Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system

SISTAR GOT CONSENT(Sources, edited: text, image)

Give it to me, SISTAR.

Slip up just once while you’re promoting your new album, and give me your honest opinion of your costumes, your choreography, or your lyrics. Tell me what input you had in them. Tell me if you ever rejected those that Starship Entertainment provided for you.

Or did you waive that right when you signed your contracts?

Because several things are going to happen in the next few weeks: some people are going to slut-shame you for the lewdness of your performances, and some people are going to raise concerns about your sexual objectification. Some people might even do both.

용감한 Producer 씨스타 SistarAnd whatever they say, the issue of your consent will be the elephant in the room.

First, because it’s both misogynistic and asinine to slut-shame you if you’re actually projecting a creation of your management company, rather than expressing your own sexuality and personality. Second, because as discussed back in April, there is both negative and positive (or benign) objectification, and the presence or absence of the consent of the person(s) involved is crucial for determining which is which:

According to Martha Nussbaum (1995; opens PDF) then: ‘In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship (p. 271); ‘… objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context’ (p. 251). Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent.

(Evangelia Papadaki,”Feminist Perspectives on Objectification“; source, above)

On positive objectification, “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia is very much on point (my emphases in bold):

SISTAR BoraEarly on, I was in love with beauty. I don’t feel less because I’m in the presence of a beautiful person. I don’t go [imitates crying and dabbing tears], “Oh, I’ll never be that beautiful!” What a ridiculous attitude to take!–the Naomi Wolf attitude. When men look at sports, when they look at football, they don’t go [crying], “Oh, I’ll never be that fast, I’ll never be that strong!” When people look at Michelangelo’s David, do they commit suicide? No. See what I mean? When you see a strong person, a fast person, you go, “Wow! That is fabulous.” When you see a beautiful person: “How beautiful.” That’s what I’m bringing back to feminism. You go, “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!” Okay, now I’ll be charged with sexual harassment, probably. I won’t even be able to get out of the room!

We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. It is not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue….It is so provincial, feminism’s problem with beauty. We have got to get over this.

(Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays by Camille Paglia {1992}, pp.264-5; source, above)

Granted, Paglia is unfairly homogenizing and stereotyping feminism, as my own favorite feminist scholar explains:

Few issues have caused more debate within feminism’s history than the sexualized representation of women….Feminist activists and scholars have long tangled with the issue of whether images liberate women from or enforce traditional patriarchal notions of female sexuality. From Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytical constructions of the “masculine gaze” to Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s longstanding appeals to broaden both cultural and legal definitions of pornography, there is a wide and influential range of contemporary feminist discourse on the ways in which women are manipulated and victimized through various cultural representations. These have led to a popular stereotype of the “feminist view” (if there ever were such a monolith) of the sexualized woman as a consistently negative one. However, the history and evolution of the women’s movement problematizes this stereotype, as women have actively demanded the right to act as free and discerning sexual subjects even as they may be interpreted or serve as another’s object of desire.

(Pin-up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, Maria Buszek {2006}, p. 5)
Sinfest Sex Object(Source)

Be that as it may, in my experience there are precious few commentators on K-pop that heed Paglia’s imperative, let alone make any consent-based distinctions between negative and positive objectification. I’m especially frustrated with Korean commentators who, caveats about my article-searching skills aside, tend to view increasing sexual objectification — and/or sexualization — as a blanket evil, SISTAR usually only getting a mention as one, interchangeable example in a roll-call of groups at the forefront of these pernicious trends. Certainly, I’ve yet to find someone who bothered to find out if equality, respect and consent are indeed absent in your relationship with Starship Entertainment.

Then I remembered that if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself.

So, I became your biggest fanboy, spending the last two weeks poring over all your interviews and TV appearances. Whereas I used to think that they were just mindless trash, and that you weren’t free to speak openly, I finally — belatedly — realized I could no longer simply assume either.

But ten plus hours of videos, and numerous reading later? No offense SISTAR, but now I know they’re mindless trash.

I’ve learned, for instance, that: Bora has a mole on her left ear (32:37); Hyorin met her first love when she was in her second year of high school (7:10); all of them just love Las Vagas (7:00); there is an unofficial rule that band members can secretly start going out on dates once they approach 1000 days since their debut, but as of 973 days neither Hyorin nor Bora had (15:20); Hyorin has a pet snakeSoyou prepared for Christmas, 2011 by listening to a lot of carols (1:55); Dasom‘s mother is a big fan of the host of YHY’s Sketchbook (4:35); and so mindlessly on and on…

Sistar AegyoI would have watched more, but stopped paying much attention after watching one show that had you all spitting gum at a target for five minutes. Then I quit altogether when I came across another that opened with a pig shitting, as if to taunt me. Because suddenly I realized, what on Earth was I doing? How was that pig shit really any different to the contents of all those other programs? (Source, right).

But, most of all, I was giving up out of frustration at how many interviewers and TV show hosts would waste their precious time with you by almost always asking the same sort of inane questions, with the same predictable “Awww-we-love-you-[insert city/country/name of show]-guyz” type answers.

True: I am highlighting the most inane, the most vacuous, the most trivial parts of them. This may be patronizing and unfair: after all, some people are interested in such things, I’d probably be more interested myself if they were about, say, Lee Hyori, and providing them is an integral part of creating and sustaining a fanbase. Also, the Sketchbook one is interesting in another way — albeit a negative one — for the disproportionate attention given to the handful of samchon (uncle) fans in the audience (5:50; that will have to be another post!). And I did learn one thing, albeit via the Soompi blog, rather than a video — that perhaps you’re forced to wear short skirts sometimes:

SISTAR’s Soyu recently revealed her dislike of short stage outfits.

