The Korean Conscription System Promotes a Servile, Subordinate, Sexually-Objectifying View of Women. Here’s How.

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 7

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source, right (cropped): Streetwindy via Pexels.

The contents of Everyday Sexism (2014) by Laura Bates, a UK-focused collection of public submissions and statistics on the myriad of ways women experience sexism on a daily basis, will be depressingly familiar to anyone who already considers themselves a feminist. Having accidentally ordered the book though, I could hardly not read it. Besides, I reasoned, what cishet middle-aged white guy wouldn’t still have a lot to learn about the topic?

So I persevered. And sure enough, there were many things which gave me pause, especially the accounts of sexual harassment experienced by female university students. Partially, because I’d been blissfully unaware of that sort of thing when I was a student myself. Primarily though, because they strongly reminded me of an incident at the “morale-raising” YG Military Festival held in Yanggu County in Gangwon Province on 5 October 2019, at which the female university students hired to be doumi (lit. “help-elegant-beauties”) were forced to wear revealing clothes for the soldiers. From the news reports below, which discuss that in the context of how routine it is to provide sexualized performances by professional performers and/or K-pop girl-groups at such events, it’s easy to see how choices like these can encourage a somewhat objectified, servile view of women among the (usually) very young, impressionable Korean men that go through the male conscription system. Many do overcome that socialization experience, of course. But the consequences for all Koreans of those that don’t would fill many, many chapters in a Korean version of the Everyday Sexism book.

Screenshot, SBS News.

My translated excerpts of various reports about the incident, starting with one from Wikitree:

YG 밀리터리 페스타는 양구군이 장병들 사기 진작을 위해 지난해부터 개최한 것이다. 이벤트 경기, VR 체험, 먹거리 시장, 가수 공연 등이 열린다. 네일 케어, 피부 관리, 타로점 체험 부스도 있다. 이번 축제에는 육군 2사단과 21사단 장병 2300 명이 참가했다.

The festival has been held since [2018] by Yanggu-gun to boost morale among soldiers, featuring competitive games, VR experiences, food stalls, and performances by singers and girl groups. There are also “experience booths” [really stalls/tables] for nail care, skin care, and tarot readings. This year, about 2,300 soldiers from the 2nd and 21st Divisions attended the festival.

논란은 체험 부스에서 일어났다. 머니투데이에 따르면 행사 대행업체 측이 행사장으로 가는 버스 안에서 여자 알바생들에게 흰색 짧은 테니스 치마와 몸에 달라붙고 가슴 부분이 파인 옷을 제공했다. 알바생들은속옷이 비치고 노출이 심한 옷이었다“, “조금만 움직여도 가슴이 훤히 드러났다라고 전했다. 이어행사 담당자는군인들이 쑥스러워하니 직접 데려오라‘, ‘군인들에게 적극적으로 대하라 지시했다라는 말도 덧붙였다. 이들은 피부 관리 부스에서 군인들에게 직접 마스크팩을 붙여주는 일을 했다.

The controversy took place over the experience booths. According to Money Today, on the bus going to the venue the event agency provided the female part-time workers with only short white tennis skirts and tight-fitting, lowcut tops to wear. The women complained, “They were so tight you can see my underwear through them,” and “Even if I moved only a little, my chest would be completely exposed.” They added, “The event manager instructed, ‘As the soldiers will be embarrassed, [especially those wanting you to put [skincare-type] facemasks on them], please approach them proactively and encourage them as you escort them into the booths.”

Some additional information from that report by Money Today:

알바생 A씨는사전에 알려준 의상보다 파이고 조금만 움직여도 배가 드러날 정도로 상의 길이가 짧았다알바생들이 속옷이 비치고 노출이 심해 민소매 티셔츠를 요청했지만 아무 조치가 없었다 주장했다. 일부 알바생은 노출이 부담스러워 따로 챙겨온 외투를 걸쳤다고 한다.

One part-time worker complained that, “The clothes were much shorter and tighter than what we were told about, exposing my stomach even if I moved just a little,” and that “Even though we asked for sleeveless t-shirts because our underwear was visible, nothing was done about it.” It is said that some of the workers wore a separate coat over the clothes because of embarrassment.


