SISTAR19: Begone, Calling Them “Objectified” Any Longer

Sistar19 Gone Not Around Any Longer(“Victims? Nous?” Source)

Misuse feminist rhetoric, and it’s easy to come across as a prude.

The author of this music column, for instance, laments that SISTAR19 are mere victims, forced to objectify themselves by their management agency. But he never provides any evidence of that coercion, nor elaborates on how members Hyorin and Bora “cross a line” with their sexy dances and tight clothes exactly. By the end of his column, he comes across as a borderline slut-shamer.

Had he not also divulged that, “as a man,” he still likes the results, it would be easy to conclude that they really just made him uncomfortable somehow, his claims of objectification a mere rationalization.

As feminists are accused of all the time, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.

Still, surely we’ve all been guilty of being too liberal with the ‘O’ word on occasion, and/or lost sight of the fact that it’s actually just as complicated as any ‘ism.’ To make sure everyone is on the same page in future discussions, it would be useful to have a list of its various forms to refer to.

After the translation of the column, I’ll provide two: the Sex Object Test (SOT) devised by Caroline Heldman at Sociological Images, then Evangelia Papadaki’s “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002). As quickly becomes apparent from them, you may well call SISTAR19’s sexy costumes and choreography crude and unoriginal, but objectifying? They don’t register on those criteria at all. And, by extension, neither does a lot of K-pop.


[HStereo의 음악칼럼]씨스타19 있다 없으니까를 통해 본 여자 아이돌의 성 상품화(19금) / [HStereo’s Music Column] Female Idols are Objectified through SISTAR19’s Gone Not Around Any Longer

HStereo Planet, 8 February 2013

확실히 통했다. 씨스타19의 이번 있다 없으니까는 요즘 가장 인기있는 노래이고 공중파에서 1위를 차지하며 씨스타의 인기를 유닛그룹인 씨스타19(효린,보라)로도 계속해서 이어나가고 있다. 안타까운 것은, 씨스타 19를 통해 돌아본 대한민국 여자 아이돌 문화가 가면 갈수록 너무 성 상품화 되고 있는것이 아닌가하는 우려가 생기며 이번 칼럼을 쓰게 됬다. 그리고 이번 칼럼은 섹시컨셉의 글을 건드리는 부분인 만큼 19금으로 가게 될것이다. 사실, 필자도 남자인지라 이번 씨스타19, 너무 좋다. SNL의 이엉돈PD가 씨스타19를 본다면 “저도 참 좋아하는데요, 제가 한번..” 하는 섹드립을 치게 될법한 무대이다. 그만큼 섹시하다. 근데 진짜 솔직히 이 정도 선에서 섹시는 끝나야 한다. 사람들은 시간이 지날수록 더 자극적인걸 원하고 더 야한걸 원하게 된다. 어찌보면 이 시작은 섹시 아이돌이라고 하는 컨셉으로 나오는 여자 가수들의 공통적인 특징이고 “내가 더 야해” 라고 말하고 있는것같은 느낌까지 받게 된다.

It definitely worked: SISTAR19’s song Gone Not Around Any Longer is the most popular song these days, getting a number 1 ranking on the main public broadcast channels. This is having a knock-on effect on SISTAR’s own popularity. This is worrying — SISTAR19 has gotten me thinking about how, as time goes by, Korean female idol culture is becoming too full of sexual objectification.

Since this column is about sexual concepts, it is adults-only. And, because the writer is a man, he likes SISTAR19! Indeed, if Lee Yeong-don, the Production Director of SNL Korea saw them, he would make a sexual joke like “Oh, I really like them too. Can I just one time…” — they’re that sexy. [But] if I speak really honestly, they [still] cross a line.

As time goes by, people want to see more stimulating and revealing things. I get the feeling that, perhaps, this sexy idol concept is the start of female singers all having the common trait of announcing “I am more sexual and revealing [than other female singers].”

(씨스타19의 새앨범 타이틀곡 “있다 없으니까”의 MBC 음악중심 무대영상. 뮤직비디오보다 확실히 무대를 보는게 더 섹시를 강조했다. 특히 투명의자에서 추는 “착시댄스”는 보자마자 놀랠정도로 야했다)

(Caption: A video of SISTAR19 performing their new title song Gone Not Around Any Longer on MBC’s [February 2nd] “Music Core” show. It is much more sexual than the song’s actual music video. In particular, it was their ‘Illusion Dance’ performed on a transparent, perspex bench that immediately showed me how lewd it was.)

James: Here is the — choreography and costumes-wise — virtually identical music video:

물론 이들이 잘못했다는 건 아니다. 남자관점에서 보면 이렇게 섹시아이돌이 나와주는건 고마운(?) 일이다. 다만, 앞서 말했듯이 이제는 어느정도의 수위조절이 필요한것은 아닐까? 하는 생각이 들었다. 씨스타19의 효린같은 경우에는 이미 가창력으로도 인정을 받았어서 필자 개인적으로는 이들이 진정으로 “음악성”으로 승부해도 충분한 아이돌이 될텐데, 왜 자꾸 소속사에서는 옷을 못벗겨 안달이 난것마냥 상품화를 시켜버렸다는것이 좀 안타깝게 작용된다.

Of course, I’m not saying that they did anything wrong. From men’s perspective, we’re grateful for the sexy idols. However, as I said before, this level of exposure needs adjusting [reduced]. This is what I think: SISTAR19’s Hyorin has already been acknowledged for her singing ability; if it came to a contest over true musical talent, SISTAR19 would hold their own. Why then, is their agency so eager to make them constantly take their clothes off? I feel bad that they’re sexually-objectified like this.

