“Spring Girls,” by Sunwoo Jung-a, Is Both Feminist and as Sexy as Hell. Lets Give It the Attention It Deserves.

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-opening-collage(Source, all screenshots: YouTube)

Spring Girls, by singer-songwriter Sunwoo Jung-a, is literally dripping with sex.

For starters, take the word cheonyeo (처녀) in its Korean title. Many sources do give “young unmarried woman” as one meaning, so “girls” seems fine for the English. (When they’re obvious, Korean usually omits plurals.) But most translate it as “virgin” first.

Why would Sunwoo choose something so loaded? The neutral term agasshi (아가씨) is far more common.

Possibly, she simply hoped to capitalize on the name-recognition, as she acknowledges being inspired by a well-known folk song of the same title. It’s also true that the lyrics are really quite chaste.

Perhaps I just have a dirty mind?

But then there’s the MV. Watch it, and by its end you’ll have a dirty mind too. Add that there’s no connection to the folk-song whatsoever, and it’s difficult not to think that Sunwoo deliberately primed Korean listeners with a blatant double entendre:

In that vein, I’m tempted to describe the MV as a continuation of this cultivated ambiguity. But that would be to underplay its sheer spunk, and to detract from how refreshing that feels compared to the bland, repetitive, profoundly unarousing “sexy concepts” of most K-pop. For suggestive and full of symbolism it is, but “ambiguous” those symbols are not. Add the frequent shots of partially-exposed breasts, the luscious lips, and the hands pulling up skirts and dresses, then I’d be hard-pressed to think of such a striking and shocking depiction of female bodies and sexuality since Bloom by Ga-in (2012).

To pretend otherwise is to willingly ignore the obvious. Like Arirang TV once did for instance, with hilarious results:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-arirang(2:08, Pops in Seoul, April 5 2015)
%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-reaction-video-2-15(2:15, gfnkpopular, MV reaction video)

But audacity aside, are scenes like that something to celebrate? Perhaps as much as a third of the MV is of headless women (especially if you count scenes that only go up to models’ mouths), the camera by definition focusing on their body parts. Which, you don’t need me to explain, is widely considered one of the most basic and common forms of dehumanizing, sexual objectification.

On the face of it then, shouldn’t it be criticized, rather than applauded?

No. Instead, I’m here to argue that context is everything with the male gaze, and that this MV is proof of that.

And first, as a crucial part of that context, I’ll give my translation of the lyrics, as I’ve been unable to find one online.

Lyrics: Spring Girls by Sunwoo Junga-a (선우정아 봄처녀 가사)

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

너는 날 보네 ,나도 널 보네 (Verse 1) You’re looking at me, I’m looking at you

불꽃이 튀네 (Verse 1) Fireworks are exploding

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

하늘은 파래, 바람이 부네 The sky is blue, the wind is blowing…

다시, 입을 맞추네 추네 …again. We are kissing.

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

봄처녀 제, 오시네 (Verse 2) Spring girls are coming

새 풀옷을 입으셨네 (Verse 2) In new outfits

Part 2 [Yes, this is actually said.]

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-sceenshots-collage-2(Source: Groovequai)

(Verse 1)

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

앞서서 걷네, 뒤따라 걷네 You’re walking in front of me, I’m following you

같이, 장단 맞추네 추네 Together, we are keeping a beat with our steps

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

(Verse 2)

spring-girls-sunwoo-jung-a-sceenshots-collage(Source: Lost Over You)

Chorus:

형형색색 널 뒤흔드는 칼라 Many colors are shaking you

각색각양 다가오는 몸짓 Gestures are coming in all kinds of colors and shapes

가지가지 처치곤란한 밤 Nights are hard in so many ways

뒤죽박죽 도시의 봄이라 This city’s spring is so mixed

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-0-49(0:49)

볼엔 진달래 An azalea on the cheek

눈은 민들레 A dandelion on the eye

입술은 쭉 철쭉 A rhododendron on the lips

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

목련 파우더 Magnolia powder

라일락 칙칙 A spray of lilac

마무리는 에이취 Rounding off with “H”~ [I don’t get this part sorry!]