On the June 1 episode of “Beatle’s Code: Season 2,” Soyu honestly talked about the late controversies behind the group’s outfits.

Park Han-byul short skirts high stools yoga schoolSoyu stated, “It is a little upsetting, it might be a good thing in a way. Even if we wear the same hot pants as other girl group members, when we wear them people call it racy. We think it’s because we have a healthy image so we try to think of it in a good way.”

When asked if she liked wearing short skirts/dresses, Soyu answered, “I really hate wearing short skirts/dresses. Sometimes there are rude people who take photos from below us. There are even people who touch us with their hands.”

I’d add that sometimes PR people or press conference organizers will take advantage of this, only providing high stools for female celebrities to sit on (source, above-right). But Soyu, did you mean you would wear something different given the choice? Or that you just don’t like the perving? Why, oh why, didn’t the interviewer just ask?

And that was the best I got for ten hours work. (Readers will surely understand why I’ll refrain from the addressing the post to SISTAR from this point!) But in hindsight, perhaps it was naive of me to expect anything more than frequently tantalizing — but always unsatisfying — hints, for several reasons.

The Dazed and Confused Blogger October 29th 2011First, because I’ve already discussed the problem of Korean language sources in my ongoing Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls? series. As always, I welcome readers’ suggestions for critical Korean commentary on K-pop; of course do know of, have read, and have translated some here; and acknowledge that my inability to find as much as I’d like doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not more of it out there.

But frankly? As someone whose idea of a good time is to Google “성 상품화” after a couple of Black Russians, that caveat is sounding increasingly hollow and unnecessary.

Second, because for all the associations with the Korean idol and Japanese jumisho systems, as I’ll discuss in a moment, things are really little different for Western performers:

Women have always felt the pressure to look decorative or pleasing, but within pop and rock, when the star is the focus of a mass gaze, this expectation is increased tenfold. In the face of the pop orthodoxy that a woman is there first and foremost to look attractive, female artists have consistently had to negotiate the Image issue. “There’s always what we call the Cleavage Question,” said singer Suzanne Vega. “How much to show, when to show it, if at all.”

While Cleavage was the main sexual barometer of the 80s, when pop was in its infancy, with 20s vaudeville blueswomen and 40s jazz swingers, focus was on the Leg. With 50s dream babes the emphasis may have been on the Derriere, as opposed to the fetishizing of the Hair in the 60s. Whatever the focus, the acceptability of women in pop has rested on their ability to read and wear the codes, to promote whatever body part is fashionable at the time.

(She-Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music by Lucy O’Brien, 2012; pp.168-169)
Kate Bush The Kick Inside 1978(Source)

Kate Bush provides an illustrative example:

An early shot from Kate Bush’s 1978 publicity campaign has her looking full-lipped and big-eyed, wearing a clinging vest, her nipples showing through. When asked about her image at the time, Bush insisted that she didn’t feel exploited. “I suppose the poster is reasonably sexy just ’cause you can see my tits,” she continued matter-of-factly. “But I think the vibe from the face is there….Often you get pictures of females showing their legs with a very plastic face. I think that poster projects a mood….I’m going to have trouble because people tend to put the sexuality first. I hope they don’t. I want to be recognized as an artist.”

Some years later, at the time of her third or fourth album, the penny dropped. “I was very naive and I was very young,” she said of the early photo sessions which led to her being one of the most popular ‘wank’ images to grace student bedrooms. “It was all very new to me and, in the first year, I learned so many lessons about how people wanted to manipulate me.”

(p.171; see 3rd paragraph down *here* also)

(Update: I really wanted to mention — but felt that the post already had more than enough quotes –  “Selling an image: girl groups of the 1960s”  by Cynthia J. Cyrus in Popular Music, May 2003, as the similarities between Korean girl-groups of today and US and UK girl-groups of the 1960s are simply astounding. Please email me if you’d like a copy, or of any of the other journal articles mentioned here.)

Taeyeon 25 No Boyfriend NeededThird, because it’s by no means only Korean reporters and TV hosts that are restricted in what they can ask Korean stars. As John Seabrook revealed in “Factory Girls: Cultural technology and the making of K-pop” in last October’s New Yorker, for instance:

Half an hour before the Anaheim show, I was backstage, on my way to meet Tiffany and Jessica, the two members of Girls’ Generation born and brought up in the U.S., who are both in their early twenties. An S.M. man was guiding me through the labyrinth of dressing rooms, where various idols, mainly guys, were having their hair fussed over and their outfits adjusted. There was a lot of nervous bowing. My minder hustled me along, telling me what questions not to ask the Girls. “Was it sad to say goodbye to your friends who didn’t make it?” he said. “Do you have a boyfriend?” He paused. “This is all going to Korea, and it’s a little different there,” he said. “So if we could stay away from the personal questions like boyfriends.”

(Update: Gag Halfrunt provides a second example in the comments)

Nine Muses of Star Empire(Source)

Finally, because I watched Nine Muses of Star Empire (2012), an 82 minute documentary about Nine Muses’ life and training under management company Star Empire Entertainment, directed by Lee Hark-joon.

