Presentation, Yonsei University, Friday 12th: “Give it to Me? The Impact of K-Pop’s Sexualization on Korean Advertising”

Sistar Rice Ad(Source: *cough* Ilbe)

The reason I’ve been soooo busy in recent weeks, and unable to properly reply to all your comments and tweets sorry. But, I’m happy to finally announce I’ll be presenting in the 2014 Situations International Conference, “Culture and Commerce in the Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Asian Music Industries” this Friday at 3pm, and I’d be delighted if any readers could make it.

If you can’t make Friday though, never fear, for there’s a host of much more interesting presentations than mine on Saturday, and I’m happy to meet up after the conference on Sunday too. Please just say hi there, or give me a buzz here or on Facebook or Twitter.

As for my topic, consider it a direct extension of this post. I look forward to your questions and comments!

Quick Hit: Harassment Framed as Affection

Dummy Harassment(Dummy Harassment by gaelx; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Via The Korea Herald:

Former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae is to be questioned over allegations of molesting a golf caddie, police said Saturday…

…Park admitted that there had been some physical contact, but maintained that he did not “cross a line.” He told a local daily that he poked the woman’s breasts with a finger once, adding that it was an act of adoration because she “felt like his granddaughter.” (My emphasis)

Read the link for more details, or The Korea Times. I mention it because a friend pointed out that they’ve heard that excuse on more than a few occasions in Korea, which rang a definite bell. Sure enough, a few years ago I translated an article by Ilda Women’s Journal writer Park Hee-jeong, who said exactly that in relation to the following commercial back in 2005:

“I touched her because she’s like my daughter”

여성들이 이 광고를 보면서 느끼는 불편함의 한 켠은 ‘몸을 만지는’ 행위에 있다. 우리 사회에서는 가족이라든가 친하다는 이유로 타인의 몸에 손을 대는 행위가 쉽게 용납이 되는 경향이 있다. 나이 지긋한 분이 성희롱 가해자로 지목되면 “딸 같아서 만진 건데 잘못이냐?”는 변명(?)이 나오는 것도 그런 이유다…

One reason women feel uncomfortable watching this ad is because of the act of the daughter’s body being touched. That is because our society approves of and/or grants permission to men touching them in a friendly manner, like they would their own family members. Indeed, when an older male is accused of sexual harassment, often he fastens on to the excuse that “Can’t I affectionately touch someone like my own daughter?”…

…“딸 같아서 만진다”는 말이 통용되는 사회에서 삼성생명의 광고는 많은 여성들에게 불편한 기억을 환기시킨다. 광고 속에서는 의도된 스킨십이 아니었지만, 불편해하는 딸의 모습을 아름답게 바라보는 시점 자체가 이미 여성들을 불편하게 만들고 있는 것이다.

…“I just touched her like I would my daughter” is an excuse used so much in Korean society, that this Samsung Life Insurance commercial evokes many uncomfortable memories in women. In particular, having something that would in reality be so uncomfortable for the daughter, to be just cutely dismissed instead, already makes women feel uncomfortable. Even though the father’s intention was not skinship. (My emphasis)

See my 2011 post for the full article and translation. Like I argued there, the prevalence of such attitudes in 2005 still goes a long way towards explaining the rise of “ajosshi-” or “uncle-fandom” just a few years later. Or, more specifically, why the media so quickly framed and celebrated middle-aged men’s interest in (then) underage female-performers as purely paternal or avuncular, despite the girls’ increasingly sexualized performances.

But that’s a very familiar topic with readers, so I’ll wisely stop there, and later this month I’ll make sure to write a follow-up post on the important challenges to those media narratives that have arisen since (suggestions as to what to add would be welcome). Also, boys’ performances have likewise become problematic, so it’ll be interesting to explore similar permissive media narratives about “ajumma-fandom“—or curious lack thereof.

Until then, what do you think? Do you feel older Korean men still have a palpable sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, however much it is rationalized as affection? Or is Park Hee-tae’s case an unfortunate exception?

Update: By coincidence, this issue has just been raised in a posting at Reddit’s TwoXChromosomes. An excerpt:

But [my Korean father] would act strangely at times. He commented in public and in private how large my breasts were, and how I could have grown up without him there, how the last time he’d seen me I was so small. He would often say teasingly that he wanted to feel my boobs and he would constantly try but I would be very self conscious and embarrassed and turn away.

I asked him to please stop and get angry. I even cried once because he was making me feel bad and humiliated. He also kept trying to sneak in when I was bathing and kept implying that he wanted to bathe me like when I was young. He would often try to see me when I was changing. I felt very conflicted and always refused. I felt revolted by the whole thing.

