Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. All screenshots: MV via Visualazn.
The “Queen of Charisma” deserves so much better than an 18MB, 240p MV for Tum, one of her classic hits:
To remedy that, go to Visualazn for a 428MB, 720p version to download posthaste. (I’d upload it myself, weren’t YouTube to instantly ban the copyright violation.) Watch that once, then come back here.
(If you’re pressed for time, this 1080p MBC Music Camp performance will have to suffice, which has some clips from the MV. But if it’s your first time especially, I really do recommend experiencing it through the high quality MV.)
I’m only so demanding, because to understand how people really feel about their pop culture, you need to appreciate the circumstances in which they consume it. Especially of when they first encountered it, and the technology that was used.
With Tum (a.k.a. Teum, Crack, Gap), for me it was late-2000, in the small southern city of Jinju. I had no cable or satellite TV, so I was reliant on free-to-air channels. It would still be a year before I had internet on my home computer for the first time, and five more before YouTube even existed. Trance music, my first love, was literally unheard of outside of far distant Seoul. I didn’t even have a radio, feeling there’d be no point given Korea’s surprisingly few genre-specific stations. So, in terms of discovering any new music at all, it felt like I was a child in the U.K. again, frustrated at the long, weekly waits for Thursday night’s Top of the Pops.
Of course the showcasing of Uhm Jung-hwa’s voluptuous body was integral to that. That’s why the CD I quickly purchased just didn’t cut it. It wasn’t like today, when you’re always just a click away from replaying your own favorite combination of amazing music sung and performed by incredibly attractive people. Back then, even with cable, a second viewing would have involved many tedious hours of watching music channels for those few precious minutes; without it, it was next to impossible. Instead, I had to content myself with the song alone, and accept that once the it left the charts and the music shows on the free-to-air channels, I’d likely never see the MV again.
That’s simply how it was with much of popular culture before the internet, no matter how meaningful it may have been to you. You just had to learn to live with it.*
Yet I don’t mean to elevate or privilege my outdated, distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder perspective. It’s neither superior, nor somehow more authentic than that of anyone encountering it for the first time today. It’s just mine, and part of my motivation for writing.
Indeed, the fresh perspective YouTube offers only motivated me further.
This was unexpected. Typically, the replay button is cruel to our most cherished pop-culture memories, and I didn’t expect scrutiny of Tum to be any kinder. Take the above scene from 3:51-3:54 (2:28-2:31 in the performance video) for instance. For the last 20 years, that moment of Uhm Jung-hwa looking glamorous as fuck while being mistress of all she surveys, has been indelibly burned into my brain. Only now though, can I take the time to notice all the hair in her face, which would have obscured her vision. The spell of my willing disbelief has been irrevocably broken—let alone totally ruining my long sought after screenshot.
Yet, truthfully, I’m genuinely stumped at locating any other similar oversights in the MV. It’s not perfect—the pauses are unnecessary and long, and the King Kong theme is only loosely tied to the lyrics—but there are many other objectively charismatic moments of Uhm Jung-hwa moments remaining to latch on to. If anything, being able to see it in such detail now has only further convinced me of how it much holds up after 20 years, and it’s this renewed appreciation that compels me to write. For it deserves far greater recognition as the classic it is, many more dance remixes than the single, terrible one I refuse to link to, and, again, at the very least, a decent quality video on YouTube.
Alas, that last I can’t provide. But I did put several days into finding that download for you. And I can give what is, as far as I know, the world’s very first English translation of the lyrics:
Track 2, Queen of Charisma, released November 2000.
I waited for you like you thought I would, I only had eyes for you
Don’t leave me alone for a long time for just no reason, I can’t take it anymore
Didn’t you have any feelings for me as I was changing?
Even if there were a lot of different reasons for doing what you did, it is so frustrating to think about you
제발 이젠 내게 말해줘 너의 힘없는 얼굴이 내 생각엔
아무런 느낌 없는 너처럼 그저 희미해질 뿐이야 난 이제
더 이상 기다리지 않아 나를 언제나 바라본 널 이렇게
아무런 감동 없는 나처럼 매일 같은 날 일 뿐이야 오 제발
Please tell me now; your powerless face, I think,
is fading away, as if you have no feelings for me
I’m not waiting anymore, as you have always looked at me like this
Every day is just the same, emotionless like me, oh please
그렇게 말도 없이 나만을 쳐다보면 너무나 힘이 들어 이렇게 우린
오래도록 지쳐있긴 하지만 언젠가 끝낼 수 있는 날 있잖아
이젠 모든 걸 버리고 우리만의 기억을 생각해봐
너와 나의 사인 아주 가까웠지만 언제부터 이렇게 멀어졌니?
Gazing at me without saying a word leaves me feeling so tired, we’ve
been so frustrated for a long time— there are so many times when I want to just end things
Please put everything aside and focus only on our shared memories
You and I were once very close, when did you drift away?
(Chorus repeats and end)
I appreciate any corrections—while these lyrics were quite simple, you’ll notice I didn’t provide literal translations, as I felt that would diminish from their intended meaning. Please also do tell me your own rants or raves about Tum, or about any other of Uhm Jung-hwa’s songs (Festival is another favorite of mine!), whenever or however you first encountered them :)
*VCRs were a possibility of course, but their bulk and expense meant few 20-somethings had them.
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
Spring Girls, by singer-songwriter SunwooJung-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 Bloomby Ga-in (2012).
To pretend otherwise is to willingly ignore the obvious. Like Arirang TV once did for instance, with hilarious results:
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 widelyconsideredone of the most basic and common forms of dehumanizing, sexual objectification.
On the face of it then, shouldn’t it be criticized, rather than applauded?
미국 코미디언 벨스키는 SNS 프로젝트 ‘할리우드의 머리 없는 여성들’을 시작했다. “얼굴이 잘린 채 등장한 여성은 남성의 시선에서 수동적인 대상, 익명의 존재가 돼버리고 남성에 대한 성적 어필만으로 표현된다” me2.do/FanD6gMR
각색각양 다가오는 몸짓 Gestures are coming in all kinds of colors and shapes
가지가지 처치곤란한 밤 Nights are hard in so many ways
뒤죽박죽 도시의 봄이라 This city’s spring is so mixed
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
볼엔 진달래 An azalea on the cheek
눈은 민들레 A dandelion on the eye
입술은 쭉 철쭉 A rhododendron on the lips
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
목련 파우더 Magnolia powder
라일락 칙칙 A spray of lilac
마무리는 에이취 Rounding off with “H”~ [I don’t get this part sorry!]
(hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm)
속눈썹 위로 봄바람 A spring wind over eyelashes
머리카락에 봄바람 A spring wind in your hair
옷깃을 펼쳐 봄바람 A spring wind with collars opening
걸음은 좀 더 가볍게 (x3) Our steps become lighter
Next, another crucial part of that context would be some background provided by its songwriter, lyricist, arranger, guitarist, and mixer Sunwoo Jung-a, who very much owns the room in the MV too. But very few interviewers ever ask her about Spring Girls specifically. In fact, surprisingly little about it has been said about it at all, in Korean let alone in English, and much of what does exist only focuses on the fact of Sandara Park’sparticipation inthe MV.
That said, there is one more common theme to what I have found. That is, whenever it is featured or discussed, it seems to gets stripped of all meaning:
For non-Korean speakers, what Sunwoo was actually doing there was promoting Earth Day last spring, as well as an environmentally-themed music event she was to perform in. But the only connection whatsoever was the song title. And, perhaps learning from Arirang’s mistake three weeks earlier, KTV made sure to avoid showing the naughty bits of the MV too.
