Feminism and K-Pop: Why 2NE1 Matters

By Guest Contributor refresh_daemon, cross-posted from Init_Music

Even though I’ve been able to mildly appreciate the various idol pop songs that are produced by the mainstream Korean pop industry, it’s only been in the last couple months that I’ve been particularly drawn to any particular idol group and its music. This group is YG Family’s 2NE1, a girl idol pop quartet, which debuted in 2009.

Interestingly enough, I first encountered 2NE1 via an introductory post regarding the discussion about cultural appropriation on Racialicious and before anything else, I was struck with the group’s eye-popping wardrobe and surprisingly found myself appreciating the production and songwriting of “Fire”, but soon after, my awareness of the group faded until Anna/helikoppter at IndiefulROK pointed towards a cover of 2NE1′s “I Don’t Care” by folk songstress obsession of mine, Osoyoung.

Again, in its stripped down arrangement by Osoyoung, I was struck by the smart songwriting and even lyric writing of the song and ended up searching out the original and promptly got addicted, searching out the videos that were made for their original debut and onto their first album. And while I have to credit former 1YTM member Teddy Park’s excellent production and songwriting talents for drawing me into the group, as he is 2NE1′s principal producer/songwriter, I have to say that I was also impressed by the image projected by this group, which might have started off a touch cute, but the quartet quickly developed a very defined image of feminine strength and independence.

Part of the reason why I think 2NE1 captures my attention in a sea of idol groups is precisely because of this projected attitude. There is no end to the number of girl groups who capture both the images of being innocent and cute and super sexy, but one of the off-putting elements to these images (along with song lyrics and performance) is that it often seems to be designed within the culture of male patriarchy. Specifically, the images projected seem to be designed to appeal to men, or to appeal to women to appeal to men. The virgin/whore paradigm is arguably locked into the image of many of these girl groups and even when many of the girl groups inevitably go for their “tough/sexy” image, even the dance choreography is often designed to be overtly submissively sexual (in particular, appealing to cis-hetero men).

Now, perhaps it’s because the quartet is rooted in a hip-hop ethos, common to most of YG’s performers, but the women of 2NE1 project a strong air of self-expression (even if manufactured). You can see this in their rather crazy hybrid of high and street fashion in their wardrobe, which can certainly be sexy, but even in its sexiness, with its high hemlines and bare midriffs, also manages to capture a kind of owned toughness, often accented with armor, spikes, chains, studs, and/or wild patterns and urban graphics. Likewise, the dance choreography of the group is heavily grounded in street styles, lending the group assertiveness, but does not ignore their own conception of strong femininity, which, like other girl groups, can project an air of sexuality, but you’ll notice that their dance moves, even when sexually hinting, are often aggressive and self-possessed (like the locomotion thrust move in “I Am the Best”), being more outward displays than come-hither invitations.

And yet, for all the strength on display, 2NE1 also doesn’t ignore the fact that even strong women can desire companionship. However, the group’s “love” songs are usually songs of regret (“It Hurts”), loneliness (“Lonely”), or moving on (“I Don’t Care”, “Go Away”). In some sense, this might speak a lot to strong women out there, who often find their strength in conflict with the competitive men that they might come to have affection for. And when you combine this multi-faceted approach to strong femininity with smart, ear-catching productions, songs and lyrics, often courtesy of the surprisingly thoughtful Teddy Park, you have what’s possibly the most inspiring girl group out there for young women (and men) to enjoy. In some ways, this quartet is a kind of spiritual inheritor to the Spice Girls in terms of projecting an image of being a strong, willful, female pop group that is self-possessed, all captured on some ear-and-eye-grabbing songs, videos and performances.

And for both catching the attention of my ears while still providing a small measure of strong femininity in a sea of Korean girl groups catering either directly or indirectly to men, I’ve developed quite a fondness for these girls and their producer. I see them as providing hope and strength to all the young women who absorb their music, salving and shoring them up against the avalanche of patriarchy that they inevitably face throughout their lives. And sure, they might be a Korean group with limited international exposure outside of Asia, but if there’s any Korean idol group that I’d want to be an international success, my pick would easily be 2NE1.

