What Donald Duck, Hani, and Big Tits Taught Me About Body-Image in Korean Comedy

Exid Hani Vitamin(Source: Euri)

“That’s Problematic!”

Many smart people loathe the word “problematic.” Others, because it’s “frequently used in progressive political settings among White People of a Certain Education,” or because they think they’re the best judges of what the rest of us should concern ourselves with. And maybe they have a point. I do often use the word; I am indeed White; I’ve had a “certain education” I guess; and, if it’s both “progressive” and perverse for someone like me to be troubled about body-image in Korea, then guilty as charged.

That is to say, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the dictates of any self-appointed arbiters of cultural criticism. So let me shout it from the rooftops, loud and proud: Korean comedy’s body-policing is damned problematic sometimes. This post, very much a #longread, is about several recent cases in point.

But before I got to work on what was all set to be my usual diatribe, I came across some comments made by Lizzie Parker of Beyond Hallyu, someone I do pay attention to. Learning that she too dislikes the word, I realized with that great power of not giving a rat’s ass, comes great responsibility:

It’s such a cop out…problematic is just lazy-speak for ‘there is something bad about this and I can’t be bothered to figure out what’. It’s bad writing.

Lizzie’s comment was made in a different context, but it resonated with what I’d just been reading in Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction by John Tomlinson (1991), and I’ll take my muses in whatever guises they appear, thank you very much. Specifically, it clicked because Tomlinson discussed scholars’ tendency to assume the nefarious impacts of Western consumer products on local cultures, but reluctance to explain the actual means by which those products (allegedly) do so. If I just confine myself to one illustrative example from the book here, about How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart (English ed.,1975; quoted in italics):

To service our ‘monoproduct’ economies and provide urban paraphernalia, we send copper, and they send the machines to extract copper and, of course, Coca Cola. Behind the Coca Cola stands a whole superstructure of expectations and models of behavior, and with it, a particular kind of present and future society and an interpretation of the past. (p. 97.)

So, imported cultural goods — Coke, Disney — somehow ‘contain’ the values of American consumer capitalism and offer an implicit interpretation of the good life. Still, we have yet to see how these cultural goods are supposed to transmit the values they contain and the social vision they ‘offer’. When the explanation comes, it is frankly disappointing:

The housewife in the slums is incited to buy the latest refrigerator or washing machine; the impoverished industrial worker lives bombarded with the images of the Fiat 125. [in the same way]….Underdeveloped peoples take the comics at second hand, as instruction in the way they are supposed to live and relate to the foreign power center. (p. 98)

When it comes to the crucial question of ideological effects, Dorfman and Mattelart can only offer an unproblematized notion of the manipulative power of the media text. They simply assume that reading American comics, seeing adverts, watching pictures of the affluent yanquí lifestyle has a direct pedagogic effect. (p. 44.)

Tomlinson may well be another White Person of a Certain Education, but his book is easily one of the most enlightening and well-explained cultural studies texts I’ve read in years, and provides an obvious solution to the challenge presented by Lizzie. Yet in my bid to look smart, I quote him at my peril. For now I’m obliged to demonstrate just how exactly Korean comedy teaches such harmful messages about body image, and why its constant, egregious examples can’t be dismissed as just harmless fun—all without patronizing Korean audiences in the process.

It’s a tall order. So, to set the stage, let’s see what happened when long-limbed Hani recently stepped onto that of Vitamin, a health-cum-variety show on KBS:

I think I'm addicted to feminist media criticism(Source: Social Justice For All)

걸그룹 옆에 ‘못난이’…이 장면이 웃긴가요 The Ugly Sisters Next to a Girl-group Member…A Scene to be Laughed at

[TV리뷰] 예능 프로그램 속 외모 비하, 여전히 개선되지 않는 문제점

[TV Review] An entertainment program criticizes women’s bodies: why has this problem still not improved?

OhmyStar, 27 February 2015, 우동균/Woo Dong-gyoon

큰 키의 미녀가 한 계단 위에 올라서 있는 키 작고 통통한 여성들과 비교대상이 된다. 그리고 ‘못난이 삼형제’라는 자막이 버젓이 표시된다. 비웃는 패널들의 표정은 덤이다. 미스코리아 선발대회의 한 장면이 아니다. KBS 건강 프로그램 <비타민>에서 등장한 장면이다.

A tall beauty stands to the side; some short, tubby women stand on a step next to her to be compared. “The 3 Ugly Sisters” appears in the captions, with a shot of [the beauty’s?] fans laughing thrown in too. But this is not a scene from the Miss Korea contest. It’s from Vitamin, a health program on KBS.

미녀로 등장한 것은 대세로 떠오른 그룹 EXID의 하니이고, 못난이로 묶인 연예인들은 신봉선, 김숙, 김영희, 조혜련 등 개그우먼이다.

In this example of the trend, the girl-group member is Hani from EXID, and the four gagwomen are Shin Bong-seon, Kim-sook, Kim Yeong-hee, and Jo Hye-ryeon.

개그맨들의 단골 소재도 외모에 관한 것이다. 외모가 개성적이거나 뚱뚱한 개그맨은 자신의 얼굴이나 몸을 희화화해서 웃기기 일쑤다. 이런 현상은 예능에서 쉽게 찾아볼 수 있다. 예쁜 게스트들이 나오면 환호하고 상대적으로 외모가 떨어지는 개그맨들과 비교선상에 놓는다. 남자고 여자고 할 것 없이 같은 취급을 받는 것이다.

