Why Does Korea Have so Many of Those Damn Smutty Ads?

Government inaction on Korea’s ubiquitous, sexually-explicit internet advertising undermines claims that its citizens need protecting from pornography, and has helped shape the Korean #Metoo movement.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels. One NSFW image later.

When even the ad industry itself is calling for greater government regulation of sexual imagery in ads, you know Korea’s got a problem.

The main issue is that there’s just no escaping them. In the most recent survey of 155 major web portals, social media services, and online news sites conducted by the Korea Internet Advertising Foundation (KIAF) in 2016, 94.5 percent of the middle and high school students surveyed were found to have been exposed to sexualized ads. Frustratingly, the 69-page report (PDF, Korean) doesn’t also mention what proportion those ads were of the total ads examined. But, maybe the authors simply felt that was unnecessary, as everyone already knows that their numbers are just insane:

See the thread for many more examples. Or like Raphael says, almost any Korean news website. Even alongside the cutesy, assumed safe webtoons my preteen daughters read too, I recently learned, sometimes there’s invitations to meet horny divorcees in our area.

But Korea’s smutty ads problem goes much deeper than just their scale, or their astonishing inappropriateness. For the KIAF surveyors also found that one in four of the offending ads promoted sex work, and/or even showed sex acts:

Actually, I’m pro-legalization of sex work—what’s stunning is not so much the contents, as that there’s so many ads for a completely illegal service. So, just how did Korea’s ad problem get so bad?

In the first instance, it’s simply down to advertisers’ algorithms, combined with the inattention and unconcern of site owners. This was ironically and hilariously revealed by the reporting of a similar survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) in June 2012, when many news sites displaying precisely the kinds of ads the Ministry was railing against alongside the articles about the survey. Even more spectacularly, a few weeks previously many news site editors curiously chose to pixelate the bikini tops and bras of women who had written political messages across their breasts (as in only their clothing, not the messages or exposed skin), while those in the accompanying ads were left untouched:Fast forward to April 2018, when representatives from major Korean shopping portal sites were queried by The PR News reporter An Seon-hye as to why their Facebook ads for products such as headphones and men’s shoes tended to show women with exposed cleavage and/or in their underwear first. They simply blamed the algorithms, implying that somehow those absolved their companies of any responsibility:

페이스북에서 남성 이용자들에게 노출된 쿠팡 광고 이미지 “Coupang advertisement aimed at male users of Facebook.” Image source: The PR News.
티몬(왼쪽) 및 gs샵이 sns에서 남성들에게 집행한 광고 이미지. “Images of Timon(L) and GS Shop advertisements aimed at men.” The woman on the right is Ai Shinozaki, a Japanese gravure model. Image source: The PR News.

…하지만 해당 업체들은 결코 고의성이 없다는 점을 강조했다. 티몬 관계자는 “저희 같은 경우 19금 용품 광고는 아예 노출이 안 되도록 막는 등 선정성 측면에서 신경을 쓰고 있다”며 “자동 로직으로 광고 집행이 이뤄지기에 임의로 자극적 이미지를 사용한 게 아니다”고 해명했다.

“…However, industry representatives stressed that, in the end, there is never any deliberate intention to use sexualized imagery. A representative from Timon said, ‘In our case, from the outset we do work to ensure that no adults-only products are selected to be advertised [on Facebook],’ and that ‘the provocative images that do appear are not random, but are chosen automatically by the algorithm.'”

기본적으로 특정 시간대에 특정 연령 타깃군이 어떤 상품을 많이 봤다는 데이터가 쌓이면 이를 해당 타깃에게 동일하게 추천하는 방식으로 로직이 짜여 있다는 설명이다. 이번 노출도 이같은 설정 때문에 벌어진 현상일 수는 있지만, 의도한 건 아니라는 설명이다.

“Basically, when collected data on a site suggests that a certain time is the most heavily frequented by a targeted demographic, the algorithm automatically recommends products that demographic is likely to be interested in. The same logic applies to the revealing images accompanying them, but has never been the deliberate intention [of our company.]”

쿠팡 관계자 역시 “쿠팡이 고의적으로 선정적인 광고를 남성에게 보이도록 조작하지는 않았다”며 “활용되는 이미지 역시 판매자가 올린 것을 활용한 것”이라고 밝혔다.

“A representative from Coupang also claimed that their company ‘did not deliberately manipulate ads to target men with sexualized imagery,’ explaining that ‘the images of products [available from our site] are simply taken from available sellers.’ (end)

By all means, gratuitous T&A does sometimes work, especially when those objects belong to popular girl-group members. Yet it infuriates me when some, more radical feminists—especially anti-pornography activists—start from the position that such narrow portrayals of women are an accurate reflection of most—or even a significant minority of—cishet men’s tastes; examples like these demonstrate just how disingenuous and utterly unfair that assumption is. It’s also very patronizing for companies to advertise this way, says Sejong University Professor Kim Ji-heon elsewhere in the article, and has the potential to put men off offending brands. Accordingly, evidence of sexualization’s effectiveness is mixed, one 2017 study by Yonsei University researchers (PDF, Korean) for example, discovering that young Korean men actually preferred cute to sexy female models in game advertisements (which may be problematic for other reasons, but that’s a story for another post). Also, lest we forget, not all consumers are young men, with another study from 2012 (PDF, Korean) by Sungkyunkwan University researchers demonstrating that despite soju companies specifically targeting female consumers at the time, somehow women just weren’t responding to the ensuing “sexy” advertisements.

