How Korean Celebrity, Gender, and Advertising Intersect—Some Quick Key Points

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

But first, let me extend my warm thanks to Professor CedarBough Saeji (a.k.a. @TheKpopProf) for her invitation to talk on this topic to her class last week. Next, to her students also for their many interesting questions and observations, given to me both in person and as they live-tweeted the event!

As there were too many tweets to respond to individually afterwards however, and because most were related to some key points I’d ended up having to rush over because I’d wasted far too much time showing videos of time constraints, I decided to clarify them in a long thread instead. Please click to read, and, because the more in the discussion the merrier, please feel free to respond yourself, either on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Finally, seeing as we’re on the subject of talks, let me also remind everyone that if you too would like me to give one to your own class or organization, whether in person or via Zoom, then I’ll probably jump at the chance if our schedules work out. So please get in touch! :)

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

The Hidden Roots of Korea’s Gender Wars

Universal male conscription and rampant discrimination against working mothers will always grab headlines, but a recent ruling against segregated seating in study rooms is a stark reminder of the pervasive homosociality behind the friction

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

After university, Korean men and women have fewer friendships with each other than their counterparts in English-speaking countries do. At least, that’s my own personal experience, and I’d wager good money most of yours too.

Under-30s especially though, will make me want to hold on to my wallet. Koreans that age have known nothing but rapidly declining marriage and birth rates, a staggering rise in the number of single households, and ongoing economic precarity. In their wake, lifestyles and social norms that were centered around marriage and male breadwinner systems are undergoing a paradigm shift.

But change is never easy, nor universally welcomed. In particular, Korea’s ‘gender wars‘ are one troubling symptom of the transistion process. One of their main catalysts, misplaced anger over mandatory military service for men, will continue to buttress homosociality, by disrupting male university student’s relationships with female students who remain, as well as by subtly enabling male, age-based privilege when those men return, and by providing them with old-boy networks they will rely on for the rest of their lives. Not unrelated, long working hours for both sexes and a second shift of domestic and family responsibilities for women reinforce the notion of separate spheres.

17-Year-Old Tzuyu: “A Special Gift for Korean Men [who’ve completed military service].”

Yet these are only the broad swathes of the many roots of the phenomenon. Not so headline-grabbing, but no less impactful for all that, is that most Korean schools are single sex, with only a third of high schools in Seoul being coeducational for instance. Indeed, many schools prevent students from dating or even socializing with the opposite sex too.

A task in which they may have long been aided, it turns out, by a law requiring “study rooms” (독서실) to be segregated by sex, under the eye-rolling rationale that mixing them together is more likely to lead to sex crimes. (And a belief which is still taught in sex-education classes today.) As YTN just reported on Valentine’s Day however, this requirement has now been ruled unconstitutional:

I’ll translate the report in a moment below. But first, study rooms, for those unfamiliar, are like libraries where all the bookshelves have been replaced by rows of separate cubicles. Designed to be equally quiet, and with the sole purpose of studying, I’ve also been told by a friend that they were where teenagers especially “told their parents they were going when they were actually going on dates, since you were expected to be incommunicado while you’re there.” They’re also much cheaper and have been around much longer than “study cafes” (스터디카폐), which range much more widely in price and quality but in which you either have tables and desks to work at and/or can hire a separate room where noise is not a problem, and will likely have a range of snacks, coffees, and soft drinks available to purchase. For obvious reasons, both study rooms and cafes are primarily associated with school and university students, but they’re also commonly used by older adults, especially the half a million Koreans studying for civil service exams at any one time—which just goes to show how ubiquitous and common a part of daily life they are in Korea.

Unfortunately and finally, the report is frustratingly vague. Among the many obvious questions it doesn’t provide an answer to are: if the original law (or 1995 amendment?) covered all private educational intuitions, or if it only applied to study rooms and why; if it had been enforced at all before 2017 or if that was in fact the first and last time; why only 16 regional educational boards (out of how many?) incorporated it into their own ordinances; why the Jeonju Office of Education suddenly decided to enforce it; and so on. If any readers can help fill in any these blanks, I would be very grateful!

“This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.”

주변에서 쉽게 볼 수 있는 스터디카페입니다.

