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:

* Note: The twitter account @kang_simba was public at the time of publication; it has since been set to private.

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.

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.”