Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 2: Kwak Hyun-hwa (곽현화), Pin-up Grrrls, and The Banality of Sex and Nudity in the Media

(Sources: left, right)

Apologies for the irregular posting everyone — I’ve been really busy for the last month or so, and to top it all off I’m recovering from a bad flu as I type this too. But fortunately the end of the semester is close, and I’m eager to get stuck into the two blog series I plan to devote myself to this summer.

One is looking at the evidence for double-standards in Korean censorship, while this one is about examining the public and media’s policing of — and consequent narratives about — “appropriate” displays of nudity and sexual subjectivity, set against a recent potential backlash against changing gender relations. In hindsight just two different elements of the same investigation, the former focuses on K-pop in 2011 and this one on political protests in 2012.

As you’ll recall from Part 1 though, one problem with looking at anything explicitly political is that partisan reporting gets in the way, which means we need to consider as many sources as possible to be objective, and especially not just rely on English-language sources. So, let me start that by presenting my translation of a post by a blogger known as “비춤” (or on Twitter as @RainyDance01), which was originally posted on his or her blog Rainy Dance, then later reposted at Mediaus. About the photo on the right (source) of comedian turned model, singer, and actress Kwak Hyun-hwa (see Part 1 for the details), as you’ll see I think the blogger’s heart is in the right place, but unfortunately some of their reasoning dodgy at best, and evidence seemingly pulled out of thin air:

곽현화식 투표독려? 누드가 일상이 되면 식상하다  / Does Kwak Hyun-hwa’s Style Promote Voting? When Nudity Becomes Routine, it Becomes Boring

10 April 2012

국회의원 총선거를 코앞에 두고 투표율을 올리고자 수많은 유명인들이 투표 독려에 나서고 있습니다. 소설가 이외수씨는 투표율 70%가 넘으면 머리카락을 싹둑 자르겠다고 밝혔고, 안철수씨 또한 70%를 넘으면 미니스커트를 입고 율동에 노래를 부르겠다고 밝혔지요. 이렇듯 저마다 자신의 공약을 내세워 투표독려에 나서고 있습니다. 이들의 공약은 대중에게 소소한 재미와 더불어 투표참여의 의미를 되새겨주고 있는데요. 거창하진 않지만 자신만의 방식으로 사회적 메시지를 전달하는 유명인들의 모습은 새로운 문화가 되고 있는 느낌입니다.

Just before the general elections, many famous people are doing various things to encourage more people to vote. For example, novelist Lee Wae-soo has pledged to cut his trademark long hair if the voting rate exceeds 70%, while Ahn Cheol-soo has promised to dance wearing a mini-skirt (see below). While these may sound just trivial and fun, they do remind voters about the meaning and importance of voting. Also, while their ultimate impact may not be all that great, they point to a new trend of famous people spreading social messages.

그런데 같은 목표를 지향하더라도 그 방법 탓에 오히려 대중의 반감이 우려되는 경우도 있는데요, 개그우면 곽현화의 경우가 그렇습니다. 곽현화는 투표독려를 위해 자신의 미투데이에 ‘총선거 D-3, 우리가 대한민국의 주인이다! 투표로 보여줍시다’라는 내용이 적힌 종이를 들고 있는 상반신 누드 사진을 올렸습니다. 그 의도야 건설적이지만 이면에는 새로울 것이 없는, 우리의 식상해진 문화 코드가 선명하지요.

However, while they all have the same target, some celebrities’ methods may actually make voters more apathetic. One such case is that of comedian Kwak Hyun-hwa. In her case, she uploaded a photo on her me2day blog in which she is holding a sign in front of her nude upper body. The sign said “It’s 3 days to go before the elections. We are the owners of Korea! Let’s show this by voting!”. But while the intention was constructive, on the other hand this method is hardly original, and shows the paucity of our culture.

자신의 의사를 표현하는 방법에 옳고 그름을 규정하기는 어렵습니다. 하지만 그녀가 지금까지 보여온 행보를 본다면 아름다운 취지보다는 이면의 가십거리가 더욱 부각될 수밖에 없겠지요.  폭소클럽 출연당시 가슴노출이 심한 드레스를 입고 출연해 노출논란의 불을 지핀 이래로, 그녀는 꾸준히 노출의 길을 걸어왔었지요. 섹시화보가 누출되어 세간에 화제가 되기도 했으며, 지나치게 선정적인 앨범 이미지컷으로 눈총을 받기도 했습니다.

It’s difficult to judge what the best or most “correct” way of expressing oneself is. But looking at Kwak Hyun-hwa’s past history up until now, it’s difficult not to conclude that this stunt of hers was more aimed at creating gossip and attention about herself than anything noble. When she was on the comedy Foxclub for example [James — she quit in 2009], she used to create a lot of controversy by wearing a lot of revealing dresses, and since then has continued on a similar path. For instance, she has done a very sexy photoshoot, and received criticism for her provocative and suggestive images for her album.

