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

Tonight has been interpreted as an uplifting, carefree song about female friendship, maybe even about a lesbian awakening. So why is the MV soo male-gazey?
Spica Tonight 1.26(All screenshot sources: Youtube)

Introduction: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spica

Released in August 2013, Tonight by Spica is the perfect short summer song. It’s fun, breezy, and simple to understand for a Korean learner too. Just take a listen for yourself:

Though most K-pop songs don’t age well for me, I do still soo love the music and vocals of this one. But its sales were poor, and it won no prizes on music shows. It received few substantive reviews. Then the same happened again with You Don’t Love Me, which came out in January 2014. Crestfallen, I lost track of Spica after that, but I remember being further disappointed by their misguided US debut that summer, then the news in November 2015 that a manager of their former entertainment company was being sued for embezzlement, which derailed their planned comeback. Add that they haven’t uploaded a video to Youtube in over a year, then I started this post half-expecting they’d disband before I finished it.

Spica, it seems, have always been plagued with bad luck.

But there’s hope on the horizon. I soon learned that they’d switched entertainment companies in December, and that they’d quickly followed that with the announcement that a mini-album would be released in April, later cancelled in favor of the release of a full album in June. Also, while their Twitter, Facebook page, various Instagram accounts, and (Korean) fan cafe were only being updated every few days, they were still being updated. An hiatus on those updates since April was cause for alarm, but it was likely only because the group is very busy working on the album. Sure enough, soon after I wrote that they’ve since resumed posting, and have just reconfirmed their comeback and released new member photos.

So, I’m optimistic that they’ll announce a firm release date any day now. Which makes them a perfect choice for my own return to writing about K-pop.

Who could write a simple review after watching that MV though?

I think I'm addicted to feminist media criticism(Source: Guerrilla Feminism)

There’s only so much that can be said about the generic lyrics of the song, or added to what other reviewers have already written about the dreamy, memory-like atmosphere. Who has time for such banalities, when the MV is so sensual, but also soo blatantly aimed at heterosexual men? When the first half mostly consists of the Spica members lying on their backs in bikinis or tight clothes, the camera lingering on (especially) their breasts? And much of the rest, just that lingering gaze, with only occasional shots of the actual faces of the various body parts’ owners?

I’m serious. For teaching the concept of the male gaze, and the rights and wrongs of objectification, this MV is the perfect K-pop example.

Spica Tonight 0.31(0:31)
Spica Tonight 0.53(0:53)

No, I’m not a prude, I don’t think those are negatives (necessarily), and I’m not complaining. No way in hell, did I plan to spend six weeks on researching the male gaze before I got a post out either.

But I felt I had an obligation to discuss what no-one else was. Because when I first saw the MV three years ago, it was on my phone while I was on the subway; I had to stop watching, lest other commuters think of me as just another typical, sweaty uncle fan. When I showed the MV to a coworker to get a second opinion, he burst out laughing at how shameless it was. When I showed it to my wife, she just rolled her eyes. When I went online for fourth and fifth opinions though…?

Of scenes like the above, almost every other reviewer and commenter only mentions the ice cream one, if at all; instead, they talk about the strong vibe of sexual freedom they get from the MV, and/or the lesbian undertones. For instance, Alexandra Swords at Music Matters:

[The MV is] just plain fun to watch. It’s also incredibly sexy, the sensual movements, the outfits, the skinship . . . all of it contributes to a great idea of personal liberation, including sexual freedom and comfort with that sexual freedom. It’s great because very few music videos period, let alone the ones in Korea, express that not only is it okay to be a sexual creature, but that being so is not strange or special, it just is and we can just accept it with ease and comfort as an aspect of the world in which we live.

And commenters at Seoulbeats, after reviewer Laverne originally mentioned she found the sexual undertones of the ice cream scene unnecessary and distracting:

Seoulbeats Spica Tonight commentsAll of which is still cool of course: we’re all free to interpret the MV however we like, and a male gaze isn’t mutually exclusive with their reading of it. I should have made more of an effort to look for Korean reviews too.

But…sexual freedom? Tasteful lesbian undertones?

I’m just not seeing them. If a lesbian coming-of-age story was the intention, then it seems poorly executed at best, as I can identify only two scenes that hint at potential romantic interest between the members, and just barely at that. (Frankly, I think it’s just wishful thinking really. And, just off the top of my head, think Because of You by After School is a much, much better K-pop example.) In the absence of that narrative though, what I’m seeing in its place is the presentation of a very passive, come-hither version of female sexuality, much like that which already overwhelmingly dominates the media.

Again, that’s not necessarily bad, in the right context. Nor, as Womantic’s and ChencingMachine’s comments demonstrate, are the resulting scenes necessarily for the exclusive pleasure of heterosexual men. Yet while a lesbian appreciation of this MV is no less valid than a male heterosexual one, I still think it’s only incidental.

But I’m not a lesbian. As you’ll see, I still have lots to learn about the (heterosexual) female and lesbian gaze too. And, whatever your sex or sexuality, I can’t and won’t presume to lecture you that any feelings of sexual empowerment to be gained from the MV are simply a form of false consciousness either. Instead, let me just present my own biases and intellectual baggage first then, before the scenes from the MV, to show you why I interpret them the way I do.

That makes for a very, very long post, almost a presentation really, which readability dictates that I split into three. Also, for an uneasy segue into a discussion of men and women in advertising next, to be continued in Part 2, and ironically not returning to the MV again until Part 3. But if that’s what it takes to demonstrate the very narrow vision of female sexuality being presented by the MV, and of male tastes in turn, then so be it.

Hopefully, you’ll be too intrigued by the hundred or so images to notice the length anyway. And, ultimately agree or disagree with my interpretations, hopefully we’ll still have a fun discussion about the male gaze and/or Tonight too, and both learn a lot in the process.

Here goes…

(One NSFW image follows.)

The Male Gaze: A Gender Advertisements Perspective

Gender Advertisements South Korea(Source, right.)

