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

Tonight is a strikingly sensuous MV about a time of freedom and female friendship. But to what extent is it undermined or enhanced by its many erotic moments? To what extent are those just plain sexual objectification?
SPICA Tonight Cover(Source: 미선씨의 위대한 하루 시즌2)

Time to answer the big questions that have been on your mind since Part 1 and Part 2:

“Wait…is that Lee Hyo-ri? Or is THAT Lee Hyo-ri?”

Tonight may be a great song, but it’s a real headache keeping track of who’s who in the MV, and the one guide I found had two big mistakes. So let’s clear up the five Spica members’ names first:

Spica Members Tonight(From 1:07. All screenshot sources: Youtube.)

Partially, the difficulty is because many sites use Park Si-hyun’s old name of Park Ju-hyun (박주현; she legally changed it). Partially, it’s because Park Na-rae (L) and Park Bo-hyung (R) look so similar in it:

Spica Tonight 1.12(1:12)

But mainly, it’s because there’s so many different costume, hairstyle, and hair color changes throughout, and much throwing of colored chalk dust. Also, it’s because there’s actually six people in the MV: Lee Hyo-ri features in many scenes in the first half especially, and looks a lot like Na-rae (or rather, Na-rae looked a lot like her then, but doesn’t in 2016):

Spica Tonight 0.01(0:01)
Spica Tonight 0.37(0:37)

Adding to that confusion, it doesn’t help that Na-rae was wearing that same white mesh cardigan just a little earlier (or that Yang Ji-won was wearing a very similar one at 0:47):

Spica Tonight 0.23(0:23)

The giveaway is Hyo-ri’s tattoo though:

Spica Tonight 0.38(0:38)
Spica Tonight 2.28(2:28)

Compare this picture from Netizen Buzz last month:

Lee Hyori Tattoo June 2016

As for what she’s doing in the MV, I’ll let Zander Stachniak of Critical Kpop explain (with the tweet and video inserted by me):

In 2013, B2M organized a mentorship between labelmates Lee Hyori and Spcia, the latter benefiting tremendously. The single, “Tonight,” was a return to vocally powerful music, and their first top ten song on the Gaon chart. Hyori and husband collaborated and produced the song, and Spica also seemed to take a page out of Hyori’s book with more of a “sexy” concept…

…It seemed as though B2M saw the Lee Hyori connection as the way forward. Finally they were getting somewhere. In 2014, Spica realeased “You Don’t Love Me,” a ‘60s style jazz number unlike anything they had ever done before, but very much like Hyori’s most recent album. An extension, almost. The song was brilliant, quirky, a joy to listen to. But Spica’s identity was becoming harder and harder to locate. Which might explain why their best song since debuting only reached 16 on the Gaon charts. Somehow, Spica had slid backwards. (End.)

I’m a huge fan of Hyo-ri’s: hearing about her role is what motivated me to check out Tonight in the first place, and the MV’s sensuality is very characteristic of her. But appearing in it herself was surely too much. Let alone being the very first person the viewer sees:

And by coincidence, that was the first time I’ve seen the MV myself for several weeks. Seeing it with fresh eyes, now I realize I may have given the wrong impression in Part 1 and Part 2 sorry: it is not just an endless parade of female flesh. It is very much a sweet, sentimental memory of close female friends on some kind of trip, told in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. It feels almost churlish of me to critique it, when so many women have responded so positively to its charms.

Then I take another look at the following scenes, and don’t feel guilty at all.

The “Passive and Unthreatening Recipients of the Male Gaze” in Tonight

Spica Tonight 0.17(0:17)

If all you knew of Tonight was girl-power hipster road-trip, then this might be the first scene that made you suspect there was just a little more to it than that.

Not that I’m going to criticize it, mind you. That teddy Yang Ji-won is wearing is supposed to be very form fitting. She does happen to have the largest bust of all the Spica members, but so what? If we start tut-tutting just because she’s in the scene, but wouldn’t over a member with smaller breasts in the same outfit, then that’s just body-shaming.

Instead, let me point out that you can’t unsee the ejaculation imagery in the suddenly rising balloon. (You’re welcome.) And, that although we get very brief glimpses of Kim Bo-a also wearing a teddy at the slumber party shown much later, it’s only Ji-won that we get to see like this there:

Spica Tonight 1.40(1:40)

Thinking about why that was the case, and why the other three members were wearing such loose-fitting clothing at that party, I suddenly realized something that had been staring me in the face this entire time.

You know all those lying down scenes I made such a big deal of? It turns out, it’s actually only Ji-won in most of them. And it’s her chest that we get to see the most of too.

I can’t believe I only just noticed. This is what staring at breasts for 10 weeks does to you…

Spica Tonight 0.24(0:24)
Spica Tonight 0.31(0:31)
Spica Tonight 0.31-0.34(0:34)
Spica Tonight 0.36(0:36)
Spica Tonight 0.47(0:47)
Spica Tonight 1.00(1:00; for a change, this time it’s Bo-a.)
Spica Tonight 1.03(1:03)

Of this shot of Ji-won falling back into the pool, I’m thinking that on the one hand it’s a great metaphor for the viewer abandoning themself to their dream of their trip. But on the other that…boy, those are some great boobs.  And we get some great shots of her body too.

I’m not normally so crass. But however sensual, this element of the MV isn’t exactly subtle. Sometimes you’ve just got to call it.

As indeed with this next, very awkward scene with Si-hyun on her back, in which she’s wearing completely normal summer attire for a young Korean woman…if she were almost anywhere except in a swimming pool that is. And whose idea was it to bring a surfboard to a pool anyway, if not to give Si-hyun something to lie on for me to better admire her legs?

Spica Tonight 1.17(1:17)

Yet for all its flaws, it was only through working out this scene that I realized the MV is supposed to be a dream. (Although I acknowledge that was already mentioned by other reviewers.) It was tough, because I took it very literally at first. Who the hell are the five of them supposed to be looking at, I wondered. How could that person be floating several meters above the pool? It only makes any sense if that person is the dreamer, who isn’t really there at all.

Should that context change our interpretation and/or criticism of any of the above scenes? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I do wonder and worry though, how accurately my screenshots are conveying that context, because of something I read recently:

My Women’s Studies class were watching Not a Love Story armed with Ruby Rich’s attack on the film. [It] is a documentary about pornography directed by Bonnie Klein which includes interviews with porn stars and feminist critics…Because Klein deployed traditional cinematic practices, Rich claims that the film cannot be feminist since it uses a camera ‘gaze’ which simulates, through intimate zooms, the typical vantage point of a male consumer of pornography. Rich deplores Klein’s use of a male cameraman and shots which turn the ‘viewer into a male customer normally occupying that vantage point’ (p. 408)…

My class largely rejected Rich’s reading, not because they disagreed with her technical deconstruction, but because, for them, the film’s meaning was lodged in the moving stories told by the women interviewed as much as in the camera movements. A purely visual reading, in other words, did not satisfy these women students. The voices of fascinating and independent women (however problematically presented) won out over the visual construction of spectator relations. The problem, then, for feminist criticism is that cinema identifications are not so easily and simply defined. Any attempt simply to deny that viewers are moved by what they hear, as well as by what they see, will create an imbalance.

(Feminism and Film, Maggie Humm, (1990, pp. 46-47.) My emphasis)

Which I didn’t provide just to sound lurn-ed, but also because it’s a reminder that context is crucial for judging sexual objectification. Which there’s a lot more of to come in the MV.

On Positive Objectification

But I’ve already covered that issue in the post “Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system“, which is just as much of a #longread as this one. Let me confine myself here to highlighting just one source I used there then, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment:

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 is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent…And it is benign/positive, when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent…

Nussbaum believes that ‘Lawrentian objectification’ (objectification occurring between the lovers in D. H. Lawrence’s novels) is a clear example of positive objectification. The passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover that she quotes in her article describes a sex scene between two lovers. Connie and Mellor, in a context characterised by rough social equality and respect, identify each other with their body parts, they “… put aside their individuality and become identified with their bodily organs. They see one another in terms of those organs” (Nussbaum 1995, 275). Consequently, the two lovers deny each other’s autonomy and subjectivity, when engaging in the sex act.

However, Nussbaum explains, “when there is loss of autonomy in sex, the context is… one in which on the whole, autonomy is respected and promoted. … Again, when there is loss of subjectivity in the moment of lovemaking, this can be and frequently is accompanied by an intense concern for the subjectivity of the partner at other moments…” (Nussbaum 1995, 274–6) …Furthermore, Connie and Mellor do not treat each other merely as means for their purposes, according to Nussbaum. Even though they treat each other as tools for sexual pleasure, they generally regard each other as more than that. The two lovers, then, are equal and they treat one another as objects in a way that is consistent with respecting each other as human beings.

(Papadaki, Evangelia (Lina), “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition, available online)).

