HyunA vs Hyun-ah: Deconstructing Korea's Sexy Idol

I feel bad for this girl sometimes. I think that she's 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 etc because her company decides to take advantage of this particular skill of hers. *sigh. Just another day in the world of female performance.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, check out this video of HyunA's latest single, "Bubble Pop", and if you care to, read the comments on the Youtube page:

EDIT: As of today, HyunA will no longer be promoting "Bubble Pop", as the choreography and costumes have been deemed too suggestive to air. The video will be pulled from the air too. Well, not like we didn't see this coming, but they sure took their time with it. The "wide-leg-spread dance" fiasco happened the very week Rania debuted with "Dr. Feel Good", and a week after 4minute came back with "Mirror Mirror".

While I don't particularly care for HyunA - what I like to think of as her "performer"side - I have a soft spot for Kim Hyun-ah, the real girl behind the image, because I see the vitriol that swims to the surface any time she does anything that's mildly suggestive, and I feel for her. Granted, most of the time she's being very suggestive, but she doesn't deserve to be called a "slut" or a "whore" or "dirty". Whether or not you think she is morally sound, you shouldn't attack her so viciously simply because she don't ascribe to your life standards.

Another reason why I hate the insults is that they're clearly confounding her stage persona and her real life persona. Most performers purposefully create fictional versions of themselves to present on stage, and from what I know of k-pop, this phenomenon is very present. The idols themselves even acknowledge it in a way, as they always want to show "a different side of themselves" to their audience either through variety shows or constantly changing "concepts". It's obvious to anyone that their images are manufactured in order to create the most appeal and therefore the most revenue. So it makes no sense to judge their character due to their performances when more often than not, they're not really like that in real life.

It's particularly silly to call Hyun-ah or HyunA a slut. The dictionary definition of slut is "[a woman] who is promiscuous, or has loose sexual morals". While her dancing is suggestive, her lyrics are decidedly not. "Change" was all about changing up your style and not worrying about other people's opinions, while "Bubble Pop" is about her deciding to do what she wants despite what her boyfriend might think. I don't see how this indicates that she sleeps around in any way. And we don't know what goes on in her personal life (frankly it's none of our business) so any judgement of her real self from her music and videos is based purely on speculation, and is therefore groundless.

What do we know about Hyun-ah though? From watching her appearances on variety shows, it would appear that she actually makes an effort to distance herself from her sexpot stage persona. If you look at her dance performances on variety shows, she often avoids doing the standard sexy dance (best exemplified in this video of Rainbow's Jaekyung) and tries to do dances involving more complicated choreography:

(She's not the only idol to do this: Kahi of After School also makes a point to do things differently when asked to perform on variety shows, taking on challenging choreography and playing acoustic guitar instead of simply wowing us with her "sexy aura" [lol].)

When she does do the standard choreography - particularly in the examples I've found, her "Change" dance - she's reluctant and embarrassed:

Notice how in the first and last video she goes all out for the performance itself, but turns into a shy, embarrassed girl right afterwards. Clearly, she's not just a "slut".

I'm inclined to construct a more complicated image of Hyun-ah the girl, based on what I know about the k-pop industry, and what I've seen of her from TV. She is definitely not afraid to be sexy, otherwise her sexy dances would look much less convincing or appealing. As I've said before, I believe a performer needs to connect on some level with whatever they're performing in order to be good. And despite what you think of her, you have to admit Hyun-ah is a sick performer. Her confidence and charisma is really what makes her stand out, not the booty-popping. After being reminded during the Rania debacle that the k-pop industry is more than willing to use sex in order to make money, I wouldn't be surprised if her constant booty-popping is encouraged by her management in order to maintain her popularity. Though her pelvic thrust dance from "Change" was a pelvic thrust dance, I find it to be much less provocative than Rania's version, as well as a lot of the ones you see the male idols doing. Yet that was what established her as a "sexy idol", and pretty much established how she would be perceived by the public and marketed by her agency - as a sexy girl existing purely for your entertainment. She does the sexy dance, but it's SBS's cameras that zoom in on her butt and crotch. And that's what gets them, her and her company paid.

