South Korea’s homophobic, homoerotic media culture

This is part of a series of articles exploring LGBT issues in Korea in the run up to Pride 2016.

Another year, another run up to Pride and another set of scaremongering stories about the LGBT community in Korea. According to recent news, the internet is literally making kids gay and do shocking things like hug each other. Of course, it might be that the internet is helping LGBT kids feel like they’re not alone. But, no, I’m sure TV Chosun knows what’s really up.

It’s no secret that much of the South Korean public has, for a long time, had issues with even believing that LGBT people even exist. Believe it or not, the fact that so many news stories are coming out about how the internet and TV are ‘turning the kids gay’ is something of a step up. At least the TV turning kids gay acknowledges that some kids might be gay. It’s a baby step at the very least.

It’s interesting that Korean news networks react to things that address LGBT subject matters this way when Korea’s shiniest, flashiest export, K-Pop is one of the most overwhelmingly homoerotic genres of music to have ever existed, visually. Just last week I watched an episode of Weekly Idol where members of BTS had to kiss each other as a “punishment”. This was while Kim Heechul, the king of kissing other boys on stage in K-Pop, gleefully told the BTS members that he was going to smack them on the ass as their next punishment.

The choreography for Boys Republic’s newest music video features leader Wonjun delicately caressing the face of another member whilst singing the words “my baby”.  This is so at odds with Korea’s overwhelming stance to actual gay people, and it makes it even more odd that in order to sell K-Pop and create fans of groups, this homoerotic subtext is not only played up but straight up marketed as a selling point. Romantically coded interactions between idol group members are nothing new, and it’s doubtful that they’ll be phased out any time soon.

This contrast is a good illustration of ‘labelling theory’. Labelling theory is exactly as it sounds – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that anything you give a name to invariably ends up being that thing. Idol interactions might be homoerotic, and idol group members might dance around flamboyantly on stage but as long as they aren’t coded as anything resembling the word ‘gay’ then the Korean media can pretend that anything overtly featuring same-gender couples is the first they’ve ever seen or heard of it and act shocked and disgusted that such a thing is allowed. Playing gay is fine as long as money can be made; being gay not so much.

News outlets are also employing respectability politics. As long as they’re reporting from a stance of concern over the health of young Koreans, it seems unlikely that these scaremongering news segments are going to stop any time soon. Even if it is time that somebody let TV Chosun know that HIV can’t be contracted through the internet or holding hands. Being seen to do and believe the ‘right’ thing is very important in Korea, even if it isn’t what you believe personally – and this remains a setback for attempts to change attitudes.

It does seem to be getting slowly better for the LGBT community in South Korea but a lot of improvement needs to be made. The younger generations are more receptive to being accepting, but when they lack the power to affect broadcasting companies it’s difficult to get this stance across. Add that to the fact that K-Pop is overwhelmingly marketed towards young women, who already have to navigate a shedload of other issues when it comes to asserting themselves in a country that still doesn’t respect them in a lot of ways, it’s no wonder that attempts to tone down the homophobia in mainstream media haven’t particularly improved in recent years.

The greatest form of power that the younger, more LGBT accepting generations have in Korea right now is their consumer power – they can choose to ignore companies which perpetuate harmful discourses, and give their money to those that don’t in the hopes that companies learn that in order to target specific demographics, they have to change their politics. It might be a cynical reason, but it’s a reason nonetheless. But, at present, it still seems  doubtful that any great strides will be made when the mainstream media outlets are made to censor a show for something as innocuous as a chaste kiss between two high school girls in a drama, or rain disapproval on Zico and Park Kyung of Block B for a kiss during a comedy skit.

Because as everyone knows, if kids see two people of the same gender kiss, they’ll be turned gay. Won’t someone please think of the children?

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Helen

Journalism postgrad, sociology graduate and curator of @ThisWeekinLP. I really love Epik High. Tweeting at @hm_worthed
  • Donna

    Great article! I Do not live in S. Korea but I feel like the biggest issue is that taboo topics such as sexuality is almost impossiple to talk opently about in SK which is why the discourse in regards to homosexuality is so ”outdated”.