Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 1: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image

A simply surreal video making the rounds at the moment. As explained by Lisa at Sociological Images, it:

…beautifully illustrates the socialization of children into particular kinds of worship. With hand motions, body movements, and facial expressions, this child is doing a wonderful job learning the culturally-specific rules guiding the performance of devotion.

Which led to a great deal of discussion at that site. But I’ll confine myself here to echoing Jason’s comment that it simply reminds him of his son picking up his own behaviors such as sweeping, and that the young girl:

…certainly isn’t worshiping here, but is just mimicking her parents and the other people around her. I can guarantee she has no concept of a deity.

But what has all that got to do with K-pop, let alone Meenakshi Durham’s The Lolita Effect? Well, because after reading all that, it was very interesting comparing my daughters’ own reactions to KARA’s Lupin just half an hour later. First, those of four and a half year-old Alice:

Then with her two and a half year-old sister Elizabeth:

Granted, perhaps you had to be there…and in which case I probably would have removed my dirty laundry from the floor first (sorry). But I didn’t notice it myself, because at the time I was simply transfixed.

You see, along with dozens of other K-pop music videos, Alice and Elizabeth must have watched and “danced” to Lupin at least 20 times before that night. But that was the first time that Alice at least seemed to demonstrate that she not only remembered it, but actually knew it very well, and was performing repetitive actions that were recognizably part of the same dance…which she’d demand to do seven more times before going to bed.

Unfortunately for my paternal pride though, in hindsight she was neither simply copying the music video nor giving her own original interpretation of it: as confirmed by her teacher later, she’s preparing for a Christmas performance at her kindergarten soon, and—yes—she’ll be dancing to Lupin.

So what’s the big deal? After all, while I’m still translating the lyrics myself (or at least I was until my “study” got invaded), they seem harmless enough:

But what if the kindergarten teachers had chosen Mister instead?

Or something by the Wondergirls perhaps? Two weeks from now, might I have looked on in abject horror as my 4 year-old kept thrusting her bottom out at me while singing I’m So Hot?

(See here for the video; the owner has disabled embedding)

No, because first, no matter how much WonderBaby’s appearances on national television could be construed as widespread public acceptance of that sort of thing, my wife confirms that many other Korean parents would also have complained well before then.

But second, and most importantly, actually Alice has already been thrusting her bottom out at me like the Wondergirls, for about three months now.

Seriously: several times a day, she’d suddenly run up to me giggling when I was at my desk, quickly thrust her bottom out at me a few times, then she’d run away in hysterics. Fortunately, she seems to have largely grown out of it now, but not through any discouragement on my part, which just seemed to make doing it all the more amusing for her.

Why did she start in the first place? I’ve no idea, as although she could have seen that dance move virtually anywhere, she wouldn’t have had any idea what it represented, or what adults would think of it. Perhaps one of her teachers overreacted to her or one of her classmates doing it or something, after which it became fun.

But whatever the reason, does that mean that it’s hypocritical to have any misgivings about Wonderbaby then?

Hell no. But to counter the argument that it’s just clean harmless fun, let’s be very specific about what the problems with her dancing to So Hot on national television are exactly. I can identify two main ones.

First, there’s the fact that Wonderbaby quite literally invites the viewer to view her as a sexual person. Of course, she probably has virtually no idea of the meanings of what she’s singing, let alone the consequences. In which case, one might already reasonably ask what she’s doing there in the first place, and in cases like this it is usually this naive, unknowing projection of sexuality that adults tend to be most concerned with. As explained by Durham in The Lolita Effect:

…the signals that girls send out about their sexuality, often naively, in response to the prevailing media and marketing trends, [are] signals that adults fear will attract harmful sexual attention. As the columnist Rosa Brooks lamented in the Los Angeles Times, “old fashioned American capitalism…is busy serving our children up to pedophiles on a corporate platter”….