I don’t bemoan Sunwoo taking advantage of the opportunity for more publicity. Yet even in her very own self-interview, featured on her YouTube channel and Facebook page, she only really discusses the lyrics to the song. Which as you’ve already seen, are quite chaste compared to the MV:
Apologies for lacking the time to provide and translate a transcript, but I find she adds little there to, say, Rachel’s brief description of the song already at Seoulbeats:
Spring Girls is just a cool song, plain and simple. It’s got sass, a little jazz, and a dash of funk thrown in, feeling both old and new at the same time…The lyrics talk about seeing and being seen as the girls of spring come out “dressed in fresh new clothes.” Variety is really emphasized in the lyrics, with four Korean synonyms for “all kinds” being used to describe the flood of different spring girls in the “mixed-up” city. Each girl has her own charm which can light a spark. Like the song, the video also feels old yet new at the same time. It has some different spring girls, each with her own style, personality, and flower.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE TITS??” I want to tweet at Sunwoo, but wisely I started by asking her if she has a link to an interview about the MV instead, and I’ll update you if she responds. In the meantime, my eyes briefly lit up at the “instinctive” in the (awkward) title of this Genie article—”Sunwoo Jung-a’s Spring Girls Taps the Beat of Women’s Instinctive Spring” (여자들의 본능적인 봄을 두드리는, 선우정아 ‘봄처녀’)—but it too waxes lyrical about banalities. Desperate, I turned to Sportsworld, a tabloid that is not exactly shy about discussing female body parts, and indeed it did prove to have the most substantial interview of her I’ve found so far. Alas, yet again with no real mention of the MV.
Still, it does give some extra background. She at least hints at the tone of the MV. And frankly, it’s only through this interview at all that I learned there’s a very well-known folk song of the same name:
…현대적이라고 표현하는, 그런 봄의 여자들을 보이고 싶었다. 이 노래는 되게 현대적이다. 비트나 사운드도 일렉의 느낌이 느껴진다. 시종일관 여기 저기서 ‘모던’을 찾았다. 자칫 방심하면 구수해질 수 있어서 회의 때도, 편곡 때도 계속 ‘모던’ 타령을 했다. 정말 세련된 한국팝의 느낌을 보여드리고 싶었다.
…I wanted to show spring women who express modernity. This song is very modern. You can really feel that the beat and sounds are electronic. In every aspect of it, I tried to insert an element of modernity. If we hadn’t taken great care with it, it could have sounded old, so I made sure to mention the “modern” constantly while we were working on it. I really wanted to show a new, very sophisticated version of K-pop.
Q) ‘봄처녀’를 만들게 된 계기가 있나? What was your motive in making the song?
A) 어린 시절부터 좋아하는 곡이었다. 그때부터 클래식 피아노를 쳤는데 악보 보는 걸 좋아했다. 남들이 만화책 볼 때 나는 악보를 보면서 곡을 재생해보는 취미가 있었던 것 같다. 그러던 중 어머니의 가곡집을 보게 됐다. 클래식보다 간단한데 가사가 있어서 재밌었다. 특히 ‘봄처녀’는 가사가 정말 예뻤다. 그러다 어른이 되고 기타치고 놀다가 비트를 만들고 ‘음음’ 까지 붙인 곡이 만들어졌다. 야하기도 하고 귀엽기도 하고 여자의 걸음걸이가 생각나면서 문득 ‘봄처녀’ 가사가 생각이 났다. 다행히 써도 된다고 허락을 해주셔서 ‘봄처녀’가 탄생됐다.
This is an old folk song that I’ve liked ever since my childhood. That’s when I started learning to play the piano and read music. When other children were reading comic books, I read music—that was my hobby. During that time, I once find my mother’s book of folk songs. Compared to learning classic music, the songs in it were much more fun because they had lyrics. In particular, Spring Girls had pretty ones.
Later, when I grew up, one day I just sort of played with the beat of the song on my guitar; as I did, I added some “hmmm”s as I did, and one thing led to another. Later still, I got thinking about women walking in a sexy and cute style, and that’s what led to the lyrics. Fortunately, the composer of the original song said it was okay to use the same title [and a couple of words in the lyrics]
If readers scoff at my perennial struggles with searching for substantive Korean articles about the MV, and can instantly provide a dozen to show just how pathetic my skills are, then nothing could make me happier. Until then though, or until Sunwoo replies to my tweet, we’ll just have to settle for the further context of the rest of the MV.
Let’s start with a collage of the models’ faces and names, to make scenes easier to discuss:
(Women appearing in the MV, clockwise from top-left: Model Lee-seon/이선, Model Su-hyeon/수현, Tattooist Nini/니니, 2NE1 Member Sandara Park/산다라박, Model Ji-eun/지은, Model Jaejae/제제. Not shown: Sonwoo Jung-a. Source of names: By. Yeees.)
But really, most of that context is obvious, and already semi-covered through the numerous screenshots provided above. So I’ll just provide highlights here, as well as point out some things that readers with less dirty minds who haven’t watched the MV 30 times may have missed:
1) First, the identity of this model stumped me for a looong time. I thought it might even be a secret cameo of half African-American Insooni, known for looking much more youthful than her age.
It turns out to be Jaejae, seen wearing that black mesh top and gold earrings for just for a (very easily-missed) split second later:
2) Poor Ji-eun barely appears, literally getting no facetime at all:
3) This flower is a vulva, and gets ejaculated on. What, you didn’t see that? Don’t worry, you will now. Like I said, literally dripping with sex:
4) This flower though, almost seeming to pulse when shown, doesn’t look all that yonic…
Especially in light of all those bowling pins earlier, standing tall and proud…
As well as the phallic-looking, rapidly-engorging shadow of a statue of a (headless!) nude woman, with the breasts conveniently highlighted:
Not to mention that Su-hyeon gets her mouth covered in white icing sugar or flour in between those shots (and don’t forget Nini’s lollipop-sucking either):
5) I’ll address a potential criticism of that in #7. But, not unrelated, a potential criticism of all of the skin-exposure in the MV is qualified by the fact that almost all of it is actually done by just one person:
(One NSFW image appearing after this one.)
Certainly, you could argue that Nini has been brainwashed, and internalized the values of the patriarchy. You could also argue that she wears so little in the MV simply because she has the largest breasts of all the models, just like what happened with Yang Ji-won of Spica in their MV for Tonight.
But you shouldn’t, because Nini is atattoo 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:
By all means, her brand may just be a persona, carefully-crafted on Instagram. But it’s a much more consistent, much more convincing one than that of the K-pop stars usually presented as girl-power icons. It’s also very, very difficult to believe that Sunwoo or MV director Lee Sang-deok is forcing her to wear clothes that are more revealing that she’d like, which is something that happens to girl-group members all the time.
6) Yet while Nini stands out, that is not to say that the other models aren’t just as haughty in the MV. Jaejae for example:
7) Finally, whether in defiance, whether they’re caught up in the joy of spring, and/or whether they’re relishing the attention, crucially all the models (but Ji-eun) return the gaze at many points:
Lee-seon in particular, seems determined to confront the viewer (again, there’s many more examples above):
I’m so impressed, I’m tempted to veer into hyperbole and cliches at this point—that these models “own the gaze,” and so on. (Although they totally do.)
But I want to avoid that, because we all bring a lot of baggage to the concept of the male gaze, which can make for a lot of misunderstandings and talking past each other.
Instead, let me be very specific with my praise, and why.
Whenever *I* talk about the male gaze, I simply mean the way heterosexual men tend to look at women. That way is, of course, vastly overrepresented in just about all forms of media, and those representations of the male gaze usually degrade and diminish the sexualities of both the viewer and the viewed—let alone vastly underrepesent people of different body types, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ages. And, because of those problems, for many commentators the term “male gaze” has become a pejorative for all sexism and objectification in the media.
