sun Hwang discovered from their survey of Korean girls’ magazines in 2011 for instance (p. 234):

“Gender Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines”, Sex Roles (2011), 64: 223.

No-one’s saying models staring into space is bad in itself. Nor can advertisers of fashion and beauty-related products really be faulted for wanting to focus attention on the products, or on their alleged effects on the consumer. But if you know anything at all about advertising and gender, you’ll know that regardless of what’s being advertised, women tend to be depicted much more passively than men. And herein lies the first of two fatal flaws in Fields’ argument. For she bases her conclusions on no more than (fn. 70) an unspecified “survey of ads” in various magazines and catalogues from the 1900s to 1960s, although she also asserts that “[c]urrent issues of the Los Angeles Times provide almost daily evidence of the continuing importance of these evasive postures in ads.” Or in other words, she provides no evidence whatsoever that the tactics she describes “to dispel the homoerotic impulse” are any more prevalent in lingerie ads than in other kinds of ads, whatever period she’s talking about. And sure enough, those same tactics can quickly be found in other ads just through, say, a simple walk down the average city street. Here’s some with “women alone, turned away from the viewer” and/or averted eyes in Korean soju ads for instance:

I’ve often wondered what on Earth is Jang Yun-jeong looking at exactly…

In 2010, I discussed those and many others using Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements framework. Specifically, those particular ads are illustrations of one aspect of the “Licensed Withdrawal” category, as described by Images of Women in Advertising:

[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others. This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state; they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire. Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation. They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

The point being, although no motivation for these depictions is explicitly mentioned here, advertisers wanting to avoid provoking homoeroticism seems a rather unlikely one—the second flaw of Fields’ argument. Because are lingerie advertisements really so salacious, and really so sexually transgressive, that homophobia needs to be invoked to explain the depictions commonly found therein? Are they really so different to all other kinds of ads, that explanations for the depictions of women in those ads wouldn’t also apply?

I know—boobs. Maybe there is something to them that prevents (male-dominated) advertising teams and advertising standards authorities from thinking rationally. I’m not dismissing any special considerations they have for lingerie ads out of hand, and indeed Fields provides a wealth of examples of precisely those, albeit with expressions of their worries about evoking homoeroticism notable only for their absence. But she hardly persuades in addressing those alternative explanations for lingerie ads’ typical features by deliberately ignoring them. And I do mean deliberately, for in fact she does mention Goffman earlier (p. 210):

And by all means, these are things, well covered in Gender Advertisements (see my earlier post for examples from soju advertisements). But to have read the book and demonstrated that she’s taken note of those various categories of its framework, only to fail to mention that one of its largest categories—Licensed Withdrawal—already well accounts for her claims about lingerie advertisements? She doesn’t have to agree with it, but she does have to acknowledge and respond to it. Otherwise, her shoehorning of an alternative explanation evoking homophobia seems very disingenuous.

Sources: Emm’s Vintage Lingerie, left, right (CC BY 2.0).

In fact, the foundations of the whole chapter may be equally tenuous. Its title, “The Invisible Woman: Intimate Apparel Advertising” refers to the tendency of early-20th Century lingerie advertisers to show only parts of women or not at all. But reviewer Jane Ferrell-Beck argues there was actually a very practical reason for this:

And reviewer Kristina Haugland goes further, arguing that “the author’s interpretation of the material is a serious concern” of the book as a whole. She cites no examples from Chapter 5 though, so let me just leave you with her conclusion:

Words to live by as a colleague, our student assistants, and I wearily plod through our own survey of Korean women’s magazines advertisements this summer, of which this post is admittedly but an extended version of one of its footnotes. Thanks for reading it!

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)