Korean Sociological Image #69: Attitudes Towards Sexual Objectification, 2004 vs. 2012

Back in 2004, I would study Korean by translating articles about Lee Hyori’s breasts. Because that was much more interesting than reading about the joys of kimchi-making in Korean textbooks.

So, I hardly romanticize that era as more innocent and chaste than today’s. Nor, by highlighting just one complaint by one women’s group from then, do I mean to imply that the Korean public was necessarily more prudish back in 2004, or that it’s necessarily more permissive today. After all, my Google News Alert for “성상품화” (sexual objectification) still provides me with fresh critiques of the recent Miss Korea Pageant every day. And who can forget the role “Bikini Girl” played in April’s congressional elections?

Having said that, things definitely have changed in 8 years:

  • Starting about 2006, ubiquitous soju ads started featuring women in revealing clothing after decades of almost exclusively using demure, virginal-looking models.
  • A little later, dominant media narratives about girl-groups, depicting middle-aged male fandom as platonic rather than sexual, provided a window for their objectification to flourish.
  • Men have also been increasingly objectified, particularly after the “chocolate abs” label was coined in 2009.
  • The number of smutty online-ads has surged, especially in the last year.
  • And last but not least, it’s difficult to find an advertisement for water-parks (also ubiquitous) that doesn’t feature a scantily-clad girl-group, with one—Ocean World—even inventing a group specifically for that purpose. (Boy bands and male models are used also, most notably by Caribbean Bay below, but my strong impression is that there’s much less of them than women)

In short, it is via the increasing objectification of (especially) girl-groups that you can see a clear McDonalidization of Korean cultural industries in recent years (see here, here, herehere, and here for more on the hows and whys). And, because of that shift, it’s difficult to imagine a complaint like this being given much attention in 2012:

전남관광 책자 두고 ‘여성상품화’ 논란 일어 / Controversy over Sexual Objectification of Women in Jeollanam-do Tourist Brochure

Oh My News, June 15 2004. By Gang Seong-gwan.

지난 6월초 전남도가 여름 관광객을 겨냥해 제작배포한 관광 홍보책자 ‘남도스케치’에 사용된 비키니 차림의 여성사진이 논란이다. 광주여성민우회는 14일 성명을 통해 “남도스케치 배포를 즉각 중단하라”고 요구하고 나섰다.

Controversy has arisen over the use of women in bikinis in the June edition of tourist brochure Namdo Sketch, a widely-distributed brochure aimed at summer tourists . In an announcement on the 14th, the Gwangju branch of Womenlink demanded that it stopped being distributed immediately.

(Source: James Turnbull)

전 남도는 ‘남도스케치’를 제작하면서 책 표지, ‘전남이 추천하는 여름 여행지 BEST’ 중 완도 명사십리 해수욕장 등 7곳을 소개하면서 비키니를 입은 여성의 사진 10여장을 게재했다. 이 책자는 겉표지까지 총 85페이지로 구성됐으며 비키니 사진은 책자 앞 부분에 게재했다. 전남도는 제작된 책자 2만여부를 터미널 등 공공장소와 전남도내 기초단체 등지에 배포를 마친 상태이며 조만간 2쇄에 들어간다는 계획이다.

이에 대해 광주여성민우회는 “여성을 성 상품화했다”면서 전남도의 공개사과는 물론 책자 배포 중단을 요구하고 나섰다.

With a cover title of “Best Recommended Tourist Sightseeing Areas in Jeollanam-do” [James – I can’t see that title myself, but unfortunately that opening photo was very small], Namdo Sketch introduces 7 tourist sights, including Wando and Myeongsashibri Beach, and uses a total of 10 pictures of women in bikinis on the front cover and in the first part of the brochure, out of 85 pages. By the end of its first printing, the Jeollanam-do Provincial Government had distributed roughly 20,000 copies to transport terminals, public places, and civic groups, and planned to make a second printing.

Gwangju Womenlink said that the brochure sexually objectified women, and demanded a public apology as a matter of course, as well as a halt on further distribution.

“여성 성 상품화 한 것, 배포 중단”…”문제제기 이해하지만, 시원한 여름을…” / “This is the sexual objectification of women, distribution must stop”…”We understand, but hey: this is summer…”

광주여성민우회는 “전남 관광홍보는 여성의 비키니만이 유일한 대안인가”라며 “공공기관에서 나온 책자인가 할 정도로 낯뜨거운 장면이 많이 실려 있어 당혹스러움과 황당함을 느낀다”고 밝혔다.

