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Fans are concerned that virtual members of the new K-pop girl group Aespa play on dehumanising stereotypes about K-pop stars. Credit: SM Entertainment

New K-pop girl group Aespa’s virtual members cause fears over dehumanisation of K-pop stars

  • Many K-pop fans are concerned by the sexual stylising of band member Winter’s digital self, saying the avatar has been created with an unrealistic body image
  • One expert worries about the potential exploitation of the virtual members in a country where female K-pop stars are often used in deepfake pornography
Tamar Hermanin United States

The upcoming debut of new girl group Aespa – an outfit featuring both human and virtual members – has raised concerns about the dehumanisation of K-pop stars.

Aespa will be unveiled on November 17 with the release of first single Black Mamba, and they are the first new girl group launched by K-pop company SM Entertainment since the 2014 debut of Red Velvet. But Aespa are definitely not a typical K-pop act – the quartet of Karina, Giselle, Winter and Ningning will be accompanied by CGI versions of each woman.

The digital avatars, which are referred to as the “ae” versions of the members, resemble video game characters – and display the same kind of hyper-sexualisation often seen in the games industry. Many fans are particularly concerned by the overly sexual stylising of ae-Winter, saying the avatar has been created with an unrealistic body image.

After a picture of Winter and ae-Winter was shared on Aespa’s official Twitter page, Twitter user @unebeen pointed out “the difference in the waist plus the dress’ length plus the more revealing top plus the impossible ‘perfect’ body shape… and they’re clearly selling the ae as the same person, as Winter the 18-year-old girl. This is gonna get so toxic I hate it already.” (According to her profile on South Korean media portal Naver, Winter was born January 1, 2001, making her 19).

A photo of Aespa member Winter with her virtual bandmate ae-Winter that was shared on Aespa’s official Twitter page. Image: Twitter @aespa_official

Lee Hye-jin, a clinical assistant professor of communication at the University of Southern California in the US, said there was a significant cultural divide in the way Aespa was being discussed online in Korean and English.

Lee said Western observers were mainly taking issue with SM Entertainment adding virtual counterparts to the human members, but Koreans didn’t seem to object to the concept because they “don’t think about technology as ‘social problems’ but as tools to fix social ills”.

“Korean fans have been more focused on [member] Karina’s controversial past than the VR concept,” Lee said, referring to allegations of underage drinking and of insulting male K-pop stars that were levelled against the Aespa member, born Yoo Ji-min.
Some have compared Aespa to the virtual girl group K/DA from the video game League of Legends. Photo: SM Entertainment

Lee believes the virtual members play on dehumanising stereotypes about K-pop stars – such as equating female stars with dolls – that are popular in Western media.

“The idea of virtual idols just seems to reaffirm the Orientalist view of Asians, particularly Asian women, and K-pop stars as robotic – a stereotype that Western fans have been fighting against for a long time,” Lee said.

Lee added that many Korean internet users thought the concept was outdated, especially when compared with virtual Japanese artists, most famously Hatsune Miku, which have been integrated into J-pop for years.
Hologram devices are also expected to bring the Aespa members into fans’ homes and lives. SM previously developed a hologram version of Red Velvet member Wendy.

Others have compared Aespa to the virtual girl group K/DA from the video game League of Legends, which Lee said has generally been received better than the complicated concept of Aespa.

Lee isn’t sure how the group will resonate with fans, as computer-generated K-pop stars may not generate the human connection that K-pop stars and their fans thrive on.

“Isn’t the display of strong bonds between members, and forming a pseudo-family in the process, a huge part of K-pop’s appeal? Why make Aespa into a girl group when the focus seems to be on developing the relationship between a celebrity and her avatar?” she asked in reference to how a video titled “My, Karina” showed Karina and her ae counterpart interacting.

Thomas Baudinette, a lecturer in international studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, is concerned about the potential exploitation of the virtual members. On October 28, after the unveiling of Karina’s ae counterpart in the “My, Karina” video, he tweeted: “In the context of Nth-Rooms where ‘virtual’ female idols were placed into pornographic deep fakes … I worry about this.”

Gender equality and the spycam porn epidemic remain significant issues in South Korea. The country is still dealing with the fallout of the Telegram-based “nth room” scandal, in which around 100 women, including minors, were forced into producing sexual content that was sold online.
Baudinette, a researcher who investigates the intersections of idol fandom in Japan and South Korea, said in an interview that there was a long tradition of female K-pop stars being used in deepfake pornography. A 2019 study from cybersecurity firm Deeptrace Labs estimated that 25 per cent of all deepfake pornographic content was inspired by female South Korean stars.
Aespa member Giselle. Photo: SM Entertainment

“In Japan, the virtual idol exists as a floating signifier that does not fully represent or respond to a ‘real’ base performer,” Baudinette said. “This means pornographic manipulation is common [and] often done in ways that are creative and not at all problematic. There is no ‘real’ artist’s image being damaged or used without consent. But the idea underlying Aespa’s virtual idols leaves them open to the possibility of problematic use.”

The “paternalistic” form of management at K-pop companies – where male CEOs control and appropriate female images for profit – adds to Baudinette’s concerns.

The K-pop industry has been developing virtual idols for roughly the same time as J-pop, with companies such as SM hosting hologram musicals, but Baudinette pointed out that the CGI stars were created to fill in for human performers rather than create new identities separate from the stars themselves.

“I haven’t seen anything that indicates SM has considered this angle of the virtual idol phenomenon,” he said. “If they have, they should acknowledge this and be as transparent as possible.”