Dear Irene, I’m Still Learning How to Be a Feminist Too
To be a K-pop fan is to bear witness to a whole lot of dumb shit.
I’ve never been a fan of holidays.
Growing up in the church, holidays followed the same format—my mother would start prepping a few days in advance, marinating tens of pounds of kalbi, filling our fridge with greens and vegetables and other ingredients, deveining pounds of shrimp. I was expected to help out as much as I could, washing piles of lettuce and perilla leaves, scrubbing Korean sweet potatoes, and, as I got older, cutting acorn jelly and prepping sauces and being my mother’s second pair of hands as my father and brother vacuumed and cleaned. Whether we were hosting church members or extended family, the house had to be impeccable.
As people started arriving, they would break into two groups. The women would head straight for the kitchen, rolling up sleeves and tying on aprons, as the men would either find seats or go outside to grill the kalbi, gathering in social clumps with beverages in hand. Once the food was ready, we would all gather around as the top male figure (the pastor or my grandfather) would pray for a rude length of time, often delivering a mini-sermon as we bowed our heads over our rumbling stomachs. The men and elderly would help themselves first, women and children filtering in later.
There was never formal assigned seating during these group gatherings, and people would seat themselves as they wished, often along gender and age lines. A group of women, including my mother, would walk around constantly, checking in to make sure everyone had enough food. Once it seemed like people were winding down, the women would rise to help clear tables, do the dishes, make coffee, peel fruit, and serve desserts, as my father took out bags of trash. After everyone left, we had to pick up dessert plates and coffee cups where people had left them, then clean and vacuum the house all over again before we could rest.
Holidays have always meant an unequal distribution of labor, and, I learned quickly to dislike them.
Irene is the leader of Red Velvet, a five-member girl group from SM Entertainment, one of Korea’s top three entertainment companies. Red Velvet sings pop music and performs choreography, but their sound is a little more experimental than, say, their labelmates, Girls’ Generation, with their most standard bubbly pop.
Irene is also what is known as The Visual. Korea has a certain face it likes—big, double-lidded eyes, narrow nose, jaw in a V-line. Pretty much every group has The Visual, like Yoona in Girls’ Generation, Tzuyu in Twice, Jisoo in Blackpink. There are pretty standard physical details that make The Visual, but there’s also the aura the girl gives off, one of innocence and sweetness. The Visual is pretty, yes, but not overly so. She doesn’t offend and, instead, appeals to Korea’s more conservative sensibilities, the type who knows to smile as she peels fruit, to give off an air of wanting to please even when her body aches from cooking and cleaning all day. She seems pure and demure.
Holidays have always meant an unequal distribution of labor, and I learned quickly to dislike them.
She doesn’t associate herself with something like feminism.
But in March 2018, Irene, the leader of Red Velvet, casually mentioned that she had just finished reading Cho Nam-Joo’s novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. She didn’t say anything about the book, simply mentioning that she had recently read it—and yet the backlash was immediate and extreme, as a corner of Red Velvet’s male fandom exploded in outrage.
Irene had shown herself to be a feminist, and this was not acceptable. These male fans disavowed themselves of her, allegedly even going so far as to burn merchandise and photos of her because, if she was going to be a feminist, she stood for a world that opposed them and, therefore, needed to be taken down.
Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a slim novel that goes quickly. It’s hard to think of it as a novel; Cho tells the story of Kim Jiyoung’s life from childhood to adulthood in a mechanical cadence, interspersing the narrative with statistics and footnotes to make clear that Kim’s life experiences are grounded in reality. Kim Jiyoung is thusly named because Jiyoung was one of the most common names for girls in Korea in 1982, and she’s meant to represent the average modern woman in metropolitan Korea, following her expected trajectory in life—school, college, a brief job, marriage, motherhood. She experiences the restrictions of Korea’s patriarchal society, which affect how she and her sister are treated at home (as opposed to the coddling their younger brother receives), her ability to find a job after college (how much harassment and gender discrimination will she swallow?), and the physical and professional sacrifices she is expected to make to have a child to appease her in-laws (compared to her husband’s sacrifice of coming home earlier from after-work social events). Kim Jiyoung’s story is not meant to be remarkable. As evidenced by her name, Jiyoung is not meant to be unique; it is her averageness and the familiarity of her story that is important because she is a stand-in for Korean women—representing their lives and experiences, demonstrating the gendered expectations placed upon them.
