Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 2 of 3)

strong women intimidate boys and excite men(Source: Unknown)
“The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more—are more than that.”
(Chally Kazelnik, Zero at the Bone; my emphasis)

Or as the phrase goes, “Patriarchy hurts men too.” Let’s continue that conversation started by Chally, focusing on the very narrow visions of female sexuality and body types that patriarchy deems attractive—and for women to aspire to.

But first, a quick recap. In Part 1, I mentioned being very surprised at other reviewers’ and commenters’ reactions to the MV for Spica’s Tonight. Because generally, they described it as sexually liberating, and/or with definite lesbian undertones. Whereas all I took away from it was the breasts.

Lots, and lots, of breasts.

I’m serious. Every other scene seemed to consist of Spica members lying in their tent, lying on some grass, or lying in a pool, the camera lingering on their chests. And that ogling continues in many of the scenes with the women on their feet too, often with no indication of who the breasts actually belong to.

Don’t get me wrong: breasts are awesome. But you do have to wonder why an MV about a girl-power road trip looks like it was filmed by a heterosexual 15 year-old boy. So too, why something so sexually liberating would feature so many languid women on their backs, when it’s so rare to see men posed like that?

Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the idea, I concluded in Part 1, there are many more active alternatives that are just as effective. Let’s explore some of those in this post, after which the screenshots of the MV for Tonight in Part 3 should (almost) speak for themselves.

(One NSFW image follows.)

The Male Gaze is NOT Monolithic

If you figured one obvious improvement would be to have women standing on their feet, then you’re in good company:

In Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, a book written by Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese, he quotes [sociologist Erving Goffman] saying “People in charge of their own lives typically stand upright, alert and ready to meet the world. In contrast, the bending of the body conveys unpreparedness, submissiveness and appeasement”.

(Source: Who Sets the Standards?)

I’m thinking “people in charge of their own lives” don’t stand around picking their noses and looking at their watches though, wondering what to do. Probably, they stand much more like this, especially when their busy schedule suddenly includes bedding the person who just came into view:

Body Language Hands on HipsThose images come via Body Language by Allan Pease (1981; link is to a PDF), who explains of Figure 99 that:

The aggressive-readiness [body language combinations] are used by professional models to give the impression that their clothing is for the modem, aggressive, forward-thinking woman. Occasionally the gesture may be done with only one hand on the hip and the other displaying another gesture.

(pp. 79-82.)

It’s this next one on the right though, that instantly came to mind when I read that quote of Goffman’s (#sociologyissexy):

Body Language Sexual AggressionHere’s Pease’s explanation of both:

Thumbs tucked into the belt or the tops of the pockets is the gesture display used to show a sexually aggressive attitude. It is one of the most common gestures used in television Westerns to show viewers the virility of their favourite gunslinger (Figure 103). The arms take the readiness position and the hands serve as central indicators, highlighting the genital region. Men use this gesture to stake their territory or to show other men that they are unafraid. When it is used in the presence of females, the gesture can be interpreted as, ‘I am virile, I can dominate you’.

This gesture, combined with expanded pupils and one foot pointing toward a female, is easily decoded by most women. It is this gesture that non-verbally gives the game away for most men, as they unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind. This [body language combination] has always been predominantly male, but the fact that women wear jeans and trousers has allowed them to [also use it] (Figure 104), although they usually only do it when wearing pants or trousers. When wearing dresses or the like, the sexually aggressive female displays one thumb tucked into a belt or pocket (Figure 104).

(pp. 83-84.)