(최근 논란이 된 소주브랜드 “처음처럼”의 19금 광고영상. 씨스타의 효린, 포미닛의 현아, 카라의 구하라, 이렇게 3명이 광고모델이 됬다. 논란이 된것은, 유튜브를 이용하여 소셜마케팅을 사용했는데, 조회수 공약으로 높아질수록 광고가 더 야해지는 기발한 S코드의 광고를 찍었다. 이를 보며 수많은 사람들은 여자 아이돌을 “벗기기”를 원하고 있고, 이에 계속 여성의 성 상품화가 적당선에서 계속 흔들거리며 위험수위에 오르지 않을까라는 생각이 들었다.)

(Caption: The controversial R18 commercial for the soju brand Like the First Time; SISTAR’s Hyorin, 4Minute’s Hyuna, and KARA’s Gu Hara are the models. The controversy comes from using the ‘Extraordinary S Code’ social marketing strategy of promising an even more revealing commercial the more hits gained on YouTube. Seeing this, many viewers call for female idols to wear less; if this continues, I fear the sexual objectification of women will overstep a line.)

반면, 현재 아이돌에서 가장 성 상품화 되있는 여자 가수는 누굴까? 누가 뭐래도 바로 현아라고 생각한다. 여자에겐 수치일수도, 자부심일수도 있지만, 그녀는 “패왕색기”라는 별명까지 붙어가며 섹시로 밀고 나가게 되었다. 사실 이는, 대중들이 만들어낸 문화적 코드이다. 안타까운건 아직 나이도 어린 그녀가 너무 “섹시”로만 밀고 나가며 정작 실력있는 뮤지션으로 인정받기가 힘들어질것 같다는 생각이 들었다. 사람이 한번 정해진 이미지는 쉽게 바꾸기 힘들기 때문이다.

Hyuna Ice CreamWho is the most sexually objectified female singer these days? I’d wager most people would answer Hyuna. To [most] women, such a label could be seen as something shameful, or alternatively as a sign of arrogance. But to someone with the nickname of ‘The One and Only Supreme Queen’ however, this only further promotes her sexual image.

On the other hand, this is just the role the public has designated for her. Yet she is still quite young for it. I worry that if she continues to be labelled and promoted this way, she will never be acknowledged as a musician. It is difficult to change one’s image once it has been set in the public imagination.

(여자 아이돌중에 가장 상품화가 많이 된 아이돌은 단연 현아다. 사실 강남스타일에서 같이 나온 덕분에 외국에 많이 알려진 것도 있고 美빌보드 지에서는 현아를 전 세계 섹시한 여자아이돌 17위에 랭크시키며 세계시장 진출에 큰 가능성이 있는 아이돌이라고 극찬을 하였다.)

(Caption, right: Among female idols, the most sexually-objectified one is of course Hyuna. Thanks to Gangnam Style, she has received a lot of attention and praise overseas, ranking 17th in a list of “Sexist Female Idols” in the U.S. Billboard magazine. She now has a lot of potential to make it big internationally.)

헌데 세계적인 문화 코드로 봐서, 섹시컨셉은 결코 야하고 음란한것이 아닌, 대중문화의 한 큰 틀이 되었다. 그렇기에 빌보드에서도 현아를 세계적인 섹시 여가수 17위에 랭크시킨것은 아닐까? 넓게 보자니 세계문화속에 한국 아이돌이 어우러져 좋을수도 있지만 좁게 보자니 시간이 지날수록 도를 심하게 넘을까 우려되는 것도 어쩔수 없는 현상인듯 하다.

By the way, looking at the world cultural code, a sexy concept is [now] never a too risqué or lewd thing, but a fundamental part of popular culture. Isn’t that why Hyuna was [noticed] by Billboard magazine? Looking at the big picture, it is wonderful that Korean idols are integrating so harmoniously into world culture. But looking more narrowly, as time goes by I am also more and more worried by this phenomenon.

Rainbow japan galbo

(한류로 인해 수많은 가수들이 일본이나 동남아, 미국으로 진출하고 있다. 그 예로 일본에서 최근 성황리에 활동중인 레인보우. 메이지식품의 “갈보” 초코렛의 광고 모델이 되었는데. 갈보가 일본어로는 “가루보”라고 발음이 되는데, 그게 중요한것이 아니라 왜 하필 한국에서는 정말 입에 담기 힘든 속어인 “갈보”초코렛의 모델이 왜 하필 또 한국 아이돌가수냐는 뜻이다. 그전에, 이들은 이 뜻을 알고는 찍은걸까?)

(Caption: Through Hallyu, many singers are being promoted in Japan, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Take Rainbow for example. Recently successful in Japan, they have become endorsers for Meiji Seika’s  “Galbo” chocolate. Whereas in Japanese, it is pronounced “ga-roo-bo,” in Korean “galbo” is a slang word that I can not bring myself to say. Why on Earth are Korean idols endorsing this product? Didn’t they know beforehand?)

한류를 통해 수많은 가수들이 세계로 진출하고 있다. 위의 레인보우 예시처럼, 스스로를 저렇게 “갈보”라고 외칠수 있게 하는 이 대중문화 시장이 이상하게 여기는건 기분탓일수도 있지만, 엄연히 한국의 아이돌이고 갈보라는 뜻은 한국어로는 심하게 안좋은 뜻이다. (뜻을 모르는 사람들을 위해 대놓고 말해서 “걸레창녀”라고 이해하면 된다) 그런 뜻을 알고 이들은 광고를 찍은걸지도 의심되며 기획사 측에서는 파장이 커진다면 어떻게 될지도 생각을 해볼 문제로 판단된다. 문화적 코드로 자리잡은 “한류”에 스스로 먹칠을 가하게 되는 사건이 아닐지, 우려가 되기도 했다. 특히나 레인보우 같은 경우에도 “섹시컨셉”을 밀고 나가는 아이돌가수 아닌가? 이 광고가 과연 19금일까?

