James on Wonder Girls

(START UPDATE #1 — 2:12 am same night):

Well, Lime tells me that, no, it really is “boys and ajeoshis” who are the main consumers of Wonder Girls CDs. If this is the case, then this adds a more disturbing layer to my reading of the Tell Me video, since that would mean it’s a representation of a “girl’s fantasy” that’s constructed for the edification of male consumers. But the thing I have to wonder is, was the band aimed at male consumers from the beginning — from the release of “Tell Me”? And is it really true that the majority of consumers for Wonder Girls CDs are male, or is this another case of the news media reporting on the ever-important ajeoshi and ignoring the real story, that’s happening somewhere else in society? I don’t know, but I have a strong distrust of the media ever since they spun the netizen critique of the Afghanistan Hostage Crisis as if the Netizens were simply being jerks and backlashing, when what really happened was a sudden shift in the permissibility to criticize religious extremism in Korea. So I do wonder… are the ajeoshis drooling, or is this just spin? Are girls listening to and consuming Wonder Girls, or is it boys? That’s a hard question to answer, since everything is so processed that even the audiences in lives shows are something I’d imagine are selected to control the spin on the group. I do so wish there was a way to find out how much of the hype is, well, hype. Or whether groups like Wonder Girls, even if they’re not actively consumed by girls, still impact on teenager’s perceptions and imaginative experimentation with their understandings of adulthood and femininity.)

(Hmm. On the other hand, either way, my main concern is addressed, which is that this kind of cruddy music being part of the mainstream of what’s on offer and what’s being consumed by adult males, however disturbing it might be, is further more disheartening.)

(End Update #1)

Note: There are probably a few glitches in this. I’ll be back to look again tomorrow, but since I spent so much time writing, and the gist is clear, I’m going to go ahead and post this now. Hopefully it’s of interest to a few people out there.

I said I wasn’t going to post about this for a few days, but I can’t help it. If I don’t write something soon, it’ll go by the wayside, and end up irretrievably lost. So here goes:

James of The Grand Narrative is one of a number of foreigners (including Michael at Scribblings of the Metropolitician, and Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling) who has been discussing the complexity of the Wonder Girls, a Korean girl group.

You really should check out his posts, Lolita Pizza?, and Tell Me: Why do the Wondergirls Matter?, because what follows won’t make too much sense unless you’re aware of what he’s written. Despite my disagreements in some areas, I think it’s a fascinating analysis of a Korean pop culture phenomenon.

But I’ll sum it up here, for those too lazy to click through. (And include all the videos he’s discussing, as well.)

  • They’re quite obviously being molded into sex idols of some kind, or at least laden with the trappings of what we’d see in sex idols — highly sexual dance moves and a lot of skin on display.
  • While young men (I’m talking college boys) obsess about them to the point where, if you even say they’re just a talentless manufactured pop group, those boys will “come to their defense,” and, when “Tell Me” first came out and you asked, “Who is your favorite pop star or pop group?” the near-universal answer among men of age 19-22 was “The Wondergirls.” (It was part of one exam I held last year, where students discussed manufactured pop stars and their effect on popular culture, and somewhere between 70 and 80% of male students gave this answer. So did a much smaller percentage of females, around 30% or so.)

And yet…

  • …if you point this out and out to Korean people, the reaction — more often than not — is that you are nuts and you must be kidding and they’re just kids, that’s crazy and wrong, so maybe there’s something wrong with you, and
  • … at the same time, Korea in general is struggling with a sex industry bigger than several of its other major industries combined (agriculture and fisheries, say, last I heard), and which, as is pointed out at Popular Gustings, has long had a troublesome history concerning girls beneath the legal age of consent.

Now, this concept of the age of consent should give us pause here. After all, like the education system, like the corporate structure, like the supposedly democratic politics, the age of consent is an imported concept, one that’s been sticky-taped onto older concepts of sexual maturity (and desirability). And perhaps, when we see oddness floating around the issue of the age of consent — differing practice or apparent thinking from what people say out loud about it — then we need to stop and interrogate that notion in itself.

Not that Korean society didn’t have an equivalent notion to the Western “age of consent,” mind you. But whatever it was — and I imagine a Korea studies specialist is the person to ask — it cannot have been what it is now. If you look at texts that date back to the Joseon era, marriage arrangements could be codified in early childhood, at least among those families with any real stake in the matter; but it’s also certain that marriage could and did often during what we now consider “childhood” — that in-between, here-and-there period of life known as puberty or adolescence. If I remember right, Lady Hyegyong was married and having Prince Sado’s babies by the time she was the age of the youngest member of Wondergirls. This doesn’t provoke any kind of furore, but of course.

Why is that? Well, it’s partly because we accept the notion, “That was then and this is now.” There’s no sense getting all fired up about how people lived a few hundred years ago, because it’s not like anything can be done or said to change that situation. But it’s also because we’re all too aware of our own history — however unconsciously — and how we westerners, too, had daughters marrying off at fifteen or sixteen. Like, as recently as Jerry Lee Lewis and his child bride, for one. (Who was thirteen, by the way — the management insisted she was fifteen as part of damage control!)

It’s not that this was the norm in the 1950s — it wasn’t — but the point is that it has been the norm at various points and in different cultures, and that a great deal of human the biology and (evolutionary) psychology is tied up with that; this should give us pause to reflect. That, and our own history of the notion of youth, our own construction of childhood.

Construction — yeah, that red-alarm, postmodernist, deconstructionist word. But it’s also a pretty good word for how our current set of ideas about childhood, adolescence, and adulthood came to be. These ideas were built up over time, by artists, poets, philosophers, legislators, psychologists, clergymen, and people in general.

A thirty-year-old man being considered a “youth” because he has not yet married is something very interesting. When I was a grad student and reading Georges Duby on this subject — in his chapter “Youth in Aristocratic Society” from The Chivalrous Society — I found the notion of an adult man being considered a “youth” (and the notion of adulthood as being unattainable without marriage and the establishment of a family) both odd and somehow strangely familiar, understandable.

There is a sense in which, in contemporary Western society, marriage is linked to adulthood, as is parenthood. We say that it isn’t, we claim childless adults are people who’ve just made a value-neutral choice, but we don’t, I suspect, really, truly believe it. We imply, with a very politically correct choice of words, that not having a kid allows people to grow selfish, or to obsess about random, odd things. The perception is not at all gone… it’s still there, just under the surface. If you don’t believe me, watch a film like Knocked Up, or Juno. Or, for that matter, Office Space, or Six Feet Under. It’s one of those things we’ve all thought, looking at some older person without a kid, but of course, none of us will admit that, and we’re likely to chastise ourselves for thinking it, to mince words when we express it (if we do).

What all of this signals is that it’s a locus of anxiety. And what I’ve been hammering away at with my students in my Understanding Popular Cultures course is this same issue: that entertainment, especially narrative entertainment, is, among other things, a kind of encyclopedic collection of the anxieties of a culture. Yes, I’m stealing a page from Edward Said, who called the novel “an incoporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form” in Culture and Imperialism (on page 71, for those interested) — except, to update the fact that these days, film, videos, TV, and the bizarre marriage of all three in the media onslaught that is at the heart of pop culture marketing is the incorporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form of our day: TV, films, and music videos, especially, are the index of a culture’s obsessions — admissible and otherwise — in our era. In short, like Said, I’m arguing that our fundamental anxieties shine brightly in the heart of the narratives we choose to entertain ourselves with.

Entertainment thrives on the grey areas — the seething titillation that Sharon Stone offered audiences in Basic Instinct and the ceaselessly transgressive mockery of “family values” in a TV series like Weeds included, but not the norm. One need not openly transgress in order to play upon, and prey upon, the anxieties of its most fervent audiences.

Case in point? Well, how about Katie Holmes, the lead female actress in Dawson’s Creek? The fact is, Joey — in script — was 15 — the same age as the youngest of the Wonder Girls — or perhaps, depending on her birthday, 16 — in the first season of Dawson’s Creek. Yet plenty of young adults — in their late teens, in their 20s — found Joey Potter beautiful, pretty, the dream high school girlfriend. They were attracted to her — and she was undeniably attractive as a character — because she pushed every button in the book: pretty, girly, underprivileged (read: damsel-in-mild-distress), bright, sassy, and most of all, desired by the male lead. It’s arguable that this one of the reasons she ascended to such a height of desirability that, in the star-currency economics of Hollywood Marriage, she could be “worthy” of Tom Cruise. (Whatever we think of him and his rants these days, he was for a long time the iconically desirable male in Hollywood film.)

But if you asked guys at the time the kinds of questions that Westerners are bluntly asking Koreans about Wonder Girls, you’d get a similar reaction.

Interviewer: So, is Joey Potter pretty, in your opinion?

Average North American Male: That chick in Dawson’s Creek? Dude. Sure.

