Book review

Straight Korean female fans and their gay fantasies, by Jungmin Kwon

Michelle Cho

University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Keywords—Gender; Korea; Sexuality; Slash; Yaoi

Cho, Michelle. 2020. Straight Korean Female Fans and Their Gay Fantasies, by Jungmin Kwon [book review]. In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

Jungmin Kwon. Straight Korean female fans and their gay fantasies. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019, paperback, $65 (236p) ISBN 9781609386214, e-book ISBN 9781609386221.

[1] Jungmin Kwon's Straight Korean Female Fans and Their Gay Fantasies provides a detailed look at the role that young women's imaginative projections have played in shaping the national mediascape in contemporary South Korea. The book aims to unravel the seeming paradox by which (mostly) straight Korean women's fandom of a fantasized gay sexuality has inadvertently expanded the larger public's conception of acceptable forms of masculine gender presentation and sexual identity. What's more, Kwon argues, straight women's projected desires for aestheticized gay romance are the source of what is now seen as the trademark of Korean culture industries more broadly—that is, feminized masculinity, especially in Korean wave media content such as K-drama (Korean TV serials) and K-pop (Korean idol pop) and their transnational fandoms.

[2] Kwon's study takes care to contextualize Korean women's fandom of gay-themed media. Straight Female Fans posits the following indispensable frameworks for situating these fandoms: the sociocultural transformations of the millennial turn in South Korea; the history of South Korean women's relationships to consumption; and public attitudes toward gendered consumption—especially but not exclusively media consumption—as the domain in which ideas about liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and national branding converge in South Korea, from the early 1990s onward. On the basis of this latter framework, Kwon aggregates various forms of gay-themed media, focusing on the community of reception rather than genre characteristics or industry factors that differentiate various texts. The appetites of Kwon's straight female fans range from slash/yaoi fan fic to art house and commercial cinema to what might be termed the global gay media, particularly North American television shows, that have been credited with mainstreaming gay representation during the late 1990s and early 2000s, albeit through global gay media's association with whiteness, aspirational consumerism, and middlebrow taste. In this regard, Kwon mentions Queer as Folk (British, 1999–2000; American, 2000–2005), Queer Eye (2003–7), and Will & Grace (1998–) as key examples, alongside the postfeminist standard Sex and the City (1998–2004). It is this very expansiveness of the category of gay-themed media that gives the fan identity that Kwon explores a specific sensibility and rationale. Straight female fans' omnivorous appetites for narratives of nonheterosexual intimacy become legible as resistance to the oppressive force of patriarchal heteronormativity in the lives of these newly self-reflexive liberal subjects.

[3] Straight Female Fans presents a historical argument across five thematically organized chapters as well as an introduction and a conclusion, each divided by subheadings. The book thus reiterates the temporal beats of its diachronic narrative through varied lenses. Kwon also embeds her own membership as one of "those girls"—the somewhat dismissive phrase used to describe the straight female fans who serve as her primary subjects—into the project at various points, thus imbuing her narrative with a deep sympathy and a confessional air. The introduction explains Kwon's position as a particular type of acafan—one whose trajectory from innocence to experience is representative of the group whose contours Kwon sketches throughout the book. First as a participant and later as a researcher, Kwon identifies the varied groups—marketers, academics, journalists, and media producers—that hail this consumer demographic. This gender and industry context impels Kwon to coin the term "FANtasy" to name the fan culture of straight women's interest in gay male representation as well as the aggregate forms of gay-themed media whose consumption defined a generation of young women who came of age during the period of media liberalization in South Korea. Kwon writes,

[4] I collectively refer to all female fans' interest in and desire for gay male erotic relationships as FANtasy. The syllable "fan" is capitalized intentionally to highlight the subjectivity and cultural power of these enthusiastic media consumers in imagining and realizing their fantasy. These fans may be longtime fans of yaoi, BL [boys' love], or slash fiction; ardent watchers of global gay-themed programming; repeat viewers of mainstream gay-themed movies; and readers and authors of Korean fanfic. It is difficult to define this subculture because it is a manifestation of diverse tastes and aspirations for gay identity and love among (heterosexual) women across the world. One clear common denominator is that FANtasy fans consume a gay male body that they themselves create based on their own fantasies, not a real-world gay male body. However,…these fantasies are leading to real societal changes. (11)

[5] After establishing the analytic category of FANtasy, Kwon relies heavily on it throughout the book. Chapter 1 details the context of media liberalization in 1990s South Korea that opened the Korean cultural landscape to multiple sources of FANtasy or gay-themed content, tracing the transnational flows of gay representation in American television and film and the so-called gay boom in Japan. Kwon subtly suggests that a desire for cosmopolitan attitudes befitting a newly democratic society spurred audiences to seek out depictions of sexual minority subjects, and that the association of gay culture with conspicuous consumption also fueled these cosmopolitan fantasies. However, she stops short of making the explicit connection between gay representation, liberalism-cum-cosmopolitanism, and the opening of the Korean media market to new foreign content. Kwon's analysis nonetheless suggests that the globalization boom at the turn of the millennium involved not only the fantasy of a borderless world but also one of plastic and boundless consumer identity, demonstrated by a new appetite for the exotic spectacle of nonheteronormative characters and lifestyles.

