#MeToo to meat: no more soju calendars with nearly nude women in South Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Tan Danh from Pexels.

No, not normal soju posters and calendars, but these ones (NSFW) and these ones by Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewing respectively. I’m not surprised seeing them in restaurants (NSFW) made so many people uncomfortable (seriously, where would you look?), and wasn’t exaggerating when I was quoted in Crystal Tai’s article that “assuming that pictures of nude women [is] all that is required to [get people to change soju brands] is just patronising and insulting.” Perhaps that’s why my tweet about them below, a simple link to a news article, gained such traction:

Please read Crystal’s article for more information on what all the fuss is about. And, for even more information, here are some of my original email interview questions and answers:

Q) When did you first notice soju posters of women and such calendars around you? Do you remember the first time you saw one?

I noticed them immediately after I arrived in Korea in 2000, because they were ubiquitous; the level of alcohol advertising in New Zealand couldn’t begin to compare. I didn’t pay them much attention until about six years later however, because all of a sudden many soju companies started depicting women in revealing clothing and more sexualized poses in their posters, which was a big shift from the virginal depictions of the previous two decades. Soon after, this trend was further accelerated by the liberal use of K-pop stars as endorsement models, as gaining notoriety through revealing campaigns was and remains a win-win for both their entertainment companies and the soju companies.

That said, soju posters are just another means to “consume” a celebrity by fans, who generally must assume the same persona whether they’re in a talkshow, MV, or a soju commercial.* So, despite the trend, by no means are all soju models sexualized today: “innocent” IU, Son Na-eun of Apink, and especially Suzy (of the former Miss A) all tend to be depicted virginally in their own campaigns, the latter despite her having been in several high-profile relationships.

(*Hat-tip to to friend and SNU Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, whose book chapter I was channeling just a little too directly there!)

Q) What do you think such images mean to Korean men? Why do you think they are often surrounded by such images at bars, pubs, gogijibs (meat restaurants) etc?

It’s unlikely they hold any special meaning that they wouldn’t hold for men of any other nationality. As for their being surrounded by such images however, this is likely because Korea is in many ways a very homosocial society, with many unspoken but strongly-defined separate spaces for men and women. Note that most middle and high-schools were single-sex two decades ago, that almost all Korean men do approximately two years of military service, and that Korean women still struggle to retain their jobs after childbirth, those that succeed often having to leave mandatory after-work drinking gatherings early to look after their children while their male colleagues continue drinking elsewhere. Consequently, while coffee shops are strongly associated with women, and feature in many complaints and negative stereotypes about them, the atmosphere in bars and restaurants that sell a lot of soju can sometimes feel very off-putting for anyone that isn’t a middle-aged Korean man.

(Image: This interpretation in this video analysis is maybe too much. Yet I can never pass Na-eun’s poster below without thinking about that bottleneck on the left!)

Do you think that the Me-too movement and recent feminist movements really play a big role in Hite-Jinro’s decision to discontinue such calendars?

Given the recent news that “racequeens” are going to be phased out of the racing industry,* as well as calls to do the same with cheerleaders at sporting events, then the timing can hardly be a coincidence. But it may also be a convenient excuse for decisions already made. Unless revealing soju posters are also part of a creative and memorable campaign—which these calendars definitely are not—then it’s extremely debatable whether they ever have any real influence on Korean men’s consumption choices. In my own experience, their tastes in soju tend to be very regional, and they tend to stick to the same brands throughout their lives. Assuming that pictures of nude women are all that is required to change their minds is just patronizing and insulting, so I’m both glad and not particularly surprised that alternative strategies are now being attempted.

(*My mistake: they’re being phased out in Formula 1, but I don’t know enough about the industry to judge what—if any—impact that will have on racing events in Korea. See here for an article about the impact in Japan.)

Do you think other alcohol companies will follow suit as well? And do you think this means the provocative celebrity posters and campaigns will change as well?

