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(News Focus) How BTS's stardom kindled misogyny debate in K-pop scene

2017/03/17 09:00

By Chang Dong-woo

SEOUL, March 17 (Yonhap) -- The saying goes that with great power comes great responsibility. In hindsight, BTS, one of the biggest K-pop groups today, may have wanted to take that old adage much closer to heart than usual -- before being unexpectedly mired in a misogyny controversy at home.

The latest anti-feminist controversy against BTS, also known as Bangtan Boys, is still building up in South Korea. And it isn't over some gaffe or slip of the tongue. It's about a song which has apparently rubbed many people the wrong way and was exacerbated by the group's performance at a recent Seoul concert.

The issue with "War of Hormone," released in 2014, lies in its words. Supposedly questionable expressions include "please wear high heels more often" and "women are the best gift," which are perceived by critics as objectifications of women.

Along with "Joke," a solo song from BTS leader Rap Monster, the track is often raised by critics as one of its most anti-feminist songs.

In this file photo, members of BTS pose for the camera at a press event in Seoul on Oct. 10, 2016, on the release of their second album "Wings." (Yonhap) In this file photo, members of BTS pose for the camera at a press event in Seoul on Oct. 10, 2016, on the release of their second album "Wings." (Yonhap)

The controversy, which first began in late 2015, has ballooned to the point where BTS acknowledged in July of last year that "regardless of the creative intent, (the song) can be misunderstood in a misogynistic light and cause discomfort to many listeners" and promised to be more considerate of differing opinions in the future.

The gesture seemed to appease some critics then. But last month's live performance of that song reignited an upheaval, calling into question BTS's commitment to addressing issues of misogyny.

BTS, currently on a world tour, still has the song in its concert set list, including in a recent one in Santiago on Sunday, according to Chilean audience accounts uploaded to Twitter and on YouTube.

Moreover, BTS's brand new song, "Not Today," has compounded the team's perception problem. The lyrics, which mentions the proverbial glass ceiling, have been attacked by some for supposedly "mansplaining," or talking down to or preaching to women about the subject of gender inequality.

In this file photo, Rap Monster, member of South Korean boy group Bangtan Boys, poses for a photo during a showcase to mark the release of the group's second album "Wings" in Seoul on Oct. 10, 2016. (Yonhap) In this file photo, Rap Monster, member of South Korean boy group Bangtan Boys, poses for a photo during a showcase to mark the release of the group's second album "Wings" in Seoul on Oct. 10, 2016. (Yonhap)

Rap Monster has explained that the team was trying to express its intent to chime in on social issues and not shy away from them.

"Not just our members but our producers are talking about social issues, meeting with experts and reading a lot of books. We still have a long way to go, but we'll think hard, take in criticism and mature," Rap Monster said at a press conference on Feb. 18.

Despite criticisms towards BTS, in reality it's difficult to argue that K-pop as a whole, let alone any commercial pop genre, has ever been 100 percent politically correct.

On the contrary, K-pop is moving more and more towards sexual objectification, as seen in not just BTS and other leading male artists but in a torrent of tantalizingly sexualized female counterpart groups churned out on a regular basis.

Though BTS, by all accounts, seems to be taking the brunt of the beating. The team, which debuted in 2013, has never denied that it amassed its fan base through masculine imagery aimed at winning the hearts of the general teenage fan girl audience.

And it's not as if Psy's 2012 runaway hit "Gangnam Style," full of playful sexual innuendo, ever became a lighting rod for criticisms of misogyny either. So is the backlash towards BTS disproportionately unfair?

   One thing to keep in mind is that BTS's fast ascent to stardom has largely coincided with the South Korean society's process of becoming acutely sensitive to misogyny and feminism, having peaked after the "Gangnam murder case" in May 2016, in which a young woman was stabbed to death by a complete male stranger near one of the country's busiest subway stations in Seoul.

A Korea Press Foundation survey conducted on 1039 people between 20 and 50 years old in July of 2016 also showed that 74 percent of respondents believed the problem of misogyny was "serious" in South Korea.

This image captured from Twitter shows part of a statement from a Twitter user named "Forming public opinion on misogyny of Bangtan Boys (BTS)," on May 22, 2016, demanding that the idol group address issues relating to its anti-feminist allegations. (Yonhap) This image captured from Twitter shows part of a statement from a Twitter user named "Forming public opinion on misogyny of Bangtan Boys (BTS)," on May 22, 2016, demanding that the idol group address issues relating to its anti-feminist allegations. (Yonhap)

Some experts believe that the Korean idol formula, given the scene's widespread influence on young fans, has negatively reinforced a male-oriented patriarchal world view, with BTS now inadvertently at that forefront.

"Idol music in the past reinforced male and female stereotypes, with narratives depicting the traditionally strong men protecting the weak women," professor Yun Ji-yeong at Konkuk University's Institute of Body Culture Study in Seoul said.

"While this perception was considered generally romantic in the past, its text could be interpreted as being misogynistic in the prism of feminism, which is becoming more and more accepted by the general public," Yun added.

But not all pop music consumers agree, with some arguing that it's a matter of personal taste and preference in the art form.

"I know that some boy groups, who have pushed forward masculine appeal, can cause a bit of discomfort for women. But there are throngs of fans who have supported their idol team's own distinct colors," Kim Jee-won, a female company worker in Seoul said.

"Slapping on the misogyny label and demanding that the groups sing or not sing certain songs is in itself a form of violence I believe," Kim said.

Ha Jae-keun, a Seoul-based cultural commentator, assessed that social callouts of anti-feminist sentiment will become more and more prevalent.

"Since our society is becoming more and more sensitive to issues surrounding feminism, it'll probably be wise for artists to stay out of issues unless they establish a firm footing in their philosophical and world view," said Ha.

A promotional photo of BTS provided by Big Hit Entertainment. (Yonhap) A promotional photo of BTS provided by Big Hit Entertainment. (Yonhap)

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