Exploring the Affective Affordances and Ethics of “Shipping” Culture among LGBTQ+ Consumers of K-pop

Fans of K-pop commonly “ship” idols like Jisung and Chenle of NCT together in homoerotic relationships

On December 10, I will be joining colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for a (closed) seminar on Queer Cultures in Digital Asia. Drawing upon over 2 years of digital ethnography of K-pop fandom among Southeast Asian consumers on Twitter and interviews with LGBTQ+ fans in Australia and the Philippines, my presentation at this symposium is entitled “Exploring the Affective Affordances and Ethics of “Shipping” Culture among LGBTQ+ Consumers of K-pop.” 

While I’ve spoken about K-pop idol shipping before as a queer praxis, and have also considered the transnational fandom for K-pop among queer consumers, this presentation responds to my growing interest in ethical debates over the practice of shipping real people in romantic and sexual contexts.

Importantly, I am interested to explore debates of the ethics of shipping that occur among LGBTQ+ fans in Southeast Asia as this context represents a useful space to debate notions of queer visibility and sexual expression.

Here is the abstract. While the presentation is closed, please note that it will (hopefully) be published open access in 2022 and, if I can, I may share the recording here as well.

This presentation draws upon my ongoing ethnographic investigation of Korean idol celebrity fandom across the Asia-Pacific to reflect on how Asian popular culture provides LGBTQ+ consumers with resources to express, interpret and communicate knowledge concerning gender and sexuality, particularly online. I focus my interrogation on the practice known as “shipping” whereby fans reimagine male idol celebrities active in the K-pop music industry in romantic or sexual relations. Positing that idol shipping represents a queer act that destabilizes heteronormative logics, I reveal through my investigation of shipping practices how LGBTQ+ fans from Australia (which I position as an integral part of Asian cultural flows) and the Philippines make sense of their sexual desires through idol fandom.

Importantly, I identify two kinds of fan of Korean male idols who call themselves “hard stans” and “soft stans” and who participate in radically different – and often antagonistic – fandom spaces. My digital ethnography uncovers that “hard stans” form part of a larger pornographic sub-cultural space on Twitter where shipping is expressed through posting porn videos, manipulated images (known as “celeb fakes”) and through discourse which focusses on desires to have sex with male idols. “Soft stans,” on the other hand, tend towards practices that emphasise emotional attachments between idols (including friendships and romantic relationships) and disavow the supposed “sexualization” of idols conducted by “hard stans.” My analysis reveals a complicated ethical debate between these two fan groups which touches on the erotic politics of male idol fandom in the Asia-Pacific. In comparing the shipping practices of “hard stans” and “soft stans,” I argue that the former explicitly celebrate sexual desire as an integral element in the LGBTQ+ fan-idol relationship, whereas “soft stans” position explicit expressions of sexual desire as corrupting the fandom by promoting unhealthy sexual behaviours. Ultimately taking a reparative approach, I conclude not by legitimizing one group’s interpretations of the fan-idol relationship over the other, but instead explore how both these fan groups’ affective engagements with idol shipping produce emancipatory spaces to communicate various queer desires.

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