K-pop Is Neo-Confucian Pornography

Michael Hurt
Jan 9, 2017 · 33 min read

“When the Young-Girl giggles, she’s still at work.

The Young-Girl’s reification fits so perfectly with the world of the authoritarian commodity that it should be considered her fundamental professional skill.”

Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, p. 23

OK — before we get started, I’d like to note here that this essay is an effort not to be academic for the sake of other academics, as an professorly act of showing off, which would read more like the passage below, which presents the argument in the dense, compressed form of an academic abstract:

The proposed paper asserts, quite simply, that newer trends in K-pop music videos employ a representation of fetishised, girlish innocence as semiotic cover for the overt sexualisation of underage girls as part of a process that allows previously off-limits suggestions of the actual sexual objectification of minors in the real world. Previously, even the most fantastical imaginings of actual sexual acts with real girls was generally prevented by a semiotically clear but obviously unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” within the video texts themselves. Thus far in the evolution of the K-pop music video genre, overt signs and symbols denoting explicit sexuality or sex acts tended to be part of the sheep’s clothing of plausible, polysemic deniability desiring young girl performers, with the representation of actual sexual activity with minors, e.g. “schoolgirls”, being quite rare, since semiotic representations and codings of innocence maintained an off-limits area for the sexualising gaze of both the actors within the text and the viewer. This coding of innocence used to be the cover under which the sexualising gaze could freely operate, but has subtly shifted, in a few crucial instances, to the basis for the sexual desiring of actual girls itself. Neo-Confucian values related to the use-value of women as “subjectless bodies” (Kim, 100–101) in Korean society are simply being presented in the updated-yet-repressive, Neo-Confucian sense that women’s bodies are still mere semen receptacles for men, with the update being that their utility as cum receptacles is no longer merely as vessels of reproduction, but of sexual gratification as well.

I didn’t design this essay to be too hard for anyone but academics to get, but didn’t aim so low that it has to be shoehorned into a form that is conducive to a “one-read, one kill”, digestible in a single subway ride form. I hope that this essay can educate (in an academic way), provoke critical thought, as well as (intellectually) entertain. So this might require a bit more effort than many readers are used to in this age of Facebooking, tittering-through-Twitter, and Insta-gratification. I admit that it’s longer than I wanted to be, but it’s designed to cover certain points as a reading for my university lectures, so please understand that this will have to be digested in multiple reads.

In my own university classes, as well as my public writing, I’ve noticed that certain traits generally define people who sit on the other sides of the fence from where I’m coming from as an educator, and this will likely determine whether you like this article or not. I’m just trying to save you some time and everyone a bit of hassle. In sum, if your thinking about K-pop, Korea, or other big ideas are fairly rigid and emotionally charged, you should go away now. If you are a “Koreaboo”, you probably won’t like this piece. It ain’t for you. If you are some kind of K-pride, Korean ultranationalist, this piece ain’t for you. If the only reading you like is with your thumb on your smartphone, this likely ain’t for you.

Not that I categorically dislike all Koreaboos, but please — try to check your boo.

If you are the kind of student who dislikes the kind of teachers and professors who don’t pass out the Powerpoints of their lectures so you can memorize them for the tests more easily if you missed classes, this ain’t for you. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to feed your brain, be exposed to new ideas, and like actually using Internet resources to look up new words and phrases, read up on concepts you’ve hadn’t heard of, and like to deconstruct and analyze things, this probably is for you.You won’t like this article. You’ve been warned.

This article started with a very good student paper that’s been floating in my head, sticking with me like a plate of nice-ty BBQ sticks to one’s ribs. It was a topic I was frankly a bit iffy about, since the “Confucianism trap” is something a lot of Korean-interested folks fall into, which is that while Confucianism is important to understand in getting Korea, it does not simply explain everything, a la:

Problems in education system? CONFUCIANISM!

Government corruption and ossified systems of government? CONFUCIANISM!

Runaway privatized education industry? CONFUCIANISM!

Pretty much this. Except that this student’s paper was not that. Behold:

The paper fleshed this out well. I was impressed.

She had a nuanced argument that the values were Confucian in a general sense of how ideology and belief is generally utilized as a means of social control, but this is usually never applied to something like K-pop since most people seem to equate Confucian with “conservative” in terms of “the girls are dressed too sexy for the average Confucian gentleman.” But this forgets the greater role of Confucian ideology, which is to keep women in a lower class/power position in relation to men.

