I am a relatively new K-Pop fan. It’s one of those things that my obsessive nature has latched onto over quarantine and it will not let go of. I love the brilliantly catchy pop music formulas, the impressive dances, the colors, concepts and culture. It’s all just candy to me.
I am also a queer woman, and I can’t help but see how that impacts my interactions with girl groups especially. K-Pop girl groups are made up of impossibly gorgeous young women, they have the coolest fashion, seem to all be best friends with each other and most importantly, are immensely talented. I look at these meticulously trained and marketed idols and think, man, I can’t tell if I want to be her or be with her.
This has led me to slowly realize how I, and many other LGBTQ+ K-Pop fans have come to read the mountain of content that the now-global industry throws at us through a queer lens. Before I even realized I was doing it, I knew who the gayest members of each group were and why. Moonbyul’s swagger and masculine sense of style must mean she’s gay. Ryujin’s short bob and tomboyish personality have to set her low on the Kinsey scale! I was reading stereotypes and hunches as truth, which is all in good fun at best and an invasive assumption at worst.
This isn’t uncommon. The nature of a girl group breeds speculations of queerness like crazy. Members of K-Pop groups spend mostly each and every moment of their days together, living in dorms, promoting their music and having YouTube reality shows documenting them doing what are essentially cute date ideas every episode. It’s easy to see our favorite idols cooking together, doing pottery, goofing off in music video sets and, as a result, want to read into their relationships as being something more than friends, especially when we as queer people are starved for representation and would love to see it reflected in the media and culture we adore.
If you go on YouTube you can watch hours of content dedicated to these queer readings of idol interactions. Just put in your favorite ship name, Jenlisa, MoonSun, MiChaeng and videos of “proof” of their relationship will pop up, boasting hundreds of thousands of views. Queer fans drool over the smallest interactions, a kiss on the cheek, a tap on the butt, put a couple cutesy clips together and boom, there’s no way your faves aren’t dating.
I realize I sound a bit judgmental here, but as I mentioned, I’m not innocent of this. My favorite K-Pop group, Red Velvet, is notorious for having an avid fanbase for each of the imagined queer relationships between numerous pairings of its five members. Again, this is just a fun thing when it’s left to the queer fan corners of YouTube. We enjoy seeing queerness in the things and people we love; however, I’ve recently reconsidered how I feel about it after realizing that with Red Velvet specifically, I was being queerbaited.
Queer people love saying that stuff is gay whether it is explicitly queer or not, and when I first saw the music video for “Monster” by Irene and Seulgi of Red Velvet (known by their ship name Seulrene) my queer heart was singing. A song about having a mysterious dark side? Gay. Long hair and red lips? Gay. Seulgi holding a gun!?! GAY. But hold up, the lingering glances, caresses, holding each other close and about to kiss but then the shot cuts away!!!! I was salivating. Seulrene was real! And of course it wasn’t, but it would take me months to think even remotely critically about it.
Since I first saw it, I’ve shown the music video for “Monster” to my WLW friends, watched it in my spare time and even learned the choreography before I sat down TODAY to actually think about what it is. “Monster” is queerbaiting. The most basic Googleable definition of it is “a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not actually depict, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ+ representation.” Irene and Seulgi are not dating, they do not kiss, it’s not real, they are performers. It’s just an “artistic choice” by SM Entertainment. “Monster” is not the only example of this either; queerbaiting is rampant in K-Pop and I just happen to be most familiar with Red Velvet’s work. With Irene and Seulgi, we are being treated to some of Korean pops finest talent, but we are also being targeted and milked by one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies because of our want to be represented.
I struggle with what to make of this, because I’m torn. I want to see these two women I adore “being queer” even if it isn’t real, because I, as a fan, am so invested in seeing it happen. Then, on the other hand, my brain knows it’s not real and knows I’m being duped by artistic directors, marketing gurus and even the idols themselves. It’s not fair to Red Velvet’s LGBTQ+ fans to do this.
The way queer K-Pop fans yearn for their faves to get together, to come out, to be something they may not be is problematic, as these idols have a right to some level of privacy and should be free from having these assumptions thrust upon them. At the same time however, we should be allowed to enjoy this thing we love through a queer lens, as we are queer and are free to interpret the world in the way we wish it were. It is a complex and ongoing issue—one I don’t have the answer to. But what is not okay is the pandering to queer fans in the form of a lie or queerbaiting. This is not real representation; it is dishonest at best and malicious at worst.