Korean Sociological Image #51: Male Objectification and Double Standards

What would be your reaction if this flashed on your TV screen?

Mine was that hard abs aren’t the best analogy for airbags. But my mistake: they’re not supposed to be. Rather, Hyundai needed something to signify the number of airbags as the voiceover went through various specs of the car.

Which, to be fair, is much clearer in the full commercial.

How about if a proper airbag analogy had been used instead, like Mercedes Benz did back in 2006?


If you found that objectification distasteful however, then consider the following from Renault/Samsung in 2008 below also:

Which uses the same analogy, but is clearly quite a contrast to BMW’s puerile effort. Nevertheless, some commenters on an earlier post (update: since deleted sorry!) did still have some issues with it, whereas nobody on this blog at least has had any with all of the men’s 6-packs that suddenly started appearing in Korean commercials from last year.

But I’m sure you’re already well-aware of that double-standard, so the purpose of this post is not just to draw your attention to it. Nor to simply pass on that juxtaposition of advertisements, however interesting. In combination with a recent development in the Korean media though, what that juxtaposition did serve to do was make me realize both the rapid mainstreaming and dogmatic nature of that double-standard here, and which is a combination that I think is pretty unique to Korea too.

Let me explain.

Actually, the first I already have: consider how popular the new buzzword “chocolate abs” (초콜릿복근) is in the Korean media now as a result of all the recent ads featuring them for instance (see here, here, here, #8 here, and this new one below for examples and/or discussion), whereas it didn’t even make a list of buzzwords at the end of last year.

Against that sudden popularity however, you could argue that they’ve actually already been around for a long time in music videos. As Hoon-Soon Kim explains of some from 2000 in “Korean Music Videos, Postmodernism, and Gender Politics” in Jung-Hwa Oh (ed.), Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea (2005) for instance, albeit with more of a focus on the emergence of the “Flower Men” or kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon than male objectification per se:

…we see that there is a new type of male image emerging albeit in a small number of music videos. It is a de-gendered image of men which is a contrast to the macho image. Male groups such as Y2K, H.O.T., ITYM, and Sinwha, whose fans are mostly teenage girls, portray this image. They wear make-up and a lot of jewelry and ornaments – which are all considered feminine – and take off their shirts to show off their bodies. This indicates that the male body is also sexually objectified as the female body….The style of the video is similar to that used to show female images with extreme close-ups to fill the screen with a face, and medium-range or full body shots for dances. Although there is a risk of overstating the phenomenon, this image could be interpreted as a signal indicating the possibility of breaking the binary boundaries of men and women that have been formed in a patriarchal culture. (p. 207)

And yet just like in ads, the amount of male objectification in music videos—or to be specific, ab exposure—does also seem to have picked up markedly in the past year or so. Like Multi explained back in March:

…in the past month the internet has been flooded with pictures of Korean celebrities and their abs (as well as some other shots that are not entirely SFW – you’re over 18 you can check them out here, and here). Our favorite controversial band 2PM just did an extensive photoshoot and were topless for most of it (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). Lee Joon of the new boy group MBLAQ flashes his abs a whole lot, because the king of ab-flashing, and Korean superstar extraordinaire, Rain, who happens to be his boss, tells him to because the fans like it, (yup, we sure do ;) and everyone wants to get pictures of them (exhibit A, B, C, among countless others). Then there’s these guys, this guy and this guy, and like 50 others. And then countless polls as to whose abs are better.

To be precise, Rain told Lee Joon that taking off his shirt has far more effect on his audiences than his dancing. And as “the king of ab-flashing”, then of course he could have been talking about himself instead (actually, I thought he was originally), so I can hardly fault him for showing off his own abs so frequently in his own music videos and performances. But rarely in harmony with his song’s lyrics and/or even his choreography however, and so for me personally he more epitomizes just how cynical and commercially-driven the trend has become, with obvious parallels to more familiar ones for female performers. Check out from 2:55 here for instance:

And my critique of the trend as “commercially-driven” is no mere cliche, because whereas it’s mostly young girl-groups that have sprung up in the past year or so (see here for a handy chart), likewise Korean male singers have to adapt to the Korean music industry’s overwhelming reliance on musicians’ product endorsements, appearances on variety shows, and casting in dramas to make profits (as opposed to actually selling music). This encourages their agencies to make them stand out and differentiate themselves from each other by coming up ever more sexual lyrics and/or performances and music videos: namely, more abs from the guys, let alone feigned fellatio, feigned sex on beds, or even virtual rapes of audience members on stage during performances.

