Freud says that objects of fetish are simply things charged with the sexualized memories of early childhood development. For example, he argued, when little tots lock their little Freudian libidos onto Mom, her feet are the parts of her body often in closest proximity. Post-Freudian arguments would more broadly point to fetishized objects parts metonymically representative of the whole – the high-heeled female foot, in this interpretation, is an object given sexualized power by society as the embodiment of something essentially feminine and sexual. The high heel is a both a symbol of the entire sexually desirable female figure herself, even as the object/part itself takes on its own sexualized meaning. Put even more simply, it is a part that represents the whole (e.g. high heel=woman), but has special meaning as an object with meaning unto itself. The high heel is woman or femininity itself, a fact that helps charge the object with its special meaning.
I kinda like this argument the best (and we can throw in some Freud there, too), because if we assume that Korean society in general 1) values women more for their appearance and sexual attractiveness than any other attribute, and 2) their bodies are constantly presented in a quantitatively and qualitatively more sexually commodified way (see previous posts), then we can come to the tentative conclusion that women in Korea are much more fetishized. They simply value, utilize, wear, and purposefully display more of the totem objects of sexualized femininity. Indeed, as we look at the heavy accessorizing that is positively a pastime here on the streets of almost any neighborhood where large numbers of people go, this almost goes without saying, without even need of the long, theoretical argument that I just presented. But we know darn well that if I didn't give it, people would just say that I was talking out the side of my neck. At least you know now on exactly what bases I am resting my assumptions.
Since images of women's fetishization is part of what I'm trying to capture on film, being apologetic for my male gaze – the "fetishistic scopophilia" that I was told during my first film class all heterosexual men possessed – would be counterproductive and downright futile. Of course, sometimes I feel like a big, fat pervert trying to capture the pull of the fetish with my camera, especially since disconnecting my pleasure in the process is impossible; but not taking a picture and regretting it later is a far worse feeling than that caused by an occasional passersby looking at me as if I were a big brown pervert with a camera. And to a certain extent, they're right anyway. As more than just a passive watcher, when I am enabled by my camera, fetishistic scopophilia is in full effect.
So let me drop the academic façade that most people entering into controversial waters tend to hide behind, and let my male gaze guide the rest of this essay, just as it has my camera. Let me break down for you how I see the image of sexualized woman as nothing more than the sum of her fetishized parts. As a person possessing desire for the female form here - whether you are a straight man, lesbian, or gay man who just appreciates pure fabulosity itself – perhaps you might recognize some of the parts that draw not just my own eye, but yours as well. And if they weren't really important, why else would these parts be the object of so much attention, consumption, and presentation? And these are not fetishes I noticed before coming to Korea - some of them are quite learned, and recently so. Freud ain't in effect as much as many of us would have it. As the more contemporary, albeit fictional, psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter so aptly observed "We covet what we see every day." Let's think about what those things are on the level of fetishistic, photographic detail – from coiffed head to pedicured toe – and see what we come up with:
- the sheen of shiny, straight black hair, like in the Prell™ commercials
- the confident "hair flip," or twirl, or continued absent-minded stroking
- big, black false eyelashes, flitting up and down, up and down
- big, round, black contacts to make doe-eyes with
- shiny peach lip gloss, always reapplied
- the ever-present Korean female "pout"
- the paleness of the classical Korean face, as maintained by whitening powders, creams, and base/foundation Twincake™
- big eyes and noses with European bridges
- French-manicured, slender fingers always formed in poses of feminine delicacy
- upper arms that are similar in thickness to the forearms
- stockinged thighs peeking out from under checkered, pleated skirts
- thin legs in jeans made to look longer in heels reaching out under an overly long pantleg
- the rounded legs of "office girls" in stocking and slippers
- thigh-hi tights like in the old Britney Spears schoolgirl video nobody ever admits to having made any effort to watch
- knee-high tights
- pedicured feet and toes in the barest sandal heels possible, coupled with a high skirt, to create the "near-naked" effect
- heels dangling from suspended feet, twirling in the air
- the "skinny fat" legs that are thin, yet jiggle with each step because of the lack of exercise and likely impact of past eating disorder
- pigeon-toed walking
- overly effeminate hip-swaying and sashaying, a la Ru Paul
Now, I'm not saying that all Korean young women display these totems, or engage in the specific behavior described above. And the fetish elements listed above is not exhaustive. The point is that all of the little fetishes are fairly universal, and are practiced by women in my own culture, as well as other places I have been that have thriving consumer cultures that fetishize women. They are all elements that are designed to catch the male gaze. But what is different is that when I am in America, these fetishes and totems don't occur with nearly the same frequency as they do here. In fact, they occur with a low enough frequency as to mark someone who engages in a large number of these fetishes at the same time as unusual. Here, it's more common, I would humbly argue, than not.
