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Subtle Oppression on ScreenThe oppressive misrepresentations of women in the media
Kim Yeon-seung  |  yeonseungkim@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2016.05.11  00:26:26
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2016 was a glorious year for Leonardo Di Caprio. He received his first Oscar award, which he richly deserved, for best actor in The Revenant. When, finally, the frenzy surrounding Di Caprio's Oscar subsided, the award ceremony was engulfed with a different controversy, facing criticism for the lack of African-American nominees. The problem of exclusion is not limited to the United States or the Oscars. The 2015 entertainment awards here in South Korea did not have any female nominees for the grand prize. During an episode of the comedy show Infinite challenge, South Korea’s most beloved female comedian, Kim Sook, lamented how, even in 2015, the entertainment business remains completely dominated by men. Female comedians are losing ground in the entertainment business, as shown by the lack of female comedians on the flat screen. Although Kim Sook deserves praise for boldly mentioning this unresolved issue on television, this is not the only way women are underrepresented in the media here in South Korea.
 
Enduring misperceptions of femininity
Picture an ideal woman. Does she have long hair with white frail arms and a subservient nature that impels her to say “yes” in all situations? Is she tender and loving with a shy smile and so seemingly fragile that she needs to be protected by a man? Some of the characteristics mentioned above are stereotypes of woman formed by the media. As Song Yoo-jae found out in his 1984 study, titled “Women and mass media,” most female characters featured on afternoon soap opera dramas showed exaggerated traits of submissiveness, dependence, and passivity. Song also came up with similar results in a 1990 study, and such stereotypical portrayals have endured into the 21st century. The images of strong, independent men and passive, dependent women remain pervasive in the media. In comedy sitcoms aired in the 2000s, even though women were not portrayed with menial jobs and low education levels compared to men, women still had not escaped from the subservient, dependent, and passive stereotypes that the media has perpetuated. As harmless as these stereotypes may seem, they can in fact have a heavy influence on the viewer’s thoughts and behavior. Nancy Signorielli, a professor from the University of Delaware, asserted in her 1990 article that media portrayals of women are crucial because media affect young children and teenagers in the formation of gender roles and socializing skills. Thus, these gender stereotypes can prompt one to act in such a stereotypical way, creating certain social expectations that women should be compliant and submissive.
Warped media portrayals of women can even affect their professional careers. Yang Moon-hee and Kang Hyung-chul state in their 2005 article, “The Portrayal of Female Managers and CEO in the Television Drama,” that “inaccurate media portrayals can influence viewers to form prejudice against professional women, which ultimately may hinder promotion of a female worker.” In fact, South Korea is notorious for the proverbial “glass ceiling,” which prevents women from being promoted to high-ranking posts, as this country has the lowest rate of female executives among the the 34 OECD nations. The South Korean workplace is particularly challenging for married women, with limited maternity leave in certain companies, scarce opportunities for promotion, and a gender wage gap. While the media cannot be wholly blamed for this discrimination,Yang Moon-hee and Kang Hyung-chul, have argued in a 2005 study that the media is partly to blame. When television viewers see a man hanging up a picture of his wife and children inside his office cubicle, they peg him as a family man with loving and favorable qualities. Yet because of the distorted image formed by the media,  when viewers see a woman do the same, they instantly label her as unprofessional and domestic. How did media form these kinds of disparate perceptions? In the 1980s, 40% of female Korean drama characters were housewives. The 1990s showed improvement; only 3% of female characters in television dramas were portrayed as having a high level of education; 51% pursued professional careers but only 25% of them were married women, which limited the image of married women working in their professional careers for a duration of time. Even though the number of professional women increased in the media, it was still significantly below that of men. Indeed, a study in the 2001 by Lee Soo-yeon and Kim Yang-hee revealed that only 59% of women in South Korean dramas had professional careers, compared to 76% of professional male characters. Male characters largely occupied specialized jobs while female counterparts were most frequently housewives or those in the service industry. The misrepresentation of women seemed most apparent as female characters working in the service industry were 6.5 times more prevalent than in reality, while female office workers were portrayed 2.5 times less than in real life.  Even though this discrepancy between male and female characters has lessened in contemporary television, media should still be cautious of depicting married women as unprofessional and overly family-oriented while showing their male counterparts balancing both work and familial duties. Although professional women have become more visible on television in recent years, the longstanding misrepresentation of women has shaped rather limited images of gender roles within the viewers’ minds.
