A member of popular K-Pop girl group Red Velvet, Irene—whose real name is Bae Joo-hyun—was blasted recently with misogynist online comments after she said during a fan meeting that she had read a book, Kim Ji Young born 1982 (82년생 김지영). In the book, the author Cho Nam-joo depicts a 33-year-old Korean woman facing subtle discrimination while living in a patriarchal society.
Negative comments on social media about Irene read:
“I don’t understand why she would mention such a sensitive feminist comment at this time.”
“I’m disappointed. I’m quitting all my activities as her fan.”
Some even posted pictures of themselves burning or tearing apart pictures of Irene.
“In my opinion, they’re not real fans, but just online trolls who are cowards,” says Guk Beom Geun, founder of startup G Pictures, who is a fan of Irene. As he shyly pointed to a close-up picture of Irene taped on the right corner of his desktop computer, Guk said that he likes Irene, because she is a good singer and performer, and her “beauty style” fits his taste.
“I understand that some people, mostly men, may feel uncomfortable with the word ‘feminist’, because they just don’t know what it means. But with these trolls, you see a pattern in their language and action that is in line with a bigger social movement intentionally belittling and repudiating the rising resistance against misogyny that is rampant in our society.”
This is not the first time that trolls attacked girl group members when they expressed opinions or support of views regarding gender equality.
Last month, Sohn Naeun from A-Pink faced online harassment when she posted a photo of her cellphone case that read, “Girls can do anything.” Netizens also criticized her for being a smoker, assuming that from a packet of cigarette captured in the photo. Sohn took down the photo from her Instagram account and went silent afterward.
Members of the older girl group f(x), Sulli (who’s left the group) and Amber have struggled with trolls for a long time. It started when both stars began to move away from the role of innocent teenage girls: Sulli maturing into an independent women who expresses her sexuality freely, while Amber becoming a more gender-neutral, “tomboy” lady. Even though the criticisms against these two women seemed to have different expectations, they were punished for the same reason: for growing out of the sweet feminine f(x) girls.
“Some people cannot stand it when an idol star, especially from a girl group, expresses her own opinion or desire,” said Hwang Hyojin, a freelance editor and co-author of “Working Women” in an email response, “They expect that the job of a girl group star is to be pretty, smiling, sexy, and flirtatious; and not being a human with an identity that’s different from their public persona.”
Attacking girl groups is the easiest way to mask the misogyny that is prevalent in the society beyond the entertainment industry, Guk said.
In the context of the K-Pop industry, it is driven by the commercialization of boy bands and girl groups. In the name of fandom, it exacerbates the consumption culture of the idol stars in a way that gives fans a false sense of entitlement or ownership over them.
“It’s created this distorted view that ‘As a fan, I’ve bought your albums, merchandise goods and concert tickets, and you are living off of the stardom, thus I have a right to ask what I want from you,” editor Hwang said, “And in extreme cases, it comes out as ‘how dare you read a feminist book with the money that I invested in you!”