This isn’t a revolutionary take, but I really do think that K-pop idols are treated badly by both the industry and fans. I can’t blame the latter much because they’re only responding to a culture already cultivated by the industry, but there are outliers that are bad (more on that later).
I hate the insistence for perfection for K-pop stars, in all manners physical and emotional. I like my faves flawed and messy and, well, human. I think it’s already a remarkable enough feat for them to have undergone years of grueling training to perfect their performing skills—even in areas that aren’t really their forte. Might be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think singers should be expected to be good dancers and vice versa. It’s amazing if you’re a triple threat like that, but that shouldn’t be the base level expectation. I’ve seen Twice members, who are goddesses on Earth, be dragged for having “subpar” skills. Make it make sense? (BTW, I’m not saying that as a fan you can’t make constructive criticism about their skills or performances, or even lightly clown on them. I think a bit of that is healthy, though some take criticism to the next level and make it toxic.)
But it’s not really just about performances, is it? K-pop idols need to be the perfect human beings: Aside from being able to perform well, they have to be gorgeous—held to beauty standards that are almost inhumanly possible, with stars and trainees reportedly having their meals rationed if they go past a certain weight—on the morally right side of all things (even when it doesn’t make sense) and available. The last one is incredibly important. Idols are meant to be unattainable yet also uniquely approachable. Parasocial relationships are the norm, even when they could be, and have been, detrimental to both the idols and the fans. Let’s put a pin on that.
I think the way the industry (and it’s not just the big three, it’s all of the industry except for a notable few) standardizes these impossible expectations is irresponsible. And I hate that because this is the standard. It’s easy for idols to be treated like machines and discarded. I also hate that idols, because of their front-facing careers, are always the ones to take the heat for things that weren’t their choice anyway. Think about Hyuna being sexualized as a teen and how she was slutshamed for that. Or, well, think about idols who are rightly called out for cultural appropriation in their looks and stages—most times, even if they are visibly uncomfortable with it, they have no say.
I’ve said it jokingly before, but I really do think idols should unionize. It isn’t fair how they’re treated in the workplace, and how their careers can go to the gutter due to any number of arbitrary factors. If a group doesn’t take off because their company didn’t put any effort marketing them, it’s not their fault.
Now let’s talk about the fans. I don’t want to paint fandom in broad strokes. I don’t think all K-pop stans are toxic! In fact, my brief foray into K-pop Twitter was a very nice and soft experience. But you can’t deny that the ones who are toxic are very, very loud about it.
The fact that multiple idols have died by suicide after receiving a barrage of internet harassment should have already clued everyone in by now. But whenever this happens, there’s a short period in which everyone takes a moment to take it in, and then they go back to the usual. I’m tired of having to see people talk about how we need to treat idols kinder because I’m tired that this is still a problem.
But aside from people sending hate, another thing I’m concerned about is, again, the parasocial relationships formed between idols and fans. The girlfriend/boyfriend experience aspect of the idol industry is frankly something I’m very iffy about, and I’d rather we move away from entirely. I like my idols because they perform well and make good music, not because they’re the perfect fodder for my fantasies. That’s unhealthy, and it can open up idols to dangerous situations.
I’m talking about sasaengs, fans who take their “love” for their idols to the next level and stalk them. WayV recently called out these kinds of fans a few months ago, when a group of sasaengs stalked them while shooting in a remote location in blistering snow. Allegedly, one of them even tried to take photos of the members in the bathroom. When you do that, you’re not treating your fave like a human.
Your faves don’t owe you anything. Just because you stream their music doesn’t give you the right to demand their life or take ownership of their careers. They’re human beings! They have a right to privacy, to have their own separate lives outside being an idol.
However, this too is a problem with the industry. Not enough companies protect their talents from being stalked and harassed like this. It shouldn’t just be up to the fans to band together and stop sasaengs and weird perverts from targeting their faves. As entertainment companies who know what the culture is like, they need to be proactive in protecting idols.
Some of you might be reading this and say, “But they signed up for this! They knew what they were getting into.” But most of these artists got into this industry (aka started their training) at very young ages. Teenagers are infamous for bad decisions. At the same time, these artists signed up to work hard to live out their dreams, not to work in punishing environments and face extreme public scrutiny.
I’m just saying, we should allow our idols to loosen up a little.