Korean Sociological Image #37: Like a Virgin?




As they say, first impressions are everything. And so, with apologies to those of you unwise enough to read this blog at work, let me share mine of girl group T-ara (티아라) from their music video of Like the First Time (처음처럼) before proceeding: namely, that they were confident, sexy women, not at all embarrassed to perform risqué dance moves like the above in front of large audiences.


However, it was difficult to square that impression with their shyness in the following brief interview forEntertainment Tonight (연예가 중계) last month, conducted while making (rather bizarre) commercials for a mobile phone, and I would interested in hearing your thoughts on possible reasons for the differences, and how representative the interview is as whole of the way 20-something women especially are portrayed in Korean entertainment programs.

The most important point first: from roughly 1:00 t0 1:30, the interview focuses on group leader Ham Eun-jeong (함은정) feeling embarrassed about repeatedly hugging actor Yoon Si-yoon (윤시윤) for their commercial, despite having just met in the studio. In particular, at 1:10 below she says “어떡해”, or “How” as in “How can I do this?” while making an exaggerated expression of embarrassment, about which the reporter comments “굉장히 부끄러워하죠?”, or “She’s very shy, yes?”. Note also the addition of “근심” and “걱정” on the screen too for added context and atmosphere, (a habit of entertainment programs picked up from Japan), although rather confusedly they both mean anxiety, or worry.

Then at 1:25, she’s asked how she feels from hugging Si-yoon for so long, to which she replies “솔직히말해도…떨려요!”, or “To be honest…I’m shaking/trembling!”.

Natural feelings? Of course. But then recall her music video, in which she – not to put too fine a point on it – repeatedly bends over and thrusts out her bottom, jiggles her breasts, and runs her hands over her breasts and crotch while singing about how her body was on fire. Indeed, even the interviewer herself later (3:08) highlights the complete contrast:

Moreover, while I’ve never personally strutted my stuff on stage like Eun-jeong, I am actually quite comfortable – nay, somewhat notorious for – acting in front of large groups of adult students (I’m tempted to mention faking an orgasm in class once in my first year of teaching, but I’d better not), and doubt that I’d be embarrassed repeatedly hugging an attractive woman in front of others. Yes, I would be if I ended up having a large visible erection as a result, but that’s besides the point: if Eun-jeong was embarrassed, it wasn’t because she was visibly turned on.

And I stress “if”: my wife, for instance, also watched the interview, and at first told me her embarrassment was perfectly natural, but then readily conceded it was rather strange in light of her performances in music videos and on stage. Which leads me to my first question: do you think Eun-jeong was genuinely embarrassed?

One commentator at Omona! They Didn’t did at least:

…Eunjung lost her composure while filming a hugging scene with Yoon Si Yoon….It’s funny how Eunjung was so flustered and shy around a guy because she exudes such a powerful and charismatic presence on stage. I guess we are all prone to weakness in front of the opposite sex.

And I do remain open to the possibility. However, I’d argue that either subconsciously or deliberately, she’s much more likely to be playing to expectations and norms of the Korean media that she present herself as cute and innocent, regardless of her true personality; well illustrated, I think, by this 2007 commercial with Kim Tae-hee (김태희):

As PopSeoul! explains:

She acts all sugar and spice in wide-eyed innocence as she sips her drink carefully, but as soon as her date turns away, she lets loose her inner diva to strike a pose for the camera. Her date discovers the saved pictures on his Olympus and accuses her of being “nae-soong”.

Nae-soong (내숭) being the:

…inconsistency between a girl’s true personality (i.e. extroverted), and external (i.e. introverted, shy and innocent) personality. In other words, trying to hide your true intentions self by acting sweet and innocent.