행사 대행업체 측은요즘 학생들이 많이 입는 테니스 치마일 이라며일부러 노출이 심한 의상을 제공한 것이 아니다라고 해명했다. 행사 스태프는 여성이 25, 남성이 15 정도였는데, 대행업체 측은원래 남자 직원들은 힘쓰는 일을 주로 하고 여자 직원은 차를 따라주는 행사 도우미 역할을 맡는 관행을 따랐을 이라고 설명했다.

A person from the event agency responsible for the clothes said, “It was just a tennis skirt like many students wear these days,” and that “We did not provide any clothes deliberately designed to overexpose the workers’ bodies.” They further explained that 25 women and 15 men were hired, but that “It’s customary that men have to do a lot of hard work, whereas women just have to be helpers and do things like pouring tea.”

Confusingly, in the video of the event above, many doumi can be seen wearing other clothing, which is not addressed by the anchors in the brief SBS News segment below that. Yet why should they? Whether through chance, smarts, and/or previous experience with doumi companies, that some of the women had alternate clothes on hand doesn’t negate the fact that those without had no other options.

Professional entertainment group Waveya (not a K-pop group) performing at a middle school in 2012.

On the other hand, if it’s the norm to hire young women in high-waisted skirts and low-cut tops for just about anything in Korea, including performances at schools, then the comment about no additional exposure being intended may well be true, if somewhat obtuse. That being said, I’m just as confused as you as are as to how men putting up tables and chairs somehow justifies forcing women to wear revealing clothes while serving tea. It’s also frustrating that the reporter didn’t challenge that non-explanation.

Policing the Student Body: Sookmyung Women’s University students told to cover up

I see reason for optimism though, in that the issue of consent was the hook that made the incident newsworthy, especially given that this must-read by a professional doumi gives the strong impression that such incidents are routine. Had I been writing a news report myself, I might have continued by comparing students’ own festivals and events, which also regularly create controversy for their sexual overtones, but, crucially, at which the offending clothes are worn by choice. (Or perhaps not necessarily; the ensuing sensationalist reports are hardly deep, and now Everyday Sexism compels me to reconsider them.) However, the main reason for the news reports was more likely the harm caused to the military’s image, Asiae raising in their own report another controversial incident that occurred at a different military festival the year before:

난해 814 유튜브에는피트니스 모델 @군부대 위문공연이라는 제목의 영상이 올라왔다. 영상 피트니스 모델은 각선미를 강조하는 자극적인 동작을 선보였다.

해당 공연 사회자가지금부터 기본포즈 4가지를 보여드리겠다 자세를 요구하자 선수는 뒤돌아서 엉덩이를 자세로 머리를 넘겼다.

나이가 어떻게 되냐 사회자의 질문에 “21살입니다라고 답하자 장병들의 환호가 이어졌다.

On August 14 [2018], a video titled “Fitness Model @ Military Consolation Performance” was posted on YouTube by the military. The model’s dance was quite sexualized, involving showing off body parts like her legs. At one point, she proclaimed “I will show you four basic poses now,” turning around to thrust her buttocks at the audience with her head down, her face visible underneath. To the cheers of the men watching, she answered “I’m 21!” when they loudly asked her age.

해당 영상을 접한 누리꾼들은여성 성상품화가 지나쳤다“, “위문공연을 이런 방법으로만 해야 하냐 분통을 터뜨렸다.

당시 청와대 국민청원 게시판에는성상품화로 가득찬 군대위문공연을 폐지해주세요라는 제목의 글과 함께 해당 영상이 첨부되기도 했다.

Netizens who saw the video on YouTube were angered, commenting that “The sexual objectification of the woman was excessive,” and questioning if such sexualized dances “were really the only way morale boosting performances could be done?”. Later, citing the video, a petition to abolish precisely those was posted on the Blue House’s public petition bulletin board [which the government has to respond to if it receives more than 200,000 signatures].

파문이 커지자 해당 부대는 영상을 삭제 조치했다. 부대는당시 공연은 민간단체에서 주최하고 후원한 것으로 부대 측에서는 공연 인원과 내용에 대해 사전에 없었으나, 이번 공연으로 인해 상품화 논란 일어난 대해 사과의 말씀을 드린다 했다.