Whatever your experience with analyzing advertisements, you can appreciate that the sizing and placing of people in them is a fundamental part of photographers’ and designers’ jobs. With that in mind, consider these images of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana:

charles higherMost people wouldn’t think twice about them. Unless, they already knew that Diana was actually the same height as Charles, or even slightly taller:

Diana TallerWhy make Charles appear taller? Lisa Wade at Sociological Images explains:

This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.

Is that social commitment also operating in these Korean advertisements? You be the judge:

Gender Advertisements Womem Taller than MenNow, those examples were pretty obvious. However, that social commitment to men’s greater height can be said to be part of a wider commitment to presenting conventional, in many ways unequal gender roles by the media. Which may sound like hyperbole, but literally just about any survey looking at how the sexes are portrayed can confirm.

In advertisements, that commitment is usually achieved in much more subtle ways than simply giving high stools to short men though. Fortunately for us, the late Erving Goffman outlined many of those ways in Gender Advertisements (1979), and his framework has been considerably expanded upon and modified by scholars since.

Concentrating on the two ways most relevant to the Tonight MV here, the first is by positioning men and women (and races) differently, which comes under the “Relative Size” category in Goffman’s framework. (Note that in addition to being positioned differently, they are frequently doing different things and/or have different jobs too, which comes under “Function Ranking”). For example:

Gender Advertisements Men at Front, Women at BackGender Advertisements Relative Size and Position(Source, left: Korea Times, 25/06/2009; see Korean Sociological Image #8 for a discussion.)

Gender Advertisements Relative Size South KoreaNone of those examples are particularly objectionable in themselves, nor is there a real case to be made that the teams behind them were deliberately or even subconsciously sexist: there could have been any number of legitimate aesthetic reasons and other considerations which came into play when they placed the men and women (and Koreans and Caucasians) the way they did. It’s also true that I deliberately selected all the advertisements in this post to make certain points, which in turn are necessary generalizations; of course you see men standing in the back sometimes, and so on. That said, do surveys of multiple advertisements, and, for whatever reasons, men tend to be front and center more often than women, and tend to have better jobs and/or take more active roles than the women behind them.

In that vein, take a look at these two:

Gender Advertisements Ritualized Subordination Mother Child Man WomanIn the left (technically half of an advertisement), of course the mother is taller and of a higher social status than her young daughter. Also of course, there’s no implication that the teenage boy on the right is of a higher social status or in any other way superior to the teenage girls in any way simply because he’s standing while they’re sitting.

Look at multiple advertisements however, and it turns there’s a lot more ads like the one on the right than vice-versa. Or, of ones that elevate the men above the women in some other way:

Gender Advertisements Ritualization of Subordination Man Standing Woman SittingGender Advertisements Ritualization of Subordination Men Standing Women SittingKim Su-hyeon and Shin Sae-kyeong Man StandingAlternatively, if the men themselves are sitting, then the women end up on lower furniture (remember the stools earlier?), in beds, or even on the floor or ground:

Giordano Wallpaper Shin Min-a So Ji-sub(Source: Giordano. See also: Shin Min-a Shows Us How to Pose Like a Woman)
Goffman Gender Advertisements Rituatlization of Subordination Kate Moss Chris Kremer(Source, above and below: The Fashion Spot)

Goffman Gender Advertisements Rituatlization of Subordination GucciThis is the part of second category of Goffman’s to bear in mind for the MV, which he termed the “Ritualization of Subordination” (but with obvious overlaps with “Relative Size”). He explained it thus:

Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example.) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)

And in particular:

Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)

A note of caution. In lectures in the past, I’ve explained that Korea provides an interesting counterpoint to such interpretations. As in this part of the world, age and status trumps everything:

Korea Status Trumps Relative Size and Ritualiztion of SubordinationGender Adverisements Status Trumps Ritualization of SubordinationVictorian Husband and Wife ungyo looking away(Source, left: Etsy)

And indeed maybe it does. But after rereading the original book, I found that Goffman had already indirectly addressed this:

An interesting contrast is to be found in turn-of-the-century portrait poses of couple [example above], wherein the effect was often achieved of displaying the man as the central figure and the woman as backup support, somewhat in the manner of a chief lieutenant. (p. 40)

Which is to say, it’s important to bear advertisements’ contexts in mind, and not interpret them dogmatically. But whether they’re Korean or from Goffman’s native Canada, examples like these seem to be the exceptions that prove the general rule.

Another thing to bear in mind is one of the biggest changes since Goffman’s day: that fewer and fewer couples and mixed groups are depicted in advertisements. Despite that, women are still less likely to be standing in them than men:

Ha Ji-won and IU lying downsnsd baby g 2015(Source: S♡NE | INDESTRUCTIBLE)
Seol-hyun subway advertisement gmarket(Source: 퍼펙트 월드)

The sides of buses, I’ve noticed, are frequently used for full-length shots of people on their sides. It’s just that those people rarely seem to be men:

Swagger Hyo-seong on Bus(Sources, edited: Swagger)

And finally, some examples of women on the floor, in beds, and/or lying down. Which, like Goffman said, are considered to be expressions of sexual availability:

Park Min-young jeans floor(Source: Tcafe.net)
Honey Lee Venus lingerie lying on bedKang So-ra Ad Objectification through reduction to sexual availabilityGa-in EgoistJunghwa - Mizuno Summer 2015(Source: IsM, K-pop in Greek)
Seol-hyun SK Telecom GMarket(Sources: FM Korea; Imgur. Ironically, there was some controversy about the one on the left. But only because of its supposed resemblance to a BDSM scene.)

This example with Bae Su-ji for Clalens contact lenses is particularly interesting. When I showed it to a female friend, who’s very au fait with overthrowing the patriarchy, I pointed out that it looked like I was hovering over her as we lay together in some sunny, secluded glade. (Su-ji that is, not my female friend; let’s not go there.) That didn’t occur to her at all though, and instead she admired what the advertisers had done with her hair, the black lines serving to highlight the clarity of vision brought about by the contact lenses (although in hindsight, I think the intention was to highlight that they’re color lenses):

Ritualization of Subordination Male Gaze Suzy ClalenI include it then, partially as an example of where my background is possibly clouding my judgement. Also, as a reminder that I’m not the target audience of most of the advertisements I critique.

But still: with this ad, I think my friend wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.