I don’t know if that means that you could call me a Blackjack (the 2NE1 fan club), but I’m pretty certain that you could call me a fan. Thanks, 2NE1, for holding it down for young women out there, everywhere.

 

  • Pingback: The Week As We Read It | Canonball

  • Pingback: On Interracial Dating – The Asian Panel (1 of 3) | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  • BayanIzumi

    as a dude i got made fun of in my social justice circles for sporting 2NE1′s music. my friends (especially women) wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to explain exactly what this article is saying and that its way different from the Kelly Rowland’s and Nicki Minaj’s of mainstream USA.  they just wrote me off as another Asian-philic hapa dude (which I am not!… I think). do you mind if i use this article to prove a point that outward identities shouldn’t get in the way of providing insightful arguments?

  • http://twitter.com/mamazilla mamazilla

    i love 2ne1 too! one of the few girl kpop groups i can stomach…  and they actually sound great live as well – so rare for girl groups…  i think they’re on their way to being an international success…  will.i.am from BEP has already said that he’s planning to debut them in the US this year:  http://www.theprophetblog.net/will-i-am-to-launch-2ne1-in-the-states.  although, it makes me wonder – did he have to go all the way to korea to find a girl group? couldn’t he find four korean american singer/dancers here and form a group?  not that 2ne1 doesn’t deserve such a great opportunity, but still…  

    also, i’d like to recommend reading http://thegrandnarrative.com/ and http://angrykpopfan.tumblr.com/ for some great reading/analysis of kpop and korean media.

  • http://twitter.com/allaboutmanga D. Orihuela-Gruber

    Whoops, didn’t get a chance to finish my previous comment.

    Luckily for us, the men behind 2NE1 seem to enjoy making the group be the strongest girls in k-pop. :)

  • Anonymous

    Asia loves Beyonce so it’s great to see her influence rub off. 

  • http://rippdemup.com Jonne Austin

    Thanks for this post!  I was aware of them but hadn’t really gotten a chance to appreciate them or their music.  After watching the videos posted, I’m feeling them more.  I told my son that if his little sister–8 months old now but I’m already on the grind lol–wanted to be a fan of these young ladies, she wouldn’t get any opposition from me.  And can I add that they are FABULOUS?  The nails, the hair, the fashion, the dancing, the attitude…. They have it all without having to be hypersexual for the sole benefit of the male gaze. 

  • http://twitter.com/allaboutmanga D. Orihuela-Gruber

    2NE1 is great! I do love their true tough-girl approach in comparison to groups like SNSD. 
    Unfortunately, I think that some of the issues the other commentators have put out there are somewhat true. This music is put out there to sell all sorts of things, but it’s something every other k-pop band does.  On the other hand, some of these k-pop groups are also wildly popular overseas, which kind of negates those commercials/music videos for fans like us. 
    The people backing 2NE1 are probably 99% male, which is the norm in Japan too. Luckily for us,

  • Tclemmon

    I haven’t read the article yet but I’m so glad 2NE1 is getting the attention they deserve. I finally got my friends to listen to them after months of them making fun of my love of Korean culture.

  • cassicasey

    i totally agree. i only know a few kpop artists before like HOT and BOA. Then I started hearing the song Nobody but you by Wondergirls but that didn’t really made me yet a KPOP fan (i was originally a JPOP fan) then I heard rumors that Sandara Park was a member of a KPOP group. Then I started watching their videos and that time Fire and I Dont Care were both big hits. That was the first time I was eager in watching KPOP. I started liking the others girls and other KPOP artists. What attracted me to them is their fierce image and fashion sense. I really hate the gurly and cutesy image. They also have this strong stage presence every time their perform. Im pressed in YG in how he market the gurls, he really marketed them as artists and not as an idols.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=430798 Clara Shao-Tan

    I love 2NE1! They quite the fierce performance style as well. I do think that their romantic songs are too much about regret. I’m looking forward to a happy love song. I know they have it in them…

    About 2NE1 being performers rather than producers – Keep in mind that they’ve only been in the public eye since 2009, just 2 years. I think they’ll definitely get opportunities to write their own music and contribute once they become more seasoned.

