“Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1

(Source: SeoulBeats)

Be warned: Gender Advertisements, by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, is one of those books that changes your life forever.

Well, not life-changing like reading The Communist Manifesto inspired an Argentine ex-lecturer of mine to start shooting police officers. But you will pay much more attention to advertising messages, of which you already receive between 500 and 1000 every day. (Yes, it’s really that many.)

Of course, advertisements have changed considerably since the book was published in 1979, and are much less sexist overall. But indeed that’s precisely because of the attention given to them. Moreover, some elements have actually gotten worse, advertising to children for instance now an embarrassment compared to the relatively gender-neutral tone of the early-1980s (compare these to this, this, and this), and also there is now so much partial nudity in advertisements that several researchers argue that a new category has had to be added to Goffman’s framework to analyze it.

However, partial nudity isn’t objectifying or sexist per se: rather, it is the manner and context in which it is applied. And if that is the case, then you can imagine how problematic applying Goffman’s framework as a whole to Korean advertisements is, in which such different cultural codes operate.

Or do they? In at least one case, yes: social status usually trumps all other considerations in Korea, and so having one person (usually a man) elevated above another (usually a woman) in an advertisement, perhaps by him sitting and her reclining on the floor in front of him, by no means implies superiority, rendering that subcategory of Goffman’s “Ritualization of Subordination” category problematic (see here and here for examples). Still others, such as cute and/or childlike depictions of women, or having them staring off into the distance rather than directly back at the viewer (a subcategory of “Licensed Withdrawal”), are not necessarily sexist in light of East Asian notions of metrosexuality and politeness respectively, as helpfully pointed out by reader Melissa. And in point of fact the only analysis (Nam et al, 2007) that has looked at men as well as women in Korean magazine advertisements did find that Korean men were depicted much more childishly and “withdrawn” than Western men in them.

Still, while this point is easy to miss in posts that necessarily give only a few illustrative examples, surveys of depictions of men and women in advertisements using Goffman’s framework are made to determine if there are statistically significant differences between them as a whole. And, if those are found, then there are a number of different cultural and anthropological explanations that can be suggested in addition to feminist ones: Occidentalism, for instance, may have played a role in the above result, or the fact that it is quite acceptable for Korean 20-somethings of both sexes to behave in a manner that many Westerners might consider childish (see here for possible reasons for this). Alternatively, Nam et al (2007) found that Western women were much more likely than Korean women to be depicted in a lower physical position than men, such as by him standing and her reclining in a chair on on the floor, but while this could be interpreted positively (for Korean women), much more likely is the fact that status trumps all other considerations in Korea, and so to be physically lower than someone else by no means implies that one is the inferior. Accordingly, there were no statistical differences between Korean men and women in this regard.

Other differences however, like the fact that regardless of the social norms I’ve discussed, Korean women are still depicted childishly or withdrawn more often than Korean men for instance, are extremely difficult to account for other than in terms of their inferior social and economic status in Korea. Or in other words, while an individual advertisement depicting a woman like a child isn’t necessarily sexist in itself, that there’s more of them than there are of men is certainly evidence of sexism. Moreover, I fail to see how noticing discrepancies like this is somehow Eurocentric of me, or “looking at Korean society through Western eyes.” Which is not at all to say that Melissa argued that, but others have.

Update: Specifically, aegyo is often claimed as a form of empowerment that Westerners fail to appreciate. In which case, guilty as charged: when (usually) women act like children to manipulate (usually older, higher-ranked, and/or richer) men, how is that anything but wholly accommodating to a patriarchal system?

(Source: Unknown)

In response, in what was originally intended to be a single post here I wanted to discuss the problems Kang (1997), Hovland et al (2005), and Nam et al (2007) had with Goffman’s framework, the alterations they made to it, and the latter two’s discussion of how appropriate various categories of it were to the Korean context.

