Korean Sociological Image #37: Like a Virgin?

As they say, first impressions are everything. And so, with apologies to those of you unwise enough to read this blog at work, let me share mine of girl group T-ara (티아라) from their music video of Like the First Time (처음처럼) before proceeding: namely, that they were confident, sexy women, not at all embarrassed to perform risqué dance moves like the above in front of large audiences.

However, it was difficult to square that impression with their shyness in the following brief interview for Entertainment Tonight (연예가 중계) last month, conducted while making (rather bizarre) commercials for a mobile phone, and I would interested in hearing your thoughts on possible reasons for the differences, and how representative the interview is as whole of the way 20-something women especially are portrayed in Korean entertainment programs.

The most important point first: from roughly 1:00 t0 1:30, the interview focuses on group leader Ham Eun-jeong (함은정) feeling embarrassed about repeatedly hugging actor Yoon Si-yoon (윤시윤) for their commercial, despite having just met in the studio. In particular, at 1:10 below she says “어떡해”, or “How” as in “How can I do this?” while making an exaggerated expression of embarrassment, about which the reporter comments “굉장히 부끄러워하죠?”, or “She’s very shy, yes?”. Note also the addition of “근심” and “걱정” on the screen too for added context and atmosphere, (a habit of entertainment programs picked up from Japan), although rather confusedly they both mean anxiety, or worry.

Then at 1:25, she’s asked how she feels from hugging Si-yoon for so long, to which she replies “솔직히말해도…떨려요!”, or “To be honest…I’m shaking/trembling!”.

Natural feelings? Of course. But then recall her music video, in which she – not to put too fine a point on it – repeatedly bends over and thrusts out her bottom, jiggles her breasts, and runs her hands over her breasts and crotch while singing about how her body was on fire. Indeed, even the interviewer herself later (3:08) highlights the complete contrast:

Moreover, while I’ve never personally strutted my stuff on stage like Eun-jeong, I am actually quite comfortable – nay, somewhat notorious for – acting in front of large groups of adult students (I’m tempted to mention faking an orgasm in class once in my first year of teaching, but I’d better not), and doubt that I’d be embarrassed repeatedly hugging an attractive woman in front of others. Yes, I would be if I ended up having a large visible erection as a result, but that’s besides the point: if Eun-jeong was embarrassed, it wasn’t because she was visibly turned on.

And I stress “if”: my wife, for instance, also watched the interview, and at first told me her embarrassment was perfectly natural, but then readily conceded it was rather strange in light of her performances in music videos and on stage. Which leads me to my first question: do you think Eun-jeong was genuinely embarrassed?

One commentator at Omona! They Didn’t did at least:

…Eunjung lost her composure while filming a hugging scene with Yoon Si Yoon….It’s funny how Eunjung was so flustered and shy around a guy because she exudes such a powerful and charismatic presence on stage. I guess we are all prone to weakness in front of the opposite sex.

And I do remain open to the possibility. However, I’d argue that either subconsciously or deliberately, she’s much more likely to be playing to expectations and norms of the Korean media that she present herself as cute and innocent, regardless of her true personality; well illustrated, I think, by this 2007 commercial with Kim Tae-hee (김태희):

As PopSeoul! explains:

She acts all sugar and spice in wide-eyed innocence as she sips her drink carefully, but as soon as her date turns away, she lets loose her inner diva to strike a pose for the camera. Her date discovers the saved pictures on his Olympus and accuses her of being “nae-soong”.

Nae-soong (내숭) being the:

…inconsistency between a girl’s true personality (i.e. extroverted), and external (i.e. introverted, shy and innocent) personality. In other words, trying to hide your true intentions self by acting sweet and innocent.

And indeed the interview is full of demonstrations of how sweet and innocent they are. For instance, at 1:47 Park Ji-yeon (박지연) is embarrassed to learn that she is Si-yoon’s favorite of all the T-ara members (although you may be surprised to learn that she’s only 16, and hence her embarrassment arguably the most likely to be genuine):

And at 3:17, Eun-jeong feigns (I don’t think anyone would dispute this!) being upset at the other group members selecting her as looking the most different (read: uglier) before putting on make-up:

One music video and and one interview are by no means sufficient to get an idea of their true personalities however (to the extent that one sees any celebrities’ true personalities in front of a camera at all that is), and so I also briefly looked at some episodes of T-ara Dot Com (티아라닷컴), a quasi-reality show about them setting up an internet clothes shopping mall of that name. Here’s a brief segment of one episode, with English subtitles:

And in which their behavior is no different to that in the interview. Hence, while I do still feel that Eun-jeong’s embarrassment at hugging Si-yoon at least was completely feigned, I concede that T-ara’s cutesy behavior overall probably wasn’t an act, and not unrepresentative of Koreans their age either (for reasons explained here).

If that behavior is still a definite expectation or norm of Korean entertainment programs however, depends on such factors as how other women are portrayed in them; if there’s a large difference between men and women; and to what extent such programs offer opportunities for entertainers to present alternate, more serious sides of themselves if they wish to do so.

Unfortunately, I can’t personally say: even when I first arrived in Korea at the tender age of 24, I soon chose never to watch these sorts of programs because I had better things to do than seeing grown men and women acting like children on them. Now, at 34, I’m more concerned about the influence they will have on my own daughters, and to be frank would consider myself a failure as a father if they grew up to behave like members of T-ara do when they reach the same age.

