Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

Estimated reading time: 25 minutes. Image source: KpopStarz.

Imagine for a moment, there’s a bona fide reason to open a post about Korea’s female sea divers, known as haenyeo, with this image of iconic K-pop group Girls’ Generation promoting Gangnam.

Many of you will immediately recognize its age: Jessica, in the center, left the group in September 2014, two and half years after they were appointed as honorary publicity ambassadors for the district. Yet still their aura of stylishness, cosmopolitanism, and confidence remains so vivid, and district officials’ desire to link that aura to Gangnam so powerful, that this eight year-old advertisement can still be seen in airports even today.

Now imagine if, at the same time it was produced, it was an open secret that the Seoul Metropolitan Government had begun collaborating with a foreign government to set up brothels in Gangnam. Not necessarily K-pop themed, but brothels nonetheless. That by the time Covid-19 struck, the majority of overseas visitors to the district would not be the starry-eyed hallyu fans you’d expect from the sub-heading on the ad, nor medical tourists. Rather, they’d be stressed businessmen from that foreign country, encouraged by both their government and their companies to let off steam by going on sex tours to Gangnam. For some of the more high-ranking among them, their liaisons with Korean sex workers would even be arranged by Seoul government officials themselves, to better facilitate trade and investment deals.

That sexing-up of Gangnam’s image with Girls’ Generation? One hell of a coincidence. Whatever your feelings about sex work, you could ask serious questions about what choices the members had in their image being used to promote it. So too, if they ever made any profit from doing so, rather than all of it going to SM Entertainment.

You can guess where I’m going with this.

A sex tourism industry really was developed throughout Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, but especially on Jeju Island.

On the mainland, its history is complicated by that of the parallel sex industry set up for the USFK, and complicated further still by the earlier industry for (primarily) Japanese officials and male tourists in the 1930s, as we’ll delve into later. But on Jeju, the story after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan in 1965 is relatively simple.

There, according to Dr. Caroline Norma of RMIT University, prominent Japanese businessmen, private companies, and even the Japanese Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, and Industry were directly involved in the setting up of tourist facilities and infrastructure in the 1970s—all for the explicit purpose of gambling and sex tourism for Japanese businessmen, and all with the full support of Korean president Park Chung-hee who wanted to develop the island as a tourist resort. Certainly, there was opposition in both countries. Yet by 1986, over 1000 women would be working in the 4 ‘kisaeng houses’ established, and the industry would come to be so integral to the island’s economy that the Jeju prefectural government would ask to be exempted from the anti-prostitution law of 2004—and saddled with swathes of abandoned buildings when that request was refused.

You can also guess that Jeju’s tourist brochures from the 1970s would be replete with glamorous photos of youthful models posing as Jeju’s haenyeo. For example, this one below, which at least features realistic outfits for the time (as I’ll explain in detail later):

Source left, cropped: hansoo7007; the highest quality image I’ve been able to find. Source right: National Folk Museum of Korea via Google Arts and Culture. Unfortunately, the only definitive dating of this image I’ve found is from a 1974 postcard, but it probably dates to at least several years earlier.

Here’s another with different models, superimposed over a background of local landmark Dragon Head Rock. This photo was likewise featured on the cover of a tourist brochure, on postcards, and on souvenirs:

Source: Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Leiden University, Marginalia on Northern Korea. Used with permission.

But forget about the burgeoning sex tourism industry behind the scenes for a moment. So too, the affected poses. Besides those, what is “off” about about these photos exactly? Which isn’t off about this one below, of genuine haenyeo from the early-1960s?

Source: Jeju Provincial Self-governing Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.

Recall that I described them as “glamorous.”

It’s true the word can have many meanings, including—ironically for our titular subject—“busty” in Korean. But in this particular case, the first two photos are glamorous because their emphasis is on the models as women, not as haenyeo. It’s on their femininity. That’s why they still look like models, despite the authentic outfits and the equipment. Whereas in the last picture, all but one of the haenyeo are too busy to care less about the photographer, which is a good indicator they’re the real deal. If there’s any emphasis in the photograph at all, it’s on the profession.

If stressing femininity was the purpose in the former photos however, this raises the question of why it was necessary to use a haenyeo theme. Even on the added justification that the haenyeo symbolized Jeju, whereas, say, generic bikini models wouldn’t, there were significant numbers of haenyeo on mainland coasts who would have begged to differ.

Source: Dolga Dolga@YouTube. This statue of a Busan haenyeo is located in a popular drinking spot in the summer, and gets a lot of attention (and damage) from drunks.

The answer is that the decision was merely the continuation of a long, preexisting history of marginalization, exploitation, othering, and sexualization of Jeju haenyeo, as I’ll discuss later. But it was indeed from the 1970s when this stress on their femininity began in earnest.

Writing in 2013, Shin-Ock Chang from the Department of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University described the result of four decades of that:

…femaleness is the most mobilized and utilized aspect of women divers in order to please visitors to the island. Women divers’ femaleness has taken the forefront in the island’s tourism development. The femaleness is pervasive in tourism related materials including magazines, posters, basalt sculptures, FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastics) materialized caricature sculptures, and souvenir items. Indeed, the feminine character of women divers is what one comes across most in traveling on the island, and is particularly pervasive in places where tourists are expected to pass through such as hotels, restaurants, museums, shopping centers, coastline car driving roads, and beaches.

Left: K-pop singer Ivy in 2017, via enews24. Source right (cropped): leesangtaek.

Lest this sound like what some would disqualify as typical feminist overreaction over, say, taking harmless funny pictures in front of a couple of statues (a Jeju vacation ritual), consider that “pervasive” means precisely that. For instance, as of 2010, there were 33 haenyeo statues along the coastal roads of Jeju. Thirty-one of these, Chang notes, were the A to C types in Figure 4 below which emphasize and exaggerate the haenyeo’s “female body lines such as breast, hip, and legs.” Also striking was that 19 were of the A type, which she notes bears a strong resemblance to the 1972 photo of a model in a rather inauthentic and impractical bikini in Figure 5 (but still, as indicated through the picture title and equipment, an ostensible haenyeo):

Source: Chang, p. 24.

Moreover, with ubiquity comes familiarity and normalization, and the Korean public, mainland tourists, and foreign visitors alike tending to regard such objectifying as only natural. For example, also consider that last year, the Jeju Women and Family Research Institute released its 2019 Gender Impact Assessment of Jeju Tourism Contents Report (2019년 제주특별자치도 관광 콘텐츠에 대한 특정성별영향평가) in which it identified problematic gender and sexual stereotypes in those contents, and made recommendations on how to correct them. Among the many mentions of haenyeo, one example given was the unnecessary use of those sexualized statues of them used in the background of a video for children shown in the Jeju Dialect section of the Jeju Education Museum (pp. 55-56):

시청각 영상물에서 해녀의 이미지 가성적으로 표현됨. 유두, Y존, 섹슈얼한 포즈 등 지나치게 여성의 신체 일부를 드러냄으로써, 해녀의 신체 에대해 성적인 이미지를 강조하고 있음. 아울러 단어와 문장에 맞지않 은이미지를 사용하고 있음. 해녀에 대한 섹슈얼한 이미지 활용에 대한 문제제기는 이미 많이 진행되어 왔고 개선되고 있는 상황임. 이러한 변화에 맞추어 개선 필요. 특히 어린이/청소년 대상 전시물의 경우 미래 세대에 미치는 영향에 대한 고민 필요

☞ 특정성, 특히 여성에 대한 외모를 강조하는 이미지 활용은 지양. 이미지 개선 필요.

My translation:

The video includes likenesses of haenyeo. But those likenesses are in sexual poses and show off female body parts such as nipples and crotches, stressing an overly physical and sexual image of the haenyeo. Moreover, they are completely unrelated to the words and phrases of the Jeju dialect that are the video’s focus.

There have been many improvements made in the use of overly sexual imagery of haenyeo, and [this museum] needs to improve in line with these changes. In particular, in the case of exhibitions aimed at children and teenagers, it is advisable to consider the impact of such imagery on future generations.

☞ Special attention needs to be given to the rejection of imagery that emphasizes women’s bodies. Improvements to this imagery are necessary.

Yes, that is indeed unfortunate shading on the second statue, but it’s no fault of the video. It’s hardly prudish to wonder why the sculptor(s) were instructed to take that particular creative direction with it either, when everyone would balk at them doing the same for other professions.

But in addition to their shared stress on haenyeo’s femininity, there are two more common themes to be aware of.

Let me explain them by posing you a question. Do you think a 30-something haenyeo should have been chosen as the face of a tourism competition last year to win round-trips to Korea? When 9 out of 10 haenyeo are now over 60 years old?

Screenshot (cropped): Korea Tourism Organization.

There were good reasons. The Korean Tourism Organization promoted the competition through painfully scripted videos of young influencers in Korea waxing lyrical about literally everything, which automatically excluded all those too old to care less. Also, essentially the same role was envisioned for the eventual winners: a miserly 2 days and 3 nights of hotel accommodation were only provided if they chose to meet with the 1 of 30 Korean “friends” available they’d selected upon entering, of whom Go Ryeo-jin above was one. Realistically, very few young hallyu fans would have opted to spend such a limited time with a more representative haenyeo their grandmother’s age. In fact, in that sense, claiming in her own video that Go was the youngest haenyeo of all may only have further added to her appeal. It’s not like any hopeful competition entrant would have quibbled that it wasn’t actually true.

In fairness, the competition did offer the opportunity to meet elderly “friends” in other professions. But this (mis)representation of haenyeo is all too common. For example, when Go played a similar role the year before:

Source: The Traveller. The Korean subheading at bottom literally says “Jeju Naturalism Travel,” but probably “Travels Among Jeju’s Nature” is closer to the intended meaning. Note the anachronistic rubber flippers.

Hey, no-one’s blaming Go for her side-hustles. But Traveller‘s glamorous representation of haenyeo in particular is problematic. Not because feminists are natural spoilsports, but because, in addition to her relative youth, Go’s wearing one of the much flimsier traditional diving outfits like you saw in those glamorous photos earlier. Which were taken precisely when haenyeo stopped wearing such outfits in favor of wetsuits.

Yes, no working haenyeo has actually worn those for nearly 50 years.

