He Said/She Said: Is There a Double Standard for Sexiness in K-Pop?

He Said – She Said is a special Soompi editorial that gives male and female perspectives on current topics and trends of the Korean entertainment world. 

For our first “He Said She Said” column last February, we discussed the recent trend of hyper-sexualized girl group concepts. As Soompiers offered their own opinion on whether these new girl group promotional tactics were actually sexy, more than a few asked about the sexy tactics of male idols and why they weren’t being scrutinized like the female idols. Which got this editor thinking: Why aren’t male idols criticized as much as female idols for their overly sexy promotional tactics? Are abs more socially acceptable than thighs?

I started working with two of our writers, Hazelnutthursdays and Lordbordem, who had previously offered their female and male perspectives on the sexy girl groups in early March. Weeks later, we were still discussing this topic because it was a tricky one. We realized it wasn’t so simple as “Guys stripping is okay, girls stripping is not okay.” As we did research on different male groups with an emphasis on those “beastly idols,” we started to wonder if the double standard wasn’t as big as we had originally thought. Or, perhaps the double standard was so universally accepted that we couldn’t see it properly.

We’re going to start off the discussion with our representative koala-fighter-turned-penguin-lover (I don’t know, this must be some sort of Australian thing), Lordbordem, who will offer his male perspective on sexy male idols. His excellently researched examples on shirt lifting and bathing suit wearing will make you question your own thoughts. Then, Hazelnutthursdays will take her turn talking about the problem may not be about the groups, but the audience receiving them.

After reading through, we encourage you to leave your thoughts and questions below in the comments.

Let’s start with Lordbordem and his answer to the question: Why aren’t male artists criticized for their equally sexualized promotions/songs?

Lordbordem and the Male Perspective: 

You know that feeling when someone pushes you into an active mine field and then tells you to hop around like a bunny? You don’t? Great, because I don’t know as well, but the closest approximation of that feeling of dread would be trying to answer this question.

The general gist of this question is that, when all things are equal, girl groups are scrutinized more for their portrayal of sexual concepts than boy groups. On first impressions, that statement seems to be roughly in line with what my perception of the issue is.

A key example of this would be how Rainbow’s shirt pulling gesture during “A” was quickly stopped for being too suggestive. In comparison, there has been a few examples of boy groups such as MBLAQ and Rain that have done something similar during their performances and didn’t face the same wrath of the censors.

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But is that fully accurate? Kind of. MBLAQ’s Lee Joon had previously mentioned on an episode of “Radio Star” that he got into a lot of problems when he exposed too much skin during one of his performances. He referenced a rule that states that males can’t have both nipples exposed but one is fine. Clearly a girl group can’t do anything like that but in terms of skin exposure, most broadcasters seem to have no issue with girl groups wearing hot pants, nor do they have issues with already exposed stomachs/abs.

 There is also a difference in how the actions were performed. Rainbow’s version was a slow careful pull up with a particular emphasis placed on their facial expressions to get across a certain message, one of sexual connotations. Meanwhile, examples such as MBLAQ and Rain have been a lot more brutish and blunt in their execution. They may have exposed the same amount of skin, but I feel like it conveyed a different message.

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We then get into the realms of suggestive lyrics, where we see girl groups and boy groups both getting into similar amounts of trouble. G-Dragon is mentioned rather frequently in the long list of banned songs, Dal Shabet had to modify the lyrics to “Be Ambitious” to make it less provocative, and both Gary and Ga In each had a recent song banned for being explicit (in the case of Ga In, that was pretty well expected).

 Then there is the question of clothing. This is a rather difficult item to discuss, mainly because clothing concepts for girl groups and boy groups are vastly different. Recent trends in “sexy” girl groups have shifted towards exposure of legs. We see that trend in the costumes of recent concepts from Girl’s Day, Stellar, AOA, and Dal Shabet. Issues have been raised about the shortness of some of the lower apparel that girl groups wear, yet we don’t really hear a lot about clothing issues with boy groups.

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A quick glance at recent concepts from Toheart, B1A4, EXO, GOT7, etc. all show a similar trend that goes a long way to explain why we hear fewer complaints. Boy groups tend to steer clear of skin exposure. The most you would get is a deep V-cut shirt but that still exposes less skin than most girl groups these days. In this situation, it’s kind of hard to argue that one side is being unfairly criticized given this difference in attire type.

This isn’t even getting to the issue of differences amongst girl groups themselves. Stellar had plenty of issues with their recent “Marionette” attire, which looks rather similar to one piece swimsuits. At the same time, Lee Hyori actually wore a one piece swim suit during her “Miss Korea” activities and there was a lot less uproar. Likewise happened when Dal Shabet wore something similar during their “Bling Bling” activities.

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The issue here is that this question is rather broad in certain respects. Having a “provocative” concept covers a lot of elements; it’s a combination of actions, lyrics, attire and attitude. In this respect, I don’t think it’s a difference in how the two gender groups are judged, but rather that one group tends to have more aggressively provocative concepts in recent years and thus we just hear about them more often over the other.