However, in contrast to when I was 24, in fact there’s also some things I like about the Korean media which are on display in the interview, and which I’ll devote the remainder of the post to.

First, in a meta-sense, the practice of providing subtitles and/or commentary on them is simply great for studying Korean, especially considering the huge gap in real-life learning material for Korean learners, let alone intermediate level material. And if dramas aren’t your thing, then studying a 10 minute segment of an episode of T-ara Dot Com everyday is probably quite a tolerable alternative:

More to the point of this post however, there is the very human side of stars presented, a stark contrast to the pedestals Western medias tend to place their own celebrities on. For instance, not only does the interviewer ask at 3:39, which member of T-ara farts the most:

But at 3:49, we even get to watch the evidence:

And, lest he feel left out, Si-yoon is asked if he also farts, to which he replies at 3:57 that yes, he enjoys it:

Compared to that, watching him pick his nose and examine the contents at 2:30 was nothing. And hey, a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do, but in any other country I’d be surprised his agent didn’t want that cut out:

But not that showing that celebrities fart and pick their noses like the rest of us mere mortals are the only positives of course. I also love how the interview highlights Ji-yeon stuffing her face with strawberries at 2:57 for instance, and particularly from a basket that looks like it was bought from the back of a food truck, to be found in literally every Korean neighborhood at almost any time of day (for instance, selling salt at 5:30 in the morning). You see, something that looks like it could have been bought in my wife’s home village in 1970 is somewhat incongruous on the set of a commercial for probably one of the most technologically sophisticated products on the planet, and reminds me that constantly seeing such juxtapositions is one reason I love living here:

Finally, there’s the standard happy, bubbly ending of such shows, usually accompanied by cries of Hwaiting! (화이팅); if you’re not smiling yourself at least a little when you see one on TV, that’s probably because you’re being carried out of the room on a stretcher with blanket over your head:

To recap, I would love to hear: your own opinions on how genuine Eun-jeong’s embarrassment was; how representative of young women’s behavior on entertainment shows T-ara’s was; and whether they were simply being themselves or if they were fulfilling expectations and norms of how 20-something women should act on them (I realize that the last is a bit of a false dichotomy though, and should be considered more as a feedback loop). Are there any Korean entertainment shows where women don’t have to be cute? And how about 20-something men, or older women?

Alternatively, do you have any more pet peeves about Korean shows not covered here, or reasons that you really like them?

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)


36 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #37: Like a Virgin?

  1. I think Eun-jeongs embarrassment was feigned…I didn’t see any genuine emotions of embarrassment on her face. In fact… for some reason I feel like all of their faces have difficulty moving. Like its stiff…Quite disturbing.

    But I think its pretty representative of how young korean girls “should act.” But I don’t know… some people have their show persona and their real persona but I have never come across a show where young girls (although I haven’t been keeping up with Korean shows for the past year now, but i’m prettty sure it hasn’t changed) their age have not acted cute.

    And I wholeheartedly agree with this–>
    “Unfortunately, I can’t personally say: even when I first arrived in Korea at the tender age of 24, I soon chose never to watch these sorts of programs because I had better things to do than seeing grown men and women acting like children on them. Now, at 34, I’m more concerned about the influence they will have on my own daughters, and to be frank would consider myself a failure as a father if they grew up to behave like members of T-ara do when they reach the same age.”

    It’s so wierd though, because when I get into my Korean persona, I act kind of cutesy as well and my siblings hate it. hahaha but not nearly as much as the average Korean but it still comes through and I kinda do it unconsciously, especially when I’m talking to adults….

    Now I look at these videos and I can’t help but cringe…


  2. I love the Korean game/variety shows: Family Outing Season 1 (NOT season 2, geez what a letdown that is), We Got Married, Happy Together, Strong Heart, Sponge, Sebakwi, Come to Play, Intimate Note…and Chit-Chat with Beauties.

    I usually like to laugh with my friend at the fobbiness of Korean stars’ English and be amazed at the cultural differences. It’s fun, I get to simultaneously live in both cultural universes and make my own universe from choosing the aspects I like and believe in. I also really like seeing how the Korean cultural and societal norms are changing with new technology and other developments.

    The humour in Korean variety shows is hilarious, and hits the nail every time. Oooh I LOVE it when celebs randomly interact with normal citizens, the reactions are priceless :D Often I find British/American/Aussie comedy forcefully funny and even rude (leaving me extremely embarrassed), so I prefer Korean variety shows. It’s light-hearted, funny and relatable. Even though they are celebrities, often they seem to bring human-like qualities from variety shows. It showcases their “personality” which is nice.

    Believe it or not I actually like the censoring/regulations from the Korean broadcasting systems etc, yes it violates freedom of speech blah blah blah but people can get crass, rude and terribly cheeky. I think the censoring/regulations block that from happening. Not that I know much about censoring……but yes.

    What I don’t like is how they idolise Westerners (Europeans). I remember in WGM the commentator praising “Wow, no matter what angle the camera shoots any European, they look like Hollywood movie stars.” about an English teacher. I find that a bit silly, especially when there are other ethnicities (Hispanic, African-American, Pacific Islander, Maori, Indian etc) too, and racially mixed people above all that! And if what the commentator said was true, then a large proportion of the Western world would all be movie stars D: Korean TV shows also tend to idolise Western culture and customs in general, when I think there are admirable aspects within (Korean) Asian cultures itself.