Because consider the similar one in the middle below too. At that more usual scale, only a blogger with a bone to pick would notice the black lines at all. Add the slightly scared expression on her face, which seems out of place for a contact lens ad, and I’m right back to my original interpretation. Neither exactly scream “Now that I can see properly, I can finally do shit and get on with my life!” either, which is why I much prefer the one on the left. (Even Seol-hyun’s on the right is an improvement.)

Korean Contact Lens Advertisements(Apologies for the reflection of some ugly bald guy in the picture on the right.)

But okay, so what? So we see many more women than men in beds and on floors in advertisements, frequently in sexualized poses. Is that problematic?

Well, if we put aside for a moment that not every ad needs to be sexualized, and that when it is, it’s usually the sexualization of women by and for heterosexual men? Then not so long ago, I would have said no. Not necessarily.

Yes, I know I say that word a lot. But hear me out.

In my lectures, I used to point out that basic biology meant that heterosexual men found women in beds more sexually attractive than vice-versa. Whereas you have lots of time, energy, and most importantly no kids, I would wistfully explain to my 20-something audience members, so you make it a point of personal pride to try new and exciting sex positions everyday, the reality is that the missionary position is overwhelmingly the most popular male-female one. (And besides which, if we’re talking about penis-in-vagina, all those new and exciting sex positions are all just variations of the same six basic positions anyway.) Ergo, if sex sells, and, rightly or wrongly, sex is always going to be used to sell, then that sexual difference is always going to be reflected in advertising.

To reinforce that point, and get some laughs, I would show some photos of men parodying women’s typical poses:

Men in Women's Poses(Source: English Russia)
Men in Women's Poses Men-Ups(Source: kyliedpeterson)

But sometimes after the lectures, women would point out that the men above weren’t as (conventionally) attractive as the women they’re mimicking. And they had a point. So too, if they’d asked how come I’d just enthralled them with numerous images of scantily-clad women in beds or lying down, for which they were eternally grateful, yet failed to provide any examples with men to prove my original point? Like some from two Instagram collections recently featured at Bored Panda say, which have a much wider range of guys than normal too?

Instagram @brosbeingbasic(Ewww, men on their backs. How unmanly and unattractive. Source: @brosbeingbasic; left, right)

What they really should have done though, is told me to just shut the hell up. Because what the fuck would I know about what poses turn women on?

I like to think I know a little. This blog is about sexuality after all. I do have lots of books about sexuality in my bookshelves to impress guests at my cocktail parties with, and have even read some of them too. Obviously, I have no qualms about talking explicitly about sex. Obviously, I do so with my wife and did with my former partners. Probably, you can guess, that lack of inhibitions extends to conversations with my friends too. (Consider that a heads-up, if any readers want to hang out.)

But had I really talked to my female friends about what turns them on? Exactly what turns them on? Had I really talked to enough heterosexual women, or read enough about female sexual desire written by them? Could I really stand there as a cisgender, heterosexual guy and tell heterosexual women that I know they aren’t as attracted to men in beds as men are to women, which is why we don’t see men in beds so much in ads?

No.

Instead, it took the following image to make me finally realize my utter foolishness. Seen back while I was still naively expecting this post to just be a normal review, this image is a big reason for the way it developed the way it did. Because just between you and me, I can see the attraction…

Sleeping Beauty Bare Men Paper(Source: Paper)

I’m sure it would have been more to the point to post a picture of a eager, expectant-looking guy in bed, with a much prouder erection; alas, it’s that picture that really, really does it for me. I mean did it for me. Enlightened me I mean.

Anyyyway…

If it doesn’t enlighten you personally though, then here’s some eye-opening links I was also reading at the time, which provided the thousands of words of background that picture told me:

  • Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze? (The Conversation; make sure to read the comments also)
  • Gaze Upon Me, and Despair!: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, S2E2 (The Learned Fangirl)
  • How music videos challenged the male gaze in 2015 (Dazed)
  • How is this painting ‘pornographic’ and ‘disgusting’? (The Guardian)
  • ‘Neighbors 2’ is a middle finger to anyone who thinks feminism can’t be funny (Fusion)
  • Hollywood Men: It’s No Longer About Your Acting, It’s About Your Abs (Jezebel)
  • The Male Gaze vs. The Female Gaze (CinemaVerite)
  • NSFW: See Images From “Bare Men,” A New Photo Book on Male Nudity (Paper)
  • A New Tumblr Calls Attention to “Headless Women” in Film & TV Marketing (Bitch, Feministing)
  • NSFW: 10 Images That Take The Female Nude Back From The Male Gaze (Bust; my Twitter and Facebook conversations about them)
  • Empowered Young Women Star In These Portraits Of Chinese Girlhood (The Huffington Post)
  • How did ‘Playgirl’ magazine go from feminist force to flaccid failure? (Fusion)
  • An Earl in the Streets and a Wild Man in the Sheets: Tarzan and Women’s Sexuality (Bitch)

That said, of course there’s still many differences in what heterosexual men and women find sexually attractive in the other; it’s just that I’m no longer convinced that lying in bed (etc.) is one of them. And if I’m right, that social commitment to literally keep women in their place seems to be the biggest reason for the discrepancy in the media.

Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the modus operandi, there are many more active alternatives, and/or alternative body types, that are just as effective…

vivian geeyang kim 66100 Ha Ji-won(Sources: Plus Size Model Vivian Geeyang Kim, edited; ask K-POP)

Which I’ll present in Part 2, before discussing the MV proper in Part 3. Thanks very much for reading this far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (By all means, feel free to jump ahead and talk about the MV too!)

Morning-after Pill Remains Prescription Only

In the continued financial stand-off between doctors and pharmacists, Korean women’s health and sexual freedom remain a low priority.
MV 010 - 2 - SBS Family's Honor (2008-2009) - This I Promise You(Source: withhyunbin; CC BY-NC 2.0)

Remember back in 2012, when the Korean FDA announced the monthly birth-control pill would become prescription only?

In isolation, there are many reasonable arguments for such a change. In the context of the criminalization of abortion though? Plus the slut-shaming that compels many women to rely on their male partners for contraception, combined with Korea’s woefully-inadequate sex education? Then that freedom of access was important.

