K-Pop: Female Empowerment or Exploitation?

Ok, so this presentation had to be 10 minutes-ish long so I had to cut some of the information and research that I could have done to fit the time limit. This is a really interesting subject for me, so no doubt I will come back to this and continue researching and then perhaps I’ll do an update on this.

McCulloch – Korean Wave Final Presentation


So honestly this is the title of Soyong Kim’s article on Harvard Crimson. After reading it I was interested to see what other information was on this subject. So ultimately, I’ve categorised my presentation into about four main sections and I’ll go into depth with examples on each one.


  1. Image
    1. So, my first category is the image that K-Pop girl groups portray. In terms of MVs, dances and costumes they frequently have two ‘let’s say for now’ exploitative common themes.
      1. Childlike/Innocent portrayal
        1. In such portrayals, it could be viewed that these simply emphasis the members/idols cuteness endearing them. But underneath this concept it could be argued that this portrayal is exploitative to the female gender. [PICTURE: IU]. It appears perhaps derogatory and perhaps present women as requiring less respect due to their childish portrayal or immature nature.
      2. Objects/Sex Objects
        1. So, these are becoming more and more frequent as perhaps Korea’s values shift, even so videos such as Vibrato, Shake It and Darling are very much sexualised. [VIDEO 1: 1:38-2:24]. The MVs frequently focus on the K-Pop idols body like the chest and ass area. This is for the heterosexual male audience that K-Pop also caters to. Soy Kim notes that it ‘suggests that women’s societal role is to feed the male gaze’. A report from MIT supports this argument as ‘sexual portrayals of women that support the idea of “acceptance of women as sexual objects”
  • Strong/Independent Role Models
    1. However, that is not to say that all K-Pop groups portray this exploitative image. There are several well-known girl groups; 2NE1, Miss A, and 4MINUTE. They portray a much ‘stronger’ image and their dances are less sexualised sometimes. [VIDEO 2: 0:00-1:46]. For example, 4MINUTE ‘Hate’ begins with quite a feminine MV and cuts into a street style, confident dance. However, Kim criticises this that the ‘hyper-sexualised portrayals of the ‘new, independent woman’ to “pimp their dignity”


  1. Lyrics
    1. According to the report from MIT – “within 30.3% of 198 songs of K-Pop, the lyrics analysed gender and within this 66.7% of the lyrics define women in a degrading manner, whereas only 36.7% of lyrics encouraged women to become independent, confident, and outgoing”. This is an interesting statistic as it portrays what is acceptable in society today. [VIDEO 3: 0:16-1:32]. Park Jin-young or more commonly known as JYP – ‘Who’s Your Mama?’ has lyrics “just because you are a pretty face doesn’t mean you’re a woman, just because you have a pretty mind doesn’t mean you’re a woman, you need one more (booty)”.

Another song is Ailee – I’ll Show You – has both a positive empowering message through her lyrics however the MV does not show empowerment at all – in fact the complete opposite. [VIDEO 4]. As she changes herself, to a more sexualised version, to then goes back to the same man!


  1. Industry
    1. So Ailee’s music video may have been due to the industry’s production team. With filming, producing songs and videos it can be assumed that it is a largely male-dominated industry and therefore this gives away the power over what message the female singers giver in their dance, lyrics and music videos. In such cases like 4MINUTE and 2NE1 despite fans believing in their idols creativity it is very much “manufactured girl power” (Seoul Beats). [SCREENSHOT]. A veteran singer Lee Seung-chul criticised todays exploitation of female K-Pop stars. However, arguments were made that supported it but then some started “it’s reality that concepts are more eye-catching than songs” and another it “Why does he care? It’s the company’s marketing plan”. This somewhat accepts the situation as it is, continuing to exploit women in K-Pop.


  1. Controversies
    1. So, there’s been several controversial videos and dances that have been banned by the government for being too sexualised and scandalous, and their costumes too revealing. [VIDEO 5: 0:30-0:39]. Lyrics by Baek Ji-young from song “Good Boy” portrays an ‘empowered’ woman who caused uproar from a male rights group, due to it being sexist as men are depicted as dogs in the video. Another is the idol Sulli who a year or so ago caused a stir for posting what is seemingly “Lolita” style photos on Instagram. This encourages the sexualisation of young girls perhaps – but is it any different from all those girl group MVs. And lastly – Amber – does her tomboy representation empower exploration of femininity?


