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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about these images?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, for that matter, the last 25:

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

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

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

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

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

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

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

Two Ads With the Same Female Model, for the Same Kind of Product. Spot the Differences in the One Aimed at Men.

Needless objectification, and a power trip from being called Oppa. WHY do advertisers assume cishet men genuinely prefer these?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. In case of any lingering doubts that it’s the same model, check out the wisps of hair on her right.

“You’re a man in his 40s, aren’t you?” reads the offending ad’s headline. Ouch. I scroll social media for the dopamine hits thank you very much, not to be reminded of how much my knees hurt.

I also really, really don’t like being pegged as someone who’d prefer to see a woman’s body without her face either. But it’s what the ad says which is more repugnant, so let’s address that first.

The product being advertised is a diet supplement. (Yes, I thought it was for something to help with “men’s stamina” too.) At the top, the text about it extols, “I only took a packet a day and it took care of everything. I levelled up from being called an uncle to an oppa! These days, it’s time for men to take care of their diets too!”. Then, the headline next to the model, “You’re a man in his 40s, aren’t you?” and “We will ensure you’ll never be called ajeossi again!”

I’m not judging the implied huge age gap with the model. One sex being used to sell products to another will always be a thing too, however absurd it feels in this particular case. What I do have a beef with, is encouraging myself and my fellow ajeossis to crave being calling Oppa by women, especially those like her who are much younger than ourselves.

Although we’d like to pretend it really wasn’t all that long ago we were dancing to Wax‘s classic in nightclubs in our 20s, when the word had more innocent and romantic connotations, really we know most women now find the word distasteful at best. We also know they especially resent how all too many older male colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and bosses, taking advantage of their male privilege, will sometimes demand they perform infantilizing aegyo to them at company dinners and so on—which will invariably include demands to call them Oppa.

The men who still ask women to do so regardless then, only to claim it was just harmless fun later, are being completely disingenuous. The only reason any man does so in 2022 is to get his ego boosted, and to put the younger women being asked in their place. Behavior which whoever at Sery Box and/or enigmatic shopping site 형만믿어 responsible for the ad would know full well, and absolutely shouldn’t be encouraging.

Source: Kakao.

To give a recent for instance, in a surreal scene from an episode of the Omniscient Interfering View talkshow in February last year, veteran, internationally acclaimed actor Moon So-ri calmly explained she didn’t call her four year-older husband Oppa because its cute connotations made the woman using it seem childish, whereas she wanted a relationship of equals. One male panelist’s tactless, boorish response to her thoughtful comments? To ask her to call him Oppa instead. When she refused, he demanded a flustered young K-pop star do so in Moon’s place, ultimately forcing Moon to cover for her to save her further embarrassment.

The top tweet: “Actor Moon So-ri explained the gender politics of the word in an easy-to-understand and non-accusatory manner. He was just such a typical sexist han-nam though, with no intention of listening to or trying to understand her whatsoever.”

On top of all that, the model is headless. No pun intended.

While having bodies or their various parts presented in isolation isn’t inherently bad in itself, and is a practice that people rightfully tend to judge in context, the cumulative effect on the people it’s usually done to day in day out—e.g, women overwhelmingly more than men, and obese people in news reports about them—is to dehumanize them in the minds of observers, even if they belong to the group being objectified themselves. It’s also been demonstrated that if my fellow ajeossis and I consider a woman attractive, we’d also be much more likely to respond to her returning our gaze instead. The implied enthusiastic consent to our interest through a wide smile can be a pretty big deal too.

All of which begs the question of why, if Sery Box and/or 형만믿어 clearly had access to the same stock photos of the same model that Centheal and/or 하태핫태 responsible for the left ad had, did they not also select one with her smiling face?

I’m no photographer or graphic designer, but I refuse to believe there’s anything particularly significant in terms of aesthetics or layout that would compel the choice they did make. Even just raising the bottom of the image just enough to show a smile would have made a big difference.

I’m overanalyzing, I know. Numerous surveys have revealed that Korean internet ads in particular have gotten distinctly smuttier over the past decade, and the Oppa ad is really nothing special in that regard. Less a patriarchal conspiracy, than simple laziness.

Yet there’s something to the juxtaposition nonetheless.

