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.

“Making Pretty Women” (예쁜 여자 만들기) — Consumerism, S-lines, and Learning that Healthy≠Beautiful in 1930s Korea

(Sources: left — unknown; right)

As you all know, I’m very interested in women’s S-lin…let me rephrase that.

As you all know, I’m very interested in where body-labels like the S-line come from, how they’re used, why new ones appear so frequently in the Korean media, why Korean popular-culture is saturated with them, what role (if any) they have in comparative studies regularly finding that Korean women have the greatest levels of body dissatisfaction in the world (despite actually being the thinnest), and so on.

Unfortunately though, I’ve struggled for years to find Koreans that shared these interests. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not out there. More likely, I’ve just been looking in the wrong places.

I would never have guessed, for instance, that some of the first critical commentary on Korean ads I would find online would be in the form of student essays (and in English at that!), or that the first decent Korean discussion of excessive photoshopping in ads — next week’s translation — would be on a blog rather than in expensive advertising magazines. And somehow, inexplicably, it never occurred to me to simply type in “S-line” (S라인) and “history” (역사) into Korean search engines either.

Which is not to say that much came up at all actually. But it did lead me to Lee Yeong-ah’s (이영아, right; source) Making Pretty Women (예쁜 여자 만들기), published last year, en route to me as I type this. Based on the Busan Ilbo review of it I’ve translated below, it appears that while the S-line term itself wasn’t used back in the 1920s and ’30s, those were certainly formative years for Korean consumerism, in which the practice of encouraging and/or pandering to certain looks, styles of dress, and body shapes of especially female consumers was first established. Later, it would be (re)implemented with a vengeance by military governments that conflated consumerism with patriotism and national security.

On top of that, much of it catered to what were called “New Women” (shin-yoseong; 신여성), very similar to Flappers, who not only took advantage of scandalous foreign fashions and non-traditional lifestyles to assert their sexuality and women’s rights (reminding me very much of what I wrote about “pin-up grrrls”), but would also later face a backlash that would be eerily similar to that faced by “Beanpaste girls” (dwenjangnyeo; 된장녀) in the 2000s, and in similarly strained economic circumstances. Indeed, Yewon Lee of Yonsei Graduate School wrote about precisely that in 2007 (opens a PDF; see the end of the post for a full list of sources), and Gord Sellar and Gusts of Popular Feeling have also made the same connection.

Unfortunately however, the reviewer doesn’t mention this self-agency of New Women. Rather, he depicts them only as passive victims of new trends, who had no choice but to accommodate the new demands of the male gaze, manifest in the burgeoning media industry. Also, he ends the review with the curious assertions that, in light of this long history, today’s women shouldn’t be worried about likewise being obsessed with beauty, and that it is sufficient simply to be aware of his history in order to lead a happy life.

While such platitudes are common in the Korean media, I was disappointed to see them in what is otherwise one of the better pieces of Korean writing I’ve read in a while (again, my fault for looking in the wrong places!). And I hope that Lee Yeong-ah doesn’t share them.


1930년대에도 ‘S라인열풍 The ‘S-line’ was popular in the 1930s too

Busan Ilbo, 5 March 2011

한국 여성들의 ‘미인 강박증’ 역사

Korean women’s history of being obsessed with beauty

‘가슴을 앞으로 그냥 내밀며, 양손을 위로 쭉 뻗었다가, 손끝이 발가락에 닿을 때, 양손을 아래로 뻗으며, 전신을 굽힌다. 이 운동을 계속하면 가슴의 모양이 곱게 발달되고 미끈한 각선미를 갖게 된다.’

“Stick your chest out, stretch both arms up high, bend over and curve your whole body, touching your toes with your fingertips. If you keep doing this exercise, your breasts will beautifully develop and you’ll get a sleek, slender bodyline.”

몸매를 가꾸기 위한 기본적인 스트레칭 동작에 대한 설명이다. 요즘 발행되는 여성잡지에 실린 내용일까. 천만에. 이 미용체조법은 1935년 10월 ‘삼천리’란 잡지에 실렸다. 여성들이 1930년대에 아름다운 몸을 가꾸기 위해 이런 동작들이 필요하다는 것을 알고, 실천했음을 보여주는 사례다. 오늘날 미인들의 필수요건 중 하나인 ‘S라인’이 이미 1930년대부터 각광받기 시작했다는 말이다.

