Korean Sociological Image #19: Gee, Gee, Gee…Girls’ Generations’ Latest Ad Speaks Volumes About Korean Gender Roles

Girls' Generation Shinhan Card Commercial(Source: unknown)

Forget the TED Talks. Instead, use this 16-second commercial for a great introduction to Korean gender roles.

By Girls’ Generation’s for Shinhan Card, it’s completely innocuous at first viewing. Take a second and third look though, and it’s extraordinary in how much it reveals:

First, because of the obvious: those legs. Then, because my students barely seemed to notice them when I asked what they thought of the commercial, let alone considered objectifying only the women to be problematic. Probably, because they’re already used to ubiquitous female “assistants” (doumi;도우미) and scantily-clad “narrator models” (나레이터 머델) being used to sell and promote all manner of products, services, and causes. And girl-groups, effectively, are performing very much the same roles.

Also, that indifference was probably because Girls’ Generation are notorious for wearing hot pants or jeans that are several sizes too small. Indeed, entertainment companies deliberately emphasize girl-group members’ legs to make K-pop more sexually-appealing in conservative East Asian markets, where people generally share Koreans’ taboos about breast exposure. So, it may seem disingenuous to single out this commercial in that regard.

(Source: ZZiixx)

But I’m not—I’m singling it out for what the differences between the men and the women reveal. Because my students would surely have noticed more if the men had also been wearing short-shorts, with the well-muscled legs to pull them off. Or, with more male-specific revealing costumes that showed off their abs.

With just women doing silly dances in revealing clothes though? That’s so normal in advertising that most people don’t think twice about it. See what I mean by looking at these images from A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose below. What are your gut reactions to them?

Men Childlike Expressions Ritualization of Subordinationwomen childlike expressions Ritualization of Subordination(“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”)

Obviously, this speaks to gender role portrayals in the media worldwide, not just that of Korea. But, with the latter’s tendency towards cuteness and aegyo, it does seem quite extreme here. And, as if to rub that in, in this particular commercial the text and the song also emphasize that the women are very much just for decoration:

First, the text in blue box: “끝없이 ‘고객만족’을 생각하는 카드”.

“The card that unceasingly thinks about customer satisfaction”.

Then what the men are saying while that is visible: “생각, 생각, 생각, 생각”.

“Think, think, think, think.”

Next Girls’ Generation, dancing with their shoulders while sitting on a bench: “어떡하면, 원하는걸, 다 이뤄줄수 있으까?”.

“How shall [the card] achieve everything [the customer] wishes?”.

Girls' Generation Shinhan Card Screenshot(Source, above and below: Paranzui)

Then the men again, while the girls are do their leggy dance, then stand in a line with the men and supposedly sing along with them (but we only hear the men’s voices): “손잡고 힘을 모아 다 함께 생각 생각”.

“Let’s cooperate [with the customer] and collect our energy together and think about all that”.

Finally in the voiceover, with the men sitting in contemplative poses and the girls standing behind them clapping : “카드의 길을 생각하다”.

“What is a card’s purpose? Let’s think about that”.

With this text in the blue box above them: “끝없는 제휴혜택으로 더 큰 고객만족을”.Shinhan Bank Shinhan Credit Card Girl's Generation

“The card that can be used anywhere in order to increase customer satisfaction!”.

Easy to miss on a single viewing, it emerges that it is only the men that do the thinking in this commercial, and by default, for the bank also. Yes, really: even when they all say “How shall [the card] achieve everything [the customer] wishes?,” if you look closely at roughly 0:08 into the commercial when the girls actually finish saying that (see far above), they clearly turn to the men for an answer. Rest assured then, that if you invest your money in this bank, that it will be in the hands of smart people that will take your concerns very seriously. Those people just won’t be women, that’s all.

Exaggeration? Hardly. Consider the facts: according to a recent report in the Korea Times, there are no female CEOs in the entire financial industry here; there are only 2 women out of a total of 220 team managers in the Financial Supervisory Service (and no executives); there are no women with either position in the Bank of Korea. Moreover, one anonymous (male) government official in finance argued that this is somehow justified by “the country’s financial bureaucrats [having] been overwhelmed with too “serious tasks” to pay attention to gender equality” (as in ever since the early 1960’s, not just the recent crisis), and it’s telling that even Rep. Lee Sung-nam (이성남) of the Democratic Party, a woman and former worker at the FSS, feels that women’s weak point in finance is their “competitive edge.”

gender-advertisements-erving-goffmanGranted, given that Korea has one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates in the OECD, and that Korea has a surprisingly low “Gender Empowerment Measure” relative to its level of development, which is based on “factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women,” then it might seem unfair to single out the financial sector for criticism in this regard. But then if I’d wanted to highlight the lack of women there in particular, then I couldn’t have selected a better commercial to illustrate why that might be so.