But if you could please bear with me a just a moment longer before elaborating, there remains the task of confirming the gender divide in the two ads first. So again, the offending one is indeed explicitly aimed at men, and the link it takes you to only features two images of a woman—Kim Tae-hee—among the many more of main celebrity endorser Lee Jung-jae, as well as numerous images of muscled men. Most of Sery Box‘s products are actually aimed at women however, and feature Kim Tae-hee and various other female celebrities (with absolutely no men) in their advertising on their various webpages for those.

During rush hour, when men are glued to Facebook on their phones, Korean shopping mall target men with ads like these. The logic being, the images on the left will get their attention, even though they’re not interested in actually buying women’s clothes. Then, when they invariably look away, the next things they will see are the ads for products they will be interested in buying on the right. Image source: The PR News.

In contrast, the left ad (now below) is advertising a fortified extract of garcinia cambogia (가르시니아 캄보지아 추출물) sold by Centheal. Although there’s nothing on their website to explicitly indicate they’re targeting it only at women, only female models are featured, and the logo on the packaging has a woman’s waist incorporated into it. There’s also a “WomaNature” mentioned, although I’ve been unable to pin down what that refers to. Meanwhile, the screenshot actually being saved by me in February 2021, just before the Korean New Year, the text at the top reads “With Seollal approaching, let’s enjoy holiday food with worrying about it.” Then, next to the model, “This Seollal, don’t become like one of those people who’s put on weight from staying indoors all day due to Covid. Instead, take care of your body [even] while eating all that [holiday] food. [Take advantage of this] half-price discount event to celebrate the holiday.”

Finally, let me post the other ad again for the sake of that juxtaposition:

I’m writing here today because personally, seeing them together, I was instantly reminded of a surreal experience I had in 2010, when I innocently switched tabs between Elle Korea‘s photoshoot of Lee Hyori, and then MSN Korea’s article about it (which I’ve presented in GIF form below). Someone at the latter, an ostensible news site, had apparently found the body of then Korea’s biggest sex symbol inadequate:

That particular juxtaposition sparked the beginnings of my own learning journey over the next decade about Korea’s many, many problems with female body-image. Whereas writing about this more recent pairing, has forced me to think deeply about, first, the modern connotations of the word Oppa, which frankly I wasn’t originally going to mention at all (I wasn’t joking about my intense dislike of cishet men being pigeonholed as preferring headless women); and second, what other baggage from my formative years in Korea I absolutely need to jettison over the next decade if I want to continue my quest to properly understand Korean misogyny—which “Call me Oppa” ultimately is.

I hope you too find what’s revealed by the juxtaposition featured today, just as telling and motivating to learn more about as I have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it is, is a teaching moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(NSFW image appearing in a moment.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You tell me.

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

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

Please let me know your thoughts!

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

Looking for Adult K-Webtoon & Novel Recommendations?

One of my favorite Korean YouTubers starts a new series

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Photo by @thiszun from Pexels

“What is he, man or mouse? Is he interested in nothing more than tea and the wider issues of life? Has he no spirit? Has he no passion? Does he not, to put it in a nutshell, fuck?”

Those who wish to know should read on. Others may wish to skip on to the last chapter which is a good bit and has Marvin in it.

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Chapter 25.

With that, Douglas Adams finally addresses readers’ burning questions about Arthur Dent, the main character of his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Reach the same point in the fourth book, and you’d be asking too. Why indeed, describe a cishet man meeting women he was interested in, some of whom felt a mutual attraction for him, only to tell us nothing whatsoever about what happened next? For three whole books?

Those 1980s readers’ frustrations mirror my own with Korean pop culture today. Dramas in particular often fall flat for me because the adult characters seem to have relationships but never sex.

No, I don’t need to see them in bed necessarily. Nor does sex have to be the plot’s focus. Just have them acknowledge it’s a thing. Talk about its associated problems and pleasures sometimes. Admit experience and desire. Make bawdy jokes. You know, like normal adults do, including asexuals.

Don’t, and I just can’t relate to the characters at all.

I could continue with my feelings about other elements of Korean pop culture, such as being unable to find much interest in or desire for K-pop idols presented for our sexual objectification who are not allowed to actually have sex themselves. But you get the idea. You may also find my very limited experience quite unlike your own, and actually know plenty of Korean dramas, say, in which the characters don’t shy away from talking about about one-night stands, contraception, consent, and so on. If so, then do please let me know.

