Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 2: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image

A simply surreal video making the rounds at the moment. As explained by Lisa at Sociological Images, it:

…beautifully illustrates the socialization of children into particular kinds of worship. With hand motions, body movements, and facial expressions, this child is doing a wonderful job learning the culturally-specific rules guiding the performance of devotion.

Which led to a great deal of discussion at that site, but I’ll confine myself here to echoing Jason’s comment that it simply reminds him of his son picking up his own behaviors such as sweeping, and that the young girl:

…certainly isn’t worshiping here, but is just mimicking her parents and the other people around her. I can guarantee she has no concept of a deity.

But what has all that got to do with K-pop, let alone Meenakshi Durham’s The Lolita Effect? Well, because after reading all that, it was very interesting comparing my daughters’ own reactions to KARA’s Lupin just half an hour later. First, those of 4 and half year-old Alice:

Then with her 2 and half year-old sister Elizabeth:

Granted, perhaps you had to be there…and in which case I probably would have removed my laundry from the floor first (sorry). But I didn’t notice it myself, because at the time I was simply transfixed.

You see, along with dozens of other K-pop music videos, Alice and Elizabeth must have watched and “danced” to Lupin at least 20 times before that night. But that was the first time that Alice at least seemed to demonstrate that she not only remembered it, but actually knew it very well, and was performing repetitive actions that were recognizably part of the same dance…which she’d demand the chance to do 7 more times before going to bed.

Unfortunately for my paternal pride though, in hindsight she was neither simply copying the music video nor giving her own original interpretation of it: as confirmed by her teacher later, she’s preparing for a Christmas performance at her kindergarten soon, and – yes – she’ll be dancing to Lupin.

So what’s the big deal? After all, while I’m still translating the lyrics myself (or at least I was until my “study” got invaded), they seem harmless enough:

But what if the kindergarten teachers had chosen Mister instead?

Or something by the Wondergirls perhaps? Two weeks from now, might I have looked on in abject horror as my 4 year-old kept thrusting her bottom out at me while singing I’m So Hot?

(See here for the video; unfortunately, the owner has disabled embedding)

No, because first, no matter how much WonderBaby’s appearances on national television could be construed as widespread public acceptance of that sort of thing, my wife confirms that many other Korean parents would also have complained well before then.

But second, and most importantly, actually Alice has already been thrusting her bottom out at me like the Wondergirls, for about 3 months now.

Seriously: several times a day, she’d suddenly run up to me giggling when I was at my desk, quickly thrust her bottom out at me a few times, then she’d run away in hysterics. Fortunately, she seems to have largely grown out of it now, but not through any discouragement on my part, which just seemed to make doing it all the more amusing for her.

Why did she start in the first place? I’ve no idea, as although she could have seen that dance move virtually anywhere, she wouldn’t have had any idea what it represented, or what adults would think of it. Perhaps one of her teachers overreacted to her or one of her classmates doing it or something, after which it became fun.

But whatever the reason, does that mean that it’s hypocritical to have any misgivings about Wonderbaby then?

Hell no. But to counter the argument that it’s just clean harmless fun, let’s be very specific about what the problems with her dancing to So Hot on national television are exactly. I can identify 2 main ones.

First, there’s the fact that Wonderbaby quite literally invites the viewer to view her as a sexual person. Of course, she probably has virtually no idea of the meanings of what she’s singing, let alone the consequences. In which case, one might already reasonably ask what she’s doing there in the first place, and in cases like this it is usually this naive, unknowing projection of sexuality that adults tend to be most concerned with. As explained by Durham in The Lolita Effect:

…the signals that girls send out about their sexuality, often naively, in response to the prevailing media and marketing trends, [are] signals that adults fear will attract harmful sexual attention. As the columnist Rosa Brooks lamented in the Los Angeles Times, “old fashioned American capitalism…is busy serving our children up to pedophiles on a corporate platter”….

