Headless Images Dehumanize Obese People. It’s Now a Fact.

Nearly 6 in 10 news articles about obesity are accompanied by headless images of obese people. In the first of its kind, a recent study demonstrates a direct, dehumanizing effect.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

For most people, focusing on body parts is the very definition of objectification. Remove subjects’ faces in particular, and you remove the individuality and implied consent communicated. But context is everything. You could critique the “real women have curves” philosophy behind this women-only gym’s name for instance, or the slut-shaming that used to compel Korean lingerie models to hide their faces, but it’s difficult to take issue with the ensuing, headless ads themselves. In music videos and art too, viewers are generally reluctant to judge objectification in isolation. And rightly so: anyone (i.e. everyone) who’s ever discretely admired someone’s magnificent legs, breasts, muscular arms, broad shoulders, or six-pack from afar knows it is possible to like whatever body parts do it for you, while still completely respecting their owners.

Such imagery is pervasive however, nor is every viewer of it as woke as you. You sense there are real consequences for the objectified. But evidence is mixed, as a direct causal link is difficult to prove.

A recent study of the effects of common visual depictions of obese people in the news, however, may provide one. But may also be very specific to obesity.

Among major news outlets in the US, as many as nearly 6 out of 10 articles about obesity issues are accompanied by headless images of obese people. To non-obese people especially, this figure may sound high, but not necessarily a problem. To be sure, we’re all aware of fatty jokes and stereotypes in pop-culture, but news stories about obesity would seem to have that objective, factual context that obviated any potential negative effects. Namely, just like a bra ad featuring only a women’s chest in said bra is acceptable and expected, whereas the same shot of a non-consenting spycam victim would be a crime, that news articles about obesity would tend to be accompanied by pictures of obese people seems logical. That their editors, whether for reasons of civility, consideration, and/or privacy laws would choose to hide or cut out their faces, we can assume would almost always be well-intended. Yet the study shows that the ensuing headless images are precisely the ones that are most damaging. Indeed, obese people themselves, frustrated with almost only ever seeing bulging stomach and butt-shots of themselves in articles specifically about them, might be somewhat less surprised to learn that such images now have a proven dehumanizing effect.

Surrealist Composition by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, 1965. Source: WikiArt.

But those effects may be very specific to obesity due to the premise of the study, outlined in the opening paragraph (my emphasis, in the first of what I promise will only be two long copy and pastes):

Why would a human feel uncomfortable shaking hands with another human being? The answer from evolutionary psychology would be that the human brain is predisposed to ‘infer’ that a person carries a contagious disease if the person has a bodily cue that is grossly different in form or size from norms (Park, Schaller, & Crandall, 2007). This cognitive bias induces disease-avoidance responses including disgust or avoidance of physical contact with the possessor of unusual bodily cues (Park et al., 2007). An obese human body is one of the visual cues or ‘marks’ triggering such aversive responses (Park et al., 2007; Smith, 2012). Evidence from social neuroscience indicates that disease-avoidance responses inhibit or block cognitive processing of humanly unique traits such as high rationality of a person with the disease-relevant signs (Harris & Fiske, 2007). In this way, the possessor of the disease-relevant signs such as an obese body is perceptually dehumanized. In turn, the heightened dehumanizing perception could lead to exclusionary attitudes toward obese individuals (Buckels & Trapnell, 2013).

In other words, obesity mimics the symptoms of many communicable diseases, and the consequences of assuming a diseased person is healthy and safe to physically interact with are usually greater than shunning an apparently diseased person who is in fact healthy. Therefore, exposure to obesity, prompted and exaggerated by imagery in news articles that highlights obese people’s bodies over all else, provokes an instinctual aversion and disgust to obese people, which viewers rationalize by dehumanizing them:

When the false-negative bias is prompted, people will unfavorably react to individuals who display any of the disease-like signs as if they carry infectious diseases, even when they are completely healthy (Park et al., 2007). Lieberman, Tybur, and Latner (2012) similarly suggested that certain infectious diseases (e.g. elephantiasis) accompany bodily changes such as swelling or fluid buildup that may be visually similar to obesity. Following this disease avoidance account, Park et al. (2007) maintain that the obese body type may be a visual cue that triggers the activation of disease-relevant behavioral reactions (e.g. avoiding physical contact) and emotions (e.g. disgust). And this is in line with Smith’s model (2007). Yet, this account has actually long been supported by a large volume of past research (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Park et al., 2007; Park et al., 2013; Ryan, Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2012). Of those studies, Park et al. (2013) provided more directly relevant evidence for the current study that showed that the photo of an obese man heightened participants’ discomfort level for having physical contact with an obese individual (Park et al., 2013). Likewise, Ryan et al. (2012) found that participants exhibited the same emotional and behavioural responses to confederates with ‘real’ disease signs such as influenza symptoms as with confederates displaying non-disease signs or ‘false alarms’ such as a facial birthmark.

