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!

Korean Sociological Image #69: Attitudes Towards Sexual Objectification, 2004 vs. 2012

Back in 2004, I would study Korean by translating articles about Lee Hyori’s breasts. Because that was much more interesting than reading about the joys of kimchi-making in Korean textbooks.

So, I hardly romanticize that era as more innocent and chaste than today’s. Nor, by highlighting just one complaint by one women’s group from then, about the use of women in bikinis in a tourist brochure, do I mean to imply that the Korean public was necessarily more prudish back in 2004, or that it’s necessarily more permissive today. After all, my Google News Alert for “성상품화” (sexual objectification) still provides me with fresh critiques of the recent Miss Korea Pageant every day. And who can forget the role “Bikini Girl” played in April’s congressional elections?

Having said that, things definitely have changed in 8 years:

  • Starting about 2006, ubiquitous soju ads started featuring women in revealing clothing after decades of almost exclusively using demure, virginal-looking models.
  • A little later, dominant media narratives about girl-groups, depicting middle-aged male fandom as platonic rather than sexual, provided a window for their objectification to flourish.
  • Men have also been increasingly objectified, particularly after the “chocolate abs” label was coined in 2009.
  • The number of smutty online-ads has surged, especially in the last year.
  • And last but not least, it’s difficult to find an advertisement for water-parks (also ubiquitous) that doesn’t feature a scantily-clad girl-group, with one — Ocean World — even inventing a group specifically for that purpose. (Boy bands and male models are used also, most notably by Caribbean Bay below, but my strong impression is that there’s much less of them than women)

In short, it is via the increasing objectification of (especially) girl-groups that you can see a clear McDonalidization of Korean cultural industries in recent years (see here, here, herehere, and here for more on the hows and whys). And, because of that shift, it’s difficult to imagine a complaint like this being given much attention in 2012:

전남관광 책자 두고 ‘여성상품화’ 논란 일어 / Controversy over Sexual Objectification of Women in Jeollanam-do Tourist Brochure

Oh My News, June 15 2004. By Gang Seong-gwan.

지난 6월초 전남도가 여름 관광객을 겨냥해 제작배포한 관광 홍보책자 ‘남도스케치’에 사용된 비키니 차림의 여성사진이 논란이다. 광주여성민우회는 14일 성명을 통해 “남도스케치 배포를 즉각 중단하라”고 요구하고 나섰다.

Controversy has arisen over the use of women in bikinis in the June edition of tourist brochure Namdo Sketch, a widely-distributed brochure aimed at summer tourists . In an announcement on the 14th, the Gwangju branch of Womenlink demanded that it stopped being distributed immediately.

전 남도는 ‘남도스케치’를 제작하면서 책 표지, ‘전남이 추천하는 여름 여행지 BEST’ 중 완도 명사십리 해수욕장 등 7곳을 소개하면서 비키니를 입은 여성의 사진 10여장을 게재했다. 이 책자는 겉표지까지 총 85페이지로 구성됐으며 비키니 사진은 책자 앞 부분에 게재했다. 전남도는 제작된 책자 2만여부를 터미널 등 공공장소와 전남도내 기초단체 등지에 배포를 마친 상태이며 조만간 2쇄에 들어간다는 계획이다.

이에 대해 광주여성민우회는 “여성을 성 상품화했다”면서 전남도의 공개사과는 물론 책자 배포 중단을 요구하고 나섰다.

With a cover title of “Best Recommended Tourist Sightseeing Areas in Jeollanam-do” [James - I can't see that title myself, but unfortunately that opening photo was very small], Namdo Sketch introduces 7 tourist sights, including Wando and Myeongsashibri Beach, and uses a total of 10 pictures of women in bikinis on the front cover and in the first part of the brochure, out of 85 pages. By the end of its first printing, the Jeollanam-do Provincial Government had distributed roughly 20,000 copies to transport terminals, public places, and civic groups, and planned to make a second printing.

Gwangju Womenlink said that the brochure sexually objectified women, and demanded a public apology as a matter of course, as well as a halt on further distribution.

“여성 성 상품화 한 것, 배포 중단”…”문제제기 이해하지만, 시원한 여름을…” / “This is the sexual objectification of women, distribution must stop”…”We understand, but hey: this is summer…”

광주여성민우회는 “전남 관광홍보는 여성의 비키니만이 유일한 대안인가”라며 “공공기관에서 나온 책자인가 할 정도로 낯뜨거운 장면이 많이 실려 있어 당혹스러움과 황당함을 느낀다”고 밝혔다.

Gwangju Womenlink argued that “Are women in bikinis the only option for a tourist brochure?”, and said “We are embarrassed and perplexed that a public institution would go so far as to use such crude [James - I think this is a better translation of "낯뜨겁다" than "obscene" or "rude"] images in a tourist brochure.” (source, right)

이어 “지역에 관광객을 유치하기 위해 명소를 소개하는 것은 좋지만 관광지역의 구체적인 정보와 특색 있는 프로그램의 홍보 대신 여성의 비키니 복장을 내세워 시선을 끌어보고자 하는 공무원의 얄팍한 속셈은 용납될 수 없는 행위”라고 비판했다.

