Dear Mr. PD, Give Me a Break! Female bodies on K-pop TV shows

The image above is a screenshot of G.NA’s performance on last week’s Inkigayo

Sometimes I really don’t enjoy watching K-pop music shows. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the big fancy set pieces and costumes and I’m always curious to see if the live performances stack up to the music videos. But honestly, no matter how much I like a song or performer, I find a lot of the programmes difficult to watch. Why? Because of the camerawork. Please bear with me.

It’s pretty terrible and the constant camera movement, Dutch angles and lightning fast, illogical cuts, like the particularly frantic camera work of this recording of SHINee’s Dream Girl, give me motion sickness.

But of course that’s just personal preference and I’m sure plenty of people like this frenetic style of editing. What I have a much bigger issue with is the way many female artists are filmed.

It’s something I began to notice a while ago but came to my attention again this week after watching clips of G.NA’s and Girl’s Day’s new singles. There were many shots within these clips that I found objectionable.

sistarI think it goes without saying at this point that K-pop girl groups are essentially always filmed in a way that conforms to the male gaze and it’s not that in itself that I have a problem with. It’s hardly particular to K-pop. Though many may deny it, the K-pop industry, like most pop industries, relies heavily on selling sex and the dances most girl groups perform intentionally encourage the viewer to look at their bodies in this way. My main issue is not with this type of framing but rather with the specific shots which undeniably objectify the performer and distract from the actual performance. Extreme close-ups of body parts, usually legs, upper thighs or chests, which add nothing to the viewer’s understanding of the performance itself and serve purely to titillate a presumed male heterosexual audience.

At this point I feel I should point out that I am mostly referring to SBS Inkigayo and MNET M!Countdown here. The other two main shows KBS Music Bank and MBC Music Core were almost completely lacking on this front. Notably KBS and MBC both have fairly strong public service broadcasting agendas, one being partially government-funded and the other managed by a not-for-profit organisation, which may be the reason for the difference. Their shows also appear to have substantially smaller budgets and less cameras.

ga in talk about sThe type of camerawork I am referring to is not used for every performer. At first glance, the reason for this seemed straightforward: singers with ‘sexy concepts’ get this treatment, others do not. But the more I looked into it, the more complicated it became. Certain performances well-known for being provocative were completely void of these kinds of shots, a prime example being Ga in’s Bloom, while others which might not be expected to fall into this category heavily featured them, such as 2NE1’s I Love You.

After watching many videos from different groups I came up with a list of features that a lot the most heavily objectified performances had in common:

  1. Comeback stages: Girl groups have been known to push boundaries with provocative choreographies in their comeback stages before censors get involved, a similar logic seems to apply the camerawork on these first outings.
  2. Point dances: Songs which were promoted using gimmicky pieces of choreography which focus on a particular body part such as SNSD’s Genie.
  3. Follow the hands: Many of the most blatantly objectifying cuts seemed to be following the movement of the performer’s hand in some way although almost always lingering longer than would be necessary if the singular motive was to capture a hand movement.
  4. Similar shots in music videos: A lot of the worst offenders had similar shots deployed in their actual music videos.

girls dayThese are hardly steadfast rules and not every video I watched conformed to all of the points (most only 2 or 3) but if we do use them as the basis to understanding why only certain performances receive this treatment, it makes me wonder who is behind it. Exactly how much influence do the entertainment companies have over how their artists are portrayed on TV? Given that so many of the most objectified TV performances come from artists whose companies have engaged in similarly exploitative promotional campaigns, is it ultimately the company’s decision? Or is it simply because they have already effectively vetoed this kind of portrayal? An article recently came out about the huge amount of power given to the producers of these shows but do companies have any power over how their artists are portrayed on-screen? If so, is anyone looking out for the best interests of their performers?

leeteukExtreme close-ups are not solely used for girl groups but they are used differently for their male counterparts. With boy groups they usually highlight intricate footwork or interesting facial expressions. What you do not see is lingering shots of exposed abs, crotch grabs and whatever else might be seen as the overtly sexualised parts of male K-pop performances.

These kinds of shots are distracting and disruptive to many of us who do not fall into the straight male category, which is probably most as the core audience of these kinds of shows are young females. While I do not have the belief that women dancing in a way which could be deemed to be provocative somehow corrupts the youth or some other similarly ridiculous argument, I do think that media has an important role to play in the way that we view both ourselves and others. By breaking women up into parts like this rather than showing them as whole people, audiences are encouraged to use this way of seeing in the way they look at women in everyday life. There is no way that this can be good for teenage girls already struggling with body and self-esteem issues. It also sends out a negative message to everyone about how men should treat women and how women should expect to be treated.

Aside from this, it detracts from the dancing. The best part of Afterschool’s Flashback choreography, in my opinion, is the group reveal that happens directly after the dubstep break. However on Inkigayo all the impact and creativity was lost because the cameraman is too busy looking at their legs.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that the camerawork in these shows should be used to showcase a performer’s performance. If a singer is singing, or even lip syncing, we should be able to see their face. If a dancer is dancing, we should be able to see enough of their whole body movement to appreciate the dance. There is nothing wrong with girl groups dancing sexily but they should be able to do so and still retain their identity as a performer and a human being. It can be sexy without being exploitative and that’s what needs to change.

This is part of a series of posts on body image and gender in K-pop and Korean society.

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  • Terri

    Very interesting article, I liked it a lot

  • EnzoAbbacchio

    Interesting article. I have to say that while I care about performer’s exploitation by agencies, I don’t care much about “visual objectification” in entertainment or similar businesses where you are supposed to promote your image as well as your professional skills. Speaking of show business, I think it matters more where you put the boundary between tasteful/distasteful, interesting/trivial, nice/ugly.
    I follow the K-Pop scene since a couple of years and, having seen a lot of material from several music shows, I think it’s possible to identificate some common issues.
    First, despite the fact that the performers spend most of their time in a practice room, you will never see a coreography as it was intended to be. In some cases, there are parts that are never showed, even without a specific reason.
    Second, the “body parts aimed” camerawork you were speaking about, either to show something juicy or to hide it. I find it annoying in both cases.
    Third, some music shows are genuinely bad on the visual side. Bad lighting, flashy led backgrounds causing pixelation, blurry images due to fast camera movements, PDs with the “I wonder how can I be so creative” syndrome or the “cutting spree” syndrome, poor video quality.
    Even if in most cases we’re not talking about the excellence in performing arts, these factors contribute to return a cheap feeling and to impoverish the performances, wasting the performer’s effort.