K-pop and Feminism


K-pop, a global cultural phenomenon, has captivated millions with its vibrant music, choreography, production, and most importantly — its “idols”. However, beneath its glittering surface, the industry has a nuanced relationship with feminism. While K-pop draws attention to feminist issues and seemingly addresses more feminist issues, it poses challenges to feminist ideals, necessitating a critical examination of its influence on feminism.

The Illusion of Autonomy in the K-pop Industry

At the heart of the K-pop industry lies a paradox. In many major groups such as “ive”, who uses “self-love” as a concept; idols and groups appear to embody self-autonomy, yet they operate within the confines of a neoliberal structure, dominated by powerful entertainment oligopolies like SM Entertainment and YG. These corporations prioritize profit, often at the expense of the artists’ autonomy and well-being. K-pop trainees train 12+ hours each day, and their companies literally “control” over them — the companies, while not explicitly mandating plastic surgery, create an environment where physical perfection is so closely tied to success that undergoing surgery can feel like a necessary step for idols to maintain their careers and public image. This dynamic raises serious questions about the true extent of autonomy that K-pop idols have regarding their bodies and personal choices. The industry’s tacit enforcement of plastic surgery under the guise of self-improvement or personal choice reflects a deeper issue of control and conformity, undermining the notion of autonomy and challenging the industry’s commitment to the well-being and agency of its artists. This dynamic raises questions about the authenticity of feminist messages conveyed within K-pop, suggesting that the industry’s engagement with feminism is superficial and contradictory.

Gender Stereotypes and Song Themes

A significant portion of K-pop content, especially in girl groups, focuses on themes of unrequited love and the desire for romantic attention, reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. (e.g “After Like”, “Lovesick Girls”, NewJeans). These narratives frequently portray women as sentimental beings longing for love, perpetuating the notion that women’s identities are defined by their relationships. Such trends not only undermine feminist ideals but also reinforce a gendered division of emotional labor, as well as negatively shaping the interplay between genders, since women are being depicted as more emotionally invested in relationships.

Aesthetic Standards and the Idol Image

The K-pop industry’s emphasis on aesthetic perfection exemplifies the pervasive influence of the “white, young, and thin” beauty standard in Asia. This ideal not only promotes an unrealistic and narrow definition of beauty but also contributes to the objectification and commodification of female idols, as being “white, young and thin” is an implication of obedience and easiness to be controlled. The pressure to conform to these standards reflects broader societal issues regarding body image and self-worth, challenging the feminist advocacy for body positivity and self-acceptance.

Materialism and Narcissism in Lyrics

The lyrics of some K-pop songs, notably by groups like Blackpink and Ive, often highlight themes of wealth, status, and superiority. By equating personal worth with material success or with physical perfection, these songs reflect a broader societal shift towards valuing individuals based on external achievements rather than intrinsic qualities. This materialistic worldview, critiqued by philosopher Herbert Marcuse as “total administration by instrumental rationality,” detracts from feminist ideals that emphasize the importance of internal virtues over external validation.

For K-pop to truly contribute to the advancement of feminism, it must move beyond mere representation and actively challenge the industry’s structural inequalities, gender stereotypes, and materialistic values. However, the real problem lies in this impracticality of using Kpop to represent any non-superficial notions. In the end, K-pop is a means to interest, not a means to voice.

Runxin Li

Kazel Li is a first year sophomore and a new writer at The Oracle. She loves literature, philosophy, economics, and reptiles.

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