It’s kind of impressive that Seoulbeats’ review of DBSK’s latest video managed to thoroughly address both whiteness and female objectification in under 700 words. I don’t know if it’s because writing out analyses on racism and sexism over at Seoulbeats has just become routine for us, or if it’s because these isms have somehow become more common in K-pop recently (hello Rain; hello Aron; hello guess-what-we’re-only-five-days-into-2014). Either way, good job team.
DBSK has become SM’s luxury brand du jour — they’ve been the faces of Shilla Duty Free since their comeback as a duo, and their list of endorsement deals is dominated by high-profile brands: Missha, Lacoste, and Nike in Korea; 7-Eleven and Sogo & Seibu in Japan. In a way, DBSK’s latest MV aligns more with their identity as product spokesmen than it does with their identity as performers. By steering away from the cyborg/military/Enrique-Iglesias-wannabe concepts of the past and adopting a luxurious image in their music, DBSK is sealing the deal in transforming themselves into a luxury brand.
From the perspective of the K-entertainment industry alone, pushing DBSK as a mature luxury brand is an incredibly smart move for a pop duo who has long crossed the horizon of mainstream idol fandom, but is still widely recognized and respected outside of the idol fold. And while one can certainly argue that the glamorization of glamour is socially irresponsible and probably classist to some degree, I don’t really take issue with the usage of glamour as an aesthetic a la the “Something” video, as well as countless other MVs in K-pop and beyond. Rather, the bigger problem lies in how glamour and luxury are interpreted and communicated.
Which is why I take issue with DBSK’s “Something” MV. This Great Gatsby inspired video has all of the usual suspects when it comes to communicating luxury: crystal chandeliers, marble floors, gold chains…and white women. Sweeping staircases, velvet couches…and white women. Yunho and Changmin dressed in tuxes while being draped in…white women. While not every MV with a “luxurious” concept has the privilege of hosting a bevy of white women to drive the concept home, make no mistake: the white women in the “Something” video don’t talk and they barely move; they’re essentially nothing more than breathing props used to enhance the luxe factor of the video’s concept — no different from a chandelier or a fancy car.
Using women as objects in any context is wrong. But the objectification of women — particularly white women — becomes much more problematic when it’s compounded with exclusivity. An object needs to meet a certain standard in order to be considered luxurious. The Benz parked on one of the sets meets this standard; a Volkswagen Beetle would not. The velvet couches meet this standard; a La-Z-Boy would not. Casting white women as Changmin and Yunho’s playthings and accessories meets this standard; casting black, Latino, or other Asian women would not.
From the time Europe began trading with East Asian states in the early 16th century, Western goods have been regarded as high-class, luxury products. The trend of associating the West with luxury has not slowed since then; if anything, the association of Western goods, culture, and language with luxury and modernity has only become more visible, especially in the highly consumerist society of today’s South Korea. South Korean advertisements don’t shy away from utilizing (or, as social justice bloggers might say, appropriating) cultural elements to communicate certain ideas. Things like hanbok, the gayageum, or even kimchi communicate traditional Korean values and cultural or ethnic pride.
But while it’s probably true that South Korea’s pride in its traditional culture outmatches that of any other East Asian state, Korean culture isn’t idealized anywhere close to the same degree as Western culture is. Young South Koreans today might have bucketloads of pride for their country and their culture, but they certainly don’t aspire to live in a sprawling Korean hanok with a river flowing through their front yard. They want an apartment in a luxury high-rise where they can keep their French designer bags, American electronics, Italian wines, and the keys to their German cars.
The face of luxury in cultures across the globe is one with distinct Western features, and there’s nothing that can really be done to change it. The connection between luxury products and strong, globalized economies has existed since the beginning of time, and to say that the face of luxury needs to be less Eurocentric would mean that Western economies would need to stop being so rich…which I mean, come on.
But back to the white women in DBSK’s video. Luxury is highly prized and idealized in South Korea’s consumerist society (hence why marketing a pop idol like DBSK domestically as a luxury brand is a brilliant business strategy), to the point where K-pop videos with “luxurious” concepts have become a dime a dozen and are basically a cliche. So how do you set your version of luxury apart from the rest in your MV? You’ve already idealized Western clothing, Western architecture, Western music, and even Western language in order to communicate luxury and opulence — why not take it to the next level and idealize Western women?
Which is exactly what the “Something” video did. K-pop is constantly running into a problem where producers realize that there is no such thing as a truly original concept anymore, so the only thing left to do is to either a) steal from other races and appropriate their culture (which, according to YG and other equally guilty K-pop producers, is always cool) or b) build on existing concepts and try to outdo the last unlucky group who thought that their “sexy” concept was the only one of its kind. That’s where we start seeing all these bizarre things like live animals on stage and girls in bicycle helmets riding invisible pogo sticks.
