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In reviewing titles for the upcoming Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, I recently watched the documentary 9 Muses of Star Empire, a behind-the-scenes look at a Korean girl group called the 9 Muses. (It screens on the afternoon of Sunday, May 4, at the Logan Theatre.) The movie acknowledges up front that the group (and many others like it) are handled essentially like commodities, with managers and studio executives determining how these young women look, how they interact with others, and even how they spend their free time. These handlers are merciless, critiquing every last detail of the group’s public appearances and blaming the singers for every flaw (even those of the songs, which were written by other people). In the movie’s most shocking episode, the young women are forced to perform live just two days after their tour van gets into a serious accident and some of the women require hospitalization. In the course of 9 Muses, a few of the singers suffer emotional breakdowns and quit the group, making one worry for those who remain.
It’s common knowledge that young female performers were subject to similar abuse in studio-era Hollywood. But what makes 9 Muses especially unnerving is that the abusive practices here seem like part of a larger culture of objectification and dehumanization. In one scene, director Hark Joon Lee shows us what happens when one performer quits the group: some record executives look through a photo file and find a replacement with her same height and body type. Lee seems to be arguing that the 9 Muses (or rather, their handlers) are appealing to a particular sexual fantasy, rooted in the image of young women as lithe, compliant, and suggestive in their dress and body language. The movie shows that, for these women anyway, conforming to this fantasy is a painful and humiliating process—and that their handlers don’t care so long as the fantasy remains profitable.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the recent independent films It Felt Like Love and Sexy Baby, which argue that this fantasy has come to pervade popular culture and influence how preadolescent girls regard themselves. That post also could have discussed Girl Model, a 2011 documentary about 13-year-old girls from Siberia who are recruited to model for risque ads in Japan. Girl Model suggests a feature-length illustration of the term “corporate pedophilia,” which Slavko Martinov’s employed in his recent essay film Propaganda to describe the distressing phenomenon of how the advertising industry exploits the sexuality of underage girls to sell all kinds of products. Though the performers in the 9 Muses are all around 20 years old, their public image—a combination of girlish innocence and sexual suggestiveness—seems related to this phenomenon.
In between watching It Felt Like Love and 9 Muses of Star Empire, I caught up with a couple of recent works about children in peril, the documentary Who Took Johnny (one of the highlights of this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival) and Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake (which aired on the BBC last year and is now available on DVD and Netflix). Both build to the discovery of child sex rings that cater to rich and powerful men—and both inspire in the viewer a sense of nauseous dread, making one ponder how often this sort of thing happens in the upper echelons of society. (Apparently Deliver Us From Evil director Amy Berg is in postproduction on a documentary about an alleged child sex ring for Hollywood elites.) I don’t mean to imply that the sexualization of children in popular media inspires sexual violence or vice versa. But this wave of recent movies suggests that the exploitation of children is a more far-reaching crisis than our culture would care to admit.