Reading “The Lolita Effect” in South Korea: Part 1

There are so many issues raised by 18 year-old Kim Hyuna’s (김현아) performance of her infamous “pelvic dance” (골반댄스) on last week’s episode of Quiz That Changes The World (세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈) below, that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Probably most notable however, is the surrealism of having observers explicitly acknowledging the dance’s sexual nature, only then to implicitly deny that nature by their subsequent actions. For while the men whoop and comically feign arousal while watching it, looking more like they’re in a strip club than on a talk-show, actually the heterosexual women display a similar enthusiasm, and later a mixed group goes on stage to parody it. Finally, a 12 year-old girl in the audience is brought on to similarly thrust her crotch at the camera, much to the delight of all.

Naturally, I have already discussed the issue of the media projecting, exploiting, and yet simultaneously denying female sexuality like this many times before, but after recently reading the The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It by M. Durham (2009), I realize now that I was rather naive in ever thinking that that was unique to Korea. Nevertheless, there are some features of the Korean media and social landscape that certainly exaggerate the phenomenon here at least, such as:

And hence my plan with this series is to demonstrate just how extreme the “lolita effect” really is in Korea by analyzing the episode using Durham’s book, hopefully gaining some new insights into representations of sexuality in Korean popular culture in the process. I’d also like to pay special attention on how her strategies for confronting the lolita effect can be applied to the Korean context.

But first, you need to see the episode for yourself:

And then you need some background, as there may be a few things about Korean talk shows that you are unaware of. In particular, even the conversations in them are by no means as spontaneous as they are made to appear (let alone the dances), and so to both illustrate this point and give you a greater feel for the show, let me devote the rest of this introductory post to yet another “scandal” from as recently as the preceding episode, in which After School (애프터스쿨) leader Park Ga-hee (박가희) said that she doesn’t like dating guys under 183cm tall:

As noted in numerous K-pop blogs and forums (see here, here, here, and here), Korean netizens unfairly compared that to the infamous “Guys under 180cm are losers” comment by a college student last year. Rather more disturbing and bizarre however, but not unexpected in light of the above, is what happened next:

With Ga-hee’s statement, the other male guest appearances on the show had felt embarrassed. So as to not make them feel bad and hurt, Ga-hee presented a set of sexy dance routines on the show, much to the delight of the other star appearances and the TV viewers.

Which in turn has led to a great deal commentary at those above links, which I’m glad to say is overwhelmingly critical. Yet for all the virtual ink spilled on it, unfortunately it’s not actually true, that internet meme starting from a misinterpretation and/or mistranslation at KBites. In reality, she was neither encouraged to dance for that reason nor stated that that was why she was doing so, but rather supposedly did it on a whim because “she hadn’t seen the hosts for such a long time.” Korean speakers, listen for yourself from 1:49 to 2:03 to confirm, but regardless of your ability it’s really quite easy to see that it was preplanned:

In that vein, was it just coincidence that the men on the last show happened to have cushions to hide their erections with while watching Hyuna, or curvaceous cushions to squeeze and fondle?

Update : Before completely finishing with Ga-hee however, a point to ponder by babochureum, a commenter at allkpop:

…it’s ok to say you like tall guys? What if a guy went on there and said he only likes girls with bra sizes bigger than C? It’s just ridiculous to say that you only like a certain sized person…

The “Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea” series:

36 thoughts on “Reading “The Lolita Effect” in South Korea: Part 1

  1. Many of us have physical preferences. I don’t find old men, fat men, or hairy men physically attractive. Physical preferences are part cultural, part natural. It’s reasonable and normal to have physical preferences, but a celebrity who expresses a preference publicly, like Ga-hee did, risks offending sensitive fans who do not possess that feature.

    You are right that sexualization of children, especially girls, is a problem in other countries, too. In the US, girls’ dance troupes are notorious for dressing girls in brothel lingerie and teaching them to gyrate and hump the floor. See this US entertainment website thread for an example.

    • I’d go so far as to say we all have physical preferences actually, although I acknowledge the double standards in being able to acknowledge them.

      Thanks for the link; although Durham does a great deal about those, a picture is worth a thousand words and all. Fortunately that’s something we’ve yet to see in Korea really, but for the occasional – oh so cute! – preteens imitating Hyuna and so on in shows just like these.

