gender roles

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Reading “The Lolita Effect” in Korea: Part 1

There’s so much raised by Kim Hyuna’s (김현아) performance of her infamous “pelvic dance” (골반댄스) on last week’s episode of Quiz That Changes The World (세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈) below, that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Probably most notable however, is the surrealism of having observers explicitly acknowledging the dance’s sexual nature, only then to implicitly deny that nature by their subsequent actions. For while the men whoop and comically feign arousal while watching it, looking for all the world like they’re in a strip club, actually the heterosexual women display a similar enthusiasm, and later a mixed group goes on to parody it. Finally, a 12 year-old girl in the audience is brought on stage to similarly thrust her crotch at the camera, much to the delight of all.

Naturally, I’ve already discussed the issue of the media projecting, exploiting and yet simultaneously denying female sexuality like this many times before, but after recently reading the The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It by M. Durham (2009), I realize now that I was rather naive in ever thinking that that was unique to Korea. Nevertheless, there are some features of the Korean media and social landscape that certainly exaggerate the phenomenon here at least, such as the slave-like contracts musicians have with their entertainment companies (did Hyuna want to dance because it was “empowering” in a sexual and/or feminist way, or because she felt compelled to?); “sexy dances” being synonymous with Korean talk shows, overwhelmingly by 20-something women; stereotypes of married and/or 30-something women as asexual; a huge prostitution industry; and so on. With the “Lolita Effect” being so extreme here then, in this series I’d like to use this episode of the show both to pass on Durham’s arguments to a wider audience and to gain some greater understanding of Korean media and sexuality in the process.

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Korean Sociological Image #45: Modernizing Traditional Korean Clothes

( Source )

For all my love of Korean culture, I’ve never really understood the appeal of modern hanbok (한복).

Primarily, because of their impracticality: after performing the ancestor worship rites known as cha-ryae (차례) in mine at my parents-in-laws’ house on various Korean holidays for instance, I find it very difficult to eat the traditional breakfasts that follow with such baggy sleeves getting in the way, especially at the low tables that most Koreans use. It also has no pockets, no zipper, and can get uncomfortably hot very easily, especially during Chuseok (추석) when the weather can still be quite warm. And my wife has similar problems with hers too, adding that women also seem to find their slightly more elaborate version more uncomfortable than men do theirs.

For those reasons, I fully expected the Wikipedia article on hanbok to mention that despite popular perceptions, only the small elite known as the yangban (양반) ever really wore them historically, who were notorious for being resolutely opposed to performing anything that smacked of physical labor. Was Koreans’ pride in their “national dress” a little misplaced then, and just another invented tradition like the kilt in Scotland?

Alas, it doesn’t say, although it does seem reasonable to suppose that practical considerations were undoubtedly more important for the bulk of the population. But what the article does demonstrate though, is that the hanbok has as rich and varied a history as, say, the Western suit (it was naive of me to be surprised at that), and the frequent changes in the various forms and usages of the garment over time indicate that its role as a signifier of class, status, and occupation was much more complicated than I first thought.

Still, I can’t think of a more unflattering garment for women.

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Sex as Power in the South Korean Military: A Follow-up

 

( Source )

Unfortunately, there is endemic sexual abuse within the South Korean military, which has grave implications for a society with universal male conscription: each year, perhaps 15% of 250,000 conscripts experience sexual abuse as either victims or perpetrators.

That figure comes from the journal article “Sexual Violence Among Men in the Military in South Korea” by Insook Kwon et. al., Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 22, No. 8, 1024-1042 (2007), in which I was happy to read that much of the researchers’ data was obtained by interviews with soldiers in their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. Signs of changing attitudes? Alas no, as I have just discovered that it still remains one of the least transparent institutions in Korea:

When the Cheonan sank [in March], the initial reaction was shock and sadness, which quickly gave way to rage: with a government accused of dragging its feet, but also with a military that seemed unprepared for a North Korean attack.

But anger with the military runs deeper than over a single event. Mistrust of the institution is widespread because it has failed to open itself up, using the excuse of national security, while the rest of the country has embraced democracy.

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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: News Flash

( Source: Metro, Busan edition, 8 July 2010, p. 3 )

A quick newspaper report that caught my eye while preparing the next post in this series.

Of course, I was a little disappointed that it discussed “average” smoking rates for men and women, an essentially useless concept given the diversity within each gender, and also widely inaccurate for women because of chronic underreporting by them. But that is to be expected for a free daily, and for what it’s worth it was interesting to see that Korean men retained the dubious honor of having one of the highest rates in the world. It also takes a step in the right direction by pointing out that female teenagers tend to start smoking much earlier than males too, which will hopefully result in more attention being given to that group:

People Would Consider Quitting if Cigarettes Cost 8500 won a Packet

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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 3

( Korea is 4th from right; source )

Apparently, Korea is pretty unique in its huge difference in smoking rates between the sexes: up to 10 times more Korean men smoke than women. Or do they?

In short, probably not: considering that a 2007 Gallup Korea study found that 83.4% of Koreans thought that women should not smoke, then the accuracy of almost all figures are undermined by chronic underreporting by women. Moreover, it is misguided to speak of male or female smoking rates in the first place when those within each gender differ so widely by age, socioeconomic position, and/or marital status. Even unhelpful too, as low perceived rates for women overall have encouraged Korean medical authorities to almost exclusively focus on reducing smoking rates among men instead, overlooking rapidly rising rates among young women especially.

