Friday Fun? Korean Women Putting Shoes on Their Heads (Updated)

EXID‘s Hani Star1 shoe on head(EXID’s Hani. Source: Asian Junkie)

When I think of my shoes, nothing repulses me more than imagining sticking them on my head.

When I think of ads and magazine photoshoots, nothing infuriates me more than seeing so many women sticking their shoes on their heads. I don’t care how clean they are.

(The shoes I mean, not the women).

Most cases, naturally enough, are by shoe manufacturers—or in magazines heavily influenced by the prerogatives of shoe manufacturers. Presumably, their motivation in having the models fondle the shoes, play with them, and generally put them anywhere but their feet, is to make the shoes appear as much more interesting, fetish-worthy objects than they really are. Which is all well and good.

But for every guy that gets a faceful of rubber, I’d wager there’s at least 10 women. Combine that gender difference with the playing, and it becomes one of a host of childish representations of women in advertising, so ubiquitous that we come to take such behavior as only natural. As explained in A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose:

“Look at these images. What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

Men Childlike Expressions Ritualization of Subordination“What about these images?”

women childlike expressions Ritualization of Subordination“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”

See my post ‘Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements‘ (or the Gender Advertisements tag) for many more Korean examples. Lest we forget though, that oh-so-feminine charm sometimes involves women sticking their shoes on their heads.

Their shoes. On their heads. In 2015.

Wondergirls So-hee Reebok Shoe on Head(The Wondergirls’ So-hee. Source: Unknown)
Go Joon Hee - Oh Boy! Magazine Vol.53 shoe on head(Go Joon-hee. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)
After School Shoe on Head(After School. Source: Focus Newspaper, 8 May 2012, p. 14)
Lee Hyori No Touch Puma Shoe on Head(Lee Hyori. Source: zziixx)
After School Nana - Xtep 2015(After School’s Nana. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)
sooyoung shoes ceci(Girls’ Generation’s Soo-young. Source: soozarr@minus)
Lee Yoo Bi - NUOVO 2015(Lee Yoo-bi. Source: Korean Magazine Lovers)

It’s not all bad though. With the proviso that advertising is a very broad subject, with sometimes huge differences between different mediums, my own impression is that while sexualization has greatly increased in recent years (albeit by no means a uniform evil), it’s rare that I’ll find a glaring gender difference (à la Goffman) worthy of mention here. That’s what makes these ads stick out so much, and why they’re so infuriating. Cute, yes. But still infuriating.

Please tell me about any more examples you know of, of either sex, and I’ll post them here. Or, shoes on heads aside, what ads bug you the most these days? Please rant away!

Update: Hat tip to reader chocole, who found a variation on the theme with a guy:

Hong Jong-hyun handbag on head(Hong Jong-hyun. Source: I love Hong Jung-hyun)

It’s not a shoe of course, and it’s specifically the thought of putting a dirty, smelly shoe on one’s head that bugs me, and which prompted me to write this post. But I acknowledge that Hong Jung-hyun above looks equally childish, stupid, and/or cute (or whatever) as the women do in the other examples, and indeed in the photoshoot as a whole. This raises an important point mentioned in the comments to that old 2010 post of mine I linked to, which I began incorporating into my presentations:

Slide219“As noted, Korean men are increasingly shown semi-nude and/or with confident and assertive poses. But…”

Slide220“…they are more likely than Caucasian* men to be shown behaving cutely and childishly.”

*As is still the case today, it is very rare to see non-Caucasians among foreign models in Korean advertisements.

Slide222(A much more detailed version of my caption): “According to Nam Kyoung-tae et. al. in Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines (from 2011; but I was using a 2007 version), Korean men were:

‘…more likely than Western men [and even Western women] to be associated with many female stereotypical behaviors such as self-touching, canting postures, smiling, and childlike and cute expressions. This might indicate that in contemporary society men are not immune to commercial and sexual objectification and this phenomenon was more evident in Korean advertising.'”

Slide221“They concluded that if young Koreans usually only see strong, confident, sexy, and assertive Caucasians, then they may feel that their examples don’t apply to them”.

But that’s based on an old study, so I’ve been working on getting more recent data. To quickly sum up my findings for you here (no link sorry; it’s in the process of being reviewed for a journal), through my tedious, mind-numbing examination of 2329 fricking ads in various selected months of Metro newspaper between 2007-2013, I determined that K-pop stars at were sexualized at about the same rates as Caucasians, and that both were sexualized at much higher rates than other celebrities, so there’s no longer so much of a gap between those two groups at least.

