Scholarly Writing

Pure Love f(x): Feminisms and K-pop Girl Groups

Female K-pop group f(x)
Female K-pop group f(x)

K-pop girl groups tend to be described as sexy, fierce or cute.  Some suggest that images of fierceness encourage girls to be empowered, while images of cuteness take away their agency.  However, responses by fans of f(x), a K-pop female group, suggest that fans prefer unique and diverse images of women.

Male groups outnumber female groups in K-pop, but girl groups attract large numbers of mostly female fans.  Commentators and fans describe these girl groups as cute, sexy or fierce.  On the blog Miss Unconditionally MoiliciousMiss Mila describes the difference between 2NE1 and SNSD, two of most popular girl groups, this way:

First of all, 2NE1 and SNSD are completely different. 2NE1 is westernized in every way and makes music with “the independent woman” theme. SNSD is much more oriented towards the Asian audience and makes cuter and less intense music.

Fans tend to think of the independent image of 2NE1 as more empowering and the cute image of SNSD as less empowering.  One respondent wrote:  “I’m not interested in girl groups that go over the top with the cuteness and the aegyo because I just find that plain annoying. So to see a group that focuses on how strong women can be and how sexy women can be without the overuse of ‘cute’ is something that drew me in immediately.” (Anderson, “2ne1 Data Set”).

Lizzie at Beyond Hallyu echoes the critique of the cutesy image for women when talking about SNSD’s “I Got a Boy”:  “However, I was still shocked by how blatantly this song flaunts it’s reductionist, and frankly insulting, view of women. By using a more complex song structure to tell more stories and show more points of view, this song manages to create an even worse image of young women than songs like ‘Oh!’ by the sheer number of negative portrayals. Both the video and the song consistently portray women in numerous different examples as vain, petty, manipulative and incompetent.”

These opinions suggest that fans of K-pop’s girl groups only see images in terms of cute/fierce.  However, fans of f(x) say they like the group for reasons that go beyond the cute/fierce binary.

Like most K-pop fans, fans of f(x) like the group because of the music, which fans find to be unique.  One respondent wrote:  “Just like the meaning of their name, their music does not stick to a single or fixed genre, which i believe is a very good point in terms of music flexibility. they can go from dance to bubblegum pop then to ballads, showing their strength in adapting different genres of music” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”).

This range can be seen in the ballad “Beautiful Goodbye” and the dance single “NU ABO”:

Respondents also embrace the variety of concepts of f(x).  They say that the members have different personalities and different talents. One respondent wrote:  “Their music is amazing and their personalities are even better!” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”). Several respondents also made reference to their appearance, calling members cute and beautiful. At the same time, respondents identified Amber‘s “tomboy” concept as something they liked.  One respondent wrote:  “But most importantly I like the fact that they have Amber in the group, because she is a tomboy, and not any other group in Kpop or even in the mainstream really have an “amber” in the group!” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set).

This range of images can be seen in f(x)’s photo shoot for Marie Claire Korea and a photo from a Thailand trip:

 

Other respondents see the images of f(x) as falling in between those reflected by SNSD and 2NE1.  One wrote:  “I don’t always follow F(x) but they’re another unique image among girl groups! They also don’t go with traditional cutesy and sexy like 2ne1.” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”)  Another wrote: “They are  often over shadowed by their SNSD seniors which is what provokes me to pay attention to them even more.” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”)

Other respondents also identified the diversity of the members themselves in terms of ethnicity. One respondent wrote:  “Two Chinese members and two English speaking members which makes for me being able to understand them more. Support Victoria because she’s mainland Chinese like myself ” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”).  Another wrote:  “I also like how the group is half Korean and mixes members from different places.” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”)

Instead of limiting the members of f(x) to one image of women,  fans demonstrate that they like a range of images for women. Respondents shows that they include cuteness as just one of a range of images that women can take on. When commentators use the cute/sexy binary to describe girl groups, they are using an Anglo-American feminist lens that not only eliminates other modes of being a woman, but it also overlooks the role that race and ethnicity plays in expressions of feminism.  Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal write:

Many feminists who identify themselves as marxist view all women as belonging to a unified class with a homogeneous class consciousness. The Eurocentric and class-bound nature of this analysis is reflected in the theorization of the family as the primary site of oppression. Third world feminists and feminists of color have objected to a hegemonic approach that demonizes non-Western families as more oppressive than their first world counterparts. (351)