Allkpop argues that it’s consumers that are driving this trend however, and that this explains the imbalance between new girl and boy groups:

It looks like girl groups don’t seem to have as high of a failure rate as boy groups or solo singers. These new girl groups have already been gaining so much attention. The reason why you can rely on girl groups to bring in the income is because there’s always teenage boys and ahjusshi (old men) fans to trust. They can also go perform at various events which always require a pay day. Supposedly, Secret gets paid around $8000 per event performance while a group like 4minute gets paid around $12,000 per event.

And yet while that is not incorrect per se, Multi goes on to explain in her post that it is largely female fan club members in their 30s and 40s that are driving this trend, not unlike how I’ve demonstrated that the same demographic (and often exactly the same women) were the driving force behind the full emergence of the kkotminam phenomenon back around the time of the 2002 World Cup. Hence I’d argue that the imbalance is more the result of top-down imperatives then, with many similarities to the American media ideal of female sexuality getting progressively younger over the last 3 decades…and for the same profit-driven motives.

But I digress: for more on that, see a forthcoming Part 2 of my “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea” series, which I’ll link to here once it’s up (update: and here it is!). In the meantime, hopefully by this stage you can see why celebrities so dominate advertising here, and which is already an industry not exactly averse to perpetuating celebrities’ agencies’ inherent needs to use sex to sell. Moreover, whereas it’s true that the content of ads worldwide does tend to lag behind social trends, as even just the title of Kwangok Kim and Dennis Lowry’s journal article “Television Commercials as a Lagging Social Indicator: Gender Role Stereotypes in Korean Television Advertising” in Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 11/12 December 2005 suggests, once they do start appearing in ads then that wider exposure (no pun intended) can have a profound effect in mainstreaming them:

According to cultivation theory, the media play an important role in creating distorted views. This theory suggests that exposure to media content creates a worldview, or a consistent image of social behavior, norms, values, and structures, based on the stable view of society provided by the media. In other words, cultivation theory posits that consistent images and portrayals construct a specific portrait of reality, and as viewers see more and more images, they gradually come to cultivate or adopt attitudes and expectations about the world that coincide with the images they see. Although this model has typically been employed to explain the impact of of television violence, it also has been applied successfully to the cultivation of attitudes towards gender roles. (p. 902, references removed)

(“Bob’s Television Dream” by Robert Couse-Baker)

And in particular:

Although television viewers often claim that commercials do not affect them in negative ways, repeated images in television advertising may already have created a “mainstreaming effect,” as suggested by cultivation theory. Television has the power to cultivate people to have the same views of the world, for example, stereotypical views of gender roles in our society. In other words, the mainstreaming effect reduces cultural and political differences among television viewers. Studies have shown that heavy television viewing may influence children’s perceptions of behaviors and psychological characteristics associated with gender…and [one other] found that heavy viewers of television commercials among the elderly were more likely than light viewers to perceive characters (e.g., the elderly) in commercials as realistic (i.e., mainstreaming effect). It may not be advertisers’ full responsibility to reflect statistically accurate images of society. However, the burden of responsibility is on the advertisers when they fail to reflect the rapid changes in such stereotypes in our society. (p. 908, references removed)

But still, how exactly does simple exposure to those ads necessarily result in us adopting the attitudes and worldviews contained therein, as if by osmosis or something?

Well first, consider their sheer number: “In the United States alone, the average person may be exposed to 500 and 1000 commercial messages a day”, according to p.34 of Essentials of Contemporary Advertising by William Arens and David Schaefer (2007). And like Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen explain in their prologue to Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (1992), it’s amazing how subtly, profoundly, and almost entirely unconsciously this daily barrage affects us. Quite a charming narrative, which no-one can fail to be more interested in advertising after reading, I’ve scanned it for you below:

But regardless of whatever is ultimately responsible for the timing and/or mainstreaming of men exposing their abs in the Korean media, I’m sure we can all agree that they are now here to stay (and there was much rejoicing). And in a sense, this was indirectly confirmed by SBS recently when it decided to ban female performers from exposing their navels and/or abs on its popular Inkigayo (인기가요) show, whereas male performers remain free to rip off their own shirts: the “recent development in the Korean media” that I referred to in the introduction.

Why is that ban more significant than the plethora of others however? And why is it not exceptional, but in fact genuinely reflects deeply ambivalent and dogmatic societal attitudes to—for want of a better term—women’s top halves? Alas, it was my original intention to jump straight into that second part here, but with this post already at 2000 words (and well overdue), then I’ll wisely defer those 1500 extra ones to a separate post later in the week.