남녀 자리를 구분하지 않고, 자유로운 착석이 가능합니다.

공공도서관, 공동주택 열람실도 마찬가지입니다.

하지만 독서실은 다릅니다.

남녀가 한 공간에 섞여서 앉아 있을 경우 행정처분을 받습니다.

This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.

You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.

The same is true for public libraries and community reading rooms in apartment complexes.

But study rooms are different.

If men and women sit together in them, the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.

“You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.”

근거는 지난 1995년에 개정된 학원법 시행령입니다.

성별에 따라 좌석을 구분해야 한다고 규정했고, 이 조항 등을 기초로 16개 시·도 교육청은 조례에 남녀 좌석구분을 못 박았습니다.

지난 2017년 12월 이 조례를 근거로 전주교육지원청은 한 독서실 업체에 열흘간 운영정지처분을 내렸습니다.

현장점검결과 열람실 내 성별 좌석 구분 배열이 준수돼 있지 않고, 한 공간에 남녀가 섞여 앉아 있었다는 겁니다.

이에 대해 독서실 측은 해당 조례가 직업수행의 자유를 침해하는 위헌적 규정이므로, 행정처분 역시 무효라고 주장하며 소송을 냈습니다.

This is due to the Education Academy Act, which was amended in 1995. [But the broadness of the Act is not given, nor why it was only being enforced in study rooms—James.]

It stipulates that seats should be divided according to sex. Based on this provision, 16 metropolitan and provincial offices of education have incorporated it into their own ordinances.

On this basis, in December 2017 the Jeonju Office of Education ordered a study room to suspend operation for ten days.

As a result of an on-site inspection, it had found that men and women were sitting together.

In response, the study room filed a lawsuit arguing that the sexual segregation requirement was invalid, as it infringed upon the constitutional right to freedom to practice one’s profession.

“[However], if men and women sit together in [study rooms], the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.”

1심과 2심이 엇갈리는 치열한 법리 다툼 끝에 대법원은 독서실 혼석 금지 조례는 위헌이라고 결론지었습니다.

재판부는 헌법에서 보장하는 직업수행의 자유와 독서실 이용자의 행동 자유권을 지자체가 조례를 통해 과도하게 침범했다고 지적했습니다.

이어, 혼석을 금지해 성범죄를 예방한다는 입법 목적도 남녀가 한 공간에 있으면 성범죄 발생 가능성이 커진다는 불합리한 인식에 기초한 것이므로 정당성을 인정하기 어렵다고 설명했습니다.

대법원이 전북도 조례에 대해 위헌 결정을 내린 만큼 지난 2017년 먼저 관련 조례를 삭제한 충청남도를 제외한 나머지 15개 지자체는 조례개정이 불가피할 전망입니다.

YTN 김우준입니다.

After a fierce legal battle that went to a second trial, the Supreme Court agreed that the sexual segregation requirement was unconstitutional.

The Court pointed out that through the ordinance, the local governments excessively violated the freedom of occupation guaranteed by the Constitution and the freedom of action of users of the study room.

The Court further explained that the original purpose of the ordinance, to prevent sex crimes by reducing the opportunities for men and women to mix, was irrational and could not be used as justification to continue it.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling that ruled that sexual segregation was unconstitutional, the remaining 15 metropolitan and provincial offices of education that incorporated the provision will be forced to revise it. One of the original 16 offices, that of Chungcheongnam-do, already removed the relevant ordinance in 2017.

Kim Woo-jun from YTN reporting. (End.)

Update:

An excellent article by Choi Jae-hee from The Korea Herald entitled “From study cafes to ride-sharing, Koreans seem to prefer same-sex environments. Why?” helped fill in some of those blanks. Specifically (but I highly recommend reading it in full):

[The Supreme Court’s] judgement was in favor of a local operator of a private reading room facility who was slapped with a 10-day business suspension from a local educational authority for breaking a gender segregation rule set by the North Jeolla Province’s education office.

The rule in question is the article 3 of the “Ordinance on the Establishment and Operation of Private Educational Institutes,” which stipulates that seats in studying spaces at private educational facilities should be divided by gender. It was introduced in 2009 largely to deter sex crimes and ensure a better study environment, officials said.