….These charges open up quite a can of worms. Can marketers in fact “serve” children up to pedophiles? Is there any real danger in young girls wearing low-cut, skimpy, or “trashy” clothes, or is this just a harmless fashion trend designed to raise parental hackles, like so many others in the past? Could it even be seen as a feminist moves towards embracing a femininity or “girliness” scorned by previous generations and linking it to power rather than passivity? (p. 69)

I’ll return to the last point later. But before I do, from the outset I want to put paid to the notion that even children that young are completely neuter and/or are unaffected by sex in the media:

For children to take an interest in sex is not out-of-the-ordinary or scandalous. Even toddlers “play doctor” to explore each others’ bodies and mimic intercourse, though scholars are still debating what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior in young children. Sex is a part of life, so it is bound to surface in different ways at different developmental stages; it is not cause for alarm unless there is harm or abuse involved. Of course, sexuality needs to be dealt with in ways that are appropriate for the age and maturity of the child, the cultural and social context, and above all, the ethical implications of the situation, but sex per se cannot reasonably be viewed as harmful to minors. (p. 68)

And in particular:

The conventional wisdom is that interest in sex escalates as children approach adolescence; this is a biological viewpoint that connects the hormonal shifts and physical maturation of puberty with an increased interest in sex. But now sexuality marks preadolescence and childhood, too, and for many adults, this is justifiable cause for alarm. In today’s world, children as young as eight report worrying about being popular with the opposite sex; first graders describe being sexually-harassed by classmates; and by middle school, kids are steeped in sexual jargon, images, and exploration. Sex educator Deborah Roffman argues that little girls start wanting to look good for others at age four….(p. 65)

Very few—if any—cultures have found ways of adequately and appropriately dealing with the inconvenient fact of child sexuality (let alone the media) but surely Wonderbaby’s example doesn’t help. Nor do the music videos discussed below with slightly older girls either, but which I only realized thanks to Barry Raymond, a friend of mine that used to live in Korea (and now with 3 daughters himself):

No, that’s not them: rather, it’s a screenshot from the music video for Bang! (뱅!) by After School (애프터스쿨), which I translated back in June. One of my favorite Korean songs, I was originally a little miffed when Barry criticized it because the inclusion of the young girls, to which I replied on Facebook:

I’m usually quite wary of that too Barry, especially in Korea, where people are generally very reluctant to admit that things like that can be problematic. But in this particular case I think their presence is fine personally, because they’re gone within the first 20 seconds or so, and don’t perform any dance moves that can be considered remotely sexual. So they’re clearly supposed to be decorations at the beginning, considered quite separate to the grown-up (sexual) women of the group.

His response:

The lyrics and dancing that make up the song and video are all about sex. To place a child at the beginning of that exploits them in a sexual way. How would you feel about a child appearing at the beginning of Bad Romance or some other Lady Gaga song. It’s a girl group exploiting itself on the basis of sexuality, at least in this song. That is their choice, don’t force it upon the clearly underaged girls that appear in the video or try to make it appealing to an underage audience.


Hmmm, you may well have a point there, which I admit I wouldn’t have considered if you hadn’t brought up imagining the same in Bad Romance; I wonder if that shows just how used to that sort of thing I am here?

(15 year-old f(x) band member Sulli in Oh! Boy Magazine; source)

And finally, albeit admittedly after my asking if I could post it here at some point(!):

According to Wikipedia… See More’s typology of child pornography, the type described as posing involves (allow me to paraphrase) ‘deliberately posed pictures (video) of children fully clothed, partially clothed etc. where the context and/or organization suggests sexual interest’.

The”Bang” video places two clothed girls wearing the exact same attire as the older models at the beginning of the video. The girls dance alongside the older models where the older models are dancing in a sexually provocative manner (the younger girls are not in my opinion dancing in a sexually provocative manner). It should also be noted that while the girls wear the same outfits as the older models the fitting of their outfits is not alarmingly provocative although the same outfit on the older models is certainly sexually provocative. So we have a situation where several sexually provocative models are juxtaposed with what appears to be virtually identical under-aged girls. This to me would constitute a context of sexual interest where the line between the older models and the younger models is intentionally blurred.

Further to this context would be the lyrics….and the title of the song, “After School” along with the school oriented marching parade uniforms. To me this video is unambiguous contextualized sexual exploitation of children.

