Korean Gender Reader


1) “Skinny Baby Hot Hot?” Not Really

Sometimes, people think I’m just being paranoid when I see pop-culture deliberately encouraging body dsyphoria among younger and younger fans. And to be sure, usually I do have to dig pretty deep to find such underlying message(s), only to be left with the nagging doubt that I’m just simply projecting really.

Frankly, the whole thing can be quite a chore.

But then something like BEAST (비스트) and A Pink’s (에이핑크) Skinny Baby (스키니 베이비) comes along. As Angry K-pop Fan explains:

Just by looking at this song’s title alone…it should be enough to understand why some fans are quite upset with this new release…

… [let’s] focus on the most disturbing issue at hand: the implicit, or even subliminal message this sends to not only BEAST and A Pink fans, but the general consumer audience of Skoolooks, the brand that this video serves as a promotion for.

Asides being the name of the song, “Skinny Baby” is also the newest collection of school uniforms released by Skoolooks…

However blatant though, Korean school uniform manufacturers have long used young celebrities to encourage girls especially to obsess over their body shapes, so Skinny Baby is exceptional only in its format really. But having said that, fans of either group at least are much more likely to be influenced by something more akin to a music video than a traditional advertisement, as Kpop Reality Check helped me realize (emphases in original):

Skinny Baby…has lyrical content that reinforces messages about what body types are attractive and superior. It is not subtle but instead is very blunt with messages such as “Skinny Skinny Boy Boy, Skinny Skinny Girl Girl, Skinny Baby Hot Hot.”

Now this easily forms an in group consisting of people who ARE SKINNY. They are not only reinforced with this song that they’re hot but they feel as if they can identify and a sense of belonging. They watch the music video and see the girls from A Pink and the boys from BEAST who are all skinny and feel abit closer to the idols.

Now this forms a direct out group. The out group is basically everybody who isn’t skinny. Those who have different body types or who feel offended watching the video. Those who aren’t skinny are discriminated against and aren’t allowed in the in group. Everyone in the out group is made to feel insecure, anxious and lost.

This is where the body image and self esteem issues come in. Everyone in the out group continues to watch and absorb the MV as it becomes something they aspire to become. They’re being fed this message that they too can be cool and hot like A PINK and BEAST only if they’re skinny and… surprise surprise purchase Skool Looks clothing.

2) Michael Stipe Produces Gay Korean Film

Update – Electric Banana has just informed me that they made a mistake. Stipe is actually the co-executive producer of Fourplay: Tampa, not Dol.

From Pink News:

Former REM frontman Michael Stipe is the executive producer behind a new short film of a gay Korean man who yearns for a family, which the director used to come out to his own parents.

The short, entitled Dol, will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Indie music news site Electric Banana reports.

Writer and director Andrew Ahn says he used the film to come out to his own parents, who agreed to feature in it as actors without knowing their son was gay.

As it happens, Michael Stipe quite literally represents my closest brush with fame, as I managed to get only about 2 meters away from him at a concert in Auckland in 1995. And come to think of it, the next time I was so close to a celebrity was the (now deceased) Andre Kim in Insa-dong in Seoul roughly 10 years later. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I now find myself writing about sexuality and gender issues?^^

Seriously though, in further LGBT news Charles Montgomery of Korean Modern Literature in Translation continues his Q&A series with Gabriel Sylvian, the founder of The Korea Gay Literature Project, and Gil at Seoulbeats has a controversial post on Super Junior (슈퍼주니어) member Choi Siwon’s (최시원) homophobia.


3) Korea’s First Lady of Space

Imagine you are runner-up in a contest to be the first person in your country to go into space. A month before launch, the finalist is disqualified by the hosting Russian Federal Space Agency due to security breaches and all eyes fall on you. You carry not only the nation’s pride, but also the reported $25 million your government paid to get you there. Yi So-yeon (이소연) was that woman. Nearly four years later, she talks about her life on earth and in space.

