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Gender Iconography & Transformations in Korean Pop Culture: What Can We Learn From Japanese Women’s SF?

James has an interesting post on “Sexist Korean Advertisements?” Note the question-mark… it’s significant to his discussion. As some of his commenters note and James acknowledges in the comments, use of women’s sexuality is a universalin advertising, but another comment brought something else to mind:

…if we were interested in finding balance you could look around and find all kinds of ads objectifying men, too.

A big alarm bell went off in my head when I read that, but not because I had a sudden revelation that ads objectify male bodies. Advertisements really do objectify female bodies in a much more in-your-face way, and more often, than they do male bodies. (And, similarly, the presence of the happy wife in an advertisement for fridges is a positive, and central presence; the good, beloved husband who “provided” the fridge is peripheral, if it is present at all in the ad.)

Of course, the parallel to objectification of women’s bodies in advertising might not be simply or straightforwardly the objectification of men’s bodies in advertising. I’ve mentioned that I’m partway through a collection of essays on Japanese SF titled Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, and a passage from the essay by Kotani Mari, translated by Miri Nakamura, titled “Alien Spaces and Alien Bodies in Japanese Women’s Science Fiction” came to mind.

(Incidentally, it’s a fascinating essay that discusses early women’s SF in Japan during the 1970s, including a look at the fascinating life of one Suzuki Izmui, apparently a onetime famous porn-star and nude model turned drug-experimentalist who married a famous Japanese saxophonist and settled down to write arguably feminist SF, SF ironically humorous but at the same time deeply critical of what she considered “shallow Japanese consumerism” in the 80s, before she killed herself in 1986. Basically, she sounds like the female Japanese equivalent of Philip K. Dick. Who’d’ve thunk it?)

Anyway, all that aside, this passage from early on in the essay comes to mind, where Nakamura is discussing the differences in how male and female SF authors depicted mothers and domestic spaces — men did it sentimentally, and women tended to focus on conflicts and stifling oppressiveness of both the relationships and domestic spaces:

…The notion of the house as a claustrophobic space has become so firmly embedded in the Japanese worldview that the body images of sons and daughters have altered in order to conform with it.

These changes are especially evident for male bodies depicted by female writers, as adolescent male bodies are usually idealized images. This idealization can be seen in situations wheremale figures become the objects of romantic affairs. The alteration of male bodies can be understood as the desire of women to appropriate the idealized masculine images constructed by male-centered ideologies for themselves. Altered male images appear in romance novels as individuals dressed in male clothing but who embody feminine beauty, and in soap operas (ren’ai dorama) in the form of male-male relationships. It is likely that these kids of male images appear in numerous works of female science fiction because fantastic narratives describing strange transformations of humans are common in the world of science-fiction. So-called slash fiction by foreign female writers also deploys similar narratives. These trends undoubtedly owe much to the fact that, in the market for women’s science fiction, texts such as shōjo comics and shōjo novels are all targeted at female consumers and establish a female-oriented cosumer code.

That’s a little impenetrable, but what the essay basically unpacks is that, in a lot of Japanese women’s SF a few factors come into play:

All of that is interesting insofar as it applies to Japanese SF, but what really sets off my alarm bells here is the notion that, since 2002, perhaps these tropes somehow — through manga, through cross-fertilization of culture, through whatever other means that cultures move across narrow channels of water — these tropes hit the mainstream in South Korean pop culture.

The first image that comes to mind, of course, is of figures like Lee Jun Ki and Rain, who, in the images below, seem to give of a surprisingly feminine air.

And it’s worth noting that Lee Jun Ki, by far the girliest of the bunch, cut his teeth playing a very sexually ambiguous character whom it is very strongly implied had sexual relations with a Korean king (the Joseon Dynasty King Yeonsan) in what, all things considered, might be the biggest budget example of slash fanfic yet, 2005 blockbuster The King and the Clown, more ambiguously titled in Korean, “왕의 남자” — The King’s Man.

(It might be anti-fanfic, maybe, in fact; King Yeonsan seems to have been villified as the worst Korean king ever in the TV drama Daejangum, and he does, after all, fall in love with a male jester who mocks him publicly.)

