Male gaze is the new black

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It’s summertime in K-pop land which means a slew of girl group music videos featuring suggestive choreography and minimal clothing. There are a few possible reasons for this. One, it’s hot outside and they’d probably faint if they tried dancing in parkas; two, they’re probably appealing to a presumed straight male fan base. Yet each time a video drops, it’s met with a chorus of comments from straight female ifans complaining about all the “male gaze.”

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“Male gaze” is rapidly becoming the new “Mary Sue” in the sense that it started out as a useful descriptive term but has been used/abused so much that it’s pretty much lost any meaning beyond “thing I don’t like.” Initially coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” male gaze describes “pleasure in looking” as determined by the “active/male” and “passive/female” dichotomy in film: “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy[sic] on to the female form… she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” (4-5). In narrative cinema, male gaze essentially functions to stop the action, so to speak, “to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey 5). The most obvious example of this is that moment when everything stops as the camera slowly pans up the body of the film’s female star. This sort of shot commonly follows makeover scenes, or appears at the moment when the male lead first meets his love interest. But male gaze isn’t always so clear-cut. Sometimes it’s just shots and camera angles that linger on a woman’s body when she’s ostensibly performing a task other than posing.

“Let me just check under the hood, all sexy like”

In K-pop, male gaze does often occur in music videos; unlike film, these shots typically don’t work against the narrative of the music video, because the narrative is not the focus. If there is a storyline, it’s usually just a vehicle for the audio/visual spectacle. And there are a lot of videos that don’t even have storylines. So on a purely practical level, I have to question the point of complaining about spectacle in a medium that’s all about spectacle, particularly as it relates to a specific target audience (for girl groups, 18-24 year-old males). After all, if such a thing as “female gaze” existed, boy groups are essentially “female gaze R us.”

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I know, y’all are watching for the plot

Obviously, I wasn’t born yesterday, seeing as the point of this blog is to share an old person’s opinions on K-pop, so I don’t need to be reminded that male gaze and female gaze aren’t the same and that male gaze is part and parcel of a broader social framework designed to marginalize and exploit women. I tend to not append details to my points that I feel are easily filed under “Sherlock, No Shit” but given how many times people have seemed to think I really don’t know this, it’s clearly necessary for me to spell shit out. Anyway, no, they’re not the same thing, and I’m not trying to say they are. But K-pop is what it is, and like all popular music, is heavily reliant on visual spectacle. Do we really think that female idols will always be presented totally free of male gaze?

Girl group stage outfits as chosen by fans
Girl group stage outfits as chosen by fangirls

As most ifans appear cognizant of this fact, the term “male gaze” must necessarily shift its focus in order to apply to particular girl group concepts rather than, well, every girl group concept ever. In other words, there’s a lot of cherry-picking. Most often, ifans use “male gaze” in reference to the pinup girl/lad mag aesthetic in music videos by idols/groups including but not limited to AoA, Sistar, solo Hyuna, Girl’s Day, or recent Hello Venus (ironically, by American standards, these music videos would be considered quite tame). Most of the time, other girl group concepts including but not limited to cute/innocent concepts, retro concepts, or tough-girl “tomboy” concepts avoid this sort of scrutiny, likely because they have another gimmick that takes some of the focus away from the visuals. That being said, they’re still heavily reliant on male gaze. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pandering to male fans–4Minute’s “Crazy,” for example, contains a lot of male gaze despite the fact that this kind of concept usually does not appeal to male kfans (at least, the group themselves joked about not caring about their male fans while promoting the song).

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Nope, no male gaze to see here. Move along now.

“Sexy” concepts, on the other hand, draw more fangirl ire because sexy is the concept. I mean, sure, you could argue that AoA’s “Like a Cat” is a spy/action-girl concept or “Heart Attack” is a sports concept  but the overwhelming focus on the male gaze overshadows those elements. In “Like a Cat,” the group members follow the grand tradition of female action heroes in comic books by wearing tight and impractical clothing and performing stunts in ridiculous poses.