If anything, that's the reason I'm not a fan of HyunA - 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.

Quoted from allkpop's review of her mini-album:

HyunA isn’t loved by everyone, but to her credit, at least she continues to be herself, whether we like it or not. She relishes the idea of acting in overly sexual ways, and while she was full of drive a year ago, now she’s teasing listeners and on-lookers with a sexy song masked by novelty gloss.

The album as a whole makes little sense as an entity, but it breaks up into the pieces that have come to define HyunA: it’s partly saucy, partly gimmicky and dubious, and above all, blatantly artificial.

Yet, that’s exactly what works for her and from the get-go, she’s owned it. She may lose street cred for sounding like a complete robot in her ‘raps’, and for groaning through most of her songs, but she at least wins some brownie points for not giving a crap about it and carrying on.

This conclusion presents us with four key points: (1) that Hyun-ah enjoys being an oversexed doll (2) that this image is pretty much how she is in real life; (3) that her persona is completely manufactured; and (4) that she carries on with it despite what people think. From the evidence I've already given, I think I've proved that #1 and #2 are at best assumption, and quite possibly false. #3 not only contradicts #1 and #2, but is also obvious and something that everyone who wants to discuss Hyun-ah as an artist or a person should keep in mind. And #4 is something we can never really know for sure. Does she continue to do it because she doesn't care about being called a slut? Or because she's contractually obligated to? Or because she actually is promiscuous and isn't ashamed to be who she is? I think the evidence given proves that the answers to all those questions are dubious at best, so we shouldn't try to put her in any box, but rather accept her complexity as we are presented it. This, of course, the goal of writing all this and other posts on women in k-pop: it's to allow for and encourage more positive and complex and less stereotypical representations of women in k-pop that are true to the experiences of real women and those of the women who perform these representations.

P.S. If this post is TL;DR for you, check out Ellie from Seoulbeats/AATheory's video review of "Bubble Pop" for a pretty good summary of what I said:


  1. I remember when Hyun-ah was on Invincible Youth and she joked something along the line of "Ever since I was in middle school I've been passionately thrusting my pelvis". It was funny when she said that, but I also thought she seemed like a cool person; aware of her persona and not particularly bothered by it.

    Regarding those appalling youtube comments, I am assuming that the majority of the commenters come from an international audience and I am weirded out by what people expect from Korean performers. It's a pity that as a Kpop artist, she is mercilessly slut-shamed for dancing and dressing in a manner that would barely raise an eyebrow for followers of artists like Rihanna, Beyonce (note the similarities between the videos for "Bubble Pop" and "Crazy in Love") or Britney Spears. I get the impression that as a Korean idol, she is held on a completely different standard of sexuality, where something as common as booty popping becomes an unchaste, immoral and degrading act. It's a pity; however, I think Cube Entertainment is taking all that attention from her unfair criticism and filling up its bank account. In fact, I agree with Ellie in that I believe that HyunA is an artist to watch out for and with some more work on her skills, has the potential be a solo artist along the lines of Uhm Jung Hwa and Lee Hyori.

  2. Re: international audiences - conservative societies (and people) exist all around the world, and k-pop is creeping into all of them, so those commenters could just be the more conservative k-pop fans. I also read somewhere that some people go to k-pop because they find it more wholesome than Western pop. So I suppose for them, this is a let down.

  3. I understand the fact that many international Kpop fans come from societies that are quite conservative. I, myself, get annoyed with American pop and R&B's overtly sexual lyrical content and use that as one of the many reasons why I gravitate towards Kpop. I think my issue comes less with the relative conservatism of the audience, but more with the double standard in perceptions of artists from Korea and those from the U.S. and other Western countries. Heck, my very own teenaged, American and Kpop-loving sister saw the "Bubble Pop" video and was disgusted over what she perceived to be HyunA's "slutty" behavior. Considering the fact that my sister adores K$sha and can sing Rihanna's "S&M" by heart, I wondered why any expression of sexuality was unacceptable to her when it came from a Korean artist, but peachy keen if the singer was American or um, Barbadian.

