To Understand Modern Korean Misogyny, Look to the Modern Girls of the 1930s

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 9)
1930s Korean New Girl Modern Girl Stereotypes Criticism(Source, edited: 살구나무 아랫집)

Wasting money on frivolous Western things, gaining financial independence, following their hearts instead of the wishes of their families, and not making enough babies.

All these criticisms of Korean “modern girls” in the 1930s sound eerily like those of “beanpaste girls” today. In so doing, they have much to teach us about the origins of modern Korean misogyny, and why their stories resonate so deeply with its victims over 80 years later.

Take 강심바 (@kang_simba) for instance, who begins describing the caricatures above as:

미친놈의 전통적 여혐국가. 1930년대 조선일보 만평. 나는 처녀입니다 돈만많으면 좋아요 나는외국유학생하고 결혼하고자합니다 나는문화주택만지어주는이면 일흔살도 괜찮아요 만평 제목은 ‘여성 선전시대가 오면’.

“Fucking asshole men’s traditional misogyny. A cartoon from The Chosun Ilbo in the 1930s…”

And then:

이 만평은 이미 화제였던 듯한데 반응은 대개 그시절에도 된장녀가 있었군요, 수십년후를 소름끼치게 예언헀네요 이다.

“Even back then, stereotypes like the ones in this cartoon were controversial. Wow, there were even labels like today’s “beanpaste girl.” It was prophetic.”

But what does it say exactly? Not recognizing some of the hanja characters, I consulted 예쁜 여자 만들기 (Making Pretty Women) by Lee Yeong-ah (2011). From left to right, the legs read:

Ahn Seok-yeong “If the Age of Woman Comes (2)”, The Chosun Ilbo, January 12, 1930.

1) Any guy is okay for me if he buys me a piano.

2) Any guy is okay for me if he builds me a house. Even a 70-year old.

3) I’m still single.

4) I want to marry a man who has been overseas to study.

5) I love chocolate. Only that one box.

6) I didn’t pay my rent. Please help me.

7) I am a virgin. [But] I like anyone who has lots of money.

8) I am hysterical. You have to understand this.

(p. 242)

Naturally, Lee finds the criticisms unfair, arguing that the cartoon says just as much about the cartoonist and the men who laugh at it as it does about the women so caricatured:

안석영의 이 만문만화는 “물질을 매개로 한 자유연애와 자유결혼의 속내를 ‘선전propaganda’이라는 상상의 장치를 통해 드러낸 작품이다. 만화 속 여성들은 자신의 몸을 내걸고 남성들에게 돈, 선물, 집, 사치품 등을 요구한다. 안석영은 이 만문만화에서 아마도 당시의 상품화한 연애와 결혼을 돈만 밝히는 허영심 강한 여성들의 책임으로 돌리고자 한 듯하다. 그러나 남성들은 어떤가? 위의 그림에서 여성은 다리만으로 표현되어 있다. 프레임 안은 남성들의 시선이 머문 지점이다. 즉 남성들은 여성들의 영혼이나 지성이 아니라 몸과 다리만을 보고 있었던 것이다. 그런 점에서 남성들 역시 왜곡된 연애나 결혼에서 ‘결백’을 주장하기 어려울 듯하다.

(p. 243)

In this cartoon, Ahn Seok-yeong uses an imaginary device called “propaganda” to criticize modern girls by showing their real, very materialistic feelings and motivations behind their embrace of free love and free marriage. The women in this cartoon are asking for money, gifts, presents, luxury items, and so on by using their bodies. It seems that Ahn criticizes the women for being greedy, blaming them for self-objectifying themselves for love and marriage. But what about the men? In the cartoon, the women are faceless. It only shows their legs, as the objects of the male gaze. In other words, men are only looking at women’s bodies, and are unconcerned with their personality and intelligence. In that regard, surely men are equally culpable for a distorted, perverted view of love and marriage?

Lee goes onto describe that, spearheaded by modern girls, the 1920s and 1930s were very much the period when Korea’s modern notions of free love, sexuality, and marriage were first formulated. (As well as the tendencies to judge women in terms of their appearance, and men in terms in their earning power.) Much closer to American flappers than their relatively conservative, usually less financially-independent Japanese counterparts, such notions were especially radical in Korea, where arranged marriages were the norm—and, alas, continued to be for many decades thereafter.

