This is the first half of an extremely long series of thoughts, which I plan to complete a bit later. But I wanted to get this out there, since I was obsessing over this long piece and letting it sit on my hard drive for days; at that rate, it would never get finished. Here goes Part 1:
After a long time consciously watching Korean women through the viewfinder of my camera, on top of the all but unconscious "watching" I automatically do as a function of male desire - my male "gaze" - it struck me that many Korean women remind me of drag queens. Obviously, I am being a bit facetious, but only a little bit. This observation goes right to the heart of my thoughts about what I describe as the "fetishized femininity" that defines female identity here. I don't mean for my observations, like most of my photography - to be inherently comparative by locating everything in relation to my own life experience in the US or other countries I have visited or lived in. But since the standard Korean defense against any critique of things problematic is comparative equivocation, (the most popular form being "there are good and bad people everywhere," followed by "you have X in America, too!"), I must inevitably begin by invoking the magical protective powers of an explanative, qualifying seque.
Every culture/society/country has different problems and issues, rooted in specific histories and informed by various cultural traits and tendencies. America's prosperity was predicated upon - literally built upon - land taken by force and false treaties from people who were already living on it. The quick answer to labor issues and to the too many indentured servants demanding both headrights and real rights was the importation of the cheapest labor you could find: slaves. Make this into a system that utilized race to mark the inherited and permanent status of slavery, and you get a racial apartheid the likes of which the world had never seen. Fast forward a few hundred years, and Americans still have a particular problem with and obsession over race that doesn't affect other people in the world as it does us, in our particularly American way. Koreans discriminate against people of other races and nationalities nowadays, and many viciously so, such that there is now a pattern of racialized discrimination here as well. But for an American to say "Hey - we're not the only ones with a discrimination problem - look at Koreans and Japanese - it's just natural to do it." Naw, brah. Equivocation can't work here, for obvious reasons. The histories are different; in one case the understanding of race has slowly evolved over hundreds of years of a particular history, formed by an racialized economy that created social categories themselves, ones that would be used to regulate every kind of interaction in society. I have opinions about what motivates Korean thinking about race, which my dissertation is partially about, but I won't bore you with it here. I will simply state the obvious when I say that the two cases just can't be compared. The equivocation eliminates the fact of historical, cultural, and just plain accidental specificity. That's the high-brow argument. My low-brow argument is simply that "Two wrongs don't make a right" and what the hell does one case have to do with the other, anyway? Ok - people in other countries do similar bad shit as you do in your own...so? What's the next line of reasoning here? It's a meaningless gesture of defensiveness. So I don't want to see anybody pulling that one on in responses to this piece. Your flawed reasoning has been preemptively struck.
Whew! Back to Korean women. So we've talked about sex work in Korea. Yes, the oldest profession exists everywhere, any which way it can. We know that gender discrimination exists in most places, but we know that the matter of degree is quite important. The same can be said for something as abstract as the construction of female identity, especially in capitalist, industrialized economies with active consumer cultures. Add in the factors of being patriarchal societies with market-driven mass media that utilize women's bodies as conduits through which to market and sell commodities, notwithstanding the fact that a large portion of the economy deals with the buying and selling of women's bodies as commodities in themselves - and it can be easily argued that there is enough of a common framework of comparison within which to identify and talk about the crucial differences. We wouldn't be talking about the moral question of the high degree of sex work in Korea if this country were still undeveloped, or vastly different from many other industrialized, capitalist democracies. But the case is that Korea is materially and socially like Norway, America, Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, etc. The degree of "development" isn't the same, but the mode of existence is.
