“Cleavage out, Legs in” — The Key to Understanding Ajosshi Fandom?

(“Here is the next Samsung: fast growing Korean companies that you’d better know about”; Source)

Stop obsessing with sex (Fernando)

If I went to New York and started pointing out how many skyscrapers there were, would you suggest that it was *me* that had the obsession with noticing skyscrapers, or New York for building them all? (Norman Lewis; source)

And indeed if you went to Seoul instead, it’d be difficult not to notice all the exposed women’s legs. Even — or perhaps especially — in the winter.

It wasn’t until I saw this November 2010 video from the Singaporean RazorTV though, that I realized the fashion might not be so common there yet. Likewise, it was just starting in Thailand, where authorities were warning against the danger of dengue fever from the ensuing extra mosquito bites:

Unfortunately, only the narrator speaks English, while the hosts and interviewees chat away in Chinese (is that normal for Singaporean TV?), and no subtitles are available. However, I was able to find this related article from parent organization The Straits Times, and it had an intriguing conclusion:

Entertainment journalist Tan Chew Yen from the Chinese Central Integrated Newsroom reasoned that showing off legs allows these girl groups to maintain a healthier but nonetheless sexy image.

It invites less controversy and criticism from concerned citizens as compared to showing cleavage, for example, due to their young fan-base.

I beg to differ on the youth of their fan-bases these days. But still, those few words resonated on so many levels, potentially speaking volumes about how K-pop has developed over the last 5 years.

First, because it’s certainly true that Koreans regard legs as a much less sexual body part than cleavage. While that distinction is easy to overstate though, and indeed is eroding precisely because so many Korean girl-groups are wearing hot-pants and mini-skirts these days, it’s confirmed by numerous expat women that have had to adjust to it (and of course heterosexual men like myself have noticed it too!).

(Source)

Next, because choreography, outfits, and music videos tailored for that distinction would be equally applicable to the more conservative — but still lucrative and influential — Chinese market, where for a long time Korean groups were considered much “safer” than their Japanese and Western counterparts:

In 2003, the Korean National Tourism Office [a major investor in the Korean wave] conducted a Hanliu tourism survey in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong exploring attitudes to Korean culture, publishing the results online…

….It compared the impact of Korean culture with that of four “competitor” countries (the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), and in the process revealed much about Korea’s own political and nationalist concerns, particularly in relation to Japan and America. Six of the eleven options for respondents to the category “reasons I like Korean culture” reflect this preoccupation: “less sexual than Japanese culture,” “less sexual than American culture,” “less violent than Japanese popular culture,” “less violent than American popular culture,” “decreased interest in American culture,” and “decreased interest in Japanese culture.” One other echoes Straubhaar’s notion of cultural proximity: “similar in culture.” Certainly, Korea’s own music media censorship laws (which even in 1997 prohibited the displaying of body piercings, navels, tattoos, “outfits which might harm the sound emotional development of youth,” and banned violent or political lyrics), meant that Chinese TV stations could buy in Korean music videos and music TV shows knowing that they were unlikely to upset local censors. However, these questions also reflected a perception that Korea acts as a defender against excessive Westernization and as a guardian of Confucian values within East Asia. (Rowan Pease, 2009)

Of course, this assumes that the Chinese make the same distinction between legs and cleavage. But I’d wager they do — after all, Park Jin-young (JYP; 박진영) of JYP Entertainment especially has always had a firm eye on the Chinese market, with two members of Miss A (미쓰에이) being Chinese, and even the “A” in the name meaning “Asia”. And the group’s logo speaks for itself:

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Finally, likewise hot-pants would be a perfect fit with “Ajosshi” or “Samchon” fandom. Here’s a quick definition of that for new readers:

…what is extraordinary in girl idols’ fandom is that a large number of male fans in their 30s and 40s have constructed the unprecedented scale and mode of fandom called Samchon-fans, or uncle-fans. As Samchon in Korean refers to one’s parent’s brother, this name implies the middle-aged men’s care for their young nieces. Once this familial setting is built up, a relationship between male viewers or self-claimed Samchon fans is restructured in the complicit relationship between uncle and little nieces. Accordingly, the male’s gaze at young female bodies is legitimized and normalized as the voluntary support and pure love of uncles for their nieces. Under the identity of uncle, they can deny the sexual aspect of what they see and insist on appreciating merely the pure surface of pretty children. This double male psychology of interwoven denial and justification is pervasive in the constitution of the girl idols’ fandom. Thus, with the pretentious reformulation of the male gaze into an uncle’s familial support, the male consumption of the girl bodies becomes relieved of the predictable blame for pedophiliac abnormality. (Yeran Kim, 2011; see sources below)