  • Anonymous

    Great job refresh_daemon!I really want us to cover more that’s happening in other music scenes, so thanks for this.  I’ve been a fan of 2NE1 since one of my homegirls introduced me to them all those years ago. I was initially exposed to k-hip-hop/pop ages and ages ago back in my Otaku phase, so I’d been getting down to 1TYM, Lexy, Drunken Tiger, and Big Bang and loved how 2NE1 picked up the mantle Lexy left and ran with it.That said, I’m a little worried about what time will do to the group.  YG’s offerings definitely have a shelf-life, and they are really heavily produced by Teddy Park.  If we parallel k-pop feminism to hip-hop feminism, it would appear to me that they have the Lil’ Kim problem – which is how much of that image is the man behind you, and how much of that image is your own creation?  I love 2NE1 so I hope it’s the latter – but I’m not sure than in 5 years, Teddy & YG won’t be on to the next, throwing those clever lyrics (Beyonce/I’m walking out of Destiny!) in the mouths of a new batch of adolescents.

    • refresh daemon

      That is definitely an issue here as the girls are clearly performers and are not involved in the production or lyric-writing of 2NE1′s music and their stylists really run their look. In the long run, I don’t think that any Korean idol group can run indefinitely, so I think the best we can hope for is that some of these girls develop their own individual performance identities and go solo, a la Lee Hyori from Fin.K.L.  And I’m definitely sure that in 5 years, Teddy and YG will have another group of girls or boys to take over for BigBang and 2NE1. But I don’t really see that as a bad thing either–music groups form and vanish; what I’m grateful for is that a group with such a strong feminine image and body of work is out there and topping the charts.  Even if Teddy/YG are the men behind the image, the fans of 2NE1 are not consuming them, but rather getting their pleasure from the group and what they represent. Do I wish that there were more talented women behind the scenes, producing these groups and reaping the rewards? Yes. But I would rather have 2NE1 out there, even with the limits they have, than not for as long as they can stay relevant.

      Granted, I’m definitely more into Korean indie/rock/hip-hop than mainstream pop and in that world, there are a lot of women involved in creating their own unique music.

      • Anonymous

        CL does have an impact on what the group wears – the other members have previously stated that she brings clothes in to collaborate with their stylist, and in season 2 of 2NE1TV she’s shown shopping with Jeremy Scott for clothes and accessories the group later wore in performances. She also writes her own raps; they’ve just not been used in 2NE1′s songs yet. She wrote her own parts for GD’s The Leaders and in YGMA’s What, and there have been rumours of a solo album sometime in the future.

        Dara’s received acknowledgement for her social networking savvy – YG named her the group’s communications director, and she gave a lecture at Yonsei University earlier this year about effectively using Me2Day. She was already a successful actress and singer before she joined the group.

        Bom’s already a successful solo artist. (Her solo stuff tends towards the cutesy, but that’s compared to regular 2NE1 stuff. It’s quite tame on the cuteness scale compared to what many/most other groups are putting out.)

        So basically, the three oldest members already have fairly solid individual performance identities. Minzy’s only 17, so she’s got plenty of time to get there herself. Dara and Bom have demonstrated that they can be successful without the rest of the group, and CL is already doing more than just performing whatever she’s given. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens in the future – they’re currently working with will.i.am on an English-language album, though who knows how that’ll pan out – and whether they get more behind-the-scenes control, but I’d say it’s not much of a stretch to assume that their shelf life will the longer than the group itself’s. 

    • Soulsentwined

      I share your concern. There is a long history of girl power acts that are actually produced/managed/controlled by men. So is it girl power or just the male approved version of girl power? Some acts will go on to take control of their image and/or song writing. Salt N Pepa had success after they wrote their own lyrics. Janet famously took control of her career.  Their labels male group BIG BANG write their own music and do side projects where they express their own music style. Maybe 2NE1 will have the same opportunity.

      • refresh daemon

        On a meta-level, this problem actually struck me as I was writing this very piece. After all, I, a male, am writing about female empowerment. Does my identity as a male compromise my ability to write about this topic? Am I merely highlighting a male-acceptable rendition of girl power? Were I a woman, would I have a different opinion of  2NE1?  Or would I find a different popular Korean girl group to be a better example female strength and empowerment?

