When “How to Own the Room” is Really Just a Lesson in Male Privilege

‘People skills’ advice which ignores backgrounds only exposes the lie that what works for white cishet men automatically works for everyone else too

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Image source (cropped): Cottonbro @Pexels.

I have a confession to make: I subscribe to a YouTube channel called Charisma on Command. But please don’t be fazed by the name—“The Game” it is not, and its videos on topics like networking and public speaking that I sometimes click on can benefit anyone. So selective is my viewing though, that I often forget how centered on cishet men the channel is. Which, to be clear, is absolutely not a bad thing. But it does indicate a strong potential for biased perspectives, as recently became evident to me through their May 2022 video “How to Command Respect If You’re Short” below:

Again to be clear: I’m accusing the creators of nothing more nefarious than simple ignorance. Also, I admit it may seem unfair to bring a critical feminist lens to a video that was likely only intended for short men. But most of its tips still appear to apply regardless of sex, leaving viewers with the reasonable assumption that women are just as free to use them. Whereas in reality, there are a number of sexist obstacles in their way, to the extent it may actually be more prudent for many women not to use the tips at all.

So, paralleling a now infamous 2013 Quora piece in which the white author believed he was simply giving ‘lifehacking’ advice, but was ultimately providing more of a demonstration of how white privilege operates, let’s highlight three of those obstacles here, taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the video to show how male privilege works.

Image source (cropped): Cottonbro @Pexels.

All three are related to overall advice point “#2: Be a big presence” (3:04), starting with “Option 1: Be the loudest person in the room” (3:10). In the video, comedian Kevin Hart naturally makes that look very easy in his talk with male sports commentators. But for the vast majority of women in more mundane, less public professions who are, say, looking for more of a voice in work meetings? The unfortunate reality is that not only are they usually underrepresented in them, but they’re also generally expected to talk less than the male attendees too. So normal and routine can this feel to men and women alike, even attempts to achieve simple gender parity can raise shackles and accusations of female bias—let alone for a woman deliberately attempting to be “the loudest in the room.” Just see for yourself, through the many excellent points and links raised in a convenient recent Twitter thread posted by regular meghan 나영지 (@ruemcclammyhand):

Source: regular meghan 나영지 (@ruemcclammyhand)
Source: Michael Farrell (@mikefarrell); see here for the linked article at In These Times.
Source: CyberLuddite (@WispyNeckbeard); see here for the linked article at PBS.

As with all of the tips offered in the video, none of this context entirely precludes women from still taking them up. In this particular case for instance, I’m sure there’s much to be said for women “leaning in” and getting the attention they deserve, chauvinistic bosses’ and coworkers’ opinions be damned. (You tell me.) But the point remains that women face difficulties that men may not realize exist. So too with “Option 2: Use expansive hand gestures” (3:37) and—I regard them as the same really—“Option 3: Freely use neutral space” (4:24), which again ignore how strongly we’re all socialized against women doing either. As Niall Richardson sums up very well in Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (2010, page 78):

…the question of “taking up space” is not the same when it transfers across the gender divide. From an early age women are taught to restrict their bodies and retreat while men are encouraged to dominate the space. Consider this vivid description from a Marge Piercy novel in which performers in a drama workshop are instructed by the teacher how to perform gender for the forthcoming play:

She demonstrated how men sat and how women sat on the subway, on benches. Men expanded into available space. They sprawled, or they sat with spread legs. They put their arms on the arms of chairs. They crossed their legs by putting a foot on the other knee. They dominated space expansively.

Women condensed. Women crossed their legs by putting one leg over the other and alongside. Women kept their elbows to their sides, taking up as little space as possible. They behaved as if it were their duty not to rub against, not to touch, not to bump a man. If contact occurred, the woman shrank back. If a woman bumped a man, he might choose to interpret it as a come-on. Women sat protectively, using elbows not to dominate space, not to mark territory, but to protect their soft tissues.