Interviewer: Would you say she’s attractive, then?

Average North American Male: I mean, er, not like that.

Interviewer: But don’t you find it odd, the way that her role in Dawson’s Creek casts her as the ultimate girlfriend, the perfect girl, and how thousands of adult men tune in and have their fantasies massaged by the vicarious experience of having Dawson fall for her, mess things up, and then stumble around trying to fix things again?

Average North American Male: But, like, it’s a good show. And she’s cute.

Interviewer: Like, cute? Nice ass? Good body?

Average North American Male: (Awkwardly silent for a moment.) Nah, man. She’s a kid. A teenager. It’s not like that. Jesus, are you soem kind of pedophile or something? It’s not like this is porno or something.

And Dawson’s Creek wasn’t porno; it wasn’t even close, from the little I remember. Yet thousands of men — millions, actually, I’d guess, by how long the series ran, and the star cred that Katie Holmes retained — tuned in every week and watched the show. Actually, the interview above would probably only have happened if you caught a guy watching it. Otherwise, he’d probably deny it. But the ratings were there.

And the real point is, Holmes wasn’t really 15 or 16. The character Joey was born in 1983. But Katie Holmes was born in 1978, and was well over the age of consent by the time she started playing Joey on Dawson’s Creek. Think about that for a moment: they had a twenty-year-old woman playing a fifteen year old girl who was the love interest of (what was in-script) a fifteen-year-old boy being played by a twenty-two year old man. Yes, Dawson’s Creek is far from the only show doing this — I could have used Beverly Hills: 90210 or any number of films as an example — and I’m far from the first person to comment on this. But it does seem worth considering, when we’re consider grey-area weirdness in connection with the Age of Consent in another culture’s entertainment media.

And no, this is not some game of equivalency. Having older women play younger roles is not exactly the same as have young girls display the trappings of sexual maturity. But creating characters that are supposed to be sexually immature, or in the awkward pubescent age range, and then having them played by adults who are absolutely sexually mature, and whom, in another context — if you saw them on the street — you might assume were sexually active represents a rather profound display of anxiety with regard to the actuality of sexuality in pubescent teenagers. Heaven forbid we have actual teenagers — who look like teenagers — playing those characters as they considered sleeping together or started making out and kissing and whatever. That, I guarantee you, would have been too much for network TV at the time the show first aired, in 1998. Whatever is going on, Dawson’s Creek is working very similar psychological terrain, by somehow hypersexualizing teens — giving them incongruously adult bodies — just the same way Wonder Girls’ fashion coordinator is giving the girls incongruously “adult” (in several senses) fashions.

Which is to say that we westerners also have a lot of weirdness in our entertainment media floating around that grey area of the age of consent. We’re profoundly uncomfortable with — and at the same time fascinated by — the period where sexuality begins to form in the mind of people, and the moment at which that sexuality becomes permissible. Straight-laced objectionability is, in fact, the greatest determinant in whether you’ll see a sex scene between two characters in a film. This is why we so rarely see plain, slightly overweight forty-year-olds having marital sex in a film. Doubtless, there must be some plain-looking middle-aged married couples out there who have passionate, enviable sex lives, but you’ll never see that in more than a few films, because it’s the most permissible sex on the planet. It’s when sex becomes imaginably objectionable — transgressive — that it becomes worthy of depiction:

  • the closer one or both partners (especially the female, but sometimes the male) is to the grey area of puberty. Sex between twenty-year-olds is, in the logic of Hollywood film, sexier than sex between thirty-year-olds.
  • the bigger the age discrepancy between the partners (though this is usually publicly regarded as disgusting, James’ reference to Nabokov’s Lolita is all the evidence you really need to argue that, whatever they advertise as their opinion of such stuff, people are very interested in sexuality where someone dangerously below the age of consent is involved with someone way beyond it. (That is, where the elder partner is transgressing by straying into the grey area.)
  • the less socially or legally sanctioned sex is, the more likely it will be depicted. Sex with one’s wife of seven years is not the stuff of film. Cheating on one’s wife of seven years is. Hell, adulterous lusting after someone other than your wife of seven years is a Hollywood classic starring Marilyn Monroe.
  • the more desirable the partner of the opposite sex is, the more interesting the sex is to the audience. Actually, I don’t know if it’s true of female audience members, but for men, the woman in the film is what inspires whatever reaction we have. (Which is one reason sex scenes are shot to appeal to men so often.) This bleeds over into the sex-tape scandals, where nine times out of ten, the tape is named after the female partner, and most people haven’t the foggiest idea who the male partner is except in relation to her. (Her ex-boyfriend; her manager; her boss…) This probably has something to do with evolved anxieties, especially in males, about competition for the most desirable mate, or maybe just because it gives people an easy excuse for fantasization, but anyway, humans are very interested in seeing attractive people having sex, and less interested in seeing less attractive people doing it.

In fact, it’s pretty much taken for granted that the Western notion of romance, as generated by the troubadours in Provençe in the 14th-century, defines “love” as transgressive; extramarital, forbidden, socially exclusionary and isolating, secret, and dangerous. We have issues, and the grey area is one of them — it’s located in part of that terrain of “danger” and “forbidden” that long ago was occupied by rich older ladies married to greying lords or knights — the fantasy of young knights being to slaughter the old men and marry their wives, inheriting both land and wealth and attaining adulthood in one fell swoop. (All of this discussed by Duby in various texts, and visible in all kinds of Medieval poems, most memorably in some of the Lais of Marie de France.)

Putting aside the Middle Ages for a bit, it’s not surprising that, in Korea, similar anxieties exist since, after all, we’re all the same species. Humans are attracted to forbidden things, and have always had a transgressive streak. We like to break the rules, or tend to, when the temptation is big enough.

So what has this to do with adult Korean males’ fascination with, and backpedaling defense of, the Wondergirls? Why is what seems so obvious to us (outsiders) so unspeakable to so many here?

Well, for one thing, there’s the observer bias. Most educated anglophones are quite self-righteously sensitive to this kind of thing, because there is no society more sensitized to the dangers of media tastelessly exploiting young people than ours… Japan might be more explotative, as James argues pretty convincingly, but we’re more sensitive about it, and obsessed about it. North American anglophones especially, since we get both worlds — a dose of the edgiest form of this exploitation in the American media, as well as a dose of the puritanical obsession with sex that so oddly characterizes the culture of the USA. (And, in fact, it’s likely the two are linked: if sex were not such an obsession, America probably would not be so concerned with being politically correct about it.)

This isn’t exactly how things work in Korea, but of course, all of that is obscured in the debate here, as soon as it involves even one westerner. It’s obscured, in part, by the standard, near-universal conviction among Koreans that a positive image of Korea must be presented to the world. It goes without saying that, in this sense, the image can only really be positive if it’s presented in terms that will appear positive on the world’s terms, rather than on Korea’s terms. And of course, like between every culture, there are differences in what is considered acceptable. What this gives rise to is a further adherence to the pattern that many Koreans learn as essential, polite etiquette: that is, prevarication for the sake of the group, or of the “authority.” (Such as replying to their bosses, “Sure, this is great ice cream!” loudly when half the people are sitting there thinking, “This ice cream SUCKS!“)

What I’m saying is that any direct response to a Westerner’s criticism that the Wonder Girls are overtly sexualized is, unfortunately, going to be distorted by the fact that in Korea, it’s almost never just a discussion of ideas: on some level, for many Koreans, a discussion is also a promo-op, a chance to represent the nation in a positive light, to make people think well of their nation; or, if it is not that, it devolves into a more basic “defense” of the nation, which is hardly any more useful for finding out people’s real opinions.

Of course, that’s not the whole picture either. The fact that James has pointed out, time and time again, is that these girls are adolescents. The significance of that, for us, is that they fall into the category of child, rather than of adult. This is the whole point of the age of consent, and it’s the age of consent — 18 — that comes up most often in discussions of the Wonder Girls. Not directly by mention, of course — the number that is most often bandied about is fifteen, which is the age of the youngest group member, and the one, James argues, most often decked out in the shortest skirt on stage.

But it’s like saying, “He’s FOUR foot EIGHT?” — saying that implies that a different number is normal… maybe five foot eight, maybe six feet tall, it’s not clear. But when the number 15 is used in discussions of the Wonder Girls, with the implication that 15 is unacceptable, the unspoken (or sometimes spoken) corollary is that, once they’re 18, sexualized media exploitation is fine, it’s oh-whatever, it’s “fair play.” It’s, oooh, let’s find some images of Hyori and Jeon Ji Hyun and post them on our blogs. (No offense, James, this is not a criticism of your site.)

I think this is something worth stopped to consider, since, once again, we’ve bumped up against the Age of Consent.

