Talking about sexuality and Korean girl groups is dangerous. IU isn’t even in a girl group and her recent K-pop controversy has gone nuclear at the very mention of sexuality.
Just writing about this subject is like walking barefoot through a minefield full of eggshells.
But mixed metaphors aside, there are some pretty serious issues that do not get addressed often when it comes to female sexuality, especially by fans of female K-pop groups.
The biggest problem most people have when addressing the issue is perspective.
Let’s face it, whenever anyone comes at this issue, they are almost never completely neutral. Fans of groups that use so-called “sexy concepts” tend to be defensive.
Those who think their favorite groups are in some way above using sexy concepts like to sling mud at groups they think are in the gutter in this regard.
Boyband fans think they are exempt from such discussions, but some (including myself) would beg to differ.
We really would.
And people who have no time for K-pop at all simply dismiss mainstream Korean music as prefabricated junk.
The point is, nobody really has a real neutral perspective on this issue — everyone has an agenda of some sort.
Just for the record, I will lay my cards on the table. I am a heterosexual male with a certain fondness for girl groups that tend to go with sexier concepts. I typically have little time for the “innocent” look in K-pop.
Not all of that comes from my basest instincts (though I’d be a liar to claim my judgement is not occasionally clouded by those darned basic instincts). Groups with sexier concepts tend to sing faster-tempo, electronica-infused dance tracks, while the tinkly cutesy sound of acts that go with the “innocent” look rarely does it for me.
Speaking as an audiophile, I’d rather listen to this…
Say what you will here about the devil having all the best tunes.
But although sexy-concept girl groups are doubtlessly riddled with flaws that it would take a whole other article to address properly (female objectification, lurid sexism, and body fetishism for starters), for one I am tired of reading comments online about how so-and-so group’s “innocent” look somehow eschews sexuality.
Because it just doesn’t. And it’s about time someone said something about it.
Let’s start at the top with this thorny issue. There are no K-pop girl groups that do not use sex as a concept to sell their product. There, I’ve said it.
In the case of the glaringly obvious examples, groups like Stellar, Girl’s Day, and Dal Shabet, nothing really needs to be said. The evidence speaks for itself:
In the case of groups that tend towards neither sexy nor “innocent” as a concept, but instead steer a more central line, sex is not always so prevalent. But it is still always there.
If you take the line that, say, Girls’ Generation do not sexualize their product in any way despite the fact that the group recently promoted this:
…forget it, you are trying to defend the indefensible.
However, the “innocent” look is a whole different kettle of fish.
As 2015 has seen a wave of “innocent” concepts that has now eclipsed 2014’s sexy concept invasion, it is high time some of the more disturbing aspects of this look came under some serious scrutiny.
Simply put, the “innocent” look fetishizes chastity and virginity. But what does that mean? And how does it work?
To answer that question, we need to delve for a moment into the world of psychoanalysis.
According to the founder of the movement, Sigmund Freud, certain men are afflicted with a condition he dubbed the “Madonna-whore complex,” a mental system whereby women are sorted into two exclusive and contradictory categories. Either they are morality-starved, debased prostitutes or sexless saints.
In a 1925 essay, Freud wrote that in certain cases, “where […] men love, they have no desire. Where they desire, they cannot love.”
Smoking is bad, Doc.
Later psychologists have gone on to expand on this notion. Some think that Freud’s statement posits that some people intrinsically reject the appeal of a woman who evokes desire. Only the virginal, the chaste can make them feel love.
For many, the perceived brazenness of artists like HyunA, who appears to embrace just about any sexual fetish you care to mention, is a turn-off rather than a turn-on.
However, there is an intrinsic danger in this. Because a man putting a woman up on a pedestal, idolizing her as a sexless being is actually another, potentially dangerous form of objectification.
As perfect as you may think any K-pop girl group member to be, it is vital to remember that she is human.
Every member of every group is a woman with sexual thoughts and desires of her own. Perhaps she has a secret boyfriend (or a girlfriend) that she is afraid to tell the world about because of what it might mean for her career. A “chaste goddess” — there is no such thing. Certainly not in K-pop, at any rate.
KARA’s Gyuri summed it up best when, on a TV talk show once, she said that she always wears high heels, even if it hurts. Her reason? “Because I don’t want to ruin my fans’ fantasies.”
“People think I am a lot taller than I actually am,” she said in December last year. She added, “Celebrities shouldn’t dash their fans’ expectations.”