The authors of the study—Yongwoog Andrew Jeon, of University of South Florida; Hyeseung Elizabeth Koh, of the University of Texas at Austin; Jisoo Ahn, of Hallym University, South Korea; and Renita Coleman, of the University of Texas at Austin—then set out to test the following hypotheses:

H1: People who see a news photo of a headless obese person will exhibit a greater level of discomfort with physical contact with an obese person than those who see the whole being of the obese person.

H2: When the head of the obese model in the photo is absent (present), readers’ identification with obese individuals will decrease (increase) in the identity match condition (i.e. BMI or gender matches) compared to when they do not match.

H3a: When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their genders do not match.

H3b: When the BMI levels of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their BMIs do not match.

In the first of what were actually two studies, 332 people (80 percent white, 40 percent male, 40 percent in regular BMI 18.5-24.9 range, and with a mean age of 40.13) read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying randomly-selected images being of headless (not) models, male (female) models, and obese (overweight) models (crucially, men only saw men, and women women). They were then asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, on a scale of one to ten.

In the second study, 312 people (79 percent white, 45 percent male, 44 percent in a regular BMI range, and with a mean age of 35.2) likewise read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying images being of either a male or female obese twin, controlled for similar, neutral facial expressions and equal levels of attractiveness and obesity (crucially, participants saw a model of either sex this time.) In addition to being asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, they were also asked about hugging or being in the same elevator as them.

The results:

H1: Supported—Headless, dehumanizing imagery of obese people increases feelings of discomfort towards obese people more than full pictures do.

H2: Supported for gender—When people are the same gender as the model, they will identify less with the model if their head is not visible. Headless images, however, do not decrease the likelihood of obese viewers identifying with the obese model.

H3a: Supported—When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, feelings of discomfort and disgust are stronger when models are headless

H3b: Not supported—Sharing the BMI of an obese model has no impact on the effect of seeing them headless or not

Source: Vippng

The authors acknowledge that far more testing is required, especially with models and participants of different ages and races, and that overcoming stigmas towards obesity is far more complicated than simply eliminating headless photos in the media. But it’s clear that at present, “the prevalent visual framing of obesity in the news media is [indeed] dehumanizing not just metaphorically.”

In turn, I acknowledge simply sharing the hypotheses and barest outlines of the results doesn’t at all do justice to their article, which would require a far longer post. But I am happy to email the article for those of you that lack access (*cough* Science Direct *ahem*), and I look forward to all your comments and queries.

In particular, do these results have anything to say about sexual objectification? Or are they just too specific to obesity, because of the authors’ premise as discussed?

Happy 2020 everyone!


Thank you for the excellent responses made on Twitter and Facebook:

(Anonymous, used with permission.)

Many other commenters echo the points about legal reasons for the cropping, and possible alternative solutions. So for your interest, let me pass on what the authors have to say about both:

In general, almost half of obesity-related news articles from major news outlets including CNN, ABC, Fox, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, visually depict an obese person in only one of following ways: eating junk food, sedentary, showing a bare abdomen, dressed in inappropriately fitting clothing, and, most commonly, headless (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). [Note, the 6 in 10 is from news articles in general; see Heuer, McClure, & Puhl, 2011—James] A negative visual depiction of obese individuals (e.g. eating unhealthy foods) can increase social distance and anti-fat attitudes toward obese individuals more than positive depictions (e.g. exercising) (Puhl, Luedicke, & Heuer, 2013). Even though this finding provided empirical evidence for visual framing’s role in prompting anti-fat attitudes, the most prevalent feature of the visual depiction of obese individuals, as ‘headless,’ has not yet been fully examined. Headless is a product of cropping – a technique of digitally removing a part of an image. Through cropping, journalists may attempt to convey the implicit message that ‘this is important!’ Likewise, by cropping out the head of the obese person in the photo, the obese person’s stomach is visually emphasized. News media may use cropping for anonymization and privacy (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). However, regardless of journalists’ actual intentions, these photos can effectively capture people’s attention because the humans’ visual system assigns attentional priority to the human body (Peelen & Downing, 2007). Further, the stomach is one of the body regions that is of highest concern among both regular and overweight individuals when judging one’s physical attractiveness and health (Warschburger, Calvano, Richter, & Engbert, 2015)

And one of the practical implications of the findings of the study:

Of course, ‘putting the head back’ in the photo should not be the only way of depicting obese individuals. Researchers and journalists may need to work more on how to improve media portrayal of vulnerable or stigmatized groups of people. Already, the research institute has produced a guideline based on their research on how to use photos of obese individuals (RCFPO, n.d.). For example, all the photos provided by the guidelines show the whole being of obese individuals engaged in healthy activities or others that are counter-stereotypical. In addition, it may be better to develop a strategy that does not necessarily involve the use of the photos of people, but instead has other relevant visual information such as infographics that visualize data on, for example, the relationship between stress level and eating habits. Also, to solve the issue of privacy, instead of using photos, illustrations of obese individuals that are created by artists can be used. Photos that show the whole body of obese people from the back is another solution. All these alternatives await further empirical validations in future research.