On one level, it’s a chicken-and-egg question: is the sexualization of teenagers in (foreigner-accessible) media a result of the longstanding sexualization of teenagers in other venues? Or does the media has a reverberating effect on society, as teenagers begin to dress (and behave) more and more like how they think adult women do. My answer to this is that I do not know. I think some of the comments on James’ post are unconvincing because the commenter is unwittingly supporting James’ argument. Chris argues that Daegu schoolgirls are dressing in a way relatively similar to the Wonder Girls, and perhaps he is right. Perhaps that actually confirms James’ point. Or perhaps it debunks it. I don’t know.

Actually, it’d be worth going for an afternoon wander in Seoul, just to see: after all, Seoul is the cutting edge; Seoul is where everything happens first, in this country, for a combination of reasons. My last visit during the weekend, I was surprised to see some young women who I decided were probably teenagers dressed in ways that you usually only see adult women — specifically, in Korean society, single adult women, usually under 30, and definitely those of college age — dressing. At the same time, one could reply to Chris that maybe South Korean teenagers are dressing this way in part because of their role models, which at the moment are media concotions like Wonder Girls and Hyori and whomever else is in the spotlight these days.

However, on another level, we need to stop and consider whether the exploitation of women — by men, and by media — suddenly starts being alright at age 18. Yes, the prostitutes in Korea demonstrated against the sex trade crackdown. I hardly think that’s an advertisement for the benefits of working in the sex trade, or a rebuttal to the idea that sex work is, indeed, exploitative. …

But the really interesting question is, why the deep-seated faith in the age of consent, let alone the deep-seated faith in its applicability to a foreign culture, let alone the shock and consternation that such a foreign culture hasn’t effectively applied it to their aesthetics and their culture, as well as their legal system (however haphazardly)?

An interesting analogy is the age at which one can drink in certain parts of the world. For example, I grew up in Saskatchewan, where the drinking age is 19. In Alberta, just over an invisible and purely administrative line, the drinking age is 18. Predictably, Saskatchewan kids, on their 18th birthday, would drive over the line and suddenly, magically reach the age of consent. They were able to go to bars, drink, and do things that were illegal for them in their home province, because legally in their home province, they were still technically children. So they would drive out to Lloydminster, a city that straddles the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta, and they would get hammered. I didn’t do it, but it was common enough that people would assume their friends were going to do it.

This highlights a point: when do adolescents attain adulthood? Well, really, this is one of those things where bureaucrats have chosen to draw a specific line in the sand, but have pulled the criteria for where to draw that line essentially out of their backsides. Do teenagers become more responsible suddenly at age 18? No, we all know they don’t. When do they become more responsible? Well, some do it at seventeen. Some at fifteen. Some don’t until they’re 30. Some people never bloody well attain adulthood.

What the Age of Consent does is it draws a line at a specific point where mental adulthood has been attained. And it’s a relatively good one, we’d argue.

Well, you’d think we would. I’m not sure I would. I don’t think I really reached mental adulthood till much later, more like age 25 or 26. (And a lot of the young westerners I meet here reinforce this notion of mine.) Then again, there are ways in which I’m still working on it at age 34, too. Adulthood isn’t really a stage of life, it’s a continuous process that starts somewhere in puberty and doesn’t stop till death or second childhood.

And so the grey area is inescapable. But at the same time, it is inescapably the locus of anxiety.

Then there’s biopsychology, or evolutionary biology. The simple fact is that human beings did not, for the majority of human history, have any such concept as the Age of Consent. Human males are not attracted to females displaying secondary sexual characteristics and the evidence of fertility who are also legally available to them as potential partners: the instinctual base of the male psyche doesn’t have a slot where laws can be plugged in. Which is not an argument in favor of wonjo gyojae (see Gusts of Popular Feeling, here, for an excellent discussion of this phenomenon, one of several he’s written), not at all: human beings have the ability to choose whether to be driven by instincts or abstract ideals, whether to limit their behaviours or not.

And I’m not saying that all men are potential Humbert Humberts, either — or defending those who are! Not by a bloody long shot — I find that sort of thing reprehensible. But I am saying that there’s a grey area, and a long and colorful history of varied attitudes towards it, for a reason. At certain times and places, menstruation was a sign of womanhood marriageability, and every last one of the Wonder Girls would, by this criteria, have been a wife and mother by now. (Though, then again, I’ve read that ovulation is starting earlier and earlier, thanks to modern agriculture and chemical additives in our food. So maybe they wouldn’t have all been married by now. Then again, Lady Hyegyong was having kids by that age, as far as I remember.) The thing is, whatever we might call physical adulthood is, just as with mental maturity, attained much earlier by some that by others. That is, some girls acquire the trappings of adulthood, their secondary sexual characteristics — much sooner. This doesn’t mean they are adults, or should be treated as if they were. But they’re not exactly children, either, and some ambiguity arises from that. Some anxiety, too, surely, when you add in makeup, and hip-grinding dance moves, and all the other trappings of adult sex idols.

And what this does is it places them smack dab in the grey area, ripe for exploitation by media, because media, as I’ve said before, is the master exploiter of anxieties. Bill Hicks says it better than I can, and he said it before I even thought it:

As James pointed out, it will use your social anxieties to sell you pizza:

or to urge you to vote:

or to buy CDs:

It will even take adult women:

JJH looking adult

Jeon Ji Hyun giordano ad

and reduce them (temporarily) to girly icons (something I’ve discussed more here):

Jeon Ji Hyun girly image

… or even infantilize them completely, while having them show off their S-lines and their butt, once voted “best ass in Korea” online, if that’ll tickle you in your grey area, because, hey, makeup, printers: women’s bodies will sell them all.

Still, there’s one angle that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere, and this, too, concerns me.

James has written a great deal about how the construction of femininity, of womanhood, of gender roles, is undergoing transformation here. He’s been quite intelligent about it, and I want to applaud him for that. But he’s missed something very important in the area, and something that I think needs to be brought up, which is the following…

As much as we fuss and worry about the “sexualization” of youth, there’s a degree to which, like everything else, for even the most straight-laced teenager, his or her sexuality is an immense unknown — an undiscovered country. In Korea especially, their own sexuality is an undiscovered country for most teenagers because the quality of the sex-education system is to damned poor. The country has been discovered umpteen times, but nobody’s been thoughtful enough to send the maps back for those who have yet to embark. You don’t have to be Korean to experience a great deal of anxiety in the subject, either: Nora Ephron’s wonderful essay, “A Few Words About Breasts” (which I can’t find online, but it’s great, go dig it up, it’s worth it!) describes what a hellish experience it can be for a girl when her breasts start coming in… or when they don’t.

Now, imagine being a teenager in Korea, right now. Especially a teenaged girl. You’re being bombarded by a whole host of different ideas. Look at the range of ideas and where they’re coming from: the traditionalists one knows will be selling the whole package of traditionalist values, which in Korea not only include being a good (officially “chaste”) girl, but also connect up uncomfortably with Confucian ideas which, let’s be frank, put women lower on the totem pole. Yet there are other messages available too, and those are images that seem empowering, that seem to speak of discarding the necessity of a man, or of male approval. I’m not saying that the Wonder Girls are some kind of grrrrrrl! power feminist movement, or anything — I’m just as discomfited as anyone by the fact that many adult males were crazy about them — but at the same time, we shouldn’t treat girls as if they’re wholly passive, or wholly stupid. I mean, unless we’re willing to assume teenaged girls are stupid, at which point I think we maybe need to stop and reconsider our motives for discussing this. Are we really just conjuring a generation of imaginary damsels-in-distress, so that we can cleverly sit about racionating about how oppressed they are, and what puppets they’re going to be to the whole media-entertainment complex?

Vulnerable, yes, they are indeed. But teenaged girls are vulnerable anyway, in the absence of this sort of media. It’s not TV or movies that wonjo kyojae springs from. I’m pretty sure there’s a tradition of it dating back very far, as far as the written historical record goes, and that it was just, in those earlier days, called something else because there wasn’t a modern, Western concept like the “Age of Consent” stickytaped onto it. As I said, the position of women in a Confucian isn’t so hot, and in the Korean form of this philosophy, the more extremist “Neo-Confucianism” that was taken up by, and promoted by, the early Joseon Dynasty, things are even worse for women. So it’s not like there’s a grand tradition of lovely family values here, any more than there was a sterile, clean universality of what Republicans like to call “family values” in America in the 1950s, or the 1920s, or however far back you go. Girls have always had it tough, growing up with definitions flying at them from all directions. Definitions, assumptions, imperatives.

So these girls are, like so many before them, stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, and we have to ask ourselves, what is the way through? And I think, ironically, the video for Tell Me could be argued to enunciate it:

The beginning of the video is quite prosaic: we’re in the real world, where a bunch of average looking schoolgirls are sitting around a TV.