Through Hallyu, many singers are promoting themselves overseas. With the above example of Rainbow, it could just be my personal feelings that make me think it strange that the popular culture market makes them yell “galbo” at each other. But they are distinctively Korean idols, and that means something very bad in Korean (for those of you that don’t know, it means “hooker”). Actually, I suspect that they did do, and their agency will view this a problem if news about it spreads further. I also worry that, through such disgrace, they will ruin the established cultural code [image] of Hallyu. Especially in the case of Rainbow, who heavily promote their sexy concept. Is this ad ultimately R18?

SISTAR19 Gone Not Around Any Longer

(가장 요즘 핫한 댄스인 “착시댄스” 이보다 선을 넘는다면 아이돌에게는 이제 기회보단 위기로 다가올수도 있다)

(Caption: The hottest dance at the moment is this “illusion dance.”  But if they cross the line any more, it will become more of a crisis for them than an opportunity [to get noticed])

한류가 계속해서 이어나가고 여자 아이돌 가수가 세계적 진출을 하기 위해선, 섹시컨셉을 버리라는 말은 절대 못하겠다. 허나, 어느정도 선을 유지시켜야 하는것이 맞다고 판단된다. 섹시의 기준을 넘어 싸보이게 가면 안된다는 뜻을 비추는 것이기 때문이다. 좀 심한말로, 섹스를 못해서 안달이 나게 보이면 그건 문제가 있다고 보기 때문이다. 기획사측에게 바라는 것 하나는, 적당한 선의 섹시컨셉과 실력으로 승부할수 있는 아이돌들을 발굴하고 만들어내주길 바랄뿐이다.

In order for Hallyu to continue, and to promote female idols and singers overseas, I can’t bring myself to say they should stop using sexy concepts. But I do think there should be limits: [because] if they overdo it, it emphasizes how cheap that can look. Speaking very harshly, I think it’s a problem if they look too sexually available. One thing I expect from agencies, is that they scout for people who can compete more on ability than on sexual appeal (end).


Whatever our opinion of the author, simply shouting “objectification” doesn’t settle an argument. Instead, he could have used the SOT from Sociological Images, which provides the following suggested criteria to check for (technically only for images, but clearly also applicable to music videos and performances):

1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?

2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?

3) Does the image show a sexualized person as interchangeable?

4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person that can’t consent?

5) Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?

6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity (something that can be bought and sold)?

7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

For examples and further discussions of each, see the original post, and I highly recommend also reading Parts 2, 3, and 4 on the harm caused by objectification, and the daily rituals to stop and start doing to avoid that respectively. Like Gender Advertisements by Erving Goffman (1979), it’s one of those rare pieces that immediately changes your view of the world.

In my case, by allowing me to put my finger on how this Makgeollu ad objectifies Kang So-ra for instance, seen — I kid you not — less then 5 minutes after reading the SOT posts in my local Starbucks. It’s #5, by suggesting that sexual availability is her defining characteristic:

Kang So-ra Ad Objectification through reduction to sexual availability(Source, right)

Yet however eye-opening, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the SOT ultimately only provides a short, really quite superficial introduction to the subject, commenters at Sociological Images questioning categories 3 and 7 in particular. In that vein, despite now further appreciating (via Part 2) that objectification as a whole is harmful, I’m yet to be convinced that this particular example is so, either for her or for viewers.

Instead, also knowing that the missionary position is the most commonly used sex position for heterosexual couples, and that women look sexually attractive lying on beds as a result (heightened here by the virginal white), then I see a simple case of sex being used to sell.

It would be excruciatingly inane not to expect that in ads.

On the other hand, it is hardly original. Or, through overuse, particularly effective either. And indeed, it is precisely these sorts of complaints about Gone Not Around Any Longer that have the most validity, not hollow, dogmatic rhetoric about victimization and objectification (although perhaps the masked background dancers do partially qualify under #3?).

SISTAR Ma Boy Body Wave GIFAs explained by Nicholas in his review of the song at Seoulbeats for instance (source, right):

The rest of the music video tended to play out like SISTAR videos past: cube-like neon-lighted sets, with army of back-up dancers (a duo group often equates to a lot of empty space) and emotive posturing next to random objects.

There’s also the SISTAR staple of sexy body waves. While the moves do appear overdone after a while, I’m going to stop ranting about them. After all, this brand of synthesised sexy has become very much a part of their identity. And maybe because of its frequent presences, I’ve become desensitised. As much as I’m numb to this, something must be said about the incongruence of a body wave in a song that talks of pining and loss. No?

As far as I know, that body wave (originally by Beyoncé) was first seen in K-pop in their Ma Boy video, released in April 2011. By the next year, that and ‘booty circles’ had become “two staple moves in the SISTAR arsenal”:

Fany Pack echoes Nicholas in finding it overused however:

It might just be because I don’t have a penis, but I’m getting a little bored with presenting Sistar members as just boobs and ass. I realize they have some of the best bods in kpop (esp. Bora and Hyorin), but come on. Can’t the girls do anything other than stand there and touch themselves? Give them something new to do. I don’t even care if they’re still touching themselves but, like, fighting crime in an action-y video. Or touching themselves while exploring new galaxies in some futuristic, space video. This latest song offers an MV with basically no plot, though.

Before the inevitable “But that’s what ‘Ma Boy’ was like. Why don’t you complain about that song?” response, I know “Ma Boy” had a video about sexy ladies being sexy with no plot. That song was better, though, and didn’t copy the main group’s latest hit so much.

As does Dainty at 2 Scoops of Asia:

The dance (If you can even call it a dance) was a very lazy dance. The choreographer this time around really ran out of ideas so he just threw a bunch of slow movements together to match the tempo. And when that failed, he recycled some old Sistar dances. Shame. Shame. The reason people loved Ma Boy was its odd blend of Cute and Sexy, the fun dance and the catchy song. They had over a year to come back with an equally great concept or better and failed. The editor couldn’t even do his job and edit out Bora’s wardorbe malfunction. I guess they thought if they gave us an overload of sexy, we wouldn’t catch the sloppy editing. This whole video just screams rushed.

Nevertheless, I love the song. The lyrics of the song are very powerful, and the melody is nice….

