Korean Sociological Image #44: Westerners, Nipples, and the Presentation of Sexuality in the Korean Media

( Source: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7. Cropped slightly)

It’s amazing what pops up in Korean newspapers these days.

Yes, however difficult it may be for overseas readers to believe, that is the actually the first nipple my Korean wife, friends, and I have ever seen in a Korean advertisement. Moreover, it’s probably no coincidence that it belongs to a Caucasian model too, and one that looks like she’s about to get involved in a ménage à trois at that.

Focusing on the nipple first though (as one does), let me provide some context: with the important exception of ubiquitous single-sex bathhouses, Koreans are generally more conservative than Anglophones when it comes to public nudity; topless males are extremely rare away from beaches, swimming pools, and concert stages for instance, and topless females unheard of, let alone full nudists of either sex (recall also that just 5-10 years ago, women even covered their swimsuits with t-shirts too). In addition, while female celebrities have been showing a lot of cleavage in recent years, this trend has yet to be adopted by ordinary women, whom can expect just as much unwanted attention if they accidentally leave home bra-less.

However, breast-feeding is generally fine if done discreetly, and indeed one of the first things I noticed in my first time in a Korean supermarket 10 years ago was a brand of milk (or soy milk) that prominently featured a large breast and a suckling baby on its packaging. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name to find an image, but I do also recall that it was by no means hidden away in any sense.

I doubt that that would have been considered acceptable in New Zealand from which I’d just left, and in that vein note that the current trend for visible nipples in the Western media at least remains precisely that: a trend, and certainly not an liberal, progressive ideal that Korean social mores will somehow inexorably shift towards in the future. For all its eroticism, it pales compared to the standards of the 1970s for instance (see this NSFW example from a 1976 Cosmopolitan), while in Korea no less an authority than Tom Coyner points out (also NSFW) that 60 years ago Korean mothers in the countryside dressed with readily visible breasts “with pride if they had just given birth to a son.”

( Source )

So why the nipple now? Unfortunately, little about the advertisement or the drink provides a clue: “That’s Y” (댓츠와이) is merely a wine cooler (or alcopop?) produced by Lotte Chilsung (롯데칠성음료) since 2008, like wine coolers everywhere primarily marketed to 20-somethings. Judging by its moribund website though, then it hasn’t been selling very successfully (probably why there was a shift to selling it in more stylish bottles rather than cans last month), so one can speculate that Lotte Chilsung was desperate to draw people’s attention to it. Judging by the complete absence of reaction from netizens and the media so far however, strangely that “sex sells” strategy doesn’t appear to have worked.

Ultimately more significant then, is the race of the models in the advertisement in which it appears. Why are they Caucasian? And are Koreans ever portrayed in such brazenly sexual situations as that?

Again, Lotte Chilsung provides no clue: in fact only one more print advertisement for the drink is available online in addition to what you see here. That did also only feature Caucasian women, but then the above one has Korean women in it, and the only television commercial below also only has Koreans too (of both sexes). But looking at the wider context however, then of course there is overwhelming evidence that Caucasians are indeed portrayed more sexually than Koreans in the media here, and particularly women.

Why? Well, assuming that you’ve read that last link, then for one consider how well an artificial dichotomy between virginal, sexually passive Korean women and hypersexual, promiscuous Caucasian ones buttresses extensive human-trafficking in East European and Russian women here. And as for the guys, the notion that foreign male English teachers are oversexed, and thus more likely to be pedophiles than their Korean counterparts, certainly does serve to deflect attention away from the latter. Although one wonders why the Korean media bothers sometimes; after all, just this week apparently even politicians feel perfectly justified in presenting a completely imaginarywave” of sexual crimes by them to justify ever more stringent visa regulations.

And I could go on, but I’d be much more interested in hearing readers’ own ideas. In the case of this particular advertisement though, I acknowledge that it may not in fact be the first nipple out there(!), but regardless let me pose the question of if you think Korean models instead would have aroused more or less controversy to get you started.

Against the argument that there are plenty of risqué ads with Koreans these days though, and so I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, then for sure, and you don’t have to look very far on this blog to find numerous discussions of how much things have changed just in the last 2 years. But look again: a threesome? And virtually in flagrante delicto on the sofa at that? By all means *ahem* pass on any Korean examples you’ve come across, but in the meantime I’d argue that while the goalposts for what is considered a “shocking advertisement” in Korea do indeed change over time, somehow Caucasians still seem to be in the majority of them!

Update – With thanks to Dave for passing it on, who apparently had much sharper eyes than I did back then, in fact there was a commercial with erect nipples as early as 2006. And yes, you guessed it: that had Caucasians too!