So, I decided to roll with this student’s idea and add in the theoretical infrastructure and tools I would use to make this a stronger argument — and not just for academics, but a broader audience that might benefit from the exercise. So, I designed this piece to give readers some new ways of looking at pop culture and K-pop by providing some good theoretical tools that are generally only to be gotten in a good, college-level Cultural Studies class. For free. I have taught Cultural Studies courses on topics from Korean street fashion to K-pop at Korea and Yonsei Universities and presently teach culture and marketing courses at the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, all not for free. My speciality (and a course I have taught at both Korea University and Yonsei) is “Visual Sociology.” So, this is how I approach this stuff — not as a fan, not as a “Koreaboo” — as an academic who finds this stuff popping up in Korean popular culture interesting and important enough to take seriously, while encouraging others to do so as well.

A “stellar” image offered at extraordinarily high resolution for all you foot fetishists out there. Talk about fan service!
Sulli’s professional image was sullied by a photographer (Rotta) who dared bring overt sexuality into the no-fly zone of girlish innocence without semiotic cover. But the implied bondage here is a clearly defined convention in BDSM porn.
One of the many girls photographed by Lewis Carroll, one of the architects of the modern notion of the “Girl.”

So, with all that said (and please be sure to read the captions to the images I include), let’s get this argument really started.

There is a shared language between mainstream pornography and K-pop. In both mediums, innocence itself is presented as an object of sexual desire and certain semiotic signs — certain, specific symbols in the videos themselves — are the very symbols of innocence.

Cute little white horsies on a toy carousel — innocent, good, clean fun for girls.
What’s confusing about this opening shot of the “Dream Candy” video is the clear semiotic cues of innocence, including the little girl lace socks and Mary Jane shoes, along with matching dresses. However, what is at odds with this is the fact that we, as the viewer, are being made visually complicit with some pretty shady “upskirt” camera angle that we generally don’t associate with innocent, little Alices in Wonderland.
Good girls, off-limits to the sexualizing gaze.
But, you can look up our skirts!
So, when we are asked to really look up at an unusual angle (one that we might feel uncomfortable with in real life), it’s a bit jarring.
These levels of semiotic argument seem to be at odds, sending apparently opposing messages, one coding these girls as innocent, little girls, the other clearly coding them as sexual objects.

While they may seem to mitigate against normal male sexual interest (they might be seen to reduce the overall level of sexiness), the naughty trick is that these metonyms of innocence are actually what makes the object of desire more arousing, since they are expressly verboten but clothed in the misleading camouflage of innocuousness.

They’re not LESS sexy because they’re coded as innocent little girls, but MORE.

The trend nowadays is to reduce the apparent obvious, in-your-facedness of the videos’ sexuality, since these videos can only continue escalating the “arms race” of lewdness in the Korean context so far. In order to understand how this works, it takes some mighty fine, diehard, Black&Decker-quality theoretical tools from Cultural Studies. But don’t let that turn you off — don’t close your browser window.

We are taking a Cultural Studies approach here. A lot of scholars who write in this field and who utilize this approach can get pretty dense and hard to read. But basically, and simply put, Cultural Studies takes the assumption that cultural products are texts that exist within a big economic structure that tends to determines how and why they get produced, and these texts usually exist to help the system keep operating smoothly while keeping people happily contributing to it. Oh, and that many patterns of representation don’t just exist for no reason. They have ideological uses — like when representations of black people in American media overwhelmingly showed blacks as addle-brained simpletons who were happy to strive only for the base pleasures in life. They were dumb, good-natured, and generally happy with where they were. And that’s where they should stay. “The system” likes this pattern of representation because it helps society as it is keep operating smoothly. And the individual cultural texts that get produced come to exist within a system that tends to filter out anything that poses a challenge to society as it is.

OK. This is a lot to swallow as you thumb through this article on the bus. I get it. I really do. A big reason Cultural Studies stuff is often so dense and irritating to read, besides ego-driven intellectuals trying to be showy and fancy with words, is because this is an effort to describe something complex and intricate that is actually simple to just get without any explanation. It’s sort of like trying to explain to someone — without showing them directly — how to tie a shoelaces. It’s easy to see and just get, but hard to articulate. It’s like describing, using only words, the feeling of Mona Lisa’s smile. But if you can break things down into concrete, facile tools you can easily pick up, put together into useful ways, and then put to work drilling down to the soft, chewy center of meaning, it can be quite possible — and pleasurable to do. Anyway, let’s get back to K-pop.