Previously, most discussions about Samchon fandom have focused on pointing out its existence and/or its effects, both of which you can read about in depth here and here. But in hindsight, not enough attention has been give to the process of how it came about, which this cleavage/legs distinction now potentially fills. For if entertainment companies subscribed to it, having their girl-groups members flaunting their legs while covering up their cleavage, then it’s easy to see why this would provide plausible deniability for all involved.

(“Because of Sistar uncles [feel like] teenagers again!!”; Source)

Not that being a middle-aged male fan of a girl-group is wrong per se of course. But for a number of years the Korean media would indeed promote the deceitful “innocent until proven sexual” byline of Samchon fandom (and to a large extent still does — see here and here), providing a window for entertainment companies to sex up performances to their hearts’ content.

Was this the result of a deliberate, years-long strategy by entertainment companies? That’s unlikely: not only did Girls’ Generation at least actually wear “skinny jeans” well before hot-pants for instance (I believe they only started doing so with Tell Me Your Wish in July 2009), but it’s difficult to speak of grand plans by JYP, for instance, when he’s well known for his constant experimentation with groups, trying everything until one concept finally succeeds.

In short, I think entertainment companies lucked out. But like the video says, K-pop has been about legs, legs, and legs ever since they did, and with a palpable influence on Korean fashions. Moreover, whether they’re on the screen or on the streets, people will still make much the same claims about them:

…people maintain [Girls’ Generation are] pure, clean, and cute, and everyone tries to erase and deny the blatant fact of their sexualization in that curiously Korean way that college freshman can click-clack to class in 5-inch hooker heels and a leather skirt and when asked if that might not to be too risque for class, people get defensive and indignant and call the gazer the pervert, while letting the main parlayer in and of the male gaze (the women totally subjecting herself to it) off the hook. (Michael Hurt; source)

Granted, mini-skirts especially are just as — if not more — popular in Japan, so it’s entirely possible that the Korean trend actually comes from Japan, and predates the girl-group boom of the late-2000s. Yet I don’t personally recall seeing quite so many legs on the streets of Busan (much warmer than Seoul!) until just a few years ago, with the exception of World Cup summers (when standards are relaxed). And while I’m usually loathe to ascribe top-down origins to fashion trends, I’d be lying if I said Koreans weren’t notoriously conformist in this regard (as this 2004 Prugio commercial with Kim Nam-ju used to be a good illustration of, before the video was taken down!):

And on that note, please let me know what you think, and by all means poke holes in it — my connection between girl-groups only showing their legs and the rise of Samchon Fandom is just the germ of an idea at the moment, which now needs fleshing out (not unlike many of the legs themselves). But if I do say so myself, it’s one of the biggest epiphanies about K-pop I’ve had in a while!

Update 1 — See here, here, and here for the next 3 parts of the RazorTV video, about which idol has the best legs, problems with underage performers, and the increasing objectification of male idols respectively. Parts 2 & 3 also have more English

Update 2 — Let me pass on Esther Hoeve’s illuminating comment from Facebook:

The difference in what constitutes as ‘sexy’ bodyparts is an interesting one. Back home (western Europe) I’m much quicker to reveal cleavage or shoulders, but I spent half a year in Thailand and had to adjust to wearing shorts, but tops with sleeves. The shorter my skirt or shorts, the longer my sleeves would be. I actually grew self conscious of how much upper body I was showing, but usually have the same feeling concerning my lower body here in Europe. It completely changes your perspective on what’s considering ‘revealing’.

Like I say there, this reminded me of some of my female students back in 2000 complaining of middle-aged and old women telling them to cover up their bare arms. This was in Jinju/진주 though, a university town but still quite small and conservative, so I don’t know if their counterparts in larger cities had the same problems.

Sources

- Yeran Kim (2011): Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies, Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 333-345.

- Rowan Pease (2009): Korean Popular Music in China: Nationalism, Authenticity, and Gender, in Chris Berry, Nicola Liscutin, and Jonathan D. Mackintosh ed.s, Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes, 151-167.

