By T.K. Park and Youngdae Kim
When you think of K-pop, the seven young men of BTS most likely come to mind, but the women artists are enjoying a heyday of their own. Red Velvet recently hit seven cities on their first North American tour, while Blackpink took Coachella by storm, mingling backstage with their fans Ariana Grande and Will Smith. Wonder Girls’ Sunmi and Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany have broken free from the girl groups that made them and are now headlining their own U.S. tours. And these women are doing it with confidence, strength, and flair, completely unconcerned with the male gaze — or with anyone else’s gaze for that matter.
The English-language discourse about K-pop idols, and in particular female idols, is still shaped in large part by the 2012 New Yorker article by John Seabrook titled "Factory Girls." Published in the same year that “Gangnam Style” became a global phenomenon, Seabrook’s article painted a picture of women K-pop idols as carefully-crafted objects, using Girls’ Generation — the most successful K-pop girl group until that point — as the primary focus. It was a familiar story to anyone who had been following K-pop. The artists are recruited in their adolescence, put through a rigorous training regimen, and undergo plastic surgery so that they can execute the vision of their producer: an image of beautiful yet demure Korean women, in contrast to the male idols who more freely deviate from the conventional gender norms.
Girls' Generation perform at the KBS Korea-China Music Festival in August 2012
This caricature won a great deal of purchase, in part because it contained a modicum of truth, and also because it fit female K-pop stars into the prevailing U.S. preconception about Asians and women: Asians are supposed to be mechanical, women are meant to be objectified, and therefore it made sense that Asian women pop stars were mechanically objectified.
But even in 2012, this description was not entirely on the mark. It is true enough to say a persistent strain in K-pop’s girl groups involves turning women into an object of male desire — as is the case with female pop artists anywhere. But it is a mistake to think the women of K-pop solely traffick in marketing themselves as manufactured objects of that desire. In truth, even the most "manufactured" K-pop girl groups display a great deal of agency, and their profile evolves as their careers progress.
1990s-2000s: The Dueling Sides of Femininity
Fin.K.L's "To My Boyfriend," released in 1998
Objectification and agency formed the current and countercurrent as long as girl groups have existed in the modern K-pop idol scene. For the first generation of K-pop girl groups of the late 1990s, this was partly a function of their reference materials: The girl groups that emulated U.S. artists leaned more toward displaying confidence and independence, while groups that emulated Japanese acts hewed closer to the conventional image of demure Asian women. The latter was the mainstream at first. Influenced by Japanese groups like SPEED, the leading first generation K-pop girl groups, such as S.E.S. and Fin.K.L, established the course that many came to regard as the standard K-pop path for women as an object of male desire: a gaggle of cute girls growing into adorable young women over time. Meanwhile, groups like Baby V.O.X. and Diva, which emulated the hip-hop-based music and images of TLC, formed the countercurrent of women artists with confident and spunky attitudes.
Girls' Generation's "Gee," released in 2009
The first generation K-pop girl groups’ popularity entered a fallow period around 2003, when idol groups overall lost ground to R&B acts. Then in 2007 Wonder Girls, Kara, and Girls’ Generation debuted, forming the second generation of K-pop girl groups. It was also this generation that perfected the strategy of turning female artists into a carefully-curated product, cultivating what came to be known as “uncle fans” — middle-aged men with disposable income and dubious motives. These are the “factory girls” that Seabrook encountered, as the second-generation girl groups were the first ones that enjoyed meaningful popularity in the U.S. market by appearing on Billboard charts, performing on late night talk shows, and going on nationwide tours.
But not even Girls’ Generation, the archetype of a female K-pop idol group, was content only to project an image of demure young women. From the beginning, Girls’ Generation had a streak of strength and independence that was overshadowed during the peak of their careers but re-discovered later. For example, the lyrics of 2007’s “Into the New World,” the group’s first hit single, showed unflinching resolve: “Don’t wait for any special miracle / The rough road ahead of us is / The unknown future and a wall / We won’t change, we won’t give up.” These words re-emerged as a slogan for the 2016-17 Candlelight Protests that led to the impeachment and removal of then-president Park Geun-hye.
