Authors Stephen Epstein and James Turnball explore the ability of Korean popular music groups to subvert ideas of female empowerment in the essay “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-Pop” which appears in The Korean Popular Culture Reader. The authors notice a rise of women in popular music singing of empowerment and feminist ideals, however the character of women in Korean popular music, much like in other cultures, continues to be a sexualized object of desire for a purposed male viewer. In the introduction to the essay, the authors describe how music has transformed into an art that is consumed visually, not just aurally. Because of the innovation of music being shared via the web, the music video has become the medium of sharing music. Epstein and Turnball write, “Korean popular music is driven by the visual, not only via live performance on television but in music videos too” (316). Popular music is inherently concerned with the promotion and sales of the artist, thus the music video and the appearance of a music group becomes incredibly important for promoting music in the era of the music video. The authors take note that “with the collapse of recorded music sales success has come to depend not so much on vocal talent as dancing ability, physical attractiveness, and the projection of image through appearance in…advertisements,” (317). By asserting that appearance rather than music is the selling point of Korean popular music, the authors can make claims about not only the lyrics in Korean popular music but also the representations of women in these videos.
The authors find that Korean music videos “reinforce a dichotomization of male and female” by either appealing to young women or attracting men through lyrics and music videos (318). In this way sexualization continues to be one sided, the authors write, “While girl group singers often express desire openly, the viewer in such videos is regularly constructed as male, and the potential assertion of subjectivity is accompanied by a coy passivity that returns initiative to men” (318). The authors observe that music videos continue to purport a false dichotomy of sexuality where in the female body is expressive of sexual desire but in a passive manner and the “actor” in the situation with agency is always constructed as male. Women in Korean pop music are almost exclusively occupying a liminal category of sexuality: both an object of sexual desire, full of aggression, while also remaining innocent and inherently passive in positionality (323). While Korean pop music has been acting in a trend toward female empowerment, the authors still find the heteronormative idea of sexuality and patriarchal ideas of sexual power present in the music.
The most prominent example of women representing themselves as being between a virgin and a sexual object occurs in a discrepancy between the timid lyrics and the erotic dance moves of Korean music videos. The singer may say with her words that she is inexperienced sexually, but if the music video features revealing clothing and highly erotic dance moves, this changes the meaning of the song. The authors write, “There coexist fantasy fueling projections of both virginal demeanor and eager collective anticipation of defloration. This tension is pervasive in this category of girl group videos, serving as a quasi-master trope,” (320). The authors observations of the incongruity between aural and visual experience of the song allows women to be portrayed as two extremes of sexuality: timid and commandeering.
Music videos allow for scholars and viewers to have many oppositional interpretations of the same material due to the qualities of the medium itself. The authors note, “The medium’s succession of fragmented, spectacular images set to musical accompaniment allows individuals enormous range in construction of meaning,” (317). This medium is limited by a non-linear and fragmented form in communicating a singular thematic meaning, which is why the authors do not try to prescribe a singular reading of the music videos they discuss, instead structuring this essay as an exploration of prevalent themes. The authors do have a purpose however, they are interested in understanding whether these music videos continue to sexualize women for the benefit of a patriarchal capitalism or if they can be seen as an authentic empowerment for women. When women claim empowerment by sexualizing themselves, especially in context of the music industry which commodifies women’s bodies, it is hard to see this form of expressing sexuality as being genuinely for women, by women. In describing the music video “So Hot” by The Wonder Girls, the authors take note of this discrepancy of meaning. While the women claim that their dancing like a “bad girl” is their “pure self expression…one cannot escape the fact that the video is a product designed as a spectacle to arrest attention,” specifically the attention of a male subject (326). In this way, the artists described by the authors are participating in a form of self-commodification for a patriarchal capitalism. Although in the context of “So Hot” confidence in one’s sexuality is used by the artists to show their empowerment and liberation, the authors read the music video as being a continuation of women’s objectification and an example of sexual expression for male pleasure.
The authors point to the wage gap inequality in Seoul being extraordinarily high for a developed country. In 2014, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Korea the least equitable in pay between men and women. South Korea’s pay inequality gap is 36.6% compared to the 17.91% of the United States. Women are primarily kept from positions with the ability for advancement, keeping them in low paying labor. The authors also site a law that allows for pictures to be requested on resumes, which points to a potential bias based on the attractiveness of workers. The authors tie this to women’s appearances in music videos, for they claim the society of Korea as it pertains to gender inequality makes reading the music video empowerment as more nuanced because of the lack of tangible power in Korea for women. Women’s bodies are commodities in both music and in the workforce where attractiveness can be used for hiring.
After doing some background research on Stephen Epstein, I found a documentary he co-directed called “Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community” which follows the bands and fans of Drug, a punk music club, in 1999. They call punk rock music made in South Korea Choson Punk, much like popular music from Korea is called K-pop, identifying that this music is distinct from its Western predecessor. From what I gathered from the interviews in the documentary, the bands and performers use the label Choson Punk to acknowledge that their interpretation of the music form is distinct from the original, it is altered to fit the lifestyle of the Korean people making the music. One interviewee said, “We’re just singing about things that are going on around us, and there’s no need to just play three-chord songs” (6:45-50). Epstien also covers an all-female punk band called Supermarket. The drummer and leader of the band, talks about being inspired to play punk based off of other bands in Drug, not western punk but Choson Punk like the band Crying Nut. Then, near the end, the documentary changes pace, briefly featuring the drummer of Supermarket doing laundry by hand (23:25). First she is interviewed and discusses, without much context prior, how much she enjoys laundry, cooking, and making kimchi. For over a minute, the camera follows the drummer as she goes about buying laundry soap and washing her socks. It hard to understand what motivated the directors to include a staged scene of domesticity of the only featured female punk artist in the film. It feels incredibly demeaning to this woman, and to the women in the punk scene as a whole. While the film came out in 2002 and the article I read by Stephen Epstien came out in 2014, this made me reconsider how I read this seemingly feminist pro-woman reading of K-pop music videos. Epstein and Turnball ask the question: “One might reasonably wonder in whose interests a discourse of empowerment is being disseminated,” ending the text with this question (333). By this quote, it seems clear that the authors do not see a value in the empowerment trope expressed by women in K-pop. While the female artists may be seen as reinforcing female submission through sexualized music videos, she is also actively relaying a message of empowerment through the music for the listeners. Seeing the trend of K-pop as a whole, instead of on a personal level of the artist and the music industry, may allow for a more nuanced reading of the empowerment trope popular in K-pop girl groups. The trend could be viewed as a way of fitting feminism into a patriarchal Korean society.
Questions for further exploration:
What is sexuality in Korea? How is sexuality expressed in Korea?
Epstein, Stephen and Turnball, James. “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-Pop” (with James Turnbull),The Korean Popular Culture Reader ed. by Kyung-Hyun Kim and Young-Min Choe, Duke University Press: Durham NC, 2014, pp. 314-336.
Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community. Dir. Stephen Epstein and Timothy Tangherlini. 2002. Film.