What they see on TV is ridiculous, it’s weird, it’s silly. A woman is pictured in full “regalia” seated next to a man, before swishing her “petticoats” in his face:


A band (guys) singing and dancing and the words emblazoned on the screen read, “She’s pretty… She’s pretty” follows, a little later, by
“She was pretty.”


The girls react like any teenaged girls would: with anxious laughter, and loud, protestatory exclamations of disgust…


… that belie what they’re really feeling, and which finally comes forth: their intense interest, as the TV becomes the central object in the screen and they are drawn “into it.”


The trope of them being drawn into, and popping out of, screens is something we saw earlier, in the voting ad. Maybe there’s something to be made of that, I don’t know. But in this context, it’s clear what this means, this movement toward the screen, for suddenly, we find ourselves in a place where the previous order of the world is suspended: the very girls who were acting disgusted by the lingerie and lovesong routines on TV are now dressed up in decidedly unschoolgirl-like clothes — clothing rather like what any college girl wears to class, but being worn by girls who, moments before, in the real world, were dressed in the plain, day-in-day-out school uniform. (And this is not the School Uniform of the Japanese porn star: it is the ill-fitting, plain, unflattering garb of every teenaged girl in the country for years on end. Their hair is permed — this, in a society where girls are not allowed to perm their hair, by the dictates of their school principals.


It’s quite clear we’re in a space of fantasy. And insofar as we take that into account, a lot suddenly becomes clearer. Why are the girls dressed like adults? Because every prisoner dreams of being outside the prison, and there’s no institution in the world that so resembles a prison than a school — especially, my Korean friends have told me over the years, a Korean high school! (And, tellingly, the end of the video is of the Wonder Woman character — one of the singers — dashing out of the school.)

Yet despite this, the video itself keep bouncing back and forth between more realistic images of schoolgirl life — the girls in their classroom, on the school bus…


… and, yeah, the girls’ locker room. (And it’s an interesting moment, because while we could be cynical, I think it’s an important moment, symbolically, in the video. I’ll get into that later, but I’ll let you rewatch the video on your own if you like, now that you’re seeing it through my eyes.)

Throughout the video, images of the girls in their fantasized transfiguration into young women alternate between images of them as normal school kids. Yeah, there’s something of the “Miss Congeniality” about it — how Sandra Bullock is made into a plain-jane so that when she becomes [conventionally, drably, marketably] “pretty”, it’s an affecting transformation. There’s something very lipstick feminist about this, and I have the same misgivings about it that many mainstream feminists have mentioned. And I don’t think that we can thank the management company that brought us Wonder Girls for this, mind you. Who knows if this was even anywhere like as deeply thought out as what I’ve written, or James has written, or Michael, or Bulgasari.

I daresay that I suspect, if these girls’ skirts were a little shorter, or if this were a kids’ picture book, we’d be talking about right now is a narrative that simultaneously acts out girlish empowerment (as the superhero), and fantasizes about a premature escape from the drudgery of school. All the grown-up dancing and fashion and makeup, which is donned in a space where only females interact, significantly, if anything, seems to add up to a conflation of these two central ideas in a package that also conveniently can be marketed as a standard music video. It’s quite interesting, in that capacity. Fascinating, actually.


But the most important thing we need to consider when analyzing the narrative of this particular video is that we avoid clinging to the intentional fallacy. The point of the Wonder Girls is to make money — that was the point of their forming, of making the video, and so on — but what Korean girls choose to do with it is another thing. Every discussion I’ve seen has patronized them, treated them as empty vessels, emphasized that they are susceptible to all kinds of bad messages in this and other videos.

And concern is not completely unwarranted. After all, it’s one thing — and a valid, understandable thing — to object to the sexualization of young women who are being commodified — not just their images, but their very bodies, as with what I consider the revolting practice of wonjo gyojae. It’s quite another to object to any degree of sexuality on the part of girls who, after all, are not asexual. That’s not to say they ought to be sleeping with boys in seventh grade, or even in twelfth grade — the stakes are pretty high for them, and sex education is abysmal here, and anyway, sex even in the twelfth grade can mess up someone’s life, or confidence, or whatever.

But to get too concerned about a video in which, anyway, girls’ sexuality is somehow being expressed in a space which is not open to males, it seems, is to deny them even the right to fantasize about what it’s like to be a woman, free, grown-up, not stuck in a school uniform and allowed to do what she wants with her hair. It’s a grey area, yes, and as adults we’re very anxious about it, and when we see the media exploiting it for money, we get even more anxious… but at the same time, it’s useful to ask ourselves what young women are indeed seeing when they watch it.

(And yes, I’m thinking that an online poll of young women would be very useful in discussing this, but I haven’t the faintest idea how to construct one.)

As James has pointed out elsewhere, women showing more skin and being more provocative in their dress choices can be linked (at least, according to some women themselves) as a sign of, and a tool of, empowerment. I’m leery as always, but I also think it’s worth it not to just shoo off the voices of the women who say this, since, considering our academic models of “media influence” — about which I’ve always been somewhat dubious — their comments are important because they reflects the subjective self-assessment of influence by women themselves. One thing I don’t see, when I go to Seoul, is teenaged girls in high heels and short skirts who are selling themselves to ajeoshis on the street. Whether the explosion in girls assertively experimenting with their sexuality even deserves to be linked to wonjo gyojae is, to me, an open question. After all, girls who are more assertive of their sexuality and desires and self-image may well be girls less prone to manipulation by older men, or less likely to sell themselves to an ugly old man like the one who invades the girls’ shared, communal, and private space in the Tell Me video (the flasher who goes into the girls’ change room and is summarily cast out by a female superhero). Whatever that video does communicate — a consumerism-dependent, superficial sense of femininity, to be sure, but one that’s already near-universal here anyway — I don’t think it suggests girls should be cozying up with perverted old men, or even being passive, letting men manipulate them, or anything like that.

And one more thing: while it’s easy for men to start ranting about how makeup is artifical, is exploitative, and so on, I know that, growing up with sisters, one thing I can say is this: learning to use makeup is part of growing up. Sure, plenty of Korean women (and superstars) never get past that point where it’s a constant thing, a necessity. Unfortunately, makeup is part of the official woman’s uniform in this society. But it already is, and many women who grow up here without learning how to use it — I know some — eventually hit a crisis spot and decide that, even if they won’t use it every day, they want to know how. It’s kind of like men wanting to know how to throw a punch, even if they plan on never doing it. (Would that more girls knew how to throw a punch too… it’d be a better world.)

What I’m saying is, like them or not, the trappings of adult femininity are something that teenaged girls need to grapple with. If the girliness of so many young (or even not-so-young) adult women is taken into account, it’s hardly inexplicable that Wonder Girls would also act girly. It’s almost a necessity, if they’re to speak to their main audience, which is girls, and it is girls, if the fantasy-logic of the video can be trusted. Despite whatever older male viewers the video gets, I believe there is a cryptic girl-language being spoken in the video, and I expect that most teenaged Korean girls will grasp it much more quickly than us clever, academic, big-word-toting white guys ever did, with all our social analysis. Fantasy, after all, reacts to the world, but it does not operate within the world. Fantasy is kind of like the experimental laboratory of the identity.

Perhaps, indeed, it is the incongruity of the trappings of adult femininity, on the youngest members most exaggeratedly, that renders it “safe.” If the eldest of the troupe were always in the shortest skirts, there might be some risk, but it’s easier for adult males to dismiss the incongruity when it’s the youngest member of the group. And in a sense, perhaps this is the general Korean perception — that this is some teenaged girls playing dressup. What echoes rather discomfitingly for us with, say, the ick of young children in beauty pageants might resonate, for Koreans, much more strongly with kids playing dress-up. We default to the suspicious, dark reading, especially those of us with academic training and concern for the undiscussable side of Korean culture, while perhaps for Koreans, it’s more natural to default to the, “Aw, cute!” reaction where what they see is not children being made to mimick adults, but a simulacrum of children actually mimicking adults. As Susan Blackmore noted in The Meme Machine, humans are, first and foremost, consummate imitators. In children, especially, imitation is the experimental lab in which identity is manufactured — imitation of adults. And yeah, this one is being co-sponsored by an entertainment corporation, but then again, entertainment corporations have one goal — to make money — and this goal is attained by speaking to the fantasy-needs of their clientele. And the only people who still buy CDs in Korea anymore are teenagers, right?

