“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

Lee Hyori Bad Girls SBS Inkigayo 인기가요 25 May 2013(Source)

Ahem. But really, they’re just a very small part of my July interview with Colin Marshall for the Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast, where we also discuss:

…what Westerners find so unappealing about Korean plastic surgery; the associations of the “double eyelids” so often surgically created; why he used to believe that Koreans “want to look white”; the meaning of such mystifying terms as “V-line,” “S-line,” and “small face”; the uncommon seriousness about the Western-invented concept of the “thigh gap”; how corn tea became publicly associated with the shape of the drinker’s jaw; Korea’s status as the only OECD country with young women getting thinner, not fatter; Korean advertising culture and the extent of its involvement with the “minefield” of Korean irony; the prominence of celebrities in Korean ads, and why the advertisers don’t like it; how long it takes to get tired of the pop industry’s increasingly provocative “sexy concepts”; the result of Korea’s lack of Western-style reality television; how making-of documentaries about 15-second commercials make the viewers feel closer to the celebrities acting in them; why he doesn’t want his daughters internalizing the Korean sense of hierarchy; why an expat hates Korea one day and loves it the next; how much homework his daughters do versus how much homework he did; the true role of private academies in Korea, and what he learned when he taught at one himself; the issues with English education in Korea and the oft-heard calls for its reform; the parallels between English test scores and cosmetic surgery procedures; the incomprehension that greets students of the Korean language introduced to the concept of “pretending to be pretty”; and how to describe the way Korean superficiality differs from the Western variety.

Apologies in advance for not being much more succinct when I spoke (I’m, well…er..uhm…working on that), and by all means please feel free to ask me to clarify or elaborate on any of those topics.

Also note that Colin has interviewed over 30(?) other expats and Koreans, men and women, and Korea and overseas-based speakers for the Korean component of his series, all most of whom are much more articulate and entertaining than myself, so I strongly encourage you to browse his site. I myself was blown away by Brian Myers’ interview yesterday, which was full of insights and observations that all long-term expats will be able to relate to (and will be very useful listening for those thinking they may become one), and Bernio Cho’s is essential if you want to understand the Korean music industry better. And those are just the two I’ve listened to so far!

A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

Friday Fun? Korean Women Putting Shoes on Their Heads (Updated)

EXID‘s Hani Star1 shoe on head(EXID’s Hani. Source: Asian Junkie)

When I think of my shoes, nothing repulses me more than imagining sticking them on my head.

When I think of ads and magazine photoshoots, nothing infuriates me more than seeing so many women sticking their shoes on their heads. I don’t care how clean they are.

(The shoes I mean, not the women).

Most cases, naturally enough, are by shoe manufacturers—or in magazines heavily influenced by the prerogatives of shoe manufacturers. Presumably, their motivation in having the models fondle the shoes, play with them, and generally put them anywhere but their feet, is to make the shoes appear as much more interesting, fetish-worthy objects than they really are. Which is all well and good.

But for every guy that gets a faceful of rubber, I’d wager there’s at least 10 women. Combine that gender difference with the playing, and it becomes one of a host of childish representations of women in advertising, so ubiquitous that we come to take such behavior as only natural. As explained in A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose:

“Look at these images. What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

Men Childlike Expressions Ritualization of Subordination“What about these images?”

women 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?”

See my post ‘Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements‘ (or the Gender Advertisements tag) for many more Korean examples. Lest we forget though, that oh-so-feminine charm sometimes involves women sticking their shoes on their heads.

Their shoes. On their heads. In 2015.

Wondergirls So-hee Reebok Shoe on Head(The Wondergirls’ So-hee. Source: Unknown)
Go Joon Hee - Oh Boy! Magazine Vol.53 shoe on head(Go Joon-hee. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)
After School Shoe on Head(After School. Source: Focus Newspaper, 8 May 2012, p. 14)
Lee Hyori No Touch Puma Shoe on Head(Lee Hyori. Source: zziixx)
After School Nana - Xtep 2015(After School’s Nana. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)

It’s not all bad though. With the proviso that advertising is a very broad subject, with sometimes huge differences between different mediums, my own impression is that while sexualization has greatly increased in recent years (albeit by no means a uniform evil), it’s rare that I’ll find a glaring gender difference (à la Goffman) worthy of mention here. That’s what makes these ads stick out so much, and why they’re so infuriating. Cute, yes. But still infuriating.

Please tell me about any more examples you know of, of either sex, and I’ll post them here. Or, shoes on heads aside, what ads bug you the most these days? Please rant away!

Update: Hat tip to reader chocole, who found a variation on the theme with a guy:

Hong Jong-hyun handbag on head(Hong Jong-hyun. Source: I love Hong Jung-hyun)

It’s not a shoe of course, and it’s specifically the thought of putting a dirty, smelly shoe on one’s head that bugs me, and which prompted me to write this post. But I acknowledge that Hong Jung-hyun above looks equally childish, stupid, and/or cute (or whatever) as the women do in the other examples, and indeed in the photoshoot as a whole. This raises an important point mentioned in the comments to that old 2010 post of mine I linked to, which I began incorporating into my presentations:

Slide219“As noted, Korean men are increasingly shown semi-nude and/or with confident and assertive poses. But…”

Slide220“…they are more likely than Caucasian* men to be shown behaving cutely and childishly.”

*As is still the case today, it is very rare to see non-Caucasians among foreign models in Korean advertisements.

