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Interview – Sadhana Chathurvedula and Nirupama V

Sadhana Chathurvedula and Nirupama V have been exploring the phenomenon of Hallyu, the popularity and fan following of Korean entertainment around the world. Also referred to as the “Korean wave”, Korean dramas and popular music have grown in prominence across the world, and in India, especially so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadhana and Nirupama have both previously worked as journalists for leading business newspapers and now work in the fields of technology and development research and communication respectively. Their podcast project, Hello Hallyu, published by The Swaddle, takes a deep dive into the fandom behind the phenomenon and what’s driving the increasing popularity of these media. The duo share their insights deriving from occupying the fan space as much as from using a psychosocial lens, through blogging and podcasts.  In a rivetting interview with Shikha Aleya, Nirupama says, “The role of a person’s sexuality in their fandom is much more than we think it is” and Sadhana observes that “At its best, fandom operates as a safe space for those coming to terms with their sexuality”.

Shikha Aleya (SA):  Hi Sadhana and hey Nirupama! It’s super exciting to have you here as interviewees in this issue of In Plainspeak, so thank you. This first question for you dives straight into the fan experience as you have lived it. Please tell us a little bit about yourselves, as fans. What kind of fans are you, has your fandom changed over the years and what role does being a fan, of anything, play in your life?

Sadhana Chathurvedula (SC): Hi Shikha! Thanks so much for reaching out to us for this interview! I’m very excited to speak about this topic as I’m deeply interested in fan studies and fandom. As for me personally, I’ve thought about this a bit over the years, especially since coming into Hallyu fandom, but I think being a fan has always been a little bit of who I am as a person.

At first it was music, starting off with maybe Westlife, and Linkin Park  – I used to save up to buy their cassettes and CDs (yes, it was that era), and from the little Internet access I had, I looked up whatever information I could. But this was mainly me being a fan by myself. I didn’t have access to a community.

Then my next era of fandom was being a Harry Potter fan. This time, I occupied this space with my friends in school. We used to quiz each other on Harry Potter trivia over lunch, created exhibits of the Quidditch pitch and Hogwarts for fairs, cosplayed as witches when there were pageants, played the Harry Potter official games on CDs bought from the black market in Delhi… you can imagine the rest. This was also the time I dipped my toes into the online fan community around Harry Potter. I read a few works of fan fiction, and there were guilds on this site called Neopets that were dedicated to Harry Potter and would sort you into the different houses and so on.

After that it was again, bands, or certain book series but it wasn’t until I got into Hallyu around late 2016 that I really fell into fandom. This time, I sought out online fan spaces where the discussions of the kind I craved were happening. During a particularly tough time in my life, when I found it very hard to talk to the people around me, to my friends in “real life,” I was talking to fan friends I made in these communities. I was really active for a few years – being a fan and concentrating on fandom gave me a separation, a break from my real world concerns and I could just really zoom in and throw myself into fandom. However, I’ve found that over the last year or so, for various reasons, while I still participate in some fan spaces, I’ve come to enjoy being a fan by myself or with a few close friends.

Nirupama V (NV): Thank you for asking this question — it made me really think about what kind of a fan I am for perhaps the first time. Growing up, fandom did not mean much to me. I was not an avid fan of any writer or video games or any bands, largely because I did not have access to many things that would excite and engage me. My parents believed that storybooks were a waste of money, we did not have a computer or Internet at home until I was in high school, and I just listened to songs that played on TV or the radio. My early experiences with fandom were ones where I witnessed them from outside — classmates who were huge fans of cricket, friends who were really excited about Harry Potter, etc. Perhaps because of that, even when I started listening to popular music and reading popular books, I continued to feel like an outsider somehow — someone who was late to the show, someone who didn’t quite get all the references.

So when I discovered K-pop and K-dramas when they were relatively unknown, and almost rejected by fans of the mainstream, I fell in love with it. It felt like I finally found a space where I belonged, and the thrill and excitement whenever I ran into another fan (a rare event) was unlike any other! That way, I think my fandom has been more about my individual experience than about being a part of a large community and constantly engaging with them.