Gwangju Womenlink argued that “Are women in bikinis the only option for a tourist brochure?”, and said “We are embarrassed and perplexed that a public institution would go so far as to use such crude [James – I think this is a better translation of “낯뜨겁다” than “obscene” or “rude”] images in a tourist brochure.” (source, right)

이어 “지역에 관광객을 유치하기 위해 명소를 소개하는 것은 좋지만 관광지역의 구체적인 정보와 특색 있는 프로그램의 홍보 대신 여성의 비키니 복장을 내세워 시선을 끌어보고자 하는 공무원의 얄팍한 속셈은 용납될 수 없는 행위”라고 비판했다.

Continuing: “It is good that tourists are being attracted to this area by having places of interest introduced to them. But instead of providing concrete information and unique tourist programs, the PR simply consists of pictures of women in bikinis, designed to attract one’s attention. This is both shallow and misguided of Jeollanam-do officials, and can’t be forgiven.”

또 여성민우회는 “지역의 명소를 알려내기 위한 기본 조건은 다른 지역과 차별되는 테마를 만들어 남도만의 색다른 맛을 느끼게 하는 것이다”면서 “노력해야 할 것은 따로 있는데 엉뚱한 것으로 메꾸려는 것은 직무유기”라고 주장했다.

여성민우회는 “여성의 성 상품화를 부추기는 공공기관의 홍보책자는 결코 용납될 수 없다”면서 ‘남도스케치’의 배포중지를 요구했다.

Also, Womenlink emphasized that “What should have been done to inform tourists about places of interest was showing them how different they were to other ares and what unusual tastes, experiences, and feelings Jeollanam-do has to offer. Instead of making an effort and doing their duty though, officials offered this rubbish.”

It added that “Promoting the sexual objectification of women is never acceptable”, and so demanded an immediate halt to the distribution of the brochure.

(Sources: left, right)

이에 대해 전남도청 한 공무원은 “문제제기는 이해한다”면서도 “여성의 사진을 표지에 넣는다고 해서 이 책자가 눈길을 끌고 있는 것은 아닌 것 같다”고 말했다.

그 러나 또 다른 공무원은 “여성의 비키니 사진을 두고 상품화까지 이야기하는 것은 지나친 것 아니냐”며 “오히려 여성단체들이 그렇게 주장하면서 폄하시킨 것은 아닌지 모르겠다. 물론 어느 정도는 이해할 수 있지만 이런 사진을 많이 사용한 것도 아니지 않느냐”고 주장했다.

In response, a Jeollanam-do official said ” We understand the concerns, but it’s not because of the women in bikinis on the cover that people are drawn to the brochure.” Another emphasized that “It’s a complete exaggeration to claim that just pictures of women in bikinis is objectification. Rather, it’s women’s groups that are degrading women by doing so. And it’s not like we used many in the brochure.”

관광책자 제작 담당부서인 전남도청 관광진흥과 이명흠 과장도 “여성단체의 지적사항에 대해서 전혀 모르는 바는 아니다”면서도 “행정관청에서 발행한 책자여서 그럴텐데 여름에 맞춰서 시원한 해수욕장과 수영복을 입은 모습의 여성을 모델로 했을 뿐이다”고 말했다.

이어 이 과장은 “행정기관이 발행했다는 느낌이 들면 잘 보지 않는다. (관광객들의) 눈길을 끌 수도 있다는 생각에서 진행한 공격적인 마케팅의 일환이다”며 “너무 한쪽으로만 생각하지 말고 발상을 바꿨으면 좋겠다”고 주장했다.

(Source: Metro Seoul, 31 May 2012, p.49)

Lee Myung-hum, the head of the Tourism Promotion Office of Jeollanam-do Provincial Government that produced the brochure, said “It’s not like I don’t understand women’s groups concerns. But only swimsuits are appropriate for female models promoting cool swimming areas in the summer.” He added that “No-one ever pays attention to anything produced by a council tourism promotion office. The images were simply part of an aggressive marketing technique designed to get the attention of tourists, and shouldn’t be overanalyzed.”

한편 ‘남도스케치’ 표지모델은 전남도청 여성 공무원 중 희망자들이 참여하기도 했으며, 지난해에도 전남도는 여름 관광홍보 책자를 제작하면서 표지 등에 비키니을 입은 여성 사진을 게재한 바 있다.

The models used in the brochure included Jeollnam-do female officials [James — it says only the cover, but there were only 2 women on that], and a similar brochure was produced the previous year (end).

