“저의 몸과 저의 섹슈얼리티에 대한 이야기를 해보려고 합니다. 이것은 실로 부끄러운 고백이어서 저는 단 한 번밖에 말하지 못할 것 같습니다. 그러니 가만히 들어주세요.”

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Image sources: Aladin, NamuWiki.

I want to tell you a story about my body and my sexuality. But it’s going to be so revealing and embarrassing for me, that I can say it only once. So please listen carefully.”

If you can please indulge me, I just want to say I’m very proud of myself for ordering Bodies and Women ‘몸과 여자들’ by Lee Seo-su. It will be the first novel I’ll have read entirely in Korean!

I was instantly sold on it by reviews that mention its intimate coverage of beauty ideals, gender socialization and body-shaming in schools, sexual assault, pregnancy, sex in marriage, pervasive sexual objectification, and the male gaze.

However, there’s also the matter of the other members in The Grand Narrative Book Club,* who are much more knowledgeable and well-read than myself, and have often already read the original Korean versions of the translated novels we discuss. Because while I count myself lucky that I’m never the most interesting person in the (Zoom) room, does the fact I’m the dumbest really need to be so obvious?

In 2023 then, I want to work on disguising that. Starting by getting into the habit of reading novels in their original Korean myself.

Unfortunately, Bodies and Women will not be turning up in the club anytime soon. Lee Seo-su seems to be a relatively new writer, with a discussion in Korean Literature Now about of one of her short stories being all I could find out about her in English. So, although I could translate those persuasive reviews for you here, really any translation add-on for your favorite browser should more than suffice. Instead, hopefully I will find many interesting things in the book itself to pass on later.

Sorry. I did say this post was an indulgence!

However, with that my writer’s block does seem to be cured now too, so it served its purpose. Let me offer some humor too, as a parting gift—but also, a reminder of precisely why those reviews were so persuasive, and books like it so necessary. For I shit you not: these two sponsored ads on Facebook, I saw back to back after googling “몸과 여자들” the hour previously:

Again frankly, probably the juxtaposition is a complete coincidence. After the book itself, googling “몸과 여자들” in fact mostly brings up images of women perusing fine male specimens. But more to the point, during the evening rush hour, Korean advertisers on Facebook deliberately target men with ads for lingerie etc., which they won’t buy, but which do persuade them to swipe left to be rewarded with more lingerie models, then with ads for oh-so-masculine power tools and gaming equipment which they might.

Also, ever since I hit my mid-40s I’ve been inundated with ads for libido and erectile dysfunction treatments, and doubt it’s just me. I don’t mean to laugh at anyone or their partners who actually need to avail themselves of such products, especially since I’ll probably be joining their ranks sooner rather than later (sigh). But many prove just as creepy as campy. For instance, this one where the model’s head was cut off, in stark contrast to when a different advertiser used the same stock photos of her to advertise diet products to women:

Then there’s these screenshots from yet another ad in my feed today, from which I’ll let you form your own conclusion to this post to!

*Finally, the book for January’s meeting on Wednesday the 18th is Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (2017), translated by Anton Hur (2021); I’ll put up an official notice soon. Sorry for not doing so earlier, which is my fault for not realizing that I may not be the only person out there who hasn’t actually read it yet!

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

Why is Korea’s Largest Marriage Agency Only Targeting Women?

Potential customers are put off by unequal sex ratios, and Duo already has more female customers than male ones. So what gives?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

I know, I know—I’m not even divorced yet, and I’m already looking at marriage agencies. But the reality is that Duo’s latest campaign ads are just impossible to avoid on Korean public transport at the moment. And the obvious emphasis on attracting female customers in them, for a service ostensibly about providing those women with as many romantic encounters with male suitors as their finances allow, should give everyone misgivings. For it’s not like correcting an excess of male customers is the motivation.

This concern may still sound odd. “Sweet,” I’d wager, is what usually comes to mind when most people see Duo ads. Indeed, I only did a double-take at this one at all because I happened to be reviewing my translations of a lavishly-illustrated, feminist Korean book about paintings of nude women (as any normal person does on the subway), and, glancing up, was immediately struck by how unlike those paintings the ad was. For actor Lee Shi-won/이시원‘s look back at the viewer doesn’t exactly scream pandering to the male gaze. Nor did all the other Duo ads on the subway carriage I could see from my seat, some of which just had Lee alone, and only one of which had model Noh Seong-Su/노성수 looking back with her.

