Finding the Female Gazes

If queer women say they love the MV to Anda’s Touch, this cishet man is going to listen. Not to self-appointed gatekeepers who insist women are only about the feels.

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube

Face-sitting. A woman’s point-of-view shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda admiring another woman’s vagina, beaming at the viewer in anticipation. The complete absence of any men. Anda lying in bed as another woman appears on top of her. Spinning the bottle. Anda loving all of it, as the MV to Touch relentlessly serves-up its women to its sensual, strikingly objectifying queer female gaze.*

Among self-identified queer female fans of K-pop and allies on social media, I’ve yet to find a critic. And who can blame them? “Queers are generally invisible in South Korean media,” researcher Chuk Tik-sze explained in her 2016 study on their representation, “and lesbians are more completely missing.” As if to prove her point, many viewers didn’t even notice the sex in Touch when it came out in June 2015, so low were their expectations of ever encountering queer content in K-pop.

When people did get what the MV was about though, they really, really got it:

Yet as any lesbian perusing heterosexual porn can attest, simply replacing the sex of an objectifier does not necessarily a queer female anthem make. To many seekers of queer content, authenticity is more important, and in this respect the MV seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lacked any sapphic elements. Before it came out, none of Anda’s other songs or MVs had any queer themes, nor have any since. If she is queer, then she’s yet to come out publicly, nor given any other indication of that beyond this MV.

In short, it may have been nothing more than a gimmick, aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song.

I can appreciate that desire for authenticity. In spite of that, Touch is still for queer women’s gazes.

Why? Because queer women said so.

Touch would be no hit. But the reaction from queer women, of which the above represents just the tip of the iceberg, was overwhelmingly positive. Whereas any haters were remarkably silent for the internet.

That doesn’t mean queer women seeing it for the first time have to like it. It’s sweaty, it’s crude, it’s bush league compared to guaranteed queer female film classics like Carol and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But as a cishet man, I don’t need to think twice about prioritizing the feelings and reactions of the queer women who have actually opined on it. So, no matter however shallow it may be, it is still on the same spectrum as those. It’s there.

I wasn’t content with simply relying on fan reactions to determine if any future queer-looking media text spoke to the queer female gaze or not though. I wanted some sort of framework anyone could apply, or a list of questions to ask. So, I googled.

I wasn’t completely naive when I did that. I did expect there to be much less out there than for the heterosexual male gaze (henceforth, “male gaze”).

I definitely didn’t expect that discussions about the heterosexual female gaze (henceforth, “female gaze”) had only really taken off in the last few years though, not that on the queer female gaze (or lesbian gaze) still barely at all. That over forty years after Laura Mulvey got the ball rolling with the men, that writer and director Jill Soloway could plausibly claim that “[M]edia that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now” (my emphasis). And especially not that, during that process of invention, Soloway and just about every other commentator on the female gazes would be so concerned about stressing that women are all about the feels, that they would forget that women do also like looking too, whether at men or at women. Let alone that men who look at women can also have feelings too.

If only I was exaggerating. Ultimately, I had to come up with those questions myself. (Skip to the end if you’d like to read them now.)

*Update: It’s been pointed out to me that my notion of the term ‘queer female gaze’ perhaps has some issues. To clarify then, my specific meaning by it is “the gaze of all people who identify as women, who are (not necessarily exclusively) sexually attracted to people who also identify as women.” I hope that clears up those issues, but am happy to be educated as to if any remain, or if my clarification has inadvertently raised new ones.

This Series

Photo (edited) by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I’ll provide truckloads throughout this series. But what am I claiming exactly? So that there’s no confusion, let me devote this opening post to outlining the gist of my arguments, and provide some definitions.

In so doing, I repeatedly accuse commentators on the female gazes for making sweeping generalizations…only to lay myself wide open to the charge that I’m doing exactly the same about them. So, I will provide some examples here as I go along, which may mean some some repetition in later posts. But that’s no biggie: I encourage readers to take absolutely nothing of what I say at face value, and I am happy to provide dozens of links in the comments now for anyone who doesn’t want to wait for them until later posts.

Photo (edited) by Marcio Nascimento from Pexels

What we Bring to the Male Gaze

First, it can be a surprise to learn that commentators on the female gazes often devote a lot of time to the male gaze first. But it makes sense: the male gaze is much better known, and it helps in forming a contrast. Unfortunately, that also means there’s already a natural tendency to stress differences rather than similarities.

Next, it turns out there’s actually two male gazes evident in many of those discussions.

First, there’s the literal male gaze, which refers to how cishet men look sexually at women, and the perspective which is prioritized to the exclusion of almost all others in the media. In my experience, this is what the overwhelming majority of people think of as the male gaze, unless they’re educators or writers, and is the definition of male gaze I’ll overwhelmingly be using too.

(Yet another use of the term is to refer only to that domination of cishet male perspectives in all forms of media. Like when Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma said that “Ninety per cent of what we look at is the male gaze,” for example, or when cinematographer Natasha Braier argued it’s so inseparable from cinema, that a female gaze is simply not possible.)

Next, there’s the abstract, academic male gaze (henceforth, “Male Gaze”). To explain what it means, consider the source: Mulvey’s book chapter “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975, which I’m sure you’re all of aware of and many of you may even have read too.

But, if you are one of those who’ve read it, then I’ll wager…only once or twice perhaps? As a freshman, many years ago?

