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Perception of Gender Role and Sexuality in South Korean Advertisements: Transgression or Confucian Dynamism?

Joseph Obok Owiti (Academy of Korean Studies)

Popular culture reinforces dominant social values while offering pleasures associated with resistance to and even subversion of social order. Conformity and transgression mark the mass culture of television and cinema, advertizing, magazines and so on (reference to Storey, 2003). Popular culture is both conformist and transgressive in nature.

Paul Duncum in Studies in Art Education (2009:233)

Is incongruence with tradition necessarily deviant? In Korea, neo-Confucian principles have for a long time stressed hierarchical systems based on age, sex and social status with particular emphasis on moral objectives (Chongsuh, 1993: 76). Women were expected to be passive, chaste, dependent and obedient. Advertisements that adhered to these values however, lost popularity among many younger women and girls. As Korea’s economy boomed in the 1990s, more women sought better jobs and financial independence (Silverthorne, 2005: 159). This paper analyzes transition in female gender portrayal in Korean advertising as an element of popular culture. Methodology used also includes a laboratory experiment besides book, journal and article research to measure perceptions of transgression in gender role in recent advertisements that depict women expressing themselves freely in manner and style – of dress, for instance. Based on a comparative examination of neo-Confucian and Western cultures through space and time, the paper finds that industrialization and the tendency to non-conformity infiltrated Korean neo-Confucianism through societal tolerance and the appeal of Western culture. Finally, the paper introduces the ‘cultural infiltration cycle’ theory which conjectures that in cultural infiltration, there are stages of cultural contact defined both by time and space. This attempts to prove that non-conformity with traditional culture is attributed to secular sequence of time and space-orientation of the ‘transgressors’.