[Disclaimer: This article is based on the first three episodes of the show and season three of ‘Show Me the Money,’ and contains cuss words and minor spoilers.]
With the surge in popularity of Korean rap domestically and abroad, it surprised no one that competition shows like Show Me the Money [SMTM] sprung and did as well as K-Pop Star. However, right from the start, the absence of women in the various SMTM installments was evident. Sure, there were some female contestants, but they never made it far or became relevant for their spit (some exceptions apply, of course).
That’s why when Unpretty Rapstar was announced, –despite the offensive title and the omission of male contestants– it seemed like progress, for female rappers would finally be in the spotlight and given proper credit. While I’m not sure if the creators of Unpretty Rapstar are the same as Show Me the Money, they were both televised on Mnet. What’s more, the former’s cast is sprinkled with reject contestants from the latter and other rappers who are already well-known. So from its inception, Unpretty Rapstar was created with SMTM in mind, and therefore sets a striking, sexist contrast.
Right from the start, it was apparent that the only thing Unpretty Rapstar and Show Me the Money had in common was the competition factor. Show Me the Money was all about some good ‘ol fashioned friendly and healthy competition, with contestants choosing their own mentors, being in teams, and focusing on the talent onstage. The feuds between the participants were addressed through verses onstage, with the interview portions only adding background information on them or reactions. On the other hand, Unpretty Rapstar’s format is meant to highlight and promote the pettiness women can have with each other, otherwise known as girl-on-girl hate.
As Tavi Gevinson, creator of Rookie Magazine, put it:
Girl hate is not hating someone who happens to be a girl, it’s hating someone because we’re told that, as girls, we should hate other girls who are as awesome as or more awesome than ourselves. That there can only be ONE cool girl, ONE funny girl, ONE smart, etc., in a circle of people.
To sum up, it’s basically Mean Girls. Starting with the cast, the producers created tensions with their selections. Some rappers had seniority over the rest, some had beef between them, and others were already famous and popular. Jimin, from girl group AOA, is always given preferential treatment, especially from the MC San-E who doesn’t even try to hide his bias (on the first episode, he broke off a tie where the idol won, even though she didn’t even rap in the intro cypher). Jolly V and Tyme brought their SMTM3 feud onto this show, with the producers highlighting and trying to pin them against each other further more. The inclusion of Jessi, a Korean-American who has already debuted and is one of the eldest in the cast, intimidates some of the contestants and unevens the playing field. And then of course is the prodigy, SMTM3’s Jidam who also gets away with things out of potential, which she undoubtedly has, but the exceptions are not a luxury given equally to all of the girls.
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The tone of the show was set almost immediately on the first episode, with San-E telling the contestants they would be participating in a cypher (dropping freestyle verses, one rapper after the next) meant to diss each other. While in Show Me the Money’s preliminary rounds the rappers had to work together, the Unpretty Rapstar girls had to blast each other as an introduction to the viewers and themselves. As the episodes and challenges progressed, it only got worse and more disproportional. After making the girls battle each other, they would make them say who did the worst and votes were never anonymous. On the rare occasions when they had to work in teams, they would later have to battle each other, so teams had to be picked with strategy. Jimin, on one of the challenges, said she chose Lil’ Cham and Kisum as teammates because they were easy challengers, in case they won.
And that’s another thing, the interviews. On Show Me the Money, the interviews were meant to reveal the contestants thoughts and emotions — the calling each other out, like mentioned before, was a matter addressed onstage most of the times. But on Unpretty Rapstar, the interviews are meant for the girls to gossip, to talk behind each others backs, to destroy one another in the privacy of a room with a camera on. You know, do what girls do, be horrible to each other. Do these girls even have back stories? You would never know given that they don’t reveal almost anything about their lives or struggles. Instead, they comment on onr anoother’s e-very-thing, and you know there’s someone asking them these questions, so it’s not like they’re coming in to share gossip with them and the viewers organically.
The funny thing about the situation is that contestants on SMTM3 regularly brought up the issue of “evil editing,” but no one ever really was depicted negatively. Unpretty Rapstar, on the other hand, was all about it. Tensions on set were enhanced and highlighted by the editing, and the portrayals of some of the girls were carefully manipulated. All in the spirit of making it seem like these girls hated each other.
Why does a show that is meant to find great female rappers and promote their talent have to foster the mean high schooler atmosphere between its contestants? Especially when the male’s counterpart show was all about camaraderie and professionalism. In SMTM3, the tension and audience bias for the YG Entertainment trainees was even stronger than the preference for Jimin, and still, the male rappers weren’t shown as petty or talking as much smack about them; the focus was always the performance. Unpretty Rapstar’s focus, like bad American reality shows, is the conflict between the contestants.