In particular, the last found that Western men and women were more likely to be depicted as partially nude than their Korean counterparts, but with allowances again for Occidentalism, and the fact that Korean female models will rarely appear in lingerie advertisements (of which the authors were unaware, and so didn’t account for), they argue that this is again evidence of sexism because in fact “many scantily garbed women [emit] a sense of independence and confidence.” While I’d be a bit more circumspect than that myself, fortunately having long since on moved on from the days when I automatically equated bikinis with feminist liberation, they do have a point, particularly in a society where the majority of women were too scared to wear them 5-10 years ago.

Also, I wanted to discuss the “female-stereotypical” depictions of Korean men in advertisements like Melissa identified, posing a challenge as they do to especially Western men’s notions of masculinity. Unfortunately however, for reasons of space and ease of reading those will have to wait for Part 2 and perhaps even a Part 3. Instead, having provided a grounding in this post, let me devote the rest of it to a practical example of another discrepancy in the ways men and women are portrayed in advertisements, one that I stumbled onto by accident in the process of investigating the Evisu (에비수) advertisement at the beginning of the post.

Featuring Jung Yun-ho (정윤호; also know as “U-know”) of the boy band TVXQ (I don’t know who the woman is sorry), the first thing it reminded me of was this:

(Source: Shine So Cold)

Of which I wrote this back in November 2008 (update: since edited out sorry):

Personally, it took me a few moments to figure out what this advertisement is supposed to represent exactly: were the couple prisoners? No…why would their sunglasses be tied up too? How apart parts from a model kit then? No…then they’d be disassembled, and besides which the man appears to be raised from the white background a little, a rather awkward position for a model component. And then I realized that he’s actually standing, which would mean that the woman is too, although I can surely be forgiven for thinking that she’s lying down.

So probably they’re supposed to be like a Barbie and Ken doll set in a box, like you find in a toy store. But then why is the women tied down so helplessly, whereas the man, ostensibly also tied down, looks – as the photographer points out – firmly grounded and in control? I haven’t been looking (sorry!), but I dare say that Barbie and Ken dolls don’t leave the Mattel factory like that in real life. So why would the advertisers choose to depict them like that?

Granted, it’s a much more extreme example than the own with Yun-ho. But while I don’t mean to equate the two, that is indeed what it reminded me of, and the final question I pose is just as relevant.

But in terms of Goffman’s framework itself, probably this is more similar:

(Source: Tech Fatale)

And with that, let me add “participation shields,” a subcategory of Licensed Withdrawal, to add to all those others I’ve already elaborated on here, here, here, and here as well as those in this post. This is what Goffman (1979) had to say about it:

It is possible to look in on a social situation from a distance or from a one-way panel—a “participation shield”—and be little seen oneself, in which case one can, in effect, partake of the the events but not be exposed to scrutiny or address. A splitting up this results between some of the gains and some of the costs of face-to-face interaction. I might note that when one’s participation is thus shielded, simultaneous maintenance of dissociated side involvements would seem to be facilitated, since these could hardly intrude between oneself and one’s availability to the others in the situation – one not being available at all.

A ritualization of participation shielding occurs when one presents oneself as if on the edge of the situation or otherwise shielded from it physically, when in fact one is quite accessible to those in it. Still further ritualization is found in commercial posings. (p.70)

Then he gives examples of using walls as shields, then window frames, then various objects, then animals, and finally people:

…with the consequent opportunity to overlay distance with a differentiating expression, in the extreme, collusive betrayal of one’s shield. (p. 72)

Here are some examples he provides, from my scan of page 73:

And I think the Evisu advertisement is a good example of that last point, as Jung Yun-ho’s aggressive, confrontational stance is betrayed by that of the inquisitive, unconcerned expression of the woman partially hiding behind him. But lest I contradict myself and read too much into one image (and I’ll grant that those above are deliberately much more extreme cases), again let’s consider the discrepancies among the advertisements currently on the Evisu website. In particular, when the woman and Jung Yun-ho are by themselves, both have strong, confident stances, good examples of the “Independence/Self-Assurance” category first suggested by Kang (1997) and expanded on Nam (2007) which I’ll be discussing in Part 2:

(Source, all remaining images: Evisu)

So why then, in most of the few Evisu advertisements that have a man and a woman together, are the women relegated so to speak? But don’t just take my word for it. Instead, see all of them for yourself, starting from the most glaring example to the least:

Note also that only the woman has the “head cant” in each, which I discuss here.