    I find Korean dramas incredibly cheesy and idealistic so I hardly ever watch them UNLESS it’s a historical drama (and by that I mean early-mid/late-ish 20th century Korean historical setting). I mean, how likely it is to get such a whirlwind romance between those people with those connections/wealth/looks? If they are supposed to portray real people in society, then please LOOK like real people, not plastic, and research to write a realistic story. And Korean dramas follow the similar “typical” storylines and trends: right now the whole “gay” guy thing is IN and they loooove to make a fuss over it. Oh please. I’m an oddball I know, because a lot of people overseas LOVE Korean dramas and I’m not one of them.

    Which is prbs another reason why I like variety shows – often the comedians featured are good at being funny and they don’t look like plastic. Sure they’re not as “attractive” looking as the singers and actors, but at least they look real. But what’s annoying is that often comedians “exaggerate” their “ugly” features – small eyes, short height, weight etc and allow everyone else to “tease” them. Which makes me wonder how they feel and survive from constantly being called ugly. It’s not encouraging to the general population – at least not to me.

    I also like the wide range of shows being offered in Korea. There is a LOT, you can spend all day in front of the TV and never be bored. I’d prbs even love the Educational channel too if I got to see more of it haha.


  3. I’m not very familiar with Korean girl groups, but from the limited amount I’ve seen, yes, EunJeong’s behavior seems pretty typical during the offshoot. But I don’t much understand the attention being given to the contrast between her onstage/video performances and the ‘behind the scenes’ footage. The way I see it, it’s about options. In the ‘behind the scenes’ vid, the girls *could* act super-cutesy, less cutesy, confident, embarrassed – they are influenced by social expectations, yes, but they aren’t scripted or rigidly controlled. Onstage, and in music videos, they don’t really have the option to act any way except how they’re directed to act.

    When you mentioned EunJeong “repeatedly bent over and thrust out her bottom, jiggled her breasts, and ran her hands over her breasts and crotch” – well, she was doing as told. Earning a paycheck. Being good at her job. Unless T-ara are an exception to the Kpop norm (again, I don’t follow them closely), she was *instructed* to repeatedly bend over and thrust out her bottom, the was *directed* to jiggle her breasts, and she ran her hands over her breasts and crotch as told to do so by a choreographer during countless rehearsals. What else *could* she do during a performance, or while filming a music video? What are her options? When she’s suppose to act properly bashful and flustered (‘behind the scenes’), she does. When she is suppose to act confidant and overtly sexual, she does. Both examples seem contrived to me… but at least the ‘behind the scenes’ allows her a bit more freedom, a few more options, about how she expresses herself… unlike the wholly choreographed and controlled performances and music videos.

    Being unfamiliar with girl groups though, I must say that while viewing the ‘behind the scenes’ vid, I was struck by how similar they behave to Kpop guys… so since you asked, no. I don’t think Kpop 20-somethings are portrayed differently based on gender. I can think of quite a few shows and ‘behind the scenes’ vids in which Kpop men feign a somewhat unbelievable level of bashfulness around a girl. (I could try to remember some specific examples and post them, if it’d be helpful.)

    Since my post is already so long, I’ll try to rush through these last few things…
    1. You’re right – the Korean captions peppered through so many variety/entertainment shows are a wonderful help for Korean learners! Downloading/watching Family Outing re-runs has probably taught me more useful Korean then then all my ‘proper’ lesson books combined!
    2. Western stars do seem a bit bland/stuffy/dull to me ever since I adjusted to Korean entertainment shows. Sticking to the old Family Outing example, I can’t imagine Beyonce/Mariah Carey/Western Singer doing a fraction of what Hyori did on that show, and having the good humor to laugh the whole way through!
    3. This seems weirdly personal to write in a comment, but you sound like a really good dad.


    1. I agree will Zellie on her point about 20-something males – they seem to be similarly shy around women. I have taken to following Rain’s group MBLAQ, and I always laugh at how embarrassed they get around the women who guest star on their reality show “Idol Army”. That being said, they don’t express their embarrassment by making faces – instead they yell really loudly, which I find hilarious. I definitely appreciate the realness of the celebrities on Korean television – it probably contributes to the unique brand of fandom found in Korea because people feel like they really know their idols.

      I find that personally, when speaking to people older than me, especially when asking for something, my voice gets a bit higher and I fiddle or put my hands or what’s in my hands up to my mouth. It’s strange because I don’t consider myself to be a cutesy person AT ALL, but it just comes out. So I co-sign on the feedback loop idea: people expect it, you do it, it becomes your nature. I need to grow out of that habit though – I don’t do cute well


  4. James..

    I love your vivid imagination – “large visible erection?” ^^

    But I think the rest contians a bit of an excluded middle, as well as the difference between choreography and acting.

    I think she could be honestly confident about her dance moves and honestly embarrassed about hugging the man who should be me. ;-)

    Also, her dancing is the result of hours spent perfecting moves in the studio, while the advertisement is a bit more impromptu, from a training perspective..

    So.. you know.. “maybe?”


    1. I think Charles has hit upon an important distinction between dancing and the behind the scenes videos as far as their performative aspects and what it means for a performer. When she’s dancing, no matter how provocatively, it’s a set of well-rehersed moves usually in front of an audience that has no personal aspect for the performer – it’s a sea of faces, and with lights and sound and everything else, beyond a general sense of energy from the crowd, there’s not much of a human relationship. You get up and say your lines, do your dance, and get off stage without ever confronting a real individual. On the other hand, being filmed rehersing a commercial where you’re interacting for the first time with an individual, with whom you are being required to embrace without knowing . . . well, to be perfectly fair, I can see how that would be genuinely embarassing and different than doing a rehersed provocative dance on stage.


