Korean pop group has
February 24, 2003 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Korean pop group has "Seoul". Covered in greasepaint and sticking their lips out in exaggerated fashion, Korean girl group, the Bubble Sisters, sing and dance to teenybopper pop in blackface. In homogenous countries, racism seems to play out differently than in diverse countries such as the United States. In Asia, putting on blackface may be seen as a way to pay homage to artists of African ethnicity, but in the U.S. it makes most people cringe and recoil in horror much like hearing someone say the "N" word. The Bubble Sisters profess a love for black music and seek to emulate it, but in their “Bubble Song” video, the group wears blackface while lamenting they are ugly and praying to be pretty for their true loves. Is this an earnest homage to African-American musicians, blatantly offensive Sambo-esque imagery or a cultural misinterpretation of flattery?
posted by VelvetHellvis (53 comments total)

 
Or a joke?
posted by signal at 12:10 PM on February 24, 2003


Another example of this is the Ganguro Gal trend among girls in (where else) Japan.
posted by PenDevil at 12:13 PM on February 24, 2003


I don't see the Ganguro girl thing as anything like this -- this is really dressing up exactly in that blackface/minstrel style. I suppose its likely they have no idea about the significance of dressing up like that, and it's probably without malice, but its pretty offensive in any case.
posted by malphigian at 12:20 PM on February 24, 2003


Signal, I see the potential humor in the Bubble Sisters act--satire even. What I'm curious to learn is how others perceive the act. Performers in the U.S. would not get away with black face in the name of humor, satire or art. It just wouldn't be well-received. In the case of acceptable racism, Asia seems like an alternate universe compared to the United States. Racism is a part of our culture, but the racists generally get a huge backlash from the public-at-large.
posted by VelvetHellvis at 12:27 PM on February 24, 2003


VelvetHellvis:Performers in the U.S. would not get away with black face in the name of humor, satire or art.

Au contraire!

Well, actually you could argue that they didn't exactly "get away with it" since they lost some of their NY state funding, but a lot of people do respect the Wooster Group's work and the intent behind their use of blackface in the piece in question.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:35 PM on February 24, 2003


PinkStainlessTail, as I wrote, "racists generally get a huge backlash from the public-at-large."
posted by VelvetHellvis at 12:37 PM on February 24, 2003


Besides the blackface, I don't see how it could possibly be flattering because of the hair curlers and the puffed-out lips. I would only hope that whoever had that idea for the group had just been sadly misguided instead of blatantly bigoted.
posted by lnicole at 12:37 PM on February 24, 2003


VelvetHellvis: yet, in the US you have "gayface", straight actors playing gay, and hysterical, flamboyant gay at that. And you have over-sexed, dumb Eyetalians (ia.: Joey Tribianni), salsa-dancing, taco eating latinos, etc., etc.

My point isn't to nitpick, or to be particularly offended by the examples I pointed out, but just to state that racism (like humour) is ultimately contextual, and things which are taboo in one country are meaningless jokes in another, and it's pointless to be all shocked because other nations don't share the same set of historical sins as yours.
posted by signal at 12:54 PM on February 24, 2003


Sweet. I think it is time for my band, The Buckteethed Rapists, to invade, I mean tour Korea.
posted by monkeyman at 1:03 PM on February 24, 2003


Let's have them come and perform in the US and we'll see how the act goes over. The NAACP will certainly think they're just charming.
posted by shoos at 1:07 PM on February 24, 2003


signal: "it's pointless to be all shocked because other nations don't share the same set of historical sins as yours."

How did you know where VelvetHellvis lives?
posted by Keyser Soze at 1:27 PM on February 24, 2003


Keyser Soze: "Performers in the U.S", "Asia seems like an alternate universe compared to the United States. Racism is a part of our culture..". and the dead giveway, "African-American musicians", which I've never heard anybody outside of the US use.
posted by signal at 1:36 PM on February 24, 2003


Keyser: VelvetHellvis' profile says Ohio
posted by pfuller at 1:37 PM on February 24, 2003


Ali G. isn't funny either.

But if you're offended you're probably one of those people who would be better off not having a TV or an Internet connection or reading the enwspaper. It'll just cause you way too much stress.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:39 PM on February 24, 2003


This is just 'race drag'. Funny how drag (appropriation of gender for performance purposes) isn't usually thought of as misogynist, but nobody gets away with race appropriation without being called racist.
posted by psychoticreaction at 1:40 PM on February 24, 2003


Signal: I'm not shocked. I even mention in my post that homogenous countries have a different standard of what is racist and what is not. I live in the U.S. where African-Americans are the largest minority group followed by Latino and Hispanics. The public and media would kick the Bubble Sisters arse all over the place for a poppy blackface stage act.

