From Asian to Caucasian: Update

(Businesswoman, by the_toe_stubber)

A recent comment on my post From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader from last year, and which I’m sure you’ll all agree is worth highlighting here rather than having it wasted unread in obscurity on an old post!

With permission, in a moment I’ll place you in the capable hands of Anna then, to whom I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort she put into this. But first, because I haven’t really made it clear previously, I should mention that I’m always open to guest posts (which this 2500+ word ‘comment’ has surely become), as for reasons of time, resources, and/or personal interest, I am simply never able to write as many posts on as many subjects as I like. If you’re ever interested, and please don’t be put off by thinking that there is a minimum word-limit(!), then please just drop me a line.

Now, without any further ado:

…Hey James,

Your work is fascinating and is quite hilarious at times. I am currently writing a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea and your blog really caught my interest. I wanted to just add to the comments here and to also add to your discussion. Beware, this might get a little long.

First of all, I know people can get quite defensive when people say Korean women are undergoing cosmetic surgery to become “white.” (evidence of the comments above). I mean honestly, nobody would like to hear that. Also, Korean women, as was mentioned in your blog and in other people’s comments, don’t go around piping that they did their eyes to look white. One of the driving factors in contemporary society as to why Korean women go under the knife is because 1) cosmetic surgery is a marker for upper class wealth 2) social mobility and 3) economic stability. Women get their faces done or whatever part they deem necessary to look prettier because beauty gets jobs and husbands in an extremely competitive market, and I mean both the market for jobs and husbands.

Furthermore, If you take the time to read Korean forums on cosmetic surgery, a majority of women undergo cosmetic surgery to gain self confidence. It is quite interesting and tragic as well that many of the Korean women who post on these forums talk about how cosmetic surgery will bring a new stage in their lives. Beauty is everything. And they talk about searching for self-esteem like they never had it in the first place and the only way to be “reborn”, “transformed” or to gain their lost self-esteem is through cosmetic surgery. Some of these Korean women are aware of the pressures on them from society to get cosmetic surgery as well and they complain about those reasons too. Korean society is not only very conscious about appearances but how those appearances conform with what the cultural norms are. Therefore, if one girl gets a job because of a pretty nose or eye job, then there will be tons of women who will go get that nose job in the hopes that their chances for getting the next job will be increased. Its a dog eat dog world.

Now set that all aside. I believe that everything has a historical context and cosmetic surgery in South Korea is no exception. Cosmetic surgery in South Korea didn’t just appear in the 1990s to attain a “universal beauty standard.” Nor is the pervasive popularity of specific procedures just because of modernization and the consumer culture it brings. First of all, I take issue with the claim of a “universal beauty standard”. Modernization and globalization has complicated a lot of things so what may seem true now may not ring true when societies were isolated from each other. Korea, for example, was known as the hermit kingdom due to their refusal to open up to foreign influences until they were basically pried open. BEAUTY STANDARDS THEN did not fall in line with “universal” beauty standards now, to say the least. An oval and round face as well as small features were considered beautiful. If you look at old portraits of Korean women, do you see women with overly sized dopey eyes and shaved V-line chins? Or whatever the damn letter is? It is quite the opposite.

Beauty standards may all seem the same way now but that is because we have been socialized to think a certain way due to overwhelming western influences. I know this is an argument that some people get tired of hearing but that is just the truth. Modern history was dominated by our Western/European counterparts and as globalization is rapidly changing the way information is disseminated, such beauty ideals are able to really influence the individual sitting in the living room in any part of the world privy to a TV or any other popular media outlet and those channels in their native language that send such messages. Korean media is no exception. As we all know the Korean media is largely responsible for the beauty standards that Korean women consume.

Now, lets talk about history some more. Since each country has a different history, such history should be used to help explain why certain practices become widespread. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a universal phenomenon in that people do it all over the world. But depending on the place, certain plastic surgery procedures are preferred over others. The question here that we need to ask, in which James has been eloquently trying to answer, is why do women go for such particular procedures?? To attain a universal beauty standard?? Well that answer would make everything too easy now wouldn’t it? And I already said that in Korea, beauty was quite different until they were confronted with different bodies such as the west.

Korean people are first and foremost going to do cosmetic surgery on their eyes, nose, and chin. The most popular being the Double eyelid surgery. Now James emphasizes why the double-eyelid??? Why is this procedure the most popular?? Just because the SUPPOSEDLY universal standard dictates this? Or because Asian women just want to be white?? We really need to probe a lot deeper. WHY, to Korean women, is the big dopey double eye lid considered beautiful when arguably before the infiltration of the west, it wasn’t?

