(Source, all screenshots: YouTube)
For starters, take the word cheonyeo (처녀) in its Korean title. Many sources do give “young unmarried woman” as one meaning, so “girls” seems fine for the English. (When they’re obvious, Korean usually omits plurals.) But most translate it as “virgin” first.
Why would Sunwoo choose something so loaded? The neutral term agasshi (아가씨) is far more common.
Possibly, she simply hoped to capitalize on the name-recognition, as she acknowledges being inspired by a well-known folk song of the same title. It’s also true that the lyrics are really quite chaste.
Perhaps I just have a dirty mind?
But then there’s the MV. Watch it, and by its end you’ll have a dirty mind too. Add that there’s no connection to the folk-song whatsoever, and it’s difficult not to think that Sunwoo deliberately primed Korean listeners with a blatant double entendre:
In that vein, I’m tempted to describe the MV as a continuation of this cultivated ambiguity. But that would be to underplay its sheer spunk, and to detract from how refreshing that feels compared to the bland, repetitive, profoundly unarousing “sexy concepts” of most K-pop. For suggestive and full of symbolism it is, but “ambiguous” those symbols are not. Add the frequent shots of partially-exposed breasts, the luscious lips, and the hands pulling up skirts and dresses, then I’d be hard-pressed to think of such a striking and shocking depiction of female bodies and sexuality since Bloom by Ga-in (2012).
To pretend otherwise is to willingly ignore the obvious. Like Arirang TV once did for instance, with hilarious results:
(2:08, Pops in Seoul, April 5 2015)
(2:15, gfnkpopular, MV reaction video)
But audacity aside, are scenes like that something to celebrate? Perhaps as much as a third of the MV is of headless women (especially if you count scenes that only go up to models’ mouths), the camera by definition focusing on their body parts. Which, you don’t need me to explain, is widely considered one of the most basic and common forms of dehumanizing, sexual objectification.
On the face of it then, shouldn’t it be criticized, rather than applauded?
미국 코미디언 벨스키는 SNS 프로젝트 ‘할리우드의 머리 없는 여성들’을 시작했다. “얼굴이 잘린 채 등장한 여성은 남성의 시선에서 수동적인 대상, 익명의 존재가 돼버리고 남성에 대한 성적 어필만으로 표현된다” me2.do/FanD6gMR—
여성신문 (@wnewskr) May 14, 2016
No. Instead, I’m here to argue that context is everything with the male gaze, and that this MV is proof of that.
And first, as a crucial part of that context, I’ll give my translation of the lyrics, as I’ve been unable to find one online.
Lyrics: Spring Girls by Sunwoo Junga-a (선우정아 봄처녀 가사)
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
너는 날 보네 ,나도 널 보네 (Verse 1) You’re looking at me, I’m looking at you
불꽃이 튀네 (Verse 1) Fireworks are exploding
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
하늘은 파래, 바람이 부네 The sky is blue, the wind is blowing…
다시, 입을 맞추네 추네 …again. We are kissing.
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
봄처녀 제, 오시네 (Verse 2) Spring girls are coming
새 풀옷을 입으셨네 (Verse 2) In new outfits
Part 2 [Yes, this is actually said.]
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
앞서서 걷네, 뒤따라 걷네 You’re walking in front of me, I’m following you
같이, 장단 맞추네 추네 Together, we are keeping a beat with our steps
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
(Source: Lost Over You)
형형색색 널 뒤흔드는 칼라 Many colors are shaking you
각색각양 다가오는 몸짓 Gestures are coming in all kinds of colors and shapes
가지가지 처치곤란한 밤 Nights are hard in so many ways
뒤죽박죽 도시의 봄이라 This city’s spring is so mixed
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
볼엔 진달래 An azalea on the cheek
눈은 민들레 A dandelion on the eye
입술은 쭉 철쭉 A rhododendron on the lips
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
목련 파우더 Magnolia powder
라일락 칙칙 A spray of lilac
마무리는 에이취 Rounding off with “H”~ [I don’t get this part sorry!]
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
속눈썹 위로 봄바람 A spring wind over eyelashes
머리카락에 봄바람 A spring wind in your hair
옷깃을 펼쳐 봄바람 A spring wind with collars opening
걸음은 좀 더 가볍게 (x3) Our steps become lighter
Next, another crucial part of that context would be some background provided by its songwriter, lyricist, arranger, guitarist, and mixer Sunwoo Jung-a, who very much owns the room in the MV too. But very few interviewers ever ask her about Spring Girls specifically. In fact, surprisingly little about it has been said about it at all, in Korean let alone in English, and much of what does exist only focuses on the fact of Sandara Park’s participation in the MV.