Of course, gratuitous, disembodied jiggly body parts are lecture one of sexual objectification 101; by all means, we can discuss Nussbaum’s perspective on that in the comments, or in that earlier post. But my main intention in quoting her is not quite so lofty.

Rather, it’s to explain why my initial reaction to the MV was as visceral as it was, way back on that subway in the summer of 2013. Because Nussbaum speaks to how, when I’m in the mood, I almost can’t help but stare at certain body parts of my wife’s. Far from feeling objectified, my wife mostly finds it amusing, and relishes the exclusive attention and focus given to those body parts later. Seeing Ji-won lying down in that tent in the MV, the camera gaze lingers on her body very much like I would on hers, as I luxuriate in the feel of her skin and savor her scent. Say, on a rare lazy Sunday afternoon, before we both suddenly realize the kids will be in the playground for—OMG—a whole half hour.

I imagine something similar explains why some lesbian commentators’ appreciation of the MV is so strong too. It’s what makes it so evocative, and explains how what would otherwise strikingly sensuous MV—arousing the senses without the sexual connotation—is really much more of a sensual one, “gratifying the carnal, especially sexual, senses“.

And that’s great. I applaud the sensuality. I scoff at the notion that because men may be more visual creatures than women, that context and atmosphere and—heaven forbid—our actual relationships with the objects of our desire somehow aren’t important too. Which is not to say I don’t also appreciate some T&A, but that’s all there seems to be to most “sexy concepts” in K-pop these days, which is why they tend to be quickly forgotten. Unlike, say, Bloom, which we’ll still be talking about 30 years from now.

But wait. With great difficulty, let me tear my eyes from away those screenshots with Ji-won for a moment, and start thinking properly again.

Because while Tonight does have romantic lyrics, the MV itself was about a girl-power hipster road-trip, right? If so, what are those scenes with Ji-won doing there? Why almost only her? And what about all these headless shots coming up too?

The Objectification in Tonight (and THAT Lesbian Scene)

Whose body parts belong to whom? I could find out, but that would be much less fun than it sounds. Besides which, the point is I shouldn’t need to.

Spica Tonight 0.40(0:40)
Spica Tonight 0.53(0:53)
Spica Tonight 0.55(0:55)
Spica Tonight 0.57(0:57)

Again, in an MV actually about relationships and/or sex, all those would be fine. Like I said, I often look at my wife that way, and don’t feel evil when I do. But being so gratuitous here, they do appear to be classic examples to add to that sexual objectification 101 lecture, and strongly remind me of the recent “Headless Women of Hollywood” meme.

And, speaking of things which seem out of place, it’s high time we examined that scene. You know the one:

Spica Tonight 1.23(1:23)
Spica Tonight 1.25(1:25)
Spica Tonight 1.26(1:26)
Spica Tonight 1.27(1:27)
Spica Tonight 1.32(1:32)
ice cream scene comment(Source: Omona)

If any scene can be said to be for a lesbian gaze, this is it. But it’s a terrible execution.

Among other things, Na-rae and Si-hyun are in completely different rooms. So when I first saw it, I didn’t think Na-rae’s undressing was even for Si-hyun at all, but that it was just for the heterosexual male viewer instead, with Si-hyun reacting to the audacity of that. (My opinion is kind of moving back in that direction, TBH.)

Crucially, it just comes out of nowhere too. The only other one scene I can think of that hints at a romantic interest between two women—and I stress only hinting—is this one with Hyo-ri and (I think!) Na-rae:

Spica Tonight 0.39(0:39)

And for sure, Hyo-ri pushes Na-rae down in it, who tumbles onto the bed in a most delightful fashion:

Spica Tonight 0.46(0:46)

Or at least she would, were the MV not to segue into an awkward tumbling of Ji-won on some grass instead:

Spica Tonight 0.47(0:47)

And that’s it. Yes, really, with these next, final scenes most notable for that absence. Because again, they’re very sensual, and I’d venture that lesbian viewers can certainly appreciate them, for the same reasons as heterosexual men can. (See Part 1 for more discussion of reactions by lesbian viewers.) But we see no “intra-diegetic gaze” of a woman in the MV admiring another woman’s body in the same way, despite the many titillating opportunities provided.

Spica Tonight 1.08(Bo-hyung at 1:08)
Spica Tonight 1.09(1:09)
Spica Tonight 2.14(2:14)
Spica Tonight 2.15(2:15)
Spica Tonight 2.16(2:16)
Spica Tonight 2.44(2:44)

Conclusion

When I showed Tonight to a perceptive friend of mine two years ago, he told me it strongly reminded him of I’ve Gotta Feeling (2009) by the Black Eyed Peas. That would be a very interesting comparison to make: both are great songs, and both MVs are very sensual, but with many problematic depictions of the women therein. And both, ironically, seem to have been relatively overlooked by pop-culture writers, at least in that latter respect. That’s no big surprise for Tonight of course, which wasn’t very successful as explained, but it comes as a strange oversight for I’ve Gotta Feeling, which reached #1 on numerous charts worldwide.

The main difference though, is that the MV to I’ve Gotta Feeling matches its lyrics. Perhaps Tonight would have been more successful if it too had embraced its sensuality, rather than making that feel so blatantly pervy and tacked on?

Because, ultimately, it was?

What do you think?

Either way, I’d hate to end on such a despondent note, almost as if I didn’t even like the song and MV, let alone still love both. Let me part with you instead then, by choosing from one of its many charms that I alluded to earlier. This spica-group-shot-tonightscene, say, from 1:12, about which Laverne at Seoulbeats wrote (source, right: Yellow Slug Reviews):

The scene where Spica sway facing the wall (leaving us with a view of their backsides) is an example of a liberating and empowering direction; It’s not framed sexually at all. But the ice cream scene was and the MV would have been improved if it was eliminated.

For comparisons’ sake, a must read is I’m No Picasso’s thoughts about a similar Simone de Beauvoir nude.

And for even more fun, here’s the “male” version of the song:

And here’s the Areia trance remix. I still prefer the original, but I enjoy the slower tempo of this one too, which may be more apt for the MV:

Song Credits

Lyricists: Lee Hyori, Kim Bo-a; Composers: Nermin Harambasic, Anne Judith Wik (both worked on many songs on Lee Hyori’s Bad Girls album), Henri Jouni Kristian Lanz, William Robert Rappaport; Arrangers: 양시온, 김태현(also did Bang! by After School). (Source: Naver Music.)

Music Video Credits

Director: Yong Seok Choi; Assistant Directors: Edie Ko, Jungwoo Yoo, Oui Kim, Wonju Lee; Cinematographer: HyunWoo Nam (GDW); Art Director: Mina Jo; Cast: SPICA, Hyori Lee. (Source: LUMPENS; see here for a list of the many other MVs they’ve worked on.)

Spica Tonight 3.29Thanks for reading!

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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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Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 1 of 3)

Tonight has been interpreted as an uplifting, carefree song about female friendship, maybe even about a lesbian awakening. So why is the MV soo male-gazey?
Spica Tonight 1.26(All screenshot sources: Youtube)

Introduction: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spica

Released in August 2013, Tonight by Spica is the perfect short summer song. It’s fun, breezy, and simple to understand for a Korean learner too. Just take a listen for yourself:

Though most K-pop songs don’t age well for me, I do still soo love the music and vocals of this one. But its sales were poor, and it won no prizes on music shows. It received few substantive reviews. Then the same happened again with You Don’t Love Me, which came out in January 2014. Crestfallen, I lost track of Spica after that, but I remember being further disappointed by their misguided US debut that summer, then the news in November 2015 that a manager of their former entertainment company was being sued for embezzlement, which derailed their planned comeback. Add that they haven’t uploaded a video to Youtube in over a year, then I started this post half-expecting they’d disband before I finished it.

Spica, it seems, have always been plagued with bad luck.

But there’s hope on the horizon. I soon learned that they’d switched entertainment companies in December, and that they’d quickly followed that with the announcement that a mini-album would be released in April, later cancelled in favor of the release of a full album in June. Also, while their Twitter, Facebook page, various Instagram accounts, and (Korean) fan cafe were only being updated every few days, they were still being updated. An hiatus on those updates since April was cause for alarm, but it was likely only because the group is very busy working on the album. Sure enough, soon after I wrote that they’ve since resumed posting, and have just reconfirmed their comeback and released new member photos.

So, I’m optimistic that they’ll announce a firm release date any day now. Which makes them a perfect choice for my own return to writing about K-pop.

Who could write a simple review after watching that MV though?

I think I'm addicted to feminist media criticism(Source: Guerrilla Feminism)

There’s only so much that can be said about the generic lyrics of the song, or added to what other reviewers have already written about the dreamy, memory-like atmosphere. Who has time for such banalities, when the MV is so sensual, but also soo blatantly aimed at heterosexual men? When the first half mostly consists of the Spica members lying on their backs in bikinis or tight clothes, the camera lingering on (especially) their breasts? And much of the rest, just that lingering gaze, with only occasional shots of the actual faces of the various body parts’ owners?