Because even if I’m really only just projecting, please do check out it again now, and admit it—it’s dense. Despite what it’s best known for, it’s mostly devoted to extremely esoteric, psychological topics like ‘phallocentricism’ and ‘fetishistic scopophilia.’ Colleagues of mine, who’ve assigned it as tutorial readings at the beginnings of their careers, have learned the hard way from their student evaluations to avoid it later.

Frankly, most of it is entirely above my head, as is much of the voluminous scholarship it’s given rise to.

That is not necessarily a criticism, or even a problem—we all use many concepts to understand the world without understanding all their nuts and bolts. As Lindsay Ellis diplomatically puts it below (2:44), the chapter really shouldn’t be considered “so much as a holy text as a jumping-off point.”

However, it does mean there’s a very abstract, academic Male Gaze of all that scholarship out there. And in my experience, one that’s frequently used interchangeably with the literal male gaze by non-academic writers. This leads to a lot of confusion, and, given the authority with which the Male Gaze comes, can easily come to dominate our understanding of the former.

Or, in other words, something about the abstract concept that may sound—and indeed be—perfectly reasonable in a Film or Gender Studies journal, but absurd if it was spoken of in a non-academic context about living, breathing, flesh and blood cishet men, nonetheless easily can and often does get done so anyway.

Take queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis‘s very first line on the subject in Bitch Flicks for instance, that it means “(t)he sexual objectification of passive female characters.” She doesn’t follow my m/M convention, so which gaze was she referring to? If her comment is about the Male Gaze, then that sounds very plausible—it sounds very much like something a Gender Studies scholar would say, and which I’m not knowledgeable enough to critique. But was that the type of gaze Ellis was referring to? Only by specifically asking ourselves that question and looking can we determine, indirectly through her saying the concept under discussion “can be seen literally as a gaze,” can we resolve that she was indeed referring to the Male Gaze—and realize just how easy it would be to take away from her original comment that men’s literal sexual gaze is inherently objectifying.

Or take the panel above from M.Slade‘s cartoon in Everyday Feminism entitled “Am I a Queer Woman Looking Through the Male Gaze?”. Again, I think it’s the Male Gaze, but it’s much more unclear this time.

Either way, it’s true that perhaps most readers wouldn’t need reminding of Suzannah Weiss‘s rare caveat, also in Everyday Feminism, that the Male Gaze “is not necessarily the perspective of most men, but rather, society’s notion of a ‘normal’ man’s perspective” (my emphases), and it’s patronizing of me to imply they would. I hope so. Given my professed ignorance, I’m not going to claim that Ellis or Slade are necessarily wrong about the Male Gaze either, or that a hell of a lot of men do indeed negatively objectify women. And yet somehow, a hell of a lot of commentators on the female gazes genuinely do seem to believe that cishet male desire is nothing but that overwhelming urge to objectify. The Male Gaze is the male gaze as it were. And again, because as I’ll demonstrate, I’m only confident in making that accusation because they literally say so. And/or, indirectly by outright denying that women can objectify too.

Perhaps they arrive at that position because, as Alina Cohen explains in The Nation, much like ‘white privilege’ and ‘heteronormative,’ the term ‘male gaze’ is “utilized mostly by those who seek to destroy the phenomenon it identifies.” I’d put it even stronger: absolutely no-one reading this has ever used it in a positive or even neutral sense until now, myself included. Indeed, it comes across as so utterly tainted in my readings, that I completely understand why commentators would feel compelled to distance female desire from it—and to ignore, dismiss, or vilify those women who exhibit the “male” traits they associate with it, as I’ll give an example of a little later below.

Photo by Charles Roth from Pexels

Absolutely Everything a Woman Creates is the Female Gaze

À la The Onion’s classic article about “empowerment,” further adding to all the confusion is that the female gaze has recently become somewhat of a catch-all buzzword. As Cohen puts it, the term “simply functions according to its users’ needs,” to the extent “when women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing [it].”

Just about every link in this post leads to many examples of the many fruits of all the discussions now being had about what difference the sex of the person behind the lens makes. Important and overdue questions are being raised about what it means to be a male artist of the female nude in the #MeToo era too. But all these conversations are diminished by numerous touted definitive female gaze photo collections sharing no more commonality than having been taken by women, and with few obvious differences with how men would have approached their subjects either.

Even photo collections by men have been exhibited as examples of the female gaze too. Which actually isn’t as absurd as it sounds—another topic to be raised in this series is to what extent men, with sufficient input from women, can create content for the female gaze, as well as cishet people for queer content—but it does go to show how the term can mean just about anything.

On top of that, in the last two years especially, it seems that every other commentator on the female gazes—and almost every reviewer of Lady on Fire(!)—uses the terms not just in a literal sense, but also to describe the movement to challenge the aforementioned erasure of women in general, WOC, queer women, and so on in popular culture, and especially their under-representation in its production. (The “Female Gaze,” I’ll call it.) I’m 100 percent on board with that, but it doesn’t help when that meaning is used interchangeably with its literal one.

(In an excerpt from her book Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, editor Charlotte Jansen seems to be saying she was originally angry about the picture ‘Yani, New Jersey, 2015’ by Mayan Toledano, but changed her mind because the photographer was a woman. If so, is that identity politics gone mad, or does she have a point? Image source: Maiden Noir)

To better understand why commentators on the female gazes (and hence male gaze) make the calls they do, I’ve really tried hard to place myself in their shoes. I’ve noticed over 99 out of 100 of them identify as women (prove me wrong). That they’re justifiably outraged about the under-representation of women, their stories, and their ways of seeing the world in popular culture. That they’re sick and tired of the camera encouraging both men and women to look at the latter through an objectifying, domineering, leering lens.

