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:
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):
….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….
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:
- Syndrome (신드롬) by ChoColat (쇼콜라): Lyrics, Translation, and Explanation / Reading The Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 5
- Reading The Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 4: A Wave of Middle School Girls Wearing Make-up…Is it all Girl Groups’ Fault?
- Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 3: Six Year-Old Does KARA’s “Butt Dance” (엉덩이 춤) on “Shabekuri 007″
- Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 2: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image
- Reading “The Lolita Effect” in South Korea: Part 1
- Should the Sexualization of Teens in K-Pop be Banned?
(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)