Unlike study cafes, which are categorized as a space leasing businesses or a restaurant/rest area business, reading rooms are regarded as private academies and thus are subject to the ordinance.

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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)

Local Rights Center Only Makes *Recommendations* to Companies that Discriminate; Highlights South Korea’s Urgent Need for Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Source: MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

Korea, notoriously, lacks a national, all-embracing, intersectional anti-discrimination law. Ten attempts have been made to pass one since 2007, all failing largely due to the political power of conservative religious groups, opposed to the inclusion of protections for LGBTQ individuals; an 11th is currently in limbo due to the imminent presidential election. Adding insult to injury, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities also lack protection in the constitution, which only prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and social status, and so haven’t been covered by the various laws prohibiting those specific forms of discrimination enacted since.

It’s in this context that I present my translation of the following subway poster for the Busan Human Rights Center for your interest, and their suggestions of typical cases of discrimination and human rights violations. Most, of course, would be depressingly familiar occurrences in any country. But others, much more commonplace in Korea then elsewhere. In particular, Korea’s pervasive hierarchy and elitism is evident in unnecessary questions about which university you went to, as well as absurd enquiries about your parents’ and grandparents’ backgrounds. So too, when blatant discrimination against women remains rampant despite protections, when photographs are required on resumes, and when society remains obsessed with (female) body weight and appearance, can Korean women especially continue to expect hiring decisions based on their appearance.

Most notably and depressingly of all however, the Busan Human Rights Center only makes recommendations to offending companies and institutions, not prosecuting them or assisting you in doing so. In fairness, I stress I only know of the Center through its website; prosecution may never have been its intended purpose, which other institutions and services may exist to fulfill, and doesn’t diminish its potential role in education, awareness, and/or the value of gentle pressure and public shaming it can bring to bear on offenders. Still, it also instantly brings to mind the well-known National Human Rights Commission of Korea, launched to much fanfare 10 years ago but rendered toothless since.

My translation, starting from the top:

구직, 채용, 면접, 시험에서 받은 If these ever happen to you while looking for a job, being recruited, during an interview, or while in an exam or test…

인권침해 Human Rights Violations

사소한 것이라도 부산광역시 인권센터에 알려주십시오 No matter how trivial or small it seems, please inform the Busan Human Rights Center

Row by row:

업무와 상관없는 특정종교 선발 Choosing candidates based on religion, with no relation to the job

과도한 사적정보 요구 (아빠직업, 엄마 직업, 할아버지 재산, 이모부 고향) Excessive demands for personal information (e.g., parents’ jobs, size of grandfather’s estate, uncle’s hometown)

장애 (장애인 출입이 불가능한 채용시험장) Disability (Recruitment Test Center has no disabled access)

동성애자 아니죠? You’re gay, aren’t you?

채용여부 묵묵부답 Left hanging about your recruitment status

시험 주에 화장실 가려면 시험포기 각서 쓰라 Having to sign an agreement that you fail a test if you need to leave for a bathroom break

노동조합이 생기면 가입할 겁니까? If there was a union, would you join it?

업무와 상관없는 나이제한 Age restrictions that have nothing to do with the job

나라 출신은 안 됩니다 You’re not from X country

서류반납 거절 Refusal to return documents

압박면접을 빙자한 막말 Unnecessary blunt remarks and rudeness for the sake of a pressure interview

업무와 상관없는 학력차별 Choosing candidates based on educational background, with no relation to the job

이번 선거에서 누굴 지지합니까? Who are you voting for in the election?

출산 후에도 회사 다닐 거예요? Are you going to continue working after giving birth?

외모에 대한 노골적 평가 (모델선발하나?) Blatantly evaluating you based on your appearance (Are you choosing a model?)

Finally:

취업과정에서 다양한 인권침해가 발생하고 있습니다. 그러나, 구직자들은 부당한 질문들과 불법한 차별에 대해 제대로 대응하자 못하고 있는 현실이기도 합니다. 부산광역시 인권센터는 구직과정의 인권침해 사례들을 수집하고 개선방안을 관련 기관에 권고할 예정입니다.