  5. Anna Lee mentioned something about “getting into the Korean persona.” As a foreign English university lecturer, sometimes I get into a kind of Korean persona. I don’t feel like it’s a deliberate attempt to be something I’m not, my personality still comes out through it, but it’s a way to engage the students. In the same way, it’s possible that Eun-Jeong was getting into the persona as well, but I’m not sure it was a deliberate attempt to pass herself off as something that she isn’t.

    Recently I watched a video clip of the Wonder Girls doing an English-language interview while touring in the U.S. with the Jonas Brothers. (Actually James, I think I found it through your blog.) I was impressed how they spoke and how each one of the members seemed to have a distinct personality (whereas with most groups the members are indistinguishable to me). Granted, they may have toned down the “Korean persona” for Western audiences, but it still seemed genuine.

    This post makes me think of a couple of other entertainers (one Korean, one American) whose performance image doesn’t seem to match their appearance in interviews: Rain and Janet Jackson. I’m not a fan of Rain, but whenever I watch interviews with him, I find him to be a very earnest, calm, well-spoken and likable guy. Similarly with Janet, even though her sensual image has gone way over the top in my opinion, in interviews she still comes across as the sweet, innocent young lady I know from her “Control” and “Rhythm Nation” days.

    I also read an interview with Michelle Williams (one of the members of Destiny’s Child) saying the group’s image was “not who we really are” in real life.

    If you want to turn this whole thing upside down, consider the appearance of boy group 2 PM on 무한도전 (“Everyday Challenge”). That episode brought out a side of those guys that was far wackier than I could have imagined. This goes back to the “juxtaposition” phenomenon prevalent in Korean reality shows.

    I hope I haven’t gone off topic here…I guess my point with all of this is that it doesn’t strike me as so strange when an artist’s performance image and normal-life image don’t match. Because ultimately for a lot of artists, it is just an image.

    By the way, loved your comments about using these shows for Korean study.


  6. I do think the cutesy persona is one that they feel they have to behave in, like TV is an exaggeration of real life. The Korean girls I know in the UK don’t act like that around guys, though I did know one guy who was that shy when we fisrt met that he hid his face in his jumper (the looks the Korean girls gave each other was a priceless and genuine ‘wtf is wrong with him’)
    One thing I find about variety shows, particularly Infinity Challenge last year is the obsession they all seem to have in dressing up the guys in women’s clothing.

    I do love the humour of variety shows though, particularly old-school x-mena nd love letter. ‘rival’ was also another good one and as Zellie said, would any western stars be caught dead doing shows like this and seeming to enjoy them? I’d go for a probably not – especially not with what appears to be so spontaneous and enjoyable. ^^


  7. Oh dear James, more flatulence? It’s turned up in 2 posts so far.

    I think that the dance moves which they have practised for hours on end may be extremely sexual and suggestive, but those moves are what they have been told to perform. Maybe they were even assured that the moves weren’t “sexy” to reassure them they were still ‘pure’ and still socially acceptable. They may do a “sexy dance”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they, personally, are overly sexual. It’s like acting in a way.

    However, people who watch their dance may find that sexual and alluring, and that would colour their perceptions of the dancers.

    As for how genuine their behaviour is, who knows, really. But I would not be surprised to hear that they, personally (once away from the media and among close family and friends?), are “cute” and “pure” as defined and demanded by Korean society. I may find that stupid and primitive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sincere in their “cuteness”.

    I wonder where the weird fetish for women to have high pitched, allegedly cute voices came from. This is common in Japan as well, for instance, as is the pressure/expectations for women to be “pure” and demure. I find it very hard to take women who squeak and sounds like 10yo kids seriously.

    As you note, perhaps the only good things about these shows is that SK celebrities are not put on such a pedestal (ZOMG they are human!), but such an obsession with celebutards is a bad thing for civilisation and humanity as a whole. They put European looking celebutards on a pedestal instead, and that may be worse in a way, because without massive amounts of plastic surgery no Korean will ever look remotely like a stereotypical “European”.

    Oh, and I think that pretty much any show which consists of following around “celebrities” while they do inane things is a waste of time. Who gives a sh1te. I can nearly hear the death cries of their viewer’s brain cells from here as they watch this tripe.


  8. my first impression was that Eun-jeong embarrassment was genuine, at least more genuine than her sexy, independent stage persona because as Zellie mentioned the girls are expected to act in a certain way onstage and in music videos. then again, i do realise that her embarrassment may have been an act, it is very difficult to decipher the true personalities of celebrities.

    i’m also one of those who appreciates the presentation of the human sides of Korean celebrities.


  9. The whole thing’s an act. She can’t have gotten to this level of ‘musicianship’ and not realized that sex sells – as does the coyness / shyness bit during the interview. Maybe she is a virgin – but so was Britney Spears.

    The other possibility echoes what Chris said – those are the moves they’re told to perform. After practicing them ad infinitum, you become numb to whatever sexual nature they may be exuding. All of a sudden, you feel the camera on you and someone asking you personal questions – and you’re back to coy little girl again.