But why would “a hands on hip gesture [be] used to make clothing seem more appealing”, and why would a cowboy stance “unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind”? Good questions:

Body Language Figure 146 Feet signalling what's on the owner's mindNot only do the feet serve as pointers, indicating the direction in which a person would like to go, but they are also used to point at people who are interesting or attractive. Imagine that you are at a social function and you notice a group of three men and one very attractive woman (Figure 146). The conversation seems to be dominated by the men and the woman is just listening. Then you notice something interesting—the men all have one foot pointing towards the woman. With this simple non-verbal cue, the men are all telling the woman that they are interested in her. Subconsciously, the woman sees the foot gestures and is likely to remain with the group for as long as she is receiving this attention. In Figure 146 she is standing with both feet together in the neutral position and she may eventually point one foot toward the man whom she finds the most attractive or interesting. You will also notice that she is giving a sideways glance to the man who is using the thumbs-in-belt gesture.

(p. 120)

By all means, decoding body language like this may seem very subjective, and more amusing than hard science. But things I learnt from Pease’s book helped me overcome difficulties I was having with my Taiwanese classmates at high school. Then a few years later, it was really unnerving at a meeting once when I suddenly realized I was making obvious lying gestures as I was, well, lying. Anyone with a basic knowledge of body language could have seen right through me—but my audience were none the wiser.

I’ve been a true believer ever since.

And, having read my mother’s copy at about the same time as I was discovering girls, have always been at the utter mercy of confident, sassy women with their hands on their hips. This woman in particular, because she’s been stalking me on the Busan subway for the last two years:

Busan Women's College Advertisement 25.08.2015Informing the viewer of the confident, dignified, awe-inspiring beauty you can dream about by enrolling at Busan Women’s College (which sounds much more inspiring in the original Korean), it’s no less appealing to my male gaze for only being aimed at women.

And, if I’ve finally been given a legitimate excuse to post that, then I should get on a roll and also post Leena McCall’s magnificent “Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing” (2014) too. In which the model is so sure of herself, and her gaze so mesmerizing, that you almost don’t notice her brazen nakedness:

Ms. Ruby May, standing by Leena McCall(Source: Leena McCall)

But as always, really I’m being quite serious. I include it because it was in fact removed from the Society of Women Artists’ 153rd annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in the UK. (Ironic, I know.) As Rowan Pelling at The Guardian explains, this reaction was quite telling:

When I tracked down the painting online I was so flummoxed as to the likely cause of disgust that I thought it must be the fact Ms May was depicted smoking a pipe. Few things cause more umbrage now than someone wantonly enjoying tobacco. But further investigation revealed it was the way the sitter’s short waistcoat and undone breeches framed a luxuriant dark V of pubic hair – not to mention, the “Come hither, if you dare!” expression on May’s face, as she coolly scrutinises the viewer – that seemed to be the problem. The painting smacks of Isherwood’s Berlin with its cabaret noir sensibility: Ruby May is a demi-clad femme fatale in pantomime boy’s clothing, channelling Liza Minnelli and EF Benson’s Quaint Irene – as alluring to women as she is to men. You can just about see how it might épater la bourgeoisie, without feeling for a second any outrage is justified.

Supposedly, it was removed for being unsuitable for children. Yet:

You can’t help wondering if the affronted viewers frequenting Mall Galleries have ever sauntered over to the National Gallery, where Bronzino’s erotically charged Allegory with Cupid and Venus (showing the boy archer fondling the naked goddess’s breast) is on display to visiting school parties; or whether they feel the Tate should dispose of Sir Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait, with its unsparing depiction of the artist’s flaccid penis and his wife’s hirsute mons pubis.

Mind you, the Society of Women Artists was permitted to replace McCall’s work with another less provocative nude: one where the model wasn’t tattooed and standing hand-on-hip, all unbuttoned. It seems the Mall Galleries’ clientele can cope with nudes, so long as the model is a more passive and unthreatening recipient of the wandering viewer’s gaze.