What’s more, while the monthly pill was to become prescription only, the morning-after pill was to be made over the counter.

That made no sense, whatever one’s feelings about either pill. And indeed, there were no sudden new medical reasons provided to justify the changes. Instead, as I wrote this January:

…it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

Four years later, she still hasn’t. And it’s wonderful that the monthly pill remains over the counter.

Alas, that doesn’t mean the government hasn’t been busy. Earlier this week, it decided that the morning-after pill would remain prescription only. As the Korea Bizwire reports:

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that after a comprehensive review of contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness, it would continue to categorize emergency contraceptives as ethical drugs.

Ethical drugs, also referred to in Korea as ETC drugs, are defined as drugs that require a doctor’s prescription for usage, and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that the decision to keep emergency contraceptives under the category of ETC drugs was due to serious concern over the possible abuse of these contraceptives by the public.

On the other hand, the ministry will maintain its categorization of regular contraceptive pills, which are to be taken prior to sexual intercourse, as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

Recent trends show that the production and imports of emergency contraceptive pills are both increasing – growing from 2.8 billion won to 4.4 billion won in 2014 and then 4.2 billion won in 2015 – according to a study on contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness conducted between 2013 and 2015 by the Korea Institute of Drug Safety & Risk Management on 6,500 individuals of both genders between 15 and 59 years of age.

And yet, the study also found that only 44 percent of females in the study had accurate knowledge about emergency contraceptive pills, such as their side effects.

[Emergency contraceptive pills have] a high risk of side effects compared to regular OTC contraceptive pills in that the drastic hormonal change could be a considerable burden on the female body.

The Korea Herald adds that only “36 percent of female teenagers were accurately informed about the drug and its possible side effects” (as opposed to the 44% of women mentioned above). Unlike in 2012 though, now it appears that the Ministry has Korean women’s and teenagers’ health very much in mind.

I call bullshit.

This is dubious, retroactive justification of a decision made entirely on ideological grounds.

First, consider the track-record of the Park Geun-hye administration, which is unusually beholden to conservative vested interests. In the absence of (sufficient) political pressure from the Korean Pharmaceutical Association, and/or the ever-dwindling pool of young female voters, it would be extremely unlikely to ever make such a female-friendly, sexually-progressive move as increasing access to the morning-after pill.

Next, recall that under-18s aren’t actually allowed to access information about contraception on the internet, in which case that figure of 36 percent could even considered a positive. (Search on portal sites, and a social security number login will be required.)

(Update: It turns out, that login may only be required for information about condoms.)

Finally, and in particular, the Korean Medical Association has a long history of scaremongering about the pill, which likely plays a big role in why only 2.5% of Korean women actually use it. This makes me very, very wary of the Korean government’s claims about the dangers.

Sure enough, just this week Fusion offered a damming rebuttal of those, via an article on why US universities don’t offer the morning-after pill to students:

…Medication abortion is really, really safe. Since 2000, more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. have used it to terminate early pregnancies. While the pill can cause side effects such as nausea, fever, and cramping, it has an adverse effect rate of only 0.2 percent. That’s way less than adverse effect rate for the asthma inhaler Advair (27 percent), the antidepressant Wellbutrin (22.3 percent), the anti-anxiety drug Xanax (13.9 percent), and the cholesterol medication Lipitor (12.9 percent).

And just two months ago, the FDA revised its label of the abortion pill mifepristone to match the evidence-based protocols already being utilized by physicians nationwide—a protocol that allows for the drug to be given up to seventy days into a pregnancy, instead of forty-nine days and states that a smaller dose can be given to efficiently terminate a pregnancy.

But I’m clearly biased in favor of over the counter access, for just about every non-invasive/non-surgical contraception really, so please let me know what you think. Also, let me pass on the following video report for Korean speakers, although it doesn’t add much to the English articles already linked sorry (unless readers spot something I missed?):

Update:

Claire Lee at the Korea Herald has just penned a must-read on the angry response of Korean women and Korean women’s-rights groups, and the utter uselessness of visiting doctors for the morning-after pill. Not least, because of the frequent slut-shaming involved.

Related Posts:

Korean Lolita Nationalism: It’s a thing, and this is how it works

Tzuyu TWICE U+ phoneTurning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 3

Once upon a time, it would have been considered strange, even shocking to have a 16 year-old girl do a “sexy dance” for a phone commercial. That cardboard cut-outs of her on every corner would present her body for our constant inspection, their text wantonly inviting us to come inside if we wished to see more, her stare seeming to question the virility of any heterosexual man that didn’t. That someone thought she wasn’t attractive enough if she just stood comfortably, so she was made to pose so awkwardly to highlight her willowy hourglass figure. That women’s bodies would come to literally embody phones in the first place, with advertisers both exploiting and even deliberately promoting new body labels and dysphoria.

How did this become the new normal?

There are myriad reasons, and this blog has languished while I tried to explain too many of them at once in previous versions of this post. (Sorry.) So, let me concentrate on just one instead:

Since last summer, the official website of the army provides pictures and videos of sexy girl-groups. The sexuality of the female entertainers is being used for the purpose of boosting the soldiers’ spirits. About one and half years of military service is compulsory in South Korea, during which time the soldiers are encouraged to consume the commercialized sexuality of the females.

(Ha-young Choi, BBC World Service, 21/01/2016)

Put like that, it does sound creepy. In the long article I’ve translated below, even creepier still. Put in the context of the isolation and harsh conditions of Korean military service though, and the long history of performances by girl-groups for morale, as well as conscripts’ quite literal consumption of commercialized female sexuality off-base? Then allowing them to see already widely-available pictures and videos of girl-groups and female entertainers seems, well…pretty innocuous really. It would be also quite difficult to prevent in light of the Defense Ministry’s recent recommendation that “each military unit…widely utilize social networking services for soldiers’ convenience so that they can stay connected to the Internet more freely to prevent further isolation from society.”

So, I’m not against allowing conscripts to see such content. There are more important battles out there.

Likewise, of course there’s no direct relationship between that decision and Tzuyu‘s ads. In Korea, sexualized ads and music videos of teens have been around for almost a decade now. (Not least, because of her employer JYP.)

