Sexy Is As Sexy Does: Gender and Sexuality in K-Pop

Warning: This article contains a lot of pictures!

K-pop is no less immune to trends than any other part of popular culture, and as of late, the trend among girl groups is sexy. As an international fan living in the US, I can’t comment on Korean fandom with any kind of firsthand knowledge, but international fandom has definitely been talking about it. The reaction has been mixed. While sexy concepts still seem to be controversial among knetizens, inetizens reacted mostly with boredom. The denizens of omonatheydidnt seemed mostly underwhelmed by Rainbow Blaxx’s sexy “Cha Cha” video, which features time-honored classics like slow pans over cleavage/asses and the most provocative macaroon-eating I’ve seen.

rb

This sort of generic, male gaze-y sexy dominates the recent slew of sexy girl group concepts, although that is hardly a new development. Inetizens (most of which, at least on omona, seem to be female) tend to complain about infantilizing aegyo concepts and this particular kind of sexy concept, which I think is significant, because what those concepts both have in common is a clear and obvious pandering to a male demographic. It’s no secret that uncle fans eat up infantilization with a spoon, as evidenced by IU and Lee Hi’s prolific ahjussi fanbases. And sexy concepts, well, do I really need to explain that? If what is said in this Netizenbuzz article is true, then AoA is charting better with their “sexy” concept than the band concept they had before. Of course, AoA is a rather unique case since FNC was indecisive about their concept from the start, flip-flopping between a band and dance group. Maybe people just wanted them to pick something already. But the upshot of all this is that FNC believed that sex sells, and well, the numbers don’t lie.

It’s no surprise that female fans are going to be put off by concepts overtly pandering to a male demographic. After all, it’s pretty off-putting when a group’s concept and image screams, “NOT FOR YOU.” And since girl groups appeal to both male and female fans alike, the implication that the male demographic is somehow more valued than the female one is pretty insulting to female fans. This is not an issue that exists with boy groups, or at least not in the same way, since it’s generally assumed that their fan base is mostly  women. There are a lot of complex gender dynamics to unpack here that go beyond the scope of this article, but I think it’s safe to say that nearly everything about a male pop act’s image is designed to appeal to women, while female pop acts’ images—both in Korea and here in the west—attempt to burn the candle at both ends. They appeal to female fans by possessing qualities that young women typically admire—likeability, fun, confidence—and appeal to male fans by being cute, sexy, or otherwise titillating. Occasionally, these two aims overlap. And occasionally, they stand at glaring odds to each other.

I’ve been throwing around the term “male gaze” a lot and for those unfamiliar, it has a legacy in popular media that began with Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” While Mulvey’s discussion of the male gaze focuses on film theory, it can be applied in many other areas of mass media as well. Defined very loosely, the male gaze assumes a heterosexual male audience, framing the woman as the passive object rather than active subject. Mulvey writes:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy [sic] on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (10)

Mainstream film combines both narrative and spectacle, although Mulvey does note that “musical song-and-dance numbers break the flow of the diegesis” (11). I think it’s safe to group K-pop music videos and live performances with “musical song-and-dance numbers.” Although some music videos feature a narrative (and I use this term very loosely), it’s usually a transparent conceit on which to hang the concept of the performance, thus serving as a particularly extreme example of the diegesis Mulvey discusses. However, the recent slew of sexy girl group videos mostly doesn’t bother, with the exception perhaps of Rainbow Blaxx’s video, although I can’t say I really understand what narrative they’re attempting here. Mostly, these videos are song-and-dance performances, all constructed with a similar format: shots of the women dancing intercut with static shots emphasizing their beauty, usually in provocative, stereotypical lad-magazine or pinup poses.

something
Girl’s Day – “Something”
AoA - “Miniskirt”  The thighs-in-shorts shot was actually the opening shot of the video And what is it with these videos and bathtubs?
AoA – “Miniskirt”
The thighs-in-shorts shot was actually the opening shot of the video. And what is it with these videos and bathtubs?
Dal Shabet - “B.B.B.”
Dal Shabet – “B.B.B.”

Here, we’re presented with a literal break in the performance, echoing Mulvey’s sentiments regarding the narrative/spectacle divide:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. (10)

Even when the women are dancing and moving around, there’s a lot of low angles and upskirt shots, as well as close-ups emphasizing the women’s legs, butt, face, etc. Here, the choreography is far less about performance and more as a vehicle to showcase particular visuals:

butts

Essentially, the women are being reduced to a collage of body parts caressing and gyrating for the (presumably male) audience’s viewing pleasure.

