Fans and Fantasies 2.0: Investigating K-pop and Bishoujo Games to find The ‘Perfect’ Commodity
In 2013, a popular K-pop idol named G-dragon liked a photo on fellow idol Krystal’s Instagram (KpopStarz 2013). Krystal is another K-pop idol. Due to their high-profile status, this brief interaction instigated a rumour that they were romantically involved. In turn, many fans were enraged as many disapproved of the idea of them together. After receiving several death threats, Krystal deleted her Instagram account (ibid). In other news, a Japanese man referred to as Sal9000 married his virtual girlfriend in 2009 (Lah 2009). The character, named Nene Anegasaki, comes from the Nintendo DS videogame LovePlus (ibid). When asked about their union, Sal 9000 responded “I love this character, not a machine… I understand 100% that this is a game and I cannot marry her physically or legally” (ibid). These puzzling events depicted: 1.) The commodification of K-pop idols into socially-controlled objects, and 2.) the humanization of a virtual object through socially ritualized unification. These cases raise the concern of how consumers form a relationship with their chosen commodity, and the consequences of their interactions. Situating simulacra with the consumer-commodity relationship of Otaku-bishoujo games and the K-pop idol-fans help respond to these questions. Afterwards, these models show how the interactions between the consumers and commodities standardizes a ‘perfect’ look, behaviours, and relationships. Furthermore, these standards are often unrealistic and unattainable causing unintended consequences.
Setting Simulacra in the Context of Consumer Culture
In the postmodern era, the boundary between the real and imaginary has been blurred. Consequently, people associate the images surrounding an object to be the actual representation of it. This notion describes the idea of simulacra — an endless reproduction of signs which eradicates the distinction between images and reality (Baudrillard 1994). Simulacra results in a simulation which threatens the differences between the “real” and the “imaginary” (ibid). Bogard expands on this notion and argues that simulation aims for the “more real than real” (1996: 31). In other words, everything appears to be “too real” to leave any room for doubt (ibid). In relation to the present consume culture, there is an active manipulation of signs for consumption (Featherstone 2007). Hence, the consumption of objects is no longer related in terms of their practical utility (Lury 2011). Complementing Bogard’s “more real than real” discourse, commodities are consumed based on their associated images and values rather than its primary use. This position assumes that the consumers are a passive agents that easily accept the images to be real. With this regard, they are persuaded to have a bias about the looks, behaviours, and social relations associated with commodities. Therefore, a major consequence of this type of consumer culture is the standardization of values, norms, and expectations dictated on the commodity and consumers.
The Consumers: K-pop fans and the Otaku
The Otaku and K-pop fans are the chosen actors who consume the commodities. These two groups are defined as ‘fans’ — a collective that invest time, effort, and imagination in everyday object to make those object serve their needs (De Kosnik 2013:100). They infuse commodities with value by performing certain expressions and specific actions (ibid). Fans are chosen for the role of consumers because their identities are based on how they consume, repackage and add value to their desired object.
K-pop fans are an active audience who select and interpret the commodity with their own backgrounds (Kim, Mayasari, and Oh 2013:61). They are also heavily invested in ensuring success for their favourite idols. For example, they often carry publicity stunts to market their idol groups to a wider audience (ibid). These stunts are usually spontaneous and disassociated with the idol’s agencies.
On the other hand, the Otaku are a particular collective that was derived from fandom behaviour. Originally, their identities are based on varied practices and fandom-related activities regarding interests such as anime, manga, game, and the internet (Sone 2014:196). They are known to be loners (Hairston 20130:312). They are also seen as a deviants within the cohesive Japanese social structure (ibid). However, Otaku have evolved into the description of “children of media and technology” (Grassmuck 1990:5). Specifically, they are “posthuman”, who are more comfortable with machines than with people; they are confused about the differences between the real and the virtual (Galbraith 2011). Compared with the K-pop fans who create and repackage their objects according to what they want them to be, the Otaku have transformed themselves into a specific group that base their identities and social relationships with non-human commodities. The Otaku illustrates how these social relationships with virtual characters are “more real than real” as they are made possible via interactive mediums such as bishoujo games.
