We Are One! EXO::EXO-L is the first fandom profile for my iFans project. Like the profiles to follow, it provides information on K-pop groups and their fandoms, including curated cover songs, cover dances and fan projects by fans. Click here to check it out!
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.
Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull. “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Kyung 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.
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.
Many know that K-pop fans play an active role in K-pop, but few may know just how complex K-pop fandoms are.
What is a Fandom?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines fandom as “the world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist.” Fandom refers to a collection of fans of the general pursuit or to a collection of fans of a specific practitioner of the pursuit.
So, K-pop fandom can refer to fans who identify as fans of K-pop, the amusement. Of 790 respondents who answered a question about why they were K-pop fans between April 29, 2011 and April 15, 2012 as part of an iFans survey, many described themselves as fans of K-pop in general, not of a particular group or artist. One respondent noted: “95% of the songs in my Ipod belong to the Kpop genre. Also, I constantly update myself with Kpop news from various internet websites” (Anderson). Another noted “spending lots of time watching Kpop news, videos and listening to Kpop songs” (Anderson). Several respondents also noted that they were members of online K-pop media outlets and cover dance groups.
K-pop fandom can also refer to fans who identify as fans of an individual K-pop group or solo artist. While media frequently suggests that K-pop groups are alike, the fandoms of specific groups and artists are very different. Some of the more defined fandoms have developed their own culture and languages.
K-pop’s Fan Communities
Individual K-pop fandoms are made even more complicated by their global nature, as they involve fans inside and outside of Korea.
On one hand, there are official fan clubs sanctioned by the artist such as those described by Paul Théberge: “Since the mid-1990s, it has become common for stars to have their own professionally run websites. . . . These sites are run variously by artists, their management, their record companies, or more recently, by specialized third-party interests” (493). Often after a K-pop group or artist debuts, management and the artist will name their fans, create an official fan club and designate an official fan club color. For example, Starship Entertainment debuted the male group Boyfriend in May 2011, and announced the name of the fanclub in August 2011: “Despite many feeling ‘Girlfriend’ would fit the group’s fanclub name perfectly, Boyfriend felt the name would have not been appropriate for their male fans, so instead Boyfriend fans will now be called ‘Best Friends’” (“Boyfriend Reveals Fan Club Name). Decisions about fanclub names are often made with fans in mind. Those who obtain membership in these official fan clubs receive perks, including advanced notice of activities, access to merchandise and preference in concert seating.
However, most of these official fanclubs are not open to fans outside of Korea. Blogger BOYMILK reports: “Fan club applicants to any fan club for SM Entertainment artists generally must have a Korean Social Security number (chumin tŭngnok pŏnho, 주민 등록 번호) in order to apply. This makes it effectively impossible for international K-pop fans to join official fan clubs for some of K-pop’s most famous idol groups.” Nevertheless, fans outside of Korea have established hundreds of unofficial fan communities on blogs and websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Tumblrs. The following graphic shows how fandoms are represented on Twitter. It includes fandoms from various countries, including Brazil, the Philippines, Chile, Spain, Indonesia, Japan, France and Italy. It also includes a range of groups, from the “idol groups” like f(x) and SHINee, to bands like F.T. Island, to hip-hop artists like Drunken Tiger and Epik High.
While these fan communities are not subject to corporate control and do not receive the perks of the official fanclubs, they do play a significant role in K-pop. For example, Soshified is website for a global community in support of the female group, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD). Reporting more than 10 million page views per month, the site has organized meet-ups with fans in the United States and raised money for charitable causes including Japan relief and YMCA’s Youth Center in Seoul. The organization also spearheaded a 2011 “field trip” organized in partnership with the Korean Tourism Organization, which “included the attending of Girls’ Generation 2nd Tour Concert and MBC studio recordings. The field trip was heavily covered by the Korean media and Soshified members were featured in several Korean entertainment news broadcasts and newspapers” (Soshified, About Us).
The Landscape of K-pop Fandom
Given the number of K-pop groups and artists and the number of years since the beginning of Hallyu-era K-pop, there are hundreds of fan communities that make up K-pop’s individual fandoms. To further complicate the landscape, some individual fandoms will combine with other fandoms. The following graphic represents Twitter accounts of such combo fandoms, such as fans of both Shinhwa and SS501 (TripleChangjo), Infinite and SHINee (InspiritShawolGirl), and Super Junior and Girls’ Generation (Super Generation).
