Flowers of Fire, and objectifying female K-pop stars online

About that subreddit where 300,000+ people objectify female stars

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Please proceed to read this edition of Notes On K-pop with caution if you are sensitive to certain themes, as this newsletter is discussing topics relating to women’s rights and the way women are treated in society, including objectification, sexual harassment, and related topics.

Early on in this newsletter, I launched a K-pop-oriented book club. We meet once a month over Zoom, and discuss an agreed-upon book. So far, we’ve read novels only: Axie Oh’s XOXO, Idol, Burning by Rin Usami, and Esther Yi’s Y/N. This weekend, we discussed Hawon Jung’s Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea's Feminist Movement and What It Means for Women' s Rights Worldwide.

An engaging overview of the modern feminist movement in South Korea, Flowers of Fire talks broadly about a lot of different topics, giving insight into many people’s perspectives and instances of heartbreaking misogyny and crimes. If you are reading this newsletter, regularly or just on this one instance, I suggest you trying to get your hands on a copy and reading the book. (Full disclosure: I spoke to Jung for the book, but don’t get anything out of talking about, except sharing an excellent read with you all.)

"#MeToo & #With You" "I'm Feminist!!<3" poster from protester

Slight spoiler incoming…

While I spoke with Jung primarily about K-pop stars, the book covers so much information that it didn’t focus predominantly on K-pop, though a few instances were referenced. As I was reading, I found myself contemplating the state of things.

In South Korea, being seen as even an undeclared feminist is career impacting for performers, meaning even seeming to imply women deserve anything better in the world as it is is enough to damn you in the court of public opinion, especially as young men increasingly become more vocally anti-feminism.

Because of this, many people actively avoid being branded as associated with feminism. An example I’ll never stop thinking about was I was interviewing a singer who had just released an apparently feminist album. I asked if she was concerned about that slant given the state of things in Korea, and her immediate reaction was, “Oh, I’m not a feminist,” because being dubbed a capital “f” Feminist is a marker many people avoid if they want to survive.

Certain K-pop stars or other female celebrities who have spoken out vocally against mistreatment of women have faced outrage and hate, even for reading feminist books, like the famous hit book, then movie, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Things like not wearing a bra or using a phone case that says “girls can do anything” have resulted in hate campaigns.

You have people, like Yeeun (HA:TFELT) formerly of Wonder Girls, who celebrate International Women’s Day, and being harassed to the point of those around her worrying she may take her own life. Losing work, losing fans, losing marketing campaigns… It’s part of the norm.

It’s not all doom and gloom, but it’s not easy. Popular actress Kim Tae Ri stepping up to declare support to the #MeToo movement, represented by the #WithYou movement in South Korea to show support and unity, was seen as an outlier, potentially risking her career, along with a handful of other prominent stars, including actress and former After School member Uee.

Male counterparts are given more leighway and rarely come under fire the same way but even allyship is minimal, and attacked.

Anyone talking about women’s rights is still a tough situation for entertainers, or anyone living in public spaces. So, many simply don’t, at least not overtly.

Black Iphone 8 case Zadig & Voltaire  reading "Girls Can Do Any-thing"
The phone case in question, allegedly gifted to the star.

The way women are treated is a sizable majority of what Flowers of Fire discusses, and how male-focused society objectifies them.Beyond the fight for equality, there’s a fight to be seen as people. One catchphrase in South Korea that gained some popularity revolved around men not treating women like dolls, but humans. In the book, it’s apparent that South Korea’s legal system is far behind other similar countries regarding criminalizing sexual assault and harassment, but especially there is little official action revolving around online content, where it’s not always apparent what is or isn’t consensual.

I don’t usually talk about stories I’ve been trying to work on for over a year now, but I was reading Flowers of Fire and constantly thinking about an email I received over a year ago, and the countless pitches I had sent to editors relating to it ever since about the pockets of the internet where the women of K-pop are turned into nothing but objects of objectification.

