|K-pop groups with underage members such as KARA have caused controversy with their provocative dress and dance routines|
Drawing a line between sex and pop
Over the last 15 years, K-pop has grown from being entertainment for Koreans to being the subject of affection of fans across Asia, North America and Europe. Concerns over the increased sexualization of its performers, especially those of whom are underage, have followed the industry’s rise.
Last year, K-pop became an unlikely subject of debate at the National Assembly when lawmakers ordered an inquiry into why Korean girl groups wear such “revealing clothes” and dance with “suggestive moves and lyrics.” Particularly of concern was the age of many performers: Groups such as KARA and f(x) include minors among their members. Many other popular groups such as Girls’ Generation included underage members when they debuted.
More recently, the Fair Trade Commission announced guidelines to stop the sexualization of K-Pop teen stars and ensure reasonable working conditions. The guidelines are not binding and fail to define what constitutes overly provocative dress or content. Meanwhile, general agreement on just what is sexual and what isn’t in the world of pop can’t always be found. One fan or entertainment company’s “sexy” is another’s “cute.“
Yes: We must curb the exploitation of teens
By James Turnbull
It’s never popular, criticizing the sexualization of minors in K-pop. Raise concerns about a revealing photo shoot of a young female performer for instance, and more than likely you’ll be called a prude for not recognizing her bold assertion of her blossoming sexuality. Or, ironically, you may even be called perverted instead, for surely only a pedophile would find sexual elements in such “cute and innocent” photos.
As Meenakshi Durham, author of “The Lolita Effect,” aptly put it, you just can’t win: Either you’re for sex, or against sex. But whereas this artificial dichotomy effectively stifles debate, meanwhile the sexualization of minors in Korea continues apace, with several factors that render it much more problematic than in other countries.
First, consider the various imperatives within the K-pop industry driving it. Following the enormous success of the Wondergirls and Girls’ Generation, both of which stood out for projecting much sexier images than previous teenage girl-groups, entertainment companies were quick to capitalize on the new craze, producing many more girl-groups based on their examples. So much so that it’s difficult to keep track of them all, with 12 more set to debut just in the second half of this year.
Add in Korea’s notoriously high levels of illegal downloading, ensuring that profits in the Korean music industry are overwhelmingly from concerts and commercial endorsements (and which explains why 75 percent of Korean commercials feature celebrities), then courting controversy with ever more provocative performances is a no-brainer.
Second, with exceptions such as semi-nude 17-year-old model Choi Eun-jung aside, who notoriously said that “10-19 are the perfect ages to reveal a lot of skin,” whenever claims of female empowerment or sexual expression are made of girl groups, just a little investigation reveals the conspicuous absence of the voices of the girls themselves. Rather, you find that it’s the entertainment companies speaking for them, which certainly don’t want to challenge Japanese fans’ perception of them as “more mature” than Japanese groups when, according to DFSB Kollective head Bernie Cho, “many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea.”
But surprisingly perhaps, so too does the Korean government want to promote this image, as it has a vested interest in downplaying the negatives of K-pop industry as it extends its soft power overseas.
Give the girls a chance to speak away from the watchful eyes of their managers, however, who micromanage their lives to the extent that they’re often not even allowed cellphones or internet access (let alone boyfriends), then there’s precious little evidence that the girls are wearing revealing clothing and doing provocative dances because they actually want to. In particular, a Ministry of Gender Equality and Family investigation last year found that 60 percent of girls surveyed had been pressured to do so.
Finally, consider the context in which the sexualization of K-pop is received.
Koreans are by no means passive dupes of the media, nor are they completely unaffected by the images of gender relations and sexuality contained therein either. Yet if one does acknowledge that K-pop has some influence, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to also suppose that in an environment where the age of consent is as low as 13; where sex education ― while improving ― is woefully inadequate; and, in particular, where not only is there little sense of “no means no,” but actually there is an oft-used proverb (roughly “There is no tree that will not fall after being hit ten times”) that positively encourages people not to take no for an answer, Korean teenagers may face extra hurdles in critically assessing these sexual messages propounded by K-pop.
