The Cultural Politics of Short Skirts and the Social Disciplining of Women in Korea

Hyeran poses in a Dim E. Cres skirt, top, and bag for this story. The Korean flag notebook was really just an accident, owned by a nearby student who lent us his books as props for the shot. 

Hyeran poses in a Dim E. Cres skirt, top, and bag for this story. The Korean flag notebook was really just an accident, owned by a nearby student who lent us his books as props for the shot. 

Recently, a public debate on the women, sex, rape, and male power has been ignited, mostly in response to the brutal murder of a young woman in a Gangnam Station area bathroom. But a conversation has been brewing -- nay, brimming over with fear and loathing -- about women's roles and proper place in society, and appropriate behavior and comportment of member's od society's "fairer sex." BUt the conversation has been anything but fair. It never has been, as the social conversation about what women should wear, consume, and do in various social situations is an old and long one. For a long time, the moral pulse of the nationsociety/culture of South Korea could be taken by watching what women buy or don't buy, how they comport themselves in public, by what they wear. This defines a certain kind of "social disciplining" of women that occasionally bubbles over into social rage, scandal, and even violence.

But this is an old story, one that goes back into the deep, dark reaches of Confucian notions of gender and the state, with Confucian idea that the woman's body is a sacred vessel, the literal womb of the people and the state, something which should be regulated and controlled. Hence, women in the Joseon period weren't supposed to leave the house, and if they did, they should be acccompanied and monitored, and had to cover up from face to toe. Sounds pretty Taliban, right? Right. 

This notion of the female body, along with its maintenance, display, and adornment, is where traditionally old-fashioned notions that pooh pooh women engaging in many of the vices of life in which men engage, such as smoking, drinking, and fornicating, tend to come from. But before I get ahead of myself here, let me just clearly establish that I'm not about to engage in that age-old, analytically bereft, lame-ass cop-out that "everything's Confucianism," since that pat reading of the situation is so obvious and easy, without any real critical teeth with which to do anything useful, that to go down that path should be more than what the discerning reader would need to stop reading right here.

The Confucian cultural pattern of thinking in Korea is a chimera that looks real good at first glance, before you realize that what you're looking at is a monstrously complex creature composed of a lot of wildly different, stitched-together parts. Yeah, there's that thing you're looking at, but then again, it isn't what you think it is. When you look at the social disciplining of Korea in the modern, South Korean state, you have to see that the Confucian frame is used as a facile means of control that speaks to very present-moment concerns. That's how it works most of  the time when you hear "Confucianism" invoked in modern Korea.  It's a tool of hegemonic, social control. It's a way of making the dominated think their domination by the dominators to be natural, as much a part of what it means to be, say, Korean as it is for a fish to breathe water, or a bird to take to the air.

I cobbled this montage together from here -- and i'm very glad to see alternate shots of the woman being measured in the infamous 3rd frame. 

I cobbled this montage together from here -- and i'm very glad to see alternate shots of the woman being measured in the infamous 3rd frame. 

This conversation about proper social comportment really came to the forefront of popular Korean consciousness in the 70s, when the Korean police under the popular dictator Pak Chung Hee grabbed young men with long hair in the streets and gave out involuntary, inpromptu Supercuts with Scissors and took young women into the police station to measure their skirts. 

Although men were part of the symbolic acts of social control by the state, it was always much more important to regulate the dress, actions, and general comportment of women. Of course, the rationale is always that women's reproductive role makes them special objects of scrutiny, but then again, this is just one end of a spectrum of regulations and controls on women's bodies. There's always  a social excuse for this. And this gets extended out to everything from tattooing to sexual promiscuity, whether women should drink or not, do certain things in public, or dress in certain ways. 

But let's get down to brass tacks here. what happens to women who flagrantly violate certain social norms here, sometimes ones that society didn't even really know it had? That's when we get to the 2005 of the "dog poop girl."

Source: OhMyNews. Part of the vigilante "fun," themselves. 

Source: OhMyNews. Part of the vigilante "fun," themselves. 