Slide222(A much more detailed version of my caption): “According to Nam Kyoung-tae et. al. in Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines (from 2011; but I was using a 2007 version), Korean men were:

‘…more likely than Western men [and even Western women] to be associated with many female stereotypical behaviors such as self-touching, canting postures, smiling, and childlike and cute expressions. This might indicate that in contemporary society men are not immune to commercial and sexual objectification and this phenomenon was more evident in Korean advertising.'”

Slide221“They concluded that if young Koreans usually only see strong, confident, sexy, and assertive Caucasians, then they may feel that their examples don’t apply to them”.

But that’s based on an old study, so I’ve been working on getting more recent data. To quickly sum up my findings for you here (no link sorry; it’s in the process of being reviewed for a journal), through my tedious, mind-numbing examination of 2329 fricking ads in various selected months of Metro newspaper between 2007-2013, I determined that K-pop stars at were sexualized at about the same rates as Caucasians, and that both were sexualized at much higher rates than other celebrities, so there’s no longer so much of a gap between those two groups at least.

Unfortunately though, there were actually so few ads with either that it was difficult to draw any definite conclusions, not helped by Metro declining in page numbers and circulation over the period because of the advent of smartphones. Also, I didn’t specifically look for assertiveness and childishness and so on (not the focus of my study, which was more on the numbers of celebrities), and of course Metro is very different to Korean adolescent girls’ magazines too, so we should be very, very wary of making comparisons between them. Sorry!

Korea and the World: My Podcast Interview

Brown Eyed Girls Japan(Source: Danny Choo; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Korea’s entertainment industry has become extremely popular abroad and conveys the image of a modern and attractive country. Watch any K-Pop video and you see plenty of skin and sexiness; but look into Korean culture as a whole, and you witness the dominance of traditional values. Does the way women are depicted in Korean popular culture tell us something about gender politics in Korean society? How persistent are traditional gender roles? Does the entertainment industry empower women or does it merely represent the reality of gender patterns in Korea’s conservative society? To answer these questions and more, we sat down with media specialist James Turnbull in Busan.”

A big thank you to the good folks of Korea and the World, for being such pleasant podcast hosts back in November. Unfortunately though, frankly I had a terrible cold at the time, so apologies in advance if I sometimes sound a little incoherent during the interview!

Either way, make sure to also check out the interviews of Robert Kelly, Daniel Tudor, and Andrei Lankov, with many more to be added in coming weeks.

Update: If you’re interested in hearing more about K-pop specifically, also check out the first episode of Anonymous Said, a new podcast series in which the host aims to “talk to anonymous guests each week, and together…comment on recent events in Korea, and the experiences the guests have from behind-the-scenes of entertainment and life here.” This blog gets a brief mention at 21:50 (squee!).

Presentation, Yonsei University, Friday 12th: “Give it to Me? The Impact of K-Pop’s Sexualization on Korean Advertising”

Sistar Rice Ad(Source: *cough* Ilbe)

The reason I’ve been so busy in recent weeks, and unable to properly reply to all your comments and tweets sorry. But, I’m happy to finally announce I’ll be presenting in the 2014 Situations International Conference, “Culture and Commerce in the Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Asian Music Industries” this Friday at 3pm, and I’d be delighted if any readers could make it.

If you can’t make Friday though, never fear, for there’s a host of much more interesting presentations than mine on Saturday, and I’m happy to meet up after the conference on Sunday too. Please just say hi there, or give me a buzz here or on Facebook or Twitter.

As for my topic, consider it a direct extension of this post. I look forward to your questions and comments!

Sunday Fun: Bottoms!

Hidamari Sketch EscherGirlMy 8 year-old daughter Alice is really into comics these days, often hiding our home phone under her pillow to keep reading when she’s supposed to be asleep. To my chagrin, she couldn’t care less if the female characters have huge eyes though, and/or no noses. But yesterday, I noticed the above while she was watching the opening to the anime adaptation of Hidamari Sketch. It was a great opportunity to start teaching her about female characters’ typical poses too.

Cue 20 minutes of giggling at the bottoms in the Escher Girls blog, which ultimately had the whole family trying—and failing—to imitate some of the pictures (although I was pretty good myself actually). Naturally, we quickly skipped past some of the more inappropriate ones, and Alice still has no idea why female characters are so often drawn in a “boobs and butt” style. But at least she’s aware of the phenomenon now, and, with gentle prodding from me, will hopefully think more about it herself as she gets older.

For now though, she’s still very much a 8 year-old girl, and I can hardly fault her for that. Much of those 20 minutes were also spent by her and her 6 year-old sister Elizabeth saying “와! 예쁘다…” (Wow! They’re so pretty…), and today this post took a long time to write because she kept on stopping me to tell me all about the characters in Hidamari Sketch. Including Yoshinoya above, who’s supposedly a high school teacher (sigh)…

Korean Sociological Image #85: Just One 10 Minutes…to Improve Your Spouse’s Specs

Korea Gender Roles Marriage Specs(Source: Jinvas, left, right; edited)

Two notebook covers, found by reader Stephanie Rosier at her local Kyobo bookstore. As she explains on the blog’s Facebook page, the left reads, “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] wife’s face will change,” and the right, “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] husband’s job will change.”

Of course they’re just notebooks, and just for fun (although I do hope it’s adults they’re aimed at!). But they’re also a reflection of how deeply “specs” (스펙) like certain jobs and physical standards dominate matchmaking discussions among Koreans these days. Whereas back in the 1980s, it was older family members or family friends that would size up children’s potential spouses for arranged 선 (seon) matches like this, nowadays hard economic times mean that young people can be just as pragmatic and calculating as their grandparents were.

Meanwhile, what’s “Just One 10 Minutes?” you ask? :D

Related Posts:

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)