Source: Duo.

Then my stop was coming up. And you don’t exactly need to have read Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements to be realize what the ‘relative sizes‘ of Lee and Noh in these ads signify in the ads I saw once I stood up:

But so what? What is the issue exactly, about Duo prioritizing women?

Well, the last time I checked in 2020, Duo had more female than male customers then, at a ratio of something like 6 to 4 or 5.5 to 4.5.

I don’t know if this ratio was affected by the pandemic. But regardless, more women competing for fewer men clearly disadvantages them. That extra level of competition also incentivizes charging women more for the same services offered men. Which indeed Duo, and most of the over 1000 other registered agencies out there, do so with a gusto.

Moreover, Duo, already experiencing massive drops in sales in the mid and late-2010s, almost made none at all in 2021 thanks to the pandemic, as marriages and childbirths, still inexorably tied together in Korea, dropped precipitously. Which, once again, was something the subway carriage wasn’t subtle about reminding me:

So, although Duo clearly retains the financial resources for its latest massive campaign, I speculate that it may actually represent a doubling-down on financially discriminating against young women. And, given Duo’s position as a industry leader and model, I have concerns about what this will have on Korean dating, gender roles, and marriage norms.

Not convinced? Really, it’s only a matter of degree. Please see my in-depth investigation from 2020 for a plethora of evidence on how that sexual discrimination has in fact been occurring for decades. And don’t let me forget the influence on body-image either: just a few months ago, one agency focusing on wealthy clients, with nearly half a million customers, came under fire for its strict financial criteria for admitting men, but only requiring a members’ vote of 3.6/5 on appearance alone to admit women. I also invite readers to consider that demanding women pay more to date men than vice-versa,* and deliberately skewing their customers’ sex ratios to justify this, is surely yet another form of “pink tax” that perpetuates the gender gap.

*(I realize that the norm in Korea is for men to pay on dates; no social issue that is interesting isn’t complicated!)

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*Looks Anxiously at Stomach, at Svelte Wife, Then Back at Self*

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

Recently waylaid by a broken toe, my audacious jogging and weight-loss plans in tatters, the following home-truths about the the male gaze, female gaze, and double standards hit painfully close to home this summer. Or am I just projecting?

Those of you who also follow me on social media, may recognize them from back in June. Guilty as charged—I’ve been neglecting this blog due to self-imposed minimum word limits on content I post here, unnecessarily depriving you of interesting content and me of interesting responses. No longer!

So, from Niall Richardson in Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (2010, page 78):

…not ignoring the critical writing which points out that women can gain erotic pleasure from the beautiful, muscular male body (Smith 2007), it does seem that women desire characteristics in men that are very different from the features that men seem to value in women. I constantly see Stepford-esque couples in which the wife is stunningly beautiful, and obviously committed to a regime of diet, exercise and beauty treatments, while the husband is a Homer Simpson. While the wife is still devoted to her husband I always wonder: if the situation were reversed, and the wife were to become fat, would the husband be equally devoted to her? Indeed, one of the recent British films to address this very issue was The Full Monty in which a group of out-of-shape, unemployed men organised an amateur strip show which was a resounding success, obtaining a standing ovation from the female audience. I agree with Susan Bordo who asks, if it were a team of out-of-shape women performing in a strip regime would they be similarly applauded by an audience of men? (Bordo 1999: 174). It does appear to be the case that men do not objectify their bodies to the same extent as women and certainly do not function under the tyranny of slenderness to the same extent. I once met a man who was obese – not moderately fat, but obese – who continually referred to himself as a ‘big guy’ and told me in detail about his job as a security guard at the psychiatric hospital in which he was required to ‘provide the muscle’. I wondered how this muscle was provided given that all I could see was fat and no muscle at all, but this didn’t seem to occur to this particular ‘big guy’. In short, there is a general acceptance in normative, heterosexual culture of male mass, bulk, excess flesh, or indeed anything which exceeds the taught and toned….

It is also not fair to say that men are excused the sin of fatness or bulkiness only in heteronormative culture. Although…

Unfortunately, the book itself is ridiculously expensive; fortunately, all of this particular chapter is available on Google Books, so I encourage interested readers to continue there.

What do you think?

