Shaking Up K-Pop: The Emerging Empowerment and Sexuality of Korean Girl Groups
Many K-pop girl groups lyrics and style were crafted and created to appeal to 20-something boys, but the songs they sing nowadays are trending towards empowerment and open expressions of sexuality.
BUSAN, South Korea -- Tired of “Gangnam Style” and its numerous parodies? Finding it difficult to keep track of the hordes of pretty girl groups and boy bands, many of whom can’t actually sing? Wondering why you should even bother?
Persevere. Because despite appearances, female singers are shaking up K-pop in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Leading the charge is Ga-in of the Brown Eyed Girls, who released “Bloom” as part of her mini-album Talk About S in October. Sporting blonde locks, two minutes into the video she suddenly appears in a tight red sweater, strongly resembling 1940s Hollywood actresses like Lana Turner—and just as sassy. Add leather hot pants, and you immediately sense something big is up.
And, indeed, almost before you know it, she’s masturbating on her kitchen floor.
Yes, you read that right. As Dana D’Amelio, a writer at popular K-pop site Seoulbeats puts it, the video “doesn’t just come uncomfortably close to themes of the discovery of one’s sexuality, it portrays them using visuals that are both striking and shocking. I can’t think of any other K-pop music videos that portray masturbation and sex quite so literally.”
Granted, it may sound more like pornography than anything else. And it’s also true that sex isn’t just pervasive in K-pop, but that courting a ban by the prudish Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF)—as did happen to “Bloom”—has become a common and overused method of gaining publicity.
But, for all the leg displayed in the MVs, the common theme of the lyrics is the submissiveness, timidity, innocence and/or virginity of the singers, overwhelmed by their strange new feelings for the male love interest.
With that background, it seems absurd to argue that Ga-in has in fact presented a rare vision of female empowerment here. Moreover, if you do follow K-pop, likely that’s a term you’ve heard a dozen times before.
But consider the ways in which it’s usually meant. Take it with KARA for instance, the most successful Korean group in Japan. In “Mister”, one of their most popular songs, they quite literally presented a very sexual side to themselves with their famous ondongi-choom, or “butt dance”. Yet the actual lyrics reveal that, for all the protagonist’s supposed bravado, she can never muster the courage to actually approach said “Mister”. Instead, she mentally pleads with him to pay attention to her and make the first move.
Likewise, “Gee,” “Oh!,” and “Tell Me Your Wish” are some of the most iconic and best-known songs by Girls’ Generation, flag-bearers of the Korean Wave. But, for all the leg displayed in the MVs, the common theme of the lyrics is the submissiveness, timidity, innocence and/or virginity of the singers, overwhelmed by their strange new feelings for the male love interest.
While these are just a handful of songs, and those of many other groups—most notably 2NE1—arguably provide obvious exceptions, such enfeebling themes are repeated by a significant number of others (just try a Youtube search for the term “몰라,” for instance, which means “[I] don’t know”).
What’s more, whenever you do hear that such groups are—yada yada yada—paving the way for a new generation of gutsy, emboldened Korean women, there’s a conspicuous absence of the voices of the singers themselves. Instead, you find it’s their entertainment agencies and/or the Korean government speaking for them, both with strong vested interests in projecting and maintaining such a positive image of the industry.
However, it’s not the place of this author—a slightly fat, bald, middle-aged man—to tell any young female singer or consumer what they should and shouldn’t consider empowering. And, as if to ram that point home, many K-pop commentators were surprised to learn that Girls’ Generation’s Japanese fans are actually overwhelmingly women, despite the group being specifically created for men in their 20s and 30s.
Also, one shouldn’t dismiss any female singer for pandering to the male gaze, let alone “slut-shaming” them for it. As Maria Buszek explains in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular-Culture (2006), an eye-opening tome that deserves to be much better known, unfortunately all too many feminists are very uncomfortable with women who willingly flaunt their bodies for pleasure or for profit, and especially their numerous female admirers.
With that in mind, Hyuna of 4Minute is also frequently touted as a sexy, brazen role model for young Korean women; and “Ice-Cream”, part of her mini-album Melting (released shortly after Ga-in’s), a great example of her in action. And this author is certainly not about to judge her for writhing around in a foam bath in her lingerie for the MV.
Yet one crucial difference between that and what Ga-in does is that the former is gratuitous, whereas the latter is integral to the song. As D’Amelio puts it: “Though Ga-in is directly engaged in the act of sex and pleasure itself, she emerges as the empowered one; she is a willing and equal participant in her sexuality, while HyunA is a carefully designed product intended for consumption by men and men alone.”
On top of that, the Brown Eyed Girls have a long tradition of taboo-breaking and/or social commentary in their songs too, most notably “Abracadabra”, “Sixth Sense” and “Cleansing Cream” (the lyrics to all of which were written by Kim Eana, who also wrote Sunny Hill’s ground-breaking “Grasshopper Song” and “Is the White Horse coming?”). In contrast, the record of 4Minute is much more varied, if anything sharing only a streak of narcissism.
By all means, these are (necessary) generalizations and over-simplifications, and fans of either group can certainly disagree with their characterizations of her—indeed, it is precisely the controversy, contrast, and discussion that has been generated by these and many other songs that is their most encouraging aspect. So long as that continues, then surely it won’t be much longer before the Korean public no longer tolerates the ridiculous double-standards and puritanism of MOGEF. A trend that, as discussed in a previous column for Haps, is already occurring in Korean cinema.
On that note, keep an eye out this Christmas season, when the Brown Eyed Girls will be giving the first-ever R18 concert by a girl group. Just don’t be surprised if the audience is mostly women!
James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. He can be found at his blog thegrandnarrative.com
Illustration by Matt Ferguson. You can check out more of Matt's work at his website.
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