But the mere act of heterosexual men looking at women is not responsible for those problems—the people in those industries are. Rather, it is a integral feature of human (hetero)sexuality, and one that can be represented while retaining complete respect for the viewed, recognizing them as sexual subjects just as much as objects.
Spring Girls does that.
And, to reinforce that point, but also raise some uncomfortable and inconvenient questions, let me conclude by briefly contrasting the MV with the similar “Double Exposure” series of paintings by Korean artist Horyon Lee (이호련):
Originally, my intention for this post was to give equal attention to Sunwoo and Lee. But Spring Girls rapidly proved to be a more deserving subject, and not just because Lee’s work has had enough written about it to fill volumes, both in English (#1, #2, #3, #4), and in Korean (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9). Rather, it’s because whereas individual paintings of his may strongly resemble some screenshots from the MV, a crucial difference is that Lee has made a whole series (NSFW) of almost nothing but such headless images of women, most of which are much more sexually explicit than the examples given here. Whats more, and very unusually for an artist, Lee provides no titles or descriptions of those paintings either, as if to even further stress the dehumanization and objectification of the women in his work.
Fred McCoy, a rare critic of Lee’s, has written at CF Magazine about the artificial andharmful 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:
What stands out is the purposeful removal of the female’s face in both the advertisements and paintings. If you were to include the face, you would then place the viewer in a precarious spot where they would have to make a conscious decision as to whether or not they wanted to objectify the woman. By removing the face, as well as any emotion it might carry, objectification becomes easy. We are simply looking at a dressed up piece of flesh and bear no responsibility in how we choose to engage it.
Yet without disagreeing with the sentiment, it is more correct to say it is easier. As I discussed at length in my review of Tonight, removing a face does not make negative objectification and disrespect of that person inevitable, nor does including a face automatically ward off both. In Spring Girls, objectification is certainly occurring, but it is not negative objectification because of the context of the rest of the MV. And, because so many screenshots from that MV so closely resemble Lee’s paintings, I can’t prima facie proclaim all the latter to be “disgusting,” as McCoy and his colleague do:
“[His Work] is dirty and uncomfortable [as well as] is grotesque and demeaning. I think what makes it worse than just portraying women as a piece of meat is that he felt the need to make an entire series out of it.”
“Dirty”? “Grotesque”? “Piece of Meat”? This too is hyperbole. His work is repetitive, certainly. It is baffling that he never paints pictures of women with faces, and he may well do so because he really does think of women as sex objects.
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.
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 GenderAdvertisements too, in which I’ve often pointed out that it’s the trends towards sexism and gender stereotyping in advertising that are problematic. Those trends should be called out. With individual ads though? Unless they’re really egregious examples, especially of unnecessary (and negative) sexual objectification, often it’s simply incorrect to label them as sexist, and unhelpful to do so.
(It is harmful that men tend to be depicted more actively than women in advertisements, and that Caucasians are given such prominence over POC. But it’s implausible to describe these individual examples as sexist and racist respectively.)
But I’ve spent many years on Gender Advertisements. Perhaps too long, and it’s high time I learned more about other conceptual approaches, especially of different media like music videos and art (I’d appreciate suggestions and recommendations). Alternatively, perhaps I’m untroubled by Lee because it’s “just” esoteric art we’re talking about, so a painting of his would never have the impact that a similar ad would.
What do you think? Of my dilemma, or about any other interesting questions raised by Sunwoo and Lee? Please let me know in the comments!
Songwriter, Lyricist, Arranger: Sunwoo Jung-a; Guitar: Sunwoo Jung-a; Bass: Baek Gyeong-jin; Mixing: Brad Wheeler, Sunwoo Jung-a @ Union studio; Mastering: bk! of Astro Bits @ AB room; Special thanks to: The Barberettes, realmeee, chch.
Music Video Credits
Director: Lee Sang-deok; Assistant Director: Kim Hoon; Director of Cinematography: Lee Han-gyeol; Cinematography Team: Park Chi-hwa, Oh Min-shik, Im Hee-joo; Lighting Director: Lee Jung-ook; Lighting Team: Lee Ji-min, Ji Hyeon-jong; Colorist: Jo Hye-rim; 2D: Lee Sung-hoon; Art Directing/styling: Gu Song-ee; Photography: Rie; Design: Seo-ro; Marketing: Jo Eun-bi, An Seong-moon.
Tonight is a strikingly sensuous MV about a time of freedom and female friendship. But to what extent is it undermined or enhanced by its many erotic moments? To what extent are those just plain sexual objectification?
Partially, the difficulty is because many sites use Park Si-hyun’s old name of Park Ju-hyun (박주현; she legally changed it). Partially, it’s because Park Na-rae (L) and Park Bo-hyung (R) look so similar in it:
But mainly, it’s because there’s so many different costume, hairstyle, and hair color changes throughout, and much throwing of colored chalk dust. Also, it’s because there’s actually six people in the MV: Lee Hyo-ri features in many scenes in the first half especially, and looks a lot like Na-rae (or rather, Na-rae looked a lot like her then, but doesn’t in 2016):
Adding to that confusion, it doesn’t help that Na-rae was wearing that same white mesh cardigan just a little earlier (or that Yang Ji-won was wearing a very similar one at 0:47):
As for what she’s doing in the MV, I’ll let Zander Stachniak of Critical Kpop explain (with the tweet and video inserted by me):
In 2013, B2M organized a mentorship between labelmates Lee Hyori and Spcia, the latter benefiting tremendously. The single, “Tonight,” was a return to vocally powerful music, and their first top ten song on the Gaon chart. Hyori and husband collaborated and produced the song, and Spica also seemed to take a page out of Hyori’s book with more of a “sexy” concept…
…It seemed as though B2M saw the Lee Hyori connection as the way forward. Finally they were getting somewhere. In 2014, Spica realeased “You Don’t Love Me,” a ‘60s style jazz number unlike anything they had ever done before, but very much like Hyori’s most recent album. An extension, almost. The song was brilliant, quirky, a joy to listen to. But Spica’s identity was becoming harder and harder to locate. Which might explain why their best song since debuting only reached 16 on the Gaon charts. Somehow, Spica had slid backwards. (End.)
I’m a huge fanof Hyo-ri’s: hearing about her role is what motivated me to check out Tonight in the first place, and the MV’s sensuality is very characteristic of her. But appearing in it herself was surely too much. Let alone being the very first person the viewer sees:
And by coincidence, that was the first time I’ve seen the MV myself for several weeks. Seeing it with fresh eyes, now I realize I may have given the wrong impression in Part 1 and Part 2 sorry: it is not just an endless parade of female flesh. It is very much a sweet, sentimental memory of close female friends on some kind of trip, told in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. It feels almost churlish of me to critique it, when so many women have responded so positively to its charms.
Then I take another look at the following scenes, and don’t feel guilty at all.
The “Passive and Unthreatening Recipients of the Male Gaze” in Tonight
If all you knew of Tonight was girl-power hipster road-trip, then this might be the first scene that made you suspect there was a little more to it than that.
Not that I’m going to criticize it mind you. That teddy Yang Ji-won is wearing is supposed to be very form fitting. She does happen to have the largest bust of all the Spica members, but so what? If we start tut-tutting just because she’s in the scene, but wouldn’t if it featured a different member with smaller breasts, then that’s just body-shaming.
Instead, let me point out that you can’t unsee the ejaculation imagery in the suddenly rising balloon. (You’re welcome.) And, that although we get very brief glimpses of Kim Bo-a also wearing a teddy at the slumber party shown much later, it’s only Ji-won that we get to see like this there:
Thinking about why that was the case, and why the other three members were wearing such loose-fitting clothing at that party, I suddenly realized something obvious.
