How Slut-Shaming and Victim-Blaming Begin in Korean Schools

From the moment Korean schoolchildren start developing, and their hormones start raging, Korea’s school uniform codes give them a daily reminder that girls’ bodies should be hidden and controlled.
Sources: left, “How much do you really know me?” by VisualValor/大前, used with permission; right, Mike Rowe, (CC BY-NC 2.0).

More than half of Korean men think revealing clothes lead to rape. Almost as many Korean women do too.

Those and other shocking statistics (English, Korean) come from a survey of 7,200 adults aged 16 to 64 conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year. In 2013, a survey of 200 South Gyeongsang Province police officers by the Korea Women’s Development Institute found similar results.

But do those statistics shock though? Really?

Be honest. I know my audience. The fact you’re reading this at all, tells me you’ve probably read similar news before. However much you wish things were different, you’re no longer surprised at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying to make that difference. In fact, I hope to convince you that the struggle is more important than ever. But, instead of my typical wringing of hands, let me make my case by posing you another question instead: why do people cling so strongly to such patriarchal, victim-blaming beliefs, when the evidence supporting them is non-existent?

Even as far back as 1996 for instance, Korean Women’s groups, lawyers, and academics had thoroughly debunked any supposed links between clothing and sexual assault. Yet still the beliefs remain over two decades later. Despite Korea’s Slutwalks. Despite the Gangnam murder. Despite all the hard work by activists, educators, women’s groups, academics, and lawyers. Despite…you know the rest.

What gives?

While pondering this myself, I came across “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind” by Julie Beck in the Atlantic, about the bases of the post-truth era. And then it clicked:

…[People] will occasionally encounter information that suggests something they believe is wrong. A lot of these instances are no big deal, and people change their minds if the evidence shows they should—you thought it was supposed to be nice out today, you step out the door and it’s raining, you grab an umbrella. Simple as that. But if the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview—the guru you’ve dedicated your life to is accused of some terrible things, the cigarettes you’re addicted to can kill you—well, then people [will] do all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.

Previously, I’d mostly seen this notion of cognitive dissonance raised when an author was talking about religious beliefs. Convincing people of the real causes of rape though? Surely, it was just a matter of presenting the facts?

Patently not. Instead, if those statistics are anything to go by, to many people it is just common sense that a short skirt and an exposed bra strap will lead to rape. Which, just like the notion that the world was created by a supernatural being, or that the mainstream media constantly lies about Trump, is a version of common sense that ultimately derives from some very closely-held beliefs, integral to people’s worldviews and identities. In this case, about sex, gender roles, and male-female interaction. And you don’t get much more fundamental and strongly-held beiefs than those.

That is to say, no abstract surveys by slutty feminazis are ever going to change their minds.

So where then, do these victim-blaming notions of sex and rape come from? In short, from everywhere, which is how come those beliefs are held so strongly.

It’s only a feminist cliche because it’s so true.

Among the many methods and messengers, one is undoubtedly the romanticized depiction of dating violence in Korean dramas. Another is inadequate, heteronormative, marriage and biology-focused sex education, which teaches girls not to be alone with their permanently sexed boyfriends, lest he demand sexual compensation for paying for their date. Another is the government and media encouraging the exposure of women’s and girls’ bodies for soft power, nationalist, and military causes, but discouraging it when it’s of their own accord. Linked to which is women being told to cover up on public transport to prevent upskirt photos, rather than potential perpetrators warned not to take them. And yet another, which will be the focus here, are the double-standards and victim-blaming inherent to Korea’s school uniform rules. They’re such a big deal because, when kids start developing, and when their hormones start raging, they teach fresh young minds how to deal “appropriately” with both—and what punishments girls and women will receive if they don’t learn that lesson.

For those unfamiliar, here’s a taste of what Korean school uniforms are like:

Korean school uniforms have actually had quite a chequered history over the past decade. In the late-2000s to early-2010s, the focus was on their increasing cost, which was partially fueled by retailers’ habit of hiring K-pop stars to promote them; ultimately, the industry announced a voluntary moratorium on celebrity hires, which lasted for about two years. At about the same time, there was a great deal of controversy over girls wearing shorter and shorter skirts, which was tied to the liberalization of students’ rights (more on this later). Annual “naked graduation ceremonies” started hitting the news too, where students would attack their no longer needed, much-hated uniforms with knives and scissors. And then, in late-2015, Korean entertainment mogul JYP came under fire for girl-group TWICE’s overly-sexual and body-shaming advertisements for Skoollooks, which surprised because, JYP’s characteristic, pimp-like demeanor aside, their messages were little different from those which preceded them.

Compare Skoolooks’ 2015 ad with JYP and Momo of Twice (source: Instizwith Smart’s 2008 ad with Shinee and Victoria of f(x) (source: Soompi).

But what of the boys in that history? If they’re mentioned at all, they’re framed as victims, being so distracted by the girls’ uniforms that they’re unable to concentrate—along with their male teachers. Another strong theme is adults stressing how vulnerable the girls are on their commutes, simply for wanting to be fashionable by wearing their skirts high.* Peruse the links, and you sense a collective throwing of hands in the air, as girls are reminded again and again that everything that happens to them is their fault…alongside repeated, titillating, pictures of their offending legs.

(*Related: A recent Al Jazeera report discusses how Japanese schoolgirls are indeed more vulnerable to harassment than adult women, for whom the harassment drops once they graduate and stop wearing school uniforms. But this is because schoolgirls are perceived as less assertive and more vulnerable, and has nothing to do with the make-up of their uniforms per se.)

By coincidence, an ad from an unidentified retailer that popped up the day before publication. The text in the photo reads: A 3D-level bodyline, a 3D design which fits your body perfectly; Capture men’s hearts with the tulipline, a skirt which shows off your body; Control the length of your skirt freely; A very good figure zipper, shows off your good-looking clothes. Source: 라니‏@ComfortnLullaby. (Update: Shortly after publication, Korea Exposé published a more detailed look at the advertisement.)

Yet all these points are already depressingly familiar from similar discussions in Englishspeaking countries. And all of the above links happen to be in English too. So, I want to add something new to the English discussion of Korean uniforms by translating segments of some (mostly) recent Korean-language articles on the subject. Centered around this one:

속옷 입지 않으면 벌점… 황당한 학교 / Absurd Schools Punish Students For Not Wearing Underclothes

Written by Song Min-seo, edited by Son Ji-eun, OhmyNews, 26.02.2017

…지난 2016년 ‘청소년인권행동 아수나로’에서는 온라인을 통해 여성 청소년을 억압하는 서울시 소재 학교의 교칙들에 대한 설문 조사를 실시했다. 200여 건의 응답은 하나같이 학교보다는 수용소를 연상시키는 해괴한 교칙들과 사례들을 담고 있었다. 이 글에서는 해당 설문 내용을 바탕으로, 여성 청소년에게 가해지는 제재와 차별에 대해 다루어 보고자 한다.

…In 2016, the NGO “Asunaro: Action for Youth Rights of Korea” conducted on an online survey of Seoul school students about the ways in which their schools discriminate against and curtail the rights of female students. More than 200 responses revealed a series of bizarre rules and practices more reminiscent of concentration camps than of modern schools. In this article, I would like to discuss what sanctions and discrimination against women and youth emerged from the questionnaire.

The first part deals with restrictions on hairstyle and length, and discusses a case of a teacher in a school in Gyeonggi Province, who admonished a student with short hair for looking like a boy, telling her it wasn’t feminine enough and that men wouldn’t like her. Then later:

…복장 규제 또한 여전히 나아진 것 하나 없이 잔재한다. 치마 끝이 무릎 밑 몇 센티미터, 혹은 위 몇 센티미터에 오는지 재는 것은 빈번하고, 일정한 기간을 두고 복장을 대대적으로 검사하는 학교도 있었다. 한 학교는 여학생을 의자 위에 세워 놓고 교사가 자를 들고 치마 길이를 잰다. 이 행위는 학생들의 의사를 전혀 묻지 않은 채 강제적으로 이루어지고, 심지어 남교사도 참여한다. 응답자는 이 행위에 수치심을 느꼈다고 말한다.

…[Despite the Seoul City Council’s Students’ Rights Ordinance of 2011], uniform regulations showed little to no improvement also. Requirements that skirt lengths come to a minimum of a few centimeters above the knee, or even below the knee, were very common, and some schools regularly checked them. For those checks, all the girls in the classroom are required to stand on their chairs while the teacher measures the length of the skirts [This is discussed in several of the videos above—James]. This check is compulsorily, with no concern given to the students’ opinions or feelings at all, even if it’s a male teacher doing the checking. Respondents said that they felt very embarrassed and ashamed by these checks.

Let’s pause from the article for a moment with news about one such inspection:

“왜 이렇게 짧아” 교복 들어 올린 교사 ‘강제추행’ / “Why is Your Skirt So Short?” Lifting a Student’s Skirt Ruled ‘Indecent Act by Force/Compulsion’

MBN, 09.09.2015

A transcript (via MBN), with my translation:

지난 2013년 서울의 한 고등학교. 교사 56살 박 모 씨는 교실에서 자기소개서를 쓰고 있던 한 여학생에게 다가가 왜 이렇게 치마가 짧냐며 교복 치마를 들어 올렸습니다.