[6] Chapter 2 uses the discourse of postfeminism to explain the conflation of consumer and gender empowerment in South Korea (as elsewhere). The chapter begins with a broad history of popular misogynist attitudes about the promiscuity of women's desires, based on women's perceived appetites for foreign brands and media. Kwon then highlights a qualitative shift in public assessments of women's consumption patterns in the 2000s: while still derided as shallow, antisocial, and deviant, women's pursuit of individual pleasure through consumption began to gain legitimacy as a form of societal agency and liberal self-determination.

[7] Chapters 3 and 4 narrow their scope to present a more targeted historical narrative of the mainstreaming of gay bodies in South Korean cinema. Moving across both spheres of commercial and indie cinema, and citing both fiction and documentary films in the same general phenomenon of "FANtasy Mainstreamed," Kwon posits a definitive rupture around the 2005 box office hit The King and the Clown. These two chapters query the pros and cons of increased visibility through close readings of select examples of domestically produced, gay-themed films, comparing their aesthetics and political valences in pre-2005 and post-2005 cases. Ultimately, Kwon concludes that the phenomenon of increased visibility of gay bodies and lifestyles, even if resulting from a cynical strategy to capitalize on straight women's putatively perverse desires, has had a progressive impact on the attitudes of the general public toward homosexuality. To arrive at this conclusion, Kwon suggests a more expansive assessment of the effects of commodification, arguing that the reification of gay identity as commodified spectacle can have a pedagogical effect, much as fan studies scholars have argued for the pedagogical impacts of fandom as praxis. Here Kwon draws on scholarship that maintains that the commodification of marginalized identities can consolidate group identity, especially by bringing into public consciousness previously unimagined or invisible subject positions. By the same token, fandom understood as praxis—generative and communal world building—rather than merely as a mode of consumption may offer similar appeals.

[8] The final chapter shifts focus from "those girls" to Kwon's interviews with young gay men in Seoul and their views on gay representation in mainstream media and on the latter's female fans. In contrast to the critical views of straight women's objectification of the fantasized gay male body, particularly those of Asian scholars of yaoi and BL fandom that Kwon summarizes earlier, Kwon's interviewees suggest a tolerance and appreciation of the possibility for solidarity between gay men and young (straight) women as groups who are similarly oppressed by Korea's culture of Confucian patriarchy.

[9] This last set of assertions about the ways in which media fandom can function as protoactivism and a basis for solidarity between a marginalized group (gay men) and another marginalized group that is drawn to the commodified version of the former group's identity (FANtasy fans) is perhaps the shakiest ground for Kwon, who admits that she has been a target of criticism for precisely this proposition, and that she had difficulty recruiting gay male interviewees, given that her FANtasy fans often do not actually know or interact with members of the queer community in South Korea. On this point, readers coming to Kwon's text from queer, gender, or sexuality studies may find her response to this criticism inadequate. She states that she understands the criticisms (and her feelings have been hurt by the accusation of condescension), but she nevertheless wants to try to encourage alliances between FANtasy fans and gay men in South Korea. Moreover, readers may question the text's lack of clarity about the ways in which metrosexuality and homosexuality relate, as homosexuality and feminized masculinity are sometimes conflated. This is partly a function of the untranslatability of terms: identity positions, labels, and understandings of nonnormative sexual identity and gender presentation don't always traverse cultural contexts. While Kwon is attentive to matters of language, helpfully explaining the specific terms used in East Asian discourse around queer identity and nonheteronormative sexualities to highlight problems of translation, the text also bears some responsibility for the conflation of gender presentation and sexual identity. Kwon pays relatively scant attention to the impact of class and respectability politics—the salutary effects of new consumer marketing to cultivate male consumption—on the public perception of gay identity in the 2000s.

[10] Straight Female Fans presents much information that would be of interest to fan studies, communications studies, gender and sexuality studies, and Korean studies. However, readers looking for in-depth analysis of fan praxis may also find the text more focused on the status of its subjects as gendered consumers rather than as participatory fans. While the book offers ethnographic accounts of individual fans in chapters 1 and 2, the text does not broach the collective identity of FANtasy fans. Indeed, Kwon foregrounds this aspect of her analysis in the section where she defines FANtasy, noting her inability to make definitive statements about this subculture. This admission thus still raises the question of how women's appetites for nonnormative gender representation cohere into a fan culture or community, which they undoubtedly do. In lieu of extended engagement with FANtasy consumers' own analysis of their fan identity, Kwon foregrounds instead what she sees as their unique characteristic: the insatiable and omnivorous appetite that straight South Korean female fans who fantasize about an idealized male femininity have, seeking to fulfill their desire for the spectacle of soft masculinity across middlebrow cinema, Western TV, commercialized idol pop performance, and the subcultural space of fan fiction. This nondiscriminating appetite is at the center of Kwon's conclusions, as this guarantee of the group's attraction to gay-themed media is what convinces the commercial media industry to attend to it. Moreover, the association between Western humanism, globalization, and the embrace of liberalism in South Korea provides crucial context for understanding the significance of gay identity as an expression of Korean progress in matching a Western-cum-universal standard of human rights.

[11] The strength of Straight Female Fans is the way in which it conveys the complex specificity of the Korean case in fleshing out the comparison between BL/yaoi and slash as transnational phenomena that are coimplicated, not simply cultural analogs across regions. The text's linking of the media sphere to broader social currents, in order to provide insight on the zeitgeist of what's been called "new millennium South Korea," is incredibly useful, as is the text's access to both fan and industry actors' voices in its treatment of the specifics of the film industry. Overall, Straight Female Fans is a welcome addition to work that delimits and challenges the Euro-American bias in fan studies, as well as the presumed legibility of mediated gay identity within mainstream LGBTQ discourse.