It’s always been something I’ve been thinking and hoping to write about, the objectification of K-pop stars irregardless of gender, but the email redirected me to an especially egregious subreddit dedicated to debasing K-pop stars, including some just of legal age. I don’t want to redirect anyone to it, even unwittingly, and won’t link or name it, or the many other similar ilk subreddits (including some focusing on male stars) I’ve discovered in my time of investigating, but this is the most prominent one I’ve encountered in English-language spaces, with over 350,000 members.

The email was as follows, and I hope the sender excuses me in advance for publishing it here in full.

“Hello sorry to interrupt your time, can you help me to deal with sexual harassment against women. There's a community on reddit app called [redacted], they're sexual harassment predators, they harass all the KPop female idols. They take and recreate videos of these female idols such as music shows, concerts, live stream on vlive app or other videos about these female idols by enlarging the object of the video to the female body parts such as on the thigh, cleavage, breasts, nipples, buttocks, vagina. Their comments on each of these subreddit posts are also inappropriate and deeply harassing to women. In addition to reddit app, they also make this sexual harassment photos or videos as a post or content on various other apps such as instagram, twitter, facebook, youtube, tiktok, telegram, discord, gfycat, and they also have a sexual harassment website. Not only that, the worst thing they did was sell these sexual harassment photos and videos into the onlyfans platform, this subreddit community has been around for a long time, I've tried to report it but to no avail. These sexual harassment predators continuously exploit the body parts of all female idols, they are also targeting other KPop female idols as the next target of sexual harassment. Their actions are intolerable, please help me fight the crime of sexual harassment against women”

I received that email in March 2022, and have been trying to place a story with editors ever since, though often the conversation gets dismissed as the cost of fame for young women.

I infrequently check in to see if that reddit has been shuttered or moved to a less publicly-available platform, especially following the recent reddit strike, but alas users there are still sitting there, joining each other in a quite literal circlejerk.

comments on a recent post, with one user, with 12 upvotes, saying "the amounts of loads i've busted over her this past month is not normal" and a 9 upvoted comment saying "me also"
That is correct, it’s not normal.

Sex sells, and there’s often a sense of sexualizing going on in K-pop, so it’s not necessarily a story anyone feels is necessary to touch; celebrities are sex symbols, that’s the end of the story, many feel.

When I questioned a (male) industry player about whether any companies he worked with were taking action to try and tackle the prevalence of the women of K-pop frequently being used for deepfake pornography, I was brushed off, essentially told that it’s part of what any woman operating in public is meant to deal with nowadays.

I’m a big proponent of sexiness and sex selling, in safe ways, with intent and consent among all parties. There’s a lot to be discussed about how much K-pop stars and the industry, and fans, engage with this, with a tacit contract between all parties.

But this is not a subreddit driven by consent, and several recent posts revolve around just-turned-18-years-olds. The subreddit rules kindly suggest you check the ages of anyone you post is at least that age, you know, to not be pedophiles on subreddit Main, and based on some quick snooping around it does seem to be enforced.

There are similar pockets of the Internet focused more on sexualizing men, but as a woman there’s something just much more disturbing about men hanging around this space to discuss things like who has the tightest vagina in an industry that brings so much joy to many around the world who feel othered, including women. K-pop spaces, especially the online ones, are largely ones dominated by minorities, and typified by female and queer-oriented communication styles and norms, and this subreddit, and similar realms, feel especially offensive when you consider how objectifying women on the Internet in these group settings is a key part of the battle women in Korea are currently fighting.

In her book, Jung spends a an entire section on on molka, or nonconsensual spy camera porn, which essentially unleashed an epidemic of men watching women unwittingly in everyday spaces, bathrooms, and their bedrooms. The stories told by the interview subjects featured in Flowers of Fire are terrifying, because they are so prevalent to the point of near-innocuousness in day-to-day life… until it hits how  horrifying it is, not only a form of objectifying but controlling women.

