By Sunny Oh
Exploring queerbaiting and androgyny in K-Pop
Eve Ng, Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio University, defines queerbaiting as an "industry tactic where those officially associated with a media text court viewers interested in LGBT narratives." Think of the infamous kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears during the opening performance of the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. Headline-commanding, provocative, and buzzworthy, their kiss was carefully choreographed to lure in and profiteer from LGBTQ+ audiences, whose desire for genuine representation is left unfulfilled.
Queerbaiting is a money-grabbing tactic used by the entertainment industry to gain more traction from LGBTQ+ audiences. Given the unsatiated desire for same-sex relationships rife within fandom culture, it didn't take long before South Korea's record labels realised there was major money to be made in selling the idea that their "idols" (a term which refers to K-pop artists) were secretly gay for each other. "Skinship" between members, which can take form in hugging, holding hands, or even kissing, is encouraged on South Korean television shows; the creation of variety show games like the "Paper Kiss Game", which involves passing a piece of paper between mouths that often results in an "accidental" smooch on the lips, exemplifies this idea. During meet-and-greets, idols are often asked to hold hands and give each other a kiss on the cheek. Homoerotic behaviour on and off stage is so common that compilations of "K-pop's Gayest moments", featuring popular groups such as EXO, BTS and NCT on YouTube have 5.5M or more views.
"Homosexuality is taboo to the extent that the public wouldn't even dare to question artists' sexual orientation, despite the homoeroticism displayed on screen."
Teasing fans with unrealised same-sex romance is also evident in the artists' work. The music video for the song "Monster" by female K-pop idols Irene & Seulgi went viral for its depiction of the two women almost kissing and sensually touching each other. As the camera continuously cuts away right before any sexual act is fleshed out, nuances of lesbianism are used as tools to enhance the sex appeal of the two attractive, straight women. While their label's "artistic choice" may boost Irene & Seulgi's popularity within the queer female fanbase (consider that when lesbian and bisexual women in South Korea vote for their favourite female idols, Seulgi places first and Irene second almost every year), the video also comes off a fantasy shot by, for, and through the male gaze.
But it gets more explicit than that. "Chuu" (a popular female K-pop idol) released a music video that has an entire queerbaiting storyline between the two teenage girls that fancy each other, but are too coy to act on it", says Saoirse, an Irish K-pop fan whose sister studies at Lucy Cavendish College. The music video, in which Chuu pines for her female crush while singing lyrics such as "when I see you, spark, it's like there is a spark in my heart, I find my hidden feelings," depicts a young girl who craves another girl's attention in an explicitly romantic way. This choice of narrative is unsurprising since, like Irene and Seulgi, Chuu has a predominantly queer and female fanbase.
"I feel like the Korean fandoms encourage it as a way to fulfil a certain fantasy. I don't blame the K-pop idols themselves because they are, most of the time, told what to do by their management," adds Saoirse. Despite the problematic nature of queerbaiting as an industry tactic, it seems like there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the fans and the labels; while not all K-pop fans sexualise and "ship" same-sex idols, a large number of them contribute to the labels' decision to cash in on their unfulfilled fantasies.
What is surprising, however, is that there is a relatively homophobic attitude extant in South Korean society. Homosexuality is taboo to the extent that the public wouldn't even dare to question the artists' sexual orientation, despite the homoeroticism displayed on-screen. Same-sex idols holding hands or kissing each other on the cheek are viewed as an innocent display of friendship, but if a female idol is seen holding hands with a male idol, or even makes eye-contact with one onstage, speculations run amuck and tabloids go into a frenzy. Is this due to South Korea's public heterosexism, or are they in denial of their deified artists potentially coming out as gay?
"While my British friends would often innocently ask, "are they non-binary?", I had never heard the question come out of my Korean friends' mouths, since they are so accustomed to such displays."
In any case, there is a blatant contradiction. K-pop idols are "not allowed" to be gay by society, and since there is simply no way they could be, explicit displays of homoeroticism are never associated with the idols' sexual orientation. Despite all the hype over same-sex idol romances, if a famous K-pop idol ever came out, there would be immediate backlash. The fantasy would be gone. Although such queerbaiting tactics render the K-pop industry prone to criticism from the LGBTQ+ community, the highly synchronised, camp dance performances featuring idols donning gender-fluid fashion are widely hailed as helping fans explore the full spectrum of gender outside the binary. It is common to see male idols dressed in skirts, fishnets, and crop tops, while female idols are frequently put in suits and tomboy outfits. They hence come across as androgynous: a characteristic defined by the National Library of Medicine as having both 'high masculine' and 'high feminine' traits. As a native Korean predominantly educated in the UK, I have always been fascinated by the way in which Korean culture champions the androgynous aesthetic. Kkonminam ("flower boys"), which is a Korean term that refers to men who are "pretty"-looking and effeminate, and jalsaengbbeum (Handsome (jalsaeng) + pretty ((i)-bbeum), a neologism applied to both women and men, is frequently used as a compliment without any implications to the subjects' gender identity. I have seen countless instances of male groups dressed as women for shows and concerts, dancing to female groups' music and doing "aegyo": a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute voice, changes to speech, facial expression, etc. While my British friends would often innocently ask, "are they non-binary?", I had never heard the question come out of my Korean friends; mouths, since they are so accustomed to such displays. This is due to the cultural disparity between Western and East Asian countries. The fact that Korean equivalents for the terms queerbaiting and non-binary don't even exist is a testament to the general lack of discourse surrounding the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity in Korean culture. If and when a Korean wants to identify as non-binary, they would just borrow the English term; like homosexuality, the idea of gender as a spectrum is relatively foreign to Korean society. Ironically, though, the lack of association between the androgynous aesthetic and gender identity seems to allow the artists to comfortably experiment with gender-fluid fashion. While queerbaiting is and should be condemned, K-pop seems to be making a positive impact by inspiring its fans to freely experiment with their fashion, makeup, and hairstyles in gender expression. In some ways, K-pop has managed to challenge the gender stereotypes that have restricted LGBTQ+ individuals from freely expressing their identities. But separate from this positive phenomenon is the industry's exploitation of their artists in the pursuit of queerbaiting. For the LGBTQ+ community, representation is important. Queerbaiting in K-pop, therefore, should be seen not only as a lucrative industry tactic, but also as an exploitation of LGBTQ+ fans' desires for queer representation on a popular platform. This issue is complicated by the fact that the Korean public is not even familiar with the concept of queerbaiting. To address this problem, topics like homosexuality and gender identity should get more exposure, rather than being kept in the closet. Ultimately, queerbaiting in K-pop is only the top of the iceberg; prejudiced mindsets toward homosexuality and the gender spectrum in Korean society facilitate the industry's exploitation of homosexuality as a never-to-be-realised fantasy. Although changing such a deeply ingrained social attitude would be difficult, K-pop has the power to kick-start the transformative process by ending its queerbaiting pursuits and letting the idols freely express their gender identity and sexual orientation.