Various human rights violations [can] occur in the employment process. However, the reality is that job seekers are not always well equipped to properly respond to unfair questions and cases of illegal discrimination. The Busan Human Rights Center will collect such cases and recommend improvement measures to related organizations. (End.)

Have you or anyone you know experienced any of these yourself in Korea? Please let me know in the comments.

Update:

A Facebook friend asked for clarification about what exactly my issue with the Busan Human Rights Center was, given that even the National Human Rights Commission of Korea can only make recommendations, as is the case with most national human rights institutes worldwide. Here’s my response:
 
My issue is that if I was a victim of discrimination in New Zealand say, and encountered a poster for a similar institution, I would fully expect its stress to be on my potential to prosecute, that the center would be geared around my doing so (even if all it could really do was offer lawyers’ contact details), and that possibly even the center itself would be able to advocate for me if I was financially disadvantaged.
 
That said, I admit have no knowledge or experience of the legal system there, or in Korea. Possibly, my assumptions about rights centers in Western countries are hopelessly naive. But either way, whatever the country, if the best I could hope for from working with one was a sternly worded email to my former employer, then I’m not sure I would bother.
 
I do still mention in the post the valuable roles such centers can have, even if they don’t/can’t prosecute offenders themselves. But whether human rights centers in Korea can’t help with prosecuting because that was never their purpose, and/or whether it’s because many forms of discrimination aren’t even illegal, then either way the poster served to highlight the latter to me, and why I post it for others. I assume too, that if a comprehensive anti-discrimination *was* passed, then human rights centers would be given the remit and resources to take bolder measures against infractions when notified by the public.
 
(#95 in the Korean Sociological Images series)

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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)

Announcing the First Book of The Grand Narrative Book Club: “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha, Thursday 27 January 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.

Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.

Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.

But you already know where it’s going to go now.

As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”

Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.

Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?

I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.

Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).

For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.

If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.

See you on Zoom!

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

Even When it’s to Businessmen, it’s Still Evil to Advertise Your Hotel with What Feels Like a Male POV Dating Sim. Here’s Why.

Tell me Korea has a huge gender pay gap, without telling me Korea has a huge gender pay gap

“Would you like to dance with me?” Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

Most gendered marketing, I get. Obviously, when it’s for products or services related to physical differences, like bras or medicines. So too when, assuming equal access, it’s primarily one sex that purchases them, whatever the combination of nature and nurture responsibility for that. But it’s a risky strategy for companies. Only focusing on one sex can easily lead to an overreliance on crude stereotypes in advertisements. As the example of “boobs and burgers” Carl’s Jr. in the US suggests, any company that willingly alienates half its potential market deserves intense scrutiny of how its male leadership and managers treat women behind the camera. And don’t get me started on what anyone in favor of “pinking and shrinking” thinks of them.

About the staff behind Korean travel-app Tripbtoz, I reserve making any judgements for the moment. Because I confess, I like—no, love—their commercial for Westin Josun Seoul. The background track alone, Summer of Our Lives by Waykap (ft. Emmi), is legitimately sensual in its own right. In combination with model Chae Yu-jin‘s dancing and sultry stares, mesmerizing.

But of course I would think that. The commercial is so squarely aimed at cishet men, to describe it merely as a classic example of the male gaze feels insufficient:

Just prior to watching, by coincidence I’d been reading “Privileging the Male Gaze: Gendered tourism landscapes” in Annals of Tourism Research (October 2000),* in which authors Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan persuasively argue that “the language and imagery of [tourism] promotion privilege the male, heterosexual gaze above all others.” While it’s not an empirical study, so not definitive “proof” as such, making the radical assumption for the moment that that bias does exist helps us formulate several uncomfortable, revealing questions we could ask of the commercial.

What it is, is a teaching moment.

Source: “How BTS is redefining art for the female gaze” by Michelle Fan.

First, we could ponder how difficult it would be to find a commercial with a male model in place of Chae. Certainly, in keeping with the theme of Pritchard and Morgan’s focus on transnational tourism imagery, catering to the foreign hetero female gaze has become a significant element of the Korean Wave. But specifically, a commercial featuring a young man strutting his stuff in a hotel for his female partner? Whatever the nationalities of the intended audience?