I don't want to get into the gory details, so you should just click away here for a moment, since I'd rather spend my neuronical powers on crunching the issue itself, rather than having to rehash it. But in the end, if you break down what happened back in 2005 to this woman, you have to think about the intense viciousness of the social backlash against her in terms of some obvious facts, as well as a few not-so-obvious ones:

1. She's a "girl." In Korean, an agassi, someone who is unmarried and not yet completed her singular, uterine contribution to society. 
2. She is engaged in a lifestyle choice of leisure -- owning an expensive dog and carrying it around in its own carrier, a glaring symbol of conspicuous consumption in a time (2005) it had certainly not even been a decade or much more since dogs-as-pets were certainly not generally thought of as pets to be kept indoors, but were rather mere dirty animals, yet certainly a step above dogs-as-meat. That in itself was offensive to traditional Korean mores about consumption. And that's just for having the dog in the first place. 
3. Her elevation of a dog over the concerns of her very human elders was a nearly unconscionable act by traditional Korean standards. Refusing to clean up the feces was something that cause most Korean netizens to symbolically banish her from the fold. That's the moment when she became, to crib a great title that has some relevance here, "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman." To indulge myself (and this metaphor) further here, she became the bitch/witch, she played the role of Anne Hutchinson to a tribunal of shocked Puritan elders.

In any case, what "Dog Poop Girl" had in common with the many other cases in which great social anger is directed at individuals who behave in ways that violate social norms so much that they cause social scandal and sensation is the fact that it almost always involves the social transgressions of women.  Social handwringing over the apparent moral decay of society and general societal mores usually revolves around the behavior of women that is seen as a symbol of where things are going, like a social litmus test with women as the active agent. 

It is in this sense that clothing comes into consideration. And the social disciplining of women's sartorial choices often comes from the symbolic values that certain clothing is seen to represent by those controlling the conversation. 

THE UPSHOT
1. Before the runaway phase of consumer capitalism in which Korea presently find itself, women's roles in society were coming into some degree of change in that women were taking on new roles and wearing new clothes, even as society was in the throes of a more existential identity crisis centered around old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, East vs. West. Then, there was greater concern given to deviation from the old, Joseon-era, neo-Confucian social controls on women which that society had constructed. That is where the impetus behind skirt measuring seemed to come from, in that the miniskirt seemed to signify the influx of western thinking about social freedom, the perversions of feminism, and other threatening aspects of assertive female sexuality. 

2. The more recent handwringing over the meaning of women's consumptive choices in Korea is not new under the sun, but there is a different ideological undertone to it. As Korea has shifted into a different sort of capitalist moment very different from one in which all good citizens simply worked at their jobs, performed their social functions, and asked few questions, the state tried to regulate consumptive choices in the context of helping achieve national goals. What women chose to consume and how they did it only really mattered to the extent that they controlled the wallet of the family. (See Laura Nelson's excellent treatise of this subject Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea for a deeper discussion of this). But Korean society has again shifted into a higher gear of consumer capitalism, the Age of Conspicuous and Concupiscent Consumption. More than just women's consumptive choices in the aggregate as the financial heads of families, women are participating in the economy at higher rates than in the 70s and 80s and 90s in Korea, are possessed of consumer choice, and are eager and happy to use it in a society that has defined individual consumption and participation in the economy as a positive good.  

Indeed, girls and women are "doing their jobs" as consumers by making choices and participating in the economy. Can't they have fun while doing it? Isn't this what fashion is all about? 

Indeed, girls and women are "doing their jobs" as consumers by making choices and participating in the economy. Can't they have fun while doing it? Isn't this what fashion is all about? 

 

It's very telling that there are few big social conversations or arguments about the consumptive choices of men, the unnecessary and over-powered , expensive cars many drive, or how these are also as concspicuously displaayed as the Prada purses or Manolo Blahnik shoes that Korean women are castigated, as the so-called "dwaenjang-nyeo", for owning. And so it goes with the miniskirt and skirt lengths in the present, which go into the ways many men judge the apparent morality of the individual wearer, as well as the symbolic state moral affairs of "women these days."