Recently, Jonghyun’s MBC Blue Night radio show was graced by indie rock band Dear Cloud’s vocalist, Nine. It would have been just another friendly conversation with an indie artist but it took a significant turn when the two got discussing Wouter Hamel’s “Girls in the City”. Jonghyun praised the “blessed existence” of women as muses for artists, “the existence that gives the greatest inspiration to all artists.”
Nine, while agreeing to his opinion, voiced her take on the issue by talking about sexism in the music industry and its effect on female artists, her key statement being: “And that it looks really good if you sing and make music as a man, but as a woman it’s really difficult to appeal (to others) through music.” What Nine, I think, wished to express is that for a woman, it’s not enough to select a muse and channel her “artistry” through it; she also needs to be several other things to make her music marketable. The stereotype of the whimsical artist is an image more easily available to men than women.
This is an important conversation on Korean music and artists, despite its tangential nature, for it has an actual female artist mention the gendered accessibility of creativity. This is not the first time that sexism in the Korean music industry has been discussed but most discussions in the past have been restricted to men’s views. Quite ironically, when women decide to voice their points of view by either being being funny or calling out street harassment they are met with scathing criticism and mockery.
The wind changed its course when Jonghyun was called out by netizens on his misogyny. According to them, Jonghyun’s treatment of women as muses and therefore, the unnecessary and often, harmful pedestalization of women fell into the trajectory of misogynistic behavior. Perturbed by the brewing storm of criticism, Jonghyun took to social media to clarify his stance on the statements he made on his show stating that:
I believe that one shouldn’t overreact to small happenings. I also think that the fundamental basis of a life of learning is that you should try to fully understand people’s views, and fix your wrong opinions. The reason why I’m posting this is because, as a man with a mother and a sister, there are talks going around of me being a misogynist and that I’ve said misogynistic statements. That is not true, but if those stories are going around and I stay quiet about it, some people will believe that I’m a misogynist who says misogynistic things. That would be a really big problem in my life, and a stain that I would not be able to erase.
He went on to post a transcript of his interview with Nine on his twitter account requesting users to explain the wrong of his actions. This led to a DM conversation with the twitter user @quilliticy who elucidated, at length, as to why Jonghyun’s statement was deemed offensive. Eloquent, brilliantly insightful and critical, the conversation between the twitter user and Jonghyun is an example of what fan-idol relationship should be like, and the kind of conversations K-pop needs today.
An extremely long conversation, the crux of her argument was that the term “blessed existence” supported the idea of women “as some kind of object of worship, something of value that must be pursued, etc. reveals that first, you’re unwilling to treat them as an agent equal to yourself.” Well verse with feminist jargon, she politely critiqued Jonghyun’s excuse of not being a misogynist by virtue of having a mother and a sister by saying,
you spoke about your mother and sister ~ (this is absolutely not an attack on you personally, i want to make it clear that I’m just bringing up a problem within this deduction) you see, maternal instincts also become framed the same way. It isn’t possible to deny becoming ‘a blessed subject that gives inspiration to others.’ but, the majority of the “maternal instinct-framework” otherizes only women as ‘muses’; and women who are creators of discourse, women who speak — strictly speaking from that screencap…
This conversation was a needed addendum to the conversation between Nine and Jonghyun. The argument she is trying to make dates back centuries, back to Petrarch and beyond, where muses, mostly women, were an inspiration because of their inexplicable ‘beauty’ – this beauty could range from physical to metaphysical – and the mystery surrounding them. They are perceived as unattainable and un-understandable beings that ignite both passion and frustration as they stand cemented on their pedestals. The woman – quite ironically, pedestalized against her will – becomes the object which bears the brunt of the artist’s creativity which oscillates between divine worship and visceral hatred. Apart from the blatant objectification, muse-ifying women reeks of a patronizing patriarchal attitude wherein the male artist is the only who recognizes something ‘beautiful’ and ‘mystical’ in all women – “you don’t know you are beautiful.”
This attitude fails to see women as real people who are flawed, uninspiring and dealing with plenty problems of their own. It fails to see women as creators; it endorses women on canvases than women behind it. It is benevolent sexism: it represents evaluations of gender that may appear subjectively positive (subjective to the person who is evaluating) but are actually damaging to people and gender equity more broadly.
She further clarifies that she considers it a bit of a stretch to call Jonghyun a misogynist based on a single statement but simultaneously asserts that since language is a social construct, Jonghyun’s personal understanding of the statement i.e. his intention does not matter because his words are part of a patriarchal discourse which oppresses women and cannot be reclaimed by him at will.
This is not the first time, Jonghyun has plunged into a social issue but this is most probably the first time that such a productive conversation has happened between a fan and an idol on systemic issues. To see an idol feel uncomfortable at being called a misogynist in a society – and this persists worldwide – where hating women is seen as an example of your loyalty to patriarchy, is heartwarming to say the least. And (sadly) happy tears spill forth when an idol voluntarily asks to be corrected.
