Making Sense of the NewJeans “Cookie” Controversy

A reading list for everything you ever wanted to know about the sexualization of minors in K-pop

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

The best thing you can read to make sense of it, actually, is Haley Yang’s article in Tuesday’s Korea JoongAng Daily, which is an excellent primer—and a model example of how to convey a great deal of information in just a few hundred words.

Also highly recommended is Choi Yoon-ah’s short article in the Hankyoreh, about the sexual exploitation of minors in the industry.

If you do have the luxury of time however, and a feeling that all of this sounds very familiar, then please allow me present some of my own longform posts (and book chapter) on the same topics, going back all the way to 2010:

Source: YouTube.

But why stop there? For even more reading, I’d also like to mention Meenakshi Gigi Durham’s The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, the 2008 book that inspired the above series. And which, tragically, is clearly more relevant than ever.

Next, for some context on the farce that is ADOR’s denial of any sexual overtones to Cookie whatsoever, check out the collective mania surrounding 4Minutes’ “leg spread dance” in Mirror Mirror when it was released in 2011.

Source: RedandRosy
Finally, my apologies that these links are so old; K-pop no longer being to my taste from about 10 years ago, I could no longer sustain the motivation and hard work required to speak with any sort of authority on it—and have a huge amount of respect and admiration for those that still do. For the same reason, I’m very much behind on my own reading. So, I plan to rectify that, starting with From Factory Girls to K-Pop Idol Girls: Cultural Politics of Developmentalism, Patriarchy, and Neoliberalism in South Korea’s Popular Music Industry by Gooyong Kim (2018). Anyone already read it? What did you think? Any other recommendations? Please let me know in the comments!

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

Blackpink’s Rosé Deserved So Much Better Than the “Young Silly Woman Puts Product on Head” Advertising Trope.

It’s all very cute and charming until you realize how rarely you see it used on men. Why is that?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Right: So-hee of the Wonder Girls.

Yeah, Rosé does look very cute and charming in that poster. So it’s not like I’m about to boycott my local Homeplus over it. I have absolutely nothing against her either, who likely had little to no input in the direction of their advertising campaign. But when you realize that peach on her head effectively sabotages the whole concept behind that campaign, despite all the planning, preparation, and financial risks involved in hiring one of the hottest and most expensive stars in the world to help create that concept in the first place, then you really do have to ask why.

The poster, one of two of her that that now feature prominently at Homeplus stores (and online), is part of the chain’s “25 Years: A Fresh Way of Thinking” rebranding campaign to mark its 25th anniversary and launch of its new one hour delivery service. But critics were non-plussed by Rosé’s first, very different commercial for the campaign in February below, only grading it only a 2.6 out of 5. One of them thought the dancing and focus on Rosé’s face and body in the first half rendered the commercial more like one for Yves Saint Laurent, for whom Rosé already works as an ‘ambassador.’ Many others, that the luxurious, almost mature tone and atmosphere would only cause confusion among consumers when the logo for the homely supermarket chain then suddenly appeared. Also, that people’s attentions would be concentrated more on Rosé rather than on the service being advertised, and that stressing that she was 25 was unnecessarily ageist and alienating. (Actor Yeo Jin-goo was also hired as an endorser for being 25, with his own commercial rightly focused on high quality food. But the limelight has firmly been on Rosé.)

I tended to agree, especially about the unnecessary alienation of the bulk of its much older customers. Because well before I saw that commercial, I’d already noticed Rosé’s and Yeo Jin-goo’s glamorous visages in the giant banners below at my own local Homeplus, their eyes seeming to follow me as I perused the toiletries aisle, pondering which toilet paper best represented me as a person. Their purpose just baffled me. Neither of them offered any hint of any particular new Homeplus product or service, with both just saying (lit.) “Why? I have this fresh thinking because I’m 25.” Was Homeplus trying to remind me I’m almost twice as old? That just like when I used to run into my horrified students in bars, could I please just stop embarrassing them and leave?

Shockingly however, younger Koreans didn’t seem to care less about any of their elders and betters thought of the campaign. By April, there were 30 percent more visitors to brick-and-mortar stores in that age group than a year previously; of 20-24 year-olds specifically, a whopping 60 percent. Meanwhile, online customers in the 20s and 30s combined also increased by 60 percent.

(Staggering success stories like these are a major reason why Korea has the highest number of celebrity endorsements in the world. As is ignoring the 9 out of 10 times signing on expensive stars actually proves to be a complete waste of money.)

Which still doesn’t mean it was a good commercial. It wasn’t. But the next one, which came out on July 14, was. It refined the concept, presenting the perfect combination of the millennial dream of living in own’s one place in the heart of Seoul, of having the free time to luxuriate over the exquisite-looking grapes, and of having such a convenient fast delivery service for them available. And, lest I forget: that it was want-her or want-to-be-her Rosé showing us all of this too:

Which is why I’m so annoyed by the laziness of the two accompanying banner posters, which have since replaced those for the first commercial in stores (poor Yeo Jin-goo is nowhere to be seen):

This first one, ironically used as the YouTube thumbnail, is simply poorly executed: as it happens, I consider myself a more sensual person than most (just throwing that out there), but even I can’t picture anyone so enjoying the texture of grapes that they’d ever want to rub them against their face. But let’s say I do suspend my disbelief for a moment. Even then, I’m still not getting the feeling from this poster that Rosé was, say, really, really enjoying the grapes just a moment ago, but has suddenly just noticed me and is about to invite me to join. Instead, the poster simply shows what actually happened: she was instructed to put the grapes to her face, so she obliged. Not to pretend to be interested in them too, as she was asked and did so well in the commercial.