Now, I know there is a percentage of Korean people who already have the double eyelid, so whats the big deal? Well the big deal is that those who didn’t have the double eyelid were considered just as good looking until this ideal changed. The fact that the single lid was problematized after a certain point in Korean history is telling of the fact that perceptions in Korean society began to change. Beauty standards is not in fact universal. Something was influencing Koreans to change their mind. Now what was it??

I look at Korean history in the past century as a whole bunch of successive traumatic events which modernization has just served to confuse and exacerbate Korean society. You have Japanese colonization, then independence which was short-lived with the U.S. occupation, then the split of the peninsula, the fratricidal Korean War, and the ensuing U.S. dominance that followed afterwards. Then without much time in between Koreans were caught in a nationalistic frenzy to economically develop, then democratization happened, and then market forces opened up and voila! in a matter of 30 years Korea is not only a democracy, it is one of the biggest economies in the world, and is still experiencing the onslaught of modernization. What does this equal?? A very confused and unstable society. I honestly think the Korean people have not been able to properly digest their traumatic past. Now what does this have to do with cosmetic surgery? Read on if you haven’t been bored out of your mind yet.

Now starting from Japanese colonization, Koreans were taught to believe they were inferior. Since the Japanese didn’t look too different from Koreans, they couldn’t really harp on the whole racially different argument to establish their superiority. However, it was a traumatic experience nonetheless, in which the Korean people were subjected to mental and psychological degradation where they were made to believe, they were not “good enough.”

Now with the entrance of the Americans during and after the Korean War, this is where I believe Koreans began to see their bodies, their PHYSICAL FEATURES as defected and flawed. Other scholars such as Tae Yon Kim and David Palumbo-liu discuss this affect on the Korean people as they were confronted with an overwhelming presence of American bodies. The Americans, upon coming to Korea to “help” the “poor people”, were confronted with a curious looking bunch. One of those Americans, by the name of Dr. Millard, set out to fix such faces in order to “read” the Koreans better. Dr. Millard was a military surgeon who was sent to Korea on a good will mission to reconstruct war-damaged bodies. Dr. Millard, in addition, to reconstructing such “war damaged bodies” became obsessed with making the Korean or “oriental” legible for the American people. He thought the single lid made Koreans look lazy, sneaky, untrustworthy and basically dumb. He became the first white person to create a double-eyelid surgery for the Asian face. This is monumental. Although double-eyelid surgery was present in Japan before the introduction of cosmetic surgery in Korea, what David Palumbo-liu states and other authors also cite him, is that cosmetic surgery actually reached its popular high point in Korea during this time frame. Dr. Millard began to “treat” Korean patients and he has photos of his first Korean patients in his original work, Oriental Peregrinations. It’s fascinating and extremely disturbing at the same time. Basically the Korean people were mentally brainwashed to view their eyes, their facial shape as inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed. The introduction of Dr. Millard’s double eyelid surgery during the Korean War really shows how cosmetic surgery is tied up with trauma, war, and foreign domination. The words he used to describe Korean eyes in his articles, are used in Korean websites, in present day Korean websites to describe natural single lidded Korean eyes. Why is it that the words used to describe Korean eyes by a an American military surgeon during the Korean War, used to describe Korean eyes in modern day society?? Korean websites are carrying on the tradition of passing on this idea that Korean eyes are naturally defected, if you have the single-lid that is. And the only difference is that now, double eyelid surgery is cloaked under the label for women to look more beautiful.

There are more linguistic connections in descriptions of the Asian eye that harks back to Korea’s traumatic history but I won’t go into it.

So Korean women undergo cosmetic surgery to look more beautiful and yes we can just stop it at there. They just want to look beautiful. But why I ask again, those CERTAIN aspects? Why did those certain aspects become what was “Beautiful?” when it wasn’t before? Although Korean women may not know that they are changing their eyes based on white standards of beauty, (in fact many wholeheartedly believe the double eyelid surgery is tailored to make Asian eyes more beautiful) single-lidded eyes were problematized because of confrontations with the West and now it has become so commonplace in Korea that these origins have been forgotten and it is now a natural thing to think. That single lidded small eyes are ugly and big dopey eyes are pretty and that is just the way it is because they are told that and they consume that every day of their lives.

I think, saying Korean people are fixing their eyes to become more Caucasian is not the right way to put it. In my opinion, Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed, a legacy that was left by Korea’s historical trauma. I see cosmetic surgery in Korean society as a way Korean people are trying to reconcile their “flawed bodies” and “fix” themselves. I look at cosmetic surgery a bit differently and it might seem a bit far fetched but when you keep digging, sometimes you can’t help but think this way.