이 과정에서 여학생의 속바지가 드러났고, 박 씨는 강제추행 혐의로 재판에 넘겨졌습니다.

박 씨는 단지 복장 불량을 지적하려고 치마 끝자락을 잡아 흔들었을 뿐 추행하려는 의도가 없었다고 주장했습니다.

하지만, 1, 2심 모두 유죄로 보고 벌금 5백만 원을 선고했습니다.

공개된 교실에서 16살 여학생의 치마를 들어 올린 것은 객관적으로 볼 때 성적 수치심을 일으키는 행위라는 겁니다.

또 강제추행죄는 꼭 동기나 목적이 있어야 성립하는 것은 아니라고 판단했습니다.

피해 여학생이 치마를 살짝 건드린 것이라며 처벌을 원치 않는다고 진술했지만 받아들여지지 않았습니다.

처음 조사에서 속바지가 훤히 비쳐 수치스러웠다고 진술했기 때문에, 합의 과정에서 진술을 바꾼 것으로 판단한 겁니다.

대법원 역시 상고를 기각하고 박 씨에게 강제추행죄를 적용해 벌금형을 확정했습니다.

In a Seoul high school in 2013, a 56 year-old male teacher identified only as “Mr. Park” grabbed the skirt of a female student who was writing a self-introduction letter, lifting it as he accused the student of having a skirt that was too short. In the process, the student’s underwear was exposed, and Mr. Park was accused of causing an “Indecent Act by Force/Compulsion.”

In his defense, Park insisted that he did not intend for the student to expose herself, but only to grab and shake the end of the skirt to point out that it was too short. However, it was judged that raising a girl’s skirt in a classroom in front of others is always an act of sexual shaming, regardless of the intent or motivation. Consequently, he was found guilty in both his first sentencing and by the Supreme Court in his appeal, receiving a fine of 5 million won.

Back to the article:

여학생이 무조건 교복 치마만 착용하도록 여학생의 바지 착용을 교칙으로 금지한 학교도 있다. 19세기도 아닌 21세기에, 학교 밖 여성들은 자유롭게 원하는 옷을 입는데, 학교만이 아직도 여성에게 바지를 착용하지 못하게 하는 19세기에 머물러 있는 것이다.

Some schools prohibit schoolgirls from wearing pants, only allowing them to wear school uniform skirts. But this is the 21st century, not the 19th, and away from our schools girls and women can wear what they want freely. Why do schools seem so firmly entrenched in the past?

And another break already sorry, because this pants vs. skirts issue was a big deal for me back in 2011, when I was concerned that my daughters would ultimately have no choice but to attend a skirts-only Korean middle school (my eldest daughter was starting elementary school then). Fortunately, we ultimately found an underfunded but otherwise lovely multicultural school for them, which among its many other benefits doesn’t actually have a uniform. But reading the above suddenly got me was curious as to how many Korean schools still insist [only] their female students freeze every winter:

교사 ‘성차별’ 발언 등 여학생 인권침해 여전 / Teachers Are Still Violating Female Students’ Rights Through Sexist Language and Verbal Attacks

Kwon Su-jin, Veritas, 07.03.17

…여학생에게 치마교복만 입도록 할 경우 성차별적 관행이 될 수 있다는 점에서 여학생의 바지 교복 선택권을 보장해야 한다는 내용도 담았다. 2015년 서울교육청 학생생활규정 점검 결과 ‘치마와 바지 선택권 조항’이 있는 학교 비율은 중학교 73%(281교), 고등학교 59%(189교)에 그쳤다.

…it was stated that girls should have the right to choose school uniforms because it is a sex discrimination practice if girls are allowed to wear skirt school uniforms. According to the Seoul City Education Office, in 2015 the ratio of schools with optional skirts or pants was only 73 percent (281 schools) of middle schools and 59 percent (189 schools) among high schools.

Note that this only refers to Seoul schools, and that the Seoul City Council Students’ Rights Ordinance of 2011 was only followed to varying degrees by schools in the rest of the country; consequently, the nationwide figures are likely to be lower. Continuing:

‘여학생다움’을 강조한 두발, 복장 기준의 개선도 필요하다고 봤다. 여학생과 남학생에게 상이한 기준을 적용한 용의복장 규정 여부를 점검해야 한다는 내용이다. 상담 사례에 따르면 학교평판을 이유로 여학생은 춥더라도 치마만 입어야 한다는 교칙이 있는 학교도 있었다.

I [the author] think that it is necessary to improve dress codes, which currently seem to be focused on female students. It is necessary to check for double-standards. According to a case heard by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s Students’ Rights Center for instance, one school had a rule that girls should wear only skirts “because of the school’s reputation.”

Back to the main article:

학교 안의 여성들은 스타킹의 색깔마저도 하나하나 통제당한다. 이상한 점은, 스타킹 색에 관한 규제가 학교마다 통일되지 않았다는 점이다. 어떤 학교는 검은색만을, 어떤 학교는 살색만을 신게 한다. 그러나 이유는 같다. ‘야해 보이기 때문’이다. 스타킹 색마저도 성적 대상화의 소재가 되는 것이다.

The color of girls’ stockings is controlled by schools too. What is strange is that the rules for those aren’t uniform [no pun intended—James], but vary widely depending on the school. Some schools demand black stockings only, some schools demand flesh-colored ones. But in each case, the justification is the same: “It has to be dull.” It seems even stockings’ colors are considered a potential source of sexual objectification and sexualization.

응답자 A의 학교에서는 카디건을 허리에 묶는 것을 금지하는 교칙이 있었다. 허리 라인이 드러나서 선정적으로 보인다는 것이 근거라면 근거였다. 이 교칙은 여학생에게만 해당되었고, 당연하게도 여학생의 반발을 샀다. 그러자 학교가 취한 조치는 교칙을 없애는 것이 아닌 남학생에게도 똑같은 규칙을 적용하는 것이었다.

One respondent to Asunaro’s survey had a school rule that prohibited cardigans from being taken off and tied around the waist, as this was considered to draw attention to and sexualize the wearers’ waistlines. Of course, this rule only applied to girls, who complained a lot about it. In response, the school didn’t just eliminate the rule, but decided to apply it to boys as well.

머리부터 발톱까지… 그것도 모자라 속옷도 통제 / From Student’s Heads to Their Toenails…Even the Underwear They Can Wear is Controlled

여성 청소년의 속옷까지 통제하는 학교. 변화하지 않는 교칙으로 학교 안 청소년들은 억압받고 있다 / Schools Even Control Female Adolescent Girls’ Underwear. Unchanging School Rules Are Pressuring Female Students. Source: jackmack34@Pixabay.

학교는 여학생의 속옷에 관해서도 교칙을 만들어 규제한다. ‘흰색속옷, 티셔츠, 나시만 허용’, ‘작년까지는 셔츠 속에 나시 입는 것 금지, 현재는 무채색이고 프린팅 없는 티만 가능하고 꼭 입어야함. 브라만 차고 셔츠 입어도 벌점’. ‘브라 등 속옷 입지 않으면 벌점’.

Schools regulate female students’ underwear with such rules as “Only white underwear, t-shirts, and vests are allowed” at one school; at another, “Until last year, wearing vests under shirts was prohibited. Now, you have to wear a vest or t-shirt over your bra [and under your shirt], otherwise you get punished. But only black or white t-shirts are permitted, with no prints on them”; and at another “You get punished if you don’t wear a bra or other type of underwear.”

이상한 것은, 이런 교칙이 있는 대부분의 학교에서는 남학생에 관한 속옷 규제는 없는 경우가 많았다. 여학생만이 더운 여름에도 티셔츠(심지어 프린팅도 색도 없는), 나시, 브래지어를 껴입어야 하는 상황이다. 게다가 이러한 교칙들이 존재하는 이유를 물으면 ‘성범죄 유발 가능성이 있기 때문’이라고 답한다. 성범죄의 잘못이 가해자가 아닌 피해자에게 있는 것이라고 말하는 것과 같다.

Strangely, in most schools with these rules, there was usually no underwear regulation for boys. Only girls have to wear t-shirts (even with their colors regulated), vests, and bras, even in the hot summer months. In addition, if you ask what these rules are for, the answer is they’re because of the increased possibility of sex crimes without them. It’s like when such crimes occur, that it’s the victims’ faults, not the perpetrators’.

A quick addition to those rules:

바지교복 금지·생리공결제 미준수…학교 ‘여학생 인권’ 실종 / Prohibiting Pants, Not Provided Mandated Menstrual Leave…Schools Are Violating Female Students’ Rights

Anonymous author, Money Today, 07.03.2017.

불합리한 교칙으로 불편을 겪는 여학생도 있다. 서울 B고등학교는 여학생의 경우 무조건 검정구두에 흰 양말을 신어야 한다. 혹한기에만 한시적으로 운동화를 허용하기도 했으나 학교가 정한 디지인만 신을 수 있다. 이 학교에 다니는 한 여학생은 “차가운 구두를 신고 미끄러운 길을 걸을 때면 다칠까봐 불안하다”고 토로했다.