  10. I have to disagree with the “Western celebrities are put on a pedestal while Korean celebrities are allowed to be more relatable and human” argument; it seems whenever a Korean celebrity DOES make a human mistake in their REAL lives, they are crucified for it in a way that Western celebrities would be – the logic that, “Well he/she’s human and we all make mistakes” doesn’t even occur to the public. All the constant netizen controversies, the way young idols are not allowed to date, how young women in the industry cannot be associated with anything sexual in their personal lives lest they ruin their image (e.g. Baek ji young, Ivy, etc.) doesn’t signify relatability and understanding between celebs and their fans to me as much as it indicates that Korean celebrities are very much supposed to fulfill an ideal. What I mean is that idols are allowed to show their human “faults” only in a way that Korean society finds acceptable and endearing – that’s one reason why toilet humor is a common staple of variety shows – but when it comes to moral missteps, the media/public is notoriously unforgiving.

    I think idols are programmed and pressured to be relatable in a way that renders much of it calculated rather than genuine – it’s all good and dandy if the female showcases her charisma/aloofness/sexual confidence/quirkiness/cockiness/whatever on stage, but carrying any quality from the onstage persona into her variety show personality that comes off as something other than totally approachable, self-deprecating, respectful, cheerful, personable, appropriately demure, etc. is seen as a big no-no and would garner immediate backlash against the female idol. So, being the cynic that I am, I see much of the idol culture as an exercise in conformity and marketability much more than an avenue through which fans can develop a closer bond with their idols. I think there’s always going to be some of this incorrect notion that we “know” certain celebrities, but I believe that a positive aspect of Western celebrity is that fans are much less likely to buy into that, and, therefore, much less likely to try to ruin you when your private behavior diverges from your public image (the Tiger Woods scandal a possible exception….except he’s already embarking on a successful comeback, so maybe the observation holds up).

    Yes, I guess we could demand that our entertainers, such as Fergie, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and the like, reveal their farting tendencies to us and then install cameras into their homes to show footage verifying those tendencies, and we could insist that they perform silly “sexy” dances for us when they go on Letterman (although I think Letterman would barf), and so on and so on. However, despite how many things are seriously wrong in our Western celebrity culture, I think the overall arrangement is much more preferable: That there’s some acknowledged distance between celebrity and fan, realization that we DON’T really know how they are in their personal lives, and willingness to tolerate individuality, whether that be awkward and outrageous or even rude or indifferent personalities. When a celebrity comes onto a talk show, it’s much more on his/her terms – he/she can choose what he/she feels comfortable talking about/doing and doesn’t have to subscribe to these rules of conduct in order to cultivate a relatable persona (at least not above and beyond the hope that people will be interested in what they see and then buy what you’re selling as well as the universal desire to be liked). If the actor or artist is a jerk, so what? You don’t have to buy the product the entertainer is selling then, or more likely, you can separate the two aspects (professional/private) and just concentrate on the quality of the product they’re selling. It CAN affect your image, but mostly to the extent that it becomes entertaining fodder for the blogosphere (i.e. Joaquin Phoenix).

    …And I’ve ranted much more than I initially planned. But I think I got my point across. :-).


    1. Correction for the first paragraph: “in a way that Western celebrities **never** would be”

      Ugh, knew there would be some typos I didn’t catch. Sorry if my writing seems stiff or forced – I’m tired. :-/


    2. True, from what little I hear about the celeb circus in Korea, the women, especially, are held to a ridiculously, impossibly high standard. If they do nearly anything that is not considered “acceptable”, the media and netizens pile in with savage gusto. Netizens especially seem to be ridiculously critical and are no doubt massively hypocritical.

      I’d have to agree that the young ladies seem to act in what seems to be “acceptable” ways to Korean society and media. Possibly that is how they ‘naturally’ act, possibly they are acting to conform to the norm, who knows.

      Apart from that, I try not to think about celebrities at all, just that they (and people who obsess over them) could all disappear and the world would be a better place.


  11. Thank you for the comments everyone: I was quite surprised to get so many insightful ones so quickly. Normally I’d try to reply to each individually, but as that would probably involve so much repetition in this particular comment thread I’ll just try to give a few thoughts here instead.

    Since writing the post and reading your comments, I’m certainly much more open to the possibility that Eun-jeong wasn’t entirely faking her embarrassment, although her gesture at 1:10 does still look a little contrived to me. I also realize I should have made more of a distinction between choreography and acting, and accept that constant repetition of a dance move, act, or routine etc. somewhat deadens you to how sexual or strange (say) it might be, and how unlikely you’d do it of your own accord in a normal social setting.

    Having said that, based on my own personal experience at least it’s extremely difficult to perform a particularly sexual dance move unless you already have the sexual confidence and personality to do so, the corollary of which is that it would be very strange not to have the experience of performing it regularly – whether through coercion by managers or other means – make you a more confident person with the opposite sex in turn. To wit, when I was a university student I did Ceroc lessons on and off for 3 years, and although it was marketed as a nightclub dance for couples, for me it was less like “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire” and more just a set of steps to learn that happened to involve a female partner, and something that instantly came to mind when I tried Taekwondo for the first time years later.

