f(x), courtesy of Flickr

October 5, 2020

The Paradox of the Visual in K-Pop Groups

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In June 2019, Sulli, a former member of the Korean girl group f(x), began hosting a talk show known as The Night of Malicious Comments, a show that featured Korean celebrities reading hate comments about themselves. Reading her own hate comments, Sulli seemed confident as she laughed them off with ease.

In Oct. 2019, Sulli took her own life.

In K-pop groups, each member is given a role in the band, such as the vocalist or the rapper. During her career as an idol with f(x), Sulli was the visual of the group. The visual is a role in a K-pop group given to the member that best fits Korean beauty standards, typically displaying pale skin, large eyes with double eyelids and a slim chin, among other traits. The role of the visual has been a staple in K-pop bands since the earliest generations of K-pop. But as old values give way to modern ideals, these traditions should be questioned to reveal their deeper implications, especially their impact on the wellbeing of the idols themselves. Upon deeper scrutiny, it’s clear that the role of visual is problematic as it’s caused serious consequences for the mental health of the band member placed into this role.

From a cultural perspective, it makes sense that K-pop companies have held on to the visual category. Physical appearance has always held an utmost importance in Korean culture. Nowhere is this better represented than in the massive plastic surgery industry in South Korea. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that there were over 650,000 operations of plastic surgery conducted in the year 2011 alone. Undeniably, the social pressure to fit beauty standards and be conventionally attractive is high. Thus, for the entertainment business, having a visual role is a great marketing tactic for the band and for the record company. Seeing a pretty face on an advertisement is a much quicker and more effective way of generating publicity than promoting an entire track or album.

But more publicity for a group may not always be good, as the more popular a group becomes, the more hate and pressure they will typically face. Unfortunately, the visual role further exacerbates this and creates a concrete target for toxicity. Since beauty is fundamentally subjective, many people will often have differing opinions on which member they find the most attractive, or which member they think is the most deserving of the visual title.

It’s no surprise that with an appearance focused culture, the member who fills the visual role is held to high standards. Often, when netizens (the K-pop community’s name for internet users) find subjectively that the visual idol doesn’t meet those arbitrary standards, they become a target for cyberbullying, even more so than other members of the group. Notable examples include Twice’s Tzuyu, EXO’s Sehun, and BTS’s Jin, who’ve all been criticized for being unable to adequately sing or rap, and have been accused of being scouted into the band as a visual solely for their looks. These comments would take a massive toll on anyone’s mental health, especially that of idols, who are already experiencing pressure from multiple other aspects of their lives. Visuals often face a paradox; if all a certain idol has is their beauty, then they’re talentless and dragging down the rest of the group. However, if they’re talented in other ways but don’t fit the beauty standards well, then they don’t deserve to be the visual of the group and they’re dragging down the entire group’s appearance.

While comments from netizens may seem harmless on the surface, in reality, they come with heavy consequences. Taking the example of Sulli, her role as the visual of her band only worsened her torment. After she passed, many fans identified cyberbullying as a major cause of her mental health decline and her ultimate death. As her band, f(x), rose to fame, she soon became the target of online toxicity. The torment about her appearance became worse and grew into sexual harassment after she posted a picture of herself in an outfit without a bra on Instagram. Unfortunately, the title of visual not only exacerbates the mental health issues that many Korean idols already face in their high-pressure career, it worsens the attitudes of misogyny as well, with female idols taking the brunt of visual criticism. It’s almost ironic — Korean entertainment companies use their idols to define societal beauty standards, yet those same idols are criticized for not meeting those standards.

Ultimately, the visual title does nothing for idol groups but to discredit the hard work of the member given that title and threaten the idol’s wellbeing. Idols should be recognized for their talent, not their appearance that may or may not fit a set of arbitrary and often misogynistic standards. Korean entertainment companies need to be held accountable for not only the deaths of idols caused by standards that they’ve pushed, but also the cultural implications that come with each and every aspect of K-pop, including the title of the visual.


Joyce Wu is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].