Korean Sociological Image #17: Deconstructing the Ass Dance

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Sexy Dance

A both compelling and rather confusing marketing campaign from Samsung, difficult to avoid on the Korean internet at the moment:

The dancer is actress Han Hyo-joo (한효주), very popular because of her role in the drama Shining Inheritance (찬란한 유산), which finished last month with record ratings. The products being advertised are the VLUU Wink, which features a WIreless liNK for uploading to a computer, and also a small lens in the top-corner of the camera that conceivably looks like an eye, and then the VLUU Mirror, so called because it has an additional small viewing-screen at the front next to the lens for taking pictures of yourself more easily (known as selka {셀카}, from “self-camera”).

I say it’s “compelling” because of the combination of the soporific music from o:13 to o:29 (and then again from 0:55 to 1:19) and the slow motion dancing, albeit both of which actually become rather grating after viewing them the numbers of times I’ve had to for this post. Of course, I grant that Han Hyo-joo is an attractive woman also, and that this sparked an interest in it that a male actor (hopefully doing different dances!) wouldn’t have. But as it turns out, I only know of the single example below of an advertisement of recent years that demonstrated how an electronic product or service could make a man a better dancer, and this discrepancy means that the latter would have been far more deserving of attention:

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But in particular, far from a rare sexy side to Han Hyo-joo being a compelling factor, literally my very first thought upon seeing the the video was that it looked surprisingly similar to “Virtuagirl” screensavers and desktop widgets and so on readily available on the internet, all by definition somewhat seedy. I wouldn’t recommend watching the following example at work:

Now, some translations of the text from the first half of the VLUU video for comparison:

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 1a

“Be Smart. Hyo-joo’s Ass Dance.” Notice the highlighted “S,” which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 2a

“Step 1: Swing/Thrust-out your ass hard! But move your hips softly~”

“Warning: Be careful of moving excessively, or you might expose yourself.” Also note that the word norchool (노출), is one that almost invariably pops up as a suggested search term if you type Korean female celebrities’ names into Korean search engines.

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 3a

“Step 2: While giving seductive hand gestures towards the viewer, step to the right~”

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 4

“Step 3: Quickly but smoothly squat and then stand again”

“Warning: People with big asses can fall/collapse easily”

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 5

“Step 4: Do this one more time!! Hip-hop success Yeah~~~”

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 6( Source: Paranzui )

“Take a picture, send it wirelessly. Samsung VLUU WINK”

Now, of course an “ass dance” on a virtual stripper and on Han Hyo-joo are going to look pretty similar. But that’s my precisely my point: replace the text in the commercial with something more appropriate for a male gaze (“I’d like to spank that” is my helpful suggestion for #1), and the video would be almost indistinguishable from a Virtuagirl screensaver; indeed, the video is available as a screensaver from the VLUU website. What ultimately makes watching the VLUU marketing campaign a simply surreal experience though, is not because of its blatant use of sex to sell a product, but rather because of its clearly trying to present itself as something more sophisticated…and failing miserably.

Hence my confusion with what Samsung was exactly trying to achieve with the marketing campaign, and with whom were the intended audience exactly. Having women doing sexually-arousing dances or wearing skimpy clothing is nothing new in advertising targeted towards women of course, with the logic that men want the women and women want to be them, but even the most vacuous of consumers would soon realize that the products would clearly do nothing whatsoever to help anyone learn the dances. Yet the choice of Han Hyo-joo – by no means known for sexual dances and clothes previously – and the childish imagery of most of the print advertisements suggest that the target audience was indeed women:

Han Hyo-joo VLUU Mirror

Update: I should mention though, that feigned childishness by Korean women also plays a role as an indirect but socially-acceptable means for them to express their sexuality (see here, here, here, and here), so possibly the dance and imagery like the above are not as contradictory as they may at first appear.

Naively, I thought that the following television commercials that went up earlier tonight (Saturday) might help with answering those:

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The voiceover and text, in the rare event that you were paying any attention, say that “There are now 2 Han Hyo-joos. The answer why will be revealed in 15 seconds.” I’ve only seen these online actually, so presumably they’d be back to back on television, or in the same commercial break.

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Alas, all I learned was that this was a commercial for the VLUU Mirror phone, and that in Korean “VLUU” is written as “블루,” which sounds like and would normally be written in English as “blue”: a mistake, or some rare creativity perhaps?

Regardless, it is true that this is ultimately just one…let’s say misguided marketing campaign, so what makes it notable in a sociological sense? Well, with the proviso that it shouldn’t be used in isolation to as an example of any of these, I identify at least 3 (and I invite readers to suggest any more):

• First, the discrepancy between the number of male and female dancers represented in advertisements, as noted earlier. Surely men are just as active dancers at Korean nightclubs as women, and just as in need of technological solutions to help improve their technique? Presumably, but outside of nightclubs women dancers are ubiquitous as either “narrator models” (나레이터 머델) for promoting new stores, as are costumed women known as doh-00-mi (도우미, or “assistants”), used to promote even the most humble and mundane of products  at supermarkets, so there is the context of the much greater utility and objectification of women’s bodies in Korea. See the introduction to this post on the militarization of daily life in South Korea for more links on that, including this series on the phenomenon’s foundations in Neo-Confucianism.

• Next, there’s the highlighted “S”s. Granted, it is by Samsung, and given that the title of the next dance in the video is the “S-line dance,” and involves showing off your breasts and buttocks, then it’s by no means the best example of how abstracted the concept has become, what I’ve argued is almost a hypperreal meme now pervasive throughout Korean popular culture and especially advertising, often with little relationship to women’s bodies from which it originally stemmed and yet still highly influential on women’s body images. See here and here for much more on that, and arguably the video is still in that vein, as “smart” and “stylish,” are by no means adjectives that spring to mind when thinking of the phone, and their highlighted “S”s don’t help that much with brand recognition either. But they do remind me of S-lines and/or the meme though.