But for all that overt girliness and even outright depiction of homosexuality it may well be that what makes so many foreigners — especially adamantly straight Western men like myself — find that Korean pop star known as Yon-sama in Japan — so subtly unheimliche is some softness in his appearance, not so much as Lee Jun-Ki, of course, but perhaps just enough to work the subterranean grammar of that “female-oriented cosumer code” Nakamura discusses.

It may be that the oft-discussed pink shirts here, and the odd young man you meet who wears eyeliner or base, is working those codes, too. Very odd, but not quite so rare… every female in my conversation class had an strong and distinct opinion based on experience as to whether men wearing makeup is cool or not, when the topic came up last semester. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining the strange pride you find in those rare males you encounter who declare their favorite music to be “발라드” — “balladuh,” that is, ballads, which comprise a whole genre until itself here — as if it were a mark of sophistication, might well also be doing their best to exploit (in the dating-game, attractiveness, mating-competition sense of “exploit”) that female consumer code.

After all, it’s not as if all of the men who are girlified in the media have to be depicted in that way. Lee Jun Ki, maybe, is famous for his girlish looks, but in the case of the other two I’ve mentioned, it seems likelier that there has been a conscious (or unconscious, maybe) choice to feminize them in public appearances, and one being made to the exclusion of more manly, macho possibilities, as the photos below — of Rain and of Bae, showing their muscles — suggest:

But the rabbit hole maybe goes deeper. Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling posted about a video dating back to early 2002, and a more recent movie, in which males are humiliated in various ways, a couple of them after odd forms of fantastical transformation — their bodies fed to animals, their heads sprouting from to a mechanical riding bull or, in the fascinating film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the body of a dog that is then shot dead, as in the images below, stolen shamelessly from Matt. (But go read his post, now, before you continue on!)

Yes, some of those males who are humiliated in the SES video aren’t explicitly transformed, but… wait: they’re white, foreign males, in situations where, with the exception of the casino (as far as I know, casinos were, at least in 2002, foreigners-only in Korea) it would seem to make more (literal) sense for Korean men to be! How many Korean women actually lead meetings with foreign business partners, let alone standing up to them when they aren’t listening? How many film sets employ Korean women as camera operators, and all-white crews? Well, maybe SES is imagined to be working on film sets in L.A., casinos in Texas, and running companies in New York, but this is a product of the Korean media, made for consumption in Korea. Either way, there’s some kind of fantasy at play here. It’s pretty arguable the dominance-and-revenge dynamic could be made with Korean men just as easily, if not more so, as with white men.

In the comments section of Matt’s post, linked above, I claimed that this is a pretty effective way to (a) sublimate revenge fantasies of (some) Korean women directed at Korean men into something socially acceptable, while (b) presenting revenge fantasies that (some) Korean men are likelier to get behind or maybe even partake of themselves. Of course, there’s probably a little of (b) at play in (a) as well — surely those revenge fantasies on Korean men are as socially objectionable to a number of Korean girls and women themselves, and not just to men.

But it strikes me, now that I have Nakamura in mind, that given the political culture and what some of my more academic would call “the Korean imaginary” — the repertoire of connections and tropes that exist in the collective fantastical imagination of Korean society — that given how it’s pretty arguably behaving in ways more descriptive of the way Korean men regard Korean women in the workplace, the “whitening” of these men who are, is, indeed, another particular unspoken “transformation” of male bodies. It may also be a way of masculinizing them in a way that makes them simultaneously alien on several levels at once.

Woah, tangly! What I’m saying is that maybe using white guys to represent Korean male sexism and gender inequality might, indeed, be another form of this kind of transformation Nakamura is talking about: perhaps, to the imaginative repertoire that includes feminization and bestialization, we should include transformation of Korean men into foreign men. Which has somewhat unnerving connotations in terms of how race and bestialization may link up in the imaginative palette, but then, it’s not like that’s not a familiar theme from other cultures, including my own:

Fascinating stuff, but now it has me wondering to what degree Japanese yaoi has, in terms of publication, made it over here. I know that homegrown yaoi exists in Korea (featuring young male celebrities and boy-band members, by the account I heard) , though not much more than that, and that even as far back as 2002, middle school gils in places like Iksan were consuming and creating it online, and simultaneously experimenting with their identity in “lesbian clubs” that, while they likely involved no real lesbian exprimentation, probably did participate in an imaginative reconstruction of their world as “female-centered”… to whatever degree it is that, you know, middle school kids can really do that.

