Saturday, April 21, 2007

Manifestations of Korean Nationalism in Stuff Magazine's top 100 Sexiest Women

This Chosun Ilbo article brags about Kim Yun-Jin's ranking as the 88th Sexiest Woman, one spot above Lindsey Lohan, in Stuff magazine.

Now I'm not supporting these ranking (or the judging and quantifying of women or men on account of their physical appearance), however, I think it's another interesting venue through which to view manifestations of Korean nationalism. A Korean woman emerging as a celebrity, especially a beautiful celebrity, in the US is heralded as a victory for Korea -- another example of Korea's fixation with any example of Korean prominence in the international arena.

This also poses an interesting commentary on the evolution of gender expectations in Korea. Despite rapid changes in Korean society, the traditional cultural emphasis on chastity remains present, yet in this case (and many others) Kim Yun-Jin is given national praise for her sex appeal, complicating the expectations placed on Korean women.

Visiting Korea (or any Asian country) one easily notices the abundance of Caucasian models in advertisements, which to me, demonstrates the pervasiveness of the white standard of beauty. It is also evident that this standard is internalized by Korean women through skin whitening and eyelid crease-enhancing products. Given the prevalence of this standard, it's understandable that America's designation of Kim's appearance (albeit in an obscure magazine) as being beautiful is a victory for Korea, especially since ethnicity is such a part of Korean identity.

Still, even if it's a problematic designation in an obscure American magazine, I hope Kim Yun-Jin's international recognition as being beautiful will somehow chip away at the monolithic notion that white is somehow synonymous with beauty.


Sean said...

In terms of standards of beauty, the fact that many Korean women are trying to look "white" is a secondary effect, I think. I think the idea is to look like whoever is popular in the eyes of western media. For a while, this happened to be whites, but as the U.S. notion of beauty has changed, it has had an effect on Korea as well (the new trend is on an "S" figure, which promotes some curves).

Also, I'm not sure if the whole chastity image idea applies to Korea anymore, at least not in pop culture. It's not just Kim that's given praise for sex appeal, this applies to all celebrities across the board. I would say that the clothes worn by women on the streets of Seoul are a lot more revealing than those worn by women in say, DC. I don't think it's a double standard for Kim as much as a change in how much sex appeal is acceptable. The most popular stars in Korea all play up their sex appeal.

Finally, I don't know if I would call Stuff magazine "obscure". Stuff and Maxim, which I think are owned by the same company, have a much larger circulation than a lot of more traditional magazines. In fact, I'm pretty sure that there is a Korean edition of Maxim as well.

But do I agree that it's pretty funny that this was newsworthy. I mean, 88th isn't even that high, and these lists aren't taken too seriously by most people.

Grace said...

Hmm Sean....I don't know if I agree with your comment about stuff being worn on the streets of Seoul being more revealing than that on the streets of DC. Well, maybe in stuffy K Sreet or Capitol Hill DC but I'd be hard pressed to say that for areas like the GWU campus. Maybe things have changed a lot within the last two years but I don't think it's still as acceptable to bare skin in Korea as in the States.

Where else in the developed world would you have ahjima's (middle-aged women) coming up to you and asking if you weren't afraid to catch a cold or ashamed of baring "excessive" skin? While the pop culture does celebrate sexiness and the stars can get away with more revealing or risque clothes, that doesn't apply for the average Jane on the streets. Girls who actually dare to wear short shorts or spaghetti tank tops still get stared and whispered at in Seoul--at least from what I've seen.

But maybe I'll prove myself wrong when I go to Korea this summer and find myself being the frumpy one on the streets of Seoul with "modest" clothes while everyone else is baring it. We'll see!

Sean said...

Hmm, then maybe it's another example of overgeneralizing on my part. Or maybe it has more to do with which parts of Seoul, and which parts of DC we're talking about?

I guess what I was trying to say is that I don't think it's unusual for Kim to be lauded in Korea for her sex appeal. I think Korea, as much as the U.S., plays up the whole sex appeal thing. I think that physical appearance has always been extremely important in Korea. If I'm not mistaken, a lot of companies require you to submit a photo of yourself along with your resume.

Grace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grace said...

Physical appearance is definitely important in Korea. That's the first thing people will judge you on (after judging your clothes and accessories). Sad to say, that's Korea for you. However, I would argue that "sex appeal" is a rather new development. In the past, Korean women were applauded for being beautiful, virtuous, modest, smart, etc., and not for sexiness. Rather, that was something reserved for Western women. With "liberalization" occuring in Korea sexiness may be moving on up to the same level as the traditional values, but I still think that in the end traditional values trump sexiness (at least from the in-law's perspective). ^_~