But now, they have a chance to do something about that by writing or talking about the female gazes, or even by making their own media texts themselves.

 Sources left and below: unknown. Source right: @maryneelahaye.

They have very limited time or space to do so though. People will surely understand if they make some necessary generalizations about men in the process, who are not even their focus.

Unfortunately, sometimes those generalizations really do go too far. Time and time again, confident, matter-of-fact declarations about all cishet men and male desire get provided that are often no more than caricatures.

To complain about that may seem like I’m just making a typical, unhelpful “not all men” retort. But I’m really not. Its not deflecting the conversation, because the women themselves are already talking about men. Also, it’s not missing the point, because like them, I only talk about men with the aim of better understanding the female gazes. For if those are defined largely in opposition to stereotypes of men, then those of women are surely going to be just as crude and useless, utterly failing to account for the likes of awkward, lascivious Touch fans.

It’s time to start pointing fingers.

The Burden of Proof

Re-enter Soloway, whose keynote address on the female gaze at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival occupied the top spot in google searches until articles about Lady on Fire recently displaced it. Soloway, who “now identifies as a gender non-conforming queer person,” and is the award-winning creator of the immensely popular Transparent TV series, which has been “a major force in bringing discussions of trans rights to the mainstream,” was clearly a well-liked, very motivating speaker at the festival. This, despite shitting on so many women so quickly into her address (5:15-6:55):

The opposite of the male gaze, if taken literally, would mean visual arts and literature depicting the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure.

So, okay, I guess in it’s most simple that would be like, Magic Mike if it were written, directed and produced by a woman.

I remember when they tried to sell us that, thirty years ago culture was all WOMEN! HERE’S PLAYGIRL AND CHIPPENDALES!!!???

And so many women were so happy to have anything, something, that they dutifully bought Playgirl—hairy man laying across the centerfold, soft penis, ooooooh.

Groups of women, going to Chippendales, screaming, laughing hooting….

Anyway okay that’s one version of the female gaze that we have been offered:

“Hey ladies! Here’s your fuckin’ fireman calendar!” But it’s kinda –- naaaahhh. Pass. We don’t want that. NOT BUYING IT.

Transcript source: Soloway’s Topple Productions website.

Unfortunately for Soloway’s breezy narrative, at one point 2 million women were buying Playgirl every month, and readership only dropped in the wake of the conservatism of the 1980s (as did that of men’s adult magazines). If she was so quick to just write them all off as desperate, as well as fans of Magic Mike and the Chippendales, I don’t need to ask what she would make of Touch fans.

Was she unaware? Unlikely, given her expertise. Why then, would she make such insulting claims? Why did no-one in the Q&A call her out on them?

K-pop can be pretty bawdy sometimes, and that’s precisely why some fans like it. But ogling isn’t mutually exclusive with enjoying it for more ‘noble’ reasons, nor does it preclude other fans genuinely only liking it for the music. Source: lalalalyssaa

As a sometime guest lecturer myself (invite me to your campus!), I’m painfully aware of how presentations encourage overgeneralizations and hyperbole that speakers may regret later. Also, with the benefit of hindsight, her talk—much of which actually consists of the reading of a poem—is very much an example of the call to arms-type Female Gaze. So, I can completely understand the emotional reaction of the audience, and normally I’d very much give her the benefit of the doubt.

Not Soloway. Again, there’s her prominence to consider, and her ensuing position as the very first person many people listen to about the subject. There’s her own invitation to scrutinize her, by virtue of how earlier in that keynote address, she wasn’t shy about her hope that it would anchor her name to the female gazes, like Laura Mulvey’s is to the men’s. There’s the stream of consciousness-like feel to her talk that emerges from such scrutiny, so replete is it with bizarre, dubious claims, including such sophistry as “I mean, what is gang rape? It is men wanting to have sex in the same room as one another, but using [a slut] so they don’t have to name and own their own desire for each other.” But most of all, and ultimately the only reason I’m so focused on her instead of ignoring her entirely, there’s the fact that most other commentators on the female gazes generally agree with her that women don’t ogle or objectify—and share the utter bullshit she spouts about men’s gazes and sexuality that’s required to take that position.

I realize that’s quite a statement to leave you hanging on. My apologies. Those commentators will be covered in later posts. For now, I invite you to watch Soloway’s talk for yourself (or even better and quicker, the stark transcript), and ask you what actual evidence she presents for her many confident comments about “chismales.” Or, what proof Ellis provides for this one:

As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do. But while they may just see the object of their desire, I have to also see myself. So when I see sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot or power, I don’t get anything positive from that. It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable.

Er…I don’t love images of half-naked oiled-up women. I didn’t when I was still a virgin. Alas, since then I’ve actually never encountered any half-naked, oiled-up women to help change my mind. (Sigh.) But my experience has taught me that a good grip is needed for most positions. That lotions, cosmetics, perfumes, and (within reason!) even showers can be a turn-off too, because they stop women feeling and smelling like women (yes, perish the thought—smell and touch can be important to men too). So, I’m going to take a wild guess that oiling women up wouldn’t help with either.

Image: ‘Effy in Beijing (for American Apparel),’ 2014, by Monika Mogi. Another example of the female gaze from Girl on Girl, but which inexplicably aligns exactly with my own tastes. Source: Maiden Noir.