The media continue to reinforce other restricted and distorted gender roles. The television screen still often promotes the outdated notion of the “damsel in distress”, in which the woman places herself in a tricky predicament and the capable man shows up to save the day. This “damsel in distress” conceit appears in countless Korean dramas, driving the romantic storyline of such shows as Boys Over Flowers, Secret Garden, Lovers in Paris, among others. In these scenarios, women are usually incapable and vulnerable, while the men are accomplished and resilient. During a conversation with Naim Yoon-kyung (Prof., Graduate Program in Culture and Gender Studies, Yonsei Univ.) also deplored the fact that even though Korean dramas these days are trying narrow to the disparity between female and male characters, they still tend to show inequality, as seen with most recent popular drama series, “Descendants of the Sun." The main female character, Kang Mo-yeon, is a doctor, while the male counterpart, Yoo Si-jin, is featured as a soldier. The lack of similarity between the two characters does not stem from their careers but from the way they address each other. Kang Mo-yeon, the main female character, refers to Yoo Si-Jin with an extra nim added after his military title, which in Korean culture is a term for respect and honor, while Yoo Si-Jin simply refers to the Kang Mo-yeon as Doctor Kang. The difference in the labels seems trivial, but still shows that gender equality in media is not quite achieved and that people are still confined by gender roles imposed by media, with women expected to display subservient qualities.
 
Romanticized sexual violence
Another problem of the media is how it exacerbates and permeates rape culture within a society. Rape culture was first defined by the feminist, Emilie Buchwald, as “a societal culture that condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.” It is a term to describe a society in which male sexual violence is considered as the norm and the victims of sexual assaults, instead of perpetrators, are blamed. Those who are unfamiliar with the concept of rape culture may think that such a concept only exists in the most archaic and backward of societies. However, rape culture permeates through our contemporary society, as well and mass media is suspected to play a role.
Architecture 101 can easily be identified as one of the most popular movies in 2012, reaching over 400 million viewers. Its storyline features a sheepish young boy who experiences his heart-fluttering first love along with his first heartbreak as he enters college and meets Seo-yeun, an irresistibly charming girl. This seemingly innocent and romantic plot brought many to tears, having them reminisce about of their own first love stories. However, the movie is quite far from innocent. In the movie, there is a scene in which a college senior tries to teach an underclassmen how to seduce a woman by saying that “to seduce a woman, you first have to get her drunk. Then you carry her to bed. Done.” For the college senior in the movie, sexual violence is regarded as merely a natural part in the art of seduction. Later on in the movie, this college senior actually intoxicates Seo-yeun and attempts to kiss her against her will. When the sheepish young boy, Seung-min, watches this scene from afar, rather than interfering with the college senior who is clearly trying to take advantage of Seo-yeun, he is heartbroken. Witnessing this act of sexual violence does not alarm Seung-min or the viewers watching the film. Rather, Seung-min only perceives the scene as a routine act of seduction, and Seo-yeun is blamed for allowing her to be taken advantage of while intoxicated. Seung-min even goes as far as to call Seo-yeun “a bitch” after he had witnessed that scene. Few in the audience objected to this scene, which displayed unhealthy symptoms of rape culture; and the majority  sympathized with Seung-min’s heart break and understood the whole movie as an innocent first love story.
Architecture 101 is far from the sole example of media displaying rape culture; another example is the movie Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. In this movie, a man finds out that one of his sons turns out to be a child conceived when his wife was raped before marriage. When he finds out this truth, he immediately blames his wife for not resisting the attacker strongly enough and even accuses her of enjoying the sexual abuse. The directors of these movies most likely did not mean to cause no social harm. But the media and society stand in a reciprocal relationship; media represents societal tendencies, while is also affected by what the media portrays. Thus, the media portrayal of rape culture can play a role in exacerbating a reality in which victims are blamed and rape is condoned.
Another problem is that media frequently romanticize violence and force as a testament of male strength. How many times has the media portrayed scenes of a man pushing a woman against a wall, forcing his face against her unwilling lips and going in for a kiss, presenting this as romantic? For example, in a Korean drama series called King of Baking that aired in 2010, there is a scene in which the male character forces his female lover to kiss him in a crowded bar. Although the woman visibly resists, the man refuses to let her go, while the spectators at the bar cheer on. Sexual abuse is not romantic in any way or form, and it should not be portrayed in the media as an act of seduction.
 
How women are diminished to sexual objects
The sexual objectification of women is one of the most heated topics of debate in the media, with some calling for change and others failing to recognize the gravity of the problem. Sexual objectification theory states that a woman’s body is frequently treated as an object for its value to others rather than its own individual value. Sandra Bartky, a professor of gender studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, has written that “sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male desire.” Although these definitions only mention the sexual objectification of women, men are also sexually objectified by the media. Yet the sexual objectification of women is far more prevalent in society.
