By: Katie Evans
Back in 2008, in the dark days before 1080p YouTube videos, I watched Girls’ Generation’s “Kissing You” video for the first time. I didn’t know the group, let alone care about them—I was a new Super Junior fan eager to watch Donghae’s cameo—but the cheesy sets and fairy-tale outfits quickly won me over. After years of choosing to listen to all-male bands, it was refreshing to see and hear girls my age that I could relate to. By the time “Genie” came out, I was a full-fledged superfan.
It didn’t take me long to find out that being a girl group fan—or a fan of any female artist in the K-Pop world—was vastly different than supporting a male group. While the pelvic thrusts and shirt-ripping of male groups like Big Bang and 2PM were lauded in the online K-Pop communities I frequented, “Genie” drew criticism for having a “simple” dance designed to show off SNSD’s legs. When “Oh!” came out six months later, the girls were suddenly “too infantile.” Instead of having fun, I spent most of my early fandom days on the defensive.
In this way, being a socially conscious fan of female artists reflects, on a smaller scale, the experience of being a woman in modern society—constantly defending yourself and others from sexist criticism while fighting for your voice and place in the world. Last decade, I didn’t yet have the vocabulary or education to dissect the misogyny in K-Pop and its fandom. I do now. The standards and fandom attitudes surrounding female Korean artists are undeniably harmful—and easy to expose.
The “Cute-Sexy” Dichotomy
In the six years I’ve listened to K-Pop, criticism of female artists almost always comes back to the virgin-whore dichotomy—the categorization of women into two distinct groups, neither of them positive (if you truly think purity is valued in our society, consider how Western women mock virgins and decry Muslim women as “repressed”). In “Gee” and their previous singles, SNSD were too “cutesy”, but in “Genie” they were too “slutty.” “Oh!”’s combination of a cute song with “coy”, sexy choreography was doubly reviled, as it didn’t fit neatly into either category.
With girl groups switching concepts rapidly to keep up with trends (think Girl’s Day’s transformation from “Don’t Forget Me” to “Expectation”), the criticism gets louder, as fans express their disappointment at groups growing either too sexy or too childlike. Some fans believe modest or cute concepts and songs “oppress” female artists by not allowing them to express their sexuality, while others believe sexy concepts encourage men to objectify women, putting them at a higher risk of sexual assault. Both of these ideas are ridiculous, but they expose the limited ways we allow ourselves to think about female artists.
The Korean government, too, often involves itself in this debate. In January, they warned broadcast stations to tone down sexual performances, specifically calling out girl groups such as AOA and Dal Shabet—no word on whether 2PM would still be allowed to strip. Songs, videos, and choreographies are banned nearly every day, but the reasoning behind these decisions are widely different. Male artists receive bans for violence, drug use, language, and even traffic violations, while female artists are disproportionately targeted for “provocative” choreography (Rainbow Blaxx’s “Cha Cha” and 4minute’s “Mirror, Mirror” to name just two), “revealing” clothing (Rainbow’s “A”), or sexual innuendo and scenes (Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra”, most memorably). U-KISS made waves recently when their “Quit Playing” choreography met the banhammer —because they were dancing too provocatively with their female backup dancers. Men can move and dress as sexually as they want, so long as they keep a safe distance from women, or so the government seems to think.
It doesn’t matter whether you think your favorite group is more suited to a cute or sexy image, or whether or not you approve of someone’s latest choreography. By censoring and criticizing female artists with these labels in mind, we restrict the ways we can view women in society, and, more importantly, how women view themselves. No one fits one category, and to push categories onto women is to treat them as less than human, as dolls that we mold into one-note characters to avoid confronting the reality that women are just as layered as men.
Tags: 4minute AOA Bad Girl Good Girl: The K-pop Fandom's Sexism Problem Girls' Generation Katie Evans miss A Super Junior U-KISS