I’m serious. For teaching the concept of the male gaze, and the rights and wrongs of objectification, this MV is the perfect K-pop example.

Spica Tonight 0.31(0:31)
Spica Tonight 0.53(0:53)

No, I’m not a prude, I don’t think those are negatives (necessarily), and I’m not complaining. No way in hell, did I plan to spend six weeks on researching the male gaze before I got a post out either.

But I felt I had an obligation to discuss what no-one else was. Because when I first saw the MV three years ago, it was on my phone while I was on the subway; I had to stop watching, lest other commuters think of me as just another typical, sweaty uncle fan. When I showed the MV to a coworker to get a second opinion, he burst out laughing at how shameless it was. When I showed it to my wife, she just rolled her eyes. When I went online for fourth and fifth opinions though…?

Of scenes like the above, almost every other reviewer and commenter only mentions the ice cream one, if at all; instead, they talk about the strong vibe of sexual freedom they get from the MV, and/or the lesbian undertones. For instance, Alexandra Swords at Music Matters:

[The MV is] just plain fun to watch. It’s also incredibly sexy, the sensual movements, the outfits, the skinship . . . all of it contributes to a great idea of personal liberation, including sexual freedom and comfort with that sexual freedom. It’s great because very few music videos period, let alone the ones in Korea, express that not only is it okay to be a sexual creature, but that being so is not strange or special, it just is and we can just accept it with ease and comfort as an aspect of the world in which we live.

And commenters at Seoulbeats, after reviewer Laverne originally mentioned she found the sexual undertones of the ice cream scene unnecessary and distracting:

Seoulbeats Spica Tonight commentsAll of which is still cool of course: we’re all free to interpret the MV however we like, and a male gaze isn’t mutually exclusive with their reading of it. I should have made more of an effort to look for Korean reviews too.

But…sexual freedom? Tasteful lesbian undertones?

I’m just not seeing them. If a lesbian coming-of-age story was the intention, then it seems poorly executed at best, as I can identify only two scenes that hint at potential romantic interest between the members, and just barely at that. (Frankly, I think it’s just wishful thinking really. And, just off the top of my head, think Because of You by After School is a much, much better K-pop example.) In the absence of that narrative though, what I’m seeing in its place is the presentation of a very passive, come-hither version of female sexuality, much like that which already overwhelmingly dominates the media.

Again, that’s not necessarily bad, in the right context. Nor, as Womantic’s and ChencingMachine’s comments demonstrate, are the resulting scenes necessarily for the exclusive pleasure of heterosexual men. Yet while a lesbian appreciation of this MV is no less valid than a male heterosexual one, I still think it’s only incidental.

But I’m not a lesbian. As you’ll see, I still have lots to learn about the (heterosexual) female and lesbian gaze too. And, whatever your sex or sexuality, I can’t and won’t presume to lecture you that any feelings of sexual empowerment to be gained from the MV are simply a form of false consciousness either. Instead, let me just present my own biases and intellectual baggage first then, before the scenes from the MV, to show you why I interpret them the way I do.

That makes for a very, very long post, almost a presentation really, which readability dictates that I split into three. Also, for an uneasy segue into a discussion of men and women in advertising next, to be continued in Part 2, and ironically not returning to the MV again until Part 3. But if that’s what it takes to demonstrate the very narrow vision of female sexuality being presented by the MV, and of male tastes in turn, then so be it.

Hopefully, you’ll be too intrigued by the hundred or so images to notice the length anyway. And, ultimately agree or disagree with my interpretations, hopefully we’ll still have a fun discussion about the male gaze and/or Tonight too, and both learn a lot in the process.

Here goes…

(One NSFW image follows.)

The Male Gaze: A Gender Advertisements Perspective

Gender Advertisements South Korea(Source, right.)

Whatever your experience with analyzing advertisements, you can appreciate that the sizing and placing of people in them is a fundamental part of photographers’ and designers’ jobs. With that in mind, consider these images of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana:

charles higherMost people wouldn’t think twice about them. Unless, they already knew that Diana was actually the same height as Charles, or even slightly taller:

Diana TallerWhy make Charles appear taller? Lisa Wade at Sociological Images explains:

This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.

Is that social commitment also operating in these Korean advertisements? You be the judge:

Gender Advertisements Womem Taller than MenNow, those examples were pretty obvious. However, that social commitment to men’s greater height can be said to be part of a wider commitment to presenting conventional, in many ways unequal gender roles by the media. Which may sound like hyperbole, but literally just about any survey looking at how the sexes are portrayed can confirm.

In advertisements, that commitment is usually achieved in much more subtle ways than simply giving high stools to short men though. Fortunately for us, the late Erving Goffman outlined many of those ways in Gender Advertisements (1979), and his framework has been considerably expanded upon and modified by scholars since.

Concentrating on the two ways most relevant to the Tonight MV here, the first is by positioning men and women (and races) differently, which comes under the “Relative Size” category in Goffman’s framework. (Note that in addition to being positioned differently, they are frequently doing different things and/or have different jobs too, which comes under “Function Ranking”). For example:

Gender Advertisements Men at Front, Women at BackGender Advertisements Relative Size and Position(Source, left: Korea Times, 25/06/2009; see Korean Sociological Image #8 for a discussion.)

Gender Advertisements Relative Size South KoreaNone of those examples are particularly objectionable in themselves, nor is there a real case to be made that the teams behind them were deliberately or even subconsciously sexist: there could have been any number of legitimate aesthetic reasons and other considerations which came into play when they placed the men and women (and Koreans and Caucasians) the way they did. It’s also true that I deliberately selected all the advertisements in this post to make certain points, which in turn are necessary generalizations; of course you see men standing in the back sometimes, and so on. That said, do surveys of multiple advertisements, and, for whatever reasons, men tend to be front and center more often than women, and tend to have better jobs and/or take more active roles than the women behind them.

In that vein, take a look at these two:

Gender Advertisements Ritualized Subordination Mother Child Man WomanIn the left (technically half of an advertisement), of course the mother is taller and of a higher social status than her young daughter. Also of course, there’s no implication that the teenage boy on the right is of a higher social status or in any other way superior to the teenage girls in any way simply because he’s standing while they’re sitting.

Look at multiple advertisements however, and it turns there’s a lot more ads like the one on the right than vice-versa. Or, of ones that elevate the men above the women in some other way:

Gender Advertisements Ritualization of Subordination Man Standing Woman SittingGender Advertisements Ritualization of Subordination Men Standing Women SittingKim Su-hyeon and Shin Sae-kyeong Man StandingAlternatively, if the men themselves are sitting, then the women end up on lower furniture (remember the stools earlier?), in beds, or even on the floor or ground:

Giordano Wallpaper Shin Min-a So Ji-sub(Source: Giordano. See also: Shin Min-a Shows Us How to Pose Like a Woman)
Goffman Gender Advertisements Rituatlization of Subordination Kate Moss Chris Kremer(Source, above and below: The Fashion Spot)

Goffman Gender Advertisements Rituatlization of Subordination GucciThis is the part of second category of Goffman’s to bear in mind for the MV, which he termed the “Ritualization of Subordination” (but with obvious overlaps with “Relative Size”). He explained it thus:

Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example.) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)

And in particular:

Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)

A note of caution. In lectures in the past, I’ve explained that Korea provides an interesting counterpoint to such interpretations. As in this part of the world, age and status trumps everything:

Korea Status Trumps Relative Size and Ritualiztion of SubordinationGender Adverisements Status Trumps Ritualization of SubordinationVictorian Husband and Wife ungyo looking away(Source, left: Etsy)

And indeed maybe it does. But after rereading the original book, I found that Goffman had already indirectly addressed this:

An interesting contrast is to be found in turn-of-the-century portrait poses of couple [example above], wherein the effect was often achieved of displaying the man as the central figure and the woman as backup support, somewhat in the manner of a chief lieutenant. (p. 40)

Which is to say, it’s important to bear advertisements’ contexts in mind, and not interpret them dogmatically. But whether they’re Korean or from Goffman’s native Canada, examples like these seem to be the exceptions that prove the general rule.

Another thing to bear in mind is one of the biggest changes since Goffman’s day: that fewer and fewer couples and mixed groups are depicted in advertisements. Despite that, women are still less likely to be standing in them than men:

Ha Ji-won and IU lying downsnsd baby g 2015(Source: S♡NE | INDESTRUCTIBLE)
Seol-hyun subway advertisement gmarket(Source: 퍼펙트 월드)

The sides of buses, I’ve noticed, are frequently used for full-length shots of people on their sides. It’s just that those people rarely seem to be men:

Swagger Hyo-seong on Bus(Sources, edited: Swagger)

And finally, some examples of women on the floor, in beds, and/or lying down. Which, like Goffman said, are considered to be expressions of sexual availability:

Park Min-young jeans floor(Source: Tcafe.net)
Honey Lee Venus lingerie lying on bedKang So-ra Ad Objectification through reduction to sexual availabilityGa-in EgoistJunghwa - Mizuno Summer 2015(Source: IsM, K-pop in Greek)
Seol-hyun SK Telecom GMarket(Sources: FM Korea; Imgur. Ironically, there was some controversy about the one on the left. But only because of its supposed resemblance to a BDSM scene.)