But here is one example that is the complete opposite to all the above:

And I include this one also as it’s the only other one with two people, although strictly speaking it shouldn’t be counted:

Personally I think that the woman on the right above is not quite as “out of it” as she in her advertisements with a man, but I’ll grant that that’s open to debate, as is how much she is using the man as a participation shield in that second advertisement in which she is wearing black gloves. But that’s precisely the point: again, those are all the advertisements with more than one person in them on the Evisu website as a I type this (please note that the first one with Jung Yun-ho isn’t on the website though), and so please make your own minds up about whether there is a discrepancy in the way the men and women are depicted in them. Naturally, I think it’s obvious that there is, but if you agree and yet have a non-feminist, culturally-based argument for its existence however, then I’m all ears.

Meanwhile, a note on the sources for this post: if they look very familiar to regular readers, then that’s because there have been so few surveys of Korean advertisements made using Goffman’s framework. Moreover, even Nam et al’s (2007) is based on magazines from 2002 and 2003, hopelessly out of date for a society as fast-changing as Korea, and so I’ve long wanted to conduct my own survey(s) to compensate. That would involve far too much work for just one person unfortunately, and so if any readers are interested in co-authoring a conference paper and/or journal article on the topic, please let me know!^^

Goffman, E. (1979), Gender Advertisements.

Hovland, R. et.al. (2005) ‘Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 2005, pp. 887-899 (although I have a physical copy, unfortunately this is no longer downloadable; I’d appreciate it if anyone with library access could email a PDF).

Kang, M. (1997) ‘The Portrayal of Women’s Images in Magazine Advertisements: Goffman’s Gender Analysis Revisited’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 1997 (ditto on downloading)

Nam, K. et. al. (2007)  ‘Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines‘, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA Online (2007), pp. 1-31.

Update: If you’ve enjoyed this post, then you may also be interested in this one at Sociological Images that describes how even the “physiology and anatomy” theme of a university website also genders the stances of the physiological representation of both sexes, the man standing straight, looking ahead, and having even weight distribution, but the female form being “almost classically passive, hands held behind her back, weight distribution uneven” in contrast.

36 thoughts on ““Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1

  1. Eh, but didn’t you say status trumps all? So since U-Know is famous, wouldn’t he be made to stand out? Maybe the woman is too, but I don’t know who she is. And in another of your examples, the couple with the girl wearing pink, and the guy wearing white, isn’t that guy Lee Min Ho? So of course, I would imagine he is more popular than the other girl. I could be wrong though.

    I think it would be hard to reach conclusions with these examples.


    1. You have a point about U-know and status, especially if the woman is just an anonymous model, and that will be something to bear in mind when examining cases with a famous woman but anonymous male model. To be honest though, I still doubt we’d see many cases with the male and female reversed (let alone with both the male and female being famous), indicating that gender still usually trumps status.

      Like I said though, the opening image with them isn’t actually from the website, so technically shouldn’t be counted. I’m 99% certain that the man in white (with the woman wearing pink) isn’t Lee Min-ho though, so out of the 4 pictures on the website featuring anonymous male and female couples, 3 very much make the man the senior partner.

      Of course, 4 pictures is not a meaningful sample to reach conclusions from, but then I don’t think that the way the similar ways the men and woman are presented in 3 of them is entirely chance either.