On “Pornography” and the Rotta Girls

SO, is this, or K-pop “pornography?” Maaaaybe. Erm, probably. Umm, pretty much. Yeah. So, let’s take the definition of the term from David Edward Rose, a philosophy scholar who offers an update to fellow scholar Michael Rea’s almost-but-not-quite definition of “pornography”:

Like Rea’s prior definition, the present paper has also sought to offer an evaluatively neutral definition of those objects that belong to the set pornography and to simultaneously rectify some counter-intuitive consequences of Rea’s definition of pornography. The definition offered is: “x is pornography for a specific community C = DF (i) x is a token of some sort of communicative material; (ii) x exists in the public domain as a possible object of exchange; and (iii) it is reasonably expected by C for some subjects to attend to x with the exclusive aim of being sexually aroused.” It might be mentioned that clause iii of this definition makes the set of objects that are pornography very broad, including aesthetic objects which one might want to exclude. However, it is important to note that the definition makes no normative judgement and those who feel uncomfortable about including such objects in the set of pornography are guilty of an assumption that pornography is morally wrong. (Rose, 559)

So, the key takeaway here is that pretty much most things you might wag a finger at and call “pornographic” in a judgmental way i)meant to sexually arouse a specific group of people, ii) is mediated, i.e. takes place in the form of a medium in which the content is seen, such as a magazine or a movie or a website, and iii) it is reasonable to expect that some members can and will use it to get their rocks off sexually. This is the key difference from the previous version — Michael Rea’s — that shoots itself in the foot with that final stipulation. Under the previous, slightly more narrow definition, a lot of stuff that is obviously pornographic (not necessarily actual pornography in the genre of pornography) gets cut out because the content is assumed to be made with the idea that the majority of the audience consuming it will be for nefarious, mastubatory purposes, as opposed to the assumption that a good portion of said audience can and will use it in that way.

And that being said, behold:

Fully clothed, not showing any primary or secondary sex organs, engaged in so explicit sexual acts. But, socks? Half-parted lips?
Not actually showing much more than in a lot of K-pop videos, but socks?

Most informal and personal definitions of “pornography” tend to revolve around either a) the preformance of explicit sexual acts or b) extremely sexually suggestive nudity. The problem with such definitions is that that they are both 1) too subjective and 2) too inclusive to pin things down as truly porny. Hence, the division/confusion between what is “art” and what is “pornography.” So, the problem becomes one exemplied by this:

A Robert Mapplethorpe image. This ain’t my cuppa Joe, but Mapplethorpe was officially an artist. Who lived, functioned, and was fetéd by many as such. Is it art? Probably. Is it pornography or pornographic? Maybe. Why can’t it be both? But by the Rose definition, I don’t think this is meant to be porn, but art. And there are flowers. How nice. So, art, I guess.
Same kinda thing, more Mapplethorpe, but this time, erect black penis. And no flowers. So, porn?

Ed Meese infamously said “I know it when i see it,” and we all know what that cryptic non-definition means. It’s funny that when pornographic semiotic elements are used in K-pop videos under the cover of innocence, and even become mainstream fashion trends if they are stripped of their original contexts, but when they are simply put together without the cover of innocuous innocence, people start shrieking “pornography! pornography!” So, at this point in the conversation, we have to look at the photographs of Sally Mann.

Sally Mann became (in)famous for her photographs (of her own daughters, by the way) that explored the nature of girlhood, innocence, and identity, in what many consider an arty, thoughtful way. Some people freaked out and simply saw “child pornography.” [SOURCE]
Some people saw, in her work that looked at the uncomfortable idea of burgeoning identities in young children — some of that being sexual —something outside the bounds of what could be called art, while some saw a nuanced and honest look at the real, complex, often uncomfortable beginnings of adulthood. [SOURCE]

And coming back to Rotta, yes, we “know it when we see it” but if you think about it, the use of semiotic elements that play with sexualized innocence themselves isn’t unique to a single, “pervy” photographer. He’s just choosing not to hide what he’s doing. Yet he’s speaking the same language as K-pop videos so, which makes it entirely apropos that he shoots who he does in the way he does.

Back to the “Girl” and the Uses of Ideology

In many cultures in which the “girl” is cultural currency, she is supposed to be sexually off-limits, or at least idealized as such, until legal adulthood or marriage (or sometimes these were one and the same). The Korean agassi (translated into English as “girl” and denoted an unmarried, ideally unsullied female, was kind of like the japanese shōjo in this way. It was unseemly to want to sexually sully an agassi, on top of the fact that ideally, an agassi was supposed to keep herself chaste. Note the great importance Nongae has in both Korean, masculinist history and the Korean nationalist, masculinist mind — her great patriotic gesture was that of choosing death than being sexually opened, conquered, and humiliated by the dirty, savage enemy.

