Korean Sociological Image #17: Deconstructing the Ass Dance

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Sexy Dance

A both compelling and rather confusing marketing campaign from Samsung, difficult to avoid on the Korean internet at the moment:

The dancer is actress Han Hyo-joo (한효주), very popular because of her role in the drama Shining Inheritance (찬란한 유산), which finished last month with record ratings. The products being advertised are the VLUU Wink, which features a WIreless liNK for uploading to a computer, and also a small lens in the top-corner of the camera that conceivably looks like an eye, and then the VLUU Mirror, so called because it has an additional small viewing-screen at the front next to the lens for taking pictures of yourself more easily (known as selka {셀카}, from “self-camera”).

I say it’s “compelling” because of the combination of the soporific music from o:13 to o:29 (and then again from 0:55 to 1:19) and the slow motion dancing, albeit both of which actually become rather grating after viewing them the numbers of times I’ve had to for this post. Of course, I grant that Han Hyo-joo is an attractive woman also, and that this sparked an interest in it that a male actor (hopefully doing different dances!) wouldn’t have. But as it turns out, I only know of the single example below of an advertisement of recent years that demonstrated how an electronic product or service could make a man a better dancer, and this discrepancy means that the latter would have been far more deserving of attention:

But in particular, far from a rare sexy side to Han Hyo-joo being a compelling factor, literally my very first thought upon seeing the the video was that it looked surprisingly similar to “Virtuagirl” screensavers and desktop widgets and so on readily available on the internet, all by definition somewhat seedy. I wouldn’t recommend watching the following example at work:

Now, some translations of the text from the first half of the VLUU video for comparison:

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 1a

“Be Smart. Hyo-joo’s Ass Dance.” Notice the highlighted “S,” which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 2a

“Step 1: Swing/Thrust-out your ass hard! But move your hips softly~”

“Warning: Be careful of moving excessively, or you might expose yourself.” Also note that the word norchool (노출), is one that almost invariably pops up as a suggested search term if you type Korean female celebrities’ names into Korean search engines.

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 3a

“Step 2: While giving seductive hand gestures towards the viewer, step to the right~”

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 4

“Step 3: Quickly but smoothly squat and then stand again”

“Warning: People with big asses can fall/collapse easily”

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 5

“Step 4: Do this one more time!! Hip-hop success Yeah~~~”

Han Hyo-Joo VLUU Ass Dance 6( Source: Paranzui )

“Take a picture, send it wirelessly. Samsung VLUU WINK”

Now, of course an “ass dance” on a virtual stripper and on Han Hyo-joo are going to look pretty similar. But that’s my precisely my point: replace the text in the commercial with something more appropriate for a male gaze (“I’d like to spank that” is my helpful suggestion for #1), and the video would be almost indistinguishable from a Virtuagirl screensaver; indeed, the video is available as a screensaver from the VLUU website. What ultimately makes watching the VLUU marketing campaign a simply surreal experience though, is not because of its blatant use of sex to sell a product, but rather because of its clearly trying to present itself as something more sophisticated…and failing miserably.

Hence my confusion with what Samsung was exactly trying to achieve with the marketing campaign, and with whom were the intended audience exactly. Having women doing sexually-arousing dances or wearing skimpy clothing is nothing new in advertising targeted towards women of course, with the logic that men want the women and women want to be them, but even the most vacuous of consumers would soon realize that the products would clearly do nothing whatsoever to help anyone learn the dances. Yet the choice of Han Hyo-joo – by no means known for sexual dances and clothes previously – and the childish imagery of most of the print advertisements suggest that the target audience was indeed women:

Han Hyo-joo VLUU Mirror

Update: I should mention though, that feigned childishness by Korean women also plays a role as an indirect but socially-acceptable means for them to express their sexuality (see here, here, here, and here), so possibly the dance and imagery like the above are not as contradictory as they may at first appear.

Naively, I thought that the following television commercials that went up earlier tonight (Saturday) might help with answering those:

The voiceover and text, in the rare event that you were paying any attention, say that “There are now 2 Han Hyo-joos. The answer why will be revealed in 15 seconds.” I’ve only seen these online actually, so presumably they’d be back to back on television, or in the same commercial break.

