It began with the humble “who is the fairest of them all” and rose to the philosophical and contemplative “in me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman” – mirrors have been fashioned and refashioned to outgrow its superficial and narcissistic function, often becoming synonymous to the idea of a woman. While the quick analogy between mirror and women is problematic in itself, it is nonetheless interesting to understand why mirrors hold such great importance in a woman’s life so much so that even the ladies of K-pop appropriate that imagery routinely.
The mirror has escaped its four cornered restriction and is vastly understood as any kind of reflecting surface, and/or anything which functions as a reflection – pictures, videos, etc. Within this broad ambit, the whole of K-pop is replete with ‘reflections’ from the mirrored dance practice to the reflection of K-pop we see through the ‘mirror’ of Youtube videos. There is a strong deviation from the straightforward assumption of what you see is what it is to a more fine-grained understanding of what you see is what you think it is; for every explicit image there is an implicit meaning; for every behind-the-scenes there is a behind of the behind-the-scenes. Clearly, it is easy to get lost in this maze of mirrors so I’ll restrict myself solely to the concept of tangible mirrors.
Mirrors in K-pop have rarely been used for cheerful and encouraging songs. There aren’t many songs which has a woman peering into the mirror and exclaiming, “Bitch, I’m fabulous!” Rather it is always steeped in negativity and inferiority complex. The songs are often confessional as if they realize their faults only when they look into the mirror. What you have perceived so far of yourself is negated by the apparently truthful and objective mirror. The mirror, by its assumed authority and assumed indifference, rewrites a woman’s beliefs and convictions in a manner which is never empowering. It does not “develop”, “transform”, “recreate”; it always “contorts”, “distorts”, “magnifies.”The mirror, therefore, becomes invasive and instructive.
2NE1’s “Ugly” brings out the damaging effect of the mirror but it also sheds light on how exactly the mirror works. When Sandara croons “What must I do for me to be able to smile as bright as you” she is not looking merely at her own reflection, she is looking at two people at the same time: the reflection and the desired reflection. Constant comparison takes place but never as a whole person. Both the images are not seen in their entirety but instead are dissected part by part as is evident by the over emphasis on the smile and then the face bringing into frame Lacan’s “Mirror Stage.”[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGe0hHvAGkc]
The “Imaginary Stage” roughly says that a child (or any human subject) imagines itself in broken parts so it constantly needs the touch of a guardian to ensure its existence. This is followed by the “Mirror Stage” — not requiring a literal mirror — where the subject conceives itself as a whole, and finally enters the “Recognition Stage” where the subject defines itself through language and culture. The whole thing can be thought of as a coming of age ceremony with special emphasis on the “Mirror Stage” which is the pure stage where one does not expose oneself to previously constructed ideas of identity; what you see is what it is. Unfortunately, 2NE1 has reached Recognition only to revert to Imaginary: understanding itself in broken parts through the “broken mirror.”
2NE1 makes a quick connection between an “ugly face” and an “ugly heart”, and the problematic connection is furthered by Glam’s highly insightful “In Front of the Mirror.” Again, Glam assumes the mirror to be objective and it takes the self-loathing up by a notch as it internalizes the normative discourse of beauty while putting up an indifferent front. In addition to her supposedly increased weight, the mirror also shows how “sensitive”, “crazy”, “embarrassing” she is — common stereotypes of women. From mere physicality, the criticism has transcended to her personality except the mirror is not supposed to show her her “inner” qualities.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PreOQpat5Mg]
With one member standing in for the other and with the ever changing concepts of the day, what we get is one woman divided into four – each faulty, each a concept, each trying to perfect the concept. Each of them sit down before the mirror frustrated and then slowly start distorting themselves by applying makeup. Applying makeup is not a problem but the members have “the risky and beautiful bodies that walk the street of Gangnam” as the only ideal of beauty. They are not applying makeup to better themselves, they are applying it to change themselves. The sameness in the clothing, makeup and hair in the end further exemplifies the fact that only a single notion of socially sanctioned beauty is their aim. The song also portrays the violence behind the ‘feminine’ act of putting on makeup – ripping the wig, ripping of the shirt, contouring and sculpting. There is also a discourse of self-objectification with a constant focus on the body despite the members claiming that they are emotional and prideful beings except their humanness is understood as a fault.
