Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze’ theory suggests the media present women through the viewpoint and interests of a heterosexual man and as a result, denies women an identity as strong as their male counterpart. The theory expresses in the media, women’s aesthetic value is only important. The Male gaze theory is present within forms of popular Korean culture, as the media portrays the traditional gender inequality upheld in East Asia. I will analyse Korean popular culture concerning the ‘Male Gaze’ theory by examining Korean pop music, music videos and music broadcast shows and suggest the effect this can have on the audience. In the areas I will examine, there is a prevalent sexist portrayal and objectification which reinforces Korea’s patriarchal system and lack of gender equality. The businesses, music labels and music shows, want to capitalise and monetise the sexist portrayals of women by using the ‘Male Gaze’ to their full advantage and in doing so, Korean media reinforces Korea’s patriarchal culture and hinders gender equality.
Catering to the male gaze, Korean TV broadcasts use camera angles, framing and lighting which emphasise the bodies and de-emphasise the identity of the performers. The cameras are a literal ‘gaze’ to guide the viewer to stare at the female singers’ bodies in a way that is voyeuristic and sexual, along with subtly erotic choreography and lyrics. Designed with a male point-of-view in mind, these TV performances cater to the male gaze theory. As Doane states in her studies, “the woman’s beauty, her very desirability, becomes a function of certain practices of imaging—framing, lighting camera movement, angle” which is demonstrated in the Korean pop singers performances, these tactics are used to capture the male gaze and make the singers seem more aesthetically desirable and therefore boosting their popularity and sales. Furthermore, Korean pop singers are treated differently than a western singer, for one they are referred to as an ‘idols’, a word which implies a god-like status for an audience to lust and gaze over, and unlike in the west, idols have to not only sing and look flawless but also hold a level of skill in dancing and acting. This treats K-Pop idols as a commodity, designed specifically for the ‘Male Gaze’.
However, it has been argued ‘’K-pop girl groups are positioned between the twin dangers of promiscuity and chastity’’ as they are forced to fulfil multiple male fantasies and ‘gazes’ at once by being visually sexy but still having the innocent stature that South Korea expects for a woman. As an example of Doane’s argument is the girl group KARA’s performance of ‘Pandora’. The music broadcast show MBC uses the camera to emphasize one body part over another, pronominally legs, this isolation of the girl’s body can be viewed as objectifying and serving the ‘male gaze’. Mulvey claims this close-up focus of the body which is seen in KARA’s performance turns the girls into a “cutout or icon” and in doing so destroys “the illusion of depth” in the performer and performance, as they are just viewed as an object for a male to gaze on. This also allows the girl groups to sell a fantasy narrative to their viewers as if the camera angles are a first view perspective where male fans feel like they are present and their ‘gaze’ through the TV is reality. In the performance the choreography highlights the desirability of a female body, alongside outfits that resemble a corset with an open jacket, which they shake off, giving a fantasy to the viewer that they will soon undress completely.
Additionally, throughout the performance, the girl’s hands slide along their bodies in a way that is another person’s hand which, for the ‘male gaze’ a viewer can interpret as their hand. The camera emphasises the sexualised choreography, at times blurring the background so the viewer’s main attention is on one girl and her provocative movements. As the ‘male gaze’ theory suggests, women are secondary to men when it comes to media, so this objectification in music shows conveys the theory by not showing other aspects of their performance. Overall, the result of the camera work on South Korean singing shows normalises objectification of their female performers as their record companies capitalise on the ‘male gaze’ who know the popularity a male audience can bring for their female singers. By screening their singer’s body parts in a manner, which for a male audience, can hold a sensuous interpretation, supports Laura Mulvey’s theory of the ‘Male Gaze’. However, this normality threatens to build a society that is comfortable sexually objectifying women on national television and teaches males that women can be treated as an aesthetic object and young women are faced with conventional beauty are desirable characteristics from these staged cameras, which could hold a contribution to the long issue of dieting, plastic surgery, depression, and youth suicide seen in South Korea.
In South Korea, the consumption of paedophilic fantasies through popular culture is normalised, music companies monetise this in their female singers by having them act innocent to feed specific ‘male gazes’ which lust for an obedient, younger wife. South Korea ranks as one of the lowest countries in the Global Gender Gap list for the largest gender gap for wages and working conditions and Mulvey illustrates societies’ patriarchal subconsciousness shapes our watching experience. Therefore, this correlates to an overly sexualised music market in South Korea. Marketed with the heterosexual male fans in mind, a female idols job in South Korea is to conform to a subservient role that feeds the ‘male gaze’. Sexualization in the Korean music market involves picking attractive performers who will become an object of their fan’s fantasies, whilst presenting their overly sexualized or innocent songs. Mulvey’s main argument implies popular culture uses women to supply a pleasurable visual experience for men and this is what South Korean music labels profit of. Through personalities, outfits and language choices which music labels force their female singers to portray themselves through, female singers appear infantilised, clueless and reliant on men when it comes to love.