But Lee writes in Korean. For an excellent English source on that instead, see “Sensational Politics of Desire and Trivial Pursuits: Public Censure of New Women in Private Lives in early 1930s Korea“ by Park Bongsoo, who explains:

In the early 20th century, “love” and “love marriage” were new concepts in Korea. When arranged marriage—determined by one’s inherited class and financial status—was the only legitimate way to form a heterosexual union, women’s sexuality were confined in heterosexual relationships for procreation only, and love had no place in it. People of a lower class, who usually freely mingled with each other more than those in the upper class freely mingled with each other, no doubt fell in love and got married; however, middle and upper-class women had no right to assert their will in a matrimonial process. Therefore, the goal of new women’s contestation was not only to change the customary practice of marriage but also to bring a fundamental shift in people’s way of thinking about heterosexual unions. The women of the 1920s sought to overcome the prescriptive definition of women’s sexuality through writing publicly about their personal lives. Without a doubt, their demands were heavily criticized as immoral by elite male. Even today’s scholars criticize their demands as “too individualistic and extreme” and their approach to women’s liberation as “bourgeois feminism” that were said to turn blind eyes to class oppression operating within a gender structure.

(p. 2)

What fascinate though, are the uncanny parallels between the subsequent backlash and modern misogyny. For more on those specifically, see “How Women Are Represented within the Patriarchal Nationalism in (neo) Colonial Times” by Yewon Lee, who describes how critiques of modern girls first arose as a result of the increasing militarization of Korea’s Japanese colonizer:

Western thoughts such as the concept of natural rights of the individual and equality among man and woman were denied in the ’30s, and the so called “Old women” that stands in the opposite of the “New women” [신여성] that used to be criticized as old fashion, submissive, and dependent were reevaluated as those who retain the virtue of the past tradition. On the other hand, the “modern girls” who voiced their subjectivity on issues such as sexuality were blamed to be ‘selfish’ and ‘morally  corrupted.’ This is not irrelevant with the fact that the Japanese colony was conducting a war that goes beyond their capacity and needed all the resources it can pull, thus, needed the women to become the ‘strong  mothers’ to give birth and raise the ‘strong soldiers’ and be ideologically loyal enough to send their son’s willingly to war. This is the well known explanation of why the discourse of “New women” suddenly shifted to a conservative one in the 1930’s.

(pp. 9-10)

In particular, she argues that Korean men made them the scapegoats for forces over which neither sex had any control:

…not only did the discourse change due to the need of the Japanese colonialism but also it reflects the frustration of the colonized. Many of the Korean men were forced to join the army against their will. There was not much they can do when their mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers were harassed and mobilized as comfort women during the war. The sense of helplessness and powerless the colonized men had to put up with as the rule of the colonization harshens, made them in needs of a object, the women of the nation, to be kept under their control and for times to take out their anger. Thus, the women were safe from reproach as long as they were labeled as the ‘mother’ that gives birth and raise the child of the nation; however, once they insist on their rights as a woman they become an object of criticism. Thus discussions about women’s subjectivity on sexuality and gender equality almost disappear in the public scene by this time.

(pp. 10-11.)

And with that criticism, came a host of body and/or lifestyle labels and ideals for women to aspire to, and/or stereotypes to be criticized for. For an instance of the latter, take the “stick girl” at the top left of the left image below, so-called because her much older partner uses her body as a walking cane. Whether she’s with him for love or money, I imagine that the cartoonist’s real issue is less with the age disparity than with the woman’s brazen freedom and sexual agency. Because would he have criticized a similar marital union arranged between two families of the same class, with the woman getting pregnant shortly thereafter?

Korean and Japanese Modern Girls(Left: “The various types of ‘girls’ in the 1920s to 1930s”; scan, 예쁜 여자 만들기, p. 245. Right: Actor Hideko Takamine, Japanese White Powder Foundation advertisement, 1930s; via The Flapper Girl.)