All of this effort is being put to present themselves as as good as the ‘other’ women, and to gain male validation. But here lies the irony; the members are not everyday women. They were put into a band also because of their looks. So when they say they are lacking in comparison to ‘other’ women, they don’t realize that they themselves are the ‘other’ women — the pinnacle of beauty — for their young viewers. Therefore, there is an endless running after an ideal beauty by all women which exists only in the patriarchal imagination and has never materialized. When the man, at the end of the video, looks at the members as if they have gone insane, and fails to notice their ‘changed’ selves it clearly shows that the patriarchal conception of beauty is quick to change. Women can never achieve it and even their process of seeking it is ridiculed as “frivolous”, “superficial” and “narcissistic.” It can be safely assumed then that the mirror is not a reflecting surface; it is the patriarchal gaze.
John Berger – in Ways of Seeing – says that to be born a woman is akin to being born within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of man. Moreover, living under such tutelage causes a woman’s self being split into two, leading her to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within herself. She has to then survey everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. It is not enough to say “I am the fairest of them all”; the gaze has to validate it.
4Minute’s “Mirror Mirror” is one of the most empowering uses of the mirror especially in its use of the mirror maze. The mirror maze can be one of the most demoralizing spaces because while within a single mirror you can dissect one body part at a time, within a maze it happens simultaneously. If I had to literalize the psychological state, then one would see an arm in one frame, a head in other, and an eye in another. But 4Minute seems very confident about their reflection. They know they are beautiful and in fact, they answer for the mirror except their problem is “Why do you not look at me?”[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fOG_wcV_oU]
This appears a bit more complicated than the other two songs. The women think they are beautiful. The universalizing male gaze thinks they are beautiful. However, something is wrong. This is what is wrong – the male gaze is now located in a different mirror: the camera.
The camera works as a Panopticon. The Panopticon was originally built as a prison house, circular in structure, with an ‘inspection house’ in the middle. While to the inspector, each and every prisoner was visible, the prisoner himself could never see the inside of the house. This caused the prisoners to feel they were always under surveillance irrespective of whether or not they actually were. Foucault later turned it into a metaphor for “modern” disciplinary societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalize. The culture of patriarchy is one such disciplining institution.
So when the overhead camera zooms in and zooms out, devotes singular frames to the members, it is that ‘inspection house’ grading and keeping a watch on them. The ban on the choreography is the policing done by the ‘inspector.’ What so far seemed to be a music video now has real life consequences. From acting subjects within the music video, they are now objects acted upon in real life. The music video then becomes a reflection and like all reflections, the subject loses the power of meaning making, and we as viewers appropriate it. We attach meaning to the ‘reflection’ to call it either empowering, ‘slutty’ or a reflection of ‘Korean culture.’
SNSD’s “Reflection” is another such seemingly positive song.
It’s a dream-like heaven
Deceiving the entire world
Tonight, I have the spotlight to myself
So tight! So tuff!
I can see my reflection…!”
But it is replete with “deceiving” and “masking” obscuring the ‘reflection.’ There is always a certain amount of hiding in this ‘reflection.’
“ Tonight I’ll live up to your expectation
Good girl? Bad girl?”
Again, not only confining themselves to concepts and patriarchal fantasies but also to strict binaries. Either you are good or you are bad. Either you are real or you are fake. Either innocent or sexy. Either angelic or slutty. By real too, they don’t mean real everyday women. What they mean is ‘real’ beautiful women who may try as many ‘fake’ means of beautification as possible but not let it, quite ironically, show on their face. These are very, very restricted ideas of beauty and do not allow any space for agency to be exercised. The influence of the mirror has spread far and wide but its victims are inevitably held within the four corners.
Therefore, to conclude that every K-pop video is reflective of what happens in Korea, mirrors dominant Korean mindset, re-presents social constructs is falling into the four cornered trap. Clearly, no mirror re-presents, in fact it re-constructs, re-designs, re-narrativizes, and most probably feeds ideologies than feeding on it. Of course it’s a vicious cycle. It creates, we internalize and then it seems to be a re-presentation, and the real culprit hides itself within the blurring distinctions.
However, I would like to say that the trope of the mirror is not always disempowering. If one uses the mirror to dress up against patriarchal norms of beauty, it can be considered as gazing back at the mirror instead of looking into, destabilizing its institutionalized power. This is not to say that the mentioned songs are disempowering. These songs help look deeper into the problem after sifting through several refractions and reflections; it is still in the process of subversion.
(YouTube , Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, transl. by Bruce Fink, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Foucault, Michel (1995). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books; Lyrics via kpoplyrics; Images via SMent)