No. The calendars by Hite-Jinro were the only ones to feature nudity, and the “sporty” ones by Oriental Brewery were also much more revealing than average. But most soju posters aren’t particularly any more sexually-objectifying of women than Korean advertising in general, because that is already pervasive in the industry as a whole. To wit: in a 2015 study, women were 5.9 times more likely than men to not be fully dressed in Hong Kong television ads, 22.89 times more likely in Japanese ads, and 56.83 times more likely in South Korean ads. By no means, can soju ads be the only culprit in the Korean case!

And if that’s still not enough, here’s a small sample of related posts I’ve written over the years:

Meanwhile, I hope everyone had a happy new year, and sorry my posting has been so erratic. But I have big writing plans for 2019!

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

“W코리아가 여성을 화보에 담아내는 방식이 마음에 든다. 자기다운 모습으로 카메라를 응시하는 여성 모델들.”

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Image sources: @pompomiya

“I like the way W Korea portrays women. Look at the models here all staring back at the camera in their own ways.”

If I die tomorrow, my biggest regret will be never completing my epic series on the queer female gaze in K-pop. No, really. So, while I’m up to my eyeballs with that then, please allow me a quick break today by indulging myself in @pompomiya’s tweet about W Korea‘s July issue. Their point about controlling the viewer’s gaze really resonates with those made about Titian’s Venus of Urbino in my Boobs, Butts, and Biceps post, and is a helpful reminder of what exactly makes that painting so captivating. So too, of why these photos have 6,600 retweets so far.

Three of the models in them are instantly recognizable as K-pop star Amber Liu, volleyball player Kim Yeon-gyeong, and actor Han Ye-seul, but the woman in blue was a mystery. Her name is DJ Seesea (@uuuuman), and the most information about her online seems to be available at W Korea itself, either in their (Korean) article or video interview.

This is the longest performance of hers I was able to find:

Frankly, most of those tracks aren’t to my taste. But the MIXMIX TV channel itself has many more male and female DJs to choose from, and can be good background music to work to when you need a change from Chillhop Music, lofi hip hop radio, and 24/7 lofi hip hop radio. Also, DJ Seesea mentions in her interview that she used to belong to an all female-DJ line-up called Bichinda (Facebook, Twitter), sadly now dismantled but with interesting things to say about the changes more female DJs bring to clubs and the attitudes of audiences, so I’m glad W Korea gave DJ Seesea the chance to give that topic a little more exposure this summer.

Please hit me up if you know anything more about DJ Seesea or Bichinda, or about any other interesting female Korean DJs. Also, make sure to check out 6 Alternative Female Musicians For Fans Of K-Pop at Nylon, many of whom I do like and am eagerly looking for a track or MV to highlight here. Please let me know if you have any suggestions!

Update: Here’s DJ Seesea’s Soundcloud playlist.

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

An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room

Estimated reading time: 1 minute. Image source: Pixabay.

Which I think is the correct translation of “一个在韩国写女权主义博客的英国人:性、性别和房间里的大象”, a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang of Q Daily. Unfortunately for non-Chinese speakers, a lot is lost in the translation, but the gist is still there, and I’m happy that the comments generally seem to be positive. Please hit me up in the comments here if you’d like any clarification about anything in the translation, and/or if you just have any of your own questions about life, love, elephants, and what it’s been like blogging about Korean feminism for the last 11 years!

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

Boobs, Butts, and Biceps are Beautiful. Don’t Let Knights Tell You Any Different!

Smiling faces, and the consent implied therein, are crucial for determining a person’s beauty. But that doesn’t mean body parts can’t still be beautiful in their absence.

Estimated reading time: 14 Minutes. Photo by PixaBay on Unsplash. NSFW art nudes following.

Can body parts, in isolation, be beautiful?

Feminist bugbear Camille Paglia would say so. In a speech at MIT in 1991, she rejected having to apologize for reveling in beauty, as well as the notion that ordinary-looking women only ever lamented their own appearance in reaction to attractive people. In her words, she wanted to bring back to feminism the right to say what they were really thinking: “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!”

