Don’t bite the cookie: Concerning sexualization of minors in K-pop

An+illustration+of+the+K-pop+group+NewJeans.+Fans+have+expressed+concern+at+the+age+of+the+members%2C+which+range+from+14+to+18+years+old%2C+especially+after+dissecting+the+lyrics+of+their+hit+song+%E2%80%9CCookie.%E2%80%9D

Ariana Goetting

An illustration of the K-pop group NewJeans. Fans have expressed concern at the age of the members, which range from 14 to 18 years old, especially after dissecting the lyrics of their hit song “Cookie.”

“Looking at my cookie, do you ever smell it different? What’s with a bite, isn’t enough?” These lyrics, recently prompting backlash in the Korean popular music or K-pop industry, is one of the instances of controversial lyrics provided to underage groups in the business. Given the explosive popularity of K-pop worldwide, how will inappropriately mature concepts assigned to teenage idols affect the future of the industry?

K-pop broke records for South Korea in 2020 by positioning itself as the “fastest-growing major market of the year,” according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s (IFPI) Global Music Report. NewJeans, a girl group that debuted in August under independent record label Ador of Hybe Corporation, broke multiple sales records and won music show awards within days of the release of their first EP “NewJeans.” The five members dazzled K-pop fans worldwide with their catchy music and choreography, currently trending on social media platforms like TikTok. 

Yet along with the group’s exponential path to stardom, some fans expressed concern at the age of the members, which range from 14 to 18 years old, especially after dissecting the lyrics of their hit song “Cookie.” Still, the shockingly young average age of the NewJeans members is not a new occurrence. Bangtan Boys (BTS), one of the most recognizable names in the K-pop industry, debuted when its youngest member Jeon Jungkook was only 15 years old. BTS fan Luke Mehta (11) commented on the issue of having idols debut at such an age in the industry.

“There should definitely be some type of age restriction, say over 18,” Luke Mehta (11) said. “That way, it’s safer in the [K-pop] business.”

Many traced the NewJeans concept issue to Creative Director of Ador Min Hee-jin, who is in charge of the cohesive image of the group’s albums. Mood boards on Min Hee-jin’s Pinterest and Instagram of inappropriate images of young girls further fueled the fire, provoking those uncomfortable with NewJeans’ concepts to accuse her of pedophilia and sexualization of minors.

Min Hee-jin’s recent controversy with NewJeans is one of multiple past incidents for which she encountered retaliation. Before joining Ador as Creative Director, Min Hee-jin worked with multiple second and third-generation idol groups under SM Entertainment such as SHINee, f(x), Red Velvet and Girls Generation. Though her skill in the field eventually brought her fame and awards, she received extensive backlash due to her treatment of younger idols — some 13 at the time of their debut. 

The sexualization of minors in the K-pop industry impacts not only the mental health and the futures of the idols involved but also the fans of the groups, with the majority young enough to be easily influenced by what is presented on social media.”

While working on SHINee’s music video “Sherlock” in 2013, Min Hee-jin allegedly instructed Taemin, the youngest member being 18 years old at the time, to restrain from exercising in order to maintain his youthful, boyish image. Later that year, she focused f(x)’s “Pink Tape” era on a mature, provocative Lolita concept despite one of the members being a minor. More recent work from 2017, such as Red Velvet’s song “Red Flavor,” exhibited revealing outfits and suggestive lyrics despite a group member being 17.

K-pop fan Meishin Yen (11) keeps up with recent idol comebacks and follows both old and new generations. In regards to Min Hee-jin, she recognizes her impact on the younger idols of many groups she stans, a term ubiquitous in the K-pop community when describing favorite groups.

“In Second [Generation K-pop], there was a girl group where they were all minors and put into music videos to film scenes where they were in provocative settings and positions,” Meishin said. “It wasn’t until later when they fully registered what they were doing. They disbanded and have a lot of trauma from that, so I think that’s proof that companies should really be careful about this.”

In some cases, rather than attending to the situation at hand and apologizing for miscommunication, the agencies behind certain idol groups evade facing the backlash from fans. In the controversy around NewJeans’ “Cookie,” Ador responded in a statement by claiming that the team “didn’t take any issue with the lyrics,” as the original intent was for the lyrics to be wholesome and youthful. 

“It seemed like they were pushing the blame of misunderstanding the lyrics onto the viewers, but really, you can’t ignore the double meanings behind the lyrics,” Meishin said.

The sexualization of minors in the K-pop industry impacts not only the mental health and the futures of the idols involved but also the fans of the groups, with the majority young enough to be easily influenced by what is presented on social media. The future of K-pop is bright, and idols themselves, alongside their praiseworthy performance, are central to companies’ successes. Agencies should bear accountability and respect for their idols, paying critical attention to matters such as age, regardless of gender.