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: Squee!

Lee Hyori The Baddest Girl(Source)

From part of an email interview of me (and many other bloggers) at The Korea Blog last month:

….I actually kind of called him out as a Korea hater, which he rebutted thoroughly.

Jon: Reading your site, I get the strong impression that you’re not a fan of a lot of the content you analyse and criticise, especially K-pop. I’m not into it myself, but I don’t spend much time thinking about it. What is your relationship to your subject matter?

James: Well, given the huge time and commitment involved, it’s never a good idea to write about something you don’t even like. So as it turns out, I’m actually a big fan.

That said, there’s always a great deal to criticize K-pop and the Korean media on how they objectify women, encourage unhealthy body ideals, and present such passive gender and sexual roles for them. And with such limited time to write, plus — until very recently — so few writers out there willing to bring any kind of academic research to their own critiques (not that I claim to be an academic myself!), then it was easy for my writing to fall into a certain pattern.

On the other hand, I do try to avoid sounding so cynical and repetitive. So, by coincidence, in (update: *cough*) two weeks I’ll be posting an article about indie girl-groups that reject being objectified for instance, chosen to counter one going up this week about mainstream girl-groups that don’t (update: although it turned out to be much more complicated than that!). And, when K-pop does produce something that defies the stereotypes, then I’m just as gushing as any fanboy — just see my review of Ga-in’s Bloom!

Lee Hyori Nylon Korea May 2013(Source)

See the link for the rest, and for more on many other bloggers you should be reading. As for Lee Hyori…well, this post is just an excuse to post that picture and indulge in some more of that socially-conscious fanboying really, of which she is just as deserving as Ga-in. But I am looking forward to her comeback (see here for some video teasers), and hope that it’s well received, which would bring much more attention and support to the causes she’s embraced.

Until then, apologies to those who don’t share my love of her, but you are dead to me and I promise more of that cynicism and repetition soon. To everyone else, note that the above edition of Nylon is now available in stores, unlike — grrr — last Wednesday evening (and Thursday morning, and Friday, and…) when I first heard of her inclusion, and — oh, yes — squee!

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 5: Links

So Ji-sub Vivian(Source: Vivien)

In Part 4 back in February, I mentioned that Korean women were getting less breast augmentation and more breast reduction procedures than their counterparts in the US and Brazil, despite having a genetic predisposition towards small(er) breasts. Add that North Koreans think busty women are “intentionally and lewdly stressing [their] femininity,” and that Wacoal’s ‘Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small’ would probably be just as popular in Korea as in Japan, then I wrote that all signs point to “a big disconnect between ordinary Koreans’ — and even models’ — attitudes to fashion, body image, and sexuality and what you may see on Korean TV.”

Won Bin Beyond 1As Dr. Roald Maliangkay at the Australian National University points out however, it’s very much the same with men:

….The majority of men appearing on posters and billboards are celebrities. Although the wide use of cosmetic surgery is making men look increasingly similar, they are often associated not merely with a product, but also with a popular drama, and in some cases, a steamy bed or bathroom scene. That is not something the average worker would ever seek to emulate, nor be able to, as the nation’s corporate dress code remains conservative.

See “The bra boys of South Korea” at World News Australia for more, which is mostly about the kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon, or here for more on the disproportionate role of celebrity endorsements in the Korean media (source, right: Wonbin Thailand).

Next, in Part 4 I also discussed how official North Korean attitudes to women’s clothing have been changing in response to women increasingly becoming breadwinners, generally becoming more restrictive. For more on this “Female Face of North Korean Capitalism,” see Andrei Lankov’s recent lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul:

Third, via Lisa Wade at Sociological Images, here is:

…a great short clip instructing women workers newly employed in industrial factories during World War II on how to do their hair to maximize safety. It assumes both ignorance and vanity on the part of women and speaks to the lack of efficiency caused by efforts to remain attractive on the line.

As I pointed out in — yes, again — Part 4, those assumptions about vanity need to be placed in the context of wartime shortages, when attention to beauty and fashion were viewed as extravagant and unpatriotic. But despite that, women’s anxieties about both were still explicitly encouraged, preyed upon, and/or encouraged by industry, and actually even by the government itself. The ensuing contradictions, double-standards, hypocrisy, and backlash are very similar to what has been occurring in South Korea since the 2000s with women’s rapid entrance into the (part-time) workforce, and make comparisons very useful and compelling.

world war 2 women workersFor more on the backlash in Korea specifically, see “The hate underlying the ‘__ Girl series’ and criticism of women’s organizations” at ILDA (in addition to all the links in previous posts in the series). Finally, for more on the wartime US case, first see “The Impact of War on 1940′s Fashion in the USA” at Glamor Daze for a primer on women’s fashions in the period; then, see Bored Panda for rare color photographs of women working in aircraft manufacturing plants in World War Two, taken by:

“Alfred T. Palmer who worked for the Office of War Information (responsible for promoting patriotism, war news management and women recruitment)” whose photos “had to lure young women into the factories by showing women workers as glamorous and even fashionable.” (My emphasis; see example on right).

