Queering the Korean Wave: Summary of Findings!

K-pop star’s Yechan (L) and Jaehan (R) from Omega X in the South Korean BL drama “A Shoulder to Cry On” (2023)

Between February 2022 and January 2023, I was extremely privileged to work on a project funded by the Academy of Korean Studies entitled “Exploring K-pop Fandom as a Space for LGBT Support in the Asia-Pacific During Pandemic Times” (AKS-2022-R033). The project entailed interviewing K-pop fans who identified as LGBTQ+ about the role of their K-pop fandom in informing them about their queer sexuality, as well as exploring how K-pop fandom operated as a space of support and connection during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is leading to a number of concrete outcomes, including journal articles (under peer-review at the time of writing), an international symposium (you can watch the recording here), and a special issue of a journal based on the symposium.

I recently had to submit a report to the Academy of Korean Studies detailing the project’s major findings. In the interests of sharing the results of my research with the broader community, I am posting a snippet of this report here. Readers will have to wait for the formal published papers, however, to read about these findings and theoretical arguments in more depth!

Here are the broad findings, scaffolded by the project’s key research questions:

  1. How can the critical study of LGBTQ+ fans’ attraction to K-pop theoretically extend dominant accounts of the Korean Wave phenomenon?
    • As hypothesized in the project application, LGBTQ+ fans believe that there is a fundamentally “queer” element to the spread of the Korean Wave. Fans spoke of how K-pop functioned as a “minor culture” in the West or in the Philippines that naturally appealed to marginalized LGBTQ+ subjects.
    • Building upon this, the fact that the Korean Wave is radically challenging the dominance of Western media and therefore upheaving traditional media flows, its popularity among LGBTQ+ fans can operate as a metaphor for the Korean Waves fundamental “queering” (that is, destabilization and deconstruction) of global media hierarchies and cultures.
    • At the same time, LGBTQ+ fans active in Anglophone fandom spaces are well aware that South Korean society contains remarkably homophobic elements and that LGBTQ+ communities within South Korea itself often critize the K-pop industry for perpetuating heteronormative ideologies which specifically exclude them from participating in society. As such, this introduces a fundamental paradox to the queer theorisations of the Korean Wave.
    • Rather than viewing this paradox as limiting the queer potentials of the Korean Wave, however, the project’s analysis of LGBTQ+ Anglophone fandom uncovered that attempting to reconcile this paradox was a fundamentally queer process. That is, in trying to make sense of how a pop culture form which in South Korea is often not considered queer has supported their identities as LGBTQ+ fans, the participants in this study position the transnational spread of K-pop as key to unlocking a queer potential which lies dormant within the broader transnational/transcultural phenomenon.
    • This means that a queer theory of the Korean Wave moves beyond simplistic accounts of the queer aesthetics of K-pop (see below), but also argues that the global spread of K-pop is in and of itself queer in the theoretical sense because of its deconstructive slippages.
  1. How and why has fandom for K-pop emerged as an important space of support for LGBTQ+ fans across the Asia-Pacific? How has the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic impacted fandom spaces for LGBTQ+ fans?
    • Interviews revealed that K-pop fandom spaces function as spaces of support for LGBTQ+ fans primarily because they represent environments where individuals questioning their gender and sexuality can communicate with like-minded individuals and seek understanding and empathy.
    • K-pop fandom in particular appealed to fans in Australia and the Philippines because it possessed what our interviewees called a “queer aesthetic.” This means that the performances of Korean idols, which play with gender in particular ways that challenge heteropatriarchy, draws those who are seeking queer representation into the fandom. This, according to the participants, makes K-pop fandom a space which is always already understanding and supportive of LGBTQ+ communities.
    • Significantly, the emotional relationships and attachments that LGBTQ+ fans develop with K-pop idols provides them with a strong sense of emotional stability from which to better understand themselves as queer social subjects who are marginalized by broader society. This thus provides them “ontological security,” an emotional anchor from which they can build their identity as fans and then deploy this to make sense of their positioning in the world as LGBTQ+ subjects.
    • The COVID-19 pandemic increased most participants’ interaction with supportive online fandom spaces, transforming K-pop fandom into the primary mechanism through which they sought human interaction during the lockdowns engendered by the pandemic. That said, many participants also insisted that this did not necessarily mean K-pop fandom spaces changed, emphasizing that they already existed as such spaces for them prior to the pandemic.
    • An important finding was that for fans who identified as transgender, online K-pop spaces played an especially crucial role in mitigating the rising stigma that this community is currently facing in Anglophone contexts.