Or rather, I watched the 47 minute version that played on BBC World in mid-February (available here; it doesn’t embed well sorry), which by all accounts turned it into much more of a “journalistic exposé” than was originally intended, and certainly — deservedly — portrays Star Empire Entertainment in a very negative light. While SISTAR’s Starship Entertainment is of course a completely different company, I still probably wouldn’t even have bothered with their interviews if I’d first seen Nine Muses’ PR Manager (3:15) schooling them in exactly what to say at theirs, or their CEO (10:15) personally choosing — how empowering! — outfits that showed off their honey thighs:

Nine Muses Honey ThighsThat said, I do encourage readers to check out two interviews of the director, particularly in the latter link where he says:

Q) In the documentary the managers can be seen deciding on the girls’ outfits, songs and choreography. Do the girls have any say in their group’s concept, or is everything decided on for them?

A) The girls’ and boys’ band concept is decided by the agency. However, not all successful bands are like that. As they adjust to the music industry, they start composing their own songs and have more of a voice in their concept. In the documentary, the girls are told by managers: “If you become a star, your opinion is law. If you think you are treated unfairly, become a star.” What the manger said is cruel but it shows a reality.

Nine Muses I really did my best(Source)

Next, I insist readers check out at least Part One of — and especially the much longer comments to — W. David Marx’s series at néojapanisme on the Japanese jumisho system that the Korean idol system is based on, and which it’s clearly still very similar to. (The introductory chapter to Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture{2012} is also helpful, as is Googling “idol” and “Seoulbeats“; here’s a good starting post). Assuming that you have, then it’s an opportune moment to stop and take stock here:

  • CL GQKRIt’s difficult to find material on SISTAR specifically
  • There is great variation in different management companies’ relationships with their employees/groups/artists. Star Empire Entertainment, T-ara’s Core Contents Media, and KARA’s DSP Media would be at one end of the scale, and probably 2NE1′s YG Entertainment and The Brown Eyed Girls’ Nega Network at the other.
  • These relationships — i.e., level of groups’ freedom, autonomy, and involvement in their work — change over time, as indicated by director Lee Hark-joon above. To wit, SM Entertainment has reportedly improved in recent years, and just this week JYP announced that he no would no longer insist on having his name mentioned at the beginning of songs, and would allow his artists more freedom with composer choices
  • Not being able to ask artists tough questions doesn’t preclude us from making informed guesses about their relationships with their management companies. Moreover, unfiltered news and confessions does appear all the time, After School’s UEE admitting just last week that their CEO effectively forced them to do (painful) pole dances in their latest MV for example, and CL on the right (source; edited) mentioning back in March that she refused her company’s requests for her to get cosmetic surgery before her debut (something YG would later do a complete 180 on). Likewise, I hope SISTAR will be more  — er — revealing in the future too.

But where does all that leave the question of how to determine sexual objectification in K-pop?

Recall that in the last post, I provided some criteria on sexual objectification devised by various feminist scholars, and concluded that most purported examples in K-pop (and specifically, SISTAR’s Gone Not Around Any Longer MV and TV performances) didn’t meet those. Commenter ‘dash’ however, to whom I’m eternally grateful, pointed out that because of the levels of coercion involved in the idol system, then most likely idols did meet those criteria, even if — the main thrust of my post — sexy dancing and showing skin aren’t necessarily sexually objectifying — or rather, negatively sexually objectifying — in themselves.

To refresh readers’ memories, here are the seven specific criteria devised by Nussbaum, plus three more provided by Rae Langton:

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
  8. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  9. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  10. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

Applying academic theories to the real world is often messy and unsatisfying, but to conclude that we just don’t know if SISTAR are coerced by Starship Entertainment, so we just don’t know if #3, #7, and #10 apply, so we just don’t know if they’re negatively sexually objectified or not? It just felt galling, as if the last two weeks had been a complete waste.

It also presented quite an impasse, which took another two weeks to overcome.

Nana After School What's Next(Source)

For a while, it was tempting to leave it just at that, as you could argue that objective definitions are actually unnecessary, and/or seeking them misguided. After all, you’d think devising some for pornography would be much easier, but my (layperson’s) impression is that despite laws distinguishing between its many forms, and despite various coda used by law enforcement agencies to police, say, child porn (for example, the COPINE scale), we’re actually no closer to having objective definitions of it than when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 that it was hard to define the hard-core stuff, but that he knew it when he saw it (note it was later regretted and retracted however).

Perhaps, that vagueness is partially because the world’s first peer-reviewed academic journal on pornography won’t even be launched until next year?

In contrast, Buszek’s quote in the introduction is a reminder that academic work on objectification has a long pedigree, and is indeed the primary means — and likely will remain the primary means — by which we discuss “the ways in which women are manipulated and victimized through various cultural representations.” And who could doubt it the necessity of doing so, after watching the following video?

Not what it may seem, Escher Girls describes it as:

A video about the straight cis male gaze in cinema (and video games), examples of it, and talking about how even when men are sexualized on screen, it’s still as active agents and not as a collection of body parts where the camera zooms in and cuts to various secondary sex characteristics. Not a new concept, but the video is still interesting, even as just food for thought.

I also think having it deconstructed visually like he does, helps one pay a little more attention to how the world around us is constructed via the media we consume, in even small subtle ways, like where the camera focuses, pans, and zooms in on, and the difference between cuts that show pieces of the body versus full face & body shots.