Finally, it behooves me to mention Dialectofmyown’s take on their above commercial too:

Sistar are the stars of a new Pelicana commercial advertising for chicken and LO AND BEHOLD, that choreographer for Sistar (whoever they are) went and choreo-ed something creative and completely out of the box: body waves. I know a huge shocker, I can’t think of a single other music video in which the majority of Sistar’s dance is composed of body waves and hip rolls and that’s all, well except for all of the music videos they are known for minus Shady Girl….

Without disputing those opinions, it should also be noted that the body waves and hip roles are ultimately no different to any other group’s overused signature move(s), of which there are many (and, seeing as we’re on the subject, here’s an analysis of Rihanna’s “five unique crotch-grabbing techniques” that just appeared in my Twitter feed). Moreover, their admittedly many wardrobe malfunctions aside, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really the double-standards surrounding (asexual) legs and (slutty) large cleavage that are one reason why Hyorin, for one, gets singled out for “sex-instrument talk [and/or] whore-bashing” by netizens “as soon as SISTAR puts out another music video.” Whereas Girls’ Generation, whose legs are so objectified (#1) that they’ve influenced fashion all over Asia, and spawned a medical tourism boom, don’t seem to attract quite the same opprobrium.

Girls' Generation's Legs(Source)

In addition, Sophie of J-Popping fame, writing at Selective Hearing, doesn’t think the choreography is as superfluous as it may seem, placing the music video on the same continuum as Ga-in’s Bloom. I think that’s overdrawn myself, but then I think Bloom is one of the most (sexually) radical K-pop songs of the last decade too, so I’m surely the last person that can accuse someone of reading too much into a music video:

I feel guilty for not saying more about the hyper-sexualization in the video. Certainly, it’s heavily influenced by Ga-in’s ”Bloom: from October 2012, and features sensual depictions of the duo’s sexual desire. There are blindfolded women, the striking contrast of black and white, and a sultry watery motif (It’s a metaphor! For renewal! or…sad!).

Ga-in’s video sparked a debate about whether or not it is empowering for women to be intimately expressing their desires. As “Bloom” was released almost contemporaneously with Hyuna’s “Ice Cream,” participants had to defend their point of view in lieu of a radically different but equally carnal expression of sexuality….

….In particular, the dance [in SISTAR19’s video] is captivatingly visceral. It’s clear from the precision that it’s been highly choreographed, but it’s executed with such emotion that it feels motivated from a place of real emotion. The live performance and dance practice videos have fewer distractions, and I highly recommend viewing them as well.

Debbie Harry Sex ObjectBut we were talking about objectification. So, here are the criteria provided by Evangelia Papadaki in her essay “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification,” available online here:

Objectification is a notion central to feminist theory. It can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object. In this entry, the focus is primarily on sexual objectification, objectification occurring in the sexual realm. Martha Nussbaum (1995, p.257; opens PDF) has identified seven features that are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object (source, above-right):

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Rae Langton (2009, pp.228–229; unavailable to view online, but here is a related essay) has added three more features to Nussbaum’s list:

  1. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  2. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  3. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
Immanuel Kant ponders objectification in K-pop(Sources, edited: left, right)

Papadaki’s essay is quite thorough and academic, so I’ll wisely leave discussion of it to interested readers in the comments But, to get that discussion started, I’d be grateful for your thoughts on a) if and/or how any of these new criteria apply to SISTAR19, and b) two final observations:

— No matter how trendy it may be to dismiss them these days, I don’t think the works of centuries-dead white guys have absolutely nothing to teach us about modern society. But still, I really do wonder why “Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) views on sexual objectification have been particularly influential for contemporary feminist discussions on this topic” especially as, in Papadaki’s words, he ultimately believed that “The only relationship in which two people can exercise their sexuality without the fear of reducing themselves to objects is monogamous marriage,” let alone is someone who wrote well before the development of photography and mass media (italics in original).

— I’m much more persuaded by Nussbaum’s work, especially by the following (my emphasis in bold):

According to Nussbaum, then: ‘In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship (Nussbaum 1995, 271); ‘… objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context’ (Nussbaum 1995, 251). Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent. (Among the negative objectification cases she discusses in her article are Hankinson’s Isabelle and Veronique, the magazine Playboy, and James’s The Golden Bowl). And it is benign/positive, when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent. Nussbaum gives an example of benign objectification: ‘If I am lying around with my lover on the bed, and use his stomach as a pillow there seems to be nothing at all baneful about this, provided that I do so with his consent (or, if he is asleep, with a reasonable belief that he would not mind), and without causing him pain, provided as well, that I do so in the context of a relationship in which he is generally treated as more than a pillow’ (Nussbaum 1995, 265).

Which not only has a lot of relevance to K-Pop’s “Factory Girls” system (and Japan’s “Jimusho” one), but also happens to be a central theme of my Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls? series!

Thoughts? Rants? Raves?

(Update: See here for a follow-up post)

40 thoughts on “SISTAR19: Begone, Calling Them “Objectified” Any Longer

    1. No, the whole point of the post is that many — most — idols are *not* sex objects, despite how often they’re described as such. But then, seeing as your inane comment went up a whole FIVE minutes after the 3900-word post did, you didn’t actually read it did you?

      Banned for…well, reasons that will be obvious to everyone but you I guess. Ironic, considering your name and all.


  1. Nice post James. I’ve been hitting the “objectification’ brick wall in my own studies actually, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

    Cosplay has emerged as a popular element of digital culture. While the idea of cosplay has been around for a while, it’s rise in fame corresponds with the mainstream acceptance of gaming culture. I’ve been debating with an academic colleague about whether or not cosplay is objectification.