I can’t imagine why:

Screenshots from this summer 2009 commercial for ‘Cool Soju 168’; the logic was that “168” referred to a low 16.8% alcohol content, which supposedly helped women maintain their figure vis-a-vis stronger brands. One NSFW image follows shortly.

Nevertheless, Coupang’s algorithms at least, have hardly been tweaked since The PR News report came out, as any male Facebook user in Korea can confirm. Take this advertisement I was blessed with on the subway a few weeks ago for instance:

Facebook has given me 24 hour bans for far less.

Of course, in reality, no algorithms are value-neutral, so can’t be used as an excuse. Yet, to reluctantly play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, perhaps one reason Korea’s algorithms have the settings they do is that advertisers generally lean more heavily on sex-sells tropes during recessions, and one indication of how bad Korea’s is at the moment being its highest youth unemployment rate in two decades. Another explanation of why they tend to be sooo eye-catching is that hangul, the writing system, lacks capitals. This, which has factored into Korean webdesign from the get-go, is why Korean websites tend to be so GIF-heavy and cluttered to Western eyes, but is familiar to and preferred by Koreans. (Japanese websites are very similar, due to similar issues with kanji and kana.) Ingrained media culture and consumer habits go some way toward explaining why Japanese and Korean advertisers over-rely on celebrities to get your attention too.

But all of these contributing factors are decades old. I first noted the alleged link to the economy ten years ago, and the numbers of smutty ads have only increased since. Korean websites have overwhelmed me with GIFs since I first started having to navigate them in internet cafes here nineteen years ago. And the over-reliance on celebrities dates back to the early-1980s, when fifteen seconds became the standard length for TV commercials.

If so many features of Korean advertising are products of ingrained culture and long-term habit then, surely this over-reliance on sexualization could be as well? So too, that it just so happens to be a very stereotypically male-gazey version of it at that?

Noteworthy in that regard is men’s domination of multiple sectors of the Korean media:

However, the Korean advertising industry is absent from that Twitter thread, and I’m personally unaware of its male-female make-up as I type this (sorry). So, let me defer to someone with inside experience: Seoul National University Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, who conducted fieldwork in winter 2009-2010 at the agency responsible for the delightful Cool Soju 168 commercial from summer 2009 above. And in fact, in that agency at least, women made up roughly half of the employees. But it was indeed male-dominated, as no women there were above level five of the eight ranks within its internal hierarchy, “with truly managerial responsibilities [only] beginning at level six.” Also, the ensuing work-culture there could be certainly be described as male-dominated too:

To assert that “sex sells”—the axiom that no one doubts in advertising and perhaps few do in society at large—was the usual way to deflect my criticisms of sexualized portrayals of women in much of Korean advertising, and women repeated that adage as eagerly as men.

Still, despite their professional embrace of the “sex code,” women showed a certain distance towards its centrality to advertising. They occasionally mocked male managers who favored sex-appeal strategies by default, “just because they like to look at pretty women,” as Chin’a put it, as she vented about wasting an afternoon the day before because her team’s Creative Director asked her to accompany him to help pick a female model for a commercial. “He said he wanted a woman’s opinion but in reality he just picked the model who he personally liked and who was flirty with him,” she said rolling her eyes in front of me and four other women as we were having lunch. Chin’a thought that the selected model was not the best choice, but the Creative Director never asked Chin’a’s opinion and even went as far as to re-schedule the shoot around the model, without consulting the convenience of other team members. Chin’a wished she had spent that afternoon working on their team’s other accounts.

Technically however, Fedorenko does not state if the same agency was responsible for the Cool soju commercial I criticized; I should have only said it “probably” was, because it was responsible for a new campaign for same product during Fedorenko’s time there a few months later. Ironically, a largely women-created and targeted, sexually-progressive, feminist, and therefore controversial one:

Which would seem to contradict the points made about work culture above. So too, that they’re from a snapshot of just one agency, and a decade old.

However, it’s also telling that there’s been almost nothing quite like that campaign in Korean advertising since, by any agency. Despite my fetish for Korean ads showing actual grown women with sexual desire and experience, I’m only aware of less than a handful produced in the last decade. Meanwhile, compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean TV commercials, a figure that is over twice as high and nearly ten times as high as their Japanese and Hong Kong counterparts respectively.

And yet, despite everything, I’m reluctant to attribute all that simply to the likely dominance of men in the industry.

Yes, we can all bet good money that the coders behind offensive internet algorithms are indeed sexist pricks. Or their bosses. Or at best, that they’re unoriginal and conservative.

But to claim that Korean ads are the way they are because men dominate the industry, is to make the assumption that most of the men within are also sexist pricks.

Hey, I’m not dismissing the possibility. In fact, I’d bet good money on that too. Given what we know about Korean ads, and that Korea has the biggest gender gap in the OECD, and comes 121st out of 193 countries in the ratio of female legislators to males, then there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that Korea’s toxic, patriarchal work culture hasn’t also infected the Korean ad industry.

But where does that accusation get us? If we want to persuade industry insiders to embrace change, what good would simply calling them sexist pricks actually achieve?

And cishet men’s sexuality, I can’t stress often enough, is so much richer and broader than its blokey, infantile stereotypes suggest. There are men of other sexualities in the ad industry too, not to mention (probably) equal numbers of women. I refuse to believe that all the admen, by definition among the most creative and artistic men in Korean society, all chose their careers based on no more than a shared dream of putting more boobs on phone screens, and that every man and woman who doesn’t share that grand vision is simply forced to acquiesce.