Which brings me to why I’m so excited about YouTuber Daisy’s latest video below. Many years ago, I finally found the relatable, adult stories I was seeking not in dramas, but in the monthly manhwa compendium PopToon instead—only then for it to cease publication just a few months later. Heartbroken, I refused to make the transition to webtoons. But, she’s finally persuaded me to take the plunge, and I hope you’ll find something of interest in her video too, and/or in later ones in the series (note she includes fluent English CC subtitles):

Ironically, I didn’t actually like any of her suggestions here, mostly because I’m not a fan of the sharp, angular drawing style in most of them. But I am looking, so please send me your own recommendations!

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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Korean High School Girls Complain They Can Barely Breathe in Uniforms Smaller Than Clothes for 8-Year-Olds.

Even university students are astonished at how short and restrictive they’ve gotten.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash.

Ten years since I first wrote about it, I’m still astounded that K-pop stars can endorse school uniforms. Surely, much of the blame for Korea’s notorious issues with female body image can be laid squarely on K-pop and school uniform companies’ shoulders? Those same companies that tell 12-year-old girls entering middle school that their new uniforms will help them show off their tits and ass to boys?

Left: Victoria Song of f(x) showing off her ‘S-line’ in 2009 (Source unknown). Right: Eun-ha of GFriend in 2016; middle caption says “The ‘Tulip Line’ skirt that will immediately capture men’s hearts” (Source: MLBPARK).

But things may not be so one-sided as they may seem. At the end of her must-read March 2017 post “Time to Stop Skirting the Issue: Sexualization of School Uniforms in South Korea,” Haeryun Kang noted in Korea Exposé that:

Tighter uniforms have been popular among boys and girls for years. A recent survey of over 9,000 teenagers showed that students from elementary to high school generally preferred uniforms that were slightly tighter and shorter. In the debate surrounding the sexualization of teen uniforms, the voices of teenagers themselves is conspicuously absent.

In my own post “How Slut-Shaming and Victim-Blaming Begin in Korean Schools” too, published on the same day (hey, great minds think alike), I noted that being able to wear more fashionable clothes had also been directly tied to the liberalization of students’ rights. Plus, students the world over have generally always wanted to improve upon their drab uniforms. Once the sexualization of their uniforms began in earnest here a decade ago then, there would undoubtedly have been many girls who genuinely wanted to wear the tight, figure-hugging styles promoted by K-pop stars, and probably often despite the objections of their parents and teachers too. To assume they were simply dupes of the uniform companies instead would be incredibly naive and misguided, let alone patronizing.

Alas, the survey mentioned by Kang is likely unreliable, as it was conducted by a school uniform company itself. But her conclusion still stands: listen to teenagers themselves. Don’t assume.

When you do, you discover what girls are saying these days is that they can’t breathe in their uniforms. That they hate them. That wearing them is having serious effects on their learning, well-being, and physical health. That they’re angry. That rather than being a reflection of their wishes, having such limited clothing choices imposed on them is actually an infringement of their rights.

In other words, generally the complete opposite of what the schools and the uniform companies would like them to. Wow—teens don’t like being told what to do. Who’d have thought?

Let’s hear from some of those teens, starting with those interviewed in the following June 2018 MBC News Today report. Appropriately enough, it’s opened by everyone’s favorite news anchor Lim Hyeon-ju, who also didn’t like being told what to do—in March that year she’d become the first Korean female news anchor to wear glasses on the job, and later would go on to be the first to appear without a bra:

My translation of the transcript:

숨도 쉬는 여학생 교복…”인권침해 수준” Uniforms Girls Can’t Breathe in…”An Infringement on my Human Rights.”

Anchor

여자는 치마에 블라우스, 남자는 바지에 셔츠. 중·고등학교 교복에 적용되는 흔한 규정인데요. 그런데 요즘 여학생들 사이에서는 치마 대신 바지를, 블라우스 대신 편한 셔츠를 입게 해달라는 요구가 끊이지 않고 있습니다. 그 속사정을 서유정 기자가 취재했습니다.

Girls wear a skirt and a blouse, boys wear pants and a shirt. This is a common rule regarding middle and high school uniforms. Nowadays however, there are constant calls from girls to likewise be able to wear more comfortable shirts and pants. Reporter Seo Yoo-jeong covers the story.

Reporter

단추도 채워지지 않는 블라우스, 숨 쉬는 게 힘겨울 정도로 꽉 조여진 허리라인. 20대 여성들이 카메라 앞에서 중·고등학교 교복을 입고 힘겨워합니다.

