“Cleavage out, Legs in” — The Key to Understanding Ajosshi Fandom?

(“Here is the next Samsung: fast growing Korean companies that you’d better know about”; Source)

Stop obsessing with sex (Fernando)

If I went to New York and started pointing out how many skyscrapers there were, would you suggest that it was *me* that had the obsession with noticing skyscrapers, or New York for building them all? (Norman Lewis; source)

And indeed if you went to Seoul instead, it’d be difficult not to notice all the exposed women’s legs. Even — or perhaps especially — in the winter.

It wasn’t until I saw this November 2010 video from the Singaporean RazorTV though, that I realized the fashion might not be so common there yet. Likewise, it was just starting in Thailand, where authorities were warning against the danger of dengue fever from the ensuing extra mosquito bites:

Unfortunately, only the narrator speaks English, while the hosts and interviewees chat away in Chinese (is that normal for Singaporean TV?), and no subtitles are available. However, I was able to find this related article from parent organization The Straits Times, and it had an intriguing conclusion:

Entertainment journalist Tan Chew Yen from the Chinese Central Integrated Newsroom reasoned that showing off legs allows these girl groups to maintain a healthier but nonetheless sexy image.

It invites less controversy and criticism from concerned citizens as compared to showing cleavage, for example, due to their young fan-base.

I beg to differ on the youth of their fan-bases these days. But still, those few words resonated on so many levels, potentially speaking volumes about how K-pop has developed over the last 5 years.

First, because it’s certainly true that Koreans regard legs as a much less sexual body part than cleavage. While that distinction is easy to overstate though, and indeed is eroding precisely because so many Korean girl-groups are wearing hot-pants and mini-skirts these days, it’s confirmed by numerous expat women that have had to adjust to it (and of course heterosexual men like myself have noticed it too!).

(Source)

Next, because choreography, outfits, and music videos tailored for that distinction would be equally applicable to the more conservative — but still lucrative and influential — Chinese market, where for a long time Korean groups were considered much “safer” than their Japanese and Western counterparts:

In 2003, the Korean National Tourism Office [a major investor in the Korean wave] conducted a Hanliu tourism survey in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong exploring attitudes to Korean culture, publishing the results online…

….It compared the impact of Korean culture with that of four “competitor” countries (the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), and in the process revealed much about Korea’s own political and nationalist concerns, particularly in relation to Japan and America. Six of the eleven options for respondents to the category “reasons I like Korean culture” reflect this preoccupation: “less sexual than Japanese culture,” “less sexual than American culture,” “less violent than Japanese popular culture,” “less violent than American popular culture,” “decreased interest in American culture,” and “decreased interest in Japanese culture.” One other echoes Straubhaar’s notion of cultural proximity: “similar in culture.” Certainly, Korea’s own music media censorship laws (which even in 1997 prohibited the displaying of body piercings, navels, tattoos, “outfits which might harm the sound emotional development of youth,” and banned violent or political lyrics), meant that Chinese TV stations could buy in Korean music videos and music TV shows knowing that they were unlikely to upset local censors. However, these questions also reflected a perception that Korea acts as a defender against excessive Westernization and as a guardian of Confucian values within East Asia. (Rowan Pease, 2009)

Of course, this assumes that the Chinese make the same distinction between legs and cleavage. But I’d wager they do — after all, Park Jin-young (JYP; 박진영) of JYP Entertainment especially has always had a firm eye on the Chinese market, with two members of Miss A (미쓰에이) being Chinese, and even the “A” in the name meaning “Asia”. And the group’s logo speaks for itself:

(Source)

Finally, likewise hot-pants would be a perfect fit with “Ajosshi” or “Samchon” fandom. Here’s a quick definition of that for new readers:

…what is extraordinary in girl idols’ fandom is that a large number of male fans in their 30s and 40s have constructed the unprecedented scale and mode of fandom called Samchon-fans, or uncle-fans. As Samchon in Korean refers to one’s parent’s brother, this name implies the middle-aged men’s care for their young nieces. Once this familial setting is built up, a relationship between male viewers or self-claimed Samchon fans is restructured in the complicit relationship between uncle and little nieces. Accordingly, the male’s gaze at young female bodies is legitimized and normalized as the voluntary support and pure love of uncles for their nieces. Under the identity of uncle, they can deny the sexual aspect of what they see and insist on appreciating merely the pure surface of pretty children. This double male psychology of interwoven denial and justification is pervasive in the constitution of the girl idols’ fandom. Thus, with the pretentious reformulation of the male gaze into an uncle’s familial support, the male consumption of the girl bodies becomes relieved of the predictable blame for pedophiliac abnormality. (Yeran Kim, 2011; see sources below)

Previously, most discussions about Samchon fandom have focused on pointing out its existence and/or its effects, both of which you can read about in depth here and here. But in hindsight, not enough attention has been give to the process of how it came about, which this cleavage/legs distinction now potentially fills. For if entertainment companies subscribed to it, having their girl-groups members flaunting their legs while covering up their cleavage, then it’s easy to see why this would provide plausible deniability for all involved.