There are other ways in which female students suffer from unreasonable uniform requirements. At one high school in Seoul, girls could only white socks with black shoes, or, for a very limited time in winter, sneakers specially designed by the school. A girl at the school said, “I’m worried about getting hurt in my cold shoes when I walk on icy roads.” [I’m guessing she’s referring to the black shoes?—James.]

The next section of the main article deals with rules about cosmetics, and the sexual language used and/or stereotypes raised by teachers as they punish the students that flout them. That doesn’t just happen when enforcing cosmetics rules of course, and indeed is so often mentioned by the above articles above that I may cover it in a separate post later. But for now, the article concludes:

학교는 이처럼 아주 당연하게, 청소년을 보호 또는 교육한다는 허울 좋은 명목으로 자신이 원하는 자신의 모습을 직접 결정할 권리를 앗아간다. 이러한 학교에서 여성은 누군가에게 자신의 몸이 통제당하는 것이 이상한 일이 아니라고, 당연하다고 생각할 수밖에 없다. 학생의 모습, 학생의 표본을 교사의 권력과 폭력적인 언어로 규정하는 이상하고 작은 낡고 폐쇄적인 사회, 이런 작은 사회 안에 밀어넣어지는 여성들. 그들이 “내 몸은 내가 알아서 할게!”라고 외칠 수 있게끔 더 많은 여성청소년인권에 관한 지지와 관심이 필요하다.

Schools have to decide for themselves if they want to be known for “protecting” or for educating youth. In the meantime, the young women in them can not help but think how strange it is that their own bodies are so controlled by others. This is such a strange, small-minded, old, and closed society that judges the appearance of its students so, that allows for teachers to abuse their powers to this extent, and that so readily restrains women with such rules and such violent language. We need more support for and concern about the human rights of women and youth so that they can grow to stand up as independent adults who can say, “I will be the one to take care of my own body!”.

Source: Isabel Santos Pilot, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Let me end with a segment about a school where the students’ rights ordinance has been fully implemented, and what positive changes it has brought to the school’s educational culture:

“교복 위 패딩 안돼”…‘학생인권’ 관심 늘었지만 갈 길 멀어 / “No Padding Allowed in Uniforms”…Interest in Students’ Rights Has Increased But Still Has Far to go

Kim Ji-yun, Hankyoreh, 31.01.17

…조례가 교육 현장에서 잘 안착해 의미를 보여주고 있는 사례도 있다. 서울 금옥여자고등학교에는 ‘금옥인권위원회’라는 이름의 동아리가 있다. 소속 35명의 학생들은 차별금지와 의사표현의 자유, 학습에 관한 권리 등 조례 속 정신을 녹여낸 6개의 소위원회에서 활동한다. 이민혁 담당교사는 “학생인권, 장애인권, 여성인권, 아동학대예방 등 학생들의 관심사에 따라 자발적인 소위원회를 꾸려가고 있다”며 “고등 교육과정을 마친 학생들이 졸업 뒤 사회 구성원이 되어서도 조례로부터 시작한 관심을 지속하길 바란다”고 전했다.

There are cases where the students’ rights ordinance has been fully implemented and is beginning to have a real influence. For example, there is a club named “Geumok Human Rights Committee” in Geumok Women’s High School in Seoul. Of the 35 students that belong to it, there are further grouped into six subcommittees that focus on different areas of the ordinance, including such as discrimination prevention, freedom of expression, and the right to learning. Geumok Women’s High School teacher Lee Min-hyeok said of them, “We are making voluntary subcommittees based on students’ interests, such as student rights, disability rights, women’s human rights, and child abuse prevention.” I hope the students continue fighting for these causes after they graduate.”

이 교사는 “학생인권소위원회의 경우 최저시급, 근로계약서 작성법 등 청소년노동권을 비롯해 ‘휴식권’(조례 10조)을 주제로 야간자율학습에 관한 토론을 진행했다”며 “차별받지 않을 권리에 주목한 장애인권소위원회는 근처 중학교에서 ‘장애 이해교육’을 진행할 만큼 내실 있는 활동을 펼쳤다”고 말했다. “서울 남영동의 경찰청 인권보호센터(옛날 대공분실)를 동아리 학생들과 함께 방문한 적이 있습니다. 권리침해로부터 보호받을 권리, 양심·종교의 자유 등 조례 내용을 마중물로 근현대사 교육까지 진행할 수 있었죠.”

Lee continued, “In the case of the Student Human Rights Subcommittee, we recently had a discussion night on the theme of the minimum wage. Another subcommittee on disability rights was able to carry out activities that increased their understanding of disability education and came up with ideas that will be utilized at nearby junior high schools.[An unidentified student] said, “With my clubmates, I visited the Human Rights Protection Center of the National Police Agency in Namyeong-dong in Seoul, and learned a lot about my rights of protection, my rights of freedom of conscience and religion, and so on.”

인권동아리 단장으로 활동한 금옥여고 3학년 김조은양은 “보통 학생은 억압받는 게 당연하다고 여기는데, 조례 제정을 씨앗으로 삼아 우리의 의무와 권리에 대해 생각해볼 수 있었다”며 “성별, 나이, 장애로 차별받지 않는 사회를 꿈꾸게 됐고 조례 등 정책의 중요성도 깨닫게 됐다”고 전했다.

Kim Jo-eun, a third grade student at the school and former president of the club, said, “Students these days think it is normal to be oppressed. But using the rights ordinance as a spark, I began to learn about my human rights. I could dream of a society in which I was not oppressed, and I realized the importance of policies such as ordinances that could make that happen. “

조례를 통해 학교 문화를 민주적으로 바꾸는 사례도 있지만 갈 길은 여전히 멀다. 2015년 11월27일 서울시의회 교육위원회 장인홍 의원이 공개한 ‘(서울시교육청 관내) 중·고등학교 학교규칙 점검 결과’에 따르면, 중·고교 702곳 가운데 87%(609곳)는 여전히 교칙에 두발 길이·염색·파마 등에 관한 엄격한 규제를 두고 있다.

There are more cases where a school’s culture has become more democratic through the students’ rights ordinance, but there is still much to be done. According to a inquiry published by the Seoul Metropolitan City Council on November 27, 2015, 87 percent (609) of the 702 middle and high schools examined still had strict regulations on the dyeing and perming of hair, and so on.

Let me conclude by returning to Beck’s article in the Atlantic that inspired this post. After noting that group discussions are much more effective than lectures for changing hearts and minds, she concludes herself that:

“One real advantage of group reasoning is that you get critical feedback,” McIntyre [a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University] says. “If you’re in a silo [like Facebook], you don’t get critical feedback, you just get applause.”

But if the changes are going to happen at all, it’ll have to be “on a person-to-person level,” Shaw says.

He tells me about a patient of his, whose family is involved in “an extremely fundamentalist Christian group. [The patient] has come to see a lot of problems with the ideology and maintains a relationship with his family in which he tries to discuss in a loving and compassionate way some of these issues,” [former cult member Daniel Shaw] says. “He is patient and persistent, and he chips away, and he may succeed eventually.”

“But are they going to listen to a [news] feature about why they’re wrong? I don’t think so.”

When someone does change their mind, it will probably be more like the slow creep of Shaw’s disillusionment with his guru. He left “the way most people do: Sort of like death by a thousand cuts.”

And on that note, please do share this post with friends, family members, and/or coworkers that you wouldn’t usually—if just one changes their mind, then the last two weeks(!) spent on it will have been worth it. And who knows? Maybe that person’s influence will ultimately lead to a school changing its uniform rules too.

Please also note that I’ve never taught in a Korean school, and haven’t taught Korean teens in over seven years, so I would really appreciate any feedback on anything in this post, especially if you have any recent experience at/with either. Thanks!

Feminazi Killjoys Target Cute Children’s Song

And I’m one of them:

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(Source: Instiz)

Here’s a transcript:

‘아빠 힘내세요’라는 동요 아시죠.

Anchor: You know the song Cheer Up Father, yes?

어깨 축 쳐진 아빠에게 아이들이 용기를 줬던 노래인데 이 노래가 양성평등을 저해한다는 판정이 나와 문화관광부가 해명자료까지 내는 소동이 벌어졌습니다.

This is the song which gives encouragement to exhausted, depressed fathers, but it has been recently criticized for hindering gender equality. In response, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism issued a statement clarifying what the song is really about.

무슨일인지, 박철현 기자가 보도합니다.

Park Cheol-hyon reports:

“아빠 힘내세요, 우리가 있잖아요”

1997년 발표된 동요 ‘아빠 힘내세요’입니다.

“Dad, cheer up/be strong, you have us”: this is the children’s song released in 1997.

“IMF때 굉장히 많이 들어봤고요. 아이들이 보자마자 불러줬을 때 저절로 힘도 났고..”

Cho Hong-joon, Person on the street #1:

“I heard this song a lot during the IMF Crisis. It  cheered me up when my kids sang it to me”.

그런데 문화관광부는 이 노래가 우리 사회 양성 평등 의식을 해치는 대표적인 사례 중 하나라는 연구 결과를 발표했습니다.