Unfortunately though, there were actually so few ads with either that it was difficult to draw any definite conclusions, not helped by Metro declining in page numbers and circulation over the period because of the advent of smartphones. Also, I didn’t specifically look for assertiveness and childishness and so on (not the focus of my study, which was more on the numbers of celebrities), and of course Metro is very different to Korean adolescent girls’ magazines too, so we should be very, very wary of making comparisons between them. Sorry!

14 thoughts on “Friday Fun? Korean Women Putting Shoes on Their Heads (Updated)

  1. Also, I think it may have started on the LJ chatrooms not as subjugation, but just as a request to prove that the models were broadcasting live.

    Many of the models broadcast from bedrooms with a pair or two of high heel shoes prominently displayed for viewers who had a fetish for heels, so it was an easy, although silly request..


    1. Ha! I knew about the meme, and included a link in earlier drafts of the post, but somehow it disappeared from the final version. Thanks for passing it on.

      That said, it’s still pretty obscure, and I really doubt that it had anything to do with the examples in the post. Partially, because in each case they’re not the main focus but just one of a series of pictures of the models just playing with the shoes (i.e., without putting them on their heads), and mainly because I’d they stem more from a long-held tradition of advertisers to portray women childishly, rather than the photographers wanting to reference any specific previous example(s). So I’m sure I’d find many more examples from before 2006, whether from Korea or the US.


      1. Oh wow! Fantastic! I also managed to get my hands upon The Korean Popular Culture Reader via my college and really enjoyed your article. Although it was very interesting reading about internalized patriarchal messages in girl group lyrics, I would also love to hear about your thoughts on boy group lyrics as I feel like these are often much more… explicit with misogynistic ideas (as it is the case even in Western popular music). However, what troubles me the most, is the trend towards more explicitly violent lyrics towards women, which are packaged as a skewed concept of “tough”/”overprotective” love (thinking specifically about several songs by a boy band called BTS) and the justifications fans give to critical comments on them. Of course, that is whenever you have the time to do so. :)

        Keep up the amazing work with your blog!


        1. Thanks, and for your nice words about the chapter also; it’s always nice to hear that people are reading it. As for the lyrics in boy-bands lyrics though, I’ve heard the same about them, and investigating those elements properly sounds like an interesting project, but…

          Well, to cut a long story short, although I do still regularly listen to and follow a few groups, really my heart just isn’t into K-pop anymore I’m afraid (not since I wrote about Bloom and I Don’t Need a Man really). Also, I’m the worst person to ask about boy-bands sorry, because frankly I’ve never really paid any attention to them at all, as there’s always been more than enough good songs, interesting personalities, and/or eye-candy among the girl-groups to keep me occupied.

          All that said, although I don’t think I’ll ever get back into K-pop as much as I was when I (co)wrote that chapter, and certainly don’t have any pretensions that I’ll ever be — or ever was — an “expert” on it, I would like to start reviewing songs here again. Crucially though, for me to even consider working on one it would a) have to be interesting/provocative/empowering in a feminist sense to make sure it’d be interesting to readers, not all of whom are necessarily into K-pop; and b) it would have to something I personally liked listening to, as if I’m going to listen to it and watch the MV 10+ times and spend 2 weeks researching it and writing about it entirely for free, then I’m damn well going to make sure it’s something I enjoy!

          Picky I know, and so finding songs I’m motivated to write about will be difficult (and that difficulty is precisely why I don’t enjoy K-pop so much any more!), but by no means does that preclude songs by boy-bands. If you ever come across something then, please pass it on, and if I like it myself (even just a little!) then I’ll get to work.

          Either way, sorry for the long unnecessary tangent. As you can probably tell, I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently! :)


  2. Thanks for yet another great post. I wonder if there’s something to be said for the Korean men’s confidence in being willing to be seen as cute, childish, unassertive. The fact that they are able to be this way, and be seen this way, without anyone thinking them less “masculine,” might, arguably, be seen as a positive, no?

    I’m not really sure, am just sort of testing this idea out, but according to this line of thinking, might not one say that our American notions of masculinity are so fragile that if we’re not strong, confident, assertive, all the time, then we become less “masculine,” whereas the Korean concept as masculinity, as reflected/reinforced in these ads, is more all-encompassing, more accepting of weakness?


  3. Hi!

    Great article, but I must say I have the same concern as a previous commenter. What is wrong with acting cute? Why do we have to be strong all the time? As you mentioned in the article, it is stereotypical of females to act this way, especially in the West. The fact that it is considered a female behaviour and that we think it’s wrong points to some sort of sexism.