Then again, that’s because the only music being mass-produced here is fit only for teenagers. If that. Which brings me to my much bigger concern with regard to Wonder Girls… which is, well, again, something that Bill Hicks said wonderfully in reference to the New Kids on the Block:

Okay, maybe I don’t want musicians who shoot themselves on stage, but for Christ’s sake, it’s depressing to see people — even adults — taken in en masse by this marketing crap. Hicks’ question — “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children?” — is desperately important, and I don’t see anyone who’s arguing it never did, in Korean society. I see, honestly, very little alternative to banal mediocrity when it comes to pop music culture. Whatever is subversive, transgressive, or resistant to the banality, the marketing machine, the commodification of everything — putting dollar signs on everything, as Hicks rails — is banished from radio play, stuck in “live clubs” in Hong Ik, hidden away from the young. Teenagers where I was growing up lived in a cultural wasteland, too, but they had access to more alternatives. My friend Mike was able to actually get into techno when nobody else we knew was really into it. I was able to be a jazzhead in high school. The “cool kids” didn’t listen to New Kids, they listened to The Smiths and old tapes of The Cure. And we had music like the Beatles which, though it wasn’t them my cup of tea, wasn’t so ephemeral and discarded — so unavailable — that young people, like my sisters, couldn’t get into it as some alternative to the popular trash.

(Speaking of discarded, a co-worker emailed me this link to a ton of old Korean rock music. I can’t get it to load on my Linux browser, but I’ll be checking it out when I get a chance to boot into Windows. Thanks Bradley!)

When I see the Wonder Girls, I just see another formulaic invention of a star-making agency, a few kids who were chosen for their looks, dressed up like grown-ups, and sent onto stage to generate money. Nobody who’s actually heard music played from the heart — whether it’s Robert Johnson, or Hwang Sin Hae Band (황신혜 밴드), or Cassandra Wilson, or Nick Drake, or Third Line Butterfly (삼호선 버터프라이), or Jimi Hendrix, or Miles Davis, or Billie Holiday, can listen to and adore the Wonder Girls for their musical performances. It would be like a world-renowed performer of Bach keyboard music suddenly giving it all up to play accompaniment for a Debbie Gibson look-alike. The music of the Wonder Girls, like the images generated with their bodies, like the experiences that are made available for the price of a concert ticket, are simply a marketing product. If the money dropped out of the industry, they would cease to exist in an instant. Like the professor who doesn’t write comments on feedback on essays, like the businessman who doesn’t love to sell cars, they’re just doing a job.

And while it’s unfortnate that the industry into whose clutches these kids who are now the Wonder Girls fallen into will exploit them, it’s even more unfortunate that there’s such a big audience for what is, in the end, cotton candy. Like Bill Hicks, “I want my [unborn] children to listen to people who fucking rock!” — in the way that Bach, John Coltrane, Hendrix, Marley, the Beatles, Kim Kwang Seok, the Uh Uh Boo Project band, and countless others do or did. They can listen to what they want, but I hope for more, for my children, than being mere sheep when it comes to popular culture; adult men declaring they like “ballad” when asked what their favorite music is; adult women trying to learn the steps to a crappy dance because everyone around them seems to think it’s cool; legions of adults muttering “Tell Me, Tell Me, da da-da da-da daaaaaa-da…” for months on end because they never turn off their TVs.

You see, I can’t seem to shake the notion that Wonder Girls is much less a cause of trouble, and much more — on many levels — a symptom. Not so much a symptom of what is, after all, a fairly universal anxiety about the Age of Consent, one we can see traces of in all modernized cultures; but rather, more alarmingly, their popularity is a symptom of something alarming: the cultural cannibalization that’s happened here, and is ongoing. There’s no real music for grownups. There’s no performance art for grownups, either, sans TV. This is a very bad thing.

And that, to me, is the real reason that boundaries are looking more unstable, that these kinds of limits are being pushed increasingly in public. When your heritage — all the little bit that gets romanticized and thrown into high school textbooks — is regarded as ballast, you find out, sooner or later, that somewhere along the way, the astrolabe and the sextant went over the side. You’ve no idea of where you are, because you have only the foggiest, and most distorted of senses, of where you have been. And from there on, as we Westerners discovered when we jettisoned the last shreds of the culture we had inherited in favor of short-term flash and glam, what is left is unfortunately very rough sailing.

34 thoughts on “James on Wonder Girls

  1. Gord, in all seriousness, I think that that was one of best pieces of writing I’ve ever read on the internet. It’s tempting to also say that it puts posts of mine to shame, but that would convey that the impression that mine were perhaps still in the same league, albeit at the opposite ends of it, whereas I don’t personally think so!

    I have to admit that my first reaction to seeing it was sheer disbelief at its length. Having read it now, I can see and understand that when you find your muse, you can’t stop (hence me writing until 4am last night), but it does leave a commentator wondering where to begin. Having said that, I must confess that I did start wanting to skip forward at about the point where you say “Still, there’s one angle that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere, and this, too, concerns me”, just after the last video with Jun Ji-hyun, not because the thread is lost but by sheer exhaustion. If you did decide to edit this post and possibly make it into 2 (although that doesn’t seem your style, and you do have more writing experience than I!), that’s where I would choose personally to split it.

    Naturally I wasn’t offended by anything you said. If I had to begin the first of what I think will be many comments of mine on this post then, it would be point out that, in fact, I completely agree on your point about the essential arbitrariness of the age of consent, and especially the dilemmas and contradictions men face in being aroused by women completely capable of sexual reproduction but being so strongly censured socially, morally, and legally were they to openly admit that they do so. Hence it’s no coincidence that I’m a teacher of teenagers and have been noticeably silent about that sentiment of mine on my own blog. In fact, like you point out, I keep emphasizing how two members of the group are fifteen and, by virtue of doing so, seem to be arguing the complete opposite of what I just said, that that age is central to the discussion. No wonder you got the impression that you did.

    But if I say I agree with you, why do I seem to react so strongly? For two reasons I think. The first is because although many girls that age may well be, the youngest girls I mention aren’t in fact physically mature. Post-menarche certainly, but I’ve heard from numerous sources that physically bearing a child for girls/women still remains very dangerous for them for quite a few years afterwards. In the first video on my site I see one leaning forward and jiggling her breasts in a very adult way for instance…except that, sorry to sound so crass…but she doesn’t have any breasts to jiggle. She looks like a child pretending to be an adult, and the move as a whole very forced.

    Which brings me to my second and more important point, and that is that the videos representing and helping (by various means) teenagers, especially girls and most particularly Korean girls to resolve the dilemmas of their transition phase (for want of a better term at 1:37am), and their healthy exploration and expression of newfound sexuality and so forth…is an excellent point which, combined with the “acting like adults” fantasy you mention, in hindsight very much explains why the have the popularity that they do. These may well be in the minds of producers of the ads. But…they’re not in the minds of the Wondergirls. I still see girls being very much forced to dress and act provocatively, setting new standards and acceptability for the practice in the industry and reflections in young Korean women’s behavior, and this is a counter-acting negative development at least as significant as the positive ones you describe.

    But there are positive ones, and I didn’t realize it before I read your post. Sorry in advance for illegibility of this comment at this late hour (1:49am now), and also if you cover some of the above already. But it is easy to get very lost in that post!

  2. James,

    Oh, poo, the admiration is mutual. But yes, this was horribly long. Probably that will cost some readers, but… frankly, I’m too busy to chop ‘er in half and edit it.

    I completely agree on your point about the essential arbitrariness of the age of consent, and especially the dilemmas and contradictions men face in being aroused by women completely capable of sexual reproduction but being so strongly censured socially, morally, and legally were they to openly admit that they do so.

    Or not even just aroused. Just fascinated visually, enough to watch a music video. But yes, it’s a touchy subject, and I will probably end up putting this behind a reader access filter in a few weeks.

    I’ll grant that you’re right: the youngest members of Wonder Girls aren’t physically mature. I think this is precisely why they’re given the skimpiest clothing, though, since that renders it “safer” (than, say, a more-developed seventeen-year-old in the same clothes). Obviously, my own immediate reaction is much like yours — discomfort. But when huge numbers of people aren’t seeing it, I get nervous about dictating that I’m seeing something and they’re not, or they’re in mass denial.

    I’ve heard from numerous sources that physically bearing a child for girls/women still remains very dangerous for them for quite a few years afterwards.

    Definitely. Even the Spartans, barbaric as they were in many ways, recognized that.

    In the first video on my site I see one leaning forward and jiggling her breasts in a very adult way for instance… except that, sorry to sound so crass… but she doesn’t have any breasts to jiggle. She looks like a child pretending to be an adult, and the move as a whole very forced.

    Yeah, I see that too, and I grant you that it probably is that way because she was given that job to do by an adult. But there’s a degree to which people are more likely to see the awkwardness as the girl play-acting adulthood, and there’s also probably a big degree to which giving that particular move to another of the girls — one who has more to jiggle — would probably, in Korean media, render the scene more transgressive, not less. While she’s a little kid mimicking adults, it can be cute and incongruous; when it’s a young woman, more solidly in the grey area, then the incongruity begins to blur with images of slightly older performers whose use of those same moves bear little or no incongruity. I’m not willing to see the majority of Korean society as blind, mind you, but I am willing to see the majority of society as less than media-savvy, since even some of the smartest young people I know have had a tendency to take images in media at face value unless and until they’re asked to actually analyze it. (I think there’s little or no training for this in school, where I definitely got some training in high school and even, I think, in middle school. I remember analyzing the “hidden meaning” of advertisements in my “Christian Ethics” class, of all places.)

