The More Risqué, The More Boring (OR, Something You Didn’t Know About the Horse Dance!)

(Source)

Sorry, but I just can’t help it: I get very excited when I see the words “성 상품화” (sexual objectification) and “걸그룹” (girl-group) together.

That’s because I struggled for years to find critical Korean commentary on either. Whereas now, I’m just inundated with articles to translate, with or without relying on my “성 상품화” Google News Alert. And, if nothing else, this recent column of Jo Woo-yeong’s I’ve translated below is testament to that greatly increased public interest and discussion.

Unfortunately though, frankly it says little that is new either, and provides no evidence for its numerous assertions. But on the plus side, I did learn of popular-music critic Kang Tae-gyu’s twitter and blog through it. What’s more, in the process of figuring out what on Earth Jo Woo-yeong meant when she talks about Gangnam Style in the 6th paragraph, I also learnt what apparently every Korean over 30 already knew: the word “horse” (말/mal) has sexual connotations in Korean (source, right).

No, I never thought to ask Korean friends their feelings about horses either. And yes, it’s more what the word reminds them of really: the movie Madame Aema (에무 부인; aema buin) to be precise, and/or its numerous sequels. As Andrei Lankov explains in The Korean Times:

In early 1982 Madam Ema, the most explicit of Korean movies ever made, hit the theaters. Not much can be said about its plot which is, for all practical purposes, absent. It was an erotic movie, often bordering on the pornographic….

….To everybody’s surprise, the censors did not ask too many questions. Actually, the only change they demanded was a change in the movie title. The title….was deliberately conceived in a way which hinted at Emmanuelle, the [French] erotic classic which was also a great hit in Korea of the late 1970s….

….Ema was a huge success. In March 1982 the movie was put on at an experimental late night show which attracted a huge crowd. The late night shows were another invention of the military regime which was preparing to lift a decades-old curfew….

….The pioneering Ema had 12 sequels, which were shot until the early 1990s. This makes it the longest series in the history of Korean cinema. It was very successful commercially as well ― the “first” Ema was seen by 310,000 people during the first year, and it became the box office champion of 1982. Some of the copycats were doing almost as well as the original.

I’m a little confused by the censors’ ultimate title-change though (see the article and/or here for details), and would appreciate it if anybody could clarify. In return, for anyone further interested in sexuality and gender roles in Korean cinema in the period, Yu Gina of Duksung Women’s University mentions that (source, right):

The early 20th century, in the movie, <The Vow Make below the Moon, (1923)> the woman has the role of a good wife that rescues her husband from a gambling addiction. The woman dedicates to her husband, and this women’s character became the origin image of a ‘good wife.’ However, the heroin of <Sweet Dream-Lullaby of Death (1936)> is the opposite of that good wife. She resists her oppressive husband and her desire hits her daughter with a car and poisons herself because of the guilt. The ending contains the message that a woman who refuses to be a ‘good wife’ is going to be punished. This flow is maintained in other movies such as <The Ae-ma Woman and Madame Freedom>. These movies imply that women who pursue their desires are punished and vilified.

I’ve highlighted that last part because of its familiarity: as I explain in depth here, that dominant narrative wouldn’t be challenged until the mid to late-1990s, which proved to be a watershed in Korean cinema history. As might all the radical changes occurring today too, at least in terms of censorship, sexuality, and free speech.

And on that note, here’s the translation. Resolving to be more discerning with my choices in future though (even if this one did result in an interesting tangent), this will be the next one, which sounds very interesting according to Lost in Traffic Lights’ description!

점점 야해지는 걸(girl), 점점 식상해질 걸 / The More Risqué, The More Boring

Jo Woo-yeong, E Daily Star IN, 5 November 2012 (duplicated at Domin.com, 6 November; all images from these 2 sources)

‘란제리룩 의상을 입은 여성이 허벅지에 가터벨트를 착용한 채 봉춤을 춘다.’ 성인용 비디오물에 흔히 등장하는 장면이 아니다. 요즘 섹시 콘셉트를 내세운 일부 걸그룹의 단면을 모아놓으면 이런 모습이라는 얘기다.

