Queer-ing Kpop: Is same-sex shipping helping or hurting LGBTQ fans?
Anyone who knows anything about K-pop knows about “shipping”. The K-pop fandom is one of many fandoms throughout the internet where shipping two of your favourite celebrities or characters together as your OTP (One True Pairing) is a common part of the fan experience. It’s also not surprising that many people who identify as heterosexual enjoy same-sex shipping and are actively involved in the shipping culture. K-pop is particularly easy to ship for many obvious reasons – usually idols aren’t allowed to date, same-sex ‘skinship’ is more common in South Korea than most Western countries and, more than anything, idols even perform shipping themselves through “fan service.”
It’s easy to hate on shipping culture for being deluded and even an invasion of a real person’s personal privacy. It is true that a lot of shippers overstep the line but, at the same time, I think these kind of criticisms miss the point. Shipping isn’t about idols, it has to do with fans – the way fans connect over media, the way they choose to perceive and articulate love and, often enough, the way people enact and come to terms with their sexual desires. This is why shipping will keep happening no matter how much shade is thrown its way. As long as fantasy is important to people then shipping will not go away and it’s only natural that idols who are marketed as objects of desire become implicated in this process.
Shipping is also one of the ways through which queer people are able to find representation, often enough in cases where they might not be ready or able to “come out.” Despite all of its objectifying qualities, shipping allows queer folks who do not have the simple privilege of seeing their sexual desires voiced in public, heteronormative society to find community. It’s also important to point out that a large amount of K-pop fans, just like K-pop fans in general, are people of colour who don’t always have queer identities that are as accepted and visible as the more mainstream queer culture.
This is why it concerns me when people don’t recognise the work that shipping does underneath its hysterical surface, when people say that same-sex shipping is wrong it does the harm of suggesting that homosexual fans don’t exist. Of course I have issues with some of the ways some people choose to fantasize about real people but instead of blaming this solely on some misguided kid I think it’s more valuable instead to ask: Why do we live in a society where people choose to ship? Why does this medium and this sub-culture make it ok for people to represent love/sex like this? Can idol culture open a space for people to become educated on gender/sexuality issues?
The last question is particularly concerning to me. Should we be educating people on reality in spaces that make it ok for people to fantasize? A while ago I read an article where a fan brought up the question of whether the amount of lesbian pairings in SNSD actually means that the fandom is a safe space for LGBT (or LGBTQIA*) people. Despite all of the good I just said shipping does for us, I really can’t say with confidence that it is. How much does wishing two hot guys or girls were sleeping with each other mean that you care anything about gay rights? Does “equal love” really just mean to shippers that people should be able to work off their frustrations with their co-worker in a steamy post-training make-out session? Do the people calling Amber Liu “oppa” know how heteronormative their comment is and is there even a possibility that this could pave the way for a broader acceptance of trans people?
My biggest concern with same-sex shipping is that when a young girl decides to ship Yoonjae or Hunhan she could be trivialising queer identities and not making any attempt to understand what it means for two men to be in love with eachother. In fact, I’m finding it very hard to find much genuine gay male representation in amongst the overwhelming mass of girls posting about their biases tendency for gay sex. A little while ago I wrote about how K-pop could have the potential to start a sexual revolution. If this really is the case then I wonder what role the queer community has to play in all this. Is same-sex shipping signalling a growing acceptance amongst Hallyu fans for alternative ideas of gender and sexuality or is this just a new form of homophobia in disguise?
What do you think about same-sex shipping? Let us know in the comments.
This article is part of a series exploring K-pop fan culture.
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