Korean Gender Reader

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Not strictly gender-related sorry, but while Vogue Korea’s recent photoshoot of Lee Hyori (이효리) is not without a touch of class, that particular image above is probably the strangest of her’s I’ve ever seen!

1. “What is Aegyo and How Can We Kill It?”

Regularly expressing a disdain for displays of aegyo (애교) by Korean women, or “affected sweetness”, strangely it has never occurred to me to scratch below the surface of the phenomenon, let alone see how it could actually be an empowering tool to navigate a patriarchal society. I highly recommend reading The Joshing Gnome’s short, very readable, 5-part series then, which is rooted in Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class:  see here for Part 1, and don’t miss Kelly in Korea’s insights also.

2. “60% of Actresses Accosted for Sex by Bigwigs”

A rather confusing headline, as although the Chosun Ilbo article begins:

Six out of 10 actresses in Korea have been propositioned for sex by influential figures, according to a poll of 111 actresses by the Korean Women’s Development Institute commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission.

In the survey published Tuesday, 60.2 percent of respondents said they had been accosted for sex by senior figures in the broadcast industry or other prominent people. The poll was conducted between September and December last year and involved detailed interviews. Top actresses accounted for around 10 percent of respondents.

…It actually later says that only 21.5% received direct requests, but of course that figure is also unacceptable.

Probably commissioned in the wake of huge public reaction to the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연) in March last year, unfortunately they probably come as no great surprise, but at least attention is being drawn to the scale of the problem. See The Guardian, The Hankyoreh, SeoulBeats, and myself at #13 here for more if that is in the first you’ve heard of that, and which provide some context to the recent news from Korea Beat that a short-track skating coach has been accused of molesting a student, a university professor has been found guilty of sexually harassing one of his students, and a police officer was fired for placing a digital camera under the desk of his female co-worker.

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3. Gays in current Korean dramas

An excellent summary by Yuna at The Marmot’s Hole. Also, see Ask a Korean! for an interview with Kim Su-hyeon (김수현), writer of the drama Life is Beautiful (인생은 아름다워), actually the first in Korea to depict a gay relationship.

Not to imply that Daniel Henney (다니엘헤니) above is gay of course, but I do have a penchant for close-ups of attractive faces, and I also I just thought that my gay readers and heterosexual women might like it! Does anyone else think he looks a little like Roger Moore did in his James Bond days here? (via: PopSeoul)

4. “If you think that Korean women are fragile eastern flowers, you might want to think again”

Streetwise in Seoul writes brief biographies of Lim Su-jeong (임수정) and Choi Hyun-mi (최현미), a Muay Thai fighter and boxer respectively. See here for a video of the latter in action and for some more information on other Korean female boxers also, and you may also like Living on the Flipside, a blog by an expat boxer (with a Korean husband who is also a boxer!).

5. Go So-young knocked-up

A reminder that Koreans’ public attitudes to sexuality are much more subtle than they may at first appear (let alone considering the wide gap with their private ones), the news that Go So-young (고소영) was already 3 months pregnant upon her recent marriage to Jang Dong-gun (장동건) raised nary an eyebrow in Korea, despite strong taboos against premarital sex and cohabitation (albeit only that against the latter strong enough to dissuade it!). As commenter Oranckay explained, and well worth repeating, the reason is because:

…one needs to take into account that not all pre-marital sex is the same. There is a difference between just having sex and having sex with someone you are going to, or intend to, marry, and traditional/Joseon and even 20th Korea saw this as a big difference. Having sex on the premise of, and as consummation of, commitment, was the normal, socially acceptable way to have pre-marital sex. So valued was a woman’s virginity that a decent man could only sleep with her if he was ready to “take responsibility for her,” as the saying would go, and so on, because that’s what sleeping with her was supposed to imply. Fiction and non-fiction narratives (many known to me personally) are full of this kind of thinking. I know couples that decided not to have sex because they weren’t sure they were getting married, that didn’t have sex because he was going to the military and he wanted to be sure he’d come back alive before permanently “making her his,” as that would be too traumatic for her, and of couples that lived together (and obviously were having sex) before being married and it was acceptable because they were going to marry, had family approval, but couldn’t marry because maybe the girl’s elder sister wasn’t married off yet or they were both still in college but both sets of parents wanted to get them married after graduation, or one of those odd reasons. Maybe no money; whatever…

Read the rest here.

6. Korean Censorship: More Than Meets the Eye?

As watchers of Korean dramas may recall, back in January KBS decided to censor the scene below from the popular drama Chuno (추노), despite the fact that Lee Da-hae (이다해) was clearly fully-clothed. I didn’t comment it on at the time, but had I done so then I too would likely have joined the bandwagon of criticism and described it as absurd, completely unnecessary, and downright bizarre in light of the amount of skin that is displayed 24/7 on KBS, let alone on any city street.