Comedians regularly use the subject of appearance for joke material. They will routinely make fun of their own bodies and faces if they are tubby, or in any way unique; examples are very easy to find in entertainment programs. So, if an attractive guest appears on their show, the guest will be cheered by the audience, and their bodies will be compared to the inferior ones of the comedians. This is done to both men and women.

<비타민>의 한 장면, 여성들의 키와 몸매가 비교당하는 장면이 공중파에서 버젓이 방영되고 있다 In a scene from Vitamin [at the start of the video], women’s heights and bodies are openly compared on air.

외모에 관한 차별은 우리 사회에 뿌리 깊게 박혀 있다. 예쁘면 좋고, 못생기면 나쁘다는 식의 고정관념은 단순히 성형외과 광고에만 있지 않다. 이미 2015년 현재 TV속에서 벌어지고 있는 현실이다.

Discriminating against people on the basis of looks is something deeply rooted in our society. The notion that if you’re attractive, you’re good, and if you’re ugly, you’re bad, is not something that you only find expressed in advertisements for cosmetic surgery clinics. Rather, it is the reality of our television screens in 2015.

작년 여름 <1박2일>에서도 난데없는 외모 차별 논란이 일었다. 예쁜 여성들과 데이트하는 ‘상’과는 반대로 개그우먼들과 데이트해야 하는 ‘벌’이 주어졌기 때문이다. 많은 사람들은 이 장면을 두고 갑론을박을 벌였다. ‘분명한 외모 차별’ ‘여성의 성 상품화’라는 이야기부터 ‘외모가 부족한 남성 패널들이 같은 취급을 당하는 것은 왜 묵과하느냐’ ‘이정도는 용인 될 수준’이라는 이야기까지 설전이 벌어졌지만 결국 명확한 결론은 나지 않았다.

Last summer, some controversy arose over the body discrimination displayed on the show 1 Night, 2 Days. In one episode [aired July 27th; a clip is below — James], dates with attractive women were offered as prizes [to the all male cast] while dates with female comedians were provided as punishments, leading to charges that this was a clear case of both body discrimination and sexual objectification of women, as well as a double-standard in that the less desirable male comedians on the show weren’t treated in the same manner as the female ones were. This provoked a lot of heated discussion, but no clear conclusions.

그러나 이런 논란이 일어나는 것 자체가 아직까지 한국에서 외모를 두고 비난할 수 있는 환경이 얼마나 자연스럽게 이루어지고 있는지를 보여준다. 예능 프로그램에서 이영자나 이국주는 단순히 ‘잘 먹는’ 캐릭터가 아니라 ‘뚱땡이’ ‘과체중’이라는 캐릭터로 각인되어 있고 상대적으로 외모가 부족한 여성들은 예쁜 연예인들과 비교 선상에 놓이고 무시당해도 당연하게 받아들여야 한다. 그렇지 못하면 쿨하지 못한 것이 되기 때문이다.

The fact that this incident occurred shows that openly criticizing people on the basis of appearance is seen as natural in Korea. On entertainment programs, the comedians Lee Young-ja and Lee Guk-ju are not recognized simply as ‘characters that eat well,’ but are instead known as ‘fatties’ and for being overweight. [Also,] ordinary women that appear on the shows are unfavorably compared to pretty entertainers, and are expected to just roll with the criticisms and disrespect, lest they be considered uncool [and putting a damper on things].

이 같은 현상은 공개 코미디에서 더욱 심화되어 나타난다. 개성적인 외모가 주를 이루는 개그맨들은 외모를 무기로 코미디를 하려는 경향이 강하다 보니 이런 패턴에서 벗어나기가 쉽지 않다. 특히 개성적인 외모와 과체중의 소유자라면 그런 경향은 반복된다.

This trend is most evident in comedy programs. On them, it is the norm for comedians to take advantage of some very obvious bodily feature or aspect of their appearance to make jokes, and it is not easy to break out of this trend.

현재 <개그콘서트>에서도 ‘크레이지 러브’나 ‘속상해’ 같은 코너는 외모의 비교라는 전제를 두고 진행된다. ‘크레이지 러브’는 이 공식을 살짝 비틀긴 했지만 여전히 웃음 포인트는 박지선이 김나희에게 못생겼다고 독설을 퍼붓는 역설적인 형식으로 표현된다. ‘속상해’는 이 희화화의 대상을 여성에서 여장을 한 남자 정태호로 바꾸기는 했지만 외모 때문에 무시 당하는 노처녀라는 설정은 이전과 크게 다르지 않다.

One example on TV screens at the moment is Gag Concert, which has two regular skits called ‘Crazy Love’ and ‘I’m Hurt’ that are both based on comparing people’s appearances [See an example from 0:53 in Part 1 below, which continues into Part 2 — James]. In the former, the humor revolves around Park Ji-song berating Kim Na-hee for her ugliness, despite Park actually being the uglier of the two; while in the latter it’s about Jeong Tae-ho dressing as an old maid, who’s always ignored by suitors because of her ugliness.