So Lordbordem thinks that the methodology of album promotions of the two genders are different, rather than saying that there is a clear double standard on sexuality. Next, Hazlenutthursday will point out that it’s all about the fans. 

Hazelnutthursday and the Female Perspective:

Why the scrutiny on girl groups when their male counterparts are just as sexualized in their promotions? Are thighs more indecent than abs?

At the root of it all, there are more expectations of women and what they can reveal, than there are of men. Men go topless and it’s okay. Women go topless and it’s another story. So going by that same thought, a flash of abs from male group members does not raise as much eyebrows as when girl groups reveal a shapely thigh in their choreography.

For example, we have 2PM who came on the scene unabashedly promoting as “beastly idols.” They came out with an overly manly concept from the get-go, incorporating flashing of abs along with their acrobatic choreography. “10 Points Out of 10” was not exactly innocent as a song, and in their discography is a definitely not-so-innocent song called “All Night Long.”

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Yes, 2PM came in with a bit of a shock factor, a slightly different offering from the usual pretty boys who dance well. But hardly anyone complained about them being sexy in their promotions.

Speaking of male sexy concepts and suggestive lyrics, we have Big Bang’s youngest member, Seungri, who came out with the hype-inducing teaser for his solo outing “Let’s Talk About Love” last year. The teaser featured him seemingly pulling down the underwear of a stiletto-clad woman.

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While I don’t think 2PM and Seungri’s concepts encompass all male sexy concepts, I find that some aspects of it, like suggestive lyrics, revealing more limbs and more sensual choreography are some things they have in common with sexy girl groups. They’re the same actions, but received differently.

I got to thinking that perhaps it largely has to do with the “public,” the audience of these promotions. Statistically speaking, there are more fanGIRLS than fanBOYS. There are simply more of the public to please with male groups going sexy rather than girl groups. In this sense, male groups going or being sexy is not-so-extraordinary because there is a larger share of the audience who are receptive to them.

One of the points my partner Lordbordem made in his piece last month is that girl groups’ sexy concepts of late seem more like shock-value tactics and are intended to gain a larger audience, and therefore, a larger fanbase. I think male groups do not have that much of a need, being that, from observation, they are able to inspire devotion from their fans far more easily than girl groups. Since the fangirls are devoted rather than being a casual observer, anything their male idols do would be seen as part of his development.

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To explain what I mean, I bring back the example of Seungri. As a member of Big Bang, he has been around since 2006, when he was only 16 (or 17 in Korean age). Big Bang has tried a lot of avant-garde concepts throughout the years, but for his solo outings, he has played more to his sensual side. I think it’s a way to differentiate himself with his group, not to divide the fans, but also to bring attention to activities he himself wants to do.

And because there are generally more female fans, there is more understanding on this end, along with the perspective of “the youngest is growing up.”

On the other hand, the general public does not take to these concepts the same way when it is girl groups in question. Girl’s Day during its “Twinkle, Twinkle” era was cute, and although “Something” is considered well-received, the group has been asked to change choreography for being too suggestive. Member Minah has also mentioned that she will naturally be showing her sexy side more because she is also a woman, but was told that she had a cute appearance that didn’t match the sexy concept.

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Girl groups are more known for their “uncle fans,” who are characterized by being protective of the images of their favorite groups and may prefer that the sexiness of idol groups be limited to the cutely flirty rather than outwardly sensual. Male groups don’t have this sort of problem with their lesser known “ahjuma” or “noona fans.”

The issue, of course, boils down to perceptions, and how these perceptions affect the attitude towards “acceptable” and “not-acceptable.” I can’t deny, though, that genders- both of the audience and the artists themselves, and most especially the expectations of gender roles- are what drives the issue to begin with.

Hazelnutthursdays thinks that female and male idols use sexuality differently and for different means. We have both writer’s opinion, but what about Noona? That’s on the next page…

A different type of sexy?

A different type of sexy?

In summary, Lordbordem argues that male idols don’t resort to hyper sexual tactics for promotions as much, and when they do, they do get criticized for it (although maybe not as much as female idols). Hazelnutthursdays argued that male idols don’t need to be sexy as much as girl idols, but sometimes they do it to stand out.

What does Noona think? Noona thinks that sexiness is subjective, as the comments in the previous article proved. There is no clear definition of what is sexy and what is promiscuous, which means that we have and will continue to see varying degrees of both being attempted by idols seeking attention. That’s what it comes down to. Sexiness, from the subtle to the overt, is just another tactic used to get people talking and looking. Personally, I’m turned off by groups, of either gender, resorting to extreme cuteness just as much as extreme sexiness. But both draw attention to the groups and that was always the goal of these competitive idol groups.

That was their opinion, this is mine, so what is yours? Do you agree with any one of us, or do you have a completely different opinion? Share your thoughts below and let’s get a discussion going. If there are other topics you would “He Said She Said” to discuss, let us know.

CallMeN00NA is an all powerful editor at Soompi.com, and Lordbordem and Hazelnutthursdays are her favorite minions writers. Noona is always happy to chat with Soompiers, so you can on follow her on Twitter and Instagram, or ask her a question