Until then, a request, lest anyone feel I’ve been too critical of Rain here: does anybody know the name of a recent music video that features 2 young male singers vying for the affections of a woman, taking off their tops repeatedly (perhaps 10 times) and walking around half-naked for most of the video as they sing…before finally noticing that the woman has taken advantage of their distracted state by stealing their jeep?

Please do pass it on if you do, as I feel it actually much better epitomizes just “how cynical and commercially-driven the [ab-exposure] trend has become” than Rain does, and which even heterosexual women and gay men that see it will probably agree is a little excessive, let alone extremely lame. Moreover, while I don’t claim to have suddenly seen the light as a result, and can now completely empathize with women’s feelings about their own pervasive objectification in the media…I do think the eye-rolling, sense-of-exasperation, and literal gagging I experienced is at least a start towards doing so!^^

Update: With thanks to Katarina, the video is I was Able to Eat Well by 2AM’s Changmin & 8eight’s Lee Hyun:

Clearly, I exaggerated it in my memory. But understandably, as with them so so eager to shed their clothes together in the garage parking lot from roughly 0:59 for instance (for the sake of showing off their abs), that segment at least seriously resembles a gay porn video.

Probably actually objectifying the woman even more than the men though, then I take it all back: Rain’s performances do best epitomize the ab craze!

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

29 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #51: Male Objectification and Double Standards

  1. This reminds me of a conversation I had with some of my 14 year old girls in one class. For some reason, they asked me if i had a “six pack,” I said no and they made fun. Apparently, they are under the impression that the vast majority of guys actually have them, while I was trying to explain that not all of them do. When I bring up that I’ve seen more naked guys then them, they just bring up k-guys.

    Boy, will they be in a world of hurt later.


  2. Great post, and thanks for the mentions! Interestingly enough, just yesterday I bookmarked an Allkpop article about the restriction on the viewing of boy band U-KISS’s new video “Shut Up!!” on Youtube to 18+. Apparently it got flagged for inappropriate content because some members of the group were topless, and “appear with another woman”. U-KISS’s agency is currently working to remove the restriction, and have uploaded a “clean version”. Only the video on U-KISS’s official music channel that got flagged – other replica videos aren’t restricted. But I wonder why Youtube restricted it in the first place – surely many other boy group/male artist videos fit this description (topless + appear with a woman) – Taeyang’s “I Need a Girl” and Rain’s “Love Song”, and the Homme video you posted above to name a few. It doesn’t seem like this is a ban from the Korean community, but U-KISS has always been careful about these sorts of things anyway. For example, their last music video was also released in two versions, with the second “dirty” version having a few more shots of them topless than the first version. Also, their live performances of their latest single have had them only in suits, and not in the grungy and somewhat revealing outfits from the video.


    1. Thanks also for your own post, and sorry: I can’t say much about the Youtube thing because I’m about to jump on my exercyle, but yeah: I agree that it sounds strange.

      Before I forget though: any idea where I can find the blog post about Korean male entertainers wearing women’s clothes so often, like I mention here? Was it you that wrote that, or Eccentric Yoruba?

      Thanks in advance if you know!


  3. Hello,

    Great article!

    About the clothing restrictments on Inkigayo… I think it’s crazy that boys and girls are being treated so unequally in terms of clothing requirements. But what I also find very weird is that showing a little bit of belly is forbidden for girls, while wearing pants that hardly covers their bottom is allowed. Most underwear is less revealing than what some girlgroups are wearing on stage. Why this difference between exposing your belly and ass? Can someone explain?

    It’s interesting you mention ‘that segment at least seriously resembles a gay porn video’, because a parodyvideo from 2pm and 2am actually got mistaken for a gay porn video by a Dutch newspaper. See this article on Allkpop: http://www.allkpop.com/2010/01/dirty_eyed_girls_chinese_gay_porno
    And for the parody:

    Now I know this video is a parody of Acrabadabra from the Brown Eyed Girls, so I can somewhat understand what the boys are trying to show. But I can also understand why other Dutch people would consider this gayporn-ish.

    The false interpretation of the video was probably because the author didn’t know about it being a parody. But I wonder if it could also represent something more. It’s interesting how the 2pm members are known as manly and beastly in Korea, but are viewed as gay in the Netherlands.


    1. “It’s interesting how the 2pm members are known as manly and beastly in Korea, but are viewed as gay in the Netherlands”.