그러면서앞으로 외부단체에서 지원하는 공연의 경우에도 상급부대 차원에서 사전에 확인하여 유사한 사례가 재발하지 않도록 하겠다 덧붙였다.

As the controversy grew, the military unit that uploaded it deleted the video. A spokesperson said, “As the performance was organized and provided by a private company, we could not have known what the contents would be. Nonetheless, we apologize for the “controversy over sexual objectification” this performance has caused. They added, “To prevent recurrences in future, we will check the contents of performances provided by external organizations in advance.”

Here’s part of the offending video, a blurred news report about it and other similar performances, and an unblurred compilation:

Given how family-friendly the atmosphere appears in the video of the 2019 YG Military Festival earlier, reporters raising that “fitness” performance may seem unfair, let alone my adding the compilation video in which other performers quite literally spread their legs in soldiers’ faces (I’ll let you find those scenes yourself). Similarly, in light of recent news about how important performing for the military years ago was for the sudden popularity of K-pop girl-group Brave Girls, and how devastating the loss of such opportunities due to the pandemic have been for other girl-groups, then it may seem that only a stereotypical feminist spoilsport could find any fault with that mutually-beneficial system, especially considering how tame most of the K-pop girl-groups’ performances are.

Actually, so long as universal male conscription continues, I’m not at all against performances—which is not to say there aren’t some issues that still need to be addressed with them, as examined in previous posts in this series. And yet, note that the family-friendly video is just one perspective produced by the local county government, which isn’t going to linger on the women’s bodies; unlike, say, the fancam below of New Heart, a professional cheerleading/dance team hired to perform at the 2018 festival. Also, just because this particular festival was relatively tame, that doesn’t mean something that raises more than just eyebrows may feature at the next one, let alone at more private performances on bases.

Indeed, a distinction needs to be made between performances by girl-groups and those by cheerleaders, fitness models, and so on. The former are more likely to perform in larger, more public venues; to be filmed; and to have reputations their management companies have to consider—considerations which don’t apply to private entertainers. Moreover, considering what we’ve seen of private entertainers’ performances so far, you do have to wonder what happens when no-one’s filming.

Ergo, this is no one-off. Engendering a sexually-objectified and servile view of women is fundamental to the Korean universal male conscription system. Don’t believe me? Just take the word of that military spokesperson. Not only does their feigned surprise, patronizing, disingenuous claim of ignorance, and passing of blame feel very, very familiar, but it’s surely revealing—pun intended—that their concern is over the controversy generated. Not the coercion, nor the revealing clothes.

Continuing:

위문공연의 선정성 문제는 국정감사에서도 제기 있다. 채이배 바른미래당 의원은 지난해 1026 국회 법제사법위원회 군사법원에 대한 국정감사에서군 위문공연의 문제를 지적하고 가이드라인 마련을 요구했다.

The issue of the sexual suggestiveness of morale-raising performances for the military has also been raised at the state administration. On October 26, 2018, the [since dissolved] Barunmirae Party [now former] lawmaker Chae Yi-bae pointed out the problem and demanded that guidelines be prepared during an audit of the military court of the National Assembly Legislative Judicial Committee.

의원은여성을 성상품화하는 위문공연을 폐지하라는 청와대 청원도 올라온 있다. 사과도 하시고 유사사례 방지하겠다고 약속하셨는데, 과연 방지할 있을지는 의문이라면서국방부 훈령 지침을 살펴보니 위문공연관련 가이드라인이나 지침이 없다 지적했다.

Representative Chae said, “There has also been a petition from the Blue House to abolish morale-raising performances that sexually objectify women. I apologize for them and promise to work to prevent similar cases. But it is doubtful if this is possible, as there are no relevant guidelines or procedures in place.”

한편 위문공연의 상품화 논란이 커지자 육군은 올해 1 외부단체 공연을 추진할 부대별 심의위원회를 꾸려 공연 내용을 미리 심의하겠다고 밝혔다.

However, in response to the controversy, the military announced that from January 2019 it would set up a deliberation committee for each unit to ascertain the contents of performances in advance when provided by outside companies and organizations.