        And, then, as a male writer who happens to be working with female protagonists in my stories at the moment, does it make my characters any less strong or meaningful because I am not a woman?

        • Esther Tai

          ^If more men were feminists, we would have a lot less problems with sexism wouldn’t we?

          I think as long as the men have the same view of women as other (female) feminists are promoting, there shouldn’t be a problem. The male President of YG Entertainment and Teddy Park are both behind the image of 2NE1 and to them I say, bravo. Men ARE currently in power, and if those in power took similar actions to promote the image of women that 2NE1, for example, promotes, society would be in a different place.

          Would I applaud 2NE1 if they took more direct involvement in the creation of their music? Yes. 
          As a k-pop group, do I expect if of them? Not really. 

          To my knowledge, almost NO kpop groups are involved with the creation of their own music (save for Big Bang, who are acclaimed for doing so), and CL/Park Bom/Minzy/Sandara Park didn’t train for years to become music producers, they trained to become performers. The leader, CL, IS involved with their style, and I think each girl’s style suits her and doesn’t just seem like something they were forced to wear. Maybe 2NE1 will become more personally involved in the music production in the future, but in the meantime I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that males created 2NE1. :)

  • KCleveland

    Because plastic surgery that mimics the global white beauty standard, starving oneself to be dangerously thin and being (formerly) part of a slave-contract but still part of the slave-contract system in Korea is the epitome of female empowerment.

    • ccella

      I don’t see the word “epitome” anywhere in this argument. I think the author was comparing 2NE1 to other Korean girl groups of equal popularity,  and it that comparison their image is a lot more progressive. Does one member’s plastic surgery really negate everything else good about the group? Do they have to be perfect to make a cultural impact?

      • KCleveland

        I’m not implying that any member of 2ne1 be “perfect”. I’m saying that Kpop idols emulating the popular hip-hop style of black American women because its the image rich men want them  to portray is not feminism or girl power or whatever it is we’re trying to call it. It’s an image used to sell mobile phones and makeup.

        • refresh daemon

          Perhaps I can ask a response question: If many young women take the music and performances of 2NE1 and can draw strength from it and are encouraged by its message of independence, is all that invalidated because some rich dudes behind it all are trying to sell mobile phones and makeup?

          Is “The Wire” merely nothing more than the (white) suits that invested in HBO making money?  Should we consider Bruce Lee’s appearance in “The Green Hornet” insignificant because the show existed to sell cigarettes and soap?  When art and commerce collide, is art always annihilated?  And then what do you say about the people that actually get something from the art, regardless of whether they buy the mobile phones or not?

          • KCleveland

            Have you ever lived or worked in Korea? Have you seen any sort of major movement among young Korean girls BEYOND learning dance moves, buying cell phones and using the makeup?

            I have not.

            Now this may be my own personal experience with my friends and students, but it has certainly been talked about with fellow non-Korean expats, Koreans and Korean Americans.

          • refresh daemon

            So, you’re saying that you either want a k-pop girl group to inspire a feminist movement or else it’s not worth anything to young women?

            Look, my cousins and friends in Korea might not be protesting on the streets about the injustices faced by women, which they do complain to me about, but they have told me that they do like to see 2NE1 because they are not the aegyo girls that they sometimes feel pressured to be. I have heard that it makes them feel all right with being tough or different sometimes.

            And, yes, they’ve learned the dance moves, but not the cell phones and they were already buying the makeup anyway. But the point is not that 2NE1 is going to cause women to suddenly join Korean feminist organizations and fight for equal pay or against hiring discrimination. If any Korean musician, k-pop, rock, folk, whatever were able to pull that off, I’d be writing a much more glowing piece.

            The point is that resistance to dominant powers can exist at all levels, even when within that same structure of power. No one would claim that 2NE1 is going to inspire feminist movements, but ease women’s minds about their lack of conformity to standards of behavior set by mainstream media? Yes. Perhaps give them a touch of comfort in being assertive, sure. And when you compare them to the endless stream of images that are telling Korean women that they should conform to a certain image of being submissive and cute, I think it’s great that there is a resistant image group out there like 2NE1.

