Recently, I finally wrote a post on a topic that had been on my mind for a while: gender and sexuality in K-pop. The post was largely inspired by the slew of sexy girl group concepts that have come out lately. In it, I attempted to articulate why I believe the fan community (at least online) reacts the way it does to sexy concepts in girl group videos vs. boy groups (and also what a “sexy concept” means for a girl group vs. a boy group). I had thought the “sexy concept” craze peaked with AoA’s “Miniskirt” (which recently got the group their first music show #1) but it turns out I was wrong. This video came out.
Generally speaking, I’m hard to faze. But this video literally had me speechless. And it actually wasn’t the blatant sexiness of the video that I was reacting to, but rather its striking derivativeness. Now, I can’t be sure how long this concept was in the works and if the creative team had any idea what the other girl groups promoting at this time were doing, but if it’s all a coincidence, the timing is very unfortunate—this video literally looks like a copy-pasted collage of visuals borrowed from other recent girl group videos.
Critiquing a sexy girl group concept is always a precarious undertaking, without veering into slut-shaming territory. Because everyone is so careful not to slut-shame, it’s led to a kind of underlying attitude that a sexy girl group concept should always be celebrated, or at the very least, we all shouldn’t rip on it too much, because we’d be all up on this like skinny jeans on an idol’s ass if a boy group did a similar concept. Not only do I find this reasoning logically unsound (if we assume most online ifans are women, that would place them in the target audience of a boy group, so um… is it exactly shocking that they’d prefer something that was targeted to them over something obviously targeted to male fans?) but it assumes that male gaze and female gaze are the same thing, and I already wrote a way-too-long post explaining why that simply isn’t true.
So where does all this leave us? When is a sexy girl group concept fair game for criticism? Well, personally, I think it always is—the problem is that many people don’t seem to know how to critique sexy concepts without hating the player and not the game, so to speak. This kind of overt pandering to male fans alienates female fans, but that frustration tends to get targeted at the idols in question rather than the creative team behind them. And while that’s understandable as a knee-jerk reaction—idols are, after all, the public face of their companies—it’s disheartening that we don’t all know better by now. The argument has been made that calling for a powerful, strong, autonomous portrayal of female sexuality, one that retains the idols’ personhood, is policing female sexuality and slut-shaming. I obviously disagree. It’s not female sexuality that I’m trying to police here. It’s the insistence by male-dominated power structures upon always presenting it to us in the same clichéd, male-gazey, dehumanizing way. Granted, there’s nearly always an element of male gaze in girl group videos and by now we’ve all become so inured to it that it has to really go over-the-top for us to notice, but it seems most female fans are satisfied to have something else going on besides obvious wank bank fodder.
And that’s the thing with “Marionette.” There wasn’t really a style or aesthetic—just sexy for the sake of sexy. Sexy by numbers. Sexy for the sake of pandering, and not much else.
There’s also the promotional teaser images on the group’s facebook, translated here and here on Netizenbuzz. Just like the video, there’s no real concept but sexy for the sake of sexy. If this isn’t blatant pandering to male fans, I don’t know what is.
Some fans over on Netizenbuzz have made the very valid point that maybe the company is fully aware of how… let’s say controversial this video is and are just doing it for attention (in a random and amusing aside, Shinhwa’s Eric, who had a hand in producing the group, was quick to deny any responsibility for this concept). As the old adage goes, all publicity is good publicity. Maybe it doesn’t matter that female fans don’t seem to like the video. We’re talking about it, and I wrote this blog post on it, so if attention is what they wanted, mission accomplished.
As of right now, we’ve yet to see how the song performs on the charts or if Stellar will go from nugu hell to relevance. The consensus seems to be that sex sells—it worked for AoA and Girl’s Day, after all! But I don’t necessarily agree. Sex sells, but not sex alone (and no, that was not a pun)—it needs a hit song to help it along. AoA’s “Miniskirt” was sexy, but it was also a jam—it was the kind of song that got stuck in your head for hours no matter how much you wish it would go away. Meanwhile, Rainbow Blaxx’s “Cha Cha” underperformed on the charts despite a sexy concept, and I suspect it’s because the song itself just wasn’t that memorable. So is “Marionette” a potential hit? Well, considering that I wrote up this entire post without actually discussing the song itself—and I still haven’t much to say about it, except that it’s standard girl group fare (though part of the chorus does sound strikingly similar to Girl’s Day’s “Something”)–it’s pretty telling.
I have nothing against the lovely young women in Stellar and wish them success, but I’m not sure this is the kind of success I’d like for them. The controversy might have gotten the group on people’s radar, but the music will have to be what keeps them there. Do they have what it takes to stick around once the hype dies down? We’ll find out soon enough.