On K-pop Stars Dating

Precious few songwriters and MV directors present female K-pop stars as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire. But these assigned gender roles can quickly crumble under revelations that they’re actually in relationships, as can as the business models that depend on them.

Estimated combined reading time: 8 minutes. Photo by Zun Zun from Pexels.

Recently, I was email-interviewed by James Griffiths at CNN about Cube Entertainment firing HyunA and E’Dawn for dating. My contribution to the final article is necessarily brief though, so here’s my original longer response to his question about just why K-pop labels are so sensitive about their stars’ love lives:

That some fans feel they have a strong personal bond with their idols, and then feel betrayed when those idols are revealed to be in a relationship, is a problem hardly confined to K-pop fandom. But it is amplified by three characteristic features of Korean popular culture.

First, there is the overexposure of its celebrities. Flick through the channels, and it is entirely possible to see the same K-pop star in an MV, a talkshow, a commercial, and a drama. And for each, they’ll generally be expected to maintain the persona for which they’re best known.

Next, as a broad rule, virginal personas are overwhelmingly preferred for unmarried female K-pop stars. Precious few songwriters and MV directors are prepared to present them as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire, as a decade’s experience with censors has taught that their work will generally get banned if they do.

Consequently, in K-pop, most women are presented as scantily-clad, passive objects for the male gaze, regardless of the actual make-up of a girl-group’s fandom. Again, this centralizing of supposed cishet male tastes as the norm isn’t unique to Korea. But the third and final feature is that the Korean media has tended to downplay their criticisms of this, so asamong other reasonsnot to jeopardize the success of the Korean Wave overseas. This deliberate myopia however, has contributed to such phenomena as the rise of middle-ageuncle fans,” who are defined by supposedly only possessing a harmless avuncular love for teenage girl-groups in hot pants—and a lot of money to spend on them.

Clearly, revelations of K-pop stars dating challenge all these tenets of Korean pop-culture, and their fundamentally gendered nature explains why the negative reactions have overwhelmingly been directed at the women in those relationships, who simultaneously get slut-shamed by both their entitled male fans and the female fans of their partners.

Those last two paragraphs link up to my answer to another question of James’s, about to what extent it’s fans or labels that are driving these attitudes to stars dating. And you can guess which way I went in light of this recent breakdown of the top 3 labels’ revenues:

Source: Jenna Gibson, Korea Economic Institute and The Korea Society @YouTube (3:50).

But I’ll cover the significance of those numbers in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there are many huge generalizations in my answer to James’s first question of course, and it’s also entirely possible that I still look at K-pop through the prism of when I got into it back in 2010, and have had terrible confirmation bias ever since. If so, and you feel the gist of any of my generalizations are outdated, then please do let me know. I would just love the excuse to crack open some new K-pop books and journal articles I’ve been hoarding, and to get back into writing more about the subject here.

No really—please rip my email to shreds! I beg you! ;)

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

“I am a Woman Who Buys Condoms.”

The reaction to having a woman in a condom ad is exactly why we need women in condom ads.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. All screenshots via YouTube.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last five years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too. I wish these realities weren’t true, and am always looking for evidence to show attitudes are changing. Yet they stubbornly persist.

That’s what makes commercials like this one for Common Day condoms so important. Produced for social media in April but only going viral this week, it’s surprisingly sweet, with messages that are very powerful in their simplicity. So why is it so disliked?

Here’s my translation of the captions:

난 콘돔사는 여자다.

여자가 콘돔을 어떻게 사냐고?

약국, 편의점, 인터넷, 성인샵에서

‘그냥, 사면 된다.’

I’m a woman who buys condoms.

How can a woman buy condoms you ask?

At pharmacies, convenience stores, over the internet, and at sex shops.

“Just buy them.”

물론 처음엔 쉽지 않았지

내가 콘돔을 사기 전까지

‘여자답지 못하네’

‘여자가 밝히네’

‘그건 남자가 사야지’

Of course, it wasn’t easy at first.

Up until the moment I finally bought them myself, I thought [people would say]:

“That’s not ladylike.”

“Wow, is she oversexed or what.”

“That’s something only men should buy.”

