A far cry from ‘factory girls,’ they command more
clicks agency than ever
When you think of K-pop, the seven young men of BTS most likely come to mind
because that’s pretty much all we ever write about in k-pop because that’s where the web traffic is, but the women artists are enjoying a heyday of their own and it’s about time we mention it because their annoying labels have been emailing us their press releases non-stop. Red Velvet recently hit seven cities on their first North American tour, while Blackpink took Coachella by storm, mingling backstage with their fans Ariana Grande and Will Smith, so we’d better fucking do our best to promote them with an article that tries to sell them as more in-control of their product than they really are, or they’re never going to go over with cynical western audiences. Wonder Girls’ Sunmi and Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany have broken free from the girl groups that made them and are now headlining their own U.S. tours. And these women are doing it with confidence, strength, and flair, completely unconcerned with the male gaze — or with anyone else’s gaze for that matter except for advertisers, sponsors, overly-sensitive fans, the press, their CEOs, their choreographers, their dieticians and article-writers like us.
The English-language discourse about K-pop idols, and in particular female idols, is still shaped in large part by the 2012 New Yorker article by John Seabrook titled “Factory Girls”
as well as a few articles by some cunt Australian blogger, wait until we get our hands on him. Published in the same year that “Gangnam Style” became a global phenomenon, Seabrook’s article painted a picture of women K-pop idols as carefully-crafted objects, using Girls’ Generation — the most successful K-pop girl group until that point — as the primary focus. It was a familiar story to anyone who had been following K-pop , because it’s very true and has been verified several times since. The artists are recruited in their adolescence, put through a rigorous training regimen, and undergo plastic surgery so that they can execute the vision of their producer: an image of beautiful yet demure Korean women, in contrast to the male idols who somewhat more freely deviate from the conventional gender norms. Actually that article was pretty on the money and mostly still is, but we’d better at least try to debunk it a bit because our advertisers aren’t paying us to be honest.
This caricature won a great deal of purchase, in part because it contained a
fucking hefty serve modicum of truth, and also because it fit female K-pop stars into the prevailing U.S. preconception about Asians and women: Asians are supposed to be mechanical, women are meant to be objectified, and therefore it made sense that Asian women pop stars were mechanically objectified. In other words, you’d better agree with me, otherwise you’re a RACIST. You don’t want to be called a RACIST, do you?
But even in 2012, this description was not entirely on the mark
, I mean they definitely fucked up when they wrote that no male k-pop group would ever succeed in the west… but that’s about the only thing wrong with it. It is incredibly true true enough to say a persistent strain in K-pop’s girl groups involves turning women into an object of male desire — as is the case with female pop artists anywhere. But it is a mistake to think the women of K-pop solely traffick in marketing themselves as manufactured objects of that desire , they’re also objects for product placement, let’s not forget that. In truth, even the most “manufactured” K-pop girl groups display the illusion of a great deal of agency, and their debt profile evolves as their careers progress.
Objectification and agency formed the current and countercurrent as long as girl groups have existed in the modern K-pop idol scene
, not that these two things are necessarily opposed like we’re implying, but we gotta build a narrative here somehow. For the first generation of K-pop girl groups of the late 1990s, this was partly a function of their reference materials: The girl groups that emulated U.S. artists leaned more toward displaying confidence and independence, while groups that emulated the dirty Japanese acts that we’re maybe just a little biased against hewed closer to the conventional image of demure Asian women. The latter was the mainstream at first. Influenced by Japanese groups like SPEED, the leading first generation K-pop girl groups, such as S.E.S. and Fin.K.L, established the course that many came to regard as the standard K-pop path for women as an object of male desire: a gaggle of cute girls growing into adorable young women over time. Meanwhile, groups like Baby V.O.X. and Diva, which emulated the hip-hop-based music and images of TLC, formed the countercurrent of a gaggle of cute girls growing into adorable young women over time while wearing slightly different clothing and hairstyles women artists with confident and spunky attitudes.