The recent guidelines by the Fair Trade Commission are demonstrably inadequate, and laws are required instead. But considering that any limits on such a vague concept as sexualization are by definition arbitrary, then it is crucial that 1) the ensuing legislation process is transparent; 2) that implementation of the laws is consistent; and 3) that only one, preferably independent, organization has the power of censorship. Currently, that last is divided between a plethora of competing media and government organizations, and the ensuing unpredictable and often bizarre decisions ― including banning a music video for the singers driving without wearing seat belts, or allowing exposed navels on men but not on women ― have thoroughly undermined the credibility of attempts to curb the sexualization of teens in K-pop. A fresh start is urgently needed.
An 11-year resident of Korea, James Turnbull is a guest lecturer and writer on Korean gender issues, advertising, and popular culture. His book chapter, “Girls’ Generation(?) Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop” (co-written with Stephen Epstein) will be published in the forthcoming “The Korean Popular Culture Reader” by Duke University Press. He can be contacted via his blog at thegrandnarrative.com. ― Ed.
No: What is acceptable is too subjective
By Cho Dae-won
Recently, the Fair Trade Commission complemented and revised the Standard Form of Exclusive Entertainers’ contract. The purpose of this revision was to prevent teenage stars’ sexualization and to protect basic human rights such as the right to education, sleep, rest, free choice, etc. Of course I sympathize with the point of the restriction. However, the reaction from entertainment industry has been indifferent as the FTC passed over some problems.
First, the FTC generalized the problem from a single example. In other words, I feel like they demonized our industry as “a vicious enterprise.” Celebrity life certainly is not for everyone. A celebrity should have “superior ability” and put in “the utmost effort.” We cannot force someone to become a star if there is no talent or if he or she does not want to be a star. After a very strict selection process from would-be stars, we work hard to make their value high (commercialization). A relationship between an entertainment management agency and a celebrity is not a relationship of employee-employer, but a partnership. Trying to overexpose or overwork teenagers is a rare case. However, the Korean government generalized that every entertainment agency ignores their teenaged stars’ human rights.
Secondly, the guidelines of the FTC’s revision are vague. What is the standard of overexposure or sexualization and what is a human rights violation? So the level of exposure is just subjective. Also, the acceptable working hours of entertainers is ambiguous too. If entertainers’ working week is based on a 40-hour week as with general workers, we have two questions; should we count the time spent during appearances on TV, or commuting time to appear in the studio too? In the case of singers, they need to spend enormous amounts of time to practice, to prepare for their 3-4 minutes on stage. Even if the standard of this time is fixed, there is a problem of whether entertainers are general workers. Usually, entertainers do not get paid a salary. They are individual businessmen and women who split their income with entertainment agencies. Also there is no clear line between “stars” and “trainees.”
The third problem is equality. I contend that FTC applies this kind of standard only to the entertainment world. Of course, I know they considered the influence of entertainers. But I doubt if they put this standard to sports stars such as Kim Yu-na, Son Yeon-jae, Ji So-yeon, Yeo Min-ji, etc. I doubt that these explanations from the sports world succeeded as global stars with this same standard. Despite the concerns of the FTC, most agencies manage their teenage stars carefully. Agencies administrate their school and training, even strictly ensuring they return home on time. This “star system” is a hard act to follow for any other country, and I think this system has made the success that is “hallyu.”
The leading driver of hallyu is not the Korean government. Hallyu has come from agencies’ continuous investment, their systematic training system, and the efforts of individuals. Even though the government used “recommendation” not “compulsion” this time, artistry and the ability of creation should not be shrunk. Not only it did not take appropriate measures to prevent adverse effects, but the government said through a press release that the entertainment industry agrees with its opinion.
A fair game can be held when there are fair rules. The government should make fair rules, by managing and overseeing the market to see if it is a fair game. However, this time, all fairness has been lost. It would have been enough to place responsibility on the broadcasters, rather than issue these guidelines. There is a youth protection and broadcasting committee in the broadcasting arena which can be reconciled. This is the reason why the entertainment industry views this new regulation with apprehension.
Cho Dae-won is a professor of entertainment management at Kook-je University, and a representative of Choeun Entertainment. ― Ed.