….Also, this doesn’t mean it’s NEVER a thing to do, sometimes it can be used very effectively, and increases the understanding of a scene…but it’s when it becomes the norm of depicting women in all situations…

Dal Shabet Legs Objectification(Source)

So, after two weeks of banging my head against a brick wall, it finally occurred to me to Google PDF files with “sexual objectification” in the title. In just — ahem — five minutes of looking, I came across the solution in the form of “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research” in The Counseling Psychologist 39(1), 2011, pp. 6-38 by Dawn Szymanski, Lauren Moffitt, and Erika Carr, as I was immediately struck by how their five core — but very interrelated — criteria of a “sexually objectifying environment” were eerily similar to life in a management company:

A) Traditional gender roles exist

The first thing that came to mind upon reading this were the traditional gender roles perpetuated by a significant number — but by no means majority — of songs and MVs by girl-groups, buttressed by the ridiculous double-standards of Korean censors. But, while that’s certainly something worth exploring, it’s more appropriate to focus on the environment in which management company employees work in.

Especially as this is a concept originally devised for places like Hooters (pp. 21-22):

Hooters KoreaSpecific to the workplace, [one researcher] used the term gender role spillover to refer to the carryover of these traditional gender roles into work environments where they are irrelevant or inappropriate. This phenomenon is more likely to occur when gender role is more salient than work role and/or gender ratios are highly skewed, because under many circumstances, individuals use gender role stereotypes to guide behavior, especially in male-female interactions. In particular, gender role spillover occurs when women (more than men in similar occupational roles) are expected to project their sexuality through behavior, appearance, or dress. When gender role spillover occurs, the effects may be magnified when women hold jobs where one aspect is reminiscent of a sex object (i.e., cocktail waitress). In this position, women are likely to be targets of unwanted sexual attention but may (inaccurately) attribute the way they are treated to their job rather than to their gender. A dynamic is then set up where men are expected to take the role of sexual initiator. One potential outcome is a sexualized work environment where sexual remarks, seductive clothing, and sexual advances are tolerated and encouraged.

(Update: See here for more on Hooters in Korea {source, above})

B) A high probability of male contact exists (physically speaking, a male-dominated environment)

Here, the authors’ meaning is the greater numbers of men compared to women in the environment in question; lacking that data, this cannot be confirmed or denied in the case of Korean management companies. But we can guess — and this is confirmed by Nine Muses of Star Empire — that the female idols do have considerable contact with the same few men, and…

…the extent of contact with men [is] a key predictor of incidence of harassment, number of different types of harassment, sexual comments, sexual categorical remarks, and sexual materials for women. Thus, contact with men may serve as a mediator between women and sexual objectification (SO). Frequent contact with men may create a more sexualized environment, which in turn allows for more SO experiences. (pp. 22-23)

Next, consider the disproportionate power of those men:

C) Women typically hold less power than men in that environment

This can be taken as a given. But Seabrook puts it well, and the combination he describes is covered well in the comments to Part One of the jumisho series at neojaponismé:

When you replicate the American entertainment business, and add the Confucian virtue of rigid respect for elders to the traditionally unequal relationship between artists and suits, the consequences can be nasty.

I’d also add that although men can and do write, direct, and/or produce — for want of a better word — feminist songs and MVs, and that although those intended for heterosexual men can be willingly embraced by women (of all sexualities) nevertheless, the example of lyricist Kim Eana (and others) points to the common-sense conclusion that the more women in the industry, the more feminist and/or positively-objectifying songs and MVs will likely be produced.

California Beach Jewelry red(Source, right)

The final two are also self-evidently true:

D) A high degree of attention is drawn to sexual/physical attributes of women’s bodies

Environments where women are required, often by specifications of a uniform, to reveal and emphasize their bodies are clearly sexually objectifying. Additionally, wearing tight or revealing clothing may facilitate self-objectification, as women constantly review their appearance and the fit of their clothing in the surrounding mirrors. Supporting this notion, [one study] found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing (gym tops and gym pants) placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants). Relatedly, [other researchers] found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers leads women to self-objectify more. (p. 23)

E) The approval and acknowledgement of male gaze

세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈 현아…girl watching is a “targeted tactic of power” where men use gaze to demonstrate their right to physically and sexually evaluate women. The activity serves as a form of playing a game among some men; however, the targeted woman is generally understood to be an object, rather than a player, in the game. Thus, from a male point of view, “acts such as girl watching are simply games played with objects: women’s bodies”. The effects of male gaze on women may be intensified by the accompaniment of sexually evaluative commentary. (p. 24; source, right)

And with that, I could finally conclude my month-long inquiry. Which in short, is that I now more or less agree with dash(!), the commenter that started me on it. Or in full, that:

  • Given everything we know about the idol system, it is fair to assume that management companies are sexually objectifying environments
  • Consequently, it fair to assume that female performers do not always consent to the sexual objectification asked of them
  • Consequently, it is negative sexual objectification
  • And crucially, if the management companies and/or performers feel that these assumptions are incorrect and unfair, that the onus is on them to prove us feminist whiners wrong

As many do

Ga-in Bloom(Source, above; below)

Yes, you can argue that that’s a lot of assumptions. And/or that, because the first set ivory tower criteria from the last post didn’t work in the real world, that I’ve merely gone and replaced them with another. Both criticisms are fair. Also, I acknowledge the very very broad range of topics above, and am aware of the many exceptions, over-generalizations, and just plain simple mistakes involved in covering them all. I welcome and appreciate readers pointing them out to me, and look forward to discussing them in the comments.