How can women, in such hostile environment, develop friendships? The guys in SMTM were in teams and battled opposing ones. In Unpretty Rapstar, it’s every woman for herself. And, as mentioned earlier, on the rare occasions they’re put in teams, this means being friends one day and enemies the next, turning the competitors against their own teammates. The atmosphere is so nasty that the girls frequently talk on their interviews about hitting another contestant. Airing this possibility of physical violence only promotes the idea that rap is a violent genre, and if a girl is in the game, she must be unpretty, not divine and ethereal like, I don’t know, Girls’ Generation… But that’s another story.
The point of the show is allegedly to find talented female rappers, but it ends up seeming as a way to belittle women and promote the gender roles of society; it all comes down to how much of a bitch the girls can be to each other to show who’s the alpha female. These women are mean, unpretty, because they’re tough and they’re stepping on a male-dominated territory… Unless you bring Zico, of course, then you’ll have them swooning over him and turning even the toughest of them into a bashful school girl.
Why is that even relevant? On one of Iron’s performances in SMTM3, he rapped about it being a dream come true to perform with Skull –where was the footage of him fan boying his butt off when he was told he would collaborate with him or as they rehearsed? The contrast reinforces the notion that even if they’re rappers with strong personas, at the end of the day, they’re just little girls, different from the level-headed men.
So what happens when a contestant rejects the gender roles set and pushes back the bs in the show’s format? She’s painted as the villain, naturally. Jessi raps about being the baddest bitch, and she truly is. Sure, she has a big ego and her attitude is sometimes problematic, but it’s definitely not as big as the show portrays it to be. In the first episode, she was portrayed to be seen as difficult –she constantly complained and said she gave up because everyone was taking too long — and that cost her the elimination from the first challenge, since all of the girls turned against her saying she was the worst (even though her performance was clearly not). Jessi was so pissed off about the outcome, after having helped some of the girls, that she didn’t go to the club to support the rest of the girls, and even came back and dissed every contestant personally. She changed. At the beginning, she was game, but seeing the outcome of the rigged voting method, she quickly changed strategies.
And who can blame her? This is how the show planners seemingly wanted her to react. She even went to the extent of saying “this is why you can’t be nice to girls.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what Unpretty Rapstar is trying to show. Because of the producer’s manipulation of the show, Jessi turned into the wreck they wanted to create. But Jessi didn’t just succumb to the b.s, she went off, even if she was further portrayed as a nuisance.
Jessi stood up for herself and was assertive; the girl has balls. The producers spun the narrative to make it seem like she was disrespectful, but she really wasn’t. On the instance where Zico came to visit them, he called her out in front of everyone for not attending the show, to which Jessi returned the dig. Cue in dramatic music and negative expressions from him and San-E. So Zico can put her on the spot but Jessi can’t respond? As opposed to the rest of the contestants, Jessi isn’t passive or takes ish from no one, and that’s why she’s painted as the bad guy — the unprettiest– even though she’s the realest of the bunch.
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But more importantly, in her disses, she announced, “who are you all to judge me?”, which even though is incredibly bold and, let’s say, rude, it’s completely true. Who are all of those other girls to judge her, the sunbae? Why don’t they have mentors like the guys on SMTM? Because unlike Show Me the Money, Unpretty Rapstar is not meant to focus on emerging talent and the crafting of it; they just want conflict to keep the ratings up. And, of course, to sell records. During every episode, the contestants compete for a chance to be featured on a song that will be on the compilation album the show will release at the end.
I know what you’re thinking, maybe Jessi and all of these girls really do despise each other and are like that because they’re mean human beings and it has nothing to do with the producers… Despite all the cattiness in episodes one and two, something was different in episode three. Cheetah showed endearment towards Kisum, as if she were her little sister, and Jessi kept praising Jidam, genuinely. Moreover, when Cheetah and Jessi were both named as the winners of being featured on a song with M.I.B’s Kangnam, even though they were competing against each other, showed excitement and happiness instead of resenting each other. Truth is, the two girls won because they showed great team work, and thus delivered a great song. There was no mean rivalry, they were happy for each other. As to why the previews for the fourth episode show them going against each other again, one can only speculate that conflict is what the producers want and not friendly moments between the contestants.
The rappers in Unpretty Rapstar are undeniably talented –no one’s saying they’re not, even idol Jimin. What’s unfortunate is that this batch of awesome, talented women are minimized to destroying one another. And not for the sake of winning a record deal or a whole lot of money, but for the sake of entertaining viewers while reinforcing society’s manipulative tactics of penning women against each other. Unpretty Rapstar would be far more interesting and compelling if it followed the same format as SMTM, but alas, producers only want to focus on drama, not talent. Or at least not women rapper talent.
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