That said, there is one more common theme to what I have found. That is, whenever it is featured or discussed, it seems to gets stripped of all meaning:
For non-Korean speakers, what Sunwoo was actually doing there was promoting Earth Day last spring, as well as an environmentally-themed music event she was to perform in. But the only connection whatsoever was the song title. And, perhaps learning from Arirang’s mistake three weeks earlier, KTV made sure to avoid showing the naughty bits of the MV too.
I don’t bemoan Sunwoo taking advantage of the opportunity for more publicity. Yet even in her very own self-interview, featured on her YouTube channel and Facebook page, she only really discusses the lyrics to the song. Which as you’ve already seen, are quite chaste compared to the MV:
Apologies for lacking the time to provide and translate a transcript, but I find she adds little there to, say, Rachel’s brief description of the song already at Seoulbeats:
Spring Girls is just a cool song, plain and simple. It’s got sass, a little jazz, and a dash of funk thrown in, feeling both old and new at the same time…The lyrics talk about seeing and being seen as the girls of spring come out “dressed in fresh new clothes.” Variety is really emphasized in the lyrics, with four Korean synonyms for “all kinds” being used to describe the flood of different spring girls in the “mixed-up” city. Each girl has her own charm which can light a spark. Like the song, the video also feels old yet new at the same time. It has some different spring girls, each with her own style, personality, and flower.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE TITS??” I want to tweet at Sunwoo, but wisely I started by asking her if she has a link to an interview about the MV instead, and I’ll update you if she responds. In the meantime, my eyes briefly lit up at the “instinctive” in the (awkward) title of this Genie article—”Sunwoo Jung-a’s Spring Girls Taps the Beat of Women’s Instinctive Spring” (여자들의 본능적인 봄을 두드리는, 선우정아 ‘봄처녀’)—but it too waxes lyrical about banalities. Desperate, I turned to Sportsworld, a tabloid that is not exactly shy about discussing female body parts, and indeed it did prove to have the most substantial interview of her I’ve found so far. Alas, yet again with no real mention of the MV.
Still, it does give some extra background. She at least hints at the tone of the MV. And frankly, it’s only through this interview at all that I learned there’s a very well-known folk song of the same name:
…현대적이라고 표현하는, 그런 봄의 여자들을 보이고 싶었다. 이 노래는 되게 현대적이다. 비트나 사운드도 일렉의 느낌이 느껴진다. 시종일관 여기 저기서 ‘모던’을 찾았다. 자칫 방심하면 구수해질 수 있어서 회의 때도, 편곡 때도 계속 ‘모던’ 타령을 했다. 정말 세련된 한국팝의 느낌을 보여드리고 싶었다.
…I wanted to show spring women who express modernity. This song is very modern. You can really feel that the beat and sounds are electronic. In every aspect of it, I tried to insert an element of modernity. If we hadn’t taken great care with it, it could have sounded old, so I made sure to mention the “modern” constantly while we were working on it. I really wanted to show a new, very sophisticated version of K-pop.
Q) ‘봄처녀’를 만들게 된 계기가 있나? What was your motive in making the song?
A) 어린 시절부터 좋아하는 곡이었다. 그때부터 클래식 피아노를 쳤는데 악보 보는 걸 좋아했다. 남들이 만화책 볼 때 나는 악보를 보면서 곡을 재생해보는 취미가 있었던 것 같다. 그러던 중 어머니의 가곡집을 보게 됐다. 클래식보다 간단한데 가사가 있어서 재밌었다. 특히 ‘봄처녀’는 가사가 정말 예뻤다. 그러다 어른이 되고 기타치고 놀다가 비트를 만들고 ‘음음’ 까지 붙인 곡이 만들어졌다. 야하기도 하고 귀엽기도 하고 여자의 걸음걸이가 생각나면서 문득 ‘봄처녀’ 가사가 생각이 났다. 다행히 써도 된다고 허락을 해주셔서 ‘봄처녀’가 탄생됐다.
This is an old folk song that I’ve liked ever since my childhood. That’s when I started learning to play the piano and read music. When other children were reading comic books, I read music—that was my hobby. During that time, I once find my mother’s book of folk songs. Compared to learning classic music, the songs in it were much more fun because they had lyrics. In particular, Spring Girls had pretty ones.