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

“Lingerie Advertisements Deflect the Danger of Homoeroticism by Using Models with Averted Eyes.” Huh?

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes. Source, left (edited): Emm’s Vintage Lingerie (CC BY 2.0). Source, right (edited): Moose Photos from Pexels.

I’m a big fan of Jill Fields’ 2007 book, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. It’s where I first learned of the corset industry’s creation of new body types for women to conform to in the 1910s to 1930s, presaging the Korean media, beauty, and fashion industries’ creation of “S-lines,” “V-lines,” and so on in the 2000s. But I’ve always been skeptical of this common feature of lingerie advertisements she alleges, and especially her explanation for it (page 16):

And in that Chapter 5 (p. 211):

What models do with their eyes is important. When they return your gaze, they seem to own the room. Whereas if they don’t seem to be paying attention to anything in particular, or if they’re depicted without their faces at all, the temptation to dismiss them as people and focus only on their bodies is all the greater.

It can also be a mechanism by which advertisers perpetuate stereotypes of different sexes and races. Take what Kyoungtae Nam, Guiohk Lee, and Jang-Sun Hwang discovered from their survey of Korean girls’ magazines in 2011 for instance (p. 234):

“Gender Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines”, Sex Roles (2011), 64: 223.

No-one’s saying models staring into space is bad in itself. Nor can advertisers of fashion and beauty-related products really be faulted for wanting to focus attention on the products, or on their alleged effects on the consumer. But if you know anything at all about advertising and gender, you’ll know that regardless of what’s being advertised, women tend to be depicted much more passively than men. And herein lies the first of two fatal flaws in Fields’ argument. For she bases her conclusions on no more than (fn. 70) an unspecified “survey of ads” in various magazines and catalogues from the 1900s to 1960s, although she also asserts that “[c]urrent issues of the Los Angeles Times provide almost daily evidence of the continuing importance of these evasive postures in ads.” Or in other words, she provides no evidence whatsoever that the tactics she describes “to dispel the homoerotic impulse” are any more prevalent in lingerie ads than in other kinds of ads, whatever period she’s talking about. And sure enough, those same tactics can quickly be found in other ads just through, say, a simple walk down the average city street. Here’s some with “women alone, turned away from the viewer” and/or averted eyes in Korean soju ads for instance:

I’ve often wondered what on Earth is Jang Yun-jeong looking at exactly…

In 2010, I discussed those and many others using Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements framework. Specifically, those particular ads are illustrations of one aspect of the “Licensed Withdrawal” category, as described by Images of Women in Advertising:

[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others. This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state; they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire. Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation. They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

The point being, although no motivation for these depictions is explicitly mentioned here, advertisers wanting to avoid provoking homoeroticism seems a rather unlikely one—the second flaw of Fields’ argument. Because are lingerie advertisements really so salacious, and really so sexually transgressive, that homophobia needs to be invoked to explain the depictions commonly found therein? Are they really so different to all other kinds of ads, that explanations for the depictions of women in those ads wouldn’t also apply?

I know—boobs. Maybe there is something to them that prevents (male-dominated) advertising teams and advertising standards authorities from thinking rationally. I’m not dismissing any special considerations they have for lingerie ads out of hand, and indeed Fields provides a wealth of examples of precisely those, albeit with expressions of their worries about evoking homoeroticism notable only for their absence. But she hardly persuades in addressing those alternative explanations for lingerie ads’ typical features by deliberately ignoring them. And I do mean deliberately, for in fact she does mention Goffman earlier (p. 210):

And by all means, these are things, well covered in Gender Advertisements (see my earlier post for examples from soju advertisements). But to have read the book and demonstrated that she’s taken note of those various categories of its framework, only to fail to mention that one of its largest categories—Licensed Withdrawal—already well accounts for her claims about lingerie advertisements? She doesn’t have to agree with it, but she does have to acknowledge and respond to it. Otherwise, her shoehorning of an alternative explanation evoking homophobia seems very disingenuous.

Sources: Emm’s Vintage Lingerie, left, right (CC BY 2.0).