Nor do I get anything positive from sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot, or power—my fetish is for the exact opposite. For sure, if I was single, and encountered a nubile and willing “pliant sexual object,” then I probably wouldn’t kick her out of bed. But I’d much prefer an assertive and confident woman who took some initiative—which is why I married one.

Do all cishet men share my tastes? Absolutely not. But I’d venture I know a hell of lot more about their desires than Ellis does. Because I’m a cishet man? Yes, of course, but absolutely not only. Rather, because I’ve actually asked other men about their tastes too. A lot. Whereas Ellis gives no indication of having asked so much as one.

Can you imagine what social media would do to me if I said something so crude and stereotypical? That fat wallets say, turned absolutely all women on—and without having asked even a single one of them?

I may have said a lot of controversial stuff so far, but nothing remotely as absurd or disingenuous. All I’ve said about women’s tastes specifically is that they like looking too, and even that—which shouldn’t even be controversial—has been based only on what women have said themselves. I’ve been very careful about that.

Why do Ellis and her colleagues not realize their own hypocrisy? Where does their confidence and certainly about what men want come from? Where, for that matter, does yours?

Photo by Mahrael Boutros from Pexels

What Does it Mean to Look, Exactly?

To make the revolutionary claim that women do ogle men and/or each other however, doesn’t necessarily mean they do so in the same ways as cishet men, or to the same degrees. For example, in 2015 Esther Yu, Editor in Chief of the feminist site Arco Collective, wrote in one of the rare more nuanced takes on the female gazes out there, that:

“…there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic—an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.

What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.”

Indeed, in this series I’ll also discuss transmen’s and transwomen’s experiences of changing libidos, sexualities, and desires in their new bodies, which strongly suggest that these differences are fundamental. Still, let me say it again for those in the back—that there are differences between women and men, possibly big differences, that still doesn’t mean that women don’t ogle, a lot. Or wouldn’t ogle, were they not socially sanctioned for doing do.

Source: Know Your Meme.

Questions to Ask if Something Qualifies for the Female Gaze(s)

For understanding the female gazes, all these issues raised would seem to present quite the conundrum. They don’t, really. Queer fans of Touch, or other MVs like it, aren’t going to stop loving them simply because gatekeepers think they can’t or shouldn’t. That said, this series is about finding the female gazes. It’s about being proactive, not simply waiting around to hear whatever Twitter has to say about any given media text. Specifically, it’s about formulating a series of questions with which to judge if something is aimed at cishet women, queer women, or neither. By all means, if anyone who is neither a cishet woman or a queer woman makes a determination based on those questions, but members of those groups overwhelmingly decide otherwise, then that person should do a major rethink. But the point remains that anyone can ask those questions.

If that accessibility sounds like the height of cishet male privilege, then, again, I feel that’s more than a little hypocritical: over 99 percent of commenters on something being male-gazey identify as women, and no-one seems to have a problem with that. No, I’m not being defensive, you’re being defensive. And yes, there’s a lot more uncomfortable truths like that to come in this series. All for the sake of challenging what you and I thought we knew about male and female desire.

Did I say “finding” the female gazes though? I lie. I think I’ve already found the necessary questions, which really aren’t that complicated:

  1. Does the text present (wo)men in a sexualized manner?
  2. Does it present an authentic, believable (queer) relationship between characters, and/or “humanize” them?
  3. Is it produced by and/or explicitly for (queer) women?

I know—many of you may be already be ROTFL at the first. So let me clarify:

  1. The brackets are for the queer female gaze; without them they’re for the female gaze.
  2. The questions are in order of importance.
  3. The first question is a necessary condition to qualify for the female gazes. Certainly, as discussed, some commentators argue that the terms can just refer to sorely underrepresented, female ways of seeing the world in general (the Female Gaze) not just of other men or women in a sexual sense, and I greatly respect that. But consider that most people familiar with the term “male gaze” consider it to be nothing but sexual. So, not to also include a sexual component in the equivalent female concepts would be unnecessarily confusing and hypocritical. (And again, it is very telling about their notions of male and female sexuality that so many commentators are just fine with that.)
  4. “Sexualization” is a broad, amorphous term, and its manifestations are hardly confined to tight clothes, sexual poses, shirtless guys, and gratuitous skin. Any situation, body part, or object can be sexualized. This glance at 0:21 is. The reading of this note in Atonement was too. The smell of my wife. (You get the idea.) Touch, meanwhile, is sexualized in a “traditional” sense. But the infamous armpit scene in Lady on Fire is hardly subtle either, no matter how deep and meaningful is the relationship of the characters involved.
  5. But to claim sexualization is a necessary component of the gaze is not to claim that all those texts are equally queer. Nor that—let me nip this asinine notion in the bud immediately—pornography aimed at heterosexual men say, is somehow queer simply by virtue of sexualizing women. (Which is not to say that some lesbians can’t or don’t like some male-gazey heterosexual pornography.)
  6. These questions are only a guide!!

This series is about justifying those questions, exploring their implications, and finally applying them to Touch and other texts in the future. Part Two, which will hopefully up next week (but probably not frankly, considering this one took me two years!), will be about those many more claims that men are all about looks and women are all about feels, and why they’re wrong.

Until then, if I’m wrong about anything above, which is entirely possible for a cishet man writing about these subjects, then please do let me know!

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

Finding the Queer Female Gaze, and What it Says About Anda’s Touch (COMING MAY 4)

It’s a dirty job, publicly shaming yourself into finally writing about a subject that you’re passionate about and have been working on for years. But someone has to do it!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Source: YouTube.