You know all those lying down scenes I made such a big deal of in Part 1 and 2? It turns out, it’s only Ji-won in most of them. And it’s her chest that we get to see the most of too.
I can’t believe I only just noticed. This is what staring at breasts for 10 weeks does to you…
(1:00; for a change, this time it’s Bo-a.)
Of this shot of Ji-won falling back into the pool, I’m thinking that on the one hand it’s a great metaphor for the viewer abandoning themself to their dream. But on the other that…boy, those are some great boobs. And you’ve got to appreciate the shots of her body too.
I’m not normally so crass. But however sensual, this element of the MV isn’t exactly subtle. Sometimes you’ve just got to call it.
As indeed with this next, very awkward scene with Si-hyun on her back, in which she’s wearing completely normal summer attire for a young Korean woman…if she were almost anywhere except in a swimming pool that is. And whose idea was it to bring a surfboard to a pool anyway, if not to give Si-hyun something to lie on for me to better admire her legs?
Yet for all its flaws, it was only through working out this scene that I realized the MV is supposed to be a dream. (Although I acknowledge that was already mentioned by other reviewers.) It was tough, because I took it very literally at first. Who the hell are the five of them supposed to be looking at, I wondered. How could that person be floating several meters above the pool? It only makes any sense if that person is the dreamer, who isn’t really there at all.
Should that context change our interpretation and/or criticism of any of the above scenes? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I do wonder and worry though, how accurately my screenshots are conveying that context, because of something I read recently:
My Women’s Studies class were watching Not a Love Story armed with Ruby Rich’s attack on the film. [It] is a documentary about pornography directed by Bonnie Klein which includes interviews with porn stars and feminist critics…Because Klein deployed traditional cinematic practices, Rich claims that the film cannot be feminist since it uses a camera ‘gaze’ which simulates, through intimate zooms, the typical vantage point of a male consumer of pornography. Rich deplores Klein’s use of a male cameraman and shots which turn the ‘viewer into a male customer normally occupying that vantage point’ (p. 408)…
My class largely rejected Rich’s reading, not because they disagreed with her technical deconstruction, but because, for them, the film’s meaning was lodged in the moving stories told by the women interviewed as much as in the camera movements. A purely visual reading, in other words, did not satisfy these women students. The voices of fascinating and independent women (however problematically presented) won out over the visual construction of spectator relations. The problem, then, for feminist criticism is that cinema identifications are not so easily and simply defined. Any attempt simply to deny that viewers are moved by what they hear, as well as by what they see, will create an imbalance.
According to Nussbaum, then: “In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship” (Nussbaum 1995, 271) …Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent…And it is benign/positive, when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent…
Nussbaum believes that ‘Lawrentian objectification’ (objectification occurring between the lovers in D. H. Lawrence’s novels) is a clear example of positive objectification. The passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover that she quotes in her article describes a sex scene between two lovers. Connie and Mellor, in a context characterised by rough social equality and respect, identify each other with their body parts, they “… put aside their individuality and become identified with their bodily organs. They see one another in terms of those organs” (Nussbaum 1995, 275). Consequently, the two lovers deny each other’s autonomy and subjectivity, when engaging in the sex act.
However, Nussbaum explains, “when there is loss of autonomy in sex, the context is… one in which on the whole, autonomy is respected and promoted. … Again, when there is loss of subjectivity in the moment of lovemaking, this can be and frequently is accompanied by an intense concern for the subjectivity of the partner at other moments…” (Nussbaum 1995, 274–6) …Furthermore, Connie and Mellor do not treat each other merely as means for their purposes, according to Nussbaum. Even though they treat each other as tools for sexual pleasure, they generally regard each other as more than that. The two lovers, then, are equal and they treat one another as objects in a way that is consistent with respecting each other as human beings.
(Papadaki, Evangelia (Lina), “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition, available online)).
Of course, gratuitous, disembodied jiggly body parts are lecture one of sexual objectification 101; by all means, we can discuss Nussbaum’s perspective on that in the comments, or in that earlier post. But my main intention in quoting her is not quite so lofty.
Rather, it’s to explain why my initial reaction to the MV was so visceral. Nussbaum speaks to how, when I’m in the mood, I almost can’t help but stare at certain body parts of my wife’s. Yet far from feeling objectified, my wife mostly finds it amusing, and relishes the exclusive attention and focus given to those body parts later. Seeing Ji-won lying down in that tent in the MV, the camera gaze lingers on her body very much like I would on my wife’s, as I luxuriate in the feel of her skin and savor her scent. Say, on a rare lazy Sunday afternoon, before we both suddenly realize the kids will be in the playground for—OMG—a whole half hour.
I imagine something similar explains why some lesbian commentators’ appreciation of the MV is so strong too. It’s what makes it so evocative, and explains how what would otherwise strikingly sensuous MV—arousing the senses without the sexual connotation—is really much more of a sensual one, “gratifying the carnal, especially sexual, senses“.
And that’s great. I applaud the sensuality. I scoff at the notion that because men may be more visual creatures than women, that context and atmosphere and—heaven forbid—our actual relationships with the objects of our desire somehow aren’t important too.* Which is not to say I don’t also appreciate me some T&A of course, but then that’s all there seems to be to most “sexy concepts” in K-pop these days, which is why they tend to be quickly forgotten. Unlike, say, Bloom, which we’ll still be talking about 30 years from now.
But wait. With great difficulty, let me tear my eyes from away those screenshots with Ji-won for a moment, and start thinking properly again.
Because while Tonight does have romantic lyrics, the MV itself was about a girl-power hipster road-trip, right? If so, what are those scenes with Ji-won doing there? Why almost only her? And what about all these headless shots coming up too?
The Objectification in Tonight (and THAT Lesbian Scene)
Whose body parts belong to whom? I could find out, but that laborious process would be much less fun than it sounds. Besides which, the point is I shouldn’t need to.
Again, in an MV actually about relationships and/or sex, all those examples might be fine. Like I said, I often look at my wife that way, and at least I don’t feel evil when I do. But being so gratuitous here, they do appear to be classic examples to add to that sexual objectification 101 lecture, and strongly remind me of the recent “Headless Womenof Hollywood” meme.
미국 코미디언 벨스키는 SNS 프로젝트 ‘할리우드의 머리 없는 여성들’을 시작했다. “얼굴이 잘린 채 등장한 여성은 남성의 시선에서 수동적인 대상, 익명의 존재가 돼버리고 남성에 대한 성적 어필만으로 표현된다” me2.do/FanD6gMR
If any scene can be said to be for a lesbian gaze, this is it. But it’s a terrible execution.
Among other things, Na-rae and Si-hyun are in completely different rooms. So when I first saw it, I didn’t think Na-rae’s undressing was even for Si-hyun at all, but that it was just for the heterosexual male viewer instead, with Si-hyun reacting to the audacity of Na-rae’s action. (My opinion is kind of moving back in that direction, TBH.)
Crucially, it just comes out of nowhere too. The only other one scene I can think of that hints at a romantic interest between two women—and I stress only hinting—is this one with Hyo-ri and (I think!) Na-rae:
And for sure, Hyo-ri pushes Na-rae down in it, who tumbles onto the bed in a most delightful fashion:
Or at least she would, were the MV not to segue into an awkward tumbling of Ji-won onto some grass instead:
And that’s it. Yes, really, with these next, final scenes most notable for that absence. Because again, they’re very sensual, and I’d venture that lesbian viewers can certainly appreciate them, for the same reasons as heterosexual men can. (See Part 1 for more discussion of reactions by lesbian viewers.) But we see no “intra-diegetic gaze” of a woman in the MV admiring another woman’s body in the same way, despite the many titillating opportunities provided.