(Hat tip to dogdyedblack)

Korean Boys: “Wearing Hot Pants Says Something About You”

(Source)

A much more serious topic than it may sound, this article from Ilda Women’s Journal will definitely give you a renewed appreciation for the goals of the Slutwalk (잡년행진) movement.

Once it does though, unfortunately you’ll probably find yourself pretty frustrated with it too. For the author only really gives platitudes about the need for change, rather than provide any details about who those boys were, what they said exactly, and the sex-education program her and her colleagues were involved in.

But still, she’s right to be concerned about the messages children are receiving about sexuality when any elementary school boys both approve of and chastise attractive women for wearing revealing clothes. Let alone disallow “ugly” ones from wearing them:

(Source)

“못생긴 애들 핫팬츠 입지 말라”는 아이들 Children That Say “Ugly Girls Shouldn’t Wear Hot Pants”

여성의 노출’을 바라보는 십대들의 시선 Teenagers’ Views on Women Who Wear Revealing Clothes

So Yeong-mi, August 2010

(일다의 독자위원인 서영미님은 현재 십대들과 함께하는 성교육 프로그램을 진행하고 있습니다―Editor)

Editor: Ilda reader So Yeong-mi is currently involved in a sex-education program aimed at teenagers.

“선생님, 질문 있어요. 왜 여자애들은 그렇게 짧은 반바지를 입어요?”…“여자애들이 핫팬츠 좀 못 입게 해주셨으면 좋겠어요!”…“?????????”

“Teacher, I have a question. Why do women wear such short shorts?”…”If young women didn’t wear hot pants, that would be good.”

이게 도대체 무슨 문제란 말이지? 최근 들어 두 번이나 받은 질문이다. 고등학교 청소년 남자 아이들을 만났을 때 한번, 그리고 초등학교 남자아이들과 교육하면서 한번. 성장기 자신의 몸의 변화나 성관계, 임신/출산에 관련한 질문들이 대부분인 편이라 이 질문이 유독 기억에 남았다. 같은 반 여자아이들이 핫팬츠를 입지 말았으면 좋겠다니 이 무슨 말인가?

(Source, NSFW)

Why on earth are they saying and asking these things? This has happened to me twice recently. Once, from teenage boys at a high school, and the other from boys at an elementary school. Most of the questions I get are normal ones about their development, changes to their body, sexual relationships, pregnancy and childbirth and so on, but I especially remembered these. Why are boys saying that girls in their classes shouldn’t wear hot pants?

James – Because of the mention of female classmates, I’m assuming the boys were in mixed-schools then? But So Yeong-mi doesn’t mention how the girls reacted to such questions, an omission which hopefully means she taught the boys and girls separately.

뜬금없는 질문이 궁금해 스무고개 하듯 계속해서 질문을 주고받으며 질문한 의도를 파악하려 애썼다. 질문자는 한 명이었지만 반 아이들 모두가 동의하고 있었고 별로 웃기지도 않은 질문에 아이들은 자지러졌기 때문이다. 질문을 받은 내가 자신들 생각대로 웃어넘기지 않고 진지하게 계속 물으니, 나중엔 아이들도 제법 진지하게 맞받아쳤다. 그리하여 나온 결론은 같은 반 여자아이들은 핫팬츠를 입으면 안 된다는 것!

I was very curious why these questions came out of the blue, so I sort of played 20 Questions with the students to find out. Only 1 student [in each case?] asked, but all the other students thought it was hilarious, and they expected me to laugh along with them. I wanted to get to the bottom of that, and so later when they gave me feedback it emerged that they felt that girls in their classes shouldn’t wear hot pants.

(Source)

모자와 핫팬츠는 다르다? What’s the Difference Between Hot Pants and Hats?

“오크가 그런 걸 입는 게 말이나 돼요?” “Would Orcs Wear Hot Pants?”

판타지 소설이나 롤플레잉 게임에 주로 등장하는 괴물, ‘오크’족. 쭉쭉빵빵 몸매도 좋고 능력도 좋은 미녀캐릭터들에 비해 볼품이 없어 쉽게 무시당하고 힘만 센 캐릭터. 아이들의 설명에 의하면 이랬다. TV에서 연예인들이 입는 것과는 다르다는 것. 그건 당연히 ‘봐줄 만하다’는 것이다. 핫팬츠뿐만 아니라 미니스커트에도 역시 강한 불만을 표했는데, 이번에는 또 다른 이유를 제기했다.