This is an explanation of a basic stretch used for shaping your body. But it’s not from a magazine published today. Rather, it’s from the October 1935 edition of Samcheonri. Women in the 1930s all knew that they had to do this sort of thing in order to get a beautiful body, and an example of them doing it in practice too. These days, beautiful women know they need to get an ‘S-line’, but it was in the 1930s that this sort of thing started becoming popular.


무엇이 이런 변화를 불러왔을까? 당시 조선에 볼거리를 즐기는 시각 중심 문화가 태동한 것이 결정적 이유다. 당시 인쇄매체의 사진과 삽화, 연극과 영화 속 여배우들, 길거리를 활보하는 신여성들을 통해 ‘여성의 몸’은 중요한 문화적 담론으로 부상했다. 여성들이 시각 중심 문화 속 남성들의 시선에 노출되면서부터 몸에 대한 인식의 변화가 시작됐던 것이다. 1931년 삼천리는 미인경연 대회를 개최했고, 미인대회는 갈수록 여성들의 몸을 노골적으로 드러내는데 치중했다. 당시 한 일간지는 여성의 아름다운 기준이 얼굴뿐만 아니라 풍만한 가슴, 잘록한 허리, 볼륨 있는 엉덩이, 미끈한 각선미를 고루 갖춰야 한다고 전했다. 바로 S라인이었다.

What brought about this change? In the final analysis, it was the quickening of Korea’s interest in and enjoyment of visual culture. At the time, through pictures and illustrations in print media, through actresses in plays and movies, and through “new women” just walking on the streets, women’s bodies became an important topic of cultural discourse. Because [this meant] they were increasingly exposed to the male gaze, women started changing Korean body and clothing culture. In 1931, the Samcheomri began holding beauty pageants, which stressed ever more suggestive clothing as time went by. A daily newspaper of the time would proclaim that beauty standards were no longer just focused on the face, but now covered the whole body, requiring voluptuous breasts, an hourglass waistline, voluminous buttocks, and a slender figure. This was the S-line.

1920~30년대 예술지상주의, 유미주의적 경향이 문화계에 확산된 것도 원인이다. 당시 예술가, 문학가, 사회적 유명 인사들은 건강한 몸보다 예쁜 몸에 더 중점을 뒀다. 그들의 ‘미인관’을 단적으로 보여주는 사례가 소설가 현진건의 관점이다. 그는 “키가 조금 큰 듯하고 목선이 긴 여자가 좋다. 제아무리 얼굴이 예쁘장하고 몸맵시가 어울려도 키가 땅에 기는 듯하고 목덜미가 달라붙은 여자는 보기만 해도 화증이 난다”고 했다. 그는 몸매 좋은 여성을 노골적으로 선호하는 데서 그치지 않고 몸매 나쁜 여성에게 화를 내고 있다. 오늘날 여성들이 보면 ‘정말 기가 막히고 코가 막힐’ 멘트다.


One reason for this was that aesthetic trends and the notion of art for art’s sake began to influence culture too. Artists, cultural scholars, and famous society-people all stressed that a beautiful body was more important than a healthy body [James — sound familiar?]. One example is the novelist Hyeon Jin-geon, who bluntly wrote that “I like women that are tall with long necks. Even if their faces are pretty, and they have good bodies, if they are so short as to be crawling on the floor then I hate even looking at them”, something which would be considered crazy if written today.

위생을 이유로 여성들의 의복 변화가 권장됐다는 사실도 몸매 중요성 증가에 일조했다. 20세기 초 근대적 지식인들은 조선시대 여성의 옷이 위생에 해롭다며 개선해야 한다고 역설했다. 긴 저고리는 길거리의 더러운 오물을 쓸고 다녀 호흡기 질환을 낳고, 가슴을 동여맨 가슴띠는 흉부 압박을 심화시킨다고 했다. 이에 따라 여성들의 옷이 점차 몸매를 드러내는 쪽으로 바뀌었다. 미니스커트와 브래지어가 등장했다. 옷이 변하자 여성들의 몸에 대한 인식도 달라졌다.