This example with Bae Su-ji for Clalens contact lenses is particularly interesting. When I showed it to a female friend, who’s very au fait with overthrowing the patriarchy, I pointed out that it looked like I was hovering over her as we lay together in some sunny, secluded glade. (Su-ji that is, not my female friend; let’s not go there.) That didn’t occur to her at all though, and instead she admired what the advertisers had done with her hair, the black lines serving to highlight the clarity of vision brought about by the contact lenses (although in hindsight, I think the intention was to highlight that they’re color lenses):

Ritualization of Subordination Male Gaze Suzy ClalenI include it then, partially as an example of where my background is possibly clouding my judgement. Also, as a reminder that I’m not the target audience of most of the advertisements I critique.

But still: with this ad, I think my friend wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.

Because consider the similar one in the middle below too. At that more usual scale, only a blogger with a bone to pick would notice the black lines at all. Add the slightly scared expression on her face, which seems out of place for a contact lens ad, and I’m right back to my original interpretation. Neither exactly scream “Now that I can see properly, I can finally do shit and get on with my life!” either, which is why I much prefer the one on the left. (Even Seol-hyun’s on the right is an improvement.)

Korean Contact Lens Advertisements(Apologies for the reflection of some ugly bald guy in the picture on the right.)

But okay, so what? So we see many more women than men in beds and on floors in advertisements, frequently in sexualized poses. Is that problematic?

Well, if we put aside for a moment that not every ad needs to be sexualized, and that when it is, it’s usually the sexualization of women by and for heterosexual men? Then not so long ago, I would have said no. Not necessarily.

Yes, I know I say that word a lot. But hear me out.

In my lectures, I used to point out that basic biology meant that heterosexual men found women in beds more sexually attractive than vice-versa. Whereas you have lots of time, energy, and most importantly no kids, I would wistfully explain to my 20-something audience members, so you make it a point of personal pride to try new and exciting sex positions everyday, the reality is that the missionary position is overwhelmingly the most popular male-female one. (And besides which, if we’re talking about penis-in-vagina, all those new and exciting sex positions are all just variations of the same six basic positions anyway.) Ergo, if sex sells, and, rightly or wrongly, sex is always going to be used to sell, then that sexual difference is always going to be reflected in advertising.

To reinforce that point, and get some laughs, I would show some photos of men parodying women’s typical poses:

Men in Women's Poses(Source: English Russia)
Men in Women's Poses Men-Ups(Source: kyliedpeterson)

But sometimes after the lectures, women would point out that the men above weren’t as (conventionally) attractive as the women they’re mimicking. And they had a point. So too, if they’d asked how come I’d just enthralled them with numerous images of scantily-clad women in beds or lying down, for which they were eternally grateful, yet failed to provide any examples with men to prove my original point? Like some from two Instagram collections recently featured at Bored Panda say, which have a much wider range of guys than normal too?

Instagram @brosbeingbasic(Ewww, men on their backs. How unmanly and unattractive. Source: @brosbeingbasic; left, right)

What they really should have done though, is told me to just shut the hell up. Because what the fuck would I know about what poses turn women on?

I like to think I know a little. This blog is about sexuality after all. I do have lots of books about sexuality in my bookshelves to impress guests at my cocktail parties with, and have even read some of them too. Obviously, I have no qualms about talking explicitly about sex. Obviously, I do so with my wife and did with my former partners. Probably, you can guess, that lack of inhibitions extends to conversations with my friends too. (Consider that a heads-up, if any readers want to hang out.)

But had I really talked to my female friends about what turns them on? Exactly what turns them on? Had I really talked to enough heterosexual women, or read enough about female sexual desire written by them? Could I really stand there as a cisgender, heterosexual guy and tell heterosexual women that I know they aren’t as attracted to men in beds as men are to women, which is why we don’t see men in beds so much in ads?

No.

Instead, it took the following image to make me finally realize my utter foolishness. Seen back while I was still naively expecting this post to just be a normal review, this image is a big reason for the way it developed the way it did. Because just between you and me, I can see the attraction…

Sleeping Beauty Bare Men Paper(Source: Paper)

I’m sure it would have been more to the point to post a picture of a eager, expectant-looking guy in bed, with a much prouder erection; alas, it’s that picture that really, really does it for me. I mean did it for me. Enlightened me I mean.

Anyyyway…

If it doesn’t enlighten you personally though, then here’s some eye-opening links I was also reading at the time, which provided the thousands of words of background that picture told me:

  • Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze? (The Conversation; make sure to read the comments also)
  • Gaze Upon Me, and Despair!: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, S2E2 (The Learned Fangirl)
  • How music videos challenged the male gaze in 2015 (Dazed)
  • How is this painting ‘pornographic’ and ‘disgusting’? (The Guardian)
  • ‘Neighbors 2’ is a middle finger to anyone who thinks feminism can’t be funny (Fusion)
  • Hollywood Men: It’s No Longer About Your Acting, It’s About Your Abs (Jezebel)
  • The Male Gaze vs. The Female Gaze (CinemaVerite)
  • NSFW: See Images From “Bare Men,” A New Photo Book on Male Nudity (Paper)
  • A New Tumblr Calls Attention to “Headless Women” in Film & TV Marketing (Bitch, Feministing)
  • NSFW: 10 Images That Take The Female Nude Back From The Male Gaze (Bust; my Twitter and Facebook conversations about them)
  • Empowered Young Women Star In These Portraits Of Chinese Girlhood (The Huffington Post)
  • How did ‘Playgirl’ magazine go from feminist force to flaccid failure? (Fusion)
  • An Earl in the Streets and a Wild Man in the Sheets: Tarzan and Women’s Sexuality (Bitch)

That said, of course there’s still many differences in what heterosexual men and women find sexually attractive in the other; it’s just that I’m no longer convinced that lying in bed (etc.) is one of them. And if I’m right, that social commitment to literally keep women in their place seems to be the biggest reason for the discrepancy in the media.

Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the modus operandi, there are many more active alternatives, and/or alternative body types, that are just as effective…

vivian geeyang kim 66100 Ha Ji-won(Sources: Plus Size Model Vivian Geeyang Kim, edited; ask K-POP)

Which I’ll present in Part 2, before discussing the MV proper in Part 3. Thanks very much for reading this far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (By all means, feel free to jump ahead and talk about the MV too!)

Korean Lolita Nationalism: It’s a thing, and this is how it works

Tzuyu TWICE U+ phoneTurning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 3

Once upon a time, it would have been considered strange, even shocking to have a 16 year-old girl do a “sexy dance” for a phone commercial. That cardboard cut-outs of her on every corner would present her body for our constant inspection, their text wantonly inviting us to come inside if we wished to see more, her stare seeming to question the virility of any heterosexual man that didn’t. That someone thought she wasn’t attractive enough if she just stood comfortably, so she was made to pose so awkwardly to highlight her willowy hourglass figure. That women’s bodies would come to literally embody phones in the first place, with advertisers both exploiting and even deliberately promoting new body labels and dysphoria.

How did this become the new normal?

There are myriad reasons, and this blog has languished while I tried to explain too many of them at once in previous versions of this post. (Sorry.) So, let me concentrate on just one instead:

Since last summer, the official website of the army provides pictures and videos of sexy girl-groups. The sexuality of the female entertainers is being used for the purpose of boosting the soldiers’ spirits. About one and half years of military service is compulsory in South Korea, during which time the soldiers are encouraged to consume the commercialized sexuality of the females.

(Ha-young Choi, BBC World Service, 21/01/2016)

Put like that, it does sound creepy. In the long article I’ve translated below, even creepier still. Put in the context of the isolation and harsh conditions of Korean military service though, and the long history of performances by girl-groups for morale, as well as conscripts’ quite literal consumption of commercialized female sexuality off-base? Then allowing them to see already widely-available pictures and videos of girl-groups and female entertainers seems, well…pretty innocuous really. It would be also quite difficult to prevent in light of the Defense Ministry’s recent recommendation that “each military unit…widely utilize social networking services for soldiers’ convenience so that they can stay connected to the Internet more freely to prevent further isolation from society.”

So, I’m not against allowing conscripts to see such content. There are more important battles out there.

Likewise, of course there’s no direct relationship between that decision and Tzuyu‘s ads. In Korea, sexualized ads and music videos of teens have been around for almost a decade now. (Not least, because of her employer JYP.)

What I am against is military conscription itself, as well as the Korean government’s deliberate promotion of a “damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality” to accompany that, as I discussed in Part 1. I’m also against the damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality promoted by (most) K-pop, reinforced by the government’s censorship of anything that hints at female sexual agency. And, ultimately, I’m against the rationale behind this too. Because however necessary it is to provide internet access to conscripts these days, however harmless it may be that conscripts can now ogle K-pop stars to their hearts’ content, and however mundane both may sound in light of the lolitaesque reality of today’s Korean media, there’s still a difference between allowing conscripts to ogle and encouraging them to ogle.

