Three Steps Backward: Feminism in Pop Music

The month of March has not been kind to female empowerment in the pop music genre. From Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband” to NS Yoon-G’s “Wifey” and miss A’s “Only You,” fans of pop music have had little to celebrate in the way of gender equality. Should we be expecting more from our favorite pop stars?

Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband,” aside from embodying the ethos of a Target commercial, gives a list of demands for her future husband. “'Cause if you'll treat me right / I'll be the perfect wife,” Trainor sings, suggesting some kind of marital exchange as the key to success. But there’s an inherent inequality in Trainor’s requests. While the man is asked to buy flowers and take her on a date, the woman is expected to be “perfect” in return.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of “Dear Future Husband” is Trainor’s frequent promise of the exchange of sexual favors for basic human decency. If a man opens the door for his partner, surely he should be rewarded with oral sex, no? Sex as a behavioral bargaining chip, though confirmed again and again in pop culture, is actually a type of extortion if viewed from another angle. If a woman does not provide “special lovin’,” is her partner then allowed to behave like an asshole? If, according to this song and others like it, sex is required for decent treatment, is it really consensual at all?

NS Yoon-G’s recent single, “Wifey” (featuring MC Mong), is a perfect Kpop analog to the kinds of problems present in “Dear Future Husband.” Again, we are shown a relationship in which the balance of expectations is tipped wildly in the man’s favor. Although NS Yoon-G never explicitly states a need for perfection, she is, however, shown reading a book called “How to Be a Perfect Lady” (in typical Kpop style, the lyrics of “Wifey” are hardly illustrative of what we see in the music video). The man in this relationship is asked simply to show his love, hardly a big ask, but the woman is expected to treat every day like it is her partner’s birthday. Though much less obvious than Trainor, NS Yoon-G also suggests that sexual satisfaction is a further expectation of women when she sings “A special love for you, tell me what you want.” In “Wifey,” we receive a male perspective as well in the raps of MC Mong, who asks of NS Yoon-G, “When we go home, please do some special events for me.”

Home is important in this song. It’s where the woman spends all her time. “I’m waiting till you get home baby, I’m quietly waiting for you,” NS Yoon-G sings, looking lost and lonely by herself. MC Mong’s rap that her “Flapping apron is prettier than [her] dizzy mini skirt” would almost be sweet if it weren’t for the underlying assumption that the woman should be not just at home, but in the kitchen, preparing “a menu that you like” while her man is away at work. And NS Yoon-G shows the viewer exactly that in the music video. While her partner is away, NS Yoon-G cooks, tries on sexy outfits (presumably to impress her man), and generally just lays around waiting for him to come home. A woman’s life, this song suggests, should be understood in relation to her man. A woman’s identity as a “wifey” is more important than her identity as an individual. Femininity, according to these songs, is a performance for the male gaze.

Which brings us to miss A’s “Only You.” In this recent release, the lyrics are much less worrying than the visual experience. The music video opens with each member of miss A demonstrating their sexual appeal. But the occasion for all of this sexuality is voyeurism; there is a man in an apartment across the street who is watching all of this through a pair of binoculars. Strangely, inexplicably, instead of being disgusted by this man’s intense scrutiny, the members of miss A perform for him. They dance on the balcony where he can surely see them without the aid of binoculars. They reward his perverse male gaze by giving him exactly what he wants: more sexuality.

“Only You,” as a song, may be about love and devotion to a man, but the only men in this video are complete strangers. Moreover, they are strangers who ogle miss A, who objectify them, who intrude on their privacy (in the case of the voyeur), and who show them no respect at all by doing so. The only response miss A gives, however, is to submit more fully to the male gaze. They walk down the street, turning heads in their over-sexualized attire. Later, at a party, miss A become the center of attention when they perform in the middle of the room, all eyes on them.

Perhaps this is just the life of a pop star. One could even argue that miss A are making us, the viewer, complicit in the male gaze. When the voyeur’s binoculars become the lens through which we watch the music video, aren’t we the reason why miss A must perform? I want to say, yes. I want to believe that the same group that sang “I Don’t Need a Man” is doing more here than accepting an unfair expectation of female pop stars as objects of sexuality. But what I see is yet another music video in which women are seen performing in the very roles they might seek to reject.

