Their Youth Is Not the Problem

The producers of My Teenager Girl are manipulative and effective. Some of the viral clips which passed around on YouTube hooked me. I haven’t seen every episode from beginning to end, but I’ve watched more of the show than I want to admit.

My Teenage Girl is a South Korean music survival show, in which contestants compete for seven debut slots in a new Kpop idol group. (Though they also perform some non-Kpop songs in the show).

One controversy is that some contestants are 10-13 years old, and that some debut slots were set aside for this age group (but then the quota system got tossed).

Some say that they are too young for the toxic Kpop industry. Yes, the Kpop industry is toxic (I’ve seen no one argue otherwise), but isn’t it also toxic for 23-year-olds? That’s the age of the oldest contestant, Kim Hari. The problem isn’t the contestants ages, it’s that the Kpop industry is toxic.

Are 23-year-olds better able to cope with the toxicity of the Kpop industry than 10-year-olds? On average, yes, but there are some individual 10-year-olds who can cope better than some individual 23-year-olds, and the problem, again, is that the Kpop industry is toxic.

10-year-olds can understand that the Kpop industry is toxic. All the contestants had to go through a few months of training before appearing on the show. That weeded out anyone who was unmotivated. Also, I’m sure they heard many comments about how toxic the Kpop industry is during those months. The performances make it obvious the ‘1st graders’ (the contestants in the 10-13-year-old age range) really, really want to be there.

10-year-olds have agency. All the contestants, even the youngest, made an informed decision to be on this show.

Some say that they don’t want a Kpop group with a 10-year age gap between members. Uh, why not? Does the ten-year age gap between the oldest and youngest performers in “I AM THE BEST” ruin the song? It certainly didn’t stop it from becoming one of the most popular Kpop songs ever.

Some raise concerns about the sexualization of underage girls. I am sympathetic to this concern, and I’m a teensy bit uncomfortable that the younger contestants were assigned “Décalcomanie,” which has lewd lyrics. However, the youngest singer assigned that song, Park Boeun, is 13 and a native Korean speaker. She must know what those lyrics mean, and she threw herself into the performance anyway. It’s not as if 7-year-olds are singing that song. I respect their choices.

The weight-loss diets which the Kpop industry encourages hurts performers’ bodies, and may do more harm to young performers than older performers… but again, the problem isn’t the performers’ ages, it’s that the Kpop industry pushes harmful diets. 23-year-olds shouldn’t be pressured into adopting harmful diets either. Kim Hari, the oldest contestant, already has significant health problems (she almost debuted as a Kpop singer, but then she got so sick that she didn’t leave her home for two years).

I am a Song Yerim fan, and I was sorry to see her eliminated. However, she left a positive legacy. Those clips which went viral and brought in many non-Korean viewers, including me? Song Yerim is in them, and they went viral partially because of what they show about how people treat non-skinny performers. Like many people, I believe voters eliminated Song Yerim because of her weight and that she deserved to stay because of her talent. However, she’s now famous in English-language Kpop fandoms, she got invitations to join at least one of South Korea’s top dance troupes, and she’s building a social media thing. She might be better off creating her own thing than joining a music survival show idol group. Meanwhile, she proved to the younger contestants—to all contestants—that a non-skinny contestant can still go far in a Kpop music survival show and establish an international fandom.

“Boss Rich” is one of my favorite performances in the show. The performers wrote some lyrics. My favorite section is when Oh Jieun shades Kpop survival shows by declaring herself so talented that she doesn’t need a PD pick, heck, she doesn’t even need to win the contest. That’s a reference to the scandal that some Korean music survival shows have ‘PD picks’ i.e. the producers choose who wins, not audience votes. She said that in the middle of a Kpop music survival show. Those lyrics in “Boss Rich” prove that the contestants understand that the Kpop industry is messed up.

Ironically, that was in an episode with blatant vote rigging. I don’t like Mihee, yet the only way I can explain how Sarang got more votes than her in the 1-on-1 all-rounder battle is that the producers rigged it. You can watch the performances yourself and make up your own mind: “Money” by Sarang and “Next Level” by Mihee.

I agree with the argument that more debut slots should go to the older contestants because they have less time left to break into the Kpop industry, and I agree that more of the older contestants have the polished skills to debut. Yoon Chaewon and Kim Inhye are two of my favorite contestants. But the best of the younger contestants have also earned their place. If a 20-year-old who has had more years to train can’t outperform a 13-year-old… the 13-year-old deserves to take the 20-year-old’s place. Ultimately, it should be based on skill and talent, not on whether a contestant is too young/old.

I’ll end this with my favorite My Teenage Girl audition performance, “I Want to Be a Celebrity” by Kim Subin and Choi Subin. Young as they are, they earned their way into the contest.

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