That is creepy.

Somewhere in the government and/or military bureaucracy though, real people who couldn’t give a crap about the effects on women and girls made the real decision to do so. Just like with all the other mundane, innocuous, completely justifiable decisions that make Korea’s “Lolita Nationalism” possible.

When terms like that begin to sound very abstract and cliched from overuse, not least by myself, this real-life example is, I hope, a healthy reminder of how those actually come about.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Instead, let two former conscripts explain it themselves:

MplusV 27.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 27/04/2016)
MplusV 28.04.2016(Screenshot, MPlusV, 28/04/2016)

First, in the form of some context from Young-Chun, who many of you will know as the author of The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army (2015):

…I knew Korean guys, especially sexually deprived conscripts, liked female celebrities (duh, right?), but I didn’t know how bad that affection was. I learned that Korean conscripts in general are obsessed with K-Pop girl groups, in particular Girls’ Generation. By obsessed, I mean really obsessed. A good example of this is rapper Psy’s description of his military service.

In this show, Psy says he was made to stand guard while watching the TV so he could alert senior conscripts that Girls’ Generation was on it. While it wasn’t that extreme in my unit, it was quite normal to see guys flock to the TV whenever GG or other good looking female celebrities were on air. Every Friday and Saturday, when the major networks have those “music” shows parading group after group, entire units would stay glued to the TV. Guys would watch the same music video or performance repeatedly so they could ogle at the girls. Their bare legs exposed, sexy dancing, and terrible music (not a secret among conscripts either), it was pretty obvious there was only one reason for these “musicians” to exist. These girls are glorified strippers, covered in the thin veil of “music” so it doesn’t seem as creepy and sad as going to a strip club. For conscripts, it’s usually the only form of sexual gratification they’re allowed while on base.

One and half years of celibacy is no joke. So, I can hardly blame the conscripts for their exaggerated reactions to seeing girl-groups. Or, for visiting prostitutes while on leave, which Young-chun goes to explain was considered normal.

That said, it’s been a decade since he served. Now, Seoul journalist Jun-haeng Joshua Lee argues, conscripts are indeed effectively receiving the “glorified strippers” they always craved:

Jumping ahead to the relevant section of his SlowNews article, about the Military Mutual Aid Association’s (군인공제회/MMAA) portal site MplusV, which is the homepage of all base computers:

한국 군장병들은 이제 사지방에서 무엇을 보게되는가 / What Do Conscripts See on the Computers on Their Bases?

October 2, 2015 (Also available on his Rainygirl blog.)

군 복무 21개월, 한국 남성은 <사지방>에서 무엇을 보게되는가? / Military Service is 21 Months Long: What will Korean Men See in the Base PC Rooms?

다음은 <군장병 공식포털>의 갤러리 구성이다.

The following is what the MplusV site looks like:

MplusV 1

M갤러리 라는 메뉴에는 ‘걸그룹’ ‘여자스타’ 라는 대분류가 전면에 배치되어있다.
이 뿐만 아니다. 메인페이지 역시 걸그룹 사진으로 가득하다. 10월 1일 기준 메인화면이 이렇다.

In the gallery section, the categories for girl-groups and female stars fill the entire page. But that’s not all, The main page is also full of girl-group photos. It looked like this on October 1:

MplusV 2MplusV 3

정 안되면 만화캐릭터라도 여성을 골라 배치했다 (안돼 아야나미…)

It’s not just the photos; there are even female manhwa characters…

MplusV 4

물론 지난 6월에도 걸그룹이 전면에 배치되어 있었다.

Of course, in June it looked like this:

MplusV 5

< 군장병 공식포털> 에 마련된 갤러리들은 모두 <디시인사이드>의 같은 겔러리를 연동한 것이다. 예를들어 아이유 겔러리의 경우 <군장병 공식포털>과 <디시인사이드> 에 있는 겔러리 내용이 모두 동일하다.

The galleries in this site are all associated with or directly come from DC Inside. [According to Wikipedia, “it is analogous to the English-language website 4chan for its image and influence upon Korean internet culture.”—James] For example, if you click on the IU one, it is exactly the same.

MplusV 6MplusV 7

광야에서 쎽쓰!를 외치는 것 또한 당연히 연동된다.

Jeez, of course even though all those guys are stuck in the middle of the countryside, all they can think about is sex.

MplusV 8

즉 <디시인사이드>에 있는 1700여개 갤러리 중 <<<<여성을 다루는 79개 갤러리>>>>를 <군장병 공식포털>에 연동시키기 위해 따로 빼낸 것이다.

Out of 1700 galleries on the DC Inside site, 79 dealing with women were picked out for the MplusV site.

< 사지방> 즉 군PC방의 주 사용층이 20대 혈기넘치는 한국남성이기 때문에 그들의 관심사에 맞추어 걸그룹 컨텐츠를 내세웠다는 것만으로는 설명이 충분하지 않다. 공교롭게도 모든 해답은 이 사이트의 ‘회사소개’ 와 ‘공지사항’ 에서 너무나도 충실하게 다루어지고 있다.

One explanation for this is that since the main users are virile, horny, vigorous men in their early-20s, the material available on the site is appropriate to their interest is girl-groups (boys will be boys). But this explanation is insufficient. Surprisingly, the real reason for the content make-up can be found in the company introduction and announcement section of the site instead.

사기진작 士氣振作 / Morale Support

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 회사소개에 있는 문구이다.

The following is from the introduction on the website:

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식의 터전이 될 수 있도록 다양한 걸그룹, 여자스타의 각종 정보를 제공하고 병영생활 정보, 커뮤니티 등 다양하고 유익한 정보들을 제공하고 있습니다. (군장병 공식포털 > 회사소개)

To give soldiers morale support and rest on the base, information about various girl-groups and female stars is provided, as well as other useful information about barracks life and the community.

다음은 <군장병 공식포털> 공지사항에 있는 문구이다.

Next, this is from the noticeboard:

다 양한 걸그룹/여자스타의 콘텐츠 뿐 아니라 군장병들간의 즐거운 소통의 공간을 만들어 줄 커뮤니티와 다양한 즐길거리 뉴스, 만화서비스를 제공하고 있으며…(군장병 공식포털 > 공지사항 > 군장병 공식포털 MplusV 리뉴얼 오픈, 2015.7.23)

There are not just links to information about various girl-groups and female stars, but also forums to help soldiers communicate, as well as news-sites and manhwa strips are provided…

군장병들의 사기진작과 휴식을 위해 걸그룹/여자스타 갤러리를 끌어왔다는 이야기이다. 물론 스포츠나 게임 웹툰등 취미갤러리도 함께 연결해두긴 했지만 생색내기에 가깝다. 메인페이지에는 최신 걸그룹 사진들이 화면가득 채워져있다. 그동안 군 지휘관들이 유해사이트라면서 몽땅 차단하던 바로 그 컨텐츠들이 <군장병 공식포털>이라는 권위를 걸고 군부대 PC방 첫화면에 뜨는 것이다. 여성을 성적 대상화하는 컨텐츠, 여성을 성 상품화하는 모든 컨텐츠들을 모아둔 페이지를 20개월 남짓 군에 복무할 남성들이 <사지방>에 로그인할때마다 매번 만나게 된다는 이야기이다. 여성을 소비하는 컨텐츠로만 똘똘 뭉쳐진 페이지이다. 소라넷 꿈나무는 그냥 생겨나지 않는다. 어느 누구도 이러한 ‘관음적 시선’을 제지하지 않는 곳에서 한국의 젊은 남성들이 20개월 남짓 지내며 여성을 접하고 나온다고 상상해보자. 이 시각 이후 그들의 응큼한 시선은 철저히 한국 군대에서 ‘학습되고 교육된’ 것으로 보아도 무방할 것이다.

This means the site provided these galleries to improve morale and soldiers’ rest periods. Of course there are harmless galleries like for sport and games and webtoons too, but these are only for show, to preempt criticism. Because the main page is just full of the most recent girl-group pictures. Until recently, such content was blocked because it was considered harmful. But now, with the blessing of the MMAA, it’s proudly displayed as the homepage of computers in the military PC rooms.

국가가 제공하는 사기진작 아이템 ‘여성’ / Women Are a National Support Item Provided By Their Country

“저 는 군대에서 여성을 말하는 방식 때문에 많이 힘들었어요. 텔레비전을 보면서 누구를 ‘따먹고 싶다’든가 하며 Rebellious Peace World Without War여성을 성적 대상화하는 이야기들이 정말 많죠. 또 나중에 결혼하면 딸을 낳고 싶다고 그러다가 요즘 세상이 무서워서 딸은 낳으면 안 될 것 같다고 해요. 분열되어 있는 거죠.” (저항하는 평화, 전쟁없는세상 엮음, 2015.)