Wearing a lingerie-style outfit and a garter belt on the thigh, then pole-dancing, is not a common scene in adult videos. But it has become routine for some girl-groups to do so as part of their “sexy concepts.”

점점 야해지고, 점점 섹시해지고 있다. 속살로 착각을 일으키는 살구색 천이 덧대인 시스루 스타일 의상은 ‘귀여운 꼼수’다. 핫팬츠를 입은 채 다리를 과도하게 벌리는 일명 ‘쩍벌춤’이나 야릇한 상상을 부추기는 교태 섞인 몸짓은 웬만한 걸그룹이 거쳐야 할 필수 코스가 된 지 오래다.

Things are getting sexier and more risqué. Wearing apricot-colored clothing that gives the illusion of skin normally hidden by clothing, faux see-through clothing as it were, is known as a new “cute tactic.” Also, adopting flirty sexual poses that stir up people’s lecherous imaginations, such as dancing with your legs wide open while wearing hot pants (known as the “spread-leg dance”), has long been a requirement of girl-groups.

심지어 남녀간 성 관계 체위를 연상케 하는 커플 댄스도 빼놓을 수 없는 퍼포먼스 아이템이다. 실제 본 무대는 그렇지 않더라도 활동에 앞서 공개하는 뮤직비디오 티저 영상이나 이미지에는 ‘19금’, ‘침대 셀카’, ‘키스’, ‘목욕신’, ‘파격 노출’ 등의 수식어 정도는 붙어줘야 한다.

Worst of all, couple dances with moves that look like sex positions are also performance items. And even if they’re not ultimately done on stage, teaser videos and images beforehand have to have descriptions like “R18,” “photographed in bed,” “kiss,” “bath scene,” “excessive exposure,” and so on attached to them.

애프터스쿨, 카라, 시크릿, 안다미로, 현아, 지나, 걸스데이, NS윤지 등 수많은 여가수가 올 하반기 한 번쯤 선정성 논란에 휘말렸거나 혹은 이를 자처했다. 걸그룹들의 과도한 노출•선정적인 춤에 대한 비판과 이에 맞서 표현의 자유를 부르짖는 목소리는 서로 메아리가 돼 잊을 만하면 돌아온다.

After School, Kara, Secret, Andamiro, Hyuna, G.Na, Girls’ Day, and NS Yoon-G are just some of the female singers and girl-groups that have been embroiled in controversy about their excessive exposure and/or sexual provocation at least once in the second half of this year, or have sought it. But if you criticize either, invariably the rejoinder is that it is merely freedom of expression.

대중은 각박한 현실에서 판타지(Fantasy)적인 이야기와 동경의 대상을 찾기 마련이다. 대중은 일탈하고 싶고, 내가 하지 못하거나 할 수 없는 것들을 해내는 연예인을 보면서 대리만족, 카타르시스를 느끼기 때문이다. 앞서 소녀시대, 씨스타, 나인뮤지스 등은 특정 직업 ‘제복’ 같은 무대 의상으로 일종의 ‘타부(Taboo)’와 로망을 절묘히 배합해 대중의 욕망을 건드리기도 했다.

Wanting to escape from their harsh reality, it is natural that the public yearns for fantasies. So, while watching entertainers doing what they can’t do or won’t do, they gain a vicarious satisfaction and feeling of catharsis. Previously, groups like Girls’ Generation, Sistar, and Nine Muses did this by specializing in a uniform look, provoking the public’s desire with an exquisite combination of taboo [breaking?] and romance.