(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)

속눈썹 위로 봄바람 A spring wind over eyelashes

머리카락에 봄바람 A spring wind in your hair

옷깃을 펼쳐 봄바람 A spring wind with collars opening

걸음은 좀 더 가볍게 (x3) Our steps become lighter

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-3-11(3:11)

Chorus (x2)

Next, another crucial part of that context would be some background provided by its songwriter, lyricist, arranger, guitarist, and mixer Sunwoo Jung-a, who very much owns the room in the MV too. But very few interviewers ever ask her about Spring Girls specifically. In fact, surprisingly little about it has been said about it at all, in Korean let alone in English, and much of what does exist only focuses on the fact of Sandara Park’s participation in the MV.

That said, there is one more common theme to what I have found. That is, whenever it is featured or discussed, it seems to gets stripped of all meaning:

For non-Korean speakers, what Sunwoo was actually doing there was promoting Earth Day last spring, as well as an environmentally-themed music event she was to perform in. But the only connection whatsoever was the song title. And, perhaps learning from Arirang’s mistake three weeks earlier, KTV made sure to avoid showing the naughty bits of the MV too.

I don’t bemoan Sunwoo taking advantage of the opportunity for more publicity. Yet even in her very own self-interview, featured on her YouTube channel and Facebook page, she only really discusses the lyrics to the song. Which as you’ve already seen, are quite chaste compared to the MV:

Apologies for lacking the time to provide and translate a transcript, but I find she adds little there to, say, Rachel’s brief description of the song already at Seoulbeats:

Spring Girls is just a cool song, plain and simple. It’s got sass, a little jazz, and a dash of funk thrown in, feeling both old and new at the same time…The lyrics talk about seeing and being seen as the girls of spring come out “dressed in fresh new clothes.” Variety is really emphasized in the lyrics, with four Korean synonyms for “all kinds” being used to describe the flood of different spring girls in the “mixed-up” city. Each girl has her own charm which can light a spark. Like the song, the video also feels old yet new at the same time. It has some different spring girls, each with her own style, personality, and flower.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE TITS??” I want to tweet at Sunwoo, but wisely I started by asking her if she has a link to an interview about the MV instead, and I’ll update you if she responds. In the meantime, my eyes briefly lit up at the “instinctive” in the (awkward) title of this Genie article—”Sunwoo Jung-a’s Spring Girls Taps the Beat of Women’s Instinctive Spring” (여자들의 본능적인 봄을 두드리는, 선우정아 ‘봄처녀’)—but it too waxes lyrical about banalities. Desperate, I turned to Sportsworld, a tabloid that is not exactly shy about discussing female body parts, and indeed it did prove to have the most substantial interview of her I’ve found so far. Alas, yet again with no real mention of the MV.

Still, it does give some extra background. She at least hints at the tone of the MV. And frankly, it’s only through this interview at all that I learned there’s a very well-known folk song of the same name:

…현대적이라고 표현하는, 그런 봄의 여자들을 보이고 싶었다. 이 노래는 되게 현대적이다. 비트나 사운드도 일렉의 느낌이 느껴진다. 시종일관 여기 저기서 ‘모던’을 찾았다. 자칫 방심하면 구수해질 수 있어서 회의 때도, 편곡 때도 계속 ‘모던’ 타령을 했다. 정말 세련된 한국팝의 느낌을 보여드리고 싶었다.

…I wanted to show spring women who express modernity. This song is very modern. You can really feel that the beat and sounds are electronic. In every aspect of it, I tried to insert an element of modernity. If we hadn’t taken great care with it, it could have sounded old, so I made sure to mention the “modern” constantly while we were working on it. I really wanted to show a new, very sophisticated version of K-pop.

Q) ‘봄처녀’를 만들게 된 계기가 있나? What was your motive in making the song?

A) 어린 시절부터 좋아하는 곡이었다. 그때부터 클래식 피아노를 쳤는데 악보 보는 걸 좋아했다. 남들이 만화책 볼 때 나는 악보를 보면서 곡을 재생해보는 취미가 있었던 것 같다. 그러던 중 어머니의 가곡집을 보게 됐다. 클래식보다 간단한데 가사가 있어서 재밌었다. 특히 ‘봄처녀’는 가사가 정말 예뻤다. 그러다 어른이 되고 기타치고 놀다가 비트를 만들고 ‘음음’ 까지 붙인 곡이 만들어졌다. 야하기도 하고 귀엽기도 하고 여자의 걸음걸이가 생각나면서 문득 ‘봄처녀’ 가사가 생각이 났다. 다행히 써도 된다고 허락을 해주셔서 ‘봄처녀’가 탄생됐다.