Another confession: actually, I only found Transgressive Bodies while (unsuccessfully) searching for a very similar page from Nancy Henley’s groundbreaking 1977 work, Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Nonverbal Communication, which frankly instantly came to mind when I saw the video title. For your interest, and because this classic deserves to be far better known, let me also include the following photos of pages 38-39:

Let me also pass on the first hit in my search, City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another by Quill R. Kukla (2021, pages 261-262), who: shows how such micro-behaviours and norms extend to the macro; makes observations about the similar constraints on various races and classes; and indeed who goes on after the below to discuss that notorious Quora piece on white privilege:

A wide range of factors help determine who can access and participate in a purportedly shared space…. The color of our skin, our perceived gender identity, and our perceived class (regardless of our actual economic situation) all affect how we can move through and use space…. People whose bodies are read as female are trained from a young age to avoid streets at night, to travel in groups, and to adopt defensive and self-isolating bodily positions in order to avoid sexual attention from men (Young 1980). This training not only shapes their bodily movement through space, but prevents many social micro-interactions of the kind that make up city life; women cannot risk minor friendly passing interactions with men for fear that they will escalate.

For more on the macro, or more specifically how our transportation, streets, buildings, rooms, even the very chair you may be sitting on to read this may all be designed, built, or created under the assumption you’re a middle-aged cishet white man, I also highly recommend Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020; my brief review here).*

*(Update: “Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men” by Nadia Idle [2021] also sounds interesting.)
Image source: Yan Krukov @Pexels

Finally, for women to try “Option 4: Use platonic touch” (4:57) on men, they would not confront a sexist obstacle per se. More, a sexual reality: that cishet men, for good reason, are just wired to frequently misinterpret friendliness from women as sexual interest—let alone physical touch. But of course, there are issues with men using platonic touch on women too, which few men are going to start ignoring due to the video (although, confusedly, it does feature 2 male-female encounters among the dozen male-male ones).

And yet, again a sexist obstacle emerges anyway. As most workplaces are male-dominated, especially as you move up the hierarchy and encounter figures you most need to impress, simple numbers ensure that men are far more likely to have opportunities to try this tactic on other men than women will on other women.

Or do they? I have a final confession to make: I am not your average, ambitious Charisma on Command subscriber, only ever having very limited opportunities in my own career to ever put any of their videos’ tips into practice. My knowledge is theoretical so to speak, and I have obvious limits in placing myself in working women’s shoes too. So, if I’ve dropped the ball in any way in asking myself what it might be like for them applying this video’s tips, please do let me know. But either way, there remains value in having such conversations about whether any ‘universal’ content like it genuinely applies to other groups, and I look forward to continuing those conversations with you 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)

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)

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)

One Quick Thing You Absolutely Must Read to Understand Modern East Asia

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Original image source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see here.

It’s not often that one brief book chapter helps your whole degree make sense overnight. Even less often that someone will rescue a nearly 30 year-old, long since out of print tome from obscurity and offer that chapter as a free download.

Let me thank Shuyi Chua of the Education University of Hong Kong then, for providing a scan of Manuel Castells’ “Four Asian tigers With a Dragon Head: A comparative analysis of the state, economy, and society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” from R. Appelbaum & J. Henderson (eds.), States and development in the Asian Pacific Rim (1992). Not only did it give me one of my first genuine Eureka moments at university, but it’s still so relevant and helpful today that it took pride of place in my recent presentation above, and hence my finding Chua’s link.

(It’s probably still technically illegal to offer it publicly though, which is why I’ve never done so myself. So take advantage while you can!)

Let me also thank Professor Michael Free and his students at Kangwon National University, for the opportunity to wax lyrical about some of my favorite topics to them. If anyone reading would also like me to present to their students sometime in person or via Zoom, if for no other reason than to remind them that it’s not just you that gets excited about your subjects, please give me a buzz.

