Chances are, if you’ve been listening to K-Pop for any time at all, you’ve found yourself a group you like more than others. You’ve maybe even found a member you like more than anyone else. For those not familiar, this practice is generally known as having a ‘bias’, and trying to avoid it has proven very difficult for most K-Pop fans over the years.
This is hardly anything unusual, and it’s certainly not limited to K-Pop; everybody has that one celebrity whose career they look out for a bit more than others, who they’re happy to see succeed. Even that person who says they’re ‘not really into celebrity culture’ has that one person, and I would bet real, actual, I-earned-this-from-my-legitimate-job money on this. I would then also go on to bet that that one famous person you like more than others (in this case, your favourite idol singer) is someone you don’t generally like to have to read criticisms of, and someone you feel the need to defend. This also isn’t unusual; you don’t need to look any further than an idol’s Instagram comments to see people defending their bias from something. The same qualities which people tend to admire in an idol are also qualities which they typically wish to emulate. So it makes sense that people often begin to project themselves into their idols as they become more and more emotionally invested in them.
The problem with defending your favourite idol and becoming emotionally invested in them arises when this becomes unhealthy. Getting overly attached to someone you’ve never met and don’t know beyond the idea of them you’ve created for yourself is one thing, but refusing to admit that someone you admire has done something harmful is something else entirely. The lack of willingness to address this has been a problem in K-Pop, and many other fandoms, for years. Wanting to think the best of people isn’t a bad thing at all - but blindly trying to absolve someone of their faults and indiscretions is wrong in several different ways. One thing that people make the mistake of doing is pretending that their idol saying offensive things is fine so long as they do not personally find this offensive, and this is both insulting and short-sighted - we’ll call this harmful naivety.
This past year, K-Pop has been rife with scandals. We had cases of members leaving popular groups and consequently being sued (Hey SM, how are those stock prices going? Good? I heard good.), members getting kicked out of very popular groups, and members choosing not to renew their contracts. These aren’t really problematic, but some fan reactions very much were. Some things idols did were very dangerous and extremely harmful to others; most recently, Choi Siwon of Super Junior retweeted a series of messages on his Twitter which questioned the validity and morality of same-sex marriage. 2014 also saw rapper and producer Woo Jiho AKA Zico of Block B proudly wearing a Confederate Flag printed armband in his MV for ‘Tough Cookie’, as well as spouting homophobic sentiments in the lyrics. Most recently, there was an example of none other than JYP selling school uniforms to young kids…featuring provocative pictures of his most recent girl group and JYP in sunglasses in the background. Bear in mind, the members of JYP’s newest girl group TWICE are all under twenty years old, with their youngest member being age 16 – so it was more than a little bit inappropriate.
Adding to all of these, there are countless examples of people ignoring their favourite idols saying racist things, doing racist imitations, saying sexist things, and so on. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for fans of K-Pop, but the sheer frequency of this happening over the past year has made it clearer than ever that many fans have an issue with admitting not only to themselves, but to others, that their favourites have messed up. Instead, fans often feel the need to defend their idols – even in cases where an idol has done something truly horrible.
There is no better current example of this than that of Kim Hyun Joong. Last year, it came to light that a woman claiming to be Kim Hyun Joong’s girlfriend had accused him of physically assaulting her. The details are fairly murky, and there are many different accounts, but Kim Hyun Joong (hereafter KHJ) did admit to assaulting her on one occasion even if he has not fully addressed them all. In the case he admitted to, the woman sustained a broken rib. KHJ maintains that both parties were physically assaulted, but how true this is remains to be seen. Many of the charges have since been dropped, but the fact remains that KHJ hurt someone else, and fans like to defend him to the point of maintaining that he did nothing at all - even when case proceedings say otherwise. I’ve seen fans argue that this woman is jealous, or that if she’d been a better girlfriend he wouldn’t have done this to her. Both of these things are completely unacceptable. This is without a doubt a case of harmful naivety leading to the blind defending of a bias. It should be made clear, to anybody who missed it, that what KHJ has done was awful, and he has shown absolutely no signs of regret at his actions. Rather, with his army of fans steadfastly behind him, KHJ continues to live his life seemingly the same way as he always has – except now, of course, he’s currently serving his two-year military time (hardly the same as a prison sentence).
This case is not the only thing that happened, of course. Idols frequently say and do hurtful things - some examples include Wendy of Red Velvet and her racist imitations, numerous people (including veteran singer K.Will) making fun of Hyorin of SISTAR’s skin colour, and EXO member Park Chanyeol continuing to make ‘jokes’ about the dark skin of fellow member Kim ‘Kai’ Jongin. None of these things are okay, but fans still try to claim that these things are not offensive even in the face of other people giving them details as to why they are, and why they have been used against them personally.
One of the most important things about being a fan of anything, in particularly something that is as popular as K-Pop (and it’s many, many idols), is being critical of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you talk smack about it all the time, or make fun of it (although I like to do this in a loving manner because I’m trash), but it does mean that every now and then you take a step back. You take some time to think critically about how and why you are blindly defending people, and from whom. If you’re spending most of your time doing this, chances are that what you’re doing is upsetting people – and this is likely to be true even if you can’t see it. Admitting your bias has done something wrong doesn’t make you a bad fan; it makes it clear to the people they upset that you do not agree with what your bias is doing or saying. Often, fans who blindly defend an idol’s problematic behaviour do it because, in some way, they agree with it. Another argument I’ve seen is that idols say these things because it is okay to do in their culture, but this is both incredibly racist and infantilising.
There’s no harm in loving something a lot, and no shame in having a favourite in a group you really love. If these things make you happy, then by all means! They make me happy, and that’s why I feel so strongly about it. What I am saying is that it is not okay to act like your bias is the perfect, innocent snowflake you like to pretend they are; I can guarantee you they aren’t. Moreover, putting them on this pedestal just means that, when they end up doing something awful, they have further to fall - and the more upset you will be as a fan.
K-Pop markets itself as being fun and easy, and this is what it should be; if you don’t find this happening, maybe it’s time for a break. If what you love isn’t making you happy, and the way you interact with it is making other people unhappy, then it’s time for self-reflection.
The hope is that, when your bias or any other idol does something problematic and wrong, that they learn from it and genuinely want to not do it again. Everybody makes mistakes, but some are bigger than others - in some cases, people can learn but they might not deserve to be back in the beloved position they held before. This is because this position was something they abused in the first place in order to be able to carry out their actions. But still, it would be better if they learned from the experience and genuinely apologised. However, when you defend them blindly, nothing is learned aside from that they can continue to do problematic things because people will always come to defend them. This will do nothing but make K-Pop exclusive, and drive out fans who don’t feel welcome to voice their grievances. With K-Pop being so popular and so overwhelmingly fun, this would be a shame. So, to continue to make it as open for everyone as possible, call your idols out - and don’t let them get away with things just because you think you know them.
But remember to have fun, too.
Helen Edworthy is an English Sociology undergraduate who got lost in the world of K-Pop five years ago. She tweets at @captain_helen and her biases are UKISS and NS YoonG.