This is an old folk song that I’ve liked ever since my childhood. That’s when I started learning to play the piano and read music. When other children were reading comic books, I read music—that was my hobby. During that time, I once find my mother’s book of folk songs. Compared to learning classic music, the songs in it were much more fun because they had lyrics. In particular, Spring Girls had pretty ones.

Later, when I grew up, one day I just sort of played with the beat of the song on my guitar; as I did, I added some “hmmm”s as I did, and one thing led to another. Later still, I got thinking about women walking in a sexy and cute style, and that’s what led to the lyrics. Fortunately, the composer of the original song said it was okay to use the same title [and a couple of words in the lyrics]

If readers scoff at my perennial struggles with searching for substantive Korean articles about the MV, and can instantly provide a dozen to show just how pathetic my skills are, then nothing could make me happier. Until then though, or until Sunwoo replies to my tweet, we’ll just have to settle for the further context of the rest of the MV.

Let’s start with a collage of the models’ faces and names, to make scenes easier to discuss:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-models(Women appearing in the MV, clockwise from top-left: Model Lee-seon/이선, Model Su-hyeon/수현, Tattooist Nini/니니, 2NE1 Member Sandara Park/산다라박, Model Ji-eun/지은, Model Jaejae/제제. Not shown: Sonwoo Jung-a. Source of names: By. Yeees.)

But really, most of that context is obvious, and already semi-covered through the numerous screenshots provided above. So I’ll just provide highlights here, as well as point out some things that readers with less dirty minds who haven’t watched the MV 30 times may have missed:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-0-01(0.01)

1) First, the identity of this model stumped me for a looong time. I thought it might even be a secret cameo of half African-American Insooni, known for looking much more youthful than her age.

It turns out to be Jaejae, seen wearing that black mesh top and gold earrings for just for a (very easily-missed) split second later:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-0-49(0.49)

2) Poor Ji-eun barely appears, literally getting no facetime at all:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-58(1.58)

3) This flower is a vulva, and gets ejaculated on. What, you didn’t see that? Don’t worry, you will now. Like I said, literally dripping with sex:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-0-45(0:45)

4) This flower though, almost seeming to pulse when shown, doesn’t look all that yonic…

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-2-01(2:01)

Especially in light of all those bowling pins earlier, standing tall and proud…

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-02(1:02)

As well as the phallic-looking, rapidly-engorging shadow of a statue of a (headless!) nude woman, with the breasts conveniently highlighted:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-42(1:42)
%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-43(1:43)

Not to mention that Su-hyeon gets her mouth covered in white icing sugar or flour in between those shots (and don’t forget Nini’s lollipop-sucking either):

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-42-ish(1:42)

5) I’ll address a potential criticism of that in #7. But, not unrelated, a potential criticism of all of the skin-exposure in the MV is qualified by the fact that almost all of it is actually done by just one person:

(One NSFW image appearing after this one.)

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-30(1:30)

Certainly, you could argue that Nini has been brainwashed, and internalized the values of the patriarchy. You could also argue that she wears so little in the MV simply because she has the largest breasts of all the models, just like what happened with Yang Ji-won of Spica in their MV for Tonight.

But you shouldn’t, because Nini is a tattoo artist who dresses much the same way in real life, and especially in all her magazine photoshoots. Her tattoo designs tend towards the revealing too:

tattooist_nini-small(Source: tattooist_nini@instagram; left, right)

By all means, her brand may just be a persona, carefully-crafted on Instagram. But it’s a much more consistent, much more convincing one than that of the K-pop stars usually presented as girl-power icons. It’s also very, very difficult to believe that Sunwoo or MV director Lee Sang-deok is forcing her to wear clothes that are more revealing that she’d like, which is something that happens to girl-group members all the time.

6) Yet while Nini stands out, that is not to say that the other models aren’t just as haughty in the MV. Jaejae for example:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-05(1:05)

7) Finally, whether in defiance, whether they’re caught up in the joy of spring, and/or whether they’re relishing the attention, crucially all the models (but Ji-eun) return the gaze at many points:

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-3-18(3:18)

Lee-seon in particular, seems determined to confront the viewer (again, there’s many more examples above):

%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-1-22(1:22)
%ec%84%a0%ec%9a%b0%ec%a0%95%ec%95%84-sunwoo-jung-a-%eb%b4%84%ec%b2%98%eb%85%80-spring-girls-mv-2-05(2:05)
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I’m so impressed, I’m tempted to veer into hyperbole and cliches at this point—that these models “own the gaze,” and so on. (Although they totally do.)

