Sexually Harassing Girls’ Generation: The Manufacture of Outrage

( Source )

“People in their 30s and 40s are emerging as the main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation specifically targets the men in that age group,” says Lee Soo-man (53), CEO and producer for SM Entertainment. (Chosun Ilbo, November 2008)

( Source )

“People in their 30s and 40s are emerging as the main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation specifically targets the men in that age group,” says Lee Soo-man (53), CEO and producer for SM Entertainment. (Chosun Ilbo, November 2008)

Words to bear in mind as you consider the storm in a teacup that preoccupied Korean entertainment news last week: Girls’ Generation were sexually harassed. Or were they?

In brief, the alleged sexual harassment comes in the form of the cartoon of them below, drawn by Yoon Seo-in (윤서인) and posted on his daily webtoon site Joyride (조이라이드) on the 2nd of January. Outraging fans and attracting a great deal of negative publicity, it was soon withdrawn, and an explanation of the cartoon posted in its place. Threatened with (unspecified) legal action by SM Entertainment however, that was in turn replaced on the 18th with a much more detailed explanation and also apology for any misunderstandings caused (see both in Korean here). But this has not mollified SM Entertainment, who were expecting a direct apology to Girls’ Generation.

Unfortunately, this whole affair raises more questions than answers, which I’ll throw open to readers in a moment. But first, a quick look at Yoon’s background, as very few commentators on the cartoon wouldn’t have taken that into consideration. Indeed, it is rather difficult not to, some of the more notorious cartoons appearing on his usually sexually-themed site including: reacting to the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연) – to a large extent caused by having to prostitute herself to entertainment industry executives – by drawing old men in heaven grateful that a young woman with a good body has come to join them; equating fans of Japanese culture (chinilpa; 친일파) with collaborators during the Japanese colonial period; poking fun at feminists advocating children take a combination of both their father’s and mother’s surnames; implying that by being cute, wearing uniforms, and liking guns (note the innuendo), female police officers are all you need in a woman; and, last but not least, that people only care about the 3 pretty members of the 9 members of Girls’ Generation, and ignore the rest.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment however, given that background then there is little evidence to suggest that he was deliberately courting controversy with this particular cartoon; or at least, no more so than with others. Moreover, there has been a great deal of confusion as to what its joke is exactly, caused by many websites (both English and Korean) unknowingly using a version of the cartoon which had the title and first section removed for some reason.

In that part, the title reads “Past Pictures of Girl’s Generation” [from before they were famous] and – like fans anywhere – in the first section the two characters have suddenly found them and are eager to look. Unlike the pictures of them from before they were famous as expected though, in the second part that you see all nine members doing the jangwon gupjae (장원급제), the old examinations to become a civil official in during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) instead.

This supports Yoon’s claim that the cartoon was intended to be a comment on the practice of “fishing” on popular websites, or giving links to pornography or various advertisements false titles in order to get people to click on them. And in fact, a Korean friend of mine complained of that very thing on, the day before we tried and failed to understand a version of this cartoon without the first part, so I was easily persuaded when she came back with the full cartoon and explanation the next day.

Presumably, that surprise is one element to the humor, as is that fact that the word gwageoh (과거) or “past” in the title also means jangwon gupjae, making a pun. Also, considering how members of Girl’s Generation are invariably dressed in order to appeal to their fan base, then arguably a third element is that if the group had existed 100 years ago, that is indeed how they would have dressed. Fans have been incensed by their outfits, sexual poses(?), and Im Yun-ah’s (임윤아) lewd expression though, and especially by them pounding ricecakes in the final picture, well-known slang for having sex.

Which brings me to my first question: does this qualify as songheerong (성희롱), or sexual harassment?

Actually that may be a moot point, as despite numerous claims by both Korean and English sources that SM Entertainment is threatening to sue Yoon on that basis, I’ve yet to see that specific charge mentioned by any Korean news source. Which raises the additional question of whether the concept of sexual harassment is rather different in Korea, as indeed often happens with recent and largely imported concepts here, but I’ve yet to see any evidence for that either, these recent cases for instance very much sexual harassment by anyone’s definition (see here also).

Regardless, upon first coming across the cartoon at Seoulbeats, I quickly agreed with Vixenvarla’s argument that:

…based on the entire concept and marketing of Girl’s Generation, I don’t feel that this qualifies as sexual harassment. Everything involving this idol group revolves around images of extreme innocence (with sexual innuendos) or extreme sexuality. If we had never seen Girls’ Generation in these types of barely-there outfits or sexually suggestive poses, then the accusations of sexual harassment might work. But, like many other K-pop girl groups, Girls’ Generation was created to be “ogled” over by their target audience- male fans. How can you be angry at the cartoonist for drawing the women in the way they are constantly presented to him?

And I was content to leave it at that. But then I remembered that last year, I paid little attention to the claim that the new term kkulbeokji (꿀벅지) or “honey thighs” was sexist, only to have my opinion changed by this post of Matt’s at Gusts of Popular Feeling, who hadn’t dismissed it as readily as I (mentally) had. Lest I miss something like that again, I decided to give the cartoon a second look. While I’m still intrigued as to what exactly SM Entertainment may ultimately file a lawsuit against Yoon for though, and will keep you informed of developments, I’m afraid I still can’t see the sexual harassment.

Nevertheless, I am more than happy to have it pointed out by readers more knowledgeable than I. After all, I have honestly given the subject little thought previously, largely unenforced gender-related legislation ensuring that it is just one of a number of concerns women workers have to deal with in Korea. Literally the front line between the attitudes that keep half of Korean women out of the workforce and the economic realities that will undermine those however, I realize now though that sexual harassment can only become a more prominent issue over time.

But perhaps a more important question is to what extent cartoonists here have the same rights to lampoon public figures as they do in Western countries? Again, I am on unfamiliar territory, and would be interested in hearing people’s opinions. But I am aware, at least, of how different libel laws are here, as revealed by this case famous among long-term expats. And for those of you interested in something a little more academic, consider Kyu Youm’s 2009 paper “Defining Freedom of the Press and Libel Law: Korea’s Sociopolitical and Legal Experience” which I’ll be poring over this week, and more than happy to discuss!


Posted in Korean Feminism, Korean Media, Korean Sexism, Korean Sexuality, Korean Women’s Body Images Tagged: Girls’ Generation, 성희롱, 소녀시대, 윤서인, sexual harassment, Yoon Seo-in

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