Either way, the parallels continue, for this label-making has been a strong trend in the last decade too. Also, whereas those feelings of helplessness and powerless are now because of “Hell Joseon” rather than colonial rule, nevertheless they still get channeled by the media into anger against young women, supposedly for taking over “men’s jobs” while the men suffer their mandatory military service. Writing in 2007 though, well before some important developments in Korea’s demographics (an excess of teenage boys turning into men) and labor market (more young women doing irregular and part-time work), instead Yewon Lee stresses the strong anti-American components to the misogyny she witnessed. Her paper is worth reading for that alone, and I’d be very interested in hearing readers’ opinions on how important that component remains nearly ten years later.

So, I encourage readers to check out both papers (actually conference presentations), which deserve to be much better known. Unfortunately PDFS are no longer available online, so please contact me if you’d like me to email them.

What are you waiting for? ;)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Update) A must read is “Sweet Dream” at Gusts of Popular Feeling, about the strong critique of modern girls in the form of—sigh—Korea’s oldest surviving movie.

The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 4


“Smoking Among Men Drops to Record Low” reads a recent headline in The Chosunilbo, with only 39.6% of Korean men over 19 now doing so: a drop of 3.5% from a year earlier, and of 17.1% from 2003. Which is something to be celebrated for sure, but, strangely, the even more amazing news that almost half of women smokers also quit last year barely gets a mention. Why not?

Of course, it may just be an oversight. But there is some context to consider: overemphasizing reductions in the male smoking rate is intrinsic to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (보건복지부) tobacco control policies for instance, and it also has a long track record of exaggerating its successes. Possibly then, the report just reflects the Ministry’s own emphases in its press release.

Alternatively, readers too may not have been interested in a paltry reduction of 4% to 2.2%. The rate has always been low, they may have said. And with a 2007 Gallup Korea study finding that 83.4% of Koreans thought that women shouldn’t smoke too, with some even slapping them in the street if they do, then apparently the consensus is that so it should be too.

But given that background, then as you’d expect there is chronic under-reporting of smoking by women, best estimates of their real numbers being closer to 20%. Add the absence of any dramatic social or economic changes to prompt women to give up the habit in droves in just the past year too, then it’s difficult not to conclude that these latest figures are essentially meaningless.

Was a line or two to that effect really too much to expect from a newspaper?


But I’ve already discussed both statistical issues and taboos against women smoking in great depth in Parts One, Two, and Three (and in a newsflash), and, with the benefit of *cough* 6 months’ hindsight (sorry), then there’s little more to add on those topics really. Instead, let me continue this series by looking at the ways in which transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have successfully targeted Korean women ever since the cigarette market was liberalized in the late-1980s, despite legislation specifically designed to prevent that. Fortunately, the journal article I’ll be relying on – Kelley Lee, Carrie Carpenter, Chaitanya Challa, Sungkyu Lee, Gregory N Connolly, and Howard K Koh in “The strategic targeting of females by transnational tobacco companies in South Korea following trade liberalisation”, Globalization and Health 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2 – is freely available for online-viewing or as a PDF download, and is short and very readable, so I’ll just summarize the main points here.

First, some historical context: this is not the first time tobacco companies have encountered strong taboos against women smoking, with attitudes towards it in the U.S. in the 1920s sounding not unlike those of Korea today (in 1922, a woman was even arrested for smoking on the street). The solution was to get women to associate smoking with equality and female emancipation, as ably described in the following segment of The Century of the Self (2009):

If that gives you a taste for watching the full documentary, as I suspect it might, then see here for links to all episodes. If you’d rather just read an explanation though, then let me refer you to towards the end of this short interview of producer, writer, and director Adam Curtis. Or for something even shorter, then this alternative explanation also gives the gist:

Edward Bernays, the man who supposedly invented most modern PR techniques, in the 1920s convinced women to start smoking. Supposedly at the time smoking was considered gross and basically for men only so very few women smoked. The show claims he hired a bunch of women to march in the New York Thanksgiving Day Parade (a big yearly parade) and had them put a pack of cigarettes in their garters. On cue they were all to lift their dresses and light one up. He then told the press to come to the parade because there was going to be a protest for women’s equality. On cue the women light up, the press took photos and reported lighting up a cigarette as the symbol for women’s equality and like over night it was now seen as if you supported equality for women you should be smoking.

