Muse-gate: Is Jonghyun a misogynist? No, probably not.
SHINee’s Jonghyun sparked some controversy and debate with a remark he made about women on his MBC radio show Blue Night while talking to Nine, the lead singer of indie band Dear Cloud a couple of weeks ago.
The outrage which only really emerged yesterday surrounded Jonghyun’s assertion that women are muses calling them “blessed beings. They are the biggest inspiration to all artists. They make all poets write poems, all painters pant, and all singers sing.”
It all began as an attempt for Korean SHINee fans to show Jonghyun in a positive light on Korean Twitter but gained traction as people called the statements misogynist.
It then received more attention after Jonghyun himself addressed the issue – not apologising but still asking what he said wrong while defending himself.
“I believe that one shouldn’t overreact to small happenings. I also think that the fundamental basis of a life of learning is that you should try to fully understand people’s views, and fix your wrong opinions. The reason why I’m posting this is because, as a man with a mother and a sister, there are talks going around of me being a misogynist and that I’ve said misogynistic statements. That is not true, but if those stories are going around and I stay quiet about it, some people will believe that I’m a misogynist who says misogynistic things. That would be a really big problem in my life, and a stain that I would not be able to erase.”
“I am not a misogynist nor did I say misogynistic things. If what I’ve said offended anyone, I want to know exactly what I said that has offended you, which is why I’m communicating like this. While talking about music on radio I said that women were blessed beings, and regarding this issue I will continue to post on SNS.”
As is so often the case, the discussion surrounding this has been reactionary and over-dramatic with one side accusing him of misogyny and a much larger other side loudly arguing that he couldn’t possibly be ‘a sexist’ because he loves his mother. What has been mostly lost is the context of the discussion and therefore the potential for an interesting debate about the way women are discussed in the Korean music industry.
If you actually look at the full conversation, it is a fascinating example of the direction conversations which engage with issues of identity – in this case gender – often take when two people who are not on the same page interact. Particularly, as is here, when the two people interacting are at different ends of the power dynamic.
In the entire segment, Nine subtly implies that some male musicians use music as a calculated way to have sex with women – not exactly a startling conclusion – with her assertion that the writer of the song they are discussing has ‘dark dark designs to be loved by all women.’
Jonghyun then proves her point with his slightly crass and clichéd statement about women being muses which she counters by pointing out that women make music too. From her perspective as a female songwriter, she sees that this idea that music is something men make for and about women makes it difficult for women like her to find her audience.
He broadly agrees with her point but argues that it is a global issue not just a Korean one. The translation embedded below ends at this point but he then goes on to say that he just wants women to know they have a ‘beloved existence’, he quips that their conversation is creating world peace and then the song is played.
‘Benevolent sexism’ is a concept coined by psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske nearly 20 years ago which describes simplistic stereotypes about women which the holder views as positives but may not always be so. Often these idea actually end up placing women in a position of less power. As Ilene H Lang puts it:
“[B]enevolent stereotypes hurt women because they maintain inequality. Whether she’s the “little lady” or the “woman behind the man” or the soothing creature who exists simply to make men nicer, woman’s “natural” goodness becomes a rationale for why she should be protected from activities and occupations that require stereotypically “macho” qualities.”
Here, in this sense, what Jonghyun said is potentially offensive. As Nine alludes to in their conversation, the concept of the Muse (which dates back to Ancient Greece in Western tradition) may appear to be sweet and positive but often excludes women from becoming creators and subjects and normalises the idea that women are important in art only as objects from which to glean inspiration.
Is this what he meant? No, probably not. What he probably really meant is that for straight male artists the pursuit of sex, love and beautiful women has inspired centuries of great art – which is true. But framing this as this being the experience of all artists supposes that all artists are straight and male – which is not. That is not helpful to the cause of female and other not-straight-and-male artists who often face larger barriers in music anyway.
But to call this misogyny is equally unhelpful. Misogyny means the ‘hatred of women’. Jonghyun is misguided and wrong but not hateful.
It is particularly ludicrous within the context of K-pop. There is literally a K-pop girl group called Nine Muses. The role of the muse is one ever female entertainer is thrust into whenever they perform at an army base to ‘give strength’ to male soldiers.
Almost any given K-pop video, whether it is for a female or male artist or group, perpetuates benevolently sexist tropes of a similar level to Jonghyun’s statement. Got7’s brand new ‘You’re so silly for not knowing how pretty you are’ music video is a pretty good example but the strict gender roles in K-pop means they’re being released every day.
Comparatively this is a non-issue. I find it difficult to understand how anyone who is really deeply offended by his remarks could willingly support K-pop in any form. Jonghyun’s side of the argument had serious faults but, because of him, a lot of young women heard a conversation about female musicians in the Korea on the radio. Maybe Nine even inspired one of them to pick up an instrument – who knows.
Jonghyun, as his fans keep pointing out, clearly does not hate women. As mentioned, he obviously loves his mother and sister and has nothing but praise for them. Overall his record on saying sexist things is fairly clean compared to my ever-growing laundry list of Korean entertainers – mostly men but often also women – who have said actually abusive, nasty, small-minded and harmful things about women. In fact, his words have probably been picked over like this exactly because he is viewed as very progressive.
Calling Jonghyun a misogynist is ultimately unfair and inaccurate but if it gets people talking about the role of women in Korean entertainment, that’s okay with me.