Nor for explaining “function ranking” either, a common sexist motif in advertisements. A quick summary (source):

Activities can also be expressive and symbolic—who is shown doing what in the image? For example which gender is most likely to shown caring for children? Very commonly when persons in the image have functions, these functions are ranked, with the male carrying out the senior functions, the female the junior functions. Men act, and women help men act. Males are more likely to be shown in the executive or leadership role, with females in the supportive, assistant, or decorative accessory role.

That and other motifs were first outlined by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, and which is still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising. Let me leave you with one more observation from it (see the sidebar for many more examinations of Korean advertisements using his framework), then another example from Korean banking:

In our society where a man and a woman collaborate face to face in an undertaking, the man—it would seem—is likely to perform the executive role, providing only that one can be fashioned. This arrangement seems widely represented in advertisements, in part, no doubt, to facilitate interpretability at a glance (p.32).

As indeed is the case with this advertisement for a bank I came across last November:

erving-goffman-relative-sizeTechnically, the man is a customer, the women clerks (the text reads: “The customer’s best life partner, with Busan bank”).  It is very telling though, how difficult it is to imagine an ad with the sexes reversed—let alone find an example in real life.


Update: For comparison, see here for a Shinhan Card commercial with just the men.

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)

Activities can also be expressive and symbolic – who is shown doing what in the image? For example which gender is most likely to shown caring for children? Very commonly when persons in the image have functions, these functions are ranked, with the male carrying out the senior functions, the female the junior functions. Men act, and women help men act. Males are more likely to be shown in the executive or leadership role, with females in the supportive, assistant, or decorative accessory role.

Sex, Sensibility and the Bottom Line: Evolving Images of Women in Korean Soju Advertising

Cheoum Cheoreom Cool Breasts Buttocks 168

Watching one of Lotte’s commercials for its new Cheoum Cheoreom Cool (처음처럼 쿨) soju dozens of times…as one does…then many thoughts come to mind, but that it is being effectively marketed towards women isn’t one of them. Yet weren’t they the main reason low-alcohol soju brands were launched in the first place?

As those objectified breasts and buttocks helpfully remind us, Cheoum Cheoreom Cool’s alcohol content is 16.8%, so take the examples of the two closest brands in terms of alcohol content for instance: Daesun’s Bom Bom (봄봄, 16.7%) launched in April, and Muhak’s Joeunday (좋은데이, 16.9%) launched in November 2006 (see here for a helpful graphic comparing all three), and both of those were indeed aimed towards women.

Of the two, Bom Bom’s marketing is the most of interest because Daesun took the very rare step of using a young, photogenic male in its advertisements. But while Muhak’s own campaign was ultimately unsuccessful (commercials released after early-2007 are difficult to find, and Joeunday’s website is no longer available, although the drink is still being produced), its use of then 28 and 36 year-old female and male entertainers Chae Yeon (채연) and Jung Jun-ho (정준호) respectively was also significant as a partial, albeit somewhat ambiguous attempt to appeal to a much older female demographic than all the other campaigns considered here.

Joeunday Soju Chae Yeon Jung Jun-ho( Source: Muhak )


Combined with the knowledge that only 30% of soju drinkers are women then, it would be very tempting to interpret the introduction of increasingly weaker soju drinks over the last decade in terms of a women-centered advertising narrative, with all the changes to Korean drinking culture, gender relations, and Korean women’s body-images that that would imply. But that would be quite mistaken however, as simply saving on costly alcohol is just as powerful a motivator for soju companies, and actually the vast majority of new brands are still exclusively targeted towards men (take Bohae’s Ipseju (잎새주; 19.5%), which I wrote about in April). In particular though, there is the fact that Lotte and Jinro take up 12.6% and 78% of the country’s soju market respectively, and so regardless of the innovations of other companies, it is the logic behind the marketing campaigns of these companies that is the most important.

In that vein, the case of Jinro’s J (제이, 18.5%) is very interesting: launched in October last year, I praised it for its original marketing, but it was still definitely aimed at 20-somethings of both sexes. In June this year though, a new marketing campaign specifically aimed towards getting women to associate the brand with staying slim was launched. In addition, when Lotte bought Doosan’s liquor arm in January this year (after an unsuccessful attempt to buy Jinro in 2005), it inherited a contract with Lee Hyori (이효리) from November 2007, and the logic to her commercials for Cheoum Cheoreom (처음처럼) was similarly getting (female) consumers to associate the brand with her slim body.

Which is what made this latest effort from Lotte so confusing:

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In hindsight, it’s actually a little derivative of Jinro’s original effort, in which “1032” refers to the depth from which the water used to prepare the drink is taken from the sea:

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Granted, Lotte’s video briefly objectifies men too. Not that that somehow justifies the objectification of women in it of course…or that I’ll feign offense at either. Rather, it aroused me my interest because it reminded me of this:

…some advertisers, aware of the objections of the feminist movement to traditional images of women in ads, have incorporated the criticism into their ads, many of which now present an alternative stereotype of the cool, professional, liberated women…Some agencies trying to accommodate new attitudes in their campaigns, often miss the point and equate ‘liberation’ with a type of aggressive sexuality and very unliberated coy sexiness.