Whether talking about the general K-pop fandom or individual K-pop fandoms, the first thing to know is that the landscape of K-pop fans is complicated.
Glowsticks. K!. Web. 8 Dec 2013.
Word clouds generated from KPK’s Twitter Lists.
“About Us.” Soshified. Web. 8 Dec 2013. Anderson, Crystal S. “Hallyu K-pop Fans Data Set.” Unpublished Raw Data, Collected April 29, 2011-April 15, 2012.
“Boyfriend Reveals Fanclub Name.” gokpop. 11 Aug 2011. Web. 8 Dec 2013.
BOYMILK. “Hypocritical Hallyu: International Fans and K-pop Fandom.” Oh No They Didn’t!. 2 June 2013. Web. 8 Dec 2013.
Théberge, Paul. “Everyday Fandom: Fan Clubs, Blogging, and the Quotidian Rhythms of the Internet.” Canadian Journal of Communication 30 (2005): 485-502.
“K-pop Fandom 101” by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on December 3, 2013.
Fan studies represents a nexus where economy and culture intersect, especially when cultural production crosses national borders. Some scholars seek to explain this phenomenon primarily using socio-economic lenses, while others stress the importance of understanding fans in ways that fans understand themselves.
In Understanding Fandom, Mark Duffett delineates two impulses related to consumption by fans:
The word ‘consumption’ indicates participation in a commercial process, but since ‘to consume’ means to digest and exhaust it also implies a kind of using up. We can therefore separate two intricate meanings for the same word: to be part of ‘economic’ consumption means to participate in a financial transaction a a buyer, while to ‘culturally’ consume is to meaningfully examine a particular media product. (20)
Some scholars see fan activity primarily as economic consumption. Duffett recognizes the link between fandom and commodification: “Fandom does not escape or resist commodity culture. Instead consumption facilitates fans’ contact with media products. For some writers, this almost means, however, that fandom is primarily about consumption” (21). Koichi Iwabuchi extends this to the study of fans of cultural products that traverse national boundaries: “Studies of fans should attend to how the persisting dominance of the neoliberal and (inter-)national framework has limited the development of transnational dialogues” (94).
However, scholars like Bertha Chin and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto view the emphasis on “the neoliberal and (inter-) national framework” as a de-emphasis on other, equally significant aspects of fandom: “While arguably satisfying at the level of critique, and absolutely relevant in our understanding of the political implications of transnationally circulating media, the trans/national overdetermination of this perspective ultimately tells us little about what actually attracts and motivates fans; an understanding that, we argue, is absolutely critical to any nuanced discussion of how fandom works across borders”(97). In fact, Duffett goes on to proffer a view of fans that goes beyond financial transactions: “Fans are more than consumers because they have especially strong emotional attachments to their objects and they use them to create relationships with both their heroes and with each other. . . . Fans are networkers, collectors, tourists, archivists, curators, producers and more” (21).
What I find useful in placing Duffett, Iwabuchi and Chin and Hitchcock in conversation with one another is the possibility of developing a complex lens that recognizes both socio-economic and fan perspectives. In my work on global K-pop fans, I seek to understand how fans see their own fan activity and how they make sense of the global culture that they consume. Iwabuchi stresses that the consumption of popular culture must be read through a lens governed by social and political factors. I would further suggest that this include looking at the socio-political context of producers, consumers and the cultural product itself. In other words, how Japanese fans consume Korean popular music (or K-pop) differs from how their counterparts in the United States consume it. These sets of fans have different historical relationships to Korea and its culture, and thus make meaning in different ways.
At the same time, I find Chin and Hitchcock’s centralization of emotion and fandom, the ways that fans understand the object of appeal and the consideration of factors such as gender, useful. The authors make the astute observation about the implications for women when emotion is shunted to the wayside in academic discourse: “As both scholars and fans, we are hardly immune to the pleasures of the fan object, and yet there remains a level of shame attached to the notion of being a fan, particularly if one is female” (95-6). If this happens when the researchers are female, how much more so when the fandom is predominantly female.
Chin, Bertha and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10.1 (2013): 92-108.
Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 97-96.