In fact, the foundations of the whole chapter may be equally tenuous. Its title, “The Invisible Woman: Intimate Apparel Advertising” refers to the tendency of early-20th Century lingerie advertisers to show only parts of women or not at all. But reviewer Jane Ferrell-Beck argues there was actually a very practical reason for this:

And reviewer Kristina Haugland goes further, arguing that “the author’s interpretation of the material is a serious concern” of the book as a whole. She cites no examples from Chapter 5 though, so let me just leave you with her conclusion:

Words to live by as a colleague, our student assistants, and I wearily plod through our own survey of Korean women’s magazines advertisements this summer, of which this post is admittedly but an extended version of one of its footnotes. Thanks for reading it!

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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)

Less Than 3% of Korean Women Use the Pill. Perhaps These New Commercials That Treat Them Like Adults Might Change That.

Spot the Korean condom! Photo by Min An from Pexels. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last six years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too, and less than 3% use the monthly contraceptive pill, despite rare over-the-counter access. Women’s access to the prescription-only morning-after pill is very much only in name also.

In the midst of this, last year saw an awesome, much-needed commercial for Common Day condoms produced for social media, which focused on how empowering they are for women. Tellingly however, the notion that women could buy condoms triggered a backlash. Nor did the small company ever actually feature its condoms on its site either, although they are available to buy from online shopping malls.

You’ll appreciate then, why this recent fourth sighting of a condom on Korean screens was so important. And the hints its presence gives about the novel approach of the Senseday contraceptive pill commercial in which it can be found:

Released on June 19, a spokesperson for Yuhan (which produces the Senseday pill) said about the appearance of the condom:

…“피임은 남녀가 함께 하는 것임에도 콘돔 광고는 전무하고, 피임약 광고도 여성들에게만 피임을 권장하는 식으로 흘러가는 것이 아쉬웠다”며 “둘이 함께 책임지는 성숙한 피임 문화에 대해 화두를 던지고 싶었다”고 전했다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

…[R]egardless of whether it’s men or women using the contraceptives, it is lamentable that there is no condom advertising at all, and that contraceptive pill advertising stresses only women’s responsibility for contraception. With this commercial, we want to raise the notion that contraception is the responsibility of both partners, and encourage the development of a more mature contraceptive culture.

Journalist Kim Jeong-min at the JoongAng Ilbo notes it follows a pill commercial released in March by Mercilon (produced in Korea by Alvogen Korea), which too is a breakaway from the cutesy pill commercials of the past:

비슷한 시기에 공개된 두 광고는 과거의 피임약 광고와는 여러모로 달라 화제를 모으고 있다. ‘어떤 내가 되고 싶은지’ 고민하는 주체적 여성상을 내세운 점, 피임약 광고 최초로 남성용 피임 도구인 콘돔이 등장한 점 등에서다. 기존 피임약 광고가 수줍은 20대 여성의 이미지를 강조(2013년 머시론 광고 ‘스무살의 서툰 사랑’ 등)하거나 피임을 여성의 몫으로 표현한 것과는 다른 문법이다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

Both commercials…are gaining attention for being very different from the contraceptive pill advertisements of the past. [Mercilon’s] cry of “Whatever I want to be” stressing women asserting themselves and being independent as they think about their future, combined with the first appearance of…condoms [in Senseday’s commercial], present very different messages to that of existing contraceptive pill commercials that feature shy, bashful 20-somethings (such as Mercilon’s “Clumsy 20’s Love” from 2013 below) and/or which perpetuate the notion that contraception is women’s sole responsibility. [James—Alas, generally Korean women believe it is actually men’s sole responsibility, as noted earlier.]

An inaccuracy: the first appearance of a condom on Korean TV was in 2013, not counting a pre-ban HIV/AIDs prevention campaign in 2004. But I share Kim Jeong-min’s optimism about the potential for a sea change in Korean contraceptive advertising. Both because Yuhan and Alvogen are competing more vigorously now, due to various changes made to their licensing agreements as Kim goes on to explain, and because she wasn’t kidding about how twee Korean contraceptive pill commercials used to be. As I noted as recently as 2016, if you didn’t know any better then it was entirely possible to watch them and assume that the pill was actually a medicine, and had nothing whatsoever to do with sex and pregnancy:

“…Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial:

The voiceover says ‘My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with only “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title [in the original 2016 video was] “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.”

What do you think? How do they compare to contraceptive pill and condom commercials in your own countries? Please let me know in the comments!

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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)

Manufacturing Outrage Against Feminists: The Cosplay Edition

I read trashy entertainment news stories about women in cosplay and half-naked men, so that you don’t have to. But when they’re all that’s available, it’s netizens with agendas that get to determine what we take away from them.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes. Image sources: 스포츠하국, Pixabay (edited).

Surely it’s a bot that pumps out all these “Controversy Erupts Over K-pop Star’s Provocative Outfit” articles by now?