Is judging the Korean media and Korean music videos with an assessment system developed by the Paedophile Unit of the London Metropolitan Police merely imposing a Western value system on Korea? You decide, although I’d wager that in fact the Korean police have a very similar system.

Either way, not much later one of After School’s subgroups – Orange Caramel –  did the same again with their music video for A~ing (아잉):

For the sake of providing sufficient warning of the slightly NSFW image coming up in a moment, let me take the opportunity here to point out that it’s not so much the lyrics and dance moves that are the issue this time (see here for a video with them), but more having a child in a music video “sugar-coated with sexual undertones,” with an “obviously pedobaittastic tone,” and with “kinky cosplay lolita outfits”, all as noted by Johnelle at SeoulBeats. And so much so, that this next screenshot…

…instantly reminded of this next image, which I’ve had on my hard drive for years, from God knows where. Not looking very closely at the small print before then, I’d always assumed that it was the cover of an erotic fiction book, but it actually turns out to be a poster for a pornographic cartoon:

(Source: unknown)

Continuing with A~ing though, just in case you think Johnelle and I are exaggerating:

And in particular, these costumes, which—correct me if I’m wrong—seem to serve no other purpose than to have one’s breasts spill out of them:

All good wholesome stuff. So, like Johnelle notes, what’s with having a little girl dressed up in the same kind of vinyl red riding hood get-up as the women at the end?

So, does all the above mean I’m advocating that girls should never be allowed to appear in sexually-themed music videos (and so on) then? Yes, I guess so.

But how to set a minimum age for that? After all, the upshot of everything I’ve written so far that any age limit would be somewhat arbitrary and artificial.

If I did have to to set an age though (and it would be very unrealistic not to have one), then I’d say that the age of consent would be the most logical choice. Unfortunately however, in Korea that happens to be as low as 13 (see here and here), even though the age at which one can view and perform in sexually-related material and/or have reliable access to contraception is 18.

Yeah, I don’t see the reason for the huge discrepancy in age limits either…which is not quite the same as arguing that any of them should be 13.

But that’s a subject for another post. In the meantime, one argument against any age limit on appearances is that the average age at which girls begin to menstruate has been dropping steadily since 1850, so much so that – in developed countries at least – they now enter puberty between the ages of 8 and 13. It would be a pity to deny girls the right to express their ensuing sexuality in popular culture, especially with female sexuality in general being repressed and/or literally viewed as evil for so much of human history.

(16 year-old Bae Su-ji of Miss A; source)

Yet the notion that the feminist sexual empowerment of girls and women is what primarily motivated the appearances of Wonderbaby, the girls in the After School videos, the tight pants of 15 year-old Sulli, and 16 year old Bae Su-ji’s pose above is simply absurd, and indeed there is solid evidence that most young female entertainers are in fact pressured to wear their supposedly empowering skimpy clothing (and dance provocatively) rather than doing so out of choice. But although such arguments have still been made in Korea nevertheless, the overwhelming public attitude is to stick one’s head in the sand and deny the existence of teenage sexuality at all (let alone child sexuality), as this Korean commentator complains himself.

And in a sense, this is the official Korean government position too, if the article “Swept up by Girl Groups” by Jeong Deok-hyun is anything to go by. You can find it on pages 44-48 of the March 2010 edition of Korea Magazine, the official magazine of the Korean Culture and Information Service (downloadable here), and about this specific part on page 48…

“The shadow of recession and nostalgia:  Some are so surprised by the elder generations’ enthusiasm for girl groups that they cannot help but mention the Lolita complex. Nevertheless, that would be an example of an exaggerated principle that remains from the past authoritarian era. In the course of shifting from a masculine-dominated era to one of feminine equality, the imposing frames of age and gender are being slowly torn down. The time has come in pop culture where a man in his 40s can cheer for teenage girl groups without being looked at suspiciously.”

…my friend Dr. Stephen Epstein, Director of the Asian Studies Institute at Victoria University wrote to me:

The logic here is almost comical: the empowerment present is not that it brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world (which is mentioned nowhere in the piece), but rather that pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that middle-aged men now have the privilege of ogling teenage girls in bands without fear of embarrassment. Now that’s what I call empowerment….


