It has been almost seven years since the world first grooved to the highly-addictive Korean song, “Gangnam Style” by PSY. In the intervening years, the Korean Wave or Hallyu has dominated the global music scene in a major way. From BTS to Blackpink – female and male K-Pop singers have hordes of loyal fans. However, a glaring controversy that has always marred the exponential success of the K-pop industry is the sexualisation of female K-pop singers in videos, music posters, and performances.
Recently, the same issue came to the fore once more when fans expressed outrage over the sexualisation of nurses in Blackpink’s recently released music video for the song “Lovesick Girls”. The video features Blackpink member Jennie playing a nurse dressed in a tight, short skirt, and high heels. The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union, too, condemned the video for its unnecessary sexual objectification of nurses. Meanwhile, the group’s agency defended its intentions and but eventually deleted the scene in question. However, this incident is not an isolated one. The K-pop industry has a long and consistent track record of objectifying and sexualising its female members.
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A Brief History Of Female K-Pop Singers
The covert hyper-sexualisation of female K-pop groups finds its roots in the earliest icons of the industry – S.E.S, Fin.K.L, Baby V.O.X., and Diva. Most of these bands followed two opposing schools of thought: some copied the west and came across as confident, spunky performers who were comfortable with their sexuality while some emulated Japanese groups and exemplified the demure Asian woman. The latter lot more or less set the standard in the industry and gratified the male gaze with its conventional yet coquettish image and acts.
Female K-Pop Singers As Sexual Dolls
K-pop singers are often termed as ‘idols’. This culture of idolatry reduces the female K-pop singers to stage ‘dolls’ that have to conform to Korea’s naturally unattainable standards of beauty through invasive plastic surgeries. A 2012 New Yorker article, titled “Factory Girls“, detailed female K-pop idols as carefully manufactured objects. It has long been surmised that the K-pop industry suffers from a Lolita Complex vis a vis its female members. The complex refers to sexual attraction towards pubescent girls and that’s exactly how female K-pop singers are presented as – sexualised, but innocent dolls, with tons of aegyo to ‘titillate’ misogynistic fans.
There is a whole generation of female K-pop singers that is said to have strived for and garnered ‘uncle fans’ – old men with lots of money to spare. Girl’s Generation is supposed to be a prime example from this phase. Hyuna, a famous female K-pop idol was marketed as a ‘sexy girl’ when she debuted as a part of the group Wonder Girls at the age of thirteen. Propagation of this borderline pedophiliac fantasy is precisely why South Korean music agencies recruit twelve-to-nineteen-year-old girls who train in a highly controlling idol-making system for most of their performative years. This paradoxical image of women K-pop singers is a microcosmic representation of the pervasive sexism and patriarchy in South Korea.
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Covert Sexualisation Of Female K-Pop Idols
Perpetuating the extremely problematic adage of ‘sex sells’, the industry also promotes some covert sexualisation techniques. These include featuring provocatively dressed female background dancers performing suggestive dance moves in almost every K-pop video, whatever the theme of the song may be. Agreed, this problem is one that afflicts the global entertainment industry. However, as mentioned above, what makes this phenomenon particularly lethal in K-pop is that these women are almost caricatured as little girls to gratify the unsuspecting male gaze.
Research has also stated that certain Korean music broadcasting shows objectify female idol singers by using camera techniques that draw attention to the singers’ exposed body parts. Kevin Crawley, a professor of East Asian studies at an Ireland-based university, told The Korea Times that while female K-pop idols are told to dance and dress provocatively, they are also expected to conform to Confucian sexual conduct norms. In simpler words, South Korean women singers are expected to be Virgin Mary prototypes and have a teasing kind of sexual appeal.
Changing The Narrative
There is yet a ray of hope amidst these bleak facts. Certain women K-pop groups like MAMAMOO do flaunt their sexuality in their videos and performances, but they do so on their own terms. Blackpink, too, displays a kind of alpha-girl swag on stage: brimming with oomph and confidence. LOONA uses gender-fluid aesthetics in most of its videos, thereby simultaneously doing away with sexist representations and promoting inclusivity. With such subversive actions, one can only hope that the women of K-pop can achieve the one thing that has eluded them till now: female agency. [Image by Spinditty]
Picture Credits: The Guardian / Views expressed are the author’s own