Finally, a big apology to everyone for not writing for so long. With so little physical social interaction over the summer, and with even what face-to-face contact I do get now almost entirely confined to my family and students, then frankly the weeks and months somewhat blurred into one another, making it difficult to pay much attention to the deadlines I set myself on the (always too many) posts I have in the pipeline. Inspired by my work on the presentation now though, I will try very hard to have one of my longer and more thought-provoking ones ready for you next week.

Until then!

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

The Korean Conscription System Promotes a Servile, Subordinate, Sexually-Objectifying View of Women. Here’s How.

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 7

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source, right (cropped): Streetwindy via Pexels.

The contents of Everyday Sexism (2014) by Laura Bates, a UK-focused collection of public submissions and statistics on the myriad of ways women experience sexism on a daily basis, will be depressingly familiar to anyone who already considers themselves a feminist. Having accidentally ordered the book though, I could hardly not read it. Besides, I reasoned, what cishet middle-aged white guy wouldn’t still have a lot to learn about the topic?

So I persevered. And sure enough, there were many things which gave me pause, especially the accounts of sexual harassment experienced by female university students. Partially, because I’d been blissfully unaware of that sort of thing when I was a student myself. Primarily though, because they strongly reminded me of an incident at the “morale-raising” YG Military Festival held in Yanggu County in Gangwon Province on 5 October 2019, at which the female university students hired to be doumi (lit. “help-elegant-beauties”) were forced to wear revealing clothes for the soldiers. From the news reports below, which discuss that in the context of how routine it is to provide sexualized performances by professional performers and/or K-pop girl-groups at such events, it’s easy to see how choices like these can encourage a somewhat objectified, servile view of women among the (usually) very young, impressionable Korean men that go through the male conscription system. Many do overcome that socialization experience, of course. But the consequences for all Koreans of those that don’t would fill many, many chapters in a Korean version of the Everyday Sexism book.

Screenshot, SBS News.

My translated excerpts of various reports about the incident, starting with one from Wikitree:

YG 밀리터리 페스타는 양구군이 장병들 사기 진작을 위해 지난해부터 개최한 것이다. 이벤트 경기, VR 체험, 먹거리 시장, 가수 공연 등이 열린다. 네일 케어, 피부 관리, 타로점 체험 부스도 있다. 이번 축제에는 육군 2사단과 21사단 장병 2300 명이 참가했다.

The festival has been held since [2018] by Yanggu-gun to boost morale among soldiers, featuring competitive games, VR experiences, food stalls, and performances by singers and girl groups. There are also “experience booths” [really stalls/tables] for nail care, skin care, and tarot readings. This year, about 2,300 soldiers from the 2nd and 21st Divisions attended the festival.

논란은 체험 부스에서 일어났다. 머니투데이에 따르면 행사 대행업체 측이 행사장으로 가는 버스 안에서 여자 알바생들에게 흰색 짧은 테니스 치마와 몸에 달라붙고 가슴 부분이 파인 옷을 제공했다. 알바생들은속옷이 비치고 노출이 심한 옷이었다“, “조금만 움직여도 가슴이 훤히 드러났다라고 전했다. 이어행사 담당자는군인들이 쑥스러워하니 직접 데려오라‘, ‘군인들에게 적극적으로 대하라 지시했다라는 말도 덧붙였다. 이들은 피부 관리 부스에서 군인들에게 직접 마스크팩을 붙여주는 일을 했다.

The controversy took place over the experience booths. According to Money Today, on the bus going to the venue the event agency provided the female part-time workers with only short white tennis skirts and tight-fitting, lowcut tops to wear. The women complained, “They were so tight you can see my underwear through them,” and “Even if I moved only a little, my chest would be completely exposed.” They added, “The event manager instructed, ‘As the soldiers will be embarrassed, [especially those wanting you to put [skincare-type] facemasks on them], please approach them proactively and encourage them as you escort them into the booths.”