However, in a statement of research results released by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, this song was given as an example of something hindering gender equality awareness.

이 노래가 경제활동을 하는 것은 남성이라는 고정 관념을 키워준다는 겁니다.

This song encourages the notion that it is only men that should partake in economic activity.

특히 엄마가 요리하면서 아빠를 기다리는 만화 동영상은 여성은 가사 노동만 한다는 선입견을 심어줄 수 있다고 지적했습니다.

In particular, a popular accompanying video for the song depicts women cooking while waiting for their husbands, perpetuating traditional gender roles.

[James: Actually, only one of videos shown in the report does that; it can be viewed here.]

“여자들도 많이 일을 하고 더 힘들어요. 여자가 들어봤을 때는 별로인 것 같아요.”

Park Hyeon-joo, Person on the street #2:

“Women work a lot, and it’s harder for us. When they hear it, women don’t care for this song.”

하지만 황당하다는 반응이 많습니다.

But many people replied that the criticisms were nonsense.

“노래는 노래일 뿐이지, 거기에 그런 의미를 부여한다면 그게 더 문제..”

Jeon Byeong-rok, person on the street #3:

“This song is just a song, it only becomes problematic if you read too much into it.”

노래를 만든 현직 초등학교 교사 한수성씨는 가사는 아내가 썼고 이 노래로 국무총리 표창까지 받았다며 황당해했습니다.

The song writer Han Soo-seong, who is an elementary school teacher, said that the lyrics were written by his wife, and pointed out that he received an award from the Prime Minister for it.

“가사가 그렇게 깊은 뜻을 담고 있는 지 몰랐습니다. 말도 안되는 거죠”

“I don’t think that the lyrics have that deeper [sexist] meaning. It’s ridiculous to say so.”

논란이 커지자 문화관광부는 양성 평등 교육에 참고하라고 진행된 연구 결과일 뿐 유해 가요로 지정한 건 아니라고 해명했습니다.

In response to the controversy, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism clarified that the research was only conducted to further the cause of gender equality, not naming and shaming. (End.)

This report is actually a few years old. But the topic still regularly pops up in my Google Keyword Alerts and on Twitter, albeit usually only leading to Ilbe and DC Inside users having a good laugh at the feminazis. Emboldened perhaps, by the Ministry’s criticisms falling on such deaf ears.

Because it’s still taught to just about every Korean child, even those too young to understand it:

Demanding it of guests is still part of the repertoire of the variety-show hosts, used to elicit infantilized gender performances from girl-group members. For instance, from 20 year-old Yoo-a of Oh My Girl below (which is not to say her tears aren’t genuine):

It’s still such an ingrained part of Korean culture, that even insurance company employees will name their project teams after it, and the media will raise it in reports about the dutiful daughters of male politicians (as well as commenting on their beauty):

yoo-seung-min-yoo-dam-daughter(Source: Asiae)

And finally, because Korean fathers still work among the longest hours in the world, and wish they could be home in time to see their families. As this recent feel-good advertisement makes clear:

Who else but a feminazi would deprive Korean fathers of such a small source of joy?

But wait. Most of those examples above aren’t exactly compelling reasons to continue teaching the song to children. What’s more, even if you still don’t find the song problematic, or how it’s used, there remains the inconvenient fact that MOTHERS WORK TOO:

%ec%95%84%eb%b9%a0-%ed%9e%98%eb%82%b4%ec%84%b8%ec%9a%94%ea%b0%80-%ec%97%ac%ec%84%b1%ec%b0%a8%eb%b3%84-%eb%ac%b8%ed%99%94%ea%b4%80%ea%b4%91%eb%b6%80-%ed%95%b4%eb%aa%85%ea%b9%8c%ec%a7%80(“Women work a lot, and it’s harder for us. When they hear it, women don’t care for this song.”)

Is Park Hyeon-ju referring to work inside the house, outside, or both? A song about the former would hardly challenge traditional gender roles. Yet even that would be an improvement on something that only acknowledges the work of men. Twenty years after Cheer Up Father was written, it’s high time to acknowledge its flaws, and to begin teaching children something much more inclusive.

My suggestion is for the government to arrange a national songwriting competition. It should be determined by popular vote (the public tends to be better judges of what’s catchy), with the winning entry to replace Cheer Up Father in kindergartens and elementary schools.

Do any readers know of any examples like that from other countries? How did they go?

Update: A friend mentioned it would be a pity to lose such a catchy song, and jokingly suggested replacing appa “아빠” (father) with eomppa “엄빠,” a combination of appa and eomma “엄마” (mother) which is actually a word already, although one of those ones everyone knows but has never actually used. But I’d be all for that, especially if the videos and songbook illustrations were changed accordingly. While using the word would be awkward at first, much of this blog is about Korean companies’ and the media’s proclivity for inventing new labels and buzzwords, many—most—of which were also very awkward at first, but some of which have definitely stuck. So why not?

Related Posts:

노출이 강간 유혹?…허튼소리 말라 Wearing Revealing Clothes Leads to Rape? Don’t Be Absurd

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 11)
%eb%85%b8%ec%b6%9c%ec%9d%b4-%ea%b0%95%ea%b0%84-%ec%9c%a0%ed%98%b9-%ed%97%88%ed%8a%bc%ec%86%8c%eb%a6%ac-%eb%a7%90%eb%9d%bc(Caption: 이렇게 입으면 혼난다?: 경찰청의 과다 노출 단속 지침은 그 기준이 애매해 단속 경찰관과 대상자들 간에 갈등이 생길 것으로 예상된다. If you dress like this, you’ll get a telling-off? Police guidelines for cracking down on excessive exposure are vague; disputes between the police and public are expected)

I react pretty strongly when people claim I have no place writing about Korean feminism.

Partially, simply from turning 40. Because when you do, you realize that half of your life has passed, and that you probably have less than half remaining. Suddenly, you have zero time and patience for other people’s bullshit.

It’s quite liberating, frankly.

The second reason is more personal. I’ve emigrated five times. The first time, from the U.K. to New Zealand with my family, when I was 11. Which means that for nearly 30 years now, I’ve had people lecturing me about how I couldn’t possibly ever understand some things about where I lived, simply because I wasn’t born and raised there.

So, I was already sick and tired of that before I came to Korea. Once I got my bearings, I was never going to put up with it for very long.

Where Korea differs from other countries I’ve lived in though, is that I didn’t really need to with Koreans. Not after a couple of years here, anyway. Maybe it’s just because I’m writing in English, but it’s always been more other expats and people outside of the country who would place limits on what are appropriate subjects for me to write about, solely based on my sex and ethnicity.

That’s not to say I don’t have many limitations with being a white, middle-aged, cisgender, heterosexual man working on the subjects I cover. Of course I do. When those raise legitimate issues in my writing, I can but do my best to overcome them, and to constantly remind myself of the importance of listening and research.

It’s also important to remember to sometimes write provocative and unusual introductions too, to make sure I’m actually read.

In that vein, this one, I hope, explains why I am so interested in “framing” with regards to Korean feminism, sexuality, and pop-culture, and why I chafe so much when their many gatekeepers tell me I can’t ask questions.

Which brings me to this week’s post: a magazine article from 1996(!), about a police crackdown on women’s revealing clothing that summer. Originally, I just planned to translate it for its own sake, for reasons I’ll explain later. I was also tempted to trick you by only revealing its age at the end, to highlight just how little victim-blaming attitudes have changed in 21 years. But, knowing that dominant media and governmental discourses about women’s bodies and revealing clothing would change so radically just 6 years later, and especially with the second, K-pop-led Korean wave from 2006, I realized the contrast served as a chilling reminder of how brazen and manipulative our designated authorities can be, and how quickly they can make a volte-face when it serves their interests.

What will you take away from it?

The Chosun Ilbo August 7 2015 Korean Women Korean Flag Korean Nationalism(Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification. Source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 7 2015.)

[문화현실] 노출이 강간 유혹?…허튼소리 말라 Wearing Revealing Clothes Leads to Rape? Don’t Be Absurd.

과다 노출→성충동→성범죄’ 물증 없어…경찰의 단속은 여성에게 올가미 씌우기. There is no evidence for the notion that revealing clothing leads to sexual urges, leads to sexual assaults. This police crackdown is victim-blaming.

by Seong Woo-jae, Sisa Journal, 12 September 1996

지난 여름은 여성의 노출이 그 어느 때보다 심했다. 80년대 말부터 불기 시작한 60~70년대풍 복고 바람에다, ‘육체도 패션의 한 요소’라는 새로운 인식이 덧붙었기 때문이다. 젊은 여성들의 거리 패션은 육체 그 자체와 육체의 선을 선명하게 드러내는 특징을 보였다. 광적인 다이어트 열풍도 여기에 합세해 날씬한 몸매를 과시하는 노출을 한껏 부채질했다.

This summer, women have been wearing more revealing clothing than ever before. This is because of the drive, since the late-1980s, to restore the freedom of the fashions of the 1960s to the [early-]1970s, and because of the new belief that one’s body is also a fashion item. Young women’s street fashions now emphasize and clearly display their figures. A fanatical dieting boom is also adding to this desire to display one’s body.

