On K-pop Stars Dating

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 asamong other reasonsnot to jeopardize the success of the Korean Wave overseas. This deliberate myopia however, has contributed to such phenomena as the rise of middle-ageuncle 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)

“I am a Woman Who Buys Condoms.”

The reaction to having a woman in a condom ad is exactly why we need women in condom ads.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. All screenshots via YouTube.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last five years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too. I wish these realities weren’t true, and am always looking for evidence to show attitudes are changing. Yet they stubbornly persist.

That’s what makes commercials like this one for Common Day condoms so important. Produced for social media in April but only going viral this week, it’s surprisingly sweet, with messages that are very powerful in their simplicity. So why is it so disliked?

Here’s my translation of the captions:

난 콘돔사는 여자다.

여자가 콘돔을 어떻게 사냐고?

약국, 편의점, 인터넷, 성인샵에서

‘그냥, 사면 된다.’

I’m a woman who buys condoms.

How can a woman buy condoms you ask?

At pharmacies, convenience stores, over the internet, and at sex shops.

“Just buy them.”

물론 처음엔 쉽지 않았지

내가 콘돔을 사기 전까지

‘여자답지 못하네’

‘여자가 밝히네’

‘그건 남자가 사야지’

Of course, it wasn’t easy at first.

Up until the moment I finally bought them myself, I thought [people would say]:

“That’s not ladylike.”

“Wow, is she oversexed or what.”

“That’s something only men should buy.”

이런 말들과 싸워왔거든

나만 겪어본 건 아닐거야

근데, 지금은 21세기

‘그냥, 사면 된다’

Actually, I struggled with those thoughts too.

I’m sure I’m not the only who felt like this.

And hey, isn’t it the 21st Century now?

“Just buy them.”

현재의 우린 ‘자기결정권’ 이란 게 있어

생각과 말,

몸과 욕망을 스스로 결정할 권리

누가 준 것도 아니고

빼앗을 수도 없는 거야

내가 원래 가지고 태어나는 거거든!

We in the modern age, have the right to decide what’s best for ourselves

That includes rights about our bodies and our desires

This is something that wasn’t given to me, and so can’t be taken away from me.

This is something that we were born with.

예를 들면,

내가 원할 때 섹스하고

원할 때 임신하는 것

뭐 그런 거 말야

남자가 콘돔이 없을까 불안하다고?

그래서 내가 ‘그냥, 사면 된다’

For example,

I can have sex when I want,

and I can get pregnant when I want—

you know, things like that.

So you get concerned and worried when men say they don’t have a condom?

That’s why you should just buy them yourself!

난 19세기 여자가 아니거든!

난 힘이 있고,

욕망이 있으며,

모든 것은 내가 결정해

난 콘돔사는 여자다.

I’m not a woman of the 19th Century!

I am powerful,

and I have desire,

I decide everything for myself,

And I am a woman who buys condoms. (End)

Awesome, right? Yet it has 8 to 1 dislikes to likes on YouTube. Perhaps, because of this troll below, who replied to the tweet I first found the commercial on. I don’t mean to feed him, but will translate a couple of tweets from his long screed to show what Korean women, condom manufacturers, and sexual-health advocates are up against (I welcome alternate translations; being such a typical troll, he’s not very coherent sorry):

(Source.)

Jeez, this is just such typical BS from a “21st Century woman.” What is it with “women hav[ing] the right to decide what’s best for themselves,” and carrying condoms in case men don’t have them, and choosing for themselves when they want to get pregnant? This isn’t something women should even buy! Men are supposed to buy them! Can’t you make a condom commercial for men instead?

And later, after discovering that the CEO of the promotion company behind the campaign is—wait for it—a man himself:

(Source.)

Ah, now I get it. Your company often provides junk information in its twitter promotions, like you did while selling diet supplements once. In this case, you just make a commercial with commonly-used feminist words thrown in, as you know women will automatically buy anything that says “feminist.”

Sigh. Please head over to YouTube and like the video right now, to encourage more feminist commercials like it. And please share this post and the video too! :)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)