Korean Sociological Image #51: Male Objectification and Double Standards

What would be your reaction if this flashed on your TV screen?

Mine was that hard abs aren’t the best analogy for airbags. But my mistake: they’re not supposed to be. Rather, Hyundai needed something to signify the number of airbags as the voiceover went through various specs of the car.

Which, to be fair, is much clearer in the full commercial.

How about if a proper airbag analogy had been used instead, like Mercedes Benz did back in 2006?


If you found that objectification distasteful however, then consider the following from Renault/Samsung in 2008 below also:

Which uses the same analogy, but is clearly quite a contrast to BMW’s puerile effort. Nevertheless, some commenters on an earlier post (update: since deleted sorry!) did still have some issues with it, whereas nobody on this blog at least has had any with all of the men’s 6-packs that suddenly started appearing in Korean commercials from last year.

But I’m sure you’re already well-aware of that double-standard, so the purpose of this post is not just to draw your attention to it. Nor to simply pass on that juxtaposition of advertisements, however interesting. In combination with a recent development in the Korean media though, what that juxtaposition did serve to do was make me realize both the rapid mainstreaming and dogmatic nature of that double-standard here, and which is a combination that I think is pretty unique to Korea too.

Let me explain.

Actually, the first I already have: consider how popular the new buzzword “chocolate abs” (초콜릿복근) is in the Korean media now as a result of all the recent ads featuring them for instance (see here, here, here, #8 here, and this new one below for examples and/or discussion), whereas it didn’t even make a list of buzzwords at the end of last year.

Against that sudden popularity however, you could argue that they’ve actually already been around for a long time in music videos. As Hoon-Soon Kim explains of some from 2000 in “Korean Music Videos, Postmodernism, and Gender Politics” in Jung-Hwa Oh (ed.), Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea (2005) for instance, albeit with more of a focus on the emergence of the “Flower Men” or kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon than male objectification per se:

…we see that there is a new type of male image emerging albeit in a small number of music videos. It is a de-gendered image of men which is a contrast to the macho image. Male groups such as Y2K, H.O.T., ITYM, and Sinwha, whose fans are mostly teenage girls, portray this image. They wear make-up and a lot of jewelry and ornaments – which are all considered feminine – and take off their shirts to show off their bodies. This indicates that the male body is also sexually objectified as the female body….The style of the video is similar to that used to show female images with extreme close-ups to fill the screen with a face, and medium-range or full body shots for dances. Although there is a risk of overstating the phenomenon, this image could be interpreted as a signal indicating the possibility of breaking the binary boundaries of men and women that have been formed in a patriarchal culture. (p. 207)

And yet just like in ads, the amount of male objectification in music videos—or to be specific, ab exposure—does also seem to have picked up markedly in the past year or so. Like Multi explained back in March:

…in the past month the internet has been flooded with pictures of Korean celebrities and their abs (as well as some other shots that are not entirely SFW – you’re over 18 you can check them out here, and here). Our favorite controversial band 2PM just did an extensive photoshoot and were topless for most of it (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). Lee Joon of the new boy group MBLAQ flashes his abs a whole lot, because the king of ab-flashing, and Korean superstar extraordinaire, Rain, who happens to be his boss, tells him to because the fans like it, (yup, we sure do ;) and everyone wants to get pictures of them (exhibit A, B, C, among countless others). Then there’s these guys, this guy and this guy, and like 50 others. And then countless polls as to whose abs are better.

To be precise, Rain told Lee Joon that taking off his shirt has far more effect on his audiences than his dancing. And as “the king of ab-flashing”, then of course he could have been talking about himself instead (actually, I thought he was originally), so I can hardly fault him for showing off his own abs so frequently in his own music videos and performances. But rarely in harmony with his song’s lyrics and/or even his choreography however, and so for me personally he more epitomizes just how cynical and commercially-driven the trend has become, with obvious parallels to more familiar ones for female performers. Check out from 2:55 here for instance:

And my critique of the trend as “commercially-driven” is no mere cliche, because whereas it’s mostly young girl-groups that have sprung up in the past year or so (see here for a handy chart), likewise Korean male singers have to adapt to the Korean music industry’s overwhelming reliance on musicians’ product endorsements, appearances on variety shows, and casting in dramas to make profits (as opposed to actually selling music). This encourages their agencies to make them stand out and differentiate themselves from each other by coming up ever more sexual lyrics and/or performances and music videos: namely, more abs from the guys, let alone feigned fellatio, feigned sex on beds, or even virtual rapes of audience members on stage during performances.

Allkpop argues that it’s consumers that are driving this trend however, and that this explains the imbalance between new girl and boy groups:

It looks like girl groups don’t seem to have as high of a failure rate as boy groups or solo singers. These new girl groups have already been gaining so much attention. The reason why you can rely on girl groups to bring in the income is because there’s always teenage boys and ahjusshi (old men) fans to trust. They can also go perform at various events which always require a pay day. Supposedly, Secret gets paid around $8000 per event performance while a group like 4minute gets paid around $12,000 per event.