**The purpose of the post was to get different cultural perspectives, not to editorialize my horror. The reason I like MeFi is the opportunity the forum provides to garner a broader survey of opinions rather than something like a USA Today poll.**

For the record, I think the the Bubble Sisters act is tasteless and would go over like a lead balloon here in my U.S. homeland, but in the context of Asia and beyond perceptions may be vastly different.
posted by VelvetHellvis at 1:41 PM on February 24, 2003


For the record, I think the the Bubble Sisters act is tasteless and would go over like a lead balloon here in my U.S. homeland,...

As do most acts from that part of the world... black-face or not.
posted by Witty at 2:01 PM on February 24, 2003


Not that they're all tasteless, mind you. The lead balloon reference is all I was focusing on.
posted by Witty at 2:08 PM on February 24, 2003


Except for hentai and bukkake, which seem to get a whole lotta American 'net press.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:10 PM on February 24, 2003


Racism is a part of our culture, but the racists generally get a huge backlash from the public-at-large.

Aren't most Asian countries structured in a classed society?
Where racism to us would be, your wealth, up bringing , religion and things that we in a western society might not look down upon.

I think I just decribed us too.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:15 PM on February 24, 2003


Michelle Shocked, in the liner notes of her CD "Arkansas Traveler" said her original intent was to appear on the cover wearing blackface, since the roots of many of the tunes was "Blackface Minstrelsy". Aside from what her record company felt about it, I gather her reasoning for not doing it is to not be "providing controversy for hatemongers, or offending the delicate sensibilities of the politically correct." She goes on to say "I believe that 'blacking up' should be done correctly; as an exploration for the source of that hollow ring we mistakenly believe was immaculately conceived in Las Vegas, and in a context of true respect for the cultures we ape."
posted by Eekacat at 2:16 PM on February 24, 2003


VelvetHellvis: Not to counter your point, but rather expand on it, I feel that many contemporary white rap acts (Eminem comes to mind) perform a subtle form of blackface.

Blackface was born not (just) to mock black people but because blacks weren't deemed fit to perform for whites.

While less blatant, there's a long tradition of whites aping blacks' "moves" and musical styles, because white audiences weren't receptive to black entertainers.

While I don't think rap or any other musical genre is exclusive of any race, sometimes when you see a white kid trying so hard to look "black", you can't help but get a blackface vibe.
posted by signal at 2:24 PM on February 24, 2003


I live in the U.S. where African-Americans are the largest minority group followed by Latino and Hispanics

VelvetHellvis: not to derail, but that's no longer true.
posted by reverendX at 2:32 PM on February 24, 2003


Thanks for setting the record straight, Rev. X. I wasn't sure of the shift and should have consulted my latest census for facts. In my part of the country. there's an *aproximate* 55% white to 45% black split and the city's had its fair share of race issues.
posted by VelvetHellvis at 2:50 PM on February 24, 2003


you don't need a phD in cultural studies to understand why blackface is still offensive in the USA (just ask ted danson). it's just. not. funny. even spike lee couldn't handle it -- "bamboozled" was a terrible movie, mainly because blackface is too strong, too ugly, too charged to be used in the service of satire. blackface is still a cultural nookular bomb.

as for blackface in south korea - i would really prefer to hear someone from south korea explain this. these girls aren't dressing up like modern black pop stars, but like turn-of-the-century American racial stereotypes. it is completely weird. stavros?

the point has often been made that modern gangsta videos are the new minstrel shows - slickly packaged racial stereotypes hungrily devoured (and imitated) by white suburban kids. is this country (the USA) still racist? yes. are other countries racist? yes. does our racism get more air time because our lowbrow music videos, movies, television shows, albums, etc. are the ones that get exported all over the world? yes. when i was in new zealand, did i see mauri teenagers in wellington dressed up exactly like l.a. gang members? yes. when i was in paris--a few years ago-- did i here an insane amount of racial hatred (toward arabs) coming from educated, middle-class, white parisians? yes. is the world racist? yes.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:58 PM on February 24, 2003


ok, s america isn't e asia, but i could imagine something similar happening here. simple truth is that not all societies are as "clued-up" about either the history of others, or with the idea that caricatures can be offensive. my partner - an educated, left-wing (ran her own communist cell, dammit!) chilean, who believes fervently in equality, and would never have thought herself racist (and who will hate me for mentioning this, and now trembles with embarassment when it is recounted) - quite naturally used her fingers to make "slitty eyes" when talking about an asian acquaintance when we first met.