Nongae takes her lionized leap.
The typical way femininity is represented in masculinist national histories. [SOURCE]

If you think about it, the ideological use of Nongae’s undeniably heroic example as an ideological tool is kind of fucked up. Because her noble sacrifice was not just talked about in the context of giving one’s all for the sake of the nation, but also as a reminder of how valuable women’s chastity is as a commodity and the linchpin of her basic value as a human being. In traditional, Joseon-era, neo-Confucian logic, Nongae’s sacrifice just makes sense. But it has made sense for centuries, even until the present day, in a time when Korean society still see it as important for Korean women to stay in their place, especially since so many women seem ready to jump out of it. In a time when women’s chastity — her body’s ability to be a pure and virtuous reproductive organ — is more important than even her life itself, Nongae’s noble sacrifice still makes all the sense in the world. In that sense, Nongae’s continued lionization demonstrates the continuation of the neo-Confucian valuation of women, even if many other parts of society today are indeed no longer Confucian in any way. What we can see FO’ SHO’ is that the Confucian way of looking at the female body remains pretty unchanged in general shape, even if it has had to be updated to take into account new ways of looking at the body, new technologies of the body, and new conceptions of the woman herself.

The best articulation of this is in Taeyeon Kim’s 2003 article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.” If you haven’t read this article but consider yourself as informed on gender and sexuality topics tranging from plastic surgery to fashion to K-pop yet you haven’t read this, you better drop what you’re doing and get this article (available for free and easy download on an university IP address). This is also the key point of the article, and the next crucial stepping-stone to get to the final point of how K-pop is neo-Confucian porn. But I’m gonna let Taeyeon Kim break it down in her own words, which are worth you reading them directly, so I’ll quote at length here:

The Neo-Confucian Female Self and Body

Neo-Confucian techniques of self-cultivation of the mind and body applied only to men. Women in the Neo-Confucian view were incapable of achieving sagehood and therefore had neither the need nor the ability to strive for transcendence of the self and body. While men produced their selves through the mind (study of the classics) and body (maintenance of the family body through ancestor worship), women were occupied with maintaining and reproducing the family body through the corporeal bodies of the family. The triumvirate of bodymind- ki was a Neo-Confucian concept of the male body. Neo-Confucianism emphasized the corporeal for the female body, the very aspect men were supposed to transcend.

Neo-Confucian scholars considered women to have inferior ki to that of men. This notion continues to be held today. One study of a village in Korea found that women were believed to be inferior to men because they did not carry the life-giving force (ki) that men did (Yoon, 1990: 9). Women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life (Yoon, 1990: 10). Such incubation was perhaps the most important role of a woman’s body in Korea. Her body was a vessel through which the male line and ki could be perpetuated. As such, the most important physical traits for a woman were features that revealed her potential to bear children — particularly boys. ‘During the Yi [Chos˘on] Dynasty, the attribute valued above all others in a prospective bride was her potential capacity to bear sons. Compared to this, her beauty and wealth were secondary’ (Cha et al., 1979: 120).

As the features of a woman’s body were important to show her ability to have sons, the actions and maintenance of her body during pregnancy were also vital. A woman was not a passive carrier of life. Her body was the environment in which the future child grew. As such, her behaviour and thoughts were strictly regulated during pregnancy through prenatal education known as t’aegyo:

She was expected to behave with the strictest decorum in the smallest minutiae of her conduct; she was not to think evil thoughts or to utter evil words; she was to recite poetry at night and to speak of proper things. (DeBary and Haboush, 1985: 169)

Women’s bodies were meticulously disciplined for the sake of the potential child within them. T’aegyo advances the idea of women as bodies more than subjects. Their conduct and thoughts were for the sake of the other abiding in their bodies, and they were valued mostly for the children and labour that their bodies could produce. Women were regarded as subjectless bodies. (Kim, 100–101)

The Young-Girl’s body is but a concession that is given her more or less lastingly, which clears up the reasons why she hates it so much. It’s just a rented residence, something that she doesn’t really possess or usufruct, that she is only free to use, and furthermore, because the walls, her corporeality projected as capital, a factor in production and consumption, are possessed by the autonomized social totality.

— Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, p. 27

A fascinating image. Let’s peel this onion. On the most superficial level, IU is presented as a “pure” yet fetishized (her bare feet serving to code her, especially in the Asian/Korean semiotic context, as innocent, yet fetishized object for the consumption of the viewer, with the balance being tipped over to the sexual by the universal semiotic code for sexuality in the parted lips and the lascivious invite of the tongue. She is symbolically either bound by the ribbon as a gift, even as the suggestion of her being tied up, passive, and available being part of the gift itself. Her being symbolically bound, barefoot, and available denotes her lack of agency, while her pose, expression, and lewd lick seem to suggest the opposite — a sexual agency that is actually utilizing the seemingly contradictory elements of her softness as argued with her sweater and perfect, ladylike tresses to ensnare the viewer. She is a contradictory, dialectical presentation of the Girl, which most viewers will interpret in the way their own sexual desires will tend: She is represented as offering herself as a fetish, fuck object that utilizes semiotically coded innocence as a main part of the invitation.

On “Subjectless Bodies”

But the point of being a “subjectless body” as a girl in Korean society is that not only is your body supposed to be off-limits from men until marriage, it’s off-limits from yourself, your own control, too.

And now that we have finally gotten to talking about Confucian ideology, I want to be clear here: I am not one of those simpletons who think everything in Korea can be explained by Confucianism. This is the oldest trap for — and alarm bell indicating the presence of — old school, old-fashioned Korean Studies thinking. Every explanation for every social formation, every part of culture≠Confucianism. Take the example of the American Puritans here. American culture, history, and even general patterns of thinking have been dominated by the shadow of the Puritans and their ideology, which was one of the most insanely conservative, non-progressive on ERF, matched only in its moralistic (note I did not say “moral”) vehemence and tendency to totalize itself into as many aspects of social life as it could only by the historical cases of the Joseon Neo-Confucians in Korea and the contemporary Taliban regime in parts of Afghanistan. More liberal American ideas, such as the equality of all human beings (late 1700s) or gender equality (mid 1800s) would not come for a century or centuries after the arrival of the first big wave of Puritans in the “New World.” (1620, to be exact, and we called this group of Separatist Puritans the“Pilgrims”). The US Constitution and all its unusual, idealistic, high-falutin’ ideas happened despite the Puritans, not because of them.

But Puritan ways of thinking still remain in American culture today. It doesn’t quite matter, actually, that a good number of Americans no longer believe in any form of God, let alone a Calvinist, Christian one, and America is still a secular culture in which church and state are supposed to be kept hermetically sealed off from one another, at least, technically speaking. So I’m obviously not arguing that a lot of Americans actually are Puritans, because they aren’t. American Christianity has evolved, splintered, fractured, mutated — moved waaaay on — since real, pure Puritanism basically died out by evolving past its original form. The only people left who kind of still look like them are the Quakers (who are, actually, Super-Puritans so actually Puritanically in direct touch with God that politically Puritan officials wanted to kill them off and occasionally did), the Mennonites and the famous/infamous Amish. So — Americans, not actual Puritans anymore.

But, as I said, there are culturally-influenced frames for and modes of thinking. Americans are no different, and follow a puritanical style of thinking, in which things tend to be absolutely this or that, good or evil, friends or threats. Americans are still pretty prone towards moral panics, which led to the stigmatization, then complete banning of liquor in American society, even though lots of people liked liquor more than a just a little bit. Eventually, this ban led to more problems than they caused, so America got its booze back. Then, drugs became the new social demon from the 1930s, and eventually, it would end up being the new reason to construct all kinds of new laws and vilify whole groups of people. Sort of like the “witch hunts” of the 1690s, and no, it’s no coincidence that the original social/moral panics started with the Puritans. American witch hunts recur century after century, with the stand-ins for the original women with magical powers being “dope fiends” at one time, Commies in one era, or ISIS/Muslims in another. The cultural template for seeing the enemy in a totalist, black-and-white, good or evil, Manichean way in America was really laid down by the Puritans, who liked to see any outsiders as threats, Indians as the Devil incarnate, and any social weirdos as transgressors to be burned out of the body politic (see Carol Carlson’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman for a kickass example of this and one of the best histories of American culture you’ll ever have the pleasure to read. It will blow your mind).

Point is, I’m not talking about Confucianism in Korea in terms of actual “Confucianism” being the explanation for everything. And Korean “Confucianism” isn’t even original Confucianism, anyway. It was Confucianism (from China, hello?) applied to Joseon society for Korean purposes, and with different emphases and ideological applications. From a feminist perspective, one could see Korean-style neo-Confucianism as a tool to maintain social power for ruling class men. Anyhoo, there are cultural echoes of ways of thinking about gender and women, the hierarchical flow of authority, or even educational styles in Korean society.

What I am saying, though, is that, in a general way, Confucianism is a frame of thinking — or a filter — that focuses cultural formation into Confucian-shaped directions, but make no mistake, Confucianism-as-frame-and-filter is also a useful ideological disciplining tool that allows the dominant class (upper class socially and politically connected men) to use women as both the excuse and means to keep everyone in society in line and in place. Sound complex? It’s not.