  2. hi, this is my comment debut so first of all let me say this is a great blog. i always check back every few weeks and it’s a good read. however, i gotta say your taste in music is terrible! trance and k pop, wow! ㅋㅋㅋ only teasing (but a hint of truth)

    anyway, seriously, i have a question. every time i read this blog and my wife peers over my shoulder to ask what it’s about we end up having a heated debate. i feel that she finds it hard to think critically or criticize, in this case about underlying messages that the media and advertising images portray. for example: regarding the soju adverts she thinks the manufacturers are really smart to use pretty female celebrities because they appeal to both men and women. although i can admit it’s a fairly safe and savvy business move, i’d be hard pressed to say it was ‘smart’ and there’s a lot more to it than that. of all the millions of ideas in marketing, a woman holding a drink in a suggestive pose is all they could come up with for several decades? she also said some of the disheveled ‘come-to-bed’ poses were just women who looked natural and ‘comfortable’. i think she’s not reading between the lines.
    anyway, perhaps that’s not a great example but we do always end up hotly discussing something. she thinks that westerners are too open to criticizing other cultures. i’ve tried to explain that we are just as open to criticizing ourselves (often more harshly) and that, usually, we don’t mean to generalize any criticism to the whole nation or culture. we’ve discussed that western societies are more open to give and take- invading and plundering you could say.
    so, i was wondering if you knew a good text in korean that involves some good critical thinking. are there any online journals in korean? something that questions the norms and brings in different viewpoints while getting the reader to question their beliefs. any topic is fine but fashion and advertising could be good. i know it’s a strangely specific yet general request but i thought i’d give it a try. perhaps some of your readers could suggest something?

    besides my rambling, keep up the good work and i wish you and your family all the best.



    1. Thanks, but in defense of my musical tastes(!), I have everything from Hole and Guns & Roses to classical music in my old CD folders and hard drive, and think Prodigy and Fat Boy Slim are the best to play pool to. Trance with fast beats though, is definitely the best thing to jog to while you’re waiting for the endorphins to kick in…

      I wish I could help you with your wife, and to be honest my own wife does seem to have the same reflexive attitude to perceived criticism of Korea that yours does. But fortunately she doesn’t usually take much convincing of my point of view really, her realizing that reading my blog is often the first time she’s ever really thought about many of the issues it raises, and her initial defensiveness revealed to be little more than an instinctive reaction. Not saying that she’s not smart or knowledgeable of course, but she isn’t quite the geek I am!

      I wish I knew of a Korean source to recommend, and in fact had a conversation about a similar topic on the blog recently, but don’t really know of any Korean sources that would encourage critical thinking per se. While this next sounds like a bit of a cliche though, it’s probably wisest to allow people to come to their own conclusions about that sort of thing for themselves, and so if you point out unequivocal facts like – just to mention things on the blog off the top of my head – cosmetic surgery clinic advertisements featuring an inordinate number of Caucasians, or women being placed in extremely unnatural and uncomfortable poses in advertisements far more than men, and letting them figure out for themselves why, then that might be best. In the process though, it helps a LOT if you use Korean sources for those facts, and fortunately in the case of this post at least, most of the sources used do indeed have Korean authors!^^


      1. my wife can be pretty stubborn! we’re in england at the moment as i’m completing a masters so she is getting a good experience of comparing cultures and seeing different viewpoints. just something as simple as people not going to university but still ending up in decent jobs has been interesting for her. she’s not terrible, don’t get me wrong! but i don’t think she’ll joining any political debating societies anytime soon.

        keep up the good work


        1. Oh, if I gave the impression that I thought your wife was “terrible,” my apologies: not my intention!^^

          But living outside of Korea would indeed be the best teacher, provided that she doesn’t just hang out with fellow expats and speak her native tongue while she’s there (I *ahem* speak from my own experience), but which naturally it doesn’t sound like she does seeing as she’s married to you!

          Regardless, it’s interesting how Korean – Western couples the world over usually have the same issues with each other, yes?


