Hot Summer On Screen: Sizzling it up with More Provocative K-Pop
It's been a hot summer outside and on-screen, where K-pop’s girl groups have been shedding even more clothes than usual. The public debate has reached new heights, with critics pointing to excessive female objectification. But, as James Turnbull points out, the controversy is nothing new.
BUSAN, South Korea -- After School swinging around stripper poles, grabbing their crotches and singing wet and topless in “First Love”? Dal Shabet ripping their skirts open to reveal cameltoes for “Look At My Legs”? Long, lingering close-ups of BIKINY’s breasts and panties for “Please Accept Me”?
These examples are just a small sampling of what you can see on Korean music channels this summer, in what has widely been described as an unprecedented, unacceptable pornification of K-pop.
Predictably, many netizens have been slut-shaming the girl groups involved, whereas more discerning critics have generally complained of their excessive sexual objectification, and/or portrayed them as victims of their management companies. Most notably, Lee Seung-chul, a Korean singer with 27 years in the industry, who tweeted that it was wrong to promote girl groups by making them wear revealing costumes.
Of course, it is impossible to give justice to the range and depth of critics’ opinions here, who do have valid concerns. However, many are so focused on all the female flesh on display that they are failing to see the bigger picture. Should you come across any of their alarmist headlines this summer, here are three ways to bring a healthy dose of realism to the discussion.
First, note that the controversy is nothing new. Because not only does barely a month go by when the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family doesn’t ban songs or music videos, but as recently as the winter edition of Haps I discussed many other bawdy examples, including “Bloom” by Ga-in, which featured masturbation. In particular, just over two years ago, there was similar hang-wringing over one episode of KBS’s Music Bank, which featured pelvic thrusts from RaNia and the Brave Girls, as well as 4Minute’s notorious “Wide Leg Spread Dance” for “Mirror Mirror”.
Lee Seung-chul, a Korean singer with 27 years in the industry, tweeted that it was wrong to promote girl groups by making them wear revealing costumes.
It is true that there have been more cases than normal recently, with management companies of boy bands openly wondering how their employees can compete for attention. But that is precisely the point: with a constant glut of new groups debuting, legal downloads costing less than a tenth of their iTunes counterparts, and an ensuing overdependence on commercial endorsements, the Korean music industry has long been predicated on using sex—and anticipated bans—to keep groups in the public eye.
Mirroring developments in the Korean movie industry, where financial problems have also prompted a recent, rapid sexing up of content, it is disingenuous to suggest that what we’re seeing now is anything unusual. Moreover, trends will only continue with the recent weakening of the Yen, which has already dealt a huge blow to profits for Korean music in Japan.
Second, automatically screaming the “o” word in response to some skin often belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. Because musical ability, sexy dances, and sexier costumes are not mutually exclusive, and it is objectifying in itself to reduce talented musicians to only the latter.
That is not to say that sex isn’t overused in K-pop to disguise a lack of talent, and that we shouldn’t call that out accordingly. But when sexual attractiveness adds to and/or is a fundamental part of a performance, yet is criticized nevertheless, then perhaps it’s more sex itself that the detractors have a problem with. Also, arguably with strong and confident women, too, for in such cases it’s very difficult to see them as coerced in any way, which is the most important criteria for judging whether someone is being negatively objectified or not.
In addition to Ga-in, whose masturbation scene was not at all out of place in a rare song about female sexual awakening, one example from this summer is ‘Baddest Female’ CL of 2NE1, who was recently widely criticized for wearing a swimsuit onstage. Unlike UEE of After School, however, who felt she had no choice but to agree to her CEO’s plan for six months of painful pole-dance training for “First Love”, CL was not at all pressured to wear her outfit, and earlier rejected YG Entertainment’s demand that she receive cosmetic surgery before she debuted. What’s more, YG completely removed those clauses in their subsequent contracts for new trainees, unlike the vast majority of management companies that retain them.
Ergo, while the K-pop industry is certainly extremely exploitative overall, and replete with examples of coercion that do deserve to be highlighted, a third factor to take into consideration is that not all management companies are the same. Also, as Lee Hark-joon noted, director of the documentary Nine Muses of Star Empire, as girl group members become more successful and “adjust to the music industry, they start composing their own songs and have more of a voice in their concept. In the documentary, the girls are told by managers: ‘If you become a star, your opinion is law. If you think you are treated unfairly, become a star.’ What the manager said is cruel, but it shows a reality.”
In a summer that, on the one hand, has already seen its first-ever condom commercial and a high-profile announcement of an (illegal) gay wedding, and on the other hand has brought in the revelation that 54 percent of South Gyeongsang Province police think that “that women who wear revealing clothing are somehow culpable in any attacks on them,” people deserve a more sophisticated, less reactionary discussion of sex in K-Pop from their cultural gatekeepers.
By all means, they should call a spade a spade. But, to apply what sociologist Lisa Wade wrote about Beyoncé, on those occasions when a K-pop female singer’s “performance—along with those of her bandmates and fellow dancers and singers—embodie[s] strength and confidence; the pleasure of being comfortable in one’s own skin and the ability to use your body to tell a story; and the power that comes from being admired for the talents you’ve worked so hard to cultivate,” then it’s difficult to only see a sex object, and/or plausibly claim that it’s simply pornography.
This summer, please take a moment to consider why so many do.
James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. He can be found at his blog thegrandnarrative.com
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