….These charges open up quite a can of worms. Can marketers in fact “serve” children up to pedophiles? Is there any real danger in young girls wearing low-cut, skimpy, or “trashy” clothes, or is this just a harmless fashion trend designed to raise parental hackles, like so many others in the past? Could it even be seen as a feminist moves towards embracing a femininity or “girliness” scorned by previous generations and linking it to power rather than passivity? (p. 69)

I’ll return to the last point later. But before I do, from the outset I want to put paid to the notion that even children that young are completely neuter and/or are unaffected by sex in the media:

For children to take an interest in sex is not out-of-the-ordinary or scandalous. Even toddlers “play doctor” to explore each others’ bodies and mimic intercourse, though scholars are still debating what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior in young children. Sex is a part of life, so it is bound to surface in different ways at different developmental stages; it is not cause for alarm unless there is harm or abuse involved. Of course, sexuality needs to be dealt with in ways that are appropriate for the age and maturity of the child, the cultural and social context, and above all, the ethical implications of the situation, but sex per se cannot reasonably be viewed as harmful to minors. (p. 68)

And in particular:

The conventional wisdom is that interest in sex escalates as children approach adolescence; this is a biological viewpoint that connects the hormonal shifts and physical maturation of puberty with an increased interest in sex. But now sexuality marks preadolescence and childhood, too, and for many adults, this is justifiable cause for alarm. In today’s world, children as young as eight report worrying about being popular with the opposite sex; first graders describe being sexually-harassed by classmates; and by middle school, kids are steeped in sexual jargon, images, and exploration. Sex educator Deborah Roffman argues that little girls start wanting to look good for others at age four….(p. 65)

Very few – if any – cultures have found ways of adequately and appropriately dealing with the inconvenient fact of child sexuality (let alone the media) but surely Wonderbaby’s example doesn’t help. Nor do the music videos discussed below with slightly older girls either, but which I only realized thanks to Barry Raymond, a friend of mine that used to live in Korea (and now with 3 daughters himself):

No, that’s not them: rather, it’s a screenshot from the music video for Bang! (뱅!) by After School (애프터스쿨), which I translated back in June. One of my favorite Korean songs, I was originally a little miffed when Barry criticized it because the inclusion of the young girls, to which I replied on Facebook:

I’m usually quite wary of that too Barry, especially in Korea, where people are generally very reluctant to admit that things like that can be problematic. But in this particular case I think their presence is fine personally, because they’re gone within the first 20 seconds or so, and don’t perform any dance moves that can be considered remotely sexual. So they’re clearly supposed to be decorations at the beginning, considered quite separate to the grown-up (sexual) women of the group.

His response:

The lyrics and dancing that make up the song and video are all about sex. To place a child at the beginning of that exploits them in a sexual way. How would you feel about a child appearing at the beginning of Bad Romance or some other Lady Gaga song. It’s a girl group exploiting itself on the basis of sexuality, at least in this song. That is their choice, don’t force it upon the clearly underaged girls that appear in the video or try to make it appealing to an underage audience.

Me:

Hmmm, you may well have a point there, which I admit I wouldn’t have considered if you hadn’t brought up imagining the same in Bad Romance; I wonder if that shows just how used to that sort of thing I am here?

(15 year-old f(x) band member Sulli {최설리} in Oh! Boy Magazine; see here {source})

And finally, albeit admittedly after my asking if I could post it here at some point(!):

According to Wikipedia… See More’s typology of child pornography, the type described as posing involves (allow me to paraphrase) ‘deliberately posed pictures (video) of children fully clothed, partially clothed etc. where the context and/or organization suggests sexual interest’.

The”Bang” video places two clothed girls wearing the exact same attire as the older models at the beginning of the video. The girls dance alongside the older models where the older models are dancing in a sexually provocative manner (the younger girls are not in my opinion dancing in a sexually provocative manner). It should also be noted that while the girls wear the same outfits as the older models the fitting of their outfits is not alarmingly provocative although the same outfit on the older models is certainly sexually provocative. So we have a situation where several sexually provocative models are juxtaposed with what appears to be virtually identical under-aged girls. This to me would constitute a context of sexual interest where the line between the older models and the younger models is intentionally blurred.

Further to this context would be the lyrics….and the title of the song, “After School” along with the school oriented marching parade uniforms. To me this video is unambiguous contextualized sexual exploitation of children.

Is judging the Korean media and Korean music videos with an assessment system developed by the Paedophile Unit of the London Metropolitan Police merely imposing a Western value system on Korea? You decide, although I’d wager that in fact the Korean police have a very similar system.