Conversely, let’s look at sexy boy group concepts. Typically, boy group “sexy” consists of a lot of skimpy/tight outfits, hip thrusting, and oiled-up body parts. VIXX’s 2013 promotions were a seemingly endless buffet of the above. The “Voodoo Doll” video, which I described in my recap as “torture porn,” is one of those videos that uses a very simplistic narrative as a device to frame performance and spectacle. The torture scenes function in a similar manner to the non-dancing shots in the above girl group videos—a break in the action to emphasize the group members’ physical attractiveness.

voodoodoll

VIXX aren’t the only boy group whose videos follow this kind of formula. MBLAQ have a time-honored tradition of fangirl-baiting (who can forget Joon’s shower scenes in “Y”?) that they continued with “Smoky Girl,” and 2pm’s “A.D.T.O.Y” video does this as well. Even rookie groups are trying it, such as 100%’s “Want U Back” video featuring open shirts and chocolate abs, or History’s “What Am I To You” video featuring a (male) underwear scene. Rookie group BIGSTAR do a satirical take on “chocolate abs” fervor by gratuitously flashing their abs in their “Run and Run” choreography.

100% HISTORY(히스토리) _ What am I to you(난 너한테 뭐야) bigstar

So can we make the argument that male idol videos are employing a kind of gender-flipped “female gaze?” Well… yes and no, but mostly no. One of the key differences between boy and girl group sexy concepts lies in the nature of the imagery, as seen in the dance and choreography. In general, male choreography emphasizes power and athleticism—I think it’s safe to say that often, it’s more physically demanding than female choreography. And while male choreography does occasionally emphasize body parts (most often hip thrusting or ab flashing), that usually comes secondary to the overall aesthetic. Conversely, many girl group dances are built around emphasis on specific body parts—in the Girl’s Day video, it’s the legs; in the AoA video, it’s the butt. Even when male groups are at their most objectified—U-KISS’s ab-flashing dance in “Dora Dora” comes to mind, or the non-dancing shots of the guys in 2pm’s “A.D.T.O.Y”—markers of masculine beauty still revolve around strength. The male aesthetic in K-pop emphasizes broad chests and shoulders, muscular limbs, and “chocolate” abs (named because the muscles resemble a chocolate bar). While the non-dancing shots in sexy girl group videos emphasize the curves and contours of the female body, the ones in boy group videos focus on the musculature and fitness of the male body. This tendency suggests a visual echo of the active male/passive female narrative structures Mulvey observes in cinema, which she attributes to “active/passive heterosexual division of labor” (11). In Mulvey’s words:

According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen. (11)

Getting back to “Voodoo Doll,” a truly gender-flipped “female gaze” would position the video’s female lead as a viewer stand-in who functions in much the same way that a male lead does for the male viewer in film, as Mulvey explains:

As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence. (11).

The camera work during the torture scenes is presumably meant to echo the female lead’s point of view–we are seeing the men through her eyes. The result is a simultaneous invitation to both identify with and revile her, since, you know she imprisons men and tortures them seemingly for her own amusement. And while the men are technically her prisoners, they are never completely passive figures, either (well, until the video’s final scene, which I will get to). They growl and snarl, launching themselves at the camera. They attempt escape. It is also worth noting that the primary vehicle of their torture involves the act of penetration—the piercing of their skin;  stabbing the voodoo doll (a stand-in for the men themselves) with a phallic object; choreography that mimics the act of stabbing (the fake blood sprays are a nice touch).

VIXX - VOODOO DOLL Official Music Video-1 VIXX - VOODOO DOLL Official Music Video-2

The video closes with a recaptured Hongbin in a seemingly catatonic state as his female captor pierces his skin. This scene is chilling, not only for the gore factor, but as a final and particularly vivid reminder that this video reifies, rather than subverts, the active male/passive female dichotomy. The true horror, perhaps, is in the utter wrongness of the entire scenario. The notion of the passive male being gazed upon and penetrated by the active female is so incomprehensible that the only way it becomes intelligible is through horror.

vdoll

A less extreme example lies in 2pm’s “A.D.T.O.Y” video, which I recapped earlier. While the main objective of my recap was humor, I pointed out the way that “A.D.T.O.Y” attempted (and failed) to construct a gender-flipped “female gaze.” Unlike VIXX’s video, there isn’t a lot of powerful or athletic dancing—much of the choreography actually involves sitting in chairs or standing around butt-wiggling (and considering 2pm is known for their powerful dancing, I find this particularly ironic). My recap described the video as “what straight men think women find hot” which is, essentially, a gender reversal of what they find hot. I compared visuals from “A.D.T.O.Y” and from 9 Muses’ “Wild” video and found them similar. 2pm’s attempt at female gaze wasn’t a total success, however. Like the VIXX video, there’s a female lead; unlike the VIXX video, female viewers are not encouraged to identify with her nor is she granted much in the way of personhood. Rather, she’s more of a prop, subjected to the male gaze as much as any woman in a sexy girl group video. She does not serve much of a purpose except as an accessory to the men’s masculinity and, to quote Harry S. Plinkett, to establish the “not-gays.”