My own answer too, is such an immediate, adamant yes, that it seems absurd to ask. Yet to openly revel in, say, beautiful boobs? Newly-woke male feminists quickly learn to restrain such temptations. Not only because it would simply be boring for most women, but also because it feels disingenuous considering women’s daily, pervasive objectification and body-shaming. Complicit even, when so many are suffering from Korea’s spycam epidemic, and when even male artists are abandoning female nudes in the wake of #MeToo.

Yet whatever our sex or sexuality, we’re all casting admiring glances on our commutes nonetheless—even asexuals. Complimenting their owners may always be a bit much, let alone leering and catcalls, but we don’t have to put up with being shamed for our internal monologues too.

So, when I was going through Sir Roger Scruton’s Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2011), and read that body parts are “obscene” when they’re considered in isolation?

Recall the queasy feeling that ensues, when—for whatever reason—you suddenly see a body part where, until that moment, an embodied person had been standing. It is as though the body has, in that instant, become opaque. The free being has disappeared behind his own flesh, which is no longer the person himself but an object, an instrument. When this eclipse of the person by his body is deliberately produced, we talk of obscenity. The obscene gesture is one that puts the body on display as pure body, so destroying the experience of embodiment. We are disgusted by obscenity for the same reason that Plato was disgusted by physical lust: it involves, so to speak, the eclipse of the soul by the body. (pp. 40-41.)

I snapped. Already sick and tired of being belittled and patronized most times I read about my male gaze, Scruton seemed to go one further in implying my liking of boobs was immoral as well.

But outrage and exasperation do not an objective response make. Nor does quoting authors without sufficient context, when it’s not so much their arguments as the assumptions they’re based on that are unsound.

So first: note that only two of the book’s nine chapters are about human beauty. Really, it’s more of an introduction to aesthetics, with beauty only as a framing device, and reads like light philosophy. I’m ill-disposed towards and ill-equipped to deal with books like that, frankly, so that’s why I focus on only those two chapters here instead of giving a full review. Much more important than my unlearned personal tastes though, is that this philosophical approach grounds Scruton’s contrarian approach to beauty too. Because whereas in my experience, most commenters take the approach that beauty can be quantified and measured in terms of how closely one’s body parts, features, lengths, and ratios reach various ideals, Scruton believes such an approach is fundamentally flawed (p. 41):

Those [above] thoughts suggest something important about physical beauty. The distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment. Its beauty is not the beauty of a doll, and is something more than a matter of shape and proportion. When we find human beauty represented in a statue, such as the Apollo Belvedere or the Daphne of Bernini, what is represented is the beauty of a person—flesh animated by the individual soul, and expressing individuality in all its parts.

This has enormous significance, as I shall later show, in the discussion of erotic art [in the second chapter on human beauty, “Art and erōs”]. But it already points us towards an important observation. Whether it attracts contemplation or prompts desire, human beauty is seen in personal terms. It resides especially in those features—the face, the eyes, the lips, the hands—which attract our gaze in the course of personal relations, and through which we relate to each other I to I. Although there may be fashions in human beauty, and although different cultures may embellish the body in different ways, the eyes, mouth and hands have a universal appeal. For they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us, and makes itself known.

For all my (over)concern with what he says about people’s other bits in his book however, actually I heartily agree with the relative importance he attaches to faces here. The comparison he makes with his descriptions of the following paintings later, for instance, really brings to life the profundity of the differences the models’ gazes make between them—and the crucial distinction that consent makes.

First, of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (p. 125):

Source: Wikipedia.

“As pointed out, in [Kenneth Clark’s] celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be loved. Even in the Venus of Urbino—the most provocative of Titian’s female nudes—the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the gaze that looks out from it. The face individualizes the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns all covetous glances as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity—the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers.”

