How “Hannam Entertainment” Fostered Rape Culture

The Donkey Ears, a book for feminists who like pop culture

Park Ju-yeon 2020-12-31

Starting as a problem of drug-induced rape and police collusion, the Burning Sun scandal shed light on a wide variety of issues of corruption and injustice in our society. Of those, many women have been especially shocked by the rampancy of “rape culture.”


According to Rebecca Solnit, who brought attention “mansplaining” in her book Men Explain Things To Me, “rape culture” refers to an environment in which rape is prevalent, and in which media and popular culture normalize and tolerate sexual violence against women.


A culture that tolerates sexual violence against women


While the so-called “Seungri-gate” case is often referred to as the fall of “Seungtsby” (a name borrowed from the 20th century American masterpiece The Great Gatsy after Seungri claimed he wanted to be like “Gatsby who enjoys parties”; the media then praised him as a young businessman and nicknamed him “The Great Seungtsby”), this scandal is not just a personal matter.


From the degradation of women in a group chat to prostitution and use of women’s bodies for entertainment, drug-induced rape, illicitly filming and distributing videos of women, and even offering bribes to police to avoid a DUI crackdown, Seungri was not the only one involved. The crimes of his “hallyu star” friends Jung Joon-young, Choi Jong-hoon, and Lee Jong-hyun have been revealed one after another. Furthermore, these crimes cannot be dismissed as problems with just a few famous male celebrities, as the identity of “XX representative” in the group chat has yet to be revealed.


The contents of the group chat room in question reveal everyday conversations that demean women, sexually objectify women, and encourage the rape and illicit filming and distribution of sex videos. But is this just a problem among men who are rich and powerful?


Over the past few days, cases of “group chat sexual harassment,” in which male students at Seoul National University of Education, Kyungin University of Education, and Daegu National University of Education sexually objectified their female student peers by ranking them by appearance, have been revealed. This matter is particularly serious given that these male students are prospective teachers who will eventually be responsible for the education of elementary school students. However, the professors and instructors at the universities have made jokes about the subject and even come to the defense of the perpetrators, a response which other students are raising complaints about.


Regarding the sharing of illicitly filmed video by Jung Joon-young in the group chat, people have said, “These videos are watched by all men, but he was unlucky enough to get caught since he’s a celebrity.” People have even attempted to identify the female victim in the video, and the fact that “Jung Joon-young video” was the most searched phrase in online search engines shows how rape culture has permeated throughout our society.


▲ The book <The Donkey Ears: A Feminist’s Practical Guide to Popular Culture>(the Korean Women’s Workers’ Association and Sohn Hee-jeong, 2019)

The feminists who issued warnings


When did things start going wrong? How did rape culture infiltrate every part of our society in this way? Early on, there were feminists who pointed out rape culture by analyzing and identifying problems in popular culture. This was through a podcast called The Donkey Ears hosted by the Korean Women’s Workers’ Association.


From 2016 to 2017, this podcast discussed the topic of popular culture and gender with cultural researcher Sohn Hee-jung and other guests to examine the “male-centric culture” of TV, movies, literature, and electronic games. They also published a book of the same name: The Donkey Ears: A Feminist’s Practical Guide to Popular Culture, (the Korean Women’s Workers’ Association and Sohn Hee-jeong, Humanitas, 2019).


The book examines how popular culture, which is easily accessible to people of all ages, has promoted the exclusion, mocking, and hatred of women to strengthen the solidarity of men, and how the enjoyment of this content by men has transformed these bad intentions into non-issues.


Reading this book, it’s chilling to consider how feminists were already warning society that an incident like today’s “Seungri-gate” would arise.


TV dominated by “hannam entertainment” and “ajae entertainment”


Once considered a friend of the public with viewer ratings of 50 to 60%, TV now fails to pass the 10% viewership mark due to the creation of various VOD platforms like YouTube and Netflix. Many women, who say that they can no longer stand “hannam [Korean man] entertainment”-dominated TV, are giving up on TV and switching to Netflix.


▲ Seoul YWCA's <Monitoring Gender Equality in the Mass Media Report: Entertainment and the Arts> showed the proportions of male and female performers on talk/reality shows for the first half of 2018 (Source: Korea Institute for Gender Equality Promotion & Education)

According to The Donkey Ears, hannam entertainment has two personalities. Columnist Choi Ji-eun explained, “The first type is entertainment that excludes women and features no women. The second is entertainment that portrays deep misogyny, demeans women, or perpetuates negative stereotypes about women.” She adds that “hannam entertainment isn’t just present on TV but prevalent throughout all popular culture.”