  2. I thought people were mostly bothered by the reaction of the men and the fact that show was an early show (probably watched by children then)… I haven’t seen the video but I have to say I find it sad that Hyuna has to perform that dance again, seeing she has released the single last year…

    For Park Gahee, I don’t blame her for choosing guys a certain height… I put it with the fact that women have this ideal of a strong guy, someone who is way taller/ more fit /earn more money than them… She might have went to far, I mean she’s not 1m80 herself or is she? Maybe it was a subtle way to tell the tall guy she was interested in him too…

    Regarding the comment, guys also choose based on height… I don’t know many guys that go for girls taller than them, and the bra size was a bad example as there are some guys that don’t like flat chested/big breasted girls…

    To each his own.

    • Actually I didn’t say that people were bothered by the dance, but yes, that’s right, although again there is some misinformation out there: the show actually airs quite late, something like 11:30pm on Saturdays, but it’s repeated in the mornings.

      I thought Gahee was quite picky considering she’s only 168cm herself, but whatever does it for her (alas, I’m only 181.5cm). But I don’t think the comparison to bra size was a bad example: the point is that publicly at least, men can’t at all say that they wouldn’t date someone under a C, or particularly like A for that matter, whereas it’s perfectly acceptable for women to set minimum standards for men’s height and income and so on. But not that I can’t understand how that double-standard arose of course.

      • I’m not so sure men’s height and women’s breast sizes correspond here. I have heard guys say that they like tall or petite women, and also describe what they feel is “pretty” (at least in their opinion, or matching their taste). Breasts are a sexual body part, height is not (well, is not a body part at all). If a woman said publicly that she liked a certain size penis (or total “package,” if you will), that would be a more apt comparison (and of course this wouldn’t be okay to say publicly). I don’t feel there’s a double-standard here. (Though I do feel the constant references to men’s height to be getting a bit silly).

        • I didn’t mean that they’re exact equivalents, and you certainly have a point that a better one in today’s media and social climate at least, a better comparison would be breast size and penis size.

          Let me be more specific then: objectively speaking, height is a important criterion for women in choosing a mate, for numerous reasons that I don’t think I need to list here, as is breast size for men. Of course, they’re not the only thing to consider, but then all things being equal, men do tend to choose partners with larger breasts, and women tend to choose taller men.

          Both are primarily the result of genetics and diet, and extremely difficult to change once you reach adulthood. Nevertheless, it is publicly acceptable for women to state that they like tall men, but not for men to say that they like women with breasts above a certain cup-size, even though short men are presumably as annoyed and frustrated with the former as women with small breasts would be with the latter. Hence a double-standard.

          • I think something that’s been happening in Korea over the last few years is that women have become more and more dominant (for want of a better word) in deciding who they date, sleep with, marry etc. Whereas previously a lot of this was done through prearrangements, and following that men were dominant in choosing who they dated – the richer men had more choice – things are starting to move the other way now. I’m not saying this is an absolute, but when you take a film like My Sassy Girl, for instance, this is a good depiction of the changing (or partially changed) attitudes to which I’m referring.

            That is, things have started to become such that men no longer look to “acquire” a partner, now there are some cases where they hope to be “acquired” by one. Thus, it is becoming evident in Korean society that women are becoming more picky, and have taken on more power in the dating scene. Now more than ever, the preferences and values of women shape the culture of dating. Again, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not saying this is an absolute, or a completed process.

            One result of this, however, is that society in general is now far more aware of what women look for in men then it ever was before. It’s more commonly discussed and portrayed in the media and in public, whereas before it was almost exclusively the other way round. When asking how this relates to this post, we also have to acknowledge the tendency towards “group-think” and conformity in Korean society, as well as the importance placed on physical appearance and characteristics in many ways.

            All combined, this leads some Korean men to feel that Korean women have firstly become more powerful/dominant in “filtering out” men they do not want to date, secondly that this power has a secondary manifestation which is that not only are women able to be more picky, their criteria for a desirable man has also become stricter, and thirdly the perception that Korean women tend towards rather universal preferences for certain characteristics.

            One of these is deemed to be height, and so when someone well-known publicly says only considers men above 183cm tall, that’s going to – again for want of a better word – piss a lot of people off. It’s an incredibly high figure considering the average height in Korea. It’s also incredibly specific, and incredibly absolute. Combine this with the perception that, as a woman (especially a famous, attractive one), she’s now in a position where she can say this and it’s considered somewhat valid, as well as the perception that it’s bound to be representative of the “group-think” of all women, and it leaves some men feeling that they’ve been unfairly ignored and left in an undesirable situation.

            Now, again, I don’t think what I’ve written here applies for all or even most Koreans. Furthermore, netizen comments represent the amplified views of a tiny minority of Korean people, so we can assume that most men didn’t feel sufficiently angered enough to even leave a comment saying so.