Next, contrast the issues Scruton raises with the model in François Boucher’s The Blonde Odalisque, all of which ring true for anyone who’s ever been dissatisfied with most pornography (i.e., everyone) because of the unrealistic, wholly impractical, often painful-looking, yet somehow supposedly “sexy” positions women are usually presented in. Indeed, Marie-Louise O’Murphy seems so divorced from proceedings here, and so divorced from her own body, that she looks like she’s much more interested in watching Netflix than in whatever the viewer is about to do with her round the back. Or, rather, to her (pp. 134-135):

Does it make any difference that this painting was (possibly) intended only for Louis XV? Or that Marie-Louise, one of his “lesser mistresses,” was only 13 at the time? Source: Wikipedia.

“Turn now to Boucher’s Odalisque, and you will see how very different is the artistic intention. This woman has adopted a pose that she could never adopt when dressed. It is a pose which has little or no place in ordinary life outside the sexual act, and it draws attention to itself, since the woman is looking vacantly away and seems to have no other interest. But there is another way in which Boucher’s painting touches against the bounds of decency, and this is in the complete absence of any reason for the Odalisque’s pose within the picture. She is alone in the picture, looking at nothing in particular, engaged in no other act than the one we see. The place of the lover is absent and waiting to be filled: and you are invited to fill it.”

Yet for all their eloquence, he’s preaching to the converted with those particular passages. They may even buy the book on their basis alone, having secluded themselves in a quiet corner of the bookstore and skipped ahead to those pictures.

The problem is that well before a genuine reader gets to that stage of the book, Scruton’s mere say-so on numerous issues is less than persuasive. By the time you reach its end, you’re not so much unconvinced as infuriated that he wouldn’t make more effort with its readers.

Examples of his arrogant certainty abound. For starters, his opening descriptions of our supposed differences with animals, the science of human desire, and evolutionary-psychology, are trite and shaky at best, and often just plain wrong. There is absolutely no basis to his argument that “Perhaps no sexual experience differentiates human beings from animals more clearly than the experience of jealously,” for instance (p.44). Nor, to his assertion that “Human beings are alone among the animals in revealing their individuality in their faces” (p. 124), which is easily proven false with just 5 minutes of googling. While to his credit, that he discusses science at all is because he acknowledges “it is surely reasonable to believe that there is some connection between beauty and sex” (pp. 32-33), his blithe, continual assertions presented as facts here soon start collapsing under their own weight.

In particular, take his description of kissing (p. 40):

To kiss [the mouth of another person] is not to place one body part against another, but to touch the other person in his very self. Hence the kiss is compromising—it is a move from one self towards another, and a summoning of the other into the surface of his being.

Or, indeed, of sex itself (p. 38):

In the sexual act, there is no single goal that is being sought and achieved, and no satisfaction that completes the process: all goals are provisional, temporary, and leave things fundamentally unchanged. And lovers are always struck by the mismatch between the desire and its fulfilment, which is not a fulfilment at all, but a brief lull in an ever-renewable process.

Both of which, miffed at his disdain at my daily rejoicing at the existence of boobs, originally I looked forward to presenting as eye-rolling demonstrations of his academic, ivory tower absurdness. Which for sure, is a turn-off with Scruton. His overuse of “he” and “his” throughout too, isn’t merely an out of date convention either, but are characteristic of the chapters on “human” beauty that are so overwhelmingly—almost exclusively—focused on female beauty that they read like they’re exclusively, deliberately aimed at cishet men. (The Beautiful Boy this ain’t.)

On a sober second reading though, I had to concede that both passages are fully consistent in the context of the arguments that preceded it, and that they can sound almost sweet too. However reluctantly, I was loath to misrepresent him.

And yet, they bear sooo little resemblance to any of my own experiences, that the very first thing they reminded me of was of this virginal android’s idealized notion of sex (from 1:30):

Hey, I may be a parent in a small apartment who literally has to schedule these things, but it’s not that I can’t appreciate such sentiments, nor that I haven’t even felt them keenly myself on occasion. Scruton’s descriptions do not represent the totality of my kissing and sexual experiences however, nor—and I’d wager good money on this—would they represent Scruton’s either. For him to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, and can’t be explained away as a stylistic choice due to space restraints. Rather, he chose to do so because it is his firm belief that beauty is akin to a transcendental, Platonic ideal, and, that if beauty is related to sexual attraction as previously noted, then sex has to be elevated into some transcendental, Platonic ideal too. Hence the absurd descriptions of—lest we forget—fucking, and the setting himself up for the completely unconvincing distinctions between beauty and body parts that got me started on this rant.

