Gendered Degradation Ceremony in J-pop Group AKB48

In every culture there are social norms that govern, or at least guide society. Technically speaking, norms are informal rules that we learn over time as we grow up. Eventually, norms become so commonplace, we stop thinking about them all together. Norms, however, also function as forms of social control – they control our behavior so that we don’t deviate from or challenge the ways society says we are supposed to act. Essentially, there are consequences to breaking social norms, and sometimes, they can be quite harsh. In this post, David Mayeda takes the example of a Japanese pop star that broke the rules and the price she paid publicly.

As the rest of the world finally knows thanks to PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” a quite vibrant popular culture exists across Asia. It has existed for decades in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries. Like the pop music industries in other countries, popular music in different parts of Asia is shaped by a variety of cultural norms. However, an almost universal norm in any youthful music industry is the tendency for performers to emit sex appeal.

In Japan, women in all female music groups can enhance their sexuality by presenting themselves as especially youthful, sexually innocent (i.e., virgins), and accessible to the male public. This is their expected – even enforced – public face. It is the norm they often follow, reflected heavily in music videos through lyrics, suggestive dance moves, and attire worn.

From a capitalist point of view, maintaining this image and following the norms associated with this image is critical. The all female bands will be more popular to male audiences if they appear young, sexy, and obtainable. Hence, if a member of these bands is in a romantic relationship, her marketability decreases, as does the band’s. To this end, management of some all female bands in Japan establish “no dating” policies. As you may be able to tell, these rules (or norms) are tied heavily to patriarchy (i.e. widespread male privilege).

Going back to the beginning of this post, there are consequences to breaking social norms. If we deviate from a norm that isn’t considered too important, the sanctions won’t be too harsh (see here). But if an individual deviates from a norm that society considers very important and/or is codified in formal regulations, the punitive sanctions escalate. Minami Minegishi – a singer in one of Japan’s popular all female bands, “AKB48,” broke managerial rules by spending the night with a male companion. In this cultural context, she broke a serious patriarchal cultural norm that governed her sexuality. The consequences of her actions can be seen, below:

In order to repent for her “deviant” actions, Minegishi shaved her head and publicly apologized, calling for forgiveness:

Back in 1956, the influential sociologist Harold Garfinkel argued that when society deems someone highly deviant, the individual may go through a public shaming ritual that transforms their entire identity and degrades their status relative to the mainstream. Garfinkel called this phenomenon a “degradation ceremony.” Being publicly shamed puts the deviant person back in his or her place before that individual can take steps to regain public acceptance (notably, Minegishi was demoted to the band’s trainee team). Garfinkel argued going through court can serve as a degradation ceremony for criminal offenders, but court would not be the only venue where these ceremonies transpire. As seen in the video, Minegishi’s shaving of her own head and crying into the camera both serve as symbolic shaming gestures that will ostensibly grant her eventual access back into the music industry.

In closing, perhaps what is equally important to note is that society establishes norms and sanctions to deviance based on its values. What we see through this particular example is how women are valued in this music industry and in some parts of the broader culture. Women in these bands must be, or at least appear, young, sexy, and obtainable to the male consumer. Changing norms and their attendant regulations calls for broad changes in social values. Perhaps society values money more than women’s status. In 2011, AKB48 reportedly grossed $200 million. Really? Is that what it’s all about?

Dig deeper:

  1. What cultural norms in your life impact your behaviors as a male or female?
  2. How do those gendered cultural norms operate as forms of social control? In other words, if you move outside the culturally prescribed boundaries of “appropriate” masculinity or femininity, how are you reprimanded?
  3. Using the example provided in this post, identify similarities in Japan’s pop culture industry with the pop culture industry where you live.
  4. Think about a time you, or someone you know, was publicly embarrassed or punished. Describe how your personal example might exemplify a degradation ceremony?

Photo via Wikicommons.