On K-pop Stars Dating

Precious few songwriters and MV directors present female K-pop stars as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire. But these assigned gender roles can quickly crumble under revelations that they’re actually in relationships, as can as the business models that depend on them.

Estimated combined reading time: 8 minutes. Photo by Zun Zun from Pexels.

Recently, I was email-interviewed by James Griffiths at CNN about Cube Entertainment firing HyunA and E’Dawn for dating. My contribution to the final article is necessarily brief though, so here’s my original longer response to his question about just why K-pop labels are so sensitive about their stars’ love lives:

That some fans feel they have a strong personal bond with their idols, and then feel betrayed when those idols are revealed to be in a relationship, is a problem hardly confined to K-pop fandom. But it is amplified by three characteristic features of Korean popular culture.

First, there is the overexposure of its celebrities. Flick through the channels, and it is entirely possible to see the same K-pop star in an MV, a talkshow, a commercial, and a drama. And for each, they’ll generally be expected to maintain the persona for which they’re best known.

Next, as a broad rule, virginal personas are overwhelmingly preferred for unmarried female K-pop stars. Precious few songwriters and MV directors are prepared to present them as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire, as a decade’s experience with censors has taught that their work will generally get banned if they do.

Consequently, in K-pop, most women are presented as scantily-clad, passive objects for the male gaze, regardless of the actual make-up of a girl-group’s fandom. Again, this centralizing of supposed cishet male tastes as the norm isn’t unique to Korea. But the third and final feature is that the Korean media has tended to downplay their criticisms of this, so asamong other reasonsnot to jeopardize the success of the Korean Wave overseas. This deliberate myopia however, has contributed to such phenomena as the rise of middle-ageuncle fans,” who are defined by supposedly only possessing a harmless avuncular love for teenage girl-groups in hot pants—and a lot of money to spend on them.

Clearly, revelations of K-pop stars dating challenge all these tenets of Korean pop-culture, and their fundamentally gendered nature explains why the negative reactions have overwhelmingly been directed at the women in those relationships, who simultaneously get slut-shamed by both their entitled male fans and the female fans of their partners.

Those last two paragraphs link up to my answer to another question of James’s, about to what extent it’s fans or labels that are driving these attitudes to stars dating. And you can guess which way I went in light of this recent breakdown of the top 3 labels’ revenues:

Source: Jenna Gibson, Korea Economic Institute and The Korea Society @YouTube (3:50).

But I’ll cover the significance of those numbers in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there are many huge generalizations in my answer to James’s first question of course, and it’s also entirely possible that I still look at K-pop through the prism of when I got into it back in 2010, and have had terrible confirmation bias ever since. If so, and you feel the gist of any of my generalizations are outdated, then please do let me know. I would just love the excuse to crack open some new K-pop books and journal articles I’ve been hoarding, and to get back into writing more about the subject here.

No really—please rip my email to shreds! I beg you! ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

“Girl-groups in Hot Pants” Isn’t a Concept That Always Sells a Product. Except When it Does. Damn.

Compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean advertisements.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Source: @Sulllllimmmm

“I’ve seen many pictures of Seol-hyun, but I think these are the first ones I’ve ever seen that haven’t sexualized her or shown off her body.”

Me too.* Which is not to say I’m against either, of any consenting adult. Sometimes, a famous figure in tight-clothes is just what is needed to grab your attention, whatever your sex or sexuality. Especially in a commercial’s all too brief 15-second window:

But that one by Hani for Yanolja, a motel-finding app, was only successful—10 million downloads, in a population of 51 million—because it combined its celebrity face and sexual frisson with such a catchy jingle and distinctive dance. Imitated and parodied by Korean fans all summer (especially my daughters), who demanded Hani perform it on the street, in hindsight it was an obvious winner.