          1. no no, i didn’t take you the wrong way – i felt that it was me painting too much of a negative view of my wife to be honest.

            we’re in the lake district now so both of us are feeling the cold turkey of city withdrawal. it’s great to be surrounded by nature but we’re both city folk really. once *dynamic korea* is in the blood it’s hard to turn it down a notch. a lot of england seems drab in comparison.

            one thing i find interesting about korean-western couples is that the westerner (i hate that word really, but it’s easier) has often traveled around a bit before ending up in korea. the visitors are often analysing all aspects of their new home and culture while the hosts are just getting on with daily life, often never having been abroad. add this to all the other aspects of the cultures such as homogeneous korea and the fact westerners love to debate and posture their opinion and it’s no wonder people get offended. listening to an objective outsiders point of view can be very interesting but, for anyone, this can sometimes be painful to hear.

            one thing i found VERY useful was inviting my wife’s family over to england. they got to see where i was from and the normality of many things that they possibly found strange at first. it gave them a sense of me and my home as well as what it is like to be a misunderstood outsider. i would recommend that to anyone.


          2. ^ i meant *more* objective opinion. of course nobody is purely objective and preconceptions can often get us in trouble!


          3. I hear you. On an unrelated note, other than wishing you were back in a city, how are you finding the Lake District? Unfortunately I’ve only been there once (in middle school) myself, even though I spent much of my childhood in Newcastle and Northumberland.


          4. lake district is very pretty – rugged nature with decent little towns and villages. i’d recommend a long weekend at least if you can. stay in some b&b’s and spend the days walking or pottering about cobbled streets. rowing boats on windermere lake in summer are excellent too. the lambs have just been born and spring is in the air. i’ve got 15,000 words to write before i can enjoy it though (i commute to uni in lancaster).

            but i grew up in wolverhampton so everywhere’s beautiful to my eyes!


          5. Lake Windermere? By coincidence have a photograph of me on Helvellyn in 1985 in the bookcase to the right of me as I type this (daughter dragged out some old albums and was busy destroying contents last night), and if memory serves me right we either went there that same morning or stayed in a hostel next to it. Seriously, those are the only 2 names I remember from that school trip!

            Haven’t been to Wolverhampton though, and suspect that now I never will…!


  3. I wish more people would be exposed to these patterns and think about them. A lot of teachers (in the US) are fond of assigning papers in which students are supposed to look at how ads manipulate the viewer, but with no grounding in these patterns, the students wind up with conclusions like, well, “the ad is cool because they chose a pretty celebrity and it makes me want to buy it.” (Regardless of whether the writer is from the US or Asia or wherever…I’ve seen it in both ESL and non-ESL composition courses.)

    I still remember how stunned I was as a teen when I was reading a book on advertising I’d randomly checked out from the library (don’t ask) and it pointed out how women are almost never allowed to stand evenly on their feet in ads. They almost always have a tilted hip or a raised foot, but men don’t. Once I noticed the pattern, I saw it everywhere, even when there was no reason for it or it honestly looked kind of bizarre. I still see it…a catalog I just got is full of women with one foot raised for no apparent reason. (It’s not reflected in the above photos, but anyway.)

    Anyway, that was apropos of nothing, really, other than the fact that I’m glad people ARE thinking about these things and discussing them. :)


    1. That’s a good point about grounding: in fairness, I’d probably make the same sort of comments about an advertisement if I had no idea what to look for. Or at least 10-15 years ago perhaps…it was really a bit of a white lie (sorry) when I said that Gender Advertisements changed my life, although I’m sure it would have if I’d read it back when I was an undergraduate student.

      Speaking of which, there was one book about advertising I read then that I was very impressed by. Or at least, I read the introduction (or opening chapter?) and may as well mention it here in the slim chance that someone else has. Basically, it was a lengthy analysis of a single advertisement that featured a young woman on a street in Paris, opening a letter. I’m pretty certain that it was for The Royal Mail (it would have been a British book then), and I’m 99% certain that it’s catchphrase was “Thrill her to the coeur,” which I did remember was a pun but confess that I had to just look up “coeur” to learn that it meant “heart.”

      Does that ring a bell for anyone?^^ But anyway, Goffman does mention the “Bashful Knee Bend” by the way (part of “The Ritualization of Subordination”), saying this about it:

      Women frequently, men very infrequently, are posed in a display of [it]. Whatever else, the knee bend can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on he ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. Observe – as will be seen throughout – that a sex-typed subject is not so much involved as a format for constructing a picture. One female in a picture may perform the gesture and another serve as the support that allows the performance. So a two-role formula is at issue, not necessarily two sexes. (p.45)

      Uncharacteristically though, he only gives 5 examples, focusing more on “canting postures” which I talked a little about (of the head at least) here.


