Hold Up, What Do We Even Mean By “Feminism” in K-pop?
Lately, in response to the moral assault that was Girls Day’s “Female President” there has been a peak in discussion again about what feminist representations we should be expecting from K-pop girl groups. This of course is a valuable conversation to be having, but the last few articles I have read have been throwing the “F” word around in a very confusing way. Some want to claim that an idol is a feminist when they are actively pursuing their sexuality and doing whatever they want, others want to say that idols can’t ever be feminist because men are the ones in charge. The question that comes to my mind when I hear these claims though is – what are we even talking about when we call an idol group “feminist” in the first place? What does “feminism” even mean when we talk about K-pop?
First of all, are we talking about South Korean feminism or Western liberal feminism? Are we talking about feminism for lower, middle or upper class women? For old women or young women? Are we talking about feminism that empowers international fans or empowers idols? All of these are different issues and have differing, equally complex histories and contexts. Feminism isn’t a universal label that you can slap on to any behaviour relating to all women. In its essence it is the study of how women and men are implicated in power structures that serve to shape their experience in society. To be a feminist is to understand how this power structure can serve to disempower women and to want take issue with that. There is still a huge misunderstanding that only women can be feminists (and some radical feminists would still agree with that) but men can identify as feminists too if they are against the injustice in the kinds of power that men have simply because of their sex. What people think those injustices are and how feminists choose to respond to these injustices is incredibly diverse – there is no single “feminist” way of acting.
So what does the oppression of women look like in K-pop and what has pole art, female Presidents and Gain’s simulated masturbation really got to do with changing it? These are really complicated questions and they have to do with how power is written into Korean society. The effect of “Female President” or “First Love” ripples across South Korean society in all different ways for women and men experiencing a range of different power relations in their day to day lives. Even if sexualisation in K-pop might empower people of one demographic, it might be off the backs of a less powerful group of people. For example, the explicit sexualisation in After School’s “First Love” video might empower some highschool girls to feel more comfortable with their sexuality but I’m curious what it does for the estimated one million women actually working in South Korea’s sex industry. How much can we call the empowerment of one group of women over another group of women a feminist victory? On top of that, these videos are also seen by international fans from within their own cultural context and their interpretation of what power looks like is mixed into how they read South Korean feminist issues. Some of us might say that South Korea is conservative or even “backward” when it comes to gender equality. I don’t know about your country but my country did not have to go through colonisation, a civil war and a military dictatorship in the last hundred years. If we really want to discuss how South Korean society is changing right now then we need to strive for a systematic and in depth feminist analysis that can account for the complexities at hand.
Then there’s also the issue of power within the industry. If being a feminist idol means having more control over your image and your career then we also need to take into account how important seniority is to gaining power in the industry. Most of the idols that we have seen gain a lot more independence – Lee Hyori, BoA (who is a substantial shareholder in SM entertainment and is supposedly third in line after Kangta and Yoo Young Jin) and the “adult idol group” Brown Eyed Girls – are all well over the average age of most idol groups. One way to look critically at the exploitation of idols then is to factor in how much the age structure influences social relations in South Korea. Idols (male and female) have to endure a lot of disciplinary measures from their management companies because of their age, they can’t just make demands for themselves without also challenging the very fabric of the country’s Neo-Confucianist roots. This is just one example of a South Korean feminist issue that we just don’t have to think about as much when we consider feminism in the West.
Feminism is misunderstood enough as it is in pop culture these days, so all I ask is that we are a bit more sensitive towards dropping a word like “feminist” into an argument as if feminist matters are universal and homogenous. So, really, who are we talking about when we say we shouldn’t find feminist heroes in K-pop? And again, who are we talking about when we say that aggressive displays of sexuality are empowering “women” and serving “feminist” purposes? And more importantly, how much do we know about Korean society and Korean feminism to really answer these questions?
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