Update: also see Kathryn M. Brown’s 2010 MA thesis Patriotic Support: The Girdle Pin-up of World War 2 (it can’t be directly linked sorry—type the title into the searchbar) for more on how malleable and adaptable — and, as explained, ultimately hypocritical and contradictory — the language, prevailing standards for, and attitudes towards beauty and fashion proved to be for the needs of government and industry (see Part 3 for modern Korean and earlier US parallels also).

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Announcements: Two Very Worthy Causes to Support!


Today, some information about two very worthy causes.

First, on ongoing volunteer opportunities for the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association in Daegu and the 3rd Single Moms’ Day Conference this May. Then, on a Kickstarter campaign for a full length documentary film seeking to help preserve and spread knowledge of the shamanistic practices and shrine religion of Jeju Island:

I. The Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA) is an organization that works to promote children’s human rights while addressing systemic discrimination. KUMFA advocates for the human rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. KUMFA’s goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to keep their babies if they choose, and thrive in Korean society.

More information is available in the following interview and at the Single Moms’ Day event page:

Daegu KUMFA Volunteer Opportunities (ongoing):

The Daegu Branch of the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association will hold meetings and provide classes for their members. KUMFA Daegu seeks volunteers to provide childcare during the classes. In the future other types of volunteer opportunities may arise. For additional details please visit the KUMFA Facebook Page or contact us directly at kumfa.volunteer@gmail dot com.

Seoul KUMFA Volunteer Opportunities (ongoing):

The Seoul Branch of Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association has ongoing volunteer and learning opportunities. Sign up by joining the Facebook group.

II. Seoul Conference (May 10-11, 2013): The 3rd Single Moms’ Day Conference:

SMD advocates for human rights in a number of important ways, in particularly by addressing systemic discrimination by “informing people inside and outside Korea about the factors that pressure unwed mothers to relinquish their children for adoption. Push factors include fathers’ child support obligations being unenforced; lack of adequate social welfare from the Korean government; social discrimination against unwed mothers and their children. Pull factors include the fact that more than half of unwed mothers in facilities are living in unwed mothers’ shelters that are owned and operated by adoption agencies; a money-driven international adoption system that does not conform to the UN CRC or the Hague Convention, i.e., it does not respect children’s humans rights.”

For more information or to make a donation, please visit the SMD event page. Here is some volunteer testimony:

“I have been involved with SMD and related projects for two years. I’ve learned a lot from this really inspiring collaboration of groups that fight for Korean children’s human rights, including: parents whose children were adopted by unethical means; unwed parents who are fighting workplace and social discrimination to raise their children; adult adoptees who campaign for ethical reforms to adoption laws; supporters and volunteers who work to bring policies into the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Next, on Jeju Documentarian Giuseppe Rositano’s Kickstarter campaign. Please do check the link for additional information, and on why your help is needed:

Jeju 1As a popular tourist destination in South Korea, Jeju Island has risen to fame predominantly for its natural wonders: hiking trails in abundance, scenic ocean views and South Korea’s highest mountain. It is possible to experience these in just a few short days, but staying on the island a bit longer or even making it a home provides the opportunities to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of some of the more interesting aspects of Jeju. Documentarian Giuseppe Rositano, Jeju Island resident of 7 years, explores some of these more interesting aspects of Jeju life, specifically the shamanistic beliefs and shrine religion of Jeju Island that is in danger due to the rapidly declining population of believers.

Jeju 2Spanning the course of 18 months and accumulating more than 500 hours of shamanistic ceremonies and traditional storytelling on film, Rositano captures the spiritual life of 5 villages through exploration of their native deities and traditional oral stories that have been passed down through generations. These stories, which describe the lives of Jeju’s extensive pantheon, are quickly disappearing. At Search is an attempt to preserve these unique indigenous beliefs.

Each village on Jeju Island has several shrines in which local deities specific to the island are ‘seated’. Each of these deities corresponds to a ‘bonpuli’ or oral myth. With an adventurous spirit, this documentary sets out to capture the retelling of these ‘bonpuli’ legends in the voice of what is likely the final generation of elders who received the stories from their parents and grandparents. Sadly, younger generations are seldom aware of these stories which serve as the cornerstones for their grandparents’ spiritual lives and cultural identity. With over 400 shrines on the island and a total of 18,000 gods on Jeju, that’s quite a loss to humanity’s cultural history!

Jeju 3Currently At Search for Spirits on the Island of Rocks, Wind and Women is in post-production. Rositano and team have launched a kickstarter campaign to raise funds to bring the project to completion and to get it out to film festivals around the world.

