We all loved Korean pop star and dance-master Psy and his music video for hit song “Gangam Style” when it surfaced on the internet last year. In all of his invisible horse bouncing and outrageous white-suit wearing glory, the man won us over fast with his contagious personality and approach to entertainment. It happened this way: inevitably one of our friends would have asked us “have you seen Gangam Style?” to which we might have replied “what is condom style?” and after seeing, nay, experiencing the wild sensation full-screen on our Mac computers, we’d finally get the hype. It wouldn’t be until after some quick Googling that we’d get that it was more than just weirdness, but nuanced with social satire, because how many Americans keep up with Korean issues that don’t involve the possibility of thermo-nuclear war?
Anyway, if you’ve seen the video you get the idea – Psy, a slightly round and jovial Korean gentleman (which we’ll get to later) puts his startlingly skillful dance moves to use whilst mocking the posh-ness of upper-class Koreans from the newly affluent district Gangam. By juxtaposing extremely ordinary settings (a playground, small boat, elevator, parking garage) with the glamour of supermodels, wealth, and his own adorable flashiness, Psy is able to mock the foolishness and superficiality of the upper-class in an entertaining and attention-grabbing way. This ability to express complex social issues and still be funny, and round up over a billion (at this point) Youtube views to boot, is nothing to take lightly.
Lyrically, however, “Gangam Style” isn’t worth much sneezing at all. Lyrics in English include, almost exclusively, “Hey, sexy lady,” which is funny, right? In the context of the satire? The way a random guy on the street saying “hey, sexy lady” on a city street isn’t. Part of the Korean lyrics, translated, come to this:
A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays
A girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes
A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all
A sensable girl like that
Which nobody seemed to have trouble with at the time.
And it didn’t occur to me either, while enjoying the novelty and freshness of this video that there was anything wrong with it – not the portrayal of women as uniformly sexy short-short wearing porcelain dolls, or the zooming in on one’s butt while doing yoga – slightly objectifying, but no more than most rap, pop, and R&B music videos ever are or have been. In that regard, Gangam Style was nothing new.
What I mean to say is that “Gangam Style” was perhaps not as progressive and fresh as some of us might have thought – we were just too distracted by the absurdist elements to realize that the misogynist undertones are no less present than that of any raunchy rap video. Not to mention translated lyrics that imply a woman should be both proper and sexy, the age old virgin-whore paradox in which men cannot desire the virgin but cannot respect the “debased prostitute” – so a woman must appear virginal, and be “sexy” in private to keep a man’s interest, lest she lose dignity. While the lyrics don’t imply a girl should be one or the other, they do promote the virginal and proper “Madonna” stereotype even as the video favors the “girl that bares it all.”
The main reason I point this out now is because Psy has released a new music video for his song “Gentleman.” (See above, and brace yourself). Very similar to “Gangam Style” in both beat, dance-ability, and absurdity, the difference is that without the mask of satire, the entire video comes off as horribly distasteful. The video shows Psy playing tricks on women – and by playing tricks I mean literally laughing at them and pushing them around; really, it’s borderline abusive. For example, in one scene Psy pushes his attractive date to the floor, and a second Psy helps her up, only to push her down again and congratulate Psy 1. In another, Psy ups the speed on an elliptical so that the woman can’t keep up and falls to the ground. While admittedly Psy finds one woman that pulls a prank on him, this fact is trumped when a second later, as the two eat, the camera zooms suggestively on her mouth as she eats an eggroll. I think it’s an eggroll. But the point is, it’s suggestive and kind of crude.
Anyway, the hook is, surprise surprise: “I’m a mother-father gentleman” (well, maybe the mother-father part is a surprise.) But since when, all feminist issues on chivalry aside, has being the opposite of a gentleman and lacking basic respect been funny? Where is the Psy I know and love sitting in a sauna while his bro dances in a towel? At least in your average pop video featuring scantily clad dancers, you don’t see the girls being mocked and degraded. Was anyone else a bit shocked?
It’s interesting, because one of Psy’s major attractions – to Americans, anyway, is his appearance, which does defy celebrity standard in terms of shape and looks. While it is good to see people of any gender being recognized for their talents and giving average looking people a good name, I could never shake the unnerving feeling that Psy became a mascot to Americans, rather than a role model. For both genders, appearance and beauty is an all-too prominent value enforced by society, American and Korean alike. There have been men and women to gain spotlight that haven’t fit the unrealistic beauty mold, but their appearances are still stressed even in lack of some universal “perfection” as depicted by the media. These men and women often end up playing the role of the comedian, like Psy, and thriving as such. And that seems unfair, because everyone should be able to be taken seriously without putting themselves – and in this case, others – down.