James — While the Jeollanam-do officials didn’t sound too sympathetic in that June 2004 article, another from the next month points out that in the second printing the bikini models were removed from the cover and 2 more pages, although some did still remain. It’s from that article that the before and after covers came from.

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

25 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #69: Attitudes Towards Sexual Objectification, 2004 vs. 2012

  1. Speaking of 이효리’s breasts and 2006, around that time I happened to get a copy of a special DVD that she released. It had a lot of her songs, came in a small binder (almost like a book) with a pamphlet and lyrics. Furthermore, it was very interesting from a technical standpoint (I’m an engineer, after all). This was one of the only DVD’s I’ve ever seen that took advantage of the “multiple camera angle” feature of the DVD specification. There were something like 6 or 7 different angles, with identifiers like “overhead”, “stage left”, “feet”, etc. Then we discovered angle #3, which was basically “torso”. I still wonder what the cameraman thought that day, being told to zoom in and keep the camera trained on Hyori’s breasts.


    1. When I was interviewed by a Quebec television station last year, I got to talking with the cameraman afterwards, because – without denigrating the profession in any way – I was generally curious as to what inspired cameramen (camerapeople? camera operators?), where their job satisfaction came from, how they could develop in their careers, and so on. Unfortunately, we didn’t get time to talk much, but yeah: I don’t think he would have minded an assignment like that.

      BTW, although I was quite serious about translating articles like that because the Korean textbooks were so bad, unfortunately “news” articles about things like Lee Hyori’s breasts are pretty vacuous by definition, so I soon tired of those too. I wish I’d been much more proactive with looking for interesting study materials on the internet instead.


  2. Complaints like the one from the women’s group above do the feminist movement no favours, in my opinion, merely contributing to the pervasive view that it is often uptight and joyless. What I can never understand about such complaints is they claim to be in the name of protecting women, but yet plenty of women are happy to appear in such photo shoots. Did they ask those women in the brochure if they felt objectified? No, we can assume. Shouldn’t they just leave people to make up their own mind without calls for censorship?


    1. Agree and disagree. I do think that some feminist and women’s groups really need to choose their battles better, that there are more important feminist issues to focus on than women in bikinis, and that some groups seem to find ads with women wearing revealing clothing as sexist and objectifying almost by definition (I haven’t visited in a while, precisely for this reason, but Feministing seems to be particularly dogmatic in this regard). On the other hand, if it was exclusively women in bikinis in the brochure, with no shirtless hot guys, then Womenlink did have a point. (Although it’s debatable if male objectification cancels out female objectification so to be speak)


      1. Male objectification doesn’t cancel out female objectification, but if what we’re after is equal treatment then I think it does achieve that ;).


  3. The reason there is less “male objectification” is simple: Women are not as interested in looking at semi-naked men as vice versa. It is simple economics. This will never change in my opinion.

    But, more to the point, two women in bikinis is not a big deal!


    1. LMAO. Um. While I am not a straight woman I have a lot of straight friends. I’ve seen them simply drool over attractive male models in adds. Conversations with other straight women I was not friends with led me to realize that the best way to pretend straightness was to lech out to semi-naked men in magazines. In situations where it was wiser to be closeted this method has never failed me ;).


      1. Honestly, I do think men will always be more visual creatures than women, primarily because women’s fertility is so closely tied to youth. But having said that:

        a) It’s not like I’ve been privy to many discussions about men between straight women. Watching Grey’s Anatomy is about as close as I get.

        b) When women’s sexuality has been denied and/or denigrated as evil for so much of human history, it’s not like women have (literally) been fully allowed to express physical attraction for men until comparatively recently, let alone have that catered to by advertisers. Indeed, in Korea, it wasn’t as late as 2002(!) that the media stopped slut-shaming women that did so (although it continued to do so – and still does so – to those hussies attracted to foreign men).

        c) At a wild guess, I’d say 99% of porn is aimed at heterosexual men. When some of the male actors in it are so ugly that even I’m turned off despite the gorgeous women they’re with (seems to happen a lot with Japanese porn in particular!), then I can completely understand why women don’t seem to watch as much porn as men.

        So, while I do still think basic differences in physiology and reproductive strategies will always mean men are going to be more visual creatures, I’m going to hold off on assuming we can ever really know how much so until (b) and (c) are rectified! :D


  4. I am not saying women are not attracted to the male form, that would be ridiculous. And obviously some women are more like men in that regard, and some men more like women. But the evidence, and most people’s common experience, clearly indicate that naked women are a FAR bigger seller than naked men. This is just obvious. Women don’t buy “dirty” mags in the numbers men do, they don’t go to strip clubs in the numbers men do — the list goes on. Why is the majority of pornography catered to men? It is what the market demands. And the shame argument can’t account for most of the difference. Pornography can be viewed completely in secret. There is no conspiracy. Men and women are *generally* different, that’s all. It never seems to amaze me how controversial this proposition can be.