(James: I’m not judging — and/or defending — Kwak Hyun-hwa in any sense, but just for the record: while she’s certainly done sexy photoshoots, and you can judge her album pictures for yourselves, I think it’s unlikely that she regularly wore a lot of revealing dresses on Foxclub. If she had, then presumably there’d be far more “노출” videos and photos of her on that show available than just those from one short skit back in 2008)

올 초에는 개그맨 동료들과 선정적인 포즈로 찍은 사진이 이슈가 된 바 있는데요. 비난이 잇따르자 이에 대한 반감으로 자신의 미투데이에 바나나를 먹는 야릇한 표정의 사진을 올려 더 큰 역풍을 일으키기도 했지요. 하지만 그녀는 떳떳하게 말합니다. ‘’성적인 감정을 일으켰다고 해서 지탄하는 것은 마녀사냥이다. 의도를 떠나서 개그맨 전체를 싸잡아 욕하는 성급한 일반화의 오류를 범하지 말아 달라’

Earlier this year, some pictures of Kwak Hyun-hwa in pretend sexual poses with some her comedian colleagues became an issue [James — they can be seen here]. In response to the criticism that followed, on her blog she posted pictures of herself with a perverted expression on her face while eating a banana [James — was the author too embarrassed to be more specific?], which led to even more criticism. But in response to that, she boldly replied, “Just because something is arousing doesn’t mean it should be criticized — to do so is nothing but a witchhunt. And whatever the intention(s), don’t make the mistake of making rash generalizations about all comedians.”

(Source)

과연 그녀를 바라보는 냉랭한 시선은 성급한 일반화의 오류일까요. 사실 벗는 것은 여자에만 국한된 것은 아닙니다. 남자도 벗습니다. 초콜릿복근이니 식스팩이니 하며 매력을 뽐내는 남성들도 얼마든지 있지요. 하지만 남성의 매력을 규정하는 잣대에서 ‘벗는 것’의 비중은 상대적으로 크지 않습니다. 지적인 남자, 자상한 남자와 같이 이 시대의 여성이 매력을 느끼는 아이콘은 상대적으로 많은 편이지요. 그래서 벗는 것으로 일관하는 남자는 오히려 역풍을 맞기도 합니다. 여담이지만 한때 1박2일에선 이수근이 숱한 노출을 보이며 빈축을 사기도 했습니다.

Well, is looking at her coldly and making a rash generalization really a mistake here? Of course, it’s not just women that take their clothes off — men do too. To show off their attractiveness, they expose their chocolate abs, their six packs [James - actually, those are the same thing], and so on. But relatively speaking, taking clothes off isn’t as important for men as it is for women; because in this day and age, there are many ways in which women can find their male icons attractive — they can be intellectual or kind. It would be bad if men only took their clothes off. When Lee Su-geun showed too much of his body on an episode of 2 Days & 1 Night for instance, people didn’t like it.

(James…)

반면 여성들에겐 유독 섹시미 혹은 백치미가 강조되지요. 5살 유아부터 70대 할머니까지 섹시하다는 말은 일상어처럼 사용되고 있습니다. 드라마에선 홀로 당당한 일어서는 여성의 이야기는 그다지 성공적이지 못합니다. 여전히 신데렐라의 환상이 더 잘 팔리는 시나리오지요

On the other hand, for women being sexy or being stupid but cute is emphasized. From when they are just girls of 5 to when they are grandmothers in their 70s, the word “sexy” is part of daily life for women. In dramas, the strong, confident woman that succeeds through her own efforts is never a popular story, whereas the Cinderella fantasy is a scenario that always sells well.

이 시대의 남성들은 여성의 매력을 이 한 가지로 국한하고 있는 걸까요, 혹은 여성이 자신 있게 내세울 수 있는 매력은 이 한 가지뿐일까요. 양성평등의 가장 큰 위협은 이렇듯 일방적으로 여성의 섹시함을 강요하는 작금의 문화가 아닐까 싶습니다.

Is this because men of this day and age set limits to women’s sexiness [as just showing off their bodies], or because this is the only sexiness which women can show off confidently? I think this culture of emphasizing just this one side to women’s sexiness is today’s biggest threat to sexual equality.

이 시대의 청년들에게 닮고 싶은 사람을 떠올려보라면, 남성 쪽에선 다양한 매력이 쏟아져 나올 수 있겠지요, 안철수, 안성기, 조국, 손석희, 유재석 등 다양한 분야의 사람을 떠올릴 수 있습니다. 헌데 닮고 싶은 여성상을 물었을 때 우리 사회의 한축을 담당하고 있는 여성을 얼마나 떠올릴 수 있을까요. 그 자리에 섹시아이콘만이 남아 있다면 우리사회가 얼마나 건강하지 못한지를 반증하는 것이겠지요.