Dyer, G. (1982) Advertising as Communication, pp. 185-186, quoted in Strinati, D. (1995) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, pp. 187-188)

Is that what is occurring here? Deciding to investigate then, I was stuck by the Korean media’s interest in the marketing campaign also, albeit for two entirely different reasons.

Cheoum Cheoreom Cool Bicep

First, having an alcohol content under 17% means that commercials can be screened on television after 10pm, and hence that the alcohol content of soju drinks would eventually reach that level has long been predicted by industry analysts. Even more presciently though, back in March one said:

…if you go under 17% you blur the boundary with low-alcohol drinks. Because you gain the ability to have TV ads at less than 17%, you could be promoting drinking cultures and exposing teenagers to it, so the authorities may stop you.”

And as this Korean source reveals, last week the rules were indeed changed. But Joeunday’s commercials wouldn’t have been particularly corrupting of Korean youth, nor Daesun’s commercial below with Kang Dong-won (강원도), on Korean screens since August 1, so this was probably a direct reaction to the launch of Cheoum Cheoreom Cool in late August.

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Only Daeson suffered though, as in anticipation of the negative publicity and the government’s intentions, spokespeople for Lotte said that they never decided not to make television commercials (see here and here). Which brings me to the second reason for the intense media interest in it: Lotte deciding not to use Lee Hyori to endorse the drink, despite her still easily being Korea’s biggest sex-symbol, and notorious for always sexing-up advertisements and pushing the limits of Koreans’ supposed Confucian reserve (see here and here). Apparently, in nearly 2 years promoting Cheoum Cheoreom, she hadn’t brought around the turnaround in fortunes expected (update: these statistics dispute that).


Lee Hyori Curls 2007 But in fairness to Lee Hyori, Doosan was in the midst of reorganizing itself into a holding company centered around heavy industries when it hired her, and in hindsight the same company that had just bought the world’s biggest maker of construction equipment earlier that year was not necessarily the best one to transform the image of the drinks in the eyes of 20-somethings: see here and here for the ensuing advertising disasters. Hence the consternation caused earlier this week when it was revealed that while she would continue to promote Cheoum Cheoreom, relatively unknown UEE (유이) would be used for Cheoum Cheoreom Cool instead (but not replacing Lee Hyori, as this blog naturally but mistakenly stated), and with the combination of the two Lotte hopes to bring their market share up to 15%.

Which is why it is UEE that graces the front page of all Korean portal sites as I type this, and as it turns out, what I’d seen was merely one of many pre-launch commercials and advertisements based on the theme of “168 ,” most of which were rather inane. Here then, is the commercial Lotte really wants you to remember:

In it, UEE begins with “오빠 나 쿨해, 내가 진짜 처음이야?”, which roughly translates as (to the guys she’s dating) “I’m cool…am I really your first?”. After that, the first guy just mutters nonsense, and later she says “쿨하게 생각해!” or…er…”Think Cooly,” and she finishes with “원샷. 어! 상쾌해!”, or “One shot! Oh! It’s sweet!”.

Consider these accompanying advertisements also, released at the same time:

UEE Soju Cool Honest( Source: Naver )
UEE Soju Cool Love(Source: Naver)

The text in the first reads: “Q: Honest. 남친이랑 여행할땐, 솔직히 말하는게 Cool 할걸까? MT 간다고 뻥치는게 Cool 할건까? A: Think Casual”, or “When you travel with your boyfriend, which is cooler: admitting it to your parents, or lying and saying you’re going on a trip with your university friends?”. And in the second: “Q : Love 키스할때 눈을 감고 하는게 Cool 하니? 쳐다 보면서 하는게 Cool 하니? A : Think Casual”, or “When you kiss, which is cooler? With your eyes closed or staring at your partner?”. In addition, many bottles of the drink will be sold with blue or pink bottletops, with the above messages or similar ones printed on the labels (see the video here at 0:31 to see those). And despite the former ostensibly being directed towards women, one might speculate that the message with the blue text might actually appeal more to men, and only with the pink or red more to women.

And so considering: the bicep in the prelaunch advertisements and commercials; their kissing scenes (albeit no longer remarkable in Korean advertising); and now these, with the intention of showing “how cool women behave,” then of course the marketing campaign is also aimed towards them. Even possibly the de rigueur “sexy dance” below too, as even though UEE was chosen because of her popularity among 20-something men, such dances are often used to advertise products to women also:

As an aside,  several sources describe the dance as simultaneously sexy and pure and innocent, but without any apparent trace of irony: something that won’t surprise Brian in Jeollanam-do, who has often criticized the bastardization of the word in the Korean language. I wonder though, if that adds to the argument that it is intended for both female and male consumption? Regardless, here’s a video of the making of it also, and although I find personally find that they ruin the fantasy element to commercials myself, they are also important elements to marketing campaigns these days (and I speculate more popular among women than men):

By this stage then, you will probably not be surprised to find that most of the Korean sources I’ve linked to do in fact mention that the drink was aimed at both sexes (although one adds that it would have been more logical to exclusively aim it towards women). But rather than simply provide that information at the beginning, I decided to roughly replicate the process by which I came to find that information for myself, hopefully providing a good overview of the current state of soju advertising in the process (but which should definitely be read in conjunction with this one from June).

