“Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1

(Source: SeoulBeats)

Be warned: Gender Advertisements, by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, is one of those books that changes your life forever.

Well, not life-changing like reading The Communist Manifesto inspired an Argentine ex-lecturer of mine to start shooting police officers. But you will pay much more attention to advertising messages, of which you already receive between 500 and 1000 every day. (Yes, it’s really that many.)

Of course, advertisements have changed considerably since the book was published in 1979, and are much less sexist overall. But indeed that’s precisely because of the attention given to them. Moreover, some elements have actually gotten worse, advertising to children for instance now an embarrassment compared to the relatively gender-neutral tone of the early-1980s (compare these to this, this, and this), and also there is now so much partial nudity in advertisements that several researchers argue that a new category has had to be added to Goffman’s framework to analyze it.

However, partial nudity isn’t objectifying or sexist per se: rather, it is the manner and context in which it is applied. And if that is the case, then you can imagine how problematic applying Goffman’s framework as a whole to Korean advertisements is, in which such different cultural codes operate.

Or do they? In at least one case, yes: social status usually trumps all other considerations in Korea, and so having one person (usually a man) elevated above another (usually a woman) in an advertisement, perhaps by him sitting and her reclining on the floor in front of him, by no means implies superiority, rendering that subcategory of Goffman’s “Ritualization of Subordination” category problematic (see here and here for examples). Still others, such as cute and/or childlike depictions of women, or having them staring off into the distance rather than directly back at the viewer (a subcategory of “Licensed Withdrawal”), are not necessarily sexist in light of East Asian notions of metrosexuality and politeness respectively, as helpfully pointed out by reader Melissa. And in point of fact the only analysis (Nam et al, 2007) that has looked at men as well as women in Korean magazine advertisements did find that Korean men were depicted much more childishly and “withdrawn” than Western men in them.

Still, while this point is easy to miss in posts that necessarily give only a few illustrative examples, surveys of depictions of men and women in advertisements using Goffman’s framework are made to determine if there are statistically significant differences between them as a whole. And, if those are found, then there are a number of different cultural and anthropological explanations that can be suggested in addition to feminist ones: Occidentalism, for instance, may have played a role in the above result, or the fact that it is quite acceptable for Korean 20-somethings of both sexes to behave in a manner that many Westerners might consider childish (see here for possible reasons for this). Alternatively, Nam et al (2007) found that Western women were much more likely than Korean women to be depicted in a lower physical position than men, such as by him standing and her reclining in a chair on on the floor, but while this could be interpreted positively (for Korean women), much more likely is the fact that status trumps all other considerations in Korea, and so to be physically lower than someone else by no means implies that one is the inferior. Accordingly, there were no statistical differences between Korean men and women in this regard.

Other differences however, like the fact that regardless of the social norms I’ve discussed, Korean women are still depicted childishly or withdrawn more often than Korean men for instance, are extremely difficult to account for other than in terms of their inferior social and economic status in Korea. Or in other words, while an individual advertisement depicting a woman like a child isn’t necessarily sexist in itself, that there’s more of them than there are of men is certainly evidence of sexism. Moreover, I fail to see how noticing discrepancies like this is somehow Eurocentric of me, or “looking at Korean society through Western eyes.” Which is not at all to say that Melissa argued that, but others have.

Update: Specifically, aegyo is often claimed as a form of empowerment that Westerners fail to appreciate. In which case, guilty as charged: when (usually) women act like children to manipulate (usually older, higher-ranked, and/or richer) men, how is that anything but wholly accommodating to a patriarchal system?

(Source: Unknown)

In response, in what was originally intended to be a single post here I wanted to discuss the problems Kang (1997), Hovland et al (2005), and Nam et al (2007) had with Goffman’s framework, the alterations they made to it, and the latter two’s discussion of how appropriate various categories of it were to the Korean context.

In particular, the last found that Western men and women were more likely to be depicted as partially nude than their Korean counterparts, but with allowances again for Occidentalism, and the fact that Korean female models will rarely appear in lingerie advertisements (of which the authors were unaware, and so didn’t account for), they argue that this is again evidence of sexism because in fact “many scantily garbed women [emit] a sense of independence and confidence.” While I’d be a bit more circumspect than that myself, fortunately having long since on moved on from the days when I automatically equated bikinis with feminist liberation, they do have a point, particularly in a society where the majority of women were too scared to wear them 5-10 years ago.

Also, I wanted to discuss the “female-stereotypical” depictions of Korean men in advertisements like Melissa identified, posing a challenge as they do to especially Western men’s notions of masculinity. Unfortunately however, for reasons of space and ease of reading those will have to wait for Part 2 and perhaps even a Part 3. Instead, having provided a grounding in this post, let me devote the rest of it to a practical example of another discrepancy in the ways men and women are portrayed in advertisements, one that I stumbled onto by accident in the process of investigating the Evisu (에비수) advertisement at the beginning of the post.