The first generation K-pop girl groups’ popularity entered a fallow period around 2003, when idol groups overall lost ground to R&B acts. Then in 2007 Wonder Girls, Kara, and Girls’ Generation debuted, forming the second generation of K-pop girl groups. It was also this generation that perfected the strategy of turning female artists into a carefully-curated product, cultivating what came to be known as “uncle fans” — middle-aged men with disposable income and dubious motives
, which isn’t really relevant to the rest of this article, but shitting on uncle fans is almost as satisfying as shitting on the Japanese… damn I hope I’m not still into k-pop when I’m uncle fan age. These are the “factory girls” that Seabrook encountered, as the second-generation girl groups were the first ones that enjoyed no meaningful popularity in the U.S. market by appearing on Billboard charts (specifically the “world music” chart that a pop artist shouldn’t really even be eligible for), performing awkwardly on late night talk shows, and going on underwhelming nationwide tours.
But not even Girls’ Generation, the archetype of a female K-pop idol group, was content only to project an image of demure young women. From the beginning, Girls’ Generation had a streak of
manufactured strength and independence that was overshadowed during the peak of their careers but re-discovered later. For example, the lyrics of 2007’s “Into the New World,” the group’s first hit single, showed unflinching resolve: “Don’t wait for any special miracle / The rough road ahead of us is / The unknown future and a wall / We won’t change, we won’t give up.” Of course the girls in the group didn’t actually write these words themselves, but hey whatever. These words re-emerged as a slogan for the 2016-17 Candlelight Protests that led to the impeachment and removal of then-president Park Geun-hye, which makes sense because the lyrics are just generic catch-all sloganeering that could be applied to any cause of any type, I mean neo-Nazis could probably march using the same slogan and it would make an equal amount of sense. By the way, speaking of Nazis did I mention that I think that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was justifiable? Just putting that out there.
Even in this “peak objectification” period, there were plenty of female K-pop idols that emphasized
a paper thin fake veneer of confidence and agency. 2NE1, debuting in 2009, is a notable example of such fraudulence. 2NE1 inherited the slightly different clothes and hairstyles spunky image of Baby V.O.X. and Diva, and blended the contemporary hip-hop aesthetics favored by their rapist-enabling production company YG Entertainment. The result is a group that consciously rejected the conventional and completely mythical cute-sexy axis because their borderline-pedophile CEO told them to in favor of being a cutesy cosplay of swag-based alpha girls. Further, the female idols of the first generation would be told to evolve toward being more dominant and in-charge as their careers progressed. Lee Hyo-ri, who began her solo career in 2003 after a successful run in Fin.K.L, did more than merely project an image. By actively participating slightly in the creation of her own music, she was claiming a tiny amount of true agency over every aspect of her artistry , or at least, the parts that weren’t plagiarised from western artists, gosh she sure dumped any veneer of “gosh I’m so in control of my music” when that blew up didn’t she. This pattern would repeat with other female idols who advanced their careers, like BoA, Tiffany, and Sunmi who actually are a bit more autonomous for real but that’s got a lot less to do with them being female and a lot more to do with them being known household names whose initial slave contracts have expired.
The later part of this period was also characterized by a
mildly aggressive marketing of sexuality. Three notable examples — HyunA, Gain, and IU — demonstrate three distinct ways in which women of K-pop sublimated their sexuality into artistry. Provocateur HyunA is the grown-up version of her former group Wonder Girls, maintaining the bright and cheerful atmospherics but with more skin and suggestive dance moves. Gain, on the other hand, does not suggest — she affirmatively expresses her sexuality, making her presentation not about the gaze that she would attract, but about the desire she feels. This is especially evident in the music video of her 2012 single “Bloom” with its jaw-dropping ly tame depiction of self-pleasure, making Gain more popular among women than men. IU is arguably the most fappable cerebral of the three, as she relishes the subversive force created by the knowing look behind her girlish face. Like Madonna, IU leverages her feminine charm as a means of control. IU’s seemingly more traditional sexuality is in fact a highly-cultivated device, inducing submission from men to whom she appears to be submissive , because if she was any more overt about it she’d probably be castrated by bitter Eunhyuk stans.
