Super Show 4 kicked off about a month ago, and perhaps one of the most memorable acts of the night was when Sungmin showed up in a Marilyn Monroe getup — white halter dress, red lipstick, blonde wig, the whole nine yards. K-pop is no stranger to the idea of boys dressing in girls’ clothing for the sake of comedy…but does this comedic stunt hold more implications than what meets the eye? This week we asked our writers: Why do male K-pop stars cross dress? Is it okay for women to cross dress as men? If so, then why don’t they?
Subi: When the guys of Super Junior cross dress, they do it because they want laughs, they do it because they think it’s funny. But my question to them would be: Why is a feminine aesthetic and mannerisms funny? It is not okay for women in K-pop to cross dress because surprise, surprise, men aren’t something to be laughed at. The way they dress, the way they act — that’s all serious business. But wearing a dress, having long hair, putting on make up, everything that stereotypes a “woman” is supposed to be funny. You can see this every time men and women perform covers of each others songs. When the men of K-Pop perform a cover of a female group’s song, it’s so funny. They go around in their feminine costumes with their cutesy gestures and it’s supposed to be hilarious. The girls? They’re supposed to go just as hard the guys, no laughing allowed. But I also think there is another layer to it. While women are the butt of this joke, seeing that Korea is a conservative country filled with homophobia, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the hilarity involved seeing men acting “gay.” Because acting like a woman means acting “gay.” And acting “gay” is something to laugh at. Cross dressing in K-Pop may be funny, but for me, it is the gestus of a lot of deep seeded issues in Korean entertainment and Korea as a whole.
Ree: Honestly, I think they just do it for laughs. And it’s more the ridiculousness of a supposedly masculine guy getting all dolled up in dresses, wearing lip stick, strutting around in heels, it’s all for laughs and ridiculousness. It’s not really feminine mannerisms and aesthetics that are funny, but rather, a guy acting as such. Perhaps I’ve become immune to it or I don’t think deep enough, but I really just think it’s some harmless fun on their part. Buuut, I will say that women do cross-dress as men, and it isn’t looked down upon. Rather it doesn’t contain the same connotations as a guy cross-dressing does. For example, SuJu wear sailor suits performing Genie = funny. T-ara dressing up as men during a performance = hot. 2AM dressing up as women for selca/photoshoots = funny. SNSD dressing up as androgynous/men for photoshoot/selca = hot. Women are objectified, all the time. They can feel free to dress up, but because with girl groups there is a much larger emphasis on aesthetic appeal than there is for personality humour, aesthetics and looking good are always going to take first place. Take SNSD and SuJu for example. Both had a large emphasis on looks, but Super Junior has just of a large emphasis on their entertainment value or ‘variety skills’, whereas for SNSD, honestly, it’s pretty much 80% for their aesthetic appeal. And this isn’t just an SNSD thing, it goes for every girl group out there.
Amy: But Ree, just to play devil’s advocate in your argument for the women-dressing-as-men-not-criticized thing, what about Amber? She’s not crossdressing in any way because this is how she dresses, but the backlash in her “acting like a boy” or having mannerisms like a boy is a thousand times more severe than that I’ve seen when K-pop guys act like girls. That’s already started to become part of the fan service package and nobody questions it, but Amber though…
Subi: No joke is meant to carry offense. And while I’m not disagreeing with you, why is a “supposedly masculine guy getting all dolled up” funny? And the differences you point out between the men of K-pop and the women of K-pop is exactly what I’m talking about. When men dress up as women, it’s funny, it’s not meant to be taken seriously. But women dress up as men, well, that’s different. Just compare covers of SNSD’s “Gee” to covers of Super Junior’s “Sorry, Sorry.” For a man to act like a woman can be a joke? But the other way, around isn’t? PUHleaze.
Amy: Or something else you can consider re: SNSD’s Sorry Sorry and SJ’s Gee: SJ’s performance was meant to be a joke performance or a funny one, yet when SNSD performed SJ’s song, they actually had to show that they could “do” the job. It wasn’t a joke. A girl’s song is downplayed, yet you’re proving something when you perform a boy’s song.