“I had a hard time because of the way women are thought of in the army. Whenever soldiers see women on TV, they talk about fucking them. Also, they say, ‘When I get married, I want to have to have a daughter. But the world out is too dangerous and scary for them, so I don’t think I should have one.’ They have such mixed, contradictory feelings about women.” (Rebellious Peace, by World Without War, 2015; source right: Redian)

국가의 이름으로 ‘깨끗한 성’을 공급하던 일본군 위안부-한국군 기지촌의 전통은 현대에 들어와 거의 사라지긴했다. (유신공주는 양공주 문제엔 관심이 없었다 / 한겨레 2012.11.30) 그것은 범죄이기 때문이다. 하지만 그 의식의 유령들은 수십년간 군 막사를 떠돌면서 20개월 남짓 군복무를 마친 남성들의 뇌리에 여전히 깊이 새겨져 사회로 배출되고 있다.

The Japanese and Korean traditions of providing comfort women—“clean sex”—to Japanese and US soldiers respectively have disappeared. Because those were crimes. But the ghosts of that sex trade still influence the Korean soldiers who stay in the barracks for 20 months, who then carry those ghosts with them out to society.

여 전히 한국 국군은 여성을 장병 사기진작 도구로만 활용한다. 장병 정신교육을 통해 ‘자랑스런 대한 건아’로서 어머니와 애인을 지켜야한다는 책임감을 끊임없이 주지시키면서도, 남성성을 확인하는 의식으로서의 섹스=성욕배출을 위해 동원되어야 할 대상으로 여성을 다루는 이중적 태도를 견지한다. ‘하나된 남성군대’를 견지하기 위한 수단으로서 여성을 성적 대상화하는 태도는 각군 정훈과의 공식적인 ‘자제 촉구’에도 불구하고 야전에서 공공연히 이루어져왔다. 최근MplusV 9에 는 아예 국방홍보원이 위문열차 공연을 통해 걸그룹을 적극 활용하고 있고 K-POP 산업 또한 ‘군통령’딱지를 담보로 걸그룹을 내어주며 군과 공생하기 시작했다. 군의 사기진작을 이성, 특히 이성의 육체미에 환호하는 것에 내맡기는 것을 공식적으로 금기시해오던 것 마저 이제는 국가기관이 당당히 깨트리고 있는 것이다.

Still, the Korean military uses women for moral support. While they learn from the moral education they receive their duty as proud Korean men to protect their mothers and girlfriends, they also learn to see women as mere objects for their sexual desires, because that is a means to show off their manliness. This attitude, that the objectification of women is necessary to have one united, male military, is no secret, despite its official position condemning that.

(Caption, right: 이건 정상이 아니다, MBC 진짜사나이 2013.9.9 / This is just too much! Sistar performance on Real Men.)

Recently, the Defense Media Agency has been very explicit in its policy of using girl-group performances in order to provide support to troops. In turn, the K-pop industry has been happy to provide those groups in order for them to become the “military president,” a new term meaning the most popular girl-group among the troops. Whereas before such things were officially condemned but widely ignored, now they are blatantly encouraged.

그 연장선상에서, 40만 병사들이 늘 접하게 될 <사지방> 첫화면까지 ‘사기진작’을 명분으로 온종일 걸그룹 여자스타 사진으로 채워지기 시작했다. 방금 살펴본 <군장병 공식포털> 이야기이다. 이러한 상황에서 ‘군대 갔다와야 사람된다’ 라는 이야기가 이제 얼마나 위험한 이야기가 될지 안봐도 뻔한 일이다. 2년 가까이 기다려줬더니 차버린데에는 다 이유가 있고, 군대갔다온 복학생 오빠 속이 시커먼데에도 다 이유가 있다. 그것이 이제 <군장병 공식포털>을 통해 ‘공식화’되었다.

그나마 <사지방> PC가 과거처럼 느려터져서, 시작페이지 열기도 전에 사이트주소를 바꿔치기하는 장병들이 많기를 바라는게 우리에게 남아있는 몇 안되는 희망일지 모른다.

In that regard, the first page of the first website 400,000 conscripts visit when they go to the base PC rooms, is full of pictures of girl-groups, provided in the name of morale support. This is what we saw earlier. Given that the military is where Korean boys become men, isn’t it alarming that this is the image of women presented to them? There is a reason that the men split up with their girlfriends once they return from the military, despite the women waiting for them for so long. There is also a reason that returning male students are described as having black hearts/minds, which in Korean means they want to fuck every women they see. But now, that has become official…

All we can hope for, is that, like in the past, the internet on the PCs on the bases is so slow that soldiers go straight to their desired sites while the MplusV one is still loading. (End of translation.)

apink mma(Source: Unknown)

There’s more to the article, but let me close instead by asking the question posed in the introduction—How did sexy ads of 16 year-olds become the new normal?—and by passing on an intriguing answer I found in the unlikely location of “What Was Volkswagen Thinking?” by Jerry Useem in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Atlantic. About how large organizations come to make and rationalize questionable, even blatantly unethical decisions, some sections could easily be describing some of the processes discussed in today’s post (my emphases in bold):

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself…

The most troubling thing, says Vaughan, is the way scripts “expand like an elastic waistband” to accommodate more and more divergence…

“Culture starts at the top,” a businessman recently said in an interview with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “But it doesn’t start at the top with pretty statements. Employees will see through empty rhetoric and will emulate the nature of top-management decision making … A robust ‘code of conduct’ can be emasculated by one action of the CEO or CFO.” The speaker was Andrew Fastow, the former CFO of Enron, who spent more than five years in federal prison. He got one thing right: Decisions may be the product of culture. But culture is the product of decisions.

Related Posts:

p.s. A must-read is “Thoughts on the low age of consent and light sentences,” posted at Gusts of Popular Feeling as I was writing this conclusion. About the continued indifference to the abuse of Korea’s surprisingly low age of consent (13), it’s difficult not to see links with much of what’s discussed in this post.

REFRACTION: Performance and Discussion on Feminism and the Media. Changwon, Sat. April 2

Refraction poster finalI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

“Refraction” is a performance and discussion regarding feminism and media. All are welcome. Funds raised will be donated to Gyeongnam Women’s Association United. Tickets are ₩10,000 each and include a free beverage from Space Fun. Saturday April 2nd, 7-8:30pm #RFRCTNshow (Facebook event link.)

“굴절현상”은 한국과 전세계 페미니즘에 관한 토론과 예술적인 행사입니다.우리는 미디어에서의 여성에 대한 묘사를 더 깊게 살펴 볼 것이고 또한, 이가 개인과 사회에 어떻게 영향을 주는지 알아 볼 것 입니다. 누구든지 환영합니다.

창원시 사림동 46-9
스페이 스펀

I’d love to go, but unfortunately my wife works until 6 on Saturdays, which doesn’t give me enough time to get there from Busan. If anyone would like to do some babysitting for me on Saturday afternoon though, please let me know! ;)

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 1

Canadian Women's Army Corps vs. Apink(Sources: Left, Big Forehead Kisses; Right, 병무청 Twitter. The heading reads, “Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early],” the subheading, “You are Korea’s real men.”)

What could be more Korean than girl-group members in high heels and camo one-pieces, blossoming with aegyo for their big, strong oppas doing their military service?

What else but seeking out the cutest, most virginal group possible, then making them representatives for your entire military?

Last March, I learned that Apink had been selected as the first female PR “ambassadors” for the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), which administers Korea’s conscripts. Despite everything, it still felt jarring: what was a girl-group—any girl group—doing representing such a male-dominated (and notoriously sexist) institution?

Apink military 1(The subway ad that sparked this post. Source: 23throom)

Not realizing that appointments like theirs actually had a long precedent as I’ll explain, my first thought was to compare their recruitment posters to some of their (Allied) World War Two equivalents. I expected that most that featured women would present sexual access to them as a motivation for fighting, and/or the denial of that access to the rapacious enemy. But to my surprise, most of the posters with women were actually for women, with the purpose of recruiting them for ancillary organizations and factory work. Borrowing “the seductiveness, sass, and self-assurance” of pin-up girls, Maria Elena Buszek explains in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (2006), they reminded women of their choices among active, formerly “masculine” paths in the public sphere, “in what must have felt like an abundance of They're all topssubversive opportunities.” And the contrast with Apink’s roles in the MMA’s campaign for men was striking. (Source, right: Pin Up: The Movie.)

For Apink were not just some random girl-group. When they debuted in 2011, only one member was over 18, with another was as young as 14. So, whereas most entertainment companies relied on ever more provocative “sexy concepts” to get their groups noticed, Cube Entertainment emphasized Apink’s cuteness and innocence instead. Those personas came across strongly in the campaign, indicating they likely played a big role in why Apink was chosen.

And that’s where it became problematic.