His responses clearly reveal that even while clarifying his stand he is not trying to shut down the conversation or prove that he was right. He is extremely polite, humble and, most importantly, willing to listen and rectify. Before the user, his argument is all over the place emphasizing the fragility of his argument to begin with but it also shows that he hasn’t been exposed to – or at least, to the level which the user has been – theories and researches stressing on his limited accessibility to resources. But despite that, he is not arrogant or stubborn, and ends the conversation with a gem of a line: “Many people speak in different ways and sometimes hurt others, regardless of intent.” I wouldn’t say he has full comprehension of the wrong done but he is getting there.
This instance sheds light on two important issues: the political idol and the Korean feminist. The discourse surrounding idols and artistry is dominated by the idea that art and politics are two separate spheres, that what I create has nothing to do with social structures. Art is understood to be something metaphysical, transient, (dangerously) subjective – it’s letting your unconscious flow assuming this unconscious is a pure, untainted reservoir of thoughts. As a result, neither the art nor the artist can be offensive.
But fact of the matter is art undeniably political. It can condone, condemn, subvert, radicalize and liberate political institutions. The artists, therefore, become political entities, their thoughts and actions creating a ripple effect of change.
Jonghyun seems to understand these implications and owns up to his mistakes. But his owning up should not be conflated with Mino’s quick apology. If art is under construction then the artist is also under construction with the construction taking place in her several conversations. I can say the most offensive nonsense, apologize quickly in response to a furor, and still not care to learn a thing, but I can also say offensive nonsense, have a conversation with those hurt by my actions, realize, learn and apologize. Jonghyun does the latter with both his conversations – Nine and quilliticy – and straightens his gender politics. Despite being an idol under SM, he managed to be what he didn’t allow his muses to be – an agent accountable for his actions.
On catching up with the controversy, the international fandom couldn’t wrap its head around why this particular incident had caught fire when K-pop continued to churn out other incidents which the international fandom deemed as better examples of “blatant sexism”. Frustrated at “butthurt K-netizens”, the fandom filed this incident under typical K-netz mischief mongering.
A lot of things can be construed by the behavior of the international fandom. There are some who can see the sexism in the statement but think it’s not worthy enough for attention as compared to the hyper-sexualization of female K-pop idols. First of all, how do you even classify sexist acts as worthy and unworthy of discussion? What is the basis of that priority list? Secondly, what makes us think that one problem is isolated from the other? Sexism is a web of oppressive tactics, not a neat hierarchy of attacks. The accessible ‘slut’ exists because of the inaccessible ‘muse’. ‘Cute’ concepts exist because of the ‘sexy’ concept. You can’t abolish patriarchal dichotomies if you are interested in only end of the scale.
Finally, as the international fandom gathering sketchy information from limited sources, who are we to decide what counts as “blatant sexism”? This is not to say we sit with our mouths shut but this is to say, that sexism too requires a cultural context. It is how white feminists proclaim the burqa as the symbol of Islamic decadence and third world patriarchy without paying attention to the Muslim woman’s voice who shares a complicated relationship with that particular article of clothing. Cultural contexts, literary contexts, political contexts determine the ‘blatancy’ of an act in a situation.
And even if it weren’t blatant, what stops us from discussing it? Patronizing statements on the ‘sociological backwardness’ of South Korea, the misogynist Korean man as opposed to ‘liberal’ Western man, the ‘rampant’ sexism of Eastern nations, etc. have graced several discussion forums when international fandoms have called out idols or bands for their mistakes. And when the Korean feminist finally speaks up, there is not an inkling of support but a deluge of questions regarding the ‘worthiness’ of the discussion?
Being from India, I am very familiar with this attitude which tends to understand Eastern women as submissive objects and tries painfully hard to eliminate any agency the Eastern woman tries to restore to herself. Quite mysteriously, Eastern feminists disappear from discourses of power. And even if they exist, they are not ‘good enough’ or well versed with feminist knowledge. At the end of the day, we still need rescuing. We still deserve to be silenced by the ‘progressive’ West. We are still naïve children unable to differentiate between worthy and unworthy. And we still need our older ‘sisters’ in the West to save us from the big bad third world ‘wolves’.
This conversation should teach the international fandom to not turn Korean women into their ‘muses’ of pity and submissive perfection. It should also make us take a look at Korean feminism – its roots, policies, effects and marginalization – and for once, make us leave our patronizing attitude in our self-righteous forums. The East and West will, indeed, never be able to meet if we continue to other and infantilize the east.
This conversation is not an isolated case of progress. Recently, idols have voiced their opinions regarding body-positivity, shadeism and ambivalent racism. Idols are usually not seen as entitled to opinions, their functions often restricted to providing ‘entertainment’ and pleasing the audience, and are dismissed if they dare voice it outside the purview of a script. In this light, the new crop of socially sensitive and accountable idols is the silver lining of a dense cloud of repeated microaggressions, which makes the routine ‘sorry’ more frivolous one conversation at a time.