At least when Koreans generally favorably compare their country to others, this is the framework they're using; the boast that Korea has the most developed IT infrastructure in the world doesn't get supported with comparisons to war-torn Eritrea or the former Sovet-bloc Republic of Georgia. The comparison happens between such powerful nations as Japan, Germany, and the United States. This is the framework within which differences between how women are socialized becomes meaningful; but again, the point here isn't to equivocate, but to establish the undeniable commonality that enables us to label the degree of sex work in a given country as relatively embarrassing. So if we assume that meaningful differences exist between essentially similar societies, and that certain aspects of such societies can be called - whether in terms of scale or degree - better or worse than others, it follows that we can make assertions about things such as the relative degree of gender discrimination, treatment of ethnic or religious minorities, the quality of public health care, or equal access to decent public eduction, we should also be able to see peculiarities in terms of how people are socialized, and what relationship this might have to the kind of factors that were just mentioned.
And if we look at the way women in general carry themselves here - or the way female identity itself is constructed - there are myriad ways to notice a particularly Korean aspects of the gendered mode of appearance, behavior, speech, and overall comportment. When you look at the social realities surrounding women in Korea - a country sporting one of the highest rates of sex work in the industrialized world, where there are more sex workers than school teachers, where women in skimpy attire promote everything from cars to toothbrushes, and for which the Gender Empowerment Measure therefore puts Korea near the bottom of the scale of 70 measured developed and undeveloped countries alike, right next to countries in which polygamy, "honor killings," and domestic violence is de facto, if not de jure legal - surely this must affect the expectations men have for women, how women see themselves in terms of these expectations, and the creation of general codes of interaction between the two genders.
Surely the expectations placed upon men, the acceptance of aggressive behavior with a "boys will be boys" attitude, solidified with the two years and two months spent in the hazing society of compulsory military service, reinforced in the workplace by a rigid, miliatarized heirarchy, bolstered by the constant and open access to women's bodies as objects of visual and sexual consumption - must have some affect on the way men see themselves as men.
Let me defer to authority and quote the scholar John Berger, from his text Ways of Seeing:
"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves."
So I am arguing that the very character of feminity is different here. It's not so much different in form as it is simply a matter of sheer effort. Korean men often boastingly ask me "Aren't Korean women more beautiful than American women?" I usually begin my reply with a "They sure are!" but before I let them enjoy that assuring feeling of having once again established another aspect of Korean culture that is superior to America's, I continue with, "but who wouldn't be, if American women were so weight-obsessed that they were actually successful in starving themselves into a constant state of being much thinner than their genes dictate, makeup and 3-inch heels were nearly requirements for stepping outside of the house, not to mention the perms, plastic surgery, short skirts, and fashion trends that only barely don't fall into the realm of fetish wear in the States (e.g. the winter season's knee socks w/ heels and pleated schoolgirl skirts)." OK - my reply is usually a shorter version of that. But indeed, if most college-age American girls dressed like Britney Spears-lite, working women were required to wear schoolgirl-like uniforms with skirtlines well above the knee, and plastic surgery were so ubiquitous that it was offered as the first prize in fast food chain contests for high school girls (thank Lotteria for that brilliant idea) - I would have to describe American women as sizzling. Booyah! Back dat thang up! Baby got back!
And it's not that only foreign men notice this and find it a little strange - most Western women I have talked to do as well. In fact, I would think that women would notice even more than men would. An American friend of mine put it succinctly when she said "I never felt like such a tomboy before coming to Korea." On the level of femininity that defines the norm of gendered life here, most Western women I know have given up trying to compete. Just looking at the face-centric emphasis on "cute" - before even getting to the nearly requisite eye and nose jobs, the black contact lenses that make the irises look bigger, the straight "magic perm" and color, the all-too frequent use of false eyelashes - the daily commitment of applying makeup alone requires getting up from 15 minutes to an hour early, depending on your particular level of fastidiousness. Add on the fact most Western women can't even buy brassieres, shoes, or depending on who you are - any clothes at all - in Korea, a lot of women end up feeling like the Sasquatch, hurrying to lumber away from the eyes of the frightened city-dwelling humans who want to capture you for scientific study.
To be continued...