    I’ll consider chopping my post in half, though I’m almost as happy just to leave it as it is and have the five people on earth who are really interested read it through.

  3. Oh, one more thing: I don’t quite know how to say this without it sounding offensive, so I’m going to blurt it instead:

    It seems to me, though this might be a stretch, that the alarming degree to which the youngest members of WG might not be so alarmingly “too young” to Korean audiences in a climate where even adult women are infantilized or self-infantilize. (As we’ve both discussed on our sites in the past.) As I say, I’m also still somewhat puzzled why people don’t see what we see, but they obviously don’t, and I’m not sure the only reason is denial… because people like Lime, who doesn’t make that see-no-evil thing a habit, also finds the music much more objectionable than any of the fashion or performance issues.

    (She, too, argued that the clothing isn’t too different from what high school girls wear on the weekend, and claimed I just can’t tell the difference. Which is interesting in itself. But she also conceded that the outfits in some videos are quite patently a fantasia-mix of celeb clothing and school uniforms. It makes me think of future-noir costumes in SF movies… again, the blurring of boundaries in the grey area.)

  4. James is right. This is great writing, far superior to anything that I’ve posted at my blog. I admire the complexity, the insight, and the expression.

    Now, when are we gonna get hammered again?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  5. That’s a doozy of a post, but well worth the read. Of course it does leave one not knowing where to start in replying!

    Your take on the video is interesting, though it does make me wonder if the video was the primary way in which viewers experienced the wonder girls. If you look on Youtube (not that it represents Korea, really – though isn’t it odd that such a centralized society as Korea lacks (at the moment) a UCC forum as centralized as Youtube is in North America?) you’ll see lots of “live” TV performances in addition to their videos. I’d wonder if the video was seen as often as all of these live performances put together. Consider also that because the video cuts away from the dancing so often, it might not have been the best choice to learn the dance moves from. So I wonder just how much of an influence the video would be – though I haven’t a clue really, because I don’t watch TV, so I don’t know to what degree the video was being pushed vs the live performances.

    Something worth noting also is that while I don’t know that much about the underaged sex industry prior to the ‘popularity’ of wonjo gyoje, there were, in the mid 90s at least, lots of teens working in bars and selling sex (often in Norae-bang style bars). Perhaps there have always been a sizeable contingent of underaged girls in the sex industry here. What changed with Wonjo Gyoje was, perhaps, quite a few more middle class girls taking part in it, not to survive, but in order to partake more fully in consumer culture. I suppose you can look at WG and the WGs as being symptoms of the rapid encroachment of consumerism, putting a dollar sign on everything (as Bill Hicks put it – nice to see him in this post!).

    As for music, Mark Russell has told me there have been three occasions where the powers that be (in the industry, or even the state) have taken measures to crush independent music (the marijuana busts in 74 or 75, at some point in the 80s (i think) and with the advent of punk and indie rock in the late 90s. I’m looking forward to reading his book.

    Oh, and Nora Ephron’s essay is here.

  6. Jeffery & Bulgasari,

    Thanks for the comments. Will reply when less swamped. Right now, I’m as swamped as a Rodent of Unusual Size. And ROUSes do exist! But I’ll be commenting soon! And I’ll will be up for having a drink sometime, definitely!

  7. I think your notions of what constitutes “popular” are problematic. The entire time Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were on TV, they both soaked up a lot of ink about how “popular” they were, but if you actually looked at the ratings, Buffy was near the bottom, and Dawson’s Creek was somewhere near the middle. The top-rated show on TV at the time was…JAG, a series about military lawyers. Buffy and Dawson’s Creek got a lot of attention because of a small segment of viewers they attracted, while JAG had more eyeballs, albeit less profitable eyeballs.

    I think time spent watching, listening, or reading something is a useful metric, but isn’t quite as useful cash. Howard Stern was popular when he was free, but when he moved to sattelite radio, his listeners just melted away.

    Popular music is even more problematic. Sure, The Rolling Stones are “popular”. But how many ageing boomers (Billary, I’m looking at you) could name any of their hits besides “Satisfaction”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and maybe “Mother’s Little Helper”. After forty years in the business, it’s a slim catalog at best.

    With an act like the Wondergirls, not unlike Britney Spears, I suspect it gets more complicated, with “re-mixes” (re-selling the original slightly tweaked single to the same fans), youtube, and P2P blurring the line even more. 17 million people paid too watch The Sopranos, and that means there is roughly 275 million who didn’t. Two or three million Americans bought a Britney Spears album…well, you can do the math. I’m sure the Wondergirls hold on the public’s imagination isn’t quite as impressive when looked at from that perspective.

  8. Jeffrey,

    Thanks. Yes, let’s get smashed. Soon! (I have war stories to tell!)


    First, thanks for the Nora Ephron. I’ll be giving it to my Popular Culture class when we discuss Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies. You rock! (And have great Google-fu — I sought it, but I found it not.)

    Your take on the video is interesting, though it does make me wonder if the video was the primary way in which viewers experienced the wonder girls. If you look on Youtube (not that it represents Korea, really – though isn’t it odd that such a centralized society as Korea lacks (at the moment) a UCC forum as centralized as Youtube is in North America?) you’ll see lots of “live” TV performances in addition to their videos.

    First, Korea’s lack of a Youtube: yeah, but it makes sense in the way that North Americans were slower adopters of cell phones than, say, lots of places in Asia besides Korea. Neal Stephenson wrote a good piece on that ages ago (actually, 14 years ago!), here. North Americans were way slower, I think in large part because of the entrenched landline system . The Korean-occupied area of the Internet is much like that — it’s taken up with big portal sites and all the functions people seem to have developed a need or want for are served by the portal sites. Naver, Daum, and the rest are kind of like the Hudson’s Bay Company of the hermetically sealed K-Net, in a way. And stagnation is the result… though I think there are a few sites developing these days.

    As for the video being a primary of secondary experience, I don’t know. I would have to say we can’t discount the effect of the original video on viewings of live performances. But we shouldn’t overestimate it either. But I have the feeling that once we set up an association between that song and the narrative in the main video, later performances of the song will retain some of the clinging “narrative aura” (er, ugly coinage, but you get what I mean) of the original. That said, you have a point, live lip-synch performances are (bafflingly) very popular here. So I dunno…

    I can say that when it was in heavy rotation, I myself saw the video many times, and I don’t even own a TV. It was on repeat at several computer booths in Yongsan, and I saw it on more than a couple of shikdang TVs too. So much so that when I saw my fiancé watching it — she wanted to know if it was as catchy as everyone was saying online — I recognized it.

    That “catchiness” is, by the way, another interesting facet of the Wonder Girls phenomenon. I heard many, many people describe the song as “addictive.” I certainly didn’t find it so, but it sure was a good excuse to play it constantly everywhere in public. (And a good excuse for guys to obsess about the band, one imagines.)

    As for:

    the underaged sex industry prior to the ‘popularity’ of wonjo gyoje…

    and your suggestion —

    Perhaps there have always been a sizeable contingent of underaged girls in the sex industry here.

    I think you got it in one. This is why I’m dubious about the real, deep cultural effect of the Age of Consent here. I don’t mean many men don’t recognize it, but rather that it’s unrealistic to think that it would have permeated into the culture so deeply that art and pop culture would have internalized it in the way we have, or with the same codes and rules about its transgressibility… especially when, really, I’m sure marriage at fifteen was probably going on here as recently as the Japanese colonial era. Or, if not, at least until after the start of the last century.

    Glad you liked the Bill Hicks; he’s a personal favorite. And now you’ve got me hankering for a copy of Mark Russell’s book. I’ve heard similar things, but never gotten my hands on anything outlining the details. Makes me wish I could read more about the history of 뽕짝, too, and of popular music under the Japanese rule. I would betcha there’s a continuity stretching through that. Perhaps back to the Joseon, perhaps not.

  9. Mark,

    Figured I’d reply in a new comment as the last was getting long and this may well be too.

    One thing I should note that I I generally mean two things by “popular” — one of them is the sense you mean, as in, widely consumed, but the other is important too, and it’s the sense in which I often use the word in the sense of “popular culture.” So I’d call “Yo La Tengo” popular culture, but I don’t know if they’d qualify as “popular” in the former definition.

    (Then again, there’s a sense in which I consider all about sales figures that very twentieth century. It is still useful, for now, but it’s being slowly obliterated by a kind of Long Tail effect. Hell, the Long Tail has already worked its magic through the wonder of internet piracy. Yo La Tengo has achieved enough popularity here in South Korea to get on the radio (I swear, I’d heard a few of their songs on the radio here) and they were liked among indie rockers. (One musician I knew was also a music importer and he’d been involved in developing Korean imports/releases of Yo La Tengo and other foreign indie rock bands here. Where’d he hear of them? Online!