Not just because I’m a grouch who thinks aegyo should only be enjoyed in moderation. But because the Apink members themselves, by then almost all grown women, increasingly complained about literally not being allowed to mature. Also, because it was disingenuous, those personas being very much at odds with the sexualized manner in which girl-groups are (naturally) viewed by conscripts, and are presented to them in practice. But most of all, because dig past the many, many layers of bullshit that can and probably will be used to disguise and/or justify this instance of Korea’s pervasivelolita nationalism” (a.k.a., samcheon fandom for a cause), then what you’re left with is one damned patronizing, infantilizing vision of female gender roles and sexuality deliberately being promoted to the 250,000 young Korean men conscripted every year.

For years I’ve described Korea’s universal, mandatory male conscription as a profound socialization experience, which practically—and to an extent even legally—has or still excludes a great many groups from effective participation in Korean economic and political life, most notably LGBT individuals, the disabled, mixed-race children, and, of course, women. But sorry—it’s been a while since I’ve given an actual example of how that works in practice. Also, while it’s a still a must-read, it’s been ten years now since Seungsook Moon’s Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea came out, and, in hindsight, she barely mentioned the role of popular culture in supporting and propagating the ideologies outlined therein. So, to compensate for both, here’s Part 1 of a #verylongread below, and one which I hope Apink fans will realize has nothing against Apink themselves…

Supporting the Troops—A Quick History

(Something) For The Boys(Sources: left, @ThemeTimeBob; right, dcinside)

There are many reasons no-one should be surprised by the appointment of a girl-group to represent the MMA. If anything, it’s stranger that it didn’t happen much sooner, because:

1) Korean girl-groups and female entertainers performing for the military in Korea is a significant part of Korean popular-culture, with roots going back to the Japanese colonial and US occupation periods, and with spillovers into performances for schools. So the notion that one such group would come to officially represent the military is hardly a radical step.

Also, there is the elephant in the room that is the historical role of prostitutes around US bases, originally with official approval. That’s a far cry from K-pop performances of course. But, if nothing else, it’s indicative of the Korean state’s long-standing, very collusive, and very objectifying view of women vis-à-vis the military.

Here’s Apink performing on a base themselves, shortly after they debuted in 2011:

(Watching the conscripts, no-one can blame them for their over-the-top reactions to, well, females. But it all comes across as a little creepy when you realize they’re professing their love for middle-school girls, and begs the question of what such a young group was doing there.)

2) Just a cursory examination reveals a host of regular, albeit usually temporary “honorary ambassadorships” by girl-groups and female performers for a range of organizations. Examples include the Ministry of National Defense appointing 4Minute as ambassadors for its Korea Armed Forces’ 29 Seconds Film Festival; the appointment of Hello Venus to make the music video/dance/song Soldier for the recent 6th CISM Military World Games;

…the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, which also relies on conscripts to a large extent, appointing BESTIE to make a stirring song about stamping out school violence;

…and the appointment and later promotion of IU as an honorary police officer by the national police agency. Indeed, that was over a year before the appointment of Apink by the MMA, which makes me wonder how far back using women to advertise and promote still overwhelmingly male organizations goes?

I’m thinking probably quite far, given what I’ve just been learning about regular girl-group performances for the police. Which gives me a chance to totally stan this amazing 2NE1 video by way of example:

3) Korea, along with Japan, has one of the highest rates of celebrity endorsements in the world (among developed markets). This includes being the face of public campaigns and/or for governmental organizations, which sometimes have a profound impact on public opinion.

One memorable example is the National Election Commission’s choice of The Wondergirls to encourage voting in local elections in April 2008, which was somehow best achieved by outfitting them in faux, tight-fitting school uniforms, and despite—notice a trend here?—two members still being of middle-school age (15):

Two years later, Girl’s Generation would do something similar (although by that stage, no members of that group were underage). As described by Yeran Kim in “Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies” (Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 2011):

At Korea’s 2010 national election, the most famous girl idol group, Girls’ Generation was recruited for the campaign to promote citizens’ participation in the vote. Girls’ Generation released a single, album and music video of the campaign song titled ‘LaLaLa’. Girls’ Generation also appeared on TV campaigns in which each girl member was visualized as a Tinkerbell-like mini-sized icon, while the citizen voters were represented by male citizens. Girl idols are equally utilized for important international events; for instance, Girls’ Generation were appointed as Customs Promotion Ambassadors in preparation for the G20 Summit Conference in 2010 in Seoul. The girl idols are, at least in appearance, presented as agents who have the power of motivating, seducing or interpellating citizens to become involved in the project of global nation building.

Also, to get yet another elephant in the room out of the way early on. (With K-pop, they tend to come in herds.) Yes, a lot of the things described in this post were modeled on Japan:

Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend .. Old people up, young people down.(“Here’s a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan’s population trend: Old people up, young people down.” Source: Fusion)

4) Though (probably) few in number, there have been some prominent gender-bending Korean ads in recent years. Examples include: Kim Sa-rang endorsing Gillette razors; Hyun Bin endorsing a tea-drink that supposedly gives you a V-line (albeit part of a process to encourage men to get hitherto “feminine” V-lines, thereby increasing the market); various male celebrities endorsing lingerie; and Yoo Yeon-seok endorsing feminine-hygiene products:

Korean Advertising Celebrities(Sources: Nemopan, 초아의 퍼스트드림 이야기)

5) The Korean military currently has one hell of a PR problem. In short, because it is still very much stuck in the 1970s. Let me explain.

Seventy-five percent of Korean soldiers are conscripts, who are paid minimal wages, and have to endure “abysmal living conditions.” Essentially, they’re a huge, convenient slave labor force, who not only “have to pave roads in the mountains or dig up snow” for the government, but have to do even the most menial of tasks too—”such as cleaning the pool of the general’s house.” This discourages expensive mechanization and modernization, as well illustrated by the following anecdote given by Ask a Korean!:

…the Korean has a friend who spent his military years in the eastern mountain range in Korea. One day, the general decided that he would have fresh sashimi for his guest. The Korean’s friend and his squad mate drove in a truck for two hours to the shore, and managed to acquire fresh, live fish. But how to bring them home fresh and alive?

A normal person’s answer would be, “Rent a truck with equipped with a tank and an air compressor, the kind that would deliver live fish to sushi restaurants.” But remember, this is the Korean military. It does not have the money to rent such a truck, but it does have the manpower of two soldiers.

So what did the Korean’s friend do? He sat in the back of the truck, churning the water in the tub so that air would go in and the fish would be kept alive. (His squad mate got to drive the truck because he joined the military a few months ahead of the Korean’s friend, therefore outranking him.) This was in the middle of winter, and the truck bed was exposed to the freezing wind as the truck drove into the mountains. The Korean’s friend nearly froze to death, but the fish were alive until they were served on a plate that evening.

Stories of this type, coming out of Korean military, are dime a dozen.

But for the victims, such stories are probably only amusing until well after their service is completed. Because with such perverse demands on conscripts, comes an unusually strictly defined hierarchy and secretive nature to ensure compliance. This leaves them vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse, which has culminated in a spate of high-profile suicides and killings in recent years. (Including on the very day I typed this.)

What’s more, this unprecedented media scrutiny comes at a moment when it’s increasingly struggling to maintain its numbers, as Korea’s low birth rate begins to make its impact felt. Probably then, the military is now very concerned about softening its image.

(That said, currently it has more men wanting to sign up than there are spaces available, but that’s only because they want to get their conscription out of the way while the job market is so terrible. Indeed, so terrible in fact, that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.)

When the Korean police had the same problem, this was one of their solutions:

Podori, Posuni, Riot Podori(The male is called “Podori,” the female “Ponsuni.” Yes, that’s really Podori in his riot gear on the right. Source, left: Chuing. Right: unknown)

Did I say I was surprised to see a girl-group in camo? I didn’t say that, someone else must have. Because anyone up to speed on K-pop and the Korean media could have seen the time was ripe for a girl-group to represent the MMA. The cutesier, the better.

But Why Apink?

Apink MMA(Source: APinkPanda)

To many of you reading, who are already aware of Apink’s reputation, probably I’ve already answered that question. However, you could argue that Apink was chosen simply because of their popularity at the time. You’d be wrong, but I admit it’s a plausible first explanation. For instance:

Apink Military Charts(Source: TickTalk)

Technically though, all of those were after their appointment in March (although they’re still indicative). Possibly more influential then, was their winning the military charts in January, which apparently are a thing. Here’s a video about that and some screenshots of their reactions to the news, which give strong hints of the sorts of roles they’d be performing for the MMA campaign two months later:

Apink Military 1Jung Eun-ji: We are like [the soldiers’] little sisters next door…

Apink Military 2…the soldiers must have felt we were familiar…

Apink Military 3Park Cho-rong: (To the soldiers) Girl-groups are like the star candies in the hardtack snack

Apink Military 4…We will try to sing a lot to help keep your spirits up…

Apink Military 5…Cheer up! We love you!