What I am against is military conscription itself, as well as the Korean government’s deliberate promotion of a “damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality” to accompany that, as I discussed in Part 1. I’m also against the damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality promoted by (most) K-pop, reinforced by the government’s censorship of anything that hints at female sexual agency. And, ultimately, I’m against the rationale behind this too. Because however necessary it is to provide internet access to conscripts these days, however harmless it may be that conscripts can now ogle K-pop stars to their hearts’ content, and however mundane both may sound in light of the lolitaesque reality of today’s Korean media, there’s still a difference between allowing conscripts to ogle and encouraging them to ogle.

That is creepy.

Somewhere in the government and/or military bureaucracy though, real people who couldn’t give a crap about the effects on women and girls made the real decision to do so. Just like with all the other mundane, innocuous, completely justifiable decisions that make Korea’s “Lolita Nationalism” possible.

When terms like that begin to sound very abstract and cliched from overuse, not least by myself, this real-life example is, I hope, a healthy reminder of how those actually come about.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Instead, let two former conscripts explain it themselves:

MplusV 27.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 27/04/2016)
MplusV 28.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 28/04/2016)

First, in the form of some context from Young-Chun, who many of you will know as the author of The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army (2015):

…I knew Korean guys, especially sexually deprived conscripts, liked female celebrities (duh, right?), but I didn’t know how bad that affection was. I learned that Korean conscripts in general are obsessed with K-Pop girl groups, in particular Girls’ Generation. By obsessed, I mean really obsessed. A good example of this is rapper Psy’s description of his military service.

In this show, Psy says he was made to stand guard while watching the TV so he could alert senior conscripts that Girls’ Generation was on it. While it wasn’t that extreme in my unit, it was quite normal to see guys flock to the TV whenever GG or other good looking female celebrities were on air. Every Friday and Saturday, when the major networks have those “music” shows parading group after group, entire units would stay glued to the TV. Guys would watch the same music video or performance repeatedly so they could ogle at the girls. Their bare legs exposed, sexy dancing, and terrible music (not a secret among conscripts either), it was pretty obvious there was only one reason for these “musicians” to exist. These girls are glorified strippers, covered in the thin veil of “music” so it doesn’t seem as creepy and sad as going to a strip club. For conscripts, it’s usually the only form of sexual gratification they’re allowed while on base.

One and half years of celibacy is no joke. So, I can hardly blame the conscripts for their exaggerated reactions to seeing girl-groups. Or, for visiting prostitutes while on leave, which Young-chun goes to explain was considered normal.

That said, it’s been a decade since he served. Now, Seoul journalist Jun-haeng Joshua Lee argues, conscripts are indeed effectively receiving the “glorified strippers” they always craved:

Jumping ahead to the relevant section of his SlowNews article, about the Military Mutual Aid Association’s (군인공제회/MMAA) portal site MplusV, which is the homepage of all base computers:

한국 군장병들은 이제 사지방에서 무엇을 보게되는가 / What Do Conscripts See on the Computers on Their Bases?

October 2, 2015 (Also available on his Rainygirl blog.)

군 복무 21개월, 한국 남성은 <사지방>에서 무엇을 보게되는가? / Military Service is 21 Months Long: What will Korean Men See in the Base PC Rooms?

다음은 <군장병 공식포털>의 갤러리 구성이다.

The following is what the MplusV site looks like:

MplusV 1

M갤러리 라는 메뉴에는 ‘걸그룹’ ‘여자스타’ 라는 대분류가 전면에 배치되어있다.
이 뿐만 아니다. 메인페이지 역시 걸그룹 사진으로 가득하다. 10월 1일 기준 메인화면이 이렇다.

In the gallery section, the categories for girl-groups and female stars fill the entire page. But that’s not all, The main page is also full of girl-group photos. It looked like this on October 1:

MplusV 2MplusV 3

정 안되면 만화캐릭터라도 여성을 골라 배치했다 (안돼 아야나미…)

It’s not just the photos; there are even female manhwa characters…

MplusV 4

물론 지난 6월에도 걸그룹이 전면에 배치되어 있었다.

Of course, in June it looked like this:

MplusV 5

< 군장병 공식포털> 에 마련된 갤러리들은 모두 <디시인사이드>의 같은 겔러리를 연동한 것이다. 예를들어 아이유 겔러리의 경우 <군장병 공식포털>과 <디시인사이드> 에 있는 겔러리 내용이 모두 동일하다.

The galleries in this site are all associated with or directly come from DC Inside. [According to Wikipedia, “it is analogous to the English-language website 4chan for its image and influence upon Korean internet culture.”—James] For example, if you click on the IU one, it is exactly the same.

MplusV 6MplusV 7

광야에서 쎽쓰!를 외치는 것 또한 당연히 연동된다.

Jeez, of course even though all those guys are stuck in the middle of the countryside, all they can think about is sex.

MplusV 8

즉 <디시인사이드>에 있는 1700여개 갤러리 중 <<<<여성을 다루는 79개 갤러리>>>>를 <군장병 공식포털>에 연동시키기 위해 따로 빼낸 것이다.

Out of 1700 galleries on the DC Inside site, 79 dealing with women were picked out for the MplusV site.

< 사지방> 즉 군PC방의 주 사용층이 20대 혈기넘치는 한국남성이기 때문에 그들의 관심사에 맞추어 걸그룹 컨텐츠를 내세웠다는 것만으로는 설명이 충분하지 않다. 공교롭게도 모든 해답은 이 사이트의 ‘회사소개’ 와 ‘공지사항’ 에서 너무나도 충실하게 다루어지고 있다.

One explanation for this is that since the main users are virile, horny, vigorous men in their early-20s, the material available on the site is appropriate to their interest is girl-groups (boys will be boys). But this explanation is insufficient. Surprisingly, the real reason for the content make-up can be found in the company introduction and announcement section of the site instead.

사기진작 士氣振作 / Morale Support

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 회사소개에 있는 문구이다.