In other words, commentators measure the feminism of K-pop girl groups by Western definitions of empowerment. These definitions do not take into consideration how different women may value different kinds of femininity. Specifically, commentators define feminism in K-pop by rejecting cuteness.  However, fans of f(x) show that they embrace a range of concepts of women, including cuteness. In this way, they are like other fans of K-pop girl groups. Sun Jung and Yukie Hirata explain that Japanese fans like K-pop girl groups for a variety of reasons:

 K-pop girl groups present variedly constructed images including strong female images less visible in the Japanese aidoru pop scene, and many young Japanese female fans see them as role models. As widely reported, these fans find K-pop girl groups are kakkoii (“cool”) and sexy, whereas J-pop girl groups are mainly kawaii (“cute”) (Y. S. Jeon 2011; H. S. Kim 2010).

Fans of f(x) also value the variety in both concepts as well as the members of the group.  Specifically, they recognize the different ethnicities of the members of the group, something that also challenges an Anglo-American form of feminism.  The responses of fans of f(x) demonstrate that there are multiple forms of feminism at play in K-pop girl groups.

Images: f(x) 1, 2, 3

Sources

“에프엑스 f(x)_NU ABO(NU 예삐오)_MusicVideo.” Uploaded by SMENT.  YouTube. 4 May 2010.

f(x) – Beautiful Goodbye.” Uploaded by CodeAnalysisSeason5. YouTube. 14 July 2011.

Anderson, Crystal S.  “2NE1 Data Set.” Unpublished raw data.

—-.  “f(x) Data Set.” Unpublished raw data.

Kaplan, Caren and Inderpal Grewal.  “Transnational Feminist Cultural Studies: Beyond the Marxism/Poststructuralism/Feminism Divides.” Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms and the State. Ed. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcon and Minoo Moallem. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Jung, Sun and Yukie Hirata.  “K-pop Idol Girl Group Flows in Japan in the Era of Web 2.0.” ejcjs. 12.2 (2012).

Lizzie, “Girls’ Generation has a boy and some serious gender troubles.” Beyond Hallyu. 1 Mar 2013.

Miss Mila, “Keeping up with Kpop – SNSD vs 2NE1.” Miss Unconditionally Moilicious. 24 Apr 2011.


Creative Commons License
“Pure Love f(x): Femininisms and K-pop Girl Groups” by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on May 12, 2013.

News

CONFERENCE ABSTRACT: Cross-cultural Visual Aesthetics in K-pop @ AAS 2015

S.E.S
S.E.S

Glamour Girls: Cross-cultural Visual Aesthetics in K-pop

March 26-29, 2015 ♦ Association for Asian Studies ♦ Chicago, IL

One of the reasons for the global resonance of K-pop comes from its visuality, which crosses language barriers to reach a diverse and global audience. While governments and corporate agencies use this visuality to promote soft power, the global audiences that receive such images also make meaning outside of intentional image branding. Such constructions of meaning, especially for female K-pop groups, are derived from, K-pop, a hybridized form of Korean popular culture, and occur within established contexts, including a long tradition of “girl groups.”   Using theories of transnational feminism in popular culture and discourse analysis to examine images, music videos and fan responses through social media, this paper explores how three generations of contemporary female K-pop groups embody hybrid femininities that incorporate elements from 1990s African American R&B female groups. In turn, female fans interpret these hybrid femininities in ways that expand the notion of empowerment for women beyond mere “girl power.” This paper adds a contemporary and transnational element to the study female pop groups by placing female K-pop groups within a larger tradition of girl groups. It challenges interpretations of female K-pop groups that characterize them solely as vehicles that appeal to male desire by seeking to understand how the largely female fandom makes meaning of femininities represented by these groups.

Scholarly Writing

Ethnicity, Glamour and Image in Korean Popular Music

LEEHYORI_PromoMonochrome_asiatv

The 1960s girl group concept makes regular appearances in K-pop.  While some think that this kind of image represents a lack of ethnic identity in a quest for mainstream acceptance, I suggest that the 1960s girl group image promoted by women of color represents an ethnic glamour aesthetic.

Contemporary K-pop is driven by image as well as music.  Part of this has to do with its emergence along with rising technologies like the music video and the Internet, which “generate[d] a condition of possibility of reaching a mass audience outside of national borders,” and resulted in photogenic performers as part of appealing images (Lie, 353, 356). This is similar to rhythm and blues-inflected pop music of the 1960s. Gerald Early notes that technology contributed to this music becoming an “artifact,” in part because television distributed the music as well as an image (60, 62).