• Finally, a point brought to mind by the following video, which happened to be just before the two commercials above where I first found them:

Interpark (인터파크) is a Korean internet auction site, and yes, it does indeed open with a line towards Lee Hyori’s buttocks, the text reading “Interpark, do you want to exchange?”. Yes, I too would be prepared to exchange a great deal for access to those, but again the point is that they have nothing to do with the product being advertised:

Lee Hyori Interpark

Lee Hyori has a deserved reputation for sexing-up advertisements, even more so among Korean speakers, so perhaps she isn’t the best example(!) to draw attention to the fact that, like their overseas counterparts, advertisers have been deliberately sexing-up advertisements and commercials recently for the sake of getting consumers’ very limited attentions during the current recession. Given that then, although I disagree with blogger Roboseyo’s take on the alternative representations of Korean women’s sexuality presented by this recent music video for instance, he is correct in saying that the burden of proof is on the person claiming that there is more to any sexualized cultural product, commercial or advertisement than simply the fact that sex sells.


Update: The attention on Lee Hyori’s buttocks does have a logic in the 30 second version of the commercial below (her shorts are too tight), although it is too long to be played on TV:

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And if you’re interested in that sort of thing, see here for more on Interpark’s reasons to hire her.

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


Korean Sociological Image #16: Plagiarism in Advertising

Sean Connery Louis Vuitton( Source: Nevermind )

Korea has a deserved reputation for plagiarism, but it can surprisingly hard to provide definitive reasons for why this is the case. For example, had I been asked, I would have ventured that it was a combination of:

• the discouraging of creativity and the overwhelming use of rote-learning in Korean schools.

• the emphasis on results rather than processes, as evidenced by the university you attend being considered more important than what you learn there, or alternatively TOEIC scores being used by companies to select new recruits regardless of their actual spoken English ability, or if the job even requires it.

• the reality that university is widely regarded as a brief respite between studying for the entrance exam and corporate life, with much less of a workload than high school.

• a chronic lack of funds meaning that universities are extremely reluctant to expel students.

• and the Korean route to academic advancement, which far from having the egalitarian relationships that prevail in the West, can involve an almost slave-like dependency on professors by postgraduate students. The tasks they can be expected to perform for them can range from the mundane – like making their coffee – to doing the bulk of professors’ actual work, such as the marking of undergraduate essays, and usually for little or even no financial compensation. In such circumstances, it is no surprise to learn that Korean newspapers regularly feature cases of prominent academics being caught plagiarizing their students’ work.

Lotte Scotch BlueAnd for more on most of those points you can see this earlier post of mine on the Korean education system, and also this one by Seamus Walsh on the role of Confucianism in it. But they are all very much open to debate (and I encourage you to do so in the comments), and most importantly can probably be added to: the nature of the Korean music industry, for instance, is probably the real main factor behind this recent alleged case by Korean singer G-Dragon (G-드래곤). And so it proves that there is also a quirk specific to the advertising industry that encourages it there too.

Naturally, after two years of writing about Korean advertisements I’ve already discovered an example of plagiarism by a Korean advertising company, but that one pales by comparison with this on the right by Lotte Chilsung (롯데칠성음료) for its Scotch Blue Whiskey, which a spokesperson had the audacity to claim was only inspired by Louis Vuitton’s advertisement with Sean Connery above (with the tagline “There are journeys that turn into legends. Bahama Islands. 10:07”). It has since been withdrawn, but the Korea Times notes that “according to the Korea Advertising Board (KAB), companies accused of plagiarism are subject to penalty only when the original creator files a request for review.” Moreover, and herein lies the quirk, “in most cases, companies see the plagiarism of commercials as a win-win situation. They like their commercials to be copied and replayed by other companies, because it reminds consumers of their products,” said Kim Se-won of the KAB in 2006.

One wonders in this case though, as the single example available on the internet suggests that it must have been withdrawn rather quickly, perhaps indeed because of threatened legal action. But regardless, do you think the association of Scotch Blue with Louis Vuitton does detract from the latter? How about only in Korea specifically?

Update: With thanks to Florian for making it, here is the original Louis Vuitton advertisement resized and superimposed onto the Lotte Scotch Blue one:

Scotch Blue Louis Vuitton plagiarism

Like he says, at this level of similarity it’s more accurate to talk of copyright infringement rather than plagiarism!

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


Korean Gender Reader

Abracadabra Brown Eyed Girls(Source: Ningin)

1) If You’ve Got it, Flaunt it? The Potential Mainstreaming of Assertive Female Sexuality in Korea

As the live performance below demonstrates, even sans the sex scene of the music video, the dance routine for the Brown Eyed Girls’ (브라운아이드걸스) Abracadabra (아브라카다브라) remains compelling viewing. Spoken from the perspective of a heterosexual male of course, but also in the sense that it presents a rare, more assertive side of women’s sexuality to the faux coy, innocent, and inexperienced one that is the standard for the Korean media:

But given that, the original furor it generated, and the fact that many much tamer songs have been censored and/or banned from being broadcast on public television and radio recently, then last month I and VixenVarla at Seoulbeats and I naturally expected the same for what is easily the most sexually explicit Korean music video I’ve ever seen. Instead, and in some rare positive news, quite the opposite has occurred: the Brown Eyed Girls have become very much the darlings of the Korean media (see here, here, here, here, and here for just a handful of their recent television appearances), with their dance routine very much mainstreamed in the process. For which I present as Exhibit A the fact that it is starting to be parodied:

Do such parodies dilute the much-needed message that Korean entertainers – and, by extension, Korean women – can flaunt rather than hide their sexuality? To the extent that there was a deliberate “message” in the first place of course, as the music company involved has proved all too ready to make tamer versions of the video for the sake of quick sales. The question is pertinent in the context of Western dance moves and gestures frequently being parroted by Korean performers without being aware of their sexual connotations, of which Extra Korea! recently gave some examples, although the first he gives may be erroneous, as G-Dragon {G-드래곤} has quite a reputation for gender-bending. But the pelvic thrusts at 2:45 in the next one do indeed seem rather forced and awkward:

For more on the disassociation between sexuality and sexual iconography in Korea, see #7 here, to which I would add this observation by Misuda (미녀들의 수다 ) member Vera Hohleiter (more on her in a moment) on the irony of Korean women wearing mini-skirts, only to cover themselves up constantly while doing so, and also the fact that in Korea any blatantly sexual dance move, gesture and/or piece of clothing is instantly rendered cute and innocent in the public imagination merely by being on a teenage girl, as to view it otherwise would be to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality of their sexuality.