Anyway, I admitted to my grandmother that I had felt strange, and kind of traumatized by this behavior. She immediately responded with, “You’re wrong about this. This is normal behavior in South Korea, and you’re just seeing this in the wrong light because you’re American. Your father has a temper problem, but he’s a pure person. I’m one hundred percent sure that he just was being a loving father.”

Read the rest there, as well as the numerous comments. Again, there’s quite a debate as to how common such excuses and rationalizations are in Korea (or not).

Update 2: Clearing out my archives, I came across the following case from October 2007:

An appellate court gave the “not guilty” verdict to a father who had touched his 11-year-old stepdaughter’s breasts, saying it was a “sign of affection.”

Kim, 43, was married in 1996. He became the stepfather of his wife’s daughter, whom he treated as his own child. He had often showed her affection through touching, which the girl did not used to consider as unpleasant…

…However, the Seoul High Court only acknowledged the domestic abuse [of his wife]. He was given a two-year suspended jail term and 160 hours of community service. It ruled: “Kim’s act was a rather excessive sign of affection spurred by alcohol.”

The court made this decision based on the fact that the girl had not reached puberty yet and previously had not felt uncomfortable about such acts as sleeping next to her and touching her hips.

Read the full article at the Korea Times or Waygook.

When K-pop Gets Under Your Skin…

city of girls' generation gangnam(Source)

My latest piece for Busan Haps, on the contributions that K-pop has made to cosmetic surgery medical tourism.

I chose the topic because I’d always assumed that K-pop was easily Korea’s #1 cultural export. And, building on from that, that surely most medical tourists to Korea would be coming for cosmetic surgery. After all, what would this blog be without all the posts on dieting and body-image narratives in K-pop songs? On stars’ cosmetic, beauty, and dieting-related endorsements? Or, of course, on the ideals set by their bodies themselves?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First, because K-pop only accounted for just five per cent of the revenues from cultural content exports in 2013, as demonstrated in this Arirang news report from January. That worked out to $255 million, out of a total of $5.1 billion.

Korean Content Industry Exports for 2013(Source)

Next, because cosmetic surgery tourists only comprised seven point six percent of medical tourists in 2012. Yes, really.

When I wrote the article, I mistook that for the 2013 percentage, which isn’t available yet. But, assuming it remained the same (although the trend is for rapid growth), that would have resulted in a paltry $7.6 million in revenues in the January to November 2013 period, based on these figures that incorporate revenues lost from Korea’s surprisingly high numbers of outgoing medical tourists (unlike the grossly inflated KTO figures).

No wonder “a renowned business professor” recently dismissed the economic benefits of K-pop.

Frankly, another reason I chose this topic was because I expected I’d quickly prove him wrong. Instead, I soon found myself chagrined, forced to concede that perhaps he had a point.

But the long-term benefits? He’s dead wrong about those. To find out why, please see the article!

Korean Sociological Image #77: Sexualized Girl-Group Performances at Schools

Back in August, I wrote the following about girl-group performances for the Korean military:

With 300-350,000 new conscripts annually, one of the longest conscription periods in the world, and a grisly — but improving — record of bullying and abysmal living conditions, keeping the troops entertained can safely be assumed to have long been a big concern of the South Korean military. Accordingly, televised visits by girl-groups and entertainers have become a recognizable part of Korean popular culture, although note that it was originally US solidiers that they would perform for, as explained in the highly recommended read Koreans Performing for Foreign Troops: The Occidentalism of the C.P.C. and K.P.K. by Roald Maliangkay.

Given that context, then it’s natural that girl-groups — and boy-bands — would also come to regularly perform for schools too, albeit more obviously as a means of self-promotion than as a patriotic service. However, as a performance the next month by dance group Waveya (웨이브야) demonstrated, and today’s commentary on it at BuzzFeed highlights, perhaps they don’t always tone down their choreography for their teenage audiences.

Here’s a just taste of what middle and high-school students (aged 13-18) at the September 2012 Gonggam (Sympathy) Concert witnessed, hosted by the Gangwon Provincial Office of Education:

Waveya Boys' School

Naturally, I don’t have anything against Waveya themselves, and of course sexualized performances are just fine with adult audiences. Also, what boy-band or girl-group hasn’t overstepped the line on occasion, whether by accident or as a deliberate promotion tool?

Nevertheless, this particular performance seems not so much an imitation of some of the more risqué K-pop songs, as a deliberate mash-up of their most provocative choreography. Add that Waveya are a self-styled “sexy dance group,” and include pictures of themselves in skimpy schoolgirl outfits on their homepage, then it’s strange — and very telling — that they so regularly get invited to perform for children:

Should there be restrictions on explicit school performances? Whatever the girl-group or boy-band?