K-pop agencies, like SM Entertainment, carefully craft the images of K-pop artists for concepts. This is part of the training process, which also includes language instruction, choreography and hosting practice.  This also contributes to criticisms that such preening in the quest for audience acceptance diminishes the presence of ethnic culture.   John Lie argues that contemporary K-pop lacks Korean culture:  “As a matter of traditional culture, there is almost nothing ‘Korean’ about K-pop” (360). Motown acts under Berry Gordy also received similar kinds of training and, were subject to similar criticisms.   Nelson George defines Gordy’s project as assimilationist in nature, where “white values were held up as primary role models” and as a result, “blacks lost contact with the uniqueness of their people, and with their own heritage” (xii). For George and Lie, mainstream appeal translates into a loss of ethnic culture.

When K-pop adopts the 1960s retro look for female artists through chic hairstyles and dresses with eye-catching prints or dazzling sequins and fur reminiscent of The Supremes, I suggest that it partakes of a model of ethnic glamour established by black girl groups.  Brian Ward characterizes Gordy’s quest for mainstream success as one  predicated on challenging prevailing notions about American blacks:   “Gordy felt [the training] might make them more acceptable to white America and an expanding black middle class for whom mainstream notions of respectability remained important” (266).  The aspiration was felt by blacks, even those not in the middle class:  “The spangled pursuit of success carried no stigma among black fans who had routinely been denied equal opportunity to compete for the financial rewards of the mainstream” (Ward, 267).   This is key, because it shows the importance of how viewers read such images. Cynthia Cyrus argues that even though the images of girl groups of the 1960s were  well-managed and carefully crafted, they nevertheless resonated positively with fans:   “The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . The role of the viewer is central to creating meaning, and the girl group fan engaged actively in dialogue with the images placed before here” (190-1).

KIMSISTERS_Promo_iankim

Just as black fans interpreted those images of black women as positive, Korean women like the Kim Sisters, styled in the same way, represent a glamourous  ethnic, in this case, Korean, experience to aspire to.  Ian Kim writes:   “For a Korean American like me, who grew up in parts of the US where I was the only Asian kid in school, it’s pretty astonishing to discover Korean performers who were successful in the US such an early time. Even more impressive is that they sang in English.”  The Kim Sisters’ images and participation in the entertainment world in the United States functioned as an alternative to the realities of the aftereffects of the Korean War and American military presence. San Byun-Ho remembers:  “After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world; we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died” (Forsyth). Just like images of 1960s black girl groups, such images of the Kim Sisters represent an image of ethnic aspiration.

Contemporary fans may see retro images in K-pop, like those by Lee Hyori and the Wonder Girls, as drawing from a visual discourse of ethnic glamour.  The measure of the impact of the image should also be measured by those who make meaning out of it.  These images matter precisely because they show Koreans in a glamorous context that also acknowledges their ethnicity.   As the Vintage Black Glamour  Tumblr and forthcoming book suggest, images of ethnic glamour still resonate today.  Nichelle Gainer says that any image she chooses has to have “a certain style to it, a certain beauty” and that she includes information about the photo because “I want people to know you’re not looking at some anonymous random person” (Brown).  Given the frequency that the 1960s concept recurs in K-pop, ethnic glamour still matters.

WONDERGIRLS_NobodyConcept_seoulbeats

Images: 123

Sources

Brown, Tanya Ballard.  “‘Vintage Black Glamour’ Exposes Little-Known Cultural History.” The Picture Show – Photo Stories from NPRNPR 12 Oct 2012. Web. 27 Jan 2014.

Cyrus, Cynthia J.  “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.

Early, Gerald. One Nation Under a Grove: Motown and American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Forsyth, Luc.  “Korea’s Stressed Masses.” Groove Korea20 Aug 2012. Web. 27 Jan 2014.

Kim, Ian. “The Kim Sisters.” Ian Kim. 23 Jan 2014. Web. 28 Jan 2014.

Lie, John.  “What is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.

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Ethnicity, Glamour and Image in Korean Popular Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on January 28, 2014.