Many of these videos and images are shared not only through websites or forums, but group chats with what I imagine has similar vibes to this subreddit, where sexually objectifying women without them knowing is just a grand old time. The infamous Nth Rooms were for-pay group chats based on coercing women into sexually abusive situations via blackmail, and men casually not only joined into watch, but create a buddy-buddy environment where they chatted casually about the sexual violence taking place.

I want to make it clear I’m not going as far as to saying this subreddit and its users are committing any crime, or that the posts are violence in nature, insofar as much as any Internet user sexualizing public available content is. Being sexually free is a choice each and every human should be able to have, and celebrities are often a part of sexual awakenings and desires, and each one of us out there has that right. But using that freedom to participate in thousands-strong spaces dedicated to demeaning women as body parts and objects of sexual pleasure… Time to rethink your choices, and how you interact with other humans’ bodies. There’s plenty of free porn on the internet by people who know they’re being looked at, I suggest you go watch that instead.

What I’m Working On

In line with their ISTJ promos, NCT Dream answered questions I sent over for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, which resulted in some of the best notes I’ve ever seen in my entire life on a transcript. It was honestly a subtly chaotic interview, so I hope everyone enjoys.

Screenshot: 0:38~0:41 [JENO] I’ve learned what a life of a dog is from NCT DREAM. *Please note that this is jokingly said as JENO is well-known as “Samoyed” (nickname) within the group and fans.

I shared the second of my for paid subscribers only (sorry!) rewrite/re-editing series, this time featuring an old interview with GOT7.

What I’m Reading

As I mentioned, I just finished Hawon Jung’s book, Flowers of Fire, for my bookclub, and I hope everyone reads it.

For Elle, Ekta Sinha wrote From BTS To Barbie, Here’s Why Men Love Hating On The Things Women Enjoy.

At The Guardian, Manuela Lazic wrote a piece that resonated, "Who needs film critics when studios can be sure influencers will praise their films?" While focusing solely on film, it feels extraordinarily relevant to music journalism as well.

Thanks as always to Music Journalism Insider for giving this newsletter a shoutout in the weekly blast, referring his audience to read “Tamar Herman challenges her biases as a K-pop journalist.” If you’re interested in the industry and the people covering it, this newsletter is a Must to subscribe to.

What I’m listening To

New music from Jeon Somi, U-Know Yunho, The Boyz, and EXO’s Chen all just dropped, so I’m still absorbing, but on first listen I’m enjoying them all.

BBGIRLS, the act formerly known as Brave Girls, is back, and One More Time is that song of the summer everyone’s been waiting for. Or at least I have. It’s catchy, leaning into pop disco nostalgia without really reinventing any wheels but still feeling invigorating. Related to this newsletter, it also has spurred a conversation in K-pop Twitter spaces (long may the live) about the sort of sexy dance moves that were very prominent several years ago among female K-pop acts, and how that’s gone out of style. People are being weird about it, as expected, but I’m simply enjoying a girl group coming into their own on their own terms.

What I’m Watching

I started watching the Kdrama King The Land, because I enjoy Junho and YoonA both as actors and singers. This is a very classic rich boy poor girl K-drama, and is so cheesy but enjoyable I can’t stop watching.

Similarly, I saw Barbie and I’m curious the impact it will have on K-pop this year. Hoping some boy band does some ridiculous variety show with fake ponies in their very own mojo dojo casa house.

in his latest newsletter highlighted a press conference by the UN human rights investigation group that expressed (around 1:00:06 minutes in) concerns about how the government bares a heavy onus decades of entertainment and media entities covering up systemic sexual exploitation and abuse at Johnny & Associates, to the harm of the victims. Patrick gives a brief analysis of how media has handled the press conference and investigation in Japan.

Last minute update before hitting publish… As I was working on this, Baekhyun went live to discuss his future with EXO and SM following some rumors of a new company he formed, the latest in the saga revolving around SM and its artists this year. I don’t have all the details as I didn’t watch the full conference, but the TLDR seems to be “don’t panic, nothing is changing.” Something to stay tuned for.

That’s it for me for today. I hope you’re all doing well and staying healthy. Thanks for reading and supporting!