이런 말들과 싸워왔거든

나만 겪어본 건 아닐거야

근데, 지금은 21세기

‘그냥, 사면 된다’

Actually, I struggled with those thoughts too.

I’m sure I’m not the only who felt like this.

And hey, isn’t it the 21st Century now?

“Just buy them.”

현재의 우린 ‘자기결정권’ 이란 게 있어

생각과 말,

몸과 욕망을 스스로 결정할 권리

누가 준 것도 아니고

빼앗을 수도 없는 거야

내가 원래 가지고 태어나는 거거든!

We in the modern age, have the right to decide what’s best for ourselves

That includes rights about our bodies and our desires

This is something that wasn’t given to me, and so can’t be taken away from me.

This is something that we were born with.

예를 들면,

내가 원할 때 섹스하고

원할 때 임신하는 것

뭐 그런 거 말야

남자가 콘돔이 없을까 불안하다고?

그래서 내가 ‘그냥, 사면 된다’

For example,

I can have sex when I want,

and I can get pregnant when I want—

you know, things like that.

So you get concerned and worried when men say they don’t have a condom?

That’s why you should just buy them yourself!

난 19세기 여자가 아니거든!

난 힘이 있고,

욕망이 있으며,

모든 것은 내가 결정해

난 콘돔사는 여자다.

I’m not a woman of the 19th Century!

I am powerful,

and I have desire,

I decide everything for myself,

And I am a woman who buys condoms. (End)

Awesome, right? Yet it has 8 to 1 dislikes to likes on YouTube. Perhaps, because of this troll below, who replied to the tweet I first found the commercial on. I don’t mean to feed him, but will translate a couple of tweets from his long screed to show what Korean women, condom manufacturers, and sexual-health advocates are up against (I welcome alternate translations; being such a typical troll, he’s not very coherent sorry):

(Source.)

Jeez, this is just such typical BS from a “21st Century woman.” What is it with “women hav[ing] the right to decide what’s best for themselves,” and carrying condoms in case men don’t have them, and choosing for themselves when they want to get pregnant? This isn’t something women should even buy! Men are supposed to buy them! Can’t you make a condom commercial for men instead?

And later, after discovering that the CEO of the promotion company behind the campaign is—wait for it—a man himself:

(Source.)

Ah, now I get it. Your company often provides junk information in its twitter promotions, like you did while selling diet supplements once. In this case, you just make a commercial with commonly-used feminist words thrown in, as you know women will automatically buy anything that says “feminist.”

Sigh. Please head over to YouTube and like the video right now, to encourage more feminist commercials like it. And please share this post and the video too! :)

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

“The Secret to a Perfect Vacation? The Oral Contraceptive Pill!”

A rare Korean government campaign promoting contraception use has many positives. But its motivations are anything but progressive.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Image, via @smartlovekorea (Facebook): “Fun Waterplay! Sweet Couple Travel! The Secret to the Perfect Vacation · The Oral Contraceptive Pill ·”

Korea stands out for its over-the-counter access to the monthly contraceptive pill, and that’s awesome. Not just because sexual independence is a good thing in general, but because it’s essential when so many obstacles stand in the way of gaining that independence here, especially for unmarried women.

Despite that, only 2.5 percent of Korean women actually use the pill. Probably, due to a combination of not being educated about contraception at all in school or university, aggressive sterilization programs in the 1970s and ’80s, a knock-on tendency to leave contraception in men’s hands, and because of scaremongering by the Korean Medical Association. More recently, desperate efforts to raise Korea’s birthrate have dissuaded from government efforts at promoting contraception use in general, and played a big role in the (re)criminalization of abortion in 2010.

But that last was implemented by disgraced, former governments. So far, while the current Moon Jae-in administration has been no radical reformer of sexual rights, it is left of center, and operates in a shifted political climate of Me-too and the Gangnam murder. It is legally required to respond to a recent popular petition to legalize abortion, and this week was further pressured by the Korean College of Ob & Gyn’s announcement that its members would no longer perform abortions while its members faced punishments for doing so. Also, governments are never monoliths, as different ministries can oppose each other as they jockey for funding and jurisdiction. In particular, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) has officially supported legalization since as of this May, a 180 degree shift from its position under Moon Jae-in’s predecessors, and at odds with the Ministry of Defense that is concerned about its shrinking pool of conscripts. And there have always been excellent initiatives by various sex-education teachers, women’s rights groups, feminists, and NGOs operating in the background.