이제까지 <개그콘서트>에서는 이런 코미디가 반복돼왔다. 단순히 못생긴 여성이 무시당한다는 설정보다 더 심각한 문제는 외모가 부족한 여성들이 잘생긴 남성에게 집착하며 눈치도 없어 남성들에게 쉽게 여겨지고 비아냥을 당해도 좋은 여성으로 묘사된다는 점이다.

This comedic theme is normal for Gag Concert. But more serious than unattractive women getting ignored, is the notion that if they obsess over attractive men, they can be treated tactlessly and thought little of, as if their only value is their potential for sarcasm and ridicule.

이는 코미디의 소재 부족을 여실히 느끼게 한다. 현재 <개그콘서트>는 예전에 비해 히트작이 나오지 못하고 있다. 코미디의 패턴이 반복되고 있는 와중에 그들의 웃음 포인트가 단순히 외모나 분장을 활용하는 것 이상으로 흐르지 못하고 있기 때문이다. 통렬한 풍자나 패러디는 물 건너 간지 오래다. 대표 코미디 프로그램인 <개그콘서트>가 이 정도면 다른 프로그램들은 더욱 심각하다. 단순한 패턴도 지겨워지는데 외모적인 특징으로 하는 1차원적인 개그는 어느 순간 불편한 지경에까지 이르렀다. 그들의 개성적인 외모가 개그맨이는 새로운 길을 열어주었을지는 모르지만 그 외모로 발산하는 에너지가 긍정적이지 못하다면 그들의 코미디에 마음 놓고 웃을 수는 없는 노릇이다.

This dramatically shows how lacking comedy is these days. Compared to the past, Gag Concert no longer has any really popular skits. Its humor is repetitive, relying on little more than laughing at costumes or appearance. It no longer has any biting satire or parody. [What’s more,] if a representative comedy program like Gag Concert is like this, you can imagine what other comedy programs are like. Their simplistic patterns are getting tedious, and the gags poking fun at some special aspect of people’s appearance have become uncomfortable and embarrassing. While that focus can open the door for comedians, as an audience it feels insincere to still laugh at such things.

외모가 예쁘면 물론 좋다. 그러나 누구나 다 예쁘게 태어나지는 않는다. 외모의 다양성과 개성을 존중하지 않고 단순히 ‘이렇게 생겨야 한다’는 고정관념 속에서 사람들은 지쳐간다. ‘강남 미인도’ 같은 풍자가 나오는 것이 이런 분위기와 무관하지 않다. 그러나 여전히 대한민국은 지금 ‘외모’ 하나만으로 사람을 판단하는 경향이 강하다. 단순히 못생긴 얼굴을 무시하는 경향이 문제가 아니다. 예쁜 얼굴이라 할지라도 ‘자연미인’이냐는 시험대에 놓인다. 예쁜 것을 원하면서도 성형을 한 얼굴이나 화장으로 달라진 얼굴에 뭔가 하자가 있는 것처럼 묘사되는 것은 아이러니다.

[Of course,] it’s good to look pretty. But not everybody is born that way. There is a great deal of variety among people really, and we are exhausted by strong prejudices in Korea against those that don’t live up to the ideal, which is partially related to the ‘Gangnam beauty’ stereotype. [See here for a classic satire of that by SNL Korea— James]. This is not just a problem of people being ignored if they have an ugly face though, because even if you’re pretty, you’ll always be on the judgement table over whether you’re a ‘natural beauty’ or not—it is such an irony that, even while judging people based on their appearance, we’ll criticize them if they use cosmetic surgery or cosmetics to look prettier.

Gangnam Miindo(L-R: a ‘Gangnam beauty'; the original Miindo/Portrait of a Beauty by Sin Yun-bok (b. 1758); and a poster of the 2008 movie of the same name. Sources: Awesome Pick; 기냥 보는 재미…원미동통신; and 연예계 뒷담화)

단순히 못생긴 여성이나 남성에 대한 무시뿐 아니라 자연적으로 예쁘게 태어난 여성이나 남성에 대한 지나친 환호 역시 우리 사회가 외모 지상주의에 멍드는 현실을 여실히 나타내 준다.

The issue here is not just that ugly women and men are ignored, but that we so loudly cheer those of us that are naturally born attractive, showing how broken our present society is.

외모는 타고 난다. 성형한 외모가 아무 노력없이 얻은 것이라 비판할 수 있다면 자연미인 역시 그 외모를 가지려고 노력한 것은 아니다. ‘뚱땡이’ ‘못난이’ 등의 캐릭터가 버젓이 TV에서 통하고 그 외모로 사람을 평가하는 분위기는 김치와 한국인을 비하했다는 할리우드 영화 <버드맨>보다 훨씬 더 심각하게 생각해야 할 문제가 아닐까.

Our appearance is something that we’re born with. But if you criticize those who get cosmetic surgery to look attractive as doing it without any hardship or effort, [then you’re being hypocritical,] for natural Beauties didn’t expend any effort also. Surely the characters like ‘fatties’ and ‘uglies’ that appear on TV shows, and the atmosphere created by judging people so harshly on their appearance, are some things much more important to think about and criticize, than a character in a Hollywood movie saying that kimchi smells? (End.)

Ajummification

Woo Dong-gyoon’s article starts well with its raising of an important issue, but disappoints with its repetitive platitudes. Also, in a mental note not to repeat the EXID HANI Vitaminsame mistake myself, he probably makes few converts among Korean comedy fans with his sweeping denunciations of the entire genre. (Edit: In fairness, it’s more of an op-ed than an article really.)

