“Cleavage out, Legs in” — The Key to Understanding Ajosshi Fandom?

“Here is the next Samsung: fast growing Korean companies that you’d better know about.” Source.

“Stop obsessing with sex.” (Fernando)

“If I went to New York and started pointing out how many skyscrapers there were, would you suggest that it was *me* that had the obsession with noticing skyscrapers, or New York for building them all?” (Norman Lewis; source)

And indeed if you went to Seoul instead, it’d be difficult not to notice all the exposed women’s legs. Even—or perhaps especially — in the winter.

It wasn’t until I saw this November 2010 video from the Singaporean RazorTV though, that I realized the fashion might not be so common there yet. Likewise, it was just starting in Thailand, where authorities were warning against the danger of dengue fever from the ensuing extra mosquito bites:

Unfortunately, only the narrator speaks English, while the hosts and interviewees chat away in Chinese (is that normal for Singaporean TV?), and no subtitles are available. However, I was able to find this related article from parent organization The Straits Times, and it had an intriguing conclusion:

Entertainment journalist Tan Chew Yen from the Chinese Central Integrated Newsroom reasoned that showing off legs allows these girl groups to maintain a healthier but nonetheless sexy image.

It invites less controversy and criticism from concerned citizens as compared to showing cleavage, for example, due to their young fan-base.

I beg to differ on the youth of their fan-bases these days. But still, those few words resonated on so many levels, potentially speaking volumes about how K-pop has developed over the last 5 years.

First, because it’s certainly true that Koreans regard legs as a much less sexual body part than cleavage. While that distinction is easy to overstate though, and is eroding precisely because so many Korean girl-groups are wearing hot-pants and mini-skirts these days, it’s confirmed by numerous expat women that have had to adjust to it (and of course cishet men like myself have noticed it too!).

Source

Next, because choreography, outfits, and music videos tailored for that distinction would be equally applicable to the more conservative—but still lucrative and influential—Chinese market, where for a long time Korean groups were considered much “safer” than their Japanese and Western counterparts:

In 2003, the Korean National Tourism Office [a major investor in the Korean wave] conducted a Hanliu tourism survey in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong exploring attitudes to Korean culture, publishing the results online…

….It compared the impact of Korean culture with that of four “competitor” countries (the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), and in the process revealed much about Korea’s own political and nationalist concerns, particularly in relation to Japan and America. Six of the eleven options for respondents to the category “reasons I like Korean culture” reflect this preoccupation: “less sexual than Japanese culture,” “less sexual than American culture,” “less violent than Japanese popular culture,” “less violent than American popular culture,” “decreased interest in American culture,” and “decreased interest in Japanese culture.” One other echoes Straubhaar’s notion of cultural proximity: “similar in culture.” Certainly, Korea’s own music media censorship laws (which even in 1997 prohibited the displaying of body piercings, navels, tattoos, “outfits which might harm the sound emotional development of youth,” and banned violent or political lyrics), meant that Chinese TV stations could buy in Korean music videos and music TV shows knowing that they were unlikely to upset local censors. However, these questions also reflected a perception that Korea acts as a defender against excessive Westernization and as a guardian of Confucian values within East Asia. (Rowan Pease, 2009)

Of course, this assumes that the Chinese make the same distinction between legs and cleavage. But I’d wager they do—after all, Park Jin-young of JYP Entertainment especially has always had a firm eye on the Chinese market, with two members of Miss A being Chinese, and even the “A” in the name meaning “Asia.” And the group’s logo speaks for itself:

Source

Finally, likewise hot-pants would be a perfect fit with “Ajosshi” or “Samchon” fandom. Here’s a quick definition of that for new readers:

…what is extraordinary in girl idols’ fandom is that a large number of male fans in their 30s and 40s have constructed the unprecedented scale and mode of fandom called Samchon-fans, or uncle-fans. As Samchon in Korean refers to one’s parent’s brother, this name implies the middle-aged men’s care for their young nieces. Once this familial setting is built up, a relationship between male viewers or self-claimed Samchon fans is restructured in the complicit relationship between uncle and little nieces. Accordingly, the male’s gaze at young female bodies is legitimized and normalized as the voluntary support and pure love of uncles for their nieces. Under the identity of uncle, they can deny the sexual aspect of what they see and insist on appreciating merely the pure surface of pretty children. This double male psychology of interwoven denial and justification is pervasive in the constitution of the girl idols’ fandom. Thus, with the pretentious reformulation of the male gaze into an uncle’s familial support, the male consumption of the girl bodies becomes relieved of the predictable blame for pedophiliac abnormality. (Yeran Kim, 2011; see sources below)