Or was it? Compare this 2013 commercial by Sistar for Ottogi set rice meals, which I used in a recent lecture I gave to The 11th Korea-America Student Conference. Mostly, because the incongruity of all the flesh with the actual, rather mundane product is just so jarring: were all those legs really needed, and those belonging to an expensive girl-group in particular? Also, because I couldn’t find a single news article about it from 5 years ago, in contrast to all the attention Hani’s commercial is getting today:

Sources: *cough* Ilbe

But after the presentation, thinking again about the commercial got me hot and bothered, and not in a good way. I realized my making the point with the screenshots had overshadowed the commercial itself, which I hadn’t actually seen in many years. Once I did, I realized it did have its own jingle and dance, and a sort-of chorus-girl concept which the hot pants weren’t necessarily out of place in:

Sure, neither the jingle nor dance are quite as distinctive as Hani’s, but they’re there. So, without that hindsight, who’s to say that this commercial would flop, whereas Hani’s would be a guaranteed success?

Especially as it didn’t flop, damnit. As a renewed search revealed:

또 주요 소비자층인 20~30대 남성이 선호하는 걸 그룹 ‘씨스타’를 활용한 프로모션을 전개하면서 지난해 세트밥 매출을 2012년 대비 95% 늘렸다.

“Compared to 2012, Otoggi’s promotion with the girl-group ‘Sistar’ in 2013 led to an increase of 95% in sales among the major consumer group of men in their 20s and 30s.”

The Korea Economic Daily, 5 March 2014

Well duh, although I like to think more men need more than just legs to be sold on a meal (thinking we would be is still kinda patronizing, TBH). And my next reaction was that what worked for young men in this case didn’t necessarily speak for other demographics, Korea’s brutal M-curve meaning it’s housewives that do the food shopping for most households. But with Korea’s rapidly-rising single household rate, that’s probably not the case for these convenience meals in particular. Hence:

오뚜기는 편의점 유통 물량을 늘리는 한편 자사 페이스북에서 다양한 이벤트를 진행해 소비자와의 소통을 강화했다. 이런 노력에 힘입어 오뚜기밥 전체 매출은 전년 대비 50% 이상 증가했다.

“Ottogi’s strategy of increasing sales volumes at convenience stores and strengthening its communication with consumers, such as by hosting events on Facebook, has led to its rice sales increasing over 50% compared to the previous year.”

So, my path for future lectures was now clear: to seek out new commercials and new girl-groups in hot pants, to boldly question if they really do work, where no one has questioned before. And to seek out successful Korean femvertising, or just simply those successful commercials by women wearing actual clothes. Because in the revised version of my lecture, the final slide will continue to feature the following troubling fact about Korean life, which has my daughters increasingly running for the scales rather than happily dancing being kids. I wish I was joking:

Source: News Tomato

“Females were 5.9 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed (vs. fully dressed) in Hong Kong advertisements, whereas females were 22.89 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in Japanese ads and 56.83 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in South Korean ads.”

Prieler, M., Ivanov, A. & Hagiwara, S. (2015). Gender representations in East Asian advertising: Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Communication & Society 28(1), 27-41, p. 34.

Please let me know of any examples in the comments, of either the good or the bad, and your thoughts of any of the above :)

*On the theme of shattering convenient narratives, I noticed an ad featuring a fully-clothed Seol-hyun on the same day I noticed the tweet:

Fortunately for my paranoia about conspiracies to undermine my lectures though, Seol-hyun’s ads for Dashing Diva nails do follow a predictable pattern. Er…Yay?

(0:14)

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

How does military conscription affect Korean gender relations and attitudes to women?

The vision of male-female relations that conscription engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support through youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Photo (modified) by Berwin Coroza on Unsplash.

Last week, came the monumental news that Korean men were going to be offered alternatives to mandatory military service. So, CNN reporter James Griffiths asked me for some input into the Korean military’s background, specifically conscription’s effects on Korean gender relations. Little of my email could make it to his final article though, so here’s my full response for some context and further reading:

1) How does the military conscription issue affect gender relations and attitudes to women?

