Usually, when we travel, the remarks we hear upon coming home are how nice it is to have running water, electricity, a life free of disease, and other things relatively low on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But the thing that traveling really made me look at differently was being a woman, how that experience is portrayed in pop music and how that portrayal influences women’s self-images. This was never more true than while listening to and watching music videos for K-pop.
K-pop has been gophering in and out of the pop culture for the last few years, bolstered by the music video for will.i.am and Nicki Minaj’s “Check It Out,” Stephen Colbert’s goofy dance rivalry with “Korean pop star Rain!” and the occasional feature heralding the Korean Wave’s arrival. But it has yet to make a crossover into the mainstream hit it’s made out to be in the ROK. If the handful of native university students, housewives, and schoolchildren I knew in South Korea were indicative of how the rest of the country perceives K-pop’s reception overseas, the hallyu (or Korean Wave) is just about all anybody in America talks about when they talk about music (except, of course, Justin Bieber). But considering the lyrical content of much of Korean pop music made by ubiquitous and eerily similar-looking girl groups, the national pride in the modest international success of K-pop is actually a little weird.
Let’s start with the similar-looking part. Women in popular Korean girl bands like Girls Generation and Wonder Girls often have plastic surgery to make them look more “standardized,” usually in a Western sense — almond-shaped eyes, more pronounced noses, and the like. And they all have the troubling combination of baby faces on grown-up bodies that Korean academic Kang In-kyu says are designed to appeal to men who can’t handle mature and confident women: “Japan […] went through a period of long-term economic stagnation in the 1980s, and ‘Lolicon’ characters quickly appeared. Korean girl-group [members] share many characteristics of these Lolicon characters. With childlike faces with adult bodies, they are non-threatening sex-objects.”
James Turnbull, in his excellent blog The Grand Narrative, which explores feminism, sexuality, and gender roles in Korea, translated a long article Kang In-kyu discussing the troubling confluence of infantilization and sexualization of women in Korean pop music. “What Did Depraved Oppas Do to Girls Generation?” highlights the most recent wave in Korean girl groups, which emphasizes de-individualized members, lots of exposed skin and aegyo, which roughly translates to a childlike innocence and charm that is usually used to describe how women relate to older men. (Before we go any further, I should also note that oppa, which is a respectful term when loosely translated to “older brother,” has a similar connotation to “daddy” in English when used in a dirty or lecherous way.)
What struck me about this article and got me thinking differently about American female pop icons was Kang’s reference to the “oppa craze” in girl group’s lyrics: “Oppa, look at me,” “I’m so embarrassed,” “I don’t know, I don’t know,” “This is my first time,” “I’m light-headed,” “Don’t just think of me as a little sister,” “I think I’m so foolish,” “I believe everything.” An accompanying video, illustrating the frequency with which women say, “I don’t know” in pop songs really hammered the point home. Whereas little girls in America are listening to songs like “Put a Ring on It”, “Since U Been Gone”, and “Born This Way”, which celebrate a sense of independence and worth, little girls in Korea are growing up idolizing women who present themselves as subservient, foolish, and needy.
About nine months into my tenure as an English teacher in Korea, the real-life implications of K-pop’s “Lolicons” became clear. I taught an aptly named group of a dozen kindergarteners — Kindness Class. Among my charges were twin girls, Chloe and Olivia, who were affectionate, thoughtful, and earnest, not to mention some of the more lovely little girls who crossed my path at school. One morning, they came to school with red, puffy eyelids smeared in something that looked like Vaseline. It looked painful, and they were listless all day. When I asked my Korean assistant teacher what was wrong with them, she informed me that their mother had taken them to get plastic surgery to give them wider, rounder eyes, a pervasive procedure among celebrities of all stripes, especially singers. Chloe and Olivia were five years old.
When searching to understand what was going on, I asked my class of five-year-olds later that day how common plastic surgery was and how they felt about it, the five young ladies present treated the idea that they’d need plastic surgery “like Girls Generation” before they turned 18 as a foregone conclusion.
It’s easy to get into a chicken-or-egg discussion about this — are women in Korean music portrayed this way because of gender inequality, or vice versa — but probably the best answer is that it’s cyclical. I don’t have any delusions that we don’t have our own mini-“oppa craze” being perpetuated by the careers of young women who, in the ultimate twist of creepiness, often got their start on the Disney Channel. Nor do I deny that women are still extremely sexualized and objectified in music and other media. (A teenaged Britney Spears’ appearance in lingerie on the cover of Rolling Stone was a lot more “oppa craze” than “you go, girl!”) That, to some degree, will probably never change. But it’s a lot more difficult to malign the careers of the Lady Gagas and Beyonces of the U.S. charts, with their outlandish personal styles and songs admonishing listeners to love themselves, now that I’ve seen how a media landscape full of de-individualized Lolicons can shape young minds.
In a recent episode of The Simpsons, “Lisa Goes Gaga,” Lady Gaga comes to Springfield to try to help Lisa after she’s voted the least popular student at school. Gaga gives a concert, and at one point, she addresses the crowd. “Does everybody love themselves?” she asks, and someone from the audience shouts a reply: “That kind of thing sounds hollow coming from anyone but you!” The joke, of course, is that it sounds hollow coming from a pop star who has built her empire in part by pandering to all the “little monsters” out there. And yes, her career strikes me as cynical and frustratingly devoid of substance, as is Korean oppa music.
But that’s not how their listeners see them. To fans, this music can be important, emotional, and a reflection of how they see the world. What the music we listen to says to us matters. K-pop’s messages to women are largely about being demure, accommodating, sexy, and pliable. Gaga and her peers, on the other hand, make music about feeling empowered, loving yourself as you are, self sufficiency, and dancing your ass off. It’s tempting to wave both K-pop and American Top 40 radio off as just so much empty auto-tunage, but the truth is that both these genres do have substance and that their messages matter.
It hasn’t been that long since Britney Spears was shimmying around in a skimpy schoolgirl skirt or whisper-singing about being a “slave for you.” The Spears icon of ten years ago is a lot more akin to contemporary Korean shrinking violets than to American divas of today. Let’s, just for a minute, put derision aside and appreciate what Gaga’s popularity may imply about progress toward gender equality. It may be tough — heck, I’m not sure I’d ever have done it without basting in a soup of real-life “Lolicons” for a year — but it’s worth considering.
Rachel Bailey is on the Twitters and travels and writes.