IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Female K-pop artists who are determined to change the idol industry

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Female K-pop artists who are determined to change the idol industry

/ 10:35 AM March 13, 2023
(From left), Boa, Girls' Generation, Blackpink, CL. FILE PHOTOS

(From left), Boa, Girls’ Generation, Blackpink, CL. FILE PHOTOS

K-pop wouldn’t be the multi-billion dollar industry it is today if it wasn’t for female artists breaking the rules.

Of course, all artists are determined to make their own mark. But girl groups and soloists are subject to the industry’s harsh beauty standards, expected wholesome images, and the need to be on their best behavior, or what is deemed to be appealing in the eyes of a misogynistic society. Yet many female artists are determined to change the industry to set an example for the next generation that it’s okay to carve their own lane as themselves.


In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve listed down female artists and four of the biggest groups who have shaped the K-pop industry in their own empowering ways.



One of earliest roots of the Hallyu wave can be traced back to BoA, who debuted at the age of 13 in August 2000. Twenty-three years later, the soloist is dubbed by several media outlets as the “Queen of K-pop,” with a total of 20 studio albums in Korean, Japanese, and English.

Following the release of her first mini-album, BoA took a break from the Korean music industry to focus on the Japanese market — during one of the lowest points of South Korea and Japan’s international relations. The artist even told U.S.-based news channel CNN in December 2006 that there was no such thing as “Korean Wave” when she started out in Japan.

“At the time, I was the only Korean pop singer who was performing in Japan. But after the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, many Korean songs, and dramas, spread over into Japan and China. And the expression “Korean Wave” was created and many Korean singers came over to perform in Japan,” she was quoted as saying.

The soloist eventually set the tone for the next generation of artists such as TVXQ!, Girls’ Generation, Twice, KARA, and others to captivate Japanese audiences with their music and curated artistry, which was done to suit their market.


Born as Lee Chae-rin, CL is a superstar in her own right as the leader and one-fourth of the wildly successful 2NE1 — whose girl crush image set the tone for powerful concepts in girl groups in the years to come.

The soloist is best known for her experimental music style, such as “Hello Bitches” in November 2015 which was seen as a shocking track and concept to fans at that time, and being a triple threat in singing, dancing, and rapping. A style that is usually seen as scandalous in South Korea’s conservative nature, CL was determined to build her own empire as the industry’s “baddest female,” as well as an Asian-American artist in the West.


Apart from her work in music and fashion, CL is known among fans as the glue of 2NE1, which can be seen in their surprise reunion performance at Coachella in April 2022.


Huh Yun-jin, also known as Jennifer Huh, made a statement to “change the industry” even before her debut as a member of LE SSERAFIM, years after her failed attempt to win a spot at the project girl group in IZ*ONE in 2018.

While it hasn’t been a year since her debut, Yunjin has been harnessing her talent in music to share her story, particularly as a female artist in the K-pop industry. This can be seen in her solo song “I ≠ DOLL” where she said, “Idol doesn’t mean your doll to f*** with” as a way of speaking up against the industry’s harshest standards especially towards women who are forced to adhere to a certain image.


Hyuna might have had a long and illustrious career in K-pop, where she debuted as members of Wonder Girls and 4Minute and as a soloist, but she was the subject of headlines after confirming her relationship with former Pentagon member E’Dawn in August 2018 — which was seen to be controversial at that time due to the industry’s notorious dating ban.

She and E’Dawn were then axed from Cube Entertainment a month later, and while they eventually broke up in November 2022, they had set a precedent for K-pop idols to be unapologetic with their dating life.

The artist also spoke up about her career at a recent interview with Cosmopolitan Korea, where she expressed her concern for K-pop girl group NewJeans, asking them to “eat a lot of Korean food and drink vitamins.” She also admitted that their immediate success reminded her of her youth, as she reflected about her own journey in the industry.

Lee Hyo-ri

Known as the industry’s “bad girl” — a nod to her 2013 hit song of the same name, Hyori officially debuted as a member of the now-defunct girl group Fin.K.L. in May 1998.

The girl group’s leader eventually started to carve her own path as a soloist with the release of her first album “Stylish” in August 2003. The success of the album’s title track “10 Minutes” made her explode in popularity, which was dubbed as the “Hyori Syndrome” in her home country. She soon became known for her sex appeal and her confidence to explore with a variety of femme fatale-inspired concepts throughout her career.


Born as Lee Ji-eun, IU is dubbed as the “Nation’s Little Sister” and exploded in popularity following the release of the hit song “Good Day” in December 2010. The singer-actress was initially known for her innocent image, but she expressed her disdain over being infantilized in her fourth mini-album “Chat-Shire” in October 2015.

“Chat-Shire,” where she was credited as the sole lyricist, was controversial during its release, particularly the song “ZeZe” due to its lyrics which allegedly sexualized a child. IU apologized for the controversy soon after, although she clarified that the lyrics were not meant to “sexualize a five-year-old boy.”

She eventually re-established her dominance as a singer and actress, with her body of work deviating from mainstream K-pop and more of a closer look into her thoughts as an artist.

Hwasa of Mamamoo

With her tanned skin and voluptuous body, Hwasa of Mamamoo is seen as an artist who doesn’t fit in South Korea’s conventional beauty standards. Yet she remained firm in her belief that she wants to create her “own standard of beauty” in the K-pop industry.