  3. This site might be too intellectually “heavy” for my comment but what the hell … that a really cool/hot video … thanks for bringing it to our? attention!!

    Bet you do not see Japanese women do that on their variety programmes!!!

  4. Great post James! I have to say Hyuna’s pelvic dance never bothered me until now, and I definitely believe it has something to do with her dancing in that venue. In particular, I noticed that fact that Hyuna would constantly go from “pelvic, pelvic in your face, booty thrust” and then end the entire demonstration with shyly covering her face. Shades of Madonna/whore syndrome to me. I agree with everything you said about the shows being planned and Korea’s poor education playing a role in this, but sometimes I see young idols like Hyunah adopt this “sexy bad girl” persona, and wonder if they actually realize what they’re doing – it wouldn’t be so bad if these girls owned their sexuality, but with the majority of girl groups, any sexiness comes of as robotic (which I’m sure is partly to do with their young ages). Looking at what passes for sex ed in that country it seems less likely. Add in the lecherous older men, and the whole thing comes off as extremely squicky.

  5. For me Hyuna’s “pelvic thrust” dance and general live performances have been great [example moved below - James]. I feel everyone can agree with the fact that it’s hard to call it submissive. it’s definitely sexual, and quite literally thrust in your face, however. I don’t think it’s robotic, she oozes passion live. Ashe’s point about her playing coy afterwards is interesting, but.. all idols seem to do that after every ‘skill’ they’re asked to present on shows like this (which is understandable).

    I don’t think her age is problematic. Perhaps this comes from me always living in a country where the age of consent is 16. Perhaps it comes from her not in any way being made up to seem like a younger girl – without the information I would not have guessed that she’s younger than, say, any of the 20-somethings in SNSD. Elderly men cheering her on, yes, but they’re also cheering the same way when Lee Hyori, in her 30s, does that kind of dance on shows. Hyori is a good example I’d like to talk more about some time, because she went from being a young idol to taking control over her career and choices (and she’s definitely still doing sexy dances).

    And the exact same process is repeated with male idols, with shirt-lifting, wolf whistles from the women hosts, etc. I think those examples are hard to connect to some uniquely Lolita-esque culture. Sex in general is in focus, yes, but without a particular framing. (Note that I’m talking exclusively about this example and not your further analysis of this issue in Korean society.)

    I wish I could remember the details here, of an article where an idol (one of the big groups) talked about how she felt restrained by society, that she wanted to be fashionable and dress (even) more provocatively but said Korea was still conservative enough to where she had to hold back. I’ll do some memory-searching as it would be a nice supplement to your question about wanting to/ being pressured to.

    • Absolutely no offense intended(!), but I think you’ve gotten completely the wrong impression of my own feelings about Hyuna and the dance: actually I’ve no problems with either, and agree with the bulk of your comment, but for the minor point that I don’t think she’s always quite as passionate dancing it as you describe, and like others have noted often seems compelled to and/or embarrassed about having to do it so often.

      As for being misguided in drawing a connection to some uniquely Lolita-esque culture though, like you say I guess we’ll have to wait for the next posts in the series before I refute that, but note in advance that part and parcel of “The Lolita Effect” are things such as: driving the average age of our sexual icons relentlessly downward, the corollary of which is the 30 and 40-something women and 60-something(?) man performing the dance not to be similarly sexy, but rather to be deliberately to be laughed at, as the media paints those demographics as completely asexual; the reduction of the entire wealth and multifaceted nature of human female sexuality to simply performing for the male gaze (can one deemed be a hot, sexy female celebrity in Korea without doing a “sexydance” on a talkshow?); the refusal to acknowledge that teens and even children have both sex and sexuality, and that this is natural, but being considered alarmist and/or a prude for finding 12 year-olds sticking their crotch toward the camera problematic, and downright crazy for drawing links between that and the huge amount of teenage prostitution here, and consistently high, nay endemic levels of sexual violence against teenagers and children (note also that the age of consent in Korea is actually as young as 13, something I’ve added to the post since you wrote your comment). And so on.

      Anyway, thanks in advance for the article if do find the link, although it could be almost any female celebrity really!

  6. Hey James,

    This is really interesting to me because last night I was flipping through channels and came upon this show. I naturally stopped to take in the spectacle, as 1: I had a hard time believing what I was actually seeing – such a blatantly explicit “dance” and 2: I am a man and sometimes succumb to my pervy-er instincts.

    I have no idea who the Kim Hyun-a is, but she can really thrust her thang for a skinny chick.

  7. I’m pretty sure Tharp42 isn’t the only one here giving into his “pery-er” instincts. I’m curious as to why Mr. Turnbull hasn’t provided us with other similar examples of such explicit sexualization from other countries. If you’re going to put this particular issue under the microscope, why not broaden the scope?