SISTAR give it to me pleaseYet most of all, I’m happy that I now longer feel so stymied, so…inadequate when talking about objectification in K-pop because I feel I won’t ever been able to hear enough about it — or indeed, anything about it — from the singers themselves.

Of course, the drudgery of religiously scanning news reports and interviews for their voices — i.e. to make assumptions into facts –  is still essential, and, having recognized that, motivated fanboying is something I definitely plan to continue doing in the future. But spending hours toiling over, say, all 114 pages of the SISTAR tag on allkrap allkpop for those slip-ups before you can feel you can even write? Really, us feminist whiners can do much better than that.

And SISTAR, so can you too. Give it to me indeed.

You know what I mean!

Update: The dynamics of guest-host interactions on Korean talk-shows are a little more subtle than I gave them credit for in this post. See “Goo Hara is Allegedly Rude because ‘MCs Gotta MC’” at Seoulbeats to learn more.

p.s. Like this post? Did it keep you occupied for half an hour? Please consider making a small donation, to help me write more of them — I’ve only had one two so far this year! ㅠㅠ

39 thoughts on “Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system

  1. Great post! As much as I love Korea, its culture, music and all that, there is a big problem of how women are treated here. While I do enjoy seeing the sexy girls sing, dance and all that, I can’t help but feel bad for them. I’m sure some of them love it, and voluntarily wear such sexy clothing; but I wonder how many others don’t? One of my favorite K-pop groups is 2NE1, and I’ve read some of CL’s interviews. She sounds like a really cool, rebellious girl from what I’ve read. I live in Andong, which is a small and conservative city in Gyungsangbuk Provence, just an hour-and-a-half from Daegu. Here, I’ve seen and heard Korean men call Korean women “sluts” and “whores” for talking with foreign men at bars, or for smoking in public. One time, I was sitting with another foreign friend at our favorite bar, and we were talking with some Korean [female] friends of ours. Two Korean guys, sitting across from us (we were sitting in a U-shaped table in the middle of this bar) wanted to talk to the girls who were with us. When the girls showed that they weren’t interested in talking with them, and kept talking with us, the guys started berating our female friends. We told the guys to piss off, and apologize to our friends. I know in the larger cities of Seoul or Busan, it’s a little better for Korean-foreign relations, but there are still problems there. In the media, girls are told to look and dress a certain way, but in public they still have to follow traditional customs. It’s such a ridiculous double standard.

    • I’m not entirely sure if ‘conservative’ is the proper adjective to use here. Being conservative is one thing, being misogynistic is another.

  2. Back in March, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article about the K-Pop industry. The reporter, Stephanie Wood, interviewed GLAM and got in trouble for asking about plastic surgery:

    The matter of plastic surgery wasn’t on my list of questions I was asked to submit to GLAM’s management ahead of our interview but, ever so sweetly, I ask the girls if any of them have gone under the knife. Miso raises a hand and wiggles it, smiling broadly. My question, and Miso’s frank answer, apparently causes a kerfuffle; my interpreter later relays to me that if I choose to mention Miso’s new nose in my article the group’s management will refuse to help me with further interviews I’ve requested.

    There are also some remarks about sexual objectification:

    Nathan McMurray believes the objectification of women in Korean pop music has got worse, much worse. “The dance moves that girls are doing now would have been totally unacceptable in Korea 10 years ago.

    “They’ve taken stripper moves, cute-ified them, then polished them to the maximum degree.” It is, he says, a continuation of what happens in Korean bar culture, where hostesses stroke men’s egos and encourage them to buy expensive liquor. “They’re all, like, cute and nice and everything your wife is not.”

    • Plastic surgery is a big thing here in the Korean pop culture. While there’s nothing wrong with it in itself, it does push this view of what the “ideally attractive” person should look like. It makes common people feel like that have to reach that “pop star” look. Girls and boys are told to look and act a certain way to “fit in” with current pop culture, and I feel bad for many of the young people here. Instead of being told what to look like and how to act, young adults here in Korea should be allowed to freely express themselves, in both mind and body.

    • Thanks for passing on that example @Gag, and kudos to the reporter for printing it anyway. I’ve added it to the post.

      Nathan’s quote seems quite apt considering Dal Shabet’s latest costumes and choreography. Or alternatively quite quaint, considering he would probably have been talking about something far tamer than camel toes and the following dance!:

  3. Pingback: Recommended Reading: June 20th, 2013 | Idolminded

  4. Hi, I don’t think I really follow your argument on consent – I do think that most idols actually agree to the terms, considering that they know that they would make money if they do. Thinking about whether they consented or not seem irrelevant to the whole question whether sexual objectification in consumerism is bad or not – female celebrities would definitely volunteer to do so because it benefits them.

    So when thinking about consent and objectification, it may be better to ask pedestrians why they would volunteer to seem lewd or be voluntarily objectified, than K-pop stars. Those samples would be interesting to look at because they are not particularly pressured to sexualize themselves for material benefits.

    • It would be interesting to see how many K-pop stars do agree to their terms and conditions of their contracts. I wish there were more live Q & A session with stars; ones with fans and not magazine writers.

    • Sorry @childofforest, but I don’t really know how to make my argument any clearer — I already sum it up at the end.

