Straight Korean Female Fans and Their Gay Fantasies

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 May 2019

Member Reviews

I almost decided not to read this book, as the title made me bristle. The notion of straight women fantasising about gay men is a sensational and rather vexed one, and (in my experience) is an over-simplification of the actual situation. In the worlds of both fan fiction (slash) and pro fiction (MM romance), there is a significant representation of readers and authors who do not identify as straight and/or as cis-gender women. And while the characters written and fantasised about are still mostly idealised gay men, there is a slowly growing diversity there as well. 

Personally, I am very aware that people tend to see me as a straight cis-gender woman, but I'm not. I'm queer in both sexuality and gender. Hence I often feel invisible. 

So, I was glad to find that the theme of invisibility can be found throughout this book, for both the straight women and the gay men - who Jungmin Kwon sees as natural allies in a necessary resistance to the conservative hetero-patriarchy of South Korean society. I was also glad to find that Kwon firmly believes that the broader community of fans she's considering are not all straight women. However, her interviewees all identified as such, and therefore she respected that, and did not presume to comment on wider identities unless drawing on material sourced elsewhere. 

Long story short: I got over myself and quit bristling. 

Kwon's book is far more thorough than the title indicates, as she covers economics, politics, 20thC history, culture and consumption, feminism and post-feminism, as well as fandom, and films and television. 

She takes a very thorough look at the subject of fans, and the evolving acceptance of LGBTQ people, in the context of South Korea. Kwon acknowledges that there is still a long long way to go before LGBTQ people are accepted. However, the activity of straight women fans, and the entertainment industry's recognition of them as an audience worth creating for, has been a significant push in the right direction. 

The study begins with fans creating and consuming slash fic, yaoi, and other more indigenous forms of fiction, with a focus on boy bands and other subjects. There is (or was) much fannish appreciation of "flower-boys": androgynous or feminised young men. From around 2005, with the film "The King and the Clown", filmmakers began catering to this perceived desire from women, and included flower-boy main or secondary characters. After all, capitalism is always looking for new markets! 

Gay men were less impressed, and wanted more accurate representation, for example of "poor, senior, and plain-looking gay men". And indeed there have since been instances of LGBTQ representation becoming broader and more realistic. 

Interestingly, not only are Koreans seeing more queer characters in film and television, but also more "bromance". I find this an interesting development, as bromance is certainly a genre that can be "safely" surface-read as friendship by a mainstream audience, but which also allows other audience members to read more into the characters and relationships. Certainly my early slash fic very much involved "friends to lovers" tropes developing out of buddy films. In the West, we are now growing tired of perceived "queer-baiting", but in Korea this is all still so new that fans and LGBTQ people are mostly glad for any kind of representation, and perhaps only cavil in private. 

Kwon acknowledges that such developments in both culture and society are still small and rare, and are strongly opposed by many. However, she sees hope for the future, and believes that fans have played a significant role in getting this far. She quotes Larry Gross in considering the power of cultural representation. We can conclude that, while we still have a long way to go, LGBTQ people and women in South Korea have become more visible and hence more powerful - and that cannot be a bad thing.
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I've been curious what ground The King and the Clown (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492835/) and A Frozen Flower (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1155053) sprang from, under what conditions. Followed more recently by The Handmaiden (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4016934). All of which get at least 8/10 from me, probably 9. 

Now I know the context. This book, engagingly written in first person by a fan turned academic, looks at the nexus between homoerotic fanfic written by straight girls, LGBT communities, and the mass entertainment media. It is interesting, first, to see such a similar trajectory, shared issues, with slash fiction in the West. Jungmin Kwon examines too the distinct Korean direction these relationships have taken. Different from Japan where, she reports, for two decades gay spokespeople have been at 'feud' with yaoi or local slash culture, with the latter insisting it is and can be 'apolitical'. Less so Korean fans, who have become responsive to accusations that their fantasy is detached from, and does not help, reality. As for those hit films that found their way around the world, the entertainment industry has cottoned on to the size and resources of the fan market and commercialised their style of stories, with the result of a steep rise in visibility for gay lives. It was still hard for the author to locate gay men to interview, but she found them quite positive towards this women-driven 'gay boom'. In her own voice, Kwon ends with the hope and belief that straight women fans and LGBT communities in Korea can do a lot in allyship. Fanfic was a way to escape the patriarchy, for women to acquire agency. Women and gay people belong in the trenches together, Kwon is sure.
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