강태규 대중음악평론가는 “치열한 경쟁 속 대중의 이목을 끌기 위한 방송사나 연예기획사가 결국 대중의 판타지를 쫓고 있다”고 말했다. 스무 살도 안 된 미성년자 연예인을 ‘청순 글래머’, ‘베이글녀’ 등으로 성 상품화 하는 세태가 현실이다. 방송 카메라는 무대 아래서부터 위 방향으로 걸그룹 멤버의 몸을 훑고, 신체 특정 부위를 클로즈업해 촬영한다. 그는 “보다 자극적인 것을 요구하는 사회에서 시청률을 추구하는 방송과 ‘생존의 몸부림’ 치는 연예기획사가 성적 판타지를 쫓는 것은 당연한 수순일지 모른다”고 씁쓸해했다.

Kang Tae-gyu, a popular-music critic said, “In an intense war for the public’s attention, the media and entertainment agencies ultimately provide fantasies.” Yet it’s not just 20-somethings that are sexually-objectified with terms like “Innocent Glamor” and “Bagel Girl,” but even teens. Cameras will go over their bodies from bottom to top while girl-groups are on stage, lingering with close-ups on certain body parts. Kang continued, despairingly, Providing sexual fantasies may be natural with the media and entertainment agencies’ relentless pursuit of higher viewer rates.”

일부 매체 역시 어느덧 가수의 음악을 분석, 무대 전체를 평하기보다 그들의 선정적인 의상•퍼포먼스에 주목한다. 그게 쉽고 편해서다. 수요자(대중)와 공급자(방송•기획사)가 서로에게 원하는 것만을 주고 있는 ‘필요악’인 존재가 되어가고 있다.

But almost before we know it, we have some elements of the media not paying ever paying attention to singers’ music or what’s on stage, but only taking notice of sexually suggestive costumes or performances. This is because it is easy and convenient to do so. Both the public consumers and producers (both in broadcasting and in entertainment agencies) are only giving each other what they want, so in effect this is a necessary evil of the music industry.

역설적으로 코믹한 춤으로 세계적인 인기를 끌고 있는 싸이는 보는 음악뿐 아닌 듣는 즐거움까지 안겼다. 국내 가요계의 큰 수확이다. 하지만 싸이의 ‘말춤’ 역시 그 특유의 유쾌함으로 상쇄됐을 뿐 그 안에 ‘말’이라는 동물이 갖는 묘한 성적 상징성이 담겼다. 사실 ‘섹시한’ 매력은 남녀 누구나 갖고 싶은 본능이라 할 만하다.

Paradoxically though, Psy gained worldwide popularity [not by providing something sexual, but] by providing both a funny dance and listening pleasure, and the Korean music industry in general has benefited greatly from this popularity. Yet while Psy’s comedic “horse dance” is unique, ironically even the word “horse” has sexual connotations. Moreover, man or woman, who doesn’t want to be more sexually attractive?

대중음악 가수에게 순수예술을 바라서도 안 되고 그럴 필요도 없다. 퍼포먼스도 실력이고 잘 생기고 예쁜 외모도 개인이 가진 하나의 능력이다. 문제는 그들이 내세우는 ‘섹시’가 얼마만큼의 당위성과 명분을 갖느냐다. 단순히 눈길을 끌기 위해 속살을 드러내고 몸을 흔드는 것이라면 ‘예술’이 아닌 ‘외설’에 가깝다는 비판을 피하기 어렵다.

We cannot expect singers of popular music to only produce pure art, and not be influenced by commercial imperatives. Also, there is nothing wrong with performing well, and/or being physically attractive. The problem is when sexiness is presented where it is uncalled for, with no justification. Simply showing singers dancing in tight and/or faux nude clothes isn’t art but rather obscenity, and isn’t difficult to criticize.