Did I mention that he never actually defines “obscenity”?

It was a surprise to learn after finishing the book then, that Scruton’s earlier book on the philosophy of sex, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), is actually well-respected, and considered by many a classic in the field. Because in that too, I read, he maintains his duplicitous insistence on eloquent theory trumping sweaty, sticky, lustful practice. And, because in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, it’s that wilful dogmatism that ineviably, inexorably leads him to shaming anyone associated with pornography and sex work.

Let me confine myself to just one final example, which follows directly on from the quote about Boucher’s Odalisque, and in my view utterly taints it (p. 135, emphasis mine):

Of course there are differences between the Odalisque and the tits and bums on page three of The Sun….The second difference is connected, namely, that we need know nothing of Boucher’s Odalisque in order to appreciate its intended effect, save what the picture tells us. There was a model who posed for this canvas; but we understand the canvas neither as a portrait of her nor as a painting about her. The bum on page three has a name and address. Very often the accompanying text tells you a lot about the girl herself, helps you forward with the fantasy of sexual contact. For many people, with reason I think, this makes a decisive moral difference between the page three image and a painting like Boucher’s. The woman on page three is being packaged in her sexual attributes, and placed in the fantasies of a thousand strangers. She may not mind this—presumably she doesn’t. But in not minding she shows how much she has already lost. No-one is degraded by Boucher’s painting, since no-one real occurs in it. This woman—even though the model who sat for her has a name and address (she was Louise O’Murphy, kept for the King’s pleasure at the Parc aux Cerfs)—is presented as a figment, in no sense identical with any real human being, despite being painted from life.

I wonder too, to close this post with the question that prompted it, what exactly Scruton thinks you have lost when you admire the body parts of other commuters. Whether your focus happens to rest on breasts, butts, biceps, legs, broad shoulders, luscious long hair, or whatever.

Indeed, if you’re on the same crowded subway line as I am, you know that sometimes they’re literally the only part of the owners you can see.

I refuse to believe that those body parts can’t be simply magnificent though, and that I’m immoral for thinking so, merely because their owners may get off my carriage and transfer to another line before I ever get to see their faces.

Nor does—heaven forbid—deliberately seeking out erotic art and pornography, rather than accidentally stumbling upon objects of your affection on your commute, somehow mean the same standards don’t apply to the people in those too. Because whether seen on a Busan subway, or in a video shot in a moodily-lit San Fernando studio? Somehow, inexplicably, I never seem to lose my respect for the owners of those simply magnificent body parts either, nor does admiring their objects mean I ever think or treat them as objects.

I don’t think it’s just me. In fact, I assume the same of everyone else until proven otherwise.

If you do think lesser of them though, and my assumption is proven naive, then please let let me know. Or, if you think many others negatively objectify people, despite you and I respecting them? Then pray, please tell who those “others” are exactly, and please give myself and other readers some actual evidence that they’re really so different. Especially that which comes from actually talking to them, instead of only from what other people with agendas, like Scruton, have written about that heinous group.

No, I didn’t say those others were most cishet men—you thought it! Something to think deeply about on tomorrow’s commute perhaps, if you don’t want to let your eyes wander? ;)

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

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“Girl-groups in Hot Pants” Isn’t a Concept That Always Sells a Product. Except When it Does. Damn.

Compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean advertisements.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Source: @Sulllllimmmm

“I’ve seen many pictures of Seol-hyun, but I think these are the first ones I’ve ever seen that haven’t sexualized her or shown off her body.”