While a growing number of voices have pointed out that TV programs representative of hannam entertainment, such as Knowing Bros and Radio Star [both of which feature all-male panels], dismissed the illicit sex videos as “porn” and laughed off the “Seungri-gate” incident, there are still many cases where misogyny and sexism are passed off as “it’s just a joke.”


It’s also concerning that jokes promoting prejudice against women and minorities, the shaming of others’ bodies, and the exclusion of women are inappropriately laughed at and that “through the power of television, these jokes become ‘fact’ or ‘trustworthy.” As a result, people are indoctrinated with the idea that others possess similar beliefs or that “boys will be boys.”


There’s also a multitude of issues with “ajae [middle-aged man] entertainment” which features middle-aged men in their 30s or 40s. While popular culture has “resurrected the middle-aged man” and even given him new names like “romance ajae,” “YOLO ajae,” and “ajae fatale,” it has produced contrasting images of women, especially middle-aged women, as “nagging wives and unlikable ajummas.”


Lim Yoon-ok, former standing representative of the Korean Women’s Workers’ Association, points out that attempts to “resurrect the ajae” have been made ever since the IMF crisis. She says, “In fact, the fall in men’s status after the IMF crisis was not because women took their opportunities but because neo-liberalism created a more flexible labor market that weakened the status of male workers, but women are still blamed.”


Between girl groups and working moms, how are women portrayed?


While hannam entertainment and ajae entertainment were booming, women’s roles in the media gradually started disappearing. The fact that women’s roles were already very limited put women in an even more difficult position.


Even the work of idol girl groups, in which women’s activities are hypervisible, is not as glamorous as it seems. Columnist Choi Ji-eun explains that they suffer from doing manual labor to the point of their work being called an “extreme job.” They live in a “double standard in which they have to stay thin but eat well, they have to eat well but not too well, and they should never refuse food but they also should not reveal how much they starved or exercised to be able to eat so well.”


Because they’re not allowed to act out against their male fans, idols, most of whom are young women, are placed in environments that make them vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual violence. There are some male fans who have illegally filmed up the skirts of idols and some men ask idols to show the tops of their heads during live broadcasts as it can makes them feel like they are receiving oral sex or so that they can see the idols’ breasts.


Of course, it’s not that female idols are helpless in these environments. But it is a big problem that the image of young women in pop culture is limited to female idol groups. A media environment that consumes female idol content gives men the absurd idea that just because they like a woman, they can make any demands of her that they want.


Even the way in which women’s labor is portrayed is not very revolutionary. In family dramas, “the dichotomy of the woman’s space as the kitchen and the man’s as the living room, and the idea that housework is a woman’s duty rather than actual labor” are reinforced, while working women are either shown as nuisances who can’t even change the water cooler bottle or as tough, superwoman working moms. What is more, women’s labor is not properly illuminated. This is because they are not seen as men’s colleagues, but as romantic interests for men. Columnist Oh Soo-kyung explained women exist in a survival game, in which they must continually face hardships to be recognized as working human beings.


The sex trade industry, where women’s image becomes a commodity


While there are more than one or two parts to point out in the book, the most important point is that the book does not skip over addressing the sex-trade industry, where women’s images are products.


Through hannam entertainment and ajae entertainment, popular culture has created a market for male solidarity to thrive. This solidarity has remained strong through the sexual harassment of women, the use of women as trophies, the illicit filming of women, and sexual objectification of women. Seungri’s group chat is just one example of this.


The way that women are seen not as colleagues but as romantic or sexual interests can also be linked to the sex-trade industry’s views that women’s bodies are resources.


Kim Ju-hee, a professor at Sogang University’s Transnational Humanities Institute, says women’s bodies have been referred to as resources for a long time. She explains that women’s bodies have been used as a means for men to monopolize economic power.


Even the wine-and-dine culture of businessmen at hostess bars is used as “important forums for cartels to form among male workers and places for information sharing.” It’s only natural for women to be excluded from there too.


While it’s unclear whether popular culture like hannam entertainment influences our reality, or if popular culture is merely recording it over and over again without changing the problems in our reality, what is clear is that they’re connected to each other.


When you look at problems of pop culture through the sharp feminist lens of The Donkey Ears, you can go beyond getting angry about misogynistic pop culture and start getting a sense of what must be done.


Like the saying, “If you don’t like the temple, stop being a monk,” there are things that should be avoided or let go, but popular culture doesn’t have to be one of them. As the book explains, there are luckily signs of change here and there. The Donkey Ears, which details all of those stories, will be powerful for feminists who enjoy popular culture.


By Park Ju-yeon

Translated by Stella Chung


*Original article:


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