But again—and this bears repeating—its not girls’ sexuality itself that is the problem. Rather it is that:

…the expression of girls’ sexuality seems to be possible only within an extremely restrictive framework. Girls’ sexuality, it seems, has to comply with the markers of sexuality that we recognize, and it cannot be manifested, recognized, or mobilized in other, potentially more empowering and supportive, ways.

This is a form of mythmaking. When a concept as complicated, multilayered, and diverse as sex is reduced to expression through a single channel – the one involving lacy lingerie, skintight clothing, and the rest of what Ariel Levy calls “the caricature of female hotness” – it has to be seen as construction or a fabrication, in which the complexities of the subject are flattened into a single, authoritative dimension, and in which all other possibilities are erased.

So it is important to think about the ways in which girls are being coached to aspire to “hotness” by popular culture, and how the commercialized definitions of “hot” offer beguiling but problematic representations of sex that limit its vast and vital potential. (pp. 70-71, emphasis in original).

And that is the second major problem with WonderBaby’s appearance: how it already sets her on that path, and/or provides an example for others to follow. And while that is by no means a problem confined to Korea – Durham’s book alone is testament to that – it is taken to extremes here. As like I explain in Part 1, it is near impossible for a young aspiring female singer or actress to advance her career without doing “sexy dances” on numerous talk shows and entertainment programs:

And yet strangely, when 30-somethings (and above) do the same it is usually only as part of a big joke, as if they were suddenly neuter. Moreover, whenever a girl group’s music video features sexy dancing and lyrics that aren’t exclusively designed for a male gaze, then they have a very good chance of being banned from television, as anyone with even just a passing familiarity with K-pop can attest to.

But on a final note, one frequent complaint I have about most articles and blog posts on this subject is that they rarely explain why this is the case, nor why younger and younger women and girls are becoming more involved over time. And indeed, for all its popularity, even Durham isn’t as clear about this as I would like either, and I had to read her book several times to figure out what she actually means by “The Lolita Effect” exactly.

In short, it is the natural consequence of various industries’ (fashion, cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, diet-related, food, and so on) need to build, expand, and maintain markets for their products, which obviously they would do best by – with their symbiotic relationship with the media through advertising – creating the impression that one’s appearance and/or ability to perform for the male gaze is the most important criteria that one should be judged on. And the younger that girls learn that lesson and consume their products, the better.

Simplistic? You bet, and I’d be the last person to deny the role of a whole host of other factors, including – for one – the fact that basic biology makes women’s physical attractiveness a much more important factor in choosing a mate for men than vice-versa.

But do consider that: there is not a single country that did not also experience “housewifization” as a consequence of development; that in economic terms at least Korea is now officially the most consumerist country in the world, and much more so than the US (no, really); that comsumerism was explicitly conflated with national-security and anti-communism by the Park Chung-hee (박정희) regime of 1961-1979 (and very much still is); and finally that Korean women played a crucial role in that last, as that last link makes clear.

Given all that, then is anyone surprised that Korean women the thinnest in the developed world, yet actually consider themselves the fattest, and act and spend accordingly?

Correlation not always implying causation be dammed. And if nothing else, I hope I have at least persuaded you of that link with this long post!


The “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea” series:

Bang! (뱅!) by After School (애프터스쿨): Lyrics & Translation

Remember my plan last month “to find out how actual fans respond to various girl groups’ song lyrics, music videos, and on and off-stage behavior and so on, rather than simply speculating like I’ve done previously”? Alas, I haven’t been able to do any as much work on that as I would have liked to by now, but I have completed a necessary first step: translating After School’s (애프터스쿨) songs into English, so as to get a better grip on what is actually being discussed. Starting with Bang! (뱅!) here, I’ll be passing on the results over the next few weeks, before moving on to 2NE1’s songs.

Actually, there are already numerous translations of the song available, so you may wonder what the point of adding one more is. But then song lyrics in any language can be very ambiguous even to native speakers, and so some of those translations can ultimately differ quite widely. And as you’ll soon see, a mistranslation of just a single line can have a huge impact on the perceived character of a song too, so I’m glad I decided to engage with the original Korean instead.

