Korean pop music has a problem. It’s not that it isn’t doing well. In fact, according to geotagged Twitter data, K-pop is killing it in Tokyo, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and it’s caught on in Saudi Arabia and Poland, too.
The problem is K-pop’s treatment of women. Though wildly entertaining, the genre serves as saccharine testimony to the ways in which young Korean ladies, despite being among the world’s most educated, are objectified, vilified and legally enslaved by a multibillion dollar industry that manufactures outrageous profit from their exploitation.
Male stars are certainly exploited, too. But female artists suffer heavy double standards, especially when it comes to pay and the way their personal lives are judged.
Western musical influence first hit Korea in the late 1800s, but K-pop wasn’t born until the release of the 1992 song “Nan Arayo” (I Know) by Seo Taiji and Boys, which floored audiences with its catchy swingbeat and use of rap lyrics. Three years later, South Korea debuted its first "idol" group, the boy band H.O.T., followed in 1997 by its first major girl group, S.E.S. From then until the early 2000s, the nascent genre entered the Japanese and Southeast Asian markets. Then it exploded. Export sales shot from $631 million in 2005 to $2.5 billion in 2007. In 2010, the record label S.M. Entertainment reported sales of $84.6 million, but in only two years, sales rose to $200 million — the same year “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views.
The K-pop empire is now perhaps the country's biggest export, yet the product it peddles, dripping with bubblegum imagery and witless refrains, is all too often incredibly sexist. To be sure, many of its vapid songs are intentionally light on lyrics — catchiness is king. Besides, K-pop isn’t the only musical genre fraught with sexist content. J-pop and C-pop are hardly better, while American hip-hop is arguably worse. The difference is, when J. Lo brandishes her swagger, it’s clear that she’s a peerless dancer, and Lady Gaga could sing the roof off Carnegie Hall. But when it comes to their Korean counterparts, talent is optional. Physical beauty is everything.
“They asked me to sing, and I’m not the best singer,” ex-TAHITI member Sarah Wolfgang, formerly known as Hanhee, said of her recruitment in a recent interview. But that doesn’t matter in K-pop, she added, because “everything can be touched up.” During a May 2014 Reddit AMA, when asked if she liked K-pop, Wolfgang replied, “I hate it. No one is an actual artist.” She also pointed out that songs, dance routines and clothes are handed to performers who have “little to no artistic input,” and that fans favor certain groups because of their look, “not because they are talented.”
But in the Plasticine world of K-pop, looks are just as manufactured as talent: Before their formal debut, both male and female artists are often forced to undergo cosmetic surgery. Fresh-faced ingénues can decline, but unless they work for YG Entertainment — which forbids its girl groups from going under the knife — opting out of surgery is tantamount to opting out of the industry. As Patricia Marx of the New Yorker puts it, Korean pop culture “shapes not only what music you should listen to but what you should look like while listening to it,” adding that nose jobs and double-eyelid surgeries are now common high school graduation presents in Korea. According to the BBC, 50 percent of South Korean women in their 20s have now had cosmetic surgery.
But this is only part of the problem. Once recruited, future idols sign agreements known as “slave contracts,” which can last over a decade, limiting their contact with the outside world and offering piddling compensation in return. Trainees live in dormitories where they’re taught to sing and dance, told what to eat, when to date (single performers are more attractive to fans) and how to behave. These last two details are crucial, because in a highly Confucian society like Korea, when chat forums start to ring with rumors that a female pop star is dating or that she has acted impertinently, that’s the knell of her career.
For instance, when the hugely popular group Girls’ Generation (SNSD) batted their eyes at a boy band during a television variety show in 2008, this prompted fans to publicly humiliate them at that year’s annual Dream Concert, where audience members typically show performers their support by creating oceans of light with glow sticks. When SNSD took to the stage, the audience greeted them with dead silence and pitch darkness for the duration of their set.