    For years, I’ve noticed that while the world is becoming less sexist what with encouraging women to have a career, be independant, etc (which is great), I have also noticed that it is almost pushing women to do these things (not to mention men). What I mean is that, being ‘feminine’ is seen as wrong and undesirable, so much that it is undesirable even for women to have certain feminine aspects.

    Now, I do see a point where ‘cuteness’ is damaging. For example, when women (or men) act cute merely to please the opposite sex. Another problem surges when people act cute when they don’t want to act cute, which I guess is pretty much the same as the first.

    My mom and I were talking about this earlier today. She said she suffered in her marriage because my dad (Canadian) hated when she ”whined” (which is a very natural behaviour for men and women in Latin America-in certain settings, obviously) and said he had married a woman, not a child. At the moment she didn’t understand it was cultural difference, and took it very hard, as if he were attacking her personality. For me it was much the same, it is part of me. While I can give it up, it makes me miserable. As long as I’m not acting immaturely, I see nothing wrong with acting childish. So I had a hard time with my dad, especially since I cry easily. He would tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself, or whatever. Thing was, I cried even when I didn’t feel sorry for myself; I just cry when I get mad. I have learnt to hold it in, at the very least until I am alone, but this is not a very good thing to do. My dad is an awesome guy, but this is an issue he should look into.

    Korean culture, from what I’ve noticed, is sexist in ways the West is not, and the ”West” is sexist in ways Koreans are not.

    I would love to hear your insights on this, if you have anything to add/refute.

    PS. I just wanted to add, being the youngest I have learnt that ”cuteness” is a great tool. Not for manipulating, as you may think, but for communicating. To say hello as you walk by? I smile. Why? Probably because there has usually been someone more adept at words walking next to me that actually would say ”hi” (also my reaction time for speaking is very slow). My art teacher actually said he liked that about me, that I was always offering up smiles to those around me (and made me feel much better about my ‘lack of manners’ or whatever my dad thinks it is). To say I’m sorry? I find words very hard for that. So I just cook something or come up and hug and act ”cutely remorseful” (this also helps diffuse the tension). If there is something that really does need to be said, I say it (although sometimes I wait until a moment whence we’ve forgotten about being mad and can speak about it less personally and more calmly). But otherwise just my actions can be interpreted as remorsefulness. And this is why I feel ‘cuteness’ to be part of my personality. I act more ‘maturely’ when the situation calls for it (and when I’m with strangers/new friends, since I’ve learnt society looks down on you for acting that way). Can you understand me?


    1. I also want to note that I do not think the following quote is an excuse for sexism:

      {For years, I’ve noticed that while the world is becoming less sexist what with encouraging women to have a career, be independant, etc (which is great), I have also noticed that it is almost pushing women to do these things (not to mention men). What I mean is that, being ‘feminine’ is seen as wrong and undesirable, so much that it is undesirable even for women to have certain feminine aspects.}

      I’ve seen people defending gendered kids shirts because ”there is nothing wrong with a girl wanting to ‘grow up to marry superman’ ”. The boys’ shirt said ‘I will grow up to be superman’. These people miss the point of sexism. Much like racism, it is systematic. For example, black kids excluding a boy because ”he is white” is not racism, it is discrimination. Racism exists on a much larger level; so does sexism. So while there really is nothing wrong with telling a girl she can want to grow up to marry superman, it is wrong to tell her again and again that her existence is dependant on men. If we lived in a perfectly equal society, there would be nothing wrong with these shirts, because I expect there would be other messages balancing it out (in the media, on other shirts, whatever), telling girls to be superwoman and boys to marry superwoman, if they so desire.
      And the above is not even including non cis-gendered heterosexuals. What if a boy wants to grow up to marry superman? What if a ”girl” wants to be superman?

      These topics are very sensitive and nuanced, and I have changed my opinion regarding them (for example in regards to affirmative action) several times, at least slightly, as I’ve learnt more, and read more, and understood more (your blog has helped plenty with this [= ).


        1. And I FINALLY have some time to reply! Had no idea that it would take me nearly two weeks sorry :(

          After such a long wait, I feel duty-bound to offer something profound in response, but unfortunately I find myself just nodding at all your observations. I too have noticed and read about how girls embracing their tomboyish side is something to be celebrated, whereas when boys deviate from that ‘masculine’, default, correct norm/ideal then it’s generally decried as queer, in all senses of the word. (Unless there’s profit to be made in it, Korea’s kkotminam trend and buying of 20% of the world’s male cosmetics being great cases in point.) And when I came to Korea 15 years ago, I have to admit that I too was one of those typical dumb expat guys who regarded Korean male university students and (young) celebrities as extremely effeminate, but I eventually realized that a) most of the “completely gay” ones were still decidedly heterosexual, and b) their homosocial physical affection for each other, greater freedom in how they dressed, and being able to act cutely and so on were much more preferable to the very blokey, very homophobic and pigeonholing New Zealand which I’d just left. Indeed, that was one of the main reasons why I left it in the first place!