Later, when I grew up, one day I just sort of played with the beat of the song on my guitar; as I did, I added some “hmmm”s as I did, and one thing led to another. Later still, I got thinking about women walking in a sexy and cute style, and that’s what led to the lyrics. Fortunately, the composer of the original song said it was okay to use the same title [and a couple of words in the lyrics]
If readers scoff at my perennial struggles with searching for substantive Korean articles about the MV, and can instantly provide a dozen to show just how pathetic my skills are, then nothing could make me happier. Until then though, or until Sunwoo replies to my tweet, we’ll just have to settle for the further context of the rest of the MV.
Let’s start with a collage of the models’ faces and names, to make scenes easier to discuss:
(Women appearing in the MV, clockwise from top-left: Model Lee-seon/이선, Model Su-hyeon/수현, Tattooist Nini/니니, 2NE1 Member Sandara Park/산다라박, Model Ji-eun/지은, Model Jaejae/제제. Not shown: Sonwoo Jung-a. Source of names: By. Yeees.)
But really, most of that context is obvious, and already semi-covered through the numerous screenshots provided above. So I’ll just provide highlights here, as well as point out some things that readers
with less dirty minds who haven’t watched the MV 30 times may have missed:
1) First, the identity of this model stumped me for a looong time. I thought it might even be a secret cameo of half African-American Insooni, known for looking much more youthful than her age.
It turns out to be Jaejae, seen wearing that black mesh top and gold earrings for just for a (very easily-missed) split second later:
2) Poor Ji-eun barely appears, literally getting no facetime at all:
3) This flower is a vulva, and gets ejaculated on. What, you didn’t see that? Don’t worry, you will now. Like I said, literally dripping with sex:
4) This flower though, almost seeming to pulse when shown, doesn’t look all that yonic…
Especially in light of all those bowling pins earlier, standing tall and proud…
As well as the phallic-looking, rapidly-engorging shadow of a statue of a (headless!) nude woman, with the breasts conveniently highlighted:
Not to mention that Su-hyeon gets her mouth covered in white icing sugar or flour in between those shots (and don’t forget Nini’s lollipop-sucking either):
5) I’ll address a potential criticism of that in #7. But, not unrelated, a potential criticism of all of the skin-exposure in the MV is qualified by the fact that almost all of it is actually done by just one person:
(One NSFW image appearing after this one.)
Certainly, you could argue that Nini has been brainwashed, and internalized the values of the patriarchy. You could also argue that she wears so little in the MV simply because she has the largest breasts of all the models, just like what happened with Yang Ji-won of Spica in their MV for Tonight.
By all means, her brand may just be a persona, carefully-crafted on Instagram. But it’s a much more consistent, much more convincing one than that of the K-pop stars usually presented as girl-power icons. It’s also very, very difficult to believe that Sunwoo or MV director Lee Sang-deok is forcing her to wear clothes that are more revealing that she’d like, which is something that happens to girl-group members all the time.
6) Yet while Nini stands out, that is not to say that the other models aren’t just as haughty in the MV. Jaejae for example:
7) Finally, whether in defiance, whether they’re caught up in the joy of spring, and/or whether they’re relishing the attention, crucially all the models (but Ji-eun) return the gaze at many points:
Lee-seon in particular, seems determined to confront the viewer (again, there’s many more examples above):
I’m so impressed, I’m tempted to veer into hyperbole and cliches at this point—that these models “own the gaze,” and so on. (Although they totally do.)
But I want to avoid that, because we all bring a lot of baggage to the concept of the male gaze, which can make for a lot of misunderstandings and talking past each other.
Instead, let me be very specific with my praise, and why.
Whenever *I* talk about the male gaze, I simply mean the way heterosexual men tend to look at women. That way is, of course, vastly overrepresented in just about all forms of media, and those representations of the male gaze usually degrade and diminish the sexualities of both the viewer and the viewed—let alone vastly underrepesent people of different body types, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ages. And, because of those problems, for many commentators the term “male gaze” has become a pejorative for all sexism and objectification in the media.
But the mere act of heterosexual men looking at women is not responsible for those problems—the people in those industries are. Rather, it is a integral feature of human (hetero)sexuality, and one that can be represented while retaining complete respect for the viewed, recognizing them as sexual subjects just as much as objects.
Spring Girls does that.
And, to reinforce that point, but also raise some uncomfortable and inconvenient questions, let me conclude by briefly contrasting the MV with the similar “Double Exposure” series of paintings by Korean artist Horyon Lee (이호련):
Originally, my intention for this post was to give equal attention to Sunwoo and Lee. But Spring Girls rapidly proved to be a more deserving subject, and not just because Lee’s work has had enough written about it to fill volumes, both in English (#1, #2, #3, #4), and in Korean (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9). Rather, it’s because whereas individual paintings of his may strongly resemble some screenshots from the MV, a crucial difference is that Lee has made a whole series (NSFW) of almost nothing but such headless images of women, most of which are much more sexually explicit than the examples given here. Whats more, and very unusually for an artist, Lee provides no titles or descriptions of those paintings either, as if to even further stress the dehumanization and objectification of the women in his work.