His greatest and most surprising sins though, were ones of omission. First, what of the comedians jokingly imitating Hani’s (now famous) dance move?

Yes, in isolation it was all good fun, and yes, even Hani herself comes across as pretty goofy here, and shy and endearing on the episode overall. (The contrast with her on-stage presence is really quite remarkable.) In the context of body-shaming the comedians because they don’t match the very narrow height and weight range of typical girl-group members however, it adds insult to injury by suggesting that women of their ages and body-types couldn’t possibly be sexy either, the notion that they could get their groove on being self-evidently absurd.

If all this sounds familiar, that may be because I wrote about a very similar example nearly five years ago, in which Hyuna of 4Minute performed her own ‘sexy pelvic dance’ on the MBC variety show Quiz That Changes The World. Unfortunately, I’ve long since deleted the post sorry, and remaining copies of the full episode (#62, 10 July 2010) are behind paywalls, but I can tell you that after Hyuna performed:

First, then 51 year-old male singer KIm Heung-gook would get up and parody her:

Kim Heung-gook Quiz That Changes the World(Source: KBS Conting. Technically, this is from an earlier part of the show, but you get the idea.)

Then host Park Mi-sun (then 43), actress Im Ye-jin (50), and actress Lee Kyung-shil (44):

Copying Hyuna's Pelvic Dance(Update: I was able to find a low resolution copy of the episode here, from which I took the above screenshot.)

Then finally the 12 year-old daughter of retired footballer Yoo Sang-chul, the guest in the yellow t-shirt (the “13” in the video was likely her ‘Korean age’):

As you might expect, the episode quickly generated a lot of controversy for its sexualization of an adolescent girl. Alas, that ‘girl’ would actually be 18 year-old Hyuna, a bizarre blind spot that I went on to explore in my Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea series. More to the point here though, if viewers had few qualms about laughing to a 12 year-old thrusting her crotch in their faces, then presumably they’d have even less about the stereotypes of asexual, unattractive ajummas perpetuated by almost always only having 20-something women doing the sexy dances on such shows, every 30+ woman only the goofy parodies.

Yes, they’re not solely responsible for widespread perceptions that women lose their sex drives after having children, and consequently that its only fair that men should visit prostitutes to meet their needs. But they certainly don’t help either, and it’s surely very telling that I’m seeing the exact same, apparently still fucking hilarious joke 5 years later.

Rather than outrage though, I was strongly reminded of a (very) old skit by the UK comedian Ben Elton instead, in which he laments he can never be a great comedian because he lacks…

Big Tits

And it’s worth quoting him at length, because replace all the “big tits” below with “he/she’s fat/ugly/unsexy/too old” jokes, then I feel exactly the same way about the Korean comedy programs I’ve just described. From An Approach to Traditions of British Stand-up Comedy by Oliver John Double (PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1991, pp. 298-299):

In another of his routines, Elton makes a more political attack on clichéd comic style, satirizing the British tradition of smutty humor. A hypothetical situation comedy is described, which contains a number of covert references to breasts. Elton deconstructs these jokes, and adds ironic laughter:

I saw this sitcom, working title: Can You Show Me the Way to Oldham?. That was the first laugh: Oldham sounds a bit like “hold ’em” doesn’t it, very very funny, well done BBC, well worth sixty five quid a year license money I don’t think. I watched ’em all, Benny Hill…laugh? I nearly did, fantastic. And in this sitcom, there was Gloria, behind the bar, she’s a big woman, bring in the camera, steam up the lens, everybody loves it, big tits, best gag in the world, that’s the one for the British punter. In comes Tom, he’s an amicable northern stereotype, ‘e says, “By ‘eck, you don’t get many of those to the pound”, ‘e gets a laaauuuugh!! Nice one Tom, ‘cos she’s got big tits, oh ho ho ho ho! ‘E says, ‘By ‘eck, I wish I were her doctor’, yes Tom, second laugh, same pair o’ tits, I couldn’t believe it, it’s happening in front of me. ‘E says, “By ‘eck, no wonder they built the extension,” go on Tom, you’re winning, ‘e says, “By ‘eck, that’s the loveliest pair of…eyes I ever saw!”. Oh, amazing Tom, we thought he was gonna say “tits'” didn’t we? Faaantastic!

After ridiculing the simplicity of the joke-structures of breast innuendo humor, Elton then tackles the root of the problem. Jokes which make covert references to breasts rely on the idea that breasts are rude, naughty objects of desire, which cannot be overtly mentioned. Elton destroys this conception, by reincorporating the jokes from his hypothetical situation comedy in the context of a woman’s getting dressed in the morning. This robs the breasts of their naughty connotations, restoring their status as ordinary physiological features, and thus making the jokes laughably unfunny:

Come on girls, how do you get dressed in the morning, dear me ladies, you must die!! Bathroom mirror, up with the nightie, there’s my tits! Fuckin”ell, these are funny!! I’ll ‘ave a good laugh at my tits while I’m brushing my teeth! Ooh, I wish I were my doctor, ho ha ho ho ho!! I’m glad I built the extension, tee hee. These are the loveliest pair of… eyes I ever saw…! Fuck me, I nearly said I ‘ad big tits!!