I think the criticisms are a little harsh though: if you want to look for dancing that is genuinely “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire” in Korea, then you don’t have to look very hard. And context is very important, as even the most provocative of Western singers would be hard pressed to inject some sultriness into their performance under the harsh, almost antiseptic lights of a Korean talk-show studio, and moreover one in which the 3 year-old above may well have strutted her hips and thrust her non-existent breasts out at the audience 10 minutes earlier (not to condone that by any means, just to point out the myopic asexuality of such shows, which discourages questions of how problematic such performances really are). Finally, there’s the constant repetition and routine that would ultimately render ostensibly sexually provocative dance moves and so on somewhat artificial and forced for any performer. As such, it’s not like they can’t be learned: like I noted in an earlier post, there’s a good reason Singer Son Ga-in (손가인) of the Brown Eyed Girls spreads her legs and rides the stage floor like a porn star in the first video (at 2:06), despite claiming to be a virgin (update: apparently that was all only a rumor).

Son Ga-in2) Misuda: Half of it’s Fake

I haven’t actually seen the show myself, but I get the impression from those that have that the first season of Misuda did have its good points, and in particular sparked a lot of interest by Korean women in—and consequent dialogue with—foreign women living in Korea (easy to overlook if you’re a guy). Unfortunately Vera Hohleiterits more fluent, intelligent and interesting members were replaced in favor of mere photogenic ones and more tabloidish discussion topics in Season 2 though, and in was in this vein that was widely regarded as foreign male-bashing on the show occurred in Season 3 last month, which naturally provoked a vehement response in the Korean blogosphere: see #1 here for links, to which I’d add this commentary at Diffism that I overlooked, which makes the crucial point that much of the vitriol, albeit by no means undeserved, stemmed from from an intentionally skewed Korean newspaper report on the episode.

Among the hundreds of comments on those sites, I’d imagine that some would have argued to the effect that much of what is said on the show was scripted and for the sake of playing to its vacuous audience, and it turns out that that is indeed the case, as revealed in a book by German panelist Vera Hohleiter on the right. Unfortunately though, Korean netizens, albeit hardly representative of Koreans’ opinions as a whole, are concentrating on the few negative comments about Korea in it. Even though, as commenter Martin at Brian in Jeollanam-do’s post on the subject puts it:

….I am German and have read Vera’s book a few weeks back. When I bought it, I thought it would be the usual crap that we normally get from books about Korea but it was a decent read and the picture she draws of Korea is VERY positive. The few negative aspects she points out do not stand out at all, though I’m not surprised that some random Korean netizen picks up on them and the Korea Time publishes a story based on that person’s opinion/interpretation. Unreal….

….Anyway, the whole story is unsubstantiated as the book really doesn’t say much negative about Korea or Koreans.

On a positive note though, for its flaws Misuda is belatedly producing a male version. And Javabeans notes that foreign men are already becoming more prominent in the Korean media in recent months, increasingly portrayed positively and in romantic relationships with Korean women (see this movie also).

Update: And even the negative comments about Korea in Vera’s book may have been deliberately mistranslated and/or taken out of context. For more information, see doggyji and orosee’s comments on this forum thread.

3) Does Korea Need Cheaper Childcare?

Very much so, according to the The Chosun Ilbo (hat tip to WangKon936):

Last year 465,892 babies were born in Korea, 27,297 less than in 2007. As a result, the national fertility rate, which is the average number of babies that a woman gives birth to during her reproductive years between age 15 and 49, has declined from 1.25 children per woman to 1.19. Kim Hee-sun Marie ClaireAfter shooting up in 2006 and 2007 because of the belief that those were auspicious birth years, the rate has fallen again. Moreover, 10,000 fewer babies were born during the first five months of this year compared to the same period a year ago. This has prompted dire projections that Korea’s birth rate could fall to 1.12 this year….

….In order to boost the birth rate we need to create a social environment favorable to child birth and raising. Child-rearing costs must be lowered, while women should not be the only ones responsible for raising children. Corporate practices must also change so that women with babies are not discriminated against. But it will take quite some time and effort as well as a change in public thinking to create such an environment. The most practical measure at present is to provide reliable low-cost, high-quality childcare facilities for parents. In a 2005 report on Korea’s low birth rate, the OECD said that increasing childcare facilities alone could boost the rate by 0.4….(Source above: Naver).

And as someone who’s written about Korea’s exceptionally low birth rate and childcare issues for quite some time (see here, here, and here for some lengthy posts), then my instinctive reaction was to agree, but I have to admit that this response to it had some merit:

That’s a load of crap.

If child care was any cheaper in Korea, it would be free. Most daycare centres and kindergartens receive government subsidies, and for that reason, fees normally hover at around 200 000 won per month. Moreover, the government offers additional subsidies to families whose total income is less than about 3.6 million won per month, granting up to a 50% reduction in fees (so, about 100 000 won per month) and even offers additional subsidies to families that have more than one preschooler enrolled.