I’m not asking that every pop song be an “Independent Women” or an “I Don’t Need a Man.” I’m not asking for the male phallus to be symbolically engulfed in a funerary pyre. But I do wish that more strong, independent women of pop music would give fans something to be proud of.

Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.


  1. I can't take this seriously.
    You don't seem to know what marketing and target audiences are, or you are not taking these things into consideration on purpose which would be worse.
    The companies are trying to make money not represent real life and standars.

    1. There are many lenses through which you can view pop music. One lens would be marketing/economics, as you suggest, attempting to sell as many records as possible. I'm more interested in the culture of pop music. Like it or not, pop stars are major creators of our culture. These artists' videos will be watched by millions, and their lyrics heard by even more. What's unfortunate is that the culture they are helping to create is one in which women are not empowered.

    2. Maybe i'm just being silly but from my point of view it's just some people that create this very specific problem because they take it out of context. In music sometimes if you look at it as something else than a product that wants to sell then you are creating this new problem on top of a more serious problem. Music can sometimes be shallow when it comes to lyrics and music videos and there's no reason for someone to take a "not empowered" character of a woman from a simple story of a song and have her represent women as a whole. It's just some random woman, and the truth is that that woman could represent many women in the real world and saying something like this kinda devalues their choices and their priorities.

      My point basically is that you can't order someone on how to make their videos/songs but on the other hand people can and should be more thoughtful about what the product represents and what it doesn't (including your cultural concern). But then again that's probably too hard to ask from everyone because people are people and they're going to do their thing.

    3. I think you're right to suggest there is a danger in reading too much into a specific song or music video. The impetus for this article was seeing all three of these music videos debut in a very short time span. Taken together, I think they start to represent a problem. If we are continually presented with examples of women who are not empowered, at some point that becomes a part of our culture, doesn't it?

      I think our separate views express exactly what is so difficult about producing a product that in turn affects culture. Of course we don't want to limit or force artists to produce a certain kind of music. But what kind of response is allowed? I like these artists, I like their music - I only wish, as I'm sure others do, that they would represent women more positively. So how do we effect change? The free market should allow me to "vote" with my wallet, though these songs are not purely about female representation. Is it fair to punish them? I'm not sure if I have the answer to that, to be honest...

  2. One point to keep in mind on this topic, is how different the culture is in Asia compared to the west. In terms of feminism, Asia is far, far behind the west, and not all women in Asia feel that's a bad thing, since some are scandalized by how aggressive and combative many western women seem to be, and they actually enjoy being pampered and treated like something delicate to be protected, desired, worshiped, pursued, etc. Some women love "male gaze" and can't get enough of it, and although we might question whether placing so much importance on being desirable is healthy, we can't deny that women like that do exist. There are certainly some western women who are the same way, which is why you sometimes see women arguing with the feminists. It really depends on the personality of the individual.

    In terms of K-Pop, all pretenses at "empowering women" are purely for commercial gain. No one really takes it seriously--be it the people behind the scenes who comes up with the concepts, or the performers themselves. This is why they can do a "female power" song one day, and then next month release another song with a totally sexualized male gaze music video. These pop acts try on concepts like clothes and don't necessarily believe in any of it--they are just creating a product and an image to sell. The ones who do truly believe in something and stand behind their beliefs even in their careers--you can see clearly who they are, because they are consistent about it and takes it seriously.

    Another point to consider, is that if you're looking for deeper meaning, such as sociopolitical messages, you'll much more likely find it in S. Korea's indie music scene, where the musical acts are usually far more serious about making thoughtful music with substance. In a way, the whole concept of "critical k-pop" is a bit of any oxymoron, because mainstream K-Pop is anything but--it's just disposable entertainment mostly. If you want to get critical, maybe "critical K-Indie music" would be more satisfying for those looking for substance. And I'm saying this as someone who loves both mainstream K-Pop and K-Indie music.


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