But I want to avoid that, because we all bring a lot of baggage to the concept of the male gaze, which can make for a lot of misunderstandings and talking past each other.

Instead, let me be very specific with my praise, and why.

Whenever *I* talk about the male gaze, I simply mean the way heterosexual men tend to look at women. That way is, of course, vastly overrepresented in just about all forms of media, and those representations of the male gaze usually degrade and diminish the sexualities of both the viewer and the viewed—let alone vastly underrepesent people of different body types, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ages. And, because of those problems, for many commentators the term “male gaze” has become a pejorative for all sexism and objectification in the media.

But the mere act of heterosexual men looking at women is not responsible for those problems—the people in those industries are. Rather, it is a integral feature of human (hetero)sexuality, and one that can be represented while retaining complete respect for the viewed, recognizing them as sexual subjects just as much as objects.

Spring Girls does that.

And, to reinforce that point, but also raise some uncomfortable and inconvenient questions, let me conclude by briefly contrasting the MV with the similar “Double Exposure” series of paintings by Korean artist Horyon Lee (이호련):

horyon-lee-male-gaze(Source: Luxury)

Originally, my intention for this post was to give equal attention to Sunwoo and Lee. But Spring Girls rapidly proved to be a more deserving subject, and not just because Lee’s work has had enough written about it to fill volumes, both in English (#1, #2, #3, #4), and in Korean (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9). Rather, it’s because whereas individual paintings of his may strongly resemble some screenshots from the MV, a crucial difference is that Lee has made a whole series (NSFW) of almost nothing but such headless images of women, most of which are much more sexually explicit than the examples given here. Whats more, and very unusually for an artist, Lee provides no titles or descriptions of those paintings either, as if to even further stress the dehumanization and objectification of the women in his work.

horyon-lee-double-exposure(Source: Vingle)

Fred McCoy, a rare critic of Lee’s, has written at CF Magazine about the artificial and harmful distinctions the art world maintains between erotica and pornography that he feels Lee exploits, which I recommend reading. Especially damming is his discussion of the similarities between one of Lee’s painting and one of American Apparel’s (many) notorious ads:

american-apparel-adhoryon-lee-comparison(Source: CF Magazine)

In which he writes:

What stands out is the purposeful removal of the female’s face in both the advertisements and paintings. If you were to include the face, you would then place the viewer in a precarious spot where they would have to make a conscious decision as to whether or not they wanted to objectify the woman. By removing the face, as well as any emotion it might carry, objectification becomes easy. We are simply looking at a dressed up piece of flesh and bear no responsibility in how we choose to engage it.

Yet without disagreeing with the sentiment, it is more correct to say it is easier. As I discussed at length in my review of Tonight, removing a face does not make negative objectification and disrespect of that person inevitable, nor does including a face automatically ward off both. In Spring Girls, objectification is certainly occurring, but it is not negative objectification because of the context of the rest of the MV. And, because so many screenshots from that MV so closely resemble Lee’s paintings, I can’t prima facie proclaim all the latter to be “disgusting,” as McCoy and his colleague do:

“[His Work] is dirty and uncomfortable [as well as] is grotesque and demeaning. I think what makes it worse than just portraying women as a piece of meat is that he felt the need to make an entire series out of it.”

(Zola Paulse)

“Dirty”? “Grotesque”? “Piece of Meat”? This too is hyperbole. His work is repetitive, certainly. It is baffling that he never paints pictures of women with faces, and he may well do so because he really does think of women as sex objects.

Yet compare that painting of a woman in red above for example, with this (NSFW) photograph of a real woman in a very similar pose. Evidently, the latter is very happy with her sexualization.

I don’t need to ask which one you prefer, whatever your sex or sexuality. You don’t need to hear about why I love it so much either.

But to dismiss the other one as disgusting, because it lacks a face? That feels much too simplistic.

the-male-gaze-headless-women(The Male Gaze by Nikko, edited; CC BY 2.0)

On the other hand, perhaps I’m just creating strawmen here. Also, if I’m arguing that we can judge similar screenshots from Spring Girls by looking at the context of the rest of the MV, then surely we can judge a painting of Lee’s by the context provided by his series as a whole. In which case, he abjectly fails his test.

