K-Pop Exposed: How the South Korean music industry turned queerbaiting into a lucrative business
K-pop is a booming industry. Since its early roots in the '90s, the South Korean pop industry has gone from an outlier to being its most prominent and defining genre. During that time, the generally homogenous and conservative South Korean society was forced to recognize that while it remained staunchly against certain identities and lifestyles within its own borders, it had to be willing to straddle the line between remaining true to what was socially acceptable for its own population and being just accepting enough of minorities to seem like a safe enough space for international audiences to feel accepted. And for modern K-pop, that fine line has appeared to fall within the category of queerbaiting.
While there is no real consensus on where the term 'queerbaiting' originated from, most would argue it stemmed from subcultures that formed on Tumblr in the mid to late 2000s. For many young folks growing up in that era, sites like Tumblr provided a safe space that allowed them to explore everything from their identity and sexual orientation to their artistic talents, which, for some, extended to writing fanfiction. The culture that developed on Tumblr shifted not only how fandoms themselves functioned, but it also pushed TV producers and film executives to recognize they were a force to be reckoned with. Because, as they would come to find out, their young, impressionable audiences now had a way to organize and make demands. One major demand would be better representation for the LGBTQIA+ communities across the film and television industries, with this demand eventually expanding to music as well. And eventually, producers were forced to give in, but they did so in an unexpected way: queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting essentially refers to the marketing tactic used within the entertainment and music industries to hint at the existence of queer characters and representation, but then not actually depict them. It was a way to cater to LGBTQIA+ audiences while also not angering the more conservative ones. And while it initially seemed like a step towards diversity, it pretty much plateaued there. Till today, movies and shows including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 'Riverdale', BBC's 'Sherlock', and more continue to be accused of queerbaiting, which has expanded to encompass having characters engage in queer behavior when they don't identify as such or the over-sexualization of queer characters, indicating their purpose is to appease to a crowd other than the LGBTQIA+ audience. And these accusations have also been raised against K-pop acts, with more and more people raising alarm over it in recent years thanks to the industry being more global than ever before.
K-pop's beginnings were with Seo Taiji and the Boys in 1992, who used music as a way to fight against censorship laws and organizations who held a monopoly within the industry. They eventually crafted the 'K-pop sound', with member Yang Hyun-suk going on to form YG Entertainment, one of the three major labels that dominated the industry until groups like BTS from smaller agencies began carving a name for themselves. However, queerbaiting was not particularly evident back then. But when the second generation of idols paved the way for the 'hallyu' or the Korean Wave, and international interest in the industry spiked, it became evident that there were a few aspects of K-pop that sold really well to wider audiences, including fetishization and orientalism, and, of course, the perception that many idols were secretly queer.
This perception stemmed from a variety of reasons, including misogyny, Asian culture which didn't see any issues with 'skinship' (even between males), as well as the knowledge that K-pop labels controlled their idols to such an extent that they could never come out, even if they wanted to. And this perception was intensified by the fact that several male idols were perfectly comfortable with more effeminate looks, at least as far as Western standards of beauty and masculinity were concerned. Not long after, fandoms began 'shipping' idols of the same sex with one another. And, eventually, companies took note. Soon, the skinship was amped up several degrees, earning the moniker 'fan-service'.
Idols were suddenly participating in overtly sexual behaviors as part of performances, and reality shows and behind-the-scenes footage capitalized on their new-found knowledge of monetizing queerbaiting. And what made this phenomenon even more interesting was outwardly conservative idols, such as Super Junior's Choi Siwon who once declared he did not support LGBTQIA+ communities on account of his religious beliefs, being the ones that engaged most frequently in queerbaiting, which, in Siwon's case, has included intimate, half-naked routines involving fellow Super Junior members during concerts as rain poured down on their performance. Super Junior, among many other boy groups, were also pioneers in using drag as a form of comedy on variety shows.
Cut to 2020, and queerbaiting is such an integral part of the industry, that it is no longer hidden behind subtle hints or restricted to comedy acts or 19+ TV slots. Everything in modern K-pop points to queerbaiting being one of the industry’s most lucrative businesses: from Red Velvet’s Irene & Seulgi dropping the lesbian-themed ‘Monster’ music video, to BTS’ Bangtan Universe, an alternate universe created by their label Big Hit Entertainment with characters named after the idols that are frequently paired in fictional tales based on fan ships. Most recently, they chose to reignite the Yoongi-Jungkook, or ‘Yoonkook’ ship, via their Smeraldo Books Twitter account.
And while some of these seem relatively harmless, such as fans merely indulging in some gentle fanfiction, others take things to an uncomfortable level, pushing the narrative that these idols are, in fact, actually queer and in a relationship with one another. And therein lies the issue with queerbaiting in K-pop: it profits off the marketability of LGBTQIA+ representation while not inviting any openly queer folk in its fold, all while still denouncing queer identities and remaining largely conservative. And that, essentially, serves as a horrible reminder to the queer community that their existence serves only one purpose: entertainment.
To that end, despite its total willingness to hint at queerness and benefit from its use as a prop, K-pop only had its first openly gay idol, Holland, debut in 2018, to mixed reactions no less. His videos made no secret of him being gay and included a wide range of queer people. His lyrics boldly spoke to the struggles the LGBTQIA+ community continues to face in South Korea. Several, including the tireless activists in South Korea fighting for change, welcomed him with open arms. Others weren't sure the country was quite ready for him. The industry evidently wasn't ready since Holland had to crowdfund his debut album and release it under his own label.
But it isn't all bleak. Several idols in the industry have been vocally pro-LGBTQIA+ and equal rights, including Super Junior's Hee-chul and SHINee's Jonghyun. And some acts, including Brown Eyed Girls and Mamamoo, have had much better representation by including queer folk, such as drag queens, in their music videos. Others, including feminists like Sulli, have made it abundantly clear the industry was in need of a revolution. It certainly would be a long-overdue reckoning, seeing as other openly gay personalities such as actor, television personality, and restaurateur Hong Seok-cheon were shunned from the industry simply for existing, only to have to claw their way back on their own before finally being allowed to be seen by the public again.
Perhaps the latest era of more blatant queerbaiting might just be the final push towards actual queer representation. But until the industry and its fandoms acknowledge the underlying issue, queerness will remain nothing more than an identity relegated to alternate universes where otherwise heterosexual idols get to pretend to be gay, just for a day.
K-Pop Exposed is a column that gets under the hood of what's happening behind-the-scenes in the world of South Korean pop.