Korean Sociological Image #76: Gendered Innocence and “The Nation’s First Love”

Galaxy Pop Advertisement

Three celebrities, three natural labels.

After all, Kim Yoo-jung is young. Song Joong-ki is chic, or at least compared to us mere mortals. And Suzy?

Well, she is simultaneously the baby, the designated cute member, and the “most visual member” of the girl-group Miss A, all standard archetypes for cookie-cutter K-Pop groups. So, perhaps it’s no wonder she’s become known as ‘The Nation’s First Love’ (kookmin chotsarang;국민 첫사랑).

As the bearer of that label, last year she displaced even Girls’ Generation members to become the ‘CF Queen,’ and she became a major earner for label JYP Entertainment in the process (to the extent that she’s been accused of completely overshadowing the other members of Miss A). Clearly, she’s very popular.

Addicted to Feminist Media CriticismWhy then, does seeing this picture of her get me so hot and bothered?

Blame the 30-minute subway rides to work as I pass it everyday. After two weeks of those, I’ve realized there are several questions raised by that label of hers, which I’d love to hear your thoughts on (source, right: Guerrilla Feminism):

1) In Korea, has a male celebrity in his late-teens (or older) ever been explicitly marketed as “innocent”?

To be clear, I’m not saying that their general image can’t be innocent. For instance, as described by Bethany at Seoulbeats, this has certainly been the case for Lee Taemin (and, at 19 now, is something he’s trying to shake off):

Many K-pop fans probably also remember cutie pie Taemin debuting at the age of 15, all fresh-faced and adorable. But while he was the youngest member of SHINee, he also boasted the slickest dance moves onstage and in their music video for “Replay,” which still remains my favorite SHINee song to date. Taemin has been pegged as the cute member of SHINee since his debut days, and even though he has taken on a sexier, more mature look in “Lucifer” and more currently, “Sherlock,” noona fans still remember the days of innocent Taemin. It’s lucky that Taemin had such good hyungs who took care of him so diligently — looking at you, Key. He also graduated high school not long ago…

Taemin Etude House(Source: ningin)

And, of course, such innocent images have indeed been exploited and/or manufactured by advertisers; in Taemin’s case, by cosmetic company Etude House for one, with appropriately cutesy taglines. But explicitly identifying a young male celebrity as innocent, to the extent that there’s a “soonsoohan;순수한” next to his name like next to Suzy’s? Although I’d be happy to be proven wrong (and I do acknowledge the over-generalizations I may be making in this post), I have the strong suspicion that’s a gendered divide which advertisers and the public simply aren’t prepared to cross.

To buttress that point, consider the following thought experiment:Why Missha Kim Hye-soo TVXQ

2) Can anyone imagine the sexes reversed in the opening ad?

Alone or with other women, it goes without saying that women are indeed regularly depicted—or explicitly described—as “chic” in advertisements. Or, in any one of any number of other mature, positive terms. But mix the sexes up, and the tendency is to reaffirm gender stereotypes and roles.

Usually, this is subtle, like in the ways described in my Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context posts. In the opening ad though, it is explicit, the young and innocent females providing the binary opposite to the man’s chicness, thereby affirming his greater sophistication (for a similar example, see this vintage lego ad, ironically usually lauded for its gender neutrality). Which is fine in itself, but to see the sexes reversed is so uncommon as to be jarring, and all the more memorable for it.

Like in this 2011 Missha advertisement for instance (source: Metro), with then 41 year-old Kim Hye-soo and—albeit not exactly innocent-looking—25 year-old Jung Yun-ho and 23 year-old Shim Changmin of TVXQ. Personally, it reminds me of “Jane Bond” a little:

Jane Bond(Source: Tumblr, Gender Role Reversals)

3) Is this gender stereotype more prevalent in Korea than elsewhere?

With the provisos that (sexual) innocence will always be treasured more in females than in males, as the latter will always have concerns about the paternity of their children; and that, as Brian in Jeollanam-do put iteverything in Korea “tries to be cute, in the same way everything in the States is “Xtreme” and too cool for school,” I’d wager this is indeed the case. Consider how:

  • Stressing the cuteness, innocence, and (supposed) asexuality of young female celebrities is the modus operandi — i.e., key to deflecting criticism — of “ajosshi fandom” and “uncle fandom.”
  • Through young, overwhelmingly female celebrities, Korean girls are heavily socialized to use infantilizing aegyo
  • Not only is there also a “The Nation’s Little Sister” out there in addition to Suzy being “The Nation’s First Love,” but: a) There are no male equivalents; and b) Technically, Suzy is actually the third first love!, with JYP, well-known for experimenting until a concept is shown to work, arguably more responding to this clear media-driven and/or public demand for one rather than deliberately over-promoting Suzy per se.

As a commenter at Netizen Buzz explains (my emphasis; source, right: 윤삼의 블로그):

Uncle Fan Girls' Generationppl always complaint that Suzy get too much spotlight, too much articles. But it’s funny that when there’re some articles/ objects about other members, nobody cares. I think it’s not Suzy’s fault to make other members become underrated. it’s just that fans ( specially K-fans) don’t love them enough. If everybody don’t love Suzy so much, she won’t be get so many CFs, drama invitations. You have to understand that they want Suzy to be in their dramas, CFs, not others. So we can’t say “Instead of using Suzy, why don’t we use Min/Jia/Fei?” And JYP can’t do nothing with it. And why ppl kept hating on her? She has to work with a murderous schedule, but she never complaint about anything. Just keep working so hard and share her money to her unnies, but still she get so many hates. You guys always think that’s not fair for others but I think that’s not fair for Suzy too.

And on that note, again I acknowledge any generalizations I may have made in this post (difficult to avoid with something ultimately based on just one ad!), and am happy to learn of exceptions. But even happier though, to learn of your own thoughts on those questions!

Update 1: An April 13 Netizen Buzz headline says “Suzy takes the lead as the star with the most CFs in 2013 with 22.”

Update 2: See KpopStarz for the November 2013 rankings of the various contenders for the title of “Korea’s Little Sister” over the last five years.

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)