Korean pop music has grown more and more mainstream in recent years, with idol groups like BTS and Blackpink no longer being names you’ll get confused looks for mentioning. (Well, mostly.) Still, there are many aspects of K-pop that the newer Western audience is less familiar with, and one of those is K-pop survival shows. These are reality shows which present a large group of prospective idols, called trainees, and eliminate them down to a final selection after judging them on their singing, dancing, and performance skills. These winners will then get to “debut,” becoming a proper K-pop group that will persist after the end of the show. Many well-known K-pop groups were formed this way, such as Twice, Stray Kids, and Monsta X, so these shows definitely have precedent for success.

However… K-pop survival shows, especially the more recent ones, have a lot of issues.

Now, it’s not a hot take to simply say that most K-pop survival shows are bad. There are a few main complaints that always come up when discussing them. First, it’s obvious when the biased judges pick who they want to be in the group from episode one, and don’t acknowledge the talent and growth of other trainees. It’s frustrating to see these judges constantly praise their favorites before turning around and yelling at another contestant who’s trying just as hard. (They usually aren’t giving constructive criticism, either.) Second, in cases where viewers can actually influence the judging on the show, it usually turns into the K-pop Electoral College. The voting systems are odd and even unfair at times. On the show “Boys Planet,” the total votes in Korea were weighted equally to the total votes in the rest of the world, skewing the results greatly towards Korean preferences and beauty standards. Speaking of beauty standards, the third problem is the xenophobia and colorism present in these shows, which means that some very talented trainees are given less screen time and opportunities than others. And I’m not just talking about Black trainees, or Western trainees. Even other East Asian trainees get snubbed, like Chinese trainees or trainees who have a natural tan. Korean idol culture is just that intense.

But beyond how the shows and producers are unfair to contestants, the thing that rubs me the wrong way is how audiences are also given the opportunity to compare these young people to each other. This results in very nasty online content made to harass contestants, calling them untalented or unworthy of the opportunities they worked hard to get. Even after the show ends and certain trainees get to be part of a new group, it’s hard to escape the hateful comments about their performances pre-debut.

Let’s compare survival shows to how most idols get to join a K-pop group. A company will work internally with hundreds of trainees at a time, as many as we see on large-scale survival shows or even more. They pick just a few of these trainees to be part of a new group, based on criteria we don’t often see as outsiders. That group starts getting marketed a few months before debut, at which point they’ve already been finalized as part of the group and started training together as a whole. There will always be people online who will complain about members of a new group not singing well, or not dancing well, or whatever apparent weakness they focus on this time – but there is not a clear point of comparison. They’re new idols, and that’s all you see. We don’t know what skill level they were at when they started training compared to now, and it’s difficult to speculate on which other trainees at their company could have taken their spots because trainees are not public figures yet.

In survival shows, however, we get to see that early competition directly. The shows call on fans to declare which trainees are “better,” sometimes literally through voting. If your fave doesn’t make it into the final group, then the girl who did has stolen her spot, which is enough reason to dogpile on her and list all her flaws. If someone has a single bad performance, it’ll get memed to death and viewers will claim they should be eliminated because of it. People will actually get mad when the contestant everyone is bullying does well in a challenge, because it doesn’t provide fuel for the fire. This whole system is a breeding ground for hostility, not only between internet users but towards very young girls.

Some of the most recent examples of viewers picking a girl to collectively criticize come from “Universe Ticket.” The most viral moment from this show is the contestant Vanesya rapping in “Tell Me.” She fumbled the lyrics, making an obviously embarrassed face afterwards. This clip spread fast, plaguing my social media timelines for weeks with captions like “Vanesya let’s go… home!” What was not shared in those memes was the context: Vanesya does not speak Korean, already making such a fast rap difficult, and she later claimed on a podcast that the show’s producers actually gave her that section of the song last-minute. This information came too late though, as the internet had already decided they hated her. The responses I saw to any of her performances after “Tell Me” were unanimously negative, and people celebrated when she was eventually eliminated. Similarly, the contestant Kotoko was widely criticized for not being a strong vocalist and still ending up in the final group… it’s clear the judges explicitly picked her for her cute appearance and stage presence over her singing skills, in order to make the group more well-rounded. In cases like these, the internet turns its brain off for the sake of starting a flame war, and it gets nasty.

And worst of all, these are all trainees! These contestants are usually not formally trained in vocals or dance; even if they are, they will receive a lot more training after the show to prepare them for debut. Judging them at the level of already debuted idols is not fair to them, but viewers expect them to be ready to perform like professionals right away. It’s like comparing the work of an aspiring artist in their first ATEC class to that of Van Gogh, and being completely serious as you tear them down.

The show “America2Korea” had over a year-long gap between the end of filming and the new group VCHA’s debut. The improvements are drastic in all of VCHA’s members, because they had the time to keep training. For example, during the show many viewers commented that Kendall’s expressions were sometimes vacant or not purposeful, and that she lacked stage presence. I agreed, and wasn’t sure if she would be a good fit for the final group. However, I saw a lot of potential in her performance of “24 Hours,” which was unexpectedly confident. In VCHA’s music video for “Girls of the Year,” her performance is now much stronger and more mature, as she was able to hone that potential and make it work for her. KG’s dancing ability has also increased, from not dancing much at all to keeping up with her fellow members during very fast choreography. Obviously, these trainees were not ready to debut at the exact moment the show ended, but it wasn’t fair to make that comparison at the time. Now that they’ve worked hard and debuted a year later, they can be held to the standards of other K-pop groups in good faith.

As a disclaimer, there are K-pop survival shows with male contestants who are mistreated and compared like this too, but it’s especially disheartening to see how these shows perpetuate hostility between women and girls. Instead of hyping up the young women who got these amazing opportunities, we’re still putting so many of them down to build another person up. Capable women should not be pitted against each other, or made to think that the only way to achieve their goals is to prevent other women from getting there first. I hope this mentality doesn’t affect the contestants too much, making them resentful towards their fellow trainees and eventual group members. I especially feel bad for the girls who receive targeted hate like Kendall and Vanesya, as many of them have an online presence and have almost certainly seen the posts for themselves. That must be incredibly damaging as a teenager, to be bullied not just by peers but by the world.

I encourage anyone interested in survival shows to support these trainees instead of dragging them down. Continue making fancams, posting clips of your favorite performances, and being excited for these stars in the making. Some criticism is expected on the internet, but if you do want to make that type of content at least consider how you present it. Are you really pointing out specific parts of a performance that could be improved, or are you just pointing and laughing? Then, when eliminations are over and the final group is revealed, be proud: of the winners, of the runner-ups, and of everyone who managed to get on the show at all. That itself is something not many people achieve.

K-pop survival shows are a phenomenon for a reason, and I don’t expect them to stop being made any time soon. Maybe we can’t personally change the problematic things that occur in the production process, but as consumers of these shows we can at least treat these children with kindness. They’re just going after their dreams, so why not be happy for them?