And yet while that is not incorrect per se, Multi goes on to explain in her post that it is largely female fan club members in their 30s and 40s that are driving this trend, not unlike how I’ve demonstrated that the same demographic (and often exactly the same women) were the driving force behind the full emergence of the kkotminam phenomenon back around the time of the 2002 World Cup. Hence I’d argue that the imbalance is more the result of top-down imperatives then, with many similarities to the American media ideal of female sexuality getting progressively younger over the last 3 decades…and for the same profit-driven motives.

But I digress: for more on that, see a forthcoming Part 2 of my “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea” series, which I’ll link to here once it’s up (update: and here it is!). In the meantime, hopefully by this stage you can see why celebrities so dominate advertising here, and which is already an industry not exactly averse to perpetuating celebrities’ agencies’ inherent needs to use sex to sell. Moreover, whereas it’s true that the content of ads worldwide does tend to lag behind social trends, as even just the title of Kwangok Kim and Dennis Lowry’s journal article “Television Commercials as a Lagging Social Indicator: Gender Role Stereotypes in Korean Television Advertising” in Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 11/12 December 2005 suggests, once they do start appearing in ads then that wider exposure (no pun intended) can have a profound effect in mainstreaming them:

According to cultivation theory, the media play an important role in creating distorted views. This theory suggests that exposure to media content creates a worldview, or a consistent image of social behavior, norms, values, and structures, based on the stable view of society provided by the media. In other words, cultivation theory posits that consistent images and portrayals construct a specific portrait of reality, and as viewers see more and more images, they gradually come to cultivate or adopt attitudes and expectations about the world that coincide with the images they see. Although this model has typically been employed to explain the impact of of television violence, it also has been applied successfully to the cultivation of attitudes towards gender roles. (p. 902, references removed)

(“Bob’s Television Dream” by Robert Couse-Baker)

And in particular:

Although television viewers often claim that commercials do not affect them in negative ways, repeated images in television advertising may already have created a “mainstreaming effect,” as suggested by cultivation theory. Television has the power to cultivate people to have the same views of the world, for example, stereotypical views of gender roles in our society. In other words, the mainstreaming effect reduces cultural and political differences among television viewers. Studies have shown that heavy television viewing may influence children’s perceptions of behaviors and psychological characteristics associated with gender…and [one other] found that heavy viewers of television commercials among the elderly were more likely than light viewers to perceive characters (e.g., the elderly) in commercials as realistic (i.e., mainstreaming effect). It may not be advertisers’ full responsibility to reflect statistically accurate images of society. However, the burden of responsibility is on the advertisers when they fail to reflect the rapid changes in such stereotypes in our society. (p. 908, references removed)

But still, how exactly does simple exposure to those ads necessarily result in us adopting the attitudes and worldviews contained therein, as if by osmosis or something?

Well first, consider their sheer number: “In the United States alone, the average person may be exposed to 500 and 1000 commercial messages a day”, according to p.34 of Essentials of Contemporary Advertising by William Arens and David Schaefer (2007). And like Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen explain in their prologue to Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (1992), it’s amazing how subtly, profoundly, and almost entirely unconsciously this daily barrage affects us. Quite a charming narrative, which no-one can fail to be more interested in advertising after reading, I’ve scanned it for you below:

But regardless of whatever is ultimately responsible for the timing and/or mainstreaming of men exposing their abs in the Korean media, I’m sure we can all agree that they are now here to stay (and there was much rejoicing). And in a sense, this was indirectly confirmed by SBS recently when it decided to ban female performers from exposing their navels and/or abs on its popular Inkigayo (인기가요) show, whereas male performers remain free to rip off their own shirts: the “recent development in the Korean media” that I referred to in the introduction.

Why is that ban more significant than the plethora of others however? And why is it not exceptional, but in fact genuinely reflects deeply ambivalent and dogmatic societal attitudes to—for want of a better term—women’s top halves? Alas, it was my original intention to jump straight into that second part here, but with this post already at 2000 words (and well overdue), then I’ll wisely defer those 1500 extra ones to a separate post later in the week.


Until then, a request, lest anyone feel I’ve been too critical of Rain here: does anybody know the name of a recent music video that features 2 young male singers vying for the affections of a woman, taking off their tops repeatedly (perhaps 10 times) and walking around half-naked for most of the video as they sing…before finally noticing that the woman has taken advantage of their distracted state by stealing their jeep?

Please do pass it on if you do, as I feel it actually much better epitomizes just “how cynical and commercially-driven the [ab-exposure] trend has become” than Rain does, and which even heterosexual women and gay men that see it will probably agree is a little excessive, let alone extremely lame. Moreover, while I don’t claim to have suddenly seen the light as a result, and can now completely empathize with women’s feelings about their own pervasive objectification in the media…I do think the eye-rolling, sense-of-exasperation, and literal gagging I experienced is at least a start towards doing so!^^

Update: With thanks to Katarina, the video is I was Able to Eat Well by 2AM’s Changmin & 8eight’s Lee Hyun:

Clearly, I exaggerated it in my memory. But understandably, as with them so so eager to shed their clothes together in the garage parking lot from roughly 0:59 for instance (for the sake of showing off their abs), that segment at least seriously resembles a gay porn video.

Probably actually objectifying the woman even more than the men though, then I take it all back: Rain’s performances do best epitomize the ab craze!

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