All of which brings me back to the interesting paradox, which I commented about at Matt’s post above, where the Korean girl-group Wonder Girls can be read as simultaneously working two distinct audiences:

  1. Younger (especially teenage) female consumers, wherein the group enacts a female space where feminine sexuality is expressible, and can be celebrated, and in which the males with whom they interact are, when bad, punished, and otherwise seem to be helplessly under control of women, who, nonetheless, seem to prefer one anothers’ company to that of annoying, weird boys, as I argued here
  2. Older male consumers, who get a titillating view into a fantasy world that is both hyperfeminized and skirting (literally) the boundaries of socially acceptable interest because of the youth of some of its members, and for whom the punishment of “bad” men definitely reinforces the “naughtiness” of their participation in the videos as male consumers, while further underlining (like the piecemeal quasi-schoolgirl uniforms the band members often wear) the very risqué way that the videos promote and depicts pubescent females, as James has famously discussed here (as well as in other places).

And I think that deserves some attention. The pictures from one fansite (Wonder Girls Wonderland) reveal pretty clearly that not all the attention that the Wonder Girls get from men is so negative as to come from old men. The pictures below are all labeled in such a way as to suggest they’re promotional materials for their second album:





Yet, for all of that, so far, all the dance sequences I’ve seen seem to be all-girl affairs. Exercises in performative female homosociality, as it were. One wonders whether it’s logistical issues that keep the young men relegated to promo shots, and not on the dance floor with the girls, or whether the band’s managing company, JYP, is quite aware of the double-fantasy it presents and is intent on maintaining it as long as it can.

Which, whatever you think of it on an ethical level, certainly would demonstrate strong business acumen. In this case, it’s not butts in seats that matter so much as butts on screens

— that will make piles and piles of money, as with the whole phenomenon of girl-bands and boy-bands seems to do, by capitalizing on the intersecting anxieties about discrete feminine or masculine spaces, and of nascent sexuality, which are, realistically, the domain of fantasy and impossible in the real world. And nascent it clearly is: “sexy” dance moves alternate with “kiddie” ones, and it’s no accident that the youngest member of the band, during her fantastical scene as a superstar exiting a limo to the flash of dozens of cameras, suddenly trips and falls. It’s very clearly a kind of wink at the fact she’s not yet a superstar, not yet a grown-up ready to participate in the popstardom that, on some subtle fantastical level for teenagers everywhere, is somehow linked to adulthood and all that it entails.

But one must wonder, have images of such transformations — females into shared, hyperfeminized spaces and into monstrous or hyperfeminine forms, and meanwhile males into beastly, foreign-beastly, or feminized forms — penetrated deeply into Korean pop culture, and if so, why?

What do you think?

UPDATE: As I was hiking the mountain, a few more examples hit me of Transformations — which, indeed, may serve also to answer Mark’s question of the value of studying old stuff in the comments below, as old stuff has a weird habit of coming back:

Black face in Korea seems to be acceptable — at least to the point of some people not getting why it might not be — as a form of transformation in pop culture. The Bubble Sisters (discussed here by an understandably disgusted Michael) seemed to use it to cash in on some kind of “black chic”:

Perhaps, a case of Koreans importing something foreign and taking it to new extremes? Is this a Korean mis-adoption of Japanese Ganguro? (The thought comes to mind since Michael compares Korean blackface to Ganguro in his post, linked above.)

… whilst Korean members of the Raelian cult seemed to think it tied somehow to sexuality — one assumes, at least, since it doesn’t seem tied to the other Raelian obsession of UFOs:

… and other appearances on TV, from the controversy-igniting blackface routine on Misuda:

… to this video, seem to be some kind of return to the (ahem) “It’s just so darn funny to see blacks impersonated poorly by non-blacks!”