    But when I tried Samba later? I simply had to give up after a couple of classes, as I was just too embarrassed to do all the hip thrusting, and accordingly probably no-one’s surprised to hear that when I was single, I could never walk up to an attractive woman in a bar and hit on her, cowboy stance and all; I was always more of the ask a casual acquaintance for a proverbial cup of coffee type, provided she was alone. But had I manned up enough to do samba? Who knows…

    Back to T-ara however, it’s not just the breast-jiggling, bottoms thrust out etc etc, which Brian in Jeollanam-do has often mentioned seem to be de rigeur for Korean “sexy dances” but which usually look so robotic that essentially they’re devoid of any sexuality at all. Rather, it’s also the smoldering looks (remember this?) that define it as a very sexy for me, and rather difficult to fake, although admittedly it’s not so much Eun-jeong in the music video for Like The First Time that provides those and much more the central character Hyo-min. I realize that this contradicts what I wrote in the text a little, and so, yes, I guess the jury’s still out on whether she’s faking her embarrassment or not, and I’ll have to check out more videos of T-ara’s.

    But like many people have pointed out, we’ll probably never know. I do think there’s a definite consensus amongst us all though, that even though Korean celebrities have a little more space to be themselves on “making of” shows and so on, there’s sill some definite limits over which women especially still can’t step over, as Gabby explains very well. And speaking of which, quite right of her to challenge my assertion that “Western celebrities are put on a pedestal”, and thanks for doing so: that was quite sloppy of me, as I meant more that Western publics tend to regard them as “higher beings” whom by all means have the same human desires and failings as ourselves and then some, but tend not to be judged as harshly for them legally or in terms of public opinion as us mere mortals would be.


  12. Rather than all the “gender studies” analyses above, wouldn’t it be simpler just to say this was merely an example of what Koreans call aegyo, i.e. cutesy female behavior no one takes that seriously, except perhaps “gender studies” majors who can’t find work back home so come to Korea to teach English?


    1. Simpler yes, but not particularly enlightening.

      Now, forgive me while I continue to ponder any possible connections between grown women behaving like children on television and their lack of respect and and power in Korean economic and political life nevertheless. After all, us gender studies majors would positively die without something to moan about, yes?

      On the other hand though, maybe, just maybe, I take it seriously all because I worry about the effects on my daughters of growing up in a profoundly sexist society, and wonder why my highly educated wife was effectively forced to be a housewife after having them? I mean, last time I checked, I’d spent virtually all of my adult life here, so I thought Korea was home. But I guess I was wrong, and you know my own motivations much better than I do.

      If all that’s too serious for you however, then there’s also the distinct possibility that you’re just a complete prick, and should STFU. Your call.


    2. I believe James is working on his PhD. What’s your excuse for still teaching English in Korea ten years later?


  13. I wonder if Korean female performers consume a bit of alcohol to loosen up their inhibitions when shooting videos.

    I turned off the video before the lone male picked his nose, but I did notice that his face hardly moved as he sang. He’s too young for Botox, but his face looks unnaturally sculpted. Are his facial expressions impaired by plastic surgery? Yuck, yuck, yuck. I’d sooner rest my eyes on a squatting ajusshi in a a loose-fitting toupee, stained white undershirt, and sage green trousers rolled up to his knees than suffer the blinding glare of this shiny mannequin.


  14. James,

    Right now I’m watching a reality show featuring two of the members of boy group UKISS (minus the makeup and outfits) hanging out at an amusement park and practicing their English with a tutor. These guys look and sound just like my university students…ha ha.


  15. To me, at least, this general embarrassment dealing with sexual matters (even at tame as hugging) seems like a complete ploy to mask a more tolerant and empowered personality.

    Maybe I just meet all the firecrackers, but all the Korean women I’ve dealt with in my life have not acted cute in any sense or connotation the word might have to my Canadian mind. I have gotten no shyness to physical contact, I have gotten no face puffing, I have gotten no Hwaiting, and certainly no “Oppa~~~~~~~~!”s. The women I have spent my time with were all in their early twenties (21-24 western age) and have been quick to call me on my brusqueness at any and all attempts at flirtation and sexual advances, even those as mild as hugging. They simply don’t give me an inch of cuteness. On the contrary, they take a mile of “I know what you’re up to, don’t you try it on me.”

    My general attempts at explaining that I’m merely teasing or being a typical Canadian boy have landed me in the hot seat as my lack of Korean language skills has caused a few misunderstandings as to my intentions.

    So, I ask you, where can I get myself a cute, shy, puffy-cheeked Korean girl who crumbles at the thought of hugging me? WHERE?


  16. Hi James.

    The subject of this post, reminded me about the interviews with some kpop idols and other stuff I noticed. I do think that most of these idols, specially those from SM entertainment, recieve some sort of training as to how act behind the scenes and what type of persona/image to have and maintain out of stage. If notice most of the members of SM ent idol groups have a very clear image that they portray to the public: example: one is the goofy member, other is the serious, other is the snob, one to be the cute one, etc. They portray these personas in such a way that sometimes it seems as if they aren’t layered (as in having different characters like human beings have) and that their only persona is the one they portray.

    I remember a interview with DBSK’s Jaejoong where he said that during his first years as member of DBSK, the company asked him to stay quiet on interviews and to behind stage footages don’t talk much in order to have a ‘misterious’ guy image to the public. Other interesting fact is the different image Siwon (Super Junior’s member) has in Korea and China. His image in Korea is of the member ‘with prince like manners’ so in korean tv shows, interviews and backstage videos, he’s alwasy very quiet & serious. But when he started the Super Junior M’s activities (Super Junior M is a sub-unit of Super Junior active only on the chinese market), he started to act completely different from how he acted on Korea. On interviews, backstage videos and guest appearance on Chinese media as member of Super Junior M, Siwon changed his image completely. While on Korea he acted as the quiet, serious, introvert prince-like guy, on China he acted as the hyper, goofy, unmannered and most outgoing member of Super Junior M.

