Precious few songwriters and MV directors present female K-pop stars as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire. But these assigned gender roles can quickly crumble under revelations that they’re actually in relationships, as can as the business models that depend on them.
Estimated combined reading time: 8 minutes. Photo by Zun Zun from Pexels.
Recently, I was email-interviewed by James Griffiths at CNN about Cube Entertainment firing HyunA and E’Dawn for dating. My contribution to the final article is necessarily brief though, so here’s my original longer response to his question about just why K-pop labels are so sensitive about their stars’ love lives:
That some fans feel they have a strong personal bond with their idols, and then feel betrayed when those idols are revealed to be in a relationship, is a problem hardly confined to K-pop fandom. But it is amplified by three characteristic features of Korean popular culture.
First, there is the overexposure of its celebrities. Flick through the channels, and it is entirely possible to see the same K-pop star in an MV, a talkshow, a commercial, and a drama. And for each, they’ll generally be expected to maintain the persona for which they’re best known.
Next, as a broad rule, virginal personas are overwhelmingly preferred for unmarried female K-pop stars. Precious few songwriters and MV directors are prepared to present them as grown women with sexual experience, agency, and desire, as a decade’s experience with censors has taught that their work will generally get banned if they do.
Consequently, in K-pop, most women are presented as scantily-clad, passive objects for the male gaze, regardless of the actual make-up of a girl-group’s fandom. Again, this centralizing of supposed cishet male tastes as the norm isn’t unique to Korea. But the third and final feature is that the Korean media has tended to downplay their criticisms of this, so as—among other reasons—not to jeopardize the success of the Korean Wave overseas. This deliberate myopia however, has contributed to such phenomena as the rise of middle-age “uncle fans,” who are defined by supposedly only possessing a harmless avuncular love for teenage girl-groups in hot pants—and a lot of money to spend on them.
Clearly, revelations of K-pop stars dating challenge all these tenets of Korean pop-culture, and their fundamentally gendered nature explains why the negative reactions have overwhelmingly been directed at the women in those relationships, who simultaneously get slut-shamed by both their entitled male fans and the female fans of their partners.
Those last two paragraphs link up to my answer to another question of James’s, about to what extent it’s fans or labels that are driving these attitudes to stars dating. And you can guess which way I went in light of this recent breakdown of the top 3 labels’ revenues:
Source: Jenna Gibson, Korea Economic Institute and The Korea Society @YouTube (3:50).
But I’ll cover the significance of those numbers in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there are many huge generalizations in my answer to James’s first question of course, and it’s also entirely possible that I still look at K-pop through the prism of when I got into it back in 2010, and have had terrible confirmation bias ever since. If so, and you feel the gist of any of my generalizations are outdated, then please do let me know. I would just love the excuse to crack open some new K-pop books and journal articles I’ve been hoarding, and to get back into writing more about the subject here.
No really—please rip my email to shreds! I beg you! ;)
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)