    I’ve taken to arguing that it’s not objectification at all for some of the reasons you’ve mentioned here; particularly, that there’s choice involved – cosplayers aren’t forced into it. My argument is that it’s a form of empowerment. While games do have a history of objectifying female characters, cosplayers take those characters and (through the act of making them real life) and turn it to their benefit. Cosplay girls are becoming famous and some are making a lot of money. I think that if a woman is using her sexuality for self-promotion it’s liberating (not objectification). Stereotypes and gender bias will always exist, but if people (mainly women, who are the focus of the discussion) use their bodies in a way that benefits them, then it’s empowerment.

    And it never occurred to me to check your blog for discussion about cosplay … *slaps head* … I’m going to do that now!


    1. Thanks for kind words, but I’m not sure I’m the person to ask sorry. Although I’m now rectifying it of course, researching this post has revealed my own inadequate understanding of objectification, so until I learn more I’m going to have to defer you to the links provided in the post. Also, I’m afraid I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about cosplay!


    2. Fucking males. They’re the ones naively (and out of self interest as well) encouraging women to perpetuate their inferior position in the gender hierarchy by calling their self objectification “empowerment”, some of you need to desperately broaden your horizons and read up on Dworkin and radical feminist discourse.

      I can tell you straight up that this shit is not fucking innocuous and women I know agree with me wholeheartedly because we’re fucking sick of being told that our value resides in the capability of internalizing the male gaze and that such a thing qualifies as empowerment. This is pure patriarchy in action and you’re not bothering to question it. Yeah, you can call it “free will”, but this choice has a context and idols aren’t choosing to do this to themselves, it can be argued to qualify as a form of coercion considering that they’re being paid to sell an “image”.


      1. Calling me an asshole, then claiming I only wrote what I did because I’m a fucking male? That’s an immediate ban, and it’s not like you engaged with a single point I made in the post anyway. Goodbye.


  2. One thing Bloom and ‘Gone..’ do have in common is their music videos are both directed by (two different) women. This is not an argument for or against any position, of course, things can be as objectifying and/or non-objectifying as anything else regardless of author, but since it still does go against the general assumption it’s worth noting. I don’t think they have anything in common except that really, but as far as I can look up on the web all of Sistar’s videos are directed by this woman, 주희선.

    I guess articles about objectification becoming more regular would be… something? But then outrage/faux-controversy over scantily clad idols isn’t anything new and not worth a serious thought unless there’s some more meat to the bone than just that. More writing about the ridic body weight focus in society would be more welcome – the Korean government organs have contributed more than enough hysteria over exposure on their own.


    1. But then outrage/faux-controversy over scantily clad idols isn’t anything new and not worth a serious thought unless there’s some more meat to the bone than just that.

      The moral panic is on the rise though. It’s ironic that on one hand there’s so much hysteria about sexy dancers, but on the other hand advertising is increasingly (and blatantly) focused on body image … a point which this blog has made numerous times.

      I guess that it’s a big part of Korea’s sexual revolution.


      1. @abcfsk Good points, as always. Not for the first time, it’s very helpful to be aware of the directors, lyricists, choreographers, and so on of the MVs. Speaking of which, if they’re not already aware of her, then I highly recommend anyone reading this to check out Kim Eana too, the lyricist to Bloom and many other socially-progressive songs.

        @David Personally, I find that there’s much more concern about teenage performers these days, and deservedly so. With 20-something performers and above though, I see much more cynicism and acceptance than moral panic and hysteria. But of course, that all depends on where you’re standing.


  3. “Of course, I’m not saying that they did anything wrong. From men’s perspective, we’re grateful for the sexy idols.”
    How can this author even be taken seriously? *yawn*


    1. Who said anyone was taking him seriously? :)

      Still, in fairness, I should point out that if his writing appears childish or anything like that, then it’s just as likely to be a fault of my (imperfect) translation than a flaw of the author’s.

      On the other hand, that proviso aside, I have to admit that neither I nor my native speaker wife were exactly impressed with the quality, especially with 1/3 rd to 1/2 being captions, and — a VERY common flaw of things I translate — the constant repetition!


  4. I’d like to disagree with the point that Sistar are seen as more provocative or “cheap” than other groups like Girls’ Generation only because of Hyorin’s rather large chest. I too have long seen Sistar as being more sexually available with the caveman part of my brain and here’s why (skip to 1 min 10 sec):

    The part where they flash their panties is so blatant and deliberate that I think it sends a very clear message about what these women are supposed to be like.

    In my opinion, they have been very much marketed as a “dirty” fantasy, as opposed to the more cutesy stuff you see with other groups. I say all of the above with no moral judgements, by the way, but I do think Sistar is *clearly* on the deliberately “trashier” end of the scale.


    1. I didn’t meant to give the impression that I thought “Sistar are seen as more provocative or ‘cheap’ than other groups like Girls’ Generation only because of Hyorin’s rather large chest” sorry, just that it is one possible factor. I’ll change the text soon (update: done).

      Either way, without disputing that they may be well be marketed as “a dirty fantasy” (I didn’t pay much attention to the group until researching this post), and so you may ultimately be correct about that wardrobe malfunction at 1:10, for now I disagree that is “blatant and deliberate.” As far as I could see, Hyorin wasn’t even aware that her skirt was riding that far up, so I agree with the comments in the post about it that I linked to. For example:

      “Ok – Hyorin’s mini skirt rode up a little bit, and I guess this must have offended some conservative viewers, but I did not observe any blatant nudity, or exposure of private parts [or breast(s) – like the infamous Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Super Bowl incident]….”


      “People really do not know the Entertainment industry that much. When idols practice on stage, they dont use their stage clothes but their regular clothes. When the real performance comes, thats when they put it on. This is when she realized that her dress was too short and they cant change it cause its last minute. People who are commenting about sluts are just ignorant and dont even know much about the industries.”

      And finally:

      “They are FAR from sluts, its the stylist and companies say, not Sistar’s. Hopefully the stylist sees this and realizes they need shorts or longer dresses. Hyorin has curves and around that area when you bend over, of course its going to be revealing, she isn’t extremely slim like DaSom and it wouldn’t ride up much. I’m sure if she seen this, she’d feel so embarrassed.”