This is where trauma comes into the picture. My argument, basically sees unresolved trauma as a major factor in the pervasive practice of cosmetic surgery, especially the double eyelid. I won’t go in depth there because that would require me to talk about trauma and how trauma can last for generations. But anyways I hope that my comments show cosmetic surgery in Korea is wrapped up in a lot of complex issues.

IT IS NOT just about attaining a beauty standard or to look white. There are historical consequences that explain as well as add to the modern picture of why Korean women flock to clinics to get their eyes done.

This message probably won’t be read but this was a really great exercise for me to keep my mind active and up to date with all the stuff I have to read for my research. I know it was quite selfish of me to post such a long entry so my apologies.

But hopefully somebody learns something and gains or at least thinks again when discussing this subject.

Addendum (in a follow-up comment):

Also, I read my post again and I didn’t specify what kind of Korean websites, I meant Korean cosmetic surgery websites.

Also another piece of interesting information is that cosmetic surgery originally had a bad reputation due to its associations with prostitution during and after the Korean War. Basically cosmetic surgery was seen as disreputable because Korean war brides were the ones who mostly underwent cosmetic surgery in order to better assimilate into their new American husband’s life. These Korean War Brides were seen as prostitutes and some of them really were. So another little interesting piece to the whole picture –> forwarding now 50 years later cosmetic surgery is such a pervasive practice that it is now quite the cultural norm.

I have provided some readings that briefly talk about this, because cosmetic surgery in Korea is such a little explored subject in Academia, and the majority of the articles just skim the surface, the literature below I believe has done some justice on the topic as well as how U.S. domination has affected Korean society.

• Dissertation called the “The Moving Eye: From Cold War Racial Subject to Middle Class Cosmopolitan, Korean cosmetic Eyelid Surgery, 1955-2001″ by Taeyon Kim

James: I haven’t been able to find a copy of that online unfortunately, but in case the name sounds familiar, I discuss her 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” at great length in my series entitled journal article “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society”, starting here.

• Nadia Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (2008)

• David Palumbo-liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999)

(ELP_NIKE_KOREA, by gkristo)


And here’s an update from Anna…

Hey James!

I was just doing some more reading and I realized that I had written incorrect information about the Japanese not being able to use racist ideologies during Korea’s colonization. In fact they did, in terms of Japan being the superior blood race–>a focus on ethnonationality. Japan differentiated itself from Korea by focusing mainly on the centrality of blood. Although Japan outwardly promoted a Pan-Asian ideology where the Japanese would protect their Asian neighbors from Western imperialism, the brutality of the Japanese towards the Koreans obviously showed that this was all bullshit. The oppression of Japan towards Korea also helped Korean individuals foment Korea as a “nation” around blood as well. Nadia Kim says this is connected to why Koreans are so obsessed with blood types…pretty funny. So “race” for Koreans originally focused on ethnonationality and purity of blood and blood ties. Then the West came in and complicated the picture with their own racial ideologies of black and white which also the Koreans were pretty primed to accept due to their already hierarchical associations to the lighter skin/darker skin complex.

Also, I won’t go into detail too much because I have probably lost you already, but it seems like the concept of lighter skin and the color white as pure and good was a pretty salient concept in Korea before the West. Koreans and the Japanese have seemed to have an obsession with white for a while.

Kim writes, “The country has valorized white as representatives of its people’s purity and desire for peace since the Three Kingdoms Period of 57 B.C. to A.D. 668. One manifestation was Koreans’ primarily white clothing, earning them the moniker the “white-clad nation.” Because the Koreans continued to wear solely white clothing through the middle twentieth century, Western visitors would be captivated by the “enormous white waves sweeping the streets” (27).

(Korean War Museum and Memorial – Seoul 090501, by anja_johnson)

She then goes on and talks about how lighter skin/dark skin also corresponded to where you stood in the rigid neo-confucian hierarchies of Korean society. But basically, this shows how Koreans were pretty well “primed” to accept the White/Black dichotomy that was brought by its relations with the US/West.

So to wrap up and reiterate again, the Japanese did use racial ideologies but focused mainly on blood purity, the superior “blood race”, although I’m sure they also used other things to establish their superiority.

I really really recommend reading her book its pretty awesome.

Korean Sociological Image #35: Ready for some Hot 6iX?


For all the misreadings of the title that undoubtedly brought many of you to this post(!), “Hot 6iX” (핫식스) is just a simple energy drink really, albeit a deliberate attempt by Lotte Chilsung (롯데칠성음료) to produce a Korean equivalent of Red Bull for the domestic market. And ultimately to belatedly tap into the global market too, currently worth 1.4 billion dollars and growing 20% every year despite the recession.