Being a Hallyu fan has been the longest and most prominent part of fandom in my life. And the way it has blown up in recent years has given me a chance to move out of my comfort zone and share my experiences, knowledge and opinions with other people. And it’s been an awkward learning process. But I’m glad I’m getting to explore this side of fandom, and am excited to see where it takes me!

SA:  Thank you both for sharing these diverse experiences. Now this issue of In Plainspeak focuses on fandom and sexuality. Sexuality, as we understand it, is an integral part of our lives and identities. In your work, research and experiences, what are the interconnections you would immediately think of when you put these two concepts together? 

SC: That’s a very interesting but complex question, haha.

I’d say that at its best, fandom operates as a safe space for those coming to terms with their sexuality. You can be pseudonymous or as anonymous as you’d like and still be treated as a valid member. It offers you an avenue to connect with others like you. In my personal experience, for all that is scary and toxic about it, K-pop fandom has a very vocal and visible queer representation, and more importantly, representation by queer people-of-colour.

If you take slash fiction (where canonically heterosexual male characters are paired with each other romantically), or femslash (for female characters), you have creative work happening that allows fans to seek and create representation via their beloved characters outside of the established canon. There’s also the East Asian equivalent of slash fiction called Yaoi or Boys’ Love (BL) manga or anime or dramas. These feature two main male characters in a relationship (often sexually explicit) whose primary audience is young heterosexual women, and I as a cis het woman have consumed this too, with mixed feelings.

There’s a lot of sides to the BL debate but one reading of the popularity of BL is that it allows women to subvert the traditional patriarchal norms and see themselves in a position of power, see men as objects of sexual desire and to consume romance which does not have the gender imbalance that a male-female relationship would. This way, being fans of BL allows women to engage with their sexuality outside of the bounds of what is considered “proper” for women. Also, a point to note here is that BL/Yaoi mainly originates from Japan (and later spread to Taiwan, Thailand, China). However, on the other side, there’s also a question of subversion, but at whose cost? Because this others gay men and creates unrealistic expectations or stereotypes of gay men for straight womens’ pleasure.

So I’d say that fandom can be a playground where people can engage with their sexuality in a way that they cannot elsewhere, but it does also have all the caveats that a community (whether online or offline) does – questions of who is privileged, and whether it’s at the cost of someone, and of course, how well the fandom deals with the real world biases and toxicities that are bound to creep in.

NV: In my experience as a fan, and based on the interactions I have had with other fans about this subject, I’ve realised that the role of a person’s sexuality in their fandom is much more than we think it is. For one, like Sadhana mentioned, queer people find the androgynous aesthetics of K-drama and K-pop more relatable. A transwoman writer we interviewed for the podcast told us how even heterosexual romances in K-dramas are written in a way that allows for open interpretation and in a way that is relatable to the queer community too.

Similarly, a lot of people are attracted to and feel comfortable being fans of K-dramas because of how non-sexual most of them are. I remember how non-threatening and welcoming K-dramas were for me as an 18-year-old with a conservative small-town upbringing. I can imagine the space being welcoming to people who identify as asexual and demisexual as well.

SA: Love those insights! So now, do tell us a bit about your Hello Hallyu podcast and how your audience has responded to it. What stands out for you about your audience?

SC: As a fan who was participating in these fan spaces whether it was for K-pop or K-dramas, and seeing the perspective of fans from all around the world, I really craved an in-depth look at Hallyu and Hallyu fandom from someone who didn’t treat fans as the “other,” didn’t caricature Hallyu fans to be maniacal screaming girls, especially in India. At first we thought of documenting all of this on a website, but then the opportunity with The Swaddle happened and we spent about five months working on it extensively. That time has been the most fulfilling part for me. Talking to academics, superfans whom I’d followed on social media as a regular fan, and getting to interview them as a creator was very rewarding. Having been in these online fan spaces, I knew the kind of criticism that was sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly levelled against fans of Korean popular culture and we were able to address these in the podcast too.  I think people responded to that – they saw that we weren’t just coming in as cheerleaders of Korean media but as critical consumers who were passionate about Hallyu but didn’t sugar-coat what we thought was problematic.