(Bo-hyung at 1:08)
When I showed Tonight to a perceptive friend of mine two years ago, he told me it strongly reminded him of I’ve Gotta Feeling (2009) by the Black Eyed Peas. That would indeed be a very interesting comparison to make: both are great songs, and both MVs are very sensual, but with many problematic depictions of the women therein. And both, ironically, seem to have been relatively overlooked by pop-culture writers, at least in that latter respect. That’s no big surprise for Tonight of course, which wasn’t very successful as explained, but it comes as a strange oversight for I’ve Gotta Feeling, which reached #1 on numerous charts worldwide.
The main difference though, is that the MV to I’ve Gotta Feeling matches its lyrics. Perhaps Tonight would have been more successful if it too had embraced its sensuality, rather than making that feel so blatantly pervy and tacked on?
Because, ultimately, it was?
What do you think?
Either way, I’d hate to end on such a despondent note, almost as if I didn’t even like the song and MV, let alone still love both. Let me part with you instead then, by choosing from one of its many charms that I alluded to earlier. This scene, say, from 1:12, about which Laverne at Seoulbeats wrote (source, right: Yellow Slug Reviews):
The scene where Spica sway facing the wall (leaving us with a view of their backsides) is an example of a liberating and empowering direction; It’s not framed sexually at all. But the ice cream scene was and the MV would have been improved if it was eliminated.
And for even more fun, here’s the “male” version of the song:
And here’s the Areia trance remix. I still prefer the original, but I enjoy the slower tempo of this one too, which may be more apt for the MV:
Lyricists: Lee Hyori, Kim Bo-a; Composers: Nermin Harambasic, Anne Judith Wik (both worked on many songs on Lee Hyori’s Bad Girls album), Henri Jouni Kristian Lanz, William Robert Rappaport; Arrangers: 양시온, 김태현(also did Bang! by After School). (Source: Naver Music.)
Music Video Credits
Director: Yong Seok Choi; Assistant Directors: Edie Ko, Jungwoo Yoo, Oui Kim, Wonju Lee; Cinematographer: HyunWoo Nam (GDW); Art Director: Mina Jo; Cast: SPICA, Hyori Lee. (Source: LUMPENS; see here for a list of the many other MVs they’ve worked on.)
“The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more—are more than that.”
Or as the phrase goes, “Patriarchy hurts men too.” Let’s continue that conversation started by Chally, focusing on the very narrow visions of female sexuality and body types that patriarchy deems attractive—and for women to aspire to.
But first, a quick recap. In Part 1, I mentioned being very surprised at other reviewers’ and commenters’ reactions to the MV for Spica’s Tonight. Because generally, they described it as sexually liberating, and/or with definite lesbian undertones. Whereas all I took away from it was the breasts.
And I mean lots of breasts.
I’m serious. Every other scene seemed to consist of Spica members lying in their tent, lying on some grass, or lying in a pool, the camera lingering on their chests. And that ogling continues in many of the scenes with the women on their feet too, often with no indication of who the breasts actually belong to.
Don’t get me wrong: breasts are awesome. But you do have to wonder why an MV about a girl-power road trip looks like it was filmed by a heterosexual 15 year-old boy. So too, why something so sexually liberating would feature so many languid women on their backs, when it’s so rare to see men posed like that?
Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the idea, I concluded in Part 1, there are many more active alternatives that are just as effective. Let’s explore some of those in this post, after which the screenshots of the MV for Tonight in Part 3 should almost speak for themselves.
The Male Gaze is NOT Monolithic
If you figured one obvious improvement would be to have women standing on their feet, then you’re in good company:
In Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, a book written by Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese, he quotes [sociologist Erving Goffman] saying “People in charge of their own lives typically stand upright, alert and ready to meet the world. In contrast, the bending of the body conveys unpreparedness, submissiveness and appeasement”.
I’m thinking “people in charge of their own lives” don’t stand around picking their noses and looking at their watches though, wondering what to do. Probably, they stand much more like this, especially when their busy schedule suddenly includes bedding the person who just came into view:
Those images come via Body Language by Allan Pease (1981; link is to a PDF), who explains of Figure 99 that:
The aggressive-readiness [body language combinations] are used by professional models to give the impression that their clothing is for the modem, aggressive, forward-thinking woman. Occasionally the gesture may be done with only one hand on the hip and the other displaying another gesture.
It’s this next one on the right though, that instantly came to mind when I read that quote of Goffman’s (#sociologyissexy):
Here’s Pease’s explanation of both:
Thumbs tucked into the belt or the tops of the pockets is the gesture display used to show a sexually aggressive attitude. It is one of the most common gestures used in television Westerns to show viewers the virility of their favourite gunslinger (Figure 103). The arms take the readiness position and the hands serve as central indicators, highlighting the genital region. Men use this gesture to stake their territory or to show other men that they are unafraid. When it is used in the presence of females, the gesture can be interpreted as, ‘I am virile, I can dominate you’.
This gesture, combined with expanded pupils and one foot pointing toward a female, is easily decoded by most women. It is this gesture that non-verbally gives the game away for most men, as they unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind. This [body language combination] has always been predominantly male, but the fact that women wear jeans and trousers has allowed them to [also use it] (Figure 104), although they usually only do it when wearing pants or trousers. When wearing dresses or the like, the sexually aggressive female displays one thumb tucked into a belt or pocket (Figure 104).
But why would “a hands on hip gesture [be] used to make clothing seem more appealing,” and why would a cowboy stance “unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind”? Good questions:
Not only do the feet serve as pointers, indicating the direction in which a person would like to go, but they are also used to point at people who are interesting or attractive. Imagine that you are at a social function and you notice a group of three men and one very attractive woman (Figure 146). The conversation seems to be dominated by the men and the woman is just listening. Then you notice something interesting—the men all have one foot pointing towards the woman. With this simple non-verbal cue, the men are all telling the woman that they are interested in her. Subconsciously, the woman sees the foot gestures and is likely to remain with the group for as long as she is receiving this attention. In Figure 146 she is standing with both feet together in the neutral position and she may eventually point one foot toward the man whom she finds the most attractive or interesting. You will also notice that she is giving a sideways glance to the man who is using the thumbs-in-belt gesture.
By all means, decoding body language like this may seem very subjective, and more amusing than hard science. But things I learnt from Pease’s book helped me overcome difficulties I was having with my Taiwanese classmates at high school. Then a few years later, it was really unnerving at a meeting once when I suddenly realized I was making obvious lying gestures as I was, well, lying. Anyone with a basic knowledge of body language could have seen right through me—but my audience were none the wiser.
I’ve been a true believer ever since.
And, having read my mother’s copy at about the same time as I was discovering girls, have always been at the utter mercy of confident, sassy women with their hands on their hips. This woman in particular, because she’s been stalking me on the Busan subway for the last two years:
One NSFW image follows.
Informing the viewer of the confident, dignified, awe-inspiring beauty you can dream about by enrolling at Busan Women’s College (which sounds much more inspiring in the original Korean), it’s no less appealing to my male gaze for only being aimed at women.