Which of those actors was behind this poster, encouraging hetero couples to use the pill? What were their motivations? Trick question—eagle-eyed readers will have already noticed the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (MOHW) logo. Which makes it all the more remarkable.

Yes, remarkable. Sexual themes may well pervade the Korean media, but recall that even condom commercials are considered too risque for Korean consumers, only two ever making it to television screens in the 12 years since they were legalized. That’s indicative of how there are still such limits to discussing sexual relationships in Korea, which is why I’m so drawn to the rare, no-BS conversations about them favored by Korean feminist groups. And why I was so surprised to discover a government ministry acknowledging that, sometimes, people have sex just for fun.

Yet however refreshing, it seemed odd to focus on the pill, which doesn’t protect against STDs. For the sake of Koreans’ sex-lives, empowerment, and general well-being, shouldn’t the MOHW encourage the use of contraception in general? Including of those ever so vulgar French letters?

Fortunately, it does. Perusing the source, it emerges that many alternatives have indeed been promoted in the Ministry’s “Loveplan Campaign.” The “combined method” of the pill and the condom for instance, which I learned all the cool kids are now referring to as the “Double Dutch” method:

Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare Facebook page

And shortly after I saw the poster promoting the pill, there was a new post about using condoms, with good advice about using a fresh one if there is a tear, to not use oil-based lubricants, and so on:

Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare Facebook page

There are many more examples like it, which is just awesome. Any government should promote greater contraception use, and help spread awareness of all the different types available, as well as how to use them properly.

But I also learned the campaign was launched 3 years ago. And it got odd all over again.

Because that was during the Park Geun-hye administration, which was notorious for its hardline on abortion, and for using the aforementioned crucial access to the pill as a bargaining chip in a dispute between doctors’ and pharmacists’ associations—as well as making numerous other backward steps in Koreans’ sexual health and rights. In particular, the MOGEF, ironically, had been at the forefront of many these developments. So, if the MOHW had actually been its liberal, sex-positive counterweight during all that time, you can bet I would have noticed.

I hadn’t, because it wasn’t. As explained in The JoongAng Ilbo at the campaign’s launch, sadly it was never about sexual empowerment per se. Rather, it was entirely aimed at reducing the number of (illegal) abortions:

‘성’을 주제로 한 방송프로그램이 인기를 끌고, 숙박업소 광고도 안방에서 쉽게 접할 수 있을 정도로 ‘성문화’는 빠르게 개방되고 있다. 더불어 일명 ‘가출팸’ 사건과 같은 청소년 성범죄 비율도 10대 강력범죄의 70%를 차지할 만큼 빠르게 증가하는 등 그 문제점도 속출하고 있어 다양한 접근의 해결책이 요구되고 있다.

Through the popularity of television programs with sexual themes, and the increasing ease of finding love hotel advertisements, a “sex culture” is rapidly opening up. In addition, as the proportion of teenagers’ sex crimes such as “Runaway Family” incidents* account for 70% of all teenagers’ major crimes and is also rapidly increasing, various measures should be addressed in order to tackle these problems.

*(“Runaway Families” refers to runaway teens living together for support; implicit is that many must turn to sex work to do so.)

특히, 개방된 성문화로 인한 무분별한 인공임신중절 시술의 문제점으로 95%정도가 불법시술인 것으로 나타났으며, 이로 인해 청소년은 물론 성인들의 신체적, 정신적 건강을 위협하고 목숨까지 앗아가는 등 심각한 사회문제로 대두되고 있다.

In particular, this opening sex culture is responsible for 95% of casual, illegal abortions, and this is causing serious social problems due to the damage caused to teenagers’ and adults’ physical and mental health, even leading to suicide.