Some additional information from that report by Money Today:

알바생 A씨는사전에 알려준 의상보다 파이고 조금만 움직여도 배가 드러날 정도로 상의 길이가 짧았다알바생들이 속옷이 비치고 노출이 심해 민소매 티셔츠를 요청했지만 아무 조치가 없었다 주장했다. 일부 알바생은 노출이 부담스러워 따로 챙겨온 외투를 걸쳤다고 한다.

One part-time worker complained that, “The clothes were much shorter and tighter than what we were told about, exposing my stomach even if I moved just a little,” and that “Even though we asked for sleeveless t-shirts because our underwear was visible, nothing was done about it.” It is said that some of the workers wore a separate coat over the clothes because of embarrassment.


행사 대행업체 측은요즘 학생들이 많이 입는 테니스 치마일 이라며일부러 노출이 심한 의상을 제공한 것이 아니다라고 해명했다. 행사 스태프는 여성이 25, 남성이 15 정도였는데, 대행업체 측은원래 남자 직원들은 힘쓰는 일을 주로 하고 여자 직원은 차를 따라주는 행사 도우미 역할을 맡는 관행을 따랐을 이라고 설명했다.

A person from the event agency responsible for the clothes said, “It was just a tennis skirt like many students wear these days,” and that “We did not provide any clothes deliberately designed to overexpose the workers’ bodies.” They further explained that 25 women and 15 men were hired, but that “It’s customary that men have to do a lot of hard work, whereas women just have to be helpers and do things like pouring tea.”

Confusingly, in the video of the event above, many doumi can be seen wearing other clothing, which is not addressed by the anchors in the brief SBS News segment below that. Yet why should they? Whether through chance, smarts, and/or previous experience with doumi companies, that some of the women had alternate clothes on hand doesn’t negate the fact that those without had no other options.

Professional entertainment group Waveya (not a K-pop group) performing at a middle school in 2012.

On the other hand, if it’s the norm to hire young women in high-waisted skirts and low-cut tops for just about anything in Korea, including performances at schools, then the comment about no additional exposure being intended may well be true, if somewhat obtuse. That being said, I’m just as confused as you as are as to how men putting up tables and chairs somehow justifies forcing women to wear revealing clothes while serving tea. It’s also frustrating that the reporter didn’t challenge that non-explanation.

Policing the Student Body: Sookmyung Women’s University students told to cover up

I see reason for optimism though, in that the issue of consent was the hook that made the incident newsworthy, especially given that this must-read by a professional doumi gives the strong impression that such incidents are routine. Had I been writing a news report myself, I might have continued by comparing students’ own festivals and events, which also regularly create controversy for their sexual overtones, but, crucially, at which the offending clothes are worn by choice. (Or perhaps not necessarily; the ensuing sensationalist reports are hardly deep, and now Everyday Sexism compels me to reconsider them.) However, the main reason for the news reports was more likely the harm caused to the military’s image, Asiae raising in their own report another controversial incident that occurred at a different military festival the year before:

난해 814 유튜브에는피트니스 모델 @군부대 위문공연이라는 제목의 영상이 올라왔다. 영상 피트니스 모델은 각선미를 강조하는 자극적인 동작을 선보였다.

해당 공연 사회자가지금부터 기본포즈 4가지를 보여드리겠다 자세를 요구하자 선수는 뒤돌아서 엉덩이를 자세로 머리를 넘겼다.

나이가 어떻게 되냐 사회자의 질문에 “21살입니다라고 답하자 장병들의 환호가 이어졌다.

On August 14 [2018], a video titled “Fitness Model @ Military Consolation Performance” was posted on YouTube by the military. The model’s dance was quite sexualized, involving showing off body parts like her legs. At one point, she proclaimed “I will show you four basic poses now,” turning around to thrust her buttocks at the audience with her head down, her face visible underneath. To the cheers of the men watching, she answered “I’m 21!” when they loudly asked her age.

