As part of my research for my book project, Crazy/Sexy/Cool: Transnational Femininities in K-pop, I’ve been reading up on girl industries and girl cultures. Such scholarship invariably places these in a neoliberalist context, and this has a bearing on female K-pop groups. On one hand, K-pop girl groups are created by Korean agencies to appeal to global mass audiences, who are mostly female. At the same time, individual fans find such groups appealing, sometimes in ways that challenge the intention of the Korean agencies. Marnina Gonick and Yeran Kim take two different approaches that bear on my work on K-pop girl groups.
In “Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies,” Kim argues that “girl bodies are the core of the neoliberal regime of knowledge, power and pleasure” (334). Specifically, female K-pop girl groups are “cultural content that is designed and cultivated in a corporate management system. The mission and process of self-making as idols, regulated in the norms of competition, strategic training and management, self-invention, flexibility and multi-playing, embodies neoliberal idealization” (336). This makes sense to a certain extent, given the careful training of idols in general. This strategy can be traced back at least to the Hollywood casting system of the early 20th century, which was used for male and female starts. There is a business as well as cultural interest in promoting certain images for profit. The image that is used to appeal to various ages and ethnicities of fans reflects an ambiguity: “The girl’s excessively sexualized body image tears up the pretentiously safe discursive surface of the girl, which should be innocent and pure in its literal meaning. The girls’ ambiguous sexuality is placed between pretty child/seductive adult, and split between conflicting binaries of purity/sensation, innocence/maturity and neatness/vulgarity” (340).
It is this very tension between seemingly opposing images that Gonick seeks to unravel in “Between ‘Girl Power’ and “Reviving Ophelia.” While she writes on girl culture beyond K-pop girl groups, Gonick argues that rather than reinforcing the binaries that emerge from girl cultures, we should see them as interconnected. She describes a binary that includes Girl Power, which “represents a ‘new girl’: assertive, dynamic, and unbound from the constraints of passive femininity,” and Reviving Ophelia, which “presents girls as vulnerable, voiceless, and fragile” (2). She argues that both “participate in the production of the neoliberal girl subject with the former representing the idealized form of the self-determining individual and the latter personifying an anxiety about those who are unsuccessful in producing themselves in this way’ (2). Gonick recognizes that these modes of girl culture are contextualized by neoliberalism as Kim does, but gives more emphasis to the way girls participate and make meaning of these complex images: “Both Girl Power and Reviving Ophelia discourses emphasize young female subjectivities as projects that can be shaped by the individual rather than within a social collectivity. The discourses encourage young women to work on themselves, through the dual campaigns of the Do-It-Yourself self-invention and ‘girls can do anything’ rhetoric of ‘Girl Power,’ as well as the self-help books and programs that are available to remedy girls in crisis” (18).
Both authors talk about the divergent images promoted by girl cultures like those that surround female K-pop girl groups, but Kim favors a structural interpretation of how fans interpret those images. She relies on reading such interpretations through the economic and governmental means that produce them and elides the interpretative work that fans do. Gonick keeps open the possibility that fans read those conflicting images in ways they may find empowering or the foundation for self-improvement.
“SISTAR’s Sailor Moon Cosplay Tickles Fans’ Fancy.” KoreAm Journal. 17 Jan 2014. Web. 28 Aug 2014.
Gonick, Marnina. “Between ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Reviving Ophelia”: Constituting the Neoliberal Girl Subject.” NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 1-23.
Kim, Yeran. “Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies.” Journal of Gender Studies 20.4 (2011): 333-345.
Girl Culture, Individuals and Neoliberalism by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.