NOT SO MONSTROUS: IMAGES OF WONDER WOMAN IN
K-POP MUSIC VIDEOS
Dept. of English Language and Literature
Chonnam National University
Gwangju, Republic of Korea
In my class in American Society and Popular Culture at the South Korean university where I work, I discuss the intersections of American and Korean popular music to show the global nature of that music. For instance, I use the American protest music of the 1960s along with Han Dae Su’s “Give Me Some Water” (“Mul Jom Juso”) to show how music has been used for political resistance. When Han De Su sings “Give me some water. I am thirsty” (“Mul jom juso. Mok maleuyo”), he sings of the thirst for freedom and democracy.
I likewise refer to the 2008 Korean movie Go Go 70, a story about the struggles of a Korean rock band in the 1970s, to show the influence of American popular music in Korea, and for the social or political resistance that sometimes gets channeled through that influence. Of course, the politically resistant content of music sometimes becomes submerged in the flood of market forces, forces that might still be open to at least the appearance of social resistance. For instance, rap music, the music of hip-hop, often had a strong political content in the early songs. While that rap still exists, it has been overwhelmed in the public eye by songs that emphasize money and power and self-indulgent sexuality and self-promotion because that is what sells—and that is what sells because that is what is marketed.
The American scholar and cultural critic Tricia Rose has mapped out both the political resistance and the subsequent commodification of hip-hop in her books Black Noise (1994) and The Hip-Hop Wars (2008). Compared to gangsta rap, K-pop may seem relatively benign, but it also is a highly marketed ideology of self-indulgence, sometimes parading as social resistance. We should also keep in mind that rap has had a strong influence on Korean popular music since the early 1990s (Morelli 250-52) and that almost every K-pop group has its designated rapper. As in America, social issues, which were once important in the Korean rap scene, have almost disappeared from today’s K-pop (Jin & Ryoo 118).
As Hae-Kyung Um has argued of K-pop’s early young audience, “these teenagers embraced consumerism and Western popular culture including Anglo-American pop, while rebelling against established social and cultural rules” (53). Jamie Shinhee Lee has similarly argued that “K-pop provides discursive space for South Korean youth, either artists or audiences, to assert their self-identity, to create new meanings, to challenge dominant representations of authority, to resist mainstream norms and values, and to reject older generations’ conservatism.” In comparing the mixed English and Korean lyrics, she finds that “English lyrics vocalize an assertive, pleasure-seeking, and self-indulgent liberal’s position, whereas Korean lyrics within the same song represent a reserved, wholesome, and introspective conformist’s view” (446). As I understand these comments, they indicate that one sort of conformity, traditional Korean social conformity, is resisted, however fitfully, while another sort of conformity, that of the bling-worshipping consumer, is embraced with little resistance. It may also be that Korean lyrics are getting ever more self-indulgent and less wholesome.
Certainly, one of the Korean-tradition-defying elements of K-pop is its sexually suggestive dancing women. Another tradition-defying woman has made her way to Korea and Korean popular culture from the U.S.: Wonder Woman. Both the Korean dancers and the American superhero might be considered examples of the “monstrous-feminine,” and I am interested in the conjunction of these two “monstrosities.”
That the feminine has long been considered monstrous, at least in the West, is quite clearly indicated by the mere title of Scotsman John Knox’s 1558 treatise, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. His primary target is female monarchs, but he generally objects to a woman having any authority at all: “And therefore yet again I repeat, that which before I have affirmed: to wit, that a woman promoted to sit in the seat of God (that is, to teach, to judge, or to reign above man) is a monster in nature, contumely to God, and a thing most repugnant to his will and ordinance” (np). And repeat, he does, calling women who rule “repugnant to nature” repeatedly throughout the book.
Our contemporary understanding of the monstrous feminine builds from the study of women in horror movies, particularly in the scholarship of Barbara Creed in the 1980s and 1990s. She argues that “All human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” (1). Often, the monstrous is defined in terms of sexuality and the ways that feminine sexuality threatens the male symbolic order, primarily through fear of “woman as castrator” (7). Aspects of femininity that challenge that order are “abject,” excluded or repressed as that “which fascinates desire but which must be repelled for fear of self-annihilation” (10). She argues that “the function of the monstrous” is to “bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability” (11). Certainly, Knox found his order threatened by the monstrous: for him, the rule of women, I repeat, “is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice” (np).