This stance is known as “spy down ass up”

In “Heart Attack,” the group members play lacrosse in crop tops and miniskirts with no protective gear to speak of (a rather hilarious contrast to the male players).

AOA - 심쿵해 (Heart Attack) Music Video
“I hope you girls have insurance”

Then you have rookie groups like Stellar and 4L whose labels purposely went to extreme and ridiculous levels to court controversy and grab attention. It seemed to work for Stellar–“Marionette” is their highest-charting single to date–but not so much for 4L, who have currently disappeared into that no-man’s-land of stalled nugu groups.

Stellar's
Stellar’s “Marionette” also pioneered the memorable “sexy wedgie” dance.

My point here is that male gaze is so incredibly pervasive and arguably inextricable from the way we as a culture (at least, ifandom) parse female desirability, that it only stands out–and thus becomes worthy of critique–when it’s too egregious to ignore or overlook.

The rhetoric surrounding the recent slew of “male gazey” sexy concepts eerily mirrors the ifan reaction to a similar trend a few years ago, when Hyuna scandalized everyone with “Bubble Pop” and follow-up efforts with Beast/4Minute subgroup Troublemaker. Back then, ifan discussions about this topic became war zones between the slut-shamers and the sex positives who argued that Hyuna’s brand of self-expression was empowering to women and sexual freedom. Other female idols such as Ga-in and Lee Hyori were compared to Hyuna as examples of women who “pulled it off” or were “classy,” fanning the flame wars even further. Several fan battles and thinkpieces later, the conflict died down, only to be resurrected when sexy concepts became standard for girl groups.

Liberating women one bubble at a time
Liberating women one bubble at a time!

While fandom seems to have evolved past overt slut-shaming (well, mostly), I’m not entirely sure the concern trolling over “male gaze” is an improvement. If anything, it taps into the same basic motivations behind the slut-shaming of years past and focuses them on the same target–female idols behaving in a way that fans feel they shouldn’t. Both slut-shaming and concern trolling re: male gaze still work toward the same end–categorizing female idol behavior into somewhat arbitrary parameters of “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” I fail to understand how this is any different than what the patriarchy’s been doing for aeons–it’s just moving the scales around.

And no, I’m not getting into the “choice feminism” debate, either–as far as I am concerned, there’s nothing empowering about choosing to uphold the status quo. But that’s not a choice to shame women for, either.  Not every woman is an activist, nor should she have to be. These are deeply-ingrained and widespread social attitudes that are much much bigger than a particular idol or group not doing enough to contribute a positive or otherwise fan-approved representation of women in popular media. This is, of course, assuming female idols even have a choice in the matter, which many idol groups (particularly rookies) do not. Exploitation of young idols (both male and female) in the K-pop industry is a major problem, but on that same token, it isn’t exactly fair to assume every female (or male, for that matter) idol doing a sexy concept was forced into it unwillingly–as fans, we have no way of knowing unless they say so publicly.

If it is the companies pulling the strings, heed the words of the good sis Dasom:

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K-pop companies are looking to make money, not to effect social change. This is a cynical viewpoint, but I’m a bottom-line kind of gal, and the truth of the matter is companies are taking a big risk by defying the status quo. This is not to say there isn’t creative risk-taking in K-pop, but generally speaking, once companies find a groove that seems to work for their acts, they settle into it. For many girl groups, it’s male-gazey sexy concepts.

At this point, the fandom fervor over the matter feels a lot like smoke and mirrors, fueled by a general lack of understanding of the term “male gaze” coupled with a lack of willingness for any meaningful conversations about it. Fans seem more interested in using the term as a dismissive catch-all form of criticism, effectively shutting down conversation rather than creating a springboard for it. If male gaze in K-pop music videos makes a fan uncomfortable, well, that’s understandable enough, but we need to heed the context of these situations. If you’re looking for a tangible target to vent that discomfort on, well, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s the thing with social issues–they’re a lot bigger than a checklist of problematic things an idol says or does can solve.


Works cited

Mulvey, Laura. Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975. 6-18. http://www.jahsonic.com/VPNC.html

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