Either way, not much later one of After School’s subgroups – Orange Caramel –  did the same again with their music video for A~ing (아잉):

For the sake of providing sufficient warning of the slightly NSFW image coming up in a moment, let me take the opportunity here to point out that it’s not so much the lyrics and dance moves that are the issue this time (see here for a video with them), but more having a child in a music video “sugar-coated with sexual undertones,” with an “obviously pedobaittastic tone,” and with “kinky cosplay lolita outfits”, all as noted by Johnelle at SeoulBeats. And so much so, that this next screenshot…

…instantly reminded of this next image, which I’ve had on my hard drive for years, from God knows where. Not looking very closely at the small print before then, I’d always assumed that it was the cover of an erotic fiction book, but it actually turns out to be a poster for a pornographic cartoon:

(Source: unknown)

Continuing with A~ing though, just in case you think Johnelle and I are exaggerating:

And in particular, these costumes, which – correct me if I’m wrong – seem to serve no other purpose than to have one’s breasts spill out of them:

All good wholesome stuff. So like Johnelle notes, what’s with having a little girl dressed up in the same kind of vinyl red riding hood get-up as the women at the end?

So,  does all the above mean I’m advocating that girls should never be allowed to appear in sexually-themed music videos (and so on) then? Yes, I guess so.

But how to set a minimum age for that? After all, the upshot of everything I’ve written so far that any age limit would be somewhat arbitrary and artificial.

If I did have to to set an age though (and it would be very unrealistic not to have one), then I’d say that the age of consent would be the most logical choice. Unfortunately however, in Korea that happens to be as low as 13 (see here and here), even though the age at which one can view and perform in sexually-related material and/or have reliable access to contraception is 18.

Yeah, I don’t see the reason for the huge discrepancy in age limits either…which is not quite the same as arguing that any of them should be 13.

But that’s a subject for another post. In the meantime, one argument against any age limit on appearances is that the average age at which girls begin to menstruate has been dropping steadily since 1850, so much so that – in developed countries at least – they now enter puberty between the ages of 8 and 13. It would be a pity to deny girls the right to express their ensuing sexuality in popular culture, especially with female sexuality in general being repressed and/or literally viewed as evil for so much of human history.

(16 year-old Bae Su-ji {배수지} of Miss A {미쓰에이}. Source)

Yet the notion that the feminist sexual empowerment of girls and women is what primarily motivated the appearances of Wonderbaby, the girls in the After School videos, the tight pants of 15 year-old Sulli, and 16 year old Bae Su-ji’s pose above is simply absurd, and indeed there is solid evidence that most young female entertainers are in fact pressured to wear their supposedly empowering skimpy clothing (and dance provocatively) rather than doing so out of choice. But although such arguments have still been made in Korea nevertheless, the overwhelming public attitude is to stick one’s head in the sand and deny the existence of teenage sexuality at all (let alone child sexuality), as this Korean commentator complains himself.

And in a sense, this is the official Korean government position too, if the article “Swept up by Girl Groups” by Jeong Deok-hyun is anything to go by. You can find it on pages 44-48 of the March 2010 edition of Korea Magazine, the official magazine of the Korean Culture and Information Service (downloadable here), and about this specific part on page 48…

“The shadow of recession and nostalgia:  Some are so surprised by the elder generations’ enthusiasm for girl groups that they cannot help but mention the Lolita complex. Nevertheless, that would be an example of an exaggerated principle that remains from the past authoritarian era. In the course of shifting from a masculine-dominated era to one of feminine equality, the imposing frames of age and gender are being slowly torn down. The time has come in pop culture where a man in his 40s can cheer for teenage girl groups without being looked at suspiciously.”

…my friend Dr. Stephen Epstein, Director of the Asian Studies Institute at Victoria University wrote to me:

The logic here is almost comical: the empowerment present is not that it brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world (which is mentioned nowhere in the piece), but rather that pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that middle-aged men now have the privilege of ogling teenage girls in bands without fear of embarrassment. Now that’s what I call empowerment….

(Source)

But again – and this bears repeating – its not girls’ sexuality itself that is the problem. Rather it is that:

…the expression of girls’ sexuality seems to be possible only within an extremely restrictive framework. Girls’ sexuality, it seems, has to comply with the markers of sexuality that we recognize, and it cannot be manifested, recognized, or mobilized in other, potentially more empowering and supportive, ways.