It’s difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent. Consider their ages: most Korean men choose to do their military service after their first year of university, barely out of high school, and Korea’s education hell means most would have had very little time for dating previously. Ironically though, new recruits can face being ostracized if they don’t have sexual experience, so many Korean men’s first sexual experience is with a sex worker just before enlistment. Visiting sex workers during their service is also considered normal. This is not wrong, but it is combined with frequent sexualized K-pop girl-group performances on bases, their ubiquitous messages of support for the troops in the media, and their being prominently featured on the military intranet (there are even military K-pop charts). This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders—that men’s role is to do important work for the nation, while women’s is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability—is pervasive in Korean daily life.

Military Manpower Association (MMA) endorsement models Apink saying “Thank you for choosing to enter the military. You are Korea’s REAL men!” (MMA Facebook page).

That may sound like hyperbole, but it is telling that Korea is the only country in East Asia where it is customary to use superiority-based titles in place of names in the workplace, and that even the Samsung Economic Research Institute once said that mistreatment by superiors in Korean companies is so pervasive that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” In other words, when hierarchical military culture has had such a profound effect on the Korean workplace, and indeed much else about Korean daily life, then it is not unreasonable to see its role in shaping Korean gender relations too.

2) As regards the anti-feminist backlash from men’s rights groups, how driven is this by perceived unfairness of military service?

It is overwhelmingly driven by this perceived unfairness. But the media has done much to fan the flames, especially by encouraging the scapegoating of young women by exaggerating their economic successes in relation to men, and by perpetuating many negative stereotypes of them. In particular, that of the kimchi-nyeo (kimchi bitch), which refers to an economically successful woman who exploits her female privilege in not having to do military service, but who still expects men to pay on dates, who (always successfully) cries sexism when a man is promoted over her, and so on. Korea’s grossly skewed sex ratio among 20-somethings has a huge role to play in this backlash too, consequence of Korea’s sex selective abortions in the 1990s.

That Korea has the highest gender gap in the OECD however, is conveniently ignored by men’s rights groups. One can argue that it exists simply because women lose experience and rank after taking time off to have children, which is indeed crucial in what are such hierarchical, seniority-based companies as explained. But the gap also very much exists because doing military service comes with a host of indirect benefits, including taking advantage of their old boys networks created during their service, and of the widespread attitudes that men are more deserving of jobs (explicitly enshrined in government policy during the 1997 and 2008 financial crises), and that women, if no longer youthful and and sexually-available, should again step aside and support men from the sidelines by quitting their jobs by staying home to raise the children.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Feminazi Killjoys Target Cute Children’s Song

And I’m one of them:

%ec%95%84%eb%b9%a0-%ed%9e%98%eb%82%b4%ec%84%b8%ec%9a%94

(Source: Instiz)

Here’s a transcript:

‘아빠 힘내세요’라는 동요 아시죠.

Anchor: You know the song Cheer Up Father, yes?

어깨 축 쳐진 아빠에게 아이들이 용기를 줬던 노래인데 이 노래가 양성평등을 저해한다는 판정이 나와 문화관광부가 해명자료까지 내는 소동이 벌어졌습니다.

This is the song which gives encouragement to exhausted, depressed fathers, but it has been recently criticized for hindering gender equality. In response, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism issued a statement clarifying what the song is really about.

무슨일인지, 박철현 기자가 보도합니다.

Park Cheol-hyon reports:

“아빠 힘내세요, 우리가 있잖아요”

1997년 발표된 동요 ‘아빠 힘내세요’입니다.

“Dad, cheer up/be strong, you have us”: this is the children’s song released in 1997.

“IMF때 굉장히 많이 들어봤고요. 아이들이 보자마자 불러줬을 때 저절로 힘도 났고..”

Cho Hong-joon, Person on the street #1:

“I heard this song a lot during the IMF Crisis. It  cheered me up when my kids sang it to me”.

그런데 문화관광부는 이 노래가 우리 사회 양성 평등 의식을 해치는 대표적인 사례 중 하나라는 연구 결과를 발표했습니다.

