by Raizel Liebler
Of all of the posts in the gender and sexuality in Kpop series, this one has been the hardest to write. If you’ve seen Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, then you’ve seen Hyuna – she’s the featured redhead in the video. Therefore, she is the most recognizable Kpop star for Western audiences that have no previous experience with Korean music. Even before Gangnam Style, Hyuna was already
“the single most-scrutinized girl group member in the whole of K-pop. And why? Because she can pop her butt like few can. Therefore you get people calling her a slut, a tramp, etc because her company decides to take advantage of this particular skill of hers.”
However, Hyuna has been called names for years. The phenomenon of “slut-shaming” happens all over pop culture, and is used to place a negative mark on a girl, frequently one who is especially pretty, talented, or stands out in some way. Hyuna, the lead dancer and rapper of 4Minute, is definitely beautiful and a great dancer – and while some others don’t like her harsh rap style and its discontinuity with her look, her style makes her one of the best kpop rappers.
But Hyuna’s overwhelming popularity has also led to her facing some incredibly harsh criticism for her (viewed as) “slutty” persona. This is despite the way that Korean pop stars are limited in their real personal expression – their contracts frequently forbid them to date or be involved in any “scandal” and in only rare exceptions can they control the music they perform or the products they endorse. We, the public, have no idea about Hyuna’s actual personal life.
As The Grand Narrative puts it:
For rather than actually admitting to the sexuality in their groups’ performances, thereby placing the onus on the music program producers and public to explain just what is it that is so problematic about that exactly, instead they even force their own performers to be complicit in a long-held narrative of female virginity and innocence in K-pop.
Hyuna’s popularity started slow – she was in Wonder Girls only long enough to appear in the Irony video and then she joined a new group for another company, 4Minute. 4Minute always has pushed the envelope away from cloyingly cute (the queens of this type of persona are Girls’ Generation) closer to 2NE1’s frenetic energy, but generally staying away from the hypersexual (Rania’s Dr. Feelgood).
But over time, 4Minute’s music videos have focused more and more on Hyuna – and not during her lines or dance breaks in songs. The most infamous is during the video for Mirror, Mirror, where a specific gratuitous move (generally called a wide leg spread dance) by Hyuna led to the censoring and complete removal of that move from most live performances.
As with many k-pop groups, Hyuna released songs away from her group as a solo artist. Her first song “Change” was infamous for its ban, due to – no joke – the “pelvic dance” (골반댄스). The choreography isn’t much different from the moves Hyuna does in 4minute’s videos for Hot Issue and Huh – and no one can rock overalls/racing suits like Hyuna.
For a non-Korean audience, the video doesn’t seem shocking – she is an excellent dancer, dancing in a similar style as Janet Jackson or Ciara. Additionally, all of the shots/outfits before the Emma Frost / White Queen look (think Victoria Secret Angel sans wings) are arguably just dance video outfits – but this last look veers more directly into specifically for the male gaze. But this video was more than Korean audiences could handle (as least according to the censors) and it was the first real “slutting” of Hyuna. And as the Grand Narrative puts it: “Did Hyuna want to dance because it was “empowering” in a sexual and/or feminist way, or because she felt compelled to?”
After Change, Hyuna’s solo efforts increasingly focused less and less on her actual talents and more and more on her looks. Her duet project, Troublemaker, placed her in skirts so short and heels so high during the live performances for their first sing she barely could move – and this is someone who is a dancer! Her two singles post-Change, Bubble Pop and Ice Cream, both gave her a sexy image – but while Bubble Pop placed Hyuna in an “American” context as a Californian/Hawaiian girl, Ice Cream instead had her as a vapid mincing mewling sex kitten. Hyuna in Bubble Pop faced criticism for being too dark – tan like a foreigner, but much more of the criticism revolved around her dancing, leading to this video, like Change, being officially banned. These are two long form critiques of Bubble Pop, but more than anything, this video marked a marked change from her sexuality being placed within the range of aggro sexuality – like Change, and moving to a shot from the ground up, simpering servile sexuality.