The Swaddle

NV: Yes, what we really wanted was to try to add some nuance to the discussions about Hallyu fandom. I personally saw this as a great opportunity to respond to all the stereotyping, the judgmental looks and dismissive tones I had witnessed from most people in the last nine years as a Hallyu fan. It was a bittersweet experience, doing this at a time when Korean entertainment is almost mainstream. That being said, we made sure to use critical lenses where required — such as when we talk about toxic fandom, doxxing (revealing someone’s personal information on the Internet, with malicious intent) and fetishisation. In that way, it’s very different from the unquestioning reverence that is common among other fan content creators on social media.

Unfortunately, podcasts are almost a one-way medium and we only get to know how people liked it, or what they thought about it when listeners take the extra effort to write to us or tag us on their social media posts. And it is extremely rewarding when that happens – similar to the experience I described of running into other fans back in the day!

SA: Great! Sadhana, in this blog post you have spoken of characters, referring here to a “Rich man who is horrible to the poor female lead, but of course, he’s actually, you know, a softie, and ends up liking her.” What is your take on the ground level relationship realities in the viewer’s lives and how they connect to plots and stories like this?

SC: This was just one example but it’s a trope (recurring plot / story devices in creative work) that’s been around for a very long time. In East Asian entertainment this is called the “Candy” trope, which we might also recognise as the “Cinderella” trope.  I think we all like and root for the underdog, so, as viewers, even if we don’t really want to be rescued by a prince charming in real life, seeing Candy, or Cinderella, overcome the hardships that come her way, we can’t help but gain a fraction of catharsis when we arrive at the Happily Ever After.

If we just talk about tropes in general, despite what type of media it is, they offer viewers the opportunity to see something familiar that offers comfort. For instance, even if it’s a trope where something bad happens, fans know the contours of what is going to happen which in itself can be very comforting. I talk about this in the piece you linked to above, but also in another essay where my ground level reality was bleak at the time, but I was able to get comfort, or “healing” as we like to call it in K-dramaland, because of the dramas I was watching at the time, and from being in fandom.

SA: Sadhana, thank you for sharing that with us. Nirupama, this last question is for you both, but it is based on something you wrote saying, “Binge-watching K-dramas is the only way I can let the concentrated amount of emotions, warmth, laughter, suspense, and tears hit me in the most affective way. … This way, I grow to like the new friend, I internalise the catch-phrases, I start to fall in love and I worry as often and long as deeply as the character in the show.” Do you feel that fandom is a vehicle that could carry forward ongoing efforts to build inclusion and safety, building empathy and understanding in popular media? What are the strengths and potential weaknesses of this vehicle, specifically in the context of gender and sexuality?

NV: Yes, I strongly believe so! Fandom, being an intensely emotional experience, has the potential to overpower existing prejudices that we may be holding. So, it can achieve what reason cannot. Culturally similar to India in this context, Korean entertainment is only starting to explore queer stories and address the issue of homophobia. While this is promising, entertainment and fandom cannot replace the role of education and reform. In the absence of the latter, shallow or insensitive handling of topics like sexuality can backfire — by misinforming, misrepresenting or creating controversies. Furthermore, assigning this responsibility to fandom could also lead to creators and companies queerbaiting for their own benefit without moving the needle towards equality.

SC: Fan culture as we know it is participatory, in the sense that fans don’t just consume media but also engage with it in some form as creators. If you look at fan fiction, fan art, there’s a large part of it that responds to gaps in source media by either queering the canon, or removing the male-centric views and depictions in the original media. I think I explained this better in the earlier part of the interview.

Whether fandom can lead to change, i.e. building empathy and understanding in the media that we consume (the source itself) is something I’m not sure about. But with all the caveats, being a fan can be empowering and liberating and allow us to explore questions of gender and sexuality.

Cover Image: With Permission from authors

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