And internal TTC documents demonstrate that that same logic has also been applied to emerging markets across Asia since the early-1990s. Focusing more specifically on Korea here though, crucial is the 1989 National Health Promotion Law Enforcement Ordinance, which bans all tobacco advertising, marketing and sponsorship aimed at women and children (yes really, and for more on this enduring paternalistic attitude, see Part 1). This has been circumvented by TTCs in 4 main ways:


First, if not blatantly targeted at them, then advertising of each cigarette brand remains permitted up to 60 times a year in print media, and “tobacco companies are also allowed to sponsor social, cultural, music, and sporting events (other than events for women and children) using company names but not product names” (pp. 4-5). Consequently, sometimes TTCs have simply used ostensibly “gender-neutral” advertisements to target women, in the mid-1990s the former Brown & Williamson promoting the Finesse brand (sold as Capri outside of Korea) by using romantic imagery of couples for instance.

Next, in the 1990s at least there was a focus on retail distribution in venues which tended to be frequented by young women, such as coffee shops, restaurants, event lunches, bars, nightclubs, and so on. Especially the first, and which is worth expanding on here, as it might sound strange in an era of ubiquitous, smoke-free, multinational chain-stores. But then it wasn’t so long ago that they were the place to hang out for young people, a rare oasis from school, work, and/or extended families living under the one, cramped roof. As described in Yogong: Factory Girl for instance (published in 1988, but really about the 1970s):

Often [18 year-old Sun-hi] goes to the home of a friend from her work. Three or four girls, all from the same factory, may walk together, stopping in at a tea room (다방/dabang) for coffee or cola and to listen to music. Or, if they have less money, they may stop to buy a packaged ice cream confection at the local grocer’s. But whether on the street corner or at the tea room, where, for the price of a drink, one may sit without interruption, there is ample opportunity to see and be seen by boys of the same age. (p. 140)

And in particular, in The Joongang Daily:

In the 1970s, cafes…became more commercialized, and owners sought to sell an image rather than a drink. “The dabang was a place for socializing. People didn’t care much about the taste of coffee ― and it tasted terrible,” said Mr. Lee.

The hugely popular “music dabangs” were associated with long hair, blue jeans and folk guitarists. Dabang deejays became the idols of teenage girls. When that trend faded, “ticket dabangs” emerged, where sexy hostesses would do more than just pour your coffee.

After half a century of popularity, dabangs started giving way to modern and chic cafes in the 1980s. Specialty cafes such as Jardin and Waltz House ― imitations of Japanese versions of European style cafes ― spread everywhere. This type of cafe, however, had its limits. Despite expensive interiors and espresso machines, the coffee quality was still poor. “Neither cafe owners nor coffee drinkers knew what a cup of good coffee tasted like,” said Mr. Lee.

But in the 1990s, the mantle of coolness suddenly passed away from dabangs:

During my first week in Korea back in 1990, I started going to a small coffeehouse Jardin, just down the street from the language institute where I taught. It was one of these upscale gourmet-type coffeehouses that, according to an article I had read in one of the English-language newspapers, had suddenly started springing up everywhere in the city….Now almost over night, people could choose a variety of coffee concoctions and flocked to these coffeehouses.

This was a big change in the early 90s in Korea. It might have seemed subtle to some people who just wanted to enjoy their coffee, but what was really happening was a break from tradition.

Young Koreans wanted something new and modern. They did not want to hang out in the dank, dark dabangs that were more often than not frequented by middle-aged Korean men and women. Likewise, the tea houses and cafés their parents had gone to in the 70s and 80s were not hip enough for the urban chic beginning to appear.

And as for what happened after 1999, when the first Starbucks opened, then I recommend this recent article in 10 Magazine. But then *cough* this post is actually about gender and smoking rather than coffee per se, so let me just highlight two aspects of that most recent development here.

