Yellow fever

Why are Korean women so attractive?

This blog post comes out of my anger at seeing what my girlfriend and her friends have to go through in their daily lives to be attractive. It’s not about why it’s bad to objectify Asian women: ask an Asian woman about what that feels like. Nor is it about calling out the often-amusing, always-creepy behaviour of men who profess a preference for Asians.

Many of these accounts come from the US, Canada and other places where Asian women have lived for generations but still get exoticized. Korea is 97% Korean, so no one will ever ask “Where are you really from?” because the answer is obvious. However, it’s impossible to escape the impact of the Korean wave, which is now exporting its hyper-sexualized images of Korean femininity abroad:

The conversation tends to focus on whether these images are appropriate and their reception by non-Koreans. What gets left out, at least in English, is the reason women strive to look like this. And that can be summed up in one word: status.

The kind of pressure Korean women face to be “cute and sexy”, as the folks at eatyourkimchi put it, is enormous. Over at The Grand Narrative, James Turnbull has done an impressive job of detailing the commodification of Korean women in far more detail than I ever could. All that image construction is meant to make Korean women’s carefully-laboured appearance look spontaneous or natural. It’s neither. It’s the product of the rigid, hide-bound patriarchy of Korean society that sets some very strict rules for women. Those include:

– look perfect according to a single aesthetic
– have a successful career by your mid-20s
– do not, under any circumstances, be poor. Marry rich if you can.
– be extroverted and a part of ‘group culture’
– be pure, yet sexy; playful yet dignified; accomplished yet not enough to threaten men

This may seem like patriarchy everywhere, but one thing sets it apart. This hierarchy is publicly enforced. The first question you will get from Koreans is “What’s your job”, followed by questions about your salary and marital status. Like all ideology, this isn’t a conspiracy to put you in your place. The questions are genuine and friendly, but they exist because Koreans need to know where you stand in the hierarchy.

Part of the reason it’s so much easier for white foreigners in Korea is that we don’t fit into the hierarchy. We can answer those questions and it doesn’t really matter. For Koreans, and particularly for Korean women, it’s everything.

Status shaped Confucian and post-war dictatorship Korea, but it’s been intensified post-1997 Asian crisis, when Korean developmentalism was replaced by neoliberalism. Korea’s high suicide rates dovetail neatly with the ending of permanent employment and the rise of temporary, contract labour and unemployment. (Although I would use different terminology, this blog has some rigorous analysis that makes this relationship clearer.) But suicide needs to be seen as part of a generalized phenomenon of social differentiation marked by a rigid interpretation of success and failure. One way that inequality gets ordered in people’s minds is through status. And one way status gets determined and reinforced is through appearance.


Given the harsh realities of what I’ll call Korea’s psychological economy – the fact that the Korean democracy movement actually defeated a dictatorship, only to have global capitalism annul that victory – it’s understandable that women cope with neoliberalism’s harsh pecking order by conforming to oppressive beauty standards, at the risk of ostracization. And it’s doubly ironic – and maddeningly ignorant – that western men read this conformity as cute, sexy women dressing up for their consumption. It’s this belief that feeds yellow fever: the whole othering, orientalist, they’re all so beautiful schtick. As I’ve argued before, racism/orientalism rests on a fundamental notion of irrationality. Whether it’s positive or negative, the Other’s behaviour is inexplicable. Large families sleeping in a filthy rooms and kawaii are two opposite ends of the same spectrum: it’s impossible to understand. It’s simply in their nature for Korean women to be cute and sexy, therefore non-Asian men can fetishize them. They’re not really human.

Whereas if we can really understand why Asian women spend so much effort looking pretty, it might go some way to countering that exoticism. Yes, Asian women can be pretty and poised and accomplished. And yet that comes at a huge price. For those worshipping the exotic Asian woman, think a little more about the real person behind the image.

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One thought on “Yellow fever

  1. Pingback: Against the Disneyfication of Korea | The Rootless Metropolitan

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