I’m almost serious. The names and details in the intros may change, but otherwise the articles follow the same pattern. First, you’re told about the throngs of netizens, feminists, and women’s groups who’ve criticized the sexual objectification, who are so great in number that actual names and links are usually deemed unnecessary. Next, responses from organizers of the show or event or from representatives of the star’s entertainment company are given, all of whom are men, and all of whom are stunned by the criticisms. After they recover, they’ll loudly defend her from the prudes, and join fans in praising her creative expression, sexual empowerment, and confidence and pride in her body. Finally, if we’re really lucky, we might even hear from the actual woman herself, providing a vague, suspiciously demure semi-defense or apology, which feels entirely scripted by the same men waxing lyrical about her grrrl-power.

Since Johyun of girl-group Berry Good appeared in cosplay at a gaming event on Monday June 17, “news” articles like this have appeared in the hundreds. Usually, I’d ignore them—give it a few weeks, and there’ll just be hundreds of similar articles about another immodest K-pop star to peruse, with the endless, national hand-wringing over Sulli not wearing a bra being relied upon to fill pages until then. But there’s a story about these stories which made Johyun’s case different.

I’ll let Danny Kim and David Kim of Youtube Channel DKDKTV explain, who covered the responses to her cosplay in their K-pop news video the next day (from 0:49 to 5:19):


Danny (in purple), (from 1:38): “Basically, this caused an alleged uproar led by a journalist, who called her out for promoting sexual objectification….And you know the funny thing was? She also happened to write an article about, like, how hot these male idols abs and boobs were about two years ago. Basically this one journalist wrote an article calling her out, and then all these different news outlets started covering this alleged ‘controversy’…but the weird part is it’s just that one journalist, and no-one really gives a shit. But I feel that this is like, what we call media play.”

David (in blue): “So what you’re saying is that there was one news article from that journalist, and the news just kept kinda reproducing—”

Danny: “Maybe she was, maybe the original article was allegedly offended by this outfit, but afterwards, all this like, a constant cycle of this controversy being covered when it’s not even a controversy, I think got media play. But anyway succeeded…”

David, (a little later, from 3:40): I saw the internet community reacting to her, and they were saying, like the headline was, ‘Do You Think it’s the Chosun Era?‘…Have you looked at the comments? Because, like, the most voted comment, for every article I’ve checked, is saying like, ‘Oh, it was all empowerment and strong for Hwasa [of MAMAMOO] and now you come for her, and which is all like ‘Provocative!’ and ‘Sexually objectifying!’…The comments are allegedly calling the journalist or the people who are criticizing [Johyun], like, radical feminists, because when they’re saying when like Hwasa did it, it was all fine, it was all like powerful and you know, all that stuff. But when a relatively Korean standard beauty person doing it, now, they’re like ‘OMG! She’s selling herself! OMG! That’s sexual objectification!’ Those are like double standards [too].

To summarize the charges: there was never any real controversy; the catalyst for the alleged controversy was one female journalist’s critical article; and that she hypocritically sung the praises of topless male actors in her previous articles. Let’s examine each in turn.

The first can be confirmed almost immediately. While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, I’ve read dozens of articles that simply quote anonymous critics as discussed, and I’m not going to read dozens more in the vain hope that—heaven forbid!—one journalist actually does back up what they say. If that evidence of feminist outrage exists then, the onus is on believers to provide it. And they haven’t been doing a very convincing job so far:

Source: Netizenbuzz.
Source: Netizenbuzz.

The second charge that a female journalist’s critical article sparked the whole media play though, is completely wrong. And that’s also very easy to prove.

The article in question, which I’ll give my translation of in a moment, was “‘Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.’ In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent?” / “‘완벽vs불쾌’ 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까”, written by Jo Yeon-gyeong (조연경) for Ilgan Sports (일간스포츠) and published at 8:37pm on Monday the 17th; from there, it was syndicated to Daum, where it currently has 1700 comments. The timing is crucial: do a search with the words “Johyun,” “Berry Good,” and “Controversy” on Naver, Korea’s biggest portal site, and it’s evident that numerous articles with that key final search term were published throughout the day, well before Yeon-gyeong’s in the evening. Moreover, that search is just of Naver and just with the word “controversy” attached to Johyun’s name; there’s also some earlier ones that mention, say, “sexual objectification,” with or without the specific word “controversy” too. Hell, even if you don’t speak Korean, just by clicking on the links to the four articles Netizenbuzz covered you can see that all of those preceded it as well.

To point out Danny and David’s mistake isn’t intended to imply anything: they’re busy YouTubers pumping out three videos a week, of which this story was just one short segment of one. Also, I appreciated their comments that Johyun’s smiling and easy demeanor at the event in no way implies her consent with the outfit chosen for her, which speaks to the difficulties in judging exploitation within and reporting on the notoriously controlling K-pop industry, a topic I’ve covered in depth elsewhere.