  4. Those women above are pretty attractive in terms of shape .
    Are they photophoped or not ? if you sure please tell me .

    Because i remember you did a post on how many Korean Womens bodies are photoshopped like lenghtning legs and making their waists smaller .

    Have a nice day Sir !!!


    1. I’d wager lunch at your favorite restaurant that all of the bodies seen in both the Western and Korean advertisements were photoshopped to make them look trimmer, shapelier, and taller. In all my years in East Asia, I only ever saw one local woman with a body anything like the ones depicted in the ads, and that was in Shandong Province, which boasts the tallest people on average in China.


    2. I also noticed that some of the models are wearing high heeled platform shoes or heeled boots, which add 10-12 centimeters of height. Paired with stockings or jeans that are also dark, the visual effect makes the legs look endless. I own a few pair of platform heels, and I feel like I hit a growth spurt when I put them on. My line of vision changes.


      1. Oops, sorry I forgot to reply to your first comment earlier! I was going to say that I hadn’t really noticed it to be honest, but now that you mentioned it the woman in the Evisu advertisement by herself does indeed look particularly, unnaturally leggy, and also the legs of the woman in the pink t-shirt also look an unnatural color too, and some of the arms of the men look a little airbrushed…but then considering that some of the other advertisements on the website (I’ll put some more direct links up when I’ve finished writing the next post) are good candidates for my fledgling “photoshop disasters” series, then I wasn’t really surprised!

        Have to confess I didn’t notice the platform shoes either…sigh…


      2. And look carefully at the Evisu photo of the woman in a flannel shirt and blue jeans. The sneakers are actually high heels. You can see the heels sticking out from the bottom in the back view. I’ve never seen high-heeled sneakers, only platform sneakers with the heel boost hidden inside the shoe, so I wonder if these sneakers were specially made for photo shoots. Even with the platform shoes and heeled sneakers, the legs still look so impossibly long that they likely got stretched further. Likewise, the hips look too narrow.

        Tall Asian women usually have somewhat thick torsos and hipbones. Han Chae-young is a perfect example. She is tall with thin legs but her thick middle and hips are usually hidden under loose fabric or disguised with layers. She’s not fat by any means, but her midsection and hips aren’t tiny like the models in the photos. I’ve only ever seen a few black or white women with long, long legs, tiny waists, and boyish hips. Brazilian model Giselle Bundchen is one example. Sudanese model Alek Wek is another.


  5. Have you considered the influence of photographic technique? For example, female models are typically asked to inch their torso forward and their legs back. This has the effect of making the legs slimmer and bust larger. I imagine a similar principle encourages photographers to place women behind men in most instances. I fear you might be reading a little too much into the positions of the models.


    1. I hadn’t, and I have to admit my complete ignorance of everything to do with photography. But unlike the example of women leaning forward that you mention, I simply can’t see any logic to this one, and so I see no reason to “imagine” that there’s a photographic principle or technique at work here of which you and I are unaware.

      I’m open to changing my mind if any experienced photographers can explain one, or alternatively if anyone can give a logical, non-sexist reason why the woman is usually placed behind the man, but to be honest I’d wager money on never hearing either.


  6. Oh, I almost forgot. You might be interested in (or already be familiar with) these books on related topics:

    John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1977)
    Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing (1984)
    Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing (2001)


  7. I understand your hesitation. And, for the record, I’m not a photographer; but I do know a little about the relationship between culture and imagery. I brought up the point about photographic technique to address the importance of intention in artistic interpretation. Let me explain. And please pardon a quick (and seemingly unrelated) example.