    On a bigger scale, I should note that many of these Western artists with sexually provocative images maintain large fanbases in countries that have conservative societies. To be honest, I think it's the same situation that gets mentioned quite a bit in other blogs, that Western women are often hyper-sexualized in general (cue long rant on how that has affected me as an American woman traveling abroad). With this way of thinking, if a Western female artist dances or dresses in a manner that is perceived to be provocative then it is acceptable, because she has questionable morals anyway. However, if a Korean artist does the same then she is shameful. I keep thinking that this is an underlying issue with HyunA's detractors.

    On a related note, I remember how six or seven years ago, Kpop had a large group of female solo artists with "sexy" images. If I remember correctly, the videos for Jeon Hye Bin's "2 A.M.", Lee Hyori's "Hey Girl" and Chae Yeon's "Two of Us" (would totally get banned nowadays) seem to be direct predecessors to HyunA's two videos.

    Sorry for the long comments!

  4. Gah!! Second time trying to post this comment (I wasn't logged in the first time apparently, and my original comment was deleted. fml)

    In regard to my closing statement on my review, I definitely see where I contradicted myself, and now I wish I had phrased it differently. blah.

    Anyway, I see where you're coming from. what I think I was aiming for was not so much connecting Hyuna to her persona, but connecting 'sexy HyunA' to her music, which is kind of a twisted mess for me to unravel.

    I feel sympathy for the girl because she's stuck in this image that has tainted her reputation as an artist; but at the same time, I scrutinize her because, in my humble opinion, she isn't very talented at all, and coming from someone who maintains a firm belief that these artists, who are held in such high regard and are being payed as professionals, should be churning out the highest quality work imaginable. I definitely don't hear or see that from HyunA. Again, that's just me. But as you said, "we're all keeping her from reaching her potential by constantly praising her for it and not challenging her to do more than that," and I agree. She may be a talentless girl to me now, but that's not to say she could one day prove me wrong, because she's not being allowed to shake herself from the 'sexy' reign that wont let up. And by no means is that reasonable ground to go ahead and call her a slut, because she's not.

  5. I honestly didn't see anything bad with it really. Yes Hyunah is suggestive and sometimes i feel uncomfortable watching her, but i sometimes feel sorry for her. I've seen her on those reality shows and your right she is often embarrassed or shy to do her pelvic thrusts.

    Besides, i'm already embarrassed for american pop stars with producers that have a twisted idea of entertainment which involves pop stars walking around practically wearing nothing or these outrageous outfits.

    However, i must admit, in the kpop scene, the do ban the silliest things. Recently SISTAR had to change their choreo because it was obscene or something like that, and it wasn't, it was kind of cute actually.

    There is a lot more i expect of this girl, because deep down i know she is capable of more things. Just give her some more practice and she could become good even. However, i would rather see Jiyoon go solo.

    My moto (i try to follow it) is that if you don't like the video then don't watch it or if you have nothing good to say then don't say anything at all. However, if you really need to blow off steam then just write what you don't like about the video in a respectful manner or simply press the dislike button.

    I just discovered your blog yesterday and i love it, you really have some good points to make.

  6. I like Hyuna, but yeah, I think Cube is pushing her to get sexier and sexier. I think if it keeps going the way it is, then she could end up with a slutty image instead of a sexy one, since being slutty comes from someone trying too hard and true sexy gives a natural vibe... and if Cube keeps pushing it, it won't look natural anymore.

    Personally, I think Bubble Pop is borderline because it is kind of trying too hard. Maybe not Hyuna herself, but the people that created the video. The whole dance is just a close up of her butt shaking at the camera... the rest of the dance is her just hopping up and down. They're not showcasing her natural sexiness, they're trying to push further than that.

    Then Trouble Maker came out and they're doing the same. She doesn't need to rub against JS to be sexy. By over-sexualizing her, they're taking it beyond naturally sexy. If it's not naturally sexy, it's over the top... which turns into slutty-ness.

    I like Hyuna. I wish Cube would stop trying so hard and accentuate her natural sexy charms instead >.<


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