      In Italy, too. We’re not postmodern enough, maybe :-) Nevertheless, the trend is toward what James’ eminently presented (i.e. the 6-pack craze), especially in fashion-cosmetics ads. But not ssso much, from my point of view.

      I’ve been here (Chuncheon) for only two months now.
      I think I got more compliments about my body (from males, while going from the shower to my room) since I arrived here, than in my whole life before. It must mean something.

      Inspiring article as always.
      Looking forward to reading Lolita part 2.



      1. Thanks for the compliments Marly, but I’ll cover the bans on women’s costumes and so on in Part 2.

        But as for the video, it is really “viewed as gay in the Netherlands” and, like you say Eddyandreis, in Italy too? No offense, but I think it’s a little unwise to draw any inferences about European and Korean attitudes to homosexuality and masculinity based just on reader comments to one very poorly-researched article. True, you do also mention compliments in the gym shower Eddy, but there’s still so many different ways that those could be interpreted: perhaps indeed more “gayness” in the Western sense for instance, but perhaps also less overt homophobia too (not that they’re mutually exclusive). And considering their usually low English ability, it could simply be a genuine attempt to interact with a foreigner in the only polite way they know how too, and which is also why Koreans so often comparing foreigners to movie stars! (props to Gomushin Girl for making me realize that)

        Regardless, it’s important to make a distinction between the 2 videos. When I say the 2AM one is like a gay porn video for instance, I mean that from 0:59 it looks like precisely that: they smile at each other indicating somewhere outside the car as if – not to put too fine a point on it – one of them suggests having a quick fuck behind one of the cars (although he’s actually saying let’s go to this place on the postcard), then jump out and rip all their clothes off as quickly as they can, with the camera zooming in one of them (already half-naked) undoing his belt buckle at 1:10. Seriously, you almost expect the other guy to be performing fellatio on him in the next shot.

        But the crucial point is that it’s still actually intended to appeal to heterosexual women. In contrast, while the Dirty-eyed-girl parody isn’t necessarily intended to be homoerotic, and indeed the performers and Koreans in general might disagree that it is gay in any way (albeit because, paradoxically, really quite relaxed attitudes to gayness, or at least physical male affection, coexist alongside point-blank refusals to admit this), it is definitely in the same vein of Korean entertainers – be they singers, actors, and/or comedians – having really quite a proclivity for donning women’s clothes and pretending to be women, and which I think is a trope going back centuries in Korea. I believe Mel herself or Curiosity Killed the Eccentric Yoruba actually discussed that in depth in a long post once, and I’ll link to it once I find it (or if – hint hint – someone can pass it on).

        Either way, I’m not sure I necessarily have a point to all that sorry (I’m quite tired!). But I think that distinction is important.


        1. I’m not sure if I fully understood what you meant because I don’t speak English fluently. But you said that the ‘I was able to eat well’ MV is different from the Dirty Eyed Girls because the last one is intended to be funny (like other comedians dressing up as women) and the first is aiming to appeal to women more in a sexual way, right?
          I agree that the video’s differ in this aspect. What I meant is that to me it appears that in Korea, men can act gay (from a Dutch perspective) without them being called homosexual. But like you said, that’s probably because “paradoxically, really quite relaxed attitudes to gayness, or at least physical male affection, coexist alongside point-blank refusals to admit this”.

          The weird thing is that I can’t think of any Dutch examples of boys doing the fanservice Korean boygroups perform, like hugging and kissing each other. But here and in other western societies, this is a way for girls to attract men, without that necessarily meaning they are viewed as gay or bisexual. So it seems as though the roles are turned… I’m just speculating here, so I don’t have any explanations or proof. I’m just stating what I think is striking as an oustider (so please don’t be too harsh on me for saying this :-P).

          I study psychology and unfortunately we attend to Asian cultures and societies only very minimal. I’d love to go to Korea and my university does have an agreement with Seoul National University. Only this agreement is for the university as a whole and not for my department in perticular. I’m wondering if SNU is a good place to go to for a psychologystudent. I do know they offer psychology classes in English, so that’s a plus. This is a bit out of context, but does anyone know more about SNU, their psychology department or their exchange program? Their website is like an advertisement, so I’d love to hear what (unbiased) others have to say about SNU ^^


  4. Double standard is definitely a problem. It is a problem in lots of places but I think that in Korea is is probably a little more noticeable. Over all the ideals for what men and women the world over should be are unattainable by most and I do think that Korean Pop Culture accentuates those unrealistic ideals. Its funny about the MV resembles gay porn because it really does and I have always gotten a weird feeling form that portion the the MV. Personally I like 비(Rain). I think his face is quite handsome but his last big music video scared me. That weird gyrating wavy body motion YIKES! I know it is supposed to be “alluring” but abs or not I found it quite disturbing. As for 2PM they are “manly” and so is most of 2AM but I have always been convinces that JoKwon is actually gay.


