Korean Sociological Image #44: Westerners, Nipples, and the Presentation of Sexuality in the Korean Media

( Source: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7. Cropped slightly)

It’s amazing what pops up in Korean newspapers these days.

Yes, however difficult it may be for overseas readers to believe, that is the actually the first nipple my Korean wife, friends, and I have ever seen in a Korean advertisement. Moreover, it’s probably no coincidence that it belongs to a Caucasian model too, and one that looks like she’s about to get involved in a ménage à trois at that.

Focusing on the nipple first though (as one does), let me provide some context: with the important exception of ubiquitous single-sex bathhouses, Koreans are generally more conservative than Anglophones when it comes to public nudity; topless males are extremely rare away from beaches, swimming pools, and concert stages for instance, and topless females unheard of, let alone full nudists of either sex (recall also that just 5-10 years ago, women even covered their swimsuits with t-shirts too). In addition, while female celebrities have been showing a lot of cleavage in recent years, this trend has yet to be adopted by ordinary women, whom can expect just as much unwanted attention if they accidentally leave home bra-less.

However, breast-feeding is generally fine if done discreetly, and indeed one of the first things I noticed in my first time in a Korean supermarket 10 years ago was a brand of milk (or soy milk) that prominently featured a large breast and a suckling baby on its packaging. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name to find an image, but I do also recall that it was by no means hidden away in any sense.

I doubt that that would have been considered acceptable in New Zealand from which I’d just left, and in that vein note that the current trend for visible nipples in the Western media at least remains precisely that: a trend, and certainly not an liberal, progressive ideal that Korean social mores will somehow inexorably shift towards in the future. For all its eroticism, it pales compared to the standards of the 1970s for instance (see this NSFW example from a 1976 Cosmopolitan), while in Korea no less an authority than Tom Coyner points out (also NSFW) that 60 years ago Korean mothers in the countryside dressed with readily visible breasts “with pride if they had just given birth to a son.”

( Source )

So why the nipple now? Unfortunately, little about the advertisement or the drink provides a clue: “That’s Y” (댓츠와이) is merely a wine cooler (or alcopop?) produced by Lotte Chilsung (롯데칠성음료) since 2008, like wine coolers everywhere primarily marketed to 20-somethings. Judging by its moribund website though, then it hasn’t been selling very successfully (probably why there was a shift to selling it in more stylish bottles rather than cans last month), so one can speculate that Lotte Chilsung was desperate to draw people’s attention to it. Judging by the complete absence of reaction from netizens and the media so far however, strangely that “sex sells” strategy doesn’t appear to have worked.

Ultimately more significant then, is the race of the models in the advertisement in which it appears. Why are they Caucasian? And are Koreans ever portrayed in such brazenly sexual situations as that?

Again, Lotte Chilsung provides no clue: in fact only one more print advertisement for the drink is available online in addition to what you see here. That did also only feature Caucasian women, but then the above one has Korean women in it, and the only television commercial below also only has Koreans too (of both sexes). But looking at the wider context however, then of course there is overwhelming evidence that Caucasians are indeed portrayed more sexually than Koreans in the media here, and particularly women.

Why? Well, assuming that you’ve read that last link, then for one consider how well an artificial dichotomy between virginal, sexually passive Korean women and hypersexual, promiscuous Caucasian ones buttresses extensive human-trafficking in East European and Russian women here. And as for the guys, the notion that foreign male English teachers are oversexed, and thus more likely to be pedophiles than their Korean counterparts, certainly does serve to deflect attention away from the latter. Although one wonders why the Korean media bothers sometimes; after all, just this week apparently even politicians feel perfectly justified in presenting a completely imaginarywave” of sexual crimes by them to justify ever more stringent visa regulations.

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And I could go on, but I’d be much more interested in hearing readers’ own ideas. In the case of this particular advertisement though, I acknowledge that it may not in fact be the first nipple out there(!), but regardless let me pose the question of if you think Korean models instead would have aroused more or less controversy to get you started.

Against the argument that there are plenty of risqué ads with Koreans these days though, and so I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, then for sure, and you don’t have to look very far on this blog to find numerous discussions of how much things have changed just in the last 2 years. But look again: a threesome? And virtually in flagrante delicto on the sofa at that? By all means *ahem* pass on any Korean examples you’ve come across, but in the meantime I’d argue that while the goalposts for what is considered a “shocking advertisement” in Korea do indeed change over time, somehow Caucasians still seem to be in the majority of them!

Update – With thanks to Dave for passing it on, who apparently had much sharper eyes than I did back then, in fact there was a commercial with erect nipples as early as 2006. And yes, you guessed it: that had Caucasians too!

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)