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On Korea’s Pin-Up Girl Culture and One Artist’s Take On It

Of all the works of art I saw at the Kwangju Biennale, and all the names of artists and works that I scribbled into my notebook, only one has come up at all on my internet searching: a work called “The Pin-up Girl Project”, or, in Korean, “Pin-up girl 되기” (Becoming a Pin-up girl”. I’m feeding these photos from a news article on because, seeing as this is a work of art by someone who assumably cares what is done with her images, I’m not going to copy them and provide them on my own page. (Unless Naver asks me to do so.)

I actually was pleased, if I couldn’t get access to any other works, to at least find something about this one. The images and setup in the installation “Pin-up Girl Project” grabbed me, not because I found myself looking at pictures of a pin-up girl so much as because I found myself confronted with a kind of mini-encapsulation of what it is to be in a culture where pin-up girls exist by the logic of the culture.

For it seems to me that, more still even than the Western world of Maxim and FHM and the rest, there really is a pin-up girl culture here in Korea. There’s not the same kind of shame that American stars have doing ads for Western consumption, so you see movie actors and actresses in ads for cell phones, jeans, water-purifiers, washing machines, bands of cosmetics, and so on. Though some of the links at the ads index at aren’t working, browsing the page shows how some stars don’t even see a problems being a spokesperson for competing companies: Jang Nara has apparently represented both KFC and Popeye’s Chicken. (Then again, I figured she was a sellout when I learned that her stage name is a kind of pun on “Best Nation”, obviously implying Korea as such. Making money off jingoism—not patriotism, but outright jingoism—is doubly foul-scented in my opinion.)

So you have the iconic pin-up girl, the fashion queens (or, princesses, at least), and you have the magazines swarming around them. Whether they marry or not becomes a big issue. [There’s a big court case—big as in on the front of the tabloids—because it was falsely claimed in some tabloid that Ji-Hyun Jeon, a huge popstar here (here are some pics put up by a fan, some of them very “girlish” meaning cutesy and kiddy in the way I’ll discuss in this post), would marry someone in November (I forget how, but it sounded suspiciously like Celine Dion’s very weird and convenient marriage). She’s suing over the falsehood.] Their ethnicity matters. People form strong opinions about these stars, either loving or hating them. A lot of the young women I’ve known in Korea have confessed to me a vile hatred for Jeon-Ji Hyun, for example.

And then you have young people. Now, look, I’m not deconstruction Korean adolescence, or condemning it compared to what I saw in Canada. In Canada, the standard thing would be a lot of seeing photos of Raquel Welch and Christie Brinkley, and understanding the implicit message in them, which is, “This is what a sexy woman looks like.” But the thing is, they were not so everpresent. They weren’t all in movies, or in TV ads. That “sexy woman” thing was what happened in magazines. (And sometimes a boy would steal a dirty magazine and we’d get some sense that, oh, that’s what sex involves.)

I remember my mother taking me aside once, I don’t remember why but I think I said the word “Playboy!” or something like that. She told me, “Look, what happens in those magazines; that’s not like real life.” I think she was perhaps thinking of hard-core magazines, to be honest, since really, Playboy is all about some pretty girl taking her clothes of and trotting around, posing in different ways, on her own. But the message was sensible to me, anyway. Real life is not all shiny and glamour and very big breasts and no brains.

The thing is that even the “soft-core” porn of Playboy is not legal in Korea; you don’t get magazines showing the kinds of poses you saw in North American magazines, when, as a kid, you went, “That’s what it looks like?” The pubic region is off-limits. But far more important to the formation of young peoples’ sexual consciousness, I think, is the fact that in so much of advertising and film, there’s a kind of “innocent, cute, wonderful” vibe that is used to portray the young, nubile female characters positively. It’s almost a kind of cipherporno, the kind of thing moms and sisters look at and think, “Hey, those sweat pants look really comfortable, and that Ji-Hyun Jeon is so cute, I wish my skin was nice like hers,” where the men in the room, without exception, are thinking to themselves that they know exactly why the woman won “best butt in Korea” on Internet polls. But look at the picture to the right. Doesn’t that strike you as astonishingly childlike for a woman who won a poll for best ass in the country? Not to be unfair, for she has gotten racier lately, but a lot of her ads are still full of a childlike iconography like this.

Did you hear me right? Yes, she did win that award. It didn’t go to any pageant winner, nor to a straight-out model whose name is unknown to the majority of people, nor even an ero movie star (whose butt might actually have been seen by someone). No, it went to a movie/TV/pop star who dances to “Woolly Bully” on jeans commercials. You can view the ads here if you want to compare notes… the Woolly Bully one has a thumbnail of her with a boxing helmet on, and the most recent one (first in the list) was banned from Korean TV. Why? Because it’s too overtly sexual, and set in a bar. She is a sex symbol even though government regulations prevent her ads from being “too sexual”, as The Marmot reported a while back. What this actually means is that the government demands that advertisements be strictly cipher-sexual, for better or worse.

This is the extent to which pin-up girl culture, no matter how cute and pre-sexual it tries to render itself, is absolutely and blatantly ciphersexual. For example, see Ji-Hyun Jeon’s cosmetics commercial, where she acts like a little girl and sings a kids’ song, while gyrating her hips and acting like an adult acting like a kid.

All of this ran through my mind when I stood before the installation at the Kwangju Biennale, this “Pin-Up Girl 되기”. The installation itself was simply a bed, assumably a teenager’s bed (that was the impression I got) and a swathe of photos and mock-up magazine clippings featuring pictures of the artist, who I think goes by “Ren” in English, plastered all over the wall, so thick than you couldn’t see any wallspace behind the bed. For me, it was clearly a comment about the inescapability of this pin-up girl culture, and how deeply sexualizing it is.

Anyway, if you want to try navigate the artist’s site, the hardest bit is the front page. You can find links to galleries and such if you hover the mouse around the woman in the picture, who is, by the way, the artist. She doesn’t yet seem to have shots up from the project I’m talking about, but there are other things, including a very weird piece called “Gay Sex Education” with pictures of Smurfs in it.

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