Peggy: Remember Twelfth Night? Shakespeare started it all, and that play was considered as a comedy too. I don’t know what is it about gender bending that tickles peoples funny bone. Do we laugh because the boys make ugly girls or do we coo because they actually look pretty good? I wish we would see more girl groups doing these parodies. I would love to see them poke fun at the common boy band cliches. 2pm’s shirt ripping for example. But girls get more flak if they move out of their perceived gender roles. Sometimes I would watch a variety show, and if one of the girls show strength, they would label her as ‘scary’. God forbid if they are doing a cooking challenge and they find out that she can’t cook. And with all of this, where does Amber fit in? Fans consider her as a boy with their cries of “oppaaa” and the shipping between the f(x) members. Does that mean if a girl chooses to be less feminine and more tomboy, that she is placed in the same category as a boy? A tomboy just means a girl who would rather do boyish things, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t female. Why call her oppa then?
Patricia: I think it’s worth noting that the idea of crossdressing as a way to get laughs isn’t just a Korea problem or even an entertainment industry problem. When I was in high school, I remember that the choir would hold these Halloween costume and skit contests, and every year, it was inevitable that one of the guys would show up in a dress or in tights. It was tacky as hell (which is probably one of the reasons why you don’t see it done on American TV), but it brought laughs all around. Not that it’s any more excusable when it’s done outside of the entertainment sphere (perhaps less so), but let’s not turn this into another argument where everyone pins the blame on Korea’s “social backwardness” when it’s a problem that’s relevant in areas outside of Korea and the Korean entertainment sphere. Of course, there’s also something to be said about the fact that the people engaging in this behavior are K-pop idols, and these idols are role models to many highly impressionable young people. But then that opens up a whole other can of worms, doesn’t it?
Subi: While entertainment outside of Korea may have the same foundational problems, cross dressing is an identifiable, reoccurring motif in Korean pop that is a physical manifestation of an issue that is present elsewhere. The idea that the treatment of women in media is a problem outside of Korea as well, is obvious. But how it takes shape in K-pop, i.e. cross dressing, is what creates this discussion.
Nabeela: I definitely think every single culture out there is subject to some varying degree of a double standard. In the context of K-pop though, what makes a marketable female idol versus what makes a marketable male idol are completely different. Decorum wise, males have much more freer opinion in what they say and do, and what gets taken lightly and what doesn’t. I’m not trying to point the finger at Korean culture, not at all. But its a double standard that is just magnified in social/music media, et cetera. I mean, you guys remember that Big Bang spoof of that one drama? Where GD and Top and all the boys are kissing? You think Wonder Girls or Girls Day or A Pink or whatnot could get away with ‘jokes’ like that? Boys kissing boys, har har. Girls kissing girls — oh say it isn’t so.
Johnelle: I do believe a lot of the K-pop cross dressing has to do with fan service, but the implications of why this is such a popular fan service has many disturbing reasons. A lot of it has to do with the whole Asian flower boy thing where it’s okay that a man is so beautiful and has feminine characteristics that he’s compared to a flower. I do believe a big part of it delves into fans’ yaoi fetishes whether they want to admit it or not. Truthfully, when you look at it, more times than not K-pop ‘shippings’ are between members rather than with a female idol. I do believe a part of it comes from the rationale that if a female fan can’t have her idol, than no other female can, but one of his bandmates would be okay.
As far as the reason more girl acts don’t cross dress like men, I think a lot of it has to do with their patriarchal society and the fact that women can’t be anything, but your typical female. A good example of this happened this past year in K-dramas–there was that drama starring Song Chang-eui “Life is Beautiful” in which his character was in a homosexual relationship and the characters even got married. The drama was considered groundbreaking and had a lot of positive feedback. But then KBS has a drama special (only a one episode show) about three generations of lesbian relationships called “Daughters of Bilitis Club” and everyone goes crazy over how terrible and detrimental to society it was to show that drama. It’s almost like it’s okay for men to do what they want even if it is to love or have sex with another man, but it is beyond approach for a woman to even think of being in love or having sex with another woman.