First, that these new, Western establishments have been more heavily patronized by women than men, as explained by Gord Sellar back in 2008 (and recently expanded upon by him here):

The interesting thing to look at is the emergent young women’s consumer society. I’ve been trawling about online, trying to piece together the story of the Soybean Paste Girl archetype (or, dwenjang nyeo{된장녀}, as she’s called in Korean), and what I’ve found is that almost all of the criticism of this young woman is focused on her female-consumerism. That is: when she buys a coffee from Starbucks for W4,000 (usually about $4, though the won is doing badly these days) coffee, she gets criticized, but when a young man of the same age consumes two bottles of eminently acceptable (read: Korean) soju, nobody thinks to criticize it. The soju, that’s normal, but the Starbucks… that’s all foreign, all “expensive,” and more disturbingly, it’s “girly.” Girls can go there and have fun without men. (Which is doubly threatening to young men who frustratedly already see such women as “out of their league.”) As in, you see women in Starbucks with women, you see women in Starbucks with men. You almost never see men in Starbucks with men. Starbucks, like Gucci and Prada and Luis Vuitton before it, and like Outback and other “Western” restaurants since, are distinctly of appeal to women.

(Sources: left, right)

And second, that women are puffing away in droves in them, as I’m no Picasso explained in a comment on Part 3:

It would be interesting to look into the correlation between the development of coffee shop culture in Korean and that of the growth rate of female smokers. I’ve seen maybe five women smoking on the street in my nearly two years in Korea, and at least three of those were ducked into telephone booths or alleys. However. When I sit in the smoking rooms of cafes (which I do quite often), they are often (particularly in the afternoon, when the coffee shops are full almost exclusively of women, with no male audience around to balk) overflowing with groups of young women smoking. A commenter above mentioned the lack of public space available for such behavior. The coffee shop seems to have become a safe haven for women smoking openly in public. I would say the growth of the popularity of coffee shops have encouraged women to be seen, at least here, smoking in public. Which has probably had an influence on the acceptance of the behavior in general, which has no doubt increased its popularity.

Meanwhile, for cigarette advertising at nightclubs then I highly recommend the 2003 Tokyo Inc. article “The Night is Still Young” about a similar strategy in Japan, and which was quite a shock to someone who used to attend dance parties naively thinking they were more about peace, love, unity, and respect:

Liquor and cigarette companies initially started to push their products to Japan’s club generation about five years ago, when new legislation banned them from advertising to people under 20. Since you have to be over 20 to legally enter a club in Japan, clubs become the perfect forum for legitimate advertising to young people. (Advertisers know, of course, that many people under 20 are habitual clubbers who can easily get into the venues). Ishihara calls it a “closed world,” a guaranteed market of self-selected consumers. Indeed, the rapid rise of tobacco sponsorship in clubs and bars since the 1990s globally has been well documented. Corporate sponsorship started conspicuously in Japan in 1996, notes Ishihara, when Grammy award-winning producer and DJ Little Louis Vega received an unprecedented [yen] 3 million from Gordon’s Gin to spin his magic in a Tokyo club.

(Source: unknown)

And, getting back on track now, then a third strategy to circumvent legislation by TTCs has been “trademark diversification”, also known as “brand stretching”. In short, it means to extend a well-known brand to things with which it isn’t traditionally associated, and the article notes that in 1996, Brown & Williamson took great interest in the fact that leading Korean tobacco company KT&G:

…had advertised its brand Simple in numerous magazines aimed at female readers. Strategies included the coupling of cigarettes with bottles of Chanel perfume, and the placement of advertisements in foreign language women’s magazines available in South Korea. (p. 5)

And which as I explain here, are much more popular among young women than Korean magazines. But finally, and semi-related to the last, TTCs also used – again – ostensibly gender-neutral sports sponsorship to discreetly target females, in 1991 British American Tobacco creating “a Kent Golf Sponsorship program targeted at higher-educated, male and females aged 25 years or older with above average incomes” for instance.

But that was 20 years ago. And indeed, one big criticism of this otherwise excellent journal article (and as far as I know, the only one of its kind), is that despite the authors’ searches of internal TTC document searches being conducted between May 2006 and March 2008, literally all the practical examples of TTC strategies to target Korean women they provide are from the 1990s. Why?

Granted, there may be legal reasons and/or questions of access to consider, but these are not mentioned. But regardless, as I type this I’m suddenly left wondering as to if and/or how much they still apply in 2011, and it seems inopportune to continue as intended with more prosaic matters, like, well, how TTCs determined the appropriate cigarette circumference size for the Korean female market.


Instead then, let me reserve that for a new, final Part 5, and I’ll finish here by opening that above question to the floor: what evidence have you yourself noticed of any of the strategies being used by TTCs described here? Or are they a little passé in 2011? And if so, then what else explains why so many young Korean women and teenagers are taking up the habit these days, as explained in previous posts?

