For the past few weeks, scandal after scandal in the Kpop industry has thrown an ugly picture of its inner workings in front of thousands. The controversy started gaining momentum with Burning Sun, a popular nightclub owned by Seungri, a member of one of K-pop’s earliest icons Big Bang. In November, a CCTV footage showing a woman being violently pulled away and assaulted by club guards and the police was revealed.
Little did the public know, at the time, that the footage was merely a small tip of a mammoth iceberg: beneath it hid years of un-investigated drug trafficking, tax evasion, prostitution, rape, and pornography distribution. Since this first scandal, major K-Pop idols including Jung Joon-Young and Roy Kim have been accused of belonging to a group chat in which members shared sexual videos of women filmed without consent, leading to an outpour of public apologies and early retirement.
If you think voyeurism is a newly emerging phenomenon, it’s not. Last year, about 1,600 people were secretly filmed in Korean motel rooms and live-streamed online. Seoul’s public toilets are still plagued with illegal spy cameras that are concealed in the holes of bathroom stalls. What’s most concerning is the overwhelming speed at which hidden pornography spreads; the transmission process is facilitated through forums and websites, namely SoraNet, that are dedicated to uploading illegal upskirting videos, spy camera footage, and revenge porn. Most victims are unaware of such recordings until months or years after the first upload, and in the face of an entire empire that helps the industry flourish, feel too defeated to take legal action.
Recently, Seungri has made a statement about the allegations.
“I admit all my crimes. I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a social network chat room, and acted without feeling any sense of guilt doing so.”
A key phrase deserves our attention here: “acted without feeling any sense of guilt.” His numbness to the inappropriateness of his actions is not necessarily an indicator that he is psychopathic, but rather a byproduct of a culture that taught him to condone sexual exploitation of women and ignore the importance of consent.
The scandal is more than a simple warning that there are perverts in the industry— it’s a reflection of the deeply entrenched culture of toxic masculinity in South Korea: “the idea that the male role involves violence, dominance, and devaluing women.” Whether it’s from the longstanding Confucianist mantra that explicitly supports male dominance, K-Pop lyrics and music videos that normalize the sexual objectification of women, or high school culture that encourages boys to label anything slightly feminine as ‘gay,’ it is no secret that society breeds a dangerously wrongful understanding of what it means to be masculine.
What does all this have to do with the digital sex scandal? Lots. On the most basic level, voyeurism is grounded in the notion that women are closer to objects than humans- vehicles of pleasure rather than people with dignity. And why wouldn’t male celebrities think this when misogynistic lyrics are embedded in the most popular hip-hop tunes? When two-thirds of female idols are pressured by abusive agents to have sex to further their careers? When entertainment companies bind female singers by stringent contracts that dictate every inch of their movement because they are supposed to be ‘role models’ for the youth within their gender role: dainty, dumb, and sexually attractive?
Take Irene from Red Velvet. In 2018, many fans launched vitriolic criticism against her for reading a feminist novel, Ji Young: Born 1982 (82년생 김지영). Son Na-Eun from Apink was no exception when she was found sporting a phone case that read “Girls can do anything.” Even when one takes into account that feminism does not have a positive reputation in Korea, it is absurd to think that people were so emotionally invested into one woman’s choice of literature or accessory that they felt a legitimate need to burn pictures of her. Would this have happened to an ordinary female? Possibly, but it is undeniable that male fans’ expectations fueled the fire. It was not only a general distaste for feminism that triggered their anger, but the fact that these idols broke out of their “pretty girl that exists to please you” stereotype and began to demonstrate signs of independent thought.
Whether or not it is a result of K-pop’s pervasive influence in society, this culture persists outside of the industry as well. The uncomfortable truth is that Jung Joon-Young’s group chat is not the only one of its kind: there exist several chatrooms with the same nature in schools, workplaces- our very own community. The sexist, careless, and demeaning rhetoric we heard is not exclusive to these K-pop giants: we hear it in our locker rooms, classrooms, and hallways. Non-consensual filming is not unique to Burning Sun: spy cameras are hidden in thousands of other bathrooms in the streets we roam every day. When a controversy involving high-profile celebrities gives the illusion that the issue is distant, it is critical to notice that the same strands of misogyny are present around us. Yes, massive top-down change in the entertainment industry is imperative, but perhaps we should start by holding those around us accountable and finding hidden traces of toxic masculinity within ourselves.
– Janie Do (‘20)