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K-pop dictionary: Queerbaiting

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Courtesy of Mango Fox
Courtesy of Mango Fox

By David Tizzard

A recent piece in the Korea Times questioned whether terms such as "idol," "comeback," and "main vocalist" were comprehensible to those outside of the K-pop universe. Despite the article's insistence on the arcane nature of these words, most casual readers of the piece were able to understand what was going on.

But that does not mean the world of K-pop is full of vocabulary that is instantly intelligible or user-friendly. Because K-pop is discussed, analyzed and enjoyed by people all over the world, a whole ecosystem of terms has arisen. Significant shifts in social attitudes and values, as well as cultural lags elsewhere, have also influenced this.

One of the terms that might not be instantly familiar to the casual reader is "queerbaiting."

Queerbaiting is neither new nor exclusive to K-pop: it began appearing with some regularity in the mid to late 2000s on Tumblr. One of the main forces behind its coming to prominence was the fandom and fan culture that grew alongside social media platforms on which people could discuss and debate their favorite shows and stars.

Since about 2014 it has been an increasingly common concept for examining and critiquing cultural products and media. Interestingly, looking at internet trends, it is found as often in Canada, Ireland, and Australia as it is in the Philippines, Chile, and Malaysia.

Ev Ng defines queerbaiting as "situations where those officially associated with a media text court viewers interested in LGBT narratives ― or become aware of such viewers ― and encourage their interest in the media text without the text ever definitively confirming the non-heterosexuality of the relevant characters."

Chelsea Ritschel describes it as "a marketing ploy that celebrities, TV and film writers and authors use to appeal to an LGBTQ+ audience but avoids alienating a main audience by never fully embracing a queer sexuality." She points to Ariana Grande, Halsey, Sherlock, Harry Potter, and Supernatural as those guilty of such queerbaiting.

There are many other definitions online and the literature is rich with study, but essentially queerbaiting is a marketing technique employed by creators to 'bait' or attract certain audience demographics by alluding to same-sex romance or other non-heteronormative identities and lifestyles. In simpler terms, perhaps, "being gay for pay."

Is this in and of itself a negative phenomenon? It is neither my place nor wish to try and offer a definitive answer. The reader should be aware, however, that for every person who finds value and satisfaction in seeing gay or queer representation in mainstream media, there are just as many who find much of the current usage damaging, reinforcing of heteronormative stereotypes, and a mere gimmick to express edginess or progressive values while at the same time seeking people's money.

And then there is K-pop.

To reinforce a point I made in a previous article about the "death of K-pop" and the location of its current authorship, a lot of this recent narrative and questioning of the idols' intentions vis-a-vis sexuality comes from abroad. When lecturing on K-pop to Korean students, many university students find the topics of cultural appropriation and queerbaiting novel and interesting, but not always completely relevant in a Korean context. When delivering the same contents to international students, the responses and expectations are, for the most part, far different: they are informed, impassioned, and more insistent.

This is because the cultural contexts are incredibly divergent. If we once more understand culture as a web of symbols and significances societies have constructed to provide meaning to their existence, a simple action ― such as holding hands ― will have completely different connotations in different places.

When two idols play with each other's hair and have their legs rested across each other's laps, is this Korean "skinship" or something else? Again, it seems to sometimes depend on where the authorship lies.

So one's person queerbaiting might be another person's "fanservice" ― and in this context fanservice is when idols and celebrities pretend that they are dating their fans or perform affectionate actions with other members of their group so as to appease the legions of paying customers.

A lot of K-pop idols engage in this overtly sexual behavior on entertainment programs, reality shows, and social media videos. Consider the "popular" game in which group members are expected to pass a piece of paper to each other with their lips, which often results in hilarious mishaps where they "accidentally" kiss each other much to the delight of the fans. In one video compilation of all the times the boy group Monsta X have played it, Minhyuk specifically mentions that the game has been once more requested by fans.

Rookie girl group fromis_9 played a similar game with Pepero (chocolate candy sticks) in 2018. The youngest member, Baek Ji-heon, would have been 15 at the time she was performing the acts with the same-sex members of her group to the deafening clicks of HD cameras and voices of male encouragement.

Go and look at the 2020 video for Monster by Irene and Seulgi of Red Velvet ― or more importantly go and read the YouTube comments. There are over a quarter of a million written responses and nearly all of them are suggestions or questions about the girls' sexuality and orientation.

This should not be surprising: In a 2019 poll among Korean LGTBQ+ women, Irene and Seulgi were voted the most popular female idols. Any entertainment company worth their salt would have paid attention to such data and sought to maximize their competitive advantage by having the girls perform as they do in the Monster video, coming tantalizingly close to kissing on multiple occasions before the camera quickly cuts away.

There are many other numerous examples. Though we should not consider it exclusive to Korean entertainers: Britney Spears and Madonna, for instance, were kissing at VMAs back in 2003.

However let's be clear, because of the well-documented nature of the K-pop industry, much of what transpires here will be directed by entertainment companies who have an eye solely on the maximization of profits in a neoliberal capitalist society. These are not primarily acts chosen by the individual idols, though some of course occasionally demonstrate their discomfort at having to perform them, nor is it always about embracing or promoting progressive values. It's for the money: being woke for wages.

South Korea is not a society that embraces homosexuality yet. Anti-discrimination laws designed to protect people are not sought by the ruling party and non-heteronormative love is still unfortunately seen as problematic.

This was demonstrated by the reaction to Holland's debut music video Neverland. Holland was one of the industry's first openly gay performers and became a role model for many LGBTQ+ fans. However, his video featured him kissing another man and thus received a 19+ rating because it was deemed "unsuitable for young viewers."

So when the kiss is performative or designed as a feature of the entertainment product, it is acceptable for all ages. When, however, the kiss is one based on love and affection for a member of the same-sex, it is seen as corrupting or inappropriate.

This does not seem right to me. A community's identity should not exist solely for the purpose of entertainment or maximizing the profits of the hegemonic norms.

So what happens next? It seems that the affectionate actions and games performed by these same-sex idols will be seen differently according to one's position in the K-pop universe: to some it's queerbaiting, to some it's fanservice, and to others it's completely natural physical intimacy in a Korean context.

So who claims authorship of this K-pop narrative?


Dr. David A Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.




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