When you think of KPOP, you think of all those catchy tunes of that famous song from the likes of BLACKPINK, BTS and many more. But many overlook the fact that these idols, at least a majority of them, struggled a lot before they became famous. As such, for female idols, many of them struggle with being discriminated against for their gender.
While it is true that both genders suffer some form of hardship, the differences vary greatly for female idols. Nevertheless, the struggles they face are worth the experience of becoming a famous KPOP idol.
Most female KPOP idols have the dream of being a famous singer or dancer. To get to where their successful ‘sunbaenims’ (Korean word for Senior) are, they first have to sign up for auditions. These auditions are typically held by various music agencies through public registrations, online applications and reality survival show competitions, for example, Produce101 and Sixteen.
From there, the rigorous selections and the never-ending training will go on for these idols until their companies decide to form a group from a select few to debut. But the hard work never ends even after these idols managed to debut.
First impressions always matter, especially for KPOP idols. Specifically, female KPOP idols must have ‘certain’ criteria that qualify them as ‘visuals’. For many KPOP groups, every member has their roles assigned by their agency.
Take, for example, Irene from RedVelvet, Jisoo from Blackpink and Tzuyu from TWICE are known for their exceptional beauties apart from their singing and dancing talents. Although idols do undergo plastic surgery to fix minor imperfections, we still can’t deny how breathtaking their beauty is.
However, these female idols are ‘ranked’ or ‘approved’ by the ideal Korean beauty standards. As such, for other female idols who do not fall into such beauty standards, they are quickly judged and labelled as ‘ugly’. Korean netizens do not hold back with their comments when it comes to criticizing these idols’ beauty images.
While it is good for us to maintain a healthy diet to remain fit and active, KPOP diets usually mean the other way around. From preparing for their debuts to their comebacks, KPOP idols are subjected to strict diets which are set according to their agencies’ standard goal.
But female idols often take extreme measures to lose weight. It is terrible that in order to look the best for the stage, they would have to shed extra ‘fat’ or face harsh comments, both from their agency and the public.
And so, you have probably heard of IU’s (famous Kpop singer) famous diet which consists of an apple, one sweet potato and a protein shake. She is one of the extreme examples of when female idols resort to unhealthy diets to lose weight quickly. However, some female idols refuse to follow unhealthy diets. Hwasa from MAMAMOO, who is praised by many international fans for her courage to refuse the diet.
Korean society can be described as conservatives, especially when it comes to how they dress up. For both KPOP idols, each gender is judged differently. Unfortunately, female idols face serious risks of being sexualized and criticized at the same time.
For many new girl groups that come from relatively lesser-known agencies, most of them are forced to wear short skirts and revealing costumes on stage. Even the lyrics and music videos help promote the sexualization of women in general like in Jay Park’s Mommae, which repeatedly uses the word ‘sexy’ and showing racy shots of women.
Even famous female idols like Hyuna was given a sexy image as she debuted in Wonder Girls back in 2006-07 when she was 13 years old. This shows that female idols are still exploited through excessive sexualization, although nowadays, the situation in the KPOP industry is improving due to South Korea’s new anti-prostitution law.
Performing sexual favors ordered by influential men seemed to be the norm in the industry, and while male trainees are also one of their targets, female trainees are reportedly more vulnerable in this.
As female idols face sexual exploitation, it is not surprising when cases like BIGBANG’s Seungri and Jung Joon-Young started surfacing in the media. However, there’s also the case of Open World Entertainment’s CEO, Jang Seok-Woo, whom he was arrested in 2010 for the accounts of sexually abusing female trainees.
While these high profile cases began a reckoning for South Korea’s own #MeToo wave, many of these men in the music industry remained ‘innocent’ and perhaps, there may be more of these that goes unreported.
As idols become famous over the years, they run the risk of being harassed by sasaeng fans (obsessive Korean fans), who can severely threaten the well-being and safety of these idols. Both male and female idols reportedly experienced encounters of these sasaeng fans but for female idols specifically, the experience itself can be traumatic as these idols are also human beings who deserve every right to live freely.
This sasaeng behaviour ranges from making death threats, stalking or giving hurtful and/or malicious comments against KPOP idols. Due to this, the existence of sasaengs’ often becomes the general assumption of people outside of KPOP world that all KPOP fans are obsessive and insane when only a small handful of them are.
The recent sasaeng cases against female idols were TWICE’s(Kpop girl group) Mina who received a death threat over a ‘scandal’ involving one of GOT7’s (Kpop boy band) member and Nayeon from the same girl group, TWICE, who almost got approached by a stalker from Germany, who was reported tracking and intentionally boarding the same plane as Nayeon.
Most KPOP idols are forbidden to date anyone in the industry, as it can be a source of ‘distraction’ from their busy schedules and risk losing fans’ interest, which is potentially detrimental for the agencies’ money.
Of course, let’s not forget Hyuna (a famous KPOP singer) and E’Dawn (a band member of Triple H)’s dating scandal, where the female idol openly disclosed their relationship without consulting her entertainment agency, Cube Entertainment. This resulted in a week-long debate among the public, whether idols should be allowed to choose who they date, and the cold response from Cube Entertainment which ended with Hyuna and E’Dawn permanently leaving the company behind.
However, there is hope in this when in the New Year of 2020, social media users were taken to a surprise when TWICE’s Momo and Super Junior’s Heechul were reportedly dating, which until now, there isn’t much backlash compared to their ‘sunbaenims’ (Korean word for Senior) dating scandals.
Due to the conservativeness of South Koreans, the topic of sexuality, LGBT and feminism remain taboo. There’s still mystery surrounding the sexualities of idols and as fans continue speculating and second-guessing idols who are gay, no one can prove this.
Amber from f(X) recently acknowledged her support with the LGBT community in the 2018 Billboard interview and as international fans welcome this response with an open heart, much can’t be said for female idols in South Korea themselves.
On the other hand, if a female idol shows support of feminist values, Korean netizens will be quick to point out and criticize them in social media pages. For instance, Apink’s Naeun innocent action of holding a feminist phone case that reads “girls can do anything” garnered netizens’ criticism for promoting feminist ideals in the country.
With the long history of struggles and pressure faced by many KPOP idols and trainees, some succumbed to depression and other mental health issues. As such issues are still sensitive to South Koreans in general, idols are forced to hide their insecurities under the rug and brave a ‘smile’ for the world.
For instance, a former member of girl group f(x), Sulli, died in 2019, at the age of 25, due to suicide. She was quite an outspoken female idol who expressed openly about her mental health issues. Unfortunately, like many female idols and women living in a deeply patriarchal society, Sulli became a target by online bullies and harassers, many of whom were anonymous male fans.
Similarly, Goo Hara, a former girl group member Kara, had an unsuccessful suicide attempt earlier that year and later made a comeback through her Japanese single, Midnight Queen. Unfortunately, just as fans were mourning the death of Sulli, Hara was also found dead at her home shortly after her comeback. She was only 28 years old.
So being a female KPOP idol is a lot more challenging than you think and we shudder at the thought of going through all of these in the name of music. Just like Hollywood and any other entertainment industry, each industry has a dark side.
It is important for both the fans and the idols to have awareness and be open to discuss these issues. Hopefully, in time, KPOP will be more transparent and become a safer space for the idols to perform and entertain us.