Oppa isn’t really gay… How K-pop queer baiting leads to queer blindness

K-Pop, in general, has a problem with queerness. 

This is a bit of a loaded statement, but let me explain; K-Pop’s issue with queerness is that it toes the line of what is and isn’t acceptably queer all the time without ever fully addressing it. I’ve written about K-Pop’s marketing of homoeroticism before, and it can be summed up as such: portraying interactions between idol group members as romantic is a very effective marketing tactic.  

It’s not obvious whether it’s overt queerbaiting or not, because Korea still has a huge problem with LGBT+ people (and is by no means the only country that does), so it seems unlikely that a K-Pop company would be actively trying to attract queer fans, even if it was trying to do so in a cheap way. 

I know this and you know this. We all take part in this because it is genuinely cute, for example, to watch former EXO member Lu Han cling to Xiumin as they play football on Korean national TV. It’s sweet, and it’s not a bad thing to realise. 

The issue is, however, that because we’re aware of how these romantically coded interactions are sold to us, that sometimes we end up going in the complete opposite direction and assuming that these things are never, ever romantic in any way, and that by extension the K-Pop industry is 100% full of straight people. 

It’s not malicious – rather, it’s cynical, and in most cases we do it because we know what we’re being sold. Of course, there are people who wholeheartedly believe that various idols are dating each other and it’s more than obvious. But, it’s more of a symptom of the amount of speculation that idols come under, and the level that we as fans engage with it. In fact, the post I linked above was included on a thread specifically about fans wondering which idols are gay and sharing their ‘proof’ of it, which I found intensely amusing. 

So between fans assuming that idols are never, ever queer and people wholeheartedly believing that Jimin and Jungkook of BTS are secretly boyfriends, what we end up with is queer blindness. 

Idols do, now and then, say things that are queer-coded or which can easily be interpreted as such. Two of the first examples of queer coding that I can think of is that Wonho from Monsta X frequently talks about how his ideal type (to date) doesn’t include a specific gender, Suga of BTS repeating over and over in his lyrics (yes, the ones he writes himself) that he knows how to turn men and women on and is more than happy to do so, and one of the members of Romeo saying that his ideal type (again, to date) is a man who’s cute like him.  

Now, I’ve seen explanations for how all of these things are definitely, definitely not queer in any way, and couldn’t be under any circumstances, etc etc. I understand this to an extent; sometimes translations ARE off, and things do get blown out of proportion. The issue is that for all three of these examples, the reason people try to explain them away seems to be that idols just aren’t queer. Ever.  

It’s also another symptom of our close friend in fandom: the uneven exchange relationship. It’s another aspect of fans feeling like they own their idols, and by extension knowing everything about them. In this case, these things can’t be queer coded because then fans would have to address that their favourite might be queer themselves, and that would mean that they don’t know their favourite inside and out. This sounds silly on paper, but this is how K-Pop fandom runs itself. We love our favourite idols (or, more accurately, the versions of them we create for ourselves) and so we feel like we know them. 

The closest thing that this queer blindness can be compared with is the fan reaction when idols come out as being in a relationship. Often, there’s denial and a sense of betrayal from a lot of fans, and it seems to purely be because it’s something that we, as fans, didn’t know about someone we thought we had figured out. All too often, we forget that K-Pop is a product, and idols are people that are marketed as products as well – and further we forget that none of it is real. 

In the end, what happens is that we assume that we know, instinctively, what all sexual orientations look like or we assume that they’re all wildly different from each other in the first place. So because we assume that, it becomes harder for people to overtly assert their sexual orientations because we become blind to it. 

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Helen

Production journalist, sociology grad and video games enthusiast. I really love Epik High. Tweeting at @hm_worthed
  • Wendilynn Kerezman

    good article. I actually really dislike the pretend homoerotica stuff because it must make it really hard for those idols who really are gay. I find it so hypocritical that they are allowed to pretend to be gay but heaven forbid they actually be gay.