So far so good. Yet still, somehow I can’t bring myself to outrage.

How about you? If you can, why?

I admit I feel hypocritical. And I do find it troubling that Lee’s received so many accolades, and so many invitations to exhibit. Again, McCoy is a good read on what that implies about the art world.

I’m strongly reminded of my series and lectures on Gender Advertisements too, in which I’ve often pointed out that it’s the trends towards sexism and gender stereotyping in advertising that are problematic. Those trends should be called out. With individual ads though? Unless they’re really egregious examples, especially of unnecessary (and negative) sexual objectification, often it’s simply incorrect to label them as sexist, and unhelpful to do so.

Gender Advertisements Relative Size South Korea

(It is harmful that men tend to be depicted more actively than women in advertisements, and that Caucasians are given such prominence over POC. But it’s implausible to describe these individual examples as sexist and racist respectively.)

But I’ve spent many years on Gender Advertisements. Perhaps too long, and it’s high time I learned more about other conceptual approaches, especially of different media like music videos and art (I’d appreciate suggestions and recommendations). Alternatively, perhaps I’m untroubled by Lee because it’s “just” esoteric art we’re talking about, so a painting of his would never have the impact that a similar ad would.

What do you think? Of my dilemma, or about any other interesting questions raised by Sunwoo and Lee? Please let me know in the comments!

Song Credits

Songwriter, Lyricist, Arranger: Sunwoo Jung-a; Guitar: Sunwoo Jung-a; Bass: Baek Gyeong-jin; Mixing: Brad Wheeler, Sunwoo Jung-a @ Union studio; Mastering: bk! of Astro Bits @ AB room; Special thanks to: The Barberettes, realmeee, chch.

Music Video Credits

Director: Lee Sang-deok; Assistant Director: Kim Hoon; Director of Cinematography: Lee Han-gyeol; Cinematography Team: Park Chi-hwa, Oh Min-shik, Im Hee-joo; Lighting Director: Lee Jung-ook; Lighting Team: Lee Ji-min, Ji Hyeon-jong; Colorist: Jo Hye-rim; 2D: Lee Sung-hoon; Art Directing/styling: Gu Song-ee; Photography: Rie; Design: Seo-ro; Marketing: Jo Eun-bi, An Seong-moon.

(Credits via Mutual Response)

(Apologies for all the technical issues with the blog this week!)

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 :)

Addicted to Feminist Media Criticism Monday

In which I almost get carried away with my narratives about body-image and the Korean media—but discover an amazing role model instead.
Ok Tae-cyeon Lee Gook-joo My Ear's Pig(Source: SBS)

Remember My Ear’s Candy by Baek Ji-young, featuring 2PM’s Ok Taec-yeon? It was one of the songs that made me fall in love with K-pop, way back in 2010:

And I’m still quite fond of K-pop, although we’ve long since agreed to see other people. But, thinking about old flames over a drink last night, one thing led to another, and soon the whole family would be dancing to My Ear’s Pig, a parody performed with comedian Gang Ho-dong on the February 21, 2010 episode of 1 Night 2 Days. With lines like “My ear’s pig, number 1 rated wild pig…put it on top of lettuce”, it’s the perfect antidote to a rainy Monday (especially the guy at 1:48), 100% guaranteed to leave you grinning from ear to ear:

Here’s a longer version, which includes scenes from Gang-ho Dong’s month-long preparation for the performance:

But then I saw a 2014 version with fellow comedian Lee Guk-joo, and quickly sobered up:

Why? Because while Gang-ho Dong is often the butt of jokes because of his weight and size, he is also a former ssireum champion, and retains an image as a genuinely strong ex-wrestler…

…whereas Lee Guk-joo is overweight, in a country where a lot of television humor revolves around female comedians’ supposed ugliness and obesity. So, not knowing anything about her, and watching her perform for the first time above, it suddenly felt like I was joining in that all too common chorus of laughing at the fat girl; My Ear’s Pig, suddenly rendered a guilty pleasure at best, until I see Baek Ji-young perform it with people of a range of body types.*

But first impressions can be mistaken. Because Lee Guk-joo, it turns out, is the very last person in need of my pity:

Lee Gook-joo positive body image role model korea(Sources: Hikpop, Naesushi)

To learn why, read more about her cosmetic endorsements, her other cover songs, and her general, all-round spunkiness at Seoulbeats, in a post which I can’t possibly do justice to here. Sorry for the abrupt ending, but it’s true.

