Friday, 28 March 2008

English is hard, soju, and ranting about objectification of women, yet again.

Soundtrack time: hit play and start reading.

nina simone - sinnerman. Boy, this song is great. Let it build. Listen to the whole darn thing.


Here's an ad for soju, Korea's national cheap alcohol (think Russians and vodka). Originally, soju was brewed from rice, but during food shortages in the 1910s and 1960s, laws were passed that required rice to be used for eating instead of brewing. The soju recipe changed: instead of brewing something using a process even vaguely traditional, they just took pure alcohol and diluted it with water and chemical sweeteners. The result is something I avoid drinking at nearly all costs, whose taste I liken to a cross between Japanese sake, cheap vodka, cheap tequila, and ass. It's cheap as spit and tastes like butt: it's the very definition of an alcoholic's drink. In fact, in the '90s, some companies tried to bring back traditional soju, prepared according to the pre-Japanese colonization methods, but because it was nine dollars a bottle instead of a buck fifty (and because they were released on the market just before the Asian Economic Crisis, when nobody had any money to spend on pricey alcohols, but had lots of sorrows to drown, as cheaply as possible), Koreans spurned the traditional drink in favour of the cheap-ass alkie sauce.

My nickname for it is "tequila light" because it's a little weaker than tequila, but it acts the same way: a tendency towards an angry drunk, and when you get drunk on it, it kind of ambushes you: you're fine, you're fine, you're fine, then suddenly you're really trashed. Anyway, here's a poster for soju I saw recently.

In an attempt to turn a negative to a positive, chamiseul is actually trading on the face you make when you ingest something disgusting, telling buyers that if your drink forces you to make this face (see below), ladies will reward you with coy smiles (bottom right, above) and showing you their bare shoulders while making wanton come-hither looks (top left, above: you just know she's giving him the guns with her hands just outside the frame).

Usually soju is advertised with pictures of really really hot girls (see below, and here), but if they decide to switch to pictures of men crying. . . well, I won't stare at the posters as much, but I'll giggle more.

It's actually kind of funny that in the west, a female star knows she's "made it" when she gets a contract with Chanel No. 5 or Elizabeth Arden, while in Korea, a female star knows she's arrived if she's asked to pitch for cheap alcohol.

Strolling about the downtown:

There are a bunch of nightclubs in Jongno which hire people called bikkis to try and recruit cute girls (and guys who look like they have cash) to go to their club (as a draw for males). The cuter a girl is, the more insistent the bikkis will be, trying to get her into their club. I've heard the bikki's behaviour defended as being "flattering" to their targets, but to me it looks like bald-faced sexual harassment. Yes. He's grabbed her hand, and is trying to physically pull her into the club. This is a common occurrence. I can't believe they haven't had their asses sued to high heaven for this kind of behaviour, and I'm trying to imagine how many kneed groins and pepper-sprayed eyes those obnoxious bikkis would suffer if they tried to pull this kind of garbage in a city like New York. As you notice above, passersby don't even give this kind stuff a second glance, and sometimes I can take it in stride, but other times, it really rankles.

A minute later two of his friends were helping, and the guy in the white jacket didn't want me to take any more pictures.

And you know, that "many girls just feel flattered" thing is garbage. I don't buy it anymore. "I'm flattered when they slaver over me for my looks" basically means "I've internalized the male gaze and sexist lookism so deeply that it validates me as a human to be fawned over and even harassed for my looks" -- the same way a rich person can go ahead and feel good about himself because he's surrounded by sycophants and yes-men/women, but in reality the respect he receives is a sham, completely contingent on his deep pockets, and has no reflection on his integral quality as a human being whatsoever. "She should be flattered when they try to physically pull her into the club" follows the same logic as "Well if she didn't want to be raped, she shouldn't have dressed that way," but to a lesser degree, and applied in a slightly different direction.

Here in Korea, women spend SO FRIGGIN' MUCH TIME on their looks, they wear mini-skirts in the dead of winter and cake on makeup and consider it a requirement of life. One of my (older male) students told me point blank that he thinks women who don't wear makeup are lazy. Some of them do it because they need to appear professional for their job; fair enough. Male bankers also need to be well-groomed. Some of them do it and they're honest enough to admit that it's mostly because it improves their social or business prospects. Some even get plastic surgery for that reason. (Korea has one of the highest per-capita plastic surgery rates in the world. The double-eyelid surgery is a common high-school graduation gift for girls.)

