Under 19 and full of innuendos: NewJeans controversy is latest in K-pop sexualization
The sensational debut of girl group NewJeans sparked a discussion on its alleged “Lolita” concept and accusations that the underage members have been sexualized.
Their revealing clothing and especially their new song “Cookie,” with lyrics that can be interpreted as sexual innuendo, are facing the most backlash. Korean and international listeners alike are criticizing the lyrics as “disturbing,” especially when considering the members are between 14 and 18 years old — all underage in Korea, where legal adulthood starts at 19.
In the YouTube comments section under NewJeans’s music video “Cookie,” top comments read: “It’s not that hard to give them an age-appropriate song” and “They should have waited a few years to give them a song with these lyrics.” Although the members’ outfits in the “Cookie” music video are not revealing, fans expressed their discomfort about underage singers dressed like schoolgirls singing a potentially suggestive innuendo.
A crop top worn in a selfie posted by an underage member also came under fire for featuring the phrase “pimp is yours” on it.
NewJeans's producer and creative director is Min Hee-jin, who was formally an art director at SM Entertainment and one of the forces behind Girls’ Generation, SHINee, Exo, f(x) and Red Velvet. She has issued a statement saying that she will take legal action against any false or defamatory comments made about the girl group.
The grim reality is that the case of NewJeans is merely another addition to K-pop’s long history of similar scandals. Controversies surrounding the fetishization of minors — both male and female — has a long track record in K-pop, an industry in which idols as young as 14 debuting has become the norm.
Many faces of fetishization
In the Korean entertainment industry, fetishization of minors manifests itself in many different forms: be it emphasizing an underage star’s young age or making older stars dress or behave in a childish manner. Another form, of which NewJeans is accused, is presenting underage stars in an overly mature or sexual light; dressing them in revealing clothes or making them perform suggestive choreography and lyrics.
While these manifestations all seem different, the shared underlying factor is the idealization and objectification of adolescence in Korean pop culture.
“From the days of [1970s teen duo] Bunny Girls until the K-pop girl groups of today, there has always been an ambiguous sense of desire toward young girls throughout the history of Korean pop culture,” said Dr. Kim Ye-ran, a professor at Kwangwoon University’s School of Media and Communication who specializes in ethics and gender studies.
“The exact image of how those young girls are portrayed changes depending on the era, and boys have been objectified in different ways based on gender stereotypes,” she continued.
“What’s for certain is that there is a historical track record of consuming the physical attractiveness and subconscious sexuality of teens. Praise of adolescence is in fact commonly seen in any country’s pop culture, but what’s interesting in Korea’s case is that the sentiment has been systematically established as a genre called K-pop and receives national support.”
Blatant sexualization is derogatorily referred to as “Lolita” for underage girls and “Shota” for young boys, names derived from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel of the same title and Japanese subculture. However, subtler objectification is deeply rooted in K-pop without much public awareness.
For those familiar with K-pop groups and audition shows, it is no secret that the scene always emphasizes the words “boy” (sonyeon) and “girl” (sonyeo), which in Korean has more of a connotation of actual adolescents than the English words. The popular catchphrase of Mnet’s hit audition series “Produce 101” was “Vote for your girl/boy.” The same goes for Mnet’s “Girls Planet 999: The Girls Saga” (2021), even though a significant portion of the participants were in their 20s.
Dr. Kim adds that this is also why the K-pop scene loves school uniforms, a “convenient visualization of Korean society’s ambivalent view on teens; a pure, innocent young person who is also attractive and has sexual appeal.” Originating from Japanese subculture, the school uniform look is a staple fashion piece among K-pop idols of all ages, which fans adore. It is also the default uniform on virtually every idol audition show, regardless of the contestant’s age.
Portraying a star as much younger than they actually are is not limited to singers. Notably, actors Park Bo-gum, Bae Suzy and singer IU have been criticized for photoshoots that allegedly depict them like children.
Meanwhile, in MBC’s “My Teenage Girls” (2021), all but 11 of the 83 hopefuls were indeed minors. The audition show took the school theme on full-force, similar to Mnet’s “Idol School” (2017), and featured contestants between ages 11 to 23.
The show formed girl group CLASS:y which went on to promote itself as “16 years old on average” and featured a 14-year-old member drinking powdered milk formula from a bottle on a reality show, saying that she was “still growing.”
The fact that a debuting K-pop idol is underage and extremely young becomes a concept in and of itself, as well as a marketing strength.
Notable K-pop acts that emphasized the members’ young age include boy band SHINee in 2008 (16.8 years old on average at the time of debut); girl group April in 2015 (17.5 years old); boy band NCT Dream in 2016 (15.6) and girl group CSR just last month (17).
NCT Dream was embroiled in a Shota controversy in its early days as its costumes and music videos portrayed them like elementary schoolboys, younger than they actually are.
An underage star’s age alone playing a major role in promotion is unheard of to Western audiences. But while those underage K-pop stars' youth is glamorized and objectified, they are nonetheless expected to perform not much differently from their adult colleagues in the industry. They wear the same tight-fitting, revealing stage outfits and sing love songs that convey mature sentiments.
The normalization of minors acting like adults in the K-pop scene often leads to blunders of an overly sexual concept, with the producers and sometimes even the desensitized public failing to notice its age-inappropriateness.
“K-pop fans are no longer just fellow teens, but they have expanded to include people in their 20s to 40s and even older,” said cultural studies professor Lee Gyu-tag of George Mason University Korea. “A lot of those older fans call themselves ‘auntie fans’ or ‘uncle fans’ when referring to very young singers. They stress that they’re not attracted to the underage idols in a sexual way, but liken their fanhood to raising their child, niece or nephew.
“It does make sense in Korea and Japan’s pop culture context of the public ‘raising’ a star, as seen in K-pop audition programs,” he said. “That also explains why school uniforms are widely worn and accepted in K-pop.”
While Lee says teenage members and the emphasis on youth may be inevitable since K-pop is primarily rooted in teen pop, he pointed out that the decreasing age of debuting K-pop idols and expanding age range of fans is prone to cause controversy like NewJeans’s Lolita scandal.
“What all of those aunties and uncles' true intentions are, deep inside, we’ll never know,” he said. “It’s also true that many people question what their gaze really is. But because most of the older fans believe so firmly that they don’t view their [favorite young idols] in a sexual way, I think a lot of people fail to recognize there’s a problem when the underage star is actually being sexualized.”
Thin line of expression
At the same time, experts stress that criticism toward sexualizing minors does not mean that adolescents should never express anything sexual. Rather, what society should garner from Lolita and Shota controversies is the ability to reflect on whether teen sexuality is actually respected in Korean society.
“Defining boys and girls as asexual beings is just as suppressive,” said Dr. Kim. “But the problem with K-pop eroticizing teens is not that they’re depicted as sexual beings: It’s that teen sexuality is used to generate profits while, in real life, conservative Korean society remains so oppressive toward teens and ignores important realities like sexual violence and exploitation against them.
“Teens see girl groups and boy bands wear school uniforms just like them, but they perform highly sexualized songs and dances, and get praised for it,” she continued. “How contradicting and confusing that must be for teens in real life!”
“Teens voicing their sexuality more openly is not a bad thing on its own,” said psychology professor Lim Myung-ho of Dankook University who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.
“In fact, it’s an interesting change considering Korean culture has especially suppressed young women from expressing anything sexual. But it’s a thin line, depending on the manner of expression, and whether it’s appropriate for that young star’s age range. Considering how much influence K-pop idols have on adolescents, whether intentionally or not, producers in the industry must be careful not to make underage stars do something that can be interpreted in an overly sexual way.”
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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