Published in Korea in 2016, Kim Jiyoung became the number one–selling book in 2017, selling over a million copies. At the same time, the Me Too movement was also gaining traction in Korea, with women speaking up about sexual harassment, the wage gap, and gender inequality. Male politicians, filmmakers, and writers came under intense scrutiny, and the notion of feminism started to gain more traction in both positive and negative ways, bringing more attention to the shit Korean women had to endure in Korea’s patriarchal society while also riling up the discomforts of men who found themselves supposedly losing their rights.
I read Kim Jiyoung when it was published in the US in 2020, translated by Jamie Chang. The book is written in flat, detached prose. It’s not to say there’s no emotional charge in the novel, but I don’t know that I really feel like any of the characters, including Kim Jiyoung, are meant to be truly three-dimensional. Rather, each represents a certain type of person in Korean society. As exemplified by her inclusion of statistics and citations, Cho didn’t want Kim’s experience to be written off as fiction or as unique—again, Kim represents your average Korean woman. That also may be why the novel didn’t necessarily leave a strong impression on me—I’m familiar with patriarchal Korean culture, so nothing in the novel was new to me but rather the same tired, heteronormative, gendered Korean thinking I know so well.
You would think, then, that standing up for women’s rights is something that would have come naturally for me.
It didn’t though. Instead, by my twenties, I had already internalized the misogyny I grew up with, and it’s only within the last ten years that I’ve come a long way when it comes to women’s rights. I grew up in a predominantly Korean community in suburban Los Angeles, within patriarchal Korean culture, whose worldview was reinforced by the conservative church I grew up in. Even while I resisted the gendered expectations placed on me, I still internalized all that patriarchal thinking and misogyny.
Feminist, to me, was a dirty word. It’s a word I eschewed for much of my twenties because I didn’t want to get looped in with the stereotype of feminists as being angry, man-hating women. I went around saying that I was a humanist, that, yes, I wanted equal rights for everyone, but wasn’t it only natural for men and women to be different and have different roles in society? Men and women were physically different, after all; it just made sense!
When it came to K-pop, this internalized misogyny came out as a dislike of The Visual. When Girls’ Generation debuted, I didn’t like the group in general because they were girls singing cutesy, bubbly pop in freakishly synchronised choreography, but I especially didn’t like Yoona. I found Jisoo the least interesting member in Blackpink. I glossed over Red Velvet’s Irene as generic—pretty, yes, but with the standard, desired Korean face. I associated that kind of prettiness with superficiality, fakeness, and duplicity, because, in dramas, it’s usually the pretty woman who’s the yeowoo (fox), the one who uses her looks to get what she wants. The Visual is not often the lead vocalist or the main dancer or the rapper. The Visual is pretty; ergo, she must be empty—she must be there because of her face, not her talents.
K-pop is a machine; companies like SM Entertainment, which manages Girls’ Generation and Red Velvet, essentially manufacture and maintain every facet of an idol’s image. To succeed, idols, even The Visuals, must play their parts—I’ve known this for a very long time, but it took me well into my twenties for that awareness to turn into more self-interrogation, which led to a change in mentality. What’s wrong with being The Visual? Is it The Visual’s fault that she’s placed in this role because every girl group needs The Visual to pull in mainstream male appeal? I would get so angry over the gendered expectations placed on me as a young woman; how must an idol feel?
K-pop, too, is a system of power, and women—young girls, really—wield very little of it.
Feminism in Korea has, in recent years, gone from being a dirty word to a dangerous word, a label that can have severe consequences for young women. So it isn’t surprising that Irene isn’t the only female K-pop star who has been targeted for being a “feminist.” Naeun, of girl group Apink, posted a photo of her phone in a case gifted to her by Zadig & Voltaire that said “girls can do anything” and faced a barrage of criticism for promoting feminist ideals. Her agency had to issue an apology, and the photo was taken down from her social media page.