The MV for Touch by Anda, released in 2015, is as queer and objectifying as they come. Naturally, I fell in love at first sight, and just had to review it.

I’m not a woman though—neither a lesbian, a heterosexual, nor any other on the glorious spectrum. So, before I got started, I needed to hit the books. But no sweat, I reasoned. The concept of the male gaze has been around since 1975. It’s well-known enough that no-one who’s already woke has to explain it to another. Surely over forty years later, I thought, there would be just as extensive a literature on what women want? With helpful lists of clear criteria to guide even the most hapless of cishet male reviewers?

You can already guess the answers. But, absorbing what was out there proved addictive. And, as some of you may recall, I did eventually feel that I had enough of a handle on it to write a review.

Only to delete it in consternation as I realized the queer female gaze was a much broader, much more contentious subject than I’d first imagined. In fact, one requiring an epic series to do it justice. Humbled, I resolved to keep researching and gathering all the information that would be necessary, not putting pen to paper again until I was absolutely certain I’d covered all my bases. I duly created a second “Anda + Queer Female Gaze” folder on my Firefox toolbar, and set to work.

That was over two years ago.

That folder now has three hundred bookmarks in it, with thirty more bookmarks added today in the wake of the recent release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

All of a sudden, adding to that morass finally made me realize what a fool I’ve been. All this time, the effortless collecting and reading of articles has been an albatross around my neck, providing an easy out from the harder work of actually writing.

And, if I wasn’t going to start just as soon as I had that epiphany, then when? And if making such a public commitment wasn’t motivation enough to actually see it through too, then what would be?

Source: YouTube.

I admit, a strange post. But if it gets the job done. I also felt it would be more helpful to explain than just ghosting you until the 27th, chosen for when I’ll hopefully no longer be teaching from home.

Thank you very much for indulging me then, and I’ll be back here soon. And please stay safe!

(p.s. If you can’t wait, you can still catch me on Twitter or Facebook!)

Update 1, Monday, April 27: All completed, but it needs some ruthless editing after a good night’s sleep, so I’ve postponed publication until Wednesday. Sorry for the slight delay!

Update 2, Wednesday, April 29: Arrrgh! Sorry *again*, but real life has intervened in the form of sudden urgent editing projects from my boss, and my post still needs a *lot* more work than I thought it did on Monday.

TBH, I think it’s going to be controversial—I really want to challenge people’s assumptions about the male & female gazes—so I really want to make sure I get it right. Let me just call it for *next* Mon then, with my promise to do my best to make it worth the wait. Thanks!

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

Manufacturing Outrage Against Feminists: The Cosplay Edition

I read trashy entertainment news stories about women in cosplay and half-naked men, so that you don’t have to. But when they’re all that’s available, it’s netizens with agendas that get to determine what we take away from them.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes. Image sources: 스포츠하국, Pixabay (edited).

Surely it’s a bot that pumps out all these “Controversy Erupts Over K-pop Star’s Provocative Outfit” articles by now?

I’m almost serious. The names and details in the intros may change, but otherwise the articles follow the same pattern. First, you’re told about the throngs of netizens, feminists, and women’s groups who’ve criticized the sexual objectification, who are so great in number that actual names and links are usually deemed unnecessary. Next, responses from organizers of the show or event or from representatives of the star’s entertainment company are given, all of whom are men, and all of whom are stunned by the criticisms. After they recover, they’ll loudly defend her from the prudes, and join fans in praising her creative expression, sexual empowerment, and confidence and pride in her body. Finally, if we’re really lucky, we might even hear from the actual woman herself, providing a vague, suspiciously demure semi-defense or apology, which feels entirely scripted by the same men waxing lyrical about her grrrl-power.

Since Johyun of girl-group Berry Good appeared in cosplay at a gaming event on Monday June 17, “news” articles like this have appeared in the hundreds. Usually, I’d ignore them—give it a few weeks, and there’ll just be hundreds of similar articles about another immodest K-pop star to peruse, with the endless, national hand-wringing over Sulli not wearing a bra being relied upon to fill pages until then. But there’s a story about these stories which made Johyun’s case different.

I’ll let Danny Kim and David Kim of Youtube Channel DKDKTV explain, who covered the responses to her cosplay in their K-pop news video the next day (from 0:49 to 5:19):

Specifically:

Danny (in purple), (from 1:38): “Basically, this caused an alleged uproar led by a journalist, who called her out for promoting sexual objectification….And you know the funny thing was? She also happened to write an article about, like, how hot these male idols abs and boobs were about two years ago. Basically this one journalist wrote an article calling her out, and then all these different news outlets started covering this alleged ‘controversy’…but the weird part is it’s just that one journalist, and no-one really gives a shit. But I feel that this is like, what we call media play.”

David (in blue): “So what you’re saying is that there was one news article from that journalist, and the news just kept kinda reproducing—”

Danny: “Maybe she was, maybe the original article was allegedly offended by this outfit, but afterwards, all this like, a constant cycle of this controversy being covered when it’s not even a controversy, I think got media play. But anyway succeeded…”

David, (a little later, from 3:40): I saw the internet community reacting to her, and they were saying, like the headline was, ‘Do You Think it’s the Chosun Era?‘…Have you looked at the comments? Because, like, the most voted comment, for every article I’ve checked, is saying like, ‘Oh, it was all empowerment and strong for Hwasa [of MAMAMOO] and now you come for her, and which is all like ‘Provocative!’ and ‘Sexually objectifying!’…The comments are allegedly calling the journalist or the people who are criticizing [Johyun], like, radical feminists, because when they’re saying when like Hwasa did it, it was all fine, it was all like powerful and you know, all that stuff. But when a relatively Korean standard beauty person doing it, now, they’re like ‘OMG! She’s selling herself! OMG! That’s sexual objectification!’ Those are like double standards [too].

