Girls’ Generation, Vogue Japan, 2011
As the number of female groups increase in number in K-pop, commentators and scholars continue to focus on the meaning of the representations produced by these groups. While some argue that such representations are geared towards men, this ignores the way the majority female fanbases of these groups construct meaning of these representations.
Because female groups, like many male groups in K-pop, are put together by Korean agencies (rather than forming on their own, as is the norm in countries like the United States in the West), some argue that appeal to men plays a role in this process. A guest contributor for seoulbeats asserted: “Like many other K-pop girl groups, SNSD [Girls’ Generation] was created to be ‘ogled’ over by their target audience–male fans.” This sentiment was repeated by other online writers such as James Turnbull and Jessica Doyle.
Scholars not only argue that groups like SNSD were created for men, they also argue that images, music videos and performances by girl groups like SNSD are targeted to male, middle-aged audiences. Through an examination of music videos and lyrics, Stephen Epstein with James Turnbull conclude that they all geared towards men rather than female empowerment, whether it is the “viewer. . . [who] is regularly constructed as male,” a mode of femininity “that renders males helpless,” “a self-objectifying preoccupation with an external gaze” or the definition of “women in relation to men” (333). In doing so, they challenge the notion that empowerment represented by girl groups “brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world” and conclude “that Korea’s pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that for middle-aged men to focus on their gaze on underage performers becomes cause for rejoicing rather than embarrassment” (333).
However, several scholars have noted that the K-pop training model originally sought to ascertain the preferences of teenage girls. In separate articles, Doobo Shim and Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim reference Lee Soo Man‘s survey of teenage girls to discover what they wanted in their first-generation idols at SM Entertainment. Since then, agencies continue to target audiences beyond middle-aged men. With the development of second-generation idols like SNSD, cross-generational appeal became the goal which includes audiences in addition to middle-aged men. Kim Chang Nam observes that “fandom has expanded to include people in their twenties and thirties, and even into older generations. Newly coined terms, including ‘uncle fans,’ ‘aunt fan,’ and ‘older sister fan,’ have appeared” (111). As a result, middle-aged men are one of a number of types of audiences for a group like SNSD.
Moreover, an interpretation of videos and lyrics overlooks how the majority female audience for girl groups like SNSD construct meaning about the images and performances they see. S. Craig Watkins and Rana Emerson draw on theories of media reception, which posit “that receivers of media are actively involved in the construction of meaning” (156). In doing so, they reveal not only “the strategic ways girls and women use the media in their everyday lives” but also “the ways in which women appropriate the media as a site of meaning construction, actively engaging in and, occasionally, contesting images and themes of gender domination” (157). As a result, they are not passive audiences, but actively create meaning for themselves based on what they see. Just because men may read such images in a way that does not empower women does not mean that female audiences read them in the same way.
This is not the first iteration of the girl group. Even when such images are created by men, as Cynthia Cyrus notes for images of 1960s girl groups, women can still craft meaning independent of the intention of such images:
Still, to understand these images primarily as symbols of male desire is to miss the point. The teen standing in front of the record bin would not have primarily engaged with the picture through some displaced sexual desire. Rather, she would have evaluated these images as what they were, invitations to consumer participation. The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . Ethnographic evidence suggests that viewers did, in fact, identify with the girl group image (190-191).
Rather than one way of rendering meaning from girl groups, even female fans do not make the same kinds of meaning out of girl groups. The representations of femininity and female behavior are more complex than reducing them down to objects for men to look at. Such an approach silences the voices of the majority female fanbases who circulate, consume and make meaning of performances by girl groups.
Cyrus, Cynthia J. “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.
Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull. “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 314-336.
Guest, “Is SNSD Being Sexually Harassed?” seoulbeats. 2 Mar 2010. Web. 3 May 2014.
Kim, Chang Nam. K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music. Seoul: Hollym, 2012.
Shim, Doobo. “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia.” Media, Culture & Society 28.1 (2006): 25-44.
Shin, Solee I and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia (2013): DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.
Watkins, S. Craig and Rana A. Emerson. “Feminist Media Criticism and Feminist Media Practices.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. 571 (2000): 151-166.
Whose Generation? GIRLS’ GENERATION!: Gender, Audience and K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on May 3, 2014.