    Modern Christianity, for several historical reasons, is obsessed with humility. Because of this, I’ve heard many poorly-informed ministers interpret the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as an example of his humility. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The gospel writers tell the story of Jesus entering on a donkey precisely because it parallels the ancient tradition whereby newly crowned kings of Judea rode victoriously into Jerusalem on a donkey. If the historical Jesus actually did this (which I tend to doubt) then he was NOT humbling himself; rather, the act was a bold statement about his own kingly authority. The reason so many misread this passage is because they allow their own 21st -century conception of Christianity to influence their interpretation of the act. Thus, by ignoring the writer’s intention, they misread conceit as humility.

    From your discussion and the advertisements you’ve presented, it would seem the ideal Korean woman is extremely slim. The photographers may have sought to enhance this ideal feature by placing the female models further back in the shot. Now, one could make an excellent argument about the relationship between size and hierarchy—large man, small woman, strong man, weak woman, etc. . . But, if the artist’s intention was to merely make the woman smaller (thus advancing the ideal he’s attempting to capture), then we would be misreading the cultural significance of the photograph if we viewed her rear position as a reflection of female inferiority. If, on the other hand, we could somehow determine that the artist’s intention was not to make her appear smaller, this would lend credibility to your argument.
    I guess it’s really up in the air. But, I thought I might move the discussion in a different direction.

    Oh, for your immediate interests, I recommend Berger. And, I think there’s a BBC documentary too. I’m afraid I don’t know which came first.


    1. But, if the artist’s intention was to merely make the woman smaller (thus advancing the ideal he’s attempting to capture), then we would be misreading the cultural significance of the photograph if we viewed her rear position as a reflection of female inferiority. If, on the other hand, we could somehow determine that the artist’s intention was not to make her appear smaller, this would lend credibility to your argument.

      Given that consulting the artist is a near-impossibility, we are left with speculation. If the photographer wished to make the woman ideally slim, this would be better accomplished through photo editing than by partially blocking a view of the woman’s body, leaving the viewer to fill in the blank. I noticed that most of the ads shown here feature full frontal views of naturally slender female models probably made taller and even thinner through photo editing. Even in the first picture, it is only part of one arm of the woman on the left that is blocked by the man on the right. Even with the man blocking her elbow, it looks like her right shoulder still got chopped by a photo editor. The woman’s hips, in fact, appear quite curvy, a look achieved probably by whittling the waist with the eraser tool.


    2. Would also add that the modern Korean ideal of female beauty is not small but tall with long legs, as illustrated by the models in the ads, and either thin or a slender hourglass shape.


  8. I think you make a good point here. If we can confirm (and you make a good case for it) that the photographers rely heavily on touchup software to create the ideal figures they want, then this clearly minimizes the importance of model position in the photographs.

    I did not, however, mean to imply that the photographers were making the woman seem slim by merely “partially blocking” their bodies. It’s about contrast, not clouding. Remember, the photographs in question contain one man and one woman. No matter how freakishly slim the editor may make the female model, if the male model isn’t bulky enough, she’ll still not create that ideal image. I think the photographers—editing not withstanding—are quite conscious of the way the size, height and shape of one model can affect the perceived size, height and shape of the other. And, for this reason, I still think that reading the positions of the models as a cultural reflection of perceived gender-based hierarchy doesn’t adequately address the importance of artistic intent.


    1. Sorry I’ve taken so long to reply: I have to admit that you posed some interesting questions, and that I had to think about them a bit. Having said that, and sorry if this sounds disrespectful, but I think that your alternative explanation is fundamentally flawed.

      Basically, my problem with it is that unlike the example with Jesus and the donkey you cite, for which you provide convincing evidence that modern Christianity’s interpretation of it is quite mistaken, here you seem to pull out one about Korean cultural ideals of slimness and smallness for women almost out of thin air. Accordingly, not only is it a little incoherent, as a desire to emphasize each would actually often pull photographers in opposite directions, but also it is completely wrong, Whatsonthemenu more than demonstrating that in fact tall and slim is the ideal, and which by no means it is necessary to have the woman behind the man to highlight.