I'm still not sure what to think, though, of women who dress like a tart and then intone, "Oh, I don't even CARE if men stare at me. I just dress this way because it makes me feel sexy" (or even worse: "I dress this way because it makes me feel pretty. . . I hate that men ogle me just for expressing myself") -- is there a disconnect between self-perception and reality? Is that basically another way of saying, "I've internalized media beauty/femininity standards so deeply that I can't create an image of myself that I like without acting out the fantasy a sexist, objectifying media has foisted on me"? Or is it a little white lie because it'd sound cynical to admit "I put myself on display because I like the attention, or the benefits I receive from letting men stare at my legs"? What are the other options/rationalizations?

I mean, I'm a dude, so I don't really have the right to speak on anyone's behalf, and I ought to stick with asking questions instead of making statements about this business until I know more, but it upsets me sometimes to see women in Korea (and all around the world) tie so much of their self-image onto an impossible standard of beauty, and I don't know if saying, "I do it because I feel more confident" (that might be the number one excuse for women getting plastic surgery here) is a way of sidestepping the need to find a positive self-image based in one's character (because looks are easier, if you've got'em, and make a quicker first impression), or if it's basically an admission that they've internalized the image of beauty programmed into them by advertisers and beauty magazines. I'd prefer to listen before I speak on this topic, so to the women who read this: I'm very interested to hear what you think -- do you dress "sexy" or "pretty" according to some image or standard? Where does that standard come from, and why have you chosen to follow it? What do you think of the "It makes me feel confident/sexy" justification: does that hold water, and if not, where does it come from? Do you feel pressure to dress "prettier" or "sexier," and what do you do about that pressure? What are the other justifications people use for spending an hour in front of the mirror in the morning?

I mean heck, I get better responses from people when I dress nicely and take care of myself too, but I think of the outward appearance basically as something that can either help or hinder someone from getting to know, or wanting to get to know, the person I actually am, and I make sure that the reasons I love myself are not connected to things one would notice better when I'm wearing a bathing suit, or spot on first glance, and disappear when I get old, anyway.

speaking of sexism. . . so does that sign imply that being female is a disability, or am I just being obtuse now?

Some more Soju ads: I think they're selling sex here.

Look at the kittenish way the girl acts in this one -- the objectification of women in soju ads is really blatant, and often leans toward this type of childish persona.

This is Kim Ah-joong, one of Korea's hot young stars. Again, she really plays up the submissive role; this situation and her voice/body language makes me think of a hostess bar, where men pay women to pour drinks for them (and sometimes much, much more); the shaky camera work and the in-and-out of focus shooting makes it seem more like a first-person, slightly drunk point of view, and look at the way she makes eye contact with the camera, goes in for the "love shot" at the end, and calls the camera "oppa" which is the term for older brother common in hostess bars, because (again) it strikes a submissive and slightly childish pose.

Interestingly, that exact "love shot" was in the news recently here in Korea.

In other news. . .

Wires in the sky. Look at that tangle!

The Big Hominid (see my sidebar) "found the following at this nice blog:"

22 Reasons Why English Is Hard

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert..
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail
18) After a number of injections my jaw got number.
19) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
20) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
21) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
22) He decided to comb the tomb to find the bomb.

Near my house: for the (dwindling number of) people who tell you there are no gays in Korea:
There on the door is the rainbow flag, the symbol for gay pride.
When my boss first walked me to my current apartment, he warned me and my coworker to avoid a certain street near our house, because homosexuals meet there. Neither of us quite knew how to respond to such a warning, so we made it into a running joke.

There was about a kilometer's worth of buses near chunggyechun stream on Friday: there are protests going on, and LMB (Lee Myungbak), Korea's new president, has promised to be tougher on protesters than the previous, socialist president.
Working as a riot control officer must be the most boring job in the world: "Hey. We want six hundred of you to sit in a bus for eight hours today and sweat in full riot gear, just in case something happens.

That's all for today. . . but any females still reading: I really AM interested to hear what you think about the questions I asked above.

(ps: thanks to James Turnbull from The Grand Narrative for the link and the kudos. I've been very interested to read your articles on sexism in Korea, and it's informed what I wrote here.)


Buffoon said...

"Look at the kittenish way the girl acts in this one -- the objectification of women in soju ads is really blatant, and often leans toward this type of childish persona...."
Rob, thats the way it is and will continue to be... This is Korea!

Roboseyo said...

You're right, SB, but you know, my Girlfriend moans about the cold even though her complaints won't change the weather one bit. . . I guess I can do the same about this.

thegrandnarrative said...