Alas, all I learned was that this was a commercial for the VLUU Mirror phone, and that in Korean “VLUU” is written as “블루,” which sounds like and would normally be written in English as “blue”: a mistake, or some rare creativity perhaps?

Regardless, it is true that this is ultimately just one…let’s say misguided marketing campaign, so what makes it notable in a sociological sense? Well, with the proviso that it shouldn’t be used in isolation to as an example of any of these, I identify at least 3 (and I invite readers to suggest any more):

• First, the discrepancy between the number of male and female dancers represented in advertisements, as noted earlier. Surely men are just as active dancers at Korean nightclubs as women, and just as in need of technological solutions to help improve their technique? Presumably, but outside of nightclubs women dancers are ubiquitous as either “narrator models” (나레이터 머델) for promoting new stores, as are costumed women known as doh-00-mi (도우미, or “assistants”), used to promote even the most humble and mundane of products  at supermarkets, so there is the context of the much greater utility and objectification of women’s bodies in Korea. See the introduction to this post on the militarization of daily life in South Korea for more links on that, including this series on the phenomenon’s foundations in Neo-Confucianism.

• Next, there’s the highlighted “S”s. Granted, it is by Samsung, and given that the title of the next dance in the video is the “S-line dance,” and involves showing off your breasts and buttocks, then it’s by no means the best example of how abstracted the concept has become, what I’ve argued is almost a hypperreal meme now pervasive throughout Korean popular culture and especially advertising, often with little relationship to women’s bodies from which it originally stemmed and yet still highly influential on women’s body images. See here and here for much more on that, and arguably the video is still in that vein, as “smart” and “stylish,” are by no means adjectives that spring to mind when thinking of the phone, and their highlighted “S”s don’t help that much with brand recognition either. But they do remind me of S-lines and/or the meme though.

• Finally, a point brought to mind by the following video, which happened to be just before the two commercials above where I first found them:

Interpark (인터파크) is a Korean internet auction site, and yes, it does indeed open with a line towards Lee Hyori’s buttocks, the text reading “Interpark, do you want to exchange?”. Yes, I too would be prepared to exchange a great deal for access to those, but again the point is that they have nothing to do with the product being advertised:

Lee Hyori Interpark

Lee Hyori has a deserved reputation for sexing-up advertisements, even more so among Korean speakers, so perhaps she isn’t the best example(!) to draw attention to the fact that, like their overseas counterparts, advertisers have been deliberately sexing-up advertisements and commercials recently for the sake of getting consumers’ very limited attentions during the current recession. Given that then, although I disagree with blogger Roboseyo’s take on the alternative representations of Korean women’s sexuality presented by this recent music video for instance, he is correct in saying that the burden of proof is on the person claiming that there is more to any sexualized cultural product, commercial or advertisement than simply the fact that sex sells.

Thoughts?

Update: The attention on Lee Hyori’s buttocks does have a logic in the 30 second version of the commercial below (her shorts are too tight), although it is too long to be played on TV:

And if you’re interested in that sort of thing, see here for more on Interpark’s reasons to hire her.

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

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30 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #17: Deconstructing the Ass Dance

  1. Just wondering why you settled on the translation of “ass” for “엉덩이” in this case? Given that it is the name of a dance, maybe “derriere” (French, but known to most English speakers) would work better as it would give alliteration on the “d” sound…

    “Hyo-joo’s Derriere Dance” sounds a lot better (to me at least) than “Hyo-joo’s Ass Dance.”

    • Of course it’s just a matter of personal taste really, but actually I think the connotations the word “derriere” has in English would be quite inappropriate for the Korean “엉덩이.” One thing I love about Korean is how base and almost caveman-like its vocabulary especially can be, and so as far as I know there is only one word for the body part, used by children, lovers, TV news-reporters and doctors alike. So I think the choice of “ass” sums that up really well, and also most Koreans’ blase attitudes to the bodily functions associated with it too.

      To tell you you the truth though, it was actually meant merely as an amusing juxtaposition to the term “deconstructing;” as deconstruction is a somewhat obtuse and pretentious academic discipline (to put it mildly, and that’s from someone with a keen interest in it!), then you’ll rarely find its practitioners using a term as base and direct as “ass”!

