Recently, a post was made on the state of feminism in the K-pop genre — more importantly, the lack there of. This is not an article to dispute the claims made in that article, but to take a different look on what’s been going on with the images of girl groups in South Korea. While some of the steps being made are small, in the big picture of feminism, they’re making an impact.

When I first got into K-pop, girl groups were rather “vanilla.” At the time, SNSD’s “Gee” was the sensation and cute, ageyo style songs were in. Girl groups tried to come out with more mature images, but were quickly shut down with cries of “slut” and “whore” before the end of the first music show and usually came back in something a bit more pastel for the next comeback. While maybe a bit of leg was shown here and there, it was clear that the lyrics made sure the viewer knew that the singers were submissive, innocent, and not in control of their new feelings of love, but instead overwhelmed by them (which is displayed with pouting and other such childish gestures). Clearly, the playing field has changed. Not only are the lyrics now more aggressive, a lot more skin is being shown by the artists.

And that’s not a bad thing.

I say this not because I want women to be sexualized, but because it is a painful step forward being made in the industry. The debut of a “fierce” girl group was so refreshing and celebrated because it was something that almost didn’t exist in the past K-pop landscape. Sure, boys could rip their shirts off, but a similar move done by a female counterpart would lead to instant banishment. A few years back, Rainbow’s “A” dance had to be changed for exposed belly buttons, and G.NA was faced with banishment for the mention of the apparently phalic “Banana.” When that’s where girl groups have been, what’s happening now can’t help but lead people to become more hopeful that change is coming.

Let’s take After School’s recent “First Love.” Many were shocked and were waiting for the banishment when the girls took to the poles. A few years ago, girl group SISTAR had to back track for being near a pole, let alone dancing on one. Girls can barely even sing about dating or wanting sex, but a pole dancing routine? There was no chance of this surviving beyond a media play.

But nothing happened. The song was not banned and the dance was not changed (at least not until they put two of their members out of commission due to injury). The girls went on variety shows, showing the bruises and wounds from their intense practice and were greeted with praise for their endurance and strength. I was shocked. I was happy. While the pole dancing was “completely unnecessary,” it showed a huge leap in what girl groups were allowed to do. One of the steps towards a more sexually equal K-pop landscape is girl groups being able to dabble in the cute, the sexy and in-between without repercussion, and After School was able to do just that with minimal backlash.

We can not forget that these concepts are made with the intent to get viewers. They want to cause a buzz, they want to get people talking. However, the trend in itself is more than just a flash of leg. Girls like Amber are emerging to show a more androgynous image and are still being seen as beautiful. CL is able to say no to plastic surgery and have her features celebrated instead of ridiculed, and girls are now able to portray a more mature image and be accepted for it. The men at these desks are recognizing that there  are different kinds of women that want music catered to them as much as the oppas wants their eye-candy. There are girls that aren’t so naive and “innocent” anymore and want more images that portray grown women as they can be. At the very least, they should have some media to show them what that place looks like.

20120425_seoulbeats_begWhile it can be said that the current state of girl groups is a mess, it also can’t be denied that idols are taking steps to change it. Women that have been in the game for a few years are taking more and more control of their image, the favorite example being Brown Eyed Girls. Like many others, they came out with a softer, more classically feminine image, but since 2010, they’ve changed what girl groups can do as a group and through solo acts.

With the group’s new release of “Recipe,” the idea of a female being active and pursuing her sexuality isn’t one that’s met with backlash or cries of “slut” that plagued many girl groups in the past. People are praising the song and enjoying the lyrics, not bashing them. And this isn’t the first time for the group, with previous singles such was Abracadabra,” “Sixth sense,” and “Cleansing Cream” that, while not all sexual, were mature and often thought provoking beyond “is oppa going to go out with her at the end of the video.”

And we can’t forget Ga-in‘s most recent solo single. Ga-in made waves with her video and song “Bloom” not because it’s was “sexy,” but how is was sexy. James Turnbull of “HAPS” writes, “Though Ga-in is directly engaged in the act of sex and pleasure itself, she emerges as the empowered one; she is a willing and equal participant in her sexuality.” Although “Bloom” received a 19+ rating, the song is still considered a big leap forward in the industry for the expression of a woman’s sexuality.

These small strides are being celebrated not because they’re the end point, or even close to it, but because they’re the signal that the change is going to come.

Girl’s Day’s Female President isn’t being supported for the way the girls were treated or the fact that their bodies were props (not by women at least), it’s being supported because the idea of a girl kissing someone first is being expressed as not a big deal. “We have a female president,” they remind just, so is a kiss really something to get worked up about?

SISTAR’s mature looking (while still classically needy) concepts are being celebrated because they show a change in what girl groups can look like. From tan skinned, to their corsets, they’re showing an emergence of female sexuality and expression. And best of all, they’re getting people talking.

I was so happy when people asked why Yura had to forgo pants in their new video, but people did not raise the same questions back when Ga-in wore shorts and a mid-drift barring top for her video “Bloom.” People are starting to recognize the difference between a sexual concept and a sexualized one. People are no longer blindly praising any flash of skin, but are becoming more critical of what they want to see as a true representation of women K-pop. These are small steps, but change is being made.

20130723_seoulbeats_girlsday_yuraAs it stands, this message will have to get to the men at the desks before it reaches the concepts they produce, but feminism isn’t a woman’s job, it’s everyone’s job. Those men in suits need to get it just like everyone else for the system to work. As more and more women buy for change and look to other groups for the image they want, they will eventually get that message.

While K-pop has a long way to go, the growth that’s being made shouldn’t be ignored, or belittled, because it isn’t an example of classic, easily recognizable feminism. The feminists in K-pop are working hard to express their ideas and get them not only heard, but accepted. In the end, feminism shouldn’t end up being the rejection of sexuality or femininity, but the idea that women should be allowed to express multiple views and ideas and not suffer for it, be that pole dancing or otherwise. While these girls are not our feminist heroes just yet, they could very well be the stepping stones for the heroes waiting in the wings.

I haven’t found my feminist hero in K-pop, but I know it’s just a matter of time.

(Nate, Dream Tea Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Pledis Entertainment, Nega Network, Starship Entertainment)