[CRITICALLY SPEAKING: K-POP] Girl groups live in fear of anti-feminist backlash
K-pop is tough, but it may be even tougher for girl groups. The rise of feminism in Korean society, ironically, is making it harder for the girl group members because they have to take extra care so as not to cross their male fans, according to music critic Park Hee-a.
“Ever since feminism became an important issue in Korea, female K-pop artists have had to think even more carefully about their each and every action,” Park said.
“You could face years of insults and taunts just by reading the wrong book,” the critic said, referring to an incident in 2018 when Irene of girl group Red Velvet was bombarded with nasty comments when she said she recently read the feminist book “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.”
In March 2018, a fan asked Irene during a meet-and-greet what book she had recently read. The singer answered, and days later the internet was filled with angry posts calling her a feminist and showing pictures where Irene’s photo cards had been cut up or burned.
A similar case took place in 2019 with singer HA:TFELT, formerly known as Yeeun of Wonder Girls. After she publicly revealed that she is a feminist, a practically forbidden move for a K-pop figure, she was bombarded with hateful comments on her Instagram, such as “Only old and ugly female celebrities turn feminists.”
Park witnessed such events during her time as a journalist. Beginning her career at Kang Won Ilbo in 2013, she started covering K-pop in 2015 at Newsen and in 2017 joined IZE, a local pop culture magazine, until 2019. She has written four books based on her experience as a reporter, including “Interviews of K-pop Stars” (2019) and “Idol’s Studio” (2018).
“As a reporter, I saw how confident male K-pop stars were and how cautious the female stars were in comparison,” Park said. “Regardless of how society was moving, it was as if the girl groups were becoming more and more trapped by their title of ‘female idols.’"
Park sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk more about her experience as a journalist-turned-critic who reported on the industry amid the change in gender views in Korea.
The following are edited excerpts.
Q. Why do you think it’s more difficult for girl groups, compared to their male counterparts?
A. The stronger feminism grows in the society, the more girl groups will have to distance themselves from it to ease their male fans.
There are both supporters and antis of feminism, but society is so polarized that just speaking about it can send the wrong message.
If a girl group starts showing signs of being too confident or too vocal, then they immediately risk being dubbed a feminist and losing fans who are anti-feminist. Anything that seems like it's overly empowering women can be dangerous.
Feminism tells women that they can and they should be vocal about their rights, but that’s not the case for girl groups. If they do, then that’s interpreted as a symbol of distancing themselves from men. They get trapped more and more in the idolized version of women.
Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts, and girl group members can even be feminists at heart, but they can’t show it. But because your thoughts can show during interviews, I found it very hard to get girl groups to agree to have interviews compared to boy bands.
Girl groups are also often sexualized without realizing it. How should this be tackled in the industry?
The producers need to change.
Most K-pop singers start training as teenagers and they even debut before they become legal adults. They’re so desperate to debut that they say yes to almost anything that their producers tell them to do. All they care about is debuting and looking good.
Most of the times, they’re oblivious to the idea of being sexualized. But the problem is that sometimes the adult producers are, too.
Artists are trained, down to every detail — how to dance, move and even what facial expressions they should make — by the producers, and that’s why they should be the ones to make the call when something can be seen as too provocative or inappropriate.
Some fans of Le Sserafim argued that the members' outfits and choreography is too provocative, which was met with opposition from overseas fans. Where did this disparity come from?
It’s not because the overseas fans are dumb, it’s just that they don’t completely understand the social atmosphere of our local society.
What’s deemed right or wrong can vary for each community. The rules just differ, and overseas fans don’t know that the sexualization of minors is a very sensitive issue here.
Many female fans said that they felt uncomfortable after watching video clips of Le Sserafim but didn’t exactly know why. That’s because the concept had been targeted at males and disguised the overt sexuality as “feminine confidence,” though, in reality, it goes against female empowerment.
On the other hand, girl group (G)I-DLE is really pushing female empowerment to a different level. Girl group IVE also. They know what women look for these days, and they do it well.
The fact that fans can now talk about their discomfort is a good thing. They should keep sharing their thoughts, and companies should heed.
Some people think that K-pop fans fuss over trivial things when they point out things like overly exposing girl group members. Why is that so?
There has always been a prejudice against K-pop consumers that says they are teenagers who are not worth listening to. That prejudice lives on to this day, though the consumption age has risen to people in their 20s and 30s and even 40s and 50s.
It goes both ways. People belittle K-pop by saying that only teenagers like it, and they look down on teenagers saying they like K-pop because it’s a low standard of music.
The thing is, people's taste in music stops changing when they reach their 30s or 40s. Everyone believes that the music they like is best and that the younger generation is ignorant.
The older generation is also failing to catch up with the newest trend where music is no longer consumed as just audio, but also with visual stimulus. They may be used to listening to music through CDs or the radio, but the younger generation now watches YouTube and enjoys music with both their eyes and ears.
What struggles did you feel K-pop artists were fighting through when you interviewed them separately for your books?
They think a lot about how to balance between being a K-pop artist as a person and being the subject of K-pop content — the content itself.
They’re constantly asked to do more. They release albums, promote their albums and communicate with fans all as a part of their identity as a K-pop idol. And most importantly, they have to keep censoring themselves to make sure they don’t cross anyone.
But one of the biggest problems for them is that the things they say get recorded, spread and misinterpreted by everyone around the world. This tendency has gotten worse over the years with the digital era, and especially since fan meet-and-greets have been taking place online because of Covid-19.
It’s actually quite heartbreaking to see so much being demanded of them, more than they can handle. They’re always watched by everyone, and they have to consider what other people think of them every step in their lives.
It’s really no wonder that they become exhausted with each event that takes place.
Does that mean it’s wrong for fans to be disappointed when stars are found to have made mistakes?
No. There are times, of course, when fans can go over the top, but celebrities need to look back on how they intended to come across to the fans.
In a way, I pity the fans for being criticized all the time. Stars want fans to think that they’re nice, moral, friendly and sincere. So it’s not fans’ fault for believing what they’ve been told to believe.
K-pop artists intentionally make themselves seem like close friends or say things that are borderline-lover material, because that’s what fans get attached to.
You can’t expect someone to believe one thing and not be disappointed when they find it to be something completely different.
So if there comes a time when stars are criticized for the things they say or the way they’ve behaved, they themselves have to look back at how they’ve displayed themselves to the public.
How do you think the artists need to react? Do they need to push themselves to explore different fields like writing music?
Many people still refuse to call K-pop idols artists because they don’t write their own music or take initiative in other ways, so the idols try to escape that by working hard to produce music and prove themselves as creators.
But I believe, on the contrary, that they should stick to what they’re good at and be proud of the fact that they’re carrying out what others have made for them — because people keep neglecting the fact that it’s not easy doing everything you’re told to.
Who said that K-pop artists should be able to make and produce their own music? They’re not meant for that, and they shouldn’t be judged by that criteria.
Being able to digest what others give you is a talent in itself. People tend to have a very narrow definition of what a musician is, but K-pop idols are a different kind of artist that needs to be treated accordingly.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]