Sex Stereotypes in Korean Media

Posted on June 24, 2011


Girls' Generation

by Hye Jin  Jeon

Many people believe that times have changed and with it traditional culture and attitudes about sex-roles. But in reality, we are still influenced by sex-role stereotypes, especially in the case of women. Since the 1980s, industrialization in Korea has brought with it more participation of women in the workforce. Economic activity is considered a duty of both sexes in the current Korean economic structure. The problem is that, even though women share sex-roles which were considered men’s duty in traditional society, traditional women sex-roles and stereotypes such as passivity and beauty standards still control women.

What is shown in the media often reflects current ideals and through the media’s lens we can see many of the problems still plaguing society. When the media broadcasts images of what women and men should do or look like, it has a major influence on people’s way of thinking. I suspect that despite there being a great change in the way women see themselves in the work force, there still remains sexist ideas in men’s portrayal of the way women should be.  In this paper, I will analyze a specific industry in Korean media, which is its booming Korean pop (or K-Pop) industry.

Media is one of the most powerful and pervasive industries. Woven throughout our daily lives, media insinuates its messages into our sub-consciousness at every turn. All forms of media communicate images of gender roles, many of which perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical, and limited perception. Nowadays, the entertainment community is flooded with singers who stimulate male fans’ sexual fantasies. Keeping in pace with the trend, fans are eager to see short skirts, hot pants and sexy choreography on television. Such a trend has become typical among female groups especially, approximately since 2007.

Yoo-yi was nicknamed "Thigh Yoo-yi"

Girls’ Generation, also known as Sonyosidae in Korean, emphasized their skinny and sensual legs with tight, skinny jeans. In their second hit song, “Tell Me Your Wish,” the SM Idol group grabbed attention of male fans by exposing their thighs completely in their dances.

Another girls’ group, After School, attracted fans by revealing their thighs. One of the group’s members, Yoo-yi, 23, was dubbed as “Thigh Yoo-yi,” leading the “honey thigh” syndrome. After “honey thigh” came to a halt, a new trend emerged: abs and waists. Girls’ Generation member Yu-ri, 22, wore a bra-top, showing her abs. Idol group Kara’s Koo Ha-ra, 20, revealed her waist in the single, “Roupin.” More singers joined the concept to amaze fans with their sexiness. Eun-jung, 23, a member of another female idol group, T-ara, showed her belly button. Four Minute’s Hyun-a, 19, got fans’ deep affection for her abs after releasing her solo album, “Change.” Brown Eyed Girls’ Jae-a, 29, spurred a picture-sharing spree when she posted a photo of herself in a red bra top.  The most recent case is Four Minute on their new album. The group wore tight clothes to highlight their body lines, revealing a sexy and urban style called, “fit-urban look.” In addition to the style, Four Minute members also wore bra-tops to accentuate their sexiness.

Hye-ri from Girl's Day

The latest controversy this Spring involved “diaper fashion”  which showed the white underpants of Korean girl group, Girl’s Day. Several weeks ago, the group’s music video “Sparkling” was uploaded to YouTube, and their outfits instead of their music were scrutinized. During their live performance, they wore very short white and yellow miniskirts with cheerleader briefs underneath. However many criticized that their briefs looked identical to diapers and hence they were nicknamed “diaper fashion” by the media. A lot of people have been expressing their dissatisfaction with the inappropriateness of outfits worn by minors. Their youngest member, Hye-ri is only sixteen-years-old. Girl’s Day explained, that they will change their costumes in the future.

In the pop industry, women are viewed as the object of the viewer’s sexual desires, assuming that the viewer is a heterosexual male.  In this environment, women are degraded to being only sexual objects for watching and consuming. The irony of this situation is that women, especially impressionable girls and young women, are encouraged to develop the same concepts of beauty, sexiness, passivity, and powerlessness in order to meet cultural ideals of femininity which contribute to their victimization. Men who have masculine character such as aggressiveness and strength enhance and reconfirm their identities to abuse to women. So, depictions of relationships between men and women emphasize traditional roles and normalize violence against women. Also, the media typically follow Madonna/Whore concepts of a one dimensional female. Either she is good or she is bad.  These polar opposites are often juxtaposed against each other to dramatize differences in the consequences that befall good and bad women. Good women are pretty, deferential, and focused on home, caring for others not just physically but also emotionally. Subordinate to men, there are usually considered as victims, angels, and loyal helpmates. The other image of women the media offers us is an evil woman who might be a prostitute or sexually experienced. Or a bad woman could be seen as non-traditional who is represented as hard, cold, and aggressive.

Korean media also has a secondary problem. In contrast to demographic realities, the media consistently shows fewer older women because our culture worships youth in women. Further, elderly individuals are frequently portrayed as sick, dependent, and passive, images not borne out in real life. Distorted depictions of older people and especially older women in media, however, can delude us into thinking they are a small, sickly and an unimportant part of our population. Women are portrayed as significantly younger and thinner than women in the population as a whole, and most are depicted as passive, dependent on men, and enmeshed in relationships or subordinated. The requirements of youth and beauty in women even influence other fields such as journalism and broadcast news, where female newscasters are expected to be young and physically attractive.

Stereotypes in the media may be imposed by non-verbal and unconscious language. Eliminating sex-role stereotyping is a dire need for the media. To this end, the media is encouraged to refrain from presenting women as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects. Therefore, the media should not overemphasize certain roles of women, mainly being the domestic and sexually submissive.

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