Korean Sociological Image #33: Take the Wondergirls, Lolita Sexy Style!

Source: Wgby

Well, that is literally what it says:

원더걸스를 가져라! 그녀들의 스타일! 그녀를의 매렬에 끌린다면…소녀의 감성과 성숙함이 공존하는 앙비귀때(Ambiguite) 섹시함을 입어라

Take the Wondergirls [with you]! Their style! If you are attracted to their charm…wear Ambiguity’s sexiness, which has both girls’ sense and maturity.

But lest I give the wrong impression, it’s just the name of one line of JYP Entertainment’s new Wondergirls-themed cosmetics brand. And given the essential randomness of the names of the others too, and the fact that English terms routinely get incororated into Korean almost completely devoid of their original meaning, then I doubt that much thought went into it. Certainly it’s difficult to argue for nefarious intent in this case at least.

Still, it’s inappropriate.

Debuting in early-2007 when 3 of the 5 members were only 14 years old, the Wondergirls have been routinely described as Lolitas by the Korean media ever since; as were Girls’ Generation, and presumably as all the teen members of the new girl groups following them will be too. Using that term while simultaneously denying the sexual connotations to it however, is an oxymoron, and part and parcel of the Korean public’s wider refusal to acknowledge the sexual ways in which they’re marketed.

Hence the name is problematic. But granted: this is a tired theme, so for a change, it was very encouraging to see music columnist Kim Bong-hyeon (김병현) challenging that myopia earlier this month. And now I’ve also learned of a famous essayist and surgeon named Park Kyung-chul (박경철) too, who asked probing questions to Girls’ Generation members themselves in an interview nearly 2 years ago. Thanks very much to “A Korean Student” for passing on a partial translation, which I’ve posted with their commentary below:

Source: AsianPopcorn

…[In an interview] ironically subtitled: THEY ALWAYS ASK IF WE REHEARSED OUR ANSWERS. WHY CAN’T YOU BELIEVE OUR WORDS?, Park deliberately asks “difficult” questions and gets guarded and somewhat obtuse/hostile answers in return. Park is an ajusshi but definitely not a fan of entertainment industry, and there was also a chaperon/manager present. Here’s a translated excerpt:

QUESTION: Let me ask you some questions that might be uncomfortable. Do you think the word ‘Girls’ Generation’ is really innocent as it sounds? Don’t you think there’s a disguised sexy code [sic] behind the mask of innocence?

ANSWER: Anyhow we are not the ones who created that code. We know there are people who see it that way. It hurts to read ogling comments about us on the internet sometimes. But presenting the innocent girls’ image as it is—that is what has made us [successful.] We’ve shown you an image of girls who are growing up, and we will continue to do so in the future. Of course when we get older, it will be different. But that time hasn’t come yet. If they choose to see us like that, that is not really our problem. Why do you/they want to do it anyway? We are still kids. Don’t you think the real problem lies not in the way we show ourselves as we are, but in the fact that you/they compulsively see what us kids don’t actually possess?

Source: Unknown

And here Park thinks to himself:

But the girls’ rather uniform make-up style, obvious traces (to my trained surgeon’s eyes, that is) of cosmetic surgeries, their miniskirts, and the way they sit and dress—-all this “processed” feel leads me to think of the unknowingly worn facade of ‘ladies,’ not ‘girls.’

Whew. Talking about double entendres. Frankly, the girls react like hard-bitten soldiers who live in barracks. (Like most teenage idol groups, they’ve actually lived together in a dorm-apartment for many years.) Park even likens them to slippery politicians. So I guess you can throw away the notion of naivete, at least in GG’s case. I’d say they are fully aware, perhaps more so than the others, of the contexts surrounding them. Not sure about the interviewer though. The guy’s kind of ambivalent, though not as unreflective as the music columnist.

Imagine that, next we’ll be hearing that they eat and fart too!

You are not too far off the mark, but probably not in the way you mean. LoL (end)

James: Thanks again for the translation, and very much a healthy reminder to myself of how much I may have missed before I started regularly using Korean-language sources on this blog!^^

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

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

Korean Sociological Image #30: Exploiting Koreans’ Body Insecurities

Like everywhere else, Korea has a long tradition of celebrities endorsing government campaigns.

Unlike everywhere else, a “huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people,” says Bruce Haines, head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide, a tendency which in its crudest form degenerates Korean advertising into merely “beautiful people holding a bottle.” In turn, that leads to a scramble for and subsequent overexposure of whichever Korean stars are most popular at that moment, regardless of their inappropriateness for the product(s).