However, in a statement of research results released by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, this song was given as an example of something hindering gender equality awareness.

이 노래가 경제활동을 하는 것은 남성이라는 고정 관념을 키워준다는 겁니다.

This song encourages the notion that it is only men that should partake in economic activity.

특히 엄마가 요리하면서 아빠를 기다리는 만화 동영상은 여성은 가사 노동만 한다는 선입견을 심어줄 수 있다고 지적했습니다.

In particular, a popular accompanying video for the song depicts women cooking while waiting for their husbands, perpetuating traditional gender roles.

[James: Actually, only one of videos shown in the report does that; it can be viewed here.]

“여자들도 많이 일을 하고 더 힘들어요. 여자가 들어봤을 때는 별로인 것 같아요.”

Park Hyeon-joo, Person on the street #2:

“Women work a lot, and it’s harder for us. When they hear it, women don’t care for this song.”

하지만 황당하다는 반응이 많습니다.

But many people replied that the criticisms were nonsense.

“노래는 노래일 뿐이지, 거기에 그런 의미를 부여한다면 그게 더 문제..”

Jeon Byeong-rok, person on the street #3:

“This song is just a song, it only becomes problematic if you read too much into it.”

노래를 만든 현직 초등학교 교사 한수성씨는 가사는 아내가 썼고 이 노래로 국무총리 표창까지 받았다며 황당해했습니다.

The song writer Han Soo-seong, who is an elementary school teacher, said that the lyrics were written by his wife, and pointed out that he received an award from the Prime Minister for it.

“가사가 그렇게 깊은 뜻을 담고 있는 지 몰랐습니다. 말도 안되는 거죠”

“I don’t think that the lyrics have that deeper [sexist] meaning. It’s ridiculous to say so.”

논란이 커지자 문화관광부는 양성 평등 교육에 참고하라고 진행된 연구 결과일 뿐 유해 가요로 지정한 건 아니라고 해명했습니다.

In response to the controversy, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism clarified that the research was only conducted to further the cause of gender equality, not naming and shaming. (End.)

This report is actually a few years old. But the topic still regularly pops up in my Google Keyword Alerts and on Twitter, albeit usually only leading to Ilbe and DC Inside users having a good laugh at the feminazis. Emboldened perhaps, by the Ministry’s criticisms falling on such deaf ears.

Because it’s still taught to just about every Korean child, even those too young to understand it:

Demanding it of guests is still part of the repertoire of the variety-show hosts, used to elicit infantilized gender performances from girl-group members. For instance, from 20 year-old Yoo-a of Oh My Girl below (which is not to say her tears aren’t genuine):

It’s still such an ingrained part of Korean culture, that even insurance company employees will name their project teams after it, and the media will raise it in reports about the dutiful daughters of male politicians (as well as commenting on their beauty):

yoo-seung-min-yoo-dam-daughter(Source: Asiae)

And finally, because Korean fathers still work among the longest hours in the world, and wish they could be home in time to see their families. As this recent feel-good advertisement makes clear:

Who else but a feminazi would deprive Korean fathers of such a small source of joy?

But wait. Most of those examples above aren’t exactly compelling reasons to continue teaching the song to children. What’s more, even if you still don’t find the song problematic, or how it’s used, there remains the inconvenient fact that MOTHERS WORK TOO:

%ec%95%84%eb%b9%a0-%ed%9e%98%eb%82%b4%ec%84%b8%ec%9a%94%ea%b0%80-%ec%97%ac%ec%84%b1%ec%b0%a8%eb%b3%84-%eb%ac%b8%ed%99%94%ea%b4%80%ea%b4%91%eb%b6%80-%ed%95%b4%eb%aa%85%ea%b9%8c%ec%a7%80(“Women work a lot, and it’s harder for us. When they hear it, women don’t care for this song.”)

Is Park Hyeon-ju referring to work inside the house, outside, or both? A song about the former would hardly challenge traditional gender roles. Yet even that would be an improvement on something that only acknowledges the work of men. Twenty years after Cheer Up Father was written, it’s high time to acknowledge its flaws, and to begin teaching children something much more inclusive.