  1. How do LGBTQ+ fans across the Asia-Pacific engage with K-pop and its fandom as a resource to make sense of their positioning in a heteronormative society? How has this changed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
    • Engagement with K-pop fandom was primarily conducted through social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Such findings are consistent with the broad consensus in the prior scholarship and this project did not uncover any notable instances where LGBTQ+ fans possessed unique fandom practices or create unique spaces.
    • That said, interviews did uncover that on top of the typical social media spaces fans engaged in such as group chats on Twitter and Instagram dedicated to celebrating K-pop idols’ achievements, some LGBTQ+ fans also interacted with social media spaces emerging from K-pop fandom culture that were specifically designed for LGBTQ+ individuals to seek support from each other in managing the specific stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this way, social media practices originally created to engage in fandom practices transformed into methods of seeking support from other LGBTQ+ individuals during the pandemic.
    • A minority of fans noted that the fact that K-pop companies increased the number of livestreams conducted by idols and embraced the use of virtual concerts played a small role in boosting their sense of social connectedness during the pandemic.
  1. In what manner has fandom for K-pop influenced how LGBTQ+ fans understand their gendered and sexual identities? How does K-pop inform these fans’ interactions with local systems of knowledge concerning sex and gender?
    • All participants argued during interviews that K-pop fandom, especially online, represented an always already safe space for LGBTQ+ fans and that this naturally meant that these spaces represented environments where LGBTQ+ individuals could learn from each other about what it means to perform gender or experience sexuality in ways that differed from heterosexuality.
    • Significantly, sexual attraction to idols themselves operated as an important way for LGBTQ+ subjects to explore their own queer sexuality, especially as K-pop fandom spaces were considered to be safe spaces to do so since they were conceptualized as always already LGBTQ+ friendly places.
    • The “queer aesthetic” of K-pop was particularly lauded by the participants as an important source for challenging the heteronormative ideologies which circulated in their local contexts, although this was especially true of the Philippine participants. The gender fluidity of K-pop idols was especially important for trans and non-binary fans to come to terms with their gendered and sexual identities/experiences.
    • The fluidity of K-pop idols’ playful gendered performances thus emerged as not only a key touchstone for making sense of participants’ own gendered and sexual identities, the participants also revealed that these fluid gendered performances challenged the strict, dualistic conceptualisations of gender which existed in their local cultures. This was, once again, particularly true of the Philippine informants.
    • Some fans also argued that the common fan practice of “idol shipping” where fans reimagine members of K-pop idol groups in romantic and/or sexual same-sex relationships also operated as a safe space to learn about queer sexuality and explore their own attraction to the same-sex in both a sensitive but also exciting way.
  1. What differences and similarities exist between the Australian and Philippine cases? What do the two case studies – as well as my prior research on the Japanese context – reveal about the LGBTQ+ experience across the Asia-Pacific region?
    • Synthesising the results of this project with the CI’s previous work on the Japanese context signals that K-pop fandom has become an important part of LGBTQ+ youth culture in the Asia-Pacific, whether this be in Anglophone contexts of Japanese language contexts. K-pop, as a significant youth sub-culture, naturally intersects with queer youth culture and informs sexual tastes, aspirations for queer liberation, and broader support systems.
    • Perhaps since both Australian and Philippine fans engage quite heavily within Anglophone fandom spaces for K-pop online, there were very few differences between the two cohorts despite the very different social contexts from which they come. Some minor differences, whereby certain findings were discovered to be especially pertinent for the Philippine cohort, are included above.
      • Reflecting on this particular finding, it is instructive to return to Bertha Chin and Lori Morimoto’s (2013) seminal argument that transcultural fandom is grounded in a shared affective experience which, while it may find expression in different ways in different contexts, is more unifying than it is not.
      • This thus circles back to the queer potentials of the Korean Wave, which is ultimately grounded in a shared feeling of queerness that is unlocked by the transnational circulation of K-pop.
    • One minor difference between the two cohorts was in relation to the kinds of support K-pop fans offered each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the interviews with Australian participants primarily focused on social and emotional forms of support, the Philippine fans also discussed how K-pop fans engaged in material support such as donating money and food to support those living in poverty during the pandemic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s