Picture is relevant, I swear.
WARNING: 2500+ word long post ahead.
You know, I’ve never been into K-pop in any shape or form. I think the music is banal and that the over-manufactured appearances of the idols are creepy rather than attractive. I’ve also never managed to finish watching a Korean drama. I don’t think I could even name more than five Korean boy groups (DBSK, Shinhwa, and uhhhhhhh… crap). Basically, I am probably the least qualified person in the world to write an essay on K-pop fandom.
And yet over the past year I have developed a keen interest in the subject on a kind of abstract level, you might say. It was never lost on me for a moment that the transnational flows of K-pop are very similar how Japanese popular culture has spread across the world. K-pop is massively popular inside and outside of Korea, it’s projected as a kind of “soft power”, and more fans have been taking an interest in South Korean language and culture than ever before. While I might not be into the music and the celebrities myself, I can definitely say that the Korean Wave has played a big part in getting me interested in South Korea and its role on the international stage. In that sense, I’m not any different from the hardcore fans!
Learning about the Korean Wave in an academic setting was also really valuable for one other reason: it made me see my own fandom activities through an entirely different viewpoint. When it comes to commenting on anime/otaku fandom, I’m so immersed in the subculture that I can’t fully detach myself from it emotionally. I think this creates a big oversight in my criticisms and insights, which I’ve been trying to work on with limited success.
With K-pop fandom, though, the problem is entirely reversed: I’m so completely uninvolved that I probably miss many of the finer points that fans would pick up on naturally. Like, you know, the artist’s names.
This is like if some fancy-pants academic comes up with all these grand theories about social hierarchies within anime fandom without ever having watched a single anime. It’s doable and the ideas will be fresh and insightful since they’re coming from a total outsider, but they’re going to seem very bizarre and even disconnected from reality.
Clearly, the trick is to find a middle ground. Be engaged but also critical, and don’t just look at it from the inside but be outward-looking as well. Be conscious of the broader context, and so on.
This train of thought led me to question a few things:
What does the popularity of things like anime and K-pop actually mean in the big picture? I’m talking on a huge scale like international politics and social values, which can’t really be accurately pinpointed, but oh well. Also, what do anime fandom and K-pop fandom have in common besides just “originating from East Asia” and “being popular overseas”? To what degree do they influence and shape each other? Clearly, these two phenomenons don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a significant degree of crossover between fandoms, which clearly says something.
Obviously, this meagre little blog post can’t answer such big, fundamental questions, but hopefully what I can do is introduce you to some of the conceptual background. My answer is to start with the broader context of fandom and then narrow it down to the fine psychology about it. And I focus mostly on the female members of fandom here, simply because they’ve been studied more widely. I’ll try not to go full-on nerd, but the basic purpose here is to bridge the gap between “academia” and “fandom”.
(Bearing in mind, of course, that cultural theory isn’t so clear-cut with these distinctions as you might think. It’s hard to distinguish between “fan” and “academic” when many trained academics are members of fandom and vice versa. It’s also just difficult to separate commentaries on culture from culture itself, and it’s debatable whether that should even be attempted.)
Anime, K-pop and Soft Power
Soft power is a term that’s become quite mainstream, but for those of you who may still be uncertain about what it means exactly, the simplest definition I can come up with is that it’s non-violent coercive influence. A country with a strong cultural economy (that is, a country that exports a lot of goods that give others a strong indication of its country of origin, rather than just coal or whatever) will exhibit soft power, because the receiving country will be more inclined to absorb some of the culture. Josh describes the term more accurately than I did here, so you should check out his post. But hopefully I can build on his discussion by bringing K-pop into the equation.
In the case of K-pop, it’s relatively straightforward. The songs are mostly sung in Korean – even if there is a lot of Engrish – and the fact that it’s called K-pop in itself emphasises its distinct “Korean-ness”. At the same time, and I think fans will generally agree with me here, the appeal of K-pop isn’t necessarily because it’s “Korean” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). K-pop is popular because it has something that appeals to everyone. It draws from different elements of different cultures and stitches them together to form a distinctly recognisable pastiche – this is called cultural hybridity. The Engrish, the hip clothing styles, the dance routines – these are all influenced by Western pop, at least if you squint. So K-pop is both familiar and exotic, which is no doubt why it’s such an immersive fandom.
