As a woman who never once self-identified as a feminist until getting too deeply involved in K-entertainment, there are some days when I wonder if I’ve seen it all. Could it get any worse for the women of K-pop, I asked myself, after Yuri‘s disastrous Mamonde commercial last year? After SISTAR‘s choreography + costumes combination resulted in a show that not all of us wanted to see? After HyunA‘s “Bubble Pop” racked up millions of YouTube videos for the wrong reasons? After each and every perceived blow to the feminist ego, the answer was invariably a resounding “no” — no, this is a new low for how ladies in K-pop are portrayed. No, I have not seen any music video before as vaguely pornographic as is this. No, I can’t imagine a commercial that could be more demeaning to the many hard-working women who strive to be taken seriously by their male counterparts in a country that still has one of the worst records on gender equality in the OECD and the world. This is truly rock bottom — any minute now, we’ll strike bedrock and eventually hit the fiery pit that is the center of the earth.
And invariably, each time I am proven wrong.
Let’s talk about Kang Min-kyung‘s latest CF for Gillette razors.
And for good measure, don’t forget to listen to the audio version, in which Kang Min-kyung shaves her boyfriend’s face for him and provides cutesy commentary interspersed with giggling, suggestive heavy breathing, and what I can only describe as moaning. If you ever have the chance to watch a pornography whilst blindfolded, do let me know how it compares to this; I’m very curious.
Seriously. Where does one even begin with these so-called “commercials” — the theme of which is “a shave that deserves a kiss”? One could plausibly start with the acting — which, by the way, is atrocious. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never seen any of the projects in which Kang Min-kyung has acted, but I really hope this isn’t the best she’s got. She looks positively ridiculous as she fakes the worst attempt at cute giggling in the world and gives her oppa the full once-over. Then she twirls around — but why? — only to remark after she gets another good look at her oppa that he looks neater. Almost no emotion is conveyed after she is pushed onto the sofa by the unseen (and, we can only assume, freshly shaven) male, and the progressive close-ups of her face as he goes in for a (super gross and inappropriate) kiss are horrifyingly bad. On a purely aesthetic level, this commercial should appeal only to men (and women) who dig the cutesy, infantilized girl act — and even then, they should feel gypped by the overall quality of the acting.
Speaking of, let’s talk about the cutesy, infantilized girl act, because I’m starting to get really, really sick of it. Really, there was no way around this one; the commercial starts off by immediately establishing a hierarchical gender binary when Kang Min-kyung calls the unseen male “Oppa.” Granted, a lot of women (in both South Korea and around the world) date older men, but the word oppa has become almost frighteningly indexicalized, so utterly charged with status-oriented and gendered meaning that even if social norms call for a woman to address an older male as “oppa,” there is still some level of gender-based tension. “Oppa” doesn’t just mean an older male acquaintance anymore; it evokes romance, it evokes bbuing-bbuing-doing girlfriends, and it evokes the men who, whether they realize it or not, enjoy a position of superiority in a relationship vis-a-vis women who are constantly told by the media that the way to a man’s heart is by acting like one is six years old. The Korean phrase oppa-byoung (“oppa” disease) was even coined to refer to men who enjoy being called “oppa,” who find it sexy when women treat them like the strong, older men that they believe themselves to be. And sure enough, “Oppa” takes full control of the child-like Kang Min-kyung. No question who is in control in this relationship; no surprises there.
On top of all of that, there’s the fact that both commercials are just plain inappropriate. Some have called them “lewd,” and I think that’s a pretty apt description here. The way that the unseen oppa manhandles Kang Min-kyung might be fine for a drama, or for a movie (or maybe even an adult movie, which is what this whole CF feels like), but for commercials that could air at anytime and on any channel on television or radio, it just isn’t okay. They are disquietingly suggestive, seductive, and off-putting. All of it is in utterly poor taste, and I can’t believe that anyone on any level of production thought that this commercial might be a good idea.
Perhaps the worst thing about this whole mess is that these CFs do more than gross people out. They expose the gross discrepancy in the way that sexual objectification functions in the world of Korean entertainment. Sure, we have the usual problems (Kang Min-kyung is portrayed as a pliant object of male sexual fantasy) but let’s take it a step further. Imagine if the roles were reversed and the CF was filmed from Kang Min-kyung’s perspective — and rather than listening to her breathy, giggly nonsense, viewers are instead treated to a clean-shaven (and possibly shirtless) male celebrity. Whatever sculpted male idol they cast in the role (for some reason, I’m picturing Taecyeon here) asks his unseen ladyfriend if he looks nice and clean and handsome. Would he be seen as pervy or disgusting? Likely not. Instead, he’d probably be viewed as cute, charming, beastly, or suave. Comments would likely reflect his utter perfection; in fact, we’d probably see a lot of comments that read, “MY OVARIES!” “My panties, take them!” “Ugh, I got pregnant just by watching this!”
You know what? This is not okay. Nobody has ever denied that K-pop isn’t just as predicated on male objectification as it is on female objectification (anyone who has seen Siwon‘s promotional picture for “Mr. Simple” would know that), but they are not treated with the same degree of severity or equality. Like it or not, we as fans have been trained to expect female idols to be objectified negatively (to the point of numbness in some cases), while the objectification of male idols often earns praise. The reason? Because female objectification often goes hand-in-hand with a portrayal of that female as subordinate, weak, childish, and completely dominated by a sexually-empowered male; and yet, male objectification exudes confidence, swagger, power, and dominance. That Kang Min-kyung looks as terrible as she does in this CF is not only a function of the fact that she honestly looks terrible, but also a function of the way the K-pop machine has indoctrinated viewers regarding the perception of genders. The female is an object to be consumed, but the male (though also being consumed) is portrayed as doing the consuming. We, the fans, are guilty of perpetuating this stereotype through our own reactions. It’s not okay only to come out against this particular portrayal of a weak female if we also don’t also come out against male behavior that enforces the idea that women are somehow not as empowered as are men.
If we are going to acknowledge that this commercial was just a bad, bad idea that smacks of sexual objectification and a gendered hierarchy, then we would have to acknowledge it any way you twist the knife — and if we can’t, then that is indicative of a much bigger problem.
What do you think, readers? What did you think of the CF?