Mini Data Note: Female American Fans, K-pop Girl Groups and a Critique of Empowerment

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Survey responses suggest that American female fans of K-pop girl groups simultaneously critique Korean society and music industry and recognize the impact of their position as foreign fans on their perceptions of representations of empowerment in K-pop.  These are findings from the U Go Girl: The K-pop Girl Group Fan Study and are based on 129 responses from female fans who identified their country of residency as the United States.

Transcultural fandom, when fans admire something outside of their culture, often revolves around nationalism. Koichi Iwabuchi talks about “brand nationalism,” or a “nationalist strategy of disseminating culture for national interests” (90). However, brand nationalism focuses on the interests of the country creating the culture rather than how fans outside of the country make sense of it. The field of fan studies tends to focus on the way fans admire culture, but what about when they critique it? When asked about their attitudes towards concepts/images of K-pop girl groups in relation to empowerment and agency for women, some American female fans of K-pop girl groups articulate a critique of gender dynamics in Korean society, while others recognize the impact of their American identity on their perspectives of female empowerment in Korea.  Both show how an American perspective can influences the discourses around K-pop.

Critique of Korea

Several respondents criticize Korean culture and society for a lack of representation of empowerment by K-pop girl groups. One respondent notes: “I think Korea has a huge issue with misogyny that is reflected in K-pop and that women are forced to be boxed in to one ‘type’ or another in order to appeal to men and to be socially acceptable to both men and women.” Another respondent says: “A lot of times they are held back due to Korea still holding sexist attitudes so I think there is more potential but it will all slowly become better.” How much do the respondents know about the history of Korean culture? Do they form such opinions based on Western media, which has been known to skew representations of foreign culture? Is “Korea’s issue with misogyny” or its “sexist attitudes” different than those within the United States?

Recognition of American Subjectivity

At the same time, other respondents recognize their perspective as American fans of a foreign popular culture. One respondent notes: “We have to remember as foreign fans, the concepts, images and sonic soundscapes that we hear/see in K-pop are coming from a unique place and culture. That means we are not always going to immediately understand it. . . . . We all have different experiences and thus different frameworks. Foreign Kpop fans need to remember this.” Another respondent notes: “This is a tricky question, because I’m a white American woman speaking on gender politics in Korea, a country I have no relation to and have never lived in. . . . At the end of the day, I’m not a defining voice on the subject, all I am is someone trying to find grey area in music and entertainment from a country that isn’t my own. I still am friends with quite a few Korean-Americans so I hear what they think on certain concepts, and that contributes a lot to my hesitancy to place my Western ideals on another country dismissively.” These fans recognize that their perceptions of Korean culture are filtered through their experiences as fans outside of the country. What kind of knowledge would a fan have to gain to make a valid critique of representations of empowerment? Do their perspectives not count because they are foreign fans? Do ideas about empowerment change as they cross national boundaries?

Other Observations

Such divergent responses suggest that perceptions by American fans may be influenced by American culture in general.  The impact of nationalism has been explored in fan studies.  Kyong Yoon’s study of K-pop fans in Vancouver included Canadians of East Asian descent, white Canadians and one Canadian of mixed race. Yoon noted: “Some fans of Asian descent engaged with K-pop in relation to their Asian Canadian subject positions, while White Canadian fans emphasized their individual and alternative cultural tastes that do not belong to mainstream culture” (185). Yoon suggests that a Canadian context informs the way these fans interact with K-pop.

The United States represents a unique context informed by a history of the interplay among gender, ethnicity and nationality. As a nation developed by a variety of immigrant groups and a major site for women’s rights, the United States also elides those very varied experiences in favor of one dominant narrative on empowerment, currently often represented as fierce, outspoken and brash. Images and concepts not in keeping with this narrative might be construed as not empowering. This suggests that a distinct and particular American cultural lens can have an impact on the way fans read empowerment in Korean girl groups.

Sources

Iwabuchi, Koichi.”Undoing Inter‐national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism’. Mechademia 5 (2010): . 87‐96.

Yoon, Kyong. “Transnational Fandom in the Making: K-pop Fans in Vancouver.” the International Communication Gazette vol 81, no. 2 (2018): 176-192. DOI: 10.1177/1748048518802964.

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Mini Data Note: Female American Fans, K-pop Girl Groups and a Critique of Empowerment by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

U Go Girl! The K-pop Girl Group Fan Study

Source: Pixabay

U Go Girl! The K-pop Girl Group Fan Study is the latest survey in the iFans: K-pop’s Global Fandom project. This survey seeks to understand the appeal of K-pop girl groups for female fans outside of Korea and will be open March 20, 2019-September 20, 2019. Click here to take the survey! If you have any questions about his research please contact Dr. Crystal S. Anderson, Research Scholar of Cultural Studies, Longwood University (andersoncs2@longwood.edu).

Why do a study on female fans of K-pop girl groups?

Academics have been writing about K-pop more and more, but the work on girl groups tends to focus on the way girl groups appeal to men, the perception that girl groups do not have a variety of concepts or that the members are styled to look alike. Few studies ask the female fans themselves what they think about K-pop girl groups. This study will help us understand what real life fans think about K-pop girl groups.

Who can take the survey?

Anyone who is 18-years-old or older.

How long does the survey take?

About five minutes.

Whose Generation? GIRLS’ GENERATION!: Gender, Audience and K-pop

Whose Generation? GIRLS’ GENERATION!: Gender, Audience and K-pop
Girls' Generation, Vogue Japan, 2011
Girls’ Generation, Vogue Japan, 2011

by Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

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.

