Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-pop (Updated)


Apologies for the slow posting and unanswered emails everyone, but as this post goes up I’ll be en route to the Korean Pop Culture Conference 2011 at the University of California, and preparing for the trip has taken a lot more work than I expected. But I’ll be back and blogging by Wednesday next week, and so until then I thought you might be interested in the abstract of co-author Stephen Epstein’s and my presentation topic, which – assuming no disasters – is likely to become a chapter in the forthcoming book The Korean Popular Culture Reader by Duke University Press:

Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-pop

“The hottest phrase in Korea nowadays is undeniably ‘girl group.’ But girl group fever is more than just a trend: it’s symbolic of a cultural era that is embracing the expulsion of authoritarian ideology.” So reads the content blurb for a story on the rise of girl groups in the March 2010 issue of Korea, a public relations magazine published under the auspices of the Korean Culture and Information Service. Nonetheless, despite official, top-down promotion and cheerful assertions that this phenomenon is a liberating pop movement, a reading of the lyrics and visual codes of the music videos of popular contemporary Korea girl groups raises serious questions about the empowering nature of “Girl Group Fever.” In this paper, we will engage in a close analysis of the music and videos of groups such as the Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, KARA, T-ara and the discourse that has surrounded their rise to popularity in South Korea in order to deconstruct the notion that contemporary consumer society is making a radical break from more traditional, deeply embedded power structures.


We will argue that a set of recurrent tropes in the studied media and marketing presentation of Korean girl groups undercuts claims to a progressive ethos. In particular, as we hope to demonstrate, girl group videos and lyrics often fall into one of three categories: first of all, while girl group singers can express desire in potentially empowering fashion, the viewer is generally constructed as male, and expression of desire is accompanied by a coyness and feigned innocence that returns power to men (Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” and “Oh”; T-ara’s “Like the First Time”; KARA’s “Mister”). A second set of songs and videos suggests exertion of female power, but influence is wielded through recourse to the overwhelming force of feminine sexuality that either embarrasses (After School’s “AH!”, which adds the tease of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student) or renders males helpless in its midst (The Wonder Girls “So Hot”) and thus projects the message that narcissistic desirability is the route to redress power imbalance. Finally, a number of songs have lyrical and video narratives that depict female solidarity in wreaking revenge on callous boyfriends or threatening men (2NE1’s “I Don’t Care”, The Wonder Girls’ “Irony and “Tell Me”, the latter of which has lyrics that are at odds with its visual narrative), but in doing so continue to foster the discourse of a battle between the sexes. As we will show, in noteworthy contrast to J-pop girl group videos from the dominant entertainment group Hello! Project, which emphasize the expression of youthful energy without reference to a validating or polarizing male presence, Korean popular music’s engagement with larger discursive structures has yet to break free of ideologies that pit male and female against one another (end).

(Source: Screen Capture, “Magic Station”, Asahi-TV, 15 October 2010)

Update: Very much the lens through which I’ve been writing about Korean music for the last few months, nevertheless I should really have stressed that the abstract was written almost a year ago, and indeed developments in K-pop and J-pop since then have rendered much of it out of date, let alone the opinions of my co-author and myself growing and changing as we deepened the extent of our research. Also, word limits for the paper precluded necessary related discussions of boy-bands and J-pop, with 8000 words unfortunately barely being enough to even begin to scratch the surface of the subject.

Unfortunately then, in hindsight the abstract isn’t actually a very good guide to our current opinions on the subject and/or what we’ll be presenting on Friday(!), so please understand why it’s necessary to close this post to further comments. Instead, for now at least please accept the abstract simply as something to hopefully get you thinking about possible common themes in K-pop and why they exist, and if it becomes possible then I will definitely (re)open the discussion at a later date.

Finally, my special apologies to those who already commented, and frankly I didn’t expect such a wealth of expertise to be brought to bear on the abstract so quickly!


8 thoughts on “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-pop (Updated)

  1. I fundamentally disagree with most of the points in that abstract, but look forward to reading the full thing.

    a) A study of the tropes of girl group lyrics is incomplete without contrasting it to boy bands, whose lyrics’ protagonists are even more at the mercy of the opposite sex than what is the case with girl groups.

    b) I’m shocked to see a comparison to j-pop girl groups where THAT is the conclusion. Indeed the j-pop idol girl groups are fundamentally marketed towards men by means of presenting the girls as innocent, average, girl-next door types where the idea of you (the consumer) possibly dating them is strengthened through not only the explicit (licenced “date your idol” games for videogame systems) but through constant events where their approachability is underlined: Hand-shake tickets included in albums, weekly theater shows with 80% male audience (AKB’s own stage in Akihabara, check any video for a glimpse of fans’ gender balance). This was made much fuss about on Japanese shows when K-pop idol groups came, the fact that their images were apparently were ‘too strong’ for Japanese guys to fanboy over.