Take Pak Chung Hee’s regime in the 1970s, for instance. In a time when many were questioning his political legitimacy or even concretely challenging its actual authority, Pak took things such as women’s miniskirts deadly serious.

The unluckiest girl of 1973 get stopped by the police in Myeongdong to confirm that yes, her 30cm above the knee hemline was far above the 17cm limit. On March 10, 1973, it was -5º Celsius, it was amply pointed out. [SOURCE]

One might wonder why, but it’s pretty easy to understand. What girls wear and do is pretty metonymic (remember that word?) for the state of society, so monitoring what they do, how they represent themselves, and how they are represented, is something a lot of people — including the state — has taken pretty darn serious in Korean history.

So, in the neo-Confucian frame, women are still what Taeyeon Kim called “subjectless bodies.”

which generally held that “girls” — from the age of seven, to be exact — were to be separated from boys, cuz sexy feels. And also, girls, along with the women they would become, were valued mainly by their capacity to make babies, so they were seen as important objects and vessels of virtue. This is why women had to keep their bodies and spirits clean, and is the origin of thinking that is an echo of this thinking

But it’s the Age of the Internet. Age of the Interwebs. The Age of Free Porn. And the Age of Competition within a Saturated Medium and Market That Depends On a Racheting Up of Explicitness for Arousal. It’s an Age of Porn.

K-pop in the age of porn — it’s an inevitable thing to consider, especially given what’s become the norm not just in the global media market, but in Korean society, which has, until recently, liked to think of itself as a conservative, Confucian culture defined by certain moral virtues. At least, that’s what Korea said. That’s what Confucianism, as it was adopted and adapted in Joseon Korea, said. And it’s what erudite scholars such as Martina Deuchler said they said.

Oddly enough, this video doesn’t really violate Confucian norms, most basely defined.

If you think about it, women in Confucian ideology were supposed to be vessels of virtue, the moral and biological reproduction units responsible for furthering the race. But — and I’ll put this as bluntly and crudely as possible to make my point — every society seems to need hoes. And we’ve all heard about the “Madonna-whore complex”, so this should make a bit of sense. Whores — in ancient Joseon or any society — serve both an ideological and actual purpose.

In order to even imagine “good girls” you need bad ones, both as objects of negative comparison, and as objects to sexual desire, i.e. girls for men to freely fuck, although that ain’t always for free. So, one of the most enduring characters of Joseon Korean culture is that of the gisaeng, which is often translated as “courtesan” with training in music, dance, enlightened conversation, and to put it plainly, fucking. In fact, the very idea of educating young girls in Joseon Korea seemed socially perverse, partially for this reason. The elite yangban class was vehemently opposed to the idea of educating young girls until the idea of it was thrust upon Korea by American missionaries and forced upon Korea by Japanese colonization. A telling example of this yangban attitude towards girls’ education is found in the historical example of Mary Scranton, who founded the first school for girls in Korean history. It says quite a bit that no yangban family wanted its daughters to enroll; the first student to matriculate was a concubine; the second was an orphan — in short, disposable girls, not girls of good repute. In fact, the very first student, Hah Ran-sa, to apply was a former concubine (gisaeng) who married well and was a now respectable woman. She was not allowed to attend, as no one but girls without reputations and connections could possibly be educated. (See Yi in Great Women in Korean History)

In a society in which girls’ and womens’ roles were so strictly regulated, delimited, and controlled, it made sense that women’s status and esteem could change so completely by marrying the right man, as Hah had. It made sense that, despite what Ludacris once waxed lyrically about in his song of nefarious repute “Ho”, in the Joseon era, one could indeed “turn a ho into a housewife.” But no respectable woman should ever attend a school or allow her own daughter to attend one. In most societies, “good girls” don’t do a lot of things. In Joseon Korea, of course “good girls” don’t consort with boys’ don’t step outside the house alone; don’t get educations. If you think about it, Joseon Korea was very much like the contemporary Taliban.

The Korean “Taliban.”

But unlike Joseon Korea and most long-functioning societies, the Taliban is young and hasn’t completely consolidated its own power within the territory it controls. Joseon Korea had not only practical uses for girls, but ideological ones as well.