Blouses so tight that all the buttons can’t be done up, waistlines that make it difficult to breathe. In front of the camera, women in their 20s are struggling to wear middle and high school uniforms.

[김서윤] “숨을 못 쉬겠어요. 단추를 하나만 더 풀게요.”

[Kim Seo-yoon] “I can’t breathe. I’ll just undo one more button.”

[정겨운] “이런 걸 입고 하루에 12시간 이상을 산단 말이에요? 이건 진짜 인권 침해인데.”

[Jeong Gyeo-woon] “You mean you have to live wearing these things for more than 12 hours a day? This is a real human rights violation!”

요즘 여학생들의 교복 블라우스가 얼마나 작고 불편한지를 눈으로 보여준 이 영상은 조회수 20만 건을 넘기며 인터넷을 뜨겁게 달궜습니다.

This video, which shows how small and uncomfortable girls’ school uniform blouses are these days, has already received more than 200,000 views. [James—Its contents will be covered in more detail later below.]

요즘처럼 날이 더워질수록 교복에 대한 여학생들의 불만은 더해갑니다.

As the days get hotter with the summer, girls’ complaints about their school uniforms will only increase.

기자가 입어보니, 기성복으로 나온 교복을 줄이지 않고 입었는데도 블라우스는 치마 허리선을 아슬아슬하게 덮을 정도로 짧습니다. 손을 들면 맨살이 그대로 드러날 정도입니다. 통은 더 좁게, 길이는 더 짧게.

This reporter tried on an off-the-shelf uniform. Yet even though it was not shortened, the blouse only barely covered the waistline of the skirt. When I raised my hand, the bare skin of my waist was exposed. [Compared to the uniforms I wore as a girl], the waist is narrower and the length is shorter.

학교에서 정한 대로 교복업체는 디자인을 맞춰줄 뿐이라고 합니다. [◇◇교복 업체 관계자] “학교의 원래 원칙은 짧아서 이게(허리선이) 보여야 했어요. 그걸 저희가 이번에 길게 뺀 거예요.”

It is said that school uniform manufacturers [generally] only produce designs as determined by the schools. [Anonymous school uniform manufacturer] “Even though your midriff got exposed when you raised your hand, in fact the original school’s design for this blouse was even shorter. We lengthened it.” [James—Consider the implications for sexuality equality in classroom interactions and discussions when the girls’ clothes alone ensure they’re too embarrassed to even raise their hands!]

“이런 불만은 ‘교복을 없애달라’, ‘여학생들도 바지나 남자 셔츠를 입게 해달라’는 국민청원으로까지 이어지고 있는 상황. 이런 요구를 받아들여 남녀구분 없이 ‘편한 교복’을 입게 하는 학교들도 조금씩 생겨나고 있습니다.

The ensuing dissatisfaction is leading to national petitions calling for girls to be able to wear boy’s uniforms, or to do away with school uniforms entirely. Schools that accept these demands and have allowed boys and girls to wear ‘comfortable uniforms’ are also slowly emerging.

서울의 한 고등학교는 봄 가을엔 헐렁한 후드 티를, 더운 여름엔 반바지와 면 티셔츠를 교복으로 입습니다. [김현수/고등학교 1학년] “팔도 더 잘 올라가고 그러니까 생활하기도 더 편해요. 집중하기 더 편한 것 같아요.”

[Kim Hyeon-su, first year student at this high school] “I can raise and move my arms much more easily, so I have a better quality of life. I think it’s easier to for me to concentrate too.” One high school in Seoul allows baggy hoodies to be worn in the spring and autumn, and shorts and cotton t-shirts in the hot summer.

옷값을 줄이고, 공동체 의식을 갖게 하는 교복의 긍정적인 기능은 살리되, 성별에 따라 복장을 규정하고 움직임에 불편을 주는 폐단은 버리자는 취지입니다/

With these comfortable uniforms, the school’s goal is to retain the good points of school uniforms such as the reduction in the cost of clothes and the fostering of a sense of school community, while also doing away with defining uniforms by sex and removing any features that make it difficult to move freely. (End)

Next, adding to the point about exposed waists especially, here are some segments from a March 2018 CBS No Cut News report by Gwon Hee-eun:

슬림핏 교복 두려워요여학생들 교복 공포증 “I’m afraid of slim fit school uniforms”: Girls’ School Uniform Fears

…여학생들이 입는 하복 셔츠는 짧은 기장 탓에 책상에 엎드리면 셔츠가 훤히 올라가 맨살이 드러나는 것은 물론, 가만히 있어도 속옷이 비칠 정도로 얇다.