이와 같이 나날이 증가하고 있는 무분별한 인공임신중절 사례, 만연하게 퍼진 생명경시풍조 등과 같은 현 사회적 세태에서 보건복지부가 진행하고 있는 「2015 인공임신중절 예방 캠페인: 러브플랜」은 생명존중 문화와 올바른 성문화를 조성하고자 하는 점에서 중요한 의의가 있다…

Consequently, the MOHW is launching a “Loveplan, 2015 Abortion Prevention Campaign” to create a culture of respect for the sanctity of life and encourage a healthy and responsible sex culture…

…보건복지부는 청소년에게는 생명존중의식과 미래의 건강한 부모가 되기 위한 책임 있는 선택을, 미혼남녀에게는 양성평등에 입각한 책임 있는 사랑과 계획을, 가임부부에게는 건강한 아이를 출산하기 위한 계획 임신 등 상황에 따른 메시지를 전파하고 있다. 이는 인공임신중절 예방을 위한 실질적인 실천으로 이끄는 견인차 역할을 하고 있다.

…The MOHW is committed to spreading the message of the importance of respecting the sanctity of life, and to promoting sexual responsibility and planning based on gender equality for unmarried men and women, in order that they will become responsible parents in the future and raise healthy children. These goals drive its emphasis on promoting practical contraceptive methods for the prevention of abortion.

The article goes on to talk about its various promotion methods, which include(d) working with “LifeLove Supporter” university groups. For example, with Pyeongtaek University students, Hongik University students, and these students from an unspecified Busan university in 2016 (photo above); with Daegu University and Yonsei University students in 2017; and with these students from an unspecified Jeonju university this July. In fact, these groups predate the Loveplan campaign, which itself seems heavily based on an earlier “Lovekeeperscampaign.”

It’s difficult to feel any anger towards such friendly-looking, probably genuinely helpful and concerned young students. And even among pro-choice activists, who wouldn’t want the abortion rate to go down? The students are also mainly just educating people about contraception, and promoting men and women’s equal involvement in their use. So, all power to them, right?

Wrong. Because it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, when someone comes towards you with a big sign that that says something about loving or respecting “life” on it, 99 times out of 100 you know it’s not your lovelife that they’re advocating for.

And with this campaign’s stress that abortions are illegal and to be avoided, implicit is that they are morally wrong.

But abortions are not a necessary evil, the last, distasteful resort of irresponsible couples. Contraception doesn’t always work. People can change their minds as they realize they’re not ready for a child. Couples can break up. Raising a child isn’t easy, and societies shun single mothers (especially Korean society). People can lose their jobs, and realize they can no longer afford to have a child. And so on. And hell, irresponsible couples have just as much of a right to abortion as anyone else too.

In other words, people will always need abortions, and will always have abortions, whether they’re legal or not. The only difference their legality makes is whether they can have safe ones, or whether many will die from the procedure.

Ergo, abortion is a GOOD thing.

In the past, friends of mine have been amused when I’ve accidentally said I’m “pro-abortion” rather than “pro-choice”, but that’s no longer a mistake on my part.

Here’s hoping for a positive, very overdue response by Moon Jae-in to the petition for the legalization of abortion then. And with it, a refocusing of this campaign.

Related posts:

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

One for the Korean Sexuality Geeks!

Estimated reading & viewing time: 9 minutes.

Last week, I caught Sean Pablo’s interview of Nara Kong about dating culture and the sex education she received—or rather didn’t receive—in North Korea. Short and interesting in its own right, I recommend watching the entire video, and subscribing to both Youtubers. But it was the section from 1:30 that will really bring out your Korean sexuality geekgasm:

For those of you also completely turned on right now, but frustrated because you can’t put your finger on exactly why, let me lend a helping hand: it’s because you once read that things were very similar in South Korea in the 1980s. Specifically, from the opening to So-hee Lee’s “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture” (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002), recalling her embarrassment and confusion when she attended some English literature lectures at Cambridge University in the mid-1980s (pp. 141-2):

My topic was “Women Characters in Victorian Novels”. During the lectures and seminars, I was acutely embarrassed by what I heard. Why was everyone talking about sexuality, masculinity, and femininity? What was the relationship between those terms and feminist literary criticism?

In those days, Koreans did not have exact counterpart terms for “sex”, “sexuality”, “sexual intercourse”, and “gender”. I was very confused as I struggled to determine the appropriate meanings. In Korean, one very general term “seong” (성) could be used for these four concepts, its particular meaning dependent on the speaking and listening context.