(Source)

These days, when teenagers are asked who are their role models, boys mention men who are attractive in many different ways and from many fields of life, such as Ahn Cheol-soo, Ahn Sung-ki, Kuk Cho, Son Seok-hee (above), Yoo Jae-Seok, and so on. In contrast, although there’s many women to choose from, girls just name sexy icons. I think this shows how unhealthy our society is.

(James: Other than their fathers, I don’t believe for a moment that teenage boys mention men in their 50s or older as their role-models, even when they want to impress whoever’s asking)

곽현화는 좋은 취지에서 누드시위를 했습니다. 하지만 그 이면에는 이 땅에서 쉽게 주목받고자 하는 여성의 식상한 방법론이 새삼스럽습니다. 우리 사회의 쓸쓸한 단면이겠지요.

Kwak Hyun-hwa [may have?] had good intentions, but her method was unoriginal and was just a way of getting noticed. This too is a sign of how unhealthy our society is (end).

(Source)

What do you think? Again, I find the blogger’s logic — and especially notions of male and female desire — flawed, but at the very least I am now very interested in finding out more about Kwak Hyun-hwa. Not because I think she has any musical talent though (frankly, I hated Psycho above), nor because I naively think her “nude” photo was anything but completely self-serving. Rather, because:

She deserves a lot of credit for reinventing herself as a model, singer, and actress after being best known as a slightly chubby (by Korean entertainment standards) comedian.

Whatever her musical abilities, it was especially brave of her to even attempt to become a solo singer in her late-20s (old age by K-pop standards).

She’s a maths graduate of Ehwa Women’s University, and has even published a textbook for middle-schoolers (see below), so she’s probably quite smart. And I’m not being facetious when I say that many men and women may not be able to see past her cleavage to realize that (related, make sure to read the classic With Great Cleavage Comes Great Responsibility).

What solo celebrity’s public actions and statements aren’t motivated by self-interest? Which is not to say that they’re always cold and calculating of course, but still: it seems a strange criteria to dismiss someone as a person for (after all, heaven forbid that someone use their sex-appeal to advance their career), and is simply an ad-hominem method of devaluing that style of getting a political message across.

As for its effectiveness, for its stated purpose of encouraging people to vote that is? Well, determining things like that is what this whole series is about, but in the meantime let me pass on Tom Megginson’s take on a similar recent political campaign by Mexican politicians (my emphasis):

Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan is a little cynical about the use of “boobies” to get attention, but I applaud any effort in which women take back ownership of their bodies by using our primal fascination to deliver messages of solidarity for social change.

(Source)

• And finally, remember when Lee Hyori recently publicly admitted that she has sexual feelings and experience? Judging by the reactions of K-pop fans, that was quite exceptional, and indeed I joined in praising her for it in Part 1. But to take a more detached perspective, that this was news at all is really quite an indictment of the sex-only-for-display-nature of Korean entertainment. For remember that we’re not just talking about a 33 year-old woman here, but one who was also Korea’s number one sex-symbol for much of the 2000s. It simply beggars belief that she has ever had to be coy about her sexual subjectivity.

Why do I mention that? Because despite the attention given it, Lee Hyori’s admission pales in comparison to Kwak Hyun-hwa’s stunts with bananas and her comedian friends. And recall that by my own definition, I shouldn’t have to seek-out pin-up grrrls, but rather they should do their darnedest to make me aware of them. In which case, Kwak Hyun-hwa more than qualifies!

And on that definitive note, what is coming in Part 3? Well, frankly a little disappointed with the blog post I translated, next I’ll try make sure to do something more substantial, namely this newspaper report on reasons for the recent “ladygate” phenomenon; i.e., the emerging backlash I mentioned. Thanks to Robert Koehler for the link.

6 thoughts on “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 2: Kwak Hyun-hwa (곽현화), Pin-up Grrrls, and The Banality of Sex and Nudity in the Media

  1. Ahn Cheol-soo, Ahn Sung-ki, Kuk Cho, Son Seok-hee (above), Yoo Jae-Seok

    LOL. I did a role-model lesson with advanced middle school students in a university camp a few years ago, and the only non-sports stars I ever got from boys were Ban Ki Moon and Steve Jobs. (Apparently, the former is leader of the world, and the latter singlehandedly invented modern technology.)

    • Sports stars, eh? I would have guessed there’d be a couple of young singers chosen too; but after a couple of moments’ reflection, realized that – doh! – it’s probably only teenage girls that pay attention to them!

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