Oh argues that when a woman is read as sexual she becomes a political hindrance but chaste women support “the patriarchal ideology that says a woman should be a good wife and a wise mother” and therefore popular media pushing Lolita-like girl groups to become popular, as they not only support the gender imbalance, but also the ‘Male gaze’ that fantasise about girls who are clueless when it comes to love. An example of this is Twice song ‘Heart Shaker’ with pastel outfits, young pigtail hairstyles and cutesy voices which sing about their lack of knowledge when it comes to love, the idols are subject to the visuals of a young girl. As Twice is the most successful female idol group, this could suggest that the innocent approach is most popular for girl groups as they knowingly contribute to the overall inferiority which women in K-Pop and Korean society face. To please the subconscious desires of the male audience, music companies appeal to the ‘Male Gaze’, by presenting their female singer’s sexually in either a slutty or innocent manner, nonetheless ready to please the audience.
Female K-Pop idols are a product, acting submissive, provocative or Lolita-like for their fans and the South Koreas patriarchal capitalist society. Chapman argues ‘the propulsive fantasies of K-pop produce a gulf between onscreen heroics and the tangible life of any-viewer-whatsoever’ this suggests fans can build on what they see in music videos or showcases and insert themselves into an ideal narrative where themselves and the female idols are lovers. An example is ‘Samchon-fans’ which in Korea are older male fans. They actively seek female idols as many of them fill a ‘Lolita’ role, cute and innocent girls, which the older men gain sexual gratification from if they cannot find that role in their everyday lives. The emergence of an older ‘male gaze’ is said to be ‘’the male reclamation of the dominant position that has long been theirs, made far more potent than the teenage obsession that has been more commonplace in South Korea’’ this insinuates female idols fulfil the ‘Male Gaze’ as they fit the patriarchal ideology which Korean men find satisfying to watch. Ultimately, South Korean music labels push their female singers to perform with the ‘Male Gaze’ in mind and profit of the fact that they can mould their girls into a variety of personalities which will ultimately attract the most amount of male attention. Overall, driven by profits, the K-pop industry plays into the ‘Male Gaze’ to help fulfil male fans’ fantasies and adhering the consumer desires, female idols become subjective to the ‘male gaze’ and labelled as submissive or erotic to fans treated who treat their existence as a commodity.
Another form of popular culture which brings idols and their fans together is music videos. The choreography, camera angles, lyrics and outfits presented in music videos underline Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze’ theory as many have been created purposely to entice a male audience to watch the young female singers or backup dancers with aesthetic value. The treatment in these types of music videos reflects the ingrained patriarchy and gender imbalance that South Korea is infamous for, where even in the 21st century many treating women as second-class citizens, suffering discrimination and objectification by men. Referencing the music video ‘Who’s your mama?’ will give insight into how the head of the most profitable Korean music company presents themselves and other women in their music video and how they conform to the ‘Male Gaze’ theory. J.Y Park, the main singer in the song, is also head of JYP Entertainment, one of the most successful entertainment companies that manage girl groups. Women, as suggested in the ‘Male Gaze’ theory, are objectified in this music video. We can see the ‘Male Gaze’ theory in action at the beginning of the music video as J.Y.P walks into the gym and shows his reaction to what would be regarded as a very attractive woman, as a result, he shows only the reaction to her breasts and behind, as opposed to her face. This suggests J.Y.P is tailoring to the ‘Male Gaze’ as throughout the music video he is the main character and so it can be assumed the close-up angles of the women’s bodies is his first-person ‘gaze’ for the audience to also admire. A lot of shots in the music video never show the women’s face, only focusing on their bodies, which J.Y.P openly points and looks at which highlights how the media show women through a male’s perspective and openly objectify them. In the music video women wear tight gym outfits and bikinis which show a lot more flesh than J.Y.P who at one point wears a suit. This denotes in this music video women are viewed as sexual objects while men hold a position of power over them, as suggested by the business suit. This highlights the ‘Male Gaze’ theory and the gender inequality that South Korea faces as some women are still, in the 21st century, expected to be homemakers while their husbands work respectable jobs. In this aspect, the ‘Male Gaze’ is harmful to both men and women. When repeatedly exposed to this portrayal of women through the ‘Male Gaze’ it endorses the self-objectification of women as it sends a message of inferiority to men and the importance of appearance. The stereotypes show through the ‘Male Gaze’, a woman with all perfect appearance and characteristics, could affect women’s self-confidence and limit their career decisions and future possibilities.
This essay has argued that South Korean music companies tailor their female idols towards a male audience in mind which supports Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze’ theory. South Korean music companies force their female idols to act prude yet visually erotic to cater towards more male preferences and ‘gazes’ which in turn, more public exposure and album sales. The way women are presented during musical showcases or music videos suggest, with the camera angles and styles, women are an object to be looked upon by their male audience. The effect of this on both men and women is that it leads to self-objectification and mistreatment on women, which is harmful in Korean society which has an issue with gender inequality and suggests within the musical sphere of Korean culture, the cycle of objectification continue for much longer. Further research might examine the full extent of the ‘Male Gaze’ in Korean pop culture as the chosen examples do not represent the whole K-pop scene. However, it is plausible to assume that the mainstream media in South Korea wishes to objectify their female performers and in turn, feed the ‘Male Gaze’.
- https://www.jstor.org/stable/23357427?read-now=1&seq=12#page_scan_tab_contents 940pg
- Doane -https://www.amazon.co.uk/Femmes-Fatales-Feminism-Studies-Psychoanalysis/dp/0415903203