    I think other entertainment company act the same way with their idol group members and create a clear image and persona for each member of the group and train them to act in the way to make this image and persona clear for the public. But this is something that is very clearly noticed on artists from SM entertainment.


    1. PS: Off topic,
      But I wonder if you could make some article about how entertainment companies or korean population deal with artists/singers mistakes.

      I don’t if you’ve heard about 2PM situation and how their leader was kicked out of their group because of some comments he wrote 4 years ago on his MYSPACE where he complained about his life in Korea and koreans in general. He’s a korean-american and koreans were so mad when they read his comments on MYSPACE that they even created suicide petitions for him and called him yankee and many bad names. And he was forced to leave Korea, 4 days after the MYSPACE scandal went to public. Months later, the situation was reversed and koreans felt sorry for him and many started to ask him to comeback to Korea. But in the end JYP entertainment (the company 2PM is signed with) didn’t brought Jaebeom back even though the fans wanted him to be back, and JYPE and the remaining members of the group even had a press conference with fans where they bad mouthed Jaebeom and saying he had made a big mistake (even bigger than the MYSPACE thing) and that they couldn’t take him back to the group. And now many 2PM’s fans have become antis of the 6 members remaining members of 2PM because they think they betrayed their leader Jaebeom and spread false rumours about Jaebeom and tried to destroy his chances of trying to become a solo artist in Korea (because the remaining members and JYPE spread this ‘big mistake’ rumour and they didn’t even say what was the ‘big mistake’ about. And fans believe this is just an excuse to withdraw Jaebeom). Well the 2PM (and their ex-leader’s Park Jaebeom) story is so long…
      Anyway, I wonder if you heard about it?
      And I wonder if Jaebeom would have the same fate if he was a korean and not a korean-american considering how koreans still have a prejudice over foreigners and americans in general. Also comparing Jaebeom’s situation with other artists situation like other idols that also made mistake, the way the koreans acted with a korean american like Jaebeom was way more radical than how they acted towards even bigger mistakes made by koreans idols and artists (like Kangin, Super Junior member that had a hit-and-run alcohol problem and fighted on clubs and Ryu Siwon, famous actor, that even killed a person when he was driving in high speed. Both of them still have careers in Korea and the public didn’t create suicide petitions and tryied to force them to leave the country like what they did to Jaebeom and his MYSPACE comments written when he was only 17-18 years old and unfamiliar with korean culture.)


  17. personally i think that her embarrassment is a mix of both fake and real. considering her age and how the cultural norm is to be shy and introverted, esp around guys, it’s hard to draw the line between what she’s really like and what she thinks society wants her to be [esp when there’s a camera in her face filming].

    there are television programs where the women aren’t like that, for instance hyori & yejin in family outing and park kyung lim [from what i remember] in xman. but these women are older and have developed a stronger sense of self and who they are on and off camera.

    as for her personal during a performance, it’s up to the production company and the choreographer to decide that they want the girls to dance that way on stage. it’d be kinda awkward to see her dancing and singing those songs with a big bubbly smile.

    i don’t know if i’m making a lot of sense but that’s my two cents…. huh… it sorta rhymed.

    anyways, love this site. wish i had found it a year ago when i was taking my korea entertainment class


    1. Don’t know what to add sorry, although yeah: I’d say it’s primarily affected by women in their early-20s…and come to think of almost never by married women, although I might be wrong (I don’t really get to see how Korean married couples interact on TV unfortunately).

      Anyway, thanks for the compliments. And was that a university class?


  18. It’s 100% real…but for women in “showbiz” hmm not so sure. My FOB Korean-American friends both guys and girls are pretty conservative and do NOT have you-know-what before marriage. Well…except for the ones who dated Americans (read “white people”). LOL No kidding.

    Also, in a lot of cultures (except maybe Brazil or Sweden or something) children are not as advanced in sexual behavior as American youth. It is hard for some Americans to believe, I think. But it’s equally difficult for people to believe that children in junior and high school in the US have consentual sex.

    I think a lot of parents from overseas kind of recoil from that kind of behavior and are “overprotective” with their kids here in the US.

    It’s unheard of in other countries for normal teenagers to engage in sexual activity. A lot of girls and boys abstain from sex before marriage…or at least into their twenties.

    It’s even difficult to have a sexual relationship in a lot of countries as an unmarried adult. It’s not like your parents are going to let you have $ex in the house! LOL Yep parents in the US do that, but in a lot of countries, that is CRAZY.

    If you want the girlfriend or boyfriend to “spend the night” you’d better dig your own grave, first. LOL At least in Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East women DO NOT LIVE ALONE. A decent girl of any age DOES NOT LIVE ALONE. If a girl lives outside of her family people will label her as a *slut and treat her accordingly. It’s even difficult to have guys visit you. That’s for a nice girl. Girls who are b*tches as my husband calls them in his mysoginistic way, live alone, have men friends and have sex without getting married. But apparently those girls are headed for lives as social outcasts and lifelong prostitutes. LOL

    But with all of the rumors about the kpop industry…I really suspect a lot of those girls are “experienced”…but I could be wrong. A lot of the ajussis are perverts so it’s probably easy to say…”just put your hand there…it makes the video look better” to a not-too-bright young girl.