One argument against that is that teenagers can readily — and do — see music videos’ original sexualized choreography on their smartphones (let alone pornography), in which case toning things down would be both naive and pointless. And perhaps there’s some merit to that.

On the other hand, we are talking about adult women spreading their legs just 3 meters in front of teenage boys’ faces, a much more visceral experience than images or video can provide (sure enough, there were some complaints about the September performance). Also, regardless of whether you feel Waveya are being sexually objectified or not, or if that’s even a negative, if performances like this prove to be routine at Korean schools then they’d surely be a powerful socialization agent. Especially for what’s been described as the saturation of costumed, frequently scantily-clad female ‘narrator models‘ and ‘doumi‘ in daily life here.

That’s no exaggeration. But it’s also something very difficult to appreciate until you’ve seen it for yourself. To remedy both, please go directly to the source, a 2005 piece from Scribblings of the Metropolitician (my emphasis):

Doumi Helper Korea….Some parts of this topic have been covered in previous posts about the social status of women the commodification of their bodies, but I just wanted to point out a few things here visually. When I talk about the 도우미 (doumi – “assistants” who can be found in everything from grocery stores to ones singing rooms), people often ask me why they bother me so much. To reiterate a point I made in a previous post, it’s the saturation of the doumi into the realm of the everyday and mundane that is so insulting – to both the customers and the workers themselves (source, above).

Of course, I am making a value judgement and perhaps seem like I am engaging in a condescending discourse about these women. But I am not irritated because I “feel sorry” for them or I am fighting for some notion of their human rights; I simply think that the simple equation of baring flesh for the sake of selling toothpaste and razor blades just cheapens the whole enterprise for everyone. When I say this, I acknowledge that “sex sells” and that hot models are the standard eye candy of choice for trade, car, and electronics shows the world over. Still, hiring a model who is a larger-than-life figure showcasing a larger-than-life product or prototype somehow seems appropriate, whereas watching dozens of women who look like my cousin or niece hawking the most everyday and mundane of objects just seems ineffective and demeaning….

Narrator Models(Source)

What do you think? About anything mentioned in today’s post?

But whatever your opinion, please note that the boys in the audience don’t deserve the mockery they’ve been receiving on BuzzFeed and YouTube (remember: we were all teenagers once!), so please don’t repeat it. Also, because it is just a handful of performances by a dance group being discussed here, we should be wary of overgeneralizing to more mainstream music groups based only on their example. So, I’d really appreciate it if readers — especially public school teachers — could confirm how common or exceptional such full-on performances really are.

Update: Based on all your comments, both below (thanks!) and in the wider blogosphere, such sexualized performances are actually quite common in Korean schools (although Waveya’s is still more explicit than most). Here’s some representative commentary, by Party in the R.O.K:

…in every school I’ve worked at, sexy dance moves are totally acceptable in the school environment. Teachers have let the kids watch music videos before or after class that have made me blush, but no one else seems affected by the raunchiness. Also, when I taught at middle school, they would have joint assemblies with the high school girls and often do dance performances. My middle school girls would wear high heels and short skirts (nothing out of normal but still a little risque for school) but one time the high school girls did an After School-inspired dance that involved wearing almost invisible short shorts and high heels and straddling flags and getting low and practically twerking onstage… in front of an audience of parents and siblings and other teachers… while lots of male parents and teachers took videos with their phones… no one acted like it was weird at all. I felt like I was breaking a law just watching it! That is one thing about teaching in Korea that I will never be used to.

See my Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea series below also (especially Part 2), which discusses those issues in greater depth:

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)

Quick Hit: CNN on Saseng Fans

(Source)

A good introduction to saseng (사생) fans by Collette Bennett at CNN, and I’m not just saying that because I get a mention towards the end(!). But if anyone’s confused by the connections I make to the Korean advertising industry and celebrity endorsements though, please see here for links to many posts and articles I’ve written about the subject.

Also, for related reading, see here for a discussion of the article at a JYJ fansite (they’re mentioned in the article), Asian Junkie for “Korean Executive Says K-Pop Fans Are A Cult + The Fandom Scares An American Journalist,” and XX Factor for “Your Pop-Culture Obsession Is Not a Sickness.”

p.s. Apologies to Colette if it’s my fault (I made the same mistake in my email), but it’s sa (“a” as in “hat”) seng (“e” as in “pet”), not “saesang” (pronounced “say-seng”) as reported in the article. Or is that some Seoul variation that I’m unaware 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”).

Essential Reading: “Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination”

(Sources — left: unknown; right)

See The Asia-Pacific Journal for the article. Covering many of the themes discussed on the blog, and much more besides, expect to see me linking to it for many years to come!