Miss Jiwaku recently complained on her blog of how the whole musical trend of girl groups and boy bands has “ruined everything” in Korea, especially advertising. I’ve noted a few times on my Twitter feed how when actual girl groups aren’t being used to advertise water parks, girl group-like collections of women have been created for advertising. For one park, she informed me, a “girl group” was actually formed — the “Ocean Girls”:
This, she assures me, was not the case a decade ago, when water park ads featured… you know, kids playing and families enjoying themselves together, and stuff. Sort of the way we would advertise water parks in North America:
A long time ago, I commented on how girl groups in Korea were not surprising — nor their sexualization, or the targeting of this overstated-but-unacknowledged targeting to middle-aged men. (For why I argued that, see here.) James Turnbull has been writing about the issue at some length, and it is of him that I thought immediately when Miss Jiwaku told me about Chocolat, a new girlgroup in Korea that has started promoting itself.
It seems these days that girl groups need to have some kind of selling point to be distinguished from one another, since, following the Korean business tradition, management groups have flooded the market with essentially indistinguishable products. (Even more indistinguishable given all the plastic surgery and those surgeries are making people look more and more similar here.)
Anyway, the selling point of Chocolat (쇼콜라) is… they have biracial members.
Seriously. But come on, given the status of race in Korea, is this surprising?
Mixed-race status is something that has been cropping up in Korean media, of course. In many advertisements, one sees mixed-race people — the men are almost always intended to look classy, the women usually to look sexy. It goes without saying, of course, that the mixed-race people used in advertisements are always half-Korean and half-white.
That is, of course, now. I remember when I happened to be watching the film “How to Keep My Love” (a cheesy Korean romantic comedy) on TV and I commented, “Hey, that woman… the tall one. She’s biracial, isn’t she?” I got an incredulous look, and the question, “How did you know that?” But it was obvious to me, and I was amused by the fact she actually had to “come out of the closet” (tearfully, in fact) in order for it to become common knowledge. In that film, it seemed quite obvious to me. I’m sure you can pick her out in the trailer, if you look carefully (though the quality is terrible):
Things have come a long way, and I get the sense that being biracial — at least, when it’s the “right” pair of races — Korean and white being optimal — is something people don’t admit tearfully anymore.
I have been expecting a musical act to start exploiting the aura of exoticism, permissibility, and sexuality that clusters around this particular region of race in Korea. Perhaps it took a long time because, you know, differing cultural attitudes towards kids and towards contracts (I don’t know any Westerners with kids whom I can imagine letting their kids sign contracts of the kind common in Korean entertainment); or maybe, because while sexualizing children worked here, and sexualizing mixed-race women (and fetishizing mixed-race people generally) worked here, people weren’t sure whether sexualizing mixed-race teenagers would fly.
But they’ve gone ahead and tried it, and make no mistake, they’re pushing the mixed-race angle really hard:
Indeed, if you read the comments for this video, you’ll notice what is plain to see if you watch it… or even a part of it. There are two girls in the group who are non-mixed-race Koreans, and they get very little focus at all. Including the Korean girl who is, nominally, the leader. All the closeup shots of faces are on the girls who are mixed-race, and of course, the one who gets the most facetime is apparently a 15 year old.
For those who are already all offended by my claim that they’re pandering with their mixed-race theme, look at the “intro video” for the band, released a while before their first song:
The video is in English (are they targeting the American market, or is this obviously American teenager just that bad at Korean?), and the members introduced first are all the mixed-race kids. Not only that, but obviously nobody even thought to prep the native Korean kids for the interviews, and surely someone knew that they were not going to be able to just squirt out an introduction in a foreign language all of a sudden… and they obviously didn’t do a second take.
Whereas the media hypersexualization of children is pretty much accepted — if not admitted — in Korean society, and the media hypersexualization of white women is all but de rigeur now, I think the idea that the media sexualization of biracially white/Korean children might not turn out to be as profitable an enterprise in Korea.1
The band seems to be getting a pretty negative reception online, and it’s not hard to see why: the particular anxieties regarding race in Korea that the group’s promoters are trying to exploit — ambiguities of race, and the permissible exoticism of the non-Korean female — take on a life of their own when there is not a Korean male in the picture to “own” her (and, likewise, to “pwn” her).
Put that mixed race woman in a group of Korean women, without a man in the mix, and I think you might find what I’ve seen in reality: she gets ostracized, because she is the one who’s enviably different. And then, if you take a few of them and put them together, make them dominate a group, and let media out where they could remotely be understood (or misunderstood, or willfully misunderstood even) as looking down on Korean girls, and…
Well, I don’t know what will happen. But I expect a lot of negative press, a lot of anti-fans. Korean girls are not going to like this very much. What remains to be seen is whether the appeal to middle-aged men is going to be enough to outweigh that narrowing of audience.
Indeed, that question is a very interesting one — as it may affect the shape of Kpop to come, and while Kpop is far from the most interesting aspect of Korea to me, I can see how it could enmesh with other, much more interesting and important issues in Korean society.
Hmm… Well, at least they didn’t call the band Mongrel.
1. And by the way, in case it’s unclear why I’m using the word “hypersexualization” here, I’m not opposed to media that avoids the self-righteous desexualization of teenagers. Teens are sexual beings, a fact that far too many narratives devised by adults ignore. Representing teens as actually sexual isn’t bad, as I argued here — though bear in mind, being sexual being hypersexualized for the audience are two different things: I’m cool with the former, I’m not cool with the latter. The point about hypersexualization is that it involves both exaggerated stylization and adultization, and it is carried out primarily for the “benefit” not of teens (who could be engaged by narratives honestly depicting the sexual identity of teens) but rather of particularly older audience members who are consuming the media primarily for that sexualization. See my post on the debate over the Wonder Girls group a few years ago for a more detailed explanation of this point.