The existence of K-pop idol visuals has definitely been around for as long as any K-pop fan could remember. For years, idol agencies have always made an effort to scout, train, and debut the most the most physically attractive-looking, young Koreans and idol aspirants (even going as far as making some of the ‘not-so attractive’ ones go under the knife).
From DBSK’s Jaejoong to SHINee‘s Minho and from SNSD’s Yoona to 2NE1’s Sandara, the visual has long since served as one of the many significant elements which constitutes an idol group, an element which serves to highlight the importance of appearances in the K-pop industry. And now, the K-pop industry as well as the K-pop fandom community has been at it again by searching for the next generation visuals of the industry.
Throughout the years, the visual idol has come to signify many things about K-pop, but most of all, it has come to perpetuate another stereotype about pretty faces — that they’re the supposed “normcore” idol members who have little to no actual musical abilities and who in general pale in comparison to the performance skills of their fellow idol members.
This is due mainly to the fact that visuals are made to usher in exposure for the group and is hence delegated to do other tasks besides dancing and singing. Visuals are usually the members who are primed in the art of shooting for CFs (commercial films) and dramas. They appear the most charming in interviews and variety programs. They are quite literally the superficial attention-grabbers of the group—the very member that will probably make you say, ‘hey that person is really good looking. I better check their group out’ (Hani’s viral fancam incident is a pretty good example of this.)
While it seems that the visual has finally found its place and purpose in the group, there’s always an unshakable and certain amount of negative backlash that can come with the position. For starters, being the visual member would usually mean that your success as an idol hinges on the fact that you are physically attractive and because of this, commercial film deals and drama opportunities are most likely given to the visual members regardless of whether or not they are actually talented in acting. APink’s resident visual Naeun, who appeared in the drama Twenty Again, was criticized by fans for her lack of acting skills which could have been avoided had the agency decided to send out Eunji who has been performing quite well in the dramas she has starred in.
While it’s good to see visuals being granted the opportunity to act in dramas or films and to endorse in advertisements, there’s still that notion that the position can be sort of restrictive as it can hinder an idol’s attempt to break out of the shallow perceptions which the industry has built out of their ‘solely visuals’ image. As visuals, more or less the representation they have in the K-pop industry, in the media, and in the fandom community is very one-dimensional, that their responsibility within the group is to be that of no more than to be ‘the face of the group.’ Apart from that, equating visuals as the actor/actresses of the group could possibly even prevent the industry from discovering the genuine actors of the group just because they’re not attractive enough for the part.
More importantly, creating the solely visuals member perpetuates the terribly tragic culture of idol objectification which reduces these idols into nothing more than just living mannequins that the general public can ogle at and judge. Hence in the long-run, despite how iconic or attention-grabbing their appearances might be, there’s always the impending danger of a fleeting idol credibility, that they’ll simply be replaced by someone more striking and more physically impressive in the future.
This raises the question on whether or not the industry should continue on with creating and producing the solely visual idol. After all, with even more unique comeback concepts and impressive rookie debuts, fans are even a lot more distracted and hence, also a lot more critical when it comes to choosing a group to stan or a bias to cheer on.
Fan taste has definitely become more varied and more complex than ever before and we can certainly see that with the rise of more well-rounded idols such as the debut of YG rookies iKON and WINNER (their respective visuals Song Yunhyeong and Kim Jinwoo are talented vocalists) who are known for actively participating in the creation of their music and monster rookies MAMAMOO (whose visual and leader Solar is the main vocalist) who have been praised for their vocals and amazing live performances. This fierce competition in the industry has ultimately caused a noticeable shift in the idol visuals landscape as well.
One of the more interesting changes in the industry is the inclusion of foreign idols in the visuals department. JYP Entertainment’s latest girl group TWICE has four foreign members one of which, Tzuyu, has been consistently noticed for her remarkable appearance. Even if Tzuyu does have generic, East Asian good-looks, it’s already quite a revolutionary notion to actually entertain the thought that non-Korean idols would be seen as individuals capable of appealing to South Korea’s usually narrow idea of what it means to be physically attractive (after all, visuals are meant to embody the South Korean standard of beauty). Then again, K-pop idol agencies usually have a way of acclimating the looks of these foreign idols to the already set beauty standards of South Korea (i.e. Sorn of CLC) and this could usually be another way of appealing to K-pop’s ever-growing global appeal without having to sacrifice any of their pre-established beauty norms.
With that being said, it seems that K-pop’s move for a more globalized reach has certainly contributed to the changing looks and roles of idol visuals. By acknowledging the fact that K-pop no longer thrives within the enclosed bubble of South Korea, agencies have noticed the international audiences’ need and fascination for more relatively diverse-looking idols who also have the musical skills and talent to boot.
SM Entertainment, an agency known for its line of visual idols, has noticeably realized this need through the inclusion of Seulgi in their newest idol group Red Velvet. Although Seulgi isn’t exactly what you might call a visual hole, she certainly does not have that sense of traditional idol beauty. However, Seulgi is an undeniably talented vocalist which then once again raises the issue of creating the solely visuals idols who might end up overshadowing (i.e. Suzy of Miss A and Seolhyun of AoA) their more musically capable members who could possibly help in diversifying the visuals landscape of K-pop.
Although the future looks bright (or rather, beautiful) with the rise of more varied and 3-dimensional kinds of visuals, in reality K-pop still has a pretty long way to go when it comes to being more inclusive and more embracing of diverse looks. To this day, we have yet to see a considerable amount of idols who have the same tan skin tone as SISTAR’s Hyorin or Lee Hyori or female idols with androgynous appearances like Amber of f(x) or idols with curvier figures like Ailee. If K-pop as an industry finds it hard to accept aspiring idols with any of those aforementioned physical traits, then it’s probably all the more difficult for K-pop to adjust their perception of the visual idol. In addition, we have also yet to see a shift in the way double standard is practiced among male and female visuals in the industry. Sadly, it is still far more common to see female visuals getting flak as opposed to male visuals.
As we look at the overall state of visuals of the more current generation of K-pop idols, it’s undeniable that majority of these idols still subscribe to South Korea’s ideal beauty standards. However, by the end of the day, we can’t exactly blame these young idols for looking the way they look and for being hailed as such by their fans. It is then ultimately up to the agencies themselves to make sure that these young idols would be given the chance to break away from their visuals mold or better yet, prepare and condition an entire new generation of K-pop fans to accept the fact that maybe visuals should always be second to musical ability and personality.
(News.com.au, Ningin, Naver , Pann , Dailymotion, New Yorker, Twitter, Moonrok, Youtube Images via: Cosmopolitan Korea, Etude House, JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment, A Cube Entertainment, SM Entertainment)