해당 영상을 접한 누리꾼들은여성 성상품화가 지나쳤다“, “위문공연을 이런 방법으로만 해야 하냐 분통을 터뜨렸다.

당시 청와대 국민청원 게시판에는성상품화로 가득찬 군대위문공연을 폐지해주세요라는 제목의 글과 함께 해당 영상이 첨부되기도 했다.

Netizens who saw the video on YouTube were angered, commenting that “The sexual objectification of the woman was excessive,” and questioning if such sexualized dances “were really the only way morale boosting performances could be done?”. Later, citing the video, a petition to abolish precisely those was posted on the Blue House’s public petition bulletin board [which the government has to respond to if it receives more than 200,000 signatures].

파문이 커지자 해당 부대는 영상을 삭제 조치했다. 부대는당시 공연은 민간단체에서 주최하고 후원한 것으로 부대 측에서는 공연 인원과 내용에 대해 사전에 없었으나, 이번 공연으로 인해 상품화 논란 일어난 대해 사과의 말씀을 드린다 했다.

그러면서앞으로 외부단체에서 지원하는 공연의 경우에도 상급부대 차원에서 사전에 확인하여 유사한 사례가 재발하지 않도록 하겠다 덧붙였다.

As the controversy grew, the military unit that uploaded it deleted the video. A spokesperson said, “As the performance was organized and provided by a private company, we could not have known what the contents would be. Nonetheless, we apologize for the “controversy over sexual objectification” this performance has caused. They added, “To prevent recurrences in future, we will check the contents of performances provided by external organizations in advance.”

Here’s part of the offending video, a blurred news report about it and other similar performances, and an unblurred compilation:

Given how family-friendly the atmosphere appears in the video of the 2019 YG Military Festival earlier, reporters raising that “fitness” performance may seem unfair, let alone my adding the compilation video in which other performers quite literally spread their legs in soldiers’ faces (I’ll let you find those scenes yourself). Similarly, in light of recent news about how important performing for the military years ago was for the sudden popularity of K-pop girl-group Brave Girls, and how devastating the loss of such opportunities due to the pandemic have been for other girl-groups, then it may seem that only a stereotypical feminist spoilsport could find any fault with that mutually-beneficial system, especially considering how tame most of the K-pop girl-groups’ performances are.

Actually, so long as universal male conscription continues, I’m not at all against performances—which is not to say there aren’t some issues that still need to be addressed with them, as examined in previous posts in this series. And yet, note that the family-friendly video is just one perspective produced by the local county government, which isn’t going to linger on the women’s bodies; unlike, say, the fancam below of New Heart, a professional cheerleading/dance team hired to perform at the 2018 festival. Also, just because this particular festival was relatively tame, that doesn’t mean something that raises more than just eyebrows may feature at the next one, let alone at more private performances on bases.

Indeed, a distinction needs to be made between performances by girl-groups and those by cheerleaders, fitness models, and so on. The former are more likely to perform in larger, more public venues; to be filmed; and to have reputations their management companies have to consider—considerations which don’t apply to private entertainers. Moreover, considering what we’ve seen of private entertainers’ performances so far, you do have to wonder what happens when no-one’s filming.

Ergo, this is no one-off. Engendering a sexually-objectified and servile view of women is fundamental to the Korean universal male conscription system. Don’t believe me? Just take the word of that military spokesperson. Not only does their feigned surprise, patronizing, disingenuous claim of ignorance, and passing of blame feel very, very familiar, but it’s surely revealing—pun intended—that their concern is over the controversy generated. Not the coercion, nor the revealing clothes.

Continuing:

위문공연의 선정성 문제는 국정감사에서도 제기 있다. 채이배 바른미래당 의원은 지난해 1026 국회 법제사법위원회 군사법원에 대한 국정감사에서군 위문공연의 문제를 지적하고 가이드라인 마련을 요구했다.

