Objectified, Sexualized, Commodified: The Female Pop Idol

There’s no denying that myriads of mega popstars of both male and female gender rule the music industry around the world. For all their differences, considerable similarities can be drawn between them. Thinking back to the 2000s and early 2010s, the Western pop industry was filled to the brim with machines of both music and visual appeal for all audiences. Think Justin Bieber and One Direction versus Britney Spears and Taylor Swift at the height of each of their respective popularities (both of whom were at one point or another a victim of a conservatorship or controlling contract, respectively). 

The term “female idol,” in particular, though, comes with a few more caveats. According to Psychology of Women Quarterly, female artists are far more likely to be objectified, sexualized and scrutinized than their male counterparts. Think back to when Taylor was receiving the most heat simply for writing songs about her past relationships and heartbreak and, somehow, people were thinking that there was something wrong with her for having had these experiences, and particularly because she had what could be perceived as a lot of them.

In the Western industry, this toxic pattern has simmered down considerably, but what you could also consider is a study in the microcosm: South Korea. The Korean music industry, known colloquially as K-Pop, is based in a country with what you could term as “stricter” gender roles than the ones Americans are familiar with. The bottom line is that this industry maintains a lot of those manufactured qualities that Western pop music of years past once had to a much more extreme level. Taylor Swift performing Photo by GabboT from Flickr distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A study done at Korea University showed that male K-Pop idols, whose target audience is straight women, are much more likely to be appreciated for their quality of music or personalities, whereas female idols, whose target audience is straight men, are more likely to be revered for their appearances, plain and simple. I don’t want to sound as if I’m making generalizations here. I took a look at the top posts of several K-Pop groups’ fan Subreddits (a platform with vices of its own, but a relatively even split between male and female user base) and compared the variety of posts.

The top posts on fan Subreddits of male idol groups were generally fan art, appreciation posts and group photos coming across more as personality photos than anything else—appreciation of a group’s camaraderie, art and lore surrounding their discography. In comparison, the top posts on Subreddits of female idol groups were almost entirely limited to pictures of individual group members in striking appearance (usually some degree of cleavage or curvature apparent) or gifs and videos of single members dancing on stage. 

What we have to learn from this incredibly telling trend is that, in the same industry, male fans will perceive their idols as objects of sexual desire and attraction, while female fans perceive the male idols in a more platonic, if not “hopeless crush” context. Regardless of what industry an artist hails from, at the end of the day, they want to showcase their art. In doing so, though, it seems as if female pop idols have the unfortunate burden of being perceived as nothing more than another body, if not a product to be sold.