Representations of Afro-Asian Connections in the 1970s
September 25, 2014 ♦ Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)
In 2013, Suey Park organized a Twitter conversation around the hashtag #BlackPowerYellowPeril to “discuss ways in which the Asian American community could work with the African American community to further similar anti-racist, anti-sexist goals.” The ensuing dialogue on Twitter and on other social media outlets focused on “Asian Privilege” and “Asian Anti-Black Racism.” While these are salient aspects of Afro-Asian interaction in the United States, they do not reflect the comprehensive and often contradictory dynamics between African Americans and various Asian and Asian American groups within and outside the United States. This paper uses Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon as a lens through which to explore representations of Afro-Asian connections in 1970s film. Produced at the height of the black exploitation film era, the film creates some of the most iconic images of Afro-Asian cultural exchange. Casting Jim Kelly alongside Bruce Lee as potential allies against forces characterized as white and colonial gestures towards the potential for solidarity between African Americans and Asians. Jim Kelly’s character also alludes to the black radical tradition, where black intellectuals and activists frequently rely on the experiences of Asian and Asian Americans to contemplate the future of African Americans. By using both the United States and Hong Kong as backdrops, the film introduces the importance of the transnational in the consideration of Afro-Asian cultural exchange during this time. At the same time, the film reinforces stereotypes of black masculinity and black radical politics, painting both in very limited ways. Even with these more problematic aspects of representation, the film nevertheless demonstrates a foundation for contemporary discussions Afro-Asian connections.
As you know, iFans: Mapping Kpop’s International Fandom is a study seeking to understand the attitudes of global fans of K-pop’s most successful groups. You can now view the results of the analysis of the survey data and an email interview with a fan of SNSD! Click here to view the What Fans Think section of the digital exhibit. Sad that you aren’t included? You can always take the email survey online here! C’mon, SONES, you are one of the biggest K-pop fandoms out there! Click the link and represent!
The 1960s girl group concept makes regular appearances in K-pop. While some think that this kind of image represents a lack of ethnic identity in a quest for mainstream acceptance, I suggest that the 1960s girl group image promoted by women of color represents an ethnic glamour aesthetic.
Contemporary K-pop is driven by image as well as music. Part of this has to do with its emergence along with rising technologies like the music video and the Internet, which “generate[d] a condition of possibility of reaching a mass audience outside of national borders,” and resulted in photogenic performers as part of appealing images (Lie, 353, 356). This is similar to rhythm and blues-inflected pop music of the 1960s. Gerald Early notes that technology contributed to this music becoming an “artifact,” in part because television distributed the music as well as an image (60, 62).
K-pop agencies, like SM Entertainment, carefully craft the images of K-pop artists for concepts. This is part of the training process, which also includes language instruction, choreography and hosting practice. This also contributes to criticisms that such preening in the quest for audience acceptance diminishes the presence of ethnic culture. John Lie argues that contemporary K-pop lacks Korean culture: “As a matter of traditional culture, there is almost nothing ‘Korean’ about K-pop” (360). Motown acts under Berry Gordy also received similar kinds of training and, were subject to similar criticisms. Nelson George defines Gordy’s project as assimilationist in nature, where “white values were held up as primary role models” and as a result, “blacks lost contact with the uniqueness of their people, and with their own heritage” (xii). For George and Lie, mainstream appeal translates into a loss of ethnic culture.
When K-pop adopts the 1960s retro look for female artists through chic hairstyles and dresses with eye-catching prints or dazzling sequins and fur reminiscent of The Supremes, I suggest that it partakes of a model of ethnic glamour established by black girl groups. Brian Ward characterizes Gordy’s quest for mainstream success as one predicated on challenging prevailing notions about American blacks: “Gordy felt [the training] might make them more acceptable to white America and an expanding black middle class for whom mainstream notions of respectability remained important” (266). The aspiration was felt by blacks, even those not in the middle class: “The spangled pursuit of success carried no stigma among black fans who had routinely been denied equal opportunity to compete for the financial rewards of the mainstream” (Ward, 267). This is key, because it shows the importance of how viewers read such images. Cynthia Cyrus argues that even though the images of girl groups of the 1960s were well-managed and carefully crafted, they nevertheless resonated positively with fans: “The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . The role of the viewer is central to creating meaning, and the girl group fan engaged actively in dialogue with the images placed before here” (190-1).
Just as black fans interpreted those images of black women as positive, Korean women like the Kim Sisters, styled in the same way, represent a glamourous ethnic, in this case, Korean, experience to aspire to. Ian Kim writes: “For a Korean American like me, who grew up in parts of the US where I was the only Asian kid in school, it’s pretty astonishing to discover Korean performers who were successful in the US such an early time. Even more impressive is that they sang in English.” The Kim Sisters’ images and participation in the entertainment world in the United States functioned as an alternative to the realities of the aftereffects of the Korean War and American military presence. San Byun-Ho remembers: “After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world; we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died” (Forsyth). Just like images of 1960s black girl groups, such images of the Kim Sisters represent an image of ethnic aspiration.
