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How the Rise of K-Pop Groups is Shedding Light on Sexism in Music

BTS at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Source: Billboard

The rise of Korean groups in the Western scene represents an important step towards a more inclusive and open music industry, which embraces different languages and backgrounds, telling diverse stories from across the globe. Many have seen this as a chance to finally be heard and represented, even if it is not directly, but through the “vessel” that the group has become for many generations’ voices. Along with this positive influence, however, their fame has also opened old wounds in the industry, especially relating to sexism and the condescending attitude many still display towards female audiences today.

Female fans of any genre, from R&B to Rap and to K-Pop, are commonly frowned upon and portrayed as being uninformed “die-hard” followers. Instead of being equated to any other fans of an artist or group, simply enjoying music, promoting and supporting it through social media, concert attendances and other means; they are quickly portrayed to fit the “groupie” stereotype: uninterested in the actual music and only attracted to an artist or group for their appearance. We often see fans also being shamed for expressing their emotions regarding an artists work, quickly being labelled as “dramatic”, despite how well we have come to know the powerful messages that music, especially today, can express. It is difficult to not trace this mentality back to the general portrayal of women in our society as being overly-emotional beings, whose feelings are not just exaggerated, but also unjustified either. While we have made progress in changing mentalities and this wrong perception of women, sexism is still a major issue in today’s world, and the blatant stereotyping of female fans is further proof of that.

In the case of groups such as the global phenomenon BTS, female followers, despite being part of a very diverse fan base on every front including gender-wise, are no strangers to this kind of treatment, so it is no surprise why many are hesitant to identify as fans. With the “boy band” label that’s been slapped across the group’s image, this fear of being looked down on for something as trivial as their taste in music is only amplified. While many, especially younger generations, find comfort in BTS’ music that addresses many challenges of growing up, from mental health to pressures of fitting into society’s mounds, they become reluctant to do so. We’re shaming women and young girls for personal preferences and personal choices, from their career paths to the music that’s in their playlists, and we’ve turned something as beautiful as music into something dirty that can’t be publicly enjoyed or celebrated.

BTS at 61st Annual Grammy Awards. Photo by: Chelsea Lauren. Source: StyleCaster

Not only have these stereotypes pushed women to feel ashamed and forced to justify yet another aspect of their personal lives for no good reason, but they have also forced them to do so by arguing that the artists they appreciate “also have male fans.” Suddenly, the ability to draw in male followers becomes much more important than the artists’ actual work, talent, and message. We’re equating having a male audience with being talented, and vice versa. This raises the question: since when have male fans become the standard for determining an artists’ worth? It is clear that female support, particularly when it comes to the music industry, is considered an invalid vote.

While it is disappointing to see this mentality projected onto a fan for the sole reason of being a woman, it is not surprising. Particularly the media, especially when covering bands — from The Beatles and Backstreet Boys to most K-pop acts today — has been very focused on capturing this “crazy follower” stereotype, promoting it at every given opportunity. While it should be common knowledge that accomplishments of groups like BTS go light years beyond the “boy band” title, speaking at the UN, launching an anti-violence campaign, becoming the only act to remain no. 1 on the Billboard Social 50 charts for an entire year, and recently becoming the first Korean group to ever present at the Grammy’s, this has yet to stop many news outlets from enforcing the stereotype. When the group did a press tour in the US during 2018, they had to graciously avoid the question “What is the craziest thing a fan has done to meet you?” in a majority of their interviews. While on The Ellen Show, the group was also asked if they had ever “hooked up” with any of their fans, Ellen even going as far as to ask the translator to further explain what the term meant to an already uncomfortable BTS. With media outlets having such a powerful influence on public perception, it is crucial that they too help dismantle stereotypes — instead, they chose to profit off them, only making them even stronger.

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BTS at The Ellen Show in 2017. Source: The Ellen Show

It is clear that female audiences still face a tremendous amount of backlash for simply supporting the artists whose work they enjoy, and they continue to be shamed for expressing that appreciation. While K-Pop groups and their fan bases are not the first to experience this obvious flaw in our society, they are the most recent to relive this history and become targets of a mentality we don’t seem to have made much progress escaping from. Our treatment of female audiences is a reflection of a pressing issue in today’s society which we must work towards changing, not just among fandoms, not by solely relying on better media coverage, not by expecting only those who’ve enforced it to change — but by working together, whether you’re already doing so, standing on the sidelines, or just now realizing you’re complicit in the problem.



Featured Image courtesy of Billboard

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Sofia Scarlat is a sixteen year-old writer from Bucharest, Romania. She is the youngest contributor for ELLE Romania, a podcast host and the founder of the only teen-run gender equality organization in her home country. You can reach her at:

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