Oh, the agony of singing next to beautiful faceless women
Oh, the agony of singing next to beautiful faceless women

Interestingly enough, my highly scientific observations of international fan communities suggest that female fans found VIXX’s video more… titillating than 2pm’s, although this obviously might vary with the site and the cross-section of fans that populate it. While VIXX’s video obfuscates the active male/passive female dichotomy through horror, 2pm’s video is a more direct failure. It calls to mind other efforts at reversing the male gaze and projecting it back onto men:  The Hawkeye Initiative and men in pinup poses are two examples. The difference, however, is that these projects weren’t designed to titillate women, but to point out how ridiculous these poses look when men do them. That begs the question, however—why do these poses look so ridiculous on men? Well, to be brief, it’s all about context, baby. In Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill, Wykes and Gunter describe the way our lived experiences and cultural norms inform our perception of body image:

In gendered terms, the historiography of these meaning experiences is embedded within a history of male power to define and to objectify, and a history of female subjugation and objectification. Woman has been represented as “other” than man but also represented by man for man and represented for herself through his eyes. In a kind of cultural genetics, “this unequal relationship is so embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women” (Berger, 1972: 63) and of course, men—not because it is unequivocal truth but because it is utterly familiar and to engage with it critically requires an alternative viewing platform and conscious effort, difficult to embrace conceptually and achieve. (39-40)

And let’s face it, the average K-pop fan is not going to put forth that kind of effort into a K-pop music video (I do, but I’ve got nothing better to do). Female fans of male groups want to be catered to, but they also want male idols to retain their masculinity and personhood—they want them active, not passive; they don’t want them reduced to the sum of their (muscular, oiled-up) body parts. In fact, I would say that the very construct of masculinity that women have been socialized to desire hinges on a man’s personhood–when that personhood is removed, then he becomes undesirable.

So is there a “sexy” girl group concept that female fans like? Well, judging by my observations of international fan communities, I’d say there is. Brown-Eyed Girls, Girls’ Generation, Miss A, After School, KARA, 2NE1, F(x), and 4Minute are among the groups name-checked for recent sexy concepts that were female-fan approved.

girlgroups

What’s important to note here is that all of these concepts are very different from each other—and they’ve all got something going on other than just “sexy.” I won’t deny that there’s male gaze in these videos–it’s virtually impossible to escape–but it’s tempered by elements that distract from it and retain the female idols’ personhood and agency. KARA sport menswear and exude confidence in “Damaged Lady.” In “I Got A Boy,” Girls’ Generation are playful and cute without being blatant ahjussi-bait. After School made pole dancing graceful and almost artsy in “First Love.” BEG have always retained a mature, powerful kind of sexy that is definitely present in their action-girl homage to the movie of the same name, “Kill Bill.” I could go on, but I think the point is becoming clear. What sets these videos and concepts apart from the more blatantly male gaze-y videos I discussed above is that they are able to be sexy without alienating female fans (or anyone who isn’t into the clichéd lad-mag kind of sexy). They give their female stars something to do other than look pretty and pose for the camera. They retain their female stars’ personhood, reminding us that they are more than the sum of their body parts. And really, is that so much to ask?

Works Cited

  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.
  • Plinkett, Harry S. “Star Trek (’09).” Red Letter Media. Web. 22 January 2014.
  • Wykes, Maggie and Barry Gunter. The Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill. London, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2005.
Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Sexy Is As Sexy Does: Gender and Sexuality in K-Pop

  1. Longtime lurker, first time commentator. I just wanted to slow clap you on this article. It’s well thought out, organized, and articulated. I enjoy sexy concepts from both men and women, yet it can be off-putting when the women are constantly not shown as whole human beings. You are also the first person to explain to me why depictions of men in female poses looks so weird. Upon speculation, I’ve also realized that acts of men giving fanservice such as ADTOY and Want U Back are pleasing to my eye, but they also make me cringe a bit and want to laugh in order to erase the awkwardness I feel. In contrast, with female idols I am used to it, and other than uttering “oh my” at the boundaries they’re pushing, I easily accept it all.

    I also want to add that I think your reviews are hilarious and I nearly wet my pants reading your “She’s Mine” review.

Comments are closed.