My male gaze is always engaged here, whereas in the States, even on the Berkeley campus, which is supposed to be home to America's weirdest and wild, I can turn it off. Or my gaze isn't activated enough for it to be constantly noticeable. If the fetish signals given off by women were detectable as a tick on a mechanical detector, in America, I would get occasional clicks as I pass by the occasional outright fetishistic display, with rapid buzzes caused by a relative few number of women who've really laid it on thick and heavy. In Korea, the sound emanating from my detector would be more of a constant dull roar, increasing and decreasing in volume and density, depending on where you went. This is how I see Korea as different from America, or most other places in the West I have ever been to – well, besides Italy.
So, I said in a previous post that the very character of feminity is different here, and that it's not a fundamental difference in form as much as it is simply a matter of sheer effort. The interesting test of this idea lies in considering the way men of different cultures visually and physically consume women here.
Applying my logic within a sort of self-enclosed set of conditions, like an Einsteinian "thought experiment," let's think about the ever-popular and (from my eye) strangely controversial topic of foreign men who date Korean women.
We know the arguments. Foreign men - especially white, North American men - enjoy all kinds of sexual license with Korean women, alternatively loving and leaving them. Korean women are hapless dupes under the spell of unscrupulous white men who come to take advantage of the cultural capital of their priveleged passports, English native speaker status, white skin, and most importantly - the innocence and trust of the Korean female. What's more, the ultimate evil rears its ugly head as white men "exoticize" and "objectify" Korean women. Oh, lawdy, no! Hide de wimmins!
And I'm not saying that there aren't a heaping helpin' of sleazy foreigners who are only here for life that is not much more than easy money and beaucoup bootay. C'mon. You know who you are. Back when I was here in 1994, 90% of the people I saw in Korea were not much of a step above bail jumpers, straight up. All the money was in Japan (with the powerful yen), Korea was much more ruff, ruff, ruff around the edges, and Korea was still sort of under the radar of even the most ardent Asiaphiles. Contracts were worth not even the paper they were printed on, and hagwon owners did unspeakable things to keep their warm, foreign bodies prisoner. Who, other than a fugitive from justice, would come here? Well, another 5% were the Men in Black, who brought the Bible and a buddy to keep them clean amidst a whole lotta unholy temptation. Then there were the last 5%, of which I was a part, who came in really specific, yet random ways, as part of the Peace Corps in the old days, or the Fulbright ETA program, which was the latter-day reincarnation of that venerable program after it had been shut down in the 80's. There were also a few people who were simply curious, truly open-minded, and simply here for the adventure. I always tipped my hat to that 10% of us who were all here on a mission – whether personal or otherwise.
But don't let all this qualifyin' and dodgin' the issue fool you: the majority of foreigners at the time were male, and the majority of us waegukin were pretty slimy. Nowadays, things are decidedly different, despite what certain "liberal" comrades of mine say about their "motives". I find the perhaps less-than-honorable motives of some members of my gender fairly non-surprising. It's not a matter of a particularly problematic way of looking at Korean women; it's really just a question of the relative amount of social capital that the exoticism of foreignness and Americanness provides.