    • Yawn. You’re not exactly the first person to consider any heterosexual male perverted for covering such subjects Clint, nor to implicitly defend Korea from criticism by pointing out that “similar examples of such explicit sexualization” also exist in other countries, as if and I my readers had previously been unaware. Could have sworn that I explicitly said that they were hardly unique to Korea though.

      As for broadening the scope of the discussion with an examination of those examples however, then my bad, and my humble apologies for only having the time and resources to focus on Korean examples on a blog that is, well, focused on Korea. But perhaps you could provide those yourself instead? My sincere thanks in advance if you do, and especially if your examples “from other countries” extend beyond merely pointing out that Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears did similar things in the US too, and so what’s my problem.

      I wait with bated breath.

  8. Sexuality and gender issues (in the media, to be more precise) seem to be your area of expertise, Mr. Turnbull. I think I’ll abstain from being so presumptuous as to steal your thunder by citing such examples (to be frank, I don’t much want to, either). You’re either willing to broaden the scope of the questions raised in your articles by using comparative examples from other cultures, or you’re not. Since you’re clearly not motivated to do so yourself, I’ll let you get back to doing what you do best: focusing intently on Korean women. I never claimed to have taken issue with that, so keep up the good work.

    • Not only do you fail to apologize for calling me perverted in your last comment Clint, or acknowledge the speciousness of criticizing me for failing to look at non-Korean examples on a blog about Korea, but you must take a pretty dim view of my intelligence if you thought that I’d overlook that you’re basically doing the same again here.

      I’ve got better things to do then read that a third time.

      Banned.

  9. Re – Hyuna’s dance . I personally see nothing wrong with her dance as all she did was typically part of a traditional Nigerian dance. That being said, as she is Korean (and I don’t know what traditional Korean dances are like) I can see how Koreans might not get it if they don’t normally dance like that.

    I’m Nigerian and pretty much most traditional Nigerian dances that are thousands of years old are all like that so maybe I just don’t get what the uproar is about.

      • It- I meant I can see how Koreans might not get that her dancing wasn’t necessarily sexual if they don’t normally dance that way.

        For example, most Nigerians dance that way traditionally so we don’t consider that kind of dancing shocking or vulgar or particularly sexual or inappropriate for young people. Perhaps a Korean (assuming that this kind of dancing is not a normal part of traditional Korean culture) would find her dancing scandalous or inappropriate for a child to see but a Nigerian would not see the slightest thing wrong with it (except for those Nigerians that have been hyperchristianized or islamicized).

        So what I mean is, I personally did not find anything wrong or strange or provocative or scandalous about her dancing, but when I try to put myself in the shoes of a Korean or see this from a Korean point of view, given that to the best of my knowledge this kind of dance is not “normal” for Koreans, then I understand why it would cause such a stir/scandal.

  10. James how do feel about the recent trend of portraying men as sex objects? This past could be known as the year of abs. Do you think it is a recognition of women’s increasing purchasing power. I know you’re not a fan of dramas but almost every drama marketed towards women will have countless topless for men. Look at this latest MV (which i think is more homoerotic that sexy, as a female viewer)

    • I have mixed feelings about it. Like I’ve mentioned in my own posts on the subject here, here, and here, I agree with this British feminist that male objectification definitely doesn’t “compensate” for female objectification any more, and intellectually at least I am concerned about the effects it has on men’s body images, and which in hindsight had a big effect on me becoming a gym addict back in my early-20s and basing my entire sense of self-worth and confidence on the fact that I had a good body, even going so far as to worry about how I’d get to work out when I was in Nicaragua as I then planned. On the other hand though, I certainly don’t ever feel any sense of outrage about it, and in fact seeing how formulaic it is etc. gives me greater insight into how women may also feel when they see women objectified, but I’m too busy enjoying the view to notice.

  11. I’m not surprised at what I saw. I think from during my time in South Korea, there is a huge clashing right now between a very conservative society of shame that discourages bad behavior, and new Western trends of expressing sexuality as a part of “freedom of movement.” The issue is, since Korean women are naturally put into a more subservient role, I perceive this bad influence from plastic K-pop stars like 현아 to encourage young women to take on this new trend of being “sexy.” No more 창피 (shame), but certainly no more blushing as what is forbidden is deemed harmless.

    Another problem, especially working at a girls’ high school, is many young women can’t distinguish what is shameful and what is not. An example being at our high school festival…where parents, students, and teachers were watching young women gyrate in ways that are not appropriate for the eyes to see. Very sexual in nature, girls think what they are doing is normal but in reality do not know such movements have a powerful influence on men’s minds.

