Boys in a Girl’s World: Men, Fandom and K-pop

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The fandom for Hallyu-era Korean popular music (K-pop) is overwhelmingly female. However, a portion of it does involve men, both as participants and critics. How does that impact the way we may view the fandom?

In “Girls’ Generation: Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop,” Stephen Epstein and James Turnbull challenge what they call “the triumphant discourse of the cultural industries,” or the recurrent idea that the rise of K-pop translates into an overall positive phenomenon for female artists, their audiences, and the South Korean government (317). As a result of their analysis of over 100 videos by top K-pop female groups, they suggest that the target of the performance of K-pop girl groups are men, because “the viewer in such videos is regularly constructed as male”  (318).  The essay concludes that K-pop girl groups do not empower girls and women. Instead, such performances shows “that Korea’s pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that for middle-aged men to focus their gaze on underage’ performers becomes cause for rejoicing rather than embarrassment” (333). In other words, female K-pop groups’ primary impact is on middle-aged men rather than the largely female fanbase they claim to target.

Conversely, Jarryn Ha examines the motives of male K-pop fans in Korea in “Uncles’ Generation: Adult Male Fans and Alternative Masculinities in South Korean Popular Music.”  Ha contextualizes the behavior of male Korean fans in their 20s within Korean cultural expectations:   “The ajossi type influences not only the outward appearance expected of men but also their behaviour, their consumption pattern and the ideology that constructs and perpetuates a particular kind of masculinity long prevalent in the Korean society. Both the persistent Confucian patriarchal values and the ideal of hard-working men. . . contributed to the conventional ajossi masculinity” (47).   While such male fandom can be viewed as an extension of the male gaze, Ha suggests that such behavior can actually challenges restrictive societal expectations: “Rather than a diversion and distraction from having a one-track mind devoted solely to the work and family life, pursuing well-rounded knowledge in the humanities, political activism and other interests stands for overcoming the closed, uncommunicative and authoritarian world-view that the previous generations of Korean men have established” (54).

While Ha examines possible motivations for male fans in Korea, Ingyu Oh and Choong-Mook Lee look at the role of male protesters of Hallyu in Japan.   Oh and Lee acknowledge the central role that female fans play in Korean popular culture in Japan:  “The feminine domination of the Hallyu movement in Japan is a natural outcome of persistent postcolonial gender inequality. . . .  [which] later developed into the multinational or transnational cultural experiences that comprise non-Western and even Korean pop culture in recent years” (286). Men come into the picture, not as fans, but as protesters of this female activity. Oh and Lee cite data that suggests men are at the forefront of protest activity around Hallyu in Japan:  “The recent Internet-based anti-Hallyu movements are connected to Japanese male chauvinism, which is closely linked to Abe’s second cabinet, anti-Hallyu protests, and anti-Hallyu comic books” (294).

K-pop fandom is overwhelmingly female, so why talk about men at all?  Male fans may be small in number, but they form a subculture within the subculture and scholars view their impact in different ways.  Both Ha and Oh and Lee speculate on the impact of actual male participants within specific cultural contexts, which gives insight on the motivations for male fans.  Ha reads Korean male behavior as a response to shifting societal conditions following Korea’s financial crisis, while . Oh and Lee link male protests to specific political dynamics in Japan that are linked to Japan’s colonization of Korea. However, Epstein and Turnbull address a potential male viewer of K-pop female groups. They also assert that K-pop girl groups cater to male desires to the detriment of the agency of female fans. In making this argument, do they shift the focus to male concerns rather than contextualizing male participation within a female-dominated fan activity?  In other words, we end up talking about men to the exclusion of women in a female-dominated fandom. On the other hand, Oh and Lee acknowledge the dominance of female K-pop fans in Japan, and characterize their fan activity as resistance to male protests.

Through few in number, there are various ways that men impact the female-dominated fandom of K-pop.

Sources

Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull.  “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. EdKyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 314-336.

Ha, Jarryn. “Uncles’ Generation: Adult Male Fans and Alternative Masculinities in South Korean Popular Music.” Journal of Fandom Studies 3.1 (2015): 43-58. [Disclosure: I co-edited this special issue on K-pop and K-drama Fandoms for the journal]

Oh, Ingyu and Choong-Mook Lee. “A League of Their Own: Female Supporters of Hallyu and Korea-Japan Relations.” Pacific Focus: Inha Journal of International Studies 29.2 (2014): 284-302.
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Boys in a Girls’ World: Men, Fandom and K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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