    I think Buffy, at least, was popular in that way. It became part of the zeitgeist, and DVD sales needn’t be great for that to happen. Buffy’s changed how we depict (or suspend our disbelief regarding the depiction of) teenagers. Actually, I think (ironically) that the language in Juno (which I had such a problem with) was something that many viewers accepted in part because of how BtVS impacted the depiction of teenagers.

    Either way, the juggernaut system that made Britney or The Sopranos popular (widely consumed) in the USA is different from its Korean cousin, for all kinds of reasons. American demographics and attitudes about piracy make it possible to profit a lot off a top-ranking CD; also, there’s a huge concertgoing audience in the US (and the rest of the English-speaking world.)

    Demographics are way smaller in Korea to begin with, though the Wonder Girls are working on busting into the Chinese pop market; but since you lived here, I don’t need to tell you how low respect for copyright is in Korea. (Students find it hilarious when I mention buying a CD, and it’s not because they’re buying from iTunes, believe me!) Finally, the demographics combine with a society where concertgoing is still a relatively new, unusual, and youth-culturey thing to do… and something that only happens in Seoul as far as I know.

    So, given all that, I’m not sure sales can be credited as a good index for a Korean pop star’s value, though I have to say, the numbers listed on Wikipedia (about 53,000 in six months) are not too shabby for a retread Korean girly-band, and they’ve made enough of an impact to win a boatload of awards, too.

    One thing to add: anecdotally, I swear, I heard the song five times or more every time I left home, and heard people singing or humming it to themselves almost constantly. It was très Stepford! Like, ubiquitous scary, beyond anything Britney was like when her second album came out.

    (That very ubiquity is part of what got so many Westerners in Korea talking about them — we were weirded out by seeing 40-year-old men singing the tune to themselves, and that’s something even the Korean media has been hyping.)

    But since the whole business plan here is slightly different, sales are probably the wrong place to look. After all, JYP Entertainment, the “talent agency” that “owns” the Wonder Girls franchise, is “the most valuable independent entertainment company in Korea.” It would not be keeping the Wonder Girls in its roster as long as it has if they weren’t generating revenue.

    I suspect it’s the advertising dollar that is a good indicator of cultural currency over here. Advertisement reveals a lot. Lee Hyori‘s last (ie. second) album sort of tanked after a plagiarism scandal (the first single apparently was a ripoff of a Britney tune), but that hasn’t kept her out of the limelight. I’d argue she’s eclipsed Jeon Ji Hyun in popularity, and you can’t leave your home without seeing some provocative or cutesy image of her somewhere. She’s in soju ads, cell phone ads, ads where I haven’t a clue what the product is for. (And I don’t even have a TV!) She’s the single most successful Korean “entertainer” personality, in terms of public image, and she has only 2 CDs to her name — one of them a bomb. And yeah, it’s because of her body. (Though it should be noted she emerged from a similar, if somewhat more “innocent”-looking formula pop group.)

    On that count, Wonder Girls are, at least for the moment, in that prominent zone, enough so that they can get into pizza ads and ads promoting democratic participation. It’s possible they could leach over to the advertising realm and never need to release another album, though I think that’s more likely to happen with one or two members. (And it’s easy to guess which ones from how they’re used in the ads, too.)

    In a way, it reminds me of the (somewhat scary) comment Cory Doctorow made at some point that, yeah, probably someday writers won’t make money from writing, and will be living off revenue from speaking gigs and the like. It makes sense, but it’s less likely for us writerly types to parlay good writing ability into TV ads or other sizeable revenue streams. I mean, not even China Miéville, and he’s one of the best looking of all of us SF&F writers. I guess I’d better start heading to the gym. Or think about some plastic surgery, since I’m in the plastic surgery mecca anyway! (Or maybe just get a more sustainable day job.)

    PS: I think I am rambling. Forgive me, it’s late at night and I just got home from a performance of Mahler’s Symphony #1. Which is enough to unchain the brain from the prosaic world, y’know? Very much a transportative experience — about which I’ll post tomorrow or the next day.

  10. If I could distill my point into the briefest form possible, I was trying to point out just how unpopular our supposedly popular culture is. If Buffy has a larger influence on the popular culture, it will ironically be due to cable and DVD sales (see my posts on Crank and Idiocracy) which seem to have become “hits” (in a relative sense) despite poor initial first runs on the big or small screen. While I prefer to read/write about a “faux” pop phenomenon like Buffy (I suspect our values aren’t ultimately all that different from Whedons) a truly popular book, like “The Purpose Driven Life” can rack up huge sales eclipsing the ever so delightful Ms. Britney Spears in terms of audience. At first blush, “The Purpose Driven Life” has more cultural impact, but because Britney Spears can help sell ring tones to a million or so adolescent girls, she gets the press attention.

    I do think there is something to the long tail argument, but cash can still be the best indicator of passion. I mean, I knew I loved P.J. O’Rourke even when I couldn’t afford to buy his hardcovers when they were new, I’d just pay attention to the book reviews and his byline and slap a hold on the title as soon as it popped up in the libraries database. However, I knew I really, really, loved O’Rourke’s work when I was in Japan – when I discovered he had a new release coming out I ordered a copy on Amazon.com as soon as I found out. I had very little Japanese, but I figured out how to navigate the Amazon.co.jp site pretty quickly.

    Cash is still a very useful yardstick (though it does have it’s limits, I think it’s more useful as a measure for contemporary work as opposed to older stuff more easily obtained, performed, or seen in a library, concert hall, gallery, or museum) as a measure of just how much a person really enjoys a particular artist.

  11. Mark,

    Bah, who needs brevity?

    Hmmm. I see your point, but in a sense, the book I’m reading right now argues what my response would be: indirect influence. (The book, by the way, is Nick Tosches Where Dead Voices Gather. I’ll post about it sometime after I finish it.)

    Whedon’s audiences may have been (relatively) small — though not too shabby for genre TV — but the impact seems to have been much wider. (That is, if you believe wikipedia, but it does present some evidence.) Sometimes, a small audience that includes some well-placed people means more influence than fame and fortune. And there are countless writers and musicians like that — barely read or listened-to in their time or later, but sought out by the small elite that is writing or playing music, and influential upon them.

    Anyway, back to cash — you have a strong point for American society, where copyright law is actually enforced (and where I think more people actually feel like they should buy CDs or pay to download them), but in Korea, where it isn’t, brand new work is equally easy to get as older stuff. Actually, more so — you can just push a few keys on your PC. No need to even go to the museum or library or whatever.

    It’s different with books, mind, but only for the present, I suspect — since there are already a few rampant etext collectors out there. It’s only a matter of time till it happens with books too.

    (And in a sense, in Korea, it already has, but the lo-tech way: classes of students just pitch in and visit the photocopy shop to get a few dozen copies of a textbook done up. Despite occasional “crackdowns” this business is thriving, enough so that there are about six or seven major copy shops within a two-block radius of the front gate of the university where I work! But it hasn’t quite happened with novels here — often, you can buy the novel for only a little more than a single copy would cost, after all.)

  12. Cultural influence is definitely a factor I forgot to consider, given how I’m a fan of a lot of these serial TV shows. I do like to keep things in perspective, and I find taking in to consideration money, eyeballs, eardrums, and bums in seats gives a little bit of perspective, and more importantly, reminds everyone of just how ephemeral pop culture can be.

  13. Mark,

    Which shows specifically? This is also something someone I know argued about Babylon 5 — it was one of the first TV shows to have a long, long arc, and not just a reset button at the end of each episode. (And thus made poossible shows like the contemporaneous (but early on, only very weakly arcing, and heavily resetting) show The X-Files and Millennium, and later The Sopranos, Weeds, etc.) I haven’t thought it over too much, but there might be something to it.

    Indeed pop culture is ephemeral. — its ephemerality is quite fascinating, though it’s also the flipside of its mutability, a major feature of what’s largely an oral tradition, and the mutability also ensures its survival, ironically. Seriously, the more I look at late 19th and early-20th century icons of music and performance, the more I see echoes or even the origins of the personae that our entertainers today present… and the lyrics? Well, there’s a wellspring from which it all seems to pour forth. Hmmm. I think I’m on a different tangent than you, though. But it does remind me of my mother’s claim to have learned a song on the playground in Quebec, and then, in shock, recognize it when she ran across an 800-year old version of the same song in a book on the troubadours.

    Hell, culture in general’s ephemeral, too, isn’t it? That’s something that keeps hitting me as my students (in the reaction write-ups for a panel discussion a week and a half ago, which I’m grading now) keep saying that this or that thing is “purely Korean”, something I challenged class members to think of after the discussion touched on cultural hybridity and cross-cultural influence.