Featuring Jung Yun-ho (정윤호; also know as “U-know”) of the boy band TVXQ (I don’t know who the woman is sorry), the first thing it reminded me of was this:

(Source: Shine So Cold)

Of which I wrote this back in November 2008 (update: since edited out sorry):

Personally, it took me a few moments to figure out what this advertisement is supposed to represent exactly: were the couple prisoners? No…why would their sunglasses be tied up too? How apart parts from a model kit then? No…then they’d be disassembled, and besides which the man appears to be raised from the white background a little, a rather awkward position for a model component. And then I realized that he’s actually standing, which would mean that the woman is too, although I can surely be forgiven for thinking that she’s lying down.

So probably they’re supposed to be like a Barbie and Ken doll set in a box, like you find in a toy store. But then why is the women tied down so helplessly, whereas the man, ostensibly also tied down, looks – as the photographer points out – firmly grounded and in control? I haven’t been looking (sorry!), but I dare say that Barbie and Ken dolls don’t leave the Mattel factory like that in real life. So why would the advertisers choose to depict them like that?

Granted, it’s a much more extreme example than the own with Yun-ho. But while I don’t mean to equate the two, that is indeed what it reminded me of, and the final question I pose is just as relevant.

But in terms of Goffman’s framework itself, probably this is more similar:

(Source: Tech Fatale)

And with that, let me add “participation shields,” a subcategory of Licensed Withdrawal, to add to all those others I’ve already elaborated on here, here, here, and here as well as those in this post. This is what Goffman (1979) had to say about it:

It is possible to look in on a social situation from a distance or from a one-way panel—a “participation shield”—and be little seen oneself, in which case one can, in effect, partake of the the events but not be exposed to scrutiny or address. A splitting up this results between some of the gains and some of the costs of face-to-face interaction. I might note that when one’s participation is thus shielded, simultaneous maintenance of dissociated side involvements would seem to be facilitated, since these could hardly intrude between oneself and one’s availability to the others in the situation – one not being available at all.

A ritualization of participation shielding occurs when one presents oneself as if on the edge of the situation or otherwise shielded from it physically, when in fact one is quite accessible to those in it. Still further ritualization is found in commercial posings. (p.70)

Then he gives examples of using walls as shields, then window frames, then various objects, then animals, and finally people:

…with the consequent opportunity to overlay distance with a differentiating expression, in the extreme, collusive betrayal of one’s shield. (p. 72)

Here are some examples he provides, from my scan of page 73:

And I think the Evisu advertisement is a good example of that last point, as Jung Yun-ho’s aggressive, confrontational stance is betrayed by that of the inquisitive, unconcerned expression of the woman partially hiding behind him. But lest I contradict myself and read too much into one image (and I’ll grant that those above are deliberately much more extreme cases), again let’s consider the discrepancies among the advertisements currently on the Evisu website. In particular, when the woman and Jung Yun-ho are by themselves, both have strong, confident stances, good examples of the “Independence/Self-Assurance” category first suggested by Kang (1997) and expanded on Nam (2007) which I’ll be discussing in Part 2:

(Source, all remaining images: Evisu)

So why then, in most of the few Evisu advertisements that have a man and a woman together, are the women relegated so to speak? But don’t just take my word for it. Instead, see all of them for yourself, starting from the most glaring example to the least:

Note also that only the woman has the “head cant” in each, which I discuss here.

But here is one example that is the complete opposite to all the above:

And I include this one also as it’s the only other one with two people, although strictly speaking it shouldn’t be counted:

Personally I think that the woman on the right above is not quite as “out of it” as she in her advertisements with a man, but I’ll grant that that’s open to debate, as is how much she is using the man as a participation shield in that second advertisement in which she is wearing black gloves. But that’s precisely the point: again, those are all the advertisements with more than one person in them on the Evisu website as a I type this (please note that the first one with Jung Yun-ho isn’t on the website though), and so please make your own minds up about whether there is a discrepancy in the way the men and women are depicted in them. Naturally, I think it’s obvious that there is, but if you agree and yet have a non-feminist, culturally-based argument for its existence however, then I’m all ears.

Meanwhile, a note on the sources for this post: if they look very familiar to regular readers, then that’s because there have been so few surveys of Korean advertisements made using Goffman’s framework. Moreover, even Nam et al’s (2007) is based on magazines from 2002 and 2003, hopelessly out of date for a society as fast-changing as Korea, and so I’ve long wanted to conduct my own survey(s) to compensate. That would involve far too much work for just one person unfortunately, and so if any readers are interested in co-authoring a conference paper and/or journal article on the topic, please let me know!^^

Goffman, E. (1979), Gender Advertisements.

Hovland, R. et.al. (2005) ‘Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 2005, pp. 887-899 (although I have a physical copy, unfortunately this is no longer downloadable; I’d appreciate it if anyone with library access could email a PDF).

Kang, M. (1997) ‘The Portrayal of Women’s Images in Magazine Advertisements: Goffman’s Gender Analysis Revisited’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 1997 (ditto on downloading)

Nam, K. et. al. (2007)  ‘Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines‘, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA Online (2007), pp. 1-31.

Update: If you’ve enjoyed this post, then you may also be interested in this one at Sociological Images that describes how even the “physiology and anatomy” theme of a university website also genders the stances of the physiological representation of both sexes, the man standing straight, looking ahead, and having even weight distribution, but the female form being “almost classically passive, hands held behind her back, weight distribution uneven” in contrast.