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[Newsmaker] Seoul’s ‘hero’ campaign sparks gender debate

Good Samaritan campaign seen as ‘perpetuating gender stereotypes’

Seoul’s new campaign to encourage people to help strangers has generated controversy with an illustration that depicts a male figure as the symbol of heroism. Critics argue that the campaign’s visuals suggest it is a man’s job to help others.

The Subway Hero Zone, currently installed next to a couple of stairways at City Hall Station, depicts a muscular man with a cape next to a suitcase and a baby stroller.

(Seoul Design Governance)
(Seoul Design Governance)

The idea was to make asking for help less awkward by creating a designated spot where people could stand to let others know they needed a helping hand.

But the campaign has met with criticism over its alleged lack of gender sensitivity.

“Are we porters for women? What if we accidentally drop the stroller or the luggage?” one comment on major web portal Naver read.

“What about men? When men have it hard too, why are we compelled to help others?” another comment said.

(Seoul Design Governance)
(Seoul Design Governance)

The design policy department at the Seoul Metropolitan Government said that while the campaign was not perfect, a great deal of effort was put into it and gender sensitivity had been considered.

“Though we first used ‘women with infants’ (as one of the main targets of the campaign), we decided to get rid of that expression, considering all the fathers who take their children out,” an official with the department told The Korea Herald.

According to the official, the Hero Zone campaign was designed to encourage people to be good Samaritans at a time when physical contact with strangers can invite suspicion in the #MeToo era amid a spike in spycam crimes.

(Seoul Design Governance)
(Seoul Design Governance)

The official also said the trial period was intended to monitor public opinion and that changes could be made to the design if the city decided to pursue the project.

The Subway Hero Zone is one of the latest Seoul Design Governance projects, an open urban-planning platform where citizens can submit ideas to better the city environment.

When the campaign was still in the planning stages, a group of experts on women’s rights came up with ideas in response to citizens’ complaints that it was hard to go out in Seoul with infants. Officials also conducted street interviews and tests to monitor public sentiment.

The Hero Zone’s trial run will end in late October.

By Yim Hyun-su (