Korean Gender Reader


Sorry for the slow posting and unanswered emails and comments everyone: I was busy with preparing for a guest lecture at Keimyung University held last weekend, and have been sick with stomach problems ever since (I’ll spare you the details)!

1) Photoshopped or Not? A Tool to Tell

Thanks to everyone who told me about this new software tool for detecting photoshopping. If this is the first you’ve heard of it though, probably the following paragraph from the Economist gives the best basic introduction:

Professor Hany Farid, a computer scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and his PhD student Eric Kee, have been investigating photo retouching. They have developed a mathematical expression to quantify ballooning bosoms and winnowed waists. Their paper, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes how they use mathematical models along with subjective human responses to produce a score of how radically a person’s image has been modified from an original photograph.

Even though there does seem to be an increasing backlash against excessive photoshopping in recent years, at least in Western countries, the exposure this paper has received in the media has still been (pleasantly) surprising, with articles on it published in the likes of the New York Times, the Guardian, Nature, and Wired. I think the reason is that several European governments have already been looking for ways to quantify how much a particular image has been manipulated, to be put as some sort of numerical rating next to it wherever it is displayed, and this new software provides exactly that. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if such disclosures become required by EU law within the next 5 years, especially now that this software is available.

With excessive photoshopping not so much being critiqued as almost celebrated in Korea though (see here, here, here, and here), I’d hesitate to predict when or even if the Korean government will ever do the same. After all, one of the advertisements mentioned in the last link (posted again above; source) was plastered all over the Daegu subway on my trip there last week, despite making Lee Da-hae (이다해) look like an alien, and this week my wife’s and even children’s passport photos were automatically retouched by the photographer before we received them!

Update 1 – To play Devil’s Advocate, my wife says that our children’s photos were primarily retouched to ensure that their ears were visible, and that the background was completely white (their messy hair obscured both). I don’t seem to recall having problems when I was a kid with messy hair myself, but it’s certainly possibly that passport photo requirements have changed since, and by no means just in Korea. Can anybody shed some light on this?

Update 2– With thanks to Brian in Jeollnamdo for passing it on, here is a post doing just that!


2) Boundaries, Consent, and “Skinship” (스킨십)

Reposted with permission from My Musings (thanks!):

i’ve been thinking about this for a while; and the thoughts i have around this topic is not yet fully fleshed out. but while i was watching this korean talk show called “sae ba qwe” that airs on MBC on saturdays, i was reminded of this topic that doesn’t sit well with me and i need to air it out some.

there’s this confusing and ignorantly dangerous message about personal boundaries within romantic relationships (actually, in all relationships, it seems) that went on blast, yet again, in the korean media.

they were talking about what women prefer more:

1. that men initiate “skinship” (aka physical affection through touch) without asking
2. that men ask permission before initiating “skinship” (source, right)

(alarmingly,) majority of the panel on the talk show picked option 1—that men do not need permission; that somehow, being in a relationship is an umbrella consent for skinship. thank God the panel was wrong—the group of women interviewed for this show this week supported option 2: they like being asked for permission.

it’s a slippery road; this assumption that agreeing to be in a relationship is somehow is equivalent to the green light to any and all kinds of skinship any time.

before i start harping on the patriarchal ideas that this seems to support and how backwards and misogynist my culture can be, i want to note something bigger than just gender issues at play here. this is a boundary thing that my korean culture (doesn’t) deal with that’s different from the western culture that i live in.

this seemingly alarming lack of regard for personal boundaries isn’t just about physical boundaries between a man and a woman within an intimate relationship. there’s lack of clear limit in emotional and social boundaries as well. it’s present in relationships between parent and children; teachers and students; even in boss and employee. consent and having to ask for one seems to mean something different in this cultural context than what i can make out through my western and very feminist lenses.

i haven’t fully figured it out what/how to make sense of it and where i stand on this lack of boundary thing for various reasons. i’m keeping my eye on it though, for sure.

Wikipedia, by the way, says the word “skinship” is derived from Japlish. It doesn’t mention though, that in Korea in at least its overwhelmingly used for couples, rather than for friends or parents and children (is this also true in Japan now?).

