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


“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.

K-pop Fandom 101

Glowsticks for various K-pop groups and artists
Glowsticks for various K-pop groups and artists

Many know that K-pop fans play an active role in K-pop, but few may know just how complex K-pop fandoms are.

What is a Fandom?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines fandom as “the world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist.”  Fandom refers to a collection of fans of the general pursuit or to a collection of fans of a specific practitioner of the pursuit.

So, K-pop fandom can refer to fans who identify as fans of K-pop, the amusement.  Of 790 respondents who answered a question about why they were K-pop fans between April 29, 2011 and April 15, 2012 as part of an iFans survey, many described themselves as fans of K-pop in general, not of a particular group or artist.  One respondent noted:  “95% of the songs in my Ipod belong to the Kpop genre. Also, I constantly update myself with Kpop news from various internet websites” (Anderson).  Another noted “spending lots of time watching Kpop news, videos and listening to Kpop songs” (Anderson). Several respondents also noted that they were members of online K-pop media outlets and cover dance groups.

K-pop fandom can also refer to fans who identify as fans of an individual K-pop group or solo artist.   While media frequently suggests that K-pop groups are alike, the fandoms of specific groups and artists are very different.  Some of the more defined fandoms have developed their own culture and languages.

K-pop’s Fan Communities

Individual K-pop fandoms are made even more complicated by their global nature, as they involve fans inside and outside of Korea.

On one hand,  there are official fan clubs sanctioned by the artist such as those described by Paul Théberge:  “Since the mid-1990s, it has become common for stars to have their own professionally run websites. . . . These sites are run variously by artists, their management, their record companies, or more recently, by specialized third-party interests” (493). Often after a K-pop group or artist debuts, management and the artist will name their fans, create an official fan club and designate an official fan club color.   For example, Starship Entertainment debuted the male group Boyfriend in May 2011, and announced the name of the fanclub in August 2011:  “Despite many feeling ‘Girlfriend’ would fit the group’s fanclub name perfectly, Boyfriend felt the name would have not been appropriate for their male fans, so instead Boyfriend fans will now be called ‘Best Friends’” (“Boyfriend Reveals Fan Club Name).  Decisions about fanclub names are often made with fans in mind.  Those who obtain membership in these official fan clubs receive perks, including advanced notice of activities, access to merchandise and preference in concert seating.

However, most of these official fanclubs are not open to fans outside of Korea.  Blogger BOYMILK reports:  “Fan club applicants to any fan club for SM Entertainment artists generally must have a Korean Social Security number (chumin tŭngnok pŏnho, 주민 등록 번호) in order to apply.  This makes it effectively impossible for international K-pop fans to join official fan clubs for some of K-pop’s most famous idol groups.” Nevertheless,  fans outside of Korea have established hundreds of unofficial fan communities on blogs and websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Tumblrs.  The following graphic shows how fandoms are represented on Twitter. It includes fandoms from various countries, including Brazil, the Philippines, Chile, Spain, Indonesia, Japan, France and Italy.  It also includes a range of groups, from the “idol groups” like f(x) and SHINee, to bands like F.T. Island, to hip-hop artists like Drunken Tiger and Epik High.

Word cloud generated by KPK's Twitter Lists
Word cloud generated by KPK’s Twitter Lists

While these fan communities are not subject to corporate control and do not receive the perks of the official fanclubs, they do play a significant role in K-pop.  For example, Soshified is website for a global community in support of the female group, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD).  Reporting more than 10 million page views per month, the site has organized meet-ups with fans in the United States and raised money for charitable causes including Japan relief and YMCA’s Youth Center in Seoul.  The organization also spearheaded  a 2011 “field trip” organized in partnership with the Korean Tourism Organization, which “included the attending of Girls’ Generation 2nd Tour Concert and MBC studio recordings. The field trip was heavily covered by the Korean media and Soshified members were featured in several Korean entertainment news broadcasts and newspapers” (Soshified, About Us).

The Landscape of K-pop Fandom

Given the number of K-pop groups and artists and the number of years since the beginning of Hallyu-era K-pop, there are hundreds of fan communities that make up K-pop’s individual fandoms. To further complicate the landscape, some individual fandoms will combine with other fandoms. The following graphic represents Twitter accounts of such combo fandoms, such as fans of both Shinhwa and SS501 (TripleChangjo), Infinite and SHINee (InspiritShawolGirl), and Super Junior and Girls’ Generation (Super Generation).

Word cloud generated from KPK's Combo Fandom Twitter List
Word cloud generated from KPK’s Combo Fandom Twitter List

Whether talking about the general K-pop fandom or individual K-pop fandoms, the first thing to know is that the landscape of K-pop fans is complicated.

Glowsticks. K!. Web. 8 Dec 2013.

Word clouds generated from KPK’s Twitter Lists.

“About Us.” Soshified. Web. 8 Dec 2013. Anderson, Crystal S. “Hallyu K-pop Fans Data Set.” Unpublished Raw Data, Collected April 29, 2011-April 15, 2012.

“Boyfriend Reveals Fanclub Name.” gokpop.  11 Aug 2011. Web. 8 Dec 2013.

BOYMILK. “Hypocritical Hallyu: International Fans and K-pop Fandom.” Oh No They Didn’t!. 2 June  2013. Web. 8 Dec 2013.

Théberge, Paul. “Everyday Fandom: Fan Clubs, Blogging, and the Quotidian Rhythms of the Internet.” Canadian Journal of Communication 30 (2005): 485-502.

Creative Commons License
“K-pop Fandom 101” by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on December 3, 2013.

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


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.

iFans Update: What Fans Think About SNSD


As you know, iFans: Mapping Kpop’s International Fandom is a study seeking to understand the attitudes of global fans of K-pop’s most successful groups. You can now view the results of the analysis of the survey data and an email interview with a fan of SNSD!  Click here to view the What Fans Think section of the digital exhibit.  Sad that you aren’t included? You can always take the email survey online here! C’mon, SONES, you are one of the biggest K-pop fandoms out there! Click the link and represent!

Hallyu Harmony Update: APeace


Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on February 14, 2014

Hallyu Harmony: A Cultural History of Kpop is a digital humanities project that traces connections among the artists and groups across genres, generations and geographies through visuals, music and choreography.  The first exhibit, Seo Taiji: President of Culture, explores the reasons why Seo Taiji is considered the pioneer of contemporary K-pop.  The current exhibit under construction, Move the Crowd: Choreography and K-pop, explores an other key aspect of K-pop: dance. APeace is the first page in the first section of this exhibit, Star Array: Dance and the Large K-pop Group.  With 21 members, APeace is one of the largest K-pop groups. See how they use their numbers in choreography here.

Image: 1

iFans Update: What Fans Think. . . . about 2NE1!

2NE1, Falling in Love Concept, 2013
2NE1, Falling in Love Concept, 2013

Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective May 20, 2014

As part of the ongoing project that is iFans: Mapping K-pop’s International Fandom, I have been working on the fan responses to Case Studies surveys. Click here to read about what 2NE1 fans think about the group’s significance in K-pop as well as an in-depth interview with a BlackJack!