other cultures are can be very different in odd, isolated ways. ignoring that is, in it's own silly way, racist too...
posted by andrew cooke at 3:05 PM on February 24, 2003


ignoring that is, in it's own silly way, racist too...

my desire for a nice summary got the better of me. i'm not sure i can defend that statement (can't you see the "silly" modifier?)
posted by andrew cooke at 3:08 PM on February 24, 2003


Signal, I don't think "a white kid trying so hard to look "black"" has anything to do with blackface. That is, unless you want to equate urban style and behavior with "black".
posted by gnutron at 3:14 PM on February 24, 2003


but isn't "urban" a euphemism for poor & black? I've never heard "urban" used to refer to, say, a white stock broker who lives and works in Manhattan.
posted by signal at 3:24 PM on February 24, 2003


psychoticreaction: "This is just 'race drag'."
- -

That is exactly what this is, and race-drag is a great term for it.

Who knows if they mean it. Ask them when no one in america cares and they'll not deny it! Speculation and the shock value would be worth the PR tradeoff. It's girl band pop. does it need to have credibility also?
posted by xtian at 3:28 PM on February 24, 2003


Maybe, just maybe, they think "black culture" (in their no doubt limited experience) is really cool. Maybe they just like the aesthetic. Kind of like cosplay. People go all out in japan with the anime/costume thing in ways that few people here do. Which is to say that in japan (near as I can tell) it's not considered werid, whereas here, it is.

Maybe they're just cosplayers that wanna dress up like black people. I have a hard time feeling like it's any worse than some girl, here (in the USA), dressing up like some japanese manga character.

One thing that I've noticed is that asian pop-culture tends to go towards different extremes than western pop-culture. We tend towards violence and ultra-realism, where they tend to gravitate towards cuteness (in the extreme) and costumes/fashion. The blackface thing seems like an extension of that, and not actually racist (of the hate speech variety) at all.

The extent to which they really do look black is kind of eerie.
posted by jaded at 3:33 PM on February 24, 2003


I've never heard "urban" used to refer to, say, a white stock broker who lives and works in Manhattan.

Maybe urbanite, perhaps.

I don't think "a white kid trying so hard to look "black"" has anything to do with blackface.

I don't either. I think it just comes along with that style of music. It's an attitude that goes hand and hand with a style of performance that rap and hip-hop command.
posted by Witty at 3:38 PM on February 24, 2003


Anyone watch the video provided on the linked page?

Might provide some more insight.


That said, I think racially homogenous countries tend to be more racist in terms of skin color because you can easily distinguish them not only as different by that skin color, but by culture and language. And while it is true that the class lines are also strong in such countries as it is their primary way to make distinctions in their society, I believe that the lack of a diverse local population makes the distinction by race that much more acute.
posted by linux at 3:42 PM on February 24, 2003


Signal, I don't think "a white kid trying so hard to look "black"" has anything to do with blackface.

Do some reading on the subject (a lot to ask, I know), and you'd be surprised. Stephen Foster and his ilk did blackface early in their careers because it was "rebellious" and "cool and exotic" and later matured and wrote fantastic music. A lot of young white musicians at the time mimicked black music in amateur minstrelry because it was strange and rebellious and often funny to them--are the Beastie Boys, then, also offensive for the way they coveted urban black style on Licensed to Ill, or the way that Eminem does it now?

The US hardly has the market cornered on this kind of incongruous tradition of lampooning/flattery.
posted by Karl at 3:50 PM on February 24, 2003


I'm sure they thank you for all the free publicity and heart rending concerns for their complicity in evil aberrations against the enlightenment of political correctness. *sniff*

If they had any talent, then they wouldn't have to resort to inane publicity stunts. This is some music executive's brilliant stab at relevance.

Actually, it's almost refreshing to see some slight departure from the wall-to-wall lip-synch, bland dance recitals,and plastic-surgery techno that seem to comprise the entirety of Korean popular music culture.

Warhol called, he wants his 15 minutes back.
posted by hama7 at 3:54 PM on February 24, 2003


hama7: If they had any talent, then they wouldn't have to resort to inane publicity stunts. This is some music executive's brilliant stab at relevance.