And don’t get me wrong: I still consider it absurd. But via a comment on the French-language Korean cinema blog Dooliblog, I have since learned that it was in fact done to placate disgruntled fans of the show, critical of Lee Da-hae’s flawless skin as being too unrealistic for her role. Granted, how blurring her breasts specifically was supposed to overcome that remains a bit of a mystery, but the new information does at least provide a healthy reminder not to take instances of censorship in Korea at face value, and certainly not to automatically assume that the Korean media’s “default” option is for greater conservatism.

( Source. Note: don’t confuse the proclivity for blurring with that done to avoid indirect advertising )

When it does occur however, it can also easily be circumvented or even exploited, as skillfully done by rapper E.via (이비아), who (in my personal opinion) seems to compensate for a lack of musical talent by seeking controversy with everything she produces (see #1 here, #11 here, and #20 here). I may simply be biased because I’ve never liked rap however(!), and against that interpretation Twitterer David Frazer points out (update: actually regular commenter Gag Halfrunt) she has a penchant for “juxtaposing [an] innocent idol look with explicit lyrics”, and may in fact be “deliberately attacking the pretense that ‘it’s not sexy, it’s cute’ when under-18s do suggestive dance moves”. Can anyone more familiar with her enlighten us?

Regardless, it is curious why her latest music video Shake! (쉐이크!) is likely to be banned from public television…

…while advertisements like this remain completely acceptable:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Meanwhile, the Korea Times reports that Twitter is providing a means for pornography websites to avoid restrictions placed on them by the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the country’s censorship authority for broadcasting and Internet content.

7. Body Image

I confess, sometimes keeping up with Korean gender issues almost feels like being simply scouring the internet looking for more things to criticize, but then there is so rarely any positive news when it comes to Koreans’ attitudes to women’s body images especially. Accordingly, I’ll simply pass on these links below rather than providing (admittedly increasingly repetitive) commentary also, although do check out this video on cosmetic surgery in Korea posted last week if you missed it:

Shift the focus of attention slightly however, and there have been positive recent developments. In an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “South Korea’s homemakers don’t want to be pegged” for example, John Glionna explains how “some stay-at-home mothers, known as ajumma, are fed up with being stereotyped as deadbeats who just love to gossip and shop. Kim Yong-sook is helping them forge a new identity”:

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Kim Yong-sook is fed up and she’s not going to take it anymore.

She’s weary of women between the ages of 30 and 60 being ridiculed as selfish and unstylish — bossy, gossiping magpies with bad perms who pinch pennies and hog seats on the subway.

They’re known as ajumma, a word long applied to married women with children but which in recent years has taken on a pejorative connotation that irks Kim.

Among many South Koreans, it’s now often used to conjure an image of homemakers who disdain full-time jobs to while away afternoons on park benches, in coffee shops and at social clubs, bragging about their children and, if they’ve got the money, go on shopping sprees.

At 58, Kim has empathy for her fellow ajumma, who she insists have too long been misunderstood and ridiculed. Ajumma are not deadbeats, cracks in Korea’s economic engine.

“Actually, we’re running the nation,” says the mother of one, a son. “We’ve got one foot in the house and one foot in society.”

A decade ago, Kim formed a support group called “Ajumma are the Pillars of the Nation.” Since then, she has attracted thousands to her declaration of independence. She’s written a book and consults with business and government.

Her message: Ajumma unite! Don’t take the snickers, behind-the-back finger-pointing and jibes lying down!

Read the rest here, and you may also be interested in ajummas’ very under-appreciated role in the creation of the kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon in the 1990s, and their increasing domination of young male idols’ fan-clubs a decade later.

Update – At risk of contradicting myself and trivializing what Kim Yong-sook is doing, these ajumma cartoons are classic nevertheless: after all, the stereotypes aren’t entirely baseless…

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8. Despite her protestations to the contrary, I’m no Picasso continues to provide sage advice about dating and sexuality in Korea, here demolishing another expat’s seriously flawed logic and stereotypes about both. Jumping ahead to next week’s Gender Reader, many of these are likely to re-emerge in the news that Single Korean Females Eye Foreign Husbands, so be sure to read her posts first!

9. “Writers and Women Writers”

Over at Korean Modern Literature in Translation, Charles Montgomery passes on an article by literary critic Bruce Fulton, who begins with “an amusing tendency in Korean Literature that all readers eventually catch”:

Readers of an earlier generation who happened upon the anthology Modern Short Stories From Korea, translated into English by In-Sob Zong (Chong In-sop),1 might be forgiven if they gained the impression that two varieties of human beings write fiction in modern Korea: writers and women writers.

