Hello! Project (and the Japanese idol scene in general) is kinda funny in that, amongst all the mindless pageantry and silly shenanigans the girls get into, it can still make a person think about how things work on a deeper level. Usually this is due to more newsworthy happenings, such as scandals or graduation/audition announcements or other milestones, but occasionally something as mundane as a normal release by a second-tier group can spark some interesting thought. Case in point: “Rock Erotic”, one half of the latest single by Berryz Kobo which features a music video that strives to live up to the song’s title. With corset dresses, lyrics that reference “magic fingers”, and even some of the members taking on male roles and wardrobes to accentuate the eroticness of the dance routines, many Berryz fans–and even some non-fans–were certainly abuzz with excitement.
Me being me, however, I couldn’t help but obsess over the video for a bit of an unexpected reason: particularly focusing on how the male roles just so happened to get assigned to the taller members of the group…which leads to the first edition of a new segment I like to call J-Triumf needlessly overanalyzes and misinterprets a music video!
(Disclaimer: the following commentary does not guarantee any particular level of needlessness, overanalysis, or misinterpretation; your mileage may vary)
Now, don’t get me wrong, in the scope of normal viewing I enjoyed this video. The dance routine was interesting enough and funny with how awkward the simulated butt slapping and air guitars were, and everyone looked good for the most part with their outfits (seriously, it takes someone like Yurina Kumai to get me to actually admire a tie-and-collar wardrobe–more on that later on) and how they played up their roles as three long-coated dudes having their way with four corset-clad gals. At the same time, though, a part of me just wanted to dwell on the fact that the male roles seemingly automatically went to the three tallest members of the group! Initially it was just about simply focusing on a missed opportunity for novelty: could you imagine Momochi of all people attempting an “ikemen” character for this video? Or perhaps swapping Saki Shimizu for Yurina, playing on both Saki’s history as the group’s resident tomboy back in the day and the jarring image of a short playboy successfully working his game on a statuesque beauty…it definitely would have made this music video a lot more interesting than it already is.
Of course, a recent discussion with a friend forced me to concede that the roles were just natural fits due to how the Berryz members had evolved over the years: Saki trying to escape her tomboy past, Risako and Miyabi simply being too girly to play otherwise, and of course Momoko being Momoko, leaving the towering Yurina to default to the guy team with Chinami and Maasa, who had cropped their hair to boyish levels recently (also Maasa being on record two years ago about wanting to try out the whole ikemen thing). So it’s likely that height wasn’t that much of a factor in deciding who would be what for this song, just as it wasn’t a factor 12 years ago when diminutive ace Natsumi Abe took to being a swinging wing man while tall-ish Kaori Iida kept her feminine charm for Morning Musume’s “Mr. Moonlight ~Ai no Big Band~”…nor did it stop former Mini Moni member Ai Takahashi from taking over that song’s lead role in future concert performances (though she did get rejected from the Takarazuka Revue because she was too short–more on that later).
On the flipside, however, there’s Muten Musume, the one-off promotion Momusu did for a sushi franchise back in 2010, the promotional photos and costumes of which featured the members divided into apparent male and female teams with the male team clearly consisting of the taller half of the group without regard for actual personalities. One would think that girly-girl Sayu would’ve been an automatic pick for the female team while Ai-chan, highly capable of boyish tendencies with her “man scream” and the aforementioned performance pedigree, would’ve fit well for the male team, yet the members were arranged strictly within gender height expectations, breaking what could’ve been a much more interesting dynamic for this promotion.
So what’s up with all this focus on height and gender? Well, beyond my hang-ups regarding missed opportunities for novelty and switching things up, “Rock Erotic” also reignited my long-running thoughts on certain aspects of gender expectations and the issues and consequences that arise when said expectations are defied: in this particular case, there’s the issue of height and size, and how strongly it’s tied to gender identity. It’s an understandable link, since in the real world men are on average naturally taller and bigger than women, so for many people this is how things should be without a second thought–but that has still always intrigued me, how strongly society and popular culture reinforces this link through discussions and portrayals of the male/female dynamic, and in particular how it plays into continued double standards when it comes to playing with, inverting, and defying traditional gender roles (both in fiction and real life).
For instance, upon sharing my Saki/Yurina role swap idea in a chatroom one person laughed it off, framing it as Saki becoming a little boy trying to play with grown women rather than entertaining the thought of her becoming a short adult man who knows how to charm taller ladies. It was as if to say such a notion is downright inconceivable, and while I can’t really blame the chatgoer for thinking that way due to the natural order of things, it still struck me on how it focused on a man being too short rather than a woman being too tall, that the problem lied on a male infringing on what may be perceived as a “feminine domain” in shortness rather than there being any issue of a female encroaching a “masculine domain” with tallness. Yes, folks, heightism actually is a real thing, even if it’s not exactly the most pressing of issues, and while it can affect both genders, it’s the guys who invariably suffer from it more due to societal pressures and double standards.