Hwasa spoke up about being judged for her looks during the girl group’s concert in September 2019, where she was said to be “unique and sing very well, but you’re fat and not very pretty” by a training instructor, to which she described to be a turning point in her life.

“That day, I ran home and lay in front of my computer and was bawling. When I suddenly wanted to see a concert video that I had downloaded before, I turned that video on, and watched it continuously, crying all night. Soon, I found myself promising this, ‘If I don’t fit into this generation’s standard of beauty, then I will have to become a different standard,” she said, before performing a cover of “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce, a song that inspired her to succeed as an artist.


The late Sulli may be known as a child actress and a member of f(x), but she became known for being an advocate for women’s rights and mental health, as well as for being fiercely against cyberbullying.

K-pop artists are known for upholding a wholesome image, and this standard of being “cute and lovely” is doubled down towards women. Sulli, however, remained firm in her beliefs, where she notably spoke out being pro-choice during the height of South Korea’s abortion bill (which eventually became a law in 2021) and for being “not a fan of bras.”

“When I first posted a ‘no bra’ photo there was a lot of talk about it. I was scared and could have hidden, but the reason I didn’t is that I want to change peoples’ prejudices about that. Part of me also wanted to say: ‘This isn’t that big of a deal,’” she said in response to her “no bra” controversy in July 2019.

Throughout her life, she was noted by music critics for refusing to conform to K-pop’s standards in a bid to support fellow artists.

Soyeon of (G)I-DLE

Rapper, singer-songwriter, and leader of “Tomboy” and “Nxde” hitmakers (G)I-DLE — Jeon So-yeon is one of the most notable K-pop artists who is known for their ability to translate their innermost thoughts into chart-topping hits.

Soyeon first gained attention as a contestant representing Cube Entertainment in “Produce 101” in January 2016 and a semi-finalist in “Unpretty Rapstar 3” in July of the same year. The widespread attention turned out to be momentous for her career, where she debuted as a solo artist in November 2017 and eventually, as a member of (G)I-DLE in May 2018.

Since then, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter is known for writing and producing majority of her girl group’s discography, which reflects the image of being “self-belief.”

Girls’ Generation

Girls’ Generation was not the first K-pop girl group to gain widespread popularity in South Korea (see Fin.K.L. and SES in the early 2000s), but they were the first all-female unit to set the tone for Korean women to make it big in a male-dominated industry in the domestic and global stage.

The group, consisting of Taeyeon, Sunny, Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Sooyoung, Yoona, and Seohyun, shaped the K-pop industry with their chart-topping hits including “Gee,” “Genie,” “Oh,” “Run Devil Run,” “The Boys,” and “I Got A Boy,” to name a few. Despite coming from the prolific SM Entertainment, they overcame their fair share of hardships including the notorious “black ocean” incident and infamous “seven-year curse” in K-pop when Jessica departed in September 2014.

One of their most noteworthy achievements as a group was their debut song “Into The New World” becoming a candle light movement to oust former president Park Geun-hye in 2017, who was eventually convicted due to corruption charges. They are also one of the longest standing groups in the industry today, as they celebrated their 15th anniversary in August 2022.


2NE1’s dominance in K-pop stemmed from their determination to break feminine stereotypes in the industry, thanks to their signature girl crush image.

Consisting of CL, Bom, Dara, and Minzy, the four-member unit is highly regarded for their powerful stage presence and experimental artistry and fashion style. Their debut song “Fire” set a tone for women in the industry in May 2009, as their concept expanded the conventional girl group image at that time.

The girl group is known for being one of the leading figures of the Korean wave, as well as being one of the blueprints for baddie-inspired concepts in the industry.


Blackpink, who’s dubbed as the “biggest girl group in the world,” is arguably the most successful Korean female unit in the global scene; and members Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, Lisa are regarded for establishing their own brands as individuals even if they’re part of a unit.

Among their most notable achievements include being the first Korean artist to receive a certification from the Recording Industry Association of America with their hit song “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du,” which was released in June 2018.

The quartet broke a lot of records in the domestic and global scene throughout their career, as well as its members making a mark in the fashion industry after they were named as ambassadors in luxury fashion houses. They are also named as one of the “most powerful celebrities in South Korea” by Forbes Korea for three consecutive years and TIME’s Entertainer of the Year in 2022.


Twice — consisting of Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Jihyo, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, and Tzuyu — made a mark as one of the biggest girl groups in South Korea and one of the most recognized Korean acts in the global stage.

The nine-member unit was formed by JYP Entertainment through the reality competition show “Sixteen” in May 2015, and debuted in October of the same year. They eventually rose to widespread popularity following the release of their hit song “Cheer Up” and followed up with a string of chart-topping singles such as “TT,” “Knock Knock,” “What is Love,” “Fancy,” and “I Can’t Stop Me,” among many others.

The group might have been known for their signature bubblegum pop sound, but they have since a more “color pop” sound which can be seen through their shift in discography. EDV


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TAGS: 2ne1, Blackpink, BoA, CL, Girls’ Generation, Hwasa, HyunA, IU, K-Pop, Le Sserafim, Lee Hyo-ri, Mamamoo, Sulli, Twice
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