Sure, there are many daycare centers and kindergartens that charge more (one of the most popular gimmicks used to double and even triple fees being lessons in English), but they are not the norm.

Let’s be more specific. At the moment my wife and I send our 3 year-old daughter to a kindergarten (유치원) from 9:20 am to 4:40 pm Monday to Friday, and that costs us 420,000 won a month (340,000 if we only sent her until 2), which we consider a small price to pay for the sake of our sanity! Her kindergarten is unusual in that it accepts 3 year-olds instead of the standard 4 years, and also as a kindergarten it provides more of a structured educational program than a daycare center (어린이집), but unfortunately that means that we receive no subsidies from the government. If we sent her to the latter though, on my single income of, well…embarrassingly not much more than a 21 year-old new English teacher would make, then we’d only have to pay something like 50-60% of that. As far as my wife knows, there is actually no threshold on the percentage of subsidies that can be received on even lower incomes.

The Cultural Desert of Childcare(Source: Unknown)

I grant then, that costs are not the issue per se, at least to those on a double income and/or with much higher ones than mine. Recall that Korea has the lowest rate of working women in the OECD though, and that Korea has among the longest hours in the world spent at the workplace (note: not working, which is why Korea’s productivity per hour is only average), and I’d be surprised if there is childcare of any sort available at the late hours required. Or indeed if there ever will be, regardless of how many new facilities are created (albeit still urgently required), and so it behooves me to yet again point out that this aspect of Korea’s workplace culture, presenting a stark choice between motherhood and a career, arguably remains Korean society’s biggest stumbling block to raising its birth rate. In the meantime though, as the 2004 Social Policy and Administration article “A Confucian War over Childcare? Practice and Policy in Childcare and Their Implications for Understanding the Korean Gender Regime” makes clear, just actually enforcing the childcare and maternity legislation already in place would be an important first step:

We ask about the development of childcare policies in Korea and what these mean for our understanding of the gender assumptions of Korean governments. Women’s labour market participation has been increasing rapidly, with married women now much more likely to be in the labour market. The provision and regulation around support for women’s employment, and especially for mothers’ employment, is a key issue and problem for Korean women and for governments. A number of policies give the impression that the Korean government is moving rapidly towards a policy for reconciling work and family based on a dual-earner model of the family. But we argue that a close inspection of these policies suggests that the state is still playing a residual role, legislation is not effectively implemented, and government is giving way to the private sector and to the family in responsibility for childcare. Mothers’ accounts of their lives centre on a childcare war played out beneath the apparently harmonious Confucian surface, with resisting husbands supported by powerful mothers-in-law, and daily struggles over the management of services. The Korean government and its policy-makers, far from moving rapidly towards a dual-earner model of the family, are still rooted in Confucian ideals.

Unfortunately that is just the freely available abstract, as I’ve long since lost my electronic copy of the article (update: thanks to reader John Bush for passing this copy on). But I discuss it in detail here, and provide examples of the regular scandals of poor or even rotten food being provided to school students, and the fact that at the time of publication at least civil servants only had the resources to inspect facilities once a year, if at all, with the net result that finding a reliable facility among the insufficient number available plays no small part to play in Koreans’ decision to (not) have children. Things may well have changed in the 5 years since that article was written of course, but given that the Lee Myung-bak administration originally planned to abolish the then Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family (see here and here), only to retain it as the Ministry of Gender Equality (여성부) at the last moment, handing its family-related responsibilities to what became the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (보건복지가족부), then I highly doubt that there has been the political will to make the necessary changes.

Update: See this Korea Times article on for more recent information on Korea’s declining number of newborns.

Heroine(Source: Unknown)

On that note, apologies for the relative lack of subjects this week, less than I intended, but it’s been extremely difficult to write with both the heat and the 2 Energizer Bunnies masquerading as my daughters. And to be frank, the data-collecting for the Korean Gender Reader posts meant that writing them was becoming more of a tedious chore than something to look forward to – never good for the longevity of a blog and/or readers’ enjoyment of it – so from now on I’ll be sticking to the original format, which lets me both look at things in depth and have my own voice. I hope you enjoy the change!

From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader

Im Su-jung

Lest the last email from a reader featured here gives you the wrong first impression, Jacob Lee of California clearly put a lot of thought and attention into this one on the subject of Korean women’s body ideals, and has never ceased to be polite as he patiently waited almost 2 months(!) and many excuses from me before responding to it properly. Given the wait, he may be surprised to learn that I actually agree with most of the points he makes, although we draw very different conclusions from them.

For the sake of both making the email easier to read and distinguishing my interspersed comments from it, I’ve decided to preface the latter with pictures of myself, and, lacking a picture of Jake, one of popular Korean heart-throb Lee Seung-gi (이승기) to represent him. But no means do I mean to give the impression that I’m treating Jake’s email facetiously with that choice though, nor by the format that this was actually a two-way conversation. And I warn you: Jake’s email was over 2500 words long, and my response here brings that up to over 4300, so this post is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Lee Seung-giJake: Hello, Mr. Turnbull.  I was browsing through your site the last few days when I came across your post, “From Asian to Caucasian,” at the end of which you wrote:

So although I’m always open to changing my mind, and think I have a pretty good record on this blog for admitting when I’ve been mistaken and/or changing my mind upon hearing new evidence, until someone actually addresses that point at all then I’ll continue to believe that “Caucasianness” is a very strong, albeit usually subconscious and/or indirect, influence on modern Korean women’s cosmetic surgery choices.

Well, hopefully, I can add a new, well… wrinkle to the topic of modern Korean women’s cosmetic surgery choices.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: For readers’ sakes, let me reiterate that point here, which was that arguments that modern Korean ideals of appearance are merely extensions of historical associations of light skin and so forth, must confront the:

…big, fat, white elephant in the room that is America and the West. You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

As Michael Hurt wrote in 2005. And so readers know what to expect, my main critique of Jake’s email is that while he does indeed add a great deal of new information to the subject, the points he make are essentially ahistorical, and he certainly doesn’t address that issue above.