In theory, this all makes marketing K-pop overseas a simple matter. If it’s obvious that K-pop originates from South Korea but it’s also easy for someone who doesn’t necessarily identify with Korea to get into, then it’s a great tool to hook people into liking South Korea and buying South Korean stuff.
The reality is a lot more complex, though. It’s not really a case of “South Korean government pushes K-pop -> K-pop is popular -> ??? -> PROFIT” when the driving force of fandom is, well, fans. And fans can be fickle in how they choose to receive a product, so it’s practically impossible how much of “Korea” they’re processing. Do fans just prefer to read their own values into something they like, disregarding context altogether? In which case, using K-pop to sell South Korea is more than likely not going to work in quite the way it’s intended.
Anime is arguably an even more complicated case. There’s nothing about animation which is inherently Japanese. Anime characters are not drawn to look Japanese (with exceptions like Ping Pong the Animation), and with dubbed anime especially there wouldn’t be much that would indicate the anime’s country of origin at first glance.
Ironically, though, the lack of Japanese “cultural odor” is in fact a kind of cultural marker in itself! Anime characters might not look Japanese, but we instinctively identify the art style as Japanese in origin. This is the case even though the style is imitated by those who are most certainly not Japanese: from Korean manhwa artists to anonymous users on DeviantArt.
There are definitely similarities between anime and K-pop in how both are backed by the government and how they’re “hybrid” products. Surely it can’t be entirely coincidental. Could it be that the popularity of Japanese pop culture has helped ease the acceptance of the Korean Wave? Have the two fandoms influenced each other? What do they have in common?
My personal reading of the situation is that Japanese shojo manga from the 90s (and possibly even earlier) sparked an ongoing “pretty boy” creation process across the Taiwan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, and other countries with a close cultural proximity to Japan. The designs in shojo manga have changed rapidly over time, and I think this is because shojo manga artists have been influenced by the changing perceptions of male beauty across East Asia.
The “pretty boy” look is almost uniform nowadays. It’s somewhat more difficult to tell the nationality of a popular boy band by face alone, although their way of speaking and mannerisms make it more obvious to those who are sensitive of intercultural differences.
It should go without saying that many K-pop fans are female, and that the crossover between K-pop and anime fandom consists mainly of girls who like the pretty boy look.
This is where I can start to relate to K-pop fandom somewhat. K-pop fandom consists of consuming the boys as products as well as the music. How is this really all that different from female (and male) otaku culture?
Let’s look at this a little closer. What’s the appeal of pretty boys? Other than that they’re hot?
Because, you know, even the idea that they’re “hot” is debatable and worth questioning, if you ask me. I know that when I first started getting into anime fandom, I found the pretty boy aesthetic seriously alienating. You might claim that East Asian countries have a less macho culture than Western cultures, but that’s a blanket statement which ignores the complexity of masculinity as an idea.
So I think the trend in K-pop and in anime towards pretty boys is reflective of distinctly contemporary gender politics. The whole “metrosexuality” trend has been happening throughout the entire world; it just happens to be more overt in K-pop and shojo anime. For the most part, I like to interpret this positively as a sign that gender barriers are breaking down, so pretty boys get my approval.
But I think the reason why pretty boys are so particularly popular across East Asia (as well as other countries that consume a lot of East Asian pop culture, like the Philippines) is that female members of fandom feel empowered by consuming pretty boys. It’s a “safe” form of expressing sexuality, especially when the pretty boys aren’t portrayed as physically imposing or aggressive. In cultures where females are still sexually repressed, K-pop and anime fandom become useful outlets. But since female repression is something that still happens in Western culture, too, I feel this aspect of K-pop and anime consumption is universal.
What K-pop succeeds in doing is illuminating this part of female-centric fandom. The tendency towards male worship and female slut shaming is very overt in K-pop fandom. There are stories about some K-pop fangirls being so obsessive that they stalk their favourite idols and attacking girls whom they perceive as romantic threats. Some crazy ones even send their beloved male stars their menstrual blood. (I can’t make this shit up.)
