Psy is using sex to sell Korea to the world. The only problem is, it’s working.
Psy’s new video, “Gentleman,” is a literal assault on women. I’m not saying this because I don’t understand satire. But, living in Korea, I feel somewhat qualified to say that Psy is pushing the irony way too far this time.
Through the video and lyrics, Psy explains the complex life of a walking, talking oxymoron, a “mother-father-gentleman,” while simultaneously acting like the total opposite of a gentleman. He’s pulling a chair out from underneath a woman, causing another to fall off the treadmill, untying bikini straps at the pool, and worse, laughing garishly after each prank. To be fair, Psy does harass at least one man, comedian Yoo Jae-suk, and a group of school children. However, his offences against women, endorsing Korea’s gender inequality and notorious reputation for sex trading, aren’t as funny when viewed from Psy’s side of the Pacific.
According to the World Economic Forum, Korea is ranked 108th in gender equality out of 135 countries, among Kuwait, The UAE and Nigeria. Maybe you still think it’s funny to see an older Korean man wafting a fart in a young woman’s face, as Psy does in the video. What if this couple were Middle Eastern? Somehow having just a little knowledge of the social contexts makes this a much more serious offence.
Korean gender inequality is not just a number in an economic forum. Although the government often disputes reports from women’s rights groups and other NGOs, Korea has become notorious in the Asian sex trade industry. A growing number of South Korean women and girls are being traded for sex in the U.S. Japan, Hong Kong, and Western Europe, all countries where Psy can be seen harassing Korean women in his video. Although it’s illegal inside of Korea, sex trade accounts for for more than four percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, more than the fishing and agriculture industries combined. One fifth of women between the ages of 15 and 29 have worked in the sex industry and, according to the government-run Korean Institute of Criminology, one-fifth of men in their twenties buy sex at least four times a month. About half of the 200,000 teens who run away annually are tricked or forced into the sex trade to meet this demand.
Long before being subjected to Psy’s pranks, Korean women were being victimized throughout history. In the medieval period, “kisaeng,” entertainment women, were assigned to the elite rulers. During the Japanese occupation, comfort women, or wainbu, were imprisoned and forced to perform sex for the soldiers. Although, of these women perished in poor conditions, many of these women are alive today, listening to Psy’s lyrics in the grocery stores or coming from their grandchildren’s bedrooms.
The worst blow to Korean women should be the reaction to the video from their own country. Although no one spoke out about the sexual harassment, it was still banned from Korea’s Broadcast Station (KBS). Why? A KBS statement suggested the offending sequences in the video showed Psy jaywalking down an empty street and then kicking a traffic cone labelled "No Parking," because heaven forbid some impressionable teens might see a traffic cone being violated on TV.
Since the success of Gangnam Style, Psy has become the voice of modern Korean culture. His international fan base and maybe even Psy himself don’t see how a few practical jokes, in the context of Korean society, can further disenfranchise an already vulnerable group. Perhaps due to this oversight, the video had over 200 million hits in the first ten days. In addition, Psy was recently praised by the ultra conservative President Park for his "value of other people's creativity is a very exemplary case," when he paid for the rights to the choreography used in the video.
After two years in Korea I’ve still never seen a Korean woman wearing a bikini on the beach or off. However, in Psy’s video, he’s dancing with bikini-clad women, gratuitously rubbing lotion on them and untying their tops. He’s using sex to sell Korea to the world, but sex has already been sold and it isn’t funny in the least bit. I am American, so I’ve seen and heard much raunchier behavior on MTV, but I’m talking about a different world, one from which Psy comes, which he has chosen to exploit, and it’s working.