    1. Which music video of Rain’s was that? I’ll have to check it out!

      LOL to Jo-kwon being gay: I think so too, although as far as I know he’s strenuously denied it. And if he’s not really gay then I can empathize, as New Zealanders of both sexes generally thought that I was gay too when I was roughly the same age as him, (which is 99% of the reason I left). Hell, me still not really liking beer, rugby, or cricket 10 years later, and preferring talking about gender issues in coffee shops to all 3, then most Kiwis probably still would!^^


      1. Excellent blog, I love to read all of your articles so thank you!! Now warning: this is purely a personal empathetic comment, nothing too sociological in nature! I married a New Zealander who is amazing in every way and not ‘gay’ at all ( I mean…you can only be gay one way, what’s with their somehow being ‘gay-gateway’ demarcations) and yet because of his charm, wit, and kindness towards women he still gets an occasional remark from others, so things haven’t changed too much here, but you are not alone. Blessings to your family!



        1. No need to apologize – empathize away! – and thanks very much! But pity to hear that about NZ though, and the combination of many little things like that honestly make me wonder if I’d ever be able to resettle there long-term. That’s no big deal right now, but I am very concerned about my kids, as I refuse to ever send them to a Korean high school. Unless we can afford them to send to an international school though, then by…let’s see…2020ish, my wife and I will either have to homeschool them or we’ll all have to leave Korea.

          But that’s another topic though. Sorry for the tangent, and I’ll wisely go to bed soon…zzz…!


  5. Ever since you trackbacked my translation of the sexual assault case in the military I have been reading through your blog. It’s quite interesting with its well written, thought provoking posts. I wish I would make the time to make my posts of similar quality, but I just can’t find the motivation. I will continue to stop by to check out what you have to say about the society in which I live.

    P.S. Was the breast air bag ad in question really BMW? Or was it Mercedes as the picture indicates?


    1. Thank you very much, and for your own post about the sexual assault case.

      Quite right about the ad: I’ll fix that as soon as I finish typing this. And one more thing that I should probably add seeing as I’m here, is that I’m not sure it was even produced in the end: I’ve been unable to find any more information about it whatsoever, other than more images and comments about it etc. So in Mercedes Benz’s defense, it may just have been concept art that was rejected, but somehow got out onto the internet.


  6. the last video with changmin and lee hyun is wrong at so many levels, and just plainly bad. and really, as you already said, reminds me of gay porn (not that I have seen any)


    1. Alas, once living with a gay former Eastern-orthodox monk, and usually also his nephew who was a gay prostitute, and frequently his co-workers, and some drag-queens from the gay nightclub 50 meters away, and some transvestites…then let’s just say I’ve seen entirely too many. They all paled in comparison to what I sometimes walked in on however…


  7. I would like to admonish your use of Allkpop.com for their opinions if you need support for an argument. I’ve read countless posts from there, and although it may be good for keeping up-to-date with popular culture, the authors are just awful and write like emotional 15 year old girls confiding in their online diaries.


    1. Oh I quite agree about allkpop: it’s good for quick news, but its “analysis” is usually very very simplistic at best, and I’ve heard that its authors even frequently omit stuff and/or deliberately distort stories just for the sake of hits too. Which probably explains why they actually never link to the stories they translate, just giving “Nate” or “Yahoo.Kr” or whatever.

      Take another look at my post then, and you’ll see that I don’t use allkpop to support my argument at all. Actually the complete opposite: I argue that what they wrote in the post I quote was a superficial look at the issue at best.

      So sorry, but I think you misread the post!


  8. Ok I have a perverted newsflash: a lot of women like gay porn. LOL What’s really funny is Rain’s name sounds like “pee” in English. LOLLL Dying. Should not have had that last glass of wine.

    Erm let’s see. I don’t really like the song, but Bi’s cool because he did not have plastic surgery unlike a lot of singers nowadays and he’s still SMexxy. Yay I think that girls sort of like “chocolate” abs…but it seems like the guys like to show it off too.

    If that even makes any sense. Fangirls(and fanaunties LOL) will go crazy no matter what the guy they like takes off, I think. But I noticed some stars feel embarassed to show off they tummies etc until they’re all buff and muscular. Anyway, no complaints.


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