Ben Elton, alas, is also a White Person of a Certain Education. Be that as it may, I remember laughing so hard I was crying as I first listened to him 20 years ago, and, once the tears dried, how surprising and refreshing it felt to hear comedy deconstructed so. It’s even more impressive when you learn that he first performed this particular skit way back in 1981, and that it was a deliberate reaction to the virulently racist, sexist, homophobic jokes that were standard for UK comedy in the 1970s (see 10:55-12:45, and 1:35:00 here).

Update — I was able to find a video of that first performance from 1981, but have to admit that it hasn’t aged well, partially because his delivery was much too fast (in fairness, he was only 22; he improved as he got older):

Elton’s skit clicked with me because in my experience, Korean comedy is very physical and slapstick, and seems to repeat many of the same childish jokes, as described above. Friends and colleagues I’ve discussed this with though, chosen because they’ve watched much more Korean comedy than me, say that my characterization is unfair, with sitcoms like High Kick, for instance, being just as sophisticated as the likes of Friends. And they’re probably right. Rather than discussing Korean comedy then, which I’ve already stated that I can’t and shouldn’t generalize, I think it’s more correct to say that, as a whole, Korean television is very comical, primarily because it has an unusually large number of variety programs—which include shows like Vitamin and Quiz That Changes The World:

“Much of Japanese television content, including even what is aired during [prime time], consists of ‘infotainment’ on subjects that range from science and diet to current affairs and travel. Rather than being broadcast as straightforward factual television, these shows are often bifurcated into segments that involve a panel of celebrities who discuss and interpret the informational content in an entertaining way. By cutting back and forth between factual and entertaining content, celebrities remain central to Japanese televisual discourse. As opposed to a continuum defined by fact and fiction, Japanese variety TV generally alternates between fact and celebrity.”

Patrick Galbriath and Jason Karlin (ed.s), “Introduction: The Mirror of Idols and Celebrity,” in Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, (2012, p. 17.)

Yes, that quote was actually about Japan. But if I was so desperate for sources that I still used it in my recent conference paper on the disproportionate role of celebrities in Korean popular culture, then I’m just going to go right ahead and extrapolate from it here too. Because seriously, it does sum up Korean television rather well, and serves to suggest that the compulsion for panels of celebrities to “interpret informational content in an entertaining way” is a strong one, for which crude body-shaming and physical, slapstick jokes would be easy methods to rely on. (Not to mention racist jokes.)

Julien and Ga-hee(Source: Think Different)

Moreover, whatever the explanation, I suspect that all these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. For instance, in the very next episode of Quiz That Changes the World, Ga-hee opined that because she was tall, she preferred to date men over 183cm, prompting her and fellow tall guest Juilen Kang to line up against much older and shorter hosts Kim Gu-ra and Jo Hyung-gi. (Never fear: afterwards, she did some completely spontaneous sexy dances to make them feel better.) Also, here’s three more examples from 2012; another from this February; another from March; and God knows how many more I’d find if I actually watched the damn things…

I Should Really Be Doing More Interviews by Now, Dammit…

But do such examples have “a direct pedagogic effect” on Korean girls and women watching though? Or on Korean boys, on Korean men, or on pretty much anyone that watches them for that matter? Or do they instead see them as merely harmless fun, are fully aware of their damaging messages about body-image and sexuality, and reject them completely? After all, the second main take-away point of Tomlinson’s book, and which should surely be a mantra for all cultural-studies students, is the question of “who speaks?”, the necessity of acknowledging and analyzing (supposed) victims’ negotiation of ‘texts’ they’re confronted with being Tomlinson’s very next point:

Any advance in [an approach to cultural imperialism based on texts rather than institutions] is dependent on an analysis of the relationship between text and audience. This is something that, as Boyd-Barrett points out, few critiques of cultural imperialism have addressed (pp. 44-45):

The orthodox view of audiences in the West is now one that stresses the social context in which communications are received, and which stresses the individual’s capacity for active selection and selective retention. This view does not seem to have carried over sufficiently to Third World contexts….Individual capacity for psychological compartmentalization and rationalization is underestimated to an extraordinary degree. Much more attention needs to be given to the processes by which individuals and groups interpret, translate, and transform their experiences of foreign culture to relate to more familiar experiences.

(J.O. Boyd-Barrett “Cultural Dependency and the Mass Media”, in M. Gurevitch et al. (eds) Culture, Society, and the Media, London, Methuen, (1982, p. 193.)

In light of that, the second failing of Woo Dong-gyoon’s article on Hani and the 3 ugly sisters is that he doesn’t attempt this, not interviewing a single person. By extension though, it is also my own for relying on such articles, rather than scouring Korean academic journals and/or conducting my own ethnographic research, and consequently failing the challenge I set myself in the introduction. But this is just a blog sorry, academic Korean is tough, and the approximately $10 a year in donations I receive these days don’t allow for much fieldwork. (Yes, it does feel a little awkward and distasteful to mention that; but doing so could hardly lead to less donations, right?!) Given those constraints, I would be very interested in and grateful for readers’ own interpretations of any of the examples mentioned here, of what they know of Koreans’ interpretations of them, and/or for links or any other sources with more.