Wonder Woman might be such a monster. According to Tim Hanley, William Moulton Marston, who created Wonder Woman as a comic-book hero in 1941,
wanted to impart to his readers a specific message about female superiority. Most of the first superheroes had origins rooted in some sort of tragic event that motivated their crime-fighting career. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was rooted in a feminist utopian vision. Her mission was not to resolve tragic personal issues but to help facilitate a coming matriarchy. (4)
Marston himself once explained his motives in creating the character:
Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn’t enough love in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman’s body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What the woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way. Her bracelets, with which she repels bullets and other murderous weapons, represent the Amazon Princess’ submission to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty. Her magic lasso, which compels anyone bound by it to obey Wonder Woman and which was given to her by Aphrodite herself, represents woman’s love charm and allure by which she compels men and women to do her bidding. (quoted in Daniels 23-22)
Kellie Stanley notes that “Marston aimed, with his tales, at a male audience, men or boys whom he hoped would embrace his doctrine of male submission to superior, loving females” (149). Of course, that was an impossible doctrine to implement in a society like America's. Unlike Korea, the U.S. has yet to elect a woman president.
Wonder Woman was not universally admired. During the conservative fifties in the U.S., Fredric Wertham, in the spirit of John Knox, relegated Wonder Woman to the category of the monstrous when he argued, in Seduction of the Innocent (1953), that the “homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type story is psychologically unmistakable.” He continued: “For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls, she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is anti-feminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-masculine” (92–93).
Despite Wertham's best efforts to crush her, Wonder Woman has survived and often flourished. She became a feminist icon, appearing on the first cover of Gloria Steinem's Ms. Magazine in 1972, and again on its 40th anniversary cover in 2012. She had her own popular television show starring Lynda Carter in the 1970s.
Wonder Woman may have earlier incarnations in Korea, but the first one I will consider is an incarnation through Sohee, one of the Wonder Girls, a popular Korean girl group, in the 2007 music video “Tell Me.” The story told by the music video is one of a young woman’s heroism. The video begins with the girls sitting on a sofa together, all wearing school uniforms, and watching a music video on a little yellow television. The video then shifts to a shot of the girls themselves dancing, this time wearing a variety of somewhat sexier outfits. The dance itself became immensely popular throughout the K-pop consuming portions of the world.
The Wonder Woman narrative, taking its inspiration from the American television version of Wonder Woman, then begins with a yellow school bus driving down a street that looks like it could be set in the U.S. somewhere. The bus appears to be taking the girls home after school. The girls are all dressed in the school uniforms they were wearing in the opening shot. When a grandmother pushing a baby stroller walks in front of the bus, Sohee spins into a flash of light and is transformed into Wonder Woman—or Wonder Girl, as the case may be, because she is so young. She was 15 when the video was produced, and she looks even younger in the video. She somehow magically exits the moving bus and jumps in front to prevent the bus from hitting the grandmother and baby, stopping the bus with her bare hands.
Sohee’s flashing transformation, including the animated shooting stars that accompany it, is a direct allusion to the 1970s television show. Subsequently, Sohee’s character transforms and saves the other girls from a flasher in the girls’ school locker room and then from a group of bullying boys in a class room. All of the events in the Wonder Girls/Woman narrative are interspersed with clips of the group dancing to the beat of the song.
The video is “cute” but also sends a message of feminine power. In its visual resistance to domineering masculinity—the flasher, the schoolroom bullies—it seems to express an idea of feminist resistance. In that sense, it verges on the monstrous. As Stanley notes in her discussion of Wonder Woman, “the image of powerful, strong, and independent women can profoundly disturb any patriarchal culture” (145).
When we listen to the lyric, however, we see that they show a more traditional idea of gender. As Wonho Jang and Youngsun Kim note of K-pop in general, this video shows “traditional, modern, and postmodern values simultaneously, which can, at times, be contradictory” (92). Whatever might be visually disturbing to the patriarchy in the video narrative is undercut by the lyrics themselves, which seem simply silly schoolgirl lyrics about yearning for a boy. When the boy in the locker room opens his flasher’s coat, he will be punished by the Wonder Girl/Woman character. The lyrics, however, reinforce rather than disturb masculinist culture. Here is a sampling of an English translation:
Whenever you look at me, I feel like I’ve just been electrocuted.
Do you know how long I’ve waited for this?
Do you know how long I’ve been dreaming of this?
But you love me too.