(It’s actually a little more complicated than that, the specific Chinese character she’s referring to—there are many different ones rendered as “성” in Korean—also meaning “nature” and “life” as well as “sex.” But that just adds to her point.)

Korean society in the mid-1980s did not find it necessary to make sharp distinctions between these concepts. At the annual Korean Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1989, the issue of sex language was raised and discussed. More recently, the Korean counterpart of the term “sexual intercourse” (성교) has gained wide usage, accompanied by the frequent use of the a Korean counterpart for the term “sexual violence” (성폭행)….Sexual violence has now become a recognized issue in need of a discourse.

Korean concepts of sexuality have changed profoundly since the Democratic Revolution of 1987….In 1995, the most popular topics among university students were sexuality, sexual identity, and other sexual subjects. There are many reasons for this…

One of those reasons being all the (female sexuality) taboo-shattering movies and books that came out in the mid-1990s, the focus of her chapter. For more on those, see my post “Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s“, then “Korean Women and the 2002 World Cup: The REAL origins of the kkotminam craze” for even more taboo-breaking in the 2000s.

But wait, there’s still more!

As an added bonus to those who have read this far, who can consider themselves the true Korean sexuality geeks, let me also pass on Jo Kwon and Lia Kim’s dance to Lemon by NERD & Rihanna, my gateway video—thanks Asian Junkie!—to becoming a complete fanboy* of both:

A song with a lot of seong that. What more could you ask for on a Monday? ;)

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

(*I’m really, really wincing at the high-heels in this one though. And Lia really shouldn’t have had a pre-teen dancing alongside her to Starships by Niki Minaj in her latest video either. But I only criticize out of love!)

Fun, Fearless, Korean Females Can’t Talk About Sex?

 Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Source: @kimminseoyoung

Writing about feminism for 10 years, I’m no stranger to double-standards. What I’m struck by whenever I encounter a new one though, is not just by how many there are that every woman already knows about and has to deal with. More, it’s by how much my male privilege had left me so utterly, blissfully unaware of them. That girl-pants don’t have proper pockets for instance, I had no idea about until I saw this comic in 2014—despite having a wife and two daughters. Likewise, if this newsreader’s glasses hadn’t become national news this week, I’d have remained clueless that many Korean cinemas were “notorious for not allowing [only] female part-time workers to wear glasses on duty.” And, if I hadn’t already been following awesome feminists on Twitter, the Korean magazine industry’s surprising prudishness about women’s sexual subjectivity would have completely passed me by too:

Source: @kimminseoyoung

Her tweet reads:

I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a copy of the magazine I was interviewed in at the COEX library. But the pages with my interview were sealed with double-sided tape. When I contacted the magazine about it, they said that it was a measure to prevent minors from reading because of the sexual contents. But there were no sealed sections in other parts of the magazine, or in other magazines.* #Womencan’ttalkaboutsex

Min Seo-young (Twitter; Facebook) is an outspoken feminist webtoonist and sex columnist that I’ve been following since her interview by Ilda in July last year (google translation here), smitten by her loud frustration at the social pressures that force Korean women to act chastely and demurely. Later, in an interview for Brunch in December (translation), she added that she rejected one stereotype that only victims can be feminists, and pointed out that chafing against double-standards kind of forces women to become feminists anyway.

This would definitely qualify as one of those double-standards, so I decided to buy a copy of April’s Cosmopolitan to read her interview for myself. Alas, they were all long gone. And frankly, I can’t tell from her tweet if she meant just her interview was sealed off, or if she meant things like the ‘Super Hot Sex Games’ were too (*so I’ve just asked her to clarify; I’ll update this if she responds). Whatever the case though, I can confirm from all my hard work that Playboy Korea and Maxim were still available, with no sealed sections to ward off minors from their equally salacious, equally traumatizing content.

And besides which, Seo-young already posted a picture of part of her interview herself:

Source: @kimminseoyoung. See here for an easier to read image.