    BTW Curtis…I have come to the sad conclusion that aegyo is just for entertainment LOL I personally have never seen a real-live Korean person do any Aegyo. But anything is possible. Maybe if you try to do aegyo first the girl will be so grossed out she’ll do it back. LOL

    FYI guys I’m pretty sure “aegyo”/cuteness/”kawaii” started as a fad in Japan. I think stars are just copying it because it’s so appealing to fans. Also, I believe the lotsa makeup, tight pants, “I’m a slutty homo teeny twink boy who appeals to women” thing also started in J-rock as well. It’s a shame…beause I think Koreans just do it so much better.


    1. Sorry to disagree with you so often(!), but I see Korean women do aegyo literally almost every day. Mostly among my university students, granted, but I regularly see it done by women in their mid- and late-20s too.


  19. I agree with the majority of Zellie’s argument. The reason for this is someone you mentioned in another one of your blog posts: Lady Gaga. While she clearly has a sexualized image that she herself exhibits and perpetuates in her music videos and concerts, there is a large shiszm between that behavior and the behavior she exhibits during interviews and speeches. I don’t remember where I read this, but it is purportedly because “Lady Gaga” is an image Lady Gaga created for both appeal to mass culture while still retaining the use of artistic traits as well as to exhume her various philosophies, most noticeably in conjunction with her song and music video “Born This Way”. So, the image these girls created/were created for them exists to serve a purpose which may or may not be independent of their true selves. Pressures from society to act a specific way in front of other people also exist, influencing their actions, which may or may not be their true selves.

    What would be really interesting is to see how much of an influence Korean Society had on the influence of the creation of these sexualized music videos and how much was created by the girls themselves for either liberation, philosophical, or other means.

    As a note regarding most of your blogs, you seem to operate under the assumption the the populace follows the trends instigated in media either through commercials or otherwise. You do make a distinction between intention and effect on more then one occasion, but you articles and statements and conclusions read as if you assume the populace is inherently effected by these commercials. I live in the US, and no one I know–or have met, other then one or two odd people– dress like “movie stars” or act like “movie stars” at all. In general there is a movement to not be like what you see on TV. Women don’t wear revealing clothing, and many choose not to wear make-up. In fact, both men and women are most likely to wear jeans and a t-shirt when given the option. Granted, I live in a minor city instead of Sacramento, New York, or Chicago, but the sentiment is still there. When I was in Norway both women and men were like peacocks, wearing clothing depicted in Amercian movies. It was a bit disturbing to see the fantasies of television translated to real life. So, where does Korea society fall in regards to this reaction scale?


    1. I completely agree with you about Lady Gaga, informative comments like yours and Zellie’s meaning that my feelings on the issues raised by this post have changed a great deal since it was written over a year ago. But I think the line of approach you take with your point “What would be really interesting is to see how much of an influence Korean Society had on the influence of the creation of these sexualized music videos and how much was created by the girls themselves for either liberation, philosophical, or other means” is a bit vague and misguided though, as the girls themselves would have had precisely zero impact in their creation; rather, the process is strictly controlled by their management companies. And the “influence” of “Korean society” on the managers, producers, and choreographers and so on in those companies is a bit nebulous at best, and it’s much more useful to look at the how and why of the influence of very specific groups like, say, the plethora of government bodies with jurisdiction over (and corporatist interest in) censorship.

      As for my operating “under the assumption that the populace [automatically] follows the trends instigated in media either through commercials or otherwise” etc., I certainly don’t think like that, but accept that I have may not have paid enough attention to that avoiding that in my writing and so given the wrong impression in the past, although I think I’m pretty careful about it these days at least. But unless you give me specific examples in specific posts then I can’t really respond any more to your criticism I’m afraid, although I will say that, despite the question you pose at the end of your paragraph, in most of it you do seem to be very much projecting your experience of people’s attitudes from a minor city in the US on Koreans, a wholly different society with quite a different relationship with the media. To put it mildly, I think this is mistaken, and I find it surprising that you would mention that Norwegians’ have very different attitudes to Americans, as if this possibility wouldn’t equally apply to Koreans.

      Sorry if I’ve misinterpreted you with that last, but that was definitely the impression I got from what you wrote!


  20. I think the writer doesn’t want women to wear makeup, perfume, or do some women kind of things because men and women are same or equal.


    1. Oh, I know the writer much better than you, and am pretty certain that he couldn’t care less about your one-liner.

      Provide some actual evidence that he doesn’t want women to wear makeup or perfume, or don’t bother writing again.


  21. I found this article because someone found my blog through here… how? Don’t ask me as I don’t see anything that might link me back to my blog, which, by the way is about Asian pop-culture and some other things. Aside from the fact that now it will be officially linked, I am grateful to whoever found my blog through this post, because I had the pleasure of reading your article James, and the responses you got (all of them). I found myself agreeing with many, and surprised at some of the things that have been said about Kpop idols being banned because of immature comments, which don’t seem important enough to ask for their lives in return. Not that “asking for their lives in return” would ever be a reasonable choice for any one. I find it to be extremely evil, especially coming from their own fans.

    May I add the recent incident with Kpop group Block B. I blog with two other girls fan of Asian culture, and we have written about this incident because its simply outrageous that Kpop groups or any of their celebrities would get banned, or harshly criticized for making immature mistakes, as to make rude comments on interviews or their personal home page.

    Very good article, I loved it, and one thing is clear, I will roam around your world a bit more… may I? :)


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