And, if I’ve finally been given a legitimate excuse to post that, then I should get on a roll and also post Leena McCall’s magnificent “Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing” (2014) too. In which the model is so sure of herself, and her gaze so mesmerizing, that you almost don’t notice her brazen nakedness:
But as always, really I’m being quite serious. I include it because it was in fact removed from the Society of Women Artists’ 153rd annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in the UK. (Ironic, I know.) As Rowan Pelling at The Guardian explains, this reaction was quite telling:
When I tracked down the painting online I was so flummoxed as to the likely cause of disgust that I thought it must be the fact Ms May was depicted smoking a pipe. Few things cause more umbrage now than someone wantonly enjoying tobacco. But further investigation revealed it was the way the sitter’s short waistcoat and undone breeches framed a luxuriant dark V of pubic hair – not to mention, the “Come hither, if you dare!” expression on May’s face, as she coolly scrutinises the viewer – that seemed to be the problem. The painting smacks of Isherwood’s Berlin with its cabaret noir sensibility: Ruby May is a demi-clad femme fatale in pantomime boy’s clothing, channelling Liza Minnelli and EF Benson’s Quaint Irene – as alluring to women as she is to men. You can just about see how it might épater la bourgeoisie, without feeling for a second any outrage is justified.
Supposedly, it was removed for being unsuitable for children. Yet:
You can’t help wondering if the affronted viewers frequenting Mall Galleries have ever sauntered over to the National Gallery, where Bronzino’s erotically charged Allegory with Cupid and Venus (showing the boy archer fondling the naked goddess’s breast) is on display to visiting school parties; or whether they feel the Tate should dispose of Sir Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait, with its unsparing depiction of the artist’s flaccid penis and his wife’s hirsute mons pubis.
Mind you, the Society of Women Artists was permitted to replace McCall’s work with another less provocative nude: one where the model wasn’t tattooed and standing hand-on-hip, all unbuttoned. It seems the Mall Galleries’ clientele can cope with nudes, so long as the model is a more passive and unthreatening recipient of the wandering viewer’s gaze.
In light of that, the contrast between these recent pictures of the girl-group Sistar is interesting. On left, via Imgur, (much, much leggier in the unedited originals) is one of the teaser photos for their summer comeback; on the right, via soooo_you on Instagram, who’s on the far right and left of the pictures respectively:
Also, with these two advertisements of So-hee’s:
My fetish aside however, of course I’m not saying the solution to overthrowing the patriarchy is simply for women to stand up and point at their vaginas. Nor, that it’s a betrayal of that struggle to also like or even prefer examples where “the model is a more passive and unthreatening recipient of the wandering viewer’s gaze,” whether that liking is based on a sexual attraction, admiring their hair (à laSuzy’s contact lens ad in Part 1), or for whatever reason you like. But I do know which ones have more sass, and that they appeal to my male gaze just as much as those with women contorting themselves to sexual positions at my feet.
Surely I’m not the only guy? Surely many female readers prefer them too?
But wait, I hear you cry: there’s plenty of ads like that out there. Or is there? Maybe it’s “midriff advertising” that you’re thinking of, which has indeed become quite a trend worldwide. Especially in Korea, where there’s still taboos about breast exposure but not of legs, as is also the case in most of the Asian markets that the K-pop industry is reliant on:
Source: 숭실 총여학생회 다락 Facebook Page. The fan reads “You’re different because you’re beautiful. Don’t feel bad or uncomfortable about your precious body based on other people’s stereotypes. Because you are you, you are beautiful. The 23rd Soongsil University Female Students’ Association: we are different, and we respect you.”
It tends to exclude non-white, LGBTQ, and “non-attractive” individuals.
The considerable difficulties of obtaining and maintaining those flat midriffs are rendered invisible.
It frames women’s agency as something that is tied to their appearance, and exercised through consumerism.
It frames liberation feminism as the fulfillment of a male fantasy.
It morphs an external, male-judging gaze into a self-policing, narcissistic one.
Also, as the first image in that series above and this next one shows, I’d add that it’s disproportionately required of female models and K-pop stars. (Without disputing for a moment that young male celebrities—both WesternandKorean—are also increasingly required to have six-packs.) See Seoulbeats for a wider discussion of those points in relation to K-pop specifically.
But confidence doesn’t require any one specific body part or type. Nor even body exposure at all:
Of examples like this though, Erving Goffman notes that to an extent the women’s sass is—sigh–only possible because she is “shielded” by her much warier male companion. See “Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1” for more discussion of this surprisingly common motif.
I’ll also add that of course there’s much, much more to these wonderful things called sexuality and sexual attraction than whats been seen in the examples given so far in this post. For instance, consider:
Released in August 2013, Tonight by Spica is the perfect short summer song. It’s fun, breezy, and simple to understand for a Korean learner too. Just take a listen for yourself:
Though most K-pop songs don’t age well for me, I do still soo love the music and vocals of this one. But its sales were poor, and it won no prizes on music shows. Itreceivedfewsubstantivereviews. Then the same happened again with You Don’t Love Me, which came out in January 2014. Crestfallen, I lost track of Spica after that, but I remember being further disappointed by their misguided US debut that summer, then the news in November 2015 that a manager of their former entertainment company was being sued for embezzlement, which derailed their planned comeback. Add that they haven’t uploaded a video to Youtube in over a year, then I started this post half-expecting they’d disband before I finished it.
Spica, it seems, have always been plagued with bad luck.
But there’s hope on the horizon. I soon learned that they’d switched entertainment companies in December, and that they’d quickly followed that with the announcement that a mini-album would be released in April, later cancelled in favor of the release of a full album in June. Also, while their Twitter,Facebook page, various Instagram accounts, and (Korean) fan cafe were only being updated every few days, they were still being updated. An hiatus on those updates since April was cause for alarm, but it was likely only because the group is very busy working on the album.
Sure enough, soon after I wrote that they’ve since resumed posting, and have just reconfirmed their comeback and released new member photos. So, I’m optimistic that they’ll announce a firm release date any day now. Which makes them a perfect choice for my own return to writing about K-pop.
Who could write a simple review after watching that MV though?
There’s only so much that can be said about the generic lyrics of the song, or added to what other reviewers have already written about the dreamy, memory-like atmosphere. Who has time for such banalities, when the MV is so sensual, but also soo blatantly aimed at heterosexual men? When the first half mostly consists of the Spica members lying on their backs in bikinis or tight clothes, the camera constantly lingering on their breasts? And much of the rest, just that lingering gaze, with only occasional shots of the actual faces of the various body parts’ owners?
I’m serious. For teaching the concept of the male gaze, and the rights and wrongs of objectification, this MV is the perfect K-pop example.
No, I’m not a prude, I don’t think those are negatives (necessarily), and I’m not complaining. No way in hell, did I plan to spend six weeks on researching the male gaze before I got a post out either.
But I felt I had an obligation to discuss what no-one else was. Because when I first saw the MV three years ago, it was on my phone while I was on the subway; I had to stop watching, lest other commuters think of me as just another typical, sweaty uncle fan. When I showed the MV to a coworker to get a second opinion, he burst out laughing at how shameless it was; when I showed it to my wife, she just rolled her eyes. When I went online for fourth and fifth opinions though…?
Of scenes like the above, almost every other reviewer and commenter only mentions the ice cream one, if at all; instead, they talk about the strong vibe of sexual freedom they get from the MV, and/or the lesbian undertones. For instance, Alexandra Swords at Music Matters:
[The MV is] just plain fun to watch. It’s also incredibly sexy, the sensual movements, the outfits, the skinship . . . all of it contributes to a great idea of personal liberation, including sexual freedom and comfort with that sexual freedom. It’s great because very few music videos period, let alone the ones in Korea, express that not only is it okay to be a sexual creature, but that being so is not strange or special, it just is and we can just accept it with ease and comfort as an aspect of the world in which we live.
And commenters at Seoulbeats, after reviewer Laverne originally mentioned she found the sexual undertones of the ice cream scene unnecessary and distracting:
All of which is still cool of course: we’re all free to interpret the MV however we like, and a male gaze isn’t mutually exclusive with their reading of it. I should have made more of an effort to look for Korean reviews too.
But…sexual freedom? Tasteful lesbian undertones?
