I have been mulling over the prevalence of the doll concept in k-pop for some time now, but it was a recent viewing of Todd Haynes cult film, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story”, that spurred me to look at the issue closer. In his film, Haynes tells the story of the Carpenters, the brother-sister singing duo from the ’70s, but instead of using real actors to portray the people in it, he uses Barbie dolls. It is an especially effective for the his film, as it only enhances the commentary as he co-opts the symbol of the ideal symbol embodied in the Barbie, and thusly uses it to demonstrate Karen’s self-destructive behavior.
While Haynes used Barbies for purposes of commentary, I wondered if by turning a more critical eye to the conflation of female k-pop idols with dolls, if I would find evidence of the issues that Haynes is commenting on in his film. I set about compiling evidence, looking at music videos, song lyrics, and concept photos and pictorials, where the doll motif had been used to see what it would yield.
When starting my research I believed I would either find validation for the suggestion I have seen on some blogs: that the doll motif is an ironic reflection of many female idols situation, or that like excessive aegyo, it was a further attempt to infantilize women. But after reviewing all of the evidence I compiled, I discovered that none of it is actually fully true, and the issue is much more complicated.
On the one hand, there are the pictorial and concept photos that show the girls posing as mannequins and dolls, often doing it almost too well. With their vacuous expressions, perfect hair, and stiff poses, they seem as artificial and manufactured as critics of k-pop accuse them of being. On the other hand though, most the songs and music videos that use the doll concept convey a much different idea. (Although it should be noted here that the same female idols who are featured in doll concepts for pictorials, generally are not those making these videos that challenge the traditional idea of the doll)
For example, Lee Jung Hyun’s song, “Joolae (Give In to Me)”, despite using the doll concept in her video, and referencing it in her song, does not necessarily ascribe to the whole overly-dependent, helpless nature of a doll. As James at The Grand Narrative points out in his post on this song,
Naturally, the feminist in me rebels against a woman loving that her boyfriend literally wants her to be his doll, but on the other hand the lyrics indicate that she’s by no means the submissive partner in the relationship.
Similarly, in the collaboration between Clazzi and Sunny Hill’s Kota and Jubi for Clazzi’s song, “Sexy Doll”, the song is a condemnation of viewing women as doll, as highlighted by the chorus of, “I am no, am no sexy doll”. Even Han Una’s song, ”Mannequin”, does not depict the sort of submissiveness expected from her mannequin like dance style and the title of the song, as evidenced by the lyrics, “Don’t put yourself out if you’re thinking I’m easy/Don’t make rumors just for me to accept you/I got you baby/You can’t escape from me.”
There is a notable exception to my previous statement though that k-pop videos and songs do not generally conform to the traditional idea of the doll. This exception is none other than SNSD, who have utilized the doll concept quite extensively for their image. For one of their early albums, the girls posed as dolls for their jacket photos and members, Sooyoung and Tiffany have appeared as dolls in a pictorial for ELLE Korea. Additionally, they quite memorably appeared as mannequins in their music video for “Gee”, and Jessica covered the hit song by Aqua from the ’90s, “Barbie Girl”, which features lyrics like,
I’m a blonde bimbo girl, in the fantasy world/Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly/You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink/kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky/You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours”
Generally, the music video for “Gee” has been interpreted negatively, although arguably, the Korean version, is preferable to that of the Japanese version of the video. As for the “Barbie Girl” lyrics, the message is self-explanatory.
So, I was not table to draw a neat conclusion from this evidence, as it is full of more contradictions than I had anticipated. I believe that to tease out any of these problems it would be necessary to treat each of these types individually, from pictorials, to songs, to music videos, and perhaps by group. While I may do so in the future, it is not part of my current plans. Rather than simply horde all the various evidence I have collected, I am sharing it below if anyone wants to actually look at or use it for themselves.
(Not all of these are directly related to the the ‘doll’ per se, but cover issues I think are tangentially related to ‘doll’ theme)
Aegyo, Oppas, and Dirty Old Men (Seoulbeats)
Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 2: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image (The Grand Narrative)
What did Depraved Oppas do to Girls’ Generation? Part 1 (The Grand Narrative) (1 of 5 parts, although all 5 parts are relevant.)
Seoul Doll Fair: You’re a Doll…No Really! (Seoulbeats)
SNSD: A Doll’s House (Seoulbeats)
Use of the term ‘Doll’ to Describe Female Idols on K-Pop News Sites
Kim Tae Hee, a doll pretending to be human? (Allkpop)
Jessica’s doll like beauty draws attention (Allkpop)
Park Bom at K-Pop Star, Perfect Doll-Like Legs & Figure = “Doll Certification” (YG Ladies Tumblr)
T-ara’s Hyomin’s Barbie Doll Charm (Soompi)
Girls’ Generation Tiffany Transform into a Porcelain Doll (Soompi)
Wonder Girls: Ye Eun et So Hee ressemblent à des poupées (Soompi France)
Lizzy (After School) est devenue une vraie poupée ! (Soompi France)
Jia, doll-like appearance captures netizens (KpopStarz)
Song Hye Gyo’s Barbie Doll Figure & Goddess-like Beauty (KpopStarz)
Girls’ Generation’s Jessica Looks Like a Doll (K-Pop Express)
Walking Barbie doll Han Chae-young (Han Cinema)
Concept Photos & Pictorials
ELLE Girl – Park Bo Young
Wonder Girls for EXR
Vogue Girl Magazine - Yoon Seung Ah
Cosmopolitan - 2PM’s Taecyeon and Junho (Interesting to note, that these are males being portrayed as dolls)
ELLE Korea - After School’s UEE
ELLE Girl Korea – Park Shin Hye
Go Hara for Brimming Hum
Vogue Korea – SNSD’s Sooyoung and Tiffany
Girls’ Generation Concept Photos
Girls’ Generation for ELLE
Orange Caramel #1 (I am assuming this is a concept photo for them)
Orange Caramel #2 (An image I also assume is a concept photo)
Orange Caramel First Mini Album
Official Orange Caramel Pictures
Instead of listing each video individually, I have simply made a YouTube playlist. You can view it below, or view it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA5AF7435D147D445
HQ screenshots of SNSD’s video, “Gee” (Korean Version) can be viewed here: [MV] SNSD - Gee
HQ screenshots of SNSD’s video for, “Gee”, (Japanese Version) can be viewed here: [MV] SNSD feat. SHINee Minho – Gee Japanese Version
10 Unbelievable Girls Who Look Like Dolls (Odee)(SNSD’s Jessica is featured on this list)
KARA becomes the first girl group to be made into figure dolls (Allkpop)
Who’s Your Favorite K-Barbie? (Soompi)
Doll House for Dal Shabet (This is a piece of fan art I came across while trying to track down one of the pictorials I forgot save. While fan made, and not official, it does again reflect the mindset of k-pop fans, that their favorite idols are like dolls.)
Lastly, if I have piqued your interest about Haynes film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the full film can be viewed on Google Video here, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.”
Haynes was not actually allowed to distribute his film because Karen’s family refused to give him permission to use any of The Carpenters songs in the film. It is hosted on Google Video, apparently for educational purposes.
There are a few interesting critical essays on the piece as well, including this one: Banned in 1990, ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’ Lives On in Bootlegs and a UCI Prof’s Book
(Update, May 29: I added a few new links to pictorials and etc. sections)