Korean Sociological Images

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Korean Sociological Image #52: Are Celebrities Removing the Stigma of Lingerie Modelling?

After writing about double-standards in the objectification of men’s and women’s bodies in the Korean media last month, this month I was looking forward to wrapping that up. Finally, I thought, I’d be able to remove the prominent “Abs vs. Breasts” folder on my Firefox toolbar.

Alas, I’ve decided some more context is needed first. Which by coincidence, also allows me to get rid of the even more embarrassing “Lingerie” folder in the process.

But while the topic sounds facetious perhaps, having overwhelmingly Caucasian models in lingerie advertisements has definite effects on how Koreans perceive both Caucasians’ and their own bodies and sexuality. If you consider what Michael Hurt wrote in his blog Scribblings of the Metropolitician back in 2005 for instance:

…One thing that I also notice is that in underwear and other commercials that require people to be scantily-clad, only white people seem to be plastered up on walls in the near-buff. Now, it may be the sense that Korean folks – especially women – would be considered too reserved and above that sort of thing (what I call the “cult of Confucian domesticity”). Maybe that’s linked to the stereotyped expectation that white people always be running around all nasty and hanging out already, as is their “way.” Another possibility has to do with the reaction I hear from Korean people when I mention this, which is that white people just “look better” with less clothes, since Koreans have “short leg” syndrome and gams that look like “radishes.” The men are more “manly” and just look more “natural” with their shirts off…

Then I’m sure you’ll appreciate that while that artificial dichotomy between “naturally” nude, more sexual Caucasians (and by extension, all Westerners) and more modest, virginal, pure Koreans is neither new, solely confined to Korea, nor wholly a construct of the Korean media, at the very least this odd feature of Korean lingerie advertisements certainly helps sustain it. And that dichotomy has largely negative effects on all Westerners here, especially women.

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Korean Sociological Image #51: Male Objectification & Double Standards

 

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

Mine was thinking that abs aren’t exactly 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 BMW did back in 2006?

( Source )

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 this earlier post 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 is it 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.

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Korean Sociological Image #50: The Depths of the Red Ginseng Craze

Are commercials for this product really the same the world over? Put that to the test by quickly trying to guess what is being advertised above, before all is revealed at o:10.

For non-Korean speakers, the powder shown is a combination of ganghwa-yagssoog (강화약쑥), or “medicinally strengthening” mugwort, and hongsam-paoodeo (홍삼파우더), or red ginseng powder. And surely there is no greater testament to believing in its health benefits than by being prepared to use it in the most intimate of places?

Lest my bashful euphemism for VAGINAS detract from that point however, do recall that during the 2008 protests against US beef imports for instance, many Koreans genuinely believed baseless rumors that Mad Cow Disease could be caught via the gelatin used in sanitary napkins. So it makes perfect sense for aptly-named manufacturer Body Fit (바디피트) to capitalize on the belief that what’s inside sanitary napkins can have direct effects on the wearer’s health.

Indeed, red ginseng in particular is even rumored to be an aphrodisiac too.

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Korean Sociological Image #49: Lee Hyori has an Asian Bottom?

Well, the bottom half of her body is Asian to be precise. But then she is Korean after all, so what on Earth does that make the top half?

Western, according to her. And while she’s happy with that at least, in contrast she’s quite dissatisfied with her Asian legs, claiming that she has to always wear high heels to compensate for them.

Despite my original shock at hearing that though, ironically I find myself defending her statements. No, really.

But first, the context. From the Hankyung:

가수 이효리가 “상체는 서구적인 반면 하체는 동양적이다”라고 말해 눈길을 끌고 있다 (source, above).

Singer Lee Hyori is drawing lots of attention for saying “While I have a Western top half, on the other hand the bottom half of my body is Asian.”

지난 20일 방송된 MBC ‘섹션TV 연예통신’에 출연한 이효리는 서구적인 상체를 가지고 있는데 반면 “동양적인 하체를 가지고 있다”며 “하이힐은 생명과도 같다”고 말해 주위를 웃음바다로 만들었다.

Appearing on the MBC show “Section TV Entertainment Report” on the 20th of August, she then said that “High heels are as important as life itself!”, which produced a sea of laughter in the audience.

이날 이효리는 “샵에서 효리씨가 입어주면 옷이 잘 팔린다며 옷을 공짜로 준다”며 “옷을 잘 입는 방법은 얼마나 자신의 체형을 잘 커버하느냐인 것 같다”고 설명했다.

She also explained that “When I go into a shop, the owners give me clothes for free because they will sell well if I wear them”, and that “How well you wear clothes depends on how much of your body shape you cover up.”

이효리에게 ‘숨기고 싶은 신체적 단점’에 대해 질문하자 “상체는 서구적인 반면 하체는 동양적이다”라고 말했다.

When asked what were bad points about her body she wanted to hide, she replied that “I have a Western top half, but an Asian bottom half”.

이어 동양적인 하체를 커버하기 위한 해결책으로 “절대로 하이힐을 벗지 않는 것”이라고 강조하며 “10cm 이하 하이힐은 쳐다보지도 않고 잠을 잘 때도 하이힐은 신고 잔다”고 말해 주위를 폭소케 했다.

Accordingly, she emphasized that the solution for covering(?) her Asian bottom half was “never taking high heels off”, and that “not only will I not look at high heels with a heel less than 10cm high, but I even sleep in high heels”, producing hysterics in the audience.