An avid drinker of “V” back when I lived in New Zealand, I think it’s about time. Much more interesting than the drink itself though, are what the 4 advertisements produced so far tell us about how quickly the Korean media is changing, and especially how men and women are presented therein. With apologies for giving the game away somewhat with the opening image, here they are:

Although my wife and I laughed at the joke in the first one too, I confess that I was already well into writing this post after only seeing the two featuring women. For they confirmed a strong and enduring division in the marketing of health, energy, and/or sports drinks whereby those aimed at men tend to promote the idea that the drink will give them extra energy for work, exercise, or even sex, but those at women that it will simply help them to lose weight. A phenomenon by no means confined only to Korea, you can imagine my surprise then, when I learned of the 6iX ad aimed at female drinkers also.

(Sources: left, right)

And although it sounds rather awkward, my delight too. For with the proviso that the objectification of men can be just as problematic as that of women, and its occurrence in the media in numbers comparable to that of women a bizarre and somewhat unlikely “solution” for the latter, I’d like to throw open for discussion the notion that any objections any of you may have – or imagine that others may have – to those first 2 advertisements are somewhat mollified by having an advertisement featuring a man also.  Or alternatively is that just me, and/or are the advertisements with women not all that objectionable in the first place?

Meanwhile, expect to see many more advertisements like them in coming months: the 4 above all have random numbers assigned to them, much like what were ultimately 30 or so in this “Confessions of 20-somethings” (스무살의 고백) advertising series of Maxwell House (맥스웰하우스) that started last year (see #2 here). And on a final note, it’s difficult to believe that advertisements objectifying men like this only really started in earnest last year, yes?

Update, July 2012: Alas, my prediction was completely wrong. There were no new commercials for over 2 years, and the new ones released this month don’t objectify either sex at all (although they do still target both men and women). See here for all the 2012 and 2010 ones.

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

Open Thread #8: Superfuturism & Anitiquity

( “Fade to Red” by StudioQube. Source: deviantART)

Thoughts for the weekend, from boingboing:

Marilyn from National Geographic sez, “I think you’ll love these Shanghai photos by Fritz Hoffmann in March National Geo. It’s hard to believe such a superfuturistic megacity also looks like a village from 100 years ago.”

What she said. There are lots of places in the world where seamless high-tech and ancient cobblestones exist side by side, but I’ve never been anywhere in which you can go from one to the other so quickly as Shanghai. One moment you’re on the set of Blade Runner, then you turn a corner and you’re in a historical drama, with no sign of glass-and-steel in sight.

And of course most Korean cities are some of those places, and perhaps Seoul in particular. Something surprisingly absent from the discussion at boingboing though, is that in many senses such places can be considered ecotones, a geographical term for the zone where 2 ecosystems meet, and all the much richer and more diverse than either because of the ensuing interaction.

Seriously, nearly 10 years after I arrived in Korea, I still love wandering around such districts occasionally: the constant juxtapositions to be experienced there remind of how I felt when I first came. Unfortunately however, Korea’s misguided attempts at “modernization” means that they may not be around much longer, so make sure to enjoy them while you still can.

To end on a more positive note then, here is my latest favorite K-pop song, or again my new favorite Areia remix at least: Because of you (너 때문에), by After School (애프터스쿨; download the MP3 here). Clearly portraying a lesbian relationship despite the ostensibly heterosexual lyrics, I’ll definitely be analyzing it in depth at some point, but until then I’d be more interested in hearing your own thoughts. Enjoy!^^

Update: And before I forget, here’s a remix of Tell Me Your Wish (소원을 말해봐) by Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) also. But by a different DJ this time, and in my opinion a much deeper, warmer version of the original that makes it actually worth listening to, rather than the song merely being a means to provide some eye candy and indirect advertising via the music video. Skeptics, try the first 15 seconds at least, and if you don’t like those then you simply have no soul(!); everyone else, download the MP3 here.


Korean Sociological Image #34: Child Sex Offender Kim Kil-tae Caught

Whether in response to intense criticism of the government’s policies towards sex offenders or of their own accord, I was still very impressed with the police for sending this wanted notice for Kim Kil-tae (김길태) to all Busan households yesterday, the main suspect in the rape and murder of 13 year-old Lee Yu-ri (이유리) last month. The first time I’d ever received a wanted notice in the mail in 10 years in Korea, let alone for a crime that occurred last Saturday at the other side of a city of 3.6 million, I thought it was significant enough to warrant a post in its own right, but I’m happy to report that literally as I began typing that the news came through that he has been caught.