      Also, although I can’t think of any specific performance(s) off the top of my head sorry, I do recall being surprised once at how much the members of Girls’ Generation showed off their butts on stage, much more so than in their music videos and, of course, than their cutesy reputation would suggest. So, although it’s certainly true that SISTAR and SISTAR19 are marketed and generally perform much more sexually than SNSD, I don’t think that that fully explains why the former are generally viewed much more negatively by netizens.


  5. I suppose there is no way of proving it either way, but for me it is pretty hard to buy that this was an accident and that no one could have foreseen what would have happened. Their dresses are *so* short and that particular move *so* compromising, that I find it hard to see it as anything other than deliberate (whether that was the decision of the girls themselves or the managers is another matter).

    I certainly don’t think they are “sluts” (for all I know, Hyorin could be saving herself for marriage in “real life”), but I think they are marketed as highly sexual, non-marriage material.


    1. Yeah, we’ll have to agree to disagee.

      Just in case though, I didn’t think that you personally thought that they were sluts, and sorry if I ever gave that impression (or to be more precise, seeing as it wouldn’t matter if they were of course, then I didn’t think you were criticizing them as such). And again, we’re agreed on the marketing.


  6. I like where this article is going but I really want to hear you say outright why this is as you imply “benign” objectification. It’s easy to point out why the author’s usage of objectification is wrong, but to say that these girls are not being negatively objectified is a really dangerous thing to do. I know that as a fan of k-pop I have a knee-jerk reaction when I read articles that victimize female idols to try to find a reason that justifies my relationship to idols that I know is something more than just the consumption of an objectified image. I’m still trying to figure out what that is and I have a few theories that I think I would like to work through after reading this article. I just want to say that we can’t ignore the fact that we are consumers of k-pop and we are contributing to a system that is selling female bodies as commodities and relying on forms of labor from women that remove them from so many forms of agency. This is stuff I feel responsible, as a fan of k-pop, to confront and work through and that’s why I expect something more from this article.


    1. Sorry, but while I mean no offense, and share many of the sentiments and concerns expressed in your comment, I feel that you’re completely missing the point of the post. Because, frankly, I find the way you’re using the word “objectification” vague and confusing, whereas I argue that we should all be much more precise and discerning when using it in future, and provide 2 lists of criteria to help us do so.



      “I really want to hear you say outright why this is as you imply ‘benign’ objectification”

      There’s a great many performances, dance moves, and items of clothing etc. discussed in the post, so I can’t really reply unless you’re more specific about what “this” is exactly. But either way, actually I think I’m quite clear in the post about what I do — eg. the constant focus on SNSD’s legs — and don’t — e.g. the music program performance or the music video to SISTAR19’s Gone Not Around Any Longer — consider objectification, so I disagree that I imply that anything I discuss in this specific post is “benign” objectification.

      Having said that, I certainly do think there is such a thing, and have argued as such in my Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls? series. Please read the section on positive objectification in Evangelia Papadaki’s essay if you want to know more about it.


      “To say that these girls are not being negatively objectified is a really dangerous thing to do.”

      Assuming you’re talking about SISTAR19 in Gone Not Around Any Longer though, then, as I said, I can’t find any criteria for objectification (as provided) under which they fall. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right though: if you do find some, please let me know which ones and I might change my mind.

      If I do change my mind, then of course I accept that the objectification involved can be a “really dangerous thing” too, as elaborated on in Part 2 of the Sociological Images series on the SOT. But seeing as there’s positive objectification too, which (as the term implies) I don’t think is at all harmful, then again it is crucial that you are clear on what kind of objectification you mean before elaborating on how harmful it is.


      “We are contributing to a system that is selling female bodies as commodities and relying on forms of labor from women that remove them from so many forms of agency”

      The author of the column claims that the women discussed are likewise “[removed] from so many forms of agency,” but he provides no actual evidence of that. Do you?

      Again, of course that does indeed happen a great deal in the Korean entertainment industry — for example, in August 2010 the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 60% of underage female entertainers were pressured by their management agencies to wear revealing clothing and/or do dance moves that they were uncomfortable with. But that doesn’t, ipso facto, mean that that’s also the case for SISTAR19 and Starship Entertainment, so I’m not going to assume it is until I see some actual evidence that they’re being coerced.


  7. Hi James,

    No worries, I know you mean no offense and neither do I, I’m not trying to one-up you, I’m hoping to have an informed dialogue with you because these issues are important to me in my own thinking about the idol industry and the relationships we are creating in this contemporary pop culture. I respect your work on this blog and so I am going to try and make sure we are on the same page because I do want to pick your brain (and anyone else who wants to join in) about this stuff.

    Ok, so firstly, I think my confusion over whether you were implying that SISTAR19’s video is benign objectification is because you ended the article on that point so I just assumed you were making a conclusive statement referring to this. If you just wanted to drop it somewhere and decided for the end as a reflective comment then, ok, that’s my bad, I did misunderstand the article then – but there is another reason for my confusion which I will go over in the second point you brought up.

    Now the second point, you can not find any criteria for objectification in the SISTAR19 video. OK wow. I think I misunderstood the article because I just couldn’t understand that there is no objectification at all. I thought your benign objectification comment was a way of addressing what is there. Maybe the big difference lies in our feminist worldviews, I see patriarchal oppression as systematic – therefore the whole existence of the K-Pop industry relies on there being negative objectification to function (but this is where I liked where you were going, it’s not just simply bad – there is good stuff mixed up in the bad. But we can’t deny that there IS bad stuff.) I mean how can you justify the demand for plastic surgery? that they are practically underweight? That they are expected to train until the early hours in the morning – trained to speak multiple languages for different markets? And most of all, that they are being used by entertainment industries to generate profit in an industry that sells commodities? How is this not instrumentality, denial of autonomy, reduction to appearance/body, fungibility, ownership?? If there are any Marxist inclinations in you then you would agree that a system of capital accumulation that relies on the labor of sexualised women is enough of a reason to say that they are being negatively objectified.