      1. Oh, I know that men are generally more visual. I read articles about that periodically. However, based on my own conversations (which, just to put in perspective, were with American women in an area that’s considered pretty progressive) I feel that the reason things are the way they are is because of archaic stigmas against women who are openly sexual.
        Also, are naked women a far bigger sellers than naked men because they are more effective? Or because the Old White Guys with Beards use them more often for everything? ‘Cause I gotta say, I know that a lot of women bought what Beckham was selling.
        I don’t think there’s a conspiracy (my old white guys with beards comment is regarding something we discussed in my intercultural communications class, not a conspiracy wherein I think literal old white guys with beards are running my life), but I do think that there are a lot of misconceptions because the sexes tend NOT to talk about this stuff in a healthy manner. Societal conditioning ensures that most (mainstream) people I meet are not comfortable with discussing this stuff with members of the opposite gender.
        I definitely am aware of the differences between men and women on many different levels. I’ve dated (and had sex) with both genders. I have close friends of all genders and orientations (though, in the interest of being upfront, most are not monogamous). For some reason guys are willing to speak as if I were, er, one of the guys (cliched as it sounds). I’ve heard both sides talking about ads, sex, relationships, what have you. My experience has shown me that everybody’s pretty much on the same page except for one thing. Communication styles.
        It’s two thirty in the morning right now, so I will beg your indulgence regarding grammar and such. Insomnia is a glorious thing and I have completely lost my train of thought. Apologies.


  5. I am wisely putting the computer down (step away from the keyboard, away from the keyboard!), but I have also left a question up for my friends to reply to (very generally) on the subject. If there are any pertinent/interesting/awesome replies I will either copy and paste them here, or ask said friends to come here and speak on their own behalf :)


    1. I’ll post the two that have gotten the most “likes” so far. Just to make things not confusing here is what I posted “Hello my wonderful lady friends! Do you think this statement is true? “The reason there is less “male objectification” is simple: Women are not as interested in looking at semi-naked men as vice versa. It is simple economics. This will never change in my opinion.””


    2. First, my friend Colleen who has taken many more gender studies classes than I have (and has more life experience :) ).
      ” Hmmm…. I disagree. I’m not saying that “male objectification” does not exist, nor do I think that the “women are not as interested. . . ” is exactly false. I can’t speak a whole lot to that, as I am not a hetero woman and therefore can’t speak for those who are. I do, however, feel that the whole widespread (and very much widespread) objectification of women has it’s roots, in great part at least, in the shifts and transformation which took place in during the fourth century of Christianity. I’m thinking about the Councils of Nicaea….Not unlike the way our Republican Congress seems to like to do things today, a group of men got together and decided that they would speak for the gods and shape the form of this ever-growing religious movement. They silenced the written voice of prominent female followers of Christ, recreating history and slandering, even criminalizing, these voices and the strong amazing women they came from. I feel that’s where it began. Suddenly, women were “lesser than” because Scripture said so. During the Renaissance, this view entered mainstream media (the art world, dominated by male artists. With the creation of the first “reclining Venus” images, the statement was made that women were not to be the artists, but instead the objects of art, put on canvas, or clay, or marble, to be viewed by men. It was the beginning of the “male gaze” that dominates the media in all it’s forms today. It’s so pervasive, and has been for so long, that I am absolutely convinced it has deeply affected the way that women see themselves and other women. When researching this very topic a few months ago for a paper I had to write, I found one college professor who had done a test of her female students, “wiring them” to monitors that found almost exclusively that they were more aroused when viewing nude female bodies than nude male bodies, regardless of their sexual orientation. We are trained from early childhood to see women as sexual objects. It’s all in conditioning. I chuckle sometimes when I think of the Christians who speak out in horror against sex in advertising, pornography, and the like, for it is that very Christianity that set all of this in motion in the first place.”


      1. I don’t mean to say that what your friend writes is not true, but there are some pretty big leaps in the argumentation. Women were “lesser than” because Scripture said so.. I’m not saying this is not true. But women were considered inferior to men a long time before that happened. One only has to look at Ancient Greece that it wasn’t exactly equality for all at that time. And for that matter look at non-Christian examples all across the world. Then the second leap is the leap from a lower position in society to depiction of women in art. I’m not saying it’s unrelated.. I don’t know. It just seems very convenient to say: “Hey, look here… we’ve found the starting point of this here and the starting point of that here”

        Ehm.. so yeah. Not saying that the council of Niceae wasn’t significant, but calling it the thing that set everything in motion is a very broad-sweeping statement.