  2. “Ass” is a vulgar cuss word whereas 엉덩이 is not. I prefer “butt” and “bum” as English equivalents. The most polite common term, which we use in US schools, is “bottom.”

  3. What a contrast between the noisy techno music of the Samsung commercial and the woman’s sensual, rich, low alto voice in the Virtuagirl video.

    • Now that I think about it a little more, I suppose you’re right: “bottom” would indeed be a better translation of 엉덩이 in most cases.

      I think describing “ass” as a “vulgar cuss word” is a bit of an exaggeration though: certainly I can’t speak for its use in the US (actually I didn’t realize that “bottom,” which I think of as quintessentially British English, was used there), and certainly there are situations and certain people I would not use it with…but not many. It’s definitely not a curse word among expats in Korea my age at least.

      Curse word or not though, I still think it is the most appropriate for Han Hyo-joo’s dance, which isn’t exactly modest!

      • Would commercials in NZ use the word “ass”? That word would never appear in a prime time TV commercial or a printed advertisement in a newspaper or magazine here in the US. Its inclusion in a pop song would result in the song’s exclusion from some radio station playlists. I use the word in private conversations but would not utter it in a public place, say, while standing in line at the supermarket.

        • I think I may have been misunderstood: no, I don’t think that any commercial with the name “The Ass Dance” would be broadcast on television in any English-speaking country, but I do think that it is a much more appropriate translation of the Korean name for this particular dance. And “The Booty Dance” better still, like I wrote in an earlier comment.

          By the way though, although I’m a bit out of touch with NZ advertising standards after 9 yearsin Korea, I think you’d probably be surprised at what NZ’s “blokey” culture allows on television, at least if it is done humorously. A few years before I left, for instance, there was the infamous Toyota “bugger” ad below, which a writer for Craccum, the Auckland University magazine, did an hilarious Freudian and Queer Theory satirical analysis of, and which spread like wildfire throughout the Auckland Gay community after I showed it to my gay prostitute flatmates (it’s a long story). To my everlasting regret, I didn’t keeo my own copy unfortunately, but you can read a little about the effect the ad on making “bugger” an acceptable word for NZ television on page 28 of this.

          (don’t know why that isn’t embedding sorry)

          I can’t find the ad unfortunately, but there was also one at about the same time (for Lotto, I think) that featured the following song (although I don’t know if it played in primetime):

  4. If you want the name to be somewhat provocative but without a swear word you would probably say a booty dance. Although what we (the folks in the States) might call a booty dance would really be a little more vulgar than that.

  5. This translation thing is all a bit of a side issue really, we can see what it’s called in Korean: 엉덩이.

    Anyways, I think this is a bit of an odd one, but I generally tend to side with Brian in Jeollanam-do on this issue. This sort of dance has reached a stage where it has all the trappings of similar dances in other parts of the world, but the understanding of it is somewhat confused.

    This dance is a sexual dance, a “sexy dance”, and yet it is being marketed as an accessory. Just something that, if you do, it makes you cool. It’s a fashion. And far too many people in Korea see “sexy” as just a fashionable description, and don’t acknowledge or don’t even understand what it actually means. Of course, to most readers here who watch this video, with its gyrating and ass-shaking and mini-skirts, it is designed to have sexual appeal. Basically – and I apologise for my language – it’s a “come-fuck-me dance.”

    But not so much in Korea. Or so people want to believe. Because of course, to many – particularly male – observers of such a dance, it has the same connotations of a woman actively displaying her sexuality, and trying to entice a man. But this isn’t acknowledged in Korea to the same extent, where people will often say it’s “cute,” and if they do call it “sexy” they aren’t even using that word as it’s actually meant in the original English. “Sexy” is a Korean accessory for women.