So, it's not just the heady cocktail of exoticized, racial difference topped off with a spritz of unequal power relations between nationalities - as most detractors of interracial mixing and/or people who are "concerned" about the "power dynamics" tend to imagine in terms of the stereotyped image of the oversexed and predatory, white male English teacher sowing his oats with hapless Korean virgins - but without even going into what I think is often a façade for plain old racist uncomfortableness with seeing evidence of race mixing, there's something else to be described here.
What is more interesting to me is the fundamental way men and women interact here, how Korean "men" and "women" signify themselves as gendered and sexualized beings in this culture. I would argue then, that the white male hagweon teacher with a case of sex on the brain isn't necessarily just looking at Korean women as exotic, racialized objects to be conquered, although that is part of the picture, surely, in some cases. But I think that particular guy is also picking up on the way gendered sexuality and relations happen in general, as well as how they happen in Korea, especially since the signals themselves - the glint of thigh peeking out of a short skirt, the extra curve of the calves created by high heels, meticulously-applied makeup, the ubiquitous straight perm falling around the sides of the face, an affected and knowingly cutesy pout, specks of light caught on gold anklets and hoop earrings, accentuated by the nowadays de rigeur pedicure, along wth myriad other accountrements ad nauseum - are not so culturally specific.
It is certainly not the far more culturally specific charm of a coy, half-hidden smile behind a veil, nor is it the Chosun-era sexy curve of the upturned big toe in a white, traditional shoe peeking out from beneath the skirtline of a pink hanbok. The fetish signs given nowadays are, for all intents and purposes, universal in their meaning. A Korean woman could easily walk down the streets of Paris or Cairo and turn heads, were she appropriately armed with all the necessary fetishistic ammunition. It is important to illustrate that if a western woman wore what Korean women wear back in her home country, the signals would be clear, even if the background contexts are different in terms of relative levels of accepted fetish (e.g. a woman wearing knee socks, high heels and a Britney Spears skirt in the middle of winter in Ohio might get cars stopping, whereas in New York City, she might get just a few ogling stares, and in Seoul at the moment, she would just be part of the crowd.)
My point here is that foriegn men don't necessarily fetishize Korean women differently than Korean men do. They just have more sexual and fiscal capital that results from possessing any or all of the following factors above what everyday Korean men have, namely: white skin, an American passport, being a native speaker of English, and in general being a curio for adventurous Korean women. And let's not forget the agency of the Korean women in this equation, and that it takes two to tango. After living here for as long as I have, in as many places and roles that I have, I would say that the assumption that social and sexual power rise in direct proportion to one another is correct one, and the associated bad behavior that I have seen men possessing a lot of such power has been pretty equally spread across nationalities in the male gender.
Put simply, both Korean and non-Korean men with high degrees of sexual capital, seem to behave equally "badly" towards women. This is why both white English teachers and hunky Korean men with money tend to have the same stereotypes among many Korean women. And if we want to talk - albeit anecdotally - about bad ethics in the sowing of male oats, Korean American men are by far the worst offenders. The KA's I have seen here get the full force of the American power trip, but justified and rationalized by the idea that it's ok, since these are "our" women. In other words, it's ok because it's not interracial. On the part of the the criticizers, sounds like good ol' fashioned race thinkin' to me. In the big picture, there are not bad guys, or good guys. The number of "bad guys" seems to be - at least in part - a reflection of the general state of gendered interaction in The Land of the Morning After. And nobody's less of an asshole just because they're part of the same gene pool. To flip the warped logic of identity politics on its ear - at least the "white boys" have the excuse of being exotifying foreigners. What excuse do Korean and Korean American men have? Is it ok to not receive the same criticism and social derision just because they're "our" women? Or that it doesn't become evidence of the ultimate sin of identity politics – "selling out" – which is often academic-speak cover for more old-fashioned feelings of loathing for so-called "anti-miscegenation." Something to make you go "hmmm."