Jang Dong-min, T-ara and when the misogyny of the Korean entertainment industry all gets too much
As woman, no, a person, who cares about gender issues and women’s rights, you have to learn to take a step back on a fairly regular basis if you want to actually enjoy Korean entertainment.
I like to think I have become pretty skilled at this over the years and have learned to channel my thoughts into productive criticism of the industry and understanding of people and cultures that are different from me and mine.
But sometimes it all gets too much and today is one of those days.
Jang Dong-min has been saying horrific sexist, violent things about women for a long time and getting away with it. Praised for it even. It’s just his character. He’s quirky. He’s just a bit angry. It’s all fine.
Today, a new low was struck, even for him, when it emerged that, on top of the other terrible things that have already been uncovered, he and fellow comedians Yoo Se-yoon and Yoo Sang-moo mocked people with physical and mental disabilities and joked about using drugs and handcuffs to rape women. This came just a day after news broke about Jang Dong-min being sued by the survivor of a tragic building collapse who was offended by his mockery of her.
Realising that perhaps, even for their brand of nasty humour, they had taken it too far (and likely fearing for their jobs – Jang Dong-min has already been suspended from his radio show) they arranged a press conference to apologise. In a slightly theatrical manner, they made statements and bowed to the crowd of journalists. Jang said:
“I know whatever I say is not going to be enough. I interacted closely with my listeners while making the program. I wanted to talk closer to them. My words became harsher as I was only thinking about making them laugh, and I began to look for more shocking things to say. I didn’t know that those words would be hurtful to some. I was only thinking about being funny. I apologize for my careless behaviours. I want to apologize to the people and their families who were hurt by what we have said.”
This apology is symptomatic of a larger issue. That he didn’t realise it would be hurtful says a lot as does his assertion that his statements were driven by the desires of his audience. Their popularity is clearly driven by a nasty desire for humour which mocks and belittles groups considered to be weak, or at least weaker than a bunch of 30-something male comedians.
But what really got me today wasn’t that, it was the difference between the comments on the articles about this and articles about Eunjung from T-ara’s upcoming appearance on MNET’s 4 Things Show.
While most of the comments about Jang Dong-min were negative, many of them were oddly passive. It was an inevitability, a mishap, a misguided step into territories unsuitable for public broadcast:
[+9,379, -1,012] Not his fan or anti but I feel like he was a time bomb waiting to explode with the way he talks. Even if not through ‘Sixth Man’, he would’ve exploded sooner or later. [+7,548, -678] It’s going to be hard for the three of them to be able to say anything on TV for a while… [+6,694, -724] Did they really not think that their old controversial statements would get them into a scandal?
Others were willing to fully accept the apology as soon as it was uttered:
[+6,757, -1,348] They still have a future ahead of them. Just take this as an opportunity to further develop themselves and improve. Understand that celebrities are the establishment and use your influence to help those who need it with your promotions. [+5,573, -3,347] Sigh, why are people being so harsh on them even after they apologized [+851, -60] Just don’t repeat your mistake and make sure to reflect over it… [+803, -81] Apology accepted~ don’t do that next time!!
Meanwhile, Eunjung spoke briefly, and fairly reasonably, about T-ara’s bullying scandal which is now nearly 3 years old and the response was the same as it has always been:
[+29,571, -2,854] Why does it look like she’s putting on a show to me [+26,179, -1,622] It’s best to stay quiet sometimes [+21,805, -1,980] The tears of an alligator ㅋㅋ [+11,822, -1,314] Is she trying to copy Yewon tsk tsk [+3,652, -208] No one’s going to still care when they talk about it in 10 years ㅋㅋ
No one really knows what happened with the T-ara scandal and we never will. Maybe the group were bullying Hwayoung. Maybe they had a bad week. Maybe, as Eunjung and Hyomin argued pretty convincingly, there were a series of misunderstandings and bad decisions that were made that the group now regret.
One of the only things we do know is that their company Core Contents Media under the management of former CEO Kim Kwang Soo was a terrible place to work, even by K-pop standards. The group were overworked every day of the year, made to perform with serious injuries, at points starved and pitted against each other in a public forum by their CEO.
In that environment it might be a little understandable that the group would behave unreasonably and perhaps even a little cruelly towards each other, even though that might not make it right. But understanding is not something that is often afforded to young female celebrities.
A young woman in the limelight is always doing something wrong. Suzy’s too stupid, Yewon’s too rude, Nana’s too friendly, Hyorin and Soyu aren’t friendly enough, Ailee can’t be a victim because she took her clothes off once, Hara and Seungyeon have bad attitudes, Taeyeon’s sly… the list goes on and on.
Meanwhile Jang Dong-min’s apology starts gaining acceptance as soon as it leaves his mouth and other male celebrities can commit serious violent crimes up to and including killing a pedestrian and trying to hide the body and still return to screen.
Watching the Korean entertainment industry feels like a constant game to see which young woman is going to be mercilessly torn to pieces next. While entertainment industries around the world engage in this, in Korea it’s almost a bloodsport. And it’s not just in Korea itself, international fans of K-pop and Korean dramas can be just as bad.
Women on Korean TV are often construed as liars – girl group songs are full of lyrics that aren’t about sex, even though they clearly are; drama leads who have spent episodes pining over a man suddenly don’t want to kiss them; mothers-in-law are almost universally evil and so it goes on. It might not be surprising, then, that there is a fascination with tearing young women down at every opportunity. They deserve it after all.