And also to resist my temptation to merely assume that the marketing campaign with UEE both reflects and/or is the harbinger of more sexually assertive images of women in Korean advertising. After all, considering that: the recession has already forced advertisers of all stripes to rely on consumers’ basic instincts; soju companies have nothing but the profit incentive in mind; and if they don’t see (hyper)objectification of women for a male gaze as incompatible with the commensurate goal of selling soju to women, confirming the suspicions that first came to mind as discussed, then that doesn’t bode well for reducing Korean women’s excessive worries about their appearances.

And yet regardless of the motivations behind them, one still can’t help but reflect on all the changes to women’s images in soju advertising in recent years, not all of which have been negative. Granted, I have often exaggerated the depth and positive impact of those changes in the past. But let me leave you with the fact that this alternate image of women was the norm less than two years ago:

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At the very least then, we can all agree on the pace of change…just one reason why Korean sociology is so interesting!


Korean Sociological Image #18: Sexualizing Caucasian Women

Sexist Korean advertisment caucasian women(Source: Busan Metro, 2 September 2009)

An image that simply begs commentary. But what is noteworthy about it exactly?

One thing is the tendency to use women’s bodies to showcase vehicles, well satirized here by replacing women with men in a similar photoshoot. But that is hardly unique to Korea, nor particularly strong here, whereas my general purpose with this series is to highlight interesting features of Korean society. So it’s the use of Caucasian women that I want to discuss here, as they’re so common in Korean advertising that sometimes there’s even more of them than Korean ones.

Before I began writing though, I had a thought: can’t Korean advertisers ever use non-Korean models without overanalysis, and — yes — perhaps implicit criticism from myself for doing so? No, of course they can. And, serendipitously, earlier this week Lisa at Sociological Images provided a fuller response to that charge, indeed an overall rationale that will inform this series in the future also. Here it is, but adapted to this blog:

korean-boy-looking-up-caucasian-womens-skirtI often present a single example of a cultural pattern. If you’re a member or observer of the relevant culture, that single example might ring true.  That is, you might recognize it as one manifestation of something you see “out there” all the time.

But it’s still just one example and it’s not very convincing to someone who is skeptical that the cultural pattern exists, especially if it’s subtle.

But one advantage of being a niche blogger is that posts on one’s subject(s) are cumulative.  I can even put up single manifestations of a cultural pattern and, even if it’s not very convincing at the time, the other evidence on the blog (and the evidence yet to come) may sway even some skeptics.

It is in that spirit that I offer the opening advertisement.

The choice of the models ethnicity may be random, but I am going to suggest that it is not…

And yet there are so many examples of Caucasians in Korean advertisements on this blog to provide, and so many factors involved in the choices of them, that to simply provide dozens of links at this point would be to confuse rather than enlighten readers. Therefore, my purpose with this post is to provide a single definitive guide to the subject that people can refer back to in future, not least myself!

To begin then, consider the empirical evidence for the disproportionate numbers of Caucasian women in Korean advertisements. Surprisingly given their seeming ubiquity though (something I’ll return to), there have actually been very few English-language studies of East Asian advertisements that have incorporated race as a main factor of their inquiries, and I am aware of only three that have done so of Korean ones. Here they are in chronological order of publication, with very brief summaries of their findings and links to the posts where I discuss them in more detail:

• Hovland, R. et.al. “Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements”, (Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, December 2005; open access copy no longer available).

Using various 2000 editions of selected Korean and American women’s magazines, Hovland  et. al. found that 30% of Korean advertisements in them featured Caucasian female models, whereas only 1.9% of US advertisements showed Asian female models. Of particular note here, both Korean and US magazines for middle-aged women showed more Korean and Caucasian models than their counterparts for younger women respectively; see here for the details.

• Kim, Minjeong & Lennon, Sharron “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006; open access copy no longer available).

As discussed in the second half of this post, the advertisements in the various 2001 editions of selected Korean women’s magazines examined actually had more Caucasian women than Koreans: 52.3% vs. 47.7% respectively, compared to 84.9% Caucasian women in advertisements in U.S. magazines.

• Nam Kyoungtae, Lee, Guiohk & Hwang, Jang-Sun “Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines“, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007; downloadable here.

whisen-air-conditioner-advertisement-han-ye-seul-song-seung-hun(Source: Korea Times)

Of the total of 644 female models found in selected advertisements (one page or bigger and showing full adults) from selected Korean women’s magazines from 2002 and 2003, 57% were Korean and 43% were Western. Of 299 male models counted, 59.2% were Korean and 40.8% Western. And of particular interest, as I wrote here:

…Western women were more likely to be depicted in revealing clothes and or nude than Korean women, but at the same time they were also likely to be portrayed as independent, self-assured, and assertive than them too, and by no means just in a sexual sense. Again, this finding is true of Western and Korean men too…