So, unless explicitly set before the 1970s, any modern representation of haenyeo that doesn’t convey the reality that 9 out of 10 of them are elderly women in wetsuits, is misinformed at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. And, again, begs the question of the agendas—or at least stereotypes and cultural baggage—of those choosing the representation.

Left: Her Kyungsuk, Hamo Jeju, 2014. Right: Lee Okyong, Gosan Jeju, 2013. Photos by Hyung S. Kim via BuzzFeed.
Source: Noby Leong@Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The logical outcome of the stress on haeneyo’s femininity is then, a stress on their youth. And the flimsy traditional outfits are best at highlighting both themes, which is why we encounter them far more often than wetsuits.

For example, in this fashion show as part of a haenyeo festival in October 2008, which—make of it what you will—I first found pictures of on the misogynistic, alt-right site Ilbe, where members usually post pictures of women only to ridicule or ogle them:

Source: Hankyung.

In fairness, young women have already been performing as haenyeo in various capacities for a very long time. Here are two examples from the 1960s:

Source: e-영상역사관, 1969 & 1966.

I would have loved to have continued with more examples here. In particular, of all the instances of haenyeo in Korean pop culture from the last 70 years that I’ve collected these past two months, as all those were surely both strongly influenced by and strong influences on this sexualized positioning of haenyeo. Through their sheer weight of numbers alone, I felt, it would have been obvious to anyone that this combination of femininity, youth, and overabundance of traditional outfits in them has always been a thing.

But that long list would have rapidly snowballed. Better then, to provide you with the tools to judge such representations of haenyeo for yourselves, wherever you may find them.

That’s our cue to discuss the traditional outfit in detail.

A screenshot from the 2009 TV series Tamra, the Island, with Seo Woo playing a haenyeo. Naturally, it prompted many “news” articles about the topless myth, and a great deal of speculation as to how much of her chest viewers would be treated to. (See my first impressions of the series when it came out here.)

Joo-Young Lee and Hyo Hyun Lee, both from the Department of Textiles at Seoul National University, offer a refreshingly simple guide to the traditional outfit in their 2014 examination of the loss of haenyeo’s physiological adaptions to the cold due to adopting wetsuits (p.4.):

Jeju haenyeo wore a bathing suit made of cotton-broadcloth in white or black (100% cotton with 30 counts, about 0.5 mm thick, and 8.5% water absorption at a dry condition) until wetsuits were supplied. Before the broad cotton cloth was imported from Japan [a 99.6 percent monopoly by 1919—James], the bathing suit was originally made of muslin (thin cotton cloth). Haenyeo preferred the broad cotton to the muslin bathing suit because the broad cotton was relatively thicker and stronger in salty water than the muslin cloth.

I’d add that according to the Jeju Weekly, the difference between the white and black outfits is that the former were made from muslin, woven from traditional looms, while the latter were made from broad cotton cloth that was machine-woven, then dyed black. I doubt this difference in material and method of manufacture continued until the 1970s however.

Source: Lee and Lee, p. 4.

From bitter experience, different romanizations can lead to considerable confusion. So, please take note of the original Korean:

  • The “juck-sam” referred to is “적삼.”
  • The “so-jung-ee” is “소중이.”
  • And the “mul-su-gun” is “물수건.”
  • However, although Lee and Lee only use “mul” in that last name, it simply means water, and every other source I’ve encountered attaches it to the other two names also—i.e., mul-juck-sam/물적삼 and mul-so-jung-ee/물소중이. So I will too.
  • Also, for your interest, su-gun also means towel, which is what it closely resembles.
  • Many sources (example) refer to the entire traditional outfit as “murot” or “mul-ot,” but this—”물옷”—simply means “water clothes.”
  • I’ve only ever seen white muljucksam, but am happy to be shown black ones existed.
  • And finally so-jung-ee, literally “valuable thing,” is often a euphemism for genitals, and probably no coincidence here.

Next, here’s a more detailed breakdown of the mulsojungee from a (Korean) 2013 article by Kim Hyun-mi and Jang Ae-ran of the Department of Beauty & Art at Cheju Halla University and the Department of Clothing and Textiles at Jeju National University, respectively:

Source: Kim and Jang, p. 359. Source below: Zum.

Very confusingly, Kim and Jang mention a jjokiheori/조끼허리 at the top rather than a muljucksam. But that length of it above, indicated by the dotted line extending into the mulsojungee, seems to be mistaken. A jjokiheori is a waistcoat-like covering that is so short it almost looks like a bra (see right), and is most commonly used with hanbok. However, much more commonly used on top of both men’s and women’s hanbok are jeogori (저고리), of which the women’s is usually as short as a jjokiheori, but has large loose sleeves that the jjokiheori lacks; indeed, the muljucksam has been described as a kind of jeogori, albeit with much narrower sleeves to prevent them dragging in the water. As I’ve only been able to find a single additional reference of jjokiheori being used by haenyeo then, and no pictures, there’s no reason to consider it further.

Besides which, it’s the maechin/매친 shoulder strap that’s crucial. This ensured that only the upper chest—but not the breasts—would be exposed if the muljucksam wasn’t also being worn. That, plus the fact that the mulsojungee seems to have come in black just as often as white, sharply distinguishes haenyeo from Japanese ama (海女):

Source, cropped: TheStory

But “crucial”?

Fixating on breast exposure may seem very childish. Not least, because as you can probably tell from the examples below (and as many readers with breasts will already have been well aware), it is obvious that the thin material would have hidden little, and that the functional side-slits for easy adjusting and removal, plus the practicalities of the job (including infant childcare), would in practice have meant frequent breast exposure. It’s also true that the haenyeo would have been working well away from the prying eyes of most men. And even if men did see them—such as fishermen in passing, handlers of the haeyneo’s boats, or men on their shore unloading the haenyeo’s catches—breast exposure was still routine outside of cities in Korea, even as late as the 1950s.

Source: Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Caption: “Haenyeo at work while wearing muljeoksam” by Yang Ha-sun, 1966. Source: Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.
Source: 에뜨랑제(Etranger)나그네의 길
Caption: “Haenyeo warming themselves up in groups after just leaving the water/공동물질을 마친 해녀들이 삼삼오오 짝을 지어 불을 지펴 언몸을 녹이고 있다 (1968년).” Source: I Love Jeju Magazine.
Source: Whimoon Alumni Association. Multiple NSFW images follow.

And yet the mulsojungee would rarely have naturally ridden down below the bust, nor the thick maechin shoulder strap come off, without the wearer quickly fixing them when able. Let alone a haenyeo forgoing wearing a mulsojungee entirely.

In other words, there’s a world of difference between photos like these, taken in passing while the haenyeo were too busy working to care less about the photographers, with photos of haenyeo openly revealing their breasts to them.

Rest assured there are multiple alleged examples from English and Korean google searches to be found of the latter. Armed with this knowledge of the outfits though, now you can instantly tell that a good, say, 95 percent of the nude images are actually of ama, whatever their captions may claim. And it is highly likely that those 5 percent that are indeed of haenyeo were staged.

Knowing this last to be a fact is a good basis on which to investigate why.

Source: @WhoresofYore.

When doing so, there’s three potential factors to consider.

The first is the influence of sexualized representations of ama. Frankly, I am unfamiliar with their traditional outfits, and can not speak to how realistic Yoshiyuki’s Iwase’s (influential) depictions of them topless were—while most are clearly glamorized and staged, many others seem to be little different from those we saw of haenyeo working, albeit with much less clothing.

Regardless, given Japan’s much more liberal media environment in the postwar era, ama were much more intensively and rapidly sexualized than their counterparts in Korea. For instance, their fetishization in film goes back at least as far Michiko Maeda’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen (1956), which tellingly also contained Japanese cinema’s first nude scene. By the 1970s, there were numerous soft-porn films centered around ama.

Source: film.ru.

This is important, as it’s plausible to argue that the glamorized depictions of haenyeo from the early 1970s were simply due to timing.

Which is ultimately quite mistaken. But still plausible.

In particular, and somewhat inconveniently for branding Jeju as a cishet man’s sexual paradise, that period saw the beginning of the most authoritarian phase of Korea’s military regime. This included a harsh crackdown on burgeoning youth culture, including on its attendant challenges to conservative standards of dress and restrictions on nudity in art and the media. If that likewise affected advertising, then using models in genuinely skimpy haenyeo outfits would have served the same glamorizing purpose as bikinis. Being authentic, they would have helped deflect potential criticism and charges of hypocrisy that using models in bikinis might have incurred.

Military regimes are not well-known for suffering public opinion however. It’s also unlikely women’s movements would have raised such trifling matters when so many of their members were routinely being brutally beaten by factory-owners and police.

Alternatively, many older readers may recall the very successful James Bond movie You Only Live Twice had been released just a few years earlier. While it was set in Japan, and only featured ama characters, the similarities in tone with the glamorized depictions of haenyeo we saw are obvious, particularly the 1972 example of a model in a white bikini (but the existence of which slightly contradicts the military crackdown rationale). Indeed, at least one former Peace Corps Volunteer admits the movie was very, very much on his mind upon his arrival on the island in 1973.

Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (1967). Source, cropped: ScreenMusings. Source above-right: Anastasia Ashman.

But information about the movie’s (unlikely) popularity in Japan itself is hard to find, and regardless, Japanese businessmen traveling to Jeju for sex would undoubtedly have been much more influenced by ama characters in homegrown soft-pornography films. It’s also reasonable to assume that despite the outlawing of pornography in Korea, and despite official restrictions on direct cultural imports from Japan specifically, Japanese sex tourists’ stereotypes and objectification of ama would still have filtered across to the Korean public through various means, and influenced their preexisting notions of haenyeo.

This would have been especially true after Korean films and photos featuring semi-nudity became widely available in Korea, most notably after President Chun Doo-hwan’s “Sex, Screen, Sports” policy began in 1980. These haenyeo-themed examples from the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper for instance, which have a very similar feel to Japanese examples from 10 or even 20 years earlier:

Source, left(1987), right(1979; cropped): Moreska@Flickr, used with permission. The red box on the right very helpfully explains that that model is “Film actor Kim Min-jeong symbolizing the haenyeo style. A woman with the sea and sky, radiating a pure warmth”

Meanwhile, Japanese pornography itself had become much more explicit by that stage. I’ll leave interested readers to find ama-themed examples themselves however, confining myself here to passing on the trailer of the (comparatively mild and amusing) Nympho Diver: G-String Festival (1981) instead. Partially, because of its conspicuous Korean subtitles, which title it as Lustful Haenyeo, and partially because it’s quite typical of the sort of adult movies I’d find playing on very late-night Korean television in the 2000s.