To further persuade you (my emphasis):

She is not allowing her weight to pigeonhole her personality, which she has expressed in an interview. Unlike what some would have you believe, she is fully capable of expressing her true self without apology and refuses to be discriminated for superficial reasons. Her physical makeup will neither hinder nor propel her for the simple fact that she has made up her mind not to be marketed through purely visceral means.

Having someone like this come into the market as a new role model for women is a welcome change in Korean entertainment. Lee Gook-joo doesn’t shy away from the spotlight because others would deem her unworthy, but rather she exhibits a glowing confidence that isn’t to be underestimated. She is a role model for those of us who appreciate a fun, outspoken woman who isn’t afraid to work her way to the top…

I’ve never been so happy to be so mistaken.

And how was your Monday? ;)

Related Posts:

  • Are Gorgeous Comediennes Really That Rare? Your Thoughts (The Atlantic)
  • What Donald Duck, Hani, and Big Tits Taught Me About Body-Image in Korean Comedy (The Grand Narrative)
  • “I am a plus sized girl living in Korea and I feel so unattractive.” (Life)

*The lyrics do require meat-lovers, but not necessarily those with the girth to match. And that applies to Baek Ji-young’s lines just as much as her partner(s)’.

Listen to This Korean Girl’s Perspective on Korean Men’s Absurd Body-Image Standards

왕쥬 가슴 비법 ABCDE(Source: YouTube. See there for her secret method!)

Remember my last post on assessing celebrities’ impact on Korean body-image standards? Where I stressed that it was crucial to listen to what ordinary Koreans thought of them?

I’m going to start with 여신왕쥬 (Goddess Wang-ju), who doesn’t mince words about what impact they’ve had on her. Or, more precisely, about what impact they’ve had on Korean men, who constantly compare her to slim, big-busted K-pop stars.

That’s a sweeping generalization about the men of course (my apologies), but you’ll soon understand her need to rant once you listen. NSFW warning for the Korean swearing:

Wang-ju is a little difficult to pin down: she’s made hundreds of videos, on a wide variety of subjects. Generally though, she seems refreshingly outspoken, and funny, a combination which has won her hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, Facebook, and Afreeca TV.

Unfortunately, this video seems to be the only one a fan has added English subtitles to, so I’ll have to let readers know if I find any more (or please let me know!). In the meantime, for Korean speakers, here’s her most recent one on body-image, from two days ago:

Update: Some great news!

Presentation, Yonsei University, Friday 12th: “Give it to Me? The Impact of K-Pop’s Sexualization on Korean Advertising”

Sistar Rice Ad(Source: *cough* Ilbe)

The reason I’ve been so busy in recent weeks, and unable to properly reply to all your comments and tweets sorry. But, I’m happy to finally announce I’ll be presenting in the 2014 Situations International Conference, “Culture and Commerce in the Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Asian Music Industries” this Friday at 3pm, and I’d be delighted if any readers could make it.

If you can’t make Friday though, never fear, for there’s a host of much more interesting presentations than mine on Saturday, and I’m happy to meet up after the conference on Sunday too. Please just say hi there, or give me a buzz here or on Facebook or Twitter.

As for my topic, consider it a direct extension of this post. I look forward to your questions and comments!

Quick Hit: Harassment Framed as Affection

Dummy Harassment(Dummy Harassment by gaelx; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Via The Korea Herald:

Former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae is to be questioned over allegations of molesting a golf caddie, police said Saturday…

…Park admitted that there had been some physical contact, but maintained that he did not “cross a line.” He told a local daily that he poked the woman’s breasts with a finger once, adding that it was an act of adoration because she “felt like his granddaughter.” (My emphasis)

Read the link for more details, or The Korea Times. I mention it because a friend pointed out that they’ve heard that excuse on more than a few occasions in Korea, which rang a definite bell. Sure enough, a few years ago I translated an article by Ilda Women’s Journal writer Park Hee-jeong, who said exactly that in relation to the following commercial back in 2005:

“I touched her because she’s like my daughter”