While the subject of any particular otaku’s obsession is idiosyncratic to the highest degree, I focus on one of the most popular and controversial fetishes –sexual fantasies about animated images of prepubescent girls. They are known to admire cartoon images of young girl characters and develop a strong psychosexual bonds with them (Sone 2014:197). Specifically, the heterosexual male Otaku perversion is characterized by the denial of distinction between sexual fantasy and reality (ibid: 198). Moreover, they challenge the heterosexual normativity of sexual relations with real bodies (ibid). In Japanese society, they are seen as deviants because of their desires for a social relationship with virtual bodies.
The Commodities: K-pop idols and Bishoujo Games
K-pop idols exemplify a special case of how people are transformed into commodities. These idols are typically part of a band whose members are trained and supervised by entertainment management companies (Park 2013:6). However, these companies adopt a system that protects their interests before their entertainers (Ho 2012:474). Hence, these idols are more liable for themselves while the profit from their work mostly goes mostly towards their agencies.
Before becoming a K-pop star, trainees go through a rigid and systematic training. For example, trainees live together and study in the same school (Park 2013:6). They train their voices, learn professional choreography, and study multiple languages especially English, Chinese, and Japanese at the same time (ibid: 6). They are also expected to physically train their bodies to “sculpt” upper body muscles (Oh and Park 2012: 382). Additionally, females are expected to maintain the feminine body shape that Koreans call “S-line” (See Figure 1). In extreme cases, trainees are banned from communication devices for up to one year in order to alienate them from outside contacts (ibid). These methodical forms of isolation and the standards enacted on these trainees shape and control their values and behaviour. Moreover, these processes commodify and conform them into their expected roles as an idol.
In contrast, bishoujo games are the commodity of choice for manifesting certain otaku fantasies. These games are usually installed on personal computers, where the genre ranges from conversation simulators to pornography (Galbraith 2011). Notably, they are mediums that produce moe to satisfy the Otaku. A moe is the euphoric response that these Otaku obtain by responding to their fantasy characters (Galbraith, 2009). A distinct way to pursue moe is the transformation of objects into objects of desires (ibid). For example, the Otaku often turn animals and machines into beautiful girls to trigger moe (See Figure 2). Hence, bishoujo games allow the Otaku to obtain moe as they make it possible for people to interact with beautiful girls in the form of virtual objects.
The genres of these games vary from being very violent to tame. However, dating is often the central interaction and goal (Galbraith 2011). Players find themselves in first-person perspectives and rarely appear on the screen (ibid). There are also a multitude of narratives, storyline, and endings available as players are given a range of options (See Figure 3). How the players establish their relationships with the female characters depends on the options they have chosen (Galbraith 2009). Unlike the K-pop fans that can only enact their fantasies for their idols through writing fanfiction or interacting through social media, these bishoujo games allow these otaku to have many options in living their fantasies.
The Consumer-Commodity Relationship
The consumer-commodity relationship refers to the reciprocal interrelationship of fans and their objects when renegotiating values, expectations, and norms. The consumers and commodities affect each other to create a standard for both of them. Accordingly, fans are eager to praise what is right about an object, criticize what is wrong about them, and propose new solutions in order to improve the object (De Kosnik 2013:13). In such case, the object is about the fan (ibid). While the fans are assumed to be passive consumers who still adhere to the ideal image of an idol, they are able to exercise their agencies in influencing the commodities’ appearances and contents. This agency comes from their organized fandom-activities that influences the support given to their favourite idols.
However, I also argue that the fans also internalize the norms, values, and expectations given by the commodity through a more discrete manner. The commodities such as K-pop idols are created with inherent values. They present themselves in ways that show what the fans would like to see from them. In turn, I would argue that fans start to emulate these values for themselves. For example, idols show their audience a glimpse of their everyday activities, social relationships, and social roles. They do so by being frequent guests in popular Korean variety shows (See Figure 4). In these shows, idols showcase their skills and strengths along with the appropriate personality such as being humble to please their fans. Due to the popularity of these shows, idols are praised by the hosts to a wide audience. Since the fans believe that these are the proper etiquette, many fans incorporate these positive traits into their lives.
