The aim of this thesis was to understand how gender identities and sexualities are constructed for South Korean boy bands and their fandoms. An attempt was made in tracing the development of boy bands over the years, their changing images, their popularity and the way their fandoms are perceived, and how gender and sexualities are constructed for their fans through empirical research using qualitative and quantitative data collection methods as well as articles and other such secondary sources.
The image of boy bands has changed over the years, from the Beatles to New Kids on the Block to Backstreet Boys to One Direction to BTS. The Beatles had a masculine image because of the rock music they produced which was considered to be masculine owing to its roots Black culture and slave narratives which spoke extensively and violently about the atrocities against the Blacks, New Kids on the Block had the image of being ‘a band of good looking boys crooning love songs to a crowd of teenage girls, an image which has continued to be a part of all boy bands till this day, Backstreet Boys had a gender-neutral image where they appealed to people of all genders by showing their fun side while still singing love songs, One Direction had a fashion heavy image which was supposed to appeal to all genders but maybe because of women occupying a large part of the fandom they stereotype of ‘good looking boys crooning love songs to teenage girls’ stuck with them, the present day boy band phenomenon BTS is also associated with this general stereotype but gender and identity constructs have also become a part of their public image and identity. We see that the image of boy bands have changed over the years but the image of boy band fans have more or less remained the same since the 70s as ‘teenage girls’ and with regard to the male fans of Korean boy bands, their gender and sexualities are also questioned along with the artists’.
The general stereotype of boy bands being ‘good-looking boys’, the appearance of Korean boy bands is evaluated before their music is. They are derogatorily called ‘feminine’, ‘girly’, ‘gay’ and are also racially degraded. They are criticized for their use of makeup and fashion accessories when ironically, all celebrities in the field of entertainment also use them but it is only boy bands and especially Korean boy bands along with their male fans, who are criticized for it. In one way or the other yellow-skin stigmatization exists till this day.
The use of makeup, elaborate costumes, fashion accessories or jewelry is a part and parcel of Korean boy band culture. Use of this is a performance but it is problematic when a performance is gendered. For example, the qualities of nurturing, the practice of cooking, and so on are typically attributed as qualities of a woman, making the aspects of nurturing and cooking gendered or a womanly quality. Similarly, the use of makeup is also gendered and when artists make use of makeup they are stepping into performing a gender. This is how the construct of the use of makeup works and Korean boy bands who do not shy away from talking about it fall victim to gender and sexuality constructs by the general public. The American music market and the Western society which has seen the rapid growth of Korean boy bands and its fandoms since 2016 shower praises on these bands but a lot of them criticize them with homophobic comments and on public platforms like national news and talk shows. This is a kind of attempt at marginalizing Korean boy bands from the mainstream English language music market which has its market share all over the world.
Both Black and White artists are received in the same way by the general society in today’s world with no racial discrimination made. Boy bands, be it American or European or South East Asian are received in the same way, that is, all boy bands are seen as a group of good-looking boys crooning love songs to a crowd of teenage girls but it is only the Korean boy bands and their fandoms, who are gaining more recognition around the world, whose gender and sexualities are questioned, constructed and mocked.
The reason I chose this topic for my thesis is that I listen to Korean boy band music and am a part of a fandom and I have personally heard many of my peers and acquaintances tell me that I listen to ‘Chinese music’, they look feminine, they are gays/transgenders/girly, etc., Hence I wanted to understand why exactly these stereotypes surround Korean boy bands and why they are criticized as such. As the reason for choosing this topic for my research is personal, ‘researcher’s bias’ could be a limitation to my thesis. I have tried my best to not let my subjective opinions influence the data collection, analysis, and reading of texts, however, ‘researcher’s bias’ as a possibility cannot be completely ruled out.
The issue of talking about genders and sexualities is very sensitive and there is a need to be politically correct when making any kind of statement or declaration. When talking about genders and sexualities, the thesis primarily addresses genders of male and female and gay sexuality. This does not mean the thesis dismisses or disregards all other genders and sexualities or the preferences of people to not be associated with any gender and sexuality but is only looking at the stereotyped genders and sexualities in the case of South Korean boy bands while being sensitive to the usage of words.
The survey conducted on a random cross-section of people was not open-ended but had objective type answers for the respondents to choose from. There is a possibility that this could have directed the responses of the respondents in a certain direction but this was done with the conscious knowledge that people do not like to invest so much time in answering the survey questions of a stranger unless an interview is scheduled with them which is why the thesis also includes qualitative data along with quantitative data.
Scope for further study
Similar to South Korean boy bands, South Korean girl groups/ girl bands also are a huge part of the South Korean music industry. Korean girl groups like Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation have crossed geographical boundaries and have captured audiences since the late 2000s. Though these girl groups were not able to make a significant and long-time mark in the Western music industry, which is the dominant music industry, their popularity, and their fandoms cannot be disregarded. Present-day girl groups like Twice and Blackpink have made bigger achievements when compared to their predecessors in the foreign markets of Japan and other Southeast Asian countries, and the latter band has also started making its way into the mainstream American music industry and its audience. These girl groups either have male-dominated fandoms or have more or less the same amount of male and female fans which is quite different from the case of Korean boy bands. Thus there is scope for further study on this subject.