And somewhere down the line, someone at SM probably thought it’d be an awesome idea to upgrade DBSK’s luxurious, Great Gatsby-inspired concept by putting a bunch of white women in a window display and adding them to DBSK’s music video. Because anything less than that would just be boring — or worse, a downgrade.
The core of the issue is that the producers of the “Something” video responded to the question “How do we make this video more luxurious?” by adding white women. This communicates two things: one, women are no different than props used to visually communicate an overarching theme; and two, only white women possess an aesthetic worthy of being embedded within the highly luxurious, highly opulent, and highly idealized lifestyle that is being portrayed in this music video. It’s not simply a matter of “diversifying” the cast of white women in the video, as if SM’s decision to use white women was some sort of accident. If SM replaced even one of the white women in the video with a woman of color, it would completely destroy the image that SM was trying to achieve. And in the eyes of SM, it would completely defeat the purpose of having the women there in the first place.
The issue becomes even more complex when you consider that many Asian men (and Asian-American men, for that matter), believe that the biggest racist crime terrorizing Asians today is the fact that Asian guys feel emasculated because they can’t get into a white girl’s pants. White women are elevated by Asian men at the expense of Asian women and other women of color, to the point where any Asian man who bangs a white woman becomes more masculine (or rather, sheds his emasculinity) because he has managed to climb up the ladder and conquer that ideal. The image of Yunho and Changmin as Asian men putting their hands all over these white women who are so submissive they’re almost comatose is not only sexist, but it enforces white supremacist ideals that place white women at the top of the ladder and reward the men of color who manage to scramble their way to the top. Fanboys should feel like giving Yunho and Changmin a fistbump; fangirls should fawn over the fact that their oppas are finally getting with girls who they think are “good enough” for them…or perhaps even too good for them.
I’m really disappointed in DBSK’s newest release, and I say this not because I’m looking to nitpick or because I refuse to enjoy a good thing when I see it. The “Something” MV was loaded with my personal kryptonite: the big band swing jazz, the Great Gatsby inspired set, Yunho and Changmin looking hella fine in those suits, that string bass dance break! And I’ll even admit one thing that I think even some of the most hardcore DBSK fans would disagree with: I loved those fake tattoos. That neck tattoo peeking out of the collar? I died.
I want to love this release and be a total fangirl about it, and I want to be able to watch this MV over and over again and drool all over myself at how beautiful everything is. But I can’t, because the reality of white women being idealized at the expense of women of color like me hits too close to home for me. I’ve heard too many jokes infantilizing Asian women and too many “I just don’t find Asian girls attractive”s to just brush it off. I grew up in suburban white America and reached adulthood believing that I was doomed to be objectively unattractive and undesirable for life, only to go back to Taiwan one summer and become completely confused when I was chatted up by cute Taiwanese boys who honestly thought I was pretty.
White women will never know what it feels like to want blonde hair or brown hair or red hair, or blue eyes or green eyes or hazel eyes, if only because all of those things seemed infinitely better than having pin-straight black hair and chinky black-brown eyes. I can’t enjoy the video and block out all the parts that only serve to confirm an awful truth that I’ve had to experience throughout my life; there’s just too much I’d have to filter.
What many privileged people fail to realize when pieces of pop culture are accused of being problematic is that the so-called “accusers” are oftentimes speaking from a personal place. It’s not because we’re trying to nitpick or assert a sense of higher morality or be jerks about it; it’s because the things we see and hear in media oftentimes touch sore spots in our hearts that have already been beaten and bruised beyond their limitations. Furthermore, we know that if left unchecked, media has the power to propel ideas and actions that will only hurt us even more in the future.
For many people, the “Something” video was completely harmless. And there’s nothing wrong with that; no one should have to feel guilty for not immediately responding to a piece of problematic media with complete repulsion. But the beauty of communication is that we are able to share with each other our experiences and thoughts, and we are each given the opportunity to either reject the things other people share with us, or empathize with them. I watched this music video as a fan looking to be entertained, yes — but I watched it first and foremost as a person with life experiences, and some of those experiences were affected negatively by the ideas presented in this video.
I’ll still follow DBSK’s promotions over the next few weeks because, well, fandom is what fandom is — but there’s still nothing that will really dull the ache of my disappointment over this release. I consider myself pretty lucky to be a fan of a group that’s had a fairly spot-free record up until now, and has managed to escape the racist and sexist messes that tend to plague K-pop nowadays. And while it’s good to know that there are worse things in the world than white women in a music video, it doesn’t really help soothe that little sore spot in my heart, and it doesn’t make things better.