That said, their sloppy mistake, however inadvertent and lacking in malice, does perpetuate the stereotype of the interfering feminist, outraged over trifles that normal people couldn’t care less about. To understand why that version of events came about, and snowballed to the extent that that’s the one Danny and David took notice of, let’s examine what the journalist actually said:

“Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.” In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent? “완벽vs불쾌” 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까

Jo Yeon-gyeong, Ilgan Sports, 2019.06.17 20:37

이쯤되면 입힌 사람도, 입은 사람도 잘못이다. 반짝 이슈에 이미지를 홀라당 날려 버렸다. 응원하는 이들만큼 불쾌감 섞인 비난도 뒤따른다. 후폭풍을 전혀 예상하지 못했을까. 그 또한 패착이다.

Whether Johyun chose the outfit, or whether it was chosen for her, we cannot say. Either way, the hot issue that suddenly arose from it is the question of if she has ruined her image. There are as many people supporting her as there are critics or those made to feel uncomfortable by her outfit. We can not know yet what to make of the aftermath. Or if the choice was misguided.

베리굿 조현이 노출 논란에 휩싸였다. 과감한 코스프레 의상이 문제였다.

Because of her daring, provocative outfit, Johyun has been engulfed in controversy.

조현은 17일 서울 상암동 에스플렉스 센터OGN e스타디움에서 열린 ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’ 행사에 참석했다. ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’는 게임을 즐겨하는 아이돌 스타들이 게임 실력을 겨루는 아이돌 e스포츠 대회로, 이날 행사에는 약 40명의 아이돌 스타들이 참석했다.

On Monday the 17th, Johyun participated in OGN’s Game Dolympic 2019: Golden Card event at the Seoul OGN e-STADIUM in Samam-dong, along with approximately 40 other idols. As part of the event, idols showed off their skills competing against each other at e-games.

조현은 ‘리그 오브 레전드’의 구미호 캐릭터 아리 코스프레 의상을 차려입고 카메라 앞에 섰다. 게임 행사인 만큼 게임 속 캐릭터 의상을 착용한 자체는 문제가 되지 않는다. 하지만 가슴과 엉덩이가 훤히 드러나는 의상은 분명 과했다. 떨어지는 퀄리티에 스타킹 라인도 고스란히 노출됐다.

Johyun cosplayed as the nine-tailed fox character Ahri from League of Legends, and stood in front of the cameras [on the red carpet]. That she cosplayed is not a problem. However, her choice of clothing clearly exposed her breasts and bottom to an excessive degree. The outfit was poor quality too, and fully revealed her suspenders. (Source, right: Bias Wrecker.)

섹시와 저렴은 한끗차이다. 조현은 의도했든 의도하지 않았든 스스로 목적 뚜렷한 눈요깃거리가 됐고, 조롱의 대상이 됐다.

There’s a fine line between sexiness and looking cheap. Whatever Jo-hyun’s intentions were, she’s plainly just there as eye-candy, and is now an object of mockery.

물론 ‘완벽한 코스프레’라 극찬하는 이들도 있다. ‘코스프레일 뿐인데 왜 난리냐’ ‘하다하다 별걸 다 갖고 논란. 예쁘기만 하다’ ‘뭐가 과하고 뭐가 야하다는건지 모르겠다. 코스프레 무식자들’ ‘캐릭터 의상이 원래 저런데 어쩌라고’ ‘잘 입었다. 칭찬해 주고 싶다’ 등 옹호 반응도 쏟아지고 있다.

Of course, there are people who speak highly of this “perfect cosplay.” Those rushing to her support have made such arguments as “It’s just cosplay. What’s all the fuss?”, “Whatever she does, there’s controversy. Can’t you just acknowledge she’s pretty?”, “I really don’t know what’s revealing or excessive about her outfit. Only people who know nothing about cosplay would say such things”, and “She’s just dressed like the original character is dressed. I want to compliment her for that.”

특히 조현이 입은 의상은 주최 측과 사전 상의한 결과였다. 취지에 어긋나지 않고, 자리를 빛내기 위한 선택이었다는 것.

Crucially however, the choice of outfit was in made in prior consultation with the organizers and hosts of the event. It was not inappropriate for the event, and was chosen to lighten it up.

소속사 제이티지엔터테인먼트 측은 “평소 게임을 좋아하는 조현이 게임 행사에 참여하게 됐고, 주최 측과 협의 후 코스프레를 완벽히 소화하기 위해 준비한 의상을 착용했다”며 “조현이 평소 게임을 좋아하기 때문에 팬들과 더 많이 소통하고 싶어 했다”고 전했다.

A source from her entertainment company JTG Entertainment [further clarified] that “Johyun is a big fan of games, and that is how she came to participate in the event; the outfit that was chosen in consultation with the event hosts worked out for her beautifully. Also, that “Through wearing the outfit, Johyun hoped to better communicate her love of games to her fans.”