To be fair, this at least in part echoes the the hypersexual state of Western advertising today. And rather than supporting the artificial dichotomy between chaste Koreans and oversexualized Caucasian (or Westerners) that at the heart of this post, the internal dynamics of the Korean magazine industry reveal that Korean women are active and willing consumers of the cultural and sexual norms that such advertisements literally embody, the incorporation of which into patriarchal Korea is not without friction. Not to imply that all positive changes in Korea are Western-derived of course, but regardless there are certainly a lot of advertisements with Caucasians out there.

lee min-ho cass jessica gomes( Source: Naver )

Or are there? I’d wager that many heads would have been nodding with that last statement, and, granted, some Korean clothing labels for instance – Beanpole and Hazzys come instantly to mind – do seem to use exclusively Caucasian models. But then appearances by Caucasians in Korean-made television commercials like the above, for instance, are actually the exception rather than the rule. And with the proviso that White privilege is very much alive in Korea (the existence of which I take for granted that readers agree on), and, without implying that Koreans want to look White,  that this still has a strong influence on both Koreans’ preferred cosmetic surgery operations and their huge numbers, in hindsight I’d be hard pressed to think of any segment of the Korean advertising industry that used Caucasian models to the extent researchers found in women’s magazines.

Unless of course, a great many of them were for lingerie that is.

As long-term readers will well know, it turns out that the reason for this is because before the restrictions against the use of foreign models in advertising was lifted in 1994, lingerie modeling in Korea was often done by pornographic actors (update: to be more precise, nude models) This gave it a negative image among Korean female models, the enduring strength of which was revealed recently by these ones who did model lingerie but nevertheless felt compelled to literally disguise themselves while doing so, and all quite ironic considering how willing many are willing to objectify their breasts otherwise (see here, the video here, and here for some notorious examples). Case closed then?

Yoon Eun-hye Vivien's Summer CollectionNot quite. Consider what I wrote a few months ago on the subject:

…lingerie advertisements are ubiquitous in Korea, and it’s a rare commute when I don’t have the slightly surreal experience of seeing ones featuring scantily clad Caucasians in one subway car, then seeing others with fully-clothed Koreans like [these] in another when I transfer (sometimes, you can even see both in the same car). Seriously, it’s no exaggeration to say that Koreans’ convoluted and often contradictory notions of sexuality and race literally stare me in the face everyday, and in a form that means that I’m particularly likely to sit up and take notice.

Yes, that is indeed a lingerie advertisement on the right (source). And regardless of the actual reasons for a phenomenon, once we think we’ve found the reasons for it, those shape the filter through which we take in new data. Personally then, I originally thought the use of Caucasian lingerie models demonstrated that Korean women had Caucasian body ideals, which prompted me to write this post on the subject last April. Once the stigma attached to lingerie modeling came to light that June though, then that link I had made was no longer sustainable…but not the Caucasian body ideals themselves, which there’s still a wealth of other evidence for (and see this post again). In that vein, while 4 years ago Michael Hurt was also mistaken in his proffered reasons for the numbers of Caucasian women in lingerie advertisements, writing in his blog Scribblings of the Metropolitician

One thing that I also notice is that in underwear and other commercials that require people to be scantily-clad, only white people seem to be plastered up on walls in the near-buff. Now, it may be the sense that Korean folks – especially women – would be considered too reserved and above that sort of thing (what I call the “cult of Confucian domesticity”). Maybe that’s linked to the stereotyped expectation that white people always be running around all nasty and hanging out already, as is their “way.” Another possibility has to do with the reaction I hear from Korean people when I mention this, which is that white people just “look better” with less clothes, since Koreans have “short leg” syndrome and gams that look like “radishes.” The men are more “manly” and just look more “natural” with their shirts off. Hmm. The thoughts of the culturally colonialized? Perhaps I’m being too harsh? My hunch is that it’s all of the above. Take a look.

…not only did I heartily agree with his thoughts when I first read them, but I still agree with them, because they are not just based on the numbers of Caucasians in lingerie advertisements. In particular, of the following 2003 advertisement with Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환) he wrote:

A recent favorite, reflecting the relative position of Korean masculinity vis a vis whiteness, specifically white women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the relatively greater financial power that has made Korean men an attractive partner – or at least potential plaything – of Eastern European and Russian women, and that many of them now enter the country under the E-6 “entertainment visa.” In any case, this is a fascinating statement on the changing status of “the white” in relation to Korean masculinity. No longer the inaccessible Playboy fantasy held by many men in a developing Korea that had been culturally (and partially symbolically sexually) dominated by the United States – now the tables are turned. The product being sold here is a cream to make/keep one’s skin “white.” Don’t even get me started.