If only that had extended to all companies and organizations involved, not just those providing performances. But, to finish with Money Today’s conclusions about the original incident—which may have sounded like hyperbole in isolation, whereas now:

전문가들은 군인 사기 증진을 위해 여성을 성적 대상화하는 인식을 바꿔야 한다고 지적했다.

Experts pointed out that in order to increase military morale, the perception of sexual objectification of women should be changed.

윤김지영 건국대 몸문화연구소 교수는여성을 눈요깃거리, 위안거리로 내세워야만 남성 군인의 사기가 증진된다고 여기는 것은 시대착오적이고 성차별적인 생각이라며행사 도우미의 불편한 의상이 문제가 없다는 주장도 결국 남성주의적 관점이라고 비판했다.

Yoon Kim Ji-young, a professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body & Culture, said, “It is an anachronistic and sexist idea to consider that the morale of male soldiers is enhanced only by putting women as an eye-catching and comforting object.” She criticized it as a masculine perspective.

허민숙 국회입법조사처 보건복지여성팀 입법조사관은군장병도 불편하고 내키지 않았을 가능성이 높다최근 젊은 남성은 여성과 동등한 관계에 익숙한 세대인데 진정한 사기 증진 방법을 고민하지 않고 낡은 관행을 답습한 점이 아쉽다 지적했다.

Heo Min-sook, a legislative investigator of the Health and Welfare Women’s Team at the National Assembly Legislative Investigation Department, said, “It is highly likely that military soldiers are also uncomfortable and reluctant.” I am sorry for that,” he pointed out.

Sources: left, right.

For further reading, I highly recommend Sex Among Allies: Military Prositution in U.S.-Korea Relations (1997) by Katherine Moon and Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005) by Seungsook Moon. The former, for the obvious links to the long history of girl-groups entertaining foreign and then Korean troops; and the latter, on how the gender roles and rigid hierarchy learned during military service utterly pervade Korean institutions from schools to workplaces, frequently reducing well-educated and capable women in the latter to making coffee and cleaning tables.

That doumi exist at all I’d argue, and in such great numbers, are a partial cause and effect of that last. So for the sake of completeness, in my next post, I’ll provide a full translation of an article about their origins (from 2006, I don’t think anybody will be worried about the copyright!).

Meanwhile, pondering what a Korean version of Everyday Sexism would look like is what led me to writing this post. For the sake of more like it, what other issues specific to Korea do think should be covered, which wouldn’t be in the original UK version? Please let me know in the comments!

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts:

Related Links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My translation of the transcript:

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

Anchor

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

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

Reporter

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

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

[김서윤] “숨을 못 쉬겠어요. 단추를 하나만 더 풀게요.”

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

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

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

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

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

요즘처럼 날이 더워질수록 교복에 대한 여학생들의 불만은 더해갑니다.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Pixabay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by 周 康 from Pexels

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

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

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

Related Posts:

Why Uhm Jung-Hwa Will Forever Be My Queen—and Now Yours Too

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. All screenshots: MV via Visualazn.

The “Queen of Charisma” deserves so much better than an 18MB, 240p MV for Tum, one of her classic hits:

To remedy that, go to Visualazn for a 428MB, 720p version to download posthaste. (I’d upload it myself, weren’t YouTube to instantly ban the copyright violation.) Watch that once, then come back here.

(If you’re pressed for time, this 1080p MBC Music Camp performance will have to suffice, which has some clips from the MV. But if it’s your first time especially, I really do recommend experiencing it through the high quality MV.)

I’m only so demanding, because to understand how people really feel about their pop culture, you need to appreciate the circumstances in which they consume it. Especially of when they first encountered it, and the technology that was used.

With Tum (a.k.a. Teum, Crack, Gap), for me it was late-2000, in the small southern city of Jinju. I had no cable or satellite TV, so I was reliant on free-to-air channels. It would still be a year before I had internet on my home computer for the first time, and five more before YouTube even existed. Trance music, my first love, was literally unheard of outside of far distant Seoul. I didn’t even have a radio, feeling there’d be no point given Korea’s surprisingly few genre-specific stations. So, in terms of discovering any new music at all, it felt like I was a child in the U.K. again, frustrated at the long, weekly waits for Thursday night’s Top of the Pops.