    The most common and iconic one is the most wrong… kimchi? Hot peppers are not native flora in Korea., and haven’t been here all that long at all! Apparent solidity gives way, with just a little history in hand!

  14. Well, when I think of ephemeral, I also think disposable. I mean the Beatles are cool and everything, and I’m sure people will listen to some or all of their stuff in the future. However, I’d rather listen to Liz Phair or the Beastie Boys. They might not be greater than the Beatles, but why get off on somebody else’s nostalgia?

    X-Files, the various incarnations of Star Trek (DS 9 and Enterprise had some great arcs), Buffy, Band of Brothers, Rome, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lost, Weeds, and Big Love, off the top of my head are some of my favorite serials, though given enough time I could think of some more. It’s amazing how much the overall quality of television of programming has improved since the debut of The Simpsons and the X-Files way back in the nineties.

  15. Uh huh. Though I have to say I HATE Curb Your Enthusiasm. I think it’s like goat cheese — you like it or you don’t. I would substitute in “Arrested Development” in its place. And throw in Six Feet Under, which I rather liked (well, the first couple of seasons that I saw).

    As for music, maybe it’s because I intensively trained in it, but for me, what matters most is what is “greater” — partly because so little popular music has nostalgic value for me. (Jazz, avant garde, twentieth century orchestral or chamber music, these are what I got into in my late teens and early 20s, and music was of little or no interest to me before that except as staking out lifestyle/identity territory. (I had a G’n’R jacket, and I listened to them, but mostly as a way of constructing a shield around myself to protect myself from, well, Prince Albert Saskatchewan. You know what I mean. But before I heard Miles Davis for the Nth time, music never really got me in and of itself.) I suspect though, that this makes me the oddball around here.

    I also suspect that however disposable any individual instantiation of “popular music” is, there will always be some contemporary version of it around… as long as we have tongues in our heads to sing our joys and frustrations and people of the opposite sex to try charm. :)

  16. I love Arrested Development. I think it’s probably the best of the bunch we’ve talked about, though I think Breaking Bad is really underrated, albeit overshadowed by it’s predeccessors, Weeds and The Sopranos. Never got into Six Feet Under, nor The Wire, though I’m told both are good.

    Re: Pop ephemera and disposability, The Beatles and music were just variables, and you could pretty much fill in the blank (Gilligans Island and television) with whatever you want. As a Lit major, I’d read something like Vanity Fair in my spare time, and while I loved it, it can be interesting to see how someone like Tom Wolfe updates the themes, concerns etc and puts a contemporary North American spin in on it in a novel like Bonfire of the Vanities. If people are still interested in producing and consuming new stuff, it’s a sign of cultural health. Too much time spent mining the back catalog by consumers, and well, it’s definitely a sign of cultural decline.

  17. Mark,

    Yeah, essentially, I’m saying something similar. (Though to me, an appreciation of the old stuff led to a decrease in appreciation of the newer stuff, since, while it’s all inauthentic to some degree, the new stuff seems much more inauthentic to me.)

    As for cultural decline, I’ve been saying for years that Western civilization is in the process of jettisoning Western culture in order to make the consumer machine flow more smoothly. We have done very little artistically in the mid-to-late 20th century that holds a candle to Bach, or Chartres Cathedral, or the paintings of countless dead Europeans. Warhol? The Beatles? Fooey. Ironic, since we have so much technique now, and so much tech at our disposal… but nothing to say, I guess. And nobody to say it to.

    (I make exceptions for narratives, which seem to be cruising along; mainstream fic, not so much — the decadence of self-indulgence is downright stinking — but in various genre fictions, in a few outstanding TV shows and films, and so on. But then, humans are to narrative like fish are to water; it doesn’t mean we still have a functioning Culture, in the big-C culture sense.)

    Which brings me back to Korea — my sense is the jettisoning is well under way here too, and have thought so since an ex-girlfriend (Korean) commented that she found traditional Korean kayagum music to sound “exotic”, “unfamiliar”, and “oriental.” Unfamiliar, okay, but “exotic”? “Oriental”? WTF!

  18. I think that what makes a lot of the old stuff great, and what a contemporary audiences and artists forget is that Bach et al. weren’t worried about being authentic or great, they just worked on putting out the best possible work they could do.

    As long as John Currin, Takashi Murakami, P.J. O’Rourke, Neveldine & Taylor, and Christopher Buckley are putting out the best possible work they are capable of doing, I don’t really care if it stacks up against that of their predecessors.

  19. That’s interesting. I suspect you’re right that a lot of the best artists weren’t too concerned about authenticity or its manufacture.

    (Because I think authenticity is like confidence — once you’re worried about how to exude it, you’re incapable.)

    Long list of people, most whom weren’t on my radar, but Buckley, at least, now is. (Though I’ll be ages before I get around to him.)

  20. I’ve blogged recently about Murakami (see my “Andy’s Chest” post), Neveldyne and Taylor (“Toward A Po Mo Interpretation of Crank”), and have done some posts in the past about John Currin. However, I wrote the Currin posts before I started embedding links to photos and videos.

  21. Damn, I don’t look for a week and there’s posts! :) Blame the midterm exams…

    I should credit you with keeping me up on North American pop culture, by the way. You know how it is. I never heard of Weeds or Crank except from you…

  22. Thanks for the props – I’ve been disappointed to see my Technorati ranking go down, but I don’t feel as discouraged when I read about your plans to incorporate Weeds into your classroom syllabus. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but if you like Weeds, Breaking Bad is definitely worth checking out.

  23. Will do. Hard thing about working Weeds in is to find an episode without explicit sex or sex idioms to explain. The cussing is okay, even the drug culture stuff I can probably get away with since we’re discussing the allure of (and depiction of) transgressive behaviour and interest in illegal acts, but somehow, a man with a tennis racket up his backside isn’t quite appropriate classroom material.

    I was pleased to learn, when I asked the class if anyone was watching the show, that it has two fans in my class already! (And I haven’t shown even an episode of it.)

    As for Technorati… don’t let it bug you. Do your thing. Modify your thing. Worrying about ratings is… I dunno. You have a day job. :)

  24. Hi there. I really liked this post, and your attempt to hand at least a little empowerment back to the young people playing for the fantasy.

    I quoted and linked you over at my blog while posting on a slightly different topic (Hallyu and KimCheerleading), here:


    Thanks for the food for thought.

  25. Thanks, Roboseyo,

    I didn’t notice the comment in the spam box till now! Ironically, I was reading the very post you linked earlier today, and am still thinking of how to phrase my response. :) Hmm. I’ll post my comment there too, so you know I’ve seen this!

  26. This comment conversation is so long dead no one will ever see this, but as for young girls acting like adult women, I was teaching in Busong-Dong Joong right about the time this post came out. I was teaching summer school (no uniforms, this will be important in a minute) with some other teachers from the Iksan Y and about ten minutes in, I noticed that one of the girls was wearing a shirt that said “I Lost My Irginity in Madagascar” After an awkward ten seconds of staring at her chest to make sure I was seeing that correctly, I asked her if she had ANY idea what that said, to which she responded “no, what?” and I proceeded not to even look in her direction.

    No analysis, just one of the funnier things that happened while I was away. From the other two (male) teachers walking in to the break room after class asking “Did you get a load of that SHIRT” to the reference to interracial sex where the kids call the tan one “black skin” to mock him, to the idea of a freaked out 14 year old desperately trying to find the translation of “Irginity” on Naver to find out why the male teachers in class looked at her like she was the girl from The Ring… Good times.

  27. Pat,

    Yeah, sometimes I actually do feel like getting one of those shirts from Baboshirts (they advertise on Facebook, aggressively) that asks, in Korean, “Do you know what your shirt says?”

    And when you see stuff like that on kids’ shirts, you have to wonder who the hell “designed” it. It can be moderately amusing to see someone wearing a more low-cut shirt with some fitting English on it, for example, but when it’s on a little kid’s shirt… either the person who designed it REALLY speaks no English, or else REALLY has issues.

  28. Just wanted to express my admiration for this thoughtful and thorough post.

    The rigor of the thought is something I don’t see in English writing on Korea and your post hit upon the exact thing that bothers me in so much of the white-knight/cultural exceptionalist/quasi-racist-misogynistic commentary on the country’s media and pop culture (Turnbull did deserve a mention): how those writers treat Korean women as passive, naive dummies who are easily ‘tricked’ because they lack personhood, the ability to process content for themselves, and, well, just brains in general.

    Props for treating them as people who might have their own needs, thoughts, and aspirations.

    1. Thanks Steve, I appreciate that a lot, and have been enjoying the conversation that has spun off this comment, too! Sorry it took me so long to get around to moving this comment here and making it public… it’s been a bit hectic.

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