Copyright makes me wary of translating whole interviews or articles sorry, but I will indulge myself a little with this one:

“…[If men hear] I’m a writer about sexual matters, they joke ‘Ah, so you like sex? Shall I give you some source material?’…I’m kind of stuck with being looked at that way. But then I reply to that sort of thing: ‘Just because I like sexual things, that doesn’t mean I’m going to have sex with you!'”

Sounds like something minors should see. Not be protected from! ;)

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

한국인이세요? 한국인이랑 데이트 해봤어요? 이 연구가를 도와주세요!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Image source: Hutomo Abrianto @Pexels (CC0).

도와주세요! (2탄)

Grand Narrative 독자분들께,

안녕하세요! 제 이름은 Edward Glayzer입니다. 저는 미시간주립대학교 인류학과의 박사과정생이고, Grand Narrative의 오래된 독자이기도 합니다. James Turnbull씨는 제가 서울에 와서 한국의 성불평등에 대한 학위논문 연구를 시작할 때부터 많은 도움을 주셨고, 또한 저번과 같이 이번에도 연구대상자 모집을 공고할 수 있게 해주셨습니다. James Turnbull씨께, 그리고 제 첫 설문에 참여해주셨던 모든 분들께 진심으로 감사하다는 말씀 전하고 싶습니다.

제 연구는 한국 사회의 성불평등에 관한 광범위한 주제들을 더 잘 이해하기 위한 것이며, 이를 위해 한국인들의 데이트와 결혼 의식에서 일어나는 물질적 교환을 살펴봅니다. 제 연구는 또한 남성과 여성의 소득 불평등이 어떻게 상품 소비를 통한 친밀함의 표현에 영향을 미치는지를 다룹니다. 해당 연구는 전에 공고했던 연구의 후속 연구이며, 그 전 연구에서는 다루지 않았던 면들도 다루고 있지만 여전히 연구의 중심은 위와 같습니다. 이 연구의 유일한 참여조건은 “다른 한국인과 데이트를 해본 대한민국 국적의 성인”입니다. 이 조건만 충족하신다면 성적 정체성이나 성적 지향성 등 다른 특징과 관계 없이 모두 환영합니다.

독자 여러분의 의향이나 내주실 수 있는 시간에 따라 두 가지 참여방법이 있습니다. 이 중 하나 혹은 둘 다 자원해주신다면 매우 감사할 것입니다.

하나는 약 15분정도가 걸리는 간단한 온라인 설문을 해주시는 것입니다. 서베이의 링크는 다음과 같으며, 첫 설문을 참여하셨던 분이나 안 하셨던 분 모두 하실 수 있습니다: https://msu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bC46GYBqqZK8g3r

두 번째 방법은 전자 메일 또는 카카오를 통해 인터뷰를 요청하는 것입니다. 인터뷰는 한국어 또는 영어로 진행할 수 있으며 약 1 시간이 소요됩니다. 나는 당신의 시간 동안 음료와 간식을 제공 할 것이다!

eglayzer@gmail.com
Kakao ID: eglayzer

Are you Korean? Have you been dating a Korean? Please help this researcher! (2nd survey)

Update: Please note that Eddie is only seeking native Koreans (and gyopos) fluent in Korean for his research. This English translation is just for your interest, and the hope that you’ll pass on his request to your Korean friends and partners. Thanks!

Hello Grand Narrative readers!

My name is Edward Glayzer. I am a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University and an long time reader of the Grand Narrative. Since moving to Seoul to begin my dissertation research on Korean gender inequality, James Turnbull has been extremely helpful and kind enough to post this call for research subjects. I would like to thank James Turnbull and all those who participated in my first study.

My research aims to better understand the wide range of topics related to gender inequality in Korean society. For this purpose, I look at material exchanges that take place in Korean dating and marriage ceremonies. My research also deals with how income inequality in men and women affects the expression of intimacy through commodity consumption. This study is a follow-up study of the research that was announced before, and it covers the aspects that were not covered in the previous research. The only requirement for participation in this study is to be an adult of Korean nationality and have spent time dating other Koreans. If you meet these conditions, you are welcome, regardless of other characteristics, such as gender or sexual orientation.

There are two ways of participating, depending on your intentions and the amount of time you can give. I would be very grateful if you volunteered for one or both of these.