Wow, say it again.1
The lyrics not only contradict the message of the visual narrative, but they also have much greater power because it is the lyrics that people memorize, sing in the noraebang (Korean karaoke room), and internalize as discourse. And that internalized discourse is one of female submission to male desire. The lyrics that we hear (sung by, ironically, Sohee) at the very moment the flasher reveals himself are: “Do you know how long I’ve waited for this? / Do you know how long I’ve been dreaming of this?” In fact, even the video images seem to contain their own contradictions. On the one hand, we have the pure and innocent schoolgirls, but on the other, we have the sexy dancing that seems to present the “real” Wonder Girls—although some of the girls, especially Sohee seem too young to be convincing sexy dancers. And that might be disturbing—very disturbing. But the legal age of consent in Korea was 13 when the video was made, and Sohee was two years above that age.
As for the schoolgirl narrative, one source for it seems to be the music video that made Britney Spears famous in 1998, “One More Time.” Spears wears the same schoolgirl uniform we see on the girls in “Tell Me,” although she wears the uniform in a more revealing way. She dances through the halls of a high school singing about how she wants to give herself to some man. Lest you think I exaggerate the connection, you can see that “Tell Me” directly samples Britney's “One More Time,” and in a way that is no challenge to masculine expressions of power. Britney sings, “Hit me, baby, one more time.” The Wonder Girls sing a sentence in English followed by a phrase in Korean, “Hit me one time baby, dashi hanbeon.” The phrase “dashi hanbeon” translates Britney’s “one more time” into Korean. Maybe those schoolgirl outfits are not so pure and innocent after all. Using “hit me” as sexual double entendre is doubly disturbing. First, the metaphor equates sexuality with masculine violence, and, second, it is connected to school girls. Ultimately, there are no monsters here, at least not in the sense in which the word is used by John Knox or Barbara Creed, no unruly, repugnant feminine power. As Michael Unger notes of other K-pop videos, “Tell Me” “objectifies the girl idols as fantasy objects in the Korean cultural content of girl industries” (34).
Turning to a further cross-cultural consideration, it is clear that the Wonder Girls’ ultimate surrender to submissive femininity differs considerably from the representations of Wonder Woman in Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” In the video for “Telephone,” Lady Gaga crosses over much more clearly into the land of the monstrous than do the Wonder Girls in “Tell Me,” embracing the abject. The video opens with the Gaga-character being admitted to prison for an unspecified crime. Soon, she is released from prison into the custody of Beyoncé, playing a character called Honey Bee (Beyoncé is often called B, or Queen B). Honey Bee is driving the Pussy Wagon from the Quenton Tarantino films (there were two of them) Kill Bill, starring Uma Thurman as the assassin known as The Bride. With that allusion to Kill Bill, the video incorporates a larger cultural concern with the monstrous feminine, as The Bride goes on a vengeful killing rampage throughout the films. Gaga and Honey B stop at a restaurant, where B sits with an old boyfriend and Gaga goes to the kitchen, where she mixes poison into the food, specifically the pancake syrup. Gaga and B poison all the people in the restaurant, including the boyfriend. In defying norms of behavior, the two women become increasingly monstrous, more threatening. Killing the boyfriend can be read as an explicitly monstrous defiance of masculine power. The video seems, in fact, a short horror film to this point—recall that recent ideas of the monstrous-feminine are based in analyses of horror movies.
At this point, the video shifts from the horrifying to the super-heroic. As the poisoned diners collapse into their food, and Gaga blows them a farewell kiss, she is framed by red, white, and blue star that closes over the screen. That star recalls the stars that shoot across the screen when Lynda Carter’s Diana Prince spins into her transformation into Wonder Woman, the stars that had been used in “Tell Me” as well. Immediately upon closing over the scene, the star in “Telephone” opens again to Gaga and Beyoncé, now wearing modified Wonder Woman attire and dancing in the middle of the diner, accompanied by a group of back-up dancers while the dead lie about them.
Subsequently, the outlaws make their escape in the Pussy Wagon dressed in some sort of colorful, stylized burka-like dresses with oversized cowboy hats. The full-body covering removes their bodies from the masculine gaze. As the two drive away, the video makes one last allusion to a pair of monstrous women from American pop culture lore, the title characters of the 1991 film Thelma and Louise. Louise (Susan Sarandon) has turned monstrous in asserting a life and death rule over masculine power when she shoots dead a man who is attempting to rape Thelma (Geena Davis), and Thelma joins in this monstrous assertion as the two women defy the masculine authority that pursues them. At the end of “Telephone,” Gaga and Beyoncé clasp hands in homage to the final scene of Thelma and Louise, in which the defiant fugitives drive Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird convertible off of a cliff rather than surrender to the authorities.