Government campaigns are no different, to my mind the most notorious case still being the National Election Commission’s (중앙선거관리위원회) choice of The Wondergirls (원더걸스) to encourage people to vote in local elections in April 2008. Needless to say, I can’t think of anyone more inappropriate than teenagers (two of whom were only 15), and their choice of outfits simply beggars belief:

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But again, no different to what they wore in commercials at the time. Which is precisely my point: regardless of their merits, major trends in advertising are bound to be reflected in government campaigns sooner or later.

And as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, one trend is encouraging consumers to associate certain foods and drinks with certain desired body shapes. While it is hardly unique to Korea, it is done to excess here.

Is it any wonder then, that with the decline of the domestic rice industy, and concerns food security as a whole, that the government would do the same when promoting the consumption of domestic foods and drinks?

Last year for instance, I gave the example of how the Korean rice wine Makgeolli (막걸리) was being marketed to women on the basis that it is supposedly good for one’s skin. Now, I’ve found two more examples by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (농림수산식품부; MIFAFF), using the new group 4Minute (포미닛) and the Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan (박태환) respectively:

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To be clear, I am not saying that either are inappropriate choices. Actually I think they’re rather good: both are very popular, and it turns out that 4minutes’ egg song is a variation of their recent hit “Hot issue” too. I also fully concede that the connections between consumption of the product and obtaining an attractive body are fleeting (4minute) or merely implied (Park Tae-hwan) at best.

But still, they’re there. And given the long-term problems with Korean agriculture as identified above, then I hereby predict that we’re going to be seeing many more public campaigns like these in 2010. In particular, the links made between the products being advertised and obtaining an “S-line” and so on are going to be made more explicit.

Sound like an exaggeration? Well, recall how quickly commercial incentives have transformed decades-old standards for soju advertisements: just three years ago, they overwhelmingly offered virginal images of women, whereas now it’s rather difficult to find ones that don’t present them as eminently sexually available. Moreover, in an effort to appeal more to women, soju companies too are encouraging them to associate new lower-strength brands with maintaining a good body, however implausibly.

But perhaps an even more appropriate example is soy milk. If you’ll bear with me, being allergic to milk means that I follow developments in the soy milk industry here pretty closely, and Starbucks Korea’s belated decision to add soy to its menu in 2005 had a huge impact on my quality of life here! Not unlike the drinks themselves though (anybody know where I can find these flavored ones?) – or, indeed, government campaigns – soy milk commercials tend to be rather bland, so I certainly sat up and took notice when I first saw this one a few days ago:

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Soy milk companies too then, seem to be adopting the tactics of their more popular counterparts now. Lest I appear overly critical though, consider the scene 0:03 from 0:06 where 17 year-old Kim Hyun-ah’s says “[S]라인을 유지하려면 어쩔 수 없어,” or “If you want to maintain your S-line, you have no choice but to [drink] this.” Despite my constant criticisms of that sort of thing, and my earnest desire that my daughters don’t grow up to repeat it, I have to admit that I can’t help but find her expression and tone of voice, well, extremely cute…

Yes, I know: very hypocritical of me, and I await your counsel. But on a final, more serious note, consider Garaetteok Day (가래떡데이), MIFAFF’s scheme since 2006 to get people to eat stick-shaped rice cakes instead of Pepero chocolate sticks on November 11 each year. Promoted mostly as a romantic event for couples, as are most imported and/or artificially created holidays (Christmas Day, for instance, is the date the most condoms are sold in Korea), is it really too much of a jump to imagine that concerns about one’s appearances will be added to that too? Watch this space!

Update: An alternative way of exploiting Koreans’ associations with November 11 (source):

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)


Korean Gender Reader

Photoshop Shoo

One of these pictures from Shoo’s (슈) recent photoshoot is not quite like the others: take a closer look, and if nothing sticks out then see these classics of the genre for hints, or #6 for the solution.

1) In that vein, for me last week really stood out for the number of excellent points raised about the subjects of women’s body images, censorship, and Korean sexuality by Korean bloggers. But first, I should of course mention that a South-African woman was raped in her home in Ulsan by a neighbor earlier in the month, and early indications were that the police were at best lukewarm in handling her case, which naturally provoked lively discussions in the Korean blogosphere about rape in Korea, women’s and foreigner’s safety, and the Korean police ‘s attitudes to both. Lest I appear indifferent by not discussing those subjects in more detail myself though, lengthy but often informative comments threads on these already exist at Korea Beat and The Marmot’s Hole if you’re interested. Moreover, it appears from this Facebook thread devoted to the issue that claims of police indifference were complete fabrications by The Chosun Ilbo, as were quotes from the victim, who hadn’t actually spoken to any news outlets.