    Also, Hello! Project is no longer a dominant entertainment group. They don’t have much of an impact on the charts anymore, it’s all about the AKB franchise as far as female idol groups go. And this franchise in particular has thrived on artists with both a more aggressive sexuality than k-pop groups, with frequent bikini/lingerie videos/photo shoots, and a stronger emphasis on the innocence and purity of the girls — the school uniforms, the coy posturing, the lolita imagery. This is all the more problematic considering the young age of some of these girls. See the music video ‘Heavy Rotation’ for the ultimate in fetish erotica pop imagery.

    c) I don’t know how you selected your songs and artists to check out. I’d be happy to bring up many big girl group hits of recent years where men are not the subject at all.


  2. I’m not sure if Hello!Project count as “dominant” any more. They seem to be more of a cultish subculture within J-Pop now, while idol groups do dominate Korean pop at the moment. On top of that, I get the impression that Girl’s Generation and KARA are currently more popular in Japan than any Hello!Project group.


  3. Although J-pop is less likely to have a female vs. male image. Why, that’s better for the masses of male jiji fans “OI-ing” to their hearts content at the concerts. Instead the lyrics will be singing about the “bad guy” that guys should hate whilst they shout out “AOI!! IT’S OK, I’LL TAKE CARE OF YOU!!”

    HELLO – “stick it in there forcefully” How do this jiji fans even know if to take a group full of 1996-1986 born girls to be sexual or not? Just think of them as one big entity to admire and drool upon. “melts on my tongue”, “I want to taste your love”. I’m gonna be crude here and say that it’s not chocolate.

    When they have lyrics of wanting to be strong, I swear, there will always be an extra line saying “oh but of course I want love/a man to take care of me/I NEED love/can’t live without romance/ AKA can’t live without the presence of a man”

    Just by reading some lyrics of Japanese girl groups lyrics, looking at the members ages and the dance moves/facial expressions displayed in a live performance shows that k-pop and j-pop still have the similar issues, just in different areas. In japanese girl groups these men may “grow-up” with these girls, whether they look upon them as sexual images whilst they’re still as young as 13… I don’t know but when they finally start adorning more sexual images or even graduating going on to do AV or raunchier photoshoots (which you even wrote about existing under the ages of 13), it’s way more disturbing that k-pop, just in my opinion.

    Eng with less “child-looking” members, probably the newer cycle:

    “LOVE ME LOVE ME LOVE ME LOVE ME” (little kid in the background thrusting her hips like no ones business)

    When I was a kid I really liked the Japanese girl groups but I haven’t listened to any new songs since I started getting a bit disturbed by it. I only listen to the old songs to make myself feel better.

    “As we will show, in noteworthy contrast to J-pop girl group videos from the dominant entertainment group Hello! Project, which emphasize the expression of youthful energy without reference to a validating or polarizing male presence” – this quote is just kind of a laugh in the park for me. Japanese girl group music is MADE for men. “aaiii I want your chocolate/love-(stick)/body/romance/I wil never disobey you master aiiii.” It will always be them talking to a male mystery ‘x’ (where the male fans can easily slip in as the one they’re talking to), and then they have a whole R-Kelly style song, talking to the male fans.


  4. I have heard that these young artist are usually exploited and not treated well by the companies. Most of them get depressions. I have studied it in my economics class. Any impression on the topic?



  5. Dear all, I’m at another conference and don’t have the time at the moment to address the points raised above, many very valid, but simply want to note that in the course of research, the final product changed significantly from the hypotheses projected in the abstract. There is much to be said about J-pop girl groups, much suggested above, and there’s no question that AKB48’s Heavy Rotation is one of the single most over the top fan service videos ever created, but there are also a number of deeper issues to get into beyond the usually expected examples, but that’s a topic for another time…..


  6. I was not aware such a conference existed and given my plans for a korea-related book in the hopefully near future, I feel I should make a mission to arrange a trip to California the next time the conference is in town.


  7. Interesting read! As well as the comments.

    In my opinion, both Korean and Japanese girl groups are made mainly for men, so I probably do not think it a good idea to mention Hello project or AKB48 or whatever in your work to contrast with K girl groups (however, there did exist some J girl groups with powerful image, but that’s the 90s’ story, such as “MAX”,”SPEED”…).

    But I do get your point, which could be quite true when it comes to singer. I can’t find any Korean female singer that makes me feel girl/woman power, whereas Japanese female singers, as early as I could remember from the 1990s, already appeared with an image of confidence, independence and chrisma (hitomi, Nanase Aikawa, Mika Nakashima, Rina Chinen, just to name a few), and a lot of them can even stay popular after their divorce (e.g. Amuro Namie, Utada Hilaru, etc).


  8. Thank for the comments everyone, which I learned a great deal from. Unfortunately, and ironically, they also made me realize that I was perhaps a little premature in posting the abstract here, and that actually I’m going to have to close the post to further comments in response! Please see the updated conclusion in the post for an explanation, and sorry again for jumping the gun a little.


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