My suggestion is for the government to arrange a national songwriting competition. It should be determined by popular vote (the public tends to be better judges of what’s catchy), with the winning entry to replace Cheer Up Father in kindergartens and elementary schools.

Do any readers know of any examples like that from other countries? How did they go?

Update: A friend mentioned it would be a pity to lose such a catchy song, and jokingly suggested replacing appa “아빠” (father) with eomppa “엄빠,” a combination of appa and eomma “엄마” (mother) which is actually a word already, although one of those ones everyone knows but has never actually used. But I’d be all for that, especially if the videos and songbook illustrations were changed accordingly. While using the word would be awkward at first, much of this blog is about Korean companies’ and the media’s proclivity for inventing new labels and buzzwords, many—most—of which were also very awkward at first, but some of which have definitely stuck. So why not?

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Why Korea Has so Many Celebrity Endorsements, and Why That’s so Important for Understanding Korean Pop-Culture

korean-celebrity-endorsement(Source)

To find out, please check out my journal article “Just beautiful people holding a bottle: the driving forces behind South Korea’s love of celebrity endorsement”, which has just been published in Celebrity Studies. There’s only a very limited number of e-copies available unfortunately, so please get in touch if you have any problems accessing it.

Part of a special cultural report on (South and North) Korean celebrity, it’s only 4000 words long, which, alas, makes it at least 4000 words too short for the topic. I’m especially gutted that I had to cut out a paragraph about the “Metal Tray Karaoke Room” segment of the first season of Happy Together. So, let me mention it here instead. For if you really want to understand the strong humanizing streak in Korean celebrity culture I discuss, which underlies why there’s just sooo many ads featuring them, then there’s no greater example than that of a variety show which:

  • regularly featured A-list celebrities and/or sex symbols (e.g. Cha Tae-hyeon, Son Yae-jin, and host Lee Hyo-ri below)…
  • wearing traditional high-school uniforms…
  • in a set made of egg cartons…
  • singing obscure children’s songs…
  • and getting metal trays dropped on their heads if they made mistakes.

It also just happens to exemplify just about everything I love about Korea:

All that said, only having 4000 words to work with (actually supposed to be only 3500, but my long-suffering editor gave up on me) does force you to—ahem—get to the point, and to only cover the bare essentials. If you have any questions about the article then, and/or would just like to know more about anything covered in it, please let know in the comments, and I’d be very happy to get into greater detail.

korean-variety-shows-scripted(Source)

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Voyeur (보여) by Na-mi (나미): Lyrics and Translation

na-mi-voyeur(Sources, edited: Mediapaper, YouTube, Bonik)

I’m going to let my hair down this week. And I do enjoy covering Korean artists or groups who deserve to be much better known by English speakers. Even if they reward me by disbanding as I type this, or by never replying to my tweets.

Here’s hoping I get a different reaction from Na-mi, probably the coolest ajumma you’re ever going to meet. Allow me to present her dance/club anthem Voyeur, released in November 2013:

One of the most popular and famous disco singers of the 1980s, if you’ve spent longer than a month in Korea you will undoubtedly have heard one of her songs. Most likely, this one:

Naturally, I first heard it myself via Lee Hyo-ri:

T-ara did a version in 2012 too:

For Korean speakers, here’s a quick taste of her history:

Before Voyeur, Na-mi last performed live in 1992, and last released any new music in 1996. So you’d have imagined her comeback would have been a very big deal indeed. Unfortunately though, Voyeur just didn’t take off. Na-mi has faded back into obscurity since, closing her Twitter account and rarely updating her YouTube channel.

In hindsight, Euro-dance-pop was unlikely to appeal to her middle-aged fans. And you need more than one song and a remix to sustain the interest of any youthful converts.

