Friday, August 19, 2011

South Korean K-pop, Perpetuating Patriarchy

In the 1990s, The Spice Girls had an infectious global impact on young people across Europe, North America, and Australia – girls in particular. While some may argue women’s sexuality, fandom, and business prowess mix in ways promote female empowerment, others claim that despite having a central position on stage, these mainstream girl groups reproduce male privilege. In contemporary South Korea, this topic is especially germane.

I recently attended a lecture by Associate Professor Stephen Epstein (2011), Director of the Asian Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, where I learned that all female “girl groups” are having major influences in South Korea and across much of Asia through the phenomenon of K-pop.

The Wonder Girls:

According to Professor Epstein, girl groups’ music and videos in the K-pop genre tend to fall in one of four typologies, which make for useful comparisons with popular female artists in the West.

1. “Desire Expressed but Initiative Given to Males” – In videos falling into this typology, female artists communicate a craving to forge romantic relationships with males, but the artists’ physical movements and lyrics privilege the desired male partners. According to Dr. Epstein, the following video, “Tell Me Your Wish” by Oh!, exemplifies this typology since the female artists ask their male partners how they can fulfill the males’ desires:

Going back a few decades, one cannot help but compare this video’s genie theme to the sit-com, “I Dream of Genie.” It is no coincidence that “I Dream of Genie” emerged in the midst of America’s second women’s movement. With women in the broader society advocating for equal pay, “I Dream of Genie” portrayed a woman considered physically attractive with magical powers confined to a small lamp and controlled by her male proprietor. In South Korea’s contemporary K-pop industry, Oh! present a strikingly similar message.

And while not a “genie in a bottle” or part of a larger group, one can still see similarities in Nicki Minaj’s recent video, “Super Bass.” In her video, Minaj and an entourage of female dancers exude a highly sexualized femininity as they indulge males with whom they hope to forge a romance. Hence, the males are ultimately in control, there to sit back as the women work for their affection:

2. “Power through Narcissistic Sexuality” – The second typology includes videos in which girl groups supposedly garner power by brazenly accentuating their sexuality. Scenarios in these videos repeatedly show the South Korean female artists rejecting male suitors as they soak in compliments and climb the social ladder, their increasing popularity tied solely to their sexual prowess. The irony, of course, is that power garnered through sexuality does not alter the gender order. Rather, it reproduces gender norms with women (and girls) objectified as sex articles. This is seen quite clearly in the somewhat comical video “So Hot” by the Wonder Girls (note how cheerleading and American gridiron football is built into the video's gendered dynamics, a sport hardly popular in South Korea):

Again, this typology is not unique to girl groups in South Korean K-pop. Keri Hilson’s recent hit, “Pretty Girl Rock,” includes a number of lyrics that encourage women to publicly flaunt their sexual supremacy: “…Mad cause I’m cuter than the girl that’s with ya. I can talk about it cause I know that I’m pretty and if ya know it too then ladies sing it with me…. Don’t question that this girl’s a 10. Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful.” As such, men are supposedly relegated inferior to the beautiful woman(en), but in actuality, women are valued strictly for their physical attractiveness. More to the point, Hilson’s video demonstrates this theme manifesting over generations:

3. “Objectified Female Solidarity” – The third typology includes videos where members of the girl groups completely reject males, holding no desire for male attention. With such an overt rejection, a greater female solidarity is definitely present in these videos, and perhaps even a stronger sense of independence. Still, the girl groups’ body language and attire perpetuate the same visual narrative – that women are sexual objects, as seen in Miss A’s “Bad Girl, Good Girl”:

Overlap may exist in these South Korean K-pop videos with those starring Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga has been heralded as a talent who questions authority and speaks to minority issues, but doing so while simultaneously reproducing a visual imagery in line with traditional gender norms.

4. “Revenge Narratives” – The final typology stated by Dr. Epstein was that of the revenge narrative in which the girl group members plan and carry out vengeful acts against promiscuous ex-boyfriends. In doing so, girls bond to presumably reclaim a collective sense of power. However, the over-arching theme of these videos still places women’s and girls’ value in the framework of a heterosexual relationship. See, below, 4minute’s video, “Heart to Heart”:

Though perhaps not a perfect comparison, Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” definitely holds similar tenets. Aguilera purports a strengthened individuality after being harmed, presumably by an ex-boyfriend. The song’s lyrics state, “Makes me that much stronger. Makes me work a little bit harder. Makes me that much wiser. Thanks for making me a fighter.” These empowering lyrics on the one hand continue to exist in the context of a woman’s central focus in romantic affairs, thereby cementing the current gender order.

Marketed as a means of increasing girls’ and young women’s power and independence, girl groups in the South Korean K-pop industry follow the same gender lines seen in music videos produced world-wide that emphasize femininity. The music videos may communicate slightly different points, but their messages have the same basic implications.

Girls’ and women’s worth is connected to (1) frequently unhealthy and unattainable beauty standards, and (2) romantic relationships with men. Despite being promoted as empowering for girls and women, the videos do not challenge patriarchy at all. To the contrary, they reinforce a world where gender inequality is embedded in its social systems.

Epstein, S. J. (2011 August 4). Girls’ Generation?: Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-pop. School of Asian Studies Seminar Series 2001. Auckland: The University of Auckland.

For more of Dr. Epstein’s work, conducted in tandem with his colleague, James Turnbull, go Turnbull's blog,

Academics Blogs


  1. Christina Aguilera's "Fighter" is actually about a struggle between Ms. Aguilera and a former female friend and in no way narrates the end of or new beginning following a romantic relationship. Maybe it's worth noting that someone as well-read and well-educated as yourself would assume the song was about a romantic relationship because you know us women, if it's not about love, men and flowers, we're not discussing it.

  2. Thanks for filling me in. No, I wasn't aware of that regarding "Fighter," as this isn't my primary area of academic interest. It's a blog (not a refereed paper), and I own my mistakes. No need to be antagonistic.

  3. I believe the song "Tell me your wish" is by the girl group Girl's Generation, not Oh!

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