And lest long-time observers of Korea feel that this particular advertisement has become somewhat iconic and overanalyzed by the Korean blogosphere, it is but one of many examples.

essor-white-advertisement-ahn-jung-hwan( Source: Somang Cosmetics )

Before providing a context for those in the remainder of this post though, I should point out that I don’t think that lingerie advertisements by definition sexualize the models featured, and so I disagree with Michael Hurt’s seeing further evidence of the sexualization of Caucasian women in the ridiculous setting of this advertisement for instance, as regardless of the source of the advertisement and/or the ethnicity of the models, worldwide they can similarly have “folks sitting around in their skivvies [that] could just as well be on the veranda of a bistro in the south of France. Eating strawberries in a bathtub in lingerie, with a towel wrapped around one’s head.” Indeed, rare Korean lingerie advertisements with Korean models are no different, and when it comes to sexualizing lingerie – nay, almost any item of woman’s clothing – it often pays to be subtle. Consider this one with Shin Min-a (신민아) that came out this summer for instance: while it is significant because previously one never saw Korean celebrities wearing the lingerie at all when they endorsed it, and is probably a belated reaction to the fact that discreetly showing one’s lingerie off has actually been the fashion for years now, personally I see much more significance in the fact that it seems designed for a male gaze.

Shin Mina Vivian Bra Lingerie Advertisement( Source: Zziixx )

As you might vaguely recall, the advertisement that prompted this post wasn’t actually a lingerie advertisement. But having Caucasians in the vast majority of those – for whatever reasons – does at least feed into the false dichotomy of chaste Koreans and overly-sexualized Caucasians. And although it’s by no means the most blatant example of its kind, the choice of outfits in it still makes it very much Exhibit A in the argument for the existence of those stereotypes (as an aside, see this post for the issues raised when skimpy clothing is donned for a good cause, like women in bikinis washing only hybrid cars). Let’s now consider the other evidence.

First, there were the recent plans to set up a nudist beach on Jeju island specifically in order to attract foreign tourists, especially Caucasians/Westerners. Apparently, this was because many were already regularly stripping off on Jeju beaches despite local sensibilities, but in the absence of anything to support those claims, and considering that Korean reporters regularly simply make stuff up and/or impose their own opinions on a report while attributing them to others (see here and #1 here respectively for recent examples), then when I heard of the idea I was much more inclined to believe that Jeju government officials came up with it completely independently. And why? Probably based on the conflation of nudity at beaches with sex said Brian in Jeollanam-do, “implying that the point of the former is to stimulate one’s appetite for the latter,” and which in turn points to “a pretty base assessment of the tastes of foreigners and foreign tourists.”

To be fair, in many senses exaggerated notions of foreigners sexuality are merely a method by which particularly older Koreans deal with and account for the uncomfortable reality of Koreans’ own sexuality, and so as Michael Hurt points out here, public displays of affection by young Koreans are often rationalized by certain Koreans by claiming that the couples involved are Japanese. No, really. But for a more tangible “other,” you need the Occident of course, which is why Korean public opinion holds Western celebrities to such different standards to Korean ones.

Lady Gaga Seoul( Source: Naver )

So while it is okay for Korean women to dress up as Paris Hilton in order to promote the Korean airing of her reality show for instance, and she regularly appears on Korean television, endorses Korean products, and literally her every word about Korea is literally lapped up (no matter how inane), on the other hand Korean female’s celebrities careers have been ruined simply for having sex with their boyfriends, or even merely being accused of making a Hiltonesque sex tape. True, Korea’s well-known cultural cringe is very much involved when the attention of Western celebrities – any celebrity – is sought, but the same principles still apply for both less notorious Western stars and Korean celebrities’ less extreme deviations from sexual norms. Hence like Paris Hilton, Lady Gaga above was recently fawned over on her recent visit to Seoul, and yet seemingly every other week: Korean groups are banned from the airwaves for even the most innocuous of lyrics (see #2 here, and the more recent case here); female groups struggle to present female sexuality as something other than dressing and acting like schoolgirls; and international models are criticized for appearing nude in photoshoots (yes, I can admit my mistakes). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But you get the idea. Next then, there is confirmation from the grass roots: Brian provides ample evidence that foreign women in bikinis are heavily targeted by Korean newspaper photographers for instance, and I must also mention that a great many Caucasian female friends have mentioned being groped and otherwise sexually harassed by Korean men to me. Of course, that is merely anecdotal evidence, and not having my blogger’s hat on at the time (I do take it off occasionally), I didn’t think to ask how that compared to experiences in their home countries. Now that I am in that frame of mind though, I’d be grateful if readers could fill me in with their own experiences, and by all means if you haven’t ever faced either problem too, as responders can be somewhat self-selecting sometimes.

But of course Korean women are also frequently photographed at beaches and/or and sexually harassed, and indeed because of that there was a short-lived experiment with women-only subway cars in Seoul a few years ago (but groping is on the rise again). Despite that, there are still good reasons to suppose that Caucasians might be targeted more:  in addition to the stereotypes perpetuated by Western media itself of course, there is the ethnic make-up of prostitutes here.