As the students explained, in fantasy novels and role-playing games the monster that appears the most frequently is the orc. Unlike beautiful female characters, with great abilities and voluptuous bodies (and usually useless armor – James), orcs are essentially faceless characters that can easily be disregarded. What entertainers wear on TV is different though, and, of course, it’s worth watching.

But it’s not just hot pants that the boys had problems with girls wearing, but also miniskirts. They gave a second reason for that.

“옷이 그러면 그렇고 그런 거 아니에요? 위험할 수도 있잖아요.”

“Doesn’t wearing clothes like that say something about you? And it’s dangerous too!”

아이들은 여성인 내게 “선생님도 그런 옷을 입냐”며 “도대체 왜”냐고 야단이었다. 한 학생이 모자를 쓰고 있기에 “너는 왜 모자를 쓰고 있냐” 물으니 “그냥 좋아서”라고 가볍게 얘기했다. 그럼 “핫팬츠나 미니스커트를 선택해서 착용하는 것은 무엇이 다르냐” 물으니 “그건 당연히 다르다”고 소리친다. 적절한 대답이 없을 때 아이들은 대개 화를 낸다.

(Source)

The students asked me, a woman, “Do you wear clothes like that?”, and, in a critical tone, “Why on Earth do women wear those?”. So, to one student who was wearing a hat I asked “Why are you wearing that hat?”, to which he casually replied “Because I like it”. So then I asked “How is that different to choosing hot pants or a miniskirt”, and got the retort that “Of course it’s different!”, the student becoming angry that he didn’t really have a proper answer.

그날 종일은 아이들과 좀 더 많은 시간을 들여 ‘개인의 취향’에 대한 이야기를 나누었다. 서로의 취향을 존중하고 이해해야 하는 이유를 찾아보며 남/녀를 탈피한 다양한 관계 속에서 역할활동까지 해봤다. 그러나 그 날의 아이들에게는 이미 모자와 핫팬츠의 ‘선택’이 다르지 않다는 것을 이해시키는 것이 어려워 보였다. 너무나 견고한 그들만의 ‘패션철학’이 놀라울 따름이었다.

I spent all day with the students, and shared a story about personal tastes with them. Then we did roleplaying, breaking away from normal man/woman and girl/boy ones, in order to better understand and respect each other’s personal tastes. It was difficult to make them understand that wearing hot pants was a choice, no different to wearing a hat, and I was very surprised in how unwavering some of their attitudes to fashion were.

우연히 비슷한 시기에 만난 이 집단 아이들만의 문제였을까. 교육이 끝난 후 평가시간에 이 에피소드를 털어놓으니 유난히 남자아이들 교육을 진행할 때 그런 질문이 많이 나온다는 실무자들의 의견이 있었다. 예쁜 사람이 입으면 괜찮고, 아니면 안 괜찮고, 짧은 옷을 입으면 위험하고 야한 어떤 것이라는 10대 초반의 아이들의 논리. 고등학생 이상의 청소년 들을 만났을 때만 해도 성인과 비슷하게 생각해나가는 시기여서 그런가 생각했는데, 초등학생들에게서까지 강한 불만으로 표출되어 나오니 그냥 웃어넘길 일이 아니라는 생각이 들었다.

I wondered if this way of thinking was just confined to the groups of students I taught, so afterwards I asked other sex-ed teachers involved in the program, and they confirmed that they get similar questions and opinions from especially male students. The logic of boys in their early teens was that if pretty girls wear hot pants and so on it’s okay, but if they’re not pretty then it’s not, and that [in either case] such clothes are both too revealing and dangerous.

(Source)

Now, if I’d asked high school students and so on, who think like adults, then I wouldn’t have been surprised, but once I learned that even elementary school students are saying such things then I realized that this was no laughing matter.

고 민지점은 성인들이 갖고 있는 편견이나 고정관념들이 고스란히 아이들에게도 답습된다는 것이다. 또한 그 연령이 대폭 낮아졌다는 사실도 놀랄만한 일이다. 그 어린 학생들마저도 ‘여성’의 몸을 검열하고 있다는 사실에 주목하지 않을 수가 없는 것이다.

Children are picking up adults’ prejudices and biases, although it is surprising that they’re doing so at such a young age. And we can’t help but notice that even these children too think the female body is something to inspected and evaluated.

