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)

24 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #77: Sexualized Girl-Group Performances at Schools

  1. Small nitpicking comment, but I’ve never come across anything saying that Waveya have any official connection to PSY or YG Entertainment. They’ve done dance covers of dozens of K-Pop (and non-Korean) songs, and AFAIK their Gangnam Style video went viral and got a stratospheric number of views on YouTube simply because it’s a video of sexy girls dancing to Gangnam Style.


  2. I teach at an all girls middle school, and I was really surprised at the school festival when my students preformed and they mirrored similar moves that made me uncomfortable, considering they are performing in front of teachers and not just the student body. Secondly, during break time my unchaperoned students always have the videos playing on the computer / TV classroom screen and learning the danced between classes. It’s going to happen either way, but like the article said, that shouldn’t mean the school system encourages it by merely allowing it to happen during school time.


  3. Hmmm, isn’t kpop as a whole typically marketed towards kids and teens regardless of content? The “sexy” image is in part what Korea as a nation seems to find the epitome of what beauty is. So, according to that, wouldn’t these types of shows at schools be considered “normal” there? The Korean whatever it’s called government thing to protect kids already “does” their job enough. They ruin kpop videos and promotion with ridiculous bans on items in kpop that aren’t even bad anyway. But I guess growing up in America and seeing the mainstream music we see everyday makes you not even care whether they do this in schools or not. Hell, I WISH I had groups coming and performing stuff like this in my schools when I was in grade school. It would have been awesome.


  4. I taught at an elementary school in Seoul for three years, and in December of 2010 we had a school talent show. A group of grade six girls and an entire co-ed class of I think grade 3 students performed “Bad Girl, Good Girl.” With lots of waving of rear-ends and such. I thought that was questionable but no one else seemed to mind.


  5. This is really nothing new, except in perception. When I look at photos of my school’s events from over ten years ago, when skirts were all knee-length and hair was shorter than collar-length – I can still see dance teams in very skimpy outfits. It’s as though the “pretend” reality of the stage is / was different from the reality of everyday life. What I think is different is a recent loss of innocence that makes some people very uncomfortable about this growing realisation of adolescent sexuality. In the past, teenagers in skimpy dance outfits were viewed a lot like the child beauty pageants of the American South. It was cute, not sexy. Now there’s a greater realisation that there is indeed something sexual about teens dressing and dancing like this. In the past the cute girl dressed up on stage was seen as very different from the everyday dork in the classroom. Today the sexy girl shaking her bum on stage is the same person as the high school student dressed like a bargirl at school.


  6. PS – so to go so far off topic, but James, do you know anything about a band called CN-BLUE who have, according to my student, an album called Blue Tory. Where on earth would a Korean band come up with such a name? I don’t know about NZ but in Canada or the UK a blue Tory would be a very conservative politician.


    1. No problem at all about being off-topic YB, but really I’m probably the worst person to ask about boy-bands sorry, and I’m afraid I don’t know anything at all about CN-BLUE!


    2. “CN Blue’s management, FNC Music replied that the album title ‘Bluetory’ was purely made up by the president of the company and that it represents CN Blue with the “blue” and the pure Korean word “tory.” They also added that “tory” stands for the “music specialty that each area has” and ‘Bluetory’ in general means that “CN Blue will be showing their own color in the music industry.” -Kbites

      I’m thinking that the Pure Korean word “tory” is 도리 which means a way or a method.


  7. I know it’s not a big concern, but just for the sake of the record: all of the above comments were made *before* I updated the post by making connections between regular girl-group performances at schools and ubiquitous narrator models and doumi :)


  8. Another excellent article, James! This was quite shocking to watch and very uncomfortable. Sex does seem to be the main marketing magic being used these days. It sadly seems acceptable, if not normal, for raunchy and in-your-face sexuality to overpower any inherent talent displayed in the song itself. Just as the in-your-face sexuality seen here has overpowered any remnants of Waveya’s obvious talent for dance. This becomes all the more obvious when placed in front of an inappropriate crowd of teenagers. This video obviously highlights the key issues that entertainment industries around the world have exacerbated when it comes to exploiting sexuality, youth and an unhealthy body image in order to sell records and artists. I vividly remember Britney Spears’s ‘I’m a Slave for You’ video not because of the song itself; just as I’ll vividly remember Waveya not because of their amazing ability to perform well. I guess in that sense the marketing magic of selling sex works, but at what cost?


  9. Another reason for the “Conservative Korea” verbage or exclamation to end. Yet, we’re all suppose to believe that Korean girls are still pure right? I guess, at least until they converse, have dinner, and date a foreigner.


  10. Waveya seems to be promoting themselves A LOT in schools to be honest. And more and more schoolchildren are imitating and doing the same thing. What I want to know is why the school’s allow them? And for what reason why?


  11. I worked at an all boy’s middle school for more than a year and can tell you that these performances happen at least twice a year. It always made me uncomfortable.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s