Fred McCoy, a rare critic of Lee’s, has written at CF Magazine about the artificial and harmful distinctions the art world maintains between erotica and pornography that he feels Lee exploits, which I recommend reading. Especially damming is his discussion of the similarities between one of Lee’s painting and one of American Apparel’s (many) notorious ads:
(Source: CF Magazine)
In which he writes:
What stands out is the purposeful removal of the female’s face in both the advertisements and paintings. If you were to include the face, you would then place the viewer in a precarious spot where they would have to make a conscious decision as to whether or not they wanted to objectify the woman. By removing the face, as well as any emotion it might carry, objectification becomes easy. We are simply looking at a dressed up piece of flesh and bear no responsibility in how we choose to engage it.
Yet without disagreeing with the sentiment, it is more correct to say it is easier. As I discussed at length in my review of Tonight, removing a face does not make negative objectification and disrespect of that person inevitable, nor does including a face automatically ward off both. In Spring Girls, objectification is certainly occurring, but it is not negative objectification because of the context of the rest of the MV. And, because so many screenshots from that MV so closely resemble Lee’s paintings, I can’t prima facie proclaim all the latter to be “disgusting,” as McCoy and his colleague do:
“[His Work] is dirty and uncomfortable [as well as] is grotesque and demeaning. I think what makes it worse than just portraying women as a piece of meat is that he felt the need to make an entire series out of it.”
“Dirty”? “Grotesque”? “Piece of Meat”? This too is hyperbole. His work is repetitive, certainly. It is baffling that he never paints pictures of women with faces, and he may well do so because he really does think of women as sex objects.
I don’t need to ask which one you prefer, whatever your sex or sexuality. You don’t need to hear about why I love it so much either.
But to dismiss the other one as disgusting, because it lacks a face? That feels much too simplistic.
On the other hand, perhaps I’m just creating strawmen here. Also, if I’m arguing that we can judge similar screenshots from Spring Girls by looking at the context of the rest of the MV, then surely we can judge a painting of Lee’s by the context provided by his series as a whole. In which case, he abjectly fails his test.
So far so good. Yet still, somehow I can’t bring myself to outrage.
How about you? If you can, why?
I admit I feel hypocritical. And I do find it troubling that Lee’s received so many accolades, and so many invitations to exhibit. Again, McCoy is a good read on what that implies about the art world.
I’m strongly reminded of my series and lectures on Gender Advertisements too, in which I’ve often pointed out that it’s the trends towards sexism and gender stereotyping in advertising that are problematic. Those trends should be called out. With individual ads though? Unless they’re really egregious examples, especially of unnecessary (and negative) sexual objectification, often it’s simply incorrect to label them as sexist, and unhelpful to do so.
(It is harmful that men tend to be depicted more actively than women in advertisements, and that Caucasians are given such prominence over POC. But it’s implausible to describe these individual examples as sexist and racist respectively.)
But I’ve spent many years on Gender Advertisements. Perhaps too long, and it’s high time I learned more about other conceptual approaches, especially of different media like music videos and art (I’d appreciate suggestions and recommendations). Alternatively, perhaps I’m untroubled by Lee because it’s “just” esoteric art we’re talking about, so a painting of his would never have the impact that a similar ad would.
What do you think? Of my dilemma, or about any other interesting questions raised by Sunwoo and Lee? Please let me know in the comments!
Songwriter, Lyricist, Arranger: Sunwoo Jung-a; Guitar: Sunwoo Jung-a; Bass: Baek Gyeong-jin; Mixing: Brad Wheeler, Sunwoo Jung-a @ Union studio; Mastering: bk! of Astro Bits @ AB room; Special thanks to: The Barberettes, realmeee, chch.
Music Video Credits
Director: Lee Sang-deok; Assistant Director: Kim Hoon; Director of Cinematography: Lee Han-gyeol; Cinematography Team: Park Chi-hwa, Oh Min-shik, Im Hee-joo; Lighting Director: Lee Jung-ook; Lighting Team: Lee Ji-min, Ji Hyeon-jong; Colorist: Jo Hye-rim; 2D: Lee Sung-hoon; Art Directing/styling: Gu Song-ee; Photography: Rie; Design: Seo-ro; Marketing: Jo Eun-bi, An Seong-moon.
(Credits via Mutual Response)
(Apologies for all the technical issues with the blog this week!)