The issues raised in this post may even be well-recognized problems within the industry already too, but are intractable due to the influence of Korea’s patriarchal work culture as alluded to earlier, one big influence being the rigid hierarchy and visions of women and male-female relations learned before entering the industry from that vast socialization experience known as universal male conscription.

Or not: my apologies again, for lacking the money and time to translate dense Korean advertising tomes to find out. But either way, suggesting practical, actionable steps that the industry may already be receptive to does sound much more helpful than simply rolling our eyes at THE MENZ.

I think this is where we came in.

Recall that we started with the industry itself calling for more regulation. Specifically, the KIAF, responsible for the 2016 survey:

“Although there are guidelines for the level of sexuality permitted in online advertising, they lack effectiveness since they tend to be too generic and ambiguous,” said the KIAF official. “Regulations that manage such advertisements are scattered across government departments, and they need to be revamped.

A state of affairs which sounds suspiciously similar to the messy censorship of K-pop in the early-2010s:

The recent guidelines by the Fair Trade Commission are demonstrably inadequate, and laws are required instead. But considering that any limits on such a vague concept as sexualization are by definition arbitrary, then it is crucial that 1) the ensuing legislation process is transparent; 2) that implementation of the laws is consistent; and 3) that only one, preferably independent, organization has the power of censorship. Currently, that last is divided between a plethora of competing media and government organizations, and the ensuing unpredictable and often bizarre decisions ― including banning a music video for the singers driving without wearing seat belts, or allowing exposed navels on men but not on women ― have thoroughly undermined the credibility of attempts to curb the sexualization of teens in K-pop. A fresh start is urgently needed.

“Restrictions Imposed on 18+ Controversial ‘Wide Leg Spread Dance’”, April 2011. Source.

This segue into K-pop is no mere confirmation bias from a trusted source: for the body with the most responsibility for censoring K-pop then was MOGEF, which it did with a relish. As Lee Yoo-eun at Global Voices explained in 2014 (links added by me):

The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being “hazardous” whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as “inappropriate for youth under the age 19″ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet. Many young people get around this by using the IDs of their parents to login to Korean portal websites or watch on YouTube.

Music industry people…say it is troubling that the censorship is applied only to some randomly selected albums after they have hit the market, and not universally to every album. Many people see this as part of a new reality where the South Korean government is tightening control over citizens and free speech.

And this zealousness was in stark contrast to the complete inaction by MOGEF over smutty advertisements, despite raising the alarm in 2012 about their surging numbers as discussed. Indeed, it wanted the industry to do its own work for it instead:

여성가족부는 작년과 비교해 유해 광고는 늘었지만 법 위반 언론사들이 대폭 감소한 것을 감안해, 언론사에는 우선 자율 규제를 촉구하겠다는 입장이다. 청소년매체환경과 관계자는 “작년에 34개 언론사가 법을 위반했는데 올해에는 다 시정됐다”며 “언론사들을 직접 규제하기 보다는 인터넷신문협회 등에 자율규제기구인 인터넷신문광고심의위원회의 설치를 촉구하겠다”고 밝혔다.

“Although MOGEF points out that the numbers of harmful advertisements have increased since last year, the fact that there are actually less media companies breaking the law also needs to be taken into consideration, so first MOGEF is going ask media companies to regulate themselves. The official in the Division of Youth Media Environment continued: ‘The 34 media companies that broke the the Information and Communications Network Law last year have all since rectified their mistakes,’ and so ‘a self-regulatory system is preferable to direct regulation, and we demand that the Korean Internet Newspaper Association and so on establish an internet newspaper advertisement consideration committee.'” (end)

Further inaction still is evident from how, in the 2010-2016 period, MOGEF’s Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) was given the task of monitoring mass media for cases of sexual discrimination, sexual prejudice, and sexual insults, but was given extremely limited resources to do so, and didn’t even cover the internet; ultimately only four cases were ever acted upon in those entire seven years. A subsequent study in 2016 found an undisclosed number of issues, of which the KIGEPE said “the results from their monitoring [had] resulted in 19 cases of corrective action [as of March 2017], insisting more education and appropriate measures need to be provided for TV show makers to achieve gender equality in the TV industry.” (More recently, this January the Korea Communications Standards Commission {KOSC} noted problems remained in variety shows specifically, without suggesting any measures to combat them.)

Yet that’s just MOGEF, which—without absolving it for its inaction—admittedly had very low resources and was in a precarious political position under previous conservative governments. If we look at the Korean media and its varius overseers as a whole however, inaction over misogyny and problematic content is endemic, Korean dramas in particular being notorious for depicting dating violence as romance, but which the KOSC has washed their hands of. And don’t get me started on the media’s constant framing of the sexualization of minors in K-pop as good, clean, harmless family fun.

Source: Netizenbuzz.

In that wider context, inaction on smutty ads emerges as less the exception than the rule in the Korean media, and underpins a pervasive culture of indifference and desensitization towards degrading images and videos of (overwhemingly) women. That culture is evident in the decade-long foot-dragging in the shutting-down of Soranet, a hugely popular pornography site notorious for the sharing of hidden camera videos, as well as in the Korean #MeToo movement’s unique emphasis on punishing the purveyors of such videos, a central component in the current Burning Sun scandal. I can’t help but ultimately see links to the culture of indifference and desensitization towards sexual abuse by teachers in Korean schools too, with over 40 percent of perpetrators in the January 2013 to September 2018 period still teaching, and again only, finally, being aggressively challenged due to the Korean #MeToo movement.