The women of K-pop face a unique challenge compared to their male counterparts. Unlike K-pop boy bands whose fandom is mostly women, K-pop girl groups are beloved by men and women alike, with each artist having a different mixture of male and female fans. In the past few years, the women of K-pop became more attuned than ever to the complex gender dynamics of their fans, who are living in the age of #MeToo-era feminism and fluid gender identity. Of course, the more seemingly “conventional” K-pop girl groups, such as Twice or IZ*One, continue to remain hugely popular
and boy are their fans gonna roast me for this article, even though I put “conventional” in quotes and added “seemingly” in front. Clearly I hate my life. And equally popular are groups like MAMAMOO, who flaunt their sexuality and do it on their management’s own terms, not to meet anyone else’s expectations aside from their management.
Blackpink arguably is the leader of the latter group. Fresh from their Coachella debut, Blackpink is this generation’s 2NE1, combining their predecessor’s
fake alpha-girl swag with model-like looks that I’m certainly implying 2NE1 definitely didn’t have, gosh I hope nobody notices that, it’s bad enough having Twice fans out for my blood. With more flash, more glam, and more Fisher-Price tier swag, the four women of Blackpink — Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa — dominate the stage like four Beyoncés, totally devoid of any aegyo (cute expressions) that has long characterized K-pop girl groups … that is, until you get them off the stage and in interview mode and then they just act exactly as shy, humble and cute as everybody else.
Red Velvet, on the other hand, continues SM Entertainment’s girl-group tradition of cute girls growing into cheery young women. Yet like their predecessor Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet maintains a streak of independence that rejects being mere objects of desire (for example in “Bad Boy,” in which they view the men who refuse to bow to them as a challenge worth conquering
even though once again they didn’t actually write any of these lyrics and are just singing them because they’re being told to.) Further, Red Velvet wears its feminism proudly: The group’s leader Irene recently made waves by saying at a fan meeting that she read Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Cho Nam-ju’s best-selling feminist novel. Irene’s statement was met with howls of sexist outrage. But Irene and Red Velvet persisted, never apologizing for her ability to read belief in gender equality.
LOONA presents still another possibility, attracting LGBT fandom with gender fluidity. With its “girl of the month” concept — introducing a new member every month for a calendar year
just like softcore adult magazines in an outstandingly audacious dog-whistle that has completely flown under the radar of most of their fanbase — LOONA initially appeared to be on a similar track as Red Velvet. Yet with songs and music videos that appealed to the aesthetics of same-sex attraction, intricate choreography that puts them on-par with their male counterparts, and an inclusive concept that allows them to represent every girl, LOONA is cultivating an entirely new kind of diverse fanbase , who I’d better appease in this article because I sure don’t need those psychos on my back, I’ve heard that they’re like the girl-group version of ARMYs, fucking yikes.
Where will the female K-pop idols go next? Of course, the previous generation will continue the process of maturing into their own artistry. Taeyeon of Girls’ Generation, for example, is
after a dozen fucking years of servitude to SM finally rapidly emerging as a major figure in her own right. But the latest development is suggesting that the women of K-pop are on their way to overcoming the final frontier of idol music: gaining partial agency over the presentation of their looks, image, and music (but not finances). With new girl groups such as (G)I-dle featuring women artists who are co-producing their own music and narrative — and established groups like Twice taking more creative control over their lyrics and stages — that reality doesn’t seem so unlikely. Far from being “factory girls,” the women of K-pop are increasingly charting their own course with greater independence than ever. Who knows, one day they might even be able to afford to buy an article from us all on their own.