Written by Lina Han
Five years ago, I visited Korea as part of a cultural program where I spent several days immersed in a South Korean high school regimen. Classes were heavily lecture-based with minimal interaction between the professor and her students. I saw my former self in these students – just five years prior, I could have counted myself among them – and yet oddly, I felt like an outsider in my own country. The classes were divided by gender, and among pale students in standardized school uniforms, my long permed hair, tanned skin, and manicured fingernails felt grossly out of place. We all had nicknames for each other – mine being ‘English-girl’ – which I initially thought was endearing, until I noticed that some nicknames were less well-intentioned. ‘Fatso,’ ‘Whale,’ ‘Pimple’; I would always ask them why they would say such terrible things, as the girls laughed and shrugged it off.
In South Korea, the idea that beauty is only skin-deep is relatively alien. With the K-pop industry laden with plastic surgery, the infantilization of women, gender-based stereotypes, slut-shaming, and, most importantly, a lack of agency, teenagers grow up projecting this appearance onto themselves and others.
Once people find out I’m Korean, I’m usually met with one of these three reactions – “Annyeong!”; “I love K-pop!”; or, from time to time, “North or South?”
The second response intrigues me. The first time I heard this in Canada was the first time I reflected on the role of K-pop in my South Korean identity.
Behind catchy tunes, seemingly innocuous advertisements, and legions of adoring fans across the globe, K-pop – a generic term that means ‘popular music of Korea’ – is a multi-billion-dollar industry that garners outrageous profits from exploiting musical artists. Backed by the South Korean government, K-pop is a male-dominated institution, including CEOs of entertainment giants, broadcasting officials, record label companies, talent recruiters, and governing boards.
Being a K-pop star, known as an ‘idol’, is a highly romanticized dream career for teenagers in Korea. However, there is a dark side to all the glamour and glitz. As the industry markets the idol, not the music, K-pop continues to commodify, standardize, and legally enslave both men and women in the industry.
Once recruited, future idols as young as 12 or 13 years old sign restrictive, binding contracts that can last over a decade. These contracts dictate their diet, clothing choices, behavior, and love lives – sales are more lucrative for single performers because it preserves fans’ romantic delusions.
Some agencies monitor the use of mobile phones, forbid idols from contacting their family and friends, and limit social interactions. Others pressure artists to keep performing even in the event of a medical emergency. Often, companies prescribe a personality to each idol – an ‘idol persona’ – as part of their marketing strategy. This lack of personal freedom and privacy is permanent, as this standard extends even to retiredidols. These Korean talents’ lives become reduced to a strategic promotional tool to make money.
K-pop, like other entertainment industries across the world, is a business. Label companies will choose concepts and marketing strategies based on their respective predicted profit margins. However, as these idols’ lives are controlled with an iron fist to further promote this narrow construct of ‘beauty,’ these actions carry implications that extend far beyond the industry.
When I’m asked – and I’m asked more than I’d like – if I had undergone double eye-lid surgery, a common procedure that makes eyes look fuller – it’s a reminder of how normalized plastic surgery has become in Korean society.
Currently, South Korea is the suicide capital of the world, with a beauty industry fraught with excess demand for plastic surgery and skin lightening or bleaching cosmetics. Where western artists struggle to mark their own brand, K-pop seems to embrace homogeneity, from fashion to overall appearance. The well-oiled K-pop machine has a lasting negative impact on the mental health of both idols and fans.
Other implications transcend international borders. K-pop culture helps perpetrate the stereotype of Asian females being submissive and docile – yes, I’m referring to ‘yellow fever’ – and no, that’s different from ‘having a type’. Dictating how women should behave boxes them into these stereotypes.
For instance, when I was 14, I attended a language school to improve my French. As my French was improving and I was making friends in the class, I became increasingly open with my classmates and the teacher. I remember one class the teacher telling me, “It’s funny, before I met you, I thought all Asians were really quiet and shy. You clearly are an exception.” I’d never thought that I would be grouped alongside 4 billion other Asians, my individuality having been reduced to my race.
Having the stereotype projected onto me was a reminder of what K-pop normalizes. Rather than marketing the idol, it’s important to be mindful of promotional tools that market the music.
With the above said, there exist flexible agencies and independent artists who produce empowering songs in South Korea. I am proud of how a part of my heritage has garnered global audiences and how the globalization of pop cultures and styles has played a role in not only diversifying music, but has also led to increased tolerance and respect for other cultures and races. Not long ago, Gangnam Style was the song that brought K-pop to the world stage; nowadays, I’m glad that more Korean idols and their music – which shape K-pop better than PSY alone – are starting to gain international coverage.
Fortunately, there has been a recent feminist shift in this industry in South Korea. I feel a surge of pride and empowerment when groups like miss A, BLACKPINK and 2NE1, reach out to female audiences to empower and cater to their own charms and talents. Female hip hop veterans like Yoon Mi Rae/ Tasha Reid and Lexy have also been utilizing music to shed light on female empowerment. Having been born and brought up in Korea, I’m proud of how far we’ve come. With that said, K-pop is still over-saturated with artists who are molded into the K-pop ideal image. We should be critical of the new feminist movement in the K-pop industry to ensure that it is not used to mask the deep-rooted issues within the entertainment industry, and to ensure that it doesn’t commodify feminism to achieve the same purpose.
This is one of the reasons why I interned for JASS (Just Associates), an NGO that proudly and explicitly states its feminist roots and works to create safe spaces, change social norms and attitudes, and empower women through organizing, generating knowledge, and equipping women leaders and activists to act collectively for justice. It was my first experience at a non-profit organization, and it is at JASS that I fully came to understand the added layers of oppression we face as women.
In the case of Korean pop culture, a lot of what I’ve said applies to both male and female idols. However, slut-shaming and infantilization of female pop idols – on top of general misogyny in South Korea – are just some of the ways that the unique identities of female idols are being repressed. Women should be free to feel sexy and comfortable in their own skin and to express that in any manner they choose, but the difference here is the lack of agency and how it’s being used as a strategic tool to garner profits.
In spite of its misgivings, Korea’s music scene is rich and diverse, from rock, to hip hop, to indie, and even reggae. K-pop seems to be the music that the worldassociates Korea’s music scene with, but in time I hope that the world will catch onto other Korean music genres as well.
Much of K-pop industry’s norms and practices translate to real-life applications. My last day at the Korean high school five years ago was bittersweet, as I said my goodbyes to my friends so I can visit my halmoni, my grandmother in Busan who raised me in Korea until the age of 10. The students had penned emotional hand-written letters to me and had gifted me souvenirs like quirky Totoro socks and dried seaweed. One letter was from my friend who was nicknamed ‘Fatso.’ In the letter, three pages long and written in beautiful flowing scripts and minutely detailed characters, she spoke of her appreciation for me standing up for her. It was a stark reminder of how K-pop’s narrow construct of womanhood affects women so deeply and helps to sustain patriarchy.
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