If they had been paying attention, they would have noticed that all you need to be is a underage lesbian schoolgirl.
posted by smcbride at 4:00 PM on February 24, 2003


This is just 'race drag'

. . . hmmmm
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 4:06 PM on February 24, 2003


This is just 'race drag'

AFAIK, the transsexual community isn't too fond of drag. Some see it as mocking true transsexuals by trivializing them. It might have something to do with the hesitance of some gays/lesbians to accept transsexuals into their cause.
posted by gyc at 4:12 PM on February 24, 2003


hama7 wrote: "I'm sure they thank you for all the free publicity and heart rending concerns for their complicity in evil aberrations against the enlightenment of political correctness. *sniff*"

MeFi is about discussion. If this post starts a Bubble Sister meme, so be it. It also has sparked an interesting discussion of race issues across international lines. This post is no different than yours on 18 Ways to Hate Your Neighbour. These posts propagated dialogue. Warhol would probably give up his fifteen minutes for something like this.
posted by VelvetHellvis at 4:12 PM on February 24, 2003


I see the word "racism" being tossed around here like mad, and I'm not entirely sure it should be.

IMO, racism is a negative behaviour. It promotes inequality, segregation and hatred.

In America, I suspect it would be impossible to perform such an act without inciting hatred. In Korea, probably not so.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:32 PM on February 24, 2003


thread drift....

This is just 'race drag'

AFAIK, the transsexual community isn't too fond of drag. Some see it as mocking true transsexuals by trivializing them. It might have something to do with the hesitance of some gays/lesbians to accept transsexuals into their cause.


What does drag have to do with transexuals? Are you talking about transvestites? If so, are you saying that transvestites object to drag? You've got me pretty confused here.
posted by rdr at 8:09 PM on February 24, 2003


For starters, when blackface originated, blacks were left completely out of any and all creative processes, so not only were there no black actors to watch, but there were no black characters that had any basis in reality. The black characters played by whites were not attempting to be realistic at all, but were attempting to spread racist ideas.

All the blackface stereotypical characters were designed to show how blacks were happy as slaves. Despite being whipped and raped and treated as less than human, they still had huge grins and happy feet. This had two desired effects: let whites feel guiltless about keeping slaves and make blacks think they should be happy about slavery.

The fact that there are actually black performers today means that there is some truth, and maybe even a lot of truth, to the new image. For Eminem, or any "whiteboy rapper," to deserve the title of blackface minstrel, he would need to do more than copy an actual image of black Americans. He would have to present an entirely falsified image of black people, and then claim it to be true. All of that with a racist agenda.

That's why blackface still has such a (deserved) stigma to it. It's not about whites wanting or pretending to be black. It's about whites keeping blacks quiet and then falsely portraying them in a wickedly degrading light. A light so bad that it not only says "It's okay for us to own you" but also sends the message that "You should be happy that we own you."

I doubt many Koreans (or even Americans for that matter) understand the concepts behind it. I don't think this particular pop group has any idea what they are doing.

[apologies for long comment]
posted by dogwalker at 9:08 PM on February 24, 2003


I'm in Greece, and I've seen comedians in blackface on television once or twice. It's strange, but it's not a signifier of racism here. Greece does have its share of ethnic bigotry, but Africans are certainly not among the targeted groups.

Along these lines, I would have to disagree a bit with Linux, who said racially homogenous countries tend to be more racist in terms of skin color because you can easily distinguish them not only as different by that skin color, but by culture and language. Greece is fairly racially homogeneous, and Africans or Asians definitely stand out in the crowd, but racism here is usually directed at Albanian immigrants and gypsies, who, to an outsider, would be difficult to distinguish from the "ordinary" Greeks.

In this case, I think "familiarity breeds contempt" might be the right formula to apply; the cultural, language and physical differences of Africans or Asians are not seen as threatening here, but a minority group (the gypsies) already ensconced in the population but operating under a different set of beliefs, is. The steady flow of immigrants from certain surrounding countries, especially Albania, is as well, for all the same reasons that immigrant groups seeking a better life have historically been the victims of bigotry in the U.S. and other countries.
posted by taz at 9:51 PM on February 24, 2003


Minstrels?
posted by y2karl at 10:22 PM on February 24, 2003


Warhol would probably give up his fifteen minutes for something like this.

Sure. Please don't misinterpret my comment as a criticism of your post, which is right as rain. I just meant to criticize the cheapness of a publicity stunt which has given this mediocre factory-made group undue exposure: It's their 15 minutes which yours truly questions. That's all.
posted by hama7 at 10:40 PM on February 24, 2003


Maybe, just maybe, they think "black culture" (in their no doubt limited experience) is really cool.

So they think that mammy and Buckwheat are part of "black culture?" How in the hell would that have happened?
posted by shoos at 12:37 AM on February 25, 2003


Dogwalker is probably correct. The Koreans wouldn't really have any idea how offensive it is; but that doesn't really make them any less liable.

I've been living and teaching English here in Seoul for a year and a half now. I've seen completely tasteless pop culture (take for example Afro-Ken, the dog with enormous hair) and other sambo-style cartoons. I've seen middle school english textbooks that would make your stomach turn. And I've seen children pantomime monkeys when they see a *gasp* real-live black person.