…Because of the short length of the summer blouses, they rise up and reveal girls’ skin when they bend forward while sitting at their desks. They are also thin enough to reveal the outlines of underwear even while the girls are sitting still.

이때문에 보통 하복 셔츠 안에 민소매나 반팔 티셔츠를 덧대어 입는 것이 일반적이다. 어떤 학교에서는 이를 ‘교칙’으로 지정해두기도 할 정도다. 더 단정해 보인다는 이유에서다.

Then 16 year-old Jeon Somi endorsing Skoolooks, here wearing their ‘Slim-line Jacket.’ Source: Somiracle – Jeon Somi 전소미 Vietnam Fanpage.

For this reason, it is common to wear a sleeveless or short-sleeved T-shirt underneath a summer blouse. Some schools have even incorporated this into their uniform codes, believing it looks neater. [James—Assuming this rule only applies to girls, this means they would swelter under blouses, bras, and t-shirts in summer classrooms, compared to boys enjoying just one layer. See my earlier post to learn more about many more discriminatory rules like this.]

여학생들의 교복이 과하게 짧고 작아 불편을 초래한다는 사실은 여러 차례 지적돼 왔다. 그러나 교복업체들은 여전히 날씬해보이는 ‘슬림핏’을 마케팅 포인트로 내세운다.

It has often been pointed out that girls’ uniforms are uncomfortable and inconvenient because of their small size and short length. However, promoting this ‘slim fit’ is at the heart of school uniform companies’ marketing strategies.

교복 광고 속 날씬한 여자 아이돌들은 타이트한 자켓과 짧은 치마를 완벽하게 소화해낸다. 하루에 열시간 넘게 교복을 입는 학생들에게는 그런 완벽한 ‘슬림핏’이 불편하다.

In school uniform advertisements, slim female K-pop idols perfectly fit into their tight jackets and short skirts. However, they are uncomfortable for [real-life] students [with a much wider range of body types] who have to wear them for more than 10 hours a day.

최근 유튜브에서 눈길을 끈 ‘교복입원프로젝트’ 영상을 보면 이런 문제는 더 적나라하게 드러난다.

The extent of the problem becomes readily apparent when you see the following video from the ‘School Uniform Hospitalization Project,’ which has recently attracted attention on YouTube [as seen in the first report].

(Not by FemiAction, but this later video by RealCafe of boys trying on girls’ uniforms is also interesting and amusing)

‘불꽃페미액션’이 제작한 이 영상에는 여섯명의 여성이 등장해 실제 여학생 교복 상의와 아동복 사이즈를 비교하고, 직접 착용해보기도 한다.

In this video, produced by Fireworks FemiAction, six women appear, compare the sizes of actual school uniform tops and children’s clothes, and try them on.

여학생용 교복셔츠와 남학생용 교복셔츠를 비교해봤더니, 여학생용 교복셔츠가 훨씬 비침이 심했다. 여학생용은 글씨 위에 셔츠를 겹쳐도 글씨를 바로 알아볼 수 있는 반면, 남학생용은 다소 시간이 걸렸다.

When the boys’ shirts were compared with the girls’ blouses, the uniform shirts for girls were much more see-through. For girls’ blouses, things with writing on them hidden underneath were immediately able to be made out. Whereas with boys’ shirts, it took some time.

키 170cm, 가슴둘레 94cm 기준인 여학생 교복 셔츠와 7~8세용 15호 아동복 사이즈를 비교해보니 가로 폭은 별 차이가 없었고, 기장은 아동복보다 훨씬 짧았다.

When comparing the size of a school uniform blouse for girls with a height of 170cm and a chest circumference of 94cm to a casual size 15 t-shirt intended for girls between 7-8 years old, there was no difference in width, and the length was much shorter than that of the t-shirt.

활동성이 전혀 고려되지 않은 사이즈로 만들어졌다 보니, 머리를 묶거나 팔을 뻗는 등의 동작도 하기 어렵다.

Blouses of this size don’t take any activity or movement into account, so it’s difficult to tie your hair or stretch your arms.