Lest I have come across as too critical and prudish in this post, for the record I’m actually a strong supporter of ethical pornography produced in safe environments, by and for consenting adults, and which focuses on women’s pleasure just as much as men’s. Yet I’m hardly ignorant and naive either, and am well aware that most pornography presents women as all too eager to have sex with just about any cishet man who bestows his gaze upon them. So I’m not surprised then, that the aforementioned Jeju Women and Family Research Institute’s 2019 report on tourism materials found numerous cases of voyeurism being normalized as both completely natural for men and just clean harmless fun, which I’m astonished haven’t been torn down yet in the wake of angry protests against Korea’s spycam epidemic. One of these examples (p. 58), from Jeju Loveland, depicts a haenyeo in all but name:

Incongruous Caucasian man in Victorian-era clothing aside (a whole other topic), I’ll leave readers to connect the dots to earlier, pre-internet examples.

The next factor to consider is that the 1970s weren’t the first time haenyeo had been used to sex-up the island for the tourism industry. One prior attempt comes from the 1950s:

Source, top-right: KRpia. Source, all others: 유자향내를 따라서.

Clearly, these photos are part of a series, of which more are available at the single source. Frustratingly however, no extra information about them is provided (my bad for not contacting the owner yet). Also, while the one at the top-right is available elsewhere, most notably in the KRPia Database, I lack the institutional access required to see if any additional information is provided there. (I’ll return to this practical issue later.)

An additional source of frustration is that although some of the outfits appear inauthentic, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in an earlier picture of genuine working haenyeo from the 1960s I provided, some of them too wore outfits with two shoulder straps.

After spending so much time researching and familiarizing myself with the traditional outfit, I frankly throw my hands up in despair at that observation. (And so miss that they could simply be a kind of tank-top?) Yet the fact remains that those 1950s photos above were obviously completely staged and glamorized, particularly of the bare-breasted woman. But why?

A tantalizing hint can be found through the following photograph in a June 2012 article in the Jemin Ilbo. Not only because it’s very similar to the above (albeit still very uncertain if it’s related at all), but because the caption there claims it was for a tourism shot:

Source: Jemin Ilbo.

Again frustratingly, that’s the entirety of the information about it. But if true?

Likewise, what to make of the following photo, which is also very staged, but with authentic outfits? Curiously, an authoritative source dates its production to exactly July 21, 1958, but doesn’t say on what that date is based. Nor indeed, any other information about it:

Source: Hankook Ilbo.

Considering Jeju had just seen 10% of its population killed in a brutal repression of an uprising in 1948-1949, and Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the decade after the war, then the very notion of producing tourism photos for the island seems absurd, let alone such titillating ones. And yet they stubbornly exist.

I apologize that the pictures raise more questions than answers. But I’m on much firmer ground with the final factor to consider, to be considered when viewing images 20-30 years earlier from the colonial period: that generally, Japanese colonial representations of Korean women were used to dangle the possibility of sex with locals, to present them as primitive and in need of civilizing, or both.

Source: Moreska@Flickr. Used with permission.

Alas I can not possibly do justice to the extensive literature on the development of the sex industry in colonial Korea driving that, let alone dare to publicly take a stance in the politically-charged debate on its links to wartime comfort women. So, I will confine myself to making two points about its scale, as this was a big factor in why postcards and posters of Korean women were so prolific.

First, among colonial empires, the Japanese one stood out for the number of men from the home country working in its colonies. To give a specific example: according to politics and international affairs Professor Atul Kohli of Princeton University, “there were 87,552 government officials in Korea in 1937, 52,270 of whom were Japanese, whereas the French state in Vietnam (relatively large itself compared to British colonies in Africa) only had 3000 French officials. In other words, for geographically-similar sized colonies the Japanese had fifteen officials for every French one.”

I don’t mean to imply that Japanese officials were the bulk of the clients, which wasn’t the case at all. But those numbers do suggest that, per capita, the sex industry catering to such a colonial presence would have been comparatively large. Also, secondly, why regularly visiting sex workers was considered completely normal and unremarkable.

Yet for Japanese living in the Home Islands, why travel to Korea for that?

“The most famous gisaeng during Japanese colonialism, Jang Yeon-hong.” Source: zixundingzhi. Note the accompanying prominent placing of the Japanese General Government Building, completed in 1926.

One reason was the relative ease, both because of the geographical proximity and because a huge industry for Japanese tourists was developed in the interwar years. Another was the persuasiveness of the ensuing extensive advertising. Also, as Hyung Il Pai of the University of California explains (p. 73), there were “millions of train schedules, pamphlets, and guidebooks estimated to have been distributed at major piers, train stations, and department stores throughout the empire.” Unfortunately, being designed to be disposable, very few of those have survived. But it’s unlikely their contents would have differed much from the sturdier pocket-size guidebooks and attractive postcards that do remain, and these had consistent themes. As Okpyo Moon from the Department of Anthropology at the Academy Of Korean Studies explains (p. 151):

While actual places visited by Japanese travelers concentrated on urban centres and newly constructed modern colonial facilities, many of the postcards printed and circulated during the Japanese colonial period emphasized images of pre-modern exoticism. For instance, most of the tourist postcards of the time depicted Korea with images of rural rather than urban, female rather than male, elderly people or children rather than lively young men, passive and static rather than active and moving, traditional and past-oriented rather than progressive and modern. The continuous reproduction and wide distribution of these images helped Japanese travelers to perceive colonial Korea as something to be conquered, enlightened, modernized, desired, and consumed.

In the last two decades, a big online market for these postcards has developed, driving up costs and making access more difficult. Also, most of the universities and museums with digital archives of the postcards, and, presumably, as much verifiable information about them as is available, either require institutional access or visits in person—and most are in the US. Add that such painful, emasculating depictions of Korea may not be a favorite subject of Korean historians, so the vast majority of scholarship on the postcards appears to be Japanese (which I don’t speak), then unfortunately it feels extremely difficult, here in Busan, to pursue the subject in as much depth as I’d like.

The January 1927 cover of Chang Han (長恨 Enduring Bitterness), a very rare examination of the colonial sex industry written by the sex workers themselves. Source: Adan Mun’go.

An informal survey of what material is publicly available however, demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of glamorous pictures of Korean women in them are of kisaeng. It would be very hypocritical and misleading to perpetuate their own stereotype that they were largely sex workers; however, the colonial (male) tourist gaze didn’t discern their internal distinctions and artistry, stressing their alleged sexual skills and availability instead. This context should be borne in mind when you see examples like those two a moment ago, and Moon (pp. 153-4) notes their obvious similarities with later tourism materials:

An apparent continuity can be observed between the pre-war and the post-war Japanese perception of Korea and in the ways in which tourism was later promoted in Korea. The tourist posters printed and distributed by the Korean government in the 1970s, for instance, invariably depicted women in Korean traditional dress either dancing or playing musical instruments such as [12-stringed Korean harps]. The continuity with kisaeng images in the postcards of the colonial period cannot be missed.

This depiction of Korean women in traditional outfits, accompanied by the tools of their trade, but in which it’s ultimately their femininity that is being highlighted, does sound somewhat familiar.

Meanwhile, of the other colonial postcards featuring women, many of the others were like that of the somewhat wizened-looking rural woman with exposed breasts. In an era when the adoption of Western dress was rendering breast exposure increasingly taboo in the cities, and covering them a signifier of (Japanese-led) modernization and civilizing, then the intention of the photographer was clearly to shame. For this reason, many Korean historians and the public have—not unreasonably—refused to accept that breast exposure was nonetheless still routine in the countryside then.

But because of what we know about the traditional outfit, we know that it was indeed for shaming purposes that the haenyeo below was told to pull down her mulsojungee to expose her breasts, in this, the single verifiable postcard featuring a haenyeo I’ve been able to find:

Source: Moravius@Flickr. Used with permission.

My source, to whom I’m eternally grateful, gave a little more information about its origins in their message to me:

[This] is part of a set of eight postcards which I bought from a Chinese dealer some 15 years ago. As you will know, postcards produced by Japanese businessmen in Korea for sale mainly to Japanese tourists and collectors are an important—and very often the only—source of photographic material of the colonial period. They often came in sets of several cards held together by a colourful printed envelope. The Cheju-do set also includes an explanation sheet (in Japanese, of course). These are the only Cheju-do postcards in my collection, so it seems Cheju-do was not popular with Japanese tourists at that time.

Actual tourists aside, it has been argued that glamorized posters and postcards of young, nude Jeju haenyeo were also produced, but I have yet to find any actual examples. Also, for readers’ interest, another similar, shaming depiction of topless Jeju haenyeo can be found in a Japanese newspaper from 1934 (p.24).

(Update) And then the following appeared. Alas, not from a Japanese postcard, but intriguing nonetheless:

With my considerable thanks to historian JiHoon Suk for passing it on, this topless, alleged Jeju haenyeo comes from the cover of the June 1928 edition of the Korean literary-intellectual magazine Donggwang (동광), with the caption:

“濟州道 海女들이 감(柿)를 드린 바지를 입고 潛水질하는 거슬 海邊에서 볼ᄯᅢ에는 꼭 南洋에 간 感이 잇다. 女子들은 어찌나 健康한지 젖가삼이 쑥쑥 나오고 血氣잇게 다니는 그 女子들은 陸地의 男子보다 몃배의 힘이 잇을 것이다. 市長에는 女子뿐이고 巨里에 낭구(木) 팔러 오는 사람도 女子이고 심할 것은 牛馬의 力으로 回轉시킬 돌방아까지 女子 3, 4人의 힘으로 도는 것을 보앗다. 陸地의 女子들이 濟州島 女子들의 하는 活動을 볼 때에는 참 놀랠것이 만흘 것이다. (寫眞은 濟州에서)”

Suk explains that, basically, “the intention here is to emphasize how strong and healthy the women of Jeju (including haenyeos) are compared to (even) men of the ‘mainland’,” and that specifically “when the caption mentions ‘젖가슴이 쑥쑥 나오고’ (Their breasts are well-built and protruding),” he is “quite positive that this is alluding to the common complaint that the Korean (mostly male but some females as well) intellectuals were talking at that time that Korean women lacked healthy postures and development and [were] thus inferior to more healthy (i.e. ‘Western’) bodies.”