Displays like Nicki Minaj calling Miley Cyrus a “bitch” at the 2015 VMA ceremony are therefore unimaginable here. In fact, the scandal at the 25th Seoul Music Awards last January involved co-host Jun Hyun Moo making EXID member Hani cry onstage after he playfully teased her about having a boyfriend by saying that she looked junsu, or “elegant,” a play on her boyfriend’s name, Junsu.
In other cases, it’s not etiquette that’s required so much as absolute submissiveness to male authority. In September 2013, Goo Hara of KARA went on the variety show “Radio Star,” where the male hosts relentlessly badgered her about rumors that she was in a relationship. At one point, host Kyuhyun threatened to ruin her, and she broke down crying. The hosts then demanded that her bandmate, Kang Ji Young, make coquettish faces for them. When she declined, host Kim Gura shouted at her and, eventually, she too began to cry. Interestingly, fans directed most of their anger not at the male hosts but at the stars, who both subsequently left KARA.
Or take the case of former f(x) member Sulli. When Kim Hee-chul, member of the boy band Super Junior, claimed he was the most handsome member of his band, fans found it amusing. Yet when they discovered Sulli had written in her diary, as a 9-year-old child, “I think I’m pretty but I don’t get why other people think so too,” many people virulently attacked her. Then, when Sulli acknowledged she was dating the rapper Choiza in 2014, her career took a nosedive and she later left f(x). Meanwhile Choiza, whose stage name means “big dick,” not only survived the scandal, he cracked jokes about it on SNL Korea.
And consider for a moment that, while female idols are excoriated for discreetly having adult relationships, somehow it’s okay when the popular variety program “No More Show” features women explicitly simulating fellatio, sometimes while the host screams “Do it sexily!” as they gag on yogurt.
“Most K-pop videos portray women as sex objects and that includes all the female K-pop singers and groups, too,” says Kevin Cawley, professor of East Asian studies at University College Cork in Ireland. Many have cosmetic surgery and dance provocatively, but are “still expected to adhere to outdated Confucian norms about sexual conduct in their private lives while men can do as they please.”
Thankfully, Koreans are becoming inured to K-pop dating scandals, and while the genre is still mostly glitter and puff, its best artists have matured faster than the industry has grown, taking control of their own creative efforts and producing works of originality and thought. G-Dragon, for instance, who used to croon insipid platitudes like “yeah, love is pain” when he was a member of the group Big Bang, is now a rapper who contemplates the profitless nature of celebrity.
As for girl groups, there’s some progress there, too, with songs like Miss A’s “I Don’t Need A Man,” dedicated to “all the independent ladies” and Mamamoo’s “I Do Me,” which includes the line “what if I don’t look pretty? Why would I hide?”
Outside the realm of K-pop, there are even more extreme examples of women asserting power in ways that violate Confucian norms. In the 2015 track “Crazy Dog,” for example, female artist Yezi raps, “jacking off while watching my breast shot gifs, gripping a rag in one hand, typing on the keyboard with the other, no matter how much you diss me, you can’t console yourself.”
Nevertheless, slut-shaming remains a societal mainstay, as does the infantilization of female pop idols. Just last year, IU released the song “Twenty-three,” in which she sings about the pressure put upon female stars to appear child-like, despite the fact that she herself is becoming a mature woman. But, because she dresses like a child in the video, rather than spark a national dialogue about the pedophiliac overtones of dressing grown women like schoolgirls, instead she was accused of using pedophiliac imagery to sell records.
Some groups do indeed consciously cling to their virginal image. Others, like Yezi and IU, are moving in the other direction. Last year there was Vibrato’s “Stellar,” which features the female members of the band locked in glass cages and surrounded by cameras. As they are compared to Barbie dolls, they sing, “I don’t feel good. It’s weird because of you.” No doubt this is a message directed at the public, and the industry.
Despite these signs that things are trending liberal, critical fans would do well to consider whether K-pop’s feminist coming of age is, like everything else about it, merely fabricated. Girl power is chic, but when an industry like this one commodifies feminism, one has to wonder where the power goes.