Man, I have enough to deal with here being a white guy these days (as nobody really likes Americans, especially here in South Korea where our soldiers are prone to running over little girls with tanks). Women, especially blondes, are routinely asked if they're Russian (code for prostitute). Blacks are genuinely treated as inferior, and getting a job as a native english teacher (like the one I currently have) is damn near impossible.

Who knows though. They may "get it" sooner or later.
posted by jonz at 2:44 AM on February 25, 2003


wasn't Bert Williams a black man in blackface? I recently watched a documentary about Vaudeville and i learned there was a suprising number of black entertainers performing in blackface.

the Vaudeville talent could wipe the floor with any popgroup of today. :)
posted by dabitch at 3:40 AM on February 25, 2003


(as nobody really likes Americans, especially here in South Korea where our soldiers are prone to running over little girls with tanks).

Please don't make me get all ugly. Please.

I don't know if you're trying to be clever, but please do a little research before you interject statements which are irresponsible at best. Nobody is "prone" to any accident involving civilians, especially children. South Korea and the U.S. are allies.

"According to the Road Traffic Safety Authority, Korea tops the 30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in number of traffic accidents. The latest official statistics show that some 8,097 persons were killed in 260,579 accidents in 2001. Although precise figures for 2002 are not yet available, officials said they do not expect the number of accidents to have dropped appreciably.

What is deeply disturbing, moreover, is the fact that, of the total fatalities, 439 were children of middle-school age and under. In other words, we have lost so many of our helpless children because of grown-ups who are driving recklessly and in brazen disregard for traffic rules and regulations.
"

The accident occurred during a military maneuver, and was not intentional. As an American, you should make yourself aware of these situations and regulations.
posted by hama7 at 4:16 AM on February 25, 2003


On topic (*cough*), what jonz was saying (another Mefite in South Korea! Crikey!) is pretty much spot on, as far as the casual racism of many Koreans and of the popular culture in general, at least against those with darker skin tones. Blackface-and-frightwig-afro depictions of thievin' no-account black folks are still a fixture in the less refined TV comedy skitshows.

Whether this is one of the multitude of unpleasant things they've borrowed from Japan is open for debate.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:29 AM on February 25, 2003


Apologies for the segue. I'm a little peevish of late.
posted by hama7 at 5:12 AM on February 25, 2003


Blackface-and-frightwig-afro depictions of thievin' no-account black folks are still a fixture in the less refined TV comedy skitshows.

Whether this is one of the multitude of unpleasant things they've borrowed from Japan is open for debate.


Not sure that this particular thing came from Japan. (Though I think Afro-ken did). Japanese TV, say what you want about overall quality, tends not to draw too much of a distinction between white and black- they tend to be much more different from "Japanese" than they could possibly be ffom each other.

While I've never been to Korea, my experiences with Koreans in Japan have been highly positive. But I don't think any of my Korean friends have any more of a clue about American racial politics and history (and therefore the pitfalls of stuff like this) than I do about Korean history (beyond the fact that Korea has lots of reasons to be a bit miffed at Japan).


[OT]
rdr: I'm just guessing here, but the transsexual thing may be that trans-sexuals may look at drag as a weak imitation of actually getting the whole slough of operations (transsexual = sex change; transvestite = man wearing women's clothes.)
posted by chiheisen at 5:31 AM on February 25, 2003


The bottom line of this is - Koreans do not have American hangups about skin color, they have their own hangups. They did not have slavery, so they don't have the "guilt" thing going which is influencing a lot of posts here. And that is probably why they (as mentioned by others) tend to be much more blatantly racist (monkey noises, etc.). The fact that in USA there used to be slavery did not influence the rest of the world, despite some Americans thinking it should have.
In any case, this definately is more flattery than hate. You would not believe what some contemporary Russian movies have to say about black people. And it's not even clear where it comes from, where does the hate originate? There are not many blacks in Russia. I do believe if this was meant to degrade the black culture, they would do it much more obviously, and there wouldn't be any question about it.

[ot] hama7, do you really think it mattered to the parents of those two young girls whether it was intentional? Wait a minute, intentional?! What the hell, now it's ok to kill teenagers with your tank if you don't mean it? In any case, all that was said was that there are hard feelings regarding these death, accidental or not. Really, I don't think people should judge others for being scared and unreasonable before they themselves see tanks outside their windows (not that I wish that on anyone).

But it's good to know you feel the need to defend and protest, even if no attack was made.
posted by adzuki at 11:51 AM on February 26, 2003


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