I’m not saying that all fangirls are like this, of course, just that the pretty boy phenomenon appeals to a deep-rooted psychological instinct to idealise good-looking men and to put them on pedestals at the risk of devaluing one’s own sexual identity.
The Psychology of Yaoi Fandom
This tendency also rears its head in yaoi fanfiction and BL (Boys Love) subculture in general. As far as real-life homosexual relationships are concerned, yaoi is complete fantasy. In fact, they feel more like hetero-normative relationships (that is, relationships that conform to stereotypes about male and female gender roles) than anything, except that both characters involved have penises. Yaoi fangirls prefer the men of their desires to desire each other rather than a woman.
From my experiences talking with anime fangirls (who also happen to like yaoi), the reasoning behind this is that female characters in anime are very poorly written and/or fetishised – which is an undeniable truth. So yaoi fandom becomes a way of exploring what is basically a heterosexual relationship but without having to deal with frustrating female characters who are difficult to relate to.
K-pop yaoi fans doesn’t actually have the excuse of being frustrated with female characters, though. And K-pop fans are also fetishising real people through their fanfictions, which means their actions occupy a grey moral area. So what drives K-pop fans to do this, especially after I’ve gone to great length to describe how anime and K-pop fandom aren’t so different? I think it’s frustration against being female in general. It’s the dream of pretending to be male through writing yaoi. I’ve seen this very accurately described as crossdreaming.
Crossdreaming is halfway between what I call “gender critique” and what psychologists call “gender dysphoria” (thanks to Foxy Lady Ayame for pointing out the correct term!). Many girls appear to feel frustrated by gender labels and want to tap into their “inner males”. I wouldn’t call this straightforward transgenderism, though. Most yaoi fangirls wouldn’t claim they were born in the wrong gender, but they are certainly curious and attracted to the idea of masculinity as it exists within themselves. And they feel frustrated and even threatened at the idea of having to “act female”. So naturally yaoi and crossdressing stories are very popular fantasies to the crossdreaming female, since they give consumers the possibility of acting out on their masculine sides.
So my basic idea is that female fans of both anime and K-pop consume and empathise with pretty boys as a way of temporarily shrugging off what they perceive to be the disempowering parts of being female. Yaoi fandom is this type of consumption taken a logical step further. Not all female fans are into yaoi, but the ones who are yaoi fans exhibit these traits most strongly (from my personal observation).
Part of this is testament how fluid the notion of gender is, which is both fascinating and enlightening to see play out. But another part of it is frustration against being sexual repressed as women, which is a sad reflection of reality.
This post was very theoretical but hopefully you can see how K-pop and anime fandom inform and influence each other, with special attention to PRETTY BOYS and YAOI.
You can basically summarise the appeal of K-pop and anime as “exotic yet familiar”. The commodified masculinity of pretty boys makes it easy for girls to revel in sexual fantasies in a safe and socially acceptable way (relatively speaking). In fact, you might even say the whole concept of masculinity in general is “exotic yet familiar”. It’s universal, it appeals to things that hit deep, and so it’s no surprise that K-pop and anime both have huge followings across the entire world. And we can learn a lot about how both fandoms work by examining how they overlap.
These fandoms have come about through a mixture of fan activity and trans-cultural flows. The macro and micro factors both influence each other. Pretty boys have been stitched together through the efforts of multiple countries consuming media off each other, so again it’s really no wonder that K-pop and anime do strike a chord with fans. It’s not so different from what they’ve always known. Because of this reason, I think using pretty boys as soft power is ineffective, but that’s probably an argument for another day.
That about wraps up my long-ass post for today. Feel free to disagree with my ideas, especially if you’re into K-pop and/or yaoi. Much of this is written purely through the perspective of an outsider – someone who isn’t a K-pop fan and who isn’t sexually attracted to men. I’ve been getting into pretty boys more recently, though, and plus I am firm believer that REAL MEN (and women) LOVE YAOI, but I don’t think they’ll ever replace 2D girls in my heart ;)