Lee Seung-giJake: First of all, let me just say that I do appreciate the work you are doing. I may not always agree with your conclusions, or the way you couch your arguments, but I do believe that for the most part, you are doing work that needs to be done, and saying things that need to be said as it pertains to Korean culture.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m ethnically Korean.  I’m a 23 year old guy living in Southern California.  In the past few months especially, I’ve been interested in the question of Asians wanting to be Caucasians.  Rather, I’m interested in the perspective of Caucasians regarding this topic.  I suppose it wasn’t a really big surprise to learn that there are many Caucasians out there who firmly believe, as you do, that Asian women (in your case Korean women) are strongly influenced by “Caucasianness.”  And no matter how vehemently these Asian women deny wanting to look white, the response invariably seems to be, “Yes you do.  You just don’t know it b/c it’s subconscious, or you don’t want to admit it.”   From youtube videos, Tyra Banks, the racist website stormfront.org, the list seems interminable.

To you and other non Asians, it seems that because many Asian women want larger eyes and a straighter nose, this is very strong evidence for their wanting to be white since these are deemed to be white standards of beauty…

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Let me stop you there for a moment, as I think you’re careless with your choice of words here, unnecessarily and probably unintentionally generalizing myself and other Caucasians. Yes, I have indeed said that Korean women are strongly influenced by Caucasianness, but that’s not quite the same as saying that they subconsciously want to look White, and as far as I’m aware I’ve certainly never intentionally asserted such, either online or in person. I do agree that discussions on the subject by myself and others can certainly seem to have that dynamic you describe though, but in my own experience that’s frequently the result of either a misunderstanding or even a deliberate misrepresentation of non-Asians’ views.


Having said that, I do believe that the plethora of cosmetic surgery advertisements marketed towards Northeast-Asians but featuring Caucasians would suggest that – surely – some Koreans do indeed deliberately or subconsciously “want to look White.” But I’m not going to labor that point: it’s unnecessary. Rather, however cliched it is to do so, consider, say, that women wanting to look sexually aroused (and thereby more arousing) and men’s fondness for phallic symbols undoubtedly had big roles to play in origins of the modern habits of lipstick and tie-wearing respectively, but that doesn’t mean men and women deliberately or even subconsciously do so for those reasons now: instead, they are merely following cultural practices and/or norms surrounding them that have considerably evolved since. And in that vein, I’ll readily admit that the vast majority of Korean women that get lighten their skin and/or get cosmetic surgery operations that, to my eyes, make them look more Caucasian, actually do so to look more like Korean celebrities and/or merely follow Korean cultural norms. But while those certainly built on preexisting Korean ones, especially associations of light skins with an indoor, non-agricultural elite, they have also been heavily influenced by notions of class, civility and wealth literally embodied by Caucasians, as Michael Hurt pointed out.

That may all seem to be mere semantics, but because of the heated and often quite vitriolic debate this subject invariably seems to generate in the blogosphere, I want to remove that emotive element from any discussion immediately: I am not claiming here that Korean women simply want to look White, nor have I ever done so. With that out of the way then:

Lee Seung-giJake: …But in the last few months, I’ve found that there has been some significant research done, mostly by evolutionary psychologists, which seem to strongly support the idea that there is, generally speaking, no white standard of beauty, Asian standard of beauty, black standard of beauty, or Hispanic standard of beauty – there is only a universal standard of beauty that is innate, recognizable by most, and aspired to by many.

I highly recommend the book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist and faculty member of the Harvard Medical School and of Harvard University’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative.

Here’s an excerpt:

Despite racism, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, people have always been attracted to people of other races. Today the world is a global community where international beauty competitions have enormous followings (although many complain that these contests favor Western ideals of beauty). There must be some general understanding of beauty, however vaguely defined, since even three-month-old infants prefer to gaze at faces that adults find attractive, including faces of people from races they had not previously been exposed to. In recent years scientists have taken a deep interest in the universality of beauty.

No Skinny Man Has an Ounce of Sex Appeal 1939It turns out that people in the same culture agree strongly about who is beautiful and who is not. In 1960 a London newspaper published pictures of twelve young women’s faces and asked its readers to rate their prettiness. There were over four thousand responses from all over Britain, from all social classes and from ages eight to eighty. This diverse group sent in remarkably consistent ratings. A similar study done five years later in the United States had ten thousand respondents who also showed a great deal of agreement in their ratings. The same result has emerged under more controlled conditions in psychologists’ laboratories. People firmly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and then they jot down very similar judgments (image right: source).

Our age and sex have little influence on our beauty judgments. As we have seen, three-month-old babies gaze longer at faces that adults find attractive. Seven-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and adults do not differ significantly in their ratings of the attractiveness of the faces of children and adults. Women agree with men about which women are beautiful. Although men think they cannot judge another man’s beauty, they agree among themselves and with women about which men are the handsomest.

Although the high level of agreement within cultures may simply reflect the success of Western media in disseminating particular ideals of beauty, cross-cultural research suggests that shared ideals of beauty are not dependent on media images. Perhaps the most far-reaching study on the influence of race and culture on judgments of beauty was conducted by anthropologists Douglas Jones and Kim Hill, who visited two relatively isolated tribes, the Hiwi Indians of Venezuela and the Ache Indians of Paraguay, as well as people in three Western cultures. The Ache and the Hiwi lived as hunters and gatherers until the 1960s and have met only a few Western missionaries and anthropologists. Neither tribe watches television, and they do not have contact with each other: the two cultures have been developing independently for thousands of years. Jones and Hill found that all five cultures had easily tapped local beauty standards. A Hiwi tribesman was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another. Whatever process leads to a consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Not that this detracts from either the points made in the book or in your email, and in fact I agree with all of those made in this *cough* rather lengthy excerpt, but let me point out here how I’m increasingly skeptical of the validity of any reports on the body and face preferences and so forth of isolated jungle tribes. Primarily, this is because of the way in which they are almost invariably used in the media, literally thrown into the discussion to support almost any hypothesis. Just this June for instance, Newsweek used some other South American tribes to argue the exact opposite, arguing that men’s ideals of women’s hip-to-waist ratios were heavily dependent on women’s economic position in their culture.