This is a form of mythmaking. When a concept as complicated, multilayered, and diverse as sex is reduced to expression through a single channel – the one involving lacy lingerie, skintight clothing, and the rest of what Ariel Levy calls “the caricature of female hotness” – it has to be seen as construction or a fabrication, in which the complexities of the subject are flattened into a single, authoritative dimension, and in which all other possibilities are erased.

So it is important to think about the ways in which girls are being coached to aspire to “hotness” by popular culture, and how the commercialized definitions of “hot” offer beguiling but problematic representations of sex that limit its vast and vital potential. (pp. 70-71, emphasis in original).

And that is the second major problem with WonderBaby’s appearance: how it already sets her on that path, and/or provides an example for others to follow. And while that is by no means a problem confined to Korea – Durham’s book alone is testament to that – it is taken to extremes here. As like I explain in Part 1, it is near impossible for a young aspiring female singer or actress to advance her career without doing “sexy dances” on numerous talk shows and entertainment programs:

And yet strangely, when 30-somethings (and above) do the same it is usually only as part of a big joke, as if they were suddenly neuter. Moreover, whenever a girl group’s music video features sexy dancing and lyrics that aren’t exclusively designed for a male gaze, then they have a very good chance of being banned from television, as anyone with even just a passing familiarity with K-pop can attest to.

But on a final note, one frequent complaint I have about most articles and blog posts on this subject is that they rarely explain why this is the case, nor why younger and younger women and girls are becoming more involved over time. And indeed, for all its popularity, even Durham isn’t as clear about this as I would like either, and I had to read her book several times to figure out what she actually means by “The Lolita Effect” exactly.

In short, it is the natural consequence of various industries’ (fashion, cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, diet-related, food, and so on) need to build, expand, and maintain markets for their products, which obviously they would do best by – with their symbiotic relationship with the media through advertising – creating the impression that one’s appearance and/or ability to perform for the male gaze is the most important criteria that one should be judged on. And the younger that girls learn that lesson and consume their products, the better.

Simplistic? You bet, and I’d be the last person to deny the role of a whole host of other factors, including – for one – the fact that basic biology makes women’s physical attractiveness a much more important factor in choosing a mate for men than vice-versa.

But do consider that: there is not a single country that did not also experience “housewifization” as a consequence of development; that in economic terms at least Korea is now officially the most consumerist country in the world, and much more so than the US (no, really); that comsumerism was explicitly conflated with national-security and anti-communism by the Park Chung-hee (박정희) regime of 1961-1979 (and very much still is); and finally that Korean women played a crucial role in that last, as that last link makes clear.

Given all that, then is anyone surprised that Korean women the thinnest in the developed world, yet actually consider themselves the fattest, and act and spend accordingly?

Correlation not always implying causation be dammed. And if nothing else, I hope I have at least persuaded you of that link with this long post!

(Source)

The “Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea” series:

43 thoughts on “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 2: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image

  1. Excellent post, James, as usual.

    I’ll make a very small point about line-drawing with age. Basically, all line-drawing in law is vague and imprecise. Speed limit is the greatest example, and so is drinking age. In my estimation, such vagueness is never a good enough reason not to draw a line.

      • Thanks to both of you also. Just to clear one thing up though TK, actually I completely agree about vagueness never being a good reason not to draw a line, and like I said I think the age of consent is an appropriate one in this case. Unfortunately though, in Korea that happens to be 13, which is far too low…

        Update: Have updated the text to make that a bit clearer.

  2. Very interesting and well-written post. I think you hit it very well in this post, raising alot of issues and problems that K-pop culture raises as it continues its trends in flash yet demeaning of young stars, male and female.

    First of all, the use of minors for sexual exhibition is pure exploitation and wrong. The problem I see while reading this post is that a child doesn’t know the difference between what is proper movement and something that is sexually stimulating. Why should she? She’s a kid. However, the fundamental issue behind this exploitation is the expression of sexuality, sexuality where the definition is ambiguous. No sense of shame.

