Tell me Korea has a huge gender pay gap, without telling me Korea has a huge gender pay gap
“Would you like to dance with me?” Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.
Most gendered marketing, I get. Obviously, when it’s for products or services related to physical differences, like bras or medicines. So too when, assuming equal access, it’s primarily one sex that purchases them, whatever the combination of nature and nurture responsibility for that. But it’s a risky strategy for companies. Only focusing on one sex can easily lead to an overreliance on crude stereotypes in advertisements. As the example of “boobs and burgers” Carl’s Jr. in the US suggests, any company that willingly alienates half its potential market deserves intense scrutiny of how its male leadership and managers treat women behind the camera. And don’t get me started on what anyone in favor of “pinking and shrinking” thinks of them.
About the staff behind Korean travel-app Tripbtoz, I reserve making any judgements for the moment. Because I confess, I like—no, love—their commercial for Westin Josun Seoul. The background track alone, Summer of Our Lives by Waykap (ft. Emmi), is legitimately sensual in its own right. In combination with model Chae Yu-jin‘s dancing and sultry stares, mesmerizing.
But of course I would think that. The commercial is so squarely aimed at cishet men, to describe it merely as a classic example of the male gaze feels insufficient:
Just prior to watching, by coincidence I’d been reading “Privileging the Male Gaze: Gendered tourism landscapes” in Annals of Tourism Research (October 2000),* in which authors Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan persuasively argue that “the language and imagery of [tourism] promotion privilege the male, heterosexual gaze above all others.” While it’s not an empirical study, so not definitive “proof,” making the radical assumption for the moment that that bias does exist helps us formulate several uncomfortable, revealing questions we could ask of the commercial.
What it is, is a teaching moment.
*(Please contact me if you’d like a PDF, or leave a comment below—your email address will only be visible to me.)
Source: “How BTS is redefining art for the female gaze” by Michelle Fan.
First, we could ponder how difficult it would be to find a commercial with a male model in place of Chae. Certainly, in keeping with the theme of Pritchard and Morgan’s focus on transnational tourism imagery, catering to the foreign hetero female gaze has become a significant element of the Korean Wave. But specifically, a commercial featuring a young man strutting his stuff in a hotel for his female partner? Whatever the nationalities of the intended audience?
I suspect the world yet awaits. Yet even if enterprising, lusty readers do find an example, that exception would prove the rule: that no-one’s wanting for videos of scantily clad young women in luxurious surroundings appealing to the fantasies of middle aged businessmen. That in contrast to how awkward an equivalent video with a male model might feel due to its rarity, ones with women are so normalized and routine as to be boring.
In fact, I only clicked on this otherwise unwelcome YouTube ad break at all due to the background music.
Next, could it be not in fact be aimed at women? The idea being that, through showing Chae’s enjoyment of the many luxurious services the five-star hotel has to offer, many women would now just love to be in her shoes? (This may even be the advertisers’ genuine intention, a point I’ll return to a moment.)
If so, it’s strange how we never actually see what those services would look like from a female guest’s perspective. Instead, through the exclusion of anybody but Chae in our field of view, we’re only given that of her besotted paramour as she leads him into their shared room and bed, or acknowledges his admiring glance in the bathroom or corridor.
Should what she’s expecting of him from those glances isn’t already obvious enough, background lyrics like “Give it to me like you know you should now baby” help further clarify.
Is he necessarily a businessman? It’s true I have no figures on the sex ratio of business travelers, who would surely make up the bulk of guests at Korean 5-star hotels during a pandemic. But given that only 5.2 percent of Korean executives are women, only 3.6 percent of Korean CEOs are, and that Korea had the highest gender wage gap in the OECD prior to it (and only made worse since), then it’s a safe assumption. It’s further reinforced by the use of the honorific language of “시” (as in “저랑 춤 추실래요?” instead of the more equal but still polite “나랑 춤 출래요”) in the “Would you like to dance with me?” of the opening image. While it is simply a polite way to ask, it’s much more likely to used by a younger woman to an older man than vice versa (make of that what you will), and also the level of politeness older businesspeople would be accustomed to.