Then one night while casually surfing those few channels, out of nowhere Uhm Jung-hwa dancing to her riff starting at 1:53/1:05 appeared, and my terrible, sleepless first year in Korea was instantly transformed into the stuff of fantasy again.

Of course the showcasing of Uhm Jung-hwa’s voluptuous body was integral to that. That’s why the CD I quickly purchased just didn’t cut it. It wasn’t like today, when you’re always just a click away from replaying your own favorite combination of amazing music sung and performed by incredibly attractive people. Back then, even with cable, a second viewing would have involved many tedious hours of watching music channels for those few precious minutes; without it, it was next to impossible. Instead, I had to content myself with the song alone, and accept that once the it left the charts and the music shows on the free-to-air channels, I’d likely never see the MV again.

That’s simply how it was with much of popular culture before the internet, no matter how meaningful it may have been to you. You just had to learn to live with it.*

Yet I don’t mean to elevate or privilege my outdated, distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder perspective. It’s neither superior, nor somehow more authentic than that of anyone encountering it for the first time today. It’s just mine, and part of my motivation for writing.

Indeed, the fresh perspective YouTube offers only motivated me further.

This was unexpected. Typically, the replay button is cruel to our most cherished pop-culture memories, and I didn’t expect scrutiny of Tum to be any kinder. Take the above scene from 3:51-3:54 (2:28-2:31 in the performance video) for instance. For the last 20 years, that moment of Uhm Jung-hwa looking glamorous as fuck while being mistress of all she surveys, has been indelibly burned into my brain. Only now though, can I take the time to notice all the hair in her face, which would have obscured her vision. The spell of my willing disbelief has been irrevocably broken—let alone totally ruining my long sought after screenshot.

Yet, truthfully, I’m genuinely stumped at locating any other similar oversights in the MV. It’s not perfect—the pauses are unnecessary and long, and the King Kong theme is only loosely tied to the lyrics—but there are many other objectively charismatic moments of Uhm Jung-hwa moments remaining to latch on to. If anything, being able to see it in such detail now has only further convinced me of how it much holds up after 20 years, and it’s this renewed appreciation that compels me to write. For it deserves far greater recognition as the classic it is, many more dance remixes than the single, terrible one I refuse to link to, and, again, at the very least, a decent quality video on YouTube.

Alas, that last I can’t provide. But I did put several days into finding that download for you. And I can give what is, as far as I know, the world’s very first English translation of the lyrics:

Uhm Jung-hwa—Tum

Track 2, Queen of Charisma, released November 2000.

Composer, lyricist, and arranger: Kim Geon-woo.

난 너의 생각처럼 널 위해 기다렸어 너 만을 쳐다보며 이렇게

나를 오랬 동안 그냥 두지 말아줘 이제 견딜 수 없는 나를 좀 봐

변하고 있는 나에게 너는 아무런 느낌이 없었니?

별다른 이유가 많이 있었더라도 널 생각만 해봐도 답답해

I waited for you like you thought I would, I only had eyes for you

Don’t leave me alone for a long time for just no reason, I can’t take it anymore

Didn’t you have any feelings for me as I was changing?

Even if there were a lot of different reasons for doing what you did, it is so frustrating to think about you

Chorus:

제발 이젠 내게 말해줘 너의 힘없는 얼굴이 내 생각엔

아무런 느낌 없는 너처럼 그저 희미해질 뿐이야 난 이제

더 이상 기다리지 않아 나를 언제나 바라본 널 이렇게

아무런 감동 없는 나처럼 매일 같은 날 일 뿐이야 오 제발

Please tell me now; your powerless face, I think,

is fading away, as if you have no feelings for me

I’m not waiting anymore, as you have always looked at me like this

Every day is just the same, emotionless like me, oh please

그렇게 말도 없이 나만을 쳐다보면 너무나 힘이 들어 이렇게 우린

오래도록 지쳐있긴 하지만 언젠가 끝낼 수 있는 날 있잖아

이젠 모든 걸 버리고 우리만의 기억을 생각해봐

너와 나의 사인 아주 가까웠지만 언제부터 이렇게 멀어졌니?