그런데 여름이 다 가고 가을이 오는 마당에 노출의 계절이 ‘연장’되고 있다. 국가 공권력도 복고풍의 영향을 받은 것일까. 지난 8월25일 경찰청은 70년대에 ‘유행’했던 복장 단속을 실시하겠다고 발표했다. 경범죄처벌법 제1조 제41항 ‘과다 노출’ 규정을 적용해 불특정 다수 또는 다수인의 눈에 띄는 장소에서 ‘알몸을 지나치게 내놓은 행위’등을 단속하라는 지침을 일선 파출소에 보냈다.

But the summer is almost over, and the autumn is coming. Yet still, the season for showing off one’s body seems never-ending. In response, the government’s zeal to crackdown on such fashions has also risen. On the 25th of August, the police announced that they will be invoking Clothing Misdemeanor Law, Chapter 1, Clause 41, to launch a crackdown on clothes, with guidelines sent to regional departments. (Just like in the 1970s.)

경찰청은 △여성의 신체 노출이 점점 과다해지는 추세인데, 유림 및 시민단체에서 강력히 단속해 달라는 건의가 있고 △과다 노출이 풍기 문란 및 성범죄의 원인이 되고 있는 실정이며 △배꼽 및 상반신 과다 노출에 대해 무죄가 선고되어 소극적 단속을 해왔다는 사실이 이번 단속의 배경이라고 설명했다.

Explaining the background to this crackdown, the police stated:

  1. Women’s body exposure is increasing, and civic groups’ suggestions and requests to counter this have increased in response.
  2. Excessive exposure is becoming a cause of excessive PDA and sexual crimes
  3. Exposing the navel and more of the breasts have so far been considered publicly acceptable, and so the police have not actively cracked down on it. [Attitudes are hardening however.]

70%eb%85%84%eb%8c%80-%eb%af%b8%eb%8b%88-%ec%8a%a4%ec%bb%a4%ed%8a%b8%ec%99%80-%ec%9e%98%eb%a6%ac%eb%8a%94-%ec%9e%a5%eb%b0%9c-70%eb%85%84%eb%8c%80-%ec%b4%88-%ec%82%ac%ec%a7%84%ec%9d%b4%eb%8b%a4(Caption: 70년대 미니 스커트와 잘리는 장발: 70년대 초 사진이다. 당시 경찰관들은 30cm 자를 들고 다니며 여성들의 치마 길이를 쟀고, 짧은 치마를 입지 못하도록 무릎 위를 때려 빨갛게 만들기도 했다. 장발은 당시 젊은이들이 정권의 물리적 위협에 반발하는 일종의 문화적 저항 행위이기도 했다. 90년대 들어 남성들은 경찰관이 머리를 자르지 않아도 머리를 깎는 경찰관(위 사진 왼쪽)과 같은 머리 모양을 하고 있다.)

(A woman wearing a mini-skirt and men’s hair being forcibly cut in the eary-1970s. Back then, the police carried 30cm rulers with them and measured women’s skirt lengths; if they were too short, they hit the women above the knees until they were red. Meanwhile, young men grew their hair long as a rebellious act of defiance against the government. [Prompting the police to cut it off.] In the 1990s, however, young men tend to have the same hairstyles as the police.)

경찰의 뒤늦은 단속을 지켜보며 풍기 문란을 염려해오던 쪽에서는 잘한 일이라며 응원을 보내고 있지만, 또 한쪽에서는 ‘시대착오적인 발상’이라며 비판을 서슴지 않는다.

There have generally been two kinds of responses to this crackdown from the public. On the one hand, people are relieved that the police are dealing with the excessive exposure. On the other, that this is a big step backward, which is completely out of touch with the changing times.

한국은 92년부터 스웨덴을 제치고, 미국에 이어 성폭력 세계 2위라는 오명을 안고 있다. 성범죄를 예방하기 위한 당국의 고육책인지 모르지만, 경찰청의 단속 지침은 예방보다는 성범죄와 관련한 통념, 즉 ‘여성의 몸가짐에도 잘못이 있다’는 고정 관념을 더욱 고착화할 것이라는 우려를 낳고 있다.

Since 1992, Korea has had the second highest rate of sexual assaults in the world, overtaking Sweden [James: I think the author actually meant in the OECD. Either way, both Korea and Sweden’s high rankings beg further investigation, but unfortunately no source is given for them]. This crackdown may be a desperate response to that, but the police guidelines have more to do with laying the blame on women and their bodies than with genuine preventive measures. There is a worry that the crackdown will lead to greater victim-blaming and bias against and stereotyping of women.

문제는 과다 노출이 성 ‘충동’이 아닌 성 ‘범죄’의 직접적인 원인이 되고 있느냐 하는 점이다. 한국여성의전화•한국성폭력상담소 등 관련 단체에 따르면, 노출 패션이 성범죄와 직접 관련이 있다는 근거는 없다. 조사 자료를 살펴보면, 성폭행을 당한 여성 중 19세 미만이 50% 이상(13세 미만은 전체의 30%)으로 노출 패션과 거의 관련이 없는 학생층이 절반 이상을 차지하고 있다.

The issue here is that while greater exposure does greater sexual urges, but does it lead to greater sexual crimes? This needs to be determined. According to the Korea Women’s Hot Line and the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, there is no evidence of a relationship. A survey of female rape victims (50% of whom were under 19, 30% of whom were under 13), shows that they were not wearing revealing clothes at their time of their rape.

다음은, 성폭력이 계절과 관련이 있다고 보는 인식의 문제이다. 노출의 계절이라고 해서 성폭력이 증가하는 것은 아니다. 성폭력 발생 빈도는 계절과 관련이 없다. 게다가 성범죄에서 가해자와 피해자의 관계를 보면, 친인척•직장 상사•데이트 상대•교사•동네 사람 등 아는 사람이 70% 이상을 차지하고, 모르는 사람의 경우도 대부분 계획된 범죄를 저지른다. 노출 패션이 성 충동을 불러일으킬지는 몰라도, 성폭력과 직접적인 관련이 있다는 근거는 없는 것이다.

Next, the notion that sexual violence is related to the season is also problematic. In fact, they are completely unrelated; so, just because it is the summer, it doesn’t mean there will be a spike in sex crimes. Moreover, if you break down the statistics of sex crimes based on the relationship between the perpetrators and victims, more than 70% are relatives, coworkers, dates, teachers, neighbors, and so on. Also, in the cases of perpetrators unknown to the victims, their crimes tend to premeditated. In other words, they are planned and executed regardless of the clothing of the victim at the time. So, there is no evidence for a direct relationship between exposure and sex crimes.

“경찰력 과다 노출이 노출 패션보다 심각” “The Excessive Use of Police Power is a More Serious Problem then Excessive Exposure”

성충동, 곧 성욕이 성폭력을 낳는 것도 아니다. 한국여성의전화 정춘숙 부장은 “성폭력은 여성을 성적 대상으로 삼아 지배하는 행위이지, 성욕과는 별 관계가 없다. 성폭력의 대상이 반항하지 못하는 어린 연령층으로 자꾸 내려가는 추세는 이 때문이다”라고 말했다. 일반적으로 성폭행은, 자기가 처한 환경에 대해 분노나 소외감을 갖는 이들이 자기보다 약한 사람을 지배하거나 통제력을 행사하는 차원에서 이루어지는, 철저한 권력의 문제인 것으로 알려져 있다.”

Sexual desire doesn’t a role in sex crimes. Jeong Choon-sook, the director of the Korean Women’s Hot Line, said, “Sex crimes are a case of dominance targeting women sexually; they are little related to sexual urges. This is why the targets of sexual crimes are getting younger over time.” In general, sex crimes are known to be power games. So those who have feelings of loneliness or anger about their situation, they want to control those [they consider] weaker than themselves.

경찰청이 단속의 근거로 내세운 ‘과다 노출→성충동→성범죄’화살표 공식은, 단순한 심증만 있을 뿐 확실한 물증이 없다. 경찰청의 단속은, 노출 패션을 성범죄의 원인으로 간주함으로써 1차적 책임을 가해자가 아닌 피해자에게 돌릴 개연성을 안고 있다. 또 과다 노출을 성범죄와 연관시킴으로써 여성뿐 아니라 남성들마저 모욕하고 있다는 비판을 받고 있다.

There is little evidence to support the police’s logic that excessive exposure leads to sex crimes. Consequently, their crackdown has a strong possibility of victim-blaming, based solely on the victims’ clothing. The police have also received complaints that men can not control themselves in the face of excessive exposure belittles men also.

“경찰이 여전히 ‘여성 유발론’이라는 통념을 갖고 있다는 사실을 보여주는 단속이다. 여성에게 1차적 책임을 묻는 것은 가해자인 남성에게 면죄부를 주는 일이자, 피해자인 여성에게는 또 하나의 올가미를 씌우는 일이다.” 한국성폭력상담소 최영애 소장의 말이다.

According to Choi Yeong-ae, director of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, “This crackdown clearly shows that the police still subscribe to the conventional wisdom that women can be partially responsible for their rape. This indulges male perpetrators, and frames women.”