To further understand this phenomenon, I will introduce Goffman’s notions of ‘impression management’ and the ‘front stage’. Impression management is the actor’s way of control or lack thereof in communicating information (Goffman, 1963). Meanwhile, front stage is the aspect where the individual’s performance regularly functions in a fixed and general fashion to define the situation for the audience (Goffman 1959:22). Using Goffman’s impression management, I argue that these variety shows present the possibilities for the idols to maintain certain impressions. They are able to show their front stage by choosing to share specific parts of their personal lives, personality, and skills to the wider audience. Relating these ideas back to Baudrillard’s simulacra, these staged presentation of idols continue to construct images of the ideal values in the Korean society. Hence, the audience are consuming idols because they have the humility, physical looks, and charming attitude more so than their entertainment purposes. In turn, the fans start to adopt these characteristics to create a standard for their idols and themselves.
The K-pop idols-fans relationship shows how people can be manufactured into commodities. Meanwhile, the otaku-bishoujo relationship demonstrates how people give human-like qualities into non-human commodities. These models illustrate how fans are consuming their objects for reasons more than their practical entertainment purposes.
Moreover, these characteristics portrayed in the commodities are set at a high standard. Most of these images require costly surgeries and regiment ways to tailor behaviour. As demonstrated by the bishoujo games, the perfect traits of a relationship is manifested from a virtual fantasy. However, the normalization of these imaginary images eventually turn them into a norm in reality. Hence, consumers and commodities have difficulties emulating these impractical principles. Thus, these standards are seen affecting issues such as the perfect image, the right actions, and the ideal relationship.
The ‘Perfect’ Image
Generally, the norm to succeed in the k-pop industry is for idols to conform into a specific look and be considered beautiful (See Figure 5). The ‘perfect’ look is composed of a sculpt body, s-line, double eyelids, high-bridged nose, slim jaw, and pale complexion (Francis 2013). However, these physical features are rare in East Asian demographics. Therefore, training packages for idols may include facial or other cosmetic surgeries (Oh and Park 2012:382). If the idol was not born with these traits, they are pressured to undergo surgery (Francis 2013).
Currently, these beauty standards for idols are transgressing into the day-to-day realm. The main demographic of K-pop fandom are adolescents and young adults, who share similar beauty expectations and values. For example, Korean documentaries and news segments on plastic surgeries are interviewing women in their 20s and younger (Seunghwa 2012). In these shows, young girls are talking about how they plan to have plastic surgery after high school graduation (Francis 2013).
These costly beauty standards that were once for the K-pop idols are transforming into a societal value. In order for idols to sell themselves as a ‘hot’ commodity, they have to meet the high standard of skills, personality, and physical appearance. Meanwhile, the audience consuming are applying these standards for themselves. These case illustrate the passivity of commodities and consumers as they follow the established beauty standards that was originally set for the idols. The fans reinforces these standards which pressure the idols to conform into it. However, the consumers have also internalized these standards due to the proliferation of idols presented in the media.
The ‘Right’ Action
K-pop fans have more influence over their idol’s careers. These fans engage in philanthropic activities such as donating rice to the poor in the name of their favourite stars (Park 2013:7). Their main goal is to improve the image of their idol (ibid). This fandom is also known for its organized and systematized fanclubs with very committed members (ibid). For example, fans have a fierce competition with each other for exclusive pictures and content about their idols (Allkpop 2012). Those who are active and helpful with providing information about their idols are rewarded with more benefits such as followers from their fellow fans (ibid). In this case, individual fans feel included in a collective that share the same identities and interests: being a fan of a certain K-pop band or idol.