Gazing at me without saying a word leaves me feeling so tired, we’ve

been so frustrated for a long time— there are so many times when I want to just end things

Please put everything aside and focus only on our shared memories

You and I were once very close, when did you drift away?

(Chorus repeats and end)

I appreciate any corrections—while these lyrics were quite simple, you’ll notice I didn’t provide literal translations, as I felt that would diminish from their intended meaning. Please also do tell me your own rants or raves about Tum, or about any other of Uhm Jung-hwa’s songs (Festival is another favorite of mine!), whenever or however you first encountered them :)

*VCRs were a possibility of course, but their bulk and expense meant few 20-somethings had them.

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

I’m Obsessed with the Collective Amnesia Surrounding EXID’s Sexy Ice Cream Ad

And I’m not afraid to quote poetry to justify it!

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Screenshot: YouTube.

You the bride

are a form of grace,

your eyes honey.

Desire rains on your exquisite face.

Afroditi has honored you exceedingly.

Excerpt, Song to Groom and Bride, Sappho.

The word “sensual” has always been a favorite of mine, once I learnt it was brimming with sex. Even just to say it can feel like a carnal act, if you let it. Close your eyes, linger on the syllables as you would on the face of a lover, and the tip of your tongue teases you with memories of all the places it’s been—and hints at the pleasures still left to explore.

Foods that can similarly be luxuriated over then, lend themselves to sensual advertising. Take ice-cream. I don’t eat it like you see in the ads, and neither do you. But I get them. Being allergic to dairy, so not eating my first ice cream until I was seventeen, I really do relish the soy variety when it makes one of its rare appearances in supermarkets here.* I even have a bottle of Kahlua saved specially for just such occasions.

Not unlike Kahlua or even sex itself though, too much of the same thing can easily become boring and routine. That you and I can both roll our eyes at the notion of orgasming over ice cream, only points to how advertisers sexing it up is so routine as to be mindless cliché. Just so routine in fact, that by 2019 Baskin Robbins Korea seemed to have forgotten they were doing it at all, and were forced to withdraw and apologize for an ad where they’d replaced the usual woman with an 11-year-old girl wearing cosmetics.

And I do mean “the usual woman”:

Source: Frankie Huang/@ourobororoboruo.

Issues this gender imbalance raises include the strong potential to infantilize women while simultaneously sexualizing girlishness, and the suggestion that women are just too damn hormonal to think rationally:

[There is a] powerful, symbiotic relationship between women and carnality, as indicated by the preponderance of erotic narratives in advertising addressing women. This is particularly overt in the advertising of products that are depicted as being endowed with the power to enable women to experience intense quasi-sexual pleasure from their consumption. Examples of such product categories include chocolate, luxury ice cream, biscuits, and shampoo. This is a world that reflects a perception of women as ‘consummate consumers’ who are ruled by their bodies and, as such, are less able than men to resist the lure of carnal pleasures (Belk 1998; Belk and Costa 1998).

Source: Pauline Maclaran and Lorna Stevens (2004),”Special Session: Gender and the Erotics of Consumption”, in GCB – Gender and Consumer Behavior Volume 7, eds. Linda Scott and Craig Thompson, Madison, WI: Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1 to 14. (Download)

But I sense EXID fans are getting a little frustrated by this point. Posting an infamous, bawdy, 2012 Japanese commercial for Gligo’s Dororich Creamy Cafe Jelly in a moment is hardly going to help either.

There is a method behind my madness. First, I needed to take advantage of my recent purchase of a book on Sappho to establish some cultural capital, in the hope I’d have at least a shred of credibility remaining by the end of this post. For what male feminist/feminist ally would ever admit to being utterly transfixed by this?

I hear and share your numerous objections. Accept it not so much as an ad though, but for the sort porn it is, complete with five gravure idols (NSFW), addictive Benny Hill-like music, and blatant masturbation and ejaculation symbolism, and it’s so over the top that I can’t help but revel in its hilarity.