Cross-cultural studies have been done with people in Australia, Austria, England, China, India, Japan, Korea, Scotland, and the United States. All show that there is significant agreement among people of different races and different cultures about which faces they consider beautiful, although agreement is stronger for faces of the same race as the perceiver.

In the Jones and Hill study, people in Brazil, the United States, and Russia, as well as the Hiwi and Ache Indians, were presented a multiracial, multicultural set of faces (Indian, African-American, Asian-American, Caucasians, mixed-race Brazilian, and others). There was significant agreement among the five cultures in their beauty ratings and some differences. For example the Hiwi and the Ache agreed more with each other than they did with people in Western cultures. This is not because they share a culture – they don’t – but because they have similar facial features, and they are sensitive to the degree of similarity between their facial features and the features of the people in the photographs. For example, although the Ache had never met an Asian person, they were curious about the Asian-American faces, attracted to them, and aware of a similarity between these faces and their own. The Ache gave less favorable ratings overall to African-American faces, and they called the Caucasian anthropologists “pyta puku”, meaning longnose, behind their backs. One Caucasian anthropologist was given the nickname “anteater”.

Since the Hiwi and the Ache had never encountered Asians and Africans, had met only a few Caucasians, and were not accustomed to using the scientists rating scales, any level of agreement with the Western cultures is intriguing. Jones found a number of points of agreement. People in all five cultures were attracted to similar geometric proportions in the face. They liked female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face. Jones called these “exaggerated markers of youthfulness”, and they are similar to the features mentioned in other cross-cultural studies of beauty. For example psychologist Michael Cunningham found that beautiful Asian, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, and Caucasian women had large, widely spaced eyes, high cheekbones, small chins and full lips.

People tend to agree about which faces are beautiful, and to find similar features attractive across ethnically diverse faces. The role of individual taste is far more insignificant than folk wisdom would have us believe.

Lee Seung-giKim Tae-hee Perfect FaceJake: And you can find the NYTimes book review here which offers some more insight (James: free registration required). Her book was even the basis for a discovery channel special which discussed the idea of a universal standard. Popseoul! (which I believe you are familiar with) even talks about it here.

No surprise that Kim Tae-hee (김태희) fits the standard perfectly, eh?  Well, it wasn’t for me at least.

Kim Tae-hee about to eat some meat(Source)

There might be the question, Do Caucasians fit the universal standard more than any other race?  It doesn’t appear so.  I can’t find the study anymore, but I’ll include it anyways just on the chance that you’ve come across similar studies or made comparable observations yourself, however informal.  This study (one that was unrelated to this idea of universal beauty) suggested that 3 out of 4 people, regardless of race, were deemed to be either plain or ugly by participants who, themselves, were from various racial backgrounds.  And only a very small percentage (less than one percent in each racial group if I recall correctly) was given the highest rating of beautiful.

My interpretation of this data is that since there are roughly 25% of people in each racial group who are considered somewhat attractive or beautiful, all racial groups have about the same proportion of people who fit the universal standard.  It’s just that when we miss these standards, we miss them in different ways, e.g., small eyes for Asian women and big noses for Caucasian females.

Since I don’t have the source for this study, I wouldn’t blame you for ignoring it.  But even if people want to believe that Caucasians fit the universal standard more than any other race, that still doesn’t change the fact (or at least what I believe to be a fact) that Asian women are trying to reach a universal ideal and not a white ideal.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: I don’t mind that you don’t have the source for the study – I trust your interpretation of it – and I definitely agree that there are many features of human’s bodies and faces that are universally preferred: worldwide, people find symmetrical faces more trustworthy for instance.

But with that last sentence especially, I really think that you begin to carry the notion of universalism too far, as it leaves little room for what can be very influential culturally-based ideals, however malleable. And who exactly said that Caucasians fit the “universal standard” more than any other race? I know I certainly haven’t, and I challenge you to provide sources. The only sense in which I’d regard them as a universal standard is because of people’s associations of class, civility and wealth with Caucasians as explained, but that’s very different from saying that people have preferences for Caucasian features and so on for innate, biological reasons.

Update: One important thing I should add is that if Caucasian women have noses bigger than the universal standard, one would expect that Caucasian women would be getting operations to have them reduced with the same alacrity that Korean women, say, get double-eyelid surgery. I have no figures at hand and am frankly not inclined to search them out, but I’d wager that that isn’t at all the case. This ties in with the next quote by Michael Hurt I give a little later also.

Lee Seung-giJake: So to paraphrase Nancy Etcoff, which is more likely? That a select group of men on Madison Ave. and in Hollywood determined what the ideal beauty should be and was able to influence countless billions of men and women over the next fifty years, even infants as young as one week old, even people living in the remotest parts of the world, such as the jungles of South America, people whom the only Caucasians they’ve seen were the few researchers who contacted them, researchers who were called “anteaters” behind their backs, but because of the stong influence of “Caucasianness,  these people from all around the world, consistently chose what you consider to be the white standard of beauty, as their ideal standard of beauty, and they didn’t have the awareness, nor the capabilities, nor the will to resist such an influence, even knowing, perhaps only on a subconscious level, that they will never be able to measure up.

qi-bi-shi-versus-marilyn-monroe(“Qi BaiShi vs. Marilyn Monroe”, by Zhang Wei, Oil on canvas 2006. Source)

Or, could there be a universal standard of beauty, a certain facial structure that the significant majority of the people from all races and cultures find attractive, something that we are all born with, something we’ve always had even before the “westernization” of the world, just like we’ve always had an innate universal preference for the taste of  fat and sugar, and a universal preference for certain sounds, rhythms and smells, and a universal enjoyment for the feeling of a soft fabric on bare skin, and a universal understanding of a smile and expressions of sadness and anger.  And perhaps these advertising people on Madison Ave. and in Hollywood were as influenced by these standards  as the rest of us?

Now I know that this is a gross simplification of a very complicated issue, and the “westernization” of the world is much more complicated and has many more facets including cultural, political, and economic imperialism, but at its core, the question that Nancy Etcoff poses needs at the very least to be considered….

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Sorry, but “a gross simplification” is putting it mildly. And what’s to consider? Nancy Etcoff would find no disagreement from me that there are universally appealing facial features and shapes and so on. I’d even concede that double-eyelids, for instance, may not be quite as “Caucasian” as I first thought, and that Korean women may get the operation simply to make their eyes look bigger (and thus more attractive, by universal standards or otherwise) and/or just out of cultural habit…Caucasian ideals be dammed. But there’s so much more to the Caucasianness of the cosmetic surgery choices of Korean women then mere eyelids. As Michael Hurt points out (yes, him again, but then his post would be a adequate critique of your email in itself):

Deference to white skin here is so alive and well [here], how can one deny that it plays any role in the decision to get one’s eyes cut larger, nose Romanized, old-school high cheekbones shaved down to size, breasts enlarged, asses and lips pumped full of silicone, and nerves in the calves snipped? One can say that plastic surgery in the States or the West is also in major effect these days, but the crucial difference is that Westerners aren’t getting their epicanthic fold removed, breasts reduced, cheekbones raised, nose bridges removed, or calves fattened up. Let’s get real here – cultural sadaejuui (사대주의; flunkyism, toadyism, deference) goes in one direction. That’s what makes the case so sad when it comes to one culture trying to attain a beauty standard set by another one.

Moreover, as he eloquently puts it, you’re simply ignoring the big, fat, White elephant in the room that is America and the West:

You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

In particular, I fail to see how a preference for light skin, taken to such extremes here that Korean women have among the lowest Vitamin D levels in the world, is anything but culturally determined.

Lee Seung-giJake: To be sure she and her book are not without their critics, the most prominent being feminists (such as Naomi Wolf) and certain academics who have tried to downplay the importance of beauty for various reasons in the last few decades (James: see Popmatters for a recent feature article on this subject). But no one to my knowledge has been able to dismiss or discredit the significant amount of research she has included in her book.  And judging by your other posts and your references to and criticisms of scholarly or journalistic pieces of work, I’m sure this won’t dissuade you from trying, lol. This book came out ten years ago, and since that time much research has been done which have only strengthened her conclusions.  A couple of examples: first, from Psychology Today, and the BBC’s The Human Face documentary:

It is very Caucasian centric, but the conclusions Dr. Stephen Marquardt reaches parallels those of Dr. Escott in many ways.

Let me also say that I don’t want to give the impression that I believe “Caucasianness” had no influence on Korean women.  Clearly, there has been.  I think hair and eye colors are good examples of that.  These aren’t universalities, so the fact that Korean women started dying their hair en masse during the eighties and started wearing colored contacts in the 1990’s tell me they were strongly influenced by white standards in this regard.

the-korean-idealHowever, as Nancy Etcoff and others have pointed out, these culture specific standards (e.g. foot binding, lip plates, piercings, etc.) have a way of changing, sometimes very rapidly, to take on an altogether different meaning, such as what happened with the perception of a woman’s weight here in the U.S (source right: Scoubi).

In a similar way, I think the reasons why Korean women started dying their hair also changed along the way.  Now, I think they do it for the same reasons Caucasian women do it – simply because they believe it makes them look better and they just want to try a different look.  I also believe that they change the color of their hair to look more like Korean female celebrities.  I don’t have anything to base my conclusions on because as far as I know, there hasn’t been any studies done on this issue.  I’m only going by the word of the Korean women themselves and my understanding of how greatly Korean women admire the beauty of many Korean actresses.

And regarding colored contacts, that fad seems to be largely over.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Well, you can’t have it both ways. You’ve certainly made your point that some aspects of women’s facial and/or body ideals are really innate and universal, but like you and Nancy Etcoff say, others can be culturally determined. The onus is now on you to provide a list of which is which, otherwise it’s difficult to continue the discussion.

I strongly suspect though, that most of the cosmetic surgery operations that Korean women undergo (that to my eye make them look more Caucasian) will be extremely difficult to explain in terms of adherence to a universal standard, and which is in itself probably very much open to interpretation. If you do admit that some choices are culturally determined though, then again you really need to address the question posed at the beginning of this post.

Lee Seung-giJake: In one of your posts, you wrote:

But I think the point that average Korean women are whitening their skins and undergoing cosmetic surgery because they want to look like rich and famous Korean women is, to be blunt, irrelevant: it merely changes the focus of our attention, but doesn’t answer the question of why rich and famous Korean women (rather than average Korean women) are doing so.

Well, to me, the answer is quite clear.

Anyways, I support what you are trying to do as it relates to women’s and children’s issues in Korea.  Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S., I still feel a deep connection to the country of my birth, and I have a great amount of respect for what it has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, especially since I sense an earnest attempt to continually improve itself.  But that doesn’t blind me to its faults, and unfortunately, there are still too many.