2) First up then, in a post I’m embarrassed not to have written myself, VixenVarla of Seoulbeats asks if Korean society is really ready for “women” idols, and thinks not: noting the netizen furor over the above Abracadabra (아브라카다브라) music video by the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스), which features a sex scene (and rather more than the mere lesbian kissing scene I reported last week sorry), she argues that while provocative, both that and Chae-yeon’s (채연) new music video Shake (흔들려) were at least alternative representations of Korean women to the coy, innocent, and sexually inexperienced ones normally presented. But while teenage groups’ blatantly sexual dance moves are usually instantly praised as being “hip”, “sexy”, and “cool,” Abracadabra will probably have to be heavily edited for television (despite protestations that it won’t be), as indeed much tamer Shake was recently (see #1 here).  She concludes:

….when Korean “women” choose to project a more sexualized side of themselves they are looked down upon by censors and neitizens. Is Korea so afraid to show adult women in control of their own sexuality that they would prefer to cast scantily clad little girls in heavy makeup, to play “grown up” in their place?

See here for the full post. But please note that by reiterating it’s main points I (and I’m sure VixenVarla would concur) am not attacking expressions of teenage sexuality per se: rather, I’m just saying that they don’t deserve the kid gloves with which they are treated with by the Korean media (see here for my most recent post on this issue). Possibly Abracadabra was a bad choice with which to make that particular point though, as it’s easily the most sexually-explicit mainstream Korean music video I’ve seen in the whole 9 years I’ve lived here:

Abracadabra Brown Eyed Girls( Source )

Of course, 9 times out of 10 such a video would be used to disguise the poor quality of the music itself, but this song is actually good, and – I confess – I heard it on the radio and thought it was (forgive the temporary lapse in sophistication) cool well before I saw the video above. Meanwhile, here is a live performance if you’re curious as to how all that translates to the stage (see PopSeoul! for the details):

3) In case you’re confused by the Korean media praising moves by, say, The Wondergirls (원더걸스) or Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) as “sexy” while criticizing, say, Chae-yeon’s dancing as too sexual though, Brian in Jeollanam-do has an excellent post on how Korean uses of the word have become almost entirely divorced from its English meaning.

4) In related news, while discussing a promotion in Seoul involving women dressed as Paris Hilton to celebrate the Korean airing of MTV reality show “Paris Hilton’s My New Best Friends Forever,” Brian also makes the point that:

…while Korean celebrities are held to pretty high moral standards, you have a woman like Paris Hilton regularly on TV and endorsing Fila Korea.

Like he thought, he’s not the first or the last person to mention that (see #18 here), and after reading this post on her by Michael Hurt at Scribblings of the Metropolitician I would also no longer, well, slag off Paris Hilton as readily as most people are inclined to either.  But still, the point stands regardless of the celebrity involved, and is worth remembering.

5) Also making big news were some Southeast-Asian men being arrested for taking pictures of women at Haeundae Beach in Busan, whereas – as numerous bloggers have pointed out, Korean newspaper photographers regularly (and excessively) do so, and particularly of Caucasian women also. See Brian’s post (yes, again – a productive week for him it seems!) and Korean Media Watch for more.

Choi Ji-woo Vidi Vici6) No, that’s not an alien on the right, but Choi Ji-woo (최지우) promoting cosmetics brand Vidi Vici. Speaking of which, if you haven’t figured out what was wrong with the opening image of Shoo, see AllKpop here for the solution.

7) Also on the photography front, many Korean newspapers (and particularly the ones that denounce Western men as sexual predators and deviants: see #1 here) are increasingly posting “upskirt” pictures of celebrities and members of the public on their websites. Apologies for not providing links (even I have my limits), but I mention this because PopSeoul! has raised the point of PR managers and so on increasingly providing only high stools for stars to sit on at press conferences, which there can only be one reason for given that it is now de rigueur for female stars to wear something short and skimpy to them.

8) Spare a thought for North Korean women: among numerous other frustrations of daily life there, they also have to contend with being forced by government to wear skirts at some times of the year, and traditional clothing at others.