Nextshark: “The School of Performing Arts Seoul, the alma mater of numerous well-known K-drama and K-pop stars, is facing co‌ntrov‌ers‌y after its former students a‌‌c‌‌cu‌‌s‌e‌‌‌d the school of c‌o‌rrup‌tio‌n and se‌x‌u‌al ‌ex‌‌pl‌oita‌‌tion of minors [through a music video].”

But perhaps it’s a too much of leap from boobs on my smartphone to tolerating “asking students for ‘sexiness’ and ‘inappropriate touches’ during school performances.” Or not. Either way, the government starting to enforce the same standards for internet ads as it does for all other forms of pop culture, seems like the perfect way to find out.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

#MeToo to meat: no more soju calendars with nearly nude women in South Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Tan Danh from Pexels.

No, not normal soju posters and calendars, but these ones (NSFW) and these ones by Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewing respectively. I’m not surprised seeing them in restaurants (NSFW) made so many people uncomfortable (seriously, where would you look?), and wasn’t exaggerating when I was quoted in Crystal Tai’s article that “assuming that pictures of nude women [is] all that is required to [get people to change soju brands] is just patronising and insulting.” Perhaps that’s why my tweet about them below, a simple link to a news article, gained such traction:

Please read Crystal’s article for more information on what all the fuss is about. And, for even more information, here are some of my original email interview questions and answers:

Q) When did you first notice soju posters of women and such calendars around you? Do you remember the first time you saw one?

I noticed them immediately after I arrived in Korea in 2000, because they were ubiquitous; the level of alcohol advertising in New Zealand couldn’t begin to compare. I didn’t pay them much attention until about six years later however, because all of a sudden many soju companies started depicting women in revealing clothing and more sexualized poses in their posters, which was a big shift from the virginal depictions of the previous two decades. Soon after, this trend was further accelerated by the liberal use of K-pop stars as endorsement models, as gaining notoriety through revealing campaigns was and remains a win-win for both their entertainment companies and the soju companies.

That said, soju posters are just another means to “consume” a celebrity by fans, who generally must assume the same persona whether they’re in a talkshow, MV, or a soju commercial.* So, despite the trend, by no means are all soju models sexualized today: “innocent” IU, Son Na-eun of Apink, and especially Suzy (of the former Miss A) all tend to be depicted virginally in their own campaigns, the latter despite her having been in several high-profile relationships.

(*Hat-tip to to friend and SNU Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, whose book chapter I was channeling just a little too directly there!)

Q) What do you think such images mean to Korean men? Why do you think they are often surrounded by such images at bars, pubs, gogijibs (meat restaurants) etc?

It’s unlikely they hold any special meaning that they wouldn’t hold for men of any other nationality. As for their being surrounded by such images however, this is likely because Korea is in many ways a very homosocial society, with many unspoken but strongly-defined separate spaces for men and women. Note that most middle and high-schools were single-sex two decades ago, that almost all Korean men do approximately two years of military service, and that Korean women still struggle to retain their jobs after childbirth, those that succeed often having to leave mandatory after-work drinking gatherings early to look after their children while their male colleagues continue drinking elsewhere. Consequently, while coffee shops are strongly associated with women, and feature in many complaints and negative stereotypes about them, the atmosphere in bars and restaurants that sell a lot of soju can sometimes feel very off-putting for anyone that isn’t a middle-aged Korean man.

(Image: This interpretation in this video analysis is maybe too much. Yet I can never pass Na-eun’s poster below without thinking about that bottleneck on the left!)

Do you think that the Me-too movement and recent feminist movements really play a big role in Hite-Jinro’s decision to discontinue such calendars?

Given the recent news that “racequeens” are going to be phased out of the racing industry,* as well as calls to do the same with cheerleaders at sporting events, then the timing can hardly be a coincidence. But it may also be a convenient excuse for decisions already made. Unless revealing soju posters are also part of a creative and memorable campaign—which these calendars definitely are not—then it’s extremely debatable whether they ever have any real influence on Korean men’s consumption choices. In my own experience, their tastes in soju tend to be very regional, and they tend to stick to the same brands throughout their lives. Assuming that pictures of nude women are all that is required to change their minds is just patronizing and insulting, so I’m both glad and not particularly surprised that alternative strategies are now being attempted.

(*My mistake: they’re being phased out in Formula 1, but I don’t know enough about the industry to judge what—if any—impact that will have on racing events in Korea. See here for an article about the impact in Japan.)

Do you think other alcohol companies will follow suit as well? And do you think this means the provocative celebrity posters and campaigns will change as well?

No. The calendars by Hite-Jinro were the only ones to feature nudity, and the “sporty” ones by Oriental Brewery were also much more revealing than average. But most soju posters aren’t particularly any more sexually-objectifying of women than Korean advertising in general, because that is already pervasive in the industry as a whole. To wit: in a 2015 study, women were 5.9 times more likely than men to not be fully dressed in Hong Kong television ads, 22.89 times more likely in Japanese ads, and 56.83 times more likely in South Korean ads. By no means, can soju ads be the only culprit in the Korean case!

And if that’s still not enough, here’s a small sample of related posts I’ve written over the years:

Meanwhile, I hope everyone had a happy new year, and sorry my posting has been so erratic. But I have big writing plans for 2019!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

“W코리아가 여성을 화보에 담아내는 방식이 마음에 든다. 자기다운 모습으로 카메라를 응시하는 여성 모델들.”