K-pop, too, is a system of power, and women—young girls, really—wield very little of it.
One of the most tragic victims of this horrible mentality, though, was Sulli, formerly of the girl group f(x). Sulli was a child star who grew up in the industry, and she was one of f(x)’s most popular members, until she formally withdrew from the group in 2015 after years of burnout and bullying. She was still in the public eye, though, focusing more on acting.
Most notably, she was in a relationship with Choiza, who was fourteen years her senior. They had met when Sulli was fifteen, and, when their relationship was exposed, she was nineteen. Sulli left idol life and started to share more candidly on Instagram, posting photos of her kissing her boyfriend and not wearing a bra and commenting about menstruating. The public response was vicious; followers slut-shamed her, accused her of taking drugs, and called her a hypocrite, to the point that Sulli had to come out in public to address the comments and accusations being hurled against her, even going so far as hosting a television program, Night of Hate Comments, where other celebrities would appear as guests and read hateful comments and address them.
The heart of the hate directed at Sulli was that she was a young woman who refused to conform to the image of the sweet, innocent girl. Instead, she was “a feminist,” open about her sexuality, daring to go about publicly without a bra, and standing up against her bullies instead of deferring to them.
In October 2018, after years of vicious bullying, Sulli took her own life. She was only twenty-five years old.
To be a K-pop fan is to bear witness to a whole lot of dumb shit. Double standards run rampant—for example, while all K-pop idols are forbidden from dating in order to maintain the fantasy of an idol being loyal to the fans, if they do get caught, the woman is shamed, while the man gets away (see: Taeyeon and Baekhyeon).
It reinforces everything I learned by just being a daughter in a Korean family. I was expected to help cook and clean and peel fruit while my brother could slip away after dinner to play games. It was always assumed that I loved kids and couldn’t wait to get married (to a man) and stay home to serve my husband and family. I was expected to be demure and fit Korean beauty standards, and I was bullied and shamed when I couldn’t bring my overweight body to bear.
One effect is that, for much of my life, I wished I was pretty. I wished I could be The Visual, that someone might see me on the street and breathe, “Wow, you’re beautiful.” Life seemed easier if you were pretty, and I would begrudge pretty girls their looks, their thinness, resenting how little they seemed to have to do to gain access to better opportunities, to be liked, to be offered so much—attention, fame, success.
However, K-pop showed me the other side to all this beauty: the viciousness, the misogyny. Finally, things began to shift in my brain as I finally started to draw the lines between my own personal frustrations as a young woman living in gendered Korean society and the dark side of K-pop that so exploited the dreams and ambitions of young women. It was frustrating to watch Korean dramas where women were pitted against each other, while bromances—friendships between the male characters—were fawned over, especially when I personally knew how strong and impactful female friendships could be. I finally started to ask myself why the narratives of women were so toxic, why my mom would warn me against girls who wore short skirts and heavy makeup, why I was so dismissive of The Visual as relying on her looks because she didn’t have the vocals or the dance abilities to flaunt instead. I started to like groups like Girls’ Generation for their resilience and success in an industry that skewed male, to see Irene’s personality come through along with her adaptability as an artist, and, as I began to break free from the toxic mentality I’d grown up under, I stopped hiding from the word feminist. I still don’t love the label because it’s too tied up with white feminism, which has its own slew of problems, namely racism and anti-transness, but I’ve luckily moved past the internalized misogyny.
It’s encouraging to see changes within Korean society too. The fact that Me Too gained traction in Korea is incredible, that even respected auteurs like Kim Ki-duk and politicians like the former mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, have had accusations against them brought to light and those accusations have been taken seriously. It’s to the credit of the women of Korea who have been risking everything to speak up, to demand more equitable treatment, to stand up for themselves.
As for Irene, she hasn’t shied away from hinting at female empowerment.
In August 2021, Red Velvet released their sixth EP, Queendom. The title track bears the same name, and it’s a dance-pop song with electronic elements. “Queendom” was composed by a team of four women, which is remarkable in the male-dominated music industry, and the song has been received positively, described as empowering, as they sing in the first verse: