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!

10 thoughts on “No Skin Required: Healthy Images of Couples in the Korean Media

  1. I can’t offer much in regards to your inquiries, so I’ll leave that up to others. But I hope you don’t mind if I offer some suggestions on the translation. (I’m a little hesitant because of all the flak—much of it non-sensical—you got with “ass dance.”)

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

    James: My original said “Ji-hye’s jeans: Instead, I will softly grab his hand”. I thought JS’s was much better, so I changed it.

    Since it is Ji-hye’s jeans speaking to Ji-sub and giving advice, I think this makes more sense. It might make the comment on courage/bravery seem slightly out of place, but often I feel when a suggestion is made it is implied that the provider wouldn’t have trouble executing the suggestion him-/herself. In which case, the jeans would be brave!


    이 남자, 아직 내 손도 잡지는 못해요.
    Ji-Hye: This man, he hasn’t [even] been able to hold my hand yet.

    James: My original said, “Ji-Hye: This man, I haven’t been able to hold his hand yet.” I meant to include “even”, but forgot. Regardless, again JS’s is better, so I changed it!

    This, I feel, is a more accurate translation. Further, I think it shows a more assertive side of the woman in the relationship. Since the voice-overs represent their thoughts and not a telepathic link between the narrating voice and an inanimate object of clothing, it represents a line of thinking akin to, “If the man won’t take action, I should/can make the first move.” Implying, of course, that there is no need for the woman to always take the passive role, and thus fitting in nicely with your commentary.

    The changes to the translation in the first video may revert the woman’s role from an assertive one—conveyed via the jeans—to a non-participatory one, but I think that is okay. As a counterpart to my above paragraph, this would be portraying a man getting over his hesitancy.

    Coming around full circle, however, I feel like I’ve delved to deeply into the narrative of the ads and completely ignored the implications of the fact that they are ads. The first video is selling the jeans on the woman. Directed towards female consumers, it would then seem to imply a sense that it is okay to be assertive, and one way is through your clothing (these jeans). This of course flies in the face of my preceding paragraph.


    1. Oh, I wouldn’t describe it as “flak” really, and please feel free to correct my Korean any time you like!

      I must confess to being very confused though – not your fault at all, it’s a confusing ad – but I do still think that it’s the inanimate items of clothing talking to the other person in both cases Regardless, I think both of your translations are much better though, so I’ve changed the original text. And thank you very much for them!


  2. “Or is that last 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.”

    This struck a chord with me, although I am not Korean and have no intentions to be perceived as virginal. I am also a straight female so I have no experience dating Korean women, but Korean men definitely expect us girls to be clueless in regards to contraception. (Example: I once had a guy ask me why I had condoms at my apartment, in a way that sounded accusatory, as if only promiscuous women ever use protection.)

    Maybe the reason you didn’t experience feigned naivety was because you aren’t Korean, so perhaps those women didn’t feel like they had to live up to any expectations. Only once has a K-man asked if I had a condom, and insisted on going to buy some when I didn’t. This is certainly not the case at home in the States, where our subpar sex education programs have still taught us enough so that we are usually adamant about protecting ourselves.

    The fact that Korean men find unprotected sex appealing is more than unsettling. I don’t know anything about Korean sex ed, but would expect that it’s pretty non-existent. Of course women here feel pressure to appear clueless regarding sex, but I think a lot of the problems lie with the fact that there probably isn’t much said about contraception (at home, in school, in the media, etc.).

    I love that it is the woman in these commercials being assertive, giving a very slight suggestion that women should take action in relationships. But I agree with the above poster that we probably are reading too much into this, and it will take a lot for Korean women to feel comfortable being in command of their sexuality. I also probably went way off on a tangent, as I tend to do. Anyway, I love your blog (former Advertising and Sociology student and current Korea-lover), and hopefully the media actually CAN create some much-needed girl power here.