        1. I don’t disagree with you. I’m aware of the inequalities that abound, I’m also aware that my dear friend (like many) has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Christianity. It was still a voice that had not entered the discussion so I shared it. My friend Katie said ” I agree with both Colleen and Susanne, but I think that the oppression and objectification of women both pre-date and far exceed the examples they offer.” However, since that’s all that she said it didn’t seem like enough to share :).


    3. Next my friend Suzanne who *also* has more life experience than me! ;)
      “I worked at a hotel many years ago, that used to have the Chippendale Dancers come to perform every year: I assure you, the all the women objectified them. I felt sorry for the guys. Most of them were gay and the rest were happily married. Not only did the women feel free to ogle them – even when they were offstage – they were also groped. Completely non-consensual. It was disgusting. I love to look at an attractive man, but I also like to look at attractive women. Why? Because they’re attractive, maybe even downright beautiful. I find great pleasure in looking at beauty – waterfalls, sunsets, horses, (insert endless list here). It seems to me that it isn’t the looking that is the problem; it’s the attitude behind it. Some people look at me and find me attractive and it makes me FEEL attractive. Others look at me like I’m a piece of meat; that’s horrible. To me, the difference between appreciation and objectification is clear: does the person looking see another unique individual or some “thing” to possess? Not too long ago, women and children were considered chattel – owned by their fathers or husbands. This attitude lingers – more strongly in some segments of the population than others. I hope that as we continue to gain greater equality (all people) this sense of possession of other people will fade. Gender is not born, it is conditioned by society. As we become better informed on the fluidity of gender and start seeing people as individuals instead of artificially forcing everyone into two stereotypical genders, I think we will see more appreciation (with any luck for the person as a whole person) and less objectification.”


  6. I accept that social mores play a part, but only a part. Old White Guys with Beards, as you call them, are primarily interested in making money. They respond to public demand, and I don’t believe that demand will ever be as great from the female side. And if it were now, it would be catered to.

    Feminists often tend to dislike biological explanations — probably because they don’t like the inevitability implied by them — but there is a clear evolutionary reason for men being less discriminating in who they have sex with and to desire more sexual partners, one which relates to this discussion. In the animal kingdom, pregnancy is a potentially life-threatening burden, and so, as a matter of survival, it makes sense for a female to be more selective in choosing a mate. Females only get one or two or three “shots” at ensuring their genetic material is passed on. Males, with no such risk, maximize their chances by having sex with as many females as possible.

    No, we are not animals, but you see the traces of this impulse in any nightclub in any city on any weekend. I don’t believe for a second that there are as many women who would walk out of a night club with any old stranger as there are men. Any man who has been to a night club will be aware of this (to his frustration, no doubt.)


    1. Actually, the concept of Old White Guys in Beards as taught in my communications class only tangentially had anything to do with making money. The Old White Guys with Beards are those in power who work to maintain the status quo so as to remain in power.
      :/ Okay, if I may, where is this discussion going? I’m a little confused as to how we got from objectification to the male’s urge to “spread his seed”. Which is not something that I have in any way said is not true. I’m a little baffled. Also, the “Feminists often tend to dislike biological explanations” seems out of the blue and…kinda inflammatory.


    2. You might wanna check up on your evolutionary biology. There’s a lot of support for the theory that a woman’s ability to have multiple orgasms came from evolution’s desire for one woman to have sex with a lot of different guys, so that she would have a greater opportunity of getting pregnant (and, by implication, that the strongest genes in the group would be the most likely ones to continue on).

      So, you know. Women have just as much evolution backing up a desire to have sex with a lot of guys as guys do to have sex with a lot of women.


  7. I don’t have a whole lot to say, other than that it would appear that writing, and discussing sociology and political topics seems to be something tied up in our name.

    Why, yes. My name *is* also James Turnbull.


    1. Actually, I lie. I will say that I am posting up a video about the “treatment of women in media” topic that I did for my radio show. My media was video games and role playing, but still. I will also warn that it’s not really *supposed* to sound well-reasoned or nuanced, since the premise of the show is something of a spoof on “drunken loudmouths assured of their own righteousness”. It’s also not safe for work or children :P



        1. …Why, yes! I am entertained that it is via Gear that we come to this amazing circle of amazingness!


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