(“Because of Sistar uncles [feel like] teenagers again!!”; Source)

Not that being a middle-aged male fan of a girl-group is wrong per se of course. But for a number of years the Korean media would indeed promote the deceitful “innocent until proven sexual” byline of Samchon fandom (and to a large extent still does — see here and here), providing a window for entertainment companies to sex up performances to their hearts’ content.

Was this the result of a deliberate, years-long strategy by entertainment companies? That’s unlikely: not only did Girls’ Generation at least actually wear “skinny jeans” well before hot-pants for instance (I believe they only started doing so with Tell Me Your Wish in July 2009), but it’s difficult to speak of grand plans by JYP, for instance, when he’s well known for his constant experimentation with groups, trying everything until one concept finally succeeds.

In short, I think entertainment companies lucked out. But like the video says, K-pop has been about legs, legs, and legs ever since they did, and with a palpable influence on Korean fashions. Moreover, whether they’re on the screen or on the streets, people will still make much the same claims about them:

…people maintain [Girls' Generation are] pure, clean, and cute, and everyone tries to erase and deny the blatant fact of their sexualization in that curiously Korean way that college freshman can click-clack to class in 5-inch hooker heels and a leather skirt and when asked if that might not to be too risque for class, people get defensive and indignant and call the gazer the pervert, while letting the main parlayer in and of the male gaze (the women totally subjecting herself to it) off the hook. (Michael Hurt; source)

Granted, mini-skirts especially are just as — if not more — popular in Japan, so it’s entirely possible that the Korean trend actually comes from Japan, and predates the girl-group boom of the late-2000s. Yet I don’t personally recall seeing quite so many legs on the streets of Busan (much warmer than Seoul!) until just a few years ago, with the exception of World Cup summers (when standards are relaxed). And while I’m usually loathe to ascribe top-down origins to fashion trends, I’d be lying if I said Koreans weren’t notoriously conformist in this regard (as this 2004 Prugio commercial with Kim Nam-ju used to be a good illustration of, before the video was taken down!):

And on that note, please let me know what you think, and by all means poke holes in it — my connection between girl-groups only showing their legs and the rise of Samchon Fandom is just the germ of an idea at the moment, which now needs fleshing out (not unlike many of the legs themselves). But if I do say so myself, it’s one of the biggest epiphanies about K-pop I’ve had in a while!

Update 1 — See here, here, and here for the next 3 parts of the RazorTV video, about which idol has the best legs, problems with underage performers, and the increasing objectification of male idols respectively. Parts 2 & 3 also have more English

Update 2 — Let me pass on Esther Hoeve’s illuminating comment from Facebook:

The difference in what constitutes as ‘sexy’ bodyparts is an interesting one. Back home (western Europe) I’m much quicker to reveal cleavage or shoulders, but I spent half a year in Thailand and had to adjust to wearing shorts, but tops with sleeves. The shorter my skirt or shorts, the longer my sleeves would be. I actually grew self conscious of how much upper body I was showing, but usually have the same feeling concerning my lower body here in Europe. It completely changes your perspective on what’s considering ‘revealing’.

Like I say there, this reminded me of some of my female students back in 2000 complaining of middle-aged and old women telling them to cover up their bare arms. This was in Jinju/진주 though, a university town but still quite small and conservative, so I don’t know if their counterparts in larger cities had the same problems.

Sources

- Yeran Kim (2011): Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies, Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 333-345.

- Rowan Pease (2009): Korean Popular Music in China: Nationalism, Authenticity, and Gender, in Chris Berry, Nicola Liscutin, and Jonathan D. Mackintosh ed.s, Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes, 151-167.

(Hat tip to dogdyedblack)

18 thoughts on ““Cleavage out, Legs in” — The Key to Understanding Ajosshi Fandom?

  1. Yes, it does seem fairly normal for Singaporean programming to be both in English and Mandarin. The people I’ve met from Singapore usually speak pretty fluent English and Mandarin, as both are the lingua franca, in addition to Malay or whatever dialect they speak at home.

    I’ve always been curious about this phenomenon of where do you draw the line between sexual and sexualized, especially in the case of KPOP girl groups where the sexy stuff is for showmanship’s sake and if you find it to be too sexual, its your own fault for perverted thoughts. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if anything, revealing so much skin, teasing with the prospect that its just shielding vagina, is much more sexual than cleavage.

    • Thanks for the info. I knew people spoke both languages in Singapore of course, but I was still very surprised to see both used in one program. Now the sociologist in me is curious: does the narrator usually speak in English, guests etc. in Mandarin like in this program, is it random, or are there different routines for different channels and kinds of shows? What language are news programs usually in?

      • Hi! I’m fr s’pore.. Our public broadcast tv stns are divided into Eng, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. So depending on which stn you tune to, the lang will be spoken as accordingly. RazorTV is an online tv show..so the lang used would b pretty much informal and “mixed” since we understand both. Or rather u can think it as a way of it trying to get “closer” to e viewers as we use both eng and cl in our everyday conversation.