Also, necessity being the mother of invention, for your help in establishing a second means to fulfill the challenge. Because if Korean popular culture is actually just bursting with positive representations of non-skinny, non-tall, and/or 30+ women looking and feeling sexy, and rare proud girl-groups with larger than average members don’t feel compelled to slim down…then sure, maybe it’s all just harmless fun. If not though, then maybe, just maybe, those fat jokes are indeed—yes—problematic.

To get the ball rolling, let me present all the examples of ‘plus-size’ Korean models I know:

Sexy is not about size(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 2(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 3(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 4(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 5(Source: All Tha+ Plus)

Did I get them all? Did I miss anyone? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THEY’RE ALL THE SAME WOMAN?!!

A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Korea’s Celebrity Obsession, Part 1: The numbers

Lee Hyori Soju Endorsement(Source: Jennifer Sundt, @Tomorrowland. Reproduced with permission)

You know there’s a lot of celebrities in Korean ads. It’s probably why you recognize so many of them, even if you hate K-pop and Korean dramas.

For something so integral to the Korean media-cultural landscape though, it’s surprising that no-one seems to have worked out just how many Korean ads do have celebrities. Months of googling and poring over the books, and still the most recent systematic surveys I’ve found were done over a decade ago.

Maybe there’s just too many to count these days?

But numbers matter. To me, because I’ve long contended that the financial imperatives of K-pop are driving its increasing sexualization and sexual objectification (although these are not necessarily negatives), with knock-on effects for the Korean media as a whole. Specifically, that because entertainment management companies make more money from groups’ endorsements than their music, that “noise marketing” and ever more shocking “sexy concepts” are required to make them stand out from other groups. But frankly, I don’t think I’ve done my due diligence in confirming all the assumptions contained in that, nor addressed all the questions they raise. For instance:

  • Do entertainment management companies indeed make more money from endorsements than music?
  • Over time, (how) has the number of celebrities in ads changed? Are K-pop stars making up more and more of them? If so, since when?
  • Does getting attention through sexy concepts invariably lead to more advertising contracts? Can it actually discourage them instead, companies concluding that overly sexualized groups don’t have the appropriate image for their family-friendly brands? Or are companies only concerned about securing the most popular, most talked-about K-pop stars, regardless of what consumers are actually saying about them?
  • If so, why? Why are K-pop stars (presumably) so effective at raising sales, even if they have no conceivable relationship to the product(s)?
  • Have all Korean ads become more sexualized and objectifying over time, or just theirs? Do sexy concepts on stage have any relationship to what we actually see in their ads?

All those questions and more will answered in this series, although, again frankly, some answers will take much longer than others (and from my perspective, I’d be much more interested in hearing your own!). Long story short, it looks like—dammit—I’m going to have to stop complaining and do a systematic survey myself, and how and when I do that will depend on if my proposed paper on precisely that gets accepted for a K-pop conference in December (I’ll keep you posted).

For now, in this post I’ll present a summary of what numbers I have found, for the sake of providing a quick and accessible resource for readers, which can be added to as more sources come up. Part 2 will be a similar, much shorter one on the economics of K-pop, and Parts 3, 4, and 5 (and so on) will discuss all the various explanations I’ve found of why Koreans are so enamored with celebrities. Which, as I’ll explain in those, turns out to be something that extends back decades, and is eerily similar to—nay, a virtual carbon copy of—what goes on in Japan.

Sorry that my first long post in a while ends up as nothing more than a glorified bibliography though, which definitely wasn’t my intention. But this is proving to be a mammoth project, much better suited to an ongoing series. And I hope that readers appreciate the need for the stats, and that some may find them useful.

B. Kliban, How to approach a book(B. Kliban. Source: Manger Paléo)

In order of when the surveys were conducted, or when the article was published:

— A study of advertisements from The Chosun-ilbo and The New York Times throughout 2000

— More Korean ads had people in them (47%) than US ones (31.9%)

— Korean ads had a greater number of celebrities (24.1%) than US ones (9.9%; both figures out of all ads surveyed)

— Of those ads with celebrities, US ones had more product-relevant celebrities (77.4%) than Korean ones did (38.3%).

  • Son, T. W. (2001). Success of advertising depends on the appropriateness of celebrity use.
    Advertising Information (Korean), November, 440-450.

— Paek, p. 136, explains of this: “Of the TV commercials screened, about 32% of the ads included celebrity endorsers, and 59% of primetime TV commercials used celebrities as endorsers.” But he doesn’t provide any more information sorry.

— A very comprehensive survey, of 7728 unduplicated television commercials in 25 countries between February 2001 and December 2003. The Korean ones examined were on MBC, between 18:30-21:30, May 18-19, 2001; and on MBC/SBS/KBS 2 between 18.00-24.00, on October 22-November 14, 2001.

— This graph of the results (p. 10) is very revealing (click to make it larger):

Commercials with celebrities, cross-country comparison, 2001-2003The author, Carolus Praet of the Otaru University of Commerce, seems like the expert on celebrity advertising in this part of the world (see here for a list of his publications). Once I get a hold of his more recent “Korea As Number One: A Multi-country Study of Celebrity Advertising Around the World,” in Proceedings of the Korean Advertising Society (KAS) Far East International Conference in Advertising, pp. 367-375 (2012), I’ll add it here.

