Girls’ Generation has a boy and some serious gender troubles
‘I Got A Boy’ is the first music video I watched in 2013 and, honestly, it didn’t set the bar very high for the rest of the year. If you haven’t seen it yet I suggest you watch it before reading this. Here is a version with subtitles:
Musically, I have to say I appreciate the intentions of this song. Split into several parts following different narratives, it seems to be trying to be some kind of electro-pop, dubstep-infused rock opera of sorts and parts of it do work. The final chorus is really interesting with earlier parts being riffed over the top to bring the whole thing together at the end. However, mainly due to the production, the song falls apart in several places throughout and leaves the listener feeling a bit lost. But points for effort, SM, this is not your standard K-pop track. I would definitely like to see more of this kind of risk-taking in K-pop in general.
So if this is a rock opera, and I use that in the very loosest sense of the word, what is it about? Well supposedly, ‘girl talk’, as in the stuff that women talk about with each other. More accurately it is girls talking about men, talking about their appearance and how they should use it to impress men, bitching about and competing with other girls for men and fantasising about men. Why, I hear you say, this song is not about girls at all! It is completely about men! It’s as if the only reason these women, because really they are not girls anymore, exist is to think about and look pretty for men. This is not any kind of exaggeration, there is actually a line that states ‘우리 최고 관심사 다 다’ which translates along the lines of ‘[Men are] our biggest interest, everything, everything’.
It says it right there in the song. Which is written by a man, coincidentally (well the lyrics anyway).
Now of course this song is called ‘I Got A Boy’ and I am more than aware of Girls’ Generation lyrical track history so I wasn’t expecting a female empowerment anthem, as has, thankfully, become more in vogue in the past year. However, I was still shocked by how blatantly this song flaunts it’s reductionist, and frankly insulting, view of women. By using a more complex song structure to tell more stories and show more points of view, this song manages to create an even worse image of young women than songs like ‘Oh!’ by the sheer number of negative portrayals. Both the video and the song consistently portray women in numerous different examples as vain, petty, manipulative and incompetent.
The song begins by reaffirming the tired old trope that all women are constantly in competition with each other for the attention of men. In the first section of the song, two members, with a dismissive ‘Omo’ (think ‘Oh my gosh!’) from all round, discuss changes in an unseen woman’s appearance and wonder about it’s cause. I say ‘woman’, the noun used is ‘얘’ which I’m told, by my Korean teacher, is a shortened form of ‘이 아이’ meaning ‘this child’ infantilising both the speaker and the subject and enforcing the idea that women should be valued solely for their youth and therefore should act like children. The criticism is continued in the next verse with lines like ‘She became so pretty and sexy, it’s because of that guy right?’ effectively answering the earlier question surrounding why ‘she’ changed her appearance.
After this it moves into fairly standard theme for Girls’ Generation: being rendered unable to function at the very thought of a man (‘I got dizzy just by talking to him’) and then into a lyrically predictable chorus reminiscent of earlier singles:
I got a boy, cool! I got a boy, kind! I got a boy, handsome boy who completely stole my heart
I got a boy, cool! I got a boy, kind! I got a boy, awesome boy, I think I completely fell for him
Why lyrics like these are so problematic has been covered before better than I could explain but I will say that presenting the group as ‘aegyo girl’ child-women has a negative impact on the viewer’s ability to see these women as full human beings and reinforces the idea, particularly prevalent in South Korea with it’s big gender gap, that women are incapable and inferior to men. The one section in this song that particularly struck me as reinforcing this idea is when they call for their prince to come and save them. On one level the use of more formal polite language is a clever and playful way of marking the new section of the song and Taeyeon, who is an extremely capable performer, pulls this break off perfectly. However it also reinforces the notion that women are just waiting for a socially-superior man to come along and save them, their knight in shining armour. The reference to herself as ‘이 몸’ (‘this body’) is also troubling, while he is the ruler of a land she has not even made it to the status of person, resigning herself to just being a body.
When we finally see the members interact with each, remember this song is about ‘girl talk’, it is in the form of some very troubling ‘friendly’ advice. With a highly melodramatic exclamation of ‘멘붕이야!’ (a slang term which literally means ‘it’s a mental collapse!’) Yoona, who is often held up as the pinnacle of Korean beauty, frets about whether she should show her boyfriend her makeup-less face. The advice, ‘Oh! Of course you can’t!’ ‘Let’s protect what we should protect!’ ‘Until we have his whole heart, don’t ever forget this!’, with choruses of agreement from all the other members, is astoundingly terrible. It reminded me of a famous line from mother to daughter in ‘The Glass Menagerie’: ‘all pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap’, the idea that women must use their looks to somehow trick a man into loving them. Even in this play (written in 1944) this advice is shown as of a negative product of past time and yet here it is again in 2012 being glorified! This is straight-up telling young women that the only way to ‘get a boy’ is to hide their inferior natural selves and create a false more-perfected version of themselves to lure a man into their trap. It also creates the idea of ‘the battle of the sexes’ telling both men and women that they cannot trust each other.
On top of the lyrics, the video portrays these women as consistently childish and incompetent – Tiffany cannot eat without making a mess, Yuri is made ecstatically happy by a ridiculously oversized teddy bear, Seohyun is unable to tie her own shoelaces and Hyoyeon throws a toddler-esque temper tantrum because her boyfriend is slightly late. They are also, most worryingly, styled and filmed to look like dolls throughout with a particularly creepy close-up of Tiffany’s face which is oddly still and robotic with dead-looking eyes and Sooyoung dressed in a nightdress and oversized hair bow. Sunny’s boy even gets to paint her nails, just like playing with a real doll!
The simplistic representation of women in this video as incompetent, vain and catty is an insult to everyone. It presents ideas which have very real and far-reaching consequences in the way women are viewed in a society which is still deeply unequal, especially as they are Korea’s top girl group and are often held up to both young women and young men as the ultimate symbol of modern Korean femininity. Outside of Korea, it also has the potential to present damaging ideas to a young and mostly female fanbase. Most of all though, it is an insult to the members of Girls’ Generation, all of whom must be hard-working, driven and talented in order to have come this far. Their strength as performers is clear from their live performance which actually holds the song together much better than the studio version due to their precision and on-stage energy. They are a very hard-working, influential group of young women and giving them concepts like this reduces them to vacuous, pretty faces, shows a deep disrespect to them both as professionals and people and creates an example for how women should be valued which negatively impacts them and potentially all other women in society.