Read the rest of the interview at Busan Haps. I also highly recommend these video interviews of her by Michael Hurt (a friend of hers) at Scribblings of the Metropolitician, and especially these posts on the surprisingly negative way the Korean media handled what should have been one of Korea’s greatest achievements, which he makes a strong case for being entirely due to her sex.


4) Korea’s Nationalistic Adoption Quota Hurting Children

As reported by Sean Hayes on the Korean Law Blog last November:

Korea has one of the highest populations of orphans in the OECD because of an unwillingness, in large numbers, of the local Korean population to adopt non-blood related children and a new policy that limits the number of overseas adoptions. The majority of local adoptions are the adoption of the children of family members.

The good news is the government may be changing its policy because of its plan to join the Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention) and realization that its present policy is harming the psychological health of children.

In 2005 over 2100 overseas adoptions were granted in Korea, while in 2010 a little over 1000 adoptions were granted. The reason for the decrease was the decrease in the overseas adoption quota in favor of a policy of supporting domestic adoptions. The policy failed to the detriment of needy children.

And now photographer Romin Lee has written a moving photo-essay at Groove Korea on the very real effects of that on Korean children and the overseas couples that want to adopt them, a story which you can continue to follow at Our Happily Ever Afters.

Meanwhile, Hello Korea!, my favorite blog on Korean overseas adoptee-related issues, passes on the following video by Korean Unwed Mothers & Families Association worker Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, with “powerful images and rational arguments by an adoptee/scholar/poet on re-humanizing the women who gave birth to us [adoptees]”:

See also this Groove Korea article on those regular adoption scapegoats, single moms, whom the Ministry of Health and Welfare described as “ignorant whores” until as recently as May 2010. Also note that the photo above is from Korea’s nearly decade-long “Letters From Angels” (천사들의 편지) campaign to encourage domestic adoption (but which of course is not bad in itself).

5) Quick Links

– Anti-sex buying campaign causes stir

From the Korea Times:

“You will get 410,000 won if you promise not to buy sex during year-end drinking sessions.”

This is a campaign a male rights group is promoting in a bid to criticize the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s anti-prostitution policies.

But the campaign is causing a stir, as the prize money is fake and the ministry’s policies which the group stated have been non-existent.

To play Devil’s advocate however, the Ministry has indeed had similar campaigns in the past, as the article points out.


– “Women Only” in Korean Swimming Pools

At NateOn’s local pool, frequently only women are allowed. Against which he argues:

In Egypt, I got the separate gender stuff a little bit.  The religion in many contexts called for it, and the men there are idiots.  It’s the Middle East, and gender and sexual  issues are rampant.  But this is Korea.  It’s the 21st century.  Why do we need two hours of open swim that are women only?  And why is that in the middle of the day?  Oh, yeah, because women aren’t supposed to work.  And are home at the day.

In an update, he clarifies that his problem is not with women’s only swimming in itself, but that 2 hours of women only for every 3 hours of mixed sessions seems a little excessive. And why aren’t there any men-only ones?

– Saturday Night Live Korea does Blackface

Not strictly-related to gender issues sorry, but for those that are unaware, the December 31 show had a skit with Blackface, which has generated a lot of negative publicity overseas (at least on Korean fan sites and so on):

It’s also a real pity, especially after the first show seemed so progressive. But Angry K-pop Fan at least thinks some of the accusations are unwarranted.

Meanwhile, see My First Love Story for a list of recent problematic and/or offensive Korean music videos, which includes those that have used Blackface.

Korean Sociological Image #10: “Blackface”

Cyon Black and White AdverisementSpare a thought for the hapless LG Cyon marketing department. Because after 12 years in the business, it must be really difficult to think of interesting names for new phones.