Young-ji: It’s rather interesting for me to follow along with this discussion, because I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I never took a step back to think about the cultural implication of cross-dressing. It has always been and always will be part of K-pop and although I want to easily shrug if off and say that this is just for comic relief, I don’t think that’s the way to go about it.
Cultural implications aside, I want to just point out that it appears to me that comedy in Korea is not yet developed because of the topics one can openly discuss or poke fun at is limited. Although we want to believe that Korea is a democracy and everyone has the freedom of speech, it is my understanding that any real criticism of the government, its policies and systems are not talked about as they are in America. I’m no expert on who owns what piece of the media and how they are related, but because Korea as a whole is very relationship based, no one will go out there to openly criticize or poke fun because they are aware of the repercussions. It may just be that, you are criticizing the government, but your long distant cousin is married to someone who works for that specific brand of government that you made fun of and that’s going to come back and bite you in the ass. We talk about six degrees of separation, I think its more like 0.75 degree of separation in Korea. Everyone knows everyone and are all interdependent and interrelated in one way or another. Of course, things in Korea are changing and these sort of dependencies are not as strong, but one cannot forget that Korea is a society that values relationships and “face” very very highly.
So to bring this back to our conversation, I feel like comedians/entertainers have limited number of topics that they can use for their material, so they resort to one of the more “safe” topics — which is cross dressing. As everyone is probably aware, homosexuality is not really acknowledged in the Korean entertainment industry, so this is an easy way to win some laughs.
And as more K-pop stars are expected to follow the footsteps of their entertainer sunbaes, I think they just follow along without really understanding the greater cultural implications of cross-dressing. And in all honestly, do we really think that members of Super Junior will go, “Hey, do you think we will offend somebody if we cross-dressed?” when they are in a production meeting? I’ll be surprised if they were even given an option to say no. They are part of a system and to win more air time, they are probably just expected to go along and dress in whatever ridiculous outfits their stylists puts in front of them.
In sum, although I think some points discussed, such as cultural implications, homosexuality and differences in gender expectations are all good points, we should not forget that these stars are also part of a system that only allows a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to being entertainers and that can serve to explain why cross-dressing is rampant in K-pop.
Madina: I agree with Young-Ji. I view K-entertainment cross-dressing more along the lines of Harvard’s Hasty Pudding than any transvestite tendencies. Look, you can’t express your political opinion as easily over there (if you’re an entertainer) for fear of being blacklisted from the major networks. Can’t be overly sexual either for fear or censorship. Other topics also might be cultural taboo. What else is left there?
Amy: I agree with Young-ji. And I wanted to go back to a point Patricia made quite excellently about people being dismissive towards Korea and their “backward thinking.”
So this is also another one of those things that people misunderstand when they get into really heated K-pop arguments. Warning: long and academic rant ahead.
Yes, Korea’s democratic system is younger than America’s or the West’s or what have you, but a lot of people conflate this to Korea just being “not as advanced” as a Western country and as someone who studied East Asian Studies in school, this line of argument really bothers me because it’s racist and imperialist. This is the same sort of line of thought that encourages people to compare, let’s say, America’s system of capitalism with China’s system of capitalism. There are MANY problems with China’s system of capitalism and I don’t think anyone can argue with this, but what most of the people criticizing it don’t realize is that China’s capitalist system was essentially created after 1989. And America’s has been in place for centuries now. America’s had so many years to work out whatever kinks they possibly might have had and China’s is just starting. And the fact that China has a bajillion people practicing this system all at once.
So with Korea — Korea’s democratic system and the idea of freedom of speech has only been in place since maaaaybe Roh Tae-woo’s presidency, which took place in the early 90s. The early 90s, people. So SK’s democracy has been in place for not even 20 years and the idea of self-expression in every manner is still young. A lot of their outlooks regarding things that “we” have been discussing since the early 20th century are just BARELY making a blip on the radars of every person born and bred in Korea.
So their historical circumstances are different than ours and they have NOT had time to absorb these things into their historical trajectories the same way ours have (ie, racism, Civil Rights have made a huge mark on American history, as has women’s rights and liberation, etc). Combine that with the fact that the internet has sort of inorganically filtered into SK these issues that a lot of Western countries have absorbed and dealt with for so many years makes for this weird imbalance in SK sociological outlook. Like for example, they just sort of skipped out all the actual racism stuff that we had to go through and figure out (though we haven’t really “figured it out” yet, but still) and just took the remainders: making fun of blacks and using blackface without knowing the historical context, etc etc etc.