The problem of the sexual objectification of women seems most dire in the entertainment industry, with K-pop stars often being featured in suggestive and sexually objectifying scenarios. K-pop stars frequently are shown dancing in a ways that accentuates certain body features or resembles particular sexual acts. Furthermore, the media often focuses on a female k-pop star’s specific body part and singles it out almost as if it were an actual product or commodity. For example, U-ee is a K-pop star who gained nation-wide popularity because of her sleek and toned thighs. She had gained the nickname of “honey thighs” and her thighs were mainly featured everywhere she went from entertainment shows to advertisements of energy drinks and alcoholic beverages. U-ee later confessed in an interview that she had frequently been a victim of sexual harassment because of this media image; male fans would often reach out to touch her thighs without her consent. This shows that sexual objectification by the media does not simply remain limited to television or film screens but adversely affects women in everyday life.
Many advertisements have been criticized for sexually objectifying women. Fashion brands, in particular, frequently feature fully dressed men with naked women, thus receiving criticism for sexism and exhibiting women’s bodies as mere objects for male desire. Yet this type of sexual objectification in ads is not simply limited to fashion brands. A recent example of sexual objectification is an advertisement of a certain mobile carrier company featuring Seol-hyun, a celebrated k-pop star. There is an ongoing debate among netizens as to whether the ad was intended to contain any sexual innuendos or if it was just a harmless promotion of the product. However, when Seol-hyun, appears on screen with provocative quotations such “try touching”, in her revealing attire, it is hard to believe that their intention did not involve sexual objectification. An anonymous recent graduate of Ewha University, expressed her discomfort with the ad during her interview with the Annals. She stated how she felt uncomfortable when she saw the ad and viewed it as essentially inciting people to touch a woman’s body as if it were an inanimate object. In another one of her advertisements for the same mobile carrier company, Seol-hyun is tethered up in ropes while wearing a body-conscious dress; this ad was also subject to heated debate as to whether it is exhibits sexual objectification. Some argue that it was only an innocent parody of a scene from the story book Gulliver’s Travels, but others claims that the ad cannot be seen without feeling  discomfort that the star had been sexually exploited and that it portrays male domination of and cruelty toward women.
Where, then, should we draw the line? When do media images pass over into sexual objectification of women? How do viewers distinguish between simple nudity and actual sexual objectification? Simple nudity can be artistic, beautiful and even empowering at times; sexual objectification primarily uses women as a tool for achieving male sexual pleasure and little else. The world-famous feminist, Laura Mulvey, had mentioned in her article that media often uses the pleasure of scopophilia, “defined as a basic human sexual drive to look at other human beings.” Through cinema, television dramas, advertisements, and other various forms of media, viewers are often granted the indirect satisfaction of peeping into other people’s lives and bodies. Mulvey was among the first to criticize the ways in which films use   women as erotic objects for the purpose of satisfying the male “scopophilic pleasure”. Through sexual objectification, a woman’s body becomes a passive and consumable object that is only expected to satisfy a male’s sexual desire. An extreme example of this phenomenon would be the existence of the misogynistic website Soranet, wherein some men post pictures of unconsenting naked women and plot acts of sexual abuse against women. Sexual objectification can also result in psychological damages to individual women. According to objectification theory, “women’s bodies are looked at, evaluated, and potentially objectified.” This can also be witnessed in movies and television dramas in which female characters are rarely lauded for their accomplishments or intelligence, but are extolled only for their bodily features and their looks. Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts postulated that self-objectification can increase a woman’s insecurity by increasing the chances of her feeling shameful about her body, and making her feel as if her own physical safety is at risk. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann state that a combination of these emotions can lead to “eating disorders, unipolar depression, and sexual dysfunction.”
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A few decades ago, the U.S. media frequently depicted racial stereotypes, such yellowface and blackface, in their movies, animations and television shows. Although these harsh displays of minorities did not bother many at the time, now people take a second look at those media portrayals and denounce them for being offensive and racist. Let us now take a look at the screen in 2016. Is it any different from that of last year or from that of the 1980s? Women are repressed due to oppressive media stereotypes, become unwilling victims in the rape culture that the media has formed, and are frequently and wrongfully sexually objectified. Women are constantly underrepresented and exploited in the media but few recognize this as a problem, leading to false images of women silently permeating our lives. The first step is to acknowledge that this is gender oppression and is an injustice that society must address.  

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