A Phenomenon Brought Back: South Korea

South Korea, a land once buried under the mask of a forgotten war, has recently reemerged into the spotlight under a new disguise: Kpop. Despite having a language indecipherable to Anglophone ears, Kpop seeped into countries all over the world after Psy’s “Gangnam Style” reached global status as the first YouTube video to reach a billion views. Today, it is not surprising to see bars hold Kpop nights, or for American fans to gather after school to learn the latest Kpop dance craze.

This phenomenon has boosted South Korea’s economy and global status exponentially; More people than ever are taking the initiative to learn Korean and visit Korea. However, as the world feasts on the sweet melodies of Girls’ Generation and Big Bang, the treatment of women in Kpop is almost willfully ignored. Many Kpop fans find a happy escape in an exciting and unfamiliar style of music, making it difficult to recognize the blatant sexism and misogyny that scars the industry.

From the very beginning, women have been subjected to their most important value in a patriarchal society: beauty. It’s a well known fact among Kpop auditionees, that the golden ticket to fame is a pretty face and an innocent demeanor. Hanhee, an ex-member of TAHITI, mentioned in a Radiolab interview that she was invited to audition after an agency received her head shots. She admitted that she was “not the best singer”, but  the agency immediately confirmed that “it didn’t matter” to them. It is not uncommon for a Kpop band to sound less than stellar live; a video that recently went viral revealed the unprofessionalism of a girl group called Twice’s voices. However, the comments were littered with Twice fans defending the group, saying that what matters is their “look as a group” and their “personality”. The idea that one’s “look” is more important than talent or experience has become more reinforced in Korean culture today than ever. Most Korean businesses even require a picture of the applicant to be attached to the job application. Many Korean women end up spending a small fortune on professional makeup and hair just to apply for a job. As of 2013, 1 in 5 Korean women have gone under the knife in order to conform to beauty standards set by the Kpop industry. Patricia Marx sums this up well in her New York Times article “About Face”, saying that Kpop “shapes not only what music you should listen to but what you should look like while listening to it”.

In addition to the stress of maintaining a perfect face and body, women in Kpop are constantly thrown into a game where they try to find the delicate balance between appearing as the sexy fox and the innocent schoolgirl. If a member of a girl group dares look at a boy the wrong way, she risks losing her fame and the success of her group to the slanders of fans- as in the case of SNSD in 2008. Any hints at a relationship or feelings towards the opposite sex leads to the girl- only the girl– being shamed.

In a startling contrast, It is common for female stars to perform cute (“aegyo”) or sexual acts on TV shows at the bidding of the (usually) male host. No More Show has several episodes where women do explicitly sexual movements at the prompting of their male host. In addition to humiliating acts, women are constantly placed in sexually tense situations with their male costars, regardless of consent. Many shows feature flirts and kisses separated only by a sheet of paper or a strawberry, leaving the female artists particularly vulnerable to malicious verbal attack while simultaneously becoming the object of unwelcome sexual fantasies.

Gyuri, a member of KARA, revealed that she “always wears high heels, even if it hurts… because I don’t want to ruin my fans’ fantasies”. Dressed in high heels and crisp, white, schoolgirl dresses, female artists must morph into different images and personalities in order to fit a category where they can be fetishized and controlled. As one Kpop fan put it: “Those images, in almost every case you care to mention, aim to fulfill male sexual fantasies”. IU, known for her baby face and angelic voice, released a song called “23”, in which she addresses this uncomfortable and humiliating situation for women. She sings out her frustration with lyrics that reflect the hypocrisy she feels as a young woman pressured into social standards. Despite her attempt at starting a discussion on the issue, Korean culture continues to be plagued by this double standard.

There is no doubt that Kpop is fun and valuable to many people. Korea gave the world music that shows off a group of men and women who work hard to please their fans and represent their country. However, it is also undeniable that there is a deep-rooted problem of misogyny in the industry. Women are faced with problems male idols do not frequently face; sexual proposals in exchange for fame, extreme dieting, objectification, and sexual repression are all in the framework of every female Kpop artist. Because of Kpop’s growing global influence- particularly on young women- it is important to address these issues and to recognize that some aspects of Kpop may be harming women instead of empowering them.