I suspect the world yet awaits. Yet even if enterprising, lusty readers do find an example, that exception would prove the rule: that no-one’s wanting for videos of scantily clad young women in luxurious surroundings appealing to the fantasies of middle aged businessmen. That in contrast to how awkward an equivalent video with a male model might feel due to its rarity, ones with women are so normalized and routine as to be boring.

In fact, I only clicked on this otherwise unwelcome YouTube ad break at all due to the background music.

Next, could it be not in fact be aimed at women? The idea being that, through showing Chae’s enjoyment of the many luxurious services the five-star hotel has to offer, many women would now just love to be in her shoes? (This may even be the advertisers’ genuine intention, a point I’ll return to a moment.)

If so, it’s strange how we never actually see what those services would look like from a female guest’s perspective. Instead, through the exclusion of anybody but Chae in our field of view, we’re only given that of her besotted paramour as she leads him into their shared room and bed, or acknowledges his admiring glance in the bathroom or corridor.

Should what she’s expecting of him from those glances isn’t already obvious enough, background lyrics like “Give it to me like you know you should now baby” help further clarify.

Is he necessarily a businessman? It’s true I have no figures on the sex ratio of business travelers, who would surely make up the bulk of guests at Korean 5-star hotels during a pandemic. But given that only 5.2 percent of Korean executives are women, only 3.6 percent of Korean CEOs are, and that Korea had the highest gender wage gap in the OECD prior to it (and only widened since), then it’s a safe assumption. It’s further reinforced by the use of the honorific language of “시” (as in “저랑 춤 추실래요?” instead of the more equal but still polite “나랑 춤 출래요”) in the “Would you like to dance with me?” of the opening image. While it is simply a polite way to ask, it’s much more likely to used by a younger woman to an older man than vice versa (make of that what you will), and also the level of politeness older businesspeople would be accustomed to.

Despite appearances however, women may actually have been the target. That the overwhelming majority of media is produced through the perspective of a supposed “average” cishet (usually white) man’s point of view, to the extent that it’s widely assumed to be an objective neutral, is painfully clear to anyone familiar with the concept of the male gaze. So, it’s entirely possible that the—very likely—men at Tripbtoz and Westin Josun Seoul responsible for the commercial may genuinely have been aiming it at women, and had no idea of how seeped in their own vision of luxury their notion of what women really wanted was. (The evidence from Tripbtoz’s YouTube channel is mixed.)

But whomever it was aimed at, the commercial is primarily about conveying a sense of luxury, and further questions could be asked about how gendered and sexualized life for the one-percenters is portrayed in Korean advertising as a whole. Specifically, I’m thinking of the eerily similar messages provided by Korean Air’s “Color of Perfection” campaign from 2007:

Designed to showcase “a refreshed image of a sophisticated, modern and creative airline,” complete with a specially-composed background track that likewise got people’s attention in its own right, unfortunately for Korean Air it was overshadowed by the image below in its print ad. Which, while unremarkable in East Asian markets, was wildly misinterpreted in Europe and North America:

Ironically for all the fellatio jokes however, perhaps that overshadowing is also why so few people noticed that in the accompanying commercial, cringingly unsubtle ejaculation imagery was provided by a champagne cork popping from a man’s crotch:

(NSFW image appearing in a moment.)

I’m no prude, and am all for fellatio and ejaculation when done well. What’s at issue is how the women are portrayed compared to the men. Of the three men you see, all of them are fully clothed. Of the seven women you see, two are virtually half-naked, one is on her back in (potentially nothing but) ultra-feminine high heels, another shows off her luscious red lips as the camera lingers on them, and another is the flight attendant waiting upon a male passenger. Of the two that remain, the first stands in front of a sculpture of a disembodied female torso—as if it wasn’t already clear enough that to Korean Air, “luxury” means ready access to women’s bodies, available to serve a wide variety of men’s needs.