Update 1 – A pertinent observation from Noona Blog: Seoul:

It’s funny though, that regardless of how strong the female characters are, and regardless of how “feminist” they are supposed to seem, in a Korean drama there is always a  situation where a guy kisses her although she doesn’t want to, and then finally she gives in and kisses him back. Just a thought; is this really a good way to present relationships to a young audience? That it’s ok for a guy to kiss the girl even though she says no?

Update 2 – Please see here for My Musing’s response to the comments thread, and a clarification of her first post.

(The first interracial kiss on US television, November 1968)

3) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Interracial Relationships in Taiwan

And with the statistics to prove it. A must-read from My Kafkaesque Life, with many parallels to Korea.

4) South Korea Accepts Sexual Harassment as “Workplace Injury”

From Google News:

A South Korean woman who suffered repeated sexual harassment at work will be awarded compensation, the state workers’ welfare agency said in a landmark ruling which acknowledged her suffering amounted to a work-related injury.

Saturday’s judgment marked the first time that suffering caused by sexual harassment has been classed as a workplace injury, and many other victims are now likely to file similar appeals with the agency, the Yonhap news service reported.

Read the rest there. Also, you may be interested in this case from April last year, about the first woman to successfully sue Samsung for sexual harassment.


5) First Korean Documentary about Homosexual Men Airs in Jeju

From the Jeju Weekly:

On Nov. 19 at Art Space C in Jeju City roughly 40 people, mainly Westerners, were on hand to watch “Miracle on Jongno Street,” (종로의 기적) the first Korean documentary about homosexual men. In his debut as director, Lee Hyuk-sang has created a film that shows the daily lives of four gay Korean men living in a society that has yet to accept them as equals.

Released nationwide at 20 theaters on June 2 of this year, the film follows Joon-Moon, film director; Byoung-gwon, a gay rights activist; Young-soo, a chef who moved to Seoul from the country; and Yol, an HIV/AIDS activist who wishes to live in a world that accepts his partnership with his HIV-positive lover. Connected around Jongno Street in Seoul, a “little paradise” for homosexual men according to the film’s synopsis, the documentary does much more than simply depict their lives as gay men, but attempts to break down walls of prejudice and show that their hopes, dreams, and goals are the same as those of heterosexuals.

Read the rest there. Has anybody seen it?

(The name, by the way, probably derives from that fact that Jongno is well-known for its LGBT [especially gay?] hotels and bars)

Korean Photoshop Disaster #9: Soju Goggles (Updated)


Pondering questions about excessive photoshopping in ads for a radio interview I’ll be doing next week, yesterday I would have said that Koreans are so accepting, even welcoming of it, that unfortunately little surprises me anymore.

Then I saw the alien that has replaced Lee Da-hae (이다해) on Charm Soju’s (참소주) website

Update – Thanks to Paul Kerry for drawing my attention to these further examples, also available on the website:

Paul at least has seen them in a restaurant (example here), and Lee Da-hae’s endorsement deal also produced a lot of Korean news reports and blog entries back in September, so they’re certainly out there. Unfortunately though, I’ve been searching in vain for any mention of the Photoshopping in them. As they say, the silence is deafening!

Korean Photoshop Disaster #6: I like it hot, strong, and black! (Updated)

( Source )

Do men pay more attention to men’s chests than women?

As a gym addict 10-15 years ago, I read somewhere in a newspaper that they do. And with my self-confidence back then wholly tied to how much I buffed up, it certainly matched my own experience.

Unfortunately for the sake of objectivity though, it’s been difficult not to remember that every time I’ve seen a topless man ever since. One look at Changmim of 2AM half-naked and holding his crotch in a coffee ad then, and all I could think about was the large, firm package that used to be the weekend edition of the New Zealand Herald.

Naturally enough, most commenters at allkpop and Omona! They Didn’t focused on the one that Changmin was allegedly holding in his left hand instead, and I’m going to take a wild guess that most of those were heterosexual women. Perhaps that explains why so few noticed the appalling photoshop job on his chest?^^

Yet despite men’s greater interest in those in a competitive sense, in reality not only is bilateral symmetry a good indicator of genetic health for both sexes, and hence a heavily favored trait in mates, but even women’s own breasts become more symmetrical during the most fertile period of their menstrual cycle too. So it’s a strange oversight.