    What I saw on this video is that 현아 is playing to the crowd…that’s all. I liked how you (Mr. Turnbull) emphasized the lack of education about sexuality as one precursor to all this. Not knowing the value of sexuality between a man and a woman, rather, to display it for everyone demeans both the person and the definition of sex itself. No 창피 here.

  12. I think theres a psychological reason behind women preferring taller men, for instance men having the role of being a protector. I’m just saying this in a general sense of course everyone has their own likes. Some men are intimidated by tall women and vice versa. I’m a 5’8 20 year old woman and I do notice that some men are intimidated by my height and some men like my height. I do have an ideal height preference of 5’11 but its not like I go around rejecting guys shorter guys. I don’t think theres anything wrong with that however I think its unfair to compare cup preference to height preference. People will always have certain things that they are more attracted to in the opposite sex but if you blatantly discriminate against people that don’t fit your preference then thats wrong. Now on the Hyuna topic, I think that her ‘sexiness’ is really awkward… you can have a strong sense of sexuality at that age however it seems forced, you can see her go from stage mode to I guess I would call it her real self, shes all shy and bashful after, she knows what shes doing in front of those older men. Oh and that halmoni has a cushion on her lap too lol

    • No offense, but I don’t think you’ve presented any reasons as to why it’s unfair to compare cup preference to height preference, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that!

      As for the cushions though, granted that an halmoni has one on her lap the entire time, but if you watch again from roughly 3:53 you’ll see that they specifically make jokes about at least one of the male guests moving his cushion from behind him to in front of him while watching Hyuna, so I’m not reading too much into it. It would also be in line with the jokes just before that about one of the men having a heart attack and/or getting all hot and bothered (just like last week it says) too, and similar ones made about Hyuna’s earlier dance on the show as well.

  13. Pingback: Damn you, Grand Narrative! « Extra! Korea

  14. I caught that particular show on Allkpop. Suffice to say I was terribly embarassed to be watching it. You could see the arousal in all the men’s faces. I didn’t want to be watching it.

  15. Regarding the chest size vs height issue.. I believe social context is everything here.

    The features that men find physically acceptable in women have been talked about, broadcasted, shared, depicted etc.. for a lot longer and a lot more intensively than what women find physically acceptable in men.

    In recent times, this has been seen to be unfair and now we can see attempts being made at equality. But for equality to be reached, in almost all cases, what is socially acceptable first has to be reversed, flip to the other extreme.

    So men objectify women and not vice versa. People see this is a mis-treatment and soon it becomes ‘cool’ (a form of acceptability) for women to objectify men, and frowned upon for men to objectify women. And it can go back and forth until an equal level of acceptability of the objectification of each gender is reached.

    This is in the same way that it is much more socially acceptable today for a black person to speak derogatively about white people than vice versa. Most people understand and accept why this is the case.. it’s a means to an equal playing field.

    However ‘double standard-y’ it may seem, I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing, right now, for it to be acceptable for women to have strict height standards and not for men to have strict breast size standards.

    This issue also reminds me of the 2NE1 song ‘Pretty Boy’.

    ‘Men say that girls just have to be pretty
    We just have to be nice
    We hope that men can be like men
    You got to be a real man’

    Illustrated in these lyrics is the point I made above, men have placed these expectations on women and now women are going to do it back.

    It’s not ideal but it’s progression.

    To further strengthen my view I want to point out some other reasons why height and chest size should not be treated as equal features of attraction of men and women.

    ‘Height’ is almost an abstract concept, one cannot look at another’s height without looking at a part of that person’s body, and when deciphering or admiring a person’s height, it is usual to look to the top of that person, i.e. their head or face.

    I think it is genrally agreed that the face shows the most personality, character or soul of a person compared to any other body part. It is where we do most of our sensing and expressing and where we hope to be looked at when others percieve us.

    Women do not tend to be distracted from a man’s face (i.e. the closest thing to a physical manifestation of their personality) because they were too busy admiring that man’s height. Height points to face.

    However, I bellieve it may have occured once or twice that a man has ignored a woman’s face (point of expression) because they were staring at her chest.

    To clarify this perspective, height is more a part of a person that breasts are a part of a woman. Compare the sentences ‘I like a man who IS tall’ ‘I like a girl WITH big breasts’. Height is embodiment, breasts are like an add on, a feature.

    To conclude, breast size is a more superficial point of judgment than height.

    I also don’t agree that penis size is an equal comparative match to breast size, but that’s a whole new point ha.

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