You're welcome, and I learned some things from reading this post too.

Especially about the "bikkis," I mean...Jesus. How does that shit go on? I had no idea that the job existed, and knowing now that they do exist and that men and women tolerate what they do clearly shows just how sexist Korea really is.

Much more clearly than anything I've ever written about it anyway!


Roboseyo said...

Just head down to Jongno on a Friday night, and in the Piano Street vicinity you can see them trolling up and down the streets in black jackets (during the winter) with radio earphones to hear who the other bikkis spotted. "We got a nine in front of the dalk-galbi restaurant. . . need backup. All units: two nines, an eight point five and a seven in a group, coming out of Musetti coffee shop!"

I'm not sure what formula they use to decide how much contact/force/aggressiveness they on any particular person -- some hotties walk by mostly unmolested, with a few words or a business card; some get a touch on the wrist, some get a hand-grab-pulling "come with me" and, closer to the club entrances, you'll see two on one tug-of-wars (sometimes as the hottie's less-hot friend stands by, watching with a bemused and slightly envious face).

They'll also come onto guys if you're young and look loaded.

The one phrase that'll get them off you immediately is "I'm underage."

It's absolutely unreal.

Anonymous said...

*Sigh* I pretty much agree with everything here except the woman/handicapped bathroom bit. Isn't that just b/c is seems like the men's bathroom is "downstairs" (hence the down arrow)? Obviously, handicapped people shouldn't (or can't) go down a set of stairs to reach the WC.

Roboseyo said...

Anonymous: thanks for the comment; of course I know the women/handicapped sign was not meant to disparage women -- I just saw it and thought it was funny.

When I told my girlfriend about this post, she said "I don't think any women will answer your question. . . women don't like talking about it." So far, unless you're Anonymette rather than Anonymous, she's been right. . . which is interesting in its own right.

erikaat said...

i'll comment, and I'm a lady! particular about the question of why women dress scantily and say it's because they're liberated...i'm not a blogger, but i came here from the link on "the grand narrative" - and thought something i gleaned from there might actually apply really well here - that consumerism in the west is often guised as liberating, a matter of personal choice, and the whole venture is deeply imbued with sex (particularly female sexuality). So, the choice to wear what your told is an individual choice (just like they said it is). In korea, the point is conformity, there's a completely different underlying motivation. I don't think i hear that "I do it cause it's liberating" &%*^ in Korea nearly to the same degree, if ever. I'm told my skirt should be shorter around here.

Roboseyo said...

Conformity. That's very interesting. I was browbeaten into shaving my beard after my first ten months here, mostly just because I got tired of having the "why don't you shave your beard?" conversation.

Thanks for weighing in and proving me wrong, Erikaat! Conversations about gender roles are much more informative and fruitful when they involve actual women, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


Jennifer said...

I once nearly gave a bikki a heart attack by asking him why he wasn't inviting me - a moment of sheer beauty I'll treasure forever in my memory. There's a large nightclub on the road between city hall and Seoul station where they're particularly aggressive. . .
I think lots of Korean women don't like talking about it because they're not able to admit it without admitting some complacency in the system. Many women know there's vast inequality, but in a more conformist society, individuals are much less willing and able to make changes on an individual level that would lead to broader societal changes. And when other women do in fact flout the system, women are the first to condemn the change to avoid downfall by association. The seeming internalization of the meaning of the "sexy" dress is in many cases not so internalized.
Post-feminist rhetoric ("I dress sexy because I like it, not for men") seems to have taken hold here without Koreans ever experiencing a true feminist movement. . .the concepts are understood, and changes are going on (primarily thanks to economic shifts, I think) but without a broad, society-wide re-examination of women's roles.

Jennifer said...

Sigh, I think I left a sentence out of that last comment, but I'm too lazy to go back and figure out what it was.

ROK Hound said...

As for why English is hard, try this one:

Chris said...

Hey I'm a Korean female university student in Seoul and came by your post while researching. I totally agree with you! And the comments about conformity! Women put so much emphasis on their appearances. If I didn't care so much my friends would remind me I'm losing my feminity. One of my best friends put so much money in her looks saying, "For a woman looks are everything." (And she is educated.) She tutors about 6 students for the money.

I hate the media. It keeps on telling me that my value as a woman depends entirely on my looks. And that I have to be submissive, a sexual object to men. It just naturally seeps into my brain. One of the reasons I don't watch TV.