    With appalling or little sex education, they see what is attractive comes from famous pop groups like 소녀시대, Miss A, and WonderGarbage. As your daughters were moving to the beat of Lupin, I remember myself swaying my hips to Billie Jean when I was growing up. There is nothing wrong with that because we see something new in terms of movement (as children grow up with a sense of awe for their new world). The difference comes eventually as your daughters, with proper guidance, will learn about shame, the beauty of sexuality, and value of their body and not to show it to everyone else. My fear for little child actresses like the WonderBaby is that she will only know to use her body as a means of success. Sexuality is actually and should be a private part of life but her using her body sexually is opening a can of worms to a whole new host of problems…”pedobears,” men oogling at K-pop girl groups instead of loving their wives etc.

    I like the point made that “feminization,” or the idea that women are becoming empowered to create a new environment where they are not restricted by man’s rules and are able to succeed, is not really pointing towards success in other facets of Korean life (career, schooling, politics, wages, law). Rather, its lauded by older men who now have a new sense of pleasure seeing women in skimpy clothing. Last time I’ve read, wage differentials in South Korea were pretty large between men and women. What is seen as “sexual freedom” on the K-Pop circuit is more of bondage: only by doing these dance moves can one be a successful plastic pop artist and cool.

    I believe there are ways for women to perform dance moves and be artistic, creative, and cool. There are dance styles that are cool and choreographs and are attractive (hip-hop dance, b-girling, crunk). Women can still be artists without wearing short shorts and wearing high boots. They can wear other clothes that are appropriate yet show the beauty of a female.

    My fear, which is coming true, is that Korean girls as young as the WonderBaby will grow up in a growing culture of “skin wins.” People are cheering for that little girl, so if I do that, people will like me too! The other implication is that doing “sexy” moves, an importation from Western pop culture, is rather “cute” and “innocent,” but in reality its a dangerous smoke screen where it can open a can of worms into more societal problems. (i.e. Gangster rap music that demean women or materialistic, selfish pop music in the US that glorifies self)

    If you have time, check out this song by artist Playdough who talks about the problem of pop music.

    Sorry for the long reply, I get fired up when I read about these kind of topics because its not a matter of just discussing the issue, someone has got to step up and say this is wrong and has deeper consequences than people want to admit.

    • I did check it out and found his points ham-handedly conveyed and the tune comically bad. Not sure he should be made spokesperson of anything.

      I think you’re thinking in binary terms here, singling out dances or moves that are ‘acceptable’ or not, and in your terms set in opposition to what’s not OK, like short shorts and high boots. Of course they can be artistic without, but are you saying they can’t be with?

      The problem with stating anything too categorically is that we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. If there’s pressure to do anything that the performes don’t want to then that’s never OK; but what about the times when they do want to be sexy or show their sexuality whatever way they feel like it?

      4Minute’s Hyuna had to cover herself up for a performance celebrating the World Cup earlier this year. She said afterwards in an interview,

      “Singers should be able to choose the costumes they want to wear while performing. Fashion is popular all around the world, but in Korea, fashion is more strict due to the conservative culture. Many things I wear are somehow tied into a controversy, and that’s very disappointing. I just want to show my true self on stage, and tying in my costume with the performance.”

      • Thanks for your reply. Though you might not like the song or the rapper, it might not be to your tastes, but you have to respect the fact his message about pop entertainment; many people simply don’t know why they like a certain pop culture element, people simply follow. Instead of many pop music fans focusing on content, they focus on the peripheral, because our minds are attracted to the flash and panache.

        Binary thinking? 0 1 here I come! :0) That’s fine with me. Its easier to form opinions that way, and I believe there is major decent and indecent exposure, because is a dance is a beautiful art form that can be deformed in an instant. When it comes to dance and fashion on the stage, its all about the context and the message. If they are forced to do sexy dance moves, shame on the producers and the dancers for following. But I must ask you this question: what is sexy? Is there a fine line between being “sexy” and being “indecent?” If an artist wants to express his or her sexiness, would you want to watch it?

        When I mentioned my costumes like short shorts and high boots, I do see your point that another crew could wear those and not be indecent on stage. Yet, just looking at the context of the article and of K-Pop today, we can see that get-ups like those are meant to be sultry to the eyes of both female and male audiences. We know that K-Pop is a media circus so everybody has to play the part. 2NE1 is the hardcore, hip-hop girl group and Miss A is the “I’m so pretty, look at me” girl group.