To summarize the charges: there was never any real controversy; the catalyst for the alleged controversy was one female journalist’s critical article; and that she hypocritically sung the praises of topless male actors in her previous articles. Let’s examine each in turn.

The first can be confirmed almost immediately. While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, I’ve read dozens of articles that simply quote anonymous critics as discussed, and I’m not going to read dozens more in the vain hope that—heaven forbid!—one journalist actually does back up what they say. If that evidence of feminist outrage exists then, the onus is on believers to provide it. And they haven’t been doing a very convincing job so far:

Source: Netizenbuzz.
Source: Netizenbuzz.

The second charge that a female journalist’s critical article sparked the whole media play though, is completely wrong. And that’s also very easy to prove.

The article in question, which I’ll give my translation of in a moment, was “‘Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.’ In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent?” / “‘완벽vs불쾌’ 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까”, written by Jo Yeon-gyeong (조연경) for Ilgan Sports (일간스포츠) and published at 8:37pm on Monday the 17th; from there, it was syndicated to Daum, where it currently has 1700 comments. The timing is crucial: do a search with the words “Johyun,” “Berry Good,” and “Controversy” on Naver, Korea’s biggest portal site, and it’s evident that numerous articles with that key final search term were published throughout the day, well before Yeon-gyeong’s in the evening. Moreover, that search is just of Naver and just with the word “controversy” attached to Johyun’s name; there’s also some earlier ones that mention, say, “sexual objectification,” with or without the specific word “controversy” too. Hell, even if you don’t speak Korean, just by clicking on the links to the four articles Netizenbuzz covered you can see that all of those preceded it as well.

To point out Danny and David’s mistake isn’t intended to imply anything: they’re busy YouTubers pumping out three videos a week, of which this story was just one short segment of one. Also, I appreciated their comments that Johyun’s smiling and easy demeanor at the event in no way implies her consent with the outfit chosen for her, which speaks to the difficulties in judging exploitation within and reporting on the notoriously controlling K-pop industry, a topic I’ve covered in depth elsewhere.

That said, their sloppy mistake, however inadvertent and lacking in malice, does perpetuate the stereotype of the interfering feminist, outraged over trifles that normal people couldn’t care less about. To understand why that version of events came about, and snowballed to the extent that that’s the one Danny and David took notice of, let’s examine what the journalist actually said:

“Perfection vs. Unpleasantness.” In the Aftermath of Johyun’s Exposure of Her Body, Can We Say the Intention Was Innocent? “완벽vs불쾌” 조현 노출 후폭풍, 의도는 정녕 순수했을까

Jo Yeon-gyeong, Ilgan Sports, 2019.06.17 20:37

이쯤되면 입힌 사람도, 입은 사람도 잘못이다. 반짝 이슈에 이미지를 홀라당 날려 버렸다. 응원하는 이들만큼 불쾌감 섞인 비난도 뒤따른다. 후폭풍을 전혀 예상하지 못했을까. 그 또한 패착이다.

Whether Johyun chose the outfit, or whether it was chosen for her, we cannot say. Either way, the hot issue that suddenly arose from it is the question of if she has ruined her image. There are as many people supporting her as there are critics or those made to feel uncomfortable by her outfit. We can not know yet what to make of the aftermath. Or if the choice was misguided.

베리굿 조현이 노출 논란에 휩싸였다. 과감한 코스프레 의상이 문제였다.

Because of her daring, provocative outfit, Johyun has been engulfed in controversy.

조현은 17일 서울 상암동 에스플렉스 센터OGN e스타디움에서 열린 ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’ 행사에 참석했다. ‘게임돌림픽2019 : 골든카드’는 게임을 즐겨하는 아이돌 스타들이 게임 실력을 겨루는 아이돌 e스포츠 대회로, 이날 행사에는 약 40명의 아이돌 스타들이 참석했다.

On Monday the 17th, Johyun participated in OGN’s Game Dolympic 2019: Golden Card event at the Seoul OGN e-STADIUM in Samam-dong, along with approximately 40 other idols. As part of the event, idols showed off their skills competing against each other at e-games.

조현은 ‘리그 오브 레전드’의 구미호 캐릭터 아리 코스프레 의상을 차려입고 카메라 앞에 섰다. 게임 행사인 만큼 게임 속 캐릭터 의상을 착용한 자체는 문제가 되지 않는다. 하지만 가슴과 엉덩이가 훤히 드러나는 의상은 분명 과했다. 떨어지는 퀄리티에 스타킹 라인도 고스란히 노출됐다.

Johyun cosplayed as the nine-tailed fox character Ahri from League of Legends, and stood in front of the cameras [on the red carpet]. That she cosplayed is not a problem. However, her choice of clothing clearly exposed her breasts and bottom to an excessive degree. The outfit was poor quality too, and fully revealed her suspenders. (Source, right: Bias Wrecker.)

섹시와 저렴은 한끗차이다. 조현은 의도했든 의도하지 않았든 스스로 목적 뚜렷한 눈요깃거리가 됐고, 조롱의 대상이 됐다.

There’s a fine line between sexiness and looking cheap. Whatever Jo-hyun’s intentions were, she’s plainly just there as eye-candy, and is now an object of mockery.