      I can clarify though, that there tends to be 2 schools of thought about objectification in the idol system:

      1) That idols signed up with their companies when they were generally young, naive, and inexperienced; that they are forced to objectify themselves by their management companies upon fear of punishment (and/or the effective end of their careers if they ultimately have to leave the group); so this objectification is negative and the idols are victims, or

      2) That all the idols signed up for the idol lifestyle will full knowledge of what was entailed, so any objectification of them we see is with their full consent; and/or they are initiators of it themselves, artistically expressing their own sexuality and personality. (If I read your comment correctly, you subscribe more to this view?)

      Naturally, the reality is much greyer, every group and management company is different, and I give several examples across the whole spectrum. But on balance, all the evidence suggests that the reality is much closer to #1 than #2, so it is fair to assume that idols are often coerced into objectifying themselves, unless the idols themselves prove otherwise.

      I guess that was an extended summary. Either way, I don’t really know what “sexual objectification in consumerism” is sorry, and don’t talk in the post about whether it’s bad or not, so I can’t really comment on it sorry. Or on your point about asking non-idols, which kinda follows on from that?

  5. This was an amazing read. Though the topic of sexual objectification of women in pop entertainment is not a new one, it has been a very long time since I have read something this well-researched. And also, I’m amazed that you were able to go through all that mindless drivel. I don’t watch a lot of pop entertainment because I know that it is brainless but that whole gum-spitting thing hit a whole new low. Kudos to you, sir.

    • Thanks very much. As for going though all the mindless drivel…well, it may sound facetious, but there’s a good reason I never write about boy-bands on this blog, and in turn why most of the writing on Korean boy-bands out there — both academic and in the blogosphere — tends to be by women. Having said that, now I definitely have a limit to how much of that drivel I can endure from female idols, no matter how attractive they may be!

      p.s. Not that I’m saying SISTAR are idiots are anything — just that that’s what the Korean media asks of them.

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  7. I really like your writings, but sometimes you have too many different perspectives. i know this kind of writing from my own subject (history). but on this kind of format (blog) you should point out all the views but afterwards bring a more “harsher” conclusion. But I know you want to be fair and you always struggle with your assumptions and different theories (AND beeing kind of a critic fanboy :D). keep it up.

  8. Okay, fair enough.

    I often read your articles and really enjoy the fact, when you struggle between different sociologic perspectives and our own experience/feelings, which you use sometimes as an argument. E.g. you wrote to be a motivated fanboy and often you say, that you like special aspects of k-pop or the music. As Dash said: ” I just want to say that we can’t ignore the fact that we are consumers of k-pop and we are contributing to a system”. You obviously enjoy listening and writing about kpop with a critical (but still male) perspective. So keep on and deal with te problem :)

    But now the critic: You quote a lot of literature and try to use (and criticize) the sociological writings about the topic. Thats the part you do well. But in the end your conclusion is often a bit vague (not so much in this article as in general). You try to blame nobody/thing (structure, discurse or even the players) without good reasons. You wrote: “Also, I acknowledge the very very broad range of topics above, and am aware of the many exceptions, over-generalizations, and just plain simple mistakes involved in covering them all”. Thats definitly the case. But when you want to be a vocal voice and want to change something, then you have to be more sharp, no “whishy-washy”. At least in the conclusion. Another Example: you gave us three (?) different authors, who made up there criteria for sexual objectification. It is a good step to think about the signification of each criteria and to criticize them. But for the reader it is sometimes difficult and not very useful to follow everystep in this process (especially when there are a lot of links and distracting videos/pictures). It is not about your method or the arguments, but about the legibility.

    But this article was nice, because you described like you made a trip through various sources and what these sources can AND cant tell us about the object of analysis (oh shit, the girls should be subjects…). I can understand the meaning of this blog, your thoughts and the discussed topics are work in process and the reader can feel your struggle with different aspects (like positive or negative objectification). You play with the ideas and want to interact with your readers. Thats why I enjoy your blog.

    And a personal favour: I would enojy more detailed comparisons between the us/european and the korean popculture.

    • Okay, fair enough.

      I often read your articles and really enjoy the fact, when you struggle between different sociologic perspectives and our own experience/feelings, which you use sometimes as an argument. E.g. you wrote to be a motivated fanboy and often you say, that you like special aspects of k-pop or the music. As Dash said: ” I just want to say that we can’t ignore the fact that we are consumers of k-pop and we are contributing to a system”. You obviously enjoy listening and writing about kpop with a critical (but still male) perspective. So keep on and deal with te problem :)

      – Thanks. And sorry I didn’t reply soooner!

      But now the critic: You quote a lot of literature and try to use (and criticize) the sociological writings about the topic. Thats the part you do well. But in the end your conclusion is often a bit vague (not so much in this article as in general).

      – Sorry, but again this is too vague to be helpful. Unless you tell me which conclusions are problematic, something which would be best to do in the comments sections to the specific posts themselves, then I can’t really do anything about it.

      Not that you’re not entitled to your opinion of my blog of course. But without any evidence to change my mind, then I can’t really do more than say I disagree, and leave it at that!

      You try to blame nobody/thing (structure, discurse or even the players) without good reasons. You wrote: “Also, I acknowledge the very very broad range of topics above, and am aware of the many exceptions, over-generalizations, and just plain simple mistakes involved in covering them all”. That’s definitly the case. But when you want to be a vocal voice and want to change something, then you have to be more sharp, no “whishy-washy”.

