I listen to a lot of music, but I’m picky about the groups I let near my heart. Girl groups are even tougher for me. Today, we’re going to talk about one of them: Brown Eyed Girls. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this foursome iconic. While they haven’t been as chart-topping as SNSD or BoA, their influence subtly permeates through K-Pop.
Grown Woman Swag
When most K-pop groups debut, the members’ ages run between 16-20. Jea, Narsha and Miryo debuted at 25. And, yes, 25 is hardly old. But ageism is still a big obstacle people, especially women, face. With “Abracadabra,” they flaunted their maturity in ways seniors like Lee Hyori and Baek Ji-young did. And only a year into their careers.
While not the first group to do a “bad girl” concept, it’s certainly a game-changer. Firstly, they released this in a sea of more girls groups with cute comebacks. The only video that year with similar feels was SNSD’s “Genie,” which still plays it flirty but innocent. “Abracadabra,” however, has none of that.
The opening 30 seconds is a potent start. Narsha gets dressed in a lush bedroom. There’s no doubt as to what the two were up to. He’s sleeping shirtless, and she has … um … a bad case of bed hair. The real sucker punch comes when she straps a bomb to his chest and leaves. Like the absolute diva she is!! Do you see what I mean by grown woman swag? Even now, over a decade later, not many idols can pull a move like this.
It’s impossible to talk about the video without the dance. The powerful combination made the group a household name. I didn’t get into K-Pop until 2012, but I’ve seen this dance parodied numerous times. Psy even features it in his “Gentleman” video, along with a cameo from Ga-In, Brown Eyed Girls’ “maknae.” The Arrogant Dance is fierce and taunting. It dares the viewer to come closer but knows it won’t happen. Pulls you in and also intimidates you. With a simple move, it allowed women to be as cocky as men. To smirk and charm rather than to giggle and invite.
Female Agency and Empowerment
Brown Eyed Girls honestly have a ton of videos I could discuss, both as a group and solo tracks. However, when I started this article, “Sign” immediately drew me in.
Production-wise, it sounds like your average synth-heavy, late-2000s pop track. The video is also similar to big action movie storytelling. The man must fight his way through hordes of baddies. “Sign,” however, takes it to a different place. This time the man fights to save the group. The ladies are chained in individual glass chambers filled with water. At the last minute, the foursome drowns as “The Man” and the audience helplessly watch. It’s never framed as heroic or epic.
This is, unfortunately, a common writing device called “Fridging the Girlfriend.” The Hero’s love interest is injured or killed, thus springing the Hero into action. Coined by Gail Simone, it refers to an infamous “Green Lantern” panel. Kyle Rayner comes home and discovers his girlfriend’s dead body stuffed in a refrigerator.
Why am I talking about it here? Because unlike most action videos, the group isn’t there to fight, to look fabulous or even to have agency. The women of Brown Eyed Girls are solely there to inspire the hero onward to fight but tragically do not survive. If the video started with their deaths, we’d at least feel like justice was served. “The Man” is our avenging angel, taking down the evildoers. But he’s not. Those deaths are meaningless and empty, just like the fridging device itself.
Another example is “Sixth Sense.” Again, it falls under a common music video theme. This time, the “Group leads modern Revolution.” The video’s imagery is powerful. You see every member imprisoned in various ways. Narsha caged, an audience observing her like an animal, JeA on the cusp of drowning and Ga-in and Miryo handcuffed in front of their respective cameras. Even in the dance portions, their makeup is smudged and looks eerily like bruises.
What’s especially interesting is it’s not staged in the future or alternate earth. Dystopian works often offer an explanation of what went wrong. “Sixth Sense,” however, implies this could be the near future or even now. If the past few years have shown us anything, it’s people in power trying to silence women.
These are just a few examples of Brown Eyed Girls showing their agency and that they’re not pretty toys to be maneuvered.
Speaking of which…..
Bill and Props
When they’re the main characters of their videos, they continue to play with gender roles and themes.
The “Kill Bill” movie series follows The Bride seeking revenge against her former fellow assassins and former lover, Bill. While most of the important characters are women, Bill’s influence propels the plot and looms in the shadows. He’s the first person named, his actions are the inciting incident and he’s the end goal.
Beautifully contrasting, Brown Eyed Girls’ “Kill Bill” doesn’t even have a Bill character. The video heavily uses the films’ iconography such as the whistling, showdown in the trailer and costuming. Just … no Bill! Narsha writes “Bill” in Hangul on some guy’s back but that’s it. We don’t even see his face when he’s there. He’s essentially a human prop. The video title card even has Bill’s name crossed out.
With Bill left out, B.E.G delivers a video of the four of them cosplaying as Kill Bill characters while trying to kill each other. Are they friends whose friendship turned sour? Are they each other’s competition? I honestly have no idea! It’s less about revenge and more “Murder is fun,” which I’m absolutely here for.
The dance version continues to use men as props. The ladies first appear reclining onto the male dancer. Later, Ga-in sits on them, the four dancers staged as parts of her throne. The men aren’t even really dancing until over a minute into the video. Meanwhile, the female dancers interact more directly with the choreography and the group itself.
Brown Eyed Girls: Still Relevant?
Brown Eyed Girls debuted 14 years ago, the oldest girl group with the same members and no hiatuses. Over the years, K-pop has evolved, partially due to these women. You can see the traces of influence in interesting places. Sunmi‘s duality in “Gashina” and Mamamoo‘s maturity in their performances and sound. You can even see it in how Hyuna constantly balances being provocative, coy and playful.
The foursome recently released their latest album, “Re:Vive,” a compilation of songs covered in their own styles. Right when you thought they’d slow down in their careers … NOPE! They’re dressed in suits, surrounded by drag queens. The grown woman swag, y’all. Never doubt it.
I recommend checking out Medium‘s breakdown on more of their videos and TheGrandNarrative‘s take on Ga-in’s “Bloom.” Seoulbeats does a deep dive on Brown Eyed Girl’s “Cleansing Cream,” which is phenomenal.