A quick note on the music itself first. While my predilection for trance music is already well known to regular readers (not that this really qualifies as such), I do genuinely believe that, objectively speaking, DJ Areia’s remix above is far superior to the original below. For not only does it have a faster tempo (134 bpm vs. 120) that is much more appropriate for its youthful, energetic theme, but more importantly because it has a clear climax at 1:29-1:43 which flows well into the melodic, dreamlike sequence from 1:43-2:15. In contrast, the original seems to be almost, well, passing the time at the equivalent period of 1:39-1:54, in a sense waiting for the climax that never comes; instead, you merely get the melodic sequence at 1:54-2:27. This ends up leaving me feeling very unfulfilled, and many fans have also commented that it seems somewhat out of place (but not that I dislike that segment in itself).

Hence the original literally feels somewhat lacking to me, and the first time I heard it I was reminded of playing my father’s singles at 33½rpm rather than 45rpm for fun when I was a kid. Here it is if you prefer it though, and I’ll be briefly referring to the some of the translations in this particular video of it in the text:

T.R.Y. Do it now! Can you follow me? Yes!! Uh-ha~!!

T.R.Y. Pick it up! You’ll never catch me!! Oh~ No!!

눈부시게 빛나는 나를 따라 Oh! Oh! Oh!

가식적인 말들은 비웃어버려 Ha! Ha! Ha!

예쁘기만 한 너는 더 이상은 No! No! No!

짜릿한 음악 속에 던져버려 Bang! Bang! Bang!

Follow my dazzlingly shining self Oh! Oh! Oh!

Laugh out your pretentious, affected words

You only being pretty, no longer

Throw yourself/it into the thrilling music

As you can see, I’ve decided to stick to very literal translations this time: partially because I’m sure readers can already think of phrases that would be more appropriate for English audiences, and partially because with all the ambiguity and different translations as mentioned, then knowing the gist of the song is more important.

Indeed, this helped me to overcome the difficulties which I had as soon as line 3, very literally  “prettiness-only-(having)-you-more-more-(than) No! No! No!”. Not unreasonably I first translated that as “you have no more than your prettiness”, but I found that a little cynical and odd in light of the girl-power vibe of the song as a whole, so I checked out the translations that DJ Areia used, but which also came up with “the only thing you have is being pretty, you’re no more”.  Still dissatisfied, I eventually found the video above at then (which has many more translated K-pop videos), and it had “All you do is being pretty, no more No! No! No!”, which seems much more logical. And later, my wife also confirmed that “더 이상은” is almost always used in a negative sentence, and means “no longer” in a time sense.

Hence, detailed translations of songs often belie how open to interpretation they really are, and so never take them for granted (including mine!): it would be a pity if anybody got entirely the wrong impression of After School because of something like that. Meanwhile, is one supposed to throw that attitude or oneself into the thrilling music in line 4? The original Korean doesn’t say, but like much of the song, I suspect that it doesn’t really matter.

우리는!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! 너흰 모두 비켜라!! Check it out!! 다 가져봐!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

Right now!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! 모두 미쳐라!! 외쳐라!! 또 이렇게!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

Us!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! All of you get out of the way!! Check it out!! Take it all!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

Right now!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! Everybody be crazy!! Shout!! Do it like this again!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

Those seem quite straightforward, but a quick cultural point: while it is perfectly normal to say “비켜” to children, literally “Get out of the way”, my wife has advised me that adding a respectful “주세요” at the end like with most verbs doesn’t make it an acceptable request to strangers, just like “Could you please get out of the way” isn’t that bad(!) but still wouldn’t always be the most appropriate thing to say in English either. Instead, simply “실례합니다” is best.

T.R.Y. Do it now! Can you follow me? Yes!! Uh-ha~!!

T.R.Y. Pick it up! You’ll never catch me!! Oh~ No!!

가슴 뛰는 이 밤을 내 맘은 Oh! Oh! Oh!

불타는 네 눈길은 내 몸을 타고 Ha! Ha! Ha!