Contemporary fans may see retro images in K-pop, like those by Lee Hyori and the Wonder Girls, as drawing from a visual discourse of ethnic glamour. The measure of the impact of the image should also be measured by those who make meaning out of it. These images matter precisely because they show Koreans in a glamorous context that also acknowledges their ethnicity. As the Vintage Black Glamour Tumblr and forthcoming book suggest, images of ethnic glamour still resonate today. Nichelle Gainer says that any image she chooses has to have “a certain style to it, a certain beauty” and that she includes information about the photo because “I want people to know you’re not looking at some anonymous random person” (Brown). Given the frequency that the 1960s concept recurs in K-pop, ethnic glamour still matters.
Belinda became a fan of Dong Bang Shin Ki (DB5K) because of their music, dancing and personality as seen in interviews. Her favorite song is the Korean version of “Love in the Ice.” Her favorite music video is “Mirotic.” She supports them by buying their music, going to concerts and maintaining her own blog. Her fan experience with DBSK has led to memories with her friends and other members of the fandom.
In addition to the case studies, the iFans project documents other mode of fan activity. The first section of the new exhibit, Dance Like Everyone’s Watching: K-pop Cover Dance, is up! Click HERE to view K-pop fans performing some of the most difficult K-pop dance routines.
Fan studies represents a nexus where economy and culture intersect, especially when cultural production crosses national borders. Some scholars seek to explain this phenomenon primarily using socio-economic lenses, while others stress the importance of understanding fans in ways that fans understand themselves.
In Understanding Fandom, Mark Duffett delineates two impulses related to consumption by fans:
The word ‘consumption’ indicates participation in a commercial process, but since ‘to consume’ means to digest and exhaust it also implies a kind of using up. We can therefore separate two intricate meanings for the same word: to be part of ‘economic’ consumption means to participate in a financial transaction a a buyer, while to ‘culturally’ consume is to meaningfully examine a particular media product. (20)
Some scholars see fan activity primarily as economic consumption. Duffett recognizes the link between fandom and commodification: “Fandom does not escape or resist commodity culture. Instead consumption facilitates fans’ contact with media products. For some writers, this almost means, however, that fandom is primarily about consumption” (21). Koichi Iwabuchi extends this to the study of fans of cultural products that traverse national boundaries: “Studies of fans should attend to how the persisting dominance of the neoliberal and (inter-)national framework has limited the development of transnational dialogues” (94).
However, scholars like Bertha Chin and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto view the emphasis on “the neoliberal and (inter-) national framework” as a de-emphasis on other, equally significant aspects of fandom: “While arguably satisfying at the level of critique, and absolutely relevant in our understanding of the political implications of transnationally circulating media, the trans/national overdetermination of this perspective ultimately tells us little about what actually attracts and motivates fans; an understanding that, we argue, is absolutely critical to any nuanced discussion of how fandom works across borders”(97). In fact, Duffett goes on to proffer a view of fans that goes beyond financial transactions: “Fans are more than consumers because they have especially strong emotional attachments to their objects and they use them to create relationships with both their heroes and with each other. . . . Fans are networkers, collectors, tourists, archivists, curators, producers and more” (21).
What I find useful in placing Duffett, Iwabuchi and Chin and Hitchcock in conversation with one another is the possibility of developing a complex lens that recognizes both socio-economic and fan perspectives. In my work on global K-pop fans, I seek to understand how fans see their own fan activity and how they make sense of the global culture that they consume. Iwabuchi stresses that the consumption of popular culture must be read through a lens governed by social and political factors. I would further suggest that this include looking at the socio-political context of producers, consumers and the cultural product itself. In other words, how Japanese fans consume Korean popular music (or K-pop) differs from how their counterparts in the United States consume it. These sets of fans have different historical relationships to Korea and its culture, and thus make meaning in different ways.
At the same time, I find Chin and Hitchcock’s centralization of emotion and fandom, the ways that fans understand the object of appeal and the consideration of factors such as gender, useful. The authors make the astute observation about the implications for women when emotion is shunted to the wayside in academic discourse: “As both scholars and fans, we are hardly immune to the pleasures of the fan object, and yet there remains a level of shame attached to the notion of being a fan, particularly if one is female” (95-6). If this happens when the researchers are female, how much more so when the fandom is predominantly female.
Chin, Bertha and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10.1 (2013): 92-108.
Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 97-96.
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on February 8, 2014
The iFans project rolls on with more cover dance! The second section of the exhibit, Dance Like Everybody’s Watching: K-pop Cover Dances, features Girls’ Generation‘s “Into the New World Remix.” Click HERE to view K-pop fans from around the world performing one of the most complicated dance routines by a girl group.