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

Local Rights Center Only Makes *Recommendations* to Companies that Discriminate; Highlights South Korea’s Urgent Need for Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Source: MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

Korea, notoriously, lacks a national, all-embracing, intersectional anti-discrimination law. Ten attempts have been made to pass one since 2007, all failing largely due to the political power of conservative religious groups, opposed to the inclusion of protections for LGBTQ individuals; an 11th is currently in limbo due to the imminent presidential election. Adding insult to injury, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities also lack protection in the constitution, which only prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and social status, and so haven’t been covered by the various laws prohibiting those specific forms of discrimination enacted since.

It’s in this context that I present my translation of the following subway poster for the Busan Human Rights Center for your interest, and their suggestions of typical cases of discrimination and human rights violations. Most, of course, would be depressingly familiar occurrences in any country. But others, much more commonplace in Korea then elsewhere. In particular, Korea’s pervasive hierarchy and elitism is evident in unnecessary questions about which university you went to, as well as absurd enquiries about your parents’ and grandparents’ backgrounds. So too, when blatant discrimination against women remains rampant despite protections, when photographs are required on resumes, and when society remains obsessed with (female) body weight and appearance, can Korean women especially continue to expect hiring decisions based on their appearance.

Most notably and depressingly of all however, the Busan Human Rights Center only makes recommendations to offending companies and institutions, not prosecuting them or assisting you in doing so. In fairness, I stress I only know of the Center through its website; prosecution may never have been its intended purpose, which other institutions and services may exist to fulfill, and doesn’t diminish its potential role in education, awareness, and/or the value of gentle pressure and public shaming it can bring to bear on offenders. Still, it also instantly brings to mind the well-known National Human Rights Commission of Korea, launched to much fanfare 10 years ago but rendered toothless since.

My translation, starting from the top:

구직, 채용, 면접, 시험에서 받은 If these ever happen to you while looking for a job, being recruited, during an interview, or while in an exam or test…

인권침해 Human Rights Violations

사소한 것이라도 부산광역시 인권센터에 알려주십시오 No matter how trivial or small it seems, please inform the Busan Human Rights Center

Row by row:

업무와 상관없는 특정종교 선발 Choosing candidates based on religion, with no relation to the job

과도한 사적정보 요구 (아빠직업, 엄마 직업, 할아버지 재산, 이모부 고향) Excessive demands for personal information (e.g., parents’ jobs, size of grandfather’s estate, uncle’s hometown)

장애 (장애인 출입이 불가능한 채용시험장) Disability (Recruitment Test Center has no disabled access)

동성애자 아니죠? You’re gay, aren’t you?

채용여부 묵묵부답 Left hanging about your recruitment status

시험 주에 화장실 가려면 시험포기 각서 쓰라 Having to sign an agreement that you fail a test if you need to leave for a bathroom break

노동조합이 생기면 가입할 겁니까? If there was a union, would you join it?

업무와 상관없는 나이제한 Age restrictions that have nothing to do with the job

나라 출신은 안 됩니다 You’re not from X country

서류반납 거절 Refusal to return documents

압박면접을 빙자한 막말 Unnecessary blunt remarks and rudeness for the sake of a pressure interview

업무와 상관없는 학력차별 Choosing candidates based on educational background, with no relation to the job

이번 선거에서 누굴 지지합니까? Who are you voting for in the election?

출산 후에도 회사 다닐 거예요? Are you going to continue working after giving birth?

외모에 대한 노골적 평가 (모델선발하나?) Blatantly evaluating you based on your appearance (Are you choosing a model?)

Finally:

취업과정에서 다양한 인권침해가 발생하고 있습니다. 그러나, 구직자들은 부당한 질문들과 불법한 차별에 대해 제대로 대응하자 못하고 있는 현실이기도 합니다. 부산광역시 인권센터는 구직과정의 인권침해 사례들을 수집하고 개선방안을 관련 기관에 권고할 예정입니다.

Various human rights violations [can] occur in the employment process. However, the reality is that job seekers are not always well equipped to properly respond to unfair questions and cases of illegal discrimination. The Busan Human Rights Center will collect such cases and recommend improvement measures to related organizations. (End.)

Have you or anyone you know experienced any of these yourself in Korea? Please let me know in the comments.