Hope to hear from you soon concerning this topic.  Take care.


james-turnbull-pictureJames: Apologies if I ultimately seem a bit dismissive of all your efforts, but I do really appreciate all the time and effort you put into your email, which I learned a great deal from on. And I really hope to keep the discussion going with yourself and other readers, either in the comments or by email. Naturally my preference is for the former, to make it a real discussion and all, but if you or anyone else would like to send further emails to be published here on this subject (or anything else) then by all means please do so. Preferably ones at least *cough* 50% shorter than 2500 words though!

Update: This post at Ask a Korean! about the differences in beauty standards between Koreans and American gyopos (ethnic Koreans living overseas) is a healthy reminder to be more specific about exactly which groups of ethnic Koreans we are discussing in the future. For the record then, I’ve only ever been referring to Korean women in Korea.

Korean Sociological Image #15: Gendered Health Drinks

Korean Gendered Advertising( Source: left, right )

What is the first thing that goes through your mind when you hear of a “power drink” for men?

If you live in Korea, then I’d wager some form of aphrodisiac, testament to the large number of drinks claiming to improve “men’s power” or “men’s stamina” that are available here. In the particular case of the advertisement on the left though, that would be quite wrong, as Huksaeng (흑생) is the name of a health drink from Hyundai Pharm (현대약품) made with huksam (흑삼), or black-red ginseng (흑삼), and it has no prior history of being marketed to men specifically. Here you can see a women’s taekwondo team extolling its virtues for instance, albeit that of a different company.

But compare that with Hyundai Pharm’s other product Miero Fiber (미에로화이바) on the right, which in its 20-year history has only ever been marketed towards women. Currently placed alongside each other at the Busan Ad Stars 2009 website, the accidental juxtaposition of the two advertisements provides an interesting contrast. And given Koreans’ overwhelming preference for health drinks over multivitamin pills also, then the insights to be gained have more relevance to Koreans’ body images than may at first appear to overseas observers.

My own first reaction was that I was at a loss to think of an Korean advertisement for a health drink aimed at women that uses the analogy of recharging one’s batteries. This is a minor point though, and by no means do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Korean advertisements, so I would be grateful if readers could pass on any examples that I may have missed. But with the proviso that Huksaeng is supposed to provide more of a mental and general health boost rather than improving one’s body per se, both that and any counter-examples from readers would not detract from the obvious and correct inference that Korean advertisements for “men’s drinks” generally feature men as sporty, active participants in the process of achieving that perfect body and/or losing weight. With those for women however, it’s genuinely difficult to find any that don’t promote the idea that drinking the product is the only step required.

Girls' Generation Miero Beauty N Advertisement( Source )

Don’t just take my word for it though. Consider recent popular commercials with girl-group Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) for Miero Beauty N (미에로뷰티엔) here and here for instance, and more importantly the evidence provided by the journal article “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006), by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon, which I discuss in great detail in parts One, Two, and Three of my series on Korean women’s body images from last year. More recently, I discuss it in passing in this post about an advertisement for a diet clinic and this one about the advertisement below for a slimming tea-drink also:

Unfortunately the article is no longer freely available at the link above, and I’ve long since lost my own copy of the original PDF file. I can scan my copy if anybody requests it though, but in the meantime hopefully the abstract will suffice:

Content analysis of diet advertisements was performed to examine how diet advertisements portray the Western ideal of feminine beauty and promote dieting in Korean women’s magazines in comparison with U.S. women’s magazines. Results showed that the Western cultural ideal of feminine beauty and dieting were prevalent in Korean women’s magazines. Diet advertisements in Korean magazines appear to promote more passive dieting methods (e.g., diet pills, aroma therapy, diet crème, or diet drinks) than active dieting methods (e.g., exercise). Results further indicated that women may be misled to believe that dieting is simple, easy, quick, and effective without pain, if they consume the advertised product. This study suggests that there is an urgent need to establish government regulations or policies about diet products and their claims in Korea. Magazine publishers also need to recognize their role in societal well-being and accept some responsibility for advertisements in their magazines.

In especially part Two of that series above I discuss that passivity in more detail and extend it to Korean exercise culture, further continued in this recent post about a device that electrically massages breasts in order to make them grow bigger. No, really:

Korean Breast Massager Advertisement Caucasian

Let me also pass on this post at Sociological Images about the similar gendering of energy drinks in the US, with more of a focus on those targeted towards men, and this one at Feministing about the fact that laxatives there are almost exclusively marketed towards women, with the implicit purposes of losing weight. To which I’d add that their Korean equivalents are both ubiquitous and completely lacking of the usual euphemisms, instead providing computer graphics of bowel movements that leave little to the imagination. Rather than continuing in that vein though(!), let me close with a question prompted by the latter post: what is the reason that products like these are marketed specifically towards women?

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


Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Korean LGBT Issues…

G-Dragon Big Bang Blonde

Being at 8:30am on Sunday morning, then my presentation at the ICAS 6 Conference in Daejeon last weekend wasn’t exactly well attended, but at least I did get to meet Professor Douglas Sanders of the University of British Colombia, a noted author on human rights and LGBT issues, and as it happens also the first openly gay person to speak at the UN. He later passed on a paper he has just written on the development of LGBT issues and activism in Korea in the 1990s and 2000s, and I recommend it for the chronological overview of the subject it especially, and which I wish had been available before I read the rather denser (but also excellent) article on the subject in the Autumn 2005 Korea Journal article “Intersectionality Revealed: Sexual Politics in Post-IMF Korea” by Cho Ju-hyun. Combined, you probably couldn’t ask for a more comprehensive look at the subject, although of course please pass on any more resources if you know of them!

Not to imply that G-Dragon (G-드래곤) of the Korean boy-band Big Bang (빅뱅) above is anything but heterosexual by the way, but that’s certainly an interesting photo of him above (source), and which as someone growing up in the UK in the 1980s instantly reminded of noted LGBT celebrities Boy George and Julian Clary. For the story behind the photoshoot, see here.