      – But this post isn’t about changing something — it’s about how to determine positive or negative sexual objectification in K-pop. I’m quite explicit about that.

      That’s not to say I don’t think my writing could be sharper — frankly, this post could easily lose 1000 words — but still: you can’t really criticize me for not “want[ing] to be a vocal voice and want[ing] to change something” in this post when I never intended to.

      Also, you contradict yourself a little — you can’t acknowledge that I shouldn’t blame anybody or thing without good reasons on the one hand, or that I shouldn’t acknowledge all the exceptions etc., but then on the other hand say that’s just being “wishy-washy.”

      Either way, the reality is that as a 37 year-old Caucasian male writing about Korea, if I don’t zealously acknowledge these exceptions then hordes of Tumblrs crazy netizens just write me off as just another typical clueless arrogant know-it-all White guy who doesn’t check his privilege as he white-knights over Korean women. If I do, then only the really dedicated trolls get on my case.

      (For the same reasons, there’s a definite limit to how much I can personally change the Korean problems I write about, which influences the style of posts I write).

      At least in the conclusion. Another Example: you gave us three (?) different authors, who made up there criteria for sexual objectification. It is a good step to think about the signification of each criteria and to criticize them. But for the reader it is sometimes difficult and not very useful to follow every step in this process (especially when there are a lot of links and distracting videos/pictures). It is not about your method or the arguments, but about the legibility.

      – I’m confused: I don’t go through the significance of each criteria and criticize them. I do go through the steps of my thinking processes and how I arrived at my conclusions, which isn’t quite the same thing.

      Be that as it may, I do accept that perhaps one or two of the steps in that could be omitted, especially the aside on pornography.

      But this article was nice, because you described like you made a trip through various sources and what these sources can AND cant tell us about the object of analysis (oh shit, the girls should be subjects…). I can understand the meaning of this blog, your thoughts and the discussed topics are work in process and the reader can feel your struggle with different aspects (like positive or negative objectification). You play with the ideas and want to interact with your readers. Thats why I enjoy your blog.

      – Thanks again!

      And a personal favour: I would enojy more detailed comparisons between the us/european and the korean popculture.

      – I’d like to do that favor for you, but it’s difficult enough to keep up with Korean popculture, which I still have a LOT to learn about. I do still try with US and European popculture, but it’s just impossible really!

  9. Update: It’s a little hypocritical of me, but all the SISTAR members come across as very endearing in this latest interview of theirs, even though the questions and answers are still inane. There *is* still a time and place for such things, even for cynical feminist whiners like myself!

  10. I got your point and perhaps I was a bit to vague (and even wrong). But this one: “Either way, the reality is that as a 37 year-old Caucasian male writing about Korea, if I don’t zealously acknowledge these exceptions”, is (one! of) the interesting points you generally make up in your articles and in combination with serious sources and some theories, it is the strengh of this blog. So good work :)

  11. hi James, i appreciate the follow-up article! i’ve been busy until now but i’m going to try to reply to this either through Beyond Hallyu or on my own blog to keep the discussion going. i still think you made a valuable point in our last discussion about contextual objectification and i’m going to try and develop on that maybe through considering contextual empowerment as well.

  12. I didn’t really understand your opinion ^^’
    So SISTAR just promote themselves with a sexy image for media and people to paid atention to them and they don’t do it because they want it but because they need it and are forced ? It’s that your opinion ? (Sorry, English in’t my first language so I don’t understand everything) :s

    • No need to apologize!

      Basically, I’m saying that:

      – Evidence shows that most management companies do sometimes force their groups to do sexy dancing (and so on).
      – So, I’m going to assume that Starship Entertainment also sometimes forces the SISTAR members to.
      – If the SISTAR members and/or Starship Entertainment prove to me that they’re not forced though, then I’ll change my mind!

      Hope that helps! :)

      • That’s honestly some weird stance to start off with. I find it weird because normally it’s innocent until proven guilty but you have reversed those. If they don’t want to wear those clothes then they should get some pride and say no. Why blame Starship Entertainment? It’s not like they can actually tie those girls up and force them to do it – if they do it for the money then it’s their choice and that says something about their characters – don’t blame the their company.

          • “Did you actually read the post, or even any of the comments save the one above? And “blame” Starship Entertainment for what exactly?”

            This is what you wrote: “– Evidence shows that most management companies do sometimes force their groups to do sexy dancing (and so on).
            – So, I’m going to assume that Starship Entertainment also sometimes forces the SISTAR members to.
            – If the SISTAR members and/or Starship Entertainment prove to me that they’re not forced though, then I’ll change my mind!”

            The following is also something you write in the article.
            “Given everything we know about the idol system, it is fair to assume that management companies are sexually objectifying environments
            Consequently, it fair to assume that female performers do not always consent to the sexual objectification asked of them”

            That’s the blame I’m talking about – you are blaming them for forcing these girls into behaving like this when it’s really their own choice. It’s their choice under conditions – but still a choice. The conditions being either do “sexy dancing” or leave but every job has conditions. If you don’t or don’t want to meet those conditions then you leave or gets sacked. If I start working in company I find are doing stuff I don’t agree with and still accepts and keeps working for that company – then I’m not being forced but I’m selling my dignity for money.