Update:

A Facebook friend asked for clarification about what exactly my issue with the Busan Human Rights Center was, given that even the National Human Rights Commission of Korea can only make recommendations, as is the case with most national human rights institutes worldwide. Here’s my response:
 
My issue is that if I was a victim of discrimination in New Zealand say, and encountered a poster for a similar institution, I would fully expect its stress to be on my potential to prosecute, that the center would be geared around my doing so (even if all it could really do was offer lawyers’ contact details), and that possibly even the center itself would be able to advocate for me if I was financially disadvantaged.
 
That said, I admit have no knowledge or experience of the legal system there, or in Korea. Possibly, my assumptions about rights centers in Western countries are hopelessly naive. But either way, whatever the country, if the best I could hope for from working with one was a sternly worded email to my former employer, then I’m not sure I would bother.
 
I do still mention in the post the valuable roles such centers can have, even if they don’t/can’t prosecute offenders themselves. But whether human rights centers in Korea can’t help with prosecuting because that was never their purpose, and/or whether it’s because many forms of discrimination aren’t even illegal, then either way the poster served to highlight the latter to me, and why I post it for others. I assume too, that if a comprehensive anti-discrimination *was* passed, then human rights centers would be given the remit and resources to take bolder measures against infractions when notified by the public.
 
(#95 in the Korean Sociological Images series)

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

Rare, 1970s English-language alcohol commercial for overseas audiences is a cringeworthy example of gendered self-Orientalism*

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

Featuring actors Yu Ji-in and Shin Yeong-il, it’s her timidity that strikes me most about this 1975 commercial for Jinro ginseng wine. For in that era of draconian but well-publicized birthrate-reduction policies, monthly pill commercials were widely seen in cinemas alongside those for alcohol. And they weren’t exactly known for their blushing brides:

Probably, the explanation is that the wine commercial was never actually seen by domestic audiences. It’s also unlikely there’s anything deeper to its sexual exotification of Korea, and its presenting of ginseng wine as the means to help relax nervous virginal women on their wedding nights, other than an unimaginative creative team stuck with trying to advertise an obscure drink to foreign audiences.

But which foreign audience exactly? Why, despite the contents of the voiceover, show the bride as being the most in need of relaxing? Why have Korean advertisers been so reluctant for the last 50 years to run their English copy and concepts by native speakers first, especially for ads exclusively aimed at them?

Alas, the answers will have to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, the commercial remains an interesting, albeit slightly distasteful footnote in Korea’s history of portraying itself to outsiders, particularly considering the government was actively promoting sex tourism to Japanese trade officials and businessmen at the same time. So, for readers’ interest, and to ensure the information is not lost, I’ve also included my translation of a 1974 article I have been able to find about Jinro’s attempts to sell the drink overseas, and would be grateful if any readers could add any further links or background (meanwhile, the Jinro website itself notes that the company’s first export was a shipment of soju to Korean soldiers in Vietnam in 1968):

진로 인삼주 본격개발 Jinro Begins Full-scale Development of Ginseng Wine

올수출목표 1백만불낙관 Optimistic Export Target Set at 1 Million Dollars

February 11, 1974, Maeil Business News Korea

소주메이커인 진로주조(대표 장학엽)는 일본산토린과 기술제휴를 맺은데이어「런던드라이진」과도 가계약을맺는등 본격적인 인삼주개발에 박차를가하고 주류수출에 밝은전망을 보여주고 있다.

Soju maker Jinro Brewery (CEO: Jang Hak-yeob) has signed a contract for an alcohol-technology sharing alliance with Santorin, Japan, and a provisional contact with a UK maker of ‘London Dry Gin.’ This is expected to spur the development of ginseng wine and brighten prospects for the exporting of alcoholic beverages.

11일 동사에의하면 지난해 인삼주30만달러를 수출한데이어 올해엔 1백만달러를 목표로 세워놓고 이를위해 재래식 인삼주외에도 새로운 신제품을개발,생산키로 했다.

On the 11th, the company reported that it had exported 300,000 dollars of ginseng wine last year, and had set a goal of exporting 1 million dollars this year. To this end, it decided to develop and produce new products in addition to conventional ginseng wines.

이에따라 진로주조는 작년12월 일본의 산토린과 기술제휴를 맺었고 오는2월안으로 위스키베이스 인삼주12만달러를 수출할 예정이고 연내 40만달러를계획하고 있다.

Accordingly, Jinro Brewery made an alcohol-technology sharing agreement with Santorin of Japan in December of last year, and plans to have exported $120,000 of whiskey-based ginseng wine by February and $400,000 by the end of this year.