I’ll let Pritchard and Morgan explain this conception of it is crucial (my emphases):

Kinnaird and Hall (1994:214) comment that tourism advertising and the myths and fantasies promoted by marketers are dependent upon shared conceptions of gender, sexuality and gender relations and that women are often used to promote the exoticized nature of destinations:

Sexual imagery, when used to depict the desirability of places in such a way, says a great deal about the gendered nature of the marketing agents and their fantasies…the sexual myths and fantasies extolled in the tourism promotion lead to the construction of these ideas in the hearts and minds of tourists (Kinnaird and Hall 1994:214).

Again, in themselves, these two cherry-picked commercials provide no proof of anything. But there are many more examples to choose from Korean tourist imagery for those who care to look, let alone from other areas of advertising. Sexualized imagery of haenyeo in the 1970s used to promote sex tours to Jeju to Japanese businessmen for instance. Or colonial-era postcards depicting kisaeng for the purposes of promoting the gigantean sex industry for the world-biggest number of colonial officials in Korea then. Segueing into my favorite musical genre, Korea is no stranger to electronic dance music’s notoriously sexualized aesthetics either, peddling only very narrowly-defined cishet male fantasy that is part and parcel of a deeply sexist industry—and which in Korea also has an additional Occidentalist element through its widespread theft of pictures of non-Korean models, who are unlikely to sue Korean nightclubs for copyright infringement from overseas. And so on.

(It’s Miranda Kerr.) Source: MS-Photograph; (CC BY 2.0).

Are any of the above examples offensive, or sexist? That’s not for me to decide for anybody. But in my experience, cases like them rarely generate any outrage. Most likely, because feminist activists generally have far more pressing concerns than a hotel gently indulging middle-aged businessmen’s fantasies. Possibly, also because it would be counterproductive to scream “sexism” about things most men would consider inoffensive, and maybe even like.

You tell me.

I feel on more certain ground though, in lamenting that were it not already bad enough that Korean women are so financially disempowered that luxury hotels might not even bother advertising to them. Or, when they do, that in the process their advertisements would so actively perpetuate the gender and sexual stereotypes underpinning that status quo.

I am not naïve about how companies perceive their social responsibilities. But in Korea in fact, they hold them more dearly than most. So perhaps appealing to that sense of duty could result in change? Combined with demonstrating the financial benefits to be gained from adding more women’s and sexual minorities’ voices to advertising campaigns?

Please let me know your thoughts!

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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)

Why You’re NOT Living in a Feminist City: Two must-reads on living as a single woman in Korea and overseas

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image (cropped) by Sara Aho on Unsplash.

Daily reports of stalking sharply increase after implementation of anti-stalking law“—The Korea Herald, 18/11/2021.

When I read that, I happened to be in a coffee shop next to Remark VILL, an expensive serviced apartment building in Busan. Last year, I highlighted the owner’s sexist, infantilizing advertising campaign, which featured then 32 year-old actor Im Se-mi enthusing about relying on maintenance staff to change her lightbulbs and unblock her toilet in place of her father, as well as about how eager she was to lose her virginity to the male guests she could now invite. (Yes, maybe there’s a good reason those commercials are no longer available.) But while I did have to acknowledge the attraction of and dire need for the security services Remark VILL’s buildings offered their female residents, I also pointed out they were also yet anotherpink tax” which most single women simply couldn’t afford. And I have to highlight them again today too, for the exquisite coincidence of what I then read in Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020, pp. 164-165), which I’d gone to that coffee shop to finish:

“In my research on gender and condominium development in Toronto, I found that developers and real estate agents enthusiastically marketed condos to women with the idea that the 24-hour concierge and security staff, as well as technical features such as handprint locks, CCTV, and alarm systems, made condos the safest option for women living downtown. These features were highly touted when condos were arriving in ‘up and coming’ neighbourhoods that had previously been stigmatized or seen as abandoned, industrial areas. I argued then that by making condos ‘safe’ for women, developers were smoothing their path to expansion into neighbourhoods that might otherwise have been risky real estate investments. This expansion certainly wasn’t going to make life any safer for the women who would be displaced by this form of gentrification. Nor does it tackle domestic violence in any way. Furthermore, asking women to ‘buy’ their safety through condo ownership contributes to the trend of privatization, where people are held responsible for their own well-being, even their safety from crime. Making safety a private commodity in the city means that it becomes less and less available to those who lack the economic means to secure themselves. This is certainly a long way from an intersectional feminist vision of a safer city for women.”