And of course for the photoshopper too, who presumably originally aimed to create some sort of languid, fluid-like effect, and I expect the mistake will be corrected before the full ad campaign for Maeil’s “Cafe Latte Americano Dutch” is launched on the 13th (source, above). But regardless, and on a more serious note now, it still has to be the first of the recent spate of Korean advertisements to objectify men that I’ve positively disliked, rather than be merely nonplussed or amused by.

For it is just as lame as it is provocative.

Putting aside how problematic the slogan “Find Your Black” is to English speakers, as described at allkpop the campaign’s basic concept is that various members of 2AM represent “Chic Black”, “Luxury Black”, “Tough Black”, and Changmin as “Sexy Black,” and the first major problem with the ad is also the most obvious: what does a topless idol grabbing his genitalia has to with coffee exactly?

Or indeed, with being “sexy”, and it that sense it also reduces to and perpetuates the notion that sexiness is only a matter of skin exposure, whether for men or for women. A problem which is hardly unique to the Korea media of course, but it is exaggerated here, and so unfortunately I’m wasn’t all that surprised that that was the best that the creative team could come up with.

And yet, would the same ad have actually been possible with a woman? Specifically, one with her hand placed on her crotch, a pretty blatant gesture of intent in anyone’s language?

( Source: unknown )

But why so specific? Well, if there’s one consistent theme to emerge out of writing about Korean advertisements for 3 years, that would be being witness to a long line of firsts: the first erect nipples; the first portrayal of Korean female – foreign male relationships; the first kiss; the first spoof of objectification within ads(!); the first soju ad to portray a woman as, well, really rather slutty, as opposed to decades of portraying them as virgins; and so on. And no matter how difficult it may be to believe for recent visitors to the country, in fact some of those emerged just within the last 3 weeks, let alone the last 3 years.

So, it’s natural to write as if I have almost a perverted fixation on things like crotches sometimes! And indeed, if there’s one thing to take away from Changmin’s ad, it’s the realization that however permissible grabbing one’s crotch is in passing in brief dances on talk shows and in music videos and so on in Korea, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a print advertisement. On women or on men, and hence netizens’ intense interest in Changmin’s ad.

But of course I may be wrong, and so as always, please pass on any earlier ads that you are aware of. But for various reasons, I really do think that an equivalent ad with a woman would have aroused far more controversy.

How about you? Let me finish by providing two related examples to help get you thinking.

First, the the above one with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) from 2006, which at first glance is sexually-assertive enough. But as commenter “huncamunca” pointed out to me 2 years ago (in a post I ironically deleted yesterday!), it is definitely not an example of the sexually aggressive “cowboy stance” that I first interpreted it as:

…I agree that the “cowboy” thumbs in the belt loops make the picture sexual, but other elements of the stance make it sexual AND DEMURE, not aggressive. Usually, in the cowboy stance, the shoulders are relaxed and legs are slightly apart, with weight more on one foot than the other (see for example the picture of the woman on page 240 of the Pease book) [on body language]. However, Kim Ah-jung’s shoulders are raised, as if she is shrugging slightly in a demure way. Her elbows are straight and held close to her body to take up as little space as possible, which is not typical of the relaxed cowboy stance. Her legs are also tightly closed to take up as little space as possible, and they don’t look like they are about to take her toward what she wants. Her head is tilted down so she can look up demurely at the viewer. The combination of raised shoulders and lowered head is similar to the “Head Duck” in the Pease book (p. 235), which shows submissiveness. Also the wind effect makes it look as though whatever she is looking at (presumably a male viewer) is powerful enough to nearly blow her away while she marvels at him and waits for his approach. She doesn’t look like she intends to act, but rather like she hopes to be acted upon–sexual but still submissive.

Not that Changmin looks all that sexually aggressive either of course: indeed, he appears to be protecting himself more than anything else, but either way the ambiguity again points to a lack of thought behind the campaign.