또「런던드라이진」과는 가계약을 체결,4월에 진베이스인삼주를 생산,10만달러어치를「유럽」및 동남아시장에 수출하기로했다.

In addition, a provisional contract was signed with “London Dry Gin” to produce Gin-based ginseng wine from April, and to export 100,000 dollars worth to European and Southeast Asian markets.

이밖에 부녀층을위한 저도수인삼주(15도)는 시험이 끝나는대로 곧 시판키로했고 지난해 30만달러를기록했던 재래식 인삼주는50만달러를 잡고있다.

In addition, it was decided that a low-strength ginseng wine (15%) aimed at women would go on sale as soon as its testing phase was over. Meanwhile, exports of conventional ginseng liquor, which hit $300,000 last year, are on course for $500,000 this year.

그런데 진로는 현재 남아연방,「브라질」,「네덜런드」등 18개국과 거래하고있어 올수출목표1백만달러달성은 어렵지않을것으로내다보고 있다.

Jinro is currently trading with 18 countries, including South Africa, Brazil, and the Netherlands, and expects that it will not be difficult to achieve this export target of $1 million. (End.)

“Jinro ad, published in The Korea Times, Nov. 1, 1974.” Source: Korea Times Archives (used with permission).

*UPDATE: In a thread in the Critical Korean Studies Facebook group, I was asked what I meant by “self-Orientalism.” Here’s my (slightly edited) reply:

…[I just used the term] to indicate that men and women tend to get orientalized in very different ways, whether by themselves or others, and that this is an example of that.

First, “self-Orientalism” refers to how in this case it’s Koreans orientalizing themselves—”…the exotic East”, “…profound love and mystery unique to Korea” etc.—rather than Westerners doing it to them. The term only occurred to me while writing, but I quickly confirmed that it’s a concept that’s already been well covered by scholars, and that that’s the term they use for it. (Here’s one article about a recent Japanese example you may find interesting).

As for “gendered,” I admit that’s much vaguer….Specifically, I chose it because I was reminded of Scott Burgeson’s “Gendered Multiculturalism,” by which I took to mean a gender lens was absolutely necessary to understand Korean multiculturalism, because men and women were treated and considered so differently by it (marriages to “foreign brides” warmly encouraged, but relationships with foreign men discouraged etc.). Similarly, although I admit this isn’t a very strong example of it, the woman(‘s body) is explicitly described as a “mystery” in the commercial, and it’s difficult not to further associate that with the exoticism and mystery of Korea mentioned in the same breath. In that vein, mysterious and exotic women—and the promise of their sexual availability—have indeed been a strong component of the advertising of Korea to non-Koreans since at least the 1920s, by Koreans and non-Koreans alike. In contrast, selling the possibility of sex with Korean men probably didn’t really begin in earnest until the first Korean Wave with the Bae Yong-joon mania, and hence gender (or technically, biological sex) is an important thing to bear in mind when studying it.

I hope that clears things up! :)

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

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TIL About Eugenics in Singapore in the 1980s. Was This a Thing in Korea too?

Remember that hilarious Singaporean government birthrate campaign ad from the 1980s? Which I mentioned in my look at the demographics of Korean dating agencies?

Twenty-plus years after laughing at that as an undergraduate, last night it suddenly wasn’t so funny:

Source: Page 162 of South East Asia in the World-Economy: A Regional Economy, by Chris Dixon (1991).

Somewhat late to the party, I learned there’s actually a wealth of information about Lee Kuan Yew’s eugenicist streak out there. Which just goes to show it’s also been 20+ years since I studied Singapore in any great depth.

But I wonder now too, if Korean policymakers ever had similar motivations?

However unlikely it may sound, there’s a great deal in Korea’s history to suggest that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Since the 1930s, an ethnically-based, “bloodlines” conception of nationalism and citizenship has been prevalent here, despite being hilariously unscientific. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a “patriotic,” semi-forced female sterilization “mania,” and widespread sex-selective abortion didn’t end until the late-1990s. Just a decade ago, the Lee Myung-bak government (2008-2013) openly acknowledged that it was criminalizing abortion in order to increase the birthrate. And today, Korea has one of the world’s lowest rates of out of wedlock-births, and continues to discriminate against single mothers,

I don’t have the answers, and I’m not saying a concern with Korean brides’ education was necessarily a thing. But it’s going to be interesting finding out ;)

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