By Dr. Tajkia Mostafa Khadem
K-Pop, which has taken over the world in the past few years, has a glaringly obvious problem – its treatment of women. While misogyny and double standards against women are quite common in every sphere of the entertainment industry, this is particularly true of K-Pop. The treatment of female K-pop idols is practically the modern-day version of 18th century witch trials. Thankfully, some of these ‘witches’ are fighting back
In 2020, Joy, a member of the girl group Red Velvet, was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing that said “We should all be feminists.” The image was met with backlash, and comments about how her fans will stop being fans of hers and the group, because she could be “selfish enough to promote feminism.” Similarly, her bandmate Irene also received backlash back in 2018 for mentioning that she recently finished reading the book Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, which depicted the discrimination and harassment faced by any average woman in South Korea. The mere mention of this book allegedly led some of her male fans to burn her pictures and merchandise, because to the said fans, being a feminist meant that she was against the world that these men had created, cultivated, modified for their gain and comfort, and certainly a female idol with such views needed to be handled, and shown her place.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
If we want to address the double standards in this industry, a whole list of events can be made, but a very simple incident that sheds light on the infuriating and borderline hilarious treatment of female vs male idols, is when the girl group Lovelyz had to issue a public apology via their agency, because one of the members had cussed in an Instagram live in response to some fans making sexual and predatory comments, and the irony is it was the girls who received backlash from the general population because their image as an innocent girl group had apparently being damaged, and yes, you read that right. It was the girls who were hated on, not the fans who posted gross vulgar remarks asking one of the members to “show her breasts” on live.
At the same time, you will watch videos of male idols randomly cursing go viral, and be depicted as something light and funny, with no criticism or backlash at all, because according to their societal norms, it’s a girl who needs to fit the mold of being “kind, submissive, mature, and sexy, but not too provocative” at the same time. Men will never be held to such standards, and women will be crucified for the most silly and ridiculous acts.
STICKS AND STONES?
Perhaps the most heartbreaking instance of being constantly targeted for being an outspoken woman in the industry is Sulli, a member of the girl group f(x), who never backed down from speaking against the discriminations women faced, spoke about mental health issues, such as dealing with anxiety. She had opened up conversations about embracing your own sexuality as a woman, despite dealing with severe forms of cyber bullying. She was notably bullied for opening up about her relationship with a male rapper named Choiza back in 2014, whilst the rapper continued to have a smooth career, and was even able to joke about his relationship, and its related controversies in the Korean version of Saturday Night Live.
She was forced by health issues to take a hiatus from the entertainment industry, ultimately leaving f(x), and would return briefly as a soloist and actor before her untimely death in 2019. Even though we lost a beautiful person like her just at the age of 25, her legacy lives on through her work, and of course her spirit of never backing down, and keeping the conversation against cyberbullying, harassment of women going. Sulli remains to be a forever example in my heart, of the witches you want to persecute, want to hunt, but one you can never truly burn.
And, on the note of keeping this movement going, it is delightful to see the younger generation also come into their own, when it comes to talking against the biases against them as artists, as individuals, addressing the sick nature of the bullies online, who are never satisfied with anything a female idol does. In a recent incident, ITZY’s Ryujin addressed how a lot of praise they receive come under the guise of a certain kind of restraint, that yes, they gave a cool performance, and that is impressive for a girl group. There’s a limiting tone to this compliment implying that girl groups are not supposed to be as good as a boy group, and will always be inferior to them. She rightfully spoke on this, hoping that one day their performance will only be seen as a performance, and not with some confining factor, receiving backhanded compliments.
Just recently, Yunjin of the girl group Le Sserafim released her self-composed solo song “I ≠ Doll,” that very candidly addresses the way women are treated in this idol industry, how nothing is ever enough, and it’s an ecstatic moment for me when she directly says to the audience, singing the line, “Idol doesn’t mean your doll to f**k with,” because that is the simplest fact that these “fans” refuse to accept, that these idols are human beings made of flesh, and have feelings, and not some doll they can play with as they wish to.
Adding to that, the girl group (G)I-DLE also released a song called “Nxde” in their recent comeback, that addresses the human psyche of looking at the word “nude,” and automatically correlating it to something scandalous, especially when it is related to women, but in its literal sense, “nude” only refers to the bare essence of any being, showcasing one’s true self. And, as more artistic expressions challenging the norms, speaking against the status quo come out, the more hopeful it feels that things might change for the better in this industry too.
It is often hard to maintain equanimity when faced with blatant discrimination against any group, but with the direction that the K-Pop industry’s female idols are moving, it is my hope that there will be some form of positive change in how female idols are treated. There is a long way to go, a lot of prejudices, bigotry, misogyny to be crushed, but there is one thing that’s true, these witches, and their spirit cannot be burned.