9) A while ago I mentioned a post at Sociological Images about the Tokyo City Government’s appointment of three young women as “cute ambassadors” for the city, the better to promote Japanese kawaii (cute) culture and project Japan’s “soft power” abroad. Now Ampontan – my personal choice for the best blog on Japanese society, politics, and culture – has a great meta post on what issues the policy raises, noting, for example:

I’d rather the Japanese had chosen other parts of their culture to present to the rest of the world—festivals, for example—but might there be a bigger picture that we’re missing?

Plug the word kawaii in English into Google and you’ll get 7,590,000 hits. Do the same with cosplay and you’ll get 24,200,000. Yes, I was astonished too. When the words kawaii and cosplay are so commonly known and accepted around the world, I think it’s safe to say we’re dealing with a phenomenon that transcends Japan.

Read the rest here, and you may also be interested in the Korean government’s recent efforts to promote itself overseas, albeit sans Hello Kitty and Gothic Lolita costumes.

10) I’m still generally against cosmetic surgery, but largely through reader’s comments I’m much more sympathetic of it and understanding of people’s reasons for having operations (especially in an appearance-obsessed society as Korea) than I was before I started the blog. In that vein, see AllKpop here for winner of the title of “prettiest celebrity after female surgery,” with the important point that contestants were only those that openly admitted their surgery.

Meanwhile, the Korea Times reports that young Korean men are apparently becoming keener on having cosmetic surgery (see #7 here also).

11) Given the amount of photoshopping that was necessary for him to do so, I possibly was a little harsh in my opinion on Park Ji-sung’s (박지성) appearance in this post on his modelling for Gillette Korea. But I have to say, he looks quite dapper in his latest photoshoot for Gentlemen’s Quarterly (via KP Culture):

Park Ji-sung Gentlemen's Quarterly( Source )

12) While apparently sexual relations with 13 year-olds are okay (see #3 here), Extra Korea! notes that from next year, solitciting teenagers for sex will be punishable, even if no sexual act takes place. Hey, at least it’s consistent with laws for adults…

13) Widely reported in the Korean media, Koreans as a whole are becoming more overweight. Considering that Korean women were among the lest obese women in the OECD (let alone the world) as recently as 2005 though, then the new data needs to be taken with a grain of salt (no pun intended).

Update: Extra Korea has some additional links on the latter.

Ironically, this news comes as North Korea opens its first fast-food restaurant.

Asian Man Redefined 2010 Calander14) With apologies for this being the largest picture I could find, Andrew Lim recommends you buy the (self-explanatory) “Asian Men Redefined 2010 Calendar,” the proceeds of which will go to charity. For the details, see Ningin here.

15) Singer Ivy (아이비) is trying to make a comeback after being forced to put her career on her hold by a sex-tape scandal…which didn’t actually exist. If the latter is news to you, then see DramaBeans for the background.

16) Somewhat predictable, but still sad, the economic recession is resulting in many fathers running away from their families in shame at not being able to get a job and/or support them, and also the number of 2-child families is decreasing as women’s wages decline. Hat tip to Alex for the latter, who makes the following perceptive points about the article:

I’m wondering if they’re insinuating the wage of female workers should decrease to save the national birthrate…

“Working mothers who prefer to offer quality education or living environment rather than having more children has also contributed to the declining number of second children.

The report said the increase in the women’s wages has negative impact the births of a second child but the increase in paychecks from husbands increases the chances of having more than one child. ”

That’s quite the justification for the disparity in salaries.

Meanwhile, see here for Tom Coyner’s article on the effects of the recession on young people, to which he adds in his email on it in his “Korean Economic Reader” mailing list that:

To be candid, one of the ulterior motives to write this column was to plug my firm’s “Rising Star Coaching” program that helps organizations lacking the budgets to go out and hire specialists while needing to recycle bright, younger employees to assume new roles as their employers adjust to new challenges.

Should the reader know of anyone who lacks internal mentors for developing a specific skill set in a younger manager or employee, please let me know.  We can provide senior Korean executives who have been trained in coaching skills to mentor junior employees on a short-term contractual basis.

And in some rare positive news, Korea Beat reports that women are advancing in the government and legal professions.

17) Finally, in news that I should have placed much earlier in the post sorry, Brian notes that a pregnant 18-year old Cambodian woman was given a 4-year sentence for killing her abusive husband, and also that 2 sisters-in-law and a stepdaughter of a Vietnamese immigrant wife were fined for beating her after she allegedly failed to tend to her mother-in-law’s needs. That second link is just factual really, but in the first has many interesting points about Southeast immigration to Korean and the international marriage trade.