Gaga's lyrics differ from the Wonder Girls’ lyrics in ignoring rather than begging for masculine attention, as she sings, “[You] can call all you want / There’s no one home. / You’re not gonna reach my telephone.” Here Gaga seems more assertive of feminine power than do the Wonder Girls. And maybe she is. On the other hand, Gaga "vocalize[s] an assertive, pleasure-seeking, and self-indulgent liberal’s position" like Jamie Shinhee Lee has identified in K-pop, since Gaga cannot answer her phone because she is out dancing. Sure, Gaga rebels against a good-girl image, but being "out in the club, / and . . . sippin' that bub," emphasizes a self-centered indulgence that offers no significant challenge to a consumerist, self-centered mentality that ignores any social conscience in its drive toward hedonism. Far from being monstrous, she sways listeners toward market conformity. Unlike Han Dae Su's call for the water of democracy, for shared social responsibility, Gaga promotes selfishness and self-absorption, drowning in the bubbly.
Another transnationalized K-pop Wonder Woman appearance in the opening shot of G-Dragon’s “Crayon” (2012) might seem a contemporary embodiment of Fredric Wertham’s concern that Wonder Woman is “definitely anti-masculine.”2 The camera angle is directly above a bed on which G-Dragon is lying face-down. He is wearing a hot pink “Wonder Woman” bathrobe. This might be, perhaps, even more monstrous than the defiance of conservative sexual norms in Lady Gaga's video, since this shot brings into confusion the idea of having well-defined gender at all. This seems a potentially shocking destabilization of what many people might want to keep as one of the most stable differences we know: the difference between male and female. To some, even more monstrous than a woman who wants to rule over a man might be a man who wants to be a woman.
The Wonder Woman robe is just one of many American pop culture visual samples in the video. The next to appear are Stewie and Brian from the American animated television program, Family Guy, as G-Dragon is shown wearing shoes with an image of Stewie on the toe of one and Brian on the other. Stewie is obviously gay and Brian sometimes ambiguously so in various episodes of the show, so this reference once again challenges cisgender identities.
Stewie reappears when G-Dragon moves to his living room. A picture on the wall in the background brings together Stewie and Bart Simpson on either side of SpongeBob SquarePants. All three of them have been linked to homosexuality. SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick, a starfish, have caused outrage in some conservative Christian circles in the U.S. because, according to that group of Christians, Bob and Patrick depict a homosexual relationship in an animated television program for children (Kirkpatrick). Fortunately for the status quo, heterosexuality seems to be re-asserted in the music video, as we see G-Dragon and some of his friends ogling a sexy woman on the television. The viewer is included as part of this group, as the video fixes on the television shot of the sexy woman from behind. As the camera pulls in closer and closer, turning to perhaps more comforting conventional gender roles, some viewers might be relieved, at least until the sexy woman turns around and reveals herself to be—G-Dragon in drag. G-Drag, if you will. The monster of gender confusion returns and captures the viewer as participant in that monstrosity.
However, if one considers G-Dragon’s performance in the Korean tradition of the itinerant singing beggar (gakseori), G-Dragon’s cross-dressing can be read as a contemporary version of that folk tradition.3 In that case, the cross dressing becomes much less monstrous.
In any case, the lyrics of “Crayon,” while they show some defiance of conservative convention, like those of “Tell Me,” present no real challenge to masculine power, and, like those of “Telephone,” bow to the gods of consumerist culture, which presents no serious defiance of the status quo in either the U.S. or Korea, at least in gender roles.
I’m still second to none yes I’m a pretty boy
I fly around, so fly, I’m a delinquent boy
Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun,
I’m busy, I’m a bad oppa, bad boy [oppa: big brother; also used of a woman’s boyfriend]
I’m a G to the D Gold N Diamonds boy
Who says I’m not? U know I beez that
The DJ of the day, I’ll be Chuli, you be Miae
Hey lady, hey lady, I’m the innocent Jiyong
Look here cutie, your boyfriend is jimotmi [jimotmi: unable to keep you]
You resemble my ideal girl so give me some
While the celebration of a hedonistic life style through the encouragment to “get your crayon [crazy on]” may challenge traditional conservative Korean social mores, any monstrous challenge to masculinist rule is a visual illusion that speaks to globalized popular culture but does little to destabalize patriarchal, sexist social constructions of gender.