    1. Your comments on sex ed and Korean attitudes on contraceptives sent my mind down a spiral of a couple thoughts.

      First, with regards to sex ed, while my experience may be a little dated, I feel its treated very briefly and in a very stale and forced manner—kind of like trying to teach some people to floss: intellectually they might know it is good (and in this case, pretty damn important), but in practice they don’t really feel the urgency. Perhaps if there were more portrayals in the media of the potential risks involved in unprotected sex, even as a comedic device, could help change attitudes? Of course, shows in Korea would have to at least acknowledge the possibility of sex for that to happen.

      That isn’t to say that sex and even the use of contraceptives is totally absent from Korean media. I was just hit by the memory of seeing “My Girls Boy.” Perhaps a bit gratuitous and points, but I think you could draw some interesting observations. With female behavior ranging from sexually assertive to feigned innocence, virginity, and naïveté. Interesting to note that all of the more “underground” or secret relations show a more assertive female participant, while in the case of the open/out-in-the-air interactions, only one—that of the youngest coupling—is the female assertive. Of course, in the primary case of the feigned innocence, it isn’t a result of social expectation so much as it is the girl using such norms to manipulate the man.

      Contraceptives also make a few appearances in the film, but, of course, it is most prominently a prop for a bit of comedy. And, in that instance, the condom in question is a super micro-thin condom from Japan that supposedly feels like it isn’t even there—more proof of the desire for unprotected sex?

      It’s an attitude not limited to Korean men, but one that is perhaps facilitated by societal attitudes. The movie, at least, shows more sensible characters with a healthier attitude towards sex—their attitudes towards relationships could use a check up. =P


      1. Sorry I didn’t reply earlier.

        Hookingupinhanguk, probably the main reason my Korean girlfriends and then wife didn’t feign naivety with me was because I was pretty self-selecting with my choice of partners, but I still very much agree with your point. And your point that Korean men expect women to be pretty clueless about contraception struck a chord with me in turn, because it’s one thing to hear about it in an abstract, academic sense from a journal article on Korean contraception, and another entirely to hear it from the streets as it were.

        I’m a little curious about your point that Korean men find unprotected sex appealing, and am wondering what you mean by it exactly. Do you mean that they are reluctant to use a condom, or that they, say, elevate unprotected sex somehow? I don’t want to misinterpret it!

        I’d agree with JS’s broad take on sex-education here, and if you’re further interested, after reading Seamus’s post I recommend doing searches at Korea Beat and Gusts of Popular Feeling for more (I’m too tired to do so myself at the moment sorry). I want to stress though, that there have been a great many positive changes in recent years (albeit more in the sense of acknowledging the dire need for sex education, rather than avoiding the issue like in the past), and by coincidence I’m in the middle of translating a leaflet about prostitution and sexual violence for teenagers that you might be interested in, which I hope to post up here next week. It’s from a social welfare center down the road from me, although I have absolutely no idea how I happen to have a copy!

        Thanks for compliments by the way!^^

        JS, thanks for the info about the movie: I’d never heard of it, and will try to check it out. For everyone’s information, it’s also known as “Cheaters” in English. See here for a review.


  3. If you’re interested, there’s more on sex education in Korea and some of its possible side-effects here.

    Personally, I’m not sure what the overall effect of these adverts will be, but I do think I’ve seen a small increase in the number of assertive young Korean women I see nowadays, although perhaps this is only because I’m more attuned to noticing them than when I was last here.


  4. For heaven sakes, move in together, get to know each other. I fought w/ my dtr like crazy. She packed her bags moved in with her boyfriend and got to know each other. It is not widely known but in the 70s when my mom said most girls are not having sex she was wrong. I lived w/ my ex for 1.5 yrs, got married then divorced. If girls are expected to be virginal than boys should be also. Life relationships are a two way street. Use protection, stop having abortions. They are dangerous. Men need to protect themselves. Do what you have to do but protect yourself.


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