Another reason for this new interest in bodylines was that women were encouraged to change their traditional outer garments for the sake of hygiene. In the early 20th Century, public-health advocates stressed that the Jogori, a traditional coat, was so long that it kept dragging in the dirt of the streets and caused respiratory ailments [James — by raising dust around the home?], and that binding women’s breasts put a lot of pressure on their thoraxes. Accordingly, fashions gradually changed. Miniskirts and bras appeared. And notions and practices about women’s bodies also changed.

여성들은 이런 사회적 분위기 속에서 자신들의 몸을 어떻게 바라보고 관리했을까. 요즘의 여성들이 그러하듯, 그들도 자신의 몸을 대상으로 전환해 바라봐야 했다. 자기 자신을 남성의 시선으로 응시하는 법을 배우고 그것이 정답이라고 세뇌됐던 것이다. 여성들은 지식인, 예술가, 직업부인이 되기 위해 미인이 돼야 했다. 그것은 생존의 문제였다. 그렇게 여성들은 ‘S라인’이 미인이라고 말하는 남성들의 시선에 맞추기 위해 자신의 몸을 가꿔야 했다.


What did women think about this new social atmosphere, and how did they cope? Well, just like women now, they had to objectify their own bodies. It was drilled into them that they had to look at themselves how men would look at them. And in order to be respected [James — lit. a person of knowledge], or to be an artists, or to have a job, they had to become beautiful. It was a matter of survival. They had to adapt to and dress-up themselves to fit this notion of a beautiful woman being one that had an S-line.

예쁜 여자 되기에 성공했던 여성들의 운명은 어떠했을까. 그들은 세련된 미적 감각, 유행을 선도하는 패션, 화려한 외모로 인해 뭇 남성들에게 관심과 욕망의 대상이 됐다. 동시에 그녀들의 진보적인 사유와 자유로운 행보는 멸시와 질타의 대상이기도 했다. 1920년대 대표적 신여성이었던 윤심덕, 나혜석, 김원주 등은 그 누구도 행복한 말년을 보내지 못했다.

What became of the women who were successful in making such a transformation? They became the object of men’s desires for their sophistication, their sense of aestheticism, being leaders in fashion, and for their magnificent bodies. However, they were also the object of contempt and scorn for their progressive and free thinking. Of representative new women of the 1920s, such as Yun Shim-deok, Na Hye-seok, and Kim Won-ju and so on, none were happy in their old age.

‘예쁜 여자 만들기’는 한국 여성들의 미인 강박증 형성 역사를 보여준다. 예쁜 여자가 되기를 강요하고 압박하는 힘이 근대 이후 한국사회에 생겨난 것이기에 오늘날 여성들이 자책감을 가질 필요는 없다는 것이다. 근대의 몸, 여성 등에 관한 담론을 활발하게 제기해왔던 저자는 몸에 대한 모든 관심을 끊고 외양보다 내면의 아름다움을 추구하라는 식의 도덕적 결론을 강요하진 않는다.

Making Pretty Women shows us the history of women’s obsession with being beautiful. As the pressures women face in doing so have been around since the dawn of modern Korea, today’s women should not feel guilty about it. Moreover, in actively raising these discourses about women’s bodies, the writer does not moralize and argue that the practice should be stopped, or that inner beauty is more important than outward appearances.

대신 왜 우리가 몸에 대해 그렇게 지나치게 집착하는지를 제대로 알고, 그러한 앎을 통해 한층 행복한 삶을 사는 방법을 스스로 선택하라고 말한다. 여성들이 ‘앎’을 통해 위로받는다는 것으로도 족하다고 한다. 이영아 지음/푸른역사/343쪽/1만3천900원. 김상훈 기자

Rather, the author teaches us about today’s obsession with body image. Through this knowledge,women can choose to live happily, and this is sufficient (review by Kim Sang-hoon).


– Hellgren, Tess. “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women“, Spring 2011 Conant Prize in General Education, Harvard University, May 2 2011

Lee, Yewon. How Women Are Represented within the Patriarchal Nationalism in (neo) Colonial Times, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11 2007

– Park, Bongsoo. “Sensational Politics of Desire and Trivial Pursuits: Public Censure of New Women in Private Lives in early 1930s Korea Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Sheraton New York, New York City, NY,  May 25 2009

(Email me for PDFs if any links don’t work)