Top 10 Feminist Kpop VideosMonday, April 15, 2013
This is the first of a two-part series examining Kpop videos through the lens of Western feminism. Who do you think should be in the next five? Part two is here!
Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you the truth: I’ve got it bad for Korean pop music.
Among my friends I’ve become sort of a Kpop evangelist: unable to shut up about it, always pushing it on others, and occasionally speaking in tongues. I can’t help but be drawn to its energy, bright colors, and beautiful people.
I’m also a feminist. For me that means living in haglike solitude while I accumulate cats and refuse to find things funny. Okay, maybe not. Feminism, to me, means female representation. Men get to do a lot of things in pop culture. They get to be funny, or sexy, or klutzy and endearing—whatever they want to be. I like it when women get the same opportunities, in a way that makes me feel included. I want to come away from pop culture feeling like I can take over the world.
When I watch music videos I can’t help but look for the kind of female representation that makes me feel good. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite feminist Kpop videos.
1. Miss A – Goodbye Baby
I don’t think any discussion of feminism and Kpop could be complete without Miss A. In Goodbye Baby, the girls sing scornfully about getting rid of an offending guy and teach him a painful lesson. They also show off fierce dances moves while doing it.
Not only is the message great, the video is also gorgeous and very well-constructed. One of my favorite elements is the recurring motif of red, appearing in the girls’ clothes, the props, and then in the fire that consumes the music video set.
The video starts off with Miss A auditioning as backup dancers for a male celebrity. The man is lounging in a red leather chair, eating succulent cherries and literally ready to roll the dice on Miss A’s fate. This is all a game to him; in an audition that would change their lives, he actually laughs them out of the studio. That’s how little these women matter to him. He has complete control: over the outcome of the audition, over the minions that surround him, and even over the girls’ bodies. It’s not a coincidence that he’s eating four red cherries out of a martini glass—he devours the cherries the same way that the media consumes the female body. The imagery is edged with violence. He doesn’t just eat the cherries, he leaves them half-consumed, juice dripping down his chin. In this same fashion, he watches Miss A put on a show for him, and then throws them away.
But as the video progresses, they reappropriate all of this imagery. The man’s red chair becomes a throne for them. Min eats a cherry, demonstrating her control over her body. Even better, they trap the man in a glass tube that fills with water as they force him to watch their performance. The tables are completely turned: whereas before it was Miss A, powerless and trapped, it is now the man that slowly suffocates as the water rises. Finally, they blow up the set in an explosive finale, destroying the site of their oppression. The final shot of the video is the man, lying broken on the floor as his laughter turns to tears. Miss A have destroyed him and reclaimed agency over their own lives.
Frankly, I could have chosen almost any Miss A video for this list. In Bad Girl, Good Girl they proudly strut their stuff while telling off people who make assumptions about them. Even more blatant is I Don’t Need a Man. Even though it’s focused on material culture, the sentiment alone is awesome enough.
2. SNSD – The Boys
My inclusion of SNSD in this list might give some people pause, and I admit that this is more of a personal reading than overt feminism on the part of the videographers. The famous nine-member girl group has gone through an incredible evolution over the course of their career. In earlier videos like Gee and Oh! I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of the girls as total male fantasy. In Gee they’re literally mannequins, the ultimate posable fantasy, and in Oh! their cheerleader uniforms and cute poses were a huge turnoff for me, because they weren’t for me. They were for men. The beloved Genie was probably the worst perpetrator here, putting the viewer in the shoes of the lucky man who gets to party with SNSD. It’s the epitome of marketing for the male gaze, presenting the girls as beautiful and available, but also innocent enough to not be considered trashy—because of course, sexual awareness equates to loss of value for women, at least as far as the patriarchy is concerned. But as the group matured, so did their image and with Run Devil Run SNSD went from cutesy cheerleaders to angry young women.
For me, this transformation completed with the release of The Boys in 2011. Here we get to see SNSD not in matching uniforms, but in suits or in ball gowns complete with tiaras. They went from innocent-but-nubile male fantasies to confident, strong female power fantasies. Check out the music video or almost any live performance of The Boys for an example of what I mean. The ladies are decked out in slick suits, or full-on fairytale princess outfits, or both. That’s no male fantasy: that’s something for little girls to look up to.