      But don’t get me wrong: it is often useful and valuable to posit alternative reasons for things in individual examples of various phenomena, and indeed I admit that I especially can get so lost in grand narratives to explain them that I can miss the obvious sometimes. But here I fear that actually you have instead, as you mention so many details about the artistic elements photographers may or may not have been considering when producing these advertisements, but somehow overlook the fact that in 3 out of 4 of them (or alternatively, 4 out of 5 if you include the first) there is much more that conveys the passive, non-executive role of the woman in each couple than simply the fact that she is behind the man.

      In short, again you did make think, and thank you for doing so, but I’m afraid you haven’t provided enough of a counter-argument and/or evidence to persuade me that the woman in each aren’t very much portrayed as inferior to the men in most of them. Whether that’s deliberate, or (more likely) a reflection of the fact that the producers of the advertisement think that that’s “natural,” and/or that consumers will also think so and hence be motivated to buy the product, is of course open to debate, but simply “artistic intent” it most certainly is not.


    2. “No matter how freakishly slim the editor may make the female model, if the male model isn’t bulky enough, she’ll still not create that ideal image.”

      Bulking up a male can also easily be achieved through photo editing. David Beckham’s Armani underwear ads provoked speculation from one British tabloid and its commenters as to whether his already muscular body got a little help.


  9. Good one.

    1. Do you still need the .pdf of • Hovland, R. et.al. (2005) Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements?
    2. The paper from Jaehee Jung and Yoon-Jung Lee (2009), Cross cultural examination of women’s fashion and beauty magazine advertisements in the United States and Korea, essentially chimes in with the partial conclusions of this post. (Have you already discussed that one? A quick search gave me no results).


  10. Dear James…

    (I know this is an old post, but anyway here it goes…)

    I believe the one exception (the photo of the couple in which it is the man’s head that cants), might be at least partially explained by racism… (the woman’s skin looks by far fairer/whiter than the man’s, therefore she might be considered superior in this case, in a korean’s point of view)

    Here’s the article where I took this idea from:

    Thank you for helping us understand a little better Korean’s mentality!


    1. You’re welcome, and no problem about commenting on an old post. But I don’t agree that that’s the reason sorry: first, because despite how much Whiteness is venerated in Korean society (see all the posts in the “Selected Posts: Occidentalism & Sexuality in the Korean Media” on the sidebar for more on that btw, especially “From Asian to Caucasian“), I’ve actually never seen a pale-skinned Korean presented as the superior of a darker one in any ad, even for skin-whitening products. But more importantly, that white ideal is almost exclusively for women, although of course cosmetic companies are trying to encourage men to use skin-whitening products also (see here for an example). So, having a pale woman and slightly darker-skinned man would seriously describe probably 90+% of Korean couples!

      Not that there isn’t a first for everything of course, and it’s not like I have an alternate explanation (or that we’ll ever know the logic behind it). But given everything I’ve said above, then I don’t think her paler complexion is a very compelling one sorry.


  11. I really enjoy reading your site! I’m currently doing a project on the male gaze in contemporary printed advertisements, so I’ve stumbled across some of the source you used in this article. I know this is about three years too late, but if you would still like a link to Kang’s work, here’s a link: $25 for a download that you can keep: http://vcj.sagepub.com/content/1/2/203.refs.

    There are a bunch of free works that are just as useful as Kang’s article. E.g. Gender Advertisements: Replication of a Classic Work Examining Women, Magazines, and Facebook Photographs, Erica Lawton: http://www.google.com/url?q=http%3A%2F%2Fdigitalcommons.bryant.edu%2Fhonors_communication%2F6%2F&sa=D&sntz=1&usg=AFQjCNGI0m5849gCHCCiG_HROsYeXNTCsg.


    1. Thanks for the compliment, and the links. I’ll check out that second one when I get a chance.

      BTW, by a strange coincidence I just gave a guest lecture on Gender Ads. a couple of days before your comment, and luckily I did have an old, heavily-highlighted physical copy of Kang to work with while preparing it. A clean, shiny PDF of it would be nice of course, but $25 is a ridiculous price to pay for it (I think $3-5 would be more reasonable), and besides which I can just ask friends — or readers! — with access if necessary :)


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