A digital magazine on sexuality, based in the Global South: We are working towards cultivating safe, inclusive, and self-affirming spaces in which all individuals can express themselves without fear, judgement or shame
CategoriesFandom and SexualityVoices

Gaps and Slippages: Creating Queer Spaces in the Online K-Drama Fandom(s)

Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, has perhaps been South Korea’s most prominent cultural export – first touching China and Japan, then Southeast Asia, and further to the rest of the world. There have been several “waves,” starting from the mid-1990s, and ongoing. I was swept away in the second wave in the late 2000s – becoming enamoured by Korean dramas (K-drama) and the K-Pop boy group BIGBANG. Over the years, I have been a voracious consumer of Korean dramas, K-Pop, K-variety shows. I had been an active member in various online K-drama fan communities and the BIGBANG international fandom (also known as V.I.P). Along the way, I wrote fanfiction on Asianfanfics (AFF), subbed videos and K-variety shows, drew fanart, made mood boards for my biases[1] and actively participated in K-drama discourse on various social media platforms. The online K-drama fandom [2] also provided me a space where I could openly express my fantasies and desires, albeit from behind the shroud of anonymity.

While K-dramas predominantly portray stories that are deeply embedded in Confucian values that emphasise tradition, filial piety and family (a reflection of South Korean society), the fantasy worlds that they build create spaces for their fans to negotiate non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities. Layoung Shin (2018), in her analysis of South Korean ‘fan cosplay’ (fancos), argues that through the consumption of K-Pop, queer fans in South Korea create “unique forms of queer subculture, identity terms, styles of masculinity, and gendered coupling” (p. 90). A similar phenomenon can be observed in the consumption and interpretation of K-dramas by their fandom(s). Despite the heteronormative scripts that K-dramas privilege, themes such as gender-bending, cross-dressing and flower boys are prevalent. K-dramas such as The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (2007), You’re Beautiful (2009), To The Beautiful You (2012), Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) were some of the early mainstream gender-bender K-dramas that I watched that challenged my own notions about gender and sexual identities to a certain extent. In the 10th episode of The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (hereafter, Coffee Prince), the male protagonist Choi Han-kyul (played by Gong Yoo) passionately declares to the cross-dressing female protagonist Go Eun-chan (played by Yoon Eun-Hye), “I like you. Whether you [Go Eun-chan] are a man, or an alien…I don’t care anymore,” after kissing her. This is an iconic scene in the K-drama fandom; the idea that a male protagonist of a mainstream K-drama (broadcasted in one of South Korea’s national broadcasting companies) would declare that he does not care about gender identities was revolutionary.

The exploration of pseudo-homoeroticism triggered conversations in various K-drama fan communities and forums regarding our own exploration of and negotiation with sexuality, while discussing the drama. Han-kyul’s struggle with his sexuality, his acceptance of his bisexuality and his expression of same-sex desire found resonance amongst a fandom that was mostly composed of cisgender women. I arrived at this fandom late and at a time when I was struggling with my sexuality. As I prowled through online communities, particularly Dramabeans, I could find language to articulate my own desires and sexual attraction – why was I attracted to both Han-kyul and Eun-chan? To collectively witness love and desire as transcendental – as crossing boundaries of gender, sexuality, class – and to share that wondrous feeling of love, desire, fantastical escapism, was to carve out a space for myself wherein I could introspect about my own sexuality.

This journey of exploring my sexuality through K-drama and its fandoms has continued beyond Coffee Prince. In a relatively recent K-drama titled Search: WWW (2019),[3] the female protagonist Bae Ta-mi (played by Im Soo-jung) makes it explicit that she has no intention of getting married. Even as she reconciles with the male protagonist Park Mo-gun (played by Jang Ki-yong), she states that they will continue to have conflicts over marriage as Mo-gun does want to get married. He, nevertheless, agrees to put his plans for marriage on hold, and says that they can cross that bridge when they come to it. It was exciting to encounter a female protagonist who shared the same values as me, and a love interest who was willing to give the relationship a chance regardless of long-term goals. Furthermore, it was liberating to meet like-minded fans online and escape into the fantasy of encountering a partner who would be willing to navigate through and against non-heteronormative expectations.

However, as this Seoulbeats article discusses, these stories can be depicted because they ultimately have heteronormative resolutions. Eun-chan reveals her identity as a woman and lays to rest Han-kyul’s anxieties regarding his homoerotic feelings and sexual identity. Similarly, in Search: WWW, there is the possibility that Bae Ta-mi will ultimately change her mind about marriage. It is often frustrating and disappointing as fans to watch K-dramas push the boundaries just enough to explore sexuality and gender, but ultimately make these storylines palatable for a patriarchal and conservative South Korean society.

It is, therefore, a fine line that K-Drama fandom(s) tread while interpreting gendered and sexualised meanings and scripts. Moreover, fandom spaces are far from being idealistic. One of the reasons I ceased to be an active participant in the online K-drama fandom was because it had become a toxic space for me, especially as the global popularity of K-dramas increased. Nevertheless, it is in the gaps, slippages, temporary suspension and nullification of heteronormativity that fans can re-interpret meanings and queer the space of the fandom through discussions on online forums, fanfiction, fan art, fan edits of videos, cosplays, and so on. When navigated carefully, the online K-drama fandom can be a source of comfort and joy as well as a space that can be safe, inclusive and affirming.

 

Reference:

Shin, Layoung (2019). Queer Eye for K-Pop Fandom: Popular Culture, Cross-gender Performance, and Queer Desire in South Korean Cosplay of K-Pop Stars. Korea Journal, vol. 58, no.4 (winter 2018), 87-113. https://kj.accesson.kr/assets/pdf/8466/journal-58-4-87.pdf.

 

[1] Mood boards are collage-like visual representations of a specific concept or aesthetic. ‘Bias’ is a term used within the K-Pop fandom to talk about one’s favourite members in K-Pop groups.

[2] The K-drama fandom in this article refers to the international K-drama fandom. It must be further noted that the international fandom is neither monolithic, nor uniform but the author has tried her best represent her experiences, interpretations and analysis of the relationship between K-dramas, the fandom and sexuality.

[3] Both Coffee Prince and Search: WWW are available on Netflix India.

Cover Image: Unsplash

Article written by:

Chitrangi Kakoti has an M.A. in Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest/Vienna and an MSc. in East Asian Relations from the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests broadly include gender and security studies, feminist social movements, cyberfeminism, comprehensive sexuality education, and sexual and reproductive health. She also has an enduring love for Korean dramas, anime, fantasy and sci-fi novels, and historical novels. Currently, she is working at TARSHI as a Program Associate.

x