        Finally, I understand that Korea’s society is in enormous tension between conservative values and attitudes vs. stuff like this. Then you have these new dances that people think is “sexy,” but have no idea how to handle it. They think its cute. So its sad that there is a “shame on you” for being scantily clad and then ajosshi’s applaud and salute 소녀시대. I agree there are factors behind the scenes we don’t know that drive this entertainment factory.

  3. Very interesting article… It raises really good points… I have watched the Lupin’s video probably a 100 times too, this song is so addictive, and kpop always have those specials dances, so I can understand why your kids are so addicted to it hehe…
    I also watched Bang a lot of times and tbh I never clicked at the use of children… Now I can see what Barry is talking about… I think it depends on how you perceive things… Seeing those cute girls dancing along, I feel I am more inclined to say, look at them they’re so cute, instead of saying that omg they’re sexually exploited…

    I don’t really mind the sexual theme for After School, I don’t know I see them as a more “adult” group because both Kahee & Jungwha are over 25… Actually they released a new cute song and I don’t really like it…. Unfortunately the maknae in AS is only 19… How can you have a right “middle” there?

    It’s funny cause I’ve always saw SNSD as a girl group marketed for older men… They always wear the same outfits, most of the time that looks like “uniforms”, so for me it always look like they’re trying to display this “schoolgirl” image.

  4. Great post and interesting discussion — plenty of food for thought.

    As I’m not familiar with literature on gender issues, I do have a question: What is meant by the ‘caricature of female hotness’?

    My question relates to how symbolic, exaggerated representations of female sexuality (or fertility) are viewed by writers and commentators on gender issues. I wonder if the ‘caricature’ represented in modern mass media is considered less acceptable than, for instance, this one [Wikimedia image].

    In my view, it’s not the presence of a culturally-defined image (or caricature) of female sexuality itself that is problematic, but the exclusion of all other elements of their humanity.

    Pop music is all about entertainment — it’s all image and no substance. It follows that there is a certain level of commodification (and caricaturisation) of the performers. The idea that greater expression of female sexuality is beneficial in itself is just not justifiable.

    I remember having a similar discussion with a fellow, female, music student at university back in ’97. She mentioned how she thought the Spice Girls’ ‘Girl Power’ attitude was good for the empowerment of women — especially over their sexuality. I disagreed then as I thought it was just manufactured as a simple marketing ploy developed by men and was designed to simultaneously dupe girls into believing overt sexuality was beneficial, while providing yet more caricatures of womanhood for material for their own sexual fantasies.

    I don’t follow pop music much anymore, but I wonder how much the modern female (and especially, Korean) performers are depicted to be have any kind of power or self-determination, intelligence or depth, or having any other thoughts or interests at all. Is it apparent in their videos, interviews, or performances? I wonder. At least the Spice Girls’ marketing gave some indication of these things.

    I’d be interested to hear other opinions on this, though. As I said, I don’t follow pop culture closely.

    • “I don’t follow pop music much anymore, but I wonder how much the modern female (and especially, Korean) performers are depicted to be have any kind of power or self-determination, intelligence or depth, or having any other thoughts or interests at all. Is it apparent in their videos, interviews, or performances?”

      In the context of k-pop, the answer is rarely. The stock line given when a k-pop artist tries something new is “We wanted to show a different side of ourselves” when really they mean, “We needed a new gimmick so that we can stay relevant.” It’s pretty obvious when they just jump from gimmick to gimmick without attempting to create a cohesive image of themselves. Or when they are reluctant to perform sexy dances on variety shows but have no such qualms on stage (e.g. Hyuna). A decent number of pop artists in the US do the same thing, to be honest. Very few artists are actively involved in the creation of their music and image – the ones that are are known for it, at least.

  5. Very interesting article as mentioned above. A few points:

    – The effeminite sexualitization of boys is something that gets little attention because it has little commercial use on a national scale; however, it happens in school performances all the time. I’ve seen teenage boys in transvestite garb doing dance moves of the most overtly sexual nature, sometimes with boys dressed as male partners. The reason this is accepted, I believe, is that it’s all believed by the audiience as ‘make believe’ … only of course it’s not entirely so.

    – One reason this is such an issue these days is that gap between when somethings’s innocent and when it’s not is narrowing. In the past high school girls wearing skimpy outfits for performances was also rather ‘make believe’. Now it’s clearly not.