Me too.* Which is not to say I’m against either, of any consenting adult. Sometimes, a famous figure in tight-clothes is just what is needed to grab your attention, whatever your sex or sexuality. Especially in a commercial’s all too brief 15-second window:

But that one by Hani for Yanolja, a motel-finding app, was only successful—10 million downloads, in a population of 51 million—because it combined its celebrity face and sexual frisson with such a catchy jingle and distinctive dance. Imitated and parodied by Korean fans all summer (especially my daughters), who demanded Hani perform it on the street, in hindsight it was an obvious winner.

Or was it? Compare this 2013 commercial by Sistar for Ottogi set rice meals, which I used in a recent lecture I gave to The 11th Korea-America Student Conference. Mostly, because the incongruity of all the flesh with the actual, rather mundane product is just so jarring: were all those legs really needed, and those belonging to an expensive girl-group in particular? Also, because I couldn’t find a single news article about it from 5 years ago, in contrast to all the attention Hani’s commercial is getting today:

Sources: *cough* Ilbe

But after the presentation, thinking again about the commercial got me hot and bothered, and not in a good way. I realized my making the point with the screenshots had overshadowed the commercial itself, which I hadn’t actually seen in many years. Once I did, I realized it did have its own jingle and dance, and a sort-of chorus-girl concept which the hot pants weren’t necessarily out of place in:

Sure, neither the jingle nor dance are quite as distinctive as Hani’s, but they’re there. So, without that hindsight, who’s to say that this commercial would flop, whereas Hani’s would be a guaranteed success?

Especially as it didn’t flop, damnit. As a renewed search revealed:

또 주요 소비자층인 20~30대 남성이 선호하는 걸 그룹 ‘씨스타’를 활용한 프로모션을 전개하면서 지난해 세트밥 매출을 2012년 대비 95% 늘렸다.

“Compared to 2012, Otoggi’s promotion with the girl-group ‘Sistar’ in 2013 led to an increase of 95% in sales among the major consumer group of men in their 20s and 30s.”

The Korea Economic Daily, 5 March 2014

Well duh, although I like to think more men need more than just legs to be sold on a meal (thinking we would be is still kinda patronizing, TBH). And my next reaction was that what worked for young men in this case didn’t necessarily speak for other demographics, Korea’s brutal M-curve meaning it’s housewives that do the food shopping for most households. But with Korea’s rapidly-rising single household rate, that’s probably not the case for these convenience meals in particular. Hence:

오뚜기는 편의점 유통 물량을 늘리는 한편 자사 페이스북에서 다양한 이벤트를 진행해 소비자와의 소통을 강화했다. 이런 노력에 힘입어 오뚜기밥 전체 매출은 전년 대비 50% 이상 증가했다.

“Ottogi’s strategy of increasing sales volumes at convenience stores and strengthening its communication with consumers, such as by hosting events on Facebook, has led to its rice sales increasing over 50% compared to the previous year.”

So, my path for future lectures was now clear: to seek out new commercials and new girl-groups in hot pants, to boldly question if they really do work, where no one has questioned before. And to seek out successful Korean femvertising, or just simply those successful commercials by women wearing actual clothes. Because in the revised version of my lecture, the final slide will continue to feature the following troubling fact about Korean life, which has my daughters increasingly running for the scales rather than happily dancing being kids. I wish I was joking:

Source: News Tomato

“Females were 5.9 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed (vs. fully dressed) in Hong Kong advertisements, whereas females were 22.89 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in Japanese ads and 56.83 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in South Korean ads.”

Prieler, M., Ivanov, A. & Hagiwara, S. (2015). Gender representations in East Asian advertising: Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Communication & Society 28(1), 27-41, p. 34.

Please let me know of any examples in the comments, of either the good or the bad, and your thoughts of any of the above :)

*On the theme of shattering convenient narratives, I noticed an ad featuring a fully-clothed Seol-hyun on the same day I noticed the tweet:

Fortunately for my paranoia about conspiracies to undermine my lectures though, Seol-hyun’s ads for Dashing Diva nails do follow a predictable pattern. Er…Yay?

(0:14)

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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 does military conscription affect Korean gender relations and attitudes to women?