Korean Prostitution StatisticsIn itself, the Korean prostitution industry is so big, so intimately tied to Korea’s economic development, and with such a pervasive impact on the current low position of women here, it really requires a separate blog devoted to it. Finding a short introduction to point readers towards was a bit of a challenge then, but surprisingly the Wikipedia article on the subject is a good start. Once you’ve read that, I recommend following it up with Matt’s plethora of articles on the subject at his blog Gusts of Popular Feeling by clicking here (if that doesn’t work, simply copy and paste “prostitution site:http://populargusts.blogspot.com/” into Google), and with apologies for not mentioning them myself, other bloggers by all means feel free to promote your own posts on the subject in the comments section. My concern here though, is specifically the fact that it is primarily Russian, presumably Caucasian, women that are trafficked to work in the industry, for which I offer the following links, in roughly chronological order (source right: Korea Discussion Forums):

Humantrafficking.org, which has a basic introduction to the subject and links to archived articles.

Human Trafficking & Modern-day Slavery, with a similar archive.

Michael Hurt’s October 2006 post on the subject, with many links itself.

• A May 2007 article from the JoongAng Daily.

• Robert Koehler’s January 2008 post at The Marmot’s Hole on the fact that a US Congressional Research Service report on human trafficking labeled Korea a major destination for sex tourism.

• GI Korea’s post at ROK Drop a week later on Korea being taken off that list.

• An editorial in The Hankyoreh in February of this year on the fact that it is the victims of human trafficking that are often persecuted for engaging in prostitution, despite being tricked and/or forced into it.

• Finally, a post by Robert Koehler in April on the busting of a brothel in Gangnam, which had several Russian prostitues.

Korean Charisma Man(Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling)

Last but not least, no post on the title topic would be complete without the related subject of the Korean media’s portrayal of Western, Caucasian male teachers as sexual predators, for which I recommend this post by Matt and the links I provide at #1 in this post for getting a grip on. Apologies in advance to Matt in case I’ve covered any of the same material that he does, who also looks at the portrayal of Caucasian women as sex objects in that post.

In closing, again please feel free to link to and/or discuss any related subjects and posts that you think should be included here (my aim is to make the post as inclusive as possible), and I’d be especially grateful for readers passing on any of their own practical experiences with the issues raised in it. And apologies to everyone for the delays to writing this post and responding to comments and emails, as on Wednesday the wifi on my laptop completely stopped working…only to miraculously turn back on the instant the repair guy walked through my front door on Friday!

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)

Korean Photoshop Disaster #2: Somewhat Less than a Woman (Updated)

Yun In-yeong Yongpyong Peak Island Advertisement Photoshop

Photoshopped advertisements are a pervasive feature of modern life of course, but it’s surprisingly rare to find their originals online (or at least close equivalents). Perhaps that’s all the better to hide advertisers’ mistakes though, as a single glance reveals that Yu In-yeong (유인영) looks much more appealing unaltered than in the advertisement on the left. A “disaster” in the sense that YongPyong Resort’s advertising budget might have been better spent then?

To be fair, the advertisement may have looked more rather better in August the 5th’s MetroSeoul itself: strangely, its website only provides rather garishly-colored versions of what goes in the print editions. And although In-yeong’s elongated neck is what first drew my attention to the advertisement’s photoshopping in the first place, it turns out that its rather long in real life too. But naturally I soon noticed her rather sculpted-looking breasts also, followed by her over-defined face, her thin right arm, and finally the absence of her navel. It took the photo above-right though, for me to realize what had been done to her waist.

Granted, she’s in a slightly different stance in the photo, and her finger resting in her shorts makes a big difference to its greater appeal (people tend to subconsciously point to what’s on their minds, which is why models tend to pose with their hands on their waists {source, right}). But this begs the question of if the photoshopping in the advertisement was really necessary in the first place, as I seriously doubt that many busy commuters would have had either the time or the inclination to have paid much attention to the space between her breasts and her crotch. This may well explain why that area is covered by text in the advertisement then, but in the process of also removing the “kinks” on her side, the advertisers went overboard and removed all definition from her front too, which for all the exaggeration of her breasts, ironically leaves the rest of In-yeong’s body looking somewhat like a cardboard cutout. Contrast this to her more curvaceous figure in the photo, which the unlike the advertisement prompts many second (and third, and fourth…) glances by heterosexual men.

(As a side issue, some time in the near future it will be interesting – and yes certainly, also rather pleasant – to investigate the ways in which swimming resorts and so on are advertised in Korea. As one might expect, the vast majority use women’s bodies to do so, but I vaguely recall that at least one commercial this summer featured buff men and women mutually checking out each other’s bodies, and I’d be grateful if readers could pass on the name of the resort if they know. Regardless though, in hindsight that this should be exceptional is really rather strange given that half of the customers at resorts would be female, and besides which I seriously doubt that they are quite the “meat markets” that they’re portrayed as considering their popularity with children and families)

Unfortunately the logic behind those excessive changes made in the advertisement is likely to remain a mystery, but personally I would perhaps have chosen to move the text up and right a little, killing two birds with one stone (I’m not so naive as to pretend that some people wouldn’t be put off by the kinks). I accept that that may have necessitated big design changes though.

