K-pop Artists Who Have Challenged Gender Norms

From Amber Liu to Holland, here are five K-pop artists who have defied gender norms.

From Amber Liu to Holland, here are five K-pop artists who have defied gender norms.

kpop stars who challenged gender norms

by Samantha Lui
March 4, 2024

Welcome to The K-pop Chat, a monthly column dedicated to all things K-pop. In collaboration with the bunni pop newsletter, join writer Samantha Lui as she rolls out lists, content and interviews to keep you updated on the latest from the K-pop industry. For more K-pop content in your inboxes, subscribe to bunni pop for weekly posts.

Like much of the entertainment world, appearances are often scrutinized when it comes to K-pop. In fact, visuals are usually a main selling point of acts, as members are chosen to debut in bands for being the “face of the group” in order to help grab the attention of fans. 

But while the K-pop industry has historically played things pretty safe when it comes to traditional gender norms, some artists have gone against the grain. Whether it’s through fashion, music or performance, K-pop performers have used their art to push back on stereotypes — all while garnering a loyal fanbase for staying true to themselves. 

That’s why this week, I’m sharing five K-pop artists who have defied gender norms. 

1. (G)I-DLE

While love songs and bubble gum concepts dominate the K-pop sphere, the girl group (G)I-DLE have rarely followed conventions of the genre. They have been praised for being a self-producing idol group, playing a heavy hand at writing and creating original songs that often challenge the patriarchy. Tracks like “Tomboy” serve as an anthem for the girls, with member Soyeon rapping about how she’d rather film a TikTok video over experiencing misogyny and discrimination. While “(Queencard)” has the band singing about loving yourself with sassy lyrics like “My boob and booty is hot.” 

Not one to shy away from touchy topics, (G)I-DLE also raised eyebrows in January with the release of their single “Wife.” The core of the song plays on the expectation a man has on his wife, and the double standards experienced by women who are looked to only serve their husbands. The song ruffled feathers, even causing South Korea’s national broadcaster KBS to ban the song from broadcast due to “sexually explicit” lyrics. While many Asian societies have not warmed up to the feminist movement, (G)I-DLE have often pushed back on gender standards despite being in a highly commercialized industry. A song like “Wife” is political in these times, and it’s brave for (G)I-DLE to release it.

2. Holland

Holland (born Go Tae-seob), is known as the “first openly gay K-pop idol.” In fact, his stage name is a tribute to The Netherlands, the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. Holland’s early years as an aspiring musician were not easy, as no entertainment companies were willing to work with an openly gay artist. To this day, same sex marriages and civil unions are not legally recognized in South Korea.

While a discouraging setback, Holland decided to go at his dreams alone. He worked two part-time jobs in order to fund the creation of his debut single “Neverland”. The pop song plays on themes from the fairytale Peter Pan, in which people can live free from social expectations. The song went viral the moment it was released on January 21, 2018, garnering over a million views in 20 hours. The music video received a 19+ rating in South Korea, as it portrays Holland and his male love interest kissing. 

Since then, Holland has garnered a fanbase who call themselves “Harling”, and they have even helped fund his self-titled mini-album. The singer has attended Paris Fashion Week, and also held a tour across five cities in Europe. But even though he has been embraced internationally, Holland still faces obstacles in South Korea. In 2019, he told Teen Vogue about his hopes for LGBTQ rights in his home country and why he took the risk of living openly. “I did it because I wanted to show the world who I am and prove that I can be loved, that I am worth being loved by other people, regardless of my sexual orientation. I did it because I didn’t want to feel defeated by the people that gave me and my community a hard time.”

3. Amber Liu

While girl groups in K-pop are often portrayed in more feminine and glamorous concepts, Amber Liu defied gender norms when she first debuted with the girl group f(x) in 2009 for her tomboy looks. Unlike the mini skirts and long, flowy hair her members were seen in, Liu instead favoured edgy pixie cuts, athleisure and menswear-inspired outfits. 

Liu has spoken about beauty expectations in the K-pop industry in the late 2000s and early 2010s. “Back then, there were very limited visuals for girls to be,” she said in an interview with Allure in 2019.  “I think now, slowly, it’s opening up and people are embracing the different sides of femininity and masculinity. It’s a spectrum.” 

These days, Liu is focusing more on her solo music career, all while staying true to her personal style and pushing the boundaries on gender norms. In January, Liu released the music video for her single “Dusk Till Dawn,” which has since been praised for its diversity. In it, the singer is seen dancing with a male and female love interest. 

“You know how I like to have open endings to my videos,” Liu wrote about the song on Instagram. “I wrote and rewrote this script for almost 3 months trying to figure out the right amount of confusion.” 

4. Taemin

Taemin is a veteran of the K-pop industry, having debuted just shy of his 15th birthday with the group SHINee in 2008. But over the years, the singer remains a force in show business — pushing the boundaries when it comes to performing intricate choreographies and donning androgynous fashion and make-up styles. 

One of his most popular hits is the single “Move”, which was praised for breaking stereotypes in an industry that has often conformed to gender norms. Teaming up with Japanese choreographer Koharu Sugawara and a group of female dancers, Taemin dances to the sensual R&B song with delicate moves often seen in ballet and contemporary choreography. 

“My aim was to find a middle ground, mixing both masculine and feminine movements into the choreography together,” Taemin told Billboard in 2017. 

“I wanted to break the idea of what male performers are supposed to show, what performances girl groups are supposed to show. I really wanted to break those labels, showing that dance is a form of art.” 

5. Moonbyul

Known as the tomboy of MAMAMOO, Moonbyul surprised fans with her music video for “Eclipse”, performing with a group of male back-up dancers and dressing in suits and camouflage gear. Unlike the soft lines and point moves often seen in girl group choreography, Moonbyul also instead opted for a more intense and masculine style of dancing often seen in K-pop boy group dances. 

Moonbyul is also known for writing gender neutral lyrics, and has also talked about her desire to challenge the gender binary in her songs. 

“So far, I have been trying to release songs that do not sound either feminine or masculine, because I believe I am quite androgynous,” Moonbyul said in an interview with The Korea Times. “I want to become a person who can challenge the binary view of gender through music.” 

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