Others have written about how allowing Ice Cream’s ridiculous video, complete with bathing in euphemisms, such as writhing around in a foam bath in lingerie, while censoring Ga-in’s Bloom, allows for the continuation of suppressing genuine female sexual expression at the expense of women showing off for the benefit of men. In response to the Ice Cream video, one critic – in comparing her to Ga-In said
“Though Ga-in is directly engaged in the act of sex and pleasure itself, she emerges as the empowered one; she is a willing and equal participant in her sexuality, while HyunA is a carefully designed product intended for consumption by men and men alone.”
[Editor's note: This is the earlier post in this series on TLF about Ga-in. Where the fishstick PSY video is discussed.]
Hyuna’s label throughout this period is focused more on her looks than any other aspect of what she brings. The two most infamous examples of focusing solely on her looks, rather than her talent are her commercial performances. The first, and not nearly as obvious, is her song/video for Toyota Corolla 2013, previously written about here.
The second … I’m not sure I can even properly describe Hyuna’s three part soju campaign. There must be a word in some language to describe her male gaze oriented videos that combines embarrassing, “shot like a p0rn<>”, and … NSFW. To write TLF posts, I watch lots of videos, but these are literally the only ones I have ever avoided watching in public, because honestly, I feel exploitative myself even watching them! This news article describes more about the videos.
If you watch enough of Hyuna’s videos outside of 4Minute you will notice that there are lots of … crotch-shots, with her either gesturing to her “crotchal region” or a deep sinking ballet-style second position. This cannot possibly be accidental, yet clearly is the direction that choreographers want to take this talented dancer.
Do I think that Hyuna is aware of how she is viewed? Likely yes. There is a video of a 4Minute performance in the U.S. where she is wearing safety shorts that are just not working, while an audience member very close to the stage is shooting a video from the ground up. She pulls down her dress, glares briefly at the “fan” and returns to the perfect veil of performance.
In his discussion of the pornification of kpop, though not specifically Hyuna, James Turnbull comments that “when sexual attractiveness adds to and/or is a fundamental part of a performance, yet is criticized nevertheless, then perhaps it’s more sex itself that the detractors have a problem with. Also, arguably with strong and confident women, too, for in such cases it’s very difficult to see them as coerced in any way, which is the most important criteria for judging whether someone is being negatively objectified or not.”
Part of the reason for such focused anger directed at Hyuna within the 4Minute fan community, 4nias, was that she continued to be given solo opportunities, an option not given to the other members of 4Minute, until recently. The critiques of Hyuna will now likely dissipate within the 4nia community, considering that two of her groupmates have now had an album release as a subgroup, 2Yoon, before continuing with 4minute.
However, in the latest dance practice videos for their music videos (a usual thing for kpop groups to put up on YouTube), if a viewer doesn’t know which performer is Hyuna beforehand, it is nigh impossible to figure it out, considering all of them are consummate performers, with excellent timing. And her latest single, Now, with her side project, Troublemaker, while the video continues to focus on her ability to writhe next to alcohol products, the song and live performances return interest in her talents instead of her body.
“I feel that she’s selling herself short by sticking to the booty popping, and we’re all keeping her from reaching her potential by constantly praising her for it and not challenging her to do more than that. Even if it was just working on her rapping, or getting proper vocal training or just doing more interesting choreo – either one of these things would elevate her as a performer. Yet she sticks to drawing in scandals galore instead. Whether she does it because she’s bound by contract, or because she actually likes it, I just don’t think it’s a good choice for her on a professional level. It’s all well and good to capitalize on your popularity, but you should at least show a desire to constantly improve and develop yourself regardless of what the public is buying right now.”
At the time of writing this post, Hyuna is 21 – so about the age that the slew of American musical starlets previously controlled by music labels tend to push on their limits (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Myley Cyrus, and others). Hyuna has been very tightly controlled in a similar way as American starlets, but with her sexuality being exploited right at the cusp of the 18-22 age range. I hope with her considerable talent that when and if she decides to move in another direction that she directly controls, she will reach even greater success. She is appearing at a showcase at SXSW Music this year, so she may get buzz in the U.S. outside of Korean-American and kpop circles.
Realistically in kpop, the industry doesn’t create the opportunity for artists to create a singular statement as an artist — they will always be controlled by their label and the industry as a whole. So regardless of gender, it is difficult for any kpop star to break out of the box. But for someone like Hyuna whose label is clinging to her image as a sexpot, her chances to focus on her non-physical skills and talents, are even more limited. Kpop may create great pop music, but it is unforgiving to those that step outside of the mold.