Despite last year’s crush of debuts, StayC effortlessly stood out with a strong look and an even stronger sound. Their retro single managed to feel fresh amidst fierce competition, and their overall style—a combination of glitz, girl crush, and innocence—made them all the more exciting to watch. 

This delicate balance of seemingly contradictory concepts is further amplified in “Stereotype,” a surprisingly tender track that announces StayC’s refusal to be boxed in by both pop and societal standards. With their latest comeback, the group implores viewers to take off their “tinted glasses” and see them for who they really are: young girls just having fun while they figure things out. 

Both sweet and solemn, the song is charged with anti-prejudice pleas, but whether they successfully drive home the point is up for debate. By trying to send a “social message,” as the girls put it, StayC may have inadvertently sent a mixed message instead.

With another academic year set to begin, “Stereotype” fittingly opens in a school hall, where the girls have gathered in their cute but clean-cut uniforms. Their hair is kept and their makeup minimal; everything seems to be in order, that is until Sumin enters in the first verse. 

She has changed into a plaid-punk version of the uniform, all glammed up in typical StayC fashion. Notably, only one eye is heavily made-up with multi-colored strokes, while the other is unadorned. Multiple phones appear to record her every move, but Sumin only gives a carefree smile and sings:

It’s especially noticeable today

I can see everyone staring at me

The more I feel, the more confident I am

At this point, “Stereotype” sounds like it is about to be another morale-boosting, norm-defying anthem, which makes sense given the title. Like most of their 4th-gen peers, StayC might just renounce a familiar trope—in this case, the schoolgirl—by playing up the ways it can be limiting. Perhaps the girls are just too cool for school. “I like how I always dress myself up,” J asserts as she fixes her makeup. Also out of uniform and touting a decorated eye, she adds, “I like being pretty.”

Soon, however, their assertiveness folds into vulnerability. Right before the chorus, Seeun coyly admits, “It may feel like I’m seducing you. If so, I’m sorry.” The girls then belt out a chorus that is at once bubbly and weighty. Against an upbeat instrumental, their powerful vocals declare that the listener should shed their prejudice and see a “different woman,” “a good girl,” in them. 

Don’t be fooled by their bravado, they warn. They are still afraid, even if they look fancy. They are still tender, despite dressing boldly. They are so soft, in fact, that holding them tight might “suffocate” them, much like the giant pink plushie that follows them throughout the video. 

The rest of the MV plays out in more or less the same way. The visuals jump back and forth between their demure selves and their more daring personas. The lyrics swing from defensive to assertive. They like being big and beautiful, but they also want the listener to know that they are just a bunch of softies, actually. “It’s only the surface of me,” the bridge goes, “Please like me, I’m still tender.” 

Amidst this confusing swirl of messages, there is a jarring sense that StayC are apologizing for being too much. They seem desperate to distance themselves from their tough-girl exterior. But why? In an age where girl groups have evolved to empower their female audience (think Black Pink’s unapologetically sexy “As If It’s Your Last” or Itzy’s anti-romantic manifesto “Dalla Dalla”), it seems odd for StayC to explain their brashness rather than celebrate it. 

Well, it’s odd until you remember that the patriarchy is so fragile and entitled that StayC (and girls, in general) still feel the need to clarify that there is more to them than meets the eye, that there is a beating heart beneath all the flamboyance. That should be a given, and yet the song frames female one-dimensionality as a stereotype to be busted, perhaps because of the sad fact that in some ways it still is.

StayC seem just as lost in their own thoughts as we are in their lyrics. In the same breath that they ask not to be judged, they also desperately seek out love. This confusion is encapsulated in a line sung by Sieun. “Sometimes, even I really don’t know how I feel. It’s me, but…” She doesn’t finish the sentiment, and it flitters away like the butterflies in the MV. 

It is unclear whether StayC are in the midst of an identity experiment or crisis, whether they are proud or sorry to contain multitudes. But, perhaps that is the point. The girls are a contradiction in and of themselves. To attempt to pigeonhole them into neat and logical concepts is to fail to understand their message, as jumbled as it is. In the end, they are just kids figuring things out. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than when they play dress-up in the MV. They wear and discard outfits as they do identities, all while doing funny poses in the safe presence of each other. In other scenes, they fight and make up. They exchange diaries as well as wardrobes.

Fittingly, the video culminates in a school performance by Isa. As the rest of the girls cheer for her backstage, Isa sings the final chorus, this time accompanied by nothing but a bare synth. It is a beautiful, endearing moment that also reveals a hidden theme: friendship. 

Without friends, how else are the girls going to go through the judgy whirlwind of high school (and idol life)? For all the mayhem packed in “Stereotype,” it could just be that the saving grace they seek does not lie in some faraway, fantasy fan or lover, but rather in the welcome company of each other.

(Genius, YouTube, dongA. Images via High Up Entertainment.)