No, really: how else to explain the singularly uninspired choice of “Black and White” for the latest, well, black and white LV-7400 phones to come out? Sure, the likes of “Lollipop” and “Ice Cream” may hardly have been all that creative either, but at least they spawned quirky and memorable advertising campaigns, whereas this series of advertisements for the LV-7400 seems dull, uninspired, and above all too literal. In fairness though, they do provide an instant and dramatic representation of the product, and the commercial itself has a mild eroticism and sensuality to it that compels you to look more closely.

But of course, it’s not those that made me sit up and take notice:

Cyon Black and White Phone AdverisementCyon Black and White Adverisement Black Guy

Yes, that is indeed not a Black man, but a Caucasian man somehow painted black.

It’s so bizarre, and so difficult to rationalize. Because was it really so difficult to find a genuine Black guy? No of course not, and given the extra time and effort involved in painting a Caucasian one then it must have been a deliberate choice. But if so, wouldn’t it have been far more logical and consistent to have also included a Black woman painted white? If not, then what is the “coloring” supposed to signify? And why, oh why, weren’t these blatantly obvious questions  asked by LG Cyon?

Very flawed concept and execution aside though, could the advertisement be construed as racist in any sense?

To answer, my first thought was to turn to Michael Hurt post’s about other Korean examples of the “Blackface” phenomenon at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician, and I broadly agree that the examples he gives are indeed offensive. Moreover, a huge multinational company like LG (of which Cyon is just the name of its mobile phone arm) would almost certainly be aware of the reception they would receive in Western markets, and as such cannot claim ignorance of their racist connotations and history, a parallel of which is Coreana’s use of Nazi imagery in a cosmetics commercial (see Brian in Jeollanam-do here and here for more on that). Nor do I accept the argument that images that Westerners would find problematic are automatically rendered acceptable simply by virtue or being made by and for Koreans, a culturally-relativist Girls' Generation Original Album Coverargument that at the very least is highly patronizing to the latter.

But despite all that, my gut reaction to first offenses is to give the various Korean institutions, companies, and/or individuals behind them the benefit of the doubt, and to use them as an opportunity for education. In particular, because Korean society almost completely lacks any sense of political correctness (which can be as refreshing as it is annoying), and as, for instance, the recent controversy over the use of icons of its former Japanese colonizers for Girls’ Generation’s new album cover (see here and here) demonstrate, or the choice of a comfort woman theme for a series of erotic photos, many Korean companies can display a shocking ignorance of what might offend just fellow Koreans, let alone foreigners. Moreover, considering that: until as late as 2006 Korean social-science textbooks stated that Korea was a homogeneous society and that this was a source of national strength (see #1 here); that a great deal of manifestations of supposedly Western culture in the music industry especially are mere imitations of domestic acts that have come before them, sans non-Koreans’ cultural baggage and angst; and finally that, in Japan at least there are:

…teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means “black-face.”

According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic’s donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.

Mix&Match Cyon Korean Phone AdvertisementWith influences on Korea also (again, see Michael’s post), then it’s almost surprising that offensive advertisements and so on don’t crop up more often, and perhaps demonstrate that Korean society is improving in this regard, albeit more slowly than surely (see below).

Also, while intent is not the only consideration in judging such an advertisement, it is still probably the most important, and accordingly I’m at a loss as to how the Cyon advertisements could be construed as a deliberate attempt to demean Black people somehow, regardless of how much offense it may or may not generate: indeed, if that was the intention, then it could certainly have been done much more directly.

That said, I’m reluctant to let Cyon completely off the hook. For take its advertisement from last year for the “mix&match SH-240” series of phones on the right for instance (source). In isolation, then they’re not bad at all (sex sells after all), but again, consistent and logical would have been alternative advertisements with a Caucasian man and a Korean women getting it on also, let alone Koreans with partners of other ethnicities, and I see such a lack as both very deliberate and emblematic of the Korean media’s issues with such relationships even in 2009 (see here, here, here, and here). But that’s another blog post, albeit one which I have to write very soon as part of my preparation for this conference in August!

Update, October 17) See here for another controversial example of “contemporary blackface,” this time from the French version of Vogue magazine.

(For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)