Still, it’s my party, and I’ll dance to the coolest 58-year-old I know if I want to. If you want to join in, here’s my translation of the lyrics to help you sing along:

나미—보여 (Voyeur)

아련히, 너 한동안은 없었어

다 잊었다고 생각한,널 보고 있었어

Looking back nostalgically, you weren’t here for a while

I thought I’d gotten over you completely, but really I was still watching you

Chorus:

외로이, 혼자 있는 그림자

잘못 본 게 아닐까, 다시 찾아왔어 난

I’m your voyeur 보여, 너밖에 없잖아

I’m your voyeur 보여, 내겐 너뿐이야

보여 보여 보여, 날 찾아 왔잖아

보여 보여, 이젠 날 놓지마

I was lonely, I saw your shadow everywhere

Maybe it was just my imagination, but I came to find you again

I’m your voyeur, voyeur, I have only you

I’m your voyeur, voyeur, you’re the only one for me

Voyeur, voyeur, voyeur, you came to find me

Voyeur, voyeur, don’t let go of me now

아직도, 날 떠난 네가 그리,워

흔들린 너의 표정이 내 마음을 움직여

Even now, even though you left me, I miss you

Your shaking expression moved my heart

(Chorus)

보여 보여 보여 보여 보여 보여

Voyeur, voyeur, voyeur, voyeur, voyeur, voyeur

(Chorus)

And as an extra bonus, these videos too:

The Remix:

Behind the scenes:

The dance routine:

If readers know of any other singers, groups, or songs that deserve more attention, especially if they seem a little yahae, then please let me know in the comments. I can’t guarantee I will cover them sorry—a weekly posting schedule leaves little room for maneuver—but if I like them then I will definitely try!

17-Year-Old Tzuyu: “A Special Gift for Korean Men”

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 4

twice-tzuyu-kookmin-bank-a-special-gift-for-korean-men-1       “Do one thing everyday, that scares you.”

My personal motto adopted from Wear Sunscreen by Baz Luhrmann (1999), without which I wouldn’t be in Korea now. Nor have had sex in a lot of strange places.

Now a middle-aged parent though, it’s difficult finding scary things to do during my daily routine. So, I force myself to take photos of interesting ads in public. It’s just terrifying you see, knowing that everyone in the bank or subway carriage will peg me as a perverted samcheon fan.

Did I mention that all Korean phones have a faux shutter sound by law?

This ad however, seemed well worth my pain and shame. Much like Chou Tzu-yu’s ads for LG last year, taken when she was only 16, it can take a moment to realize she’s not actually the product being sold here:

twice-tzuyu-kookmin-bank-a-special-gift-for-korean-men-2The header, with the red, reads “A special gift for Korean men.” The subheading in the center, with the black in bold, adds the Catch-22 that: “To qualify as a Korean man, you need a Kookmin Bank Korea Love Card”, which provides discounts at various cinemas, coffee shops, restaurants, language institutes, and stores.

Now that’s patriotism.

But humor aside, it would have been more accurate to say that only those with military experience qualify as “Korean men”, as the card is only available to current or former soldiers who had their physical after January 2007 (i.e., mostly 20-somethings). This link to the military is made more obvious in the following ad, the top line of which reads “Anyone Can Be a Youth That Loves Their Country!”, under which it says you can apply for a card at a military recruitment office in addition to KB banks:

twice-tzuyu-kookmin-bank-a-special-gift-for-korean-men-3(Source)

In fairness, even the most innocuous of Korean ads and government slogans often sound very much like propaganda when translated into English. Also, no-one is denying the great sacrifice made by young men doing their mandatory 21-24 months of military service. What clearly isn’t fair however, is how ad campaigns like these effectively label women, the disabled, openly LGBTQ individuals, conscientious objectors, and (until just 6 years ago) mixed-race Koreans as incapable of “loving their country”, which only serves to justify denying them various privileges given to former soldiers later.

Starting with this card. There’s many more reasons why women end up so excluded from Korean economic and political life of course, with modern, democratic Korea being ranked a shocking 115th out of 145 countries in gender equality by the World Economic Forum. But examples like this one undoubtedly form part of the process.

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