Indeed, this was a common complaint at the time in China, Taiwan, and Japan, too, and I’m looking forward to covering the topic in more detail in the next post in my series on that.

I stress only alleged haenyeo though, as she’s clearly not wearing the traditional haenyeo outfit, and her bottoms closely resemble those of the ama featured in Iwase Yoshiyuki’s photographs taken 30 years later. We also only have the caption writer’s say-so that the woman was a haenyeo (there was no related article), and the editors were probably not all too concerned about accuracy when they were conjuring up a rationale for putting a nude woman on the cover. So, I’d wager that she was indeed an ama—or a least a haenyeo working elsewhere in the Japanese empire, of which there were many. Alternatively, the adoption of the ‘traditional’ outfit in the 1920s may have been much more piecemeal and gradual than I suggested. Either way, it just goes to show haenyeo’s long history of being sexualized, and my thanks again to Suk for passing it on.

But frankly, it’s high time to move on from (over)analyzing tantalizing, but ultimately very frustrating single examples the further back in time we go. Let’s conclude instead, by addressing four elephants (whales?) in the room.

The first is that simple geographical isolation meant that Jeju residents were inevitably marginalized and othered throughout Korean history. And Jeju haenyeo in particular, about whom most mainland Koreans would have known very little beyond that they dived and wore skimpy outfits, would have been very easy to conjure exotic, sexualized narratives about. An internal Orientalism, if you will.

The isolation driving this was significant until surprisingly recently. As the island is just a quick, cheap flight away today, it can be difficult to appreciate how difficult it has been to get to for most of its history, and that what later became the standard practice—flying to Jeju for honeymoons—only really began in the mid-1980s. In stark contrast, when the glamorized pictures of haenyeo were being produced in the early-1970s, the Seoul-Busan highway had only just been completed. Only 1 in 100 Koreans had cars then. Also, consider Koreans’ abject poverty at the time: still less than 1 in 10 had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions. Not for nothing would the Minister of Education in 1973, in a rare moment of candor, publicly praise sex workers for bringing in so much foreign exchange “with their cunts.” (Which is not to imply the sex workers weren’t still treated appallingly by the government, and aren’t still awaiting compensation even today.)

Source: Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), pp. 87-88.

Next is the stereotype of Jeju women as feminist Amazonians, which does not jibe well with much of what you’ve read so far. By all means, gender relations on Jeju have long been much more complicated and interesting than on the mainland, and today at least Jeju women do indeed generally have more equitable gender relations compared to their mainland counterparts. But I also invite you to read this journal article from 1976 for an academic perspective on those from the time, in which the author Soon Young-yoon bluntly concludes “Jeju martriarchy does not exist.” This assessment has not changed over time, Dr. Norma also noting that Jeju women were not particularly empowered in the 1970s (p. 417):

Even with [the income from tourism]…the island was still significantly poorer than the rest of South Korea. Women living on Jeju were, therefore, even more vulnerable to the demands of the Japanese men who traveled there in large numbers in the early-1970s.

Nor were haenyeo in any more of a position to challenge the sexualized narratives being written about them by the Korean and Japanese governments. Consider that even while celebrating haenyeo history and culture for instance, this short 2016 Arirang video also features the now elderly women themselves describing the realities of their dirty, difficult, and dangerous job. In particular, they point out that it was not at all their choice to do the work, and that they were always looked down upon for doing it:

“Life was so hard that we couldn’t live without harvesting underwater” (2:12), “There was no other way to make a living” (2:20), “It’s hard work, but what can we do…I sent my children to college on the mainland with the money I made doing this” (2:32), “Diving in the sea is such a harsh, low-esteem job” (5:14).

I highly recommend Joey Rositano’s blog about haenyeo for many more in-depth interviews in that vein, and his recently released book Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual. (And if you’ve just read 6000 words on haenyeo, how can you not buy it?). Full disclosure: I am especially grateful for his giving me time for an interview, and regret that so little of what we talked about made it into this post. But one thing we did talk about, and which was also mentioned to me by my other friends living on Jeju, leads me to my third point: that the image of haenyeo held by most actual Jeju residents is much more folksy than sexualized. Moreover, that haenyeo are far more concerned about increasingly severe pollution and other existential threats to their livelihoods caused by Jeju’s tourism industry, than about nipples on a few statues.

I am happy to defer to his and others’ experience of Jeju, let alone of the voices of haenyeo themselves, and look forward to hearing readers’ own impressions and stories as visitors or residents. I also acknowledge that most of the sources used here are somewhat old, and that there have been important developments in the last decade or so in the preservation of haenyeo history and the amplification of their voices.

And yet, while their modern image may indeed be moving well beyond the sexual stereotypes discussed here, their lack of control and profit from it sounds depressingly familiar. As a young haenyeo explained in an interview on Rositano’s blog in 2017 (my emphases):

Q) Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.

A) I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama…are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.

Q) How about when you are photographed?

A) That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer….

Source: The Jeju Weekly. Caption: “Tamna Sullyeokdo,” painted in the early 1700s by artist Kim Nam-gil at the order of County Magistrate-cum-Navy Deputy Commander Lee Hyeong-sang, depicts haenyeo wearing white clothes as they dive near Yongduam Rock in Jeju-si. Inside the white circle, you can see the haenyeo working under water. (Photo: Korean Maritime Museum Webzine)

Two months ago, I was inspired to start writing this post by reading that in fact, the haenyeo had been topless over a century ago, our final elephant in the room. Frankly, my choice of title is a little misleading (sorry), but I was just too attached to the double-entendre to give it up.

The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1.

A century is a long time though, and realizing why the image of topless divers endured nonethless, and who it was for, I couldn’t help but recall Seungsook Moon’s must-read below. For it was from her that I first really grasped how the Korean government, military, and industry has long used, and literally even broken women’s bodies for nationalist and developmentalist ends. All too often, with little to no input or agency from women themselves, and over their desperate opposition.

It’s very difficult now, not to place the sexualization of haenyeo on the same continuum.

Right: From 207, then 17-Year-Old K-pop star Tzuyu being indirectly presented as “A Special Gift for [those] Korean Men” who have completed their military service.

With that, I am absolutely not saying every young, attractive woman in a traditional haenyeo outfit you’ll see will have been placed there with ulterior motives. But the next time you do encounter one in a tourist brochure, webtoon, talkshow, television series, or movie, I urge you to consider who chose to represent haenyeo that way, and ask why exactly.

Or indeed, to always ask who and why about any cultural text. Especially when you’re not entirely sure the people in them are the ones calling the shots.

Thanks for reading.

(Many thanks to Joey Rositano, ResearchProjectKorea, Hyung-Gu Lynn, Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Moreska, Moravius, and JiHoon Suk for their generous assistance and advice.)

Related Posts:

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

Finding the Female Gazes

If queer women say they love the MV to Anda’s Touch, this cishet man is going to listen. Not to self-appointed gatekeepers who insist women are only about the feels.

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube

Face-sitting. A woman’s point-of-view shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda admiring another woman’s vagina, beaming at the viewer in anticipation. The complete absence of any men. Anda lying in bed as another woman appears on top of her. Spinning the bottle. Anda loving all of it, as the MV to Touch relentlessly serves-up its women to its sensual, strikingly objectifying queer female gaze.*

Among self-identified queer female fans of K-pop and allies on social media, I’ve yet to find a critic. And who can blame them? “Queers are generally invisible in South Korean media,” researcher Chuk Tik-sze explained in her 2016 study on their representation, “and lesbians are more completely missing.” As if to prove her point, many viewers didn’t even notice the sex in Touch when it came out in June 2015, so low were their expectations of ever encountering queer content in K-pop.

When people did get what the MV was about though, they really, really got it:

Yet as any lesbian perusing heterosexual porn can attest, simply replacing the sex of an objectifier does not necessarily a queer female anthem make. To many seekers of queer content, authenticity is more important, and in this respect the MV seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lacked any sapphic elements. Before it came out, none of Anda’s other songs or MVs had any queer themes, nor have any since. If she is queer, then she’s yet to come out publicly, nor given any other indication of that beyond this MV.

In short, it may have been nothing more than a gimmick, aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song.

I can appreciate that desire for authenticity. In spite of that, Touch is still for queer women’s gazes.

Why? Because queer women said so.

Touch would be no hit. But the reaction from queer women, of which the above represents just the tip of the iceberg, was overwhelmingly positive. Whereas any haters were remarkably silent for the internet.

That doesn’t mean queer women seeing it for the first time have to like it. It’s sweaty, it’s crude, it’s bush league compared to guaranteed queer female film classics like Carol and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But as a cishet man, I don’t need to think twice about prioritizing the feelings and reactions of the queer women who have actually opined on it. So, no matter however shallow it may be, it is still on the same spectrum as those. It’s there.

I wasn’t content with simply relying on fan reactions to determine if any future queer-looking media text spoke to the queer female gaze or not though. I wanted some sort of framework anyone could apply, or a list of questions to ask. So, I googled.

I wasn’t completely naive when I did that. I did expect there to be much less out there than for the heterosexual male gaze (henceforth, “male gaze”).

I definitely didn’t expect that discussions about the heterosexual female gaze (henceforth, “female gaze”) had only really taken off in the last few years though, not that on the queer female gaze (or lesbian gaze) still barely at all. That over forty years after Laura Mulvey got the ball rolling with the men, that writer and director Jill Soloway could plausibly claim that “[M]edia that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now” (my emphasis). And especially not that, during that process of invention, Soloway and just about every other commentator on the female gazes would be so concerned about stressing that women are all about the feels, that they would forget that women do also like looking too, whether at men or at women. Let alone that men who look at women can also have feelings too.

If only I was exaggerating. Ultimately, I had to come up with those questions myself. (Skip to the end if you’d like to read them now.)

*Update: It’s been pointed out to me that my notion of the term ‘queer female gaze’ perhaps has some issues. To clarify then, my specific meaning by it is “the gaze of all people who identify as women, who are (not necessarily exclusively) sexually attracted to people who also identify as women.” I hope that clears up those issues, but am happy to be educated as to if any remain, or if my clarification has inadvertently raised new ones.