    The fact that this can’t be seen in a music video that sells sexual fantasy and availability in its finished product is just a testament to the fact that this stuff is becoming very vague and confusing. The fact that the presentation of the sexual availability of young women is becoming unoriginal and ineffective for some only says something about the methods used in representing negative objectification but I don’t think it is changing the fact that it is still relied on (for example there is potential in this article to put forward the worrying claim that more “original” forms of objectification are somehow more congratulatory than unoriginal forms). Also the fact that we are learning about these girls and developing feelings for their personalities makes it all the more confusing but once again, negative objectification is necessary for us to even know about these girls in the first place. These issues are incredibly complex – I know you know this I’m not trying to be patronizing.

    Ok point three. Perhaps this would be a better way to approach it. What would happen if SISTAR19 chose not to objectify themselves by wearing hot pants – by sitting in makeup for 4 hours every day, by not showing up to rehearsal and taking a holiday? They wouldn’t generate money, they would disappear from the market. So what kind of agency do these girls really have? And I’m not trying to say they have none, that they are victims – and honestly I haven’t had the time to really figure this out. This is something I would like to discuss with you if you ever have the time.


      1. Sorry again Dash, but there appears to be a conspiracy: the moment I finally sit down to work on that reply, I suddenly can’t access my WordPress dashboard (seriously!). Seeing as it’s already late though, and I have Mondays off, then I’ll leave that to resolve itself overnight and will get straight to work replying after my morning coffee. Promise! :)


        1. no prob james, i’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. i’ve had a few revelations since thinking about this article but still have a lot more to learn and think about. thanks for staying in touch :)


          1. Make that my post-lunch coffee, which I’m drinking as I type this!

            Anyway, let me make a general comment before getting to specifics. Which is that this translating this particular music column turned into a bit of a watershed moment for me.

            You see, I’m always sympathetic to critiques of objectification in K-pop (after all, I’ve been doing it myself for years!), and started translating in that frame of mind. But then I came across the comments about the music program performance being so much more objectifying than the music video, and, as I hadn’t seen either, I decided to see what the difference(s) where for myself. To my surprise, I discovered that the videos were almost exactly the same, which in turn led me to examine all the other claims about objectification, and discovered that no evidence was provided for those either.

            Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that no objectification was occurring here, nor that this (actually quite slut-shaming) music column isn’t an extreme case. But still, although in fairness not every article on objectification has to explain what the concept is, especially to an already knowledgeable and well-informed audience, I realized that all too many times (and I too have been guilty of this) I see objectification conflated with no more than showing a lot of skin and/or sexy dancing. This is not the case — as I hope the post makes clear, there are both negative and positive forms of objectification — but in my (admittedly limited) experience it is rarely challenged by feminist sources. Moreover, is not particularly convincing to general readers and/or skeptics; probably does more to cement stereotypes of feminists as prudes among them than anything else; and, by lumping positive and/or neutral objectification in with the bad, crucially deflects attention away from the latter.

            Bearing all that in mind, lets get to your comment:

            Ok, so firstly, I think my confusion over whether you were implying that SISTAR19’s video is benign objectification is because you ended the article on that point so I just assumed you were making a conclusive statement referring to this. If you just wanted to drop it somewhere and decided for the end as a reflective comment then, ok, that’s my bad, I did misunderstand the article then – but there is another reason for my confusion which I will go over in the second point you brought up.

            My bad — when I wrote my reply, I forgot that I quoted Nassbaum on “benign objectification.” But again, I don’t think SISTAR19 were objectified in their MV or in their performance . I will clarify though, that the reason I included and ended with that quote was to point out that in all discussions of objectification in K-pop, the relationship of the performers to their management agencies is crucial for determining if objectification is negative or positive. I’ll return to that in a moment.

            Maybe the big difference lies in our feminist worldviews, I see patriarchal oppression as systematic – therefore the whole existence of the K-Pop industry relies on there being negative objectification to function (but this is where I liked where you were going, it’s not just simply bad – there is good stuff mixed up in the bad. But we can’t deny that there IS bad stuff.)

            I completely agree that it needs objectification to function (sex sells, etc. etc.), but not that it needs negative objectification. Again, I’ll return to this.

            I mean how can you justify the demand for plastic surgery? that they are practically underweight? That they are expected to train until the early hours in the morning – trained to speak multiple languages for different markets? And most of all, that they are being used by entertainment industries to generate profit in an industry that sells commodities? How is this not instrumentality, denial of autonomy, reduction to appearance/body, fungibility, ownership?? If there are any Marxist inclinations in you then you would agree that a system of capital accumulation that relies on the labor of sexualised women is enough of a reason to say that they are being negatively objectified.

            This, I think gets to the crux of what we’re disagreeing about. Let me be clear: although every agency is different, I completely agree with you about how exploitative the K-pop industry is in general. I am also open to the possibility that such exploitation may characterize the relationship between SISTAR19 and their agency. If that is the case, then certainly they are objectified through issues of “instrumentality, denial of autonomy…fungibility, [and] ownership” as you mention. But not only do I see no “reduction to appearance/body,” but I am unaware of any evidence whatsoever that they are coerced in any way.

            Granted, if asked by outsiders they may well not be in a position to complain, and the media and government agencies like MOGEF should also be aware of this and actively question and/or seek to ensure that no coercion is involved…but until concrete evidence of that emerges, then it is dogmatic, quite a leap, and very patronizing to the supposed victims to claim that because K-pop is exploitative, therefore surely SISTAR19 is exploited too, therefore there is negative objectification in their MV.

            You do talk later though, about how SISTAR19 don’t really have much agency if the cost of not putting up with all the crazy standards and restrictions of the K-pop industry is being booted from the industry. I’ve just belatedly realized that that’s a very very good point, and frankly has got me rethinking just about everything I wrote in that last paragraph….seriously, I’m going to have to get back to you (almost time for my girls getting back from school too!), and may even have to write a separate post on it!