Noticing that an overwhelming majority of media is produced through the perspective of a supposed “average” cishet (usually white) man’s point of view, yet which is often claimed to be an objective neutral, is Male Gaze 101. So Tripbtoz and Westin Josun Seoul may genuinely have been aiming the commercial at women, and had no idea of how seeped in their own vision of luxury their notion of what women really wanted was. (Actually, based on Tripbtoz’s YT channel as a whole, I think women were indeed the target. And in fairness, not every video to be found there features young women in bikinis.)
But whatever their intentions, or whom the commercial was aimed at, further questions could be asked about how gendered and sexualized life for the one-percenters is portrayed in Korean advertising in general. Specifically, consider the eerily similar messages provided by Korean Air’s “Color of Perfection” campaign from 2007:
Designed to showcase “a refreshed image of a sophisticated, modern and creative airline,” complete with a specially-composed background track that likewise got people’s attention in its own right, unfortunately for Korean Air it was overshadowed by the image below in its print ad. Which, while unremarkable in East Asian markets, was wildly misinterpreted in Europe and North America.
Ironically for all the fellatio jokes however, that overshadowing is also perhaps why so few people noticed that in the accompanying commercial, cringingly unsubtle ejaculation imagery was provided by a champagne cork popping from a man’s crotch:
(NSFW image appearing in a moment.)
I’m no prude, and am all for fellatio and ejaculation when done well. What’s at issue is how the women are portrayed. Of the seven you see, two are virtually half-naked, one is on her back in (potentially nothing but) ultra-feminine high heels, another shows off her luscious red lips as the camera lingers on them, and another is the flight attendant waiting upon a male passenger. Of the two that remain, the first stands in front of a sculpture of a disembodied female torso—as if it wasn’t already clear enough that to Korean Air, “luxury” means ready access to women’s bodies, available to serve a wide variety of men’s needs.
I’ll let Pritchard and Morgan explain this conception of it is crucial (my emphases):
Kinnaird and Hall (1994:214) comment that tourism advertising and the myths and fantasies promoted by marketers are dependent upon shared conceptions of gender, sexuality and gender relations and that women are often used to promote the exoticized nature of destinations:
Sexual imagery, when used to depict the desirability of places in such a way, says a great deal about the gendered nature of the marketing agents and their fantasies…the sexual myths and fantasies extolled in the tourism promotion lead to the construction of these ideas in the hearts and minds of tourists (Kinnaird and Hall 1994:214).
Again, in themselves, these two cherry-picked commercials provide no proof of anything. But there are many more examples to choose from Korean tourist imagery for those who care to look, let alone from other areas of advertising. Sexualized imagery of haenyeo in the 1970s used to promote sex tours to Jeju to Japanese businessmen for instance. Or colonial-era postcards depicting kisaeng for the purposes of promoting the gigantean sex industry for the world-biggest number of colonial officials in Korea then. Segueing into my favorite musical genre, Korea is no stranger to electronic dance music’s notoriously sexualized aesthetics either, peddling only very narrowly-defined cishet male fantasy that is part and parcel of a deeply sexist industry—and which in Korea also has an additional Occidentalist element through its widespread use of pictures of non-Korean models, who are unlikely to sue Korean nightclubs for copyright infringement from overseas. And so on.
(It’s Miranda Kerr.) Source: MS-Photograph; (CC BY 2.0).
Are any of the above examples offensive, or sexist? That’s not for me to decide for anybody. But in my experience, cases like them rarely generate any outrage. Most likely, because feminist activists generally have far more pressing concerns than a hotel gently indulging middle-aged businessmen’s fantasies. Possibly, also because it would be counterproductive to scream “sexism” about things most men would consider inoffensive, and maybe even like.
You tell me.
I feel on more certain ground though, in lamenting that were it not already bad enough that Korean women are so financially disempowered that luxury hotels might not even bother advertising to them. Or, when they do, that in the process their advertisements would so actively perpetuate the gender and sexual stereotypes underpinning that status quo.
I am not naïve about how companies perceive their social responsibilities. But in Korea in fact, they hold them more dearly than most. If appealing to that sense of duty does not succeed in change, how about demonstrating the financial benefits to be gained from adding more women’s and sexual minorities’ voices to advertising campaigns?
Please let me know your thoughts!
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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)