I’ll update this post as more information becomes available. The reward, by the way, was for 20,000,000 won, or roughly 17,700 US dollars.

Update 1 – I’ll let this news speak for itself:

Rival parties agreed Wednesday to convene a one-day parliamentary session this month to act on a series of bills calling for tougher punishment for sex crimes, an unusual bipartisan move reflecting nationwide outrage over the recent rape and murder of a teenage girl.

Read the rest here. On a more reflective note, see Extra! Korea for a brief discussion on the possible role of absentee parents in this and similar crimes.

Update 2 – The Korea Times has a report about his apprehension here.

Update 3 – The Hankyoreh’s take on it is here. Earlier, it used the original crime itself to criticize unrelated policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration in a cartoon, and while I’m generally sympathetic to the newspaper (it’s the only Korean newspaper which doesn’t caricature and/or deliberately misrepresent foreign English teachers for instance), it does seem to have a habit of that sort of thing.

Update 4 – Via ROK Drop, here are the latest developments in the case:

The police investigation of a recent rape and murder case of a teenage girl in Busan is facing difficulties due to lack of evidence.

The 33-year-old, Kim Gil-tae, caught Wednesday, has denied the charges and remained silent during interrogation, said officials.

He only admitted stealing money and keys in a nearby hair shop while he was hiding from police.

Investigators requested an arrest warrant on Thursday, based on genetic evidence such as Kim’s DNA found in the body of the 13-year-old victim, Lee Yu-ri.

The police, however, have so far failed to collect definitive evidence linking him to the murder.

Read the rest at the Korea Herald here. Personally, I’m a bit confused and surprised though, as how on Earth can the fact that his DNA was found inside the body not be the “definitive evidence” required?

Update 5: Initially denying it, the news has just come in that Kim Kil-tae has now confessed to the crime.

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


“Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: A Request

( Source )

If you’d told me a week ago that I’d be spending much of my birthday looking for images of Korean men touching themselves, I’d probably have politely told you never to comment on my blog again.

Prompted by this analysis of Korean magazine advertisements that found that Korean men were significantly more likely to be shown doing so than Western men in them however, that’s precisely what I’ve been doing. But for all their supposed ubiquity, it’s proving surprisingly difficult to find examples, throwing off my schedule for the next posts in this series.

To be specific, I’m after advertisements like these, but featuring Korean men rather than women, and would really appreciate any help. Seriously, what search terms would you suggest, in English or Korean?^^

Of course I do have some examples, and will continue looking: my planned post will simply take longer than expected. In the meantime then, let me briefly offer some amusing and/or interesting advertisements that have cropped up recently instead, starting with that for Coca Cola Korea (한국 코카콜라) above featuring Thai-American Nichkhun (닉쿤) of the Korean band 2PM. I think its humor speaks for itself, but in the unlikely event that you feel I’m reading too much into it, please see those featuring other…er…members of the band here, of which Junho (준호) in particular seems to be enjoying holding his miniCoke bottle entirely too much!

Next is this one for Venus lingerie (비너스) featuring Han Ye-seul (한예슬), featured on the front page of Korea’s main portal site Naver (네이버) as I type this. Why it’s interesting is because of the English name “Glam Up” for the bra featured, which, making little sense otherwise, supports the argument that the English word “glamor” has somehow come to mean “voluptuous” or “curvaceous” in Korean:

( Source )

In turn, it demonstrates the ridiculousness of the new Korean phrase cheongsoon-gullaemor (청순글래머; or “innocent glamor”), but which is nevertheless very much in vogue in the Korean media at the moment. But that is no great surprise in view of the enduring popularity of older ones for women’s bodies like “S-line” (S라인) perhaps, and so, lest I begin to sound too serious here, let me move on to this advertisement for Nike Korea (나이키) featuring ice skater Kim Yu-na (김연아):

( Source: korean lovers photoblog )

One of the most endearing athletes I’ve ever seen (well before she won her gold medal), it’s difficult not to simply adore Yuna, but I confess I still had to to laugh at what Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling wrote about this ad last month:

By the way, does anyone find Kim’s expression in this ad to be, uh, ecstatic?

Perhaps there’s a reason the left hand side was cut off where it was. Just do it, indeed.

Okay, perhaps that was reading too much into it, and I’m sure you can understand my reluctance in not posting it earlier, the image of her at #10 here alone receiving thousands of hits in the last week of February, presumably most of them from fans…

Either way, I hope you at least one of those advertisements made you smile and/or think. And again, if anyone can help find examples of the sorts of advertisements I’m looking for, I would very much appreciate it; even if it’s only because you feel guilty for forgetting my birthday!^^


“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. (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.