그럼에도 불구하고 ‘성상품화를 자처했다’는 목소리가 더 높은 실정이다. 이에 따른 네티즌들의 갑론을박도 점점 더 격렬해지고 있다. 의도가 무엇이었든 단발성 이슈 몰이에는 성공한 모양새다. 이후 조현이 보여 줄 행보가 그녀의 진정한 이미지를 결정짓게 만들 것으로 보인다.

Despite this, the accusations that she was sexually objectified have grown in number, and netizens have intensely debated the pros and cons of her choice of outfit—whatever her intentions [James—or those of JTG Entertainment], she’s certainly been successful in becoming the issue of the week. After it dies down, her true image will be determined by the paths she takes in the future. [End]

Source: 5:18, TopStarNews.Net@YouTube

Whatever you make of Jo Yeong-gyeong’s opinion piece, it’s only slightly harsher than those by many other journalists. Yet it’s her that has been made the figurehead for feminist outrage and overreaction by the more tabloidish and alt-right corners of the Korean internet, buttressed by her alleged hypocrisy and double-standards:

Sources: MLBPark (1; since deleted); 2)

Her haters generally provide five of her previous articles as evidence. I won’t translate them fully sorry (my first one above probably already pushes the limits of fair use), just those parts about “how hot those male idols abs and boobs were.”

First, one from October 2016, about a scene from the drama Sweet Stranger and Me, in which Kim Young-kwang appears wearing only an apron on top in front of Park Soo-ae:

주목할 것은 김영광의 차림이다. 상의는 입지 않은 채 빨간 앞치마만 걸치고 있는 그의 모습은 궁금증을 유발하기 충분하다.

특히 김영광의 태평양 어깨와 힐끗 보이는 잔근육, 팔의 힘줄은 시선을 압도, 여심을 흔들게 할 전망이다.

또 수애 앞에 바짝 다가선 김영광은 남성미를 폭발시켜 미묘한 긴장감을 형성한다. 이에 앞으로 두 사람에게 무슨 일이 생길지 기대감을 높인다.

Man of the drama title Kim Young-kwang is getting a lot of attention for a scene in which he’s topless but for a red kitchen apron.

In particular, he’s aroused the interest of women with his broad shoulders and the veins on his bulging muscles. Also, as he approaches Park Soo-ae, we suddenly become aware of his masculine beauty, and the building tension between them. With bated breaths, we wait to see what will happen next.

Next, from March 2017, about an episode of the Law of the Jungle reality TV show, in which the male guests took off their tops in the rain:

이에 따라 예상치 못하게 병만족의 숨겨왔던 초콜릿 복근도 공개됐다. 상의를 벗은 병만족은 함께 목욕탕에 온 것처럼 서로의 등을 밀어주기도 하고 장난도 치며 돈독한 우정을 다졌다. 다들 “자연인이 된 것 같아”, “진짜 시원하다. 대박이에요.” 등의 반응을 보이며 행복해했다고.

그 모습을 멀리서 지켜보던 홍일점 경리는 “나도 같이 벗고 싶었다. 그러나 여자라 참았다”며 알몸 샤워하는 남자 병만족을 부러워했다는 후문이다.

As they took off their tops, the “chocolate abs” of [host] Kim Byung-man‘s “tribe” were revealed, and the men began massaging each other’s backs and getting friendly as if they were in a bathhouse back at home. They were very happy, saying things like “It’s great to get so close to nature,” “This is so refreshing. It’s just the best!”

Watching from a distance, the only female member of the tribe, Nine Muses’s Park Kyung-ri, later revealed, “I really wanted to take off my clothes too. But because I was the only woman, I just had to put up with it. I was really jealous of the men being able to shower half-nude.”

From September 2017, when several members of Korean-Chinese boy-band Exo appeared on variety show It’s Dangerous Beyond The Blankets:

Source: @EXOXiuminTurkey; all other images from their original articles.

물놀이를 해본 지가 언제인지 까마득한 집돌이들은 계속 한참을 머뭇거리다 수영장에 들어갔는데, 이후에도 무엇을 해야 할지 몰라 하며 당황하는 모습을 보였다. 하지만 곧 자신들만의 물놀이에 빠져들어 상의 탈의를 감행, 그동안 그들이 소중하게 간직하고 있던 근육까지 공개하는 열의를 보이며 열띤 시간을 보냈다는 후문에 기대감을 증폭 시키고 있다.

At first the homebodies hesitated to get into the water, not having been in the swimming pool for a while. And once they did get in, it was like they didn’t know what to do. But in the end, they got so energized by the water that they took off their tops and showed off their hidden muscles with alacrity. Viewers’ expectations for the episode [which had then yet to be aired] will be high!