What baffles me is that though Psy has taken it on himself to be goofy, able to poke fun at himself and a superficial society, the role of women that he projects in his music and music videos is startlingly backwards. For someone capable of satire I would expect that his newest video might do something else groundbreaking to change the way we view social standards, rather than enforce and exemplify them. Instead, “Gentleman” features an army of lookalikes that have no discernible agency or personality, that are treated miserably by our beloved Psy, the mother-father jerk. What’s worse, Psy is allowed to look different, but the girls are so glamoured up and sexualized they might as well not be real. I realize that I am not plugged in to Korean culture enough to state that there are no women defying these traits, but I know that even in America females are glamorized and sexualized no matter what their talents and accomplishments might be.
So what is it about women, that they must strive to be desired and seen as attractive to be validated, where men (even men like Psy) can be validated simply by, as seen in Psy’s music videos, maintaining an illusion of power by surrounding themselves with attractive women, implying that attractive women desire them? Would we as readily see a less-than-perfect Korean woman in a similar music video? We aren’t even getting into the whole “yellow fever” issue, defining men who fetishize Asian women under some expectation that they are “submissive, domestic, and hypersexual.” And yet, in the music and entertainment industries especially, women continue to be pigeonholed, stereotyped, or fetishized, because of their race and looks. Psy is a real looking and acting human being, which is a step in the right direction. Show me the less-than-perfect looking lady that can match that, and not be ridiculed.
While men are plagued with many problems, I’m sure, they are not nearly as scrutinized for their physical image as females are. In a recent and (arguably) empowering Dove advertisement, a forensic artist drew up two different versions of multiple women, as described by the women themselves and their acquaintances. As a result, the image drawn on the acquaintance’s description was almost always more attractive, with the conclusion drawn that “women are more beautiful than they think.” As positive as this message seems, it still places the emphasis on attraction and beauty, implying subtly that the more attractive you are, the more value you have, and the better you can feel about yourself.
Ironically, the same company which owns Dove also does the Axe advertisements. These ads imply that if a man puts on Axe body spray, attractive women will flock to him like thirsty gazelles to a watering hole. The disparity in the way these two products are advertised is troubling, because it affirms the pressure on women to be viewed as attractive versus the pressure on men to, for lack of a better term, “get” attractive women. It is a vicious fallacy perpetuated by society, and despite the good intention on Dove’s part, being “beautiful” is still stressed as a girl’s main power, over, say, personality or intelligence.
At least it seems there has been progression, as is seen with the Dove campaign, to exclude men from the equation and focus on how a woman feels and sees herself rather than how she can “attract a mate.” The problem is, women can take a million steps toward self-respect but as long as there are companies blatantly disrespecting them, like Axe, as well as whoever is responsible for Psy’s newest music video, the respect will not be mutual. The fact is, and this may seem horrible, there are still men that treat women the way I treat my cat; not with contempt or abuse but with some unconscious notion that one is superior, and the other available for enjoyment, aesthetics, and affection. This is something my cat constantly reminds me is not true; even if he is a cat, he is a cat ultimately for himself and not for me, and I strive to be just like him in asserting my value as a person not defined by looks.
Do I still enjoy Gangam Style, and do I have any concrete problem with Psy’s star status? It’s complicated, as always. I mean, I’m sure I’d find out he’s a good guy, if I got to know him. My only worry is that with the views if “Gangam Style” reaching the billion mark, “Gentleman” will be well on its way to follow suit – and the message isn’t a great one to affect masses of young women worldwide. Even if this message itself isn’t explicit, and non-Koreans don’t realize what the lyrics mean (go ahead, look them up), seeing dolled up women pushed around and laughed at, then dancing in bikinis, is perverse on many levels.
In summation, my message to women: Don’t be Psy’s uniform background dancers. Be Lady Gaga! Or even better, be yourself.
My message to men: Get your act together, bros, because we’re way ahead of you here. Also, this is not directed toward all guys, just the nutty misogynist ones, who are hopefully few and far between, and the ones exploiting girls for advertising and entertainment.
And finally, my message to Psy: If you’re trying to be a gentleman, you are most definitely doing it wrong. I still think you have sick dance moves, though. Hopefully, third time’s a charm?