This Series

Photo (edited) by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I’ll provide truckloads throughout this series. But what am I claiming exactly? So that there’s no confusion, let me devote this opening post to outlining the gist of my arguments, and provide some definitions.

In so doing, I repeatedly accuse commentators on the female gazes for making sweeping generalizations…only to lay myself wide open to the charge that I’m doing exactly the same about them. So, I will provide some examples here as I go along, which may mean some some repetition in later posts. But that’s no biggie: I encourage readers to take absolutely nothing of what I say at face value, and I am happy to provide dozens of links in the comments now for anyone who doesn’t want to wait for them until later posts.

Photo (edited) by Marcio Nascimento from Pexels

What we Bring to the Male Gaze

First, it can be a surprise to learn that commentators on the female gazes often devote a lot of time to the male gaze first. But it makes sense: the male gaze is much better known, and it helps in forming a contrast. Unfortunately, that also means there’s already a natural tendency to stress differences rather than similarities.

Next, it turns out there’s actually two male gazes evident in many of those discussions.

First, there’s the literal male gaze, which refers to how cishet men look sexually at women, and the perspective which is prioritized to the exclusion of almost all others in the media. In my experience, this is what the overwhelming majority of people think of as the male gaze, unless they’re educators or writers, and is the definition of male gaze I’ll overwhelmingly be using too.

(Yet another use of the term is to refer only to that domination of cishet male perspectives in all forms of media. Like when Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma said that “Ninety per cent of what we look at is the male gaze,” for example, or when cinematographer Natasha Braier argued it’s so inseparable from cinema, that a female gaze is simply not possible.)

Next, there’s the abstract, academic male gaze (henceforth, “Male Gaze”). To explain what it means, consider the source: Mulvey’s book chapter “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975, which I’m sure you’re all of aware of and many of you may even have read too.

But, if you are one of those who’ve read it, then I’ll wager…only once or twice perhaps? As a freshman, many years ago?

Because even if I’m really only just projecting, please do check out it again now, and admit it—it’s dense. Despite what it’s best known for, it’s mostly devoted to extremely esoteric, psychological topics like ‘phallocentricism’ and ‘fetishistic scopophilia.’ Colleagues of mine, who’ve assigned it as tutorial readings at the beginnings of their careers, have learned the hard way from their student evaluations to avoid it later.

Frankly, most of it is entirely above my head, as is much of the voluminous scholarship it’s given rise to.

That is not necessarily a criticism, or even a problem—we all use many concepts to understand the world without understanding all their nuts and bolts. As Lindsay Ellis diplomatically puts it below (2:44), the chapter really shouldn’t be considered “so much as a holy text as a jumping-off point.”

However, it does mean there’s a very abstract, academic Male Gaze of all that scholarship out there. And in my experience, one that’s frequently used interchangeably with the literal male gaze by non-academic writers. This leads to a lot of confusion, and, given the authority with which the Male Gaze comes, can easily come to dominate our understanding of the former.

Or, in other words, something about the abstract concept that may sound—and indeed be—perfectly reasonable in a Film or Gender Studies journal, but absurd if it was spoken of in a non-academic context about living, breathing, flesh and blood cishet men, nonetheless easily can and often does get done so anyway.

Take queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis‘s very first line on the subject in Bitch Flicks for instance, that it means “(t)he sexual objectification of passive female characters.” She doesn’t follow my m/M convention, so which gaze was she referring to? If her comment is about the Male Gaze, then that sounds very plausible—it sounds very much like something a Gender Studies scholar would say, and which I’m not knowledgeable enough to critique. But was that the type of gaze Ellis was referring to? Only by specifically asking ourselves that question and looking can we determine, indirectly through her saying the concept under discussion “can be seen literally as a gaze,” can we resolve that she was indeed referring to the Male Gaze—and realize just how easy it would be to take away from her original comment that men’s literal sexual gaze is inherently objectifying.

Or take the panel above from M.Slade‘s cartoon in Everyday Feminism entitled “Am I a Queer Woman Looking Through the Male Gaze?”. Again, I think it’s the Male Gaze, but it’s much more unclear this time.

Either way, it’s true that perhaps most readers wouldn’t need reminding of Suzannah Weiss‘s rare caveat, also in Everyday Feminism, that the Male Gaze “is not necessarily the perspective of most men, but rather, society’s notion of a ‘normal’ man’s perspective” (my emphases), and it’s patronizing of me to imply they would. I hope so. Given my professed ignorance, I’m not going to claim that Ellis or Slade are necessarily wrong about the Male Gaze either, or that a hell of a lot of men do indeed negatively objectify women. And yet somehow, a hell of a lot of commentators on the female gazes genuinely do seem to believe that cishet male desire is nothing but that overwhelming urge to objectify. The Male Gaze is the male gaze as it were. And again, because as I’ll demonstrate, I’m only confident in making that accusation because they literally say so. And/or, indirectly by outright denying that women can objectify too.

Perhaps they arrive at that position because, as Alina Cohen explains in The Nation, much like ‘white privilege’ and ‘heteronormative,’ the term ‘male gaze’ is “utilized mostly by those who seek to destroy the phenomenon it identifies.” I’d put it even stronger: absolutely no-one reading this has ever used it in a positive or even neutral sense until now, myself included. Indeed, it comes across as so utterly tainted in my readings, that I completely understand why commentators would feel compelled to distance female desire from it—and to ignore, dismiss, or vilify those women who exhibit the “male” traits they associate with it, as I’ll give an example of a little later below.

Photo by Charles Roth from Pexels

Absolutely Everything a Woman Creates is the Female Gaze

À la The Onion’s classic article about “empowerment,” further adding to all the confusion is that the female gaze has recently become somewhat of a catch-all buzzword. As Cohen puts it, the term “simply functions according to its users’ needs,” to the extent “when women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing [it].”

Just about every link in this post leads to many examples of the many fruits of all the discussions now being had about what difference the sex of the person behind the lens makes. Important and overdue questions are being raised about what it means to be a male artist of the female nude in the #MeToo era too. But all these conversations are diminished by numerous touted definitive female gaze photo collections sharing no more commonality than having been taken by women, and with few obvious differences with how men would have approached their subjects either.

Even photo collections by men have been exhibited as examples of the female gaze too. Which actually isn’t as absurd as it sounds—another topic to be raised in this series is to what extent men, with sufficient input from women, can create content for the female gaze, as well as cishet people for queer content—but it does go to show how the term can mean just about anything.

On top of that, in the last two years especially, it seems that every other commentator on the female gazes—and almost every reviewer of Lady on Fire(!)—uses the terms not just in a literal sense, but also to describe the movement to challenge the aforementioned erasure of women in general, WOC, queer women, and so on in popular culture, and especially their under-representation in its production. (The “Female Gaze,” I’ll call it.) I’m 100 percent on board with that, but it doesn’t help when that meaning is used interchangeably with its literal one.

(In an excerpt from her book Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, editor Charlotte Jansen seems to be saying she was originally angry about the picture ‘Yani, New Jersey, 2015’ by Mayan Toledano, but changed her mind because the photographer was a woman. If so, is that identity politics gone mad, or does she have a point? Image source: Maiden Noir)

To better understand why commentators on the female gazes (and hence male gaze) make the calls they do, I’ve really tried hard to place myself in their shoes. I’ve noticed over 99 out of 100 of them identify as women (prove me wrong). That they’re justifiably outraged about the under-representation of women, their stories, and their ways of seeing the world in popular culture. That they’re sick and tired of the camera encouraging both men and women to look at the latter through an objectifying, domineering, leering lens.

But now, they have a chance to do something about that by writing or talking about the female gazes, or even by making their own media texts themselves.

 Sources left and below: unknown. Source right: @maryneelahaye.

They have very limited time or space to do so though. People will surely understand if they make some necessary generalizations about men in the process, who are not even their focus.

Unfortunately, sometimes those generalizations really do go too far. Time and time again, confident, matter-of-fact declarations about all cishet men and male desire get provided that are often no more than caricatures.

To complain about that may seem like I’m just making a typical, unhelpful “not all men” retort. But I’m really not. Its not deflecting the conversation, because the women themselves are already talking about men. Also, it’s not missing the point, because like them, I only talk about men with the aim of better understanding the female gazes. For if those are defined largely in opposition to stereotypes of men, then those of women are surely going to be just as crude and useless, utterly failing to account for the likes of awkward, lascivious Touch fans.

It’s time to start pointing fingers.

The Burden of Proof

Re-enter Soloway, whose keynote address on the female gaze at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival occupied the top spot in google searches until articles about Lady on Fire recently displaced it. Soloway, who “now identifies as a gender non-conforming queer person,” and is the award-winning creator of the immensely popular Transparent TV series, which has been “a major force in bringing discussions of trans rights to the mainstream,” was clearly a well-liked, very motivating speaker at the festival. This, despite shitting on so many women so quickly into her address (5:15-6:55):

The opposite of the male gaze, if taken literally, would mean visual arts and literature depicting the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure.

So, okay, I guess in it’s most simple that would be like, Magic Mike if it were written, directed and produced by a woman.

I remember when they tried to sell us that, thirty years ago culture was all WOMEN! HERE’S PLAYGIRL AND CHIPPENDALES!!!???

And so many women were so happy to have anything, something, that they dutifully bought Playgirl—hairy man laying across the centerfold, soft penis, ooooooh.

Groups of women, going to Chippendales, screaming, laughing hooting….

Anyway okay that’s one version of the female gaze that we have been offered:

“Hey ladies! Here’s your fuckin’ fireman calendar!” But it’s kinda –- naaaahhh. Pass. We don’t want that. NOT BUYING IT.

Transcript source: Soloway’s Topple Productions website.

Unfortunately for Soloway’s breezy narrative, at one point 2 million women were buying Playgirl every month, and readership only dropped in the wake of the conservatism of the 1980s (as did that of men’s adult magazines). If she was so quick to just write them all off as desperate, as well as fans of Magic Mike and the Chippendales, I don’t need to ask what she would make of Touch fans.

Was she unaware? Unlikely, given her expertise. Why then, would she make such insulting claims? Why did no-one in the Q&A call her out on them?