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Image sources: @pompomiya

“I like the way W Korea portrays women. Look at the models here all staring back at the camera in their own ways.”

If I die tomorrow, my biggest regret will be never completing my epic series on the queer female gaze in K-pop. No, really. So, while I’m up to my eyeballs with that then, please allow me a quick break today by indulging myself in @pompomiya’s tweet about W Korea‘s July issue. Their point about controlling the viewer’s gaze really resonates with those made about Titian’s Venus of Urbino in my Boobs, Butts, and Biceps post, and is a helpful reminder of what exactly makes that painting so captivating. So too, of why these photos have 6,600 retweets so far.

Three of the models in them are instantly recognizable as K-pop star Amber Liu, volleyball player Kim Yeon-gyeong, and actor Han Ye-seul, but the woman in blue was a mystery. Her name is DJ Seesea (@uuuuman), and the most information about her online seems to be available at W Korea itself, either in their (Korean) article or video interview.

This is the longest performance of hers I was able to find:

Frankly, most of those tracks aren’t to my taste. But the MIXMIX TV channel itself has many more male and female DJs to choose from, and can be good background music to work to when you need a change from Chillhop Music, lofi hip hop radio, and 24/7 lofi hip hop radio. Also, DJ Seesea mentions in her interview that she used to belong to an all female-DJ line-up called Bichinda (Facebook, Twitter), sadly now dismantled but with interesting things to say about the changes more female DJs bring to clubs and the attitudes of audiences, so I’m glad W Korea gave DJ Seesea the chance to give that topic a little more exposure this summer.

Please hit me up if you know anything more about DJ Seesea or Bichinda, or about any other interesting female Korean DJs. Also, make sure to check out 6 Alternative Female Musicians For Fans Of K-Pop at Nylon, many of whom I do like and am eagerly looking for a track or MV to highlight here. Please let me know if you have any suggestions!

Update: Here’s DJ Seesea’s Soundcloud playlist.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room

Estimated reading time: 1 minute. Image source: Pixabay.

Which I think is the correct translation of “一个在韩国写女权主义博客的英国人:性、性别和房间里的大象”, a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang of Q Daily. Unfortunately for non-Chinese speakers, a lot is lost in the translation, but the gist is still there, and I’m happy that the comments generally seem to be positive. Please hit me up in the comments here if you’d like any clarification about anything in the translation, and/or if you just have any of your own questions about life, love, elephants, and what it’s been like blogging about Korean feminism for the last 11 years!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Boobs, Butts, and Biceps are Beautiful. Don’t Let Knights Tell You Any Different!

Smiling faces, and the consent implied therein, are crucial for determining a person’s beauty. But that doesn’t mean body parts can’t still be beautiful in their absence.

Estimated reading time: 14 Minutes. Photo by PixaBay on Unsplash. NSFW art nudes following.

Can body parts, in isolation, be beautiful?

Feminist bugbear Camille Paglia would say so. In a speech at MIT in 1991, she rejected having to apologize for reveling in beauty, as well as the notion that ordinary-looking women only ever lamented their own appearance in reaction to attractive people. In her words, she wanted to bring back to feminism the right to say what they were really thinking: “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!”

My own answer too, is such an immediate, adamant yes, that it seems absurd to ask. Yet to openly revel in, say, beautiful boobs? Newly-woke male feminists quickly learn to restrain such temptations. Not only because it would simply be boring for most women, but also because it feels disingenuous considering women’s daily, pervasive objectification and body-shaming. Complicit even, when so many are suffering from Korea’s spycam epidemic, and when even male artists are abandoning female nudes in the wake of #MeToo.

Yet whatever our sex or sexuality, we’re all casting admiring glances on our commutes nonetheless—even asexuals. Complimenting their owners may always be a bit much, let alone leering and catcalls, but we don’t have to put up with being shamed for our internal monologues too.

So, when I was going through Sir Roger Scruton’s Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2011), and read that body parts are “obscene” when they’re considered in isolation?

Recall the queasy feeling that ensues, when—for whatever reason—you suddenly see a body part where, until that moment, an embodied person had been standing. It is as though the body has, in that instant, become opaque. The free being has disappeared behind his own flesh, which is no longer the person himself but an object, an instrument. When this eclipse of the person by his body is deliberately produced, we talk of obscenity. The obscene gesture is one that puts the body on display as pure body, so destroying the experience of embodiment. We are disgusted by obscenity for the same reason that Plato was disgusted by physical lust: it involves, so to speak, the eclipse of the soul by the body. (pp. 40-41.)

I snapped. Already sick and tired of being belittled and patronized most times I read about my male gaze, Scruton seemed to go one further in implying my liking of boobs was immoral as well.

But outrage and exasperation do not an objective response make. Nor does quoting authors without sufficient context, when it’s not so much their arguments as the assumptions they’re based on that are unsound.

So first: note that only two of the book’s nine chapters are about human beauty. Really, it’s more of an introduction to aesthetics, with beauty only as a framing device, and reads like light philosophy. I’m ill-disposed towards and ill-equipped to deal with books like that, frankly, so that’s why I focus on only those two chapters here instead of giving a full review. Much more important than my unlearned personal tastes though, is that this philosophical approach grounds Scruton’s contrarian approach to beauty too. Because whereas in my experience, most commenters take the approach that beauty can be quantified and measured in terms of how closely one’s body parts, features, lengths, and ratios reach various ideals, Scruton believes such an approach is fundamentally flawed (p. 41):

Those [above] thoughts suggest something important about physical beauty. The distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment. Its beauty is not the beauty of a doll, and is something more than a matter of shape and proportion. When we find human beauty represented in a statue, such as the Apollo Belvedere or the Daphne of Bernini, what is represented is the beauty of a person—flesh animated by the individual soul, and expressing individuality in all its parts.