I’m just not seeing them. If a lesbian coming-of-age story was the intention, then it seems poorly executed at best, as I can identify only two scenes that hint at potential romantic interest between the members, and just barely at that. (Frankly, I think it’s just wishful thinking really. And, just off the top of my head, think Because of Youby After School is a much, much better K-pop example.) In the absence of that narrative though, what I’m seeing in its place is the presentation of a very passive, come-hither version of female sexuality, much like that which already overwhelmingly dominates the media.
Again, that’s not necessarily bad, in the right context. Nor, as Womantic’s and ChencingMachine’s comments demonstrate, are the resulting scenes necessarily for the exclusive pleasure of heterosexual men. Yet while a lesbian appreciation of this MV is no less valid than a male heterosexual one, I still think it’s only incidental.
But I’m not a lesbian. As you’ll see, I still have lots to learn about the (heterosexual) female and lesbian gaze too. And, whatever your sex or sexuality, I can’t and won’t presume to lecture you that any feelings of sexual empowerment to be gained from the MV are simply a form of false consciousness either. Instead, let me just present my own biases and intellectual baggage first then, to show you why I interpret the MV the way I do.
That makes for a very, very long post, almost a presentation really, which readability dictates that I split into three. Also, for an uneasy segue into a discussion of men and women in advertising next, to be continued in Part 2, and ironically not returning to the MV again until Part 3. But if that’s what it takes to demonstrate the very narrow vision of female sexuality being presented by the MV, and of male tastes in turn, then so be it.
Hopefully, you’ll be too intrigued by the hundred or so images to notice the length anyway. And, ultimately agree or disagree with my interpretations, maybe we’ll still have a fun discussion about the male gaze and/or Tonight too, and both learn a lot in the process.
The Male Gaze: A Gender Advertisements Perspective
Whatever your experience with analyzing advertisements, you can appreciate that the sizing and placing of people in them is a fundamental part of photographers’ and designers’ jobs. With that in mind, consider these images of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana:
Most people wouldn’t think twice about them. Unless, they already knew that Diana was actually the same height as Charles, or even slightly taller:
This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.
Is that social commitment also operating in these Korean advertisements? You be the judge:
Now, those examples were pretty obvious. However, that social commitment to men’s greater height can be said to be part of a wider commitment to presenting conventional, in many ways unequal gender roles by the media. Which may sound like hyperbole, but literally just about any survey looking at how the sexes are portrayed can confirm.
In advertisements, that commitment is usually achieved in much more subtle ways than simply giving high stools to short men though. Fortunately for us, the late Erving Goffman outlined many of those ways in Gender Advertisements (1979), and his framework has been considerably expanded upon and modified by scholars since.
Concentrating on the two ways most relevant to the Tonight MV here, the first is by positioning men and women (and races) differently, which comes under the “Relative Size” category in Goffman’s framework. (Note that in addition to being positioned differently, they are frequently doing different things and/or have different jobs too, which comes under “Function Ranking”). For example:
None of those examples are particularly objectionable in themselves, nor is there a real case to be made that the teams behind them were deliberately or even subconsciously sexist: there could have been any number of legitimate aesthetic reasons and other considerations which came into play when they placed the men and women (and Koreans and Caucasians) the way they did. It’s also true that I deliberately selected all the advertisements in this post to make certain points, which in turn are necessary generalizations; of course you see men standing in the back sometimes, and so on. That said, do surveys of multiple advertisements, and, for whatever reasons, men tend to be front and center more often than women, and tend to have better jobs and/or take more active roles than the women behind them.
In that vein, take a look at these two:
In the left (technically only half of the advertisement), of course the mother is taller and of a higher social status than her young daughter. Also of course, there’s no implication that the teenage boy in the advertisement on the right is of a higher social status or in any other way superior to the teenage girls in any way simply because he’s standing while they’re sitting.
Look at multiple advertisements however, and it turns there’s a lot more ads like the one on the right than vice-versa. Or, of ones that elevate the men above the women in some other way:
Alternatively, if the men themselves are sitting, then the women end up on lower furniture (remember the stools earlier?), in beds, or even on the floor or ground:
This is the part of second category of Goffman’s to bear in mind for the MV, which he termed the “Ritualization of Subordination” (but with obvious overlaps with “Relative Size”). He explained it thus:
Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example.) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)
And in particular:
Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)
A note of caution. In lectures in the past, I’ve explained that Korea provides an interesting counterpoint to such interpretations. As in this part of the world, age and status trumps everything:
And indeed maybe it does. But after rereading the original book, I found that Goffman had already indirectly addressed this:
An interesting contrast is to be found in turn-of-the-century portrait poses of couple [example above], wherein the effect was often achieved of displaying the man as the central figure and the woman as backup support, somewhat in the manner of a chief lieutenant. (p. 40)
Which is to say, it’s important to bear advertisements’ contexts in mind, and not interpret them dogmatically. But whether they’re Korean or from Goffman’s native Canada, examples like these seem to be the exceptions that prove the general rule.
Another thing to bear in mind is one of the biggest changes since Goffman’s day: that fewer and fewer couples and mixed groups are depicted in advertisements. Despite that, women are still less likely to be standing in them than men:
Sources: FM Korea; Imgur. Ironically, there was some controversy about the one on the left. But only because of its supposed resemblance to BDSM.
This next example with Bae Su-ji for Clalens contact lenses below is particularly interesting. When I showed it to a female friend, who’s very au fait with overthrowing the patriarchy, I pointed out that it looked like I was hovering over her as we lay together in some sunny, secluded glade. (Su-ji that is, not my female friend; let’s not go there.) That didn’t occur to her at all though, and instead she admired what the advertisers had done with her hair, the black lines serving to highlight the clarity of vision brought about by the contact lenses (although in hindsight, I think the intention was to highlight that they’re colorlenses):
I include it then, partially as an example of where my background is possibly clouding my judgement. Also, as a reminder that I’m not the target audience of most of the advertisements I critique.
But still: with this ad, I think my friend wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.
Because consider the similar one in the middle below too. At that more usual scale, only a blogger with a bone to pick would notice the black lines at all. Add the slightly scared expression on her face, which seems out of place for a contact lens ad, and I’m right back to my original interpretation. Neither exactly scream “Now that I can see properly, I can finally do shit and get on with my life!” either, which is why I much prefer the one on the left. (Even Seol-hyun’s on the right is an improvement.)
Apologies for the reflection of some ugly bald guy in the picture on the right.
But okay, so what? So we see many more women than men in beds and on floors in advertisements, frequently in sexualized poses. Is that problematic?
Well, if we put aside for a moment that not every ad needs to be sexualized, and that when it is, it’s usually the sexualization of women by and for heterosexual men? Then not so long ago, I would have said no. Not necessarily.
Yes, I know I say that word a lot. But hear me out.
In my lectures, I used to point out that basic biology meant that heterosexual men found women in beds more sexually attractive than vice-versa. Whereas you have lots of time, energy, and most importantly no kids, I would wistfully explain to my 20-something audience members, so you make it a point of personal pride to try new and exciting sex positions everyday, the reality is that the missionary position is overwhelmingly the most popular male-female one. (And besides which, if we’re talking about penis-in-vagina, all those new and exciting sex positions are all just variations of the same six basic positions anyway.) Ergo, if sex sells, and, rightly or wrongly, sex is always going to be used to sell, then that sexual difference is always going to be reflected in advertising.
To reinforce that point, and get some laughs, I would show some photos of men parodying women’s typical poses:
But sometimes after the lectures, women would point out that the men above weren’t as (conventionally) attractive as the women they’re mimicking. And they had a point. So too, if they’d asked how come I’d just enthralled them with numerous images of scantily-clad women in beds or lying down, for which they were eternally grateful, yet failed to provide any examples with men to prove my original point? Like some from two Instagramcollections recently featured at Bored Panda say, which have a much wider range of guys than normal too?