Apink Military 6Further adding to the notion that Apink was chosen simply for their popularity, in the year and a half since their appointment the MMA has been happy to have a range of girl-groups pass on cutesie messages or songs to cheer the troops up. Regardless of where their reputations fell on the virginal-cutesie-aegyo to slutty-sexy-concepts scale:

For example, from 9Muses this September:

From two members of SISTAR (I can’t identify the male rapper sorry):

From EXID in July:

From Hyeri of Girl’s Day:

From GFriend:

Indeed, check out the video history of the MMA Youtube channel, and barely a month goes by without some girl-group making an appearance. Here’s 4Minute in September 2014:

And here’s Ladies’ Code in a video uploaded in December 2014. Somewhat strangely and tactlessly, that was actually two months after two members (2nd and 4th from the left) had died in a traffic accident:

Add that Apink’s popularity rapidly moved on to other groups, the implication of these examples is that any girl-group would have done really, and may well have been chosen if they’d been more popular at the time. And sure, why not? After all, despite the constant bullshit about girl-power from the Korean media, the Korean government, and Korean entertainment companies, most supposedly “sexy” and “mature” girl-groups seem to combine their revealing costumes and erotic dances with off-stage personas that are just as saccharine as their “cute,” “innocent” counterparts.

As one might expect with, usually, everyone but the women themselves telling us how grown-up and independent they are.

But with sexy groups, there is always the danger that their provocative costumes and choreography will overstep the limits of favorable netizen and public opinion. Also, and in particular, at about the same time Apink were appointed, many K-pop groups were beginning to suffer from dating “scandals”—that is, being revealed to be in relationships at all—with the women receiving the brunt of fans’ anger (from female fans for dating “their” male idol, from male fans for not “waiting” for them instead). Without condoning the double-standards behind that backlash, and indeed deploring those fans whose liking of a celebrity is contingent on his or her sexual history, I can appreciate why relationships are a sensitive subject for conscripts, many of whom either split up with their girlfriend before enlisting, or constantly fear that she’s cheating on him while he’s serving. (See the 2008 movie Crazy Waiting for an exploration of this.)

(That being said, the girlfriends have equal cause for concern, as it’s not uncommon for conscripts to visit prostitutes.)

So if a cute, innocent, non-dating girl-group was required, why not select the group with the strongest reputation as such, and the least likely to radically change?

Indeed, one so strong as to be blatantly contrived for ajosshi/samhcheon fans? For instance:

  • While promoting their third mini-album in July 2013, Apink told an interviewer that Cube Entertainment suggested that they transition to more mature concepts, but they wanted to maintain an innocent one. They also pointed that several members were underage, preventing the group from doing those sexy concepts. (Although only one—Oh Ha-young—still was as of March 2014, and she turned 18 that July.)
  • In April 2014, it was revealed that 20 Fei yeah rightyear-old So Na-eun had never dated. Yes, technically after they’d been hired by the MMA, but again it’s indicative (I’m sure I could dig up earlier examples).
  • Also in April 2014, and in particular, they claimed that as no members had ever even kissed, then “they [had to think] of their fans while dancing the key choreography moves for Mr. Chu.
  • That was because they described it as “a pop dance song about a first kiss shared with a loved one, featuring Apink’s bolder but still shy way of confessing love.” But not so bold though, as to further stress the sensibilities of delicate fans, who had been concerned about a possible concept change ever since they saw the members wearing—wait for it—red lipstick on the album cover.

That is to say, the Korean media made that last claim, which is never shy of putting the concerns of ajosshi/samcheon fans front and center; click on the GIF to see what (generally quite knowledgeable) Omona They Didn’t commenters thought of all that, and for more examples of the Lolitaesque subtext to Apink’s repeated claims of innocence. I’ll return to those in later posts, as I will the third elephant of the herd: that, all that time, the Apink members may have just been parroting the lines provided to them by Cube Entertainment, as indeed they may have been later when they started expressing their frustrations with their continued infantilization—an issue at the heart of how we judge K-pop, yet something that we usually just don’t know.

But we do know that, whether speaking for themselves and/or their employers, the change in tone is significant, and, having just made a deal with the MMA, not exactly in the latter’s interests. We also know that, even just judging by the campaign alone, that a cute, innocent group was indeed required for it, and obviously so:

Apink military(Source: MMA Facebook Page; left, right)

These poster templates were used often, with the text changed as per necessary. The titles in these ones say:

Left: Those soldiers who make the bold choice to make the army your career (and get paid), we cheer for you.

Subheading: You can also choose to be in the special forces.

Right: Thank you for choosing [to join] the military [early].

Subheading: You are Korea’s real men

Apink Letters(Source: CSBNTV)

The MMA’s tweet reads (the poster is about the same thing):

If you write a letter, you will receive a mobile voucher [you can spend at coffee shops etc.] #MMA So let’s write a letter to the soldiers! #Apink #Nam-ju wrote a letter too!

And Kim Nam-ju’s own “letter” reads (see here, here, here, here, and here for similarly-themed messages in the series from other members):

Hello, this is Nam-ju from Apink! You are having a hard time, right? Aww…But I want you to always cheer up and find strength. Hee-hee. While listening to our songs, always cheer up and eat well and plentifully…I hope you get stronger. Ha ha ha…since friends the same age as me (in our 20s) are also doing their military service I worry more and more (cry cry). Always cheer up! If you laugh, you’ll be happy! Smile! I love you Korean soldiers! (Salute!)

Apink PR MMA Ambassadors(Source: Mogahablog)

Rest assured, there’s much more where that came from.

But why didn’t I just lead with all these examples? Why have I so labored the point that Apink was so well suited to the cutesie MMA campaign, when probably nobody, not even the most dedicated of Apink fans, needed convincing in the first place?

Good questions.

The main reason is that to critique the MMA campaign, and specifically to demonstrate that it was disingenuous, you need to show the disconnect between the intent and the reality. But I can’t definitively claim that Apink wasn’t just chosen for their popularity in early-2014 of course. Or, for that matter, that they weren’t just chosen because of some special financial arrangements between the MMA and Cube Entertainment, that simply weren’t offered to and/or possible with other entertainment companies for their own groups. Again, we just don’t know.

What we can say though, is that entertainment companies and the military are joined at the hip. That away from the performances on bases that get most of the media’s attention, girl-groups of all stripes are constantly presenting the same sorts of cutesie messages to conscripts, and acting like children in front of them. That, even if Apink wasn’t necessarily the only group able to fulfill that role on a permanent basis, that it was the most reliable choice to do so. And, lest we forget, that the companies or institutions doing the hiring of K-pop groups that call the shots, and that entertainment companies are only too willing to compromise their groups’ brand images or concepts for the sake of the hard income their advertising campaigns provide. A lesson I personally learned from DSP Media, who quite literally presented a new, very womanly side to KARA through the choreography to Mister back in the winter of 2009, only then to have them acting like my children in a commercial for Pepero by the following spring:

KARA Butt Dance(Source: FLV)

Ergo, the MMA wanted a cutesie, virginal girl-group, and that’s what they got. But how about the conscripts themselves?

I’m sure you can guess. But it’s always best to get first-person accounts, so I’ll provide two in a later post (update: in Part 3). Then, because not all of you may share my instinctive distrust of all things aegyo, in another I’ll consider an interesting perspective on Apink’s from May 2012, which—dare I say it?—demonstrates it can have some positives when done willingly by and for teenage girls…but which makes the negatives of young women performing it unwillingly for men in 2015 all the clearer. Finally, I’ll discuss the alternative gender roles the MMA could have presented in their campaign, as suggested by those World War Two recruitment posters.

I really don’t like making the split, as frankly this post has been a real labor of love for the past *cough* three months, which I feel works best at a whole. But at a combined total of over 10,000 words, it’s a necessary, reluctant concession to reality. Please help me make the best of it then, by adding your own thoughts in the comments, which I’ll consider and maybe incorporate as I finalize the remaining post(s). Thanks!

(Update) This post and the intended follow-ups ultimately became an ongoing series:

Call for Papers: The 3rd World Congress for Hallyu

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

wahs call for papers and contest flyerFrom the accompanying email (slightly edited by me):

…I am emailing on behalf of WAHS to inform you of an upcoming international conference in Dubai on Hallyu Studies. The conference, World Congress on Hallyu, is the third of its kind and aims to bring together academics, students, and organizations who have an interest in the phenomenon of the Korean wave, known as Hallyu. Currently, we have branches of research in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe.

I have a attached a flyer for an official “call for papers” for undergraduate and graduate students. I hope that you can pass it along to students who would be interested in submitting to the conference or contest. The undergraduate student essay winners are eligible to win a cash prize for their research, while graduate students are eligible for free airfare and accommodation to the conference to present their research. Graduate students seriously interested in attending are urged to sign up for a WAHS membership to receive a discount conference entrance fee and possible stipends for our future spring conference.

More information can be found at the official conference website, via the Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Meanwhile, apologies that a bad flu and the start of the new semester has delayed the follow-up to my last post, and I’ll try to have it up soon :)