One is a simple online questionnaire that takes about 15 minutes. The survey link is as follows, and you may participate even if you also participated in the first questionnaire:
https://msu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bC46GYBqqZK8g3r

The second way to participate is to contact my via email or Kakao for an interview. Interviews can be done in either Korean or English and take about an hour. I will provide drinks and snacks for your time!

eglayzer@gmail.com
Kakao ID: eglayzer

Edward Glayzer M.A.
Doctoral Candidate
Michigan State University
Department of Anthropology

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

The Surprising Reason Koreans Don’t Buy Red Underwear for Valentine’s Day

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Image sources, edited: Summer Yolo Shop, KoBiz.

Go clothes shopping in East Asia at the moment, and it seems impossible to avoid all the red underwear. But it’s not because of Valentine’s Day. It’s because red is considered a lucky color by the Chinese, and the Lunar New Year’s celebration is just around the corner.

Unlike loud red clothes, red underwear will suit any wardrobe. Those whose Chinese Zodiac falls in the coming year for instance, when ironically they’ll need extra luck, can don it without revealing their age. So too Mahjong Players in Macau, who hope to leave their opponents seeing a different kind of red.

All these associations explain why “Triumph, the biggest underwear-maker in Asia, says its sales of red items are usually ten times higher than usual in Singapore and Malaysia around the Lunar New Year,” according to the following 2015 BBC report (0:35):

But it’s not just those countries with large Chinese populations that fall for red—Japanese stores also have big promotions. And Valentine’s Day can still be a very big deal: as the then Director of Triumph, Doy Teo above brightly noted, Lunar New Year’s fell very close to Valentine’s Day that year, making red underwear not just a good romantic gift. They will be even closer together this year.

Buying red on such an occasion seems a natural fit for young Korean consumers especially. Consider how Valentine’s Day has already been expanded into 11 other monthly holidays on various romantic themes, each with their own colors. Other non-native holidays, most notably Christmas, are not so much family occasions as rare opportunities to escape parents and spend time with partners or friends. “Couple clothes” are popular, and worn all year-round. Red is the color of the “Red Devils” soccer supporters, who the Korean media already portrays as young women in red, skimpy clothing. And in particular, red has many of the same lucky connotations in Korean culture too. As explained by Jang Jang-sik, Research Institute Director at the National Folklore Museum of Korea, it’s traditionally been worn by soldiers or those doing something dangerous, gifted to students doing exams, and there is a folk belief that it helps women who are finding it difficult to conceive a son:

국립민속박물관 장장식 학예연구관은 “전쟁이나 위험지역으로 떠날 때나 도박판에 갈 때도 붉은 속옷을 입는다”며 ” ‘수험생이 붉은 속옷을 입거나 지니고 있으면 합격한다’ ‘아들을 못 낳는 여자가 아들을 낳은 여자 속옷을 입으면 아들을 낳을 수 있다’는 속설도 있다”고 했다.

Chosun Ilbo, 7 March 2009.

There’s also a tradition of buying it for good luck from newly-opened stores. It rapidly sold out at the opening of Shinsegae’s Centum City branch in Busan in 2009 for instance, as well as at the opening of the Hyundai Department Store in Pangyo, Seongnam in 2015 (below), and at the re-opening of a Lotte Mall in Busan last July (video below):

Source: Korean Fashion + Tex News

Where then, is all the red underwear for lovers this Valentine’s Day?

To everyone’s relief, I have not done extensive field research in Korean lingerie stores to confirm its absence. The stores’ websites however, display no more red underwear than usual, nor do they have any red-themed promotions. Also, unlike couple outerwear, couple underwear has always been relatively expensive and limited in options in Korea, as I discovered before one frustrating anniversary recently. As friends later pointed out, if something’s only for each other to see, then what on Earth is the point?

But if lingerie stores are not even bothering to offer much in way of red at all, on a combined Lunar New Year’s and Valentine’s when it should sell more than ever, there must be some alternative, non-romantic connotations that the color has in Korea.

A tradition of buying red lingerie for one’s mother would certainly fit the bill.

