Why Baby Hyuna makes me feel so uncomfortable
A few days ago, my evening was ruined just a little bit by a series of videos that appeared on allkpop. They featured a four year old girl on the popular TV show Star King dancing to a series of songs by Hyuna including her big hits Bubble Pop and Ice Cream. This made me feel extremely uncomfortable.
Now, I thought that I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why watching a four year-old child doing such highly-sexualised performances would make me feel like this, it seemed obvious. Reading the comments though, apparently I was wrong. Most commenters seemed to think it was ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ and some said that because I thought these dances were inappropriate and overly-sexualised, I was a paedophile.
But let’s get this straight. When Hyuna does these dances everyone universally agrees that they are highly sexualised. In the countless debates about Hyuna’s image that happen every single time she releases something (whether she is comfortable with this image or not, whether it is inappropriate or not, whether it is exploitative or not etc.) no one ever says that that image is not ‘sexy,’ or at least intended to be. Those meanings and associations do not suddenly go away when the performance is being done by a young child.
Of course this little girl has no idea what she is doing! She has no real understanding what the actual cultural meanings are behind the dances except maybe that Hyuna is something called ‘sexy’ and that that’s good. In an article about princess culture for the Good Men Project, Hugo Schwyzer argues that little girls learn from a young age from compliments about how cute and pretty they are that they can get most attention for and are most valued for their looks. They also learn that the way to continue to get this attention as they grow up (and of course most kids love attention, it’s only natural) is to look and act sexy:
‘This sexiness has very little to do with sex, and everything to do with the craving for validation and attention. While all children want affirmation, princess culture teaches little girls to get that approval through their looks. Little girls learn quickly what “works” to elicit adoration from mom and dad, as well as from teachers, uncles, aunts, and other adults. Soon—much too soon—they notice that older girls and women get validation for a particular kind of dress, a particular kind of behavior. They watch their fathers’ eyes, they follow their uncles’ gaze. They listen to what these men they love say when they see “hot” young women on television or on the street. And they learn how to be from what they hear and see.’
I am not denying that the little girl is cute (she is four and most four year olds are) and I am also sure that she doesn’t really understand what she is doing. However, that doesn’t mean the dances she was doing suddenly lose all their meaning because she doesn’t understand them. To some degree the show even acknowledges the intent of the dance moves. There is one caption which reads ‘Her transformation from a cute fairy into a powerful and sexy warrior’ (notably, both ‘powerful’ and ‘sexy’ are Konglish words and not native Korean) although nothing said by the presenters imply that anything in the performance is sexy. She is not sexy but the dances and performance are still sexualised. And that is very troubling.
What is even more troubling is the desire to deny, by both the Korean media and apparently a lot of international K-pop fans, that this is the case. By doing that, we do not protect children from sexualisation at a young age instead we normalise and accept this kind of behaviour.
This is nothing new and arguably a large amount of the K-pop industry in the past few years has run on the idea that by denying the sexuality of young women K-pop companies can target older, and richer, male fans (SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo Man has explicitly said these men were Girls’ Generation’s target audience.) The companies encourage these men to deny that they feel any sexual attraction to these girls and simply want to protect them by describing them as ‘uncle fans’.
Groups, sometimes with members as young as 14 or 15, routinely employ cutesy hand gestures, and feigned innocent facial expressions alongside sexually provocative dance moves to allow the male audience to more easily deny any attraction to these young women. If this is how adolescents are being treated in the media, it’s not particularly surprising to see children treated in the same way. If it’s not sexual when a 15 year-old does it, why not a 4 year-old?
It was very strange to see Baby Hyuna mimic the combination of sexualised dance moves and feigned innocence of some of these performances with the real innocence of a small child. I am not exaggerating to say that I felt extremely uncomfortable. There was also an even more bizarre moment after Baby Hyuna performed her dance, when actual Hyuna did her own performance of the ever-popular aegyo-laden Gwiyomi song. It is a strange contrast to see a small child giving the performance of an adult woman followed by an adult woman giving the performance of a small child.
This blurring of the lines between acceptable adult behaviour and acceptable child behaviour raises some very worrying issues. If little girls see from a young age that the way to get attention is to act ‘sexy’, they not only start to see themselves in a sexualised way at far too young an age but they learn that their power and worth lies solely in their appearance. This is made even more confusing if they also see adult women simultaneously acting in a childish manner. And that is not even going into all the extremely problematic issues it raises surrounding paedophilia.
My discomfort from watching these videos and others before them like ‘Wonder Baby’ is not because I am a pervert of some kind that is looking at a child in an inappropriate way, it is because a child is being presented in a way which is age-inappropriate and exploitative. If a child dances like that along to a music video in their own house it is understandable, children like to mimic adults after all. That, however, does not mean that it should be celebrated and glorified. That does not mean it should be shown on national TV.