Scholarly Writing

Whose Generation? GIRLS’ GENERATION!: Gender, Audience and K-pop

Girls' Generation, Vogue Japan, 2011
Girls’ Generation, Vogue Japan, 2011

As the number of female groups increase in number in K-pop, commentators and scholars continue to focus on the meaning of the representations produced by these groups. While some argue that such representations are geared towards men, this ignores the way the majority female fanbases of these groups construct meaning of these representations.

Because female groups, like many male groups in K-pop, are put together by Korean agencies (rather than forming on their own, as is the norm in countries like the United States in the West), some argue that appeal to men plays a role in this process.  A guest contributor for seoulbeats asserted: “Like many other K-pop girl groups, SNSD [Girls’ Generation] was created to be ‘ogled’ over by their target audience–male fans.”  This sentiment was repeated by other online writers such as James Turnbull and Jessica Doyle.

Scholars not only argue that groups like SNSD were created for men, they also argue that images, music videos and performances by girl groups like SNSD are targeted to male, middle-aged audiences.  Through an examination of music videos and lyrics, Stephen Epstein with James Turnbull conclude that they all geared towards men rather than female empowerment, whether it is the “viewer. . . [who] is regularly constructed as male,”  a mode of femininity “that renders males helpless,” “a self-objectifying preoccupation with an external gaze” or the definition of “women in relation to men” (333).  In doing so, they challenge the notion that empowerment represented by girl groups “brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world” and conclude “that Korea’s pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that for middle-aged men to focus on their gaze on underage performers becomes cause for rejoicing rather than embarrassment” (333).

However, several scholars have noted that the K-pop training model originally sought to ascertain the preferences of teenage girls.   In separate articles, Doobo Shim and Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim reference Lee Soo Man‘s survey of teenage girls to discover what they wanted in their first-generation idols at SM Entertainment.  Since then, agencies continue to target audiences beyond middle-aged men. With the development of second-generation idols like SNSD, cross-generational appeal became the goal which includes audiences in addition to middle-aged men.  Kim Chang Nam observes that “fandom has expanded to include people in their twenties and thirties, and even into older generations. Newly coined terms, including ‘uncle fans,’ ‘aunt fan,’ and ‘older sister fan,’ have appeared” (111).  As a result, middle-aged men are one of a number of types of audiences for a group like SNSD.

Moreover, an interpretation of videos and lyrics overlooks how the majority female audience for girl groups like SNSD construct meaning about the images and performances they see. S. Craig Watkins and Rana Emerson draw on theories of media reception, which posit “that receivers of media are actively involved in the construction of meaning” (156).  In doing so, they reveal not only “the strategic ways girls and women use the media in their everyday lives” but also “the ways in which women appropriate the media as a site of meaning construction, actively engaging in and, occasionally, contesting images and themes of gender domination” (157).  As a result, they are not passive audiences, but actively create meaning for themselves based on what they see. Just because men may read such images in a way that does not empower women does not mean that female audiences read them in the same way.

This is not the first iteration of the girl group.  Even when such images are created by men, as Cynthia Cyrus notes for images of 1960s girl groups, women can still craft meaning independent of the intention of such images:

Still, to understand these images primarily as symbols of male desire is to miss the point. The teen standing in front of the record bin would not have primarily engaged with the picture through some displaced sexual desire. Rather, she would have evaluated these images as what they were, invitations to consumer participation. The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . Ethnographic evidence suggests that viewers did, in fact, identify with the girl group image (190-191).

Rather than one way of rendering meaning from girl groups, even female fans do not make the same kinds of meaning out of girl groups.  The representations of femininity and female behavior are more complex than reducing them down to objects for men to look at. Such an approach silences the voices of the majority female fanbases who circulate, consume and make meaning of performances by girl groups.

Image: 1

Sources

Cyrus, Cynthia J. “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.

Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull.  “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 314-336.

Guest, “Is SNSD Being Sexually Harassed?” seoulbeats. 2 Mar 2010. Web. 3 May 2014.

Kim, Chang Nam. K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music. Seoul: Hollym, 2012.

Shim, Doobo.  “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia.” Media, Culture & Society 28.1 (2006): 25-44.

Shin, Solee I and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia (2013): DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.

Watkins, S. Craig and Rana A. Emerson.  “Feminist Media Criticism and Feminist Media Practices.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. 571 (2000): 151-166.

Creative Commons License
Whose Generation? GIRLS’ GENERATION!: Gender, Audience and K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on May 3, 2014.