Continue reading “Whose Generation? GIRLS’ GENERATION!: Gender, Audience and K-pop”

Ethnicity, Glamour and Image in Korean Popular Music

Lee Hyori, Promo image, Monochrome
Lee Hyori, Promo image, Monochrome

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

The 1960s girl group concept makes regular appearances in K-pop.  While some think that this kind of image represents a lack of ethnic identity in a quest for mainstream acceptance, I suggest that the 1960s girl group image promoted by women of color represents an ethnic glamour aesthetic.

Contemporary K-pop is driven by image as well as music.  Part of this has to do with its emergence along with rising technologies like the music video and the Internet, which “generate[d] a condition of possibility of reaching a mass audience outside of national borders,” and resulted in photogenic performers as part of appealing images (Lie, 353, 356). This is similar to rhythm and blues-inflected pop music of the 1960s. Gerald Early notes that technology contributed to this music becoming an “artifact,” in part because television distributed the music as well as an image (60, 62).

K-pop agencies, like SM Entertainment, carefully craft the images of K-pop artists for concepts. This is part of the training process, which also includes language instruction, choreography and hosting practice.  This also contributes to criticisms that such preening in the quest for audience acceptance diminishes the presence of ethnic culture.   John Lie argues that contemporary K-pop lacks Korean culture:  “As a matter of traditional culture, there is almost nothing ‘Korean’ about K-pop” (360). Motown acts under Berry Gordy also received similar kinds of training and, were subject to similar criticisms.   Nelson George defines Gordy’s project as assimilationist in nature, where “white values were held up as primary role models” and as a result, “blacks lost contact with the uniqueness of their people, and with their own heritage” (xii). For George and Lie, mainstream appeal translates into a loss of ethnic culture.

When K-pop adopts the 1960s retro look for female artists through chic hairstyles and dresses with eye-catching prints or dazzling sequins and fur reminiscent of The Supremes, I suggest that it partakes of a model of ethnic glamour established by black girl groups.  Brian Ward characterizes Gordy’s quest for mainstream success as one  predicated on challenging prevailing notions about American blacks:   “Gordy felt [the training] might make them more acceptable to white America and an expanding black middle class for whom mainstream notions of respectability remained important” (266).  The aspiration was felt by blacks, even those not in the middle class:  “The spangled pursuit of success carried no stigma among black fans who had routinely been denied equal opportunity to compete for the financial rewards of the mainstream” (Ward, 267).   This is key, because it shows the importance of how viewers read such images. Cynthia Cyrus argues that even though the images of girl groups of the 1960s were  well-managed and carefully crafted, they nevertheless resonated positively with fans:   “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. . . . The role of the viewer is central to creating meaning, and the girl group fan engaged actively in dialogue with the images placed before here” (190-1).

The Kim Sisters
The Kim Sisters

Just as black fans interpreted those images of black women as positive, Korean women like the Kim Sisters, styled in the same way, represent a glamourous  ethnic, in this case, Korean, experience to aspire to.  Ian Kim writes:   “For a Korean American like me, who grew up in parts of the US where I was the only Asian kid in school, it’s pretty astonishing to discover Korean performers who were successful in the US such an early time. Even more impressive is that they sang in English.”  The Kim Sisters’ images and participation in the entertainment world in the United States functioned as an alternative to the realities of the aftereffects of the Korean War and American military presence. San Byun-Ho remembers:  “After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world; we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died” (Forsyth). Just like images of 1960s black girl groups, such images of the Kim Sisters represent an image of ethnic aspiration.

Contemporary fans may see retro images in K-pop, like those by Lee Hyori and the Wonder Girls, as drawing from a visual discourse of ethnic glamour.  The measure of the impact of the image should also be measured by those who make meaning out of it.  These images matter precisely because they show Koreans in a glamorous context that also acknowledges their ethnicity.   As the Vintage Black Glamour  Tumblr and forthcoming book suggest, images of ethnic glamour still resonate today.  Nichelle Gainer says that any image she chooses has to have “a certain style to it, a certain beauty” and that she includes information about the photo because “I want people to know you’re not looking at some anonymous random person” (Brown).  Given the frequency that the 1960s concept recurs in K-pop, ethnic glamour still matters.

Wonder Girls, Nobody Concept, 2008
Wonder Girls, Nobody Concept, 2008

Images: 1, 2, 3

Sources

Brown, Tanya Ballard.  “‘Vintage Black Glamour’ Exposes Little-Known Cultural History.” The Picture Show – Photo Stories from NPR. NPR . 12 Oct 2012. Web. 27 Jan 2014.

Cyrus, Cynthia J.  “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.

Early, Gerald. One Nation Under a Grove: Motown and American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Forsyth, Luc.  “Korea’s Stressed Masses.” Groove Korea20 Aug 2012. Web. 27 Jan 2014.

Kim, Ian. “The Kim Sisters.” Ian Kim. 23 Jan 2014. Web. 28 Jan 2014.

Lie, John.  “What is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.

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Ethnicity, Glamour and Image in Korean Popular Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Pure Love f(x): Feminisms and K-pop Girl Groups

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Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Associate Professor, Elon University (U.S.)

K-pop girl groups tend to be described as sexy, fierce or cute.  Some suggest that images of fierceness encourage girls to be empowered, while images of cuteness take away their agency.  However, responses by fans of f(x), a K-pop female group, suggest that fans prefer unique and diverse images of women.

Continue reading “Pure Love f(x): Feminisms and K-pop Girl Groups”