To move briefly beyond the videos that use Wonder Woman, I will make a more direct cross-cultural comparison of the monstrous—feminine or masculine—in considering two videos titled “Monster,” one by an American singer, and one by a Korean group. The first is Lady Gaga's 2009 video; the second is Big Bang's 2012 video. Gaga's video is monstrous in depicting what most people might think of as deviant behavior. In both videos, the characters dress in strange and monstrous ways. Gaga’s video depicts unconventional and border-line sado-masochistic sexuality, while the monstrosity of the Big Bang video is not much more than sartorial.
Lady Gaga, of course, explicitly embraced the monstrous throughout her early career. Her second tour was the Monster Ball Tour, and she refers to her fans as “little monsters.” By this designation, she means to embrace the different, the deviant, the abject, the monstrous. That might appear to be the case in the Big Bang video as well, given that the figures often seem a monstrous combination of the human and the technological—21st century monstrosities that deviate from normal humanity. Just as we can read G-Dragon's return to the traditional Korean gakseori figure in what at first seems to be simply a western-style gender bend, Big Bang's monstrousness also returns to convention, as we can see in the lyrics:
I love you baby; I’m not a monster.
You know how I was in the past.
When time passes, it’ll all disappear,
Then you will know baby.
I need you baby; I’m not a monster.
You know me so don’t leave like this.
If you throw me away, I will die.
I’m not a monster.
The members of the group repeatedly insist that that they are NOT monsters, in spite of what they might appear to be, while Lady Gaga repeatedly insists that she is a monster, or at least she embraces the monstrous in the form of her lover. The lover is presented as canniblistic in his love, and, while we should read that as metaphor, it is a definitely a monstrous metaphor:
He ate my heart, he ate my heart,
Instead, he's the monster in my bed.
He ate my heart, he ate my heart,
Instead, he's the monster in my bed.
I wanna just dance, but he took me home instead,
Uh-oh, there was a monster in my bed.
We French kissed on a subway train,
He tore my clothes right off,
He ate my heart and then he ate my brain.
Gaga keeps to her indiviudualistic monstrosity while, despite their monstrous appearance, Big Bang embrace a more collectivist position here, insisting that they are not monstrous, not so different. They ask for inclusion, while Gaga embraces her abjection as a badge of honor: She constructed her early persona as “Mother Monster.” In these examples, American pop music at times approaches the actually monstrous, especially in the sense of feminine power that threatens, or at least seems to threaten, a patriarchal order, while Korean pop music usually returns safely to the collective norm, especially in its gender roles.
Borrowing the words of Jamie Shinhee Lee, I understand that both forms of pop music reveal “an assertive, pleasure-seeking, and self-indulgent position” that might appear to oppose the status quo of conservative gender norms. That includes even the pseudo-monstrous Gaga. In some ways, Lady Gaga, and even some K-pop groups like Brown-Eyed Girls, seem bold voices for personal freedom, yet the message they give to viewers, especially to young female viewers, might be somewhat troubling for anyone who thinks that a woman’s power should be based on something other than sexuality. Whatever cultural differences there might be in the American and Korean music videos I have discussed, none offer a satisfactory representative of healthy, psychologically well-balanced femininity. And that is truly monstrous.
I think this is a monstrous problem that reflects the broader subordination of women in Korean society. Just as the subordination is not immediately obvious in viewing the “Tell Me” video, it may not be immediately obvious in Korea. After all, of all the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, Korea has the highest rate of tertiary education for women (OECD Ilibrary, “Chart A10.1”).4 A closer look is more troubling, as Korea also has the lowest rate of employment for those women of all OECD countries (OECD Ilibrary, “Chart A10.5”). Those who do find jobs are caught in the highest gender gap in wages of all the OECD countries, a dubious gender distinction that South Korea has held every year since 1996, when it joined the organization (OECD Data). Furthermore, as of 2012, the most recent year for which I have been able to find data, Korea was one of only three OECD countries in which women with university education had a lower rate of employment than women with less educational achievement (OECD, Gender Equality 79).
K-pop, as a part of Hallyu, the Korean Wave, represents Korea’s growing power in the realm of globalized cultural production. K-pop may even be setting a standard for “a new Korea-led system of ‘manufacturing creativity,’” particularly in the inter-Asian cultural marketplace (Park 15). Often women and girl groups are the face of that system. So, while women have an important even essential role as commodity in Korea’s globalized cultural production, their roles in Korean society fall far short of a global standard. To the extent that music videos promote the status quo of inequitable gender divisions in South Korea, we need to read them with a critical awareness that the monster is almost always tamed and controlled. Perhaps the monster of women’s “self-assertive power” should be set free if we proceed from the assumption that women’s status as equal citizen should be as important as women’s status as a cultural product of manufactured creativity.
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