The following is from the introduction on the website:

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식의 터전이 될 수 있도록 다양한 걸그룹, 여자스타의 각종 정보를 제공하고 병영생활 정보, 커뮤니티 등 다양하고 유익한 정보들을 제공하고 있습니다. (군장병 공식포털 > 회사소개)

To give soldiers morale support and rest on the base, information about various girl-groups and female stars is provided, as well as other useful information about barracks life and the community.

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 공지사항에 있는 문구이다.

Next, this is from the noticeboard:

다 양한 걸그룹/여자스타의 콘텐츠 뿐 아니라 군장병들간의 즐거운 소통의 공간을 만들어 줄 커뮤니티와 다양한 즐길거리 뉴스, 만화서비스를 제공하고 있으며…(군장병 공식포털 > 공지사항 > 군장병 공식포털 MplusV 리뉴얼 오픈, 2015.7.23)

There are not just links to information about various girl-groups and female stars, but also forums to help soldiers communicate, as well as news-sites and manhwa strips are provided…

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식을 위해 걸그룹/여자스타 갤러리를 끌어왔다는 이야기이다. 물론 스포츠나 게임 웹툰등 취미갤러리도 함께 연결해두긴 했지만 생색내기에 가깝다. 메인페이지에는 최신 걸그룹 사진들이 화면가득 채워져있다. 그동안 군 지휘관들이 유해사이트라면서 몽땅 차단하던 바로 그 컨텐츠들이 <군장병 공식포털>이라는 권위를 걸고 군부대 PC방 첫화면에 뜨는 것이다. 여성을 성적 대상화하는 컨텐츠, 여성을 성 상품화하는 모든 컨텐츠들을 모아둔 페이지를 20개월 남짓 군에 복무할 남성들이 <사지방>에 로그인할때마다 매번 만나게 된다는 이야기이다. 여성을 소비하는 컨텐츠로만 똘똘 뭉쳐진 페이지이다. 소라넷 꿈나무는 그냥 생겨나지 않는다. 어느 누구도 이러한 ‘관음적 시선’을 제지하지 않는 곳에서 한국의 젊은 남성들이 20개월 남짓 지내며 여성을 접하고 나온다고 상상해보자. 이 시각 이후 그들의 응큼한 시선은 철저히 한국 군대에서 ‘학습되고 교육된’ 것으로 보아도 무방할 것이다.

This means the site provided these galleries to improve morale and soldiers’ rest periods. Of course there are harmless galleries like for sport and games and webtoons too, but these are only for show, to preempt criticism. Because the main page is just full of the most recent girl-group pictures. Until recently, such content was blocked because it was considered harmful. But now, with the blessing of the MMAA, it’s proudly displayed as the homepage of computers in the military PC rooms.

국가가 제공하는 사기진작 아이템 ‘여성’ / Women Are a National Support Item Provided By Their Country

“저 는 군대에서 여성을 말하는 방식 때문에 많이 힘들었어요. 텔레비전을 보면서 누구를 ‘따먹고 싶다’든가 하며 Rebellious Peace World Without War여성을 성적 대상화하는 이야기들이 정말 많죠. 또 나중에 결혼하면 딸을 낳고 싶다고 그러다가 요즘 세상이 무서워서 딸은 낳으면 안 될 것 같다고 해요. 분열되어 있는 거죠.” (저항하는 평화, 전쟁없는세상 엮음, 2015.)

“I had a hard time because of the way women are thought of in the army. Whenever soldiers see women on TV, they talk about fucking them. Also, they say, ‘When I get married, I want to have to have a daughter. But the world out is too dangerous and scary for them, so I don’t think I should have one.’ They have such mixed, contradictory feelings about women.” (Rebellious Peace, by World Without War, 2015; source right: Redian)

국가의 이름으로 ‘깨끗한 성’을 공급하던 일본군 위안부-한국군 기지촌의 전통은 현대에 들어와 거의 사라지긴했다. (유신공주는 양공주 문제엔 관심이 없었다 / 한겨레 2012.11.30) 그것은 범죄이기 때문이다. 하지만 그 의식의 유령들은 수십년간 군 막사를 떠돌면서 20개월 남짓 군복무를 마친 남성들의 뇌리에 여전히 깊이 새겨져 사회로 배출되고 있다.

The Japanese and Korean traditions of providing comfort women—“clean sex”—to Japanese and US soldiers respectively have disappeared. Because those were crimes. But the ghosts of that sex trade still influence the Korean soldiers who stay in the barracks for 20 months, who then carry those ghosts with them out to society.

여 전히 한국 국군은 여성을 장병 사기진작 도구로만 활용한다. 장병 정신교육을 통해 ‘자랑스런 대한 건아’로서 어머니와 애인을 지켜야한다는 책임감을 끊임없이 주지시키면서도, 남성성을 확인하는 의식으로서의 섹스=성욕배출을 위해 동원되어야 할 대상으로 여성을 다루는 이중적 태도를 견지한다. ‘하나된 남성군대’를 견지하기 위한 수단으로서 여성을 성적 대상화하는 태도는 각군 정훈과의 공식적인 ‘자제 촉구’에도 불구하고 야전에서 공공연히 이루어져왔다. 최근MplusV 9에 는 아예 국방홍보원이 위문열차 공연을 통해 걸그룹을 적극 활용하고 있고 K-POP 산업 또한 ‘군통령’딱지를 담보로 걸그룹을 내어주며 군과 공생하기 시작했다. 군의 사기진작을 이성, 특히 이성의 육체미에 환호하는 것에 내맡기는 것을 공식적으로 금기시해오던 것 마저 이제는 국가기관이 당당히 깨트리고 있는 것이다.

Still, the Korean military uses women for moral support. While they learn from the moral education they receive their duty as proud Korean men to protect their mothers and girlfriends, they also learn to see women as mere objects for their sexual desires, because that is a means to show off their manliness. This attitude, that the objectification of women is necessary to have one united, male military, is no secret, despite its official position condemning that.

(Caption, right: 이건 정상이 아니다, MBC 진짜사나이 2013.9.9 / This is just too much! Sistar performance on Real Men.)

Recently, the Defense Media Agency has been very explicit in its policy of using girl-group performances in order to provide support to troops. In turn, the K-pop industry has been happy to provide those groups in order for them to become the “military president,” a new term meaning the most popular girl-group among the troops. Whereas before such things were officially condemned but widely ignored, now they are blatantly encouraged.