Musings and Conclusion

  1. Whilst doing my research and reading up on several perspectives I gathered a few questions that need to be addressed when studying this topic.
    1. DO both image portrayals have a positive effect on society as it pushes femininity boundaries in conservative Korea?
      1. The existence of explicit content may affect the fans. It is important to be very careful when portraying gender particularly in the K-Pop world where the average age is about 14 – at a time where very influenced
    2. Do women need to dress more or less to be called ‘empowerment’?
      1. In such an image-based environment does the ability to dress “loudly” simply suggest that women have bought into this freedom of dress as an alternative to true empowerment and equality? So basically, women now only have empowerment through their image which is controlled by their company.
    3. Is it all unintentional?
      1. In a society, where this behaviour is widely accepted, is the portrayal (exploitative) portrayal unintentional? Does society’s perception come first or K-POP’s influence?
  1. In conclusion, it is difficult as with most gender studies to conclude on either exploitation or empowerment. What can be said is the K-Pop is becoming increasingly influential and is even used across the DMZ border to break the isolation. It is used as a tool of enlightenment and songs such as IU’s Twenty-Three and Me Gustas Tu by GFriend. K-Pop items are popular despite it being prohibited USB’s and DVD’s are smuggled into the country.



  1. Alona (2013). Lee Seung Chul Criticise the Revealing outfits of Female Groups. Officially KMusic [Internet]. Available from: http://officiallykmusic.com/lee-seung-chul-criticize-the-revealing-outfits-of-female-groups/ [cited 6 August 2017]
  2. Averral (2012). The Sexualisation of Women in K-Pop. Averral.com. [Internet]. Available from: http://www.averral.com/blog/2012/11/the-sexualisation-of-women-in-kpop/ [cited 6 August 2017]
  3. Ed. Kim, Y (2013). The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global. London; New York: Routledge
  1. Kim, S (2013). Female Empowerment or Exploitation? The Harvard Crimson. [Internet]. Available from: http://www.thecrimson.com/column/k-pop-generation/article/2013/10/8/Female_Empowerment_Exploitation_Kpop/ [cited 4 August 2017]
  1. Koreaboo (2016). Netizens Sickened by Sulli’s Latest Photos and Videos on Instagram. Koreaboo.com [Internet]. Available from: http://www.koreaboo.com/uncategorized/netizens-sickened-by-sullis-latest-photos-and-videos-on-instagram/ [cited 6 August 2017]
  2. Mark (2012). Manufactured Girl Power: Female Empowerment in a Male-Powered Industry. SeoulBeats [Internet]. Available from: http://seoulbeats.com/2012/11/manufactured-girl-power-female-empowerment-in-a-male-powered-industry/ [cited 6 August 2017]
  3. MIT (2016). How K-Pop Mirrors Gender Roles. Massachusetts Institute of Tecnhnology, Get Inspired. Report. Available from: https://getinspired.mit.edu/sites/default/files/images/WG228_Report.pdf [cited 4 August 2017]
  4. Oh, C (2015). Queering Spectatorship in K-Pop: The Androgynous Male Dancing Body and Western Female Fandom. The University of Texas. Journal of Fandom Studies: Vol 3 Num.1. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/5935206/Queering_Spectatorship_in_K-pop_Androgynous_Flower_Boys_and_Western_Female_Fandom [cited 4 August 2017]
  5. SBS PopAsia HQ (2017). Gender Roles Within South korea are Changing Thanks to K-Pop. SBS. [Internet]. Available from: http://www.sbs.com.au/popasia/blog/2017/04/24/gender-roles-within-south-korea-are-changing-thanks-k-pop [cited 4 August 2017]
  6. The Grand Narrative (2010). Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 1: The Role of K-Pop and the Korean media in Sexual Socialisation and the Formation of Body Image. The Grand Narrative. [Internet]. Available from: https://thegrandnarrative.com/2010/12/16/lolita-effect-korea-sexual-socialization-body-image/ [cited 4 August 2017]
  7. The Guardian (2016). Bang Bang Bang! The K-Pop songs being blasted into North Korea. The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/08/bang-bang-bang-k-pop-songs-blasted-north-korea [cited 6 August 2017]
  8. VIDEO 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB4dQcxgJPY
  9. VIDEO 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_F9HUTYnl0
  10. VIDEO 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUGQ7Tz4os0
  11. VIDEO 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCEcWcIww5k
  12. VIDEO 5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=la2qCPgK71Y
  13. Volodzko, D (2016). K-Pop’s Gross Double Standard for Women. Pri.com. [Internet]. Available from: https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-04-25/k-pop-s-gross-double-standard-women [cited 4 August 2017]

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