The Kpopcast


Lee Sang Eun, the O.G. “TOMBOY”

by Stephanie, co-host of The Kpopcast

Lee Sang Eun, sporting the “Tomboy” look back in the 80s/90s.

In our March 23, 2022 episode of The Kpopcast, we discussed (G)I-dle’s newest comeback song, “TOMBOY.” Listen to the episode here:

Inspired by a comment by Deena from our Slack community, we dove into a discussion about the song’s feminist potential, especially amid the backdrop of South Korea’s recent election of a self-declared antifeminist as president. And in what comes as a surprise to probably no one, (Spoiler Alert!), we at the Kpopcast ultimately concluded that “TOMBOY” is not really moving the needle on gender equality.

You’ll need to listen to the full episode to hear our meticulous breakdown of the ssen-unni/girl crush concept, tomboy fashion expectations, and admiration of (G)I-dle’s sound mixing engineers. But for now, it’s time to take ourselves to the next train station on the Gender in K-Pop Adventure.

In preparation for this episode, our team attended the group’s official press conference, consulted 2 Korean subject matter experts (John Lee, the blogger/columnist/Twitter commentariat known as the Korean Foreigner; and Hye Jin Lee, Clinical Assistant Professor of Communication at USC), and read up on some of the relevant critical media analysis of Feminism & K-Pop. Full essay by Jieun Lee and Hyangsoon Yi here:“Strong-Sisters”-Lee-Yi/698033bea56afc20f1731dd098c551c745701ca9

In the paper, I learned about a ground-breaking Korean singer from the 90’s, Lee Sang Eun. She rocked short hair, little to no make up, and baggy clothes as her signature look. On top of that, she sang in a low voice! On the episode, I exclaimed that K-pop stars nowadays wouldn’t dare be caught looking like that; because it’s too far outside of the current bounds of what is acceptable for female idols. I would even say her vibe is too masculine to be acceptable for today’s male idols as well! But how is that possible? Did standards for women’s empowerment and expression go backwards from the 90’s up until now? Yes and no. 

My co-hosts and I agreed on the episode that the tricky thing about the patriarchy is that it’s this all-encompassing thing, that can “narrow your imagination” of what’s possible in gender expression. In K-Pop today, you can either be cute, or girl crush; the rest is literally unimaginable. 

Let’s see what this actually feels like in real time, by practicing some somatic awareness of our body and emotions as we watch this video clip of Lee Sang Eun performing around 30 years ago. Observe your inner sensations and dialogue.

What came up for you as you gazed at the performer? Everything is valid, no wrong answer. Do you feel constriction or resistance in your body, dissonance? Are your eyes searching for physical signs that confirm the gender you heard in the article? Do you feel attracted at all? How do you feel seeing the way she dances, hearing her voice? Are you imagining what she would look like with a girly-girl makeover? Anything else? This is your brain constructing gender; all of those sensations, questions, and snap judgments usually fly under the radar of our awareness, giving us the illusion that gender is straightforward, fixed, biological, and obvious. 

So what is a woman, anyway? Consider this: Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling finds in her research that “there is more (intra-group) biological variation among women and men than there is between the two groups.” (Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men, 1992) This means that physically speaking, there is likely to be more difference between two random “women’s bodies” than between a random woman and random “man.” If we know that trans people exist, as well as intersex, agender, non-binary, and many other expressions, then we should really sit with this question of “what is a woman” or a “man,” especially in our own identity. Why is it necessary for us personally to have a line drawn between two genders at all? What purpose does the gendered label serve in our personal life? 

“Woman” and “Gender” in general, is a man-made idea, constructed in order to exercise power and control over the bodies of as many people as possible. “Woman” is also an idea that shifts depending on the views of those in power at a given time and place. 2NE1 appeared in the iconic MV for “I Am The Best” a full decade ago, sporting hair shaped like fire and ram’s horns. They were hugely popular with fans, but YG CEO Yang Hyun-Suk decided to disband the group; fans like myself were furious to hear that he had referred to the members as “not feminine/pretty enough” to be viable in K-Pop. Just a few years after 2NE1’s disbandment, girl crush is probably the most popular K-Pop girl group concept, a gendered expression that feels almost old and tired at this point. Why? Because YG and other major label CEOs have decided that this expression is now desirable enough to co-opt into the box of “woman” or femininity. 

With that in mind, let’s watch the MV for “TOMBOY” and complete the same somatic awareness exercise from above.

You might find it more difficult to pick up on your brain’s “scanning” and meaning-making processes here, because they happen in less than a second. In today’s K-pop scene and society, (G)I-dle’s concept falls right in line with dominant gender binary norms we’re used to seeing every day. Form-fitting and/or revealing clothes; full make-up including red lipstick; long, straight hair. No need for our mind to ask questions or feel dissonance. Even though the song is called “TOMBOY,” our brain is getting the signal: Nothing new to see here, folks. And this is how social conditioning works. This is why in our episode, I suggested that future K-Pop groups play with the gender binary with concepts that feel “absurd” instead of sticking with the same old girl crush. 

Until the day when we can fully abolish the gender binary and get our full imaginations back, I look forward to when there is room again for an idol like Lee Sang Eun. I might even settle for a 2NE1 comeback.

About PLo


A performer who has shared venues with asian idols like Miyavi, DJ Peter Lo spins a variety of music including Top 40s, Electronic Dance, Hip Hop, and Asian Pop. A 2ne1 Blackjack fan, DJ Peter Lo seizes every opportunity to spread K-pop like a cult for party-rocking crowds.
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