          Like you (Nitta) say though, the problem is that ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, confident or cute, all forms of behavior and role models and what have you are not equally represented for all genders, races, and sexualities in popular culture, as discussed in the second half of the post. So, as I say when I give lectures on that, critiquing individual ads as sexist or whatever is unlikely to gain much sympathy among people disinclined to think feminists are all just whiners really, with a tendency to make mountains out of molehills. Pointing out the systematic differences though, is much harder to dismiss, although of course people can and do still try to rationalize those.

          That’s the issue I have with things like aegyo. I don’t mind it per se, and should point out that in critiquing cute behavior (or things) I’m not at all against it/them; hell, I myself can act pretty childishly and cutely myself sometimes…well, pretty darn often come to think of it, and don’t think that’s anything to be embarrassed about at all — it certainly doesn’t make someone less feminist. It’s just that I confine my cute behavior to the right time, place, occasion, and/or person or persons to do it in front of. The norm prescribed by Korean pop culture though, is that 20-something women should do it all the fucking time. And that’s problematic because, to paraphrase Erving Goffman, my guru for gender representations in advertising, to act childishly is to encourage the same treatment in response. So, even though apologists have justified aegyo to me as actually a form of empowerment (i.e., as a means of getting what you want from men) it says a lot about the position of women in Korea that they’re so strongly encouraged to act like kids, and it’s difficult not to see any empowerment gained from it as anything but both an adaptation to and acquiescence in a profoundly patriarchal social system.

          Please don’t think I’m indirectly critiquing what you say about “whining” in Latin American culture with all that though. I like your distinction between acting immaturely and acting childishly, and I do understand how cuteness can be used as a means of communication. Crucially though, you say it’s a very natural behavior for women and men (although I suspect slightly more for women?), whereas with aegyo and cuteness and so on (I admit I lump a lot together under aegyo; maybe I shouldn’t) then even with all the young K-pop guys doing it it’s still overwhelmingly considered a female behavior.

          (Edit: I see a big age difference too. I think it’s rare to see Korean male celebrities doing it — or being expected to it — if they’re over 25, whereas women are still fair game at 30, 35, and even older. But bear in mind I actively avoid instances of aegyo on TV though(!), so I admit I may be mistaken.)

          I sense I’m rambling a bit, and know I’m making many broad strokes here, without any real conclusion in mind, so I’ll wisely stop there. Thanks again to both of you for your comments, and I promise to reply much sooner and more coherently if you reply :)


          1. It is true, cuteness is usually seen more as a female behaviour here in Latin America. And well, many people use ”gay” or, at best, ”metrosexual” to describe guys who are not ‘tough’ or take a little bit more care of themselves, like Korean men tend to do. That infuriates me, especially when contrasted with how women are encouraged to seek out masculine traits (while keeping certain feminine ones, like beauty). I have a hard time convincing people that it’s precisely because I’m a feminist that these things bother me. They compare my complaints to those made by white people claiming reverse racism. I do admit that these stereotypes affect men as well, but my point is not to claim that men have largely been affected by gender roles (which of course they have, but women have gotten the short stick on this one). My point is to claim that we cannot move past sexism unless we address these issues. Women (and men) will still be affected by sexism unless we realize that we need to break down the stereotypes that hold back men, as well.
            I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written. I just think it’s important to point these things out when we talk about them- just a small mention to make sure that all those who read it know that what’s being criticized is the system and not individual behaviours.
            Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a complete and thoughtful reply!

            I also just wanted to note that this part in particular struck me, not for any reason in specific, it’s just so true:
            ”it certainly doesn’t make someone less feminist. It’s just that I confine my cute behavior to the right time, place, occasion, and/or person or persons to do it in front of. The norm prescribed by Korean pop culture though, is that 20-something women should do it all the fucking time”.


  4. Also, I just wanted to leave this here:

    At 2:50 you see one of them holding up his shoes to his face (and these are actually used) to his face to take a picture. And then the others hold their own shoes near their faces in the next pictures as well. It’s not a commercial, and they I’m assuming that they had their shoes off becuase they were at the beach, and wouldn’t have taken them off just to shoot a picture (I would really hope so lol).


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