And indeed the interview is full of demonstrations of how sweet and innocent they are. For instance, at 1:47 Park Ji-yeon (박지연) is embarrassed to learn that she is Si-yoon’s favorite of all the T-ara members (although you may be surprised to learn that she’s only 16, and hence her embarrassment arguably the most likely to be genuine):

And at 3:17, Eun-jeong feigns (I don’t think anyone would dispute this!) being upset at the other group members selecting her as looking the most different (read: uglier) before putting on make-up:

One music video and and one interview are by no means sufficient to get an idea of their true personalities however (to the extent that one sees any celebrities’ true personalities in front of a camera at all that is), and so I also briefly looked at some episodes of T-ara Dot Com (티아라닷컴), a quasi-reality show about them setting up an internet clothes shopping mall of that name. Here’s a brief segment of one episode, with English subtitles:

And in which their behavior is no different to that in the interview. Hence, while I do still feel that Eun-jeong’s embarrassment at hugging Si-yoon at least was completely feigned, I concede that T-ara’s cutesy behavior overall probably wasn’t an act, and not unrepresentative of Koreans their age either (for reasons explained here).

If that behavior is still a definite expectation or norm of Korean entertainment programs however, depends on such factors as how other women are portrayed in them; if there’s a large difference between men and women; and to what extent such programs offer opportunities for entertainers to present alternate, more serious sides of themselves if they wish to do so.

Unfortunately, I can’t personally say: even when I first arrived in Korea at the tender age of 24, I soon chose never to watch these sorts of programs because I had better things to do than seeing grown men and women acting like children on them. Now, at 34, I’m more concerned about the influence they will have on my own daughters, and to be frank would consider myself a failure as a father if they grew up to behave like members of T-ara do when they reach the same age.

However, in contrast to when I was 24, in fact there’s also some things I like about the Korean media which are on display in the interview, and which I’ll devote the remainder of the post to.

First, in a meta-sense, the practice of providing subtitles and/or commentary on them is simply great for studying Korean, especially considering the huge gap in real-life learning material for Korean learners, let alone intermediate level material. And if dramas aren’t your thing, then studying a 10 minute segment of an episode of T-ara Dot Comeveryday is probably quite a tolerable alternative:

More to the point of this post however, there is the very human side of stars presented, a stark contrast to the pedestals Western medias tend to place their own celebrities on. For instance, not only does the interviewer ask at 3:39, which member of T-ara farts the most:

But at 3:49, we even get to watch the evidence:

And, lest he feel left out, Si-yoon is asked if he also farts, to which he replies at 3:57 that yes, he enjoys it:

Compared to that, watching him pick his nose and examine the contents at 2:30 was nothing. And hey, a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do, but in any other country I’d be surprised his agent didn’t want that cut out:

But not that showing that celebrities fart and pick their noses like the rest of us mere mortals are the only positives of course. I also love how the interview highlights Ji-yeon stuffing her face with strawberries at 2:57 for instance, and particularly from a basket that looks like it was bought from the back of a food truck, to be found in literally every Korean neighborhood at almost any time of day (for instance, selling salt at 5:30 in the morning). You see, something that looks like it could have been bought in my wife’s home village in 1970 is somewhat incongruous on the set of a commercial for probably one of the most technologically sophisticated products on the planet, and reminds me that constantly seeing such juxtapositions is one reason I love living here:


Finally, there’s the standard happy, bubbly ending of such shows, usually accompanied by cries of Hwaiting! (화이팅); if you’re not smiling yourself at least a little when you see one on TV, that’s probably because you’re being carried out of the room on a stretcher with blanket over your head:

To recap, I would love to hear: your own opinions on how genuine Eun-jeong’s embarrassment was; how representative of young women’s behavior on entertainment shows T-ara’s was; and whether they were simply being themselves or if they were fulfilling expectations and norms of how 20-something women should act on them (I realize that the last is a bit of a false dichotomy though, and should be considered more as a feedback loop). Are there any Korean entertainment shows where women don’t have to be cute? And how about 20-something men, or older women?

Alternatively, do you have any more pet peeves about Korean shows not covered here, or reasons that you really like them?

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)



Filed under: Gender Roles, Gender Socialization, Girl Groups, Korean Advertisements, Korean Feminism, Korean Media, Korean Sociological Images Tagged: 티아라, T-ara

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