The Forced Femininity of South Korean Female Celebrities

Female celebrities, all over the world, suffer from double standards when it comes to money, public images, and personal lives. But in South Korea, this is taken to an extreme. The reason can be traced back to Confucian standards.

From my time in South Korea, I found that Confucianism traditionally states that women should follow behind men in all things and should above all be chaste and pure. Ahyun Lee, a student from South Korea, says that these beliefs come from the mid-sixteenth century, when a group of Confucian philosophers gained influence and installed stricter standards for each gender, limiting how much control women had in their own lives.

Female celebrities each have to consider their role as a woman in their Confucian society and what this conservative country will accept them as, then examine if they can be successful and stand out from amongst the rest. As a result, many women try showing different concepts of femininity as they promote themselves, waiting for the “role” that would best fit.

There are three common concepts that female celebrities usually try to adapt as their “role” in society.  First, there is the cute girl, who is either adorable and quirky or pure and innocent. The cute girl represents typical Korean ideals: respectful towards her elders and doesn’t challenge the status quo. Cute girls face less criticism in this role as long as they remain true to their role, but they will have a harder time standing out, as this is the most popular role to fill, the role of least resistance. Apink is a Kpop girl group that has gained significant success in this role, due to their commitment to innocent and girly songs over their eight years.


(above, Oh My Girl, a girl group known for a fairytale-like cute persona)

Second, there is the “sexy diva”. “Sexy divas” show cleavage and extra skin, they hint at semi-scandalous topics on game shows, but they are still expected to grow out of this phase. “Sexy divas” will face backlash until they gain a large enough fan base to counteract the bad press with the good press. The soloist, HyunA, has unapologetically dominated this role since 2007, with songs and music videos banned for being too provocative. HyunA is still young and popular, but if she continues to release such controversial videos as she ages past thirty, it is likely that she will lose most of her fanbase.

Third, there is the girl-crush. The Girl-crush is Korea’s version of a badass, although a more watered-down Western version. She is becoming increasingly popular in Korea as foreign influences strengthen. Girl crushes will either sing or speak about loving themself and presents more feminist notions, but also will have less of a chance of becoming popular. Another label for the girl crush is the “modern-woman,” as she is less expected to follow a traditional way of life. A group that consistently sticks to this role is Mamamoo, three vocalists and a rapper who challenge Korean beauty standards with their song “Yes I Am.” They rose to prominence in Korea not for their looks or dance skills, as many groups do, but for their exceptional singing voices, outspoken nature, and quirky behaviors. Aaron Choi, a Korean-American student from Irvine, says,”Because so many girl groups get plastic surgery and try to act the same, Mamamoo really stands out. They look natural and don’t seem to care about dieting like all the other groups. One member in particular has gained a large fanbase for her non Korean-like body, in that she flaunts curves and thicker thighs like American singers usually do.”

(above, Heize, a Korean solo artist who is known for her relaxed, girl-crush vibe)

Plastic surgery has a huge impact in South Korea, with many young Korean girls getting popular procedures like double-eyelid surgery as graduation gifts. It has often been called “The Plastic Surgery Capital of the World,” due to people’s relaxed and often enthusiastic opinions on it. It is a popular thought in South Korea that one should always be improving their looks if possible, and thus many female celebrities are told by their companies that they need plastic surgery in order to be popular.

Dieting is another way that companies can control their female celebrities. Many companies have weekly weigh-ins that their trainees (celebrities in training) have to comply to, with some thrown out if they repeatedly miss the ideal weight. The thought is that if these trainees don’t want to be successful enough to change their weight and their face, they aren’t a good investment for the company.

All of this is to gain fans, at the cost of being true to oneself. This is because fans are vital to survival, even more so than in many other countries. Fan-culture in Korea is intense, one action can gain a celebrity enough fans to lift their career, but one false move can more easily ruin one forever.

Dating scandals are a common way for a female celebrity to lose many of the fans she had worked to gain. Lee says, “People react much more sensitively when female celebrities are related with an issue than male celebrities.” She gives the example of how many celebrities have to hide that they are dating because when fans find out, they react as if betrayed and are more likely to blame the female over that of the male.

The worry of losing fans have made female celebrities stick closely to these concepts and roles for many years. However, Korea is beginning to change, seen in the new influx of the “girl-crush” role. More women are choosing to not follow traditional ways of life and prioritizes their career over starting a family. They are starting to see the beauty in both natural faces and those with plastic surgery, respecting the fact that they have the option to choose. South Korean youths admire new thinking and more representations of what beauty and talent can be seen as. As this new, modern-woman is becoming more popular in South Korea, hopefully this will make the entire society more accepting of a wider interpretation of femininity.

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