Quick Hit: Korean Play 10 Girls ChoonHyang Satirizes Sexual Objectification

10 Girls ChoonHyang(Source)

First, watch this short MBN news report about the play. Unfortunately, I can’t embed or save the video, but I can provide a transcript:

열녀춘향‘, 고전 비틀기로 성상품화 고발 / 10 Girls ChoonHyang: A Twist on the Korean Classic to Critique Sexual Objectification

앵커멘트: 요즘 성폭력이 사회적으로 큰 골칫거리인데요. 이러한 풍조에 경종을 울리는 작품이 대학로의 한 소극장에서 공연되고 있습니다. 서주영 기잡니다.

Anchor: In recent days, sexual violence is becoming a very troubling social issue. One play in a theater on Daehangno (“College Street”) is ringing alarm bells about this trend. Seo Ju-yeong reports.

기자: 딱 붙는 셔츠와 핫팬츠를 입은 여성들이 소극장 무대에 잇따라 등장합니다. 어설픈 리듬체조와 몸을 사리지 않는 레슬링은 섹시함을 강조합니다. 지조와 절개의 상징인 춘향을 현대 남성들이 원하는 시선에 빗대 발칙하게 표현합니다.

Reporter: Women wearing tight t-shirts and hot-pants come out in succession onto the stage. Their awkward rhythmical gymnastics and reckless wrestling emphasizes their sexiness. Through ChoonHyang, a [classic] symbol of principles and fidelity, it savagely satirizes the modern male gaze.

10 Girls ChoonHyang 2(Sources: left and center, right)

인터뷰, 박현지 / ‘열녀춘향’ 강인한 춘향 역: “기본적으로는 춘향을 바라보는 시선 자체가 남성의 시선으로서 바라보는 거잖아요. 그러니까 그 욕망 자체가 그 안에 녹아져있다라는 설정하에서….”

Interview, Park Hyun-ji, ‘Strong ChoonHyang’ character: “Basically, to think about ChoonHyang is to ponder the male gaze. This desire is a strong theme of the play….”

바이올린 연주자를 훔쳐보는 남성들의 모습과 농염한 포즈로 고추전을 만드는 장면은 성상품화를 직접적으로 풍자합니다. 남녀 관객 모두 즐거운 표정이지만, 작품에 대한 시선은 조금 다릅니다.

ten girls choonhyang 2Scenes in which men secretly watch a female violin player, and in which a women suggestively make pepper pancakes, are direct satires of sexual objectification.

All members of the audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but men and women had slightly different perspectives on it (source, right).

인터뷰 , 정영신 / 서울 성산동:  “(너무) 노골적이지도 않고 아주 재미있게 잘 표현해낸 것 같아요.”

Interview, Jeong Yeong-shin, Seoul Seongsan-dong: “The subject wasn’t (too) blunt, and it was expressed well and interestingly,”

인터뷰, 이해림 / 서울 서초동: “남녀 간의 성관계를 주제로 했던 것 자체가 파격적이었어요.”

Interview, Lee Hye-rim, Seoul Seocho-dong: “It was very striking that the play’s theme was sexual relationships between men and women.”

무대에서 펼치는 고전의 비틀기가 성상품화라는 사회문제에 따끔하게 일침을 가하고 있습니다.

10 Girls ChoonHyang CastBy giving a twist on a classic, this play offers stinging criticism of the social problem of sexual objectification (end; source, right).

The theater was the Guerrilla Theater (게릴라극장); the director, Kim Hyeon-tak (김현탁); and the theater group Seongbukdong Beedoolkee (성북동비둘기). Alas, the play actually ended at the end of last month sorry, but I’ll keep an eye out for any more interesting performances by them in the future. And I’m happy to translate much longer, more substantive reviews and/or articles on 10 Girls ChoonHyang if anyone expresses an interest in the comments!

Off The Record: Lee Hyolee — Catch it while you can!

Lee Hyori Off The Record(Sources: left, right)

Reading recent discussions about 2NE1tv and the BBC’s Idol, I was reminded of Lee Hyori’s endearing Off The Record series from 2008, which I’ve tried and failed to find online for years. So I checked again, and to my amazement and consternation discovered that blogger 쓰리에스의 한류 Story has actually had all 12 episodes up since last May…

Needless to say, all of them were rapidly in my possession, via this Firefox extension. Normally, it doesn’t work for Naver videos, but I lucked out in this case.

For those who’ve never heard of the series though, please note that it’s hardly a critique of the Korean entertainment industry akin to Idol. But, it does provide some insights into the day-to-day practicalities of it, and makes it obvious why Lee Hyori — Korea’s first ethical sex-symbol — was so popular in the 2000s. Also, even in the rare event that you don’t become a fan yourself, it’s still a valuable Korean study tool, providing a rare combination of everyday Korean language and Korean subtitles that isn’t in the form of an inane gameshow or clichéd drama.

What are you waiting for??