    – I think everyone’s missing the main point re: the real reason behind all of this: it attracts attention. White people, caucasion-looking Koreans, Korean-looking caucasions, mixed foreign-Korean couples, and underage kids in a sexual role all have one thing in common: they draw more attention in Korea, and that’s what entertainment and advertising are all about. In these industries there’s rarely such a thing as bad attention. Given the opportunity to exploit Korean feelings of innocence surrounding adolescent and child sexuality, of course people who want to attract attention are going to exploit this.

  6. This just brings me to the utter discomfort I felt whilst watching the drama “Queen of Reversals” in two scenes in seperate episodes one when the supporting characters balks at the “ahjumma” main character, “I like girls like SULLI!!” Yes, the 15 year old Sulli.

    In episode 15 or 16 of this drama after he had an argument with the main female he likes, he watches a live performance of F(x) sex-facing it up on TV and it focusess on Sulli. He basically looks at her as something to be sexually attracted to whilst exclaiming something along the lines of “yes, this is the type of woman/girl I like/should like.” Puke.
    Can they just not use the older members? Why does his character have to gawk a child?? His character is supposed to be around 30-33… the woman he falls in love with is supposed to be 36-39 or something with a child who’s 10 years younger than Sulli.

    Second is this ridiculous group Girl’s Story. One of the members was born 2001.

    The story line for this teaser according to me: Paedophile rabbit kidnaps one of the members…

    and their song teaser…

    Sigh.

  7. Ah, Mr. Turnbull whenever I read one of your articles with a link to one of my posts at Seoulbeats it’s with bated breath that I read what your take on something I wrote is. In this case, I’m glad I’m not the only one that found the addition of the little girl in the A~ing MV disturbing. There’s just something inherently wrong with the picture it created.

    I was taken to task by one of our readers with them saying that, “Women CAN be sexy, innocent and cute all at the same time without it having anything to do with pedophilia. People are way too quick to slap that label onto things that they can’t deal with.” And, while I agree that “women can be sexy innocent and cute all at the same time without it having anything to do with pedophilia.” I don’t believe that the A~ing MV was one of those cases. The cuteness in the MV was forced acting and not the natural character of the girls. The vinyl outfits, more than anything else in my opinion, really indicated something kinky with the MV.

    FYI, pings haven’t been working on our site recently which is why you may not have been seeing any you have done on SB. You’d have to leave a comment with a link to your site for it to show up, which of course we’re always honored when you do so, as many of us are fans of your site.

    • Does vinyl have the same connotation in Korea that it does in the West? Now that I think about it, that detail did make the video more difficult for me to accept. (I can’t say that making the dresses out of some other material would have achieved a very different result, though!)

      Thanks for the post, James! It gave me a lot to think about.

  8. Entertainment agencies’ creative decisions and creative direction are so confusing… and frustrating! I want to believe that all the sexual undertones that come up are not intentional and are born out of a lack of sensitivity, wherein they just go with what they think is a cute “image” or a sexy “image” or whatnot. But then we don’t really know what kind of people are making these decisions. I’m not sure either if they are aware of and possess a “sex sells” mentality. For one, the concept of a selling a sexy image may be perceived differently than the idea of “sex sells” from some moral standpoint.

    Reminds me of going to a little village in the province in the Philippines for fieldwork and joining the villagers in their festival… There was a part wherein all the kids danced in the middle of the village square hoping to win the “Stop dance” game, basically they were all dancing to Lady Gaga and Beyonce songs it was horrible. While we were fearing for lurking pedophiles the rest of the village just seems to enjoy it and most of the parents are cheering their kids on. Hmm…

  9. Great article!!! I randomly came across your blog…one of the best things I ever did. I am a 17 year old and a huge fan of kpop and a hardcore hip hop dancer. I always have wondered why girls only dance either in a cute or a sexy way when asked to dance. While people keep saying men and women are equal, I still cant see that. Women keep trying to satisfy the opposite sex in any culture to gain popularity… And I feel bad about singers who are younger than me, who are forced to do sexually provocative dances. The only people who benefit are the men who watch them and their company. Whereas, they are the ones who lose everything and don’t even gain enough money. Its saddening to imagine the situation of their parents, who might feel disgusted when people talk about child’s body.

