On April 29th, 2020, Chen and his non-celebrity wife welcomed a newborn baby girl. Back in January, when Chen dropped the triple bombshell of girlfriend, marriage, and pregnancy news, the global K-pop fandom exploded. Many fans rejoiced, congratulating Chen for his engagement and child whilst others protested.
A vocal minority of Exo-L’s clamored for Chen’s expulsion from Exo, citing betrayal of trust and damage to the entire group’s image. The most extreme fans even ripped up merchandise and staged a physical protest in front of the SMTOWN Coex Artium.
Despite these outspoken protests, it seems that Chen’s career remains secure. SM Entertainment has announced that he will remain as a member of Exo, thus preserving his future in the K-pop industry. And many fans still support him just as passionately as before, if not more so. In fact, several prominent Exo fan bases — both South Korean and international — gathered to file a lawsuit against Chen’s malicious commentators.
Let’s be clear: Chen has retained both his career and his fans, but he is by no means unaffected. After Exo’s promotions for “Obsession” at the end of 2019, Chen has stayed entirely out of the public view. It seems that he has decided to let the criticism die down before appearing onstage or on air again. Since he must enlist in the military soon, this year likely should have been a very busy period. It is almost customary for male idols to make the most of their remaining pre-enlistment months by releasing new music and appearing in dramas and shows.
His fellow Exo members have completed multiple such projects; Suho, for example, debuted as a soloist at the end of March 2020, just a month and a half before his upcoming enlistment. In sharp contrast, Chen’s scandal has forced his career to come to a complete standstill during this crucial transition period.
In the past few decades, global attitudes toward premarital sex have shifted significantly. A 2014 study found that 35% of South Koreans believe sex before marriage is morally acceptable, while 27% do not. Compared to far stricter social mores of earlier times, when a woman’s chastity was her entire worth, there has been a clear change. South Korea, and the rest of the globe, is slowly becoming more accepting of premarital sex.
Yet this ideological change has not fully manifested with physical effects. South Korea remains largely hostile to premarital pregnancies, even if sex is common. A 2016 study found that, out of 42 OECD nations, South Korea had the lowest proportion of births outside of marriage, at about 2%. Because these pregnancies are extremely rare and have been historically condemned, it’s likely that couples who give birth to children without first getting married must face stigma and criticism.
In the face of such vehement societal norms, then, it is very risky for K-pop idols like Chen to announce premarital pregnancies. Because idols are viewed as role models, paragons of virtue, they suffer heavy backlash for even small mistakes. Celebrities cannot get away with “crimes” that normal people regularly commit.
Yet the reaction to Chen’s wife and newborn daughter has been relatively accepting. Compared to Super Junior’s Sungmin, who was essentially forced into an extended, year-long hiatus after he unexpectedly married Kim Sa-eun (without impregnating her — so, without violating an unspoken rule), Chen seems downright lucky.
But why? There are several factors at play here.
First, there are societal attitudes. As explained earlier, South Korea is relatively more accepting of premarital sex. Sexual taboos fade and change, so celebrities experience less hatred for actions (like impregnating a girlfriend) that are no longer perceived as intensely immoral. Timing is everything. If Chen’s scandal had occurred even a decade ago, the backlash would have many magnitudes greater. This is why Sungmin was unofficially ousted from Super Junior, but Chen remains in Exo.
Chen’s immense popularity is a second factor. Exo is one of the most successful groups in K-pop history, and SM Entertainment is one of the wealthiest companies. SM Entertainment has the resources and reputation to weather this scandal, so Chen’s place in Exo is still secure. A smaller company, struggling to stay afloat in the competitive K-pop industry, can’t afford a similar risk.
We see this with Yulhee and Minhwan, who married in October 2018, after their first child was born. Yulhee, formerly a member of rookie girl group Laboum, left the group after the couple’s dating news first hit headlines — before the public even found out about their engagement or pregnancy.
Meanwhile, Minhwan is still a member of rock band FT Island. The specific reason for Yulhee’s withdrawal and Minhwan’s continued activity are unknowable, of course, but it is very likely that financial reasons played a heavy role. Laboum, as a little-known group, balanced precariously on the edge of failure; Yulhee’s scandal would have doomed the entire group, so she had to go. FT Island, well-established and popular on the other hand, faced no such risk. So Minhwan stayed in his group, while Yulhee left hers.
Societal attitudes and success aren’t the only reasons for the comparatively calm reaction to Chen’s scandal; misogyny must also be accounted for. Historically, South Korea has imposed a double standard on men and women. Confucianism has influenced nearly a millennium of South Korean history, starting in the Koryo Dynasty. According to Confucianism, women should be chaste, filial, and completely loyal to their husbands. If a woman commits adultery (this includes premarital sex), then she has shamed herself, her family, and her ancestors. Yet these same restrictions never applied to men.
During dynastic times, noblemen often sought the company of prostitutes and kisaengs, who were elite and sexually promiscuous women trained in the arts. In fact, the rigid Confucian ideal of chaste women may even have encouraged men to turn to adultery — they couldn’t find emotional fulfilment from their wives, who had been trained to be submissive and without individuality. This sexist double standard still lingers today, centuries later. A 2015 study found that 23.1% of men had visited prostitutes, while only 2.6% of women had. In other words, for every woman who has hired a prostitute, nearly 9 men have! Even though we live in modern times, there is still a strong conviction that men can be sexually promiscuous, but women can’t.
In the hyper-perfect world of K-pop, this sentiment translates more generally to extreme scrutiny and criticism of female idols, while male idols experience far less vitriol for offenses of the same magnitude.
For instance, consider Jennie’s lazy dancing scandal. It started out as a concerned and well-intentioned fan pointing out several lackluster performances, but soon snowballed into a massive outpouring of hatred for Jennie’s perceived arrogance and entitlement. No male idol has been attacked at such an extreme level for having a “bad attitude,” yet female idols face malicious comments if they so much as toe the line. Imagine if a prominent girl group idol dared to become pregnant — would the public be as lenient as it has been towards Chen? I doubt it.
As a top-tier male idol, Chen is not nearly as vulnerable as, say, a rookie girl group member would be in a similar situation. He’s fortunate. Isn’t it ironic? Chen receives death threats and public scorn, yet we consider him to be fairly lucky, because he hasn’t received “too many” death threats, and “only some” people scorn him. We consider him lucky because K-pop is so vicious that Chen’s punishment seems light.
Something has to change. The current K-pop system leaves idols virtually powerless, beholden to the tides of public opinion. It’s perfectly fine to believe that premarital sex is immoral, just as it’s fine to believe that premarital sex isn’t immoral. But it is wrong to then spew insults at strangers because of their life choices. It’s even more disgusting that the fallout from scandals like Chen’s are directly influenced by class and gender inequality. Less successful idols suffer more. Female idols suffer more.
South Korea may be growing more and more progressive as the years pass, but actual change with actual effects is still off in the future. Let’s hope that Chen’s unprecedented case, along with its surprisingly mild consequences, stands as a sign that change has already begun.
(YouTube, Twitter . Naver , Yonhap, Pew Research, OECD, Newsen, Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido, Nate,. Images via SM Entertainment, FNC Entertainment, YG Entertainment.)