K-pop can be pretty bawdy sometimes, and that’s precisely why some fans like it. But ogling isn’t mutually exclusive with enjoying it for more ‘noble’ reasons, nor does it preclude other fans genuinely only liking it for the music. Source: lalalalyssaa

As a sometime guest lecturer myself (invite me to your campus!), I’m painfully aware of how presentations encourage overgeneralizations and hyperbole that speakers may regret later. Also, with the benefit of hindsight, her talk—much of which actually consists of the reading of a poem—is very much an example of the call to arms-type Female Gaze. So, I can completely understand the emotional reaction of the audience, and normally I’d very much give her the benefit of the doubt.

Not Soloway. Again, there’s her prominence to consider, and her ensuing position as the very first person many people listen to about the subject. There’s her own invitation to scrutinize her, by virtue of how earlier in that keynote address, she wasn’t shy about her hope that it would anchor her name to the female gazes, like Laura Mulvey’s is to the men’s. There’s the stream of consciousness-like feel to her talk that emerges from such scrutiny, so replete is it with bizarre, dubious claims, including such sophistry as “I mean, what is gang rape? It is men wanting to have sex in the same room as one another, but using [a slut] so they don’t have to name and own their own desire for each other.” But most of all, and ultimately the only reason I’m so focused on her instead of ignoring her entirely, there’s the fact that most other commentators on the female gazes generally agree with her that women don’t ogle or objectify—and share the utter bullshit she spouts about men’s gazes and sexuality that’s required to take that position.

I realize that’s quite a statement to leave you hanging on. My apologies. Those commentators will be covered in later posts. For now, I invite you to watch Soloway’s talk for yourself (or even better and quicker, the stark transcript), and ask you what actual evidence she presents for her many confident comments about “chismales.” Or, what proof Ellis provides for this one:

As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do. But while they may just see the object of their desire, I have to also see myself. So when I see sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot or power, I don’t get anything positive from that. It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable.

Er…I don’t love images of half-naked oiled-up women. I didn’t when I was still a virgin. Alas, since then I’ve actually never encountered any half-naked, oiled-up women to help change my mind. (Sigh.) But my experience has taught me that a good grip is needed for most positions. That lotions, cosmetics, perfumes, and (within reason!) even showers can be a turn-off too, because they stop women feeling and smelling like women (yes, perish the thought—smell and touch can be important to men too). So, I’m going to take a wild guess that oiling women up wouldn’t help with either.

Image: ‘Effy in Beijing (for American Apparel),’ 2014, by Monika Mogi. Another example of the female gaze from Girl on Girl, but which inexplicably aligns exactly with my own tastes. Source: Maiden Noir.

Nor do I get anything positive from sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot, or power—my fetish is for the exact opposite. For sure, if I was single, and encountered a nubile and willing “pliant sexual object,” then I probably wouldn’t kick her out of bed. But I’d much prefer an assertive and confident woman who took some initiative—which is why I married one.

Do all cishet men share my tastes? Absolutely not. But I’d venture I know a hell of lot more about their desires than Ellis does. Because I’m a cishet man? Yes, of course, but absolutely not only. Rather, because I’ve actually asked other men about their tastes too. A lot. Whereas Ellis gives no indication of having asked so much as one.

Can you imagine what social media would do to me if I said something so crude and stereotypical? That fat wallets say, turned absolutely all women on—and without having asked even a single one of them?

I may have said a lot of controversial stuff so far, but nothing remotely as absurd or disingenuous. All I’ve said about women’s tastes specifically is that they like looking too, and even that—which shouldn’t even be controversial—has been based only on what women have said themselves. I’ve been very careful about that.

Why do Ellis and her colleagues not realize their own hypocrisy? Where does their confidence and certainly about what men want come from? Where, for that matter, does yours?

Photo by Mahrael Boutros from Pexels

What Does it Mean to Look, Exactly?

To make the revolutionary claim that women do ogle men and/or each other however, doesn’t necessarily mean they do so in the same ways as cishet men, or to the same degrees. For example, in 2015 Esther Yu, Editor in Chief of the feminist site Arco Collective, wrote in one of the rare more nuanced takes on the female gazes out there, that:

“…there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic—an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.

What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.”

Indeed, in this series I’ll also discuss transmen’s and transwomen’s experiences of changing libidos, sexualities, and desires in their new bodies, which strongly suggest that these differences are fundamental. Still, let me say it again for those in the back—that there are differences between women and men, possibly big differences, that still doesn’t mean that women don’t ogle, a lot. Or wouldn’t ogle, were they not socially sanctioned for doing do.

Source: Know Your Meme.

Questions to Ask if Something Qualifies for the Female Gaze(s)

For understanding the female gazes, all these issues raised would seem to present quite the conundrum. They don’t, really. Queer fans of Touch, or other MVs like it, aren’t going to stop loving them simply because gatekeepers think they can’t or shouldn’t. That said, this series is about finding the female gazes. It’s about being proactive, not simply waiting around to hear whatever Twitter has to say about any given media text. Specifically, it’s about formulating a series of questions with which to judge if something is aimed at cishet women, queer women, or neither. By all means, if anyone who is neither a cishet woman or a queer woman makes a determination based on those questions, but members of those groups overwhelmingly decide otherwise, then that person should do a major rethink. But the point remains that anyone can ask those questions.

If that accessibility sounds like the height of cishet male privilege, then, again, I feel that’s more than a little hypocritical: over 99 percent of commenters on something being male-gazey identify as women, and no-one seems to have a problem with that. No, I’m not being defensive, you’re being defensive. And yes, there’s a lot more uncomfortable truths like that to come in this series. All for the sake of challenging what you and I thought we knew about male and female desire.

Did I say “finding” the female gazes though? I lie. I think I’ve already found the necessary questions, which really aren’t that complicated:

  1. Does the text present (wo)men in a sexualized manner?
  2. Does it present an authentic, believable (queer) relationship between characters, and/or “humanize” them?
  3. Is it produced by and/or explicitly for (queer) women?

I know—many of you may be already be ROTFL at the first. So let me clarify:

  1. The brackets are for the queer female gaze; without them they’re for the female gaze.
  2. The questions are in order of importance.
  3. The first question is a necessary condition to qualify for the female gazes. Certainly, as discussed, some commentators argue that the terms can just refer to sorely underrepresented, female ways of seeing the world in general (the Female Gaze) not just of other men or women in a sexual sense, and I greatly respect that. But consider that most people familiar with the term “male gaze” consider it to be nothing but sexual. So, not to also include a sexual component in the equivalent female concepts would be unnecessarily confusing and hypocritical. (And again, it is very telling about their notions of male and female sexuality that so many commentators are just fine with that.)
  4. “Sexualization” is a broad, amorphous term, and its manifestations are hardly confined to tight clothes, sexual poses, shirtless guys, and gratuitous skin. Any situation, body part, or object can be sexualized. This glance at 0:21 is. The reading of this note in Atonement was too. The smell of my wife. (You get the idea.) Touch, meanwhile, is sexualized in a “traditional” sense. But the infamous armpit scene in Lady on Fire is hardly subtle either, no matter how deep and meaningful is the relationship of the characters involved.
  5. But to claim sexualization is a necessary component of the gaze is not to claim that all those texts are equally queer. Nor that—let me nip this asinine notion in the bud immediately—pornography aimed at heterosexual men say, is somehow queer simply by virtue of sexualizing women. (Which is not to say that some lesbians can’t or don’t like some male-gazey heterosexual pornography.)
  6. These questions are only a guide!!

This series is about justifying those questions, exploring their implications, and finally applying them to Touch and other texts in the future. Part Two, which will hopefully up next week (but probably not frankly, considering this one took me two years!), will be about those many more claims that men are all about looks and women are all about feels, and why they’re wrong.

Until then, if I’m wrong about anything above, which is entirely possible for a cishet man writing about these subjects, then please do let me know!

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)

Related Posts:

“Spring Girls,” by Sunwoo Jung-a, Is Both Feminist and as Sexy as Hell. Lets Give It the Attention It Deserves.

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-opening-collageSource, all screenshots: YouTube

Spring Girls, by singer-songwriter Sunwoo Jung-a, is literally dripping with sex.

For starters, take the word cheonyeo (처녀) in its Korean title. Many sources do give “young unmarried woman” as one meaning, so “girls” seems fine for the English. (When they’re obvious, Korean usually omits plurals.) But most translate it as “virgin” first.

Why would Sunwoo choose something so loaded? The neutral term agasshi (아가씨) is far more common.

Possibly, she simply hoped to capitalize on the name-recognition, as she acknowledges being inspired by a well-known folk song of the same title. It’s also true that the lyrics are really quite chaste.

Possibly, I just have a dirty mind.

But then there’s the MV. Watch it, and by its end you’ll have a dirty mind too. Add that there’s no connection to the folk-song whatsoever, and it’s difficult not to think that Sunwoo deliberately primed Korean listeners with a blatant double entendre:

In that vein, I’m tempted to describe the MV as a continuation of this cultivated ambiguity. But that would be to underplay its sheer spunk, and to detract from how refreshing that feels compared to the bland, repetitive, profoundly unarousing “sexy concepts” of most K-pop. For suggestive and full of symbolism it is, but “ambiguous” those symbols are not. Add the frequent shots of partially-exposed breasts, the luscious lips, and the hands pulling up skirts and dresses, then I’d be hard-pressed to think of such a striking and shocking depiction of female bodies and sexuality since Bloom by Ga-in (2012).

To pretend otherwise is to willingly ignore the obvious. Like Arirang TV once did for instance, with hilarious results:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-arirang(2:08, Pops in Seoul, April 5 2015)
%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-reaction-video-2-15(2:15, gfnkpopular, MV reaction video)

But audacity aside, are scenes like that something to celebrate? Perhaps as much as a third of the MV is of headless women (especially if you count scenes that only go up to models’ mouths), the camera by definition focusing on their body parts. Which, you don’t need me to explain, is widely considered one of the most basic and common forms of dehumanizing, sexual objectification.

On the face of it then, shouldn’t it be criticized, rather than applauded?

No. Instead, I’m here to argue that context is everything with the male gaze, and that this MV is proof of that.

And first, as a crucial part of that context, I’ll give my translation of the lyrics, as I’ve been unable to find one online.