    This advert is trying to sell the idea that it’s good to have this dance as an accessory. But isn’t it dangerous when people discount the actual sexual nature of something like this? When displays of sexuality are reduced in discourse to accessories – just a cool thing to do. If people don’t agree with me, go back and look at the first image, where the viewer is warned that she should be careful not to expose herself, while sticking her 엉덩이 out and looking over her shoulder. We all know the implications of poses like that, but such wording means that only the exposure is seen as sexual, the rest is meaningless. But it’s really not, and I wish people wouldn’t do stupid dances like this unless they understand exactly what they are doing.

    • Apologies in advance if the brevity of my response gives the wrong impression Seamus, but I couldn’t have put it better myself, and so I can’t really think of what to add unfortunately!

  6. I’d like to suggest one further connection between gender and dancing . . . it’s nowhere near as firm or explanatory as I’d like, but ~ Dances that originate with female singers/groups or with female celebrities seem to be much more widely accepted and copied into memes and trends in Korean society than those originating with male artists. I don’t know *why* this should be so. However, while B and Se7en and other male artists have sometimes been admired for their dancing, very few people tend to copy these dances or take pride in personal ability to reproduce them. Compare this to the reactions to Lee Hyo-ri, Wondergirls, and even to Brown Eyed Girls’ Abracadabra, which show up in fan videos, parodies, and even get taught at dance hagwon’s (there are actually hagwon that specialize in teaching popular mv dances.) So there is something in how dances are gendered that make it ok for men and women to do “women’s” dances, but make copying dances originated by men unappealing.

    • Not firm or explanatory? Actually, it’s quite an insightful observation, and I’d really like to follow up on it at some stage. By coincidence, as part of my research for the conference I’ve already been studying Korean music videos from the late-1990s and early-2000s a little, because according to Hoon-Soon Kim in her chapter “Korean Music Videos, Postmodernism, and Gender Politics” in Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea (2005), that’s when representations of men in particular in them really began to diversify, and also when male performers started to sexually-objectify themselves like women. So when I do finally investigate, I think I’ll use those as a starting point.

      Something to watch out for in the meantime though!

    • I will just add that the overwhelming prominence of dances from female groups and singers seems to be more of a recent trend (past couple years). For some reason, “girl groups” are all the rage lately, and the rate at which these recording companies keep debuting them doesn’t seem to be slowing.

      This wasn’t always the case, and I would even say that it was quite the opposite. In the 90’s, particulary—I want to say— in the mid to late 90’s, you still had popular female groups, S.E.S., Fin.K.L., as well as solo artists, but in terms of dances being copied, those of male groups like H.O.T., Shinhwa, were more popular.

      I do think the change noticeably began in the late 90’s and wonder if there were specific influences that led to it, Look forward to reading what you’ve found and your observations on the subject, James.

      • Too right ~ I remember the glory days of H.O.T. and G.O.D. and Shinhwa . . . but I wasn’t in Korea for long enough durations at the time to know if people were copying the dances. Was it as common then as it is now, does anyone know? I suspect there’s been an uptick in general public interest in learning the dances, but have nothing to back this up. I think it’s also very important to note that these dances and their relative simplicity/complexity ratios are very important, and inspire an interaction with MVs and bands that doesn’t occur in the population at large in the US. Compared to, say, a Pussycat Dolls dance, the ones by Korean girl groups are an interesting cross of relatively easy to do individual moves, strung together in long and complex sequences. If you’re trying to popularize a dance, this seems to me the idea combination: There’s enough challenge in learning all the steps and sequences, but the moves themselves aren’t so difficult that most people can’t reproduce them (as the Wondergirls very quickly demonstrated after their almost disastrous debut, when self-made videos of the Tell Me dance went viral, and people even had their computer game avatars doing the dance – in many cases, better than the band themselves were at the time performing). This also circumscribes the kinds of moves that appear in most dances . . . which is one reason I get a kick out of the original Abracadabra MV – that up in the air ass-wiggle and turn are a bit beyond most people’s capabilities. I know I sure can’t do it.
        At any rate, that was a long, roundabout way of saying I think the reproducability of the dances in Korean MVs is a key part of the marketing of songs, groups, and music in general. There’s a participatory quality (also seen in noraebang) and relationship between fans and performers that goes well beyond what we usually see with western music groups.