Subi: But equal political, economic, in this case, specifically, social rights for women is not an idea or desire rooted in the West. It is a fight that has been happening for many years, in many different places all over the planet. The injustice felt towards this disparity has nothing to do with me being from the West (which I’m not but we’ll pretend I am), it has to do with me being a woman, which is something that transcends time and space.
Amy: I get that there are clear and unfair gender differences in Korea — hell that’s what I was arguing at the very beginning — and maybe I’m not referring directly to the idea of gender critique in my argument, but in a critique of socio-issues as a whole, a lot of people use predominantly Western standards to critique Korea, which is what my argument became.
Subi: My big gripe with arguments of this general nature however is how people say “Well look at what happens in x place in x time. It’s just as [insert comparative adjective] as y.” For example, when a K-artist does something considered “slutty” and people are like “LOOK AT WHAT PEOPLE DO IN AMERICA ^%^%#$&^^&*^&* PWNED.” That is as effective as being the sibling that gets caught for doing something bad and being like “WELL LOOK AT WHAT JIMMY DID” If you’ve ever been that kid, you would know from personal experience that it’s very ineffective.
Young-ji: So all valid points on Subi & Amy’s fronts and I can’t argue with you intellectuals. But just to bring it down a level — let’s think about the primary audience that these K-pop acts are catering to. No matter what they say about international community and hallyu — a lot of these cross dressing acts are happening in Korea catered to Koreans. And to be honest, I don’t think Koreans take this topic seriously. They take is as an easy laugh and move on, so in all seriousness, yes, as entertainers and role models, they should be careful of how their behaviors influence others, but if the primary audience doesn’t really see this as an issue — do you think there is an incentive or a reason for anybody to change?
Subi: But my question is why does no one see this as a problem?
Gil: That’s what I don’t like about people comparing K-pop to American music. It’s an argument used often in regards to torture. “At least America isn’t like so and so country where this and this happens” Well guess what, why should we compare ourselves to that nations? We have our own morals and values to uphold and what someone else does should not affect that. Same with K-pop, so Korea just got their independence a half a century ago, and while they may not be Myanmar or North Korea, basic rights of an individual should never be impeded upon (talking about censorship). If we just accept that “Oh Korea is a racist country or it’s homophobic” how are we going to change? The nation has progressed a lot in regards to women but it can progress even further and you need people to challenge that and have belief that Korea can do better, its also the same with other nations. You think women in America are at the same level of men? AS much as we would like to think so, we’re not. There is still a huge gender gap and if we accept the status quo nothing is going to change.
Young-ji: Some may see it as an issue — in fact, many may see it as an issue — but based on my observation, not a lot of people tend to voice them. When it comes to feminism or differences in gender expectations in Korea — I see very two types of reactions. There are those who are vocal and interpret everything under feminist eyes, hence rubbing a lot of people the wrong way and less expressive individuals, who know that it’s an issue but go along and play along with the stereotypes that they were given because they know that it can favor them in the long run.
Nobody wants to hire or be around that crazy vocal feminist for various reasons, so it seems like a lot of females I encountered learn to mask their feelings well and actually play the situation to their advantage. So a concern may be there, but the need to acknowledge the issue and make a big stink about it, is not there because it seems more beneficial and wise to just play along and maneuver as you see fit. And maybe the way we are approaching how standards should change in Korea needs updating as well.
Maybe it’s not the overt things that will make the difference but more of these covert or more behind the scenes that will make a difference in the long run. How we go about introducing those changes, I’m not sure but a renowned professor of mine once told me, if you want to make a difference in Korea, you have to earn everyone’s respect first but the irony of it is that in order to earn everybody’s respect, you have to learn to play by their rules, which may go against the exact type of change you want to instill. So it’s not like these types of questions have not been raised before or thought about…it’s just that there are not clear cut solutions and as Madina indicated, maybe Korea just needs time to settle down.