Continuing: “It is good that tourists are being attracted to this area by having places of interest introduced to them. But instead of providing concrete information and unique tourist programs, the PR simply consists of pictures of women in bikinis, designed to attract one’s attention. This is both shallow and misguided of Jeollanam-do officials, and can’t be forgiven.”

또 여성민우회는 “지역의 명소를 알려내기 위한 기본 조건은 다른 지역과 차별되는 테마를 만들어 남도만의 색다른 맛을 느끼게 하는 것이다”면서 “노력해야 할 것은 따로 있는데 엉뚱한 것으로 메꾸려는 것은 직무유기”라고 주장했다.

여성민우회는 “여성의 성 상품화를 부추기는 공공기관의 홍보책자는 결코 용납될 수 없다”면서 ‘남도스케치’의 배포중지를 요구했다.

Also, Womenlink emphasized that “What should have been done to inform tourists about places of interest was showing them how different they were to other ares and what unusual tastes, experiences, and feelings Jeollanam-do has to offer. Instead of making an effort and doing their duty though, officials offered this rubbish.”

It added that “Promoting the sexual objectification of women is never acceptable”, and so demanded an immediate halt to the distribution of the brochure.

(Sources: left, right)

이에 대해 전남도청 한 공무원은 “문제제기는 이해한다”면서도 “여성의 사진을 표지에 넣는다고 해서 이 책자가 눈길을 끌고 있는 것은 아닌 것 같다”고 말했다.

그 러나 또 다른 공무원은 “여성의 비키니 사진을 두고 상품화까지 이야기하는 것은 지나친 것 아니냐”며 “오히려 여성단체들이 그렇게 주장하면서 폄하시킨 것은 아닌지 모르겠다. 물론 어느 정도는 이해할 수 있지만 이런 사진을 많이 사용한 것도 아니지 않느냐”고 주장했다.

In response, a Jeollanam-do official said ” We understand the concerns, but it’s not because of the women in bikinis on the cover that people are drawn to the brochure.” Another emphasized that “It’s a complete exaggeration to claim that just pictures of women in bikinis is objectification. Rather, it’s women’s groups that are degrading women by doing so. And it’s not like we used many in the brochure.”

관광책자 제작 담당부서인 전남도청 관광진흥과 이명흠 과장도 “여성단체의 지적사항에 대해서 전혀 모르는 바는 아니다”면서도 “행정관청에서 발행한 책자여서 그럴텐데 여름에 맞춰서 시원한 해수욕장과 수영복을 입은 모습의 여성을 모델로 했을 뿐이다”고 말했다.

이어 이 과장은 “행정기관이 발행했다는 느낌이 들면 잘 보지 않는다. (관광객들의) 눈길을 끌 수도 있다는 생각에서 진행한 공격적인 마케팅의 일환이다”며 “너무 한쪽으로만 생각하지 말고 발상을 바꿨으면 좋겠다”고 주장했다.

(Source: Metro Seoul, 31 May 2012, p.49)

Lee Myung-hum, the head of the Tourism Promotion Office of Jeollanam-do Provincial Government that produced the brochure, said “It’s not like I don’t understand women’s groups concerns. But only swimsuits are appropriate for female models promoting cool swimming areas in the summer.” He added that “No-one ever pays attention to anything produced by a council tourism promotion office. The images were simply part of an aggressive marketing technique designed to get the attention of tourists, and shouldn’t be overanalyzed.”

한편 ‘남도스케치’ 표지모델은 전남도청 여성 공무원 중 희망자들이 참여하기도 했으며, 지난해에도 전남도는 여름 관광홍보 책자를 제작하면서 표지 등에 비키니을 입은 여성 사진을 게재한 바 있다.

The models used in the brochure included Jeollnam-do female officials [James — it says only the cover, but there were only 2 women on that], and a similar brochure was produced the previous year (end).

James — While the Jeollanam-do officials didn’t sound too sympathetic in that June 2004 article, another from the next month points out that in the second printing the bikini models were removed from the cover and 2 more pages, although some did still remain. It’s from that article that the before and after covers came from.

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

The Korean Media’s War on Women (and Men)

Via 10 Confessions, here is a short but quite rare “expo on the focus of the mass media and internet news sites on superficial looks of the entertainers in the industry, and how this trend needs to change.” Sorry that it’s all in Korean, but 10 Confessions provides a good (English) description of it, and it’s the least I can do to pass on the videos themselves (especially after spending half an hour looking for them!).

To see the segment, jump ahead to 2:30 in the first video. It lasts until 4:10 in the second.