Well, too much to say, but it's 3AM. Maybe I'll drop by again. Thanks for the great post :) I was encouraged that my thoughts and resistance to sexist ideas weren't all that wrong. It's interesting to see Korea in a third person's point of view.

Roboseyo said...

glad you liked it, Chris. Take it easy, and keep on avoiding TV: according to James Turnbull of The Grand Narrative, it's only going to get worse during the recession.

Laura said...

I'm responding very late to this entry because, well, I just found it! I'm a woman and a feminist and wanted to respond to some of the things you said.

First off, thanks for saying that the "'many girls feel flattered' thing is garbage" as though that were obvious common sense, because it should be! And yet, it remains a really common excuse for sexism in America, as well as (apparently) Korea.

Second off, I do think the answer to your questions about why women say "I dress this way because it makes me feel sexier/more confident/better" is also obvious. It's generally NOT a little white lie. It really is, as you say, "I've internalized media beauty/femininity standards so deeply that I can't create an image of myself that I like without acting out the fantasy a sexist, objectifying media has foisted on me". The image presented to women that their value derives from their ability to appear sexy to men is incredibly strong. Looks are almost always the first thing discussed about any women in the public eye. Women are taught to value their looks. It's not surprising that it would be a form of self-worth.

I don’t think all or even most women feel good about themselves only because of their looks. But I think even in women who are aware of and love their own intelligence, athleticism, or personality, the sense of validation that we get from being found attractive is so strong that it can be incredibly difficult to resist. Now, there is a difference between looking attractive, and making yourself into an explicitly sexual object, but either way the reason most women spend so much time on their appearance is that it’s so highly valued, and they are taught to value themselves based on how physically attractive they can appear to others.

(I think I switch between “we” and “they” in the above – probably because I can relate to some of the feelings but have luckily become aware of the extent to which my appearance is prioritized, which has allowed me to minimize its effects.)

Andrew said...

Roboseyo, I don't know how I stumbled upon your website, but I find it quite entertaining and refreshing. I look forward to reading more of your columns.

Didi said...

A little late, but I couldn't resist commenting on this piece.

'Acting kittenish', and 'childish persona'. Two aspects of Korean culture that I find both fascinating and a little pathetic in equal measures. Seeing grown, (largely) self-respecting women acting like six year olds is common, but from what I've learned in my short time in this country it's largely to do with the fact that openly flaunting your body (esp. breasts for women) is frowned upon and viewed as slutty. Women are forced to find other ways to express themselves, and what better way to do it than look cute, pathetic and helpless? I come from New Zealand, where women are hugely empowered and compete on virtually an equal footing in all aspects of life with men - behaviour like that of Korean women is fascinating to me and totally foreign. If I were to wear a tiny little short Korean skirt at home in NZ I would most likely be considered slutty too, but if I am to expose large amounts of my upper body and shoulders it's considered perfectly acceptable. I guess that like a lot of things I've noticed in Korea, it really just comes down to cultural differences. As Buffoon said - this is Korea! (TIK!)

palladin said...

I know this is extremely late in posting so I might of missed the boat on this discussion but I'll add my own 0.02.

The acceptance by a male of a females sexual desirability is hard-wired into the female brain. The same way a males brain is hard-wired to desire the acceptance of females. It has nothing to do with social images or higher level discussions, its base reproduction instinct expressing itself. Both male and female brains ~need~ to be accepted by the other sex as desirable for reproduction, aka sexual objectification. You can repress it and control this urge but it will always be present as long as that person has a sex drive. Social norms will define what is and is not acceptable and desirable for mating and sexual reproduction. This isn't done in a policy or some big academic debate but in the everyday dealings and communication of our lives. The media is using sexuality to sell their products, it is a known fact that "sex sells" as long as you don't push it too far past the current acceptance point.

In short females dress / groom themselves into sexual objects because it brings up the acceptance of men, particularly sexually attractive men. The females deep instinct is to want to attract and mate with those sexually attractive men, no matter what her upper conscious wants to tell itself. In this same way men dress / groom themselves into sexual objects to attract the female for sexual breeding. Males also have to deal with the fact that their relative (to other attractive males) success (money / power / achievement) is a big factor in female mate selection. Females are attracted to attracted men who are successful, males are attracted to sexually objectified females.

When a society try's to deny these basic primal animal instincts rather then deal with them on the level, you get all sorts of social issues. Everything from sexual harassment to law-suits for a compliment. You also end up with males / females who refuse to care about their appearance then later complain about it. 30% and climbing obesity rate in the USA vs 3.4% obesity rate in SK / Japan.