거칠어진 숨소리 멈추진 마 No! No! No!

심장이 이 리듬을 따라가게 쿵! 쿵! 쿵!

This chest-throbbing night is mine Oh! Oh! Oh!

Your burning gaze climbs/burns my body Ha! Ha! Ha!

Don’t stop your breath (that has turned wild and rough) No! No! No!

Let your heart follow the rhythm Bang! Bang! Bang!

Again, I’m sure you get the gist above, but let me just highlight 2 points. First, line 3 is translated as the slightly perverse-sounding “the sound of your breath gets rougher, don’t stop” or “don’t stop the sound your heavy breathing” respectively in the videos above, but that’s not at all obvious from “거칠다”, which is “coarse/rough (skin); rude (behavior)/wild (nature)/harsh (tone)/violent (language); rough/slovenly/slipshod/loose; or rough/wild/raging/furious/turbulent” according my electronic dictionary, and indeed “heavy (breathing)” seems far removed from the “rough (skin)” meant in one of my daughters’ books in the first picture (in case you’re wondering, the girl is pondering what could be hiding under the blankets).

Similarly, like you can see in the bottom 2 pictures, “쿵” in line 4 is an onomatopoeia for the sound of something hitting something else, so probably “bump” in the bottom video is better than the “bang” of the first. Still, the English “bang bang bang” does seem quite apt considering band member Kim Jung-ah (김정아) dances to that part of the song by repeatedly thrusting her chest out at the viewer(!), and on a side note I’ve often wondered if advertisers for the Korean clothes company Bang Bang (뱅뱅) are aware of the double-entendre:

But carrying on:

우리는!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! 너흰 모두 비켜라!! Check it out!! 다 가져봐!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

Right now!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! 모두 미쳐라!! 외쳐라!! 또 이렇게!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

(rap) Bringin’ it to you daily It’s only from the best

After School Playgirlz know how to get fresh

So cool, So right, just so tasty

We bring it fast forward the fellows go crazy

좀더 과감하게 보여 주는 거야 너~ (To be raised for my life)

좀더 특별하게 춤을 추는 거야 너~ (To be raised for my life)

Show yourself dancing a little more boldly (To be raised for my life)

Dance a little more specially (To be raised for my life)

And “과감하다” means “resolute/determined/bold/daring”, so I’d say the first video’s “you should show it more dangerously” is a little off.

One! Two!! Three!!!

음악에 널 맡겨 주문을 걸어봐 Yeah~ (To be raised for my life)

(rap) Crisp clean original new quality is what we give to you.

(Check it out) a new generation and a whole new start (check it out) collaboration with a brand new heart

조금 더 다가와 이순간을 Catch Up!! Oh~

(rap) On your mark set ready to go, can you feel it in your body this A.S. flow…

Hey hey what you want ! Let’s go…!!

Entrust yourself (your body) to the music, and try casting a spell Yeah~ (To be raised for my life)


Approach this moment a little more

That first line is one of those cases which would just be impossible without a native speaker: “주문을 걸다” means “cast a spell”, but naturally that compound verb isn’t mentioned in any of my dictionaries. Instead, I was struggling with “주문” as “order”, “spell”,  or “request/demand/desire” and “걸다” which has 10 meanings, but usually “hook”, “put into position”, or “install”, before giving up and consulting the videos.

And that’s about it, but here is the remainder for the sake of completeness:

우리는!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! 너흰 모두 비켜라!! Check it out!! 다 가져봐!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

Right now!! Oh~ After!! School Up!! 모두 미쳐라!! 외쳐라!! 또 이렇게!! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

T.R.Y. Do it now! Can you follow me? Yes!! Uh-ha~!!

T.R.Y. Pick it up! You’ll never catch me!! Oh~ No!!

A-ha! A-ha! A-ha! T.R.Y. Do it now!!.

A-ha! A-ha! A-ha! Can you follow me? Yes!! Uh-ha~!!

A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!

And on that note, I hope you enjoyed the song, and/or learned a little about After School and/or some Korean in the process. As always, please feel free to correct any mistakes I may have made, and thanks in advance to those that do!

( Source, all screenshots )