I’d swear there was another example that came to mind, but now it escapes me. Perhaps another update later…

Whup! There it is! It brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which is a hell of a novel — read it if you can, and if you can’t find the time for the novel, even if it is available online for free, then get hold of the movie, starring Tilda Swinton — but really, read the book, it’s so worth it.. The bit I’m going to refer to is in both, and it’s from memory — my copy of the novel is in my office. Orlando is about a man living in Elizabethan England and his life, which… well, he basically doesn’t age or die. He ought to, everyone around him does, but he doesn’t. He ends up going off to the Orient, and at some point, becomes a woman, and the novel traces his life from there on. Like I said, it’s a freaking brilliant novel, and you’ll love it, even if you don’t like Woolf. The movie’s pretty damned good, too.

Anyway, there’s this funny little riff that occurs at the beginning, and it’s used in the film, the first bit, and recurs at the end (in the film only, though), about androgyny and fashion:

He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.

Orlando’s fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters. So too would Orlando, he vowed. But since he was sixteen only, and too young to ride with them in Africa or France, he would steal away from his mother and the peacocks in the garden and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice the air with his blade. Sometimes he cut the cord so that the skull bumped on the floor and he had to string it up again, fastening it with some chivalry almost out of reach so that his enemy grinned at him through shrunk, black lips triumphantly. The skull swung to and fro, for the house, at the top of which he lived, was so vast that there seemed trapped in it the wind itself, blowing this way, blowing that way, winter and summer. The green arras with the hunters on it moved perpetually. His fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads. Were not the bars of darkness in the room, and the yellow pools which chequered the floor, made by the sun falling through the stained glass of a vast coat of arms in the window? Orlando stood now in the midst of the yellow body of an heraldic leopard. When he put his hand on the window-sill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue, and yellow like a butterfly’s wing. Thus, those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them, might observe that though the shapely legs, the handsome body, and the well-set shoulders were all of them decorated with various tints of heraldic light, Orlando’s face, as he threw the window open, was lit solely by the sun itself. A more candid, sullen face it would be impossible to find. Happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need she vex herself, nor he invoke the help of novelist or poet. From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach whatever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career.

— yes, I’m indulging, but what gorgeous prose! — and here’s a reflection on sex and fashion from later on in the novel:

… If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword, the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same.

That is the view of some philosophers and wise ones, but on the whole, we incline to another. The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. And perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual–openness indeed was the soul of her nature–something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed. For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience; but here we leave the general question and note only the odd effect it had in the particular case of Orlando herself.

Christ! the prose. To write like that woman. But, I swoon! I tell you once more: read this book!

Woolf’s interest in the admixture of the sexes is interesting because it raises the point that this is not an essentially phenomenon — or, rather, that the traits of each gender were not partitioned in other times as they are today. Men were praised, in the days when the Gawain-poet issued forth his poems, for being “wasp-waisted”– which is to say, I suppose, for having a slender waist and some curves on either side of it — and in Chaucer, specifically in “The Knight’s Tale,” we see a men weeping like it’s going out of style.

But of course, gender roles have differed in the past, you may well say, and I will agreed, of course, and this is a BDO — a Big Duh Observation, which is to say, it’s blitheringly obvious.

What is not obvious to me — and it may just be my ignorance, the field may well be fully-mined out — how in postmodern societies, these gender role partitionings undergo rapid, sudden changes, for what reason, and what role popular cultures — especially those imported from abroad — play in societies like Korea’s, which is, at its core, has long been an importing consumer of foreign popular culture much more than a creating, exporting generator of new popular culture — especially popular culture that redefines gender or race in any fantastical way.

That said, one wonders whether Japanese popular culture has transmitted the conscious effeminizing of maleness to Korea, and whether, in turn, Korean popular culture (recently so in vogue in the rest of Asia… for example, according to my Chinese exchange students, significantly impacting Chinese pop culture) has in turn retransmitted this to other parts of Asia.

Again, tangly. Time to retire, till the next installment in this erstwhile series.

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