Finally, a female equivalent of gratuitous objectification and/or nudity in a coffee ad provided by Italian coffee company Lavazza, also in 2006:

( Source )

Notorious for ads involving sex and/or the excessive objectification of women since at least 2005, this one was ultimately judged as discriminating against women by the Swedish Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising (ERK), and presumably forced to be withdrawn:

Sweden’s Ethical Council has a lower tolerance for the use of scantily clad women to advertise products than comparable regulatory bodies in other countries…

…ERK judged “that the woman is used as an eye catcher without any connection to the advertised products, and that it is insulting towards women”.In its defence Lavazza wrote that the 2006 calendar from which the images were taken used humour and irony to recreate a 1950s feel. The company claimed that the images depicted glamour, style and a lust for life and were in no way discriminatory.

[ERK Secretary] Jan Fager disagrees. In his opinion it is not acceptable for an advertisement for coffee to be sexy in the same way as, for example, an underwear ad. He noted that while H&M has come in for much criticism from the general public the company’s Christmas campaigns have never been found in breach of ethical standards…

…In its written judgment the ERK maintained that Lavazza had not lived up to the principle “that advertising should be formed with due regard for social responsibility”

Good for ERK, and yes, I rather like that acronym too!^^ But one wonders what they would make of Changmin?

Update – Unfortunately my English copy is in New Zealand, but see below for more on the cowboy stance, and how intimately sexual and physical aggression can be linked. From pages 236 and 237 of the Korean edition of The Definitive Book of Body Language by Alan and Barbara Pease (2006), it’s easily one of the most helpful book purchases you’ll ever make, although I did much prefer the realistic line drawings in the 1989(?) edition to the cartoon-like ones and photos of famous people in the new one:

And for comparison’s sake, here’s a less disastrously photoshopped image of Changmin:

( Source )

(For more posts in the Korean Photoshop Disasters series, see here)


Korean Photoshop Disaster #5: Girls’ Generation’s legs too fat for China?

( Source )

Given the clear artistic license applied to the other main image in this series, would you say that here too, the graphic designer deliberately intended for members of Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) to look like virtual caricatures of themselves?

Update: See Korean Lovers Photoblog for the full series.

(For more posts in the Korean Photoshop Disasters series, see here)


Korean Photoshop Disaster #3: Park Tae-hwan’s Babyface

( Source: High Cut )

Granted, it’s not the most egregious case of a Korean athlete’s face being photoshopped. That dubious honor still remains firmly in the hands of Gillette Korea, whose choice of pockmarked Manchester United footballer Park Ji-sung (박지성) to endorse them last year is probably also the most glaring example of the over-reliance on celebrities in Korean advertising too.

Unlike him though, youthful Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan (박태환) already has unblemished and unusually smooth skin, which raises the question of what the photoshopping was for exactly?

Personally, it reminds me of the airbrushing of Milla Jovovich’s face in Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), which many viewers found unnecessary, confusing and/or distracting. Indeed, while I’ll be the first to admit that Tae-hwan has a great body (more of which you can see in the last post), and with the proviso that I’m a (jealous) heterosexual male, I’d say that in the second picture in the series his now somewhat seal-like face simply draws too much attention away from his abs…

Can anyone think of similar examples, particularly Korean ones? Please pass them on!

(For all posts in the Korean Photoshop Disasters series, see here)


Girls’ Generation’s Secrets Revealed?

Girls' Generation Yoona Photoshop

That advertisements featuring Girl’s Generation (소녀시대) are invariably photoshopped isn’t news of course, and these ones are hardly the most egregious examples either. But in a rare positive step, the before and after pictures for their latest advertisements for the LG Black Label Series Chocolate phone are currently featured on the front page of the “Enter Holic” or “Entertainmentholic” (엔터홀릭) section of the Korean MSN homepage, and so will have been the first thing many people saw when they opened Windows Live Messenger this morning.

Not to imply that most Koreans aren’t aware of photoshopping in advertisements of course. But still, anything that fosters further discussion of that is to be encouraged.

Girls' Generation Chocolate Phone Yoona( Source: goagsu4 )

Or at least, that was my first impression. Looking more closely though, in fact it was the before images that were used in the advertisements.  Unfortunately there is no information about who created the photoshopped images, or why, but with the statement “Wow! Very subtle changes make a big difference” (아주 미묘한 차이가 큰 차이를 만드는구놔), he or she implies that the altered images are to be preferred.