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on February 14, 2014
Hallyu Harmony: A Cultural History of Kpop is a digital humanities project that traces connections among the artists and groups across genres, generations and geographies through visuals, music and choreography. The first exhibit, Seo Taiji: President of Culture, explores the reasons why Seo Taiji is considered the pioneer of contemporary K-pop. The current exhibit under construction, Move the Crowd: Choreography and K-pop, explores an other key aspect of K-pop: dance. APeace is the first page in the first section of this exhibit, Star Array: Dance and the Large K-pop Group. With 21 members, APeace is one of the largest K-pop groups. See how they use their numbers in choreography here.
As the number of female groups increase in number in K-pop, commentators and scholars continue to focus on the meaning of the representations produced by these groups. While some argue that such representations are geared towards men, this ignores the way the majority female fanbases of these groups construct meaning of these representations.
Because female groups, like many male groups in K-pop, are put together by Korean agencies (rather than forming on their own, as is the norm in countries like the United States in the West), some argue that appeal to men plays a role in this process. A guest contributor for seoulbeats asserted: “Like many other K-pop girl groups, SNSD [Girls’ Generation] was created to be ‘ogled’ over by their target audience–male fans.” This sentiment was repeated by other online writers such as James Turnbull and Jessica Doyle.
Scholars not only argue that groups like SNSD were created for men, they also argue that images, music videos and performances by girl groups like SNSD are targeted to male, middle-aged audiences. Through an examination of music videos and lyrics, Stephen Epstein with James Turnbull conclude that they all geared towards men rather than female empowerment, whether it is the “viewer. . . [who] is regularly constructed as male,” a mode of femininity “that renders males helpless,” “a self-objectifying preoccupation with an external gaze” or the definition of “women in relation to men” (333). In doing so, they challenge the notion that empowerment represented by girl groups “brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world” and conclude “that Korea’s pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that for middle-aged men to focus on their gaze on underage performers becomes cause for rejoicing rather than embarrassment” (333).
However, several scholars have noted that the K-pop training model originally sought to ascertain the preferences of teenage girls. In separate articles, Doobo Shim and Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim reference Lee Soo Man‘s survey of teenage girls to discover what they wanted in their first-generation idols at SM Entertainment. Since then, agencies continue to target audiences beyond middle-aged men. With the development of second-generation idols like SNSD, cross-generational appeal became the goal which includes audiences in addition to middle-aged men. Kim Chang Nam observes that “fandom has expanded to include people in their twenties and thirties, and even into older generations. Newly coined terms, including ‘uncle fans,’ ‘aunt fan,’ and ‘older sister fan,’ have appeared” (111). As a result, middle-aged men are one of a number of types of audiences for a group like SNSD.
Moreover, an interpretation of videos and lyrics overlooks how the majority female audience for girl groups like SNSD construct meaning about the images and performances they see. S. Craig Watkins and Rana Emerson draw on theories of media reception, which posit “that receivers of media are actively involved in the construction of meaning” (156). In doing so, they reveal not only “the strategic ways girls and women use the media in their everyday lives” but also “the ways in which women appropriate the media as a site of meaning construction, actively engaging in and, occasionally, contesting images and themes of gender domination” (157). As a result, they are not passive audiences, but actively create meaning for themselves based on what they see. Just because men may read such images in a way that does not empower women does not mean that female audiences read them in the same way.
This is not the first iteration of the girl group. Even when such images are created by men, as Cynthia Cyrus notes for images of 1960s girl groups, women can still craft meaning independent of the intention of such images:
Still, to understand these images primarily as symbols of male desire is to miss the point. The teen standing in front of the record bin would not have primarily engaged with the picture through some displaced sexual desire. Rather, she would have evaluated these images as what they were, invitations to consumer participation. The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . Ethnographic evidence suggests that viewers did, in fact, identify with the girl group image (190-191).
Rather than one way of rendering meaning from girl groups, even female fans do not make the same kinds of meaning out of girl groups. The representations of femininity and female behavior are more complex than reducing them down to objects for men to look at. Such an approach silences the voices of the majority female fanbases who circulate, consume and make meaning of performances by girl groups.
Cyrus, Cynthia J. “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.
Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull. “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 314-336.
Guest, “Is SNSD Being Sexually Harassed?” seoulbeats. 2 Mar 2010. Web. 3 May 2014.
Kim, Chang Nam. K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music. Seoul: Hollym, 2012.
Shim, Doobo. “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia.” Media, Culture & Society 28.1 (2006): 25-44.
Shin, Solee I and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia(2013): DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.
Watkins, S. Craig and Rana A. Emerson. “Feminist Media Criticism and Feminist Media Practices.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. 571 (2000): 151-166.
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective May 20, 2014
As part of the ongoing project that is iFans: Mapping K-pop’s International Fandom, I have been working on the fan responses to Case Studies surveys. Click here to read about what 2NE1 fans think about the group’s significance in K-pop as well as an in-depth interview with a BlackJack!