What’s more, they assume this powerful role without sacrificing their femininity. Too often in the media we are fed a connection between power and manliness, with the expectation that to be powerful a woman has to scorn the things that are associated with the traditionally feminine. She has to give up her high heels and her makeup, she can’t wear skirts. This bias cuts both ways; any association with these traditionally feminine items supposedly strips a man of his own power, and ‘girly’ is an insult. I would love to see a more diverse portrayal of men and women in the media, but for now I’m thrilled to see powerful women that dress the way I dress in my fantasies: like a princess.
3. EXID – I Feel Good
This whole list has been pretty serious and pretty sexy so far, but what about the fun part of being a badass lady? When EXID first performed I Feel Good I was blown away by their confident attitudes; when I looked up the music video I immediately became a fan. This video doesn’t have a ton of depth but it more than makes up for it in unbridled fun.
The lyrics to I Feel Good tell a simple story about dancing and having fun, and they perfectly complement the video which shows the members not as stylish superstars, but everyday girls. They work hard all day, but at the end of it all they get together and party it up as a girl gang.
For me, this girl gang mentality is the most important aspect. Too often we get the message that women need to be in competition with each other, that we’ll always end up at odds, probably over a man. This is a video about a group of awesome young women who, when they find out the club is closed, decide to break in and have a dance party all by themselves. They don’t need anyone else!
Even better, they get to be funny! By allowing EXID to have moments of klutziness, they make them all the more human. As much as I love my fierce untouchable goddesses, putting women on that pedestal means holding us all up to an unreachable standard. EXID are fierce ladies but they’re also dorks, just like you and me.
4. Brown-Eyed Girls – Sixth Sense
A rare and much-appreciated music video with a good plot, Sixth Sense shows the Brown-Eyed Girls in revolution against a male authority figure. As with Goodbye Baby, symbolism runs deep in this video. As the group faces off against the Oppressor’s riot police, their backstories are revealed. According to Kim Eana, lyricist for the song, each woman represents a part of the revolution: Miryo represents the voice, Jea is sacrifice, and Gain is resistance. Narsha, according to Kim Eana, is the proverbial “sixth sense,” which seems deeply tied to raw sexuality.
Here we see women who are aware and in control of their sexuality, and completely unapologetic for it. This story could easily be told in a modern-day club setting, but I love the fact that they chose to tell it in the context of revolution, of overthrowing oppressive power constructs. In the context of Korea, it’s even more interesting; it’s hard to watch the video and not immediately think of the dictatorship in North Korea and the anger and sadness of families still divided by the DMZ. It’s unclear whether it was a deliberate reference or not, but it’s fair to point out that both regimes use a single star on their flag, and the imagery of the faceless soldiers marching in synchronization is consistent with media representation of North Korea.
When you strip it down to its essence though, this is a video about powerful women leading a revolution against oppression. No matter what you think that oppression is, the message is powerfully feminist. BEG embrace their roles with a fierceness we don’t often see in pop music. As in their previous single Abracadabra they also bring a mature sexuality into play. With their dark, aggressive makeup and fearlessly sexy dancing, they embody strength and femininity, and that’s awesome.
5. Orange Caramel – Lipstick
I have never been a huge fan of cutesy videos, but Orange Caramel’s Lipstick has completely won me over. Paired with a ridiculously catchy tune, the video tells the equally ridiculous story of a trio of lady Ping Pong players who fall for their very princely teammate.
You’ve probably seen stories like this before. Next, he takes the girls under his wing and show them the ropes, right? It’ll be super romantic and he’ll look down on them fondly as they struggle to do sports, like all ladies should.
These girls are good. Really good. And when their handsome prince gets defeated by another male challenger, they don’t hesitate to kick that guy’s ass.
I love this video because it takes a really played-out trope and turns it on its head, while keeping a sense of fun inanity about it. The ladies of Orange Caramel display comedic chops that make me jealous. There’s a great self-awareness to this video, especially when they swoon over the Ping Pong stud, with shiny eyes and fluttering hands. All that gets turned on its head when they need to fight for him. Puppy love turns to steely determination in a flash, and the extremity of it—especially in the context of Ping Pong, of all sports—is hilarious. That’s the great thing about this video: it’s all one giant in-joke about the “ladies are bad at sports” trope, and everyone in the video knows it and goes out of their way to make fun of it.
It is, essentially, a perfect music video: light-but-tight plot, lots of humor, and a cute dance to go with it.