By Natasha Effendy
Edited by Yumitra Kannan
K-dramas. K-pop. K-beauty. K-fashion. These are the things that brought upon the trend of the K-Wave. From what Google tells me, the Korean Wave (a.k.a. Hallyu) came into the public eye during 1999 when the drama “Autumn in my heart” first premiered. Now, it’s just trending as ever, and it refuses to die down. K-pop has been dominating our local radio channels, and groups like BTS and BLACKPINK have made their way onto international waters. Korean makeup and fashion also surfed the waves too, as many people try to recreate the looks of their favourite idol or their favourite K-drama character.
But with every wave, there is the risk of a tsunami. While I watched my friends and family get immersed in the trend, I dipped a toe into the water just to be updated. Over time, I gradually lost interest in the wave because of how they represented unrealistic beauty standards, a glamorised entertainment industry, and various misrepresentations in K-dramas. Thus, I present my article on why I don’t fully support the K-wave industry.
- The Exploitation of Idols
To begin with, there has been a prevalent issue as more idols become exploited in the K industry. Before becoming idols, young individuals have to become trainees to train themselves. This is a process that may take from a minimum period of six months up to a maximum of more than a few years. On top of an intense training schedule, they have to maintain a study life, as many of these trainees are still students. The training starts at 5 am and ends at 1 am, meaning that there is a lot of rigorous training sessions that come with monthly evaluations to track each individual’s progress.
Due to the competitive nature of the industry, many groups don’t make it or live the day of their debut; in fact, some don’t even last a week due to poor recognition and intense pressure. K-pop agencies constantly produce new groups every few weeks, and it worsens the state of competition. However, there are cases of successful K-pop groups that thrive; I think you may know them: Red Velvet, TWICE, Mamamoo etc. On the long run, they’ll have an even more packed schedule. Yes, they will have to produce more music, but they will also be part of advertisements, K-dramas, concerts, MV shoots, live shows, events etc. This brings me back to my next point – no matter how hard they work, they will often end up underpaid. $4000 USD is earned per show, but the agency takes 90% of the profits. The 10% is paid to the idol, but it is usually meant to pay back debts.
At the same time, many K-pop idols have to maintain an image in the public eye; after all, they represent their company/agency. In a video called “Confessions of a Former K-pop Idol (ft. Crayon Pop)”, Way (former idol) shares her personal experience. She also talks about how the contract forbade her from meeting her friends and family. In general, the contract lasts 5-7 years, and on a larger scale, dating and relationships among Kpop idols are often controversial in nature. There are also rumours of mistreatment too, with agencies not taking care of their idols, dismissing their health, and giving them little rest.
- Unrealistic Beauty Standards
This is actually part of both the idol industry and K-dramas. K-dramas are something I’ll generally feel conflicted about. There are some of them that I genuinely like, and some that don’t really gauge my interest. But what I really don’t like is how they portray unrealistic beauty standards at times.
In some K-dramas, there is that one “fat” character. She is characterised by her overweight size, and a gluttonous tendency. She is belittled for her appearance, and the mistreatment goes on. Later on, we get introduced the male counterpart who she cannot have because he doesn’t like how she looks. Then she goes through a complimentary makeover that makes her skinny and beautiful with plastic surgery, and because of her brand new look, everyone loves her. All the men pursue her, even the one she used to love. To me…it feels utterly preposterous and just plain mean.
On that note, when I said that K-pop idols have to maintain an image, I should also mention that it involves maintaining their appearance. K-pop idols have to maintain a weight of 50kg or less at an entertainment agency, and this can be achieved with extreme diets that cannot provide sufficient energy for the trainee’s intense routines. However, these diets are often not acknowledged enough for their potential health risks. They cause an unhealthy weight loss, and come with a number of health issues like malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies. An example would be the Girls Generation diet that introduced 800 calories per day, but as these idols are immense role models for many young kids, it may encourage unhealthy eating behaviours with detrimental effects.
If not, plastic surgery will be required on some of the idols. These are usually some minor alterations to one’s face or body, in terms of physical characteristics. The top three most popular plastic surgery procedures include eyelid surgery, jaw reduction surgery, and eye-widening surgery. Many teenagers go under the knife very young and it is no surprise that the plastic surgery industry is popular in the country.
- Misrepresentation in K-dramas
There is always something that bugs me about K-dramas. Besides the presence of beauty standards, I feel that they can be a little too unrealistic. No, not the cheesy love story that all of us can’t admit to secretly loving. It’s…well, something else. But then again, aren’t all drama serials exaggerated for the purpose of entertainment?
Anyway, you know the K-drama “Kill Me, Heal Me?”. Not that I watched it though, but I feel that there’s something wrong with the way how Dissociative Identity Disorder is portrayed. The main character (Cha Do Hyun) actually suffers from the disorder in the series, and he is known for having 3 split personalities. In a clip from the show, it feels that they’re mocking the disorder. At first glance, it felt a bit funny. The second time around, it was not funny. Would you mind watching it? It’s a bit long but I hope you get what I mean. At the same time, from what I gathered from the trailer, it feels like the psychologist who he will fall in love with will somehow fix his “problems” which really goes against the basis of basic psychology. But this is all what I think though. On a more serious note, there was a K-drama that ended up being boycotted by many because of its misrepresentation of Muslim culture.
Just because I’ve reasoned with you on why I hate the trend, it doesn’t really mean I fully loathe it. I do use Korean skincare on several occasions, and I find their face masks and cleansers really helpful. I also like how they generally aim for natural ingredients (e.g. snail mucin, Jeju volcanic lava etc.) and don’t even get me started on Korean food! Tteokbokki (Korean spicy rice cake) is wonderful but the spice kills me nevertheless. Tangsuyuk (Korean sweet and sour pork) with jajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce) makes a succulent combination, and finally, Korean instant ramyeon. They make a good meal option when I am lazy to leave the house or even bother cooking. In terms of snacks, they are just as amazing. I actually love their banana milk, and the Orion fish cakes were something I’d die to find again.
At the same time, even though I don’t listen to K-pop daily, I’m impressed with them. Their music videos and choreography are impressive, and I guess I can say that the intense training somehow pays off. I also like how K-pop changes with the era, and how it reflects in their outfits. These idols work so hard, and they’re passionate about it. As for K-dramas, the actors are really good. I mean it. They hold profound emotions within their facial expressions. On that note, there are a couple of K-dramas I genuinely enjoyed – Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, Master of the Sun and I Order You. Some of them have interesting plotlines that has my mum and I hooked. (Plus the actors are so bloody good-looking.) Did I mention their variety shows too? Just as amazing. I love watching Hello Counselor on KBS.
On top of that, Korea is a magnificent country. It lives upon a dichotomy between the past and the present, and I love how traditions are preserved in their culture. It’s on my list of destinations to travel to, because I really want to experience their street food and learn their history in person. At the same time, the fashion situation is really incredible at the moment – their outfits and makeup always look on point.
All in all, the K-Wave which is so beloved to the world is not as appealing to my own eyes. I’ve presented my case and now it’s your turn to decide – are trends worth being obsessed over or do they simply blind us from seeing more serious issues.