In light of that, the contrast between these recent pictures of the girl-group Sistar is interesting. On left, via Imgur, (much, much leggier in the unedited originals) is one of the teaser photos for their summer comeback; on the right, via soooo_you on Instagram, who’s on far right and left of the pictures respectively:

Sistar Passive vs. Assertive Female SexualityAlso, with these two advertisements of So-hee’s:

Body Display So-heeMy fetish aside however, of course I’m not saying the solution to overthrowing the patriarchy is simply for women to stand up at point at their vaginas. Nor, that it’s a betrayal of that struggle to also like or even prefer examples where “the model is a more passive and unthreatening recipient of the wandering viewer’s gaze”, whether that liking is based on a sexual attraction, admiring their hair (à la Suzy’s contact lens ad in Part 1), or for whatever reason. But I do know which ones have more sass, and that they appeal to my male gaze just as much as those with women contorting themselves to sexual positions at my feet.

Surely I’m not the only guy? Surely many female readers prefer them too?

But wait, I hear you cry: there’s plenty of ads like that out there. Or is there? Maybe it’s “midriff advertising” that you’re thinking of, which has indeed become quite a trend worldwide. Especially in Korea, where there’s still taboos about breast exposure but not of legs, as is the case in most of the Asian markets that the K-pop industry is reliant on:

Midriff Advertising K-pop KoreaHyo-seong Beyonce Midriff AdvertisingYou are beautiful, stop hating your body(Source: 숭실 총여학생회 다락 Facebook Page. The fan reads “You’re different because you’re beautiful. Don’t feel bad or uncomfortable about your precious body based on other people’s stereotypes. Because you are you, you are beautiful. The 23rd Soongsil University Female Students’ Association: we are different, and we respect you.”)

Hani EXID California Beach Summer 2016 Midriff AdvertisingSexy Hani JeansKorea Midriff Advertising TwiceKorea Midriff AdvertisingAs discussed by Rosalind Gill in “Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising” in Feminism Psychology, February 2008, vol. 18, no. 1, 35-60 (email me for a copy), midriff advertising specifically can be problematic because, briefly:

  • It tends to exclude non-white, LGBTQ, and “non-attractive” individuals.
  • The considerable difficulties of obtaining and maintaining those flat midriffs are rendered invisible.
  • It frames women’s agency as something that is tied to their appearance, and exercised through consumerism.
  • It frames liberation feminism as the fulfillment of a male fantasy.
  • It morphs an external, male-judging gaze into a self-policing, narcissistic one.

Also, as the first image in that series above and this next one shows, I’d add that it’s disproportionately required of female models and K-pop stars. (Without disputing for a moment that young male celebrities—both Western and Korean—are also increasingly required to have six-packs.) See Seoulbeats for a wider discussion of those points in relation to K-pop specifically.

Korean Midriff Advertising(Ironically, the main appeal of the rash guard swimwear being sold is that beachgoers don’t have to be so self-conscious of their bodies. Surely cropped versions defeat that purpose?)

But confidence doesn’t require any one specific body part or type. Nor even body exposure at all:

Bang Bang Ha Ji-won 2004 sexitive or sensitive(Of examples like this though, Erving Goffman notes that to an extent the women’s sass is—sigh–only possible because she is “shielded” by her much warier male companion. See “Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1” for more discussion of this surprisingly common motif.)
vivian geeyang kim 66100 Ha Ji-won(Sources: Plus Size Model Vivian Geeyang Kim, edited; ask K-POP.)
66100 Big and Beautiful Self Makeover(Source: 66100 Facebook Page)

I’ll also add that of course there’s much, much more to these wonderful things called sexuality and sexual attraction than whats been seen in the examples given so far in this post. For instance, consider:

Mise En Scène: The Sexiest Korean Commercial Ever?” (and here’s me thinking all the images of Ha Ji-won I’ve used here were just a coincidence):

No Skin Required: Healthy Images of Couples in the Korean Media“:

Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads“:

And see the round-up of links at the end of Part 1 for many more. And all that’s where I’m coming from when I watch Tonight. Ta-da!

Spica Tonight 3.29Please let me know your thoughts, and Part 3 on the MV proper will be up on Friday Monday :)

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One thought on “Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Thanks for your patience everyone, especially now that Part 2 has become an unexpected Part 3 also, but it just became too long otherwise. Rest assured that Part 3 will be up in three days though!

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