As the Winter Olympics kicked off in PyeongChang, South Korea, this weekend, the media turned their attention to one notable nonathlete attendee: Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean Supreme Leader — and frequent target of President Trump’s Twitter attacks — Kim Jong Un.
Kim Yo Jong is believed to be between 28 and 30 years old and is the youngest of former Supreme Leader’s Kim Jong Il’s three children with mistress Ko Yong Hui. (Kim Jong Il also had a son and a daughter from separate, previous relationships before beginning his relationship with Ko Yong Hui.) And Kim Yo Jong was recently appointed to an official state job within the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee — for all intents and purposes the propaganda arm of the North Korean regime. Her increased public presence, many say, is a concerted strategy on the part of the North Korean government to “soften” Kim Jong Un’s image with Eastern and Western audiences alike.
Many media outlets seemed to take the hypothetical bait.
And just as quickly, others in the American press took the response to Kim Yo Jong one step further, comparing any positive reviews — largely based on her style and appearance — to that of America’s first daughter, Ivanka Trump. Like Kim Yo Jong, Ivanka has long maintained seemingly separate interests than her political father. And like Kim Yo Jong, Ivanka has also assumed an official position her family’s respective administration.
But according to a searing piece in the Washington Post, the similarities don’t end there. Both Kim Yo Jong and Ivanka Trump, they argue, are readily positioned by their families to offer a smiling, conventionally beautiful, and glamorous veneer to cover up more damaging and dangerous political agendas. That is, the supreme leader’s sister and president’s daughter are connected through a common bond of utilizing style to mask, and encourage further, complicity.
And while other members of the press have, in turn, lashed out at such comparisons, saying they undermine the known human rights abuses committed by the North Korean government by comparing them to the policies of the Trump administration, the larger question still remains as to whether there should even be a dialogue comparing the two women in general — and if it would be happening if the two public figures in question were both men.
“The comparisons between Kim Yo Jong and Ivanka Trump have everything to do with gender, their relationships to powerful men, and how they look,” Laura Castañeda, a former journalist and a professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I doubt that if either were male, these types of stories would be covered.”
Castañeda points out that the way both women position themselves — and their public personas — around their personal style is also inherently deeply gendered, and largely why the two figures are of public interest, and often in a positive way. As evidence, she says, look no further than how former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton figures into popular opinion.
“Lots of people didn’t like Hillary Clinton. There were lots of reasons for that, but I believe a big part of it for some segments of the electorate was her no-nonsense attitude. She is not glamorous. She’s had a powerful career. I think people saw her as ‘hard’ and ‘unapproachable,’ whereas women who are known primarily for their beauty and fashion are more palatable,” Castañeda says. “With Ivanka, her ‘image’ is easy to swallow for Trump supporters — she’s a mom, wife, and dutiful daughter.”
Stine Eckert, chair of the feminist scholarship division of the International Communication Association (ICA) and an assistant professor of communications at Wayne State University in Detroit, notes that there is one particularly notable comparison that should be made between the two women in question.
“They are both blueprints for whatever at the time their society and current administration needs in terms of a tool to advance their political agendas,” Eckert says. “They are both empty vessels that are filled with whatever their respective administrations need to communicate. And the news media plays into that.”
She continues, “They are both made into objects, made to be styled a certain way to be worked for whatever it is their governments want to accomplish. They are both in this position because they are a part of the current ruling family. And part of that is that they are then advised on their appearance and their makeup to communicate a certain kind of message — one that is also what the majority is ‘supposed’ to look like in their country, in terms of ethnicity. They both represent a look that, in turn, represents why their family is in power — their families are both in power because they are currently oppressing minorities. Because of that, their appearance — and to be seen as ‘stylish’ — is a means to accomplish a political end.”
Eckert also says that the attention on Kim Yo Jong is a symptom of media hunger for “newsworthiness” — and the sight of any new face out of shadowy North Korea is always deemed as such. Because that face is a woman, “she will be covered as a woman — and based on her appearance.”
She says the drive to compare Kim Yo Jong to Ivanka Trump is also largely rooted in the news media’s frequently relied-upon device of introducing new subject matter to their audience through a recognizable framework.
“And so Ivanka Trump has been chosen as a reference point to understand North Korea. She’s a means for establishing a connection between American news consumers and a topic they may not be interested in or understand.”
But Eckert says, if anything, the comparisons being made between Kim Yo Jong and Ivanka Trump tell us more about the universality of the objectification of women than any one country’s given politics.
“No matter if you have a country that claims to be a democracy or a country that in Western terms is viewed as a dictatorship, women are still viewed as objects and seen through the male gaze,” Eckert says. “When the New York Post reports on Ivanka Trump making a trip having to do with the Small Business Administration, they report on what she’s wearing, her jewelry, her makeup — and then there’s a sentence underneath about her husband getting out of the car at the event. There’s no mention of whether he is wearing earrings.”
But most troublesome, Eckert says, is that neither the coverage of Kim Yo Jong nor that of Ivanka Trump typically triggers larger coverage of the situation of women overall.
“When we are talking about this particular woman from North Korea in relation to Ivanka, the criticism of that comparison is always about human rights violations, but not about the structural oppression for women in North Korea,” Eckert says. “And with Ivanka Trump, other than recent references to her being offended by the situation with Rob Porter, mention of her doesn’t really spark conversation about discrimination against women in the U.S.”
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