“When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy, when women are oppressed, it’s tradition.”- Letty Pogrebin”
Someone is watching you.
On 21st March 2019, Korean singer and actor Jung Joon Young was arrested for distributing sex videos without consent to his friends, one of them being a member of Bigbang, a popular kpop group. The way these men objectified and joked about women brought attention to the way women are treated in the industry. This, and other similar cases, have prompted more and more South Korean women to demand changes.
Kpop – a global musical phenomenon with millions of fans across the globe – is a prime example of gender inequality. Female singers are expected to conform to the music industry’s unspoken rules regarding their appearance, behavior and performances. However, many don’t realize the exploitation these girls go through just for the industry to earn ridiculous profits. Kevin Cawley, a professor of East Asian studies at University College Cork of Ireland, mentioned that “most kpop videos portray women as sex objects”. This is evident in Jay Park’s “Mommae” music video, where he is portrayed as the dominant figure, while girls wearing next to nothing are all over him. Causing a lot of controversy due to its highly sexual content, he still managed to get away with it simply because he is Jay Park – a Korean American with an open and liberal image.
I’m too fat.
This is a saying popular among South Korean girls as they are constantly weighed down by society’s unrealistic beauty standards. Soo Min Kim, 2018’s Miss Korea for example, was ridiculed for being too fat, as she weighed 58.9 kilos instead of “the ideal 47-48 kilos”. It is no surprise that Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, with “1 in 3 South Korean women between 19 and 29 having plastic surgery”.
Unfortunately, this uncomfortable, demeaning image fits with the traditional Korean perception of women as being ultra-feminine. Because of that, it sells. There is a wide paying audience, which in turn allows companies to earn more money. As a result, it perpetuates a negative portrayal of women. Why would businessmen stray away from an idea that allows them to earn millions?
However, girl groups such as blackpink and G-idle are starting to disprove that it is necessary to be cute and submissive. They project female empowerment. The fact that Blackpink’s music video “Ddu Du Ddu Du” gained the most views ever in kpop history shows the increasing popularity of these empowered women image. Other idols like “Hwasa” are also going against the stereotypical views of Korean women by embracing a curvy body instead of the typical “stick skinny” figure. Unfortunately they are still rarities.
Of course men face tough pressures too. Generally, the music industry requires them to be tall, have slim and toned bodies, and dashing good looks. However men seem to enjoy greater leeway. Not long ago, Korea started to celebrate men who exhibited soft masculinity, a slightly more feminine version of their usual stereotype. They are referred to as “flower boys”, with their innocent, pretty faces and softer personalities. Furthermore, many male singers like “Hyukoh” and “Loco” have become successful despite having unconventional, non-mainstream appearances. Girls on the other hand, aren’t as lucky with escaping their rigid stereotypes. Korean idol “Amber” has received endless hate ever since she debuted for being “too” masculine and wearing tomboyish athletic clothes. Also, ever since her group disbanded, she has struggled to become successful in the industry due to the stigma that still lingers around a tomboy image. No doubt there are expectations for male singers, but they pale in comparison to the burdens placed on female singers.
Recently, campaigns such as the “Me Too movement” which highlights sexual abuse have taken Korea by storm due to the country’s growing feminist movement. These have been due to unfortunate events such as the suicide of actress Jang Ja Yeon who had been forced by her agent to have sex with powerful men.
So why is it that, in this modern and advanced country where people are exposed to liberal thinking, a traditional and male oriented society still exists? Why is it that despite all these feminist movements in Korea, women are still portrayed as submissive to men? Education is the answer. It will be difficult to overcome but it is important for Korean women to know their worth as equals, and to demand equal treatment. It would help if big stars from the industry speak out about these issues just like the brave women who spoke up in America too. Sadly, this inequality seems to be so deeply ingrained in Korean society that it would take a huge effort to overcome it.
- Herman, Tamar. “BLACKPINK’s ‘Ddu-Du Ddu-Du’ Becomes Most-Viewed Music Video From a K-Pop Group on YouTube.” Billboard, 23 Jan. 2019, www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8494591/blackpink-ddu-du-ddu-du-most-viewed-music-video-kpop-youtube.
- Jacobs, Harrison. “People Have the Wrong Idea about the 3 Most Popular Procedures in South Korea, the Plastic Surgery Capital of the World.” Business Insider Malaysia, 28 June 2018, www.businessinsider.my/south-korea-plastic-surgery-gangnam-biggest-misconception-2018-6/?r=US&IR=T.
- Jeong, Sophie, and James Griffiths. “Hundreds of South Korean Motel Guests Were Secretly Filmed and Live-Streamed Online.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Mar. 2019, edition.cnn.com/2019/03/20/asia/south-korea-hotel-spy-cam-intl/index.html.
- Kang, Hyun Kyung. “Is Psy’s ‘Gentleman’ Sexist?” Koreatimes, 8 May 2013, www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2013/08/116_135258.html.
- Lee, Nicola Smith; Junho. “South Korean Women Fear Acid Attacks in Backlash over Rights Protests.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 2 Sept. 2018, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/02/south-korean-women-fear-acid-attacks-backlash-rights-protests/.
- Park, Steven, director. Meet The Controversial Winner of Miss Korea 2018 . Meet The Controversial Winner of Miss Korea 2018 , YouTube, 23 Mar. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygVxTTKWvdA.
- Asher, Saira. “Flowerboys and the Appeal of ‘Soft Masculinity’ in South Korea.” BBC News, BBC, 5 Sept. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42499809.