In her recent open letter to Miley Cyrus, Sinead O’Connor warns of the consequences of letting the music industry “pimp” singers. She claims: “It is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
Looking at Seoul, it is worth considering how the media and proliferation of K-pop culture has affected the portrayal of women. Some people point to the presence of the nation’s first female president, Park Geun-Hye, and claim women in Seoul are becoming equal to their male counterparts. And a quick walk through the bumping Gangnam, Apgujeong, or Hongdae areas of Seoul on a weekend evening may come as a shock for those who remember a society traditionally rooted in deep Confucian and conservative thought in which women were not vocal and did not show any more skin than necessary. Now, it is unsurprising to see women dressed far more liberally, and some people say that this is a visible sign of empowerment. But does shedding clothing truly imply empowerment? Or does the ability to dress “loudly” simply suggest that women have bought into this freedom of dress as an alternative to true empowerment and equality? Rather, it seems women have allowed the media images and hyper-sexualized portrayals of the “new independent woman” to “pimp” their dignity.
Historically, the representation of females in K-pop has been problematic. Female artists are often depicted as a hybrid between children and sexually developed adults, such as in the wildly popular song “Gee” by Girls’ Generation. The lyrics repeat phrases such as “어떻게? (What should I do?),” “바보 (fool),” or “몰라 (I don’t know),” essentially infantilizing mature adult women, making them seem like utterly clueless children who must depend on older men to teach them about love. Not only do these portrayals and lyrics subordinate females, they also enforce the idea that it is acceptable for a woman to “dumb herself down” to attract a partner. Moreover, the girls in this video are literally displayed as mannequins in a store window, and at the start of the video, a teenage boy walks around these girls, as if to prove the point that these girls are the objects of male fantasy. K-pop marketing caters to a heterosexual male audience and seemingly suggests that women’s societal role is to feed the male gaze.
Of course, it can be argued that not all girl groups in the K-pop scene promote the infantilization of women like the song “Gee.” Rather, nearly every popular girl group often alternates between “cute” and “bold” concepts to keep their fans interested. For instance, consider the more recent release “I Got A Boy” by the same group, Girls’ Generation. At first glance, it seems the girls have grown up from their soft, bubblegum pop image. The girls don edgier clothing and dance to a powerful street dance-infused choreography. At the start of the song, the girls seemingly poke fun at women who change their style to attract men as they sing, “(translated) Ridiculous! [That girl] became pretty and sexy just for that man, right?” However, as the song progresses, the chorus repeats: “(translated) I got a boy, he’s awesome / I got a boy, he’s kind / I got a boy, handsome boy, my heart’s been taken away.” And further along in the song, the girls sing, “(translated) My prince! / When will you rescue me?”
Instead of being a song about poking fun at the desire to gain male approval, “I Got a Boy” quickly devolves into a song about how the girls have “got a boy,” and how things are much better as a result. Regardless of the packaging of the song, one thing remains constant: female K-pop artists orient themselves around men in order to gain attention, whether they sing about their first love, a breakup, getting back at a man who cheated, or finding new love. Songs that attempt to showcase “strong women” often fall back on subordinating women instead.
However, that isn’t to say that the entire K-pop industry suffocates women. Some female groups have managed to create songs that are refreshing and satirize the industry’s subordination of women. Consider “Sixth Sense” by the Brown-Eyed Girls. Both the song and music video are about the Brown-Eyed Girls’ revolution against male authority. According to the lyricist of the song, Kim Eana, the members themselves represent aspects of revolution. Rapper Miryo symbolizes women’s voice, vocalist Gain symbolizes resistance, vocalist Jea symbolizes sacrifice, and leader Narsha symbolizes the “sixth sense” of women,” perhaps referring to female sexual awareness and freedom. The girls overthrow oppressive power constructs in the video, as they perform strong choreography and unapologetically sport dark make-up and aggressive facial expressions.
Another group well known for their portrayals of independent women is miss A. In their hit song “Goodbye Baby,” miss A begin auditions to become backup dancers for a famous male celebrity. The man lounges in a chair, eating cherries and rolling dice to decide the fate of the women. Here, the man represents the way the South Korean media consumes women in its stifling portrayal of female gender roles and unattainable ideals of perfection. However, as the song continues, the tables turn. The girls reappropriate male privilege; all of the images of male dominance become symbols of their self-agency and ownership instead. The very chair in which the male celebrity lounged later becomes a throne for the girls.The girls leave no question about their message—their latest hit song was bluntly titled, “I Don’t Need a Man.”
Songs such as these suggest that there is a strong understanding of the problematic portrayals of women in media and in the K-pop industry, but for every song or video about female independence there are a plethora of songs that infantilize and subordinate women—for every step of progress, the industry seems to take two steps backward. And that isn’t to say that portrayals of men in K-pop are any healthier. Until consumers—both male and female—of K-pop champion empowered and healthier portrayals of men and women, it seems the industry will continue to produce more media that increasingly reinforce this strict division of stereotypical gender roles.
—Crimson Staff writer Soy Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.