            I can agree with: “Given everything we know about the idol system, it is fair to assume that management companies are sexually objectifying environments” but that’s not something new or a secret – we all know it. We see it everywhere and not just in the world of K-Pop. Heck all you have to do is turn your tv on and you’ll see that’s how the world is. This however does NOT lead to the following of your statements.
            “Consequently, it fair to assume that female performers do not always consent to the sexual objectification asked of them”
            This is where you go wrong – because you are mixing consent with liking. They might not like doing it but they still consent to do it for the MONEY hence they are not being forced.

            You write:
            “Naturally, the reality is much greyer, every group and management company is different, and I give several examples across the whole spectrum. But on balance, all the evidence suggests that the reality is much closer to #1 than #2, so it is fair to assume that idols are often coerced into objectifying themselves, unless the idols themselves prove otherwise.”

            I did read that earlier comment too and it basically said the same thing just wrapped up in a more “lighter” way. I see you talk about evidence but there are no evidence that these girls are (MOSTLY) forced into it – besides being forced by their own hunger for money.

            You write:
            “upon fear of punishment (and/or the effective end of their careers if they ultimately have to leave the group); so this objectification is negative and the idols are victims, or”

            This is – as I wrote earlier – not called forcing – this is giving choice. They’ve been giving a choice to either keep their pride and leave if they do not want to work like this or throw away their pride and keep working even if they don’t like it. If I – as I said – find my workplace being shitty and then still chose to stay anyway because of the money then I’m not getting forced – I just weight money above my own dignity.

            • Okay, fair enough. I’ve had to deal with a lot of trolls this week sorry, so I assumed the worst. Ultimately though, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree!

              You wrote: “That’s the blame I’m talking about – you are blaming them for forcing these girls into behaving like this when it’s really their own choice. It’s their choice under conditions – but still a choice. The conditions being either do “sexy dancing” or leave but every job has conditions. If you don’t or don’t want to meet those conditions then you leave or gets sacked. If I start working in company I find are doing stuff I don’t agree with and still accepts and keeps working for that company – then I’m not being forced but I’m selling my dignity for money.”

              Plus, I wrote: “…upon fear of punishment (and/or the effective end of their careers if they ultimately have to leave the group); so this objectification is negative and the idols are victims, or…”

              You replied: “This is – as I wrote earlier – not called forcing – this is giving choice. They’ve been giving a choice to either keep their pride and leave if they do not want to work like this or throw away their pride and keep working even if they don’t like it. If I – as I said – find my workplace being shitty and then still chose to stay anyway because of the money then I’m not getting forced – I just weight money above my own dignity.”

              Yes, I agree that technically they do have those choices, although you can argue someone in their teens – when many (most?) sign up – aren’t informed and responsible enough to fully appreciate what they’re getting into. Be that as it may, even with fully-informed and responsible adults, I think it’s misguided to equate being a group-member contracted to a management company to any other, ‘normal’ jobs. If I (and I assume you) choose not to meet the conditions of our jobs, and so leave them or get fired, then while there may be some de facto penalties, we’ll still likely find very similar jobs in different companies and be able to continue our careers there. With only a handful of already debuted group members (out of hundreds, let alone tens of thousands of trainees) successfully striking out on their own or switching management companies and becoming successful later, clearly that isn’t the case with the Korean music industry. Add that the management-company system is still really the only means to fame and fortune in it, its chaebol-like structure working against popular groups emerging from the indie scene (which most of the group members we’re talking about don’t have the talent or ability for anyway), then these “choices” of theirs sound very hollow to me.

              You wrote: “I can agree with: ‘Given everything we know about the idol system, it is fair to assume that management companies are sexually objectifying environments’ but that’s not something new or a secret – we all know it. We see it everywhere and not just in the world of K-Pop. Heck all you have to do is turn your tv on and you’ll see that’s how the world is. This however does NOT lead to the following of your statements: ‘Consequently, it fair to assume that female performers do not always consent to the sexual objectification asked of them.’ This is where you go wrong – because you are mixing consent with liking. They might not like doing it but they still consent to do it for the MONEY hence they are not being forced.

              Well, I’m not actually saying that the conditions inside management companies are new or a secret. Please remember those statements of mine were just quick summaries for the comment, and need to be taken in the context of the post, which is about what “sexual objectification” is in the first place (something most people that use the term haven’t thought about – and not that writing this post makes me an expert either), and has the conclusion that “management companies are sexually objectifying environments” by the criteria outlined in the post.

              Either way, whether it’s “not consenting” or “not liking” just goes back to the question of how much “choice” they do or don’t have as explained above, and I think we’ll probably just have to agree to disagree on that.

              I wrote: “Naturally, the reality is much greyer, every group and management company is different, and I give several examples across the whole spectrum. But on balance, all the evidence suggests that the reality is much closer to #1 than #2, so it is fair to assume that idols are often coerced into objectifying themselves, unless the idols themselves prove otherwise.”

              You replied: “I did read that earlier comment too and it basically said the same thing just wrapped up in a more ‘lighter’ way. I see you talk about evidence but there are no evidence that these girls are (MOSTLY) forced into it – besides being forced by their own hunger for money.”

              Again, this seems to be something we’ll have to agree to disagree on. I personally find so much of that evidence, that, like I say, I do go far as to assume that idols are often being coerced, whereas you don’t think there’s enough evidence to make that assumption. Okay, sure – you’re entitled to your opinion. Let me leave you with the observation though, that it’s surely telling how reluctant and/or contractually unable most idols are to talk about things like that, and in turn that most music-related program hosts etc. don’t ever seem to ask such inconvenient questions.

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