10. Less than 1 in 10 executives is female

In a poll conducted by major recruiting service Incruit, it was found that “the larger the company, the less likely it was to employ women as leaders”: of the companies surveyed, those with fewer than 300 employees had 36,666 executives, of whom 3,279, or 8.9 percent, were female, while in bigger companies only 126 out of 2,474 execs, or 5.1 percent, were female.

See The JoonAng Daily for more.


Are Korea’s Women Boxers Good Enough for Adidas?

kim-ji-young-twoWriting earlier this month, I was very impressed by the rhetoric of the launch of Adidas Korea’s “Me, Myself” campaign, and especially by the healthy-looking models used. But one fair criticism by frequent commenter Sonagi was that while on the one hand they definitely weren’t “the gaunt-looking models of most fashion shows,” were all “healthy and glowing,” and may well have shown “that women could look stylish while working out at the gym, doing complicated yoga moves or swimming in the pool,” on the other hand they certainly didn’t appear to have anything at all like the physiques of actual athletes either, somewhat diluting the campaign’s supposed message (source, left: Yonhap News).

And it’s not hard to think of attractive athletes who could have—nay, should have—taken their place instead, a point which I was suddenly reminded of earlier today when I was flicking channels and happened to come across IFBA Bantamweight Champion Kim Ji-Young (김지영) in action, her—let’s face it—feminine appearance being so in contrast to the bulk of her counterparts (in both senses of the phrase!) that I immediately sat up and took notice. As it happens, she was in her hometown of Yeongdong City, successfully defending her title for the fourth time (against Dennapa Sukruaangrueng of Thailand).

(Update, September 2014: Reading over this post five years later, I’m cringing at—among other things—my implication that women with bulky physiques are any less feminine than Kim Ji-Young, and the notion that they could never be accepted as endorsement models for sports clothing companies).

Unfortunately, as images of female athletes tend to be unflattering, taken as they are at instants of extreme pain, anger, passion or even all three (not that those of male athletes aren’t kim-ji-young-oneeither) then in lieu of a video of the fight I saw then that photo of her above and this on the right from 2005 (source: Yonhap News) will have to do for my purpose, which is to ask you if she could realistically be a model for Adidas or any other clothing company? Why or why not? Yes, granted, she does has bigger arms than average (naturally), but although this is not to say that people of either sex can only find athletic role models in those of a similar (or desired) size to them, her diminutive height and weight  (“bantamweight” means 51-54 kg) and small bust do make her very similar physically to a lot of Korean women, albeit having muscle where they usually have fat. Moreover, given that the notions that models “have to” be tall and thin would supposedly be the very antithesis of the Me, Myself campaign, then I can’t think of any reason to reject her for something like that especially.

As it happens, there is already a Korean female boxer who makes a great deal of money through sponsorship, commercial and TV appearances: Choi Shin-hui (최신희), whom I found about via this slightly old but otherwise excellent introduction to female boxing in Korea over at Korea Beat, and it turns out that two years ago at least there was quite a boom in the sport, with Korea having several world champions. I’m almost a little reluctant to post any pictures of her however, as with the vast majority available being modeling shots (including this one below for Vogue magazine in 2004 for example; see here for the article), then they’re naturally going to present her in a much better light than the few and quite frankly rather hideous ones of Kim Ji-young in action out there. So I include a link to this and this other one (scroll down) of Choi Shin-hui from that period too, not to imply that she’s ugly in them—quite the opposite—but more to demonstrate that they’re certainly less flattering than those to be found in advertisements, which just again goes to show that however unglamorous they—or you and I for that matter—can appear in photos of them grunting away at their sport(s) can be, surely Kim Ji-young and/or other athletes like her should have been in consideration for even a one-off, token appearance at a launch for products that are supposedly aimed at athletic women? Even just the minimal consideration towards the campaign’s professed message that that would have demonstrated would have been much better than none at all.

choi-shin-hui-boxing-in-vogue-women-in-2004(Source: DBSD Boxing)

Or am I making too much of it? Do you think athletes weren’t used simply (and perhaps quite legitimately) because of their inexperience with a catwalk? Or is there another simple reason I’m overlooking?

Regardless, if you’ve read this far then you’ll probably also be quite interested in and inspired by this story of 18 year-old Choi Hyun-Mi, who defected with her family from North Korea in 2004 and on whose boxing success they now entirely rely on for financial support (Update: Sorry that the link has died; instead here’s a video below). And I have one final request too: somewhere on this list of expat blogs is one I used to read by a woman in Seoul who happens to be a female boxer and very active in the boxing scene, but I’ve completely forgotten both its and her name, it being a long time since this blog you’re reading turned my own reading of other blogs from pleasure into business (sigh). Writing this post has made me interested again though, and I may well want to pick her brains about some of the issues raised in it too, so if anyone knows who I’m talking about, please pass on her blog address!