Faith Hill Redbook Cover July 2007 Photoshop( Source: Hany Farid )

In the meantime, for anyone further interested in the subject then I recommend here for more on the photoshopping done on magazine covers, here and here for a guide to the differences between the original image of Faith Hill and the July 2007 cover of Redbook above, and finally here for a potted guide to many famous historical cases of photo manipulation.

Update, September 10: Following up on my plans to research the ways in which swimming resorts are advertised, Commenter Zhi Zhi drew my attention to the following commercial for California Beach, part of GyeongjuWorld. Note the last few seconds especially:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Such commercials are par for the course in Japan of course, but lest that give any overseas-based readers the wrong impression, I should point out that it’s probably the most blatant case of sexual objectification I’ve ever seen in a Korean commercial. One small redeeming factor it has though, is that it also features men literally performing for a female sexual gaze (although of course objectification of men is also problematic), but unfortunately that is not quite the message one gets by visiting California Beach’s website:

Swimming Resort Sexualized Advertisement California Beach

(For more posts in the “Korean Photoshop Disasters” series, see here)


No Skin Required: Healthy Images of Couples in the Korean Media

Han Ji-hye So Ji-sub Bang BangMuch as I’d like to always present a sophisticated and hard-hitting persona on the blog, I’d have to admit that the following two commercials from Bang Bang (뱅뱅) are very sweet and endearing, and put big smiles on my wife’s and my faces.

More to the point though, they also provide a timely reminder that if presenting healthy images of couples is the deliberate intention, and (much needed) ones of romantically assertive women in particular, then you don’t need to have them lounging around in their underwear or “accidentally” falling into awkward sexual poses to do so. Ironically however, the first two commercials in this series with Han Ji-hye (한지혜) and So Ji-sub (소지섭) featured precisely that, which makes one wonder if Bang Bang mixed the order up.

Here’s what was said in the first video, a little stranger than it looks:

용감한 데님

[Her] Brave Denim Jeans

난 아직 그녀를 안아줄 용기가 없습니다.

Ji-sub: I haven’t had the courage to hug her yet.

이때 그녀의 데님이 내게 속삭입니다.

But this time, her denim jeans whispered to me.

대신 나를 살짝 잡는거예요.

Ji-hye’s jeans (to Ji-sub): Instead, [you should] softly grab me (the jeans).

그녀의 친구는 나보다 용감합니다.

Ji-sub: Her friend [the jeans] is braver than me!

Be my best, 뱅뱅

Be my best, Bang Bang.

And in the second one from Ji-hye’s perspective, which came out at the same time:

친절한 셔츠

[His] Friendly, Warm-hearted Shirt

이 남자, 아직 내 손도 잡지는 못해요.

Ji-Hye: This man, he hasn’t [even] been able to hold my hand yet...

이때 그의 셔츠가 내게 말합니다.

But then, his shirt spoke to me.

“먼저 내 소매를 잡아봐요.”

Ji-sub’s shirt: First, try grabbing his sleeve.

그의 친구는 내게 친절합니다.

Ji-hye: His friend [the shirt] is very friendly to me!

“Be my best, 뱅뱅”

Be my best, Bang Bang.

So Ji-sub Han Ji-hye Bang Bang(Image Sources: Paranzui)

All together now: awwwwwww! But seriously, are any readers aware of any earlier Korean commercials featuring couples in which the woman…or her clothes…took the lead in becoming (slightly) more intimate with her partner, like in the first one here? Not that it’s that radical of course, nor – even if it is the first of its kind – that by itself it will make serious dents in Korean social expectations of romantically meek and passive women. Hopefully it is the start of a trend though, and that would indeed make a difference.

Or am I projecting too much from Koreans’ sexual behavior onto their dating behavior? It is true that many Korean women are so concerned about maintaining virginal appearances as to make them feign lack of knowledge of contraception for instance, and so either not provide nor insist on their partners using it, so it seems reasonable to suppose that this passivity would also be the case at earlier stages in their relationships. But this is a generalization of course (which didn’t even apply to my own wife and former girlfriends), and I haven’t actually dated in 9 years either (sigh), so I may be a little out of touch. I’d appreciate it then, if more experienced readers could pass on their own impressions!

Korean Photoshop Disaster #1: Magic Hole

MagicHole Advertisiement UEE Lee Min-ho Kim Hyun Joong

Naturally, the unfortunate name of Anycall’s new phone has already led to a great deal of speculation as to what was meant by it exactly. But as a former astronomy major (or at least, before an ankle injury forced me into Korean sociology that is),  and considering how stretched and warped poor UEE (유이), Lee Min-ho (이민호) and Kim Hyun-joong’s (김현중) bodies are respectively, then it behooves me to suggest that perhaps “black hole” would have been more appropriate…

Apologies for the poor quality of the above photo, taken while crouched in front of my local phone store earlier this (overcast) afternoon, but it’s probably no coincidence that I haven’t been able to find the full-length version of the advertisement online, even at the MagicHole website (IE required):


Hat tip to the Photoshop Disasters blog for the inspiration for this rather belated series, and see #19 here, here, here, the “X-line” here, and here for some recent examples on the blog, with many more to come!