“We may not know exactly what a safe city looks like, but we know that it won’t involve private safety measures. It won’t rely on the police to prevent or adequately investigate crimes. It won’t throw sex workers, people of colour, youth, or immigrants under the bus to create the appearance of safety. It won’t be centred on the needs and desires of privileged white women. And it won’t expect physical changes to undo patriarchal dominance.”

My apologies for the white lie of the post title: by no means is Kern only or even mainly concerned with single women in Feminist City, with Korea—as in Seoul—only getting five lines in it. Critics also tend to agree on two glaring flaws of the book: her focus on the Global North, and her lack of solutions to the many problems she outlines. Yet I also enjoyed that her book is so firmly rooted in her own experiences in Canada and the UK as, variously, a girl, university student, mother, divorcee, single-parent, and feminist geographer, for she brings a lot of wit, personal anecdotes, and insights to those experiences that you sense would be lacking about subjects less close to home. In addition, she is at great pains throughout to point out that her cishet, middle-class, and white privilege mean ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities can have very different experiences to her, as well as to expand upon those.

Even without the coincidence at the coffee shop that threw my own objectivity out the window, it’s an easy, eye-opening, and thoroughly enjoyable read overall, which would appeal to both newcomers to the F-word and diehard urban activists alike. It should also be required reading for the (overwhelmingly) male architects, urban planners, and city councilors who generally take their own urban lives as the default norm—and so have no idea how inconvenient, difficult, ill-suited, and even dangerous their policies can be for the very different lives of female residents of their towns and cities.

If you would like something more specifically about single Korean women though, then consider Living on Your Own: Single Women, Rental Housing, and Post-Revolutionary Affect in Contemporary South Korea by Jesook Song (2014), based on interviews of 35 single women in late-20s to late-30s.

Actually, this may be a tough sell once you realize those interviews were conducted in 2005-2007; since then, Korea’s single household rate has skyrocketed, a massive demographic shift that has potentially radically transformed many of the issues that Song describes. The book is also especially frustrating for being, well, just too damn short, with less than a hundred pages of actual chapters. In particular, it lacks one on navigating sex and relationships outside of marriage, which would have been invaluable in an era when, thanks to the stigma and fear of being caught engaging in either, other academic researchers had difficulty finding any interviewees at all. Another valid criticism is that her interviewees are unrepresentative, all of them being self-selecting, all remaining unmarried by choice rather than because they lacked the means, 90 percent of them being former activists, and with a significant minority identifying as lesbian. Hence, when compared to their contemporaries, the uncharacteristic strength of their shared wherewithal and inclination to brave living alone at a time when often led to being ostracized—which Song herself recognizes.

However, she does cover sex and relationships in passing. In addition, given how “stubbornly” unmarried 30-something women are generally considered “difficult” by their families, society, and policymakers alike, their wants and needs easy to ignore, that Song has provided material on a group so often rendered voiceless and marginalized is reason alone to order the book in my view. But its main strength is how, by (explicitly) providing such a rare examination of what a hitherto abstract concept like “developmental state” means for ordinary people on the ground, she demonstrates how the Korean state’s goals, filtered through the lenses of familial and societal patriarchy, resulted in pervasive financial discrimination against women. So convincing is she of its huge scale in fact, that actually I’m not at all convinced that aspect of single Korean women’s lives has “radically transformed” at all in the 15 years since Song’s interviewees told her about its impacts on them.

Let me finish with some examples from pages 43-44 of the second chapter, described by one recent reviewer as “discuss[ing] the economic structure that marginalizes single women in trying to finance the lump sum required to secure decent housing. Young single women were excluded not only from official financing measures, driven by neoliberal restructuring, but also conventional informal financing. She also illustrates how cultural gender norms are reflected in loan conditions that only cater for heterosexual married couples, making securing housing even harder for single women”:

Sorry (not sorry) for not having an e-book to copy and paste from, but those are available. Meanwhile, I bought my physical copy from Aladdin in Korea, for about the same price as from publisher Suny Press.

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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)