This has enormous significance, as I shall later show, in the discussion of erotic art [in the second chapter on human beauty, “Art and erōs”]. But it already points us towards an important observation. Whether it attracts contemplation or prompts desire, human beauty is seen in personal terms. It resides especially in those features—the face, the eyes, the lips, the hands—which attract our gaze in the course of personal relations, and through which we relate to each other I to I. Although there may be fashions in human beauty, and although different cultures may embellish the body in different ways, the eyes, mouth and hands have a universal appeal. For they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us, and makes itself known.

For all my (over)concern with what he says about people’s other bits in his book however, actually I heartily agree with the relative importance he attaches to faces here. The comparison he makes with his descriptions of the following paintings later, for instance, really brings to life the profundity of the differences the models’ gazes make between them—and the crucial distinction that consent makes.

First, of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (p. 125):

Source: Wikipedia.

“As pointed out, in [Kenneth Clark’s] celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be loved. Even in the Venus of Urbino—the most provocative of Titian’s female nudes—the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the gaze that looks out from it. The face individualizes the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns all covetous glances as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity—the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers.”

Next, contrast the issues Scruton raises with the model in François Boucher’s The Blonde Odalisque, all of which ring true for anyone who’s ever been dissatisfied with most pornography (i.e., everyone) because of the unrealistic, wholly impractical, often painful-looking, yet somehow supposedly “sexy” positions women are usually presented in. Indeed, Marie-Louise O’Murphy seems so divorced from proceedings here, and so divorced from her own body, that she looks like she’s much more interested in watching Netflix than in whatever the viewer is about to do with her round the back. Or, rather, to her (pp. 134-135):

Does it make any difference that this painting was (possibly) intended only for Louis XV? Or that Marie-Louise, one of his “lesser mistresses,” was only 13 at the time? Source: Wikipedia.

“Turn now to Boucher’s Odalisque, and you will see how very different is the artistic intention. This woman has adopted a pose that she could never adopt when dressed. It is a pose which has little or no place in ordinary life outside the sexual act, and it draws attention to itself, since the woman is looking vacantly away and seems to have no other interest. But there is another way in which Boucher’s painting touches against the bounds of decency, and this is in the complete absence of any reason for the Odalisque’s pose within the picture. She is alone in the picture, looking at nothing in particular, engaged in no other act than the one we see. The place of the lover is absent and waiting to be filled: and you are invited to fill it.”

Yet for all their eloquence, he’s preaching to the converted with those particular passages. They may even buy the book on their basis alone, having secluded themselves in a quiet corner of the bookstore and skipped ahead to those pictures.

The problem is that well before a genuine reader gets to that stage of the book, Scruton’s mere say-so on numerous issues is less than persuasive. By the time you reach its end, you’re not so much unconvinced as infuriated that he wouldn’t make more effort with its readers.

Examples of his arrogant certainty abound. For starters, his opening descriptions of our supposed differences with animals, the science of human desire, and evolutionary-psychology, are trite and shaky at best, and often just plain wrong. There is absolutely no basis to his argument that “Perhaps no sexual experience differentiates human beings from animals more clearly than the experience of jealously,” for instance (p.44). Nor, to his assertion that “Human beings are alone among the animals in revealing their individuality in their faces” (p. 124), which is easily proven false with just 5 minutes of googling. While to his credit, that he discusses science at all is because he acknowledges “it is surely reasonable to believe that there is some connection between beauty and sex” (pp. 32-33), his blithe, continual assertions presented as facts here soon start collapsing under their own weight.

In particular, take his description of kissing (p. 40):

To kiss [the mouth of another person] is not to place one body part against another, but to touch the other person in his very self. Hence the kiss is compromising—it is a move from one self towards another, and a summoning of the other into the surface of his being.

Or, indeed, of sex itself (p. 38):

In the sexual act, there is no single goal that is being sought and achieved, and no satisfaction that completes the process: all goals are provisional, temporary, and leave things fundamentally unchanged. And lovers are always struck by the mismatch between the desire and its fulfilment, which is not a fulfilment at all, but a brief lull in an ever-renewable process.

Both of which, miffed at his disdain at my daily rejoicing at the existence of boobs, originally I looked forward to presenting as eye-rolling demonstrations of his academic, ivory tower absurdness. Which for sure, is a turn-off with Scruton. His overuse of “he” and “his” throughout too, isn’t merely an out of date convention either, but are characteristic of the chapters on “human” beauty that are so overwhelmingly—almost exclusively—focused on female beauty that they read like they’re exclusively, deliberately aimed at cishet men. (The Beautiful Boy this ain’t.)

On a sober second reading though, I had to concede that both passages are fully consistent in the context of the arguments that preceded it, and that they can sound almost sweet too. However reluctantly, I was loath to misrepresent him.