이렇듯 많은 학생들이 아동복보다 작은 교복으로 불편함을 겪고 있지만, 학교 내에서 체육복 등 편한 옷으로 갈아입고 있는 것도 허용되지 않는다.

…[The article continues by saying that students would prefer changing into their more comfortable gym uniforms, but this is generally only allowed in exceptional circumstances such when their regular uniform is torn or has food spilt on it.]…

(Update: As reported by The Korea Bizwire in June 2020, an ironic side-benefit of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been that schools have become more relaxed about this, allowing students to wear their gym uniforms on days they have physical education classes at school. The logic is that allowing them to wear them for the entire day reduces physical contact with other students while changing.)

실생활에서 불편함을 느끼는 학생들이 꾸준히 문제제기를 하고 있지만, 교복 판매업체의 정책과 각 학교의 교칙 등 여러 가지가 얽혀있는 사안이라 명확한 해결책이 나오지 않고 있다.

Students who feel uncomfortable in real life are constantly raising problems, but there are no clear solutions due to issues that are intertwined with the policies of school uniform vendors and school rules of each school. (End)

Source: Pixabay.

Finally, some segments of a July 2017 report by Son Ho-yeong for The Chosun Ilbo:

여고생에 ‘8세 사이즈’ 입어라… 숨쉬기 힘든 S라인 교복 Uniforms for High School Girls are Smaller than Clothes for 8 Year-Olds…S-line Uniforms that Make Breathing Difficult

서울 양천구의 한 여고에선 교복 블라우스를 ‘배꼽티’라고 부른다.… 이 학교 정모(17)양은 “교복에 몸이 갇힌 느낌”이라고 했다.

In one girls’ high school in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul, school uniform blouses are called ‘crop tops’….One 17-year-old student there said, “I feel trapped in my school uniform.”

…상당수 학교가 맵시를 강조하면서 허리선을 잘록하게, 길이는 짧게 디자인한 교복을 채택하고 있다. 보통 몸매인 학생들도 조금만 움직이면 속옷과 맨살이 훤히 드러나 제대로 활동하기 어렵다. 체형이 통통한 학생은 꽉 끼는 교복 때문에 수치심을 느끼는 경우도 있다. “교복 때문에 학생들의 인권이 침해받는다”는 소리가 나올 정도다.

…Many schools have adopted school uniforms designed to be short and with narrow waistlines, while emphasizing style. Yet their tightness means that students with average bodies find it difficult to study properly because their underwear and bare skin are exposed if they move a little, with larger than average students feeling even more anxious. [Indeed], you could go so far as to say school uniforms are violating their human rights.

예전 교복은 활동성을 고려해 펑퍼짐한 스타일이 많았다. 학생 일부가 멋을 내느라 치마 길이를 줄이고, 허리선을 강조하는 식으로 수선했다. 요즘은 처음부터 교복이 몸에 달라붙게 나온다. 늘이기는 어려운 디자인이다. 자신의 실제 몸 치수보다 큰 것을 사도 사정은 다르지 않다. 서울 종로구의 한 여고생은 “겨울 교복보다 두 치수나 큰 여름 교복을 샀는데도 허리의 ‘S라인’이 지나치게 들어가 밥을 먹고 나면 옷이 끼어 거북하다”고 했다.

With older school uniforms, there were many styles that were both flattering and didn’t hamper movement. [Naturally however,] some girls would shorten their skirts and emphasize their waistlines to look more attractive. Yet these days, school uniforms cling to the body from the beginning, and are difficult to stretch. Compensating by buying larger sizes may not even help either. One high school girl in Jongno-gu, Seoul said, “I bought a summer school uniform that is two sizes larger than my winter school uniform. But the ‘S-line’ on the waist is too overdone, and after I eat my clothes still start clinging to my body.”

A 2003-2005 school uniform advertisement featuring BoA; I’m unsure who the boy/man is sorry. See many more examples from then here.

날씬한 맵시만 강조하다 보니 여고생 교복 치수가 8세 아동복 수준이 되기도 한다. 서울 강북구의 한 인문계 여고 교복 상의(키 160㎝·88 사이즈)와 시중에 판매 중인 7~8세 여아용 티셔츠(130 사이즈)를 비교했더니 크기 차이가 거의 없었다.