I first learned about this via an inquiry made to the Korea Studies Mailing List by Ron Lieber, a journalist for the New York Times:

…I write the Your Money column for the New York Times — all about anything and everything that hits you in the wallet. I write often about families and money — how not just dollars but also wisdom and values are taught and passed between generations.

On that note, over the years Korean-American friends of mine have told me about a tradition where new college graduates (or teenagers or college students or even some older adults getting their first paychecks at a new, prestigious workplace) buy a gift for their parents after they start their first full-time jobs. I’ve heard about everything from handing the entire paycheck over in cash to buying red thermal underwear for both parents or lingerie for their mothers.

And I was further intrigued by the answer provided by Dr. Barbara Wall, then Research Assistant in Korean Studies at the Asien-Afrika-Institut in Hamburg:

…if you search for first salary 첫월금+ present 선물 many of the results you get mention red underwear 빨간 내복. I am no underwear expert, but what people say is that the custom of wearing “modern” underwear in Korea started only in the 1960s at which time underwear was a luxury item. Dyeing nylon at that time was not easy and worked best with red. That is said to be the reason for the red underwear as symbol of filial piety. Red is also said to have the ability of blocking everything “evil”…

Stephen Redeker at Gwangju News adds:

There is an old saying that one should buy red “long johns” for one’s parents after receiving the first paycheck from your first job. People tend to give other gifts to show appreciation to their parents, but the red long johns have an explanation. Back in the day, when floor heating was not as prevalent as it is now, people wore long underwear at night. Red-colored underwear was more expensive than the other drab colors offered at the time and therefore more desirable. Anyone who still observes this belief will probably buy red boxers, briefs, bras or panties for their parents.

Numerous Korean sources confirm. In addition to the information provided in the video below (apologies to region-blocked Korean viewers), it’s interesting to note that in 2009, over a quarter of respondents would buy red underwear for their parents upon receiving their first paycheck.

But is this still the case in 2018? Another source argues that it’s outdated, as parents’ memories of freezing winters and 24/7 thermal underwear-wearing in the 1960s and ’70s fade. This association with the middle-aged and elderly is evident in Japan too.

We must address the red elephants in the room too. “Underwear” is a wide-ranging term. Buying red thermal underwear for your parents, or long johns, is a far cry from buying sexy lingerie for them; as the Korean sources suggest, I’d wager children’s gifts are almost entirely the former. Also, even in Hong Kong, where the latter is supposedly all the rage, less than 1% of Chinese female undergraduates actually preferred that bra color:

Source: Sujoung Cha and Kristina Shin, “Hong Kong Chinese Breast Cathexis and Brassiere Design Preferences”, The Research Journal of the Costume Culture. 2011. Aug, 19(4): 780-793.

I also couldn’t help but notice that 60% preferred black. Because in An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007), although author Jill Fields frustratingly doesn’t mention red at all, she does have a groundbreaking (albeit controversial) chapter on the connotations of black lingerie in the US, which she tied to stereotypes of African-Amercian hypersexuality. Not only do those obviously not apply to Hong Kong however, but Chinese lingerie-makers themselves boggle at the differences in consumer preferences between borders. Which suggests it’s misguided to assume Pan-Asian similarities in tastes:

Guanyun workshops operate their own online stores in addition to producing wholesale stock for other brands. They are increasingly looking to sell overseas, which now only accounts for about a tenth of the county’s yearly output. But understanding the preferences of foreign customers remains an obstacle, according to [lingerie manufacturer] Lei. “There’s a huge gap in the aesthetics of different countries,” he explains. Sexy cop costumes are popular in Brazil, which Lei says is because Brazilians don’t like the police; French maid costumes don’t sell well in Poland because, he theorizes, the two countries don’t have a good relationship; and Japanese customers love any and all seductive outfits. The lingerie tastes of most European countries — except France and Italy — are still riddles to him. “Every collection that we deliberately designed has failed in their markets,” Lei says. “Germany borders France, right? But their taste is the most difficult thing for me to figure out.”

“Unzipping China’s Lingerie Capital,” Sixth Tone.

What do you think then, does explain Koreans’ distaste for red underwear this Valentine’s? Lingering unsexy associations with parents? Associations of red with the psuedo-communist North? Or some other reasons? Please let me know in the comments!

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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)