The vision of male-female relations that conscription engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support through youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Photo (modified) by Berwin Coroza on Unsplash.

Last week, came the monumental news that Korean men were going to be offered alternatives to mandatory military service. So, CNN reporter James Griffiths asked me for some input into the Korean military’s background, specifically conscription’s effects on Korean gender relations. Little of my email could make it to his final article though, so here’s my full response for some context and further reading:

1) How does the military conscription issue affect gender relations and attitudes to women?

It’s difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent. Consider their ages: most Korean men choose to do their military service after their first year of university, barely out of high school, and Korea’s education hell means most would have had very little time for dating previously. Ironically though, new recruits can face being ostracized if they don’t have sexual experience, so many Korean men’s first sexual experience is with a sex worker just before enlistment. Visiting sex workers during their service is also considered normal. This is not wrong, but it is combined with frequent sexualized K-pop girl-group performances on bases, their ubiquitous messages of support for the troops in the media, and their being prominently featured on the military intranet (there are even military K-pop charts). This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Military Manpower Association (MMA) endorsement models Apink saying “Thank you for choosing to enter the military. You are Korea’s REAL men!” (MMA Facebook page).

That may sound like hyperbole, but it is telling that Korea is the only country in East Asia where it is customary to use superiority-based titles in place of names in the workplace, and that even the Samsung Economic Research Institute once said that mistreatment by superiors in Korean companies is so pervasive that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” In other words, when hierarchical military culture has had such a profound effect on the Korean workplace, and indeed much else about Korean daily life, then it is not unreasonable to see its role in shaping Korean gender relations too.

2) As regards the anti-feminist backlash from men’s rights groups, how driven is this by perceived unfairness of military service?

It is overwhelmingly driven by this perceived unfairness. But the media has done much to fan the flames, especially by encouraging the scapegoating of young women by exaggerating their economic successes in relation to men, and by perpetuating many negative stereotypes of them. In particular, that of the kimchi-nyeo (kimchi bitch), which refers to an economically successful woman who exploits her female privilege in not having to do military service, but who still expects men to pay on dates, who (always successfully) cries sexism when a man is promoted over her, and so on. Korea’s grossly skewed sex ratio among 20-somethings has a huge role to play in this backlash too, consequence of Korea’s sex selective abortions in the 1990s.

That Korea has the highest gender gap in the OECD however, is conveniently ignored by men’s rights groups. One can argue that it exists simply because women lose experience and rank after taking time off to have children, which is indeed crucial in what are such hierarchical, seniority-based companies as explained. But the gap also very much exists because doing military service comes with a host of indirect benefits, including taking advantage of their old boys networks created during their service, and of the widespread attitudes that men are more deserving of jobs (explicitly enshrined in government policy during the 1997 and 2008 financial crises), and that women, if no longer youthful and and sexually-available, should again step aside and support men from the sidelines by quitting their jobs by staying home to raise the children.

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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)

Being Able to Wear Glasses Was a Crucial Step for Korea’s Anchorwomen. Now, Let’s Give Them a Chance to SPEAK as Much as Anchormen Too.

Korean entertainment programs are notorious for perpetuating traditional gender roles, let alone for normalizing body-shaming and sexual violence. But news programs can be just as big offenders.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Image source: YouTube.

Back in April, MBC anchorwoman Lim Hyeon-ju caused a sensation by being the first Korean female news anchor to wear glasses on the job, sparking a national conversation about double standards in dress codes. Shortly thereafter, the results of two studies on gender biases in the Korean media were released.

That you clicked on this post means you’re probably already aware of the Korean media’s widespread sexism. The romanticized depictions of dating violence in dramas for instance. The pervasive body-shaming. Subtitles for other languages usually depicting women talking to men in deferential speech, regardless of what was actually used by the speakers. And so on.

Yet the raw figures can still make for some alarming reading.

