Bad Girl, Good Girl: The K-pop Fandom’s Sexism Problem – The Fanservice Myth

By: Katie Evans
moonROK Editorialist

 

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 Fanservice Myth

From the onset of puberty onward, the perceived “authenticity” of a girl becomes increasingly important. Girls who dress certain ways, wear makeup, or even develop interests in so-called “boys’” hobbies are ridiculed by other girls and boys alike for “pandering” to men’s appetites. If you believe every Reddit thread you read, girls who like sports, comics, or skintight dresses are “faking” their interests to get dates—it’s impossible to fathom that a girl acts for herself, or, even more shockingly, for the attention of other women. The “Fake Geek Girl” is the ultimate sexist Internet meme.

Authenticity is probably the biggest concern among K-Pop fans. MR removed performances from music shows pop up within hours to determine the musical talent of artists, while other fans dissect interviews and reality shows to see if their group are truly best friends or just acting for the camera. The perceived loss of this authenticity can be fatal—look at T-ARA’s career after Hwayoung’s departure. And for female artists, authenticity is not just talent or friendship, but a constant question: “Is this song just pandering to men?”

In girl group fandoms, saying a group dresses, performs, and exists solely for the entertainment of deprived military men or perverted ahjusshis is the ultimate insult, and it’s thrown around lightly. Orange Caramel’s cute clothes? Fanservice. Girl’s Day’s sexy choreography? Also fanservice. Any concept on the cute-sexy spectrum can be twisted to argue that it’s feeding a certain fetish. Fans also point to the abundance of deep voices in broadcast fanchants and the use of “oppa” in songs to “prove” that female artists exist only to please a male audience. I’ve seen the existence of female fans of girl groups repeatedly denied to fit this idea.

 

Is it true that female artists have and pay attention to male fans? Absolutely. But if you want a real example of “pandering”, look no further than boy bands. Male groups, with rare exceptions, are designed to appeal to a “niche” audience—in other words, teenage girls. Groups like B.A.P. and BTS may have a “manly” image, but unlike the power of superheroes, designed to strike envy in male viewers, the manliness of K-Pop groups is inherently sexual and strictly for the female gaze. In fact, male fans of boy bands are so rare that they receive unique attention from the idols themselves (Check out these pictures of EXO’s D.O. excitedly greeting fanboys). SHINee’s longtime partnership with Etude House is just one of many examples of male artists endorsing cosmetic companies to sell products to women. Studies show that teenage girls are some of the largest consumers, and so it’s no coincidence that male groups not only have increasingly elaborate album packaging, but also that their physical sales usually far outweigh their digital sales. Focusing intently on one consumer group may seem like a risky business model, but as groups like Super Junior, EXO, and B.A.P. show, it’s one that can reap enormous benefits—and avoid criticism.

 

Girl groups, on the other hand, are designed and expected to appeal to everyone. Like male groups, they endorse female-targeted products such as makeup and clothes, as well as “general” products such as chicken and alcohol. Some girl group endorsements, including 4minute’s endorsements of video games, are implicitly male-targeted, but I’ve never seen a female artist advertise something explicitly deemed “male only” like boxers or condoms. The clothes, hairstyles, and makeup female artists wear may appeal to heterosexual men, but more importantly, they inspire envy and replication among girls and women. Soshified and other girl group fansites have whole style sections dedicated to finding and recreating their idols’ famous looks. When I attended performances and concerts in Seoul, I met several other girls who saw G.NA and other female idols as “cool big sisters” to admire and emulate. The idea that female artists exist just for male pleasure is just a myth designed to attack their “authenticity” and encourage sexist criticism. Are there female artists that try to appeal to male tastes? Yes. But, unlike male groups, they don’t exclusively target one demographic.

And, really, would BoA have declared “Girls On Top” if female artists were “just for boys”?

All visual and audio media courtesy of their respective owners
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1 Comment
  1. ot94ever 7 years ago
    Couldn’t agree more. Finally someone has some sense about the whole “sexualization” thing in K-pop… I know the feeling of being on the defense all the time, when you first come into the K-pop fandom, too…

    (Btw, what video games did 4minute promote?)

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