And yet, they bear sooo little resemblance to any of my own experiences, that the very first thing they reminded me of was of this virginal android’s idealized notion of sex (from 1:30):

Hey, I may be a parent in a small apartment who literally has to schedule these things, but it’s not that I can’t appreciate such sentiments, nor that I haven’t even felt them keenly myself on occasion. Scruton’s descriptions do not represent the totality of my kissing and sexual experiences however, nor—and I’d wager good money on this—would they represent Scruton’s either. For him to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, and can’t be explained away as a stylistic choice due to space restraints. Rather, he chose to do so because it is his firm belief that beauty is akin to a transcendental, Platonic ideal, and, that if beauty is related to sexual attraction as previously noted, then sex has to be elevated into some transcendental, Platonic ideal too. Hence the absurd descriptions of—lest we forget—fucking, and the setting himself up for the completely unconvincing distinctions between beauty and body parts that got me started on this rant.

Did I mention that he never actually defines “obscenity”?

It was a surprise to learn after finishing the book then, that Scruton’s earlier book on the philosophy of sex, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), is actually well-respected, and considered by many a classic in the field. Because in that too, I read, he maintains his duplicitous insistence on eloquent theory trumping sweaty, sticky, lustful practice. And, because in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, it’s that wilful dogmatism that ineviably, inexorably leads him to shaming anyone associated with pornography and sex work.

Let me confine myself to just one final example, which follows directly on from the quote about Boucher’s Odalisque, and in my view utterly taints it (p. 135, emphasis mine):

Of course there are differences between the Odalisque and the tits and bums on page three of The Sun….The second difference is connected, namely, that we need know nothing of Boucher’s Odalisque in order to appreciate its intended effect, save what the picture tells us. There was a model who posed for this canvas; but we understand the canvas neither as a portrait of her nor as a painting about her. The bum on page three has a name and address. Very often the accompanying text tells you a lot about the girl herself, helps you forward with the fantasy of sexual contact. For many people, with reason I think, this makes a decisive moral difference between the page three image and a painting like Boucher’s. The woman on page three is being packaged in her sexual attributes, and placed in the fantasies of a thousand strangers. She may not mind this—presumably she doesn’t. But in not minding she shows how much she has already lost. No-one is degraded by Boucher’s painting, since no-one real occurs in it. This woman—even though the model who sat for her has a name and address (she was Louise O’Murphy, kept for the King’s pleasure at the Parc aux Cerfs)—is presented as a figment, in no sense identical with any real human being, despite being painted from life.

I wonder too, to close this post with the question that prompted it, what exactly Scruton thinks you have lost when you admire the body parts of other commuters. Whether your focus happens to rest on breasts, butts, biceps, legs, broad shoulders, luscious long hair, or whatever.

Indeed, if you’re on the same crowded subway line as I am, you know that sometimes they’re literally the only part of the owners you can see.

I refuse to believe that those body parts can’t be simply magnificent though, and that I’m immoral for thinking so, merely because their owners may get off my carriage and transfer to another line before I ever get to see their faces.

Nor does—heaven forbid—deliberately seeking out erotic art and pornography, rather than accidentally stumbling upon objects of your affection on your commute, somehow mean the same standards don’t apply to the people in those too. Because whether seen on a Busan subway, or in a video shot in a moodily-lit San Fernando studio? Somehow, inexplicably, I never seem to lose my respect for the owners of those simply magnificent body parts either, nor does admiring their objects mean I ever think or treat them as objects.

I don’t think it’s just me. In fact, I assume the same of everyone else until proven otherwise.

If you do think lesser of them though, and my assumption is proven naive, then please let let me know. Or, if you think many others negatively objectify people, despite you and I respecting them? Then pray, please tell who those “others” are exactly, and please give myself and other readers some actual evidence that they’re really so different. Especially that which comes from actually talking to them, instead of only from what other people with agendas, like Scruton, have written about that heinous group.

No, I didn’t say those others were most cishet men—you thought it! Something to think deeply about on tomorrow’s commute perhaps, if you don’t want to let your eyes wander? ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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“Girl-groups in Hot Pants” Isn’t a Concept That Always Sells a Product. Except When it Does. Damn.

Compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean advertisements.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Source: @Sulllllimmmm

“I’ve seen many pictures of Seol-hyun, but I think these are the first ones I’ve ever seen that haven’t sexualized her or shown off her body.”

Me too.* Which is not to say I’m against either, of any consenting adult. Sometimes, a famous figure in tight-clothes is just what is needed to grab your attention, whatever your sex or sexuality. Especially in a commercial’s all too brief 15-second window:

But that one by Hani for Yanolja, a motel-finding app, was only successful—10 million downloads, in a population of 51 million—because it combined its celebrity face and sexual frisson with such a catchy jingle and distinctive dance. Imitated and parodied by Korean fans all summer (especially my daughters), who demanded Hani perform it on the street, in hindsight it was an obvious winner.

Or was it? Compare this 2013 commercial by Sistar for Ottogi set rice meals, which I used in a recent lecture I gave to The 11th Korea-America Student Conference. Mostly, because the incongruity of all the flesh with the actual, rather mundane product is just so jarring: were all those legs really needed, and those belonging to an expensive girl-group in particular? Also, because I couldn’t find a single news article about it from 5 years ago, in contrast to all the attention Hani’s commercial is getting today:

Sources: *cough* Ilbe

But after the presentation, thinking again about the commercial got me hot and bothered, and not in a good way. I realized my making the point with the screenshots had overshadowed the commercial itself, which I hadn’t actually seen in many years. Once I did, I realized it did have its own jingle and dance, and a sort-of chorus-girl concept which the hot pants weren’t necessarily out of place in:

Sure, neither the jingle nor dance are quite as distinctive as Hani’s, but they’re there. So, without that hindsight, who’s to say that this commercial would flop, whereas Hani’s would be a guaranteed success?