— Study based on Korean and US television from 29 July to 2 August 2002

— 57% of Korean commercials featured a celebrity, compared to 9% of US ones

— Of those Korean celebrities, 70% were actors, actresses, and singers; only 47% of the US ones were

These results come via page 50 of Roald Maliangkay, “Catering for the Female Gaze: The Semiotics of Masculinity in Korean Advertising,” in Situations: Cultural Studies in the Asian Context, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2013/14, pp. 43-62.

  • Hong Tack-Kim, “Characteristics, History, and Forecasts of Creativity in Korea,” in Korean Advertising: Facts and Insights, 218-274 (Seoul, KOBACO, 2007). As I type this, the PDF download isn’t working; see here for a cached version instead. It says:

— From page 272-273: “Some 2,000 television commercials are produced in Korea every year.
Among those, commercials that use famous spokesmodels account for almost 70 percent. Most of these famous spokesmodels are celebrities.”

This reference comes via page 357 of Olga Federenko, “South Korean Advertising as Popular Culture,” in The Korean Popular Culture Reader, ed. by Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, Duke University Press 2014, pp. 341-362, who explains that “In the first decade of this century, 70-75% of Korean ads featured celebrities,” but adds in a footnote that—story of my life!—”Precise statistics are hard to find and most authors quote their estimates without providing sources.”

See also her 2012 PhD, “Tending to the ‘flower of capitalism:’ Consuming, producing and censoring advertising in South Korea of the ’00s” (download as a PDF here), in my view easily the best and most comprehensive guide to modern Korean advertising (albeit only just discovered while writing this sorry; I’ll return to it in a later post). She mentions endorsements and celebrities in passing throughout, but in footnote 22 of page 103 specifically she references Eom Nam-hyun, “FTC suggests guidelines to advertising in which celebrities appear,” Ad Starts 2009: 2009 Busan International Advertising Festival with Metro (English edition), page 10, as another example of one of those estimates. As its single, hard to find link makes me nervous, let me copy and paste it here just in case that is ever taken down:

Celebrity appearances in advertisements are a worldwide trend. It is said that 75% of Korean TV ads use celebrities as well as 70% of Japanese ads.

However, as for America, the percentage of commercials using celebrities or famous people in ads is only about 25%, which proves that in both Korea and Japan, using celebrities in ads is a general basis of the advertising creative strategy. Additionally, the celebrities’ high rate of TV commercial appearances leads into a prevailing trend in which the same celebrity shows up on several different commercials of different products.

For this, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) re-established new guidelines for putting famous people and celebrities into ads which draw our attention.

According to the guidelines, celebrities in ads have to candidly convey their opinion on the products and their thoughts about their experience of using the product.  Advertisers also must fully communicate with the celebrities about the ads. The interesting thing is that FTC asked the celebrities to be cautious about choosing ads in which they promote products.

It also stated that if the celebrities convey wrong information about products or alluring contents to the general public, the responsibility rests on them. Because of these guidelines, it is expected that celebrities will have difficulties when appearing in ads of a similar category of business and in ads of competing brands.  / Nam-Hyun Eom, Doctorate Course of Advertising, Texas University.

— “Among the 2,000 commercials produced in Korea last year, 65 percent featured celebrities. In the U.S., United Kingdom and France, the rate is less than 10 percent.”

Korea Celebrity Endorsements Hyun-bin HiteI think that’s where I got those figures for the France and the UK in one of my presentations. But, years after I first prepared the slide, now *cough* I’ve no idea where I got those figures for China and Brazil, or why I didn’t say the US was also 10%…

Either way, being unsourced, obviously I can no longer use it. Also, no offense to Hyun-bin above (he’s hardly the only offender), but I do remember why I chose his picture last month: his classic, terrible example of simply being a “beautiful person holding a bottle“…

— “In 2012, the Seoul government urged advertisers to “exercise restraint” when a study found that idols were used in 72% of ads for alcoholic drinks.”

Specifically, it said:

“서울시는 특히 주류 광고를 통해 자주 노출되는 연예인 22명 중 17명(72%ㆍ중복 제외)이 아이돌이었고, 노출빈도 1위는 탤런트 김수현, 2위 공유, 3위 피겨 선수 김연아 순으로, 이들을 모델로 한 주류 광고가 청소년에게 상당한 영향을 미치고 있다고 분석했다.”

“In particular, Seoul city discovered that out of entertainers that frequently appear in alcohol advertisements, 17 out of 22 (72%; those that appeared in more than one advertisement were excluded) were idols. The most frequently appearing were talents Kim Soo-hyeon and Gong Yoo, and athlete Kim Yuna; having these people in alcohol advertisements has a huge influence on teenagers.”

I’m not sure how “idols” were defined by the authors though (I’ll discuss definitions in a later post), and the article confusedly begins by saying that only ads on free to air TV were studied, but then discusses results from cable TV too. Also, they lumped radio and TV commercials and newspaper ads all together, which are very different mediums.

However unreliable though, I was surprised that over 9 in 10 of those alcohol ads were for beer. I would have assumed that at least half would have been for soju?

— Finally, some very recent, but again unsourced statistics from a marketing company: “The use of celebrities in advertising varies enormously around the world. It’s highest in Japan and Korea, where over 40 percent of TV ads feature celebrities, and lowest in Ukraine, Sweden, and Canada, where the proportion is under 5 percent. It is 10 percent in the U.S., and 12 percent in the UK.”

SISTAR, Bio Industy Expo Osong Korea 2014(Source: @John_F_Power. Used with permission.)