물론 ‘완벽한 코스프레’라 극찬하는 이들도 있다. ‘코스프레일 뿐인데 왜 난리냐’ ‘하다하다 별걸 다 갖고 논란. 예쁘기만 하다’ ‘뭐가 과하고 뭐가 야하다는건지 모르겠다. 코스프레 무식자들’ ‘캐릭터 의상이 원래 저런데 어쩌라고’ ‘잘 입었다. 칭찬해 주고 싶다’ 등 옹호 반응도 쏟아지고 있다.

Of course, there are people who speak highly of this “perfect cosplay.” Those rushing to her support have made such arguments as “It’s just cosplay. What’s all the fuss?”, “Whatever she does, there’s controversy. Can’t you just acknowledge she’s pretty?”, “I really don’t know what’s revealing or excessive about her outfit. Only people who know nothing about cosplay would say such things”, and “She’s just dressed like the original character is dressed. I want to compliment her for that.”

특히 조현이 입은 의상은 주최 측과 사전 상의한 결과였다. 취지에 어긋나지 않고, 자리를 빛내기 위한 선택이었다는 것.

Crucially however, the choice of outfit was in made in prior consultation with the organizers and hosts of the event. It was not inappropriate for the event, and was chosen to lighten it up.

소속사 제이티지엔터테인먼트 측은 “평소 게임을 좋아하는 조현이 게임 행사에 참여하게 됐고, 주최 측과 협의 후 코스프레를 완벽히 소화하기 위해 준비한 의상을 착용했다”며 “조현이 평소 게임을 좋아하기 때문에 팬들과 더 많이 소통하고 싶어 했다”고 전했다.

A source from her entertainment company JTG Entertainment [further clarified] that “Johyun is a big fan of games, and that is how she came to participate in the event; the outfit that was chosen in consultation with the event hosts worked out for her beautifully. Also, that “Through wearing the outfit, Johyun hoped to better communicate her love of games to her fans.”

그럼에도 불구하고 ‘성상품화를 자처했다’는 목소리가 더 높은 실정이다. 이에 따른 네티즌들의 갑론을박도 점점 더 격렬해지고 있다. 의도가 무엇이었든 단발성 이슈 몰이에는 성공한 모양새다. 이후 조현이 보여 줄 행보가 그녀의 진정한 이미지를 결정짓게 만들 것으로 보인다.

Despite this, the accusations that she was sexually objectified have grown in number, and netizens have intensely debated the pros and cons of her choice of outfit—whatever her intentions [James—or those of JTG Entertainment], she’s certainly been successful in becoming the issue of the week. After it dies down, her true image will be determined by the paths she takes in the future. [End]

Source: 5:18, TopStarNews.Net@YouTube

Whatever you make of Jo Yeong-gyeong’s opinion piece, it’s only slightly harsher than those by many other journalists. Yet it’s her that has been made the figurehead for feminist outrage and overreaction by the more tabloidish and alt-right corners of the Korean internet, buttressed by her alleged hypocrisy and double-standards:

Sources: MLBPark (1; since deleted); 2)

Her haters generally provide five of her previous articles as evidence. I won’t translate them fully sorry (my first one above probably already pushes the limits of fair use), just those parts about “how hot those male idols abs and boobs were.”

First, one from October 2016, about a scene from the drama Sweet Stranger and Me, in which Kim Young-kwang appears wearing only an apron on top in front of Park Soo-ae:

주목할 것은 김영광의 차림이다. 상의는 입지 않은 채 빨간 앞치마만 걸치고 있는 그의 모습은 궁금증을 유발하기 충분하다.

특히 김영광의 태평양 어깨와 힐끗 보이는 잔근육, 팔의 힘줄은 시선을 압도, 여심을 흔들게 할 전망이다.

또 수애 앞에 바짝 다가선 김영광은 남성미를 폭발시켜 미묘한 긴장감을 형성한다. 이에 앞으로 두 사람에게 무슨 일이 생길지 기대감을 높인다.

Man of the drama title Kim Young-kwang is getting a lot of attention for a scene in which he’s topless but for a red kitchen apron.

In particular, he’s aroused the interest of women with his broad shoulders and the veins on his bulging muscles. Also, as he approaches Park Soo-ae, we suddenly become aware of his masculine beauty, and the building tension between them. With bated breaths, we wait to see what will happen next.

Next, from March 2017, about an episode of the Law of the Jungle reality TV show, in which the male guests took off their tops in the rain:

이에 따라 예상치 못하게 병만족의 숨겨왔던 초콜릿 복근도 공개됐다. 상의를 벗은 병만족은 함께 목욕탕에 온 것처럼 서로의 등을 밀어주기도 하고 장난도 치며 돈독한 우정을 다졌다. 다들 “자연인이 된 것 같아”, “진짜 시원하다. 대박이에요.” 등의 반응을 보이며 행복해했다고.

그 모습을 멀리서 지켜보던 홍일점 경리는 “나도 같이 벗고 싶었다. 그러나 여자라 참았다”며 알몸 샤워하는 남자 병만족을 부러워했다는 후문이다.

As they took off their tops, the “chocolate abs” of [host] Kim Byung-man‘s “tribe” were revealed, and the men began massaging each other’s backs and getting friendly as if they were in a bathhouse back at home. They were very happy, saying things like “It’s great to get so close to nature,” “This is so refreshing. It’s just the best!”

Watching from a distance, the only female member of the tribe, Nine Muses’s Park Kyung-ri, later revealed, “I really wanted to take off my clothes too. But because I was the only woman, I just had to put up with it. I was really jealous of the men being able to shower half-nude.”