On Identity “Performance”

Think about it — it’s why race and gender lines are so easy to cross. It’s because technically anyone can perform these identities, according to their respective codes. It’s why Eminem seems so much more naturally black than Vanilla Ice does…now. We like to forget that Vanilla Ice was so interesting at first because he performed (literally) blackness so well. By the standards of the time. Rap and American popular culture, to that point in time, hadn’t yet seen a white dude who could be truly as “black” as black people, as defined as it more easily was at the time, largely through speech, mannerisms, and visible statements of affiliation (as in fashion items or styles of dress). What did in Vanilla Ice in the end wasn’t his inability to perform blackness, but his getting caught being inauthentic in the narrow way that was defined at the time. He wasn’t “from the hood” nor did he have any associations with criminality or anything else that was understood — for better or worse — with “black” things. He got caught, as you may remember, in an unforgiveable lie in American culture, a lie of identity — it wasn’t him performing blackness badly, per se. The same thing happened with Rachel Dolezal, if you remember, although her particular lie was claiming biological ties to blackness. But no one questioned it from her actual performance of it. She actually had it down pat.

Never forget…
Too cold, too cold…

In the same way, a scholar named Catherine Driscoll recently wrote a book about the social construction of girls and how this status/identity/category is used in society. Called, as one might expect, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. There are two main things to take away from this book that basically reviews/summarizes much of the existing theory about the construction of girls in history. One is that “girls” as opposed to women or female babies or toddlers, is a constructed category, and that the idea of “adolescence” itself is also constructed, existing as it does as a netherzone between true, dependent childhood and a separate, independent adulthood and in which one was supposed to spend time maturing and ripening in order to become a woman. Dear reader, hold onto this very important idea: that the “girl” is a social construction. It’s important. But even more important to take away is why these social constructs happen, which brings me to the second point to take away from Professor Driscoll’s book.

The second thing one might take away from Driscoll’s book, for the purposes of our study, is point two: that the notion of the “girl” evolved for ideological, social, and even commercial purposes. As I will point out with the social category of “black”, these categories don’t just pop out of thin air for no reason at all, for no use at all. This is the point I want to emphasize here in reference to the “girl.” Driscoll’s book talks about how the girl became a useful figure in western culture, from Victorian England to even the upstart colonies which would later break off into its own culture and its ideological use for “girls” (I’m talking about the US of A, of course).

And again,, identities such as black, Asian, or even “girl” don’t evolve randomly, for no purposes. Regulations, laws, and expectations of behavior evolve around these categories — and in fact, it’s often these regulations, laws, and expectations of behavior that create the categories themselves.

You just have to read this. It’s goddamn fascinating.

Take being “black” in America. It’s a weird category nowadays, if you think about it. But back in the time when slavery was a huge part of the American economy as in it meant real money, people were property, and most of that property-as-people was marked by having dark, “black” skin or identifiably African features. In a time when visible Africanity marked slave status almost without exception, blackness was important to legally and socially stigmatize. And also at the time, there were a lot of white masters having their way with slave women they owned, and the question of how to define the progeny inevitably reared its vexing head. And since one certainly can’t have one’s property claiming heredity rights as kin, legal definitions of lineage were put into place that made slave status one passed down through the mother and not the father, which served to make sure slaves remained slaves, slaves remained black, and blacks remained slaves. ‘Whites’ stayed white, white heirs stayed white, and so on. We all know the rules, as many of them got defined in various state laws that defined black as being 1/4, 1/8 (the “octaroon” category seen above, 1/16, or even 1/32 black. This is the “one drop” rule that we still use in America today.

To American eyes, a “black” woman. To many other eyes, she might be “white.”

It’s why everybody “black”, even those light as Colin Powell or Halle Brry, down to say Barack Obama, Will Smith, or Wesley Snipes (to go down the skin tone gradation scale) are considered part of the same racial category in the first place. Think about it: what kind of category has more variation within it than between other categories ? Many “black” people look more different from one another than even white people look from black people, across different categories. That logically means the category is meaningless. But, as well all know, society isn’t logical. And old social habits die hard. Even if the original, concrete reasons behind the habits are long in the grave.

With that point made, I return to the idea of the “girl” having specific utility in industrial or even consumer capitalist society. I’m not going to recap all the many examples of how the construction of the “girl” is specifically useful to the project of selling shit — and there are a lot of examples — but a couple worth mentioning in passing is how useful it was to “train” girls to be girls through girls magazines that were training generations of future women consumers of everything from women’s magazines to fashion items. There are a million-and-one reasons to also want to use the idea of a “girl” to discipline women into certain desired forms of behavior and even one better — to identify such behavior with being a “proper” girl, human being, and respectable member of society. The “girl” is both a space and actual tool of social control.



