I wanted to present some shots that were a bit more than rescues from the edit bin, but perhaps not so usable as standalone images. Placed together and discussed, these photographs provide ample food for discussion about the ways in which women's bodies are both objects and conduits of consumption.
Some parts of this topic have been covered in previous posts about the social status of women the commodification of their bodies, but I just wanted to point out a few things here visually. When I talk about the 도우미 (doumi - "assistants" who can be found in everything from grocery stores to ones singing rooms), people often ask me why they bother me so much. To reiterate a point I made in a previous post, it's the saturation of the doumi into the realm of the everyday and mundane that is so insulting – to both the customers and the workers themselves.
Of course, I am making a value judgement and perhaps seem like I am engaging in a condescending discourse about these women. But I am not irritated because I "feel sorry" for them or I am fighting for some notion of their human rights; I simply think that the simple equation of baring flesh for the sake of selling toothpaste and razor blades just cheapens the whole enterprise for everyone. When I say this, I acknowledge that "sex sells" and that hot models are the standard eye candy of choice for trade, car, and electronics shows the world over. Still, hiring a model who is a larger-than-life figure showcasing a larger-than-life product or prototype somehow seems appropriate, whereas watching dozens of women who look like my cousin or niece hawking the most everyday and mundane of objects just seems ineffective and demeaning.
In the picture above, what strikes me is the constant hawking, the fetish wear, and the women, women, women. Maybe it's my foriegner's eye, but I also have a little history on the situation. Around 10 years ago, when I was first in Korea, these "models" were around, but they were there to roll out a new type of beer, or were providing the aesthetic support for a new product launch. They weren't standing in every aisle of the grocery store, handing out chunks of cheese samples, or handing out flyers.
The other thing I notice is that most of the women doing this job don't seem to be very happy doing it. One telltale sign that this isn't considered "good work" even by the people doing it is that fact that the models who work car shows or the launch of the latest, greatest MP3 player at an electronics show are more than happy to pose for pictures. In fact, that's understood to be part of the job. They add flash to the whole affair, since they are larger-than-life people, and the events they are hired for are, by their very nature, special. But selling cooking oil or Spam™ using similarly techniques is inevitably demeaning. Perhaps not in an direct, humiliating way – but importantly, these models in the stores and streets are generally not happy about posing for the camera, as if this was a job that they would rather stay off the resume.
It's just a feeling I get, but it's a pretty strong one. The job is unappreciated, their presence is anything but larger-than-life, and it's hard work, actually. I feel somewhat guilty about taking pictures, but I do it to make images to capture this feeling I get, that something is very wrong here. And also that this phenomenon of young girls in short skirts selling almost everything money can buy is new and unusual for even this society. Of course, it's subjective and informed by my identity as an American, but there's something very not right about this situation, and I think it's the sort of thing one might not notice if one were a complete member of the group. My hope is that maybe if someone from the outside points it out in a different way, a few people on the inside might stop and go, "Hmmm. That is a bit strange, come to think of it."
Such was the power of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America or Gunnar Myrdal's classic An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy; it took a Frenchman and a Swede to point out some what some might now say were obvious and interesting aspects of American culture. De Tocquville's work is still read and highly valued for his razor-sharp insight into the American character that still holds true even today. He is still endlessly quoted to this day, as his insight still hold a lot of water. In this way, people within their own culture are often blind to a lot of it, in much the same way as a fish can't see the water that sustains it, nor do humans think of the air that literally holds them together as anything other than "empty."