그 연장선상에서, 40만 병사들이 늘 접하게 될 <사지방> 첫화면까지 ‘사기진작’을 명분으로 온종일 걸그룹 여자스타 사진으로 채워지기 시작했다. 방금 살펴본 <군장병 공식포털> 이야기이다. 이러한 상황에서 ‘군대 갔다와야 사람된다’ 라는 이야기가 이제 얼마나 위험한 이야기가 될지 안봐도 뻔한 일이다. 2년 가까이 기다려줬더니 차버린데에는 다 이유가 있고, 군대갔다온 복학생 오빠 속이 시커먼데에도 다 이유가 있다. 그것이 이제 <군장병 공식포털>을 통해 ‘공식화’되었다.

그나마 <사지방> PC가 과거처럼 느려터져서, 시작페이지 열기도 전에 사이트주소를 바꿔치기하는 장병들이 많기를 바라는게 우리에게 남아있는 몇 안되는 희망일지 모른다.

In that regard, the first page of the first website 400,000 conscripts visit when they go to the base PC rooms, is full of pictures of girl-groups, provided in the name of morale support. This is what we saw earlier. Given that the military is where Korean boys become men, isn’t it alarming that this is the image of women presented to them? There is a reason that the men split up with their girlfriends once they return from the military, despite the women waiting for them for so long. There is also a reason that returning male students are described as having black hearts/minds, which in Korean means they want to fuck every women they see. But now, that has become official…

All we can hope for, is that, like in the past, the internet on the PCs on the bases is so slow that soldiers go straight to their desired sites while the MplusV one is still loading. (End of translation.)

apink mma(Source: Unknown)

There’s more to the article, but let me close instead by asking the question posed in the introduction—How did sexy ads of 16 year-olds become the new normal?—and by passing on an intriguing answer I found in the unlikely location of “What Was Volkswagen Thinking?” by Jerry Useem in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Atlantic. About how large organizations come to make and rationalize questionable, even blatantly unethical decisions, some sections could easily be describing some of the processes discussed in today’s post (my emphases in bold):

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself…

The most troubling thing, says Vaughan, is the way scripts “expand like an elastic waistband” to accommodate more and more divergence…

“Culture starts at the top,” a businessman recently said in an interview with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “But it doesn’t start at the top with pretty statements. Employees will see through empty rhetoric and will emulate the nature of top-management decision making … A robust ‘code of conduct’ can be emasculated by one action of the CEO or CFO.” The speaker was Andrew Fastow, the former CFO of Enron, who spent more than five years in federal prison. He got one thing right: Decisions may be the product of culture. But culture is the product of decisions.

Related Posts:

p.s. A must-read is “Thoughts on the low age of consent and light sentences,” posted at Gusts of Popular Feeling as I was writing this conclusion. About the continued indifference to the abuse of Korea’s surprisingly low age of consent (13), it’s difficult not to see links with much of what’s discussed in this post.

Male Privilege at Korean Universities

Lee So-hee (이소희) and friends at Hanyang University (한양대학교) circa 1960s(Source: Michael Sean Gallagher; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 2

In Korean universities, the male students are usually two to three years older than the female students. In such a strict, age-based hierarchical society as Korea, that’s kind of a big deal.

They’re older because most Korean men do their military service while they’re students, then return to university to pick up where they left off. I never realized how that how that might impact their female classmates though, until late last year, when a colleague complained that all the women in his classes—and only the women—were missing crucial tests and exam prep. It turned out, they had to schlep across town to the other campus to act as meeters and greeters for visiting high-schoolers. Why only the women, I asked. Just convention, he guessed; after all, Korean “helpers”(doumi /도우미) are exclusively women. Also, they were performance and musical majors, and we later learned that those departments were responsible for providing the students, with certain quotas to be met by each class.

And in those classes, older students pulled rank on their juniors. Who just happened to be women.

These senior/junior relationships are common practice in Korean universities, although usually they operate between grades, and different majors and institutions vary widely in how rigidly their students adhere to them. Obviously, men are victims of the system too. But just as obviously, if students’ ages also matter, then it seems that finishing military service brings explicit male privilege for returning students.

Many would see that as fair compensation, and perhaps they have a point. But with some men feeling that they’re “owed,” there’s always the danger that they’ll take advantage of their juniors, who had nothing to do with their forced military service. I also think that for my colleague’s students, who weren’t happy about “volunteering” but seemed resigned to it, such experiences presage the gender roles and expectations of unpaid labor they’ll face when they enter the workforce, which is even more hierarchical. Either way, it’s a concrete example of how and why military service is a huge socialization agent in Korea, and one that’s often taken for granted. Which is what this series is all about.

What do you think? Whether as a professor, student, or parent, what has been your own experience of this age-based hierarchy at Korean universities? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

Ask Me Anything…Before Sunday!

I feel as if I'm one with the cactus(Source: unknown)

This Sunday, Sung Kim from the web magazine Vox Coreana will be coming down from Seoul to interview me about the blog, Korean feminism, K-pop, and so on. To help make it worth his while, please help me make it worth your while, by letting us know any questions you may have. Time permitting, I’ll do our best to answer them during the interview, and will make sure to answer them here if there’s any we can’t cover. Either way, I’ll post a link to the video once it’s available.

In the meantime, make sure to check out Sung Kim’s site also, which already has interviews of Chance Dorland and Travis Hull, of the KoreaFM podcast and the Only In Korea Facebook group respectively.

Please ask away! :)

REFRACTION: Performance and Discussion on Feminism and the Media. Changwon, Sat. April 2

Refraction poster finalI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

“Refraction” is a performance and discussion regarding feminism and media. All are welcome. Funds raised will be donated to Gyeongnam Women’s Association United. Tickets are ₩10,000 each and include a free beverage from Space Fun. Saturday April 2nd, 7-8:30pm #RFRCTNshow (Facebook event link.)

“굴절현상”은 한국과 전세계 페미니즘에 관한 토론과 예술적인 행사입니다.우리는 미디어에서의 여성에 대한 묘사를 더 깊게 살펴 볼 것이고 또한, 이가 개인과 사회에 어떻게 영향을 주는지 알아 볼 것 입니다. 누구든지 환영합니다.