    • Just to add to the discussion as a Singaporean regarding the programming. For some reason the ‘Asian’ type programs from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea are always dubbed in Mandarin rather than English. But to cater to the English speaking population, there are usually English subtitles. Although many speak both languages, the population tends to split into those who speak primarily English, and those who speak primarily Chinese, and more of the primarily Chinese speaking population consume these programmes. There’s obviously crossover, but that’s how I see it.

  2. I watched a really interesting movie on a flight to China , it was Singaporean and it was about kids in the “dumb” class that were struggling with learning English properly, while they spoke Mandarin at home they had to learn English in order to succeed in life, maths and English were emphasized a lot.

    Part if the reason may be that legs are emphasized so much is that, well, Korean and Asian girls do not have as much chest as western girls but they do have legs in equal proportion, maybe a small bit of that is that they feel like they have nice legs and want to show them. What do I know, I have really short legs and I am white, just a thought. I personally liked the midrif bearing fashions of the ’90 because my stomach is the part of me that is the best, so leggy girls are lucky there right now.

    • I think there’s definitely a generational thing to consider here – just like Korean children are getting much taller than their parents’ generation, so too are the girls/women’s chests expanding, but sure – like you say, Korean women’s breasts are still generally much smaller than Westerners’ ones. So while that does explain wanting to highlight their legs though, in my own experience showing cleavage is still a definite taboo, that size considerations can’t account for. In particular, you wouldn’t believe the number of Korean women (small or large-chested) I’ve seen covering up their t-shirts etc, with their arms or hands when they leaned over, even though I (and whoever else) wasn’t looking wouldn’t even have noticed/looked at all if they hadn’t.

      And given all that, you can just imagine how much worse it is in Korea to go out in public without wearing a bra!

    • My Chinese is not that good anymore, but I believe I heard the program participants make the same point about Asian women having smaller chests with less cleavage and play up their slim pins instead.

      In the US very little is left to the imagination, and people of all sizes wear skimpy clothing with boobs, bellies, and butt cheeks hanging out. When someone does manage to wear a shirt or pants that actually covers the target parts, it may bear a vulgar message like “My cock + your pussy = good times” or “My Indian name is Chief Slap-a-Ho.” The People of Walmart website is hands-down the best chronicler of the perfect storm resulting from changes in apparel paralleling the rise in obesity. Is there any other country which compares to ours in terms of public indecency? Britain, perhaps?

  3. I’m kind of torn. I have to say that personal experience has led me to believe things often are in the eye of the beholder. I’m a busty girl and in a work environment I downplay it (it’s just creepy when a man does not make eye contact *once* in a five minute period), but I’d still have people giving me grief about what I wore. They’d complain that I was dressing sexually, even if I was covered to the clavicle. I’m obviously approaching things from the opposite end, but I guess that’s why I can’t argue against the eye of the beholder. The thing is…my gut reaction is “Isn’t that a tad inappropriate?”, but when I examine that the emotional impetus behind that reaction it borders more closely than I’d like to the attitudes behind slut shaming. Which bothers me. So, I don’t know where my opinion stands in relation to yours about the contents of this article, but you have given me some *serious* food for thought.

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  5. I think it is an interesting theory, but ultimately a small part of something larger. I would argue that “Samchon Fandom” is becoming more mainstream as more adult men in Korea remain unmarried. And as everything becomes slightly more sexualized, they are given permission to be more public.

    And I would argue that the shortening of the skirts has more to do with globalization than anything else.

    Great article.

    • Thanks, but I’d have to disagree – as far as I know, the number of adult men putting off marriage in recent years hasn’t been particularly dramatic, and has only been because of the financial crisis, whereas the Samchon fandom phenomenon was underway well before that. And besides which, we’re talking about different demographics – Samchons are generally in their 30s to 50s, not the guys in their late-20s who want to get married but can’t afford to buy the apartment (as is the custom in Korea – the women get the furniture).

      As for the shortening of skirts being due to globalization, I think what I wrote in the post shows why I disagree about that. And I’d have to reiterate that, although I know my memory can be faulty and so on, I didn’t see quite so many Korean women wearing them before I started seeing them on girl-groups on TV.

  6. Cleavage already had a certain discourse world-wide and image. The very manipulative and dare I say smart? people behind the media image took legs which weren’t as scandalised, and transformed it into a sexual image that people know is used in an alluring fashion but are glad to deny because in other parts of the world, legs doesn’t have such a strong image like that.

    There is no doubt a lot of people know that legs have a sexual image in Korea. It allows for camera shots of the groin and ass on top of the sultry, silky and slender long legs. Things are given meaning, they do not have meaning on their own. They decided to ditch the world-wide use of breasts and went for the legs as *the* sexualised woman body part.

    • Oh and can I add. With legs, the sexualised nature of them can be switched on or off whilst things like cleavage never have a chance to be switched off and be seen as normal.

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