Ewww, men on their backs. How unmanly and unattractive. Source: @brosbeingbasic; left, right. One NSFW image follows.
What they really should have done though, is told me to just shut the hell up. Because what the fuck would I know about what poses turn women on?
I like to think I know a little. This blog is about sexuality after all. I do have lots of books about sexuality in my bookshelves to impress guests at my cocktail parties with, and have even read some of them too. Obviously, I have no qualms about talking explicitly about sex. Obviously, I do so with my wife and did with my former partners. Probably, you can guess, that lack of inhibitions extends to conversations with my friends too. (Consider that a heads-up, if any readers want to hang out.)
But had I really talked to my female friends about what turns them on? Exactly what turns them on? Had I really talked to enough heterosexual women, or read enough about female sexual desire written by them? Could I really stand there as a cisgender, heterosexual guy and tell heterosexual women that I know they aren’t as attracted to men in beds as men are to women, which is why we don’t see men in beds so much in ads?
Instead, it took the following image to make me finally realize my utter foolishness. Seen back while I was still naively expecting this post to just be a normal review, this image is a big reason for the way it developed the way it did. Because just between you and me, I can see the attraction…
I’m sure it would have been more to the point to post a picture of a eager, expectant-looking guy in bed, with a much prouder erection; alas, it’s that picture that really, really does it for me. I mean did it for me. Enlightened me I mean.
If it doesn’t enlighten you personally though, then here’s some eye-opening links I was also reading at the time, which provided the thousands of words of background that picture told me:
Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze? (The Conversation; make sure to read the comments also)
How did ‘Playgirl’ magazine go from feminist force to flaccid failure? (Fusion)
An Earl in the Streets and a Wild Man in the Sheets: Tarzan and Women’s Sexuality (Bitch)
That said, of course there’s still many differences in what heterosexual men and women find sexually attractive in the other; it’s just that I’m no longer convinced that lying in bed (etc.) is one of them. And if I’m right, that social commitment to literally keep women in their place seems to be the biggest reason for the discrepancy in the media.
Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the modus operandi, there are many more active alternatives, and/or alternative body types, that are just as effective…
Which I’ll present in Part 2, before discussing the MV proper in Part 3. Thanks very much for reading this far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (By all means, feel free to jump ahead and talk about the MV too!)
Do Korean censors disproportionately target female singers?
No, not just those shameless hussies that sing about what they’d actually like to do with their love-interests I mean, and/or dance and show some skin to that effect. Because despite someobviousexceptions, I’d wager that Korean censors are generally equal-opportunity prudes.
Rather, I also mean those female singers that promote such harmful ideas as, say, that romance involves more than just sitting around looking pretty, waiting for a guy to notice you. Or that when you’re angry with your partner, you should say so. As whatever the actual rationales given for the banning of their work, be they indirect advertising, mention of alcohol, not wearing seatbelts while driving, or alleged double entendres in completely innocuous English phrases, somehow it seems to happen to women’s songs much more than it does to guys’.
Or maybe I just get that impression because I only ever pay attention to the women’s songs.
So, starting today, and hopefully finishing over the summer break, I’m going to painstakingly go over every banned song and music video from January 1 2011, noting the whos, hows, and whys, then moving on to the next…all the way until December 31. As I finish each month, I’ll write up the results and my analysis here.
I guess the next songs I’ll be looking at will be G-Dragon (지-드래곤) and T.O.P.’s (탑) Knockout and Don’t Go Home then, banned on the 4th and 5th of January respectively (with the latter banned a second time on the 12th!). But before I do, let’s jump ahead to July, when the Youth Protection Commission (청소년보호위원회) of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF; 여성가족부) banned After School’s (애프터수쿨) Funky Man (펑키맨) for its “sexually suggestive” lyrics.
Not just because I’m a big After School fan, or because the recent news that it’s been unbanned is what finally inspired me to do this little project. But also because the muddled way the banned lyrics are being reported on Soompi (and just about everywhere else) clouds the slight girl-power theme of the song as a whole, and in turn possible — but I stress, only possible — alternate reasons for its banning.
Originally, I copied and pasted the lyrics from Naverhere, which still requires ID despite the unbanning. Realizing I was struggling with the translation because of the essentially arbitrary choice of line breaks made in that though, I decided to reformat them all, to better fit how they’re actually sung. And once I did, then in particular the question of who wants to have whom in line 8 — 갖고 싶다면 — suddenly made sense: if he wants to have her, the singer, then he has to ring ring ring her bell.
Also, if that “ring ring ring my bell” is just not the random, unrelated Konglish that it first appears, but actually an integral part of the song, then that opens the possibility that some of the other Konglish may be important too. Bearing that in mind, then the “slogan” in the last line for instance, isn’t so much lame as a handy rhyming device for the “건/geon” at the end of the line that precedes it.
But in that case, what exactly does the the “try to seduce me, keep it as you want so that I will fall for you” of line 4 mean? Does it mean that, very very literally, being shamelessly dominated is what is going to ring ring ring her bell, my surprising ultimate reading of the first verse?
You can imagine that it was with some trepidation then, that I turned my attention to the chorus…
Great — that was the very opposite message in fact, and one which is continued in the the rest of the song too. But first, consider the way the banned lyrics are being described on Soompi:
The controversy was caused over the following lyrics from “Funky Man”:
“Oooh Ooh, a little deeper / shake me around / try and seduce me / for my chest that is pumping / OK make me tingle like that oh oh oh”
What do you think? Are the lyrics explicit?
Now that we’ve covered all of those particular lyrics, then you can see that they’re actually cobbled together from verse 1 and the chorus, whereas Soompi makes them look like a direct quotation of just two lines*. Why this difference is important, is because already they’re clearly not the only “sexually suggestive” lyrics throughout the song, which raises the question of why only those ones above were singled out by MOGEF. Let alone why this song was banned when others with equally or even more explicit lyrics weren’t.
Could the censors at MOGEF, perchance, have had different, unspoken motivations? Were they, in fact, just annoyed at how “You are just a dancing puppet for me” belittled men, and so banned it using the sexually suggestive lyrics as an excuse? Or alternatively, were they perhaps a little unsettled by what turns out to be a song not about a woman who wants to be dominated, but rather one very much on top?
Alas, all that is mere speculation at this stage, and arguably reading far too much into it — indeed, there’s been at least one occasion when MOGEF was actually quite explicit about banning a song for belittling men. Also, how much of an alpha girl does the woman in this song really come across as? Not just because of that first verse, but also because, whatever the song, being assertive and confident doesn’t necessarily mean that the woman demands that the guy come to her. Rather, shouldn’t she really be going after him herself?
*I translated “OK 짜릿짜릿하게” as “Ok, thrillingly”, rather than “OK make me tingle like that”, as quoted at Soompi. But I can’t tell if it’s an adverb or a causative, so either is possible.
What I do take away from the song though, is a lack of substance and logic to the official reasons for its banning, which at least opens the possibility that the official reasons are not the real ones. And while mere possibilities are not evidence of course, if the biggest gaps between official denunciations of songs and their reality consistently occur in those about assertive females (sexually or otherwise), then, well, maybe that’s something.
Yes, I realize that that’s a little subjective, so I welcome alternative suggestions for judging this sort of thing. But either way, there’ll be far too many songs to cover to do much analysis. Instead, my aim is that all of the evidence I’ll present over the next few months will enable you to decide for yourselves.
Honestly though, as I type this I’m no longer so sure that the double-standards are quite as big as many people assume, not least myself. What do you think?