Join with me please, in bursting out laughing at the caption to this image on the Chosun Ilbo website…
Models pose with the taegeukgi or national flag in front of the Lotte World Tower in Seoul on Thursday, ahead of the 70th anniversary of liberation from the Japanese colonial rule.
…because of its eerie resemblance to a description of a “spontaneous demonstration” given in the TV adaptation of Animal Farm (1999):
“And now we go to our leader’s house, where earlier today, a spontaneous demonstration took place.”
“A grateful duck has written a new song for our beloved leader, and she is here joined by the chorus of the Animal Guard!”
No? I assure you, it’s much funnier in the officious, slightly hungover voice of the pig making the announcement. But the fact remains: promotions like Lotte’s are like theaters of the absurd. Because really: what was the point of the models exactly?
Was it because otherwise disinterested heterosexual men and lesbians feel more patriotic if they see attractive women? Was it because they inspire people to learn more about Korea’s history, and to be more concerned about Korea’s image abroad? Was it because other less objectifying, less patronizing methods have been tried and failed?
No? Then why are young female models so routinely used to promote nationalist causes in Korea?
As if Lotte Group was posing the questions to news outlets itself, perhaps half of all the illustrated news articles on its tower flag I quickly surveyed didn’t even mention the models at all. So too the first English article I encountered, which instead offered a borderline advertorial on its deep numerical symbolism.
It’s almost as if wrapping themselves up in the national flag and posing in front of highly symbolic, highly controversial chaebol mega-projects is just something young women spontaneously like to do.
But who can blame anyone for not paying attention? The trend for flag-wearing in (then) revealing clothing was set way back during the 2002 World Cup, when Korean women of all ages did indeed choose to do so of their own accord. A sexually subversive act then, it’s been debased by advertisers and wannabe media stars ever since, building on the already widespread use of young women as doumi (도우미/”assistants”) and “narrator models” to promote the most everyday and mundane of consumer products (indeed, one source described the Lotte models as “PR doumi”). It’s also been a good fit with the sometimes quite literal use of K-pop girl-group members’ bodies to promote Korean governmental and business interests abroad.
Also, no-one supposes that these models weren’t hired by Lotte Group, as part of an obvious ploy to counter criticisms of excessive chaebol power in Korean political and economic life, and that Lotte Group is not even a Korean company at all. Some tweeters I found via the seong sangpoomhwa (성상품화/sexual objectification) search feed on Twitter I subscribe to (who doesn’t?), for example, said:
“Lotte Group’s solution to weaken public opposition to its power: patriotic marketing + sexual objectification = a tall building with the flag and thin models wearing flags. In Korea, patriotism is used like this. Oh, how bold!”
“Who are these women? Don’t use yourselves as tools of sexual objectification. Especially on a meaningful day like today. How come you can use our national flag like that, which was used to support and give courage to the Korean independence movement?”
Which was in reaction to:
“[Here’s some] women in hot pants wearing the Korean flag like a skirt, in front of the Lotte Tower, which has been accused of causing problems with the the air force’s flight paths and [consequently] implementation of strategy during wartime. How wily: even Lotte Group’s promotion strategy is Japanese-orientated.” [James — Eh? Because Japan would be the enemy in the event of a war? And surely he means the building location, rather than the promotion?]
Sigh. Of course, I don’t pretend for a moment that a twitter wordsearch represents everything being spoken about a subject. So I’m sure that, somewhere, people are asking such questions as:
- Why is it almost always only young female models are ever chosen for promotions like these?
- Why only models with a very narrow range of body types?
- What kind of gender and sexual roles are they promoting, when women are mere decorations for a cause?
As always, I’d be grateful for any pointers to where people are doing so. But, if it turns out people aren’t really talking about such a widespread phenomenon or belief though, then that’s precisely why we should look more closely at it. Because, as Amy Wharton explains in her book The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research (2005):
…understanding gender requires us to go beyond the obvious and to reconsider issues we may think are self-evident and already well understood. Challenging the taken-for-granted is one essential component of the sociological perspective. In fact, sociologists argue that what people view as unproblematic and accept as “the way things are” may be most in need of close, systematic scrutiny.
So to encourage further conversation along those lines, and to highlight the issues raised by this example, next month I’ll examine another highly symbolic instance of Korean “patriotic marketing [through] sexual objectification” then demonstrating why it’s more problematic than it may at first appear (apologies for the split, but it’s necessary for 5000 words). Until then, I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the flag-wearing promotions, and any other questions they raise.
(Source: MMA Facebook Page; left, right)
If you can’t wait though, I encourage you to read “Angry Green Girl: Sexualizing Women for the Environment” at Sociological Images, to which I acknowledge my debt and inspiration for this introduction.
Update: Ultimately, that next post became a mammoth, 10,000 word series in itself!
(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)