There are gender roles that each of us occupy every time we step outside our door. And like any society, Korea’s pop music gives us a glimpse into how to critically examine the culture. Looking at these five videos, we can see the many issues Korea has, not just with the treatment of its women, but also with their very perception. Here we examine the many different and complicated roles occupied by women in Kpop. Agree with our interpretations? Disagree angrily? Leave comments below to discuss!
Glam - “In Front of the Mirror”
With “In Front of the Mirror,” Glam confronts the image conscious culture that, in many ways, they help perpetuate. Let us explain. There’s talk of concepts, of manufactured image, of shedding endless tears. Sadly, they lament being ugly. “I’m not okay. I’m unhappy with my life,” they sing. There are moments where this video shows their subversion to the media’s concept of beauty, and they almost hit the right marks to make their point. There’s a scene when Dahee pulls off her wig, and that’s telling of image’s fallacy, for a moment, until we see that her hair underneath is just as perfect as the fake hair she had on (by perfect, I mean by established pop standards). There is very little shown here of the differences between their on-stage persona and their reality, and that hurts the song’s chances of having a powerful punch. “Don’t you know, I’m not pretty. My face is not pretty...But my heart would be beautiful…” could almost be empowering except for the video preventing their stars from showing some of their true blemishes. It’s easy to pick the video apart on that basis, but it makes sense that they wouldn’t break free entirely from the world they inhabit. In the end, it’s where they operate, and there’s very little alternative (that’s what makes the song so depressing). And though it’s admirable that Glam here would try to confront these issues, it’s like confronting those issues while wearing kiddie gloves. In the end of the video, even their agency is taken away from them, when a male figure of authority chides them in the dressing room, and they rush out after him, like children, making faces and throwing jabs behind him, but failing, ultimately, and sadly, to hit anything substantial.
Dal Shabet - “Be Ambitious”
“Stop looking at my eyes! Look at my legs” the girls of Dal Shabet scream, exasperated. Apparently, the men in their lives are not noticing their womanly charms. In a way, this video is an anthem to all men to make the first move. Don’t be shy. I’m interested. It’s strange that a video would attempt to appear feminist and empowering with such an old fashion message, giving the men the agency, while the women remain sex-starved, famished. I can almost imagine lines like: “A girl shouldn’t say this first,” being from an old fifties movies starring a Hepburn and maybe a Bogart. Yes, there is something empowering with women having confidence in their own sexuality, and the girls here do have that confidence when they show their legs, tearing away their skirts to reveal even shorter shorts. But there’s also something off about the lyrics and the song’s message, like they were written by a man that is only imagining a woman’s empowerment. Trapped in the sphere of male choice, there is very little the women can do except beg them to make the first move. But why can’t a woman make the first move? And, more worrying, by saying to men that women are in fact interested in them, they’re just not showing it, are they really promoting the right message? In the end, isn’t that very message dangerous?
Ga-in - “Fxxk U”
Ga-in’s “Fxxk U” serves almost as a harsh rebuke against the worldview of Dal Shabet’s “Be Ambitious.” Throughout the video, Ga-in repeatedly spurns the advances of (her co-singer) Bumkey. While some interpret this video simply as a dysfunctional relationship, the video’s violence seems to step beyond those bounds. Bumkey seems crazed as he tears at Ga-in’s clothes, pinning her against the wall, sneaking up on her in the shower. Here we see the dangers of men assuming that women want them to always make a first move. Even in a long-term and trusting relationship, consensuality is still required. What we’re seeing in this video is not a unseemly flirtation, or sexual power dynamics. What Ga-in is presenting us with here is an assault. There are other strange aspects of the video that are harder to explain. The blood that erupts in the shower is almost inexplicable and could represent sexual violence, or something far more abstract. Bumkey splattering his face in a cake probably represents sexual frustration, but could also signal a more simple despair. But what is clear is the “Fuck you,” the surprising profanity that Ga-in sings in the chorus, and the “I don’t want it now,” clear in any terms. When a girl says no, no matter what, you listen.
Tint - “Wolf is Stupid”
“Wolf is Stupid,” by newcomers, Tint, is a song chock-full of aegyo. And that may have been the way Tint approached their second single, from a marketing perspective, but there are also gendered stereotypes everywhere you look. Or don’t look, as is the case with the eponymous wolf character. The women in the music video are upset because their man never notices all the wonderful things they do for him. Things like: get a haircut, buy clothes, get manicures, put on make-up, lose weight, and wear short skirts. How dare he. Nearly everything that the women of Tint are upset about directly relates to image (the exception being cooking), and to the need for a man’s acceptance of the way they look. Though there must be a plot somewhere in this video about a man being a pig, or a wolf, or some type of animal, it’s the attitude of Tint that is the most dangerous here. “Wolf is Stupid” is dangerous because it teaches women to expect and require the approval of men. This kind of cultural habituation is, unfortunately, all too common in Kpop music videos. Is there anyone willing to stand up and give us something empowering to believe in?
Miss A - “I Don’t Need a Man”
Miss A and “I Don’t Need a Man” does for Korea what Destiny’s Child and “Independent Women” did for America. It provides a positive (for once) image of women without men. And like any good anthem, it’s catchy as hell. Fei, Jia, Min, and Suzy stand up for women who pay their own rent, who buy their own clothes, who don’t need a man! Finally! But even the independent women of Miss A seem to have trouble believing their gall, to suggest such a thing. Without men? Even while functioning as an anthem, the chorus of “I Don’t Need a Man” repeatedly questions the women of Miss A. What? Really? Truly? The often repressive gender roles in Kpop give Miss A every chance to turn back on their independence. But they don’t end on a question, they stay strong, and proud, and take an important step for women. Art can function as an impetus for societal change. And a song like “I Don’t Need a Man” should have women of every race, creed, and color standing up as independent women.