But for all their flaws, it is only natural to want to have some numbers to work with. And so, when I wrote Part 1, my original intention here was to pass on all those provided by 3 recent journal articles on the subject, hopefully providing readers with enough information to get at least a rough idea of the true numbers in the process. Numerous failed drafts later however, I now realize that that approach was a mistake, and should have paid much more attention to the following points by Lee et .al. (2009):

…the limited data available on female smoking prevalence and behaviour in South Korea must be urgently addressed. Data from the Korean National Health and Nutrition Survey (Table 2) suggests female smoking rates have fluctuated significantly between 1980 and 2003, with variations within age groups by year that are difficult to explain. There are also inconsistencies across different data sources which prevent clear understanding of smoking behaviour within specific cohorts by age, location, socio-economic group and other variables.

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Korean Sociological Image #41: Mothers of Warriors

( Source )

A quick question: who would you choose to sell hormone-treatment and anti-depression medication to middle-aged women?

Barring Bae Young-joon (배용준) above, notoriously popular among them, then I’d wager that middle-aged women themselves were your most likely answer. And your least likely? Probably men in their early-20s, which begs the question of why they’re the only ones actually speaking in the following commercial from Dongkook Pharmaceutical (see below for a translation):

Of course, the reason the young men are featured at all is because Korea has universal male conscription, which makes parting scenes like those featured above a normal part of the Korean life-cycle. So while the leaving ceremony itself may be unfamiliar to most Western observers, a company encouraging consumers to associate its product with it is really no different from a bank using imagery of, say, children’s university graduation ceremonies to sell retirement savings plans.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s just any old commercial. For in simultaneously relying on but quite literally denying a voice to emotional Korean mothers, Dongkook Pharmaceutical has ironically provided an apt illustration of Korean women’s wider role in any public debates about military conscription. Which is in short, to be seen and not heard, frequently spoken for but otherwise only noticeable for their absence in rare policy debates, editorials, and opinion pieces and so forth on the subject in the media.

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Hot Sweaty Korean Women

Why do I like this commercial so much?

No, not because the dancer is 29 year-old Park Ga-hee (박가희), by coincidence leader of the girl band After School (애프터스쿨) whose songs I am translating at the moment. And not because she is by no means just another manufactured K-pop idol either, once literally penniless on the streets of Seoul after running away from home. Hell, not even because of her great body.

Rather, it’s because she’s sweating.

Yes, sweating. Because as I first highlighted over 2 years ago, Korean women generally prefer passive means of losing weight to active ones like exercise. Indeed, even the ones that do attend gyms rarely seem to exert any actual effort while they’re there, and I’ve seen less than a handful dripping with sweat while on a treadmill.

A gross over-generalization? Actually, I very much hope so, and admittedly not having gone to a Korean gym myself since 2004, then I’d be happy to learn that things have changed since. But my post did seem to strike a chord with readers’ own experiences back in 2008, and in turn the underlying attitudes to exercise that they demonstrated were corroborated by one of the few English language studies of the subject: “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006), by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon. With apologies to long-term readers for my frequent references to it, but it’s worth (re)highlighting some parts here to remind ourselves just how unique the Fat Down (팻다운) commercial really is:

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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 2

 

With apologies for the poor quality of the scans, those are from an activity in the ESL activity book Decisionmaker: 14 Business Situations for Analysis and Discussion (1997) by David Evans, which I happened to be doing with my advanced students when a reader sent me the journal articles that inspired this series.  It seemed a pity not to mention the interesting coincidence!

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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 1

 

( Park Soo-ae {박수에} in A Family {가족; 2004}; source )

As numerous expats can attest to, coming to live in Korea can be quite a jarring experience sometimes. But probably not as much as you’d expect, for Korea too is a modern, developed country, with institutions and services that match – nay, are often better – than equivalents in your home country. Comparatively speaking, the transition is really rather smooth.

Scratch below the surface however, and decidedly archaic twists to many aspects of daily life do soon emerge, many of which are profoundly gendered too. For example, after a few months here I began teaching a group of highly intelligent women already fluent in English, who attended my class merely as a hobby. All housewives, later I learned that they likely did so because while Korea has been providing an equal education to both sexes for decades now, and indeed as many as 82% of high-school graduates go on to university, just a few years after graduating women are routinely fired and/or are pressured to resign upon getting married or becoming pregnant. Which makes one wonder what the point of women’s higher education was exactly, and accordingly a study conducted just a few years earlier (Women’s education, work, and marriage in Korea: women’s lives under institutional conflicts by Mijeong Lee, 1998, pp. 161-163) found that, à la Jane Austen, it was largely to secure higher-earning husbands.

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Gender Advertisements: What, boys can drink girly drinks now?

Regularly criticizing food and drink companies for marketing their products so differently to either sex, or even exclusively just to one, then I’m surprised to find I have mixed feelings about the news that one company has actually chosen to stop doing so for a change: Hyundai Pharm (현대약픔), whose Miero Fiber (미에로화이바) “diet drink” for women was ironically the first of its kind in Korea, but for which a new campaign has been launched featuring Lee Joon (이준), a member of boy band MBLAQ (엠블랙), and Kwak Min-jung (곽민정), a figure skater:

제 2의 비라 불리며 초콜릿 복근으로 팬들의 마음을 사로잡고 있는 엠블랙 이준과 밴쿠버 동계올림픽에서 괄목할만한 성장으로 모두를 놀라게 한, 제2의 피겨여왕을 꿈꾸는 피겨스케이팅 선수 곽민정, 이 두 사람이 만난다면 어떤 모습일까?

엠블랙 이준과 곽민정 선수가 기능성 식이섬유 음료의 대표 주자인 현대약품 미에로화이바의 새모델로 발탁됐다.

Called the second Rain (비), and gaining a lot of fans through his chocolate abs, Lee Joon of MBLAQ is with Kwak Min-jung, a figure skater who startled everyone with her remarkable growth as a skater at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and who dreams of becoming the second figure skating queen [after Kim Yuna (김연아)]. What are they doing meeting together?

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