창원시 사림동 46-9
스페이 스펀

I’d love to go, but unfortunately my wife works until 6 on Saturdays, which doesn’t give me enough time to get there from Busan. If anyone would like to do some babysitting for me on Saturday afternoon though, please let me know! ;)

Chinese Eunuchs Confuse Me

What role do Neo-Confucian notions of the “life force” (ki) play in buttressing modern Korean patriarchy?

Warm Nest(Warm Nest by Eugenia LoliCC BY-NC 2.0)

Many years ago,Taeyeon Kim’s “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” was my Communist Manifesto of Korean gender relations. It was short, to the point, and instantly melded everything I knew about the subject into a simple, coherent narrative. It didn’t galvanize me into taking up arms against the bourgeoisie exactly, but it did encourage me to study more, ultimately leading to this blog. Take these quick excerpts to see why:

First, from page 99 (references removed; italics in original):

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.”

Then, from page 100 (ditto):

Neo-Confucian scholars considered women to have inferior ki to that of men. This notion continues to be held today. One study of a village in Korea found that women were believed to be inferior to men because they did not carry the life-giving force (ki) that men did. Women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life. Such incubation was perhaps the most important role of a woman’s body in Korea. Her body was a vessel through which the male line and ki could be perpetuated. As such, the most important physical traits for a woman were features that revealed her potential to bear children—particularly boys. “During the Yi [Choson] Dynasty, the attribute valued above all others in a prospective bride was her potential capacity to bear sons. Compared to this, her beauty and wealth were secondary.”

Upon reading that, suddenly I saw a Matrix-like ki (기) pervading everything, providing the ideological bedrock to the many, blatantly patriarchal aspects of Korean society. For instance: Koreans’ preference for sons and consequent sex ratio problem (resolved, but with a legacy of an excess of increasingly misogynistic 20-something men); the hoju system (호주제), only abolished in 2008, under which only fathers or husbands could be heads and/or legal representatives of a family; the traditional (and still prevailing) custom of only having men perform jesa (제사), or ancestor worship rights, and usually only at the eldest son’s home; and Korea’s extremely low adoption rates, with 70% of those that are adopted domestically are girls. Indeed, as The Economist explains of that last:

Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons.

Korean Domestic Adoptions 70% girls(Source: Netizenbuzz)

Of course, ultimately I did realize that ki didn’t explain all that much actually. That, alas, Korean gender relations remained a messy subject, and that I still have a lifetime of learning about it ahead of me. But I hadn’t come across anything to challenge Taeyeon Kim’s characterization of the concept either, so I retained my lingering affection for it.

Then I listened to an episode about eunuchs on the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. That week, it featured Michael Hoeckelmann talking about eunuchs in China, Karen Radner about them in the Assyrian Empire, and Shaun Tougher in the Roman one. Jumping ahead to the sections which made do a double-take (several, in fact, as I’m sure they will to you too):

11:20

Michael Hoeckelmann) Most eunuchs came from the lower strata of society. So, if not the eunuch himself had decided to undergo castration—there are some cases in Chinese history where some eunuchs are known to have castrated themselves—then the decision rested with the family. So families that could not afford the Confucian education that was necessary and required for [a career in officialdom], they would decide to have one of their sons castrated, and to send him into the palace, in the hope that once he rose to a considerable position of power he would help his own family, his own kin.

26:36

Karen Radner) [The eunuchs, unlike] all the other people in Assyria, did not identify themselves with reference to their father’s name. Everyone else was such and such son of such and such, they were not. That’s very important. Also, as we’ve already discussed, a key attraction [for the royal family] is that they cannot father children; that’s hugely important in a society where the existence of the family across generations is one of the key incentives of human life…you achieved eternal life by having children who would invoke your name in regular rituals. Obviously that couldn’t happen with a eunuch…the royal family instead took on that responsibility. One can describe the eunuchs almost as adopted children of the royal family.

Melvyn Bragg)But then what happened in China, as you began to say Michael, the eunuchs began to adopt children in order that these children would do exactly as Karen was saying—have prayers or whatever…ceremonies after their death to keep them alive as their ancestors.

Michael Hoeckelmann) Yes, indeed. And just as Karen was saying, like in ancient Assyria, kinship and family was all important in China…and when eunuchs were castrated they even kept what was formerly attached to their bodies in order to be buried with them (the so-called “Three Treasures”) kept in a jar because they had to show them to regulators at the imperial court. Anyway, so the eunuchs start to adopt children at a very early stage in order to bequeath their property and in order to continue the family line. Because what they had done, or what had been done to them—the castration—was actually a breach of filial piety; they were not able to continue the family line…at least not biologically.

I know what you’re thinking: Ancient China is not Korea. Also, if Taeyeon Kim’s definition of ki has substance to it (and, my youthful naivety aside, there’s still no reason to suppose otherwise), then it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t very much provided an ideological buttress to various aspects of Korean patriarchy today. And probably in China also, where, among other things, boys command a price twice that of girls in the lucrative trade in kidnapped children.

But, if it turns out that in Korea too, jesa was and/or is more important than continuing ki—indeed, really quite separate and distinct from it—then I’m still left feeling a little chastised that I came to accept something so readily without examining it properly, simply because it provided a handy, scholarly confirmation of my pre-existing views.

But what you’ve also probably thinking is that Taeyeon Kim is just one source. And, although I’ve read more about Neo-Confucianism since then, most recently The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender edited by Li Chenyang (2000), I have to admit I’ve read nothing about ki specifically. So, on that note, let me end this post with not a revelation sorry, but a), if nothing else, a link to a very interesting podcast for you to take away from it; and b), my again posing the question provided in the introduction: what role, if any, do Neo-Confucian notions of ki play in modern Korean patriarchy?

Thanks in advance to any more learned readers than I who can provide any clarification, and/or suggest links or books for further reading. Also, please feel free to raise just about anything (Neo)-Confucianism-related in the comments, including any interesting stories about what your Korean family and/or friends do during Chuseok or Seolnal, and their attitudes towards the notion of women performing jesa. Thanks!

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