The issue of the sexual suggestiveness of morale-raising performances for the military has also been raised at the state administration. On October 26, 2018, the [since dissolved] Barunmirae Party [now former] lawmaker Chae Yi-bae pointed out the problem and demanded that guidelines be prepared during an audit of the military court of the National Assembly Legislative Judicial Committee.

의원은여성을 성상품화하는 위문공연을 폐지하라는 청와대 청원도 올라온 있다. 사과도 하시고 유사사례 방지하겠다고 약속하셨는데, 과연 방지할 있을지는 의문이라면서국방부 훈령 지침을 살펴보니 위문공연관련 가이드라인이나 지침이 없다 지적했다.

Representative Chae said, “There has also been a petition from the Blue House to abolish morale-raising performances that sexually objectify women. I apologize for them and promise to work to prevent similar cases. But it is doubtful if this is possible, as there are no relevant guidelines or procedures in place.”

한편 위문공연의 상품화 논란이 커지자 육군은 올해 1 외부단체 공연을 추진할 부대별 심의위원회를 꾸려 공연 내용을 미리 심의하겠다고 밝혔다.

However, in response to the controversy, the military announced that from January 2019 it would set up a deliberation committee for each unit to ascertain the contents of performances in advance when provided by outside companies and organizations.

If only that had extended to all companies and organizations involved, not just those providing performances. But, to finish with Money Today’s conclusions about the original incident—which may have sounded like hyperbole in isolation, whereas now:

전문가들은 군인 사기 증진을 위해 여성을 성적 대상화하는 인식을 바꿔야 한다고 지적했다.

Experts pointed out that in order to increase military morale, the perception of sexual objectification of women should be changed.

윤김지영 건국대 몸문화연구소 교수는여성을 눈요깃거리, 위안거리로 내세워야만 남성 군인의 사기가 증진된다고 여기는 것은 시대착오적이고 성차별적인 생각이라며행사 도우미의 불편한 의상이 문제가 없다는 주장도 결국 남성주의적 관점이라고 비판했다.

Yoon Kim Ji-young, a professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body & Culture, said, “It is an anachronistic and sexist idea to consider that the morale of male soldiers is enhanced only by putting women as an eye-catching and comforting object.” She criticized it as a masculine perspective.

허민숙 국회입법조사처 보건복지여성팀 입법조사관은군장병도 불편하고 내키지 않았을 가능성이 높다최근 젊은 남성은 여성과 동등한 관계에 익숙한 세대인데 진정한 사기 증진 방법을 고민하지 않고 낡은 관행을 답습한 점이 아쉽다 지적했다.

Heo Min-sook, a legislative investigator of the Health and Welfare Women’s Team at the National Assembly Legislative Investigation Department, said, “It is highly likely that military soldiers are also uncomfortable and reluctant.” I am sorry for that,” he pointed out.

Sources: left, right.

For further reading, I highly recommend Sex Among Allies: Military Prositution in U.S.-Korea Relations (1997) by Katherine Moon and Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005) by Seungsook Moon. The former, for the obvious links to the long history of girl-groups entertaining foreign and then Korean troops; and the latter, on how the gender roles and rigid hierarchy learned during military service utterly pervade Korean institutions from schools to workplaces, frequently reducing well-educated and capable women in the latter to making coffee and cleaning tables.

That doumi exist at all I’d argue, and in such great numbers, are a partial cause and effect of that last. So for the sake of completeness, in my next post, I’ll provide a full translation of an article about their origins (from 2006, I don’t think anybody will be worried about the copyright!).

Meanwhile, pondering what a Korean version of Everyday Sexism would look like is what led me to writing this post. For the sake of more like it, what other issues specific to Korea do think should be covered, which wouldn’t be in the original UK version? Please let me know in the comments!

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts:

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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)