          2. ok i think i finally understand where you’re coming from in this article, (correct me if i’m wrong) you’re arguing that it isn’t necessarily the video itself that contains objectification but that the viewer (and broader social standards) who defines what is considered objectification when they respond to the video. therefore we have cases where SNSD are let off the hook but Hyuna and Hyorin are deemed objectified (not for their own sake). and on the flip side, groups like 2NE1 are considered, possibly moreso by Western audiences, as more “empowered” because their images conform more to Western ideas of individuality.

            honestly I don’t know enough about SISTAR19 or their management agency to make any claims about the way they are treated – perhaps it is something exceptional to what I’ve seen with groups under YG or SM entertainment – and of course Nine Muses. But i was trying to make more of a claim about the work required of women in the K-pop industry itself. Not really cases where coercion is glaringly obvious enough to be documented itself but a sort of pressure that is placed on women’s bodies – a disciplining demand required of the industry – that alienates women from control over their own bodies – to consider themselves through their bodies rather than their minds. I’m refering more to the kind of disciplining objectification argued by Sandra Bartky that is in point 3 of “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”.

            When I read something from an SNSD interview like this…:

            Complex: I’ve noticed from footages that almost all the performances are done with heels on. How are your feet?

            Sooyoung: We’re dying in pain! After a concert, our feet are literally burning.

            Seohyun: A lot of calluses.

            Yuri: Our feet are in bad shape.

            Taeyeon: We take care of them, but they get messed up so easily.

            Yuri: We’ve been wearing heels for so long, we’ve gotten so used to them that we feel more comfortable wearing them when we’re going up on stage. It straightens our postures; it makes us feel more confident. It’s not comfortable, but we’re so adjusted now that it feels weird without them.


            …it really makes me think about whether they are subjects or objects in this situation. Especially Yuri’s comment. Is this kind of pain and discomfort necessary for a greater good? What kind of contextual agreement between peformer and management is required to justify the fact that SNSD’s whole lives revolve around maintaining and selling their bodies to whichever buyer SM lines up for them? I guess this is more of a broader question of what is necessary to give up to be an idol (AKB48’s “The Show Must Go On” is an interesting comment on this). You could argue that as entertainers it is part of their job description – that their job is to create a fantasy, but lately this kind of response has been really unsettling for me – the article on Momoiro Clover Z and j-pop idols on appears kind of sums up that feeling for me.

            Anyway I think this is blurring into my own general thoughts and not your own article. I actually think I might start blogging too because I’ve been finding all this great stuff online through your site and others and I really want to join the conversation haha.


          3. Hey James no problem, no doubt you are busy. I actually started blogging after all, but I think you might have noticed that already… I just wrote another piece just now, I’m not really completely happy with it but thought i’d just get something down. Feel free to give me a taste of my own medicine ;)


          4. Sorry, sorry…as you may have seen already because of the announcement I just put up, I’m having to take a week or so off blogging because my grandfather just died, and so on. But I’ll try to reply (properly) soon.


          5. ^This comment is fantastic. I think the article was really good, but this comment really phrases what I was thinking about different styles and the whole kpop industry.


  8. If we get more of these sorts of posts coming with the end of KGR then I’m more than happy with the trade-off. It already seems to have generated quite the discussion in the comments, and although I don’t have much of value to add to what’s been said, I’ve enjoyed reading it all. Keep it up, 싸우기.


    1. Good to know thanks, but most will have to be much shorter. Minus a few days of writer’s block and catching up on sleep, this one took me — I kid you not — over 3 weeks, including over 45 mins of verbal notes on my smartphone!


  9. Unfortunately, Hallyuwood is following the route of Hollywood being: SEX SELLS and boy does it ever!


  10. I believe you said something above that it’s not a choice & thats true. Sistar are also known to speak very bluntly & it has gotten them in the negative spotlight @ times. On Beatles Code, Hyolyn has said she really dislikes short bottoms. The only freedom she has over the other members is that she can’t show her stomach, because of a scar from a past surgery. Starship has recently showed some freedom by letting Hyolyn write a song for the new album, but this comeback objectifies them the most. Including the maknae, Dasom..


    1. I already mention that example in the follow-up post sorry, but thanks for passing it on.

      Can you think of any more examples of when SISTAR members have spoken bluntly and have gotten in the negative spotlight? As I explain in that follow-up post, I spent 2 weeks looking for some, including watching over 10 hours of video interviews, but I was unable to find anything like that myself. Thanks!


  11. The most ridiculous objectification that I’ve seen recently in Kpop is the backlash of Cl’s body suit. Seriously where were these people when Kara came out with pretty much the same body suits. I also feel that Sistar’r attire isn’t any worse than most of the kpop girl groups. Just Sistar is just naturally sexy. Similar to how most of Brown Eyed Girl’s stuff get a 19+ rating without any good reason. Which is why they go balls out now a days to get really get a reason to be banned. Like you said, how is Sistar’s clothes worse than SNSD clothers? Half the time their bellies or out or they’re shorts are pretty much underwear. Nothing against any of the ladies, I am actually a fan of everyone I mention. But they Hypocrisy and Contradicting misogynistic attitude towards certain artist is a little annoying. I can talk all day about it.


  12. You wrote: I can’t help but wonder if it’s really the double-standards surrounding (asexual) legs and (slutty) large cleavage that are one reason why Hyorin, for one, gets singled out for “sex-instrument talk [and/or] whore-bashing” by netizens “as soon as SISTAR puts out another music video.”

    I think in SISTAR’s case, colourism/racism needs to be taken into account. Hyorin is not only big breasted, but she also has “dark” skin, the darkest in the group, which apparently makes her sexiness cheap and ugly. Bora also gets criticism for her skin tone.


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