        • Erk…to be completely honest JS, I’ve done little more than read and make a few notes on that chapter really, so anything I do do on the subject will be quite a while away sorry. But I’m really enjoying and learning a lot from what you and both Gomushin Girl have written about the subject, so please by all means don’t let my silence stop you from continuing!

  7. I don’t think you can compare Han Hyo Joo with the virtual girl. Han Hyo Joo’s dance moves are no different from the dance moves you see from current girlgroups like Kara, SNSD, etcetc. That’s not to say they’re completely non-sexual, but they’re not over-sexual like virtual girl’s either.
    I agree when you say Samsung’s advertising campaign is weird in the sense that it doesn’t clearly target a consumer population.
    At the same time, I think the ads are cute, and they’re meant to be lighthearted and funny, like the whole blurb about falling on your butt if your butt’s too big.

  8. I take issue with the phrase “ass dance”, simply because that girl has no ass to speak of. Actually, she’s too skinny in general: those arms and legs look kinda spindly.

      • Butt have we really gotten to the bottom of the matter yet? I cleave to the chance that there’s more to it, even at the risk of getting a little cheeky in the comments.

        sorry . . . can’t help myself sometimes.

        • Here, let me take a crack at it.

          I think the title’s great, and ass-dance is the best word to contrast with deconstructing. My female friends used to call them “bum dance” (which is more fun to say than ass dance, despite ass dance’s nice short-a assonance (tee hee), because of the way the long m sound and stumbles into the short plosive d sound).

          It doesn’t surprise me at all that these dances are catching on — the dance craze element was the thing that took Tell Me’s popularity over the top, wasn’t it? Of course everybody else would also want to create a dance that MIGHT go viral, in case they also MIGHT become as popular as the wondergirls (though I’ll grant that Abracadabra is refreshingly non-dance-club reproducible: it’d take too much floor space to stretch out on the floor that way, and that bum-in-the-air thingy would take a bit of yoga preparation for many people. Creating a dance with the intention of it being reproducible is, however, no surprise to me in Korea, where most artists I’ve heard whose music is oriented to adult audiences (trot and such) sounds to me explicitly written to be singable by your average ajosshi/ajumma in the 노래방. Why wouldn’t dances be done in a similar way?

  9. Now that you’ve mentioned it, her ankles have been digitally altered throughout the whole video. If you pause it on 26 seconds just as she’s standing up, you can see where the airbrusher got careless and erased half her leg. And there are other points as well where her ankles seem to go thinner than her fingers.

  10. She has no ass and she’s no dancer either – not in the trained sense anyway … and interestingly enough it’s mostly untrained dancers that go for the ‘sexy dancing!’ – it covers up a lack of technique …

    • No offense…er…Teleskopic Recordings and Zorg, but discussions about whether a women has T&A or not can get very pointless and boring very quickly. Not that I don’t talk or think like that myself of course, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

    • I’m sure if they’d wanted a professional dancer, they would have hired her. I would argue that dancing (at least in respect to these kinds of dances) is not intended the way we think of, say, club dancing where people are working to show off individual skill levels. Instead, these are meant to be communal activities that reinforce social ties (see my comments above) and are valued because many people can do them. Thus, having a well known actress do the dance is part of the charm and part of the point: You too can do the VLUU dance!
      And although I feel odd mounting this defence, I suspect some of the dissapearing leg is a digital defect rather than deliberate photoshopping.

      • Agreed on all of that, although I’d place even more stress on the importance of featuring a well-known actor rather than a dancer, and probably particularly Han Hyo-joo too, as this is a new and interesting sexy side to her (regardless of some above commenters’ opinions of her).

        Naturally as a heterosexual male I would still at least check out an attractive, professional dancer doing it instead, but it’s not like I’m deprived of things like that on the internet. And presumably women, the target audience, would be even less interested.

        • all the talk about easy-to-do dances reinforcing social ties reminds me of during world cup 2006, when Moon Geun-yeong did those “wake up while you’re watching the late game to cheer for your country” ads demonstrating some simple “wake-up” movements in that yellow dress: social dancing has been linked to sports nationalism at least once. I wonder if we’ll see a full-blown “world cup dance’ for world cup 2010 — last year’s Hi Seoul Festival had a signature dance.

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