Lyrics: Spring Girls by Sunwoo Junga-a (선우정아 봄처녀 가사)

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

너는 날 보네 ,나도 널 보네 (Verse 1) You’re looking at me, I’m looking at you

불꽃이 튀네 (Verse 1) Fireworks are exploding

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

하늘은 파래, 바람이 부네 The sky is blue, the wind is blowing…

다시, 입을 맞추네 추네 …again. We are kissing.

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

봄처녀 제, 오시네 (Verse 2) Spring girls are coming

새 풀옷을 입으셨네 (Verse 2) In new outfits

Part 2 [Yes, this is actually said.]

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-sceenshots-collage-2(Source: Groovequai)

(Verse 1)

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

앞서서 걷네, 뒤따라 걷네 You’re walking in front of me, I’m following you

같이, 장단 맞추네 추네 Together, we are keeping a beat with our steps

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

(Verse 2)

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-sceenshots-collage(Source: Lost Over You)

Chorus:

형형색색 널 뒤흔드는 칼라 Many colors are shaking you

각색각양 다가오는 몸짓 Gestures are coming in all kinds of colors and shapes

가지가지 처치곤란한 밤 Nights are hard in so many ways

뒤죽박죽 도시의 봄이라 This city’s spring is so mixed

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-0-49(0:49)

볼엔 진달래 An azalea on the cheek

눈은 민들레 A dandelion on the eye

입술은 쭉 철쭉 A rhododendron on the lips

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

목련 파우더 Magnolia powder

라일락 칙칙 A spray of lilac

마무리는 에이취 Rounding off with “H”~ [I don’t get this part sorry!]

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

속눈썹 위로 봄바람 A spring wind over eyelashes

머리카락에 봄바람 A spring wind in your hair

옷깃을 펼쳐 봄바람 A spring wind with collars opening

걸음은 좀 더 가볍게 (x3) Our steps become lighter

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Chorus (x2)

Next, another crucial part of that context would be some background provided by its songwriter, lyricist, arranger, guitarist, and mixer Sunwoo Jung-a, who very much owns the room in the MV too. But very few interviewers ever ask her about Spring Girls specifically. In fact, surprisingly little about it has been said about it at all, in Korean let alone in English, and much of what does exist only focuses on the fact of Sandara Park’s participation in the MV.

That said, there is one more common theme to what I have found. That is, whenever it is featured or discussed, it seems to gets stripped of all meaning:

For non-Korean speakers, what Sunwoo was actually doing there was promoting Earth Day last spring, as well as an environmentally-themed music event she was to perform in. But the only connection whatsoever was the song title. And, perhaps learning from Arirang’s mistake three weeks earlier, KTV made sure to avoid showing the naughty bits of the MV too.

I don’t bemoan Sunwoo taking advantage of the opportunity for more publicity. Yet even in her very own self-interview, featured on her YouTube channel and Facebook page, she only really discusses the lyrics to the song. Which as you’ve already seen, are quite chaste compared to the MV:

Apologies for lacking the time to provide and translate a transcript, but I find she adds little there to, say, Rachel’s brief description of the song already at Seoulbeats:

Spring Girls is just a cool song, plain and simple. It’s got sass, a little jazz, and a dash of funk thrown in, feeling both old and new at the same time…The lyrics talk about seeing and being seen as the girls of spring come out “dressed in fresh new clothes.” Variety is really emphasized in the lyrics, with four Korean synonyms for “all kinds” being used to describe the flood of different spring girls in the “mixed-up” city. Each girl has her own charm which can light a spark. Like the song, the video also feels old yet new at the same time. It has some different spring girls, each with her own style, personality, and flower.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE TITS??” I want to tweet at Sunwoo, but wisely I started by asking her if she has a link to an interview about the MV instead, and I’ll update you if she responds. In the meantime, my eyes briefly lit up at the “instinctive” in the (awkward) title of this Genie article—”Sunwoo Jung-a’s Spring Girls Taps the Beat of Women’s Instinctive Spring” (여자들의 본능적인 봄을 두드리는, 선우정아 ‘봄처녀’)—but it too waxes lyrical about banalities. Desperate, I turned to Sportsworld, a tabloid that is not exactly shy about discussing female body parts, and indeed it did prove to have the most substantial interview of her I’ve found so far. Alas, yet again with no real mention of the MV.

Still, it does give some extra background. She at least hints at the tone of the MV. And frankly, it’s only through this interview at all that I learned there’s a very well-known folk song of the same name:

…현대적이라고 표현하는, 그런 봄의 여자들을 보이고 싶었다. 이 노래는 되게 현대적이다. 비트나 사운드도 일렉의 느낌이 느껴진다. 시종일관 여기 저기서 ‘모던’을 찾았다. 자칫 방심하면 구수해질 수 있어서 회의 때도, 편곡 때도 계속 ‘모던’ 타령을 했다. 정말 세련된 한국팝의 느낌을 보여드리고 싶었다.

…I wanted to show spring women who express modernity. This song is very modern. You can really feel that the beat and sounds are electronic. In every aspect of it, I tried to insert an element of modernity. If we hadn’t taken great care with it, it could have sounded old, so I made sure to mention the “modern” constantly while we were working on it. I really wanted to show a new, very sophisticated version of K-pop.

Q) ‘봄처녀’를 만들게 된 계기가 있나? What was your motive in making the song?

A) 어린 시절부터 좋아하는 곡이었다. 그때부터 클래식 피아노를 쳤는데 악보 보는 걸 좋아했다. 남들이 만화책 볼 때 나는 악보를 보면서 곡을 재생해보는 취미가 있었던 것 같다. 그러던 중 어머니의 가곡집을 보게 됐다. 클래식보다 간단한데 가사가 있어서 재밌었다. 특히 ‘봄처녀’는 가사가 정말 예뻤다. 그러다 어른이 되고 기타치고 놀다가 비트를 만들고 ‘음음’ 까지 붙인 곡이 만들어졌다. 야하기도 하고 귀엽기도 하고 여자의 걸음걸이가 생각나면서 문득 ‘봄처녀’ 가사가 생각이 났다. 다행히 써도 된다고 허락을 해주셔서 ‘봄처녀’가 탄생됐다.

This is an old folk song that I’ve liked ever since my childhood. That’s when I started learning to play the piano and read music. When other children were reading comic books, I read music—that was my hobby. During that time, I once find my mother’s book of folk songs. Compared to learning classic music, the songs in it were much more fun because they had lyrics. In particular, Spring Girls had pretty ones.

Later, when I grew up, one day I just sort of played with the beat of the song on my guitar; as I did, I added some “hmmm”s as I did, and one thing led to another. Later still, I got thinking about women walking in a sexy and cute style, and that’s what led to the lyrics. Fortunately, the composer of the original song said it was okay to use the same title [and a couple of words in the lyrics]

If readers scoff at my perennial struggles with searching for substantive Korean articles about the MV, and can instantly provide a dozen to show just how pathetic my skills are, then nothing could make me happier. Until then though, or until Sunwoo replies to my tweet, we’ll just have to settle for the further context of the rest of the MV.

Let’s start with a collage of the models’ faces and names, to make scenes easier to discuss:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-models(Women appearing in the MV, clockwise from top-left: Model Lee-seon/이선, Model Su-hyeon/수현, Tattooist Nini/니니, 2NE1 Member Sandara Park/산다라박, Model Ji-eun/지은, Model Jaejae/제제. Not shown: Sonwoo Jung-a. Source of names: By. Yeees.)

But really, most of that context is obvious, and already semi-covered through the numerous screenshots provided above. So I’ll just provide highlights here, as well as point out some things that readers with less dirty minds who haven’t watched the MV 30 times may have missed:

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1) First, the identity of this model stumped me for a looong time. I thought it might even be a secret cameo of half African-American Insooni, known for looking much more youthful than her age.

It turns out to be Jaejae, seen wearing that black mesh top and gold earrings for just for a (very easily-missed) split second later:

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2) Poor Ji-eun barely appears, literally getting no facetime at all:

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3) This flower is a vulva, and gets ejaculated on. What, you didn’t see that? Don’t worry, you will now. Like I said, literally dripping with sex:

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4) This flower though, almost seeming to pulse when shown, doesn’t look all that yonic…

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Especially in light of all those bowling pins earlier, standing tall and proud…

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As well as the phallic-looking, rapidly-engorging shadow of a statue of a (headless!) nude woman, with the breasts conveniently highlighted:

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Not to mention that Su-hyeon gets her mouth covered in white icing sugar or flour in between those shots (and don’t forget Nini’s lollipop-sucking either):

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5) I’ll address a potential criticism of that in #7. But, not unrelated, a potential criticism of all of the skin-exposure in the MV is qualified by the fact that almost all of it is actually done by just one person:

(One NSFW image appearing after this one.)

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Certainly, you could argue that Nini has been brainwashed, and internalized the values of the patriarchy. You could also argue that she wears so little in the MV simply because she has the largest breasts of all the models, just like what happened with Yang Ji-won of Spica in their MV for Tonight.

But you shouldn’t, because Nini is a tattoo artist who dresses much the same way in real life, and especially in all her magazine photoshoots. Her tattoo designs tend towards the revealing too:

tattooist_nini-small(Source: tattooist_nini@instagram; left, right)

By all means, her brand may just be a persona, carefully-crafted on Instagram. But it’s a much more consistent, much more convincing one than that of the K-pop stars usually presented as girl-power icons. It’s also very, very difficult to believe that Sunwoo or MV director Lee Sang-deok is forcing her to wear clothes that are more revealing that she’d like, which is something that happens to girl-group members all the time.

6) Yet while Nini stands out, that is not to say that the other models aren’t just as haughty in the MV. Jaejae for example:

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7) Finally, whether in defiance, whether they’re caught up in the joy of spring, and/or whether they’re relishing the attention, crucially all the models (but Ji-eun) return the gaze at many points:

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Lee-seon in particular, seems determined to confront the viewer (again, there’s many more examples above):

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I’m so impressed, I’m tempted to veer into hyperbole and cliches at this point—that these models “own the gaze,” and so on. (Although they totally do.)

But I want to avoid that, because we all bring a lot of baggage to the concept of the male gaze, which can make for a lot of misunderstandings and talking past each other.

Instead, let me be very specific with my praise, and why.

Whenever *I* talk about the male gaze, I simply mean the way heterosexual men tend to look at women. That way is, of course, vastly overrepresented in just about all forms of media, and those representations of the male gaze usually degrade and diminish the sexualities of both the viewer and the viewed—let alone vastly underrepesent people of different body types, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ages. And, because of those problems, for many commentators the term “male gaze” has become a pejorative for all sexism and objectification in the media.

