During her inaugural speech in 2013, South Korea’s former President Park Geun Hye remarked that “In the 21st century, culture is power”. True to her words, South Korea’s K-pop industry has gained global prominence over the past decade, even making its presence known in the sphere of international diplomacy. From sending the popular girl group Red Velvet to perform for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to gifting a signed K-Pop album to the daughter of the Indonesian president, South Korea has actively utilized the far-reaching influence of its pop stars as a tool to facilitate good-will diplomacy.
However, with their dazzling performances and chart-topping hits, the global impact of these pop stars is not limited to the realm of international relations. As cultural ambassadors for South Korea, K-Pop idols act as the first point of contact for millions of fans around the world who are interested in Korean culture. On one hand, this means that K-Pop fans from different socio-cultural backgrounds are familiarized with the Korean way of life, paving the way for more cross-cultural understanding among the world’s future generations. On the other hand, the spread of K-Pop beyond the borders of South Korea means that a lot of the country’s less-than-stellar aspects are also exported to all corners of the planet.
South Korea has consistently been ranked among the worst nations in the world for gender equality in studies such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report and The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index. From widespread workplace discrimination to poor political representation, the patriarchal nature of South Korean society has marginalized Korean women on its path towards economic prosperity.
Many of the struggles faced by Korean women today can be traced back to the Neo-Confucian ideas about gender roles and sexuality that heavily influence gender perceptions in the country. The Confucian principles of ‘Three Obediences and Four Virtues’ dictate that women must remain subservient to the men in their lives and practice the “feminine arts” of chastity and modesty. At the same time, Confucianism considers the male libido to be acceptable, further justifying their domination of women. Combining this ideology with the prevalence of a powerful prostitution industry spells disaster for the state of gender perceptions in the country. It creates a culture that believes an ideal woman to be one who is innocent, chaste and soft-spoken while simultaneously fetishizing them as sexual objects.
Another gender bias that has its roots in Confucianism is Korea’s obsession with women’s appearances. Both in the workplace and in their own households, women are judged by the extent to which they conform to the extremely high standards of beauty in Korean society, and not by objective measures of their competence. This culture of “lookism” in South Korea has become so normalized that parents often give their children plastic surgeries as graduation gifts since they believe that it could provide them with an advantage when applying for jobs in the future.
As in every other nation, the media produced in South Korea reflects the stereotypes that are prevalent in its society. And as the most popular form of media under the Hallyu wave, K-Pop has become the flag-bearer for the country’s most regressive gender perceptions.
K-Pop celebrities are seen as the ultimate embodiment of the “ideal self” that can be achieved through hard work. However, female idols are dealt a rough hand in this model of fame. This is because of the imposition of cultural norms that originated from Confucian principles on the public image of these pop stars. Entertainment agencies carefully craft the identities of these female idols, actively perpetuating a ‘sweet and innocent’ image that is in accordance with the Confucian stereotype of a pure and chaste woman while simultaneously encouraging the misogynistic idea of humble and “untainted” beauty. The concept of a girl crush is a popular one for any girl group debuting into the K-Pop industry. It establishes a girl-next-door image, with women donning Lolita-esque outfits that make them accessible to the male gaze, boosting their popularity. For twenty years now, all the South Korean girl groups which have garnered immense popularity have earned the title of ‘National Girl Group’ by employing this specific image.
The rampant sexual objectification in South Korea can be seen in the promotion of female idols by referencing their body parts. Female idols are often popularised as having ‘ant waists’ or ‘11-abs’. This disproportionately strong emphasis on body parts solidifies the idea that women are valuable only for their appearances. Additionally, several contracts signed by members of K-Pop groups prohibit them from entering into romantic relationships. This is done to maintain the perfect façade of a supremely talented and gorgeous, single, heterosexual star, seemingly accessible to fans of the opposite sex. However, even if such a dating scandal takes place, it puts a female celebrity at a much greater risk than her male counterpart, because of how damaging it can be to the male fantasies that feed her success.
As K-Pop groups have skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade, the prevalence of gender inequality in the industry has not been without consequence. K-Pop fans are known for their unwavering commitment to their favourite girl or boy groups. Fans go to extreme lengths to support them, often in jest claiming that they have “raised” the stars themselves. As a result, they have unintentionally begun adopting the stereotypes propagated by the K-Pop industry in the spirit of supporting their idols.
According to a recent study conducted by The Research Institute of Asian Women, greater consumption of K-Pop was found to be correlated with less egalitarian gender attitudes among fans of the genre. A large portion of these fans was female, and they self-characterised themselves to be aligned with traditional gender roles, like that of a ‘caretaker’, for their male idols. Many fans indicated that they had very patriarchal attitudes towards the division of labour within households and the roles of men and women in the workplace. This correlation between K-Pop consumption and gender bias was found to be especially strong in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia that already suffer from high levels of gender inequality.
Despite President Moon Jae-in’s commitments towards addressing his country’s gender gap, the government-sponsored promotion of K-Pop in South Korea and beyond is likely to counteract any efforts taken to address the issue of gender inequality in the country. As young K-Pop fans across the world tune in to their favourite bands, they are unknowingly subscribing to age-old stereotypes about gender roles that women have been fighting to eradicate for centuries. So as long as the K-Pop industry refuses to address the biases that plague its pop stars, South Korea will continue to run the risk of exporting its widespread gender inequality to the rest of the world.
Ananya Gupta is a second-year student studying Political Science and Creative Writing and Sagara Ann Johny is a second-year student studying Economics, Finance and International Relations at Ashoka University.