Even in this “peak objectification” period, there were plenty of female K-pop idols that emphasized confidence and agency. 2NE1, debuting in 2009, is a notable example. 2NE1 inherited the spunky image of Baby V.O.X. and Diva, and blended the contemporary hip-hop aesthetics favored by their production company YG Entertainment. The result is a group that consciously rejected the conventional cute-sexy axis in favor of being swag-based alpha girls. Further, the female idols of the first generation would evolve toward being more dominant and in-charge as their careers progressed. Lee Hyo-ri, who began her solo career in 2003 after a successful run in Fin.K.L, did more than merely project an image. By actively participating in the creation of her own music, she was claiming true agency over every aspect of her artistry. This pattern would repeat with other female idols who advanced their careers, like BoA, Tiffany, and Sunmi.
Gain's "Bloom," released in 2012
The later part of this period was also characterized by an aggressive marketing of sexuality. Three notable examples — HyunA, Gain, and IU — demonstrate three distinct ways in which women of K-pop sublimated their sexuality into artistry. Provocateur HyunA is the grown-up version of her former group Wonder Girls, maintaining the bright and cheerful atmospherics but with more skin and suggestive dance moves. Gain, on the other hand, does not suggest — she affirmatively expresses her sexuality, making her presentation not about the gaze that she would attract, but about the desire she feels. This is especially evident in the music video of her 2012 single “Bloom” with its jaw-dropping depiction of self-pleasure, making Gain more popular among women than men. IU is arguably the most cerebral of the three, as she relishes the subversive force created by the knowing look behind her girlish face. Like Madonna, IU leverages her feminine charm as a means of control. IU’s seemingly more traditional sexuality is in fact a highly-cultivated device, inducing submission from men to whom she appears to be submissive.
2010s-Present: Redefining Womanhood
The women of K-pop face a unique challenge compared to their male counterparts. Unlike K-pop boy bands whose fandom is mostly women, K-pop girl groups are beloved by men and women alike, with each artist having a different mixture of male and female fans. In the past few years, the women of K-pop became more attuned than ever to the complex gender dynamics of their fans, who are living in the age of #MeToo-era feminism and fluid gender identity. Of course, the more seemingly "conventional" K-pop girl groups, such as Twice or IZ*One, continue to remain hugely popular. And equally popular are groups like MAMAMOO, who flaunt their sexuality and do it on their own terms, not to meet anyone else’s expectations.
Blackpink's "DDU-DU DDU-DU," released in 2018
Blackpink arguably is the leader of the latter group. Fresh from their Coachella debut, Blackpink is this generation’s 2NE1, combining their predecessor’s alpha-girl swag with model-like looks. With more flash, more glam, and more swag, the four women of Blackpink — Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa — dominate the stage like four Beyoncés, totally devoid of any aegyo (cute expressions) that has long characterized K-pop girl groups.
Red Velvet, on the other hand, continues SM Entertainment’s girl-group tradition of cute girls growing into cheery young women. Yet like their predecessor Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet maintains a streak of independence that rejects being mere objects of desire (for example in “Bad Boy,” in which they view the men who refuse to bow to them as a challenge worth conquering.) Further, Red Velvet wears its feminism proudly: The group’s leader Irene recently made waves by saying at a fan meeting that she read Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Cho Nam-ju’s best-selling feminist novel. Irene’s statement was met with howls of sexist outrage. But Irene and Red Velvet persisted, never apologizing for her belief in gender equality.
LOONA's "Butterfly," released in 2019
LOONA presents still another possibility, attracting LGBT fandom with gender fluidity. With its “girl of the month” concept — introducing a new member every month for a calendar year — LOONA initially appeared to be on a similar track as Red Velvet. Yet with songs and music videos that appealed to the aesthetics of same-sex attraction, intricate choreography that puts them on-par with their male counterparts, and an inclusive concept that allows them to represent every girl, LOONA is cultivating an entirely new kind of diverse fanbase.
Where will the female K-pop idols go next? Of course, the previous generation will continue the process of maturing into their own artistry. Taeyeon of Girls’ Generation, for example, is rapidly emerging as a major figure in her own right. But the latest development is suggesting that the women of K-pop are on their way to overcoming the final frontier of idol music: gaining agency over the presentation of their looks, image, and music. With new girl groups such as (G)I-dle featuring women artists who are producing their own music and narrative — and established groups like Twice taking more creative control over their lyrics and stages — that reality doesn't seem so unlikely. Far from being "factory girls," the women of K-pop are increasingly charting their own course with greater independence than ever.