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K-Pop Just Another Vehicle for Misogyny and How to Reconcile

Tasia writes about maneuvering gender inequities and misogyny as a K-pop fan.

I discovered K-pop at fourteen at the behest of a veteran fan friend, who attempted to livestream our reaction to BEAST’s Bad Girl on Facebook. Unfortunately for her, the internet gods were not having it that day. Thank all residing entities, as I never would have lived that cringe down.  

As a passive listener whose golden era of the early 2010s has long passed, I still occasionally bop to new releases – alcohol-free, anyone? But now, K-pop holds a far different meaning to me. The rise of sex scandals, allegations of bullying and abuse within companies and by idols themselves, and an industry that ultimately perpetuates difficult-to-achieve beauty standards to a global audience has weathered the genre to me. I have before been the unwilling target of a koreaboo’s misguided affections, someone excited by the exoticism of Korean male idol beauty, fetishizing east Asians and hopeful for their own half Asian, half white babies.

When westerners think of misogyny in Asia, we might think of South or Southeast Asia – where “honor killings” are carried out by the family members of rape victims, where sexual abuse scandals in schools are an annual affair, where economic disadvantage fuels a global sex trafficking industry. We don’t typically think of South Korea, a developed nation, and one relatively quiet on the global stage outside of nuclear arms talks and now K-pop. But the truth is that misogyny is just as rampant in South Korea, it just presents itself differently. To an extent, misogyny in developed nations is more insidious than its counterparts – because it is not immediately visible, because it looks polished and educated, because it is present in even the highest of institutions, and it festers and seeps into every facet of society until radical societal change is the only mechanism for stopping it.

Graph of perception of gender equality in South Korea, 2020

Although homicide rates in the country remain relatively low, women continue to make up more than half of annual homicide victims. Brutal killings or sexual assaults of women and girls continuously spark debate on gender equality, but there is little change made to actual policy. South Korea’s #MeToo movement came around in 2018, when social media users caught onto the hashtag to raise awareness of a very specific gendered violence that was rising against women in the country at the intersection of the digital age: spycams, online harassment, deepfakes, and revenge porn. It is difficult to garner action from law enforcement authorities, who either don’t have the protocol or the willingness to counter these phenomena. Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) movements are growing in the country, possibly due to an ultra-competitive society where economic disparagement, frequent masculinity and identity crises, and feelings of inferiority lead to more and more Korean men disparaging women and feminism in online spaces. Most recently, Olympic archer An San became the target of MRA ire simply for having a short hairstyle.

The K-pop industry is simply another vehicle for misogyny conducted on both a systemic and individual level. Systemic because it serves as a catalyst for stringent gender roles, individual because successful idols are either powerful or powerless in the sphere of sexual violence depending on their gender. A 2019 article in Bloomberg magazine describes this in detail far better than I.

The degradation of mental and emotional health experienced by Goo Hara, whose ex-boyfriend threatened to blackmail her with sexual videos made without her consent. She filed a lawsuit against him in response, resulting in a slew of online harassment. The whole ordeal, which sparked a debate on Korea’s gender equality and shone light on how little care was given to sexual assault cases by the justice system (many of which were often conducted in the benefit of the perpetrator), led to Hara’s suicide. 

The online harassment faced by the late f(x) member Sulli, who was outspoken on a myriad of topics that challenged the nation’s conservatism. Her outspokenness about mental health, her relationships, and the freedom of women to dress how they want disconnected her from the expected image of a female idol – demure, soft-spoken, obedient. There are direct economic and social consequences for women who don’t fit in, even for those with public influence. The harassment she received for it threatened both her career and her mental health, to the point that she died by suicide in 2019.

The recent sentencing of former Big Bang idol Lee Seungri for the 2019 Burning Sun scandal, where he engaged in illegal prostitution to obtain investors for his businesses. The subsequent indictment of idols Jung Joon-Young and Choi Jong-Hoon for rape. Multiple sexual assault allegations coming out against former EXO member Kris Wu being attributed to the rise of #MeToo and discussions about consent in China.

Behind the beauty and glitz pumped into the K-pop industry, this is the reality. Misogyny does not happen in a vacuum. Misogynistic intent is always here, festering: the desire for revenge by Hara’s abusive ex-partner, the fake smiles to adoring fans by Seungri, the imbalance of power that can be weaponized by any idol seeking to gain something from their fans.

It all leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It makes me wonder: is this why I have taken so many steps back from K-pop? New gen music is exciting, dynamic, and has promising potential to change the tide of South Korea’s perceptions of gender roles and homogeneity. But I do not seek it out.

When I do go back and listen to music from that golden era – to now-disbanded groups, to the idols who have since passed, to the time before the collective listener base learned of the extent of scandals that encompassed topics far more serious than who’s dating who – is it because of inner machinations to reconnect with the remnants of 14-year-old me, before rent payments and taxes? Or am I seeking an even safer space? 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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