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

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23 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #44: Westerners, Nipples, and the Presentation of Sexuality in the Korean Media

  1. The name of that milk company eludes me, too, but it certainly sounds familiar.

    And yes, it’s funny that whenever they push the boundaries they do so with Westerners. I can think of a couple of reasons, but ultimately it’s impossible to escape the image of young Korean women that the media is so eager to push – of the perfect angel. If you need something risqué, find a white chick…

  2. The quote you attribute to Tom Croyner may be a misquote of something Robert Neff said at a recent RAS lecture, to the effect that the only women who wore the short jeogori that showed their breasts were women who had already given birth to a son.

    • Sorry, but I’m mightily confused by your comment: naturally I attribute it to Tom Coyner, who makes that comment to the photo right here. But…hmmm….did you think I meant the caption to the photo instead or something? In which case my mistake, and so I’ve updated the link in the text to go directly to Tom’s comment instead.

      Regardless though, of course the main point remains that for the majority of the population public exposure of nipples (or rather, technically entire breasts) wasn’t quite as taboo as it is now.

      • AGREED. haha..I saw “nipples” and was like…hmm..what does he have to say.. I have to say that ad is quite sexy…damn!

        • Yeah, I did a bit of a double-take when I saw it too, and I’d imagine that some of the perhaps 5 million Korean people that saw it on the subway last Thursday did so as well. Surprised that none seem to have mentioned it online though!

    • Hmmm…not so sure I agree that it does sorry: it’s a rather squat-looking “S”! But either way, although it would indeed indeed be interesting to see what other Korean pop culture memes pop up outside Korea, I don’t think the S-line one will simply because non-Koreans wouldn’t understand what the advertisement was referring to. In Korea though, then that shared knowledge means that virtually any product with an “S” in its name or in the name of its manufacturer can directly or indirectly be linked to S-lines, like many examples in that post of mine you link to.

  3. I can’t remember which phone was being advertised, but there was a Korean TV ad a couple of years ago that had a man and woman approaching each other on a street, walking on a narrow strip, and they had to contort and slip past each other to both stay on the line and not collide. The nipples of the woman in that ad were pretty visibly poking through her shirt. Not a print ad, but I remember being surprised when I first saw it.

  4. Apropos Westernes pushed to the front of pushing boundaries, a new music video from Joosuc — unusually, um, risquè for Korea (even though it probably won’t even be looked at by the broadcasters), but with one Korean lady for every ten western women as far as I can tell:

    (But at least there IS a Korean girl there acting much the same way as the others. And the Korean males have no issues with a little boundary-free bump n’ grind. Sorry, pop n’ drop*)

    • Thanks for passing that on. But seriously though, although I don’t mean any offense if hip-hop is your thing, what a complete piece of misogynistic crap that video was.

      I hope he’s not that popular? Either way, it reminded me that ads and so on featuring one Korean guy and multiple Caucasian women (but very few or no Korean ones) aren’t any better, whatever the purported reason(s) for the choices of the models’ ethnicities.

      • I really don’t know this artist and I do enjoy hip-hop, even by misogynistic artists like 50 cent, but that song did nothing for me, and the video is indeed trashy in al the bad ways.

          • The video is hilariously bad – hitting the bouncy cartoon breasts to make milk come out… Speechless. I reckon this video could be used as an example to illustrate about 30% of this whole blog James! To think, all that time and effort spent looking for articles, searching through Korean web pages, tracking down adverts and so on… and all you really had to do was show a bit of pop and drop!

            • Not to take your comment too seriously(!), but I think it’s more representative of hip-hop in general rather than anything specifically Korean. Back when I was a student one of my lecturers pointed out how hegemonic culture was in fact very much adapted to local tastes wherever it was received, giving the example of Urban Pasifika in New Zealand, sort of a Pacific-Islander hip-hop. I see precious little Koreanization of hip-hop in that video though, just wannabees.

              • Don’t worry, it certainly wasn’t intended too seriously! I meant more just that it’s an example of objectifying women, of objectifying women because they’re white, of trying to emulate American “black” music, of trying to emulate American “black” music while not actually including any black people in the video, despite featuring a black American artist… I’m sure I could go on. Anyways, like I said, it wasn’t supposed to be taken too seriously!

  5. Wait, I’m still kind of confused- Is that Y drink a wine cooler in a can? Who would have thought so much thought would go into nipples, Lol. Sexuality is an overbearing part of the American market as well- What works here spreads like wild fire. Whether it be about wine or a cell phone, sexuality sells.

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