By all means, the grapes do add an aesthetically pleasing splash of green, and vaguely fit in with the headline of “As fresh as you see.” Her mesmerizing gaze back at the viewer? It quashes all doubts of why she’s a superstar. And perhaps—okay, I see it now—the taut, tight skin of the grapes is meant to vibe with Rosé’s own. Again, symbolizing that freshness concept. (But so too, illustrating the huge potential for any celebrity endorser to completely overshadow the advertised service or product.) But surely it was possible to do so without losing the sensuality of the original commercial?

Just see for yourself. Compare this first of two additional images Homeplus released on its Instagram on July 15, but neither of which seem to be displayed in stores. (Yes, I’ve visited four in the last two weeks to check, feverishly snapping away at Rosé; by now, the security staff have probably flagged me as a perverted samcheon fan.) This one isn’t perfect by any means, but it at least retains some of the sensuality of the commercial, by reminding consumers that delicious-looking grapes are best enjoyed by actually eating them. And again, even if making a link to her youthful skin was considered just as or even more important (because Korea), why not combine both motifs?

This next, much cuter and more playful Instagram one, is very difficult to dislike (notice a recurring theme?). But it too represents a big step away from the sensual concept of the commercial, and of the commercial before that as well. And yet, still it would have been a far better choice than the second poster actually chosen for the stores and homepage:

There’s three big reasons not to like it. No, really.

First, in the second, very aspirational TV commercial it’s ostensibly tied to, we were supposed to pretend Rosé was just like you and (much younger) me, only with a nicer apartment and more carefree lifestyle. Which worked. To a greater or lesser extent, you could still roll with that vibe in all of the other images with the grapes above too. Whereas this one just casually tosses that carefully crafted fantasy aside. As playing with the product by putting it on your head, combined with her looking not at you, but at a more important, separate person/photographer instead, instantly identifies her as a glamorous model or celebrity. Ergo, not at all like you or me.

Second, just in case I haven’t stressed it often enough: the whole concept of the entire campaign, best expressed in the second commercial, was all about Homeplus gratifying your senses. Being able to get your fresh fruit quickly through its new delivery service, then enjoying, perversely lingering on and luxuriating in its look, taste, smell, feel, and—if you try hard enough—sound too. There was a strongly implied erotic potential as well. But here? What I actually see when my raging alcoholism drives me to head out to my local store for a cheap bottle of whiskey? That would be placing a peach on your head. As in, Homeplus no longer cared what I think of how that peach looks, tastes, smells, and feels like, the whole ostensible reason for signing on its to new, trendy, one-hour delivery service in the first place (what, you too had forgotten this is what the campaign was selling?). Rather, the peach has become instead just a prop, a toy even, which ultimately could be replaced by just about anything Homeplus sells and still have the same effect. Say, even that toilet paper I eventually did choose.

So, being generous, at best it’s lazy. It’s unoriginal. You could say the peach on her head loosely matches the headline of (lit.) “Whenever, with no burden, lightly,” but it’s tenuous. More likely, the advertisers asked Rosé for that pose because again, it simply makes her look cute and carefree, campaign concept be damned. And also because third, finally, and more likely still, that’s just what advertisers do with young female models.

Allow A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose to explain:

“Look at these images. What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

“What about these images?”

“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”

Or, to conclude by going back to where we started: no matter how cute and charming Rosé may appear in the last poster, the campaign’s concepts of sensuality, luxury, and convenience are frequently confused by focusing on her looks, skin, and cute personality instead. Had they been the focus from the get-go, that would have been fine, and I wouldn’t have been annoyed at all.

I really do have better things to do with my time than write about this shit.

Instead, I’m reminded that it’s just so normal and unremarkable to infantilize grown women in ads, and that advertisers just can’t help themselves.

But why does women putting products on their head necessarily have that effect?

Because in addition to the aforementioned gender imbalance (which is the real issue; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being cute), let me leave you with two pages from the classic Gender Advertisements by sociologist Erving Goffman, first produced the same year as me—1976. Sometimes, as you’ll see, it’s astounding to realize how little has changed in the 46 years since then.

Or, for that matter, the last 25:

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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)

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 sometimes watch 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 can benefit anyone. So selective is my viewing though, that I often forget just how centered on cishet men the channel really 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:

I realize it may seem unfair to bring a critical feminist lens to a video that was likely only intended for 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: Published in 2021, “Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men” by Nadia Idle 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 the most ambitious of Charisma on Command subscribers, having very, very limited opportunities to use any of their tips in my own career. I have obvious limits in placing myself in working women’s shoes too. So, if I’ve dropped the ball asking myself what it might be like for women applying this video’s tips, please let me know. But either way, there will always be value in having such conversations about whether ‘universal’ tips genuinely apply to non cishet white men, and I look forward to continuing this one 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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