여성들이 이 광고를 보면서 느끼는 불편함의 한 켠은 ‘몸을 만지는’ 행위에 있다. 우리 사회에서는 가족이라든가 친하다는 이유로 타인의 몸에 손을 대는 행위가 쉽게 용납이 되는 경향이 있다. 나이 지긋한 분이 성희롱 가해자로 지목되면 “딸 같아서 만진 건데 잘못이냐?”는 변명(?)이 나오는 것도 그런 이유다…

One reason women feel uncomfortable watching this ad is because of the act of the daughter’s body being touched. That is because our society approves of and/or grants permission to men touching them in a friendly manner, like they would their own family members. Indeed, when an older male is accused of sexual harassment, often he fastens on to the excuse that “Can’t I affectionately touch someone like my own daughter?”…

…“딸 같아서 만진다”는 말이 통용되는 사회에서 삼성생명의 광고는 많은 여성들에게 불편한 기억을 환기시킨다. 광고 속에서는 의도된 스킨십이 아니었지만, 불편해하는 딸의 모습을 아름답게 바라보는 시점 자체가 이미 여성들을 불편하게 만들고 있는 것이다.

…“I just touched her like I would my daughter” is an excuse used so much in Korean society, that this Samsung Life Insurance commercial evokes many uncomfortable memories in women. In particular, having something that would in reality be so uncomfortable for the daughter, to be just cutely dismissed instead, already makes women feel uncomfortable. Even though the father’s intention was not skinship. (My emphasis)

See my 2011 post for the full article and translation. Like I argued there, the prevalence of such attitudes in 2005 still goes a long way towards explaining the rise of “ajosshi-” or “uncle-fandom” just a few years later. Or, more specifically, why the media so quickly framed and celebrated middle-aged men’s interest in (then) underage female-performers as purely paternal or avuncular, despite the girls’ increasingly sexualized performances.

But that’s a very familiar topic with readers, so I’ll wisely stop there, and later this month I’ll make sure to write a follow-up post on the important challenges to those media narratives that have arisen since (suggestions as to what to add would be welcome). Also, boys’ performances have likewise become problematic, so it’ll be interesting to explore similar permissive media narratives about “ajumma-fandom“—or curious lack thereof.

Until then, what do you think? Do you feel older Korean men still have a palpable sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, however much it is rationalized as affection? Or is Park Hee-tae’s case an unfortunate exception?

Update: By coincidence, this issue has just been raised in a posting at Reddit’s TwoXChromosomes. An excerpt:

But [my Korean father] would act strangely at times. He commented in public and in private how large my breasts were, and how I could have grown up without him there, how the last time he’d seen me I was so small. He would often say teasingly that he wanted to feel my boobs and he would constantly try but I would be very self conscious and embarrassed and turn away.

I asked him to please stop and get angry. I even cried once because he was making me feel bad and humiliated. He also kept trying to sneak in when I was bathing and kept implying that he wanted to bathe me like when I was young. He would often try to see me when I was changing. I felt very conflicted and always refused. I felt revolted by the whole thing.

Anyway, I admitted to my grandmother that I had felt strange, and kind of traumatized by this behavior. She immediately responded with, “You’re wrong about this. This is normal behavior in South Korea, and you’re just seeing this in the wrong light because you’re American. Your father has a temper problem, but he’s a pure person. I’m one hundred percent sure that he just was being a loving father.”

Read the rest there, as well as the numerous comments. Again, there’s quite a debate as to how common such excuses and rationalizations are in Korea (or not).

Update 2: Clearing out my archives, I came across the following case from October 2007:

An appellate court gave the “not guilty” verdict to a father who had touched his 11-year-old stepdaughter’s breasts, saying it was a “sign of affection.”

Kim, 43, was married in 1996. He became the stepfather of his wife’s daughter, whom he treated as his own child. He had often showed her affection through touching, which the girl did not used to consider as unpleasant…

…However, the Seoul High Court only acknowledged the domestic abuse [of his wife]. He was given a two-year suspended jail term and 160 hours of community service. It ruled: “Kim’s act was a rather excessive sign of affection spurred by alcohol.”

The court made this decision based on the fact that the girl had not reached puberty yet and previously had not felt uncomfortable about such acts as sleeping next to her and touching her hips.

Read the full article at the Korea Times or Waygook.