Reflections on fantasy and Asian pop culture fandom

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A whole cottage industry has evolved around fantasies of Koreanness, masculine beauty and even imagined homoeroticism within global K-pop fandom

As I sit down today to plan a grant application together with a colleague to explore K-pop fandom in Australia, I am taking some time to reflect on my research journey to date and think carefully about what has motivated my various research projects. To some, it may appear that I have jumped around to explore a disparate range of phenomena and that there is no coherent focus or narrative within my research journey. Indeed, in some ways as I think critically about my own research practice, I would agree with this statement as I often do latch onto things that interest me without the levels of concrete planning desired by university administrators or funding agencies.

But as I begin reflecting on my research journey for this specific grant application (as well as others I will write over the coming months due to my isolation thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic), I recognised that my disparate projects are united by one specific theme or concept: fantasy.

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Another site of fantasy I have explored is Japanese gay men’s investment in hegemonic masculinity and how this intersects with fetishisations of Korean men as “beastly”

To date, my research always seems to have focused on what Neferti Tadiar has termed “fantasy production.” For Tadiar, fantasy production “is a mode of production and signification” emerging within the Asia-Pacific region tied to “the ‘oedipalization’ of nations in the late nineteenth century,” which she further defines as “the process of symbolic constitutions of nations as modern subjects within the imperialist rivalry of Western powers” (p. 10). In layman’s terms, fantasy production refers to how specific fantasies attached to the global centres of multi-national capitalism such as the US, Japan, China and South Korea contour subjective expressions of gender and sexuality.

In particular, I am interested in Asian pop culture consumption among consumers situated within what Tadiar terms the “libidinal economy” of the Asia-Pacific. To date my research has explored a variety of such fantasies, including:

  • Fantasies of hegemonic masculinity among gay Japanese men and their relationships to the neolieralisation of gay male cultures around the world
  • Fantasies of gay romance among Thai female consumers of “BL series” and their relationships to the impacts of Japanese and South Korean popular culture on Thailand’s cultural industries
  • Fantasies of Japan among queer consumers in China and the Philippines and their relationships to “homonationalist” affects produced by the global circulation of Japanese queer popular culture
  • Fantasies of Koreanness and cosmopolitanism among K-pop fans in Australia and Japan and how these fantasies are intertwined with “translocal” coneptualisations of gender and sexuality
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For many around the globe, Japanese queer popular culture represents an emancipatory resource to deal with societal disenfranchisement

Within this work, I have always been particularly motivated to excavate how media often serves as a “tool” or “resource” which various consumers deploy to make sense of the world. Reading fans’ “aspirational consumption” of media as diverse as pornography, gay dating apps, Thai television dramas, Japanese manga, and Korean idol music, I have endeavoured to understand these fans’ practices “reparatively.” That is, I am interested in seeing the positive side to this process of consumption, emphasising consumers’ agency rather than social structures which influence their consumption patterns.

In some ways this means I am diverging from the work of Neferti Tadiar. Unlike Tadiar, who seeks to critique the systems of fantasy production she uncovers in her work on the “prostitution of the Philippine state” within the libidinal economy of the Asia-Pacific, I wish to instead explore how fans as cultural actors exercise their agency to bend “fantasy” to their will. Although I recognise how fantasy can also lead to misunderstanding, I seek to re-theorisation such “misreading” as moments replete with queer potential. I thus believe that fantasy as an affective process destabilises systems of capitalist exploitation rather than reinforces them (a radical reading that puts me at odds with orthodox Marxist theories of production and consumption).

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While Thai BL series may have been created to exploit female consumers economically, it has important queer affects in the Philippines

So what is it that unites my disparate case studies? A firm belief that the consumption of Asian popular culture both produces and responds to fantasies tied to broader global systems and that these fantasies are meaningful for queer consumers positioned within national and transnational systems of heteropatriarchy and heteronormativity.

My interest therefore lies less in what messages are encoded within the media texts these fans consume (although I do this work too), but how their practices of reading bring emancipatory discourses into being that respond to experiences of disenfranchisement in their everyday lives.

As I move forward with my grant application today, this is the point I will focus on bringing out as I try to frame my research journey in ways that will look appealing to the grant assessors. I wish to continue to explore fandom and media consumption as emancipatory fantasy even as I recognise how these fantasies are conditioned by transnational capitalist logics designed to induce endless consumption tied to feelings of alienation, despair and dehumanisation.

That’s enough navel gazing for one day – I hope this post is coherent and I welcome feedback!

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