But the mere act of heterosexual men looking at women is not responsible for those problems—the people in those industries are. Rather, it is a integral feature of human (hetero)sexuality, and one that can be represented while retaining complete respect for the viewed, recognizing them as sexual subjects just as much as objects.

Spring Girls does that.

And, to reinforce that point, but also raise some uncomfortable and inconvenient questions, let me conclude by briefly contrasting the MV with the similar “Double Exposure” series of paintings by Korean artist Horyon Lee (이호련):

horyon-lee-male-gaze(Source: Luxury)

Originally, my intention for this post was to give equal attention to Sunwoo and Lee. But Spring Girls rapidly proved to be a more deserving subject, and not just because Lee’s work has had enough written about it to fill volumes, both in English (#1, #2, #3, #4), and in Korean (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9). Rather, it’s because whereas individual paintings of his may strongly resemble some screenshots from the MV, a crucial difference is that Lee has made a whole series (NSFW) of almost nothing but such headless images of women, most of which are much more sexually explicit than the examples given here. Whats more, and very unusually for an artist, Lee provides no titles or descriptions of those paintings either, as if to even further stress the dehumanization and objectification of the women in his work.

horyon-lee-double-exposure(Source: Vingle)

Fred McCoy, a rare critic of Lee’s, has written at CF Magazine about the artificial and harmful distinctions the art world maintains between erotica and pornography that he feels Lee exploits, which I recommend reading. Especially damming is his discussion of the similarities between one of Lee’s painting and one of American Apparel’s (many) notorious ads:

american-apparel-adhoryon-lee-comparison(Source: CF Magazine)

In which he writes:

What stands out is the purposeful removal of the female’s face in both the advertisements and paintings. If you were to include the face, you would then place the viewer in a precarious spot where they would have to make a conscious decision as to whether or not they wanted to objectify the woman. By removing the face, as well as any emotion it might carry, objectification becomes easy. We are simply looking at a dressed up piece of flesh and bear no responsibility in how we choose to engage it.

Yet without disagreeing with the sentiment, it is more correct to say it is easier. As I discussed at length in my review of Tonight, removing a face does not make negative objectification and disrespect of that person inevitable, nor does including a face automatically ward off both. In Spring Girls, objectification is certainly occurring, but it is not negative objectification because of the context of the rest of the MV. And, because so many screenshots from that MV so closely resemble Lee’s paintings, I can’t prima facie proclaim all the latter to be “disgusting,” as McCoy and his colleague do:

“[His Work] is dirty and uncomfortable [as well as] is grotesque and demeaning. I think what makes it worse than just portraying women as a piece of meat is that he felt the need to make an entire series out of it.”

(Zola Paulse)

“Dirty”? “Grotesque”? “Piece of Meat”? This too is hyperbole. His work is repetitive, certainly. It is baffling that he never paints pictures of women with faces, and he may well do so because he really does think of women as sex objects.

Yet compare that painting of a woman in red above for example, with this (NSFW) photograph of a real woman in a very similar pose. Evidently, the latter is very happy with her sexualization.

I don’t need to ask which one you prefer, whatever your sex or sexuality. You don’t need to hear about why I love it so much either.

But to dismiss the other one as disgusting, because it lacks a face? That feels much too simplistic.

the-male-gaze-headless-women(The Male Gaze by Nikko, edited; CC BY 2.0)

On the other hand, perhaps I’m just creating strawmen here. Also, if I’m arguing that we can judge similar screenshots from Spring Girls by looking at the context of the rest of the MV, then surely we can judge a painting of Lee’s by the context provided by his series as a whole. In which case, he abjectly fails his test.

So far so good. Yet still, somehow I can’t bring myself to outrage.

How about you? If you can, why?

I admit I feel hypocritical. And I do find it troubling that Lee’s received so many accolades, and so many invitations to exhibit. Again, McCoy is a good read on what that implies about the art world.

I’m strongly reminded of my series and lectures on Gender Advertisements too, in which I’ve often pointed out that it’s the trends towards sexism and gender stereotyping in advertising that are problematic. Those trends should be called out. With individual ads though? Unless they’re really egregious examples, especially of unnecessary (and negative) sexual objectification, often it’s simply incorrect to label them as sexist, and unhelpful to do so.

Gender Advertisements Relative Size South Korea

(It is harmful that men tend to be depicted more actively than women in advertisements, and that Caucasians are given such prominence over POC. But it’s implausible to describe these individual examples as sexist and racist respectively.)

But I’ve spent many years on Gender Advertisements. Perhaps too long, and it’s high time I learned more about other conceptual approaches, especially of different media like music videos and art (I’d appreciate suggestions and recommendations). Alternatively, perhaps I’m untroubled by Lee because it’s “just” esoteric art we’re talking about, so a painting of his would never have the impact that a similar ad would.

What do you think? Of my dilemma, or about any other interesting questions raised by Sunwoo and Lee? Please let me know in the comments!

Song Credits

Songwriter, Lyricist, Arranger: Sunwoo Jung-a; Guitar: Sunwoo Jung-a; Bass: Baek Gyeong-jin; Mixing: Brad Wheeler, Sunwoo Jung-a @ Union studio; Mastering: bk! of Astro Bits @ AB room; Special thanks to: The Barberettes, realmeee, chch.

Music Video Credits

Director: Lee Sang-deok; Assistant Director: Kim Hoon; Director of Cinematography: Lee Han-gyeol; Cinematography Team: Park Chi-hwa, Oh Min-shik, Im Hee-joo; Lighting Director: Lee Jung-ook; Lighting Team: Lee Ji-min, Ji Hyeon-jong; Colorist: Jo Hye-rim; 2D: Lee Sung-hoon; Art Directing/styling: Gu Song-ee; Photography: Rie; Design: Seo-ro; Marketing: Jo Eun-bi, An Seong-moon.

(Credits via Mutual Response)

(Apologies for all the technical issues with the blog this week!)

The Pornification of K-pop?

K-pop Porn

Pornography is art, sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant. Its glut and glitter are a Babylonian excess. Modern middle-class women cannot bear the thought that their hard-won professional achievements can be outweighed in an instant by a young hussy flashing a little tits and ass. But the gods have given her power, and we must welcome it. Pornography forces a radical reassessment of sexual value, nature’s bequest of our tarnished treasure.

Camille Paglia, Vamps & Tramps, 1994.

For reasons of space and propriety, an opening quote that didn’t make it to my latest article for Busan Haps. But, without denying for a moment that there’s been a lot of gratuitous T&A in K-pop this summer, with many more examples in just the few weeks since this article was written, I think Paglia’s quote brings a healthy dose of realism to the discussion, and frames the one on Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show in the conclusion nicely. Please click on the image to see what I mean.

For much more on the concept of sexual objectification, why it can sometimes be positive, and why consent is so important for determining that, please see here. Also, a must-read is Peter Robinson’s “Naked women in pop videos: art, misogyny or downright cynical?” in The Guardian from last week, which raises many of the same issues (and is a reminder that the “pornification” of K-pop still has quite a long way to go).

The Korea Herald: Should pornography be censored?

Pornography Censorship(Source)

I make a brief appearance in the Korea Herald today, in an article by John Power on the recent government crackdown on pornography. With his permission, here are all of his original questions and my replies, with some links for further reading:

1. Do you foresee the Korean public becoming increasingly unhappy with the heavy censorship of pornography and other sexual content in the short term? Or do you think a largely conservative Korean public will remain happy with the status quo?

In all my 12 years in Korea, ordinary Koreans have loudly and consistently complained of being treated like children by censors. But the censorship of movies has been considerably relaxed in recent years (recall that the Korean Supreme Court overturned a ban on Shortbus for instance), and even the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has begun to acknowledge its own excesses with music videos. So this latest crackdown actually goes against recent trends, and I expect it to face a lot of opposition.

2. Often, censorship is justified to protect young people. Do you think there is a feasible way of protecting youth, while not controlling what adults wish to see?

Frankly I don’t, but this is a dilemma faced by every democracy. Most, however, don’t resort to the draconian restrictions imposed by the Korean government, yet somehow have equal or lower rates of sex crimes by and/or against minors nonetheless.

(“Because I’m a man / 남자기 때문에.” For English subtitles, click on “captions”)

3. A local site pornography site called Soranet had 600,000 subscribers before it was shut down in 2004, showing the widespread nature of its consumption. Do you think the government is fighting a losing battle in trying to ban such material?

If nothing else, banned sites will remain available via proxy servers, but I’m sure young, tech-savy Koreans won’t need to resort to using those. With the proviso that of course the government should continue to monitor the pornography industry as a whole, to prevent exploitation and the use of minors, you have to question the government’s zeal in attacking an otherwise victimless activity, and which there is clearly a huge demand for. Surely the time and resources could be better spent? Perhaps on more up-to-date and effective sex-education, so people could better judge the supposed harmful effects of pornography for themselves?

4. What do you think is the true motivation for censorship of adult content in Korea? Or, put another way, do you think there are sometimes hidden agendas at play?

As someone who notoriously devoted Seoul to God as mayor, and who believes that (re)criminalizing abortion is an effective method of raising the birth rate, clearly Lee Myung-bak’s conservative and religious beliefs are playing a big role here. That aside, blaming pornography for sex crimes, and censoring it on that basis, is also an easy way for the ruling party to appear to be doing something to address public concerns during its candidate’s presidential election campaign, yet without doing anything about their real causes whatsoever.

Ga-in's BEG Concert Teaser(Source)

5. Do you think there are double standards at play in the how and what content is restricted?

If we’re talking specifically about pornography, then no. As for K-pop however, both fans’ widespread perceptions and the empirical evidence suggests that female entertainers are disproportionately censored, often for things that make entertainers are allowed to do scotfree. In particular, whenever female entertainers present themselves as sexual subjects rather than just objects for the male gaze, then the ironically-named Ministry of Gender Equality and Family can be expected to come down hard on them. A good recent case of this is the ban placed on Ga-in’s Bloom, a rare song about sexual awakening from a woman’s perspective, whereas the Ministry had no problem with the gratuitous skin shots in Hyuna’s Ice Cream.

What do you think?