The first study, conducted in March by the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE), focused on entertainment programs, the results of which can be read in The Korea Bizwire and The Korea Herald. The second, conducted in 2015 and 2017 by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), covered both entertainment and news programs. About the former, it found similar results to the KIGEPE’s study. As for news programs, men and women’s roles on them were revealed to be dramatically different. I haven’t been able to find any news about the study in English however, so here’s a quick breakdown from an article at Youth Daily (청년일보):

…국가인권위원회는 한국방송학회에 의뢰해 지난해 지상파와 종합편성채널에서 방영된 드라마·뉴스·생활교양·시사토크·오락 프로그램을 대상으로 미디어 성차별 실태를 모니터링한 결과를 1일 발표했다.

…The NHRCK has released the results of its study of gender discrimination in dramas, news programs, lifestyle programs, current affairs shows, and other entertainment programs shown on public broadcast channels and cable channels last year. The study was commissioned by the Korea Broadcasting Commission.

먼저 뉴스 프로그램 앵커의 경우 오프닝 멘트와 그 날 가장 중요한 기사인 첫 다섯 꼭지를 남성 앵커가 소화하는 비율은 2015년과 2017년 모두 60%를 넘었다.

First, in the case of news program anchors, the rate in the number of occasions in which the male anchor made the opening remarks and announced all of the first five news segments exceeded 60% in 2015 and 2017 [see chart, right].

주요 아이템 소개는 남성 앵커가 맡고, 중반 이후의 아이템 소개는 여성 앵커가 맡는 경우가 많았다.

Indeed, most of the biggest, major news items of each program were introduced by male anchors, while female anchors predominated with lesser news items introduced after half-way into the programs.

앵커가 소개하는 기사의 내용도 성별에 따라 달랐다. 정치·국방·북한 관련 등 딱딱한 ‘경성’ 뉴스는 남성 앵커가 소개하고, 경제·사회·생활정보·해외뉴스·날씨 관련 등 부드러운 ‘연성’ 뉴스는 여성 앵커가 소개하는 비율이 높았다.

The contents of anchors’ articles also tended to be differentiated by sex. While male anchors would introduce news items in “hard” areas such as politics, defense, and North Korea, female anchors tended to introduce those in “soft” areas such the economy, society-related topics, day-to-day information, overseas news, and the weather.

취재기자의 경우 전체 뉴스 아이템의 64%를 남성이 보도하고, 여성은 31%만 보도한 것으로 나타났다. 기자도 앵커처럼 남성 기자가 경성 뉴스를, 여성 기자는 연성 뉴스를 보도하는 경향이 강했다.

There was a discrepancy in the sexes of news reporters also, 64 percent of all news items being reported by men, and only 31 percent by women [I don’t know why these don’t add up to 100—James]. Hard news stories introduced by male anchors were also more likely to feature male reporters, and vice-versa with soft news stories and female anchors and reporters.

인터뷰 대상자 역시 남성이 73%였고 여성은 26%에 그쳤다. 전체 대상자 중에서 남성 전문직은 20.8%였던 반면 여성 전문직은 5.8%에 불과했다.

There were big differences in the sexes of interviewees also, 73 percent being men and 26 percent being women [again, no explanation for why they don’t add up to 100 sorry—James]. In addition, 20.8 percent of the male interviewees were considered experts in their various fields, but only 5.8 percent of the female ones were.

The lack of any mention of methodology is frustrating, so please hit me up in me up in the comments section if you’d like me to dig deeper, or about anything else raised. Personally, my first impression was that however sexist the contents, fortunately the impact of traditional news is increasingly limited. Even in the US for instance, where people still watch an astonishing 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV a day, only 50% of adults regularly get news from television, most of them in older demographics. Surely in wired Korea, that figure would be far lower?

But that would be missing the point. Just because a news video is more likely watched on Facebook on a smartphone than on the 6 o’clock news on TV, doesn’t mean a traditional news organization wasn’t the most likely producer. Ergo, the differences revealed by this study still have real impacts and still need fixing, as evidenced by the scale and enthusiasm of the reaction to Lim Hyeon-ju donning her glasses.

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