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Korean Sociological Image #48: The Male Gaze

( Source: L-C-R. Reproduced with permission )

Like photographer L-C-R says, this 2008 Gundam advertisement is a prime example of a woman being portrayed as a child and/or sex object, of which she saw entirely too much of while she was in Korea.

You may be very surprised then, when you learn whom it was actually aimed at.

But first, please consider what is it exactly that so demeans drama actress Min Seo-hyeon (민서현) in it? I identify 4 or 5 things myself, which I outline in descending order of importance below:

  1. her childlike expression, combined with putting her fingers in her mouth
  2. the canting of her head
  3. her surprisingly awkward stance
  4. her passivity as she awaits the masculine-looking robot to make the next move

And after discussing those, albeit briefly because I’ve already done so in great depth in this similar post about soju advertisements, I’ll finally look at the ad in the context of the campaign as a whole. But feel free to disagree with any of those and/or suggest others, and in that vein I highly recommend asking your Korean partners, colleagues or friends their own opinions also. As if the experience of asking my wife and her friends earlier is anything to go by, then they are very likely to disagree with the first. Or rather, that she’s being portrayed childishly at all, and – jumping ahead – not even in the following commercials either:

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Korean Sociological Image #47: East End Girls, meet West End Boys

Yes, it had to happen eventually! A big round of applause to Nextour (넥스투어) for producing the very first Korean commercial to feature a Korean woman literally dreaming of having a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a Western man, and with no suggestion that there will be anything but happiness once she succeeds.

New readers shaking your heads in disbelief however, then by all means prove me wrong by finding earlier examples. But before engaging on what I think will ultimately be a long and fruitless search, please consider reading other posts in the “interracial relationships” category, especially here, here, here, here, here, and here. And please also ponder the following quote from Hyun-Mee Kim in her chapter “Feminization of the 2002 World Cup and Women’s Fandom” in Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea, ed. by Jung-Hwa Oh, 2005, pp. 228-243 below on the then unprecedented public attention by Korean women on the bodies of the Korean players in the summer, and which gives a big clue as to why it has taken 8 years(!) for such an essentially innocuous commercial to emerge:

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Korean Sociological Image #46: The Language of Exclusion

 

( Source: Mental Poo; reproduced with permission )

A receipt from a recent visit by blogger My Jihae to an upscale restaurant in Seoul, about which she wrote:

I’m not sure how many restaurants do this, and why this restaurant bothers to do this in the first place, but on the top of the receipt they blatantly keep track of whether the guests are locals or foreigners. They pegged me right away, I guess it’s that obvious.

For those of you that can’t read Korean, for now let’s say that waegookin (외국인) on the right generally means a foreigner, and naegookin (내국인) on the left a Korean person. And that does indeed describe My Jihae and her dining partner respectively, although she is actually Korean-American. But why bother to note the distinction between two ethnically-identical customers at the same table?

Some commenters to her post speculate that it may have been done for taxation purposes, and which as I wrote there, would be something good to know if true, as otherwise:

…many expats (myself included) may simply chalk things like this up to Koreans typically and completely unnecessarily pointing out our foreignness, when in fact they may be nothing of the sort.

And see Occidentalism here and here for a similar case in Japan. Unfortunately however, not all perceived Korean tendencies towards exclusion are simply misunderstandings on the part of non-Koreans.

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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.

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Korean Sociological Image #43: ESL Students on Top?

( Source: Gusts of Popular Feeling. Reproduced with permission )

A recent advertisement for the Pagoda chain of language institutes noticed by Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling, who notes that the attraction “is clearly for women to get close to, to have one on one communication with, and to have almost direct contact with the male foreign teacher.”

In any other context this would be unremarkable, but unfortunately the Korean media is notorious for presenting foreign male – Korean female relationships either negatively or not at all (although this is slowly improving). So this advertisement really stands out for the rare, quite literal closeness of the models in it, albeit not necessarily in a romantic sense.

In contrast, Japanese language institutes have already been advertising this way for a long time, as noted by Keiron Bailey in his 2006 journal article Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan. Two examples from that, both from 2002:

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Korean Sociological Image #42: Sunset for the Red She-Devils?

 

( Source: ROKetship. Reproduced with permission. )

Like Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi fame says of the above cartoon, either way, it’s a win for my gender, so I was surprised that this was the first time I’d ever really noticed this curious Korean social more.

For those of you still at a loss however, yahada (야하다) generally means “too revealing” if it’s about clothes, and “too sexual” if it’s about anything else, like a conversation topic; alternatively, nomu pa-ee-da (너무 파이다) could have been used instead, which literally means “dug too much”. So, it’s a commentary on the difference in what is considered revealing clothing by Koreans and Western expats, and something which of course expat women have long been well aware of(!), congratulating ROKetship artist Luke Martin for his astuteness in droves on his Facebook page. One of them, Kelly in Korea, wrote on her blog:

So true. Showing your shoulders or chest will definitely get you stares from the older crowd and young men, while lotsa leg is okay. That being said, I feel like I see more Korean girls showing shoulder this summer than last—is that just me? Regardless, now that the full heat of summer is upon us, I have stopped worrying so much about societal dress codes and just wear whatever keeps me from passing out in the midday sun.

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