Forget the bare bottoms and topless women – South Korean diners at local eateries will now have their meals accompanied by wall-hung images of barbecued pork belly and other meat dishes.
For years, photos of nearly nude Western women in a variety of artfully obscured poses have graced the pages of annual calendars distributed by Hite-Jinro, the world’s largest maker of soju – a popular rice-based spirit in South Korea.
But this year, the firm’s calendars have taken on a new G-rated theme – food – in a country known for its highly patriarchal and otherwise conservative society.
Another maker of alcoholic beverages, Oriental Brewing, also ended its practice of “sporty” calendars featuring Korean models in miniskirts and short shorts for its beer brand OB. The firm’s 2019 calendars feature landscapes and scenery instead.
While Hite-Jinro representatives vaguely attributed the decision to discontinue making nude photo calendars to the “current social atmosphere”, Korean media cited “feminist trends” as the main reason for both firms’ termination of their respective calendars.
HUGE step for Korea: Hite-Jinro will no longer make pornographic calendars as a gift for customers “because of the feminism trend.” Eyerolling but it’s still a step forward and yes I have a low bar https://t.co/LPyUa3IDr7— Jihye Lee 이지혜 (@TheJihyeLee) January 1, 2019
South Korea saw the explosive rise of its own high-profile #MeToo movement last year, led by a series of national protests against illegal spy-cameras, sexual assault and violence. Meanwhile, feminism – previously regarded as a taboo term – has become a major topic of debate everywhere from mainstream media to conversations in restaurants and bars.
The controversial calendars, handed out to bars and food establishments by alcoholic beverage makers at the start of each year, have long been criticised by the public as outdated and sexist for their objectification and commodification of female bodies.
“The first time I saw posters of half-naked women [many years ago], I was at a barbecue restaurant with my family,” said a 26-year-old female women’s studies academic who asked not to be named. While she added that she was too young at the time to understand the sexual context of the imagery, she said the posters “instantly made me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed”.
Caucasian models are depicted in the buff on such calendars, while Korean models are usually clothed.
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“I think it’s perhaps easier to over-sexualise Western women because of their relative anonymity,” said the academic. “Korean women in the drink posters are usually celebrities and the subtleness is usually what sells their images more. It’s the tantalising [notion] that Asian women are sexier when they are coy about sexual stuff.
“But regardless of whether they are foreign or Korean, one woman’s degradation is an attack on all women.”
Although dining establishments also target women and families as their clientele during the daytime, they serve a largely male crowd in the evenings.
Korea can be described as an extremely homosocial society, with many unspoken but strongly defined separate spaces for men and women, noted James Turnbull, an academic and Korean pop-culture specialist based in South Korea.
“Korean women still struggle to retain their jobs after childbirth, and those that succeed in keeping their jobs often have to leave mandatory after-work drinking gatherings early to look after their children while their male colleagues continue drinking elsewhere,” he said.
“The atmosphere in bars and restaurants that sell a lot of soju can sometimes feel very off-putting for anyone that isn’t a middle-aged Korean man.”
But views of these images are changing with Korea’s younger generations.
“The places that hang ‘sexy’ calendars are usually bars that young men and women wouldn’t want to go and drink at,” said Yoon Won-jin, a Seoul resident in his early 30s. “Older men drink, smoke and talk loudly in these places, and they want pretty, young women next to them, even if they aren’t real.
“Alcohol companies make two calendars each year: one nude one, and the other features a famous female celebrity for ‘family-friendly’ bars. But this year, the feminist movement has become so powerful that they cannot continue [this practice] – especially if this affects their soju sales.”
And while the era of nude soju calendars may be over, soju, beer and spirits posters featuring female celebrities and models are ubiquitous not just at bars, but in most local eateries serving alcohol. Critics argue that widespread sexualisation and objectification of women in the Korean advertising and media need to be addressed as a whole.
A 2015 Asia-wide study conducted jointly by scholars at City University of Hong Kong, St Margaret’s Junior College in Tokyo, and Hallym University in South Korea found that women were 5.9 times more likely than men to not be fully dressed in Hong Kong television ads, 22.89 times more likely in Japanese ads, and 56.83 times more likely in South Korean ads.
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Feminists and scholars question whether such advertising has any place in the context of today’s Korean society, not to mention whether such ads have any real influence on their targeted consumer’s choices.
“In my own experience, men’s tastes in soju tend to be very regional,” said Turnbull, referring to the varieties of soju found in different parts of the country. “They tend stick to the same brands throughout their lives. And assuming that pictures of nude women are all that is required to change their minds is just patronising and insulting.”
“These soju posters aren’t particularly any more sexually objectifying of women than Korean advertising in general, because that is already pervasive in the industry. By no means are soju ads the main culprit.”