우리가 어떤 일을 할 수 있을까 What can do we do about this?

노출이 많은 옷을 입은 여성과 그렇지 않은 여성을 간단하게 이분화 시키고, 거기에 아름다움이라는 가치를 연결시킨 잣대로 평가하는 것은 아이들도 어른들과 크게 다르지 않았다. 다만 아이들의 용어로 표현하고 있을 뿐이었다. 이를 우스갯거리로 사용하는 아이들을 보고 있자니 솔직히 조금 화가 나기도 했다. 그리고 그와 동시에 우리 스스로 반성해야 될 때가 아닌가 생각해보게 됐다.

Children splitting women into simply those who wear very revealing clothes and those that don’t, and judging their value only in terms of their appearance, is little different from what adults do. But although the children just used these terms jokingly, to be honest I still got a little angry with them.

Yet at the same time, we really need to examine ourselves too.

대중매체에 대한 비판을 하려던 차에 최근 10대 청소년 연예인들을 상대로 60%가 신체 노출이나 과도한 성적 행위 장면을 강요했다는 기사들을 보게 되었다. 한 언론과의 인터뷰에서 가수 이은미는 음악성 보다 외적인 면에 더 관심을 갖는 사회 분위기를 우려하며, 성적인 면이 강조된 걸그룹의 노래, 의상, 춤에 환호하는 이 사회를 ‘몰상식의 극’이라고 표현했다. “초등학교를 졸업한지 몇 년 되지 않은 아이들을 벗겨놓고 대 놓고 섹시하다고 박수를 치거나, 꿀벅지, 꿀복근 같은 용어들을 사용하는 대중문화를 보면 소름이 끼친다.”는 것.

(Source: unknown)

I was about to blame the mass media, as recently I’ve read reports which say that 60% of female teenage entertainers have claimed to have sometimes been forced to wear revealing clothes and/or do sexual dances and so on. And in an interview of the singer Lee Eun-mi (James – Not one of those teenage entertainers; she was born in 1968), she said she was worried about a society that considered external appearance more important than musical quality for singers, where girl groups’ sexual dances, songs, and outfits where cheered…she used the term “thoughtless/careless”. She said “I freak out at the thought that just a few years after they graduate from elementary school, young male and female entertainers are being praised for taking off their clothes and being talked about in terms of their ‘honey thighs‘ or six-packs.

쏟 아지는 대중매체의 벗기기 논란은 새삼 어제오늘 일도 아니건만, 아무 손쓰지 않고 있었음에 반성하게 된다. 상품화되고 대상화되고 있는 여성들의 문제를 공공연히 문제 삼지 않았던 것이 일상생활에까지 주변 사람을 대상화하고 외모로써 평가하는 지금의 일을 만든 게 아닌가 하는 생각에서다.

But these trends in the media didn’t just appear overnight – they were allowed to flourish by the public’s inattention and lack of concern. This way, we have come to consider the commercialization and objectification of women as a normal part of our daily lives.

아 이들의 생각을 넓게 펼쳐주진 못할망정 오로지 외모로써 사람을 평가하는 우리 사회에서 우리가 어떤 일을 할 수 있을지 함께 고민해봤으면 좋겠다. 우리가 그동안 무심코 내뱉었던 말들이 아이들에게 어떤 영향을 미치게 될지 생각해보면서 말이다. 문제가 수면으로 드러난 지금이야말로 왜곡된 미와 과장된 외모 중심의 평가들로부터 벗어나 아이들에게 더 많은 관심을 가져야 할 때다. 아이들뿐만 아니라 사실은 우리 모두를 위해서 말이다.

It’s difficult to broaden children’s minds, but we do have to make an effort to stop judging each other on our appearances. We have to consider what has been the effect on our children of this focus, this excessive emphasis on appearance. Not just for them, but for society as a whole (end).

My post title aside, I don’t mean to generalize about all Korean boys, and given the author’s vagueness then what she says about them really needs to be taken with a grain of salt. So, to get a better overall picture, I’d really appreciate anything any teachers can tell me about what their own young students have ever said about such things (alas, it’s been a while since I’ve taught children or teenagers myself).

And to end on a positive note, was anyone else reminded of the above semi-response to such sentiments? Now I have a renewed sense of appreciation for that too!^^ (See here for a discussion of the song’s lyrics and meaning)