            And sure, maybe they help sell some make-up or cell phones–but that’s not their main money earner. They sell shows and records. They’re selling the image too and, if YG’s claims are accurate, the group sells this resistant image primarily to young women. And that’s the point, as I noted in my question: Is it worth nothing that there is a girl group out there that tells young women it’s okay to be strong, independent, to not have to act all cute and then suddenly super sultry? And that women are buying this message and, yes, actually saying that they enjoy this image?

            I think that’s worth noting.

          • refresh daemon

            So, you’re saying that you either want a k-pop girl group to inspire a feminist movement or else it’s not worth anything to young women?

            Look, my cousins and friends in Korea might not be protesting on the streets about the injustices faced by women, which they do complain to me about, but they have told me that they do like to see 2NE1 because they are not the aegyo girls that they sometimes feel pressured to be. I have heard that it makes them feel all right with being tough or different sometimes.

            And, yes, they’ve learned the dance moves, but not the cell phones and they were already buying the makeup anyway. But the point is not that 2NE1 is going to cause women to suddenly join Korean feminist organizations and fight for equal pay or against hiring discrimination. If any Korean musician, k-pop, rock, folk, whatever were able to pull that off, I’d be writing a much more glowing piece.

            The point is that resistance to dominant powers can exist at all levels, even when within that same structure of power. No one would claim that 2NE1 is going to inspire feminist movements, but ease women’s minds about their lack of conformity to standards of behavior set by mainstream media? Yes. Perhaps give them a touch of comfort in being assertive, sure. And when you compare them to the endless stream of images that are telling Korean women that they should conform to a certain image of being submissive and cute, I think it’s great that there is a resistant image group out there like 2NE1.

            And sure, maybe they help sell some make-up or cell phones–but that’s not their main money earner. They sell shows and records. They’re selling the image too and, if YG’s claims are accurate, the group sells this resistant image primarily to young women. And that’s the point, as I noted in my question: Is it worth nothing that there is a girl group out there that tells young women it’s okay to be strong, independent, to not have to act all cute and then suddenly super sultry? And that women are buying this message and, yes, actually saying that they enjoy this image?

            I think that’s worth noting.

          • refresh daemon

            So, you’re saying that you either want a k-pop girl group to inspire a feminist movement or else it’s not worth anything to young women?

            Look, my cousins and friends in Korea might not be protesting on the streets about the injustices faced by women, which they do complain to me about, but they have told me that they do like to see 2NE1 because they are not the aegyo girls that they sometimes feel pressured to be. I have heard that it makes them feel all right with being tough or different sometimes.

            And, yes, they’ve learned the dance moves, but not the cell phones and they were already buying the makeup anyway. But the point is not that 2NE1 is going to cause women to suddenly join Korean feminist organizations and fight for equal pay or against hiring discrimination. If any Korean musician, k-pop, rock, folk, whatever were able to pull that off, I’d be writing a much more glowing piece.

            The point is that resistance to dominant powers can exist at all levels, even when within that same structure of power. No one would claim that 2NE1 is going to inspire feminist movements, but ease women’s minds about their lack of conformity to standards of behavior set by mainstream media? Yes. Perhaps give them a touch of comfort in being assertive, sure. And when you compare them to the endless stream of images that are telling Korean women that they should conform to a certain image of being submissive and cute, I think it’s great that there is a resistant image group out there like 2NE1.

            And sure, maybe they help sell some make-up or cell phones–but that’s not their main money earner. They sell shows and records. They’re selling the image too and, if YG’s claims are accurate, the group sells this resistant image primarily to young women. And that’s the point, as I noted in my question: Is it worth nothing that there is a girl group out there that tells young women it’s okay to be strong, independent, to not have to act all cute and then suddenly super sultry? And that women are buying this message and, yes, actually saying that they enjoy this image?

            I think that’s worth noting.

    • j.

      You seem to have a very shallow understanding of the plastic surgery craze. I’m not a fan of it at all, but I always roll my eyes when people essentially dismiss it as, “LOLz, they want to look white!”

  • http://dont-read.blogspot.com Angel H.

    YAY! I, too, discovered 2NE1 through the post from Racialicious, and I’ve been hooked ever since! Have you seen the video for “Hate You”? Is it just me, or are the cartoon avatars too cute for their tough girl image?