성시권 대중음악평론가는 “국내 대중의 인식이 많이 변해가고 있으나 마돈나, 레이디 가가 등 유명 팝스타들과 지금 국내 걸그룹들을 비교 대상으로 삼기에는 무리가 있다”고 말했다. 음악과 퍼포먼스, 주객이 바뀐 경우가 많다는 게 그의 주장이다. 그는 “퍼포먼스는 음악에 담긴 메시지를 조금 더 잘 표현하기 위한 수단이어야 하는데 일부 걸그룹이나 여가수의 무대가 과연 그러한지 의문”이라며 “몇몇 그룹이 비슷하게 돌고 도는 섹시 콘셉트는 계속 양산되고 시장서 꾸준히 소모되겠지만, 갈수록 식상함이 더해져 그들 스스로를 가둘 것”이라고 평했다. 그는 “그들은 물론 더 나아가 K팝 발전을 위해 방송•언론•평단과 각 연예 기획사의 각자 역할에 대한 고민이 필요한 시점”이라고 말했다.

Song Shi-kwon, a popular-music critic, said “In Korea, perceptions are changing, but you still can’t really compare them to famous stars like Madonna or Lady Gaga.” But in many cases, girl-groups’ performances are now more important than their music. He continued, “Performance should be a tool to convey the message in the music a little better, but I have to wonder if some girl-groups and female-singers’ stages really do that,” and judged that “by all copying each other in providing a sexy concept, their music and performances will certainly be consumed in the market, but in the process people will becoming bored with it, and so the groups will come to limit each other’s’ development.” Ultimately, “For the further development of K-pop, broadcasters, the media, critics, and entertainment agencies need to seriously think about their own roles in it.”

4 thoughts on “The More Risqué, The More Boring (OR, Something You Didn’t Know About the Horse Dance!)

  1. I do not really understand what point the writer is trying to make.

    “The problem is when sexiness is presented where it is uncalled for, with no justification.”

    Well, what, exactly, is a “justification” for sexy women acting sexily? Are we to expect K-pop to be art, now? Is it wrong to be sexy for sexy’s sake? It’s his/her opinion that K-pop groups’ antics are “obscene,” but nothing more. It’s hardly compelling, is it?

    And I find the concern about the “message” of K-pop being lost in the all the sexiness rather hilarious. Let’s be real: K-pop is, has always been and will continue to be mostly crap. It will always be about selling sex, just like manufactured “music” everywhere.

    • I hear you about not understanding the author’s overall point, but I did sort of get those two or three you mention. I think, rather than “sexiness” being a problem for instance, it would be better read as gratuitous “sexual poses and/or skin etc.” (perhaps I should have provided a less literal translation sorry), of which I think good recent examples are Hyuna writhing around in her lingerie in a foam bath in Ice Cream, and Secret members’ strategic hand placement/movements in Poison (update: eg., 2:04 in the first, and 1:32 in the second; don’t know why the vids aren’t jumping to those scenes automatically sorry):

      For sure, compelling viewing. But in both cases, such “sexiness” has little to do with the songs’ narratives (such as they are). And while, of course, the women involved definitely don’t need my, yours, or anyone else’s permission to “act sexily,” it’s perfectly legitimate to question why they’re doing it exactly, and argue that it not just overshadows the songs but, like you say, is actually the main product being sold here.

      For the sake of full disclosure though, I think Hyuna is completely overrated and hate Ice Cream in particular, but I think Poison is okay (well, average) without the MV. I agree that K-pop is mostly crap too, but there is some good stuff out there. Check out the songs written by Kim Eana for example, and, of those, Bloom by Ga-in in particular, not just a very sexy song but a a very rare case where it’s an integral component of it:

      The effect is even stronger with the 2 minute introduction included:

      See here and here (for starters) on what makes Bloom so great, or my next article in Busan Haps! :D

  2. Prof. Lankov’s article is no longer available so I don’t know if he mentions the 3S 정책 (I’d expect that from him, knowing how well researched his writings always are), but maybe you can look into that re: 성 상품화. A lot of films in the vein of 애마부인 shot in the 80s (and indirectly supported by the government, since censorship was rather lax) were pretty much tossed at the viewers to subliminally “tame them” through explicit erotica.

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