For one, I was fascinated by Gyuri’s choice of words here — note that she does not say “I don’t want to disappoint my fans.” Instead, she speaks of taking care with their “fantasies.”
In doing so, she really hits the nail on the head. Girl groups have carefully constructed images. Those images, in almost every case you care to mention, aim to fulfill male sexual fantasies.
Even if you think you like a girl group for non-sexual reasons, most K-pop girl groups are created with the primary aim of pleasing a certain demographic of Korean men — chiefly those of and around military service age.
In March this year, actor Yoo Seung Ho spoke out on this matter, saying while he was serving in the military, he found that conscripts “begin their mornings with girl groups and finish the day with girl groups at night.” He added that watching girl group videos gave soldiers “a feeling of healing.”
Male sexual ideals are paramount in packaging a girl group.
And if you are not say 2NE1, miss A, or Red Velvet…
…an act with the financial clout of one of the “big three” talent agencies behind you, good luck making a name for yourself in K-pop without openly pandering to some sort of male sexual fantasy with every single release.
Who remembers Puretty?
This now-defunct DSP Media group’s name was an amalgamation of the adjectives “pretty” and “pure,” something DSP was even keen to make known.
It was a fairly barefaced admission of the fact that “purity” was intended as a USP for this group.
The recent spate of 2015-debuting girl groups play with concepts of virginity yet further. The color white is most often associated with moral purity — scientists even argue that there may be deep-set reasons for this embedded in the human brain.
Light blue is also a color long associated with purity, chiefly for religious reasons.
So it is no surprise that “innocent-look” girl groups are almost invariably decked out in white and pale blue outfits, from old-school first-generation girl groups right up to the present day.
It goes deeper. These guys even have flurries of faux snow falling on their set — “as pure as the driven snow” indeed.
And not to pick on any one group, but the music video for the latest Oh My Girl release is so riddled with virginity symbolism it would probably take a team of psychologists to break it down completely.
This part in particular goes heavy on the symbolism.
It looks like a scene from some bizarre pagan virginity cult ritual.
Agencies, as mentioned in this article about boyband sexuality, are not always that particular when it comes to constructing fetish-based concepts.
More likely in the case of “innocent”-look groups, many agencies are just scattergunning virgin fetish imagery into cyberspace in the desperate hope that someone out there latches onto it.
There are about 200-plus Korean girl groups out there; it is a real sink-or-swim industry. If a rival agency’s act looks more virginal than yours, you are probably going to lose out.
Which is why agencies are now falling over each other in an effort to have their artists ooze sexual purity from every pore.
While there is no denying that boyband marketers also indulge in some quite flagrant age fetishization — almost every male act you care to mention has gone with at least one “school uniform” concept — things start to get even more troubling when it comes to girl groups in school uniforms.
Remember that the primary target for almost all Korean girl groups is military service-aged men. Ergo men in their twenties. If you go to a K-pop concert in Korea, you will likely witness a group of very young women dressed as schoolchildren dancing in front of a baying male audience. It is actually quite scary to think what ideas are being cultivated inside these men’s heads in a moment like that.
School-related concepts do not end with uniforms, though. You have girls dancing around the library…
…posing in the classroom…
…and acts dancing around in what is obviously intended to look like a school gymnasium…
I could go on and on. Consider that in many cases, some of the “innocent look” girl group artists are actually still schoolgirls. Many of the members of the acts above took their university entrance exams this week.
Fully grown adults indulging in ageplay is one thing. Having underage girls in faux school uniforms perform on stage in front of testosterone-filled crowds of (mostly) older men is another.
Almost every girl group out there has done the schoolgirl look at some point.
But in recent months, we appear to have gone into schoolgirl overdrive.
I hate to make value judgments when it comes to music, and especially not on these pages. You like what you like — who am I or anyone else to say otherwise? But the idea of sexualizing schoolgirls just seems, well, wrong to me.
For one, I wish school uniforms would just disappear from K-pop altogether.
Sexuality and the Korean girl group are completely inseparable, but that is hardly a crime in and of itself. Almost all pop music anywhere is sexualized — you need only take a look at Western charts or other Asian charts for evidence of that.
And there is no doubt that the so-called “sexy” concepts that dominated K-pop in 2014 are degrading and objectify girl group members.
But is “innocent” really any better as a concept? Almost certainly not.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.