(Other posts in the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Korea’s Hidden Smokers; Living as a female smoker in Korea)

Korean Commercial Accused of Promoting Misandry and Overconsumption

Update, December 2013: A translation of this article, with my original commentary (and consequently readers’ comments) removed. Here are some quick translations for the captions below too:

  • “Be picky”
  • “Embrace your desires”
  • “Be lazy”
  • “Think differently”
  • “Look at them [men] humorously”
  • “Don’t wait”
  • “Don’t even look up [at him]”
  • “Shout”
  • “Dios Women Cheer Project” (the name of the ad campaign).
  • And finally “Women buying tomorrow. Dios”
(Source: Paranzui)

디오스 냉장고 광고, 역차별·된장녀 조장 2007/03/13 Dios Fridge Advertisement Encourages Women to Become Bean-paste Girls and to Discriminate Against Men

(For a definition of “Bean-paste Girl”, see here)

최근 TV를 통해 방영중인 LG 냉장고 ‘디오스 여자만세 프로젝트’ 광고가 네티즌들로부터 거센 비판을 받고 있다. 무엇보다 표현이 상식수준을 넘어 보기 민망할 정도로 지나치고 심지어 남녀 역차별을 조장하고 있다는 점을 들어 포털사이트 다음 아고라에서는 ‘디오스 여자만세 프로젝트’ 광고 중지를 요구하는 청원 서명까지 벌이고 있다.

Netizens have strongly criticized the “Dios Woman Cheer Project” advertisement that has recently been playing on Korean TV. On the Daum Agora discussion forum, they have complained that the things said in it defy common-sense standards of decency, even going so far as to promote discrimination against men, and so have set up an online petition calling for it to be taken off the air.

광고에는 ‘여자들이여 까다롭게 굴어라, 더 욕심 부려라, 게을러져라, 딴 생각해라, 우습게 보라, 기다리지 마라, 거들떠보지 마라, 큰소리 쳐라’ 등의 문구가 여성이 남성을 인형처럼 조정하는 자극적인 장면과 함께 등장한다.

In the advertisement, the voiceover and the text say: “Hey, women! Be picky! Embrace your desires! Be lazy! Think differently! Look at them (men) humorously! Don’t wait! Don’t even look up (at him)! Shout!”, and so forth. In one scene women are even encouraged to treat men like puppets.

서명을 주도하고 있는 네티즌 ‘꽃순이’는 “‘여성만세 프로젝트’라는 거창한 이름으로 좋지 않은 말들만 열거하고, 그 대상을 남자로 유도하고 있다”며 “방송에서 안볼 수 있게 해 달라”고 요청하고 나섰다. 또 다른 네티즌은 “만약 남녀 반대로 광고가 만들어졌다면, 사회적으로 큰 파장이 왔을 것”이라며 “남녀 역차별을 조장하고 있다”고 주장했다.

According to the netizen “Flower-Suni” that initiated the petition, “The grand-sounding ‘Woman Cheer Project’ advertisement merely lists and induces negative behavior towards men”, that “people don’t really want to see on their screens”, and demanded that it be taken off the air. Another netizen added that “if an advertisement portraying the same sentiments towards women had been made, then all sectors of society would have been quickly up in arms and insisted that “it promotes inequality”.

광고 내용이 눈에 거슬리기는 여성들도 마찬가지다. 여성이라고 밝힌 네티즌들 대부분 “저런 광고는 여성들에게도 달갑지 않다”, “괜히 여자 안티를 만드는 광고”, “광고가 무척 거슬렸다. 된장녀를 만드는 것인가”라고 비난했으며 “남녀평등이란 서로 만드는 것이다, 한쪽만 강조하는 평등은 또 다른 불평등을 가져온다” 고 지적했다.

By no means is it only men that feel that the contents of the ad were inappropriate. Of those female netizens who have made their gender public on discussion boards, most criticized it, saying things like “it is unacceptable to women just as much as men”; that “the advertisement will make people anti-women”; and that “the advertisement is very offensive, and encourages women to be Bean-paste Girls”. Finally one netizen pointed out that “men and women have to become equal together, and if you overemphasize only one aspect of that then it will actually only lead to further inequality.”