Then again on the Law of the Jungle reality TV show in February 2018, with Kim Yu-gyeom, Lee Tae-gon, and Kim Yun-sang enjoying themselves in a stream:

유겸의 상남자 매력은 다음날 과일 탐사에서도 어김없이 빛났다. 이틀 만에 소금기 없는 민물을 발견한 유겸은 거침없이 상의를 벗어 던지고 물속에 몸을 내던져 정글에서의 첫 샤워를 즐겼다. 이를 본 김윤상 아나운서는 “역시 아이돌이라서 그런지 몸매가 훈훈하다”며 눈을 떼지 못했다.

[After catching a fish with his bare hands the day before], Yu-gyeom’s masculine beauty was on his display while fruitpicking. In just two days, he found a fresh water source, threw off his clothes to dive into some water, and enjoyed a shower in the jungle. Kim Yun-sang [James—a cishet guy, in case of any confusion!] couldn’t keep his eyes off him, explaining his figure was just so admirable.

And finally in May 2018, about an episode of The Return of Superman in which volleyball player Moon Sung-min visited the bathhouse with his son Shi-ho:

…문성민 아빠와 시호 부자는 목욕탕에서 완벽한 몸매를 자랑하며 몸짱에 등극해 시청자들의 이목을 사로잡을 전망이다.

방송 전 공개된 사진 속 문성민 아빠와 시호는 목욕탕에서 신나는 시간을 보내고 있다. 만점 비주얼의 문성민 아빠의 훈훈한 미소와 완벽한 초콜릿 복근은 심쿵을 유발한다. 시호의 깜찍한 웃음은 매우 사랑스럽다.

이날 시호·리호는 배구선수인 문성민 아빠의 직장에 방문했다. 그곳에서 시호는 문성민 아빠와 공놀이를 하며 즐거운 시간을 보냈다고. 운동을 끝낸 두 사람은 흘린 땀을 씻기 위해 목욕탕으로 향했다. 목욕탕에 등장한 문성민-시호 부자에 모두가 심쿵했다는 전언이다. 문성민 아빠가 완벽한 식스팩을 자랑하며 모습을 드러냈기 때문.

…Moon Sung-min captured the audience’s attention by showing off his perfect body in the bathhouse.

Shi-ho and Sung-min had an enjoyable time there. Sung-min got hearts racing with his perfect visuals, charming smile, and perfect chocolate abs. Shi-ho’s cute laughing was very lovable too.

After having an enjoyable time at Sung-min’s workplace, the two of them went to the bathhouse to wash off their sweat. It was said that all the other patrons of the bathhouse almost stopped in their tracks at the sight of Sung-min showing off his perfect six-pack.

Making the big assumption that it’s not actually her editor that chooses the slant of all of her articles, perhaps from those you could indeed argue that Danny and David Kim’s third charge is correct: she was being hypocritical about Johyun. Against that however, you could respond that much of her concern about Johyun’s image stems from how unusual the cosplay was for her, in contrast to the male actors and boy-band members for whom taking their tops off for the cameras is a matter of routine. To which you could counter that, whether through choice or coercion, Johyun is actually very used to being objectified, as are the other members of Berry Good. And so on.

But to engage in that debate means not seeing the forest for the trees. Because if even we do concede the double-standards, all these articles are still just trashy entertainment news. Those short excerpts above? They’re actually half or more of the entire “news articles” in some cases. That’s not to single Jo Yeon-gyeong out, or imply that she’s bad at her job. Quite the opposite—it’s to point out that as a producer of quick, throwaway clickbait (hey, she makes more money from writing than I do), that in each case above, everything she said about the man boobs and chocolate abs was also made by dozens or even more other journalists like her. Many of who might even be men.

Forgive my own hypocrisy in not providing links to them; frankly, as I type this I’m just exhausted after a week of unpaid research, translation, and 3200 words on this myself. So, if you do have your doubts on that last, please indulge me with the two minutes of googling necessary to confirm.

That’s something the paid journalists were not prepared to do. Instead, we were asked just take to their word for it that Johyun’s cosplay was controversial.

Is it any wonder that people would form their own narratives instead?

Or that the version of events by the group with the biggest axe to grind would come to dominate the story?

For make no mistake: singling out a female journalist for articles that she may have had no choice over, which were replicated by many other male and female colleagues, is as misogynistic as they come.

Related Posts:

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

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. Which is heinous not because either are unethical, but because such ads exist so openly in a society where sex work and pornography are both illegal, and which would never see the light of day if they were placed in traditional media.

Which begs the question: just how did Korea’s internet 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 K-pop 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 above article, and has the potential to put men off offending brands. Accordingly, evidence of sexualization’s effectiveness on Korean consumers 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 would be 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 this 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 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 various 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, if the government started to enforce the same standards for internet ads as it does for all other forms of pop culture, that would surely be 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)