And on that note, thanks to those complete geeks amongst you still reading(!), and please feel free to ask me for PDFs of any of the sources I’ve mentioned (I have about half of them). And if any readers know of any more sources, by all means pass them on, with my heartfelt appreciation!

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

Let’s Talk About 섹스, 베이비~

Kim Soo-yong's 19 Show Banner(Source)

I showed my (Korean) wife this thread. Her response:

“They think Koreans can’t talk about gay rights? How insulting. We’re more advanced than you think. Gay issues are talked about all the time on talk shows and in the media. [Those commenters] clearly do not understand Korean culture.”

(Comment at Gusts of Popular Feeling)

I would have said more “ignorant” of Korean culture, but you get the idea. And, as if to prove her point, somehow the very next thing in my browser was the new Kim Soo-yong’s 19 [R18] Show, hosted by (obviously) comedian Kim Soo-Yong and announcer Kim Min-jin, and also starring psychologist Dr. Choi Chang-ho and comedian Yun Sok-ju.

Although this particular show may not have talked about LGBT issues (yet), it hit home because it provided a second healthy reminder that Koreans are frankly talking about sex at least, despite foreign stereotypes of their extreme sexual conservatism. Indeed, there’s actually been shows like this for many years now.

Here’s the introduction to it on the Kukitv station website:

Kim Soo-yong's 19 Show(Source)

My (very quick) translation:

Men and women,

Out of feelings they share when they love each other, there’s some things they don’t understand, or they do understand but feel strange about, or they thought they understood but can be easily mistaken about.

From the first date, skinship, and sex to proposing and marriage, we need to something to clear the wish-washy, hidden, unspoken things between men and women.

For the hidden sex stories in your heart, to the secret urges of your partners whom you thought you knew well…

And fortunately for something that plays at 1:10am on weeknights, all of the 5 shows so far — and shorter segments of shows — are available on Youtube here. Here’s the full first episode to get you going:

Alas, language-wise, it’s not for the faint-hearted: the Korean subtitles are minimal, and there’s unlikely to ever be English ones available. Can anyone please recommend any similar shows that are more accessible for non-Korean speakers, and/or — seeing as they inspired this post — pass on any of those that have dealt specifically with LGBT issues? Thanks!

(Update: I should also mention the Talk on Sex podcast that I’ve been following on and off for years, but again that’s entirely in Korean).

SNL코리아 Does Sexual Harassment Prevention Video

From back in June. Here’s the original US version, from April 2005:

This blog being what it is, my first thought was that many men people really do think that dealing with sexual harassment just requires a simple phone call to HR. So, however funny, ultimately these videos just perpetuate that dismissive stereotype.

But I already made that point last year, about a similar joke in a popular newspaper cartoon, so I don’t really need to repeat it here. Instead, it’s more interesting to compare the 2 versions of the video.

For instance, naturally the Korean version doesn’t begin with:

“…businesses are filled with working women, with corresponding breasts and vaginas. As a man, you want to have sex with ALL of them.”

And the US version, again just as naturally, doesn’t feature a scene in a women’s toilet.

What do you think of them? Any other (cultural) differences you can think of?

The Economist on K-Pop’s Role in Celebrity Endorsements

(Source)

Well, I covered it in passing in an opinion piece in The Korea Herald over a year ago, and many times on the blog (and on Busan Haps) since, but hey: I admit that The Economist is probably a more authoritative-sounding source. See here then, for a discussion of how the dynamics of the Korean digital music industry are forcing labels to financially rely on celebrity endorsements, and which is a big factor behind why 2 out of 3 Korean advertisements feature them, one of the highest rates in the world.

While frustratingly brief, it does have some money quotes:

…SM Entertainment’s boss complains that even 1m downloads cannot cover the cost of making a music video….

….SM Entertainment and other purveyors of K-pop cover this shortfall at home by having their stars hawk the latest phone, or appear on television variety shows. The biggest labels have become adept at squeezing cash out of their pop stars’ names, rather than their music. But only a handful of musicians are famous enough to benefit.

South Korea’s old business model, perfected by its carmakers, was to use a captive home market as a launch-pad from which to invade foreign shores. The country’s pop musicians have turned this model upside down: they have to export their tunes to make up for meagre pickings at home.

(Source)

See bloop69’s comment also, who contends that things are not as dire as they seem (for a similar discussion between abcfsk and myself, see here):

A huge chunk of the money is made in “collectable” CDs and DVDs, which can run north of $150 per shot and are constantly churned out. It’s not a case of INVADING other shores you clueless dolt. It’s a case of using Youtube and videos as LOSS LEADERS to capture a small number (tens to hundreds of thousands) of hardcore fans who spend $100s US EACH to support their “fandom”

You don’t even begin to perceive it but in fact the Koreans are using a very progressive model… similar to League of Legends or FarmVille to give customers a free “taste” of the music. Like Kpop free to play MMOs also rely heavily on “whales” and heavily invested customers to carry the rest of the customer base. It has nothing to do with “invading” other shores. This is the strategy they have been using in Korea and are using around the world.

Finally, a quick request: please ask your Korean partners, friends, colleagues and so on if they know what “celebrity endorsement” is in Korean. If they struggle to answer, as my wife did, then I think that will be testament to just how pervasive they are here! (Eventually, she came up with “유명인 보증”).