The Korean media couldn’t make that concession however. Take one of the first reporters to cover it:

“CF 영상 자체가 에로틱하다는 것이 그 이유다. 밝은 조명에 우유와 젤리가 섞이는 장면, 청순한 외모의 여성들 뿐이지만 남성들의 마음을 자극하는 요소는 다분하다.” (Herald Economy)

The reason the CF [is gaining tremendous popularity among Japanese men] is because it’s erotic. The scene in which milk and jelly are mixed in bright light, and only women with pure and fresh appearance, all these are enough to stimulate men’s hearts.

Contradicting themselves, even more stimulating elements were listed; alas, those did not include the symbolism of the spurting cream. Later reporters (or their cautious editors), if they mentioned the cream at all, only caused themselves more embarrassment in their Kakfaesque refusal to acknowledge the completely obvious:

“또 사방에선 알 수 없는 흰 액체가 날아온다.” (Korea JoongAng Daily)

“And white liquid is coming from out of nowhere.”

“게다가 우유를 상징하는 하얀 액체가 이 소녀들에게 날아들어 묘한 상상을 자극하게 하고 있어 일각에서는 비난이 쏟아지고 있다.” (The Chosunilbo)

“In addition, it is criticized because the scene in which white liquid that symbolizes milk is being poured over the girls is triggering strange imaginations.”

“또 사방에서는 우유로 보이는 흰 액체가 계속해서 날아든다.” (Herald Economy)

““And white liquid that seems to be milk is continuously being sprayed.”

I realize there may be official or unofficial rules in the Korean news media regarding acknowledging explicit content, even symbolism. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence either, and it would remain a blessing to find an official news source that, in reporting on this commercial, hadn’t patronized its readers over something so trivial.

Be that as it may, the next reason, and finally, is because now you know exactly what went through my mind when I saw EXID’s commercial for Lotte’s Goo Goo ice-cream a few years later:

I only didn’t write about it at the time, because I expected the media and fans to immediately be all over it. Gligo’s Dororich Creamy Cafe Jelly commercial, after all, made quite the splash in social media when it came out. It took balls, I thought, for Lotte to be so brazen about the origins of its own very literal money shot.

Screenshot: YouTube.
Screenshot: YouTube.
Screenshot: YouTube.

But, crickets. Whereas some reporters did point out the new, sexualized direction for Goo Goo’s advertising, most merely gushed about the endorsement choices in their typical advertorials. Social media too, or at least in respect to this commercial, seemed surprisingly reticent on the subject of ejaculation, and to have completely forgotten about the Creamy Cafe Jelly. By the time I realized people just weren’t talking about it, the moment for laying a world exclusive claim to this cosmic connection had passed.

I was loathe to end without a conclusion too. Perhaps on such an indecorous subject though, in which the innuendos came thick and fast as I typed (believe me, it’s harder to avoid them easier to just go with the flow get them off your chest roll with them), there wasn’t one to be made?

Still, the sexy ads and commercials will continue regardless, symbols of orgasming will always be an indelible part of that, and sex and K-pop are synonymous. Indeed, after the 2012 Japanese inspiration, then EXID’s 2015 sequel, 2018 saw JooE of Momoland step up in her commercial for Baker 7. Or rather, her “mother” and gardener:

I invite readers to offer any more examples, and to come to their own conclusions about them. To prepare for the 2021 follow-up, what do you think needs to be said about sexualization in ads, and about the gender imbalance in those selling chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, and shampoo? Is it necessarily bad if they depict orgasms? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

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

Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 1 of 3)

“Fucking is Fun!”: Sexual Innuendos in Vintage Korean Advertising

“With Throbbing Heart and Trembling Hands, the Groom Undresses the Waiting Bride, to Unveil the Mystery”

• “Fuse Seoul” Clothing Brand Subverts Gender Stereotypes, Offers Women Comfortable Clothing. What’s Not to Love?

Korean Sociological Image #19: Gee, Gee, Gee…Girls’ Generations’ Latest Ad Speaks Volumes About Korean Gender Roles

*If you too are desperate for soy milk ice-cream in Korea, try specialist cafes and CU convenience stores. Supermarkets in my area have sometimes stocked it over the years, but always discontinued it after just a few months.

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

Webinar Series: The Impact of Korean Popular Culture on North America

Please see here for more information and links for registering.

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)