As far as the notion of shortness being exclusive to the feminine domain is concerned, I’d be remiss to not bring up Mini Moni, founded by the ultra-petite Mari Yaguchi that centered on the gimmick of being small. Granted, the group was mostly marketed towards children (only one single leaned towards a “mature” image and sound) and their enduring popularity mainly had basis in the crazy antics of the Tsuji/Kago duo, but would the smallness gimmick have even been considered had Morning Musume been a boy band? Even the Koreans have invoked this trope with the recent advent of K-pop quartet Tiny-G, who follows in the footsteps of Mini Moni (even down to the token foreign member) but with a more serious edge; the group’s first two singles placed a positive emphasis on their small statures, with one music video even showing them shrunk down to toy size. Again, could you imagine LOEN or SM creating a male group with the same gimmick? They’d probably laugh at the idea–in fact, I can hear all of you readers laughing right now at such a suggestion.
(interesting side note: Yaguchi used to list herself at 145cm tall, but in recent years has taken to listing her height at 144.5, apparently feeling the need to shave off a fraction of a centimeter to further remind everyone that yes, she is indeed tiny–as if marrying and subsequently sleeping around with ridiculously tall guys wasn’t enough)
Realistically, I understand the logic behind “big = tough = manly” and “small = cute = girly”…I can see where the people of 2ch come from with their concerns that Riho Sayashi might have been becoming too tall to be an effective Momusu ace (nevermind that mid-sized Maki Goto managed to achieve superstardom as the group’s ace, or that C-ute is fronted by its two tallest members and still continues to rise in popularity). I’ve even bought into it myself many times, having came from the hypermasculine and often misogynistic realms of hip-hop and sports and video games, and especially with my favorite all-time H!P member being Ai Takahashi, whose own petiteness has been a major factor in her attractiveness. Still, when you consider her rejection from Takarazuka, the all-female performance troupe that requires cast members to take on both male and female roles, one has to wonder about the reinforcement of height expectations as well as the uneven toleration of each gender’s exploration into the other’s realms.
So why is a guy being shorter than a girl every now and then an automatic cause for ridicule or hostility instead of simple novelty? Why are tall women and women who wear men’s clothing occasionally yet openly fetishized by those sexually oriented towards females, yet the reverse has never reached the same level or quantity of fetishization by those oriented towards males? Why does Marvel Comics character The Wasp, a shrinking superheroine often portrayed kicking ass while tiny, benefit from stronger characterization and popularity while her male counterpart, Hank Pym, rarely gets treated seriously unless he’s adopting his Giant-Man persona? If male elements are the ideal things to strive for, if being bigger truly is better, one has to consider what it might say about how we see women when we celebrate them embracing “inferior” attributes but scoff at the idea of men exploring those things…or perhaps it’s about seeing women as so special that they should be allowed to enjoy certain things that men cannot, which in turn implies that men are the inferior sex. Hell, the whole premise of idol “worship” already kind of raises the question of whether the female is being celebrated or exploited, which I’m sure has been already addressed many times by others.
Then again, even in Japan, where gender roles are more rigid than in the West, this dynamic does get challenged on occasion: I haven’t watched it yet but I’m well aware of an anime/manga franchise called Lovely Complex that explores the (pun totally intended) complex relationship between a short guy and a tall girl. There’s also the case of Nintendo mascot Mario being shorter than Princess Peach, whom he often rescued. And even in the aggressive world of American hip-hop, the current
KING OF NEW YORK critical darling amongst pundits is Kendrick Lamar, whose undersized appearance and nasally voice are often considered afterthoughts in light of his lyrical skills and impressive discography. Of course, it’s admittedly unreasonable to expect the idol industry to challenge certain conventions, especially with how the system works, what they’re selling and who they’re selling to, and Japanese culture being what it is.
As for why I dwell on such things: it’s just what I do. As much as I strictly identify as a typical dude and happily partake in “guy things” I still have struggles with the different pressures of what society expects of a straight man, such as my own desire to explore smallness–I actually love my own below-average height of 5’6″ (seriously, it’s an awesome balance to have, being short enough to sit comfortably on planes but still tall enough to reach the overhead compartment), and the idea of being able to shrink has always been one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy tropes–as well as my wholesale rejection of men’s formal/business clothing not just for comfort but also style reasons, instead finding easier-going fun-minded attire more fashionable. Hence my comment on Yurina’s guy clothes earlier–her attractiveness in the video is based on how attractive I find her specifically, despite what she’s wearing. I’ve never liked that collars, ties and long pants were the only true ways of indicating masculinity in these situations, but with the lack of finding a better way of indicating male cues while fitting the intended costume theme I’ll have to let this one slide this time, and perhaps save that topic for another post.
Above all else, though, just consider this long-winded essay to be an observation rather than a complaint, something I wrote not to convince or persuade you to a certain cause but rather to get you to think about things we all take for granted. Perhaps questioning for the sake of questioning, or just another instance of my horrible habit of thinking way too much over nothing.
All simply because a pop group went about things in a relatively normal manner.