  10. I do agree with what you say about Korea oversexualizing their young but I just wanted to point out about the Miss A that although, yes, what she’s doing is a little bit much for being on TV in front of millions of viewers, have you heard the song she’s dancing too? Bad Girl Good Girl is about girls asking boys why they stare when they dance then talk trash behind their back. I’m pretty sure their dance is to back the point of their song up but the problem I have with it is the fact that no one knows that Suzy is a minor. She looks much more mature than even some of her own groupmates. It be better if someone could warn another before watching their videos because there is some honestly creepy stuff going on there talking solely about her – without even realizing what the group’s singing about.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, but I do know about the song: I translated it and I and many other commenters discussed it a great deal here.

      I disagree that people don’t realize that Suzy is a minor though, or at least not that Koreans don’t generally know (it may be different for people outside of Korea however). With minors though, the dominant narrative in Korea is – bizarrely – that what they are doing isn’t particularly sexual, and that their middle-aged male fandom is because of the men’s paternal or avuncular feelings towards the young girls. If anyone has the Korean ability, I can send on a (rare) Korean journal article on that subject, or alternatively English speakers can read my translation of a Korean music columnist’s thoughts on the public generally not acknowledging the sexual element to Girls’ Generation’s performances (back when they were teenagers themselves).

  11. Hi James,

    I have these articles about sexualisation in Korea:

    “Silence, subaltern speech and the intellectual in South Korea: The politics of emergent speech in the case of former sexual slaves.” By: Park, Soyang. Journal for Cultural Research, Apr2005

    Practicing Feminism in South Korea: The Issue of sexual Voice and the Women’s Movement.Authors:Jung, Kyungja1
    Source:Hecate; 2003, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p261-284

    Transnational women’s activism in Japan and Korea: the unresolved issue of military sexual slavery.Full Text Available By: Piper, Nicola. Global Networks, Apr2001

    The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan,.
    By: Koikari, Mire. Korean Studies, Jan2010

    A culture that cultivates the prostitution of teenage women 1 : based on the experiences of prostitution among teenage women.Full Text Available By: Eun-shil Kim. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Aug2003

    “Boys Like Smart Girls More Than Pretty Girls”: Young Korean Immigrant Girls’ Understanding of Romantic Love in American Popular Culture.Full Text Available By: Lee, Lena. Journal of Instructional Psychology, Mar2009

    etc.

    If you need some let me know.

    • Wow…well, all of them would be good, but with so much written about the Comfort Women elsewhere then, to be frank, I don’t think I’ll ever be writing about them here. But the 3 below would be very much appreciated:

      “Boys Like Smart Girls More Than Pretty Girls”: Young Korean Immigrant Girls’ Understanding of Romantic Love in American Popular Culture.Full Text Available By: Lee, Lena. Journal of Instructional Psychology, Mar2009

      A culture that cultivates the prostitution of teenage women 1 : based on the experiences of prostitution among teenage women.Full Text Available By: Eun-shil Kim. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Aug2003

      Practicing Feminism in South Korea: The Issue of sexual Voice and the Women’s Movement.Authors:Jung, Kyungja1
      Source:Hecate; 2003, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p261-284

      Thanks in advance!

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  15. I lived in Korea for 2 years and it was difficult for me to suffer what this culture does to young women. They do not talk, do not have opinions, do not have anything to say, only look Lolita sweet and permanently laugh. But maybe this is what guys demand?

  16. I enjoyed this post. Very insightful. I just came across your blog today and can not stop reading! I am an American female (caucasian) married to a korean man in Korea. It is really interesting reading this information and relating the articles to my own personal experiences with my husband ( and my son). Not to say that things in the US are perfect in any sort of way, it is just interesting to compare and contrast cultural issues and norms! Just wanted to comment and say thanks for all the hard work that you put into the blog!

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  20. I would like to suggest you introduce your girls to Lindsey Stirling on YouTube (if you haven’t already!)
    She plays the violin and dances. Maybe she could be a good role model (opposed to kpop girl groups geared towards 40 year old men), as well as perhaps spark some interest in playing an instrument.
    Her “Transcendence” music video has a great sense of female empowerment in my opinion, in a way unrelated to sex (not that that is bad, I just feel a little change up to the typical sex-saturated media is healthy) :)

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