A Look into Sex Appeal in K-Pop
Because apparently cleavage and feminism can’t coexist
The topic of sex appeal in K-Pop is something of a gray area. It’s a little ironic, really. There’s no doubt that a large fraction of the industry relies on it. If there were an equation to K-Pop success (arguable), sex appeal would easily be one of the addends, so what is it that makes it so ambiguous?
There are times when the Korean audience reminds me of the people here in the Philippines. There’s a strange balance at play, wherein people want to see the sexy and empowered, but also put a premium on staying virginal and living by the Maria Clara mindset. It’s this kind of push-pull that births a spectrum of “concepts” or themes that idols abide by whenever they come back with a new track or music video.
It’s safe to say I’ve seen more rehashes of the sexy concept than I can count and the way the general public takes to them has gotten pretty predictable. There are those that undoubtedly get the seal of approval: the leg-baring, the coy, the seductive. Think Sistar’s yearly summer releases or Brown Eyed Girls’ Abracadabra, which propelled them to new heights back in 2009. The public ate these releases right up, and these songs and the women who sang them secured spots as mainstays in the industry for years.
But going down the sexy route doesn’t come without backlash. On the flip side, there are singers who, without fail, would be met with criticism for too seductive a lip bite, too suggestive a dance move, too generous a peek at skin. Hyuna is a fantastic example. Perhaps the closest modern-day Korea has to a sex symbol, provocation and a self-aware kind of trashiness are the building blocks of her discography. She knows her strengths and uses them to her advantage, but gets flamed by the public over and over for it. The same goes for Hyolyn, who focused her efforts into building her own entertainment agency and developing her solo career after Sistar’s disbandment. She’s been lauded for her talent for years, has been dubbed Korea’s Beyonce left and right, but all of that recognition is thrown out the window when she shrugs off the good-girl image Korea loves and goes hard with pussy popping choreography.
Notice how I’ve only been bringing up women as examples?
The ambiguity of sex appeal in Korea keeps its artists in a bind, but the disparity between what male and female artists experience is unsettling, to say the least. Disappointing? Yeah. Surprising? I wish.
Why is it that men are free to raise their shirts (or you know, rip them off completely) onstage and grind their hips like nobody’s business, while many a girl group still have to adjust the choreography they practiced for months to abide by viewership standards?
As one comment on the video above so eloquently put it, “Yo I’m out here dying. You’re telling me Jungkook can flash his WHOLE LEFT TIDDY but these girls can’t even show their belly buttons?”
The plot thickens. In the same way that some artists unabashedly pursue provocative themes in their work, there continue to be those who are put into too-tight, too-short stage outfits. Oversexing for the sake of selling. There are women who are used to drive views in male music videos, where they show up scantily dressed and are ogled at (or worse, used as props).
Take Jay Park’s Mommae, for example. There’s no doubt that these women are being paid heaps of cash for doing what they do. They look amazing and they’re fantastic dancers, too. But put this entire video into context: Jay might be singing about his love for curves, but the women’s presence is machismo fuel more than anything else. Now, I’ve been a fan of Jay’s for a long time, but that split-second cut of a woman being used as a plate for sushi? No thanks.
Even in Gangnam Style, Psy’s wildly popular track (that they still insist on playing at the end of every K-Pop event), women are ogled at in their gym shorts. They even throw in a booty shot for good measure.
Stellar, a four-member girl group who built their career pretty much entirely off overtly erotic concepts, alluded to this objectification in their Vibrato music video. There are shameless under-the-ass shots and allusions to lady parts, but this scene is where your attention should be.
Korea, at large, is still a male-dominated society. Every few months I see reports of male fans hating on female idols for being feminists. They hate when girls who are only supposed to be pretty and ready to entertain with a perfect song and dance number, use pro-women phone cases. They burn their merchandise when female idols read feminist books (their loss, obviously). But reading through Korean forums has become something of a hobby of mine, and based on the hundreds of comments I’ve read, what they hate most is when women claim to be feminists and then bear their clavicles or show even a sliver of confidence in their bodies.
It’s unfortunate that they haven’t realized feminism and cleavage can coexist.
RELATED: Why Do I Still Like K-Pop Anyway?
At the end of the day, sex sells, and not just in Korea. We don’t have to look far, but K-Pop surely makes for a good case study.
There’s a fine line between commercializing sex in a way that empowers and commercializing sex in a way that objectifies. Will supporting Hyuna empower women or turn them into oversexed figures in the media? Will watching Jay Park’s music videos bring people to respect and appreciate the female form or will it invite men to turn hot girls into human sushi plates? Is a sexy concept two steps forward or one step back?
Art Alexandra Lara