Previously, most discussions about Samchon fandom have focused on pointing out its existence and/or its effects, both of which you can read about in depth here and here. But in hindsight, not enough attention has been give to the process of how it came about, which this cleavage/legs distinction now potentially helps to fill. For if entertainment companies subscribed to it, having their girl-groups members flaunting their legs while covering up their cleavage, then it’s easy to see why this would provide plausible deniability for all involved.

“Because of Sistar, uncles [feel like] teenagers again!!” Source.

Not that being a middle-aged male fan of a girl-group is wrong per se of course. But for a number of years the Korean media would indeed promote the deceitful “innocent until proven sexual” byline of Samchon fandom (and to a large extent still does—see here and here), providing a window for entertainment companies to sex up performances to their hearts’ content.

Was this the result of a deliberate, years-long strategy by entertainment companies? That’s unlikely: not only did Girls’ Generation at least actually wear “skinny jeans” well before hot-pants for instance (I believe they only started doing so with Tell Me Your Wish in July 2009), but it’s difficult to speak of grand plans by JYP, for instance, when he’s well known for his constant experimentation with groups, trying everything until one concept finally succeeds.

In short, I think entertainment companies lucked out. But like the video says, K-pop has been about legs, legs, and legs ever since they did, and with a palpable influence on Korean fashions. Moreover, whether they’re on the screen or on the streets, people will still make much the same claims about them:

…people maintain [Girls’ Generation are] pure, clean, and cute, and everyone tries to erase and deny the blatant fact of their sexualization in that curiously Korean way that college freshman can click-clack to class in 5-inch hooker heels and a leather skirt and when asked if that might not to be too risque for class, people get defensive and indignant and call the gazer the pervert, while letting the main parlayer in and of the male gaze (the women totally subjecting herself to it) off the hook. (Michael Hurt; source)

Granted, mini-skirts especially are just as — if not more — popular in Japan, so it’s entirely possible that the Korean trend actually comes from Japan, and predates the girl-group boom of the late-2000s. Yet I don’t personally recall seeing quite so many legs on the streets of Busan (which is much warmer than Seoul!) until just a few years ago, with the exception of World Cup summers (when standards are relaxed). And while I’m usually loathe to ascribe top-down origins to fashion trends, I’d be lying if I said Koreans don’t seem to be notoriously conformist in this regard (as this 2004 Prugio commercial with Kim Nam-ju used to be a good illustration of, before the video was taken down!):

And on that note, please let me know what you think, and by all means poke holes in it—my connection between girl-groups only showing their legs and the rise of Samchon Fandom is just the germ of an idea at the moment, which now needs fleshing out (not unlike many of the legs themselves). But if I do say so myself, it’s one of the biggest epiphanies about K-pop I’ve had in a while!

Update 1—See here, here, and here for the next 3 parts of the RazorTV video, about which idol has the best legs, problems with underage performers, and the increasing objectification of male idols respectively. Parts 2 & 3 also have more English

Update 2—Let me pass on Esther Hoeve’s illuminating comment from Facebook:

The difference in what constitutes as ‘sexy’ bodyparts is an interesting one. Back home (western Europe) I’m much quicker to reveal cleavage or shoulders, but I spent half a year in Thailand and had to adjust to wearing shorts, but tops with sleeves. The shorter my skirt or shorts, the longer my sleeves would be. I actually grew self conscious of how much upper body I was showing, but usually have the same feeling concerning my lower body here in Europe. It completely changes your perspective on what’s considering ‘revealing’.

Like I say there, this reminded me of some of my female students back in 2000 complaining of middle-aged and old women telling them to cover up their bare arms. This was in Jinju/진주 though, a university town but still quite small and conservative, so I don’t know if their counterparts in larger cities had the same problems.

Sources

  • Yeran Kim (2011): Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies, Journal of Gender Studies, 20:4, 333-345.
  • Rowan Pease (2009): Korean Popular Music in China: Nationalism, Authenticity, and Gender, in Chris Berry, Nicola Liscutin, and Jonathan D. Mackintosh ed.s, Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes, 151-167.

(Hat tip to dogdyedblack)