by Raizel Liebler
One of the dark sides of kpop is that many of the performers are quite young. Some performers start the process of “training” – singing, dancing, and performing instruction – years before they are placed within a group by a company/label. Recently, this has led to a slew of groups with distressingly young members – mostly between fourteen and sixteen. Of course, the idea of teens being marketed to teens is not a new trend. But when these young teens are placed in groups with much older members, it can cause discontinuity with their groupmates, considering that some members are legally old enough to marry or drive, while others are still in middle school. Even more distressing is the hyper-sexualized portrayal of many of these young performers.
Minzy is one of four members of 2NE1, and is their featured dancer, and secondary rapper. When the group debuted, she was only 15 – a full decade younger than two of the other members of the group – CL & Bom. Their debut video and song was the advertsong, Lollipop – a TLF favorite. But the first time I saw the video for “Can’t Nobody”, I was shocked by the way Minzy was hypersexualized. The idea of teens having sexual agency is obvious, but this display isn’t the decision of the teen involved, instead it is a decision made by her label/agency. And don’t think that juxtaposing the dominatrix outfit with the ponytail one was accidental!
However, one advantage this portrayal of teen sexuality has over many of the others in kpop is that it isn’t completely cutesy unlike many other younger performers – Minzy is presented as sexy and athletic, and frequently boyish (she wears pants, yo!). In later videos, the super-sexyness is portrayed by BOM, who serves the “Barbie” role in the group.
However, other groups and individual performers specifically seek out and promote their “uncle” fans – men that are fans of young and usually those that are marketed as “innocent.”
One such performer is IU, who has the super innocent persona projected perfected. She was frequently referred to as “Korea’s little sister”. As Seoulbeats puts it, she “She has embodied the essence of cute and trendy youth, to attract more fans following the relative failure of her … debut song.” But once a picture was placed on her Twitter where it looks like she is in bed with a member of the boyband Super Junior (you know, like after), the internet attacked her. Her company released a ridiculous press release stating that IU was very sick and Eunhyuk had come to visit her at her home, and the picture was taken when they sat on the sofa together.
What is notable about IU is that while she, like Minzy, debuted at 15, her early releases were darker and more dramatic (specifically Mia (Lost Child) which is highly gothic). The choice to go both more innocent and therefore cute-sexualized came later. Some argue that IU has hidden depths of talent, but regardless, the overall idea of teens/young adults having romantic/sexual relationships shoudn’t lead to “le scandal.” But within kpop, where stars have strict limits on their personal lives, it does cause scandals.
So we are left with an odd situation – where the sexuality of young kpop idols is frequently on display for their audiences, but not allowed for them to actually express or enjoy.