%eb%aa%a8%ed%98%b8%ed%95%9c-%eb%8b%a8%ec%86%8d-%ea%b8%b0%ec%a4%80-%ec%a7%80%eb%82%98%ec%b9%9c-%ec%95%a0%ec%a0%95-%ed%91%9c%ed%98%84%eb%8f%84-%ea%b2%bd%ec%b0%b0%ec%9d%98-%eb%8b%a8패션, 그 가운데서도 거리 패션은 한 시대의 정치•사회•문화 환경과 그로 인한 심리를 민감하게 반영한다고 알려져 있다. 신경정신과 전문의 신승철씨(광혜병원 원장)의 분석을 들어 보자. “정신분석학으로 보면, 노출 패션은 단순해지는 인간 관계에서 말미암는 것으로 보인다. 인간 관계에서 자꾸 소외되다 보면 몸을 통한 자기 표현 욕구가 극대화한다.”

Considering fashion, street fashion represents people’s feelings and thoughts about the politics, society, culture, and environment of its era. Neuro-psychologist Shin Sung-cheol, head of Gwanghye Hospital in Seoul, said, “According to psychoanalytic research, wearing revealing clothing comes from a need for relationships. People experiencing loneliness and/or who feel left out a lot experience an increased urge to express themselves through their bodies.”

[James: This is just as bizarre as the notion that revealing clothing is a cause of rape, and it hardly advances the author’s argument. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a mistake with my translation.]

경찰청의 단속 발표를 시대착오적인 발상이라고 비판하는 정유성 교수(서강대•교육학)는, 문제는 결국 여성의 노출이 아니라 성을 지배하고 소유하려는 남성들의 음험한 눈이라고 말했다. 어떻게 보이느냐가 중요한 것이 아니라, 어떻게 보느냐가 중요하다는 지적이다.

Education professor Jeong Yoo-seong of Sogang University, who criticized the police’s crackdown, described it as outdated, and that the problem is not women’s exposure, but rather an insidious desire of men to control and police women’s bodies. The issue is not with attracting the male gaze, but with the male gazers.

(Caption: 모호한 단속 기준:‘지나친 애정 표현’도 경찰의 단속 대상이다. Vague crackdown guidelines; public displays of affection are also a target.)

경찰청이 정한 단속 기준은 대부분 모호하다. ‘알몸을 지나치게 내놓은 행위’ ‘보는 사람으로 하여금 수치심을 느끼게 하는 행위’‘불쾌감을 주는 행위’등 단속 경찰관의 주관적·개인적 판단에 맡길 수밖에 없는 기준들이다.

The majority of the police’s guidelines are rather vague. Things like “revealing one’s body excessively,” “acts which make people feel embarrassed and humiliated,” “acts that cause discomfort among others,” and so on are extremely subjective.

korean-overexposure-laws(Image not in original article. Source: KLAWGURU)

“70년대의 장발 단속이 지금은 웃음거리가 된 것처럼, 이번 경우도 나중에 웃음거리밖에 안되는 단속이 될 것이다. 데모대에 총기 사용을 불사하겠다, 고무 총탄을 쓰겠다는 발표와 더불어 민주화 이후의 개방 분위기에 역행하는 조처로 보인다”라고 전상인 교수(한림대·사회학)는 말했다. 전교수는 시민 사회에서 숨어 있어야 할 경찰의 ‘과다 노출’이 ‘패션 노출’보다 더 심각한 문제라고 지적했다.

Just like crackdowns on long hair in the 1970s are now considered laughable, this one will be too. Sociology Professor Jeon Sang-in of Hallym University said “This crackdown is an anti-democratic step backward, on a par with statements like ‘We will shoot protestors.'” He pointed out “Police excessive use of power is more serious than excessive exposure. Police are supposed to blend in seamlessly into civil society.”

“과다 노출이 비록 눈살을 찌푸리게 하는 일이더라도, 그것은 개인이 결정하는 자기 표현의 한 방법이므로 그 나름으로 존중해 줘야 한다. 성폭력을 방지하는 길은, 이런 유치한 수준의 단속이 아니라 성 태도 교육을 비롯해 사회 전체가 성문화에 대해 공개적이고 진지하게 성찰해야 가능하다” 라고 정유성 교수는 말했다.

“Even though excessive exposure can be something to frown upon, it is an individual’s decision to make as well as a way of expressing oneself. This is something to be respected,” continued Jeong Yoo-seong. “In order to prevent sex crimes, the public should be educated about sexual attitudes and public sex culture. Not endure childish crackdowns like this.”

경찰청의 노출 단속은 촌극으로 끝날 가능성이 많다. 일간지의 독자투고 난과 컴퓨터 통신을 통해 반대 여론이 거세지자 ‘주의를 환기하자는 뜻에서 발표했다’고 경찰청 관계자가 밝히고 있거니와, 무엇보다 노출의 계절이 지나갔기 때문이다. 게다가 패션 주기가 급격하게 짧아지고 있는 만큼 내년 여름이면 또 다른 유행이 거리 패션을 휩쓸지도 모른다.

The police’s crackdown is more likely to end in comedy than anything else. Because, as opposition has increased among the public, the police have since responded that “The announcement of the crackdown was just intended to make people more cautious.” The season of excessive exposure is almost over, and fashions change rapidly. Maybe next summer, even modesty might come back in style. (End.)

That extra reason I just wanted to post this translation just for the sake of it? Simply because it came from one of many popular tweets I’ve saved, from my Hootsuite Twitter feeds for “페미니즘,” “여성주의,” and so on, where I’m constantly finding interesting new stuff to read instead of writing. Whats more, unlike gender studies as an academic discipline here, which my professor friends lament is still grappling with second-wave feminism, I’ve found the Korean feminist Twitterverse to be really quite vibrant and progressive. I highly recommend following it, even if your Korean isn’t fluent enough to follow the links—just the tweets themselves provide convenient, bite-sized Korean practice.

I highly recommend following KLAWGURU too, who wrote about a change that has actually been made since 1996. In November last year, Korea’s exposure law was found unconstitutional, because its wording was too vague and subjective (see above). Ironically and perhaps tellingly however, it was a man contesting his fine for being half-naked in public that led to it being re-examined:

Thoughts?

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

Korean Media Misogyny: Not worth monitoring?

korean-media-misogyny(Source, edited: tiffany terry; CC BY 2.0)

You know the media plays some role in perpetuating misogyny—let’s just take that as a given.

Let’s also take it as a given that the first step in dealing with a problem is determining how big it is. For a government that wants to show it’s serious about misogyny, that means setting up an organization tasked with monitoring it in the media, rather than simply relying on the public and NGOs. It means actually acting on what that organization finds too, challenging instances as they occur.

In Korea, the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) is given those responsibilities, under the auspices of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s Mass Media Sexual Equality Monitoring Project. And, judging by social media these days, its hands must be full:

korean-media-violence-misogyny(Source: IZE Magazine)

Unfortunately however, today’s story below is not so much about the heroic KIGEPE doing a sterling job under difficult circumstances, as about it not being given enough resources to do its job whatsoever. In short, the government just seems to be going through the motions, rather than really grappling with some of the underlying causes of misogyny.

Perhaps that same attitude also explains why there has been a rise in sex crimes and gender inequality under the Park Geun-hye administration, as well as its repeated attacks on women’s reproductive rights?

여성가족부, 대중매체 성차별 표현 개선요청 6년 간 단 21건

Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Monitors Sexual Discrimination in Mass Media for 6 Years, But Makes Only 21 Requests to Challenge Cases in That Time

공감신문, 04.11.2016, 김송현 기자 By Kim Song-hyeon, GoKorea.

지난 2일 박주민 국회의원(더불어민주당/서울 은평갑)이 여성가족부로부터 제출받은 자료에 따르면 여가부는 2010년부터 “대중매체 양성평등 모니터링 사업”을 실시한 이후 6년 간 진행한 개선요청이 21건에 불과하다고 밝혔다. 이 가운데 권고 등 시정조치가 이루어진 경우는 4건에 그쳤다.

This November 2, Congressperson Park Ju-min (Seoul Unpyeong District, Democratic Party of Korea), claimed that, according to materials provided by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, its Mass Media Sexual Equality Monitoring Project has only made 21 requests to remove or adapt offending segments in over 6 years of operation. Out of these requests, only 4 resulted in action actually being taken.

한국양성평등교육진흥원은 여가부로부터 예산 지원을 받아 2010년부터 대중매체를 모니터링해 성차별·편견·비하를 드러낸 내용에 대해 개선을 요청하는 사업을 진행해왔다. 그러나 모니터링 기간은 짧았고 그 대상범위도 협소하였다.

The Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education is responsible for the monitoring, under the auspices of the Ministry. From 2010 onwards, the institute has been monitoring mass media for cases of sexual discrimination, sexual prejudice, and sexual insults. But the actual monitoring period each year is very short.