From September 2017, when several members of Korean-Chinese boy-band Exo appeared on variety show It’s Dangerous Beyond The Blankets:

Source: @EXOXiuminTurkey; all other images from their original articles.

물놀이를 해본 지가 언제인지 까마득한 집돌이들은 계속 한참을 머뭇거리다 수영장에 들어갔는데, 이후에도 무엇을 해야 할지 몰라 하며 당황하는 모습을 보였다. 하지만 곧 자신들만의 물놀이에 빠져들어 상의 탈의를 감행, 그동안 그들이 소중하게 간직하고 있던 근육까지 공개하는 열의를 보이며 열띤 시간을 보냈다는 후문에 기대감을 증폭 시키고 있다.

At first the homebodies hesitated to get into the water, not having been in the swimming pool for a while. And once they did get in, it was like they didn’t know what to do. But in the end, they got so energized by the water that they took off their tops and showed off their hidden muscles with alacrity. Viewers’ expectations for the episode [which had then yet to be aired] will be high!

Then again on the Law of the Jungle reality TV show in February 2018, with Kim Yu-gyeom, Lee Tae-gon, and Kim Yun-sang enjoying themselves in a stream:

유겸의 상남자 매력은 다음날 과일 탐사에서도 어김없이 빛났다. 이틀 만에 소금기 없는 민물을 발견한 유겸은 거침없이 상의를 벗어 던지고 물속에 몸을 내던져 정글에서의 첫 샤워를 즐겼다. 이를 본 김윤상 아나운서는 “역시 아이돌이라서 그런지 몸매가 훈훈하다”며 눈을 떼지 못했다.

[After catching a fish with his bare hands the day before], Yu-gyeom’s masculine beauty was on his display while fruitpicking. In just two days, he found a fresh water source, threw off his clothes to dive into some water, and enjoyed a shower in the jungle. Kim Yun-sang [James—a cishet guy, in case of any confusion!] couldn’t keep his eyes off him, explaining his figure was just so admirable.

And finally in May 2018, about an episode of The Return of Superman in which volleyball player Moon Sung-min visited the bathhouse with his son Shi-ho:

…문성민 아빠와 시호 부자는 목욕탕에서 완벽한 몸매를 자랑하며 몸짱에 등극해 시청자들의 이목을 사로잡을 전망이다.

방송 전 공개된 사진 속 문성민 아빠와 시호는 목욕탕에서 신나는 시간을 보내고 있다. 만점 비주얼의 문성민 아빠의 훈훈한 미소와 완벽한 초콜릿 복근은 심쿵을 유발한다. 시호의 깜찍한 웃음은 매우 사랑스럽다.

이날 시호·리호는 배구선수인 문성민 아빠의 직장에 방문했다. 그곳에서 시호는 문성민 아빠와 공놀이를 하며 즐거운 시간을 보냈다고. 운동을 끝낸 두 사람은 흘린 땀을 씻기 위해 목욕탕으로 향했다. 목욕탕에 등장한 문성민-시호 부자에 모두가 심쿵했다는 전언이다. 문성민 아빠가 완벽한 식스팩을 자랑하며 모습을 드러냈기 때문.

…Moon Sung-min captured the audience’s attention by showing off his perfect body in the bathhouse.

Shi-ho and Sung-min had an enjoyable time there. Sung-min got hearts racing with his perfect visuals, charming smile, and perfect chocolate abs. Shi-ho’s cute laughing was very lovable too.

After having an enjoyable time at Sung-min’s workplace, the two of them went to the bathhouse to wash off their sweat. It was said that all the other patrons of the bathhouse almost stopped in their tracks at the sight of Sung-min showing off his perfect six-pack.

Making the big assumption that it’s not actually her editor that chooses the slant of all of her articles, perhaps from those you could indeed argue that Danny and David Kim’s third charge is correct: she was being hypocritical about Johyun. Against that however, you could respond that much of her concern about Johyun’s image stems from how unusual the cosplay was for her, in contrast to the male actors and boy-band members for whom taking their tops off for the cameras is a matter of routine. To which you could counter that, whether through choice or coercion, Johyun is actually very used to being objectified, as are the other members of Berry Good. And so on.

But to engage in that debate means not seeing the forest for the trees. Because if even we do concede the double-standards, all these articles are still just trashy entertainment news. Those short excerpts above? They’re actually half or more of the entire “news articles” in some cases. That’s not to single Jo Yeon-gyeong out, or imply that she’s bad at her job. Quite the opposite—it’s to point out that as a producer of quick, throwaway clickbait (hey, she makes more money from writing than I do), that in each case above, everything she said about the man boobs and chocolate abs was also made by dozens or even more other journalists like her. Many of who might even be men.

Forgive my own hypocrisy in not providing links to them; frankly, as I type this I’m just exhausted after a week of unpaid research, translation, and 3200 words on this myself. So, if you do have your doubts on that last, please indulge me with the two minutes of googling necessary to confirm.

That’s something the paid journalists were not prepared to do. Instead, we were asked just take to their word for it that Johyun’s cosplay was controversial.

Is it any wonder that people would form their own narratives instead?

Or that the version of events by the group with the biggest axe to grind would come to dominate the story?

For make no mistake: singling out a female journalist for articles that she may have had no choice over, which were replicated by many other male and female colleagues, is as misogynistic as they come.

Related Posts:

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

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)

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!

“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-collageSource, 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.

Possibly, 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)
%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-2-08(2:08)

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:

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