Especially as it didn’t flop, damnit. As a renewed search revealed:

또 주요 소비자층인 20~30대 남성이 선호하는 걸 그룹 ‘씨스타’를 활용한 프로모션을 전개하면서 지난해 세트밥 매출을 2012년 대비 95% 늘렸다.

“Compared to 2012, Otoggi’s promotion with the girl-group ‘Sistar’ in 2013 led to an increase of 95% in sales among the major consumer group of men in their 20s and 30s.”

The Korea Economic Daily, 5 March 2014

Well duh, although I like to think more men need more than just legs to be sold on a meal (thinking we would be is still kinda patronizing, TBH). And my next reaction was that what worked for young men in this case didn’t necessarily speak for other demographics, Korea’s brutal M-curve meaning it’s housewives that do the food shopping for most households. But with Korea’s rapidly-rising single household rate, that’s probably not the case for these convenience meals in particular. Hence:

오뚜기는 편의점 유통 물량을 늘리는 한편 자사 페이스북에서 다양한 이벤트를 진행해 소비자와의 소통을 강화했다. 이런 노력에 힘입어 오뚜기밥 전체 매출은 전년 대비 50% 이상 증가했다.

“Ottogi’s strategy of increasing sales volumes at convenience stores and strengthening its communication with consumers, such as by hosting events on Facebook, has led to its rice sales increasing over 50% compared to the previous year.”

So, my path for future lectures was now clear: to seek out new commercials and new girl-groups in hot pants, to boldly question if they really do work, where no one has questioned before. And to seek out successful Korean femvertising, or just simply those successful commercials by women wearing actual clothes. Because in the revised version of my lecture, the final slide will continue to feature the following troubling fact about Korean life, which has my daughters increasingly running for the scales rather than happily dancing being kids. I wish I was joking:

Source: News Tomato

“Females were 5.9 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed (vs. fully dressed) in Hong Kong advertisements, whereas females were 22.89 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in Japanese ads and 56.83 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in South Korean ads.”

Prieler, M., Ivanov, A. & Hagiwara, S. (2015). Gender representations in East Asian advertising: Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Communication & Society 28(1), 27-41, p. 34.

Please let me know of any examples in the comments, of either the good or the bad, and your thoughts of any of the above :)

*On the theme of shattering convenient narratives, I noticed an ad featuring a fully-clothed Seol-hyun on the same day I noticed the tweet:

Fortunately for my paranoia about conspiracies to undermine my lectures though, Seol-hyun’s ads for Dashing Diva nails do follow a predictable pattern. Er…Yay?


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How does military conscription affect Korean gender relations and attitudes to women?

The vision of male-female relations that conscription engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support through youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Photo (modified) by Berwin Coroza on Unsplash.

Last week, came the monumental news that Korean men were going to be offered alternatives to mandatory military service. So, CNN reporter James Griffiths asked me for some input into the Korean military’s background, specifically conscription’s effects on Korean gender relations. Little of my email could make it to his final article though, so here’s my full response for some context and further reading:

1) How does the military conscription issue affect gender relations and attitudes to women?

It’s difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent. Consider their ages: most Korean men choose to do their military service after their first year of university, barely out of high school, and Korea’s education hell means most would have had very little time for dating previously. Ironically though, new recruits can face being ostracized if they don’t have sexual experience, so many Korean men’s first sexual experience is with a sex worker just before enlistment. Visiting sex workers during their service is also considered normal. This is not wrong, but it is combined with frequent sexualized K-pop girl-group performances on bases, their ubiquitous messages of support for the troops in the media, and their being prominently featured on the military intranet (there are even military K-pop charts). This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Military Manpower Association (MMA) endorsement models Apink saying “Thank you for choosing to enter the military. You are Korea’s REAL men!” (MMA Facebook page).

That may sound like hyperbole, but it is telling that Korea is the only country in East Asia where it is customary to use superiority-based titles in place of names in the workplace, and that even the Samsung Economic Research Institute once said that mistreatment by superiors in Korean companies is so pervasive that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” In other words, when hierarchical military culture has had such a profound effect on the Korean workplace, and indeed much else about Korean daily life, then it is not unreasonable to see its role in shaping Korean gender relations too.

2) As regards the anti-feminist backlash from men’s rights groups, how driven is this by perceived unfairness of military service?

It is overwhelmingly driven by this perceived unfairness. But the media has done much to fan the flames, especially by encouraging the scapegoating of young women by exaggerating their economic successes in relation to men, and by perpetuating many negative stereotypes of them. In particular, that of the kimchi-nyeo (kimchi bitch), which refers to an economically successful woman who exploits her female privilege in not having to do military service, but who still expects men to pay on dates, who (always successfully) cries sexism when a man is promoted over her, and so on. Korea’s grossly skewed sex ratio among 20-somethings has a huge role to play in this backlash too, consequence of Korea’s sex selective abortions in the 1990s.

That Korea has the highest gender gap in the OECD however, is conveniently ignored by men’s rights groups. One can argue that it exists simply because women lose experience and rank after taking time off to have children, which is indeed crucial in what are such hierarchical, seniority-based companies as explained. But the gap also very much exists because doing military service comes with a host of indirect benefits, including taking advantage of their old boys networks created during their service, and of the widespread attitudes that men are more deserving of jobs (explicitly enshrined in government policy during the 1997 and 2008 financial crises), and that women, if no longer youthful and and sexually-available, should again step aside and support men from the sidelines by quitting their jobs by staying home to raise the children.

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