As they emphasize only slim fit styles, the size of school uniforms for high school girls is the same as casual clothes for 8-year-olds. There was little difference in size when comparing a school uniform top (160cm tall, size 88) for girls in a school in Gangbuk-gu, Seoul and a t-shirt for girls aged 7-8 years old (size 130) sold at the local market.

2016년 기준 우리나라 여고생의 평균 키는 160.6㎝, 8세인 초등학교 1학년 여아 평균 키는 120.5㎝이다.

As of 2016, the average height of high school girls in Korea was 160.6 cm, and the average height of a 8-year-old girl entering elementary school was 120.5 cm.

교복은 기성복과도 차이가 있다. 한국산업표준(KS)에 따르면 키 160㎝인 여성 청소년의 ‘보통 체형’용 기성복 상의(블라우스 기준)는 가슴둘레 88㎝, 허리둘레 72.8㎝이다. 본지가 구한 여고 교복 상의의 가슴둘레는 78㎝, 허리둘레는 68㎝였다. 교복이 기성복 가이드라인보다 가슴둘레 10㎝, 허리둘레는 5㎝가량 작다.

School uniforms are also different from ready-made clothes. According to the Korean Industrial Standard, a 160cm tall female adolescent’s non-uniform, off the shelf, blouse-like top for a ‘normal’ body type has an 88cm chest and 72.8cm waist. Yet the waist circumference of a girls’ high school uniform blouse obtained for this report had an 78 cm and a 68cm waist, meaning that school uniforms are about 10 cm shorter in chest circumference and 5 cm in waist than required by the standards for off the shelf clothes.

일부 여학생은 교사의 단속을 피해 남학생용 교복을 사서 입기도 한다. 대전 서구의 한 남녀공학 고교에 다니는 이모(16)양은 “남학생용 교복은 라인이 없어 편하다. 학생주임 선생님이 남자 교복을 입지 못하게 수시로 단속하지만 몰래 입는 친구가 많다”고 했다.

For the sake of comfort and to avoid unfair school rules regarding girls’ uniforms, some wear boys’ school uniforms instead. One 16-year-old girl who attends a coeducational high school in Seo-gu, Daejeon, said, “The school uniform for boys is comfortable because there is no figure-hugging ‘line’ built into them. Although our teachers regularly crack down on this, many of my female classmates secretly wear them.”

교복 브랜드의 ‘슬림 라인’ 전쟁은 2000년대 초부터 시작됐다. 멋을 위해 교복을 줄이는 학생들이 늘면서 교복 제조업체들이 허리가 쏙 들어가고 길이가 짧은 디자인의 교복을 내놓기 시작했다. ‘재킷으로 조여라, 코르셋 재킷’ 같은 광고 문구를 내세웠다.

The ‘Slim Line’ war of school uniform brands began in the 2000s. As more and more students want more fashionable uniforms, manufacturers have responded by offering short designs with tight waists. In their advertising, they use phrases such as ‘Tighten with a jacket, corset jacket.’

…교복 업체가 사람마다 다른 체형을 고려하지 않는 것도 문제다. 한 업체는 체형 데이터를 바탕으로 청소년 ‘대표 체형’을 뽑아내 이를 기준으로 교복을 만든다고 광고한다. 하지만 이는 ‘보기 좋은 체형’일 뿐 해마다 몸이 변하는 청소년들에게 일률적으로 제시하는 것은 무리다.

Another problem is that school uniform companies do not cater to different body types. One company advertises that it makes a school uniform based on the ‘representative body type’ based on data collected about young people’s physiques. However, this supposedly representative type is really only a stereotypical ‘good looking body type’ [like that of the K-pop stars in the ads], nor does a single type take into account the fact that adolescents’ bodies are constantly changing. (End)

Photo by 周 康 from Pexels

Thoughts? Still not enough? If so, I recommend also watching Dr. Kyunghee Pyun’s (Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York) presentation for the UBC Centre for Korean Research on “Impression Management of School Uniform Culture in Korea,” which I was able to attend on Zoom a few days ago. While it’s only loosely related, and covers much earlier time periods, it does provide some useful context:

Also, and finally, for a more recent and in-depth look, here is an 8-minute, November 2020 report by my local Busan MBC, ironically at one point filmed where I took this related, well-discussed picture. Unfortunately, producing a transcript and translation would be a bit prohibitive sorry, but the English CC seems to provide the gist. Enjoy!

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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