In this sense, (neo-)Confucianism understood as an Iron Cage in a Korea that is definitely too modern to have any real utility here is a real thing. If you think about it, “Confucianism” in the practical, concrete, and everyday sense is dead as a doornail in Korea, since you don’t see traffic laws designed around age or status ranking — you go by the light, first come, first served. You don’t cue up at the bank in orger of age, sex, or occupation — that would seem ridiculous. Since the formal end of the neo-Confucian Joseon state in 1910, the new logics of capitalism, the rules that come with building a modern nation-state such as the mandatory education of girls, democracy, and consumerism are all things that have reordered the nature of everyday life. Of course, older patterns of thought , out-of-date customs, or old habits of behavior live on, since human get socialized into acting certain way and old habits die hard. But Korean society no longer does a lot of esoteric “Confucian” things, and even eschews many of the basic ones: children are no longer separated at age 7; girls are now required (allowed) to attend school; women’s bodies are no longer considered property, and women are allowed to walk around outside. So, when one hears that Korea is a “Confucian culture,” you better reach for your metaphorical guns, because someone is trying to sell you something.

But as an Iron Cage, “Confucianism” and putatively “Confucian” patterns of thinking certainly ain’t dead. In fact, if one takes the feminist interpretation that the Iron Cage of Confucianism in modern Korean society continues to be used to place women back into the subordinate positions that original Confucianism had them squarely situated, then the Confucian Iron Cage is in FULL EFFECT MODE.

Women in the mainstream K-pop imagination are actually, if you think about it, meta-arguments for the subjugation of women in their hypersexualization and their representation as merely possessing power or social agency through their bodies. Women only have value in terms of being possessed of sexual currency and the power to atrract men. I won’t even go into the extreme heteronormativity of K-pop cultural texts. I don’t have the time or the space. Let’s just agree that the deeply “Confucian” values of women’s place in society vis a vis innocence-as-a-function-of-women’s-virtue (as reproductive vessels) or their social utility-and-place (as inferior sex objects) may appear to be liberal or empowering in the video and songs in which they appear and may even buck short-lived social conventions, but these are not really arguments of liberation, equality, or even the notion that women have any value at all besides as objects to be fucked when they are young and clean, virtuous vessels of reproduction after their fuck-utility has ended. These videos celebrate putting women back in their places, and these are places that were long ago decided by Korean, neo-Confucian ideology to be merely vessels to receive their penises and house their sperm. Whether Virtuous or Vixen-like, whether it is argued through fantasies of Innocence or pornographic pleasures, the subject-position of women, whether represented as virtuous mothers or slutty entertainers of men, is the same, actually, since the result is the same — as a passive cum receptacle is a cum receptacle. Such terminology is harsh, but accurate. The definition of the man’s “passive cum receptacle” that makes no social noise (what Taeyon Kim called “subjectless bodies” above) has simply been updated since the Joseon period, but the message is still the same, except that pregnancy doesn’t have to result from each seminal act. Women in these videos are neo-Confucian cum receptacles dressed up in modern clothing. PERIOD. Go ahead — try and tell me I’m wrong:

In a nutshell (badum-bum), one more time:

Neo-Confucian values related to the use-value of women as “subjectless bodies” (Kim, 100–101) in Korean society are simply being presented in the updated-yet-repressive, Neo-Confucian sense that women’s bodies are still mere semen receptacles for men, with the update being that their utility as cum receptacles is no longer merely as vessels of reproduction (because this isn’t the year 1500 anymore), but of sexual gratification as well.

Brief Bibliography and key sources you need to read:

Driscoll, Catherine. Girls : Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Kim, Taeyeon. “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.” Body & Society 9, no. 2, June (2003): 97–113.

Rose, David Edward. “The Definition of Pornography and Avoiding Normative Silliness: A Commentary Adjunct to Rea’s Definition.” Philosophy Study August 2012, Vol. 2, no. №8 (2012): 547–59.

A Note of thanks must go out to Gissella Ramirez-Valle, editor of Mutzine, who hipped me to this whole debate about photographer Rotta and this debate about the “Lolita” aesthetic in K-pop, which seemed so uninformed by any useful theory, or real scholarship that I felt the need to weigh in here. with my conclusion being from the beginning, that if the issue is the oversexualization of youth in K-pop, the debate about who is worse is pretty useless since it’s always been a question of degree rather than a question of whether it is categorically different from other fields in Korea or other societies. Sure, the sexualization of girl in the name of capital is a problem, to some extent, everywhere. But in terms of having evolved into what it has in Korea, in an ostensibly “conservative” and “Confucian” culture, it is of particular interest and concern.

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

Michael Hurt

Written by

A visual sociologist writing, teaching, and shooting in Seoul since 2002.

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

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