지난해 대중매체 양성평등 모니터링은 방송의 경우 단 1-2주의 기간 동안 10개 방송사에 대해서 이루어졌으며, 인터넷 포털사이트 내의 언론기사의 경우 35개 매체에 대해 단 1주일만 모니터링이 이루어졌다. 신문의 경우 월마다 신문사를 지정하여 6개월 간 6개의 신문을 모니터링했다.

Last year, the institute’s monitoring period of the 10 main television channels was only 1-2 weeks long, and 1 week for 35 news portal websites. For newspapers, 1 newspaper is chosen to be examined per month, up to a total of 6 newspapers in 6 months.

2016년 9월 기준으로 언론중재법에 따라 등록된 언론사의 수는 지상파 48개, 종합유선(위성)방송 31개, 방송채널 241개, 신문 등 간행물 16,520개에 이르고 있다. 최근 인터넷을 통한 개인방송이 늘어나는 실정까지 감안하면 여성가족부의 사업 규모가 지나치게 작다는 지적이 나오는 이유이다.

However, as of September the number of mass media-related outlets includes 48 main TV channels, 31 satellite channels, 241 cable channels, and 16,520 print publications. Considering the recent rapid growth of personal broadcasting on the internet also, the institute’s monitoring of the media is clearly inadequate.

여가부는 모니터링 사업에 지난 2014년부터 매년 3,600만원의 예산을 지원해왔다. 최근 온라인상 각종 혐오 문제가 대두되면서 이 사업의 확대실시와 내실화를 위해 예산을 늘려야한다는 목소리가 정치권에서 제기되었음에도, 여성가족부는 2017년 예산안으로 전년도와 동일한 3,600만원을 편성하였다.

From 2014, each year the Ministry has provided 36 million won in funds to the institute. [James: To get a sense of how much that is, that’s the annual salary of a completely hypothetical lowly assistant professor.] This amount has continued at this level despite the increasing problems of misogyny in Korea society however, and the growing calls to expand the monitoring project and funds made available.

박주민 의원은 “대중매체에 실린 혐오 표현은 부지불식간에 확산되기 쉽기 때문에 성평등한 문화 조성을 방해하는 심각한 요인으로 작용할 수 있다”고 지적했다. 또한 “갈수록 늘어나는 온라인 매체를 고려하면 예산을 증액하여 사업을 내실화할 필요가 있다”이라고 지적했다.

Congressperson Park Ju-min pointed out that “Expressions of misogyny in the mass media can easily spread and negatively impact on efforts to achieve sexual equality.” Also, “Considering the increasing growth of the online mass media, a reorganization of the project and more funds are urgently needed.” (End.)

kang-yong-suk-international-marriage(Source: MLBPark)

Another article gives a few more details about those 4 cases that were acted upon:

지난해 한 예능 프로그램에서 방송인 강용석 씨가 “외국신부를 데리고 와서 결혼하는 바람에 사회적인 문제로 번질 가능성이 굉장히 높다”는 내용의 발언을 하는 장면에 대해 방통심의위원회가 권고 조치를 내고, 한 음악 프로그램에서는 그룹가수 출신 위너 송민호가 “딸내미 저격 산부인과처럼 다 벌려”라는 가사로 랩을 해 방심위가 과징금을 부과했다.

Last year, on one entertainment program [above], the [controversial] panel-member Gang yong-seok said “The more marriages there are to foreign women, the more social problems Korea will have.” However, The Korea Communications Standards Commission simply let him off with a warning. Next, the singer Song Min-ho was fined for rapping, “I’m targeting your daughters; [they’ll] spread their legs like they’re at a gyno’s'” on a music program.

또 한 신문사는 특정 외국배우의 신체부위를 필요 이상으로 세밀하게 표현하고 선정적인 사진을 게시해 한국신문윤리위원회로부터 ‘주의’ 조치를 받았다.

한 드라마에서는 여성에게 술잔을 던지며 폭력을 행사하는 장면에 대해 방심위가 의견을 제시하는 등 2건의 조치가 이루어졌다.

Also, one newspaper received a warning for posting unnecessarily revealing pictures of a foreign actress. And finally, in one drama, they suggested alternatives to a scene in which a male character attacked a female one by throwing a glass of alcohol at her. (End.)

I’ve been unable to find out which newspaper and which drama sorry; if you do, please let me know thanks, and I’ll consider translating this (frankly) much more interesting related article, which provides some positive examples of combating sexual inequality and stereotypes too.

Update: Korea Bizwire reported back in September that the “The Korea Communications Standards Commission announced…[it] will be revising its regulations on broadcasting deliberation in an effort to promote gender equality on television programs and for online video content.” Given that it already said something similar in April however, as did the Ministry in January, then you can understand Park Ju-min for raising a fuss.

Related Reading:

(Guest Post) Misogyny is Sexy: The power structure of sex

korean-misogyny-k-pop(Source, left: Isabel Santos Pilot; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Source, right: SenseiAlan; CC BY 2.0. Both pictures edited.)

The 2016 US presidential election can be viewed as a struggle for power. Not only was it a struggle for political power, but there was a very basic struggle that permeated throughout the entire election season — the struggle between men and women. Late into last Tuesday night, we saw Donald Trump, a man with a history of misogyny, triumph over Hillary Clinton and dashing the hopes of those wishing to see the first female president in US history. As I sat in my living room watching the results unfold, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Misogyny is sexy.”

Misogyny, defined as an ingrained prejudice against women, is at its core an ideology which allows the man to assert power and dominance over the woman. This can be manifested in many variations, a prominent form of which is portrayed through the culture of sex. Misogyny is highly embedded into the culture of sex in that sex is often times presented as a power trip for men. Under the context of misogyny, women are the gatekeepers of sex and men are the conquerors who must get past the gatekeeper in order to claim the prize. By viewing sex as a competition of man versus woman, misogyny is inherently at play. In this cat and mouse game, the woman is initially presented as having the upper hand and the man’s goal is to shift the balance of power by conquering the woman through obtaining sex. In essence, misogyny is normalized in this kind of relationship and, in turn, a man’s dominance over a woman is at the very center of this culture of sex.

As with any form of culture, its inherent values are often highlighted in the media, and K-pop is no exception. Misogyny is widely at play in many concepts, storylines, and character tropes of our favorite groups and idols. It’s the normalization of misogyny, and its influence on our perception of sex, which makes some of these examples so subtle and hard to distinguish. However, it’s important to recognize misogyny in the things we consume and to identify the difference between what’s sexy and what’s sexist.

The roots of misogyny appear in many forms among a wide variety of cultures. Many civilizations have a popular mythology which represents the female embodiment of wrongdoing in which the foundation of misogyny resides. The most well-known of these mythological scapegoats among Christian societies is the story of Eve and the Original Sin which resulted in man’s exile from the Garden of Eden. Under the influence of the snake, Eve bites the apple despite God’s specific instructions not to and, as a result, Adam and Eve are booted from paradise. By listening to the treacherous snake and indulging in the Tree of Knowledge, Eve decided that knowledge was worth the price of utopia, and her female descendants have had to bear the scorn of her mistake ever since. The characteristics of the snake, the embodiment of deceit and evil, also happen to be attributed to Eve.

Ancient Greece introduced the idea of women as dangerous creatures who lured unknowing male seamen into shipwreck by their irresistible song. The Sirens of Homer’s The Odyssey are a prominent example of the demonization of women in popular mythology. They are the classic representation of a trope which depicts women as duplicitous, treacherous, and all the while irresistible to their male victims. The song sung by the Sirens introduces an element of temptation. The allure of their song can easily be interpreted as the irresistible offer of sex which draws in unsuspecting men. Very much like Eve’s snake, the Siren’s song is another embodiment of the deceitful and ill-intent female. In the case of the Sirens, these females are directly portrayed as villains and their ill-intent is specifically targeted at men.

Korea is not without its share of misogynistic roots in its popular mythology, the most prevalent of which is the Kumiho. As legend would have it, a nine-tailed fox that lives for a thousand years turns into a shapeshifting creature who’s out to ingest men. One of its most poignant tricks is to change into the shape of a seductive woman in order to attract men and devour them. While comparisons to the Sirens can be easily drawn, the Kumiho is certainly much more vicious in her deceit. The premise of shapeshifting, the ability to look like anyone or anything, can be truly horrifying when the creature is clearly a predator out for the blood of men. At best it’s a trope which adds to the element of deceit introduced by the Sirens, but at worst it may also be viewed as a painstaking metaphor for women who seem insincere, double-dealing, and generally untrustworthy — terms which happen to be associated with Hillary Clinton.

Not surprisingly, the Kumiho is often depicted as the Korean version of the treacherous, man-hating woman whenever she appears in K-dramas and in K-pop MVs. T-ara’s “Bo Peep Bo Peep” depicts the Kumiho as a seductive woman who frequents nightclubs to lure her prey, not unlike the monster in the Species franchise. There’s also this A-Jax MV which combines an odd mishmash of mythologies.

