The Korea Herald


[Grace Kao] BTS Jin’s hugs and idols’ 'fan service'

By Korea Herald

Published : July 2, 2024 - 05:32

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Immediately following BTS member Jin’s completion of his military service, he hosted an event where he hugged 1,000 fans. Apparently, he wanted to hug even more people than that, but HYBE had to talk him down. Still, the event was not without incident -- there are videos of multiple women taking the opportunity afforded by a hug to kiss him. I find this behavior disgusting and I’m glad that the suspects have been charged with sexual assault. Still, this event was one where hugs were invited, and Jin is an adult.

K-pop idols are expected to perform a surprising amount of "fan service." We have all seen the cute finger hearts and cheek heart poses that they display for photographs and interviews. The concept of "aegyo" encompasses all of the cute facial expressions and behaviors expected of idols. However, I was not prepared for the level of interpersonal contact fans can have with idols -- this is especially true for female fans of newer boy groups. By definition, the average age of a member of a newer idol group is younger. In fact, they can be as young as 15 or 16. I was personally shocked to see how far fans went during the small public fan meetings where they could get up close to their idols.

Earlier, I wrote about the morning promenade at “Music Bank.” Before the 5 p.m. broadcast, there are numerous pre-recordings (every performance with a set is pre-recorded) with fan club members. They are required to bring their light sticks and learn the fan chant for the performances. From about 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., some members of groups might come outside and meet with fans. These are usually members of lesser-known groups, although I did see Hikaru of Kep1er earlier this summer handing out photo cards to more than 100 fans.

As a fan, when I have the chance to meet a favorite musician, I would compliment them and talk about my favorite song, etc. I would not criticize their outfits or ask them to pose in any particular way, and I certainly would never touch their faces. In fact, most of us would not approach a stranger and touch their faces.

However, the K-pop fans I saw clearly did not feel the same way when it came to meeting their idols. There are events where fans are lined up, and the male idols distribute photocards while talking to and posing for and with fans.

It was common to see members of boy groups being touched, without their permission, by female fans. This includes pressing their hands against the idols’ faces and asking them to pose for a number of photos. They often began with the typical heart poses, but I even saw women who had a script for the idol to read as they filmed them (or put them on a phone call with a friend).

Not only was the behavior striking, but I heard the majority of fans not using polite grammar forms (that one should use with a stranger) when talking to their idol -- rather, they used a familiar and almost demanding tone in telling idols how to pose.

At these fan meetings, I’ve heard female fans criticize male idols for not having their shirts tucked correctly (only to be told that this was the style of the outfit). My Korean friends tell me that many fans spoke to idols in a tone that is reminiscent of how one might talk to a puppy.

When I asked my contacts in the K-pop industry about this behavior, they told me it was common and expected, and that boy groups, especially the newer ones, suffer through this treatment by their female fans. Many idols believe that this is part of their job as they vie for new fans. However, I clearly saw idols who looked very uncomfortable. Moreover, I learned that there are female fans that only support new boy groups because they can gain closer access to them. After all, with the exception of Jin’s event, one is unlikely to be able to tell a member of BTS how to pose for a photo.

Fan service does not stop here. Even during the broadcast of shows like Music Bank, there is ample time for idols to wave at and gesture to their fans and vice versa as groups line up on the side of the stage just before their live performances.

These range from innocent hand waves to outright flirtation. One female fan at a recent Music Bank flirted with members of multiple boy groups. She interacted with a new group’s member (the "maknae" or youngest member, who had just turned 16) for at least 5 minutes.

She looked to be in her late 20s. She pretended to hold up a sign supporting a girl group, and the idol gestured that she had broken his heart. They blew each other kisses. When there were only girl groups lined up for their performances, she actually fell asleep until her favorite male idol re-emerged at the end of the show.

While I know that K-pop idols, like all musicians, have to appeal to their fans, I found the objectification of the idols to be particularly troubling. I felt so bad for these idols, and I hope that fans learn to treat them as they would any other human being. I’m sure none of these women would touch the face of someone they just met at a party, so why do they think it’s appropriate to grab their favorite male idol? The objectification of idols, particularly those who are underage, must be prevented.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.