Bad Girl, Good Girl: Femininity in K-Pop

When it comes to constructions of femininity in K-Pop, it’s quite a different world than masculinity. Again, the influence of Confucian philosophy is apparent. “Traditionally, the husband was metaphorically referred to as ‘heaven,’ to signify his superiority, and his wife (as ‘earth’) was supposed to serve him with reverence.” Members of girl groups may not be allowed to get married under their contracts, but they are still serving a masculine gaze.

SISTAR photoshoot for their song, Loving U, released in summer 2012

Heather Willoughby observes that between 1996 and 2003, there was a marked increase in how much flesh women were showing in the media in general. “In 1996, sex appeal was engendered with a look of demure sophistication, while in 2003 it was far more blatant.” This, she says, is the product of a “dreamworld of male producers, managers, and media makers.” That dream is not only expressed in terms of overt sexuality but has also extended into the infantilization of various girl groups like SNSD (Girls’ Generation), SISTAR, 4MINUTE, and f(x). In many of their music videos, there are pervasive elements of the young, innocent, yet sexually charged girl/schoolgirl archetype.

A different side to SISTAR

Indeed, these pervasive representations of doll-like, tall, perfect women in the K-Pop industry, coupled with the global presence of media portraying the Western ideal of beauty has created a widespread sense of image insecurity among South Korean women (evidenced by intense interest in beauty and personal products and cosmetic surgery). This trend is both caused by and the cause of current representations of women in the South Korean entertainment industry.

To a small extent, however, globalization has brought not only equally objectifying Western representations of women, but also notions of feminism. In Asia, feminism “remains outside the economic sphere.” Anthony Fung argues therefore, that “the feminist movement remains dependent on individual producers or economic directors” (emphasis added). One company that seems to be taking this somewhat different route is YG Entertainment, with their female group, 2NE1, whose image cultivates a more individualized, empowered female figure. Still, the question of whether “feminism can also survive within the commercial terrain [is] contingent on market reactions and profit consideration.” 2NE1 has been extremely popular so far, which may be a reflection of a desire for a more globalized, independent representation of women.

Next Time: Can’t Nobody Hold Us Down: 2NE1, a Global Approach to Femininity.

In the mean time, here’s a couple of videos from my two favorite girl groups in K-Pop. The first is Oh!, by SNSD (Girls Generation), a nine member group known for walking the line between bubblegum cute and catwalk sexy. This particular video is one of the more girly songs, featuring them as cheerleaders for a football team. It’s catchy and features lots of aegyo.

The second video is by 2NE1, my other favorite group. The song is Naega Jeil Jal Naga (I Am the Best), which is chock full of the typical 2NE1 over-the-top outfits and even more over-the-top confidence. There’s even a scene where they just go crazy and start shooting the place up. I love this song so much it is actually my cellphone ringtone. So give it a listen; I think you’ll think their the best, too!


Heather A. Willoughby, “Image is Everything: The Marketing of Femininity in South Korean Popular Music,” in Howard, ed., Riding the Wave, 103-104.

Kavita Karan and Katherine T. Frith, “Commercializing Asian Women: Images in Media,” Media Report to Women 35, no. 2 (2007): 13-18.

Anthony Fung, “Feminist Philosophy and Cultural Representation in the Asian Context,” International Communication Gazette 62, no. 2 (April 2000): 157

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