Woori, formerly of girl group Rainbow, plays a villainous mix of Eve, Siren, and Kumiho all at once. The boys are on some deserted island which may indicate that they were shipwrecked at some point. They happen upon the lifeless body of Woori who eventually awakens to entrap and devour each A-Jax member one by one. She’s constantly shown biting into an apple and there’s even a sequence of shots which shows five skulls by her feet, one for each victim. Then the screen flashes and the skulls turn into apples. As if the heavy imagery was not enough to drive home the point, the English title of the song is somehow translated into “Snake.” The tone of the MV is silly yet it hits upon many subtle points that are associated with this trope — women are lying evildoers who are dangerous because they possess the power of attraction.

Despite what these tropes may implicate, they alone do not indicate misogyny. However, these tropes point to a perceived suspicion of women and the power that men believe women have over them due to their ability to use attraction as a form of deception. This correlates with the notion that women are the gatekeepers of sex and that they hold all the power in deciding who gets to have sex. By equating sex with power, it creates a power structure where women have all the power and men must gain it back by obtaining sex from women. And thus misogyny rears its ugly head as it is used as a tool for men to regain the power they feel they have lost due to the perceived imbalance of power in their pursuit of obtaining sex.

Under this notion, men become naturally drawn to mediums which reassure them of their power, and nowhere is this balance of power so skewed, so unevenly distorted in the favor of men as it is in porn. As explained in this brilliant Ted Talk, porn is often a misogynistic power fantasy for men which reaffirms the “male domination of women, [the] subordinance of women, not only as a sexual preference [but] as a way of being, a genderial hierarchy of this world.” Porn has the power to dictate what is sexy by giving men what they truly crave and wish to reclaim — power. As a result, because corporations know that sex sells, mainstream media has imitated the imagery of porn in order to appeal to men. In other words, what is sexy becomes influenced and ultimately defined by porn. And because porn is influenced by misogyny, it’s easy to cut out porn as the middleman and make the logical leap that what is sexy is defined by misogyny.

There are a ton of examples of how mainstream media, particularly girl group imagery, imitates porn but, since we’re cutting out the middleman, let’s focus on how popular culture induces misogyny into its products in order to make them sexier. Sailor Moon is an underrated example of misogynistic depictions because, although the show has its share of feminist supporters citing examples of strong bonds between female characters, the autonomous decision-making of its female protagonist, and even its willingness to explore gender roles, the show’s underlying misogyny rests in the particular method in which it sexualizes the show’s cast of underage girls.

Aside from the skimpy fetishized uniforms that Sailor Moon and her team of Sailors transform into, there is a gendered power structure which the show very subtly exploits to further insatiate the sexual appetite of its male audience. On the surface, the Sailors are presented as powerful women with extraordinary powers which allow them to overcome obstacles and destroy their enemies. Despite their powerful demeanor, however, there are many incidences where they fall for some sort of trap laid out by the villain, get tied up, and require the rescue of the show’s male protagonist, Tuxedo Mask. In these moments where strong female characters are shown to be physically vulnerable and in need of a man’s rescue, there’s a shift in power which reaffirms the man’s dominance. Despite all the time the show spends displaying the strength of its female characters, they still must rely on a stronger male character to save them. Combined with the sexual imagery of underage girls in fetishized costumes, the shift in power from the powerful women to the more powerful man invites the male viewer to take further sexual pleasure in the show’s underlying message.

It’s not too dissimilar from the Women in Refrigerators trope which uses the murder of a strong female character to motivate a male character into action, subtly implying that the strength of the female character is inferior when juxtaposed against the power of the male character, reaffirming the shift in power which once again favors that of the man.

In similar fashion, the idea that even an empowered woman can be conquered by the sexual desires of a man makes it so alluring, so provocative, and so misogynistic all at the same time. Not only is it sexy to depict a strong and confident woman as being physically and sexually subordinate to a powerful male figure, it’s even sexier to depict her as being physically and sexually resistant to the man’s advances before eventually succumbing to them. This is the ultimate shift in power that caters to the male viewer’s delicate ego and fuels his power-hungry libido. Under this context, sexual assault can even be viewed as sexy, as is conveyed by Mamamoo’s “Decalcomanie” beginning at the 3:14 mark.

As mentioned in Qing’s review at Seoulbeats, the encounters depicted during a sequence of scenes are borderline displays of sexual assault against each member, deploying wrist grabs and wall slams in order for the male figure to secure a kiss, and possibly more depending on how one interprets the symbolism of the bursting fruit and blindfold removing imagery. The MV subtly builds to this climactic moment by portraying the male in each scene as a stranger to each of the members and implying that these are completely random encounters in very isolated and vulnerable environments for the victim, such as the side of the road, an empty hallway, and inside an elevator. Not to mention that there was an actual struggle depicted between Solar and the man in the elevator which was quickly edited out after Mamamoo’s agency received a litany of complaints from upset viewers.

mamamoo-decalcomanie(Source: Asian Junkie)

Furthermore, we’ve come to know Mamamoo as a strong and confident girl group through their powerful singing and rapping voices, funny and confident variety personalities, and elegant yet non-exploitative concepts. “Decalcomanie” seemed to follow the same pattern until scenes of sexual assault were seemingly strung in for none other than to satiate the sexual appetites of its male audience. The shots of Solar struggling against her male assailant (I was unfortunate enough to see the original MV before the edits) is in the same vein of Sailor Moon getting tied up and Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, falling victim to the Joker in The Killing Joke — it’s a form of misogyny meant to satisfy the male libido by demeaning a strong female persona.

In a culture where misogynistic portrayals of women are considered sexy to the point where sexual assault, entrapment, and even murder is used to stimulate a man’s sexual desires, is it really that surprising that the same narrative occurred in this year’s presidential election? A woman with decades of political experience was defeated by a man who’s never held a political office. With the odds heavily in his disfavor, the man was able to shift the balance of power and triumph over the woman to reaffirm for all men that the gender hierarchy is still in their favor.

Like the men who feel disempowered by the culture of sex, many voters gravitated towards Donald Trump because he was misogynistic. They turned to him because his narrative is one they can understand and are familiar with. They turned to him because misogyny is sexy while acceptance and inclusion is not. The misogynistic culture of sex which exemplifies the degradation of women as a form of sexual arousal is harmful, distasteful, and discomforting. It also provides insight into how a misogynist was elected into the highest political office in the US.

Mark is a writer and editor at Seoulbeats. If you’d like to be a guest contributor, you can send your regards to recruiting@seoulbeats.com. Otherwise, you can follow Seoulbeats on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

(Guest posts reflect the opinions of the author{s}, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Grand Narrative. Please get in touch if you’d like to make your own contribution.)

“An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 10)
panorama-stad-amsterdam-1935-verhaal-ill-trampassagiers(Source: janwillemsen; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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

Back in August, I was interviewed by reporter Isabella Steger for her article “An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”, which came out at Quartz today. It’s a good introduction to current trends and conditions, as well as being a great read. So for this post, let me just add a few links and extra context to those segments attributed to me. Starting with:

In the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis upended the stability of the Korean “salaryman.” Many men who lost their jobs started to compete with women for work. “A lot of the negative stereotypes about women, a lot of very gendered labels, started appearing in the early 2000s,” says James Turnbull, a long-time resident in the southern city of Busan who writes about feminism.

To be more precise, a large cohort of men lost their regular, full-time jobs between 2002-2004, and started having to compete for irregular work with women, who’d already lost their own regular, full-time jobs five years earlier in the wake of the Asian financial crisis (under the rationale that they would be provided for by their husbands or fathers). Then another point of friction came in 2013, when the percentage of women in their 20s that were working began to slightly surpass that of men.

Tellingly, the media portrayed achieving equality with men as a “tornado” of female power.

For the exact statistics, and my analysis of their implications, see part 6 of this series in the links below. As for those negative labels and gendered stereotypes, see Parts 3 and 4, or Part 7 for a summary.

Next:

While overall crime and homicide rates in Korea remain very low, more women in Korea are murdered than men, which is unusual in a developed country, says Turnbull. The United Nations singles out Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea as places with some of the lowest homicide rates in the world but where the share of male and female victims is near parity, with intimate partner violence also an acute problem in Japan (pdf, p.54-56).

In addition to the extra information on that provided in Isabella’s article, see this Facebook post by a friend of mine (which he generously made public) for a breakdown and analyses of the statistics involved, which was originally prompted by the blog post “Women Are More Likely To Be Murdered In South Korea Than The U.S.” by Matt Pressberg.

Reporter John Power also provides some things to think about:

Finally:

While women have gained some power and independence in Korea, a preference for male children in the 1970s and 1980s has resulted in an excess of men–and the disparity in numbers contributes to tensions. In 1990, thanks to the availability of selective abortion, Korea’s sex ratio at birth was 116.5, meaning 116.5 boys were born per 100 girls, a ratio that since has evened out (paywall). Many of those 1990 male babies are now grown men unable to find girlfriends and wives, says Turnbull. At the same time, more Korean women are choosing not to marry at all.

Again, see Part 6 for more detailed information on those statistics and their implications (also see the tweet below, which graphically shows the number of excess men by age group.) By a huge coincidence, the Korean media would only finally begin reporting on the potential consequences of this imbalance in April this year, just a month before the murder in Gangnam.

Thoughts?

Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61

Update, August 2015: For more details, I highly recommend listening to this Office Hours podcast interview of journalist Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014).

Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)