Female K-Pop Stars Face Criticism for Seemingly Feminist Behavior

Irene of girl group Red Velvet
Han Myung-Gu/WireImage

Irene of Red Velvet attends the photocall for the 'PRADA' on Feb. 7, 2018 in Seoul, South Korea. 

As an industry, K-pop regularly faces issues regarding its characterization, and fetishism, of women. But the latest trend is an unsettling one, as female Korean pop stars are being called out for even the most subtly feminist actions.  

The first prominent instance of this came several weeks ago in February, when APink’s Naeun, who appeared in Psy’s “New Face” music video last year, posted a photo to Instagram in which she was holding her phone in a seemingly innocuous Zadig & Voltaire case that read “girls can do anything.”

The picture caused a storm of criticism in South Korea, as people claimed that Naeun was intentionally promoting feminist ideals; feminism is typically viewed negatively in the country largely due to its deeply ingrained patriarchal culture. Naeun’s agency said that the phone case had been a gift from the company as she had done a photo shoot with the fashion house, but the picture was promptly deleted from her social media account.

Last week saw Red Velvet’s Irene similarly come under scrutiny after fans of the K-pop singer took to social media to say that they were no longer going to support her after she said that she had read Cho Nam-joo's bestelling novel Kim Ji Young Born 1982, a fictionalized reflection on casual sexism in South Korean society. Fans allegedly burned photos of the star and got rid of merchandise featuring her image, criticizing her solely for her seemingly feminist reading preferences.

Several other prominent Korean celebrities, including Sooyoung of Girls' Generation, BTS’ RM, and the immensely popular variety show star and MC Yoo Jae-suk have also reportedly read the novel, though not faced the same amount of scrutiny for reading a book that is widely popular in the country. However, anti-feminist fans angered by Irene’s actions have since begun to blame Sooyoung, her former labelmate, for being a corrupter of sorts, since the older star named her recent reality series Choi Sooyoung Born 1990 after being inspired by Cho’s novel.

The increasing vehemence towards female stars merely showing any interest in bettering the rights of women and female empowerment comes at a time when South Korea’s entertainment is dealing with major disruptions as a result of #MeToo. The local television industry in particular is radically facing introspection as allegations are being brought against top stars, and recoiling from the death of actor Jo Min-ki, who was found dead following accusations in what is a suspected suicide.

The Korean music industry has yet to become thoroughly entrenched in #MeToo, though allegations have begun to circulate and rumors based on anonymous accusations abound; at least two K-pop idols have denied that they are perpetrators of a widely-publicized news story that claimed an unidentified boy band band member raped a woman six years ago.

While only loosely related to the #MeToo movement and the rising denigration of seemingly feminist singers, another recent incident regarding a new girl group has similarly raised questions regarding the moral responsibility of female K-pop stars. A trio of Japanese singers pursuing a career in K-pop under the name Honey Popcorn has stirred up controversy for also being adult actresses in their home country, leading to protests from people who to keep K-pop's female imagery seemingly more wholesome. Each of the three -- Mikami Yua, Sakura Moko, and Matsuda Miko--  were part of J-pop groups prior to pursuing careers as adult video, or AV, stars. They are seemingly big fans of K-pop, and Mikami is reportedly funding Honey Popcorn’s career in Korea as a passion project.

There is no discernible difference at first glance between these three and any other K-pop stars, and the visual and audio elements of their cute, bubblegum synth-pop single “Bibidi Babidi Boo” are up to par with the first release of many Korean girl groups. But due to their career path in one of Japan’s most lucrative entertainment industries, over 35,000 people have signed a presidential petition in Korea to request that the South Korean government step in and keep Honey Popcorn from continuing a career in K-pop, an industry that itself regularly sexualizes its artists, both male and female. Their nationality does not appear to play a role in the controversy despite prominent anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea and a general reluctance towards entirely non-Korean K-pop groups. 

According to Yonhap, the act has seen some support from Korean music listeners but in general there is ambivalence regarding the role of K-pop acts to live up to the squeaky clean idol-like imagery labels sell, despite the likes of popular female acts such as HyunA and EXID gaining fame through notably sexualized concepts. 

Though K-pop is immensely popular throughout the globe, and is rife with talent and artistic experimentalism, as long as its female stars are regularly criticized regarding their personal activities and thoughts, it will continue to be seen as an industry peddling manufactured entertainers, rather than one that nurtures pop artists who are able to represent themselves, and their opinions, honestly and earnestly to the public.