Consequently, idols are more likely to adjust their behaviours for their fans. These adjustments include how they act in real life and with whom they interact with. Due to Korea’s small geographic space and intense paparazzi, many idols struggle to hide their personal lives. The idols’ entertainment agencies also provide media coaching to prepare them for intense scrutiny (Seabrook 2012). This process has become a protocol especially since a rumored sex tape or a positive test for marijuana can ruin their career (ibid). A famous scandal to illustrate the importance of proper behaviour is Jay Park’s forced departure from the K-pop band “2PM”. As a Seattle-native, Jay Park was homesick and posted “Korea is gay” on his MySpace account in 2009 (Seoulbeats 2012). 2 years after he debuted, the netizens (Korean Internet citizens) found this post and demanded for reparations and eventually forced him to leave the band (ibid).
In many circumstances, the personal lives and behaviour of these idols are constantly under surveillance. However, the entertainment industry has capitalized this scrutiny by arranging publicly pleasing behaviours known as “Fan-service” (See Figure 6). Fan-service is what idols do to make their fans happy. These actions are usually seen in live performance, variety shows, and ‘impromptu’ videos.
The importance of idols displaying the right behaviour is heavily emphasized if they want their careers to succeed. They use tactics such as fanservice as a form of impression management to enhance their characters Idols also hide aspects of their genuine personalities that are considered inappropriate to protect their image. This situation developed from how the fans negotiate their terms in what they believe their objects of desires ought to be.
K-pop idols are portrayed with the high standards expected in their behaviour, personality, and physical looks. In terms of simulation, many images that apply to the k-pop idols are manufactured away from undesired truths. In these cases, the problematic reality is that most of the original looks of these idols do not naturally adhere to the high beauty standards. Thus, they undergo surgery to acquire the ‘right’ images to please their audience. This process is similar when evaluating how idols simulate appropriate behaviours. They hide their flaws and emphasize what the audience wants to see in order to be a proper commodity. Hence, I argue that the ‘perfect’ image and ‘right’ behaviours shows how real and imaginary coexist within a consumer-commodity relationship. In general, both the consumer and commodities have accepted these ways to be the suitable looks and behaviours. Therefore, I further argue that these ‘excellent’ beauty and behaviour standards have become ‘more real than real’.
The ‘Ideal’ Relationship
One of the most notable features of the Otaku perversion is that they are not substituting virtual characters for women, but their actual orientation is shifted (Sone 2014:208). Saito states that since the Otaku were teenagers, they had been exposed to sexual expressions (ibid). At this point, they were conditioned to be sexually stimulated by looking at the illustrations of girls, cat ears, and maid outfits (ibid). These images are often referred to as part of ‘the database’ — a collection of designs and personality points, characters and situations that produce moe. Similarly with K-pop beauty and behaviour standards, the database provide an appropriate standard to fulfil the Otaku fantasy.
Bishoujo games use the database to create female characters that would trigger moe and therefore sell to their consumers. The interactive component enables the Otaku to express themselves and even experiment with a variety of identities through a multitude of options. The main goal of these games is to conclude it with the good ending (See Figure 7). Since this paper focuses on heterosexual male Otaku, this means that the player establishes a romantic relationship with his choice of female character. Often times, they are also rewarded with erotic images or romantic displays of affection to immerse their experience.
The saturation of these types of games in Japan supported a new form of relationship for people and technology. Players are more prone to develop romantic feelings for the female characters due to the game’s interactive elements. In other words, intimate relations with machines have become normalized in Japan (Galbraith 2011). Since these characters are hosted via technology, the otaku have humanized these technological devices. When technology is personal and portable, players can take their device out in society and publicly interact with them (ibid). Hence, social roles can be allotted and acted upon by the players with their devices. For example, some Otaku have taken their Nintendo DS on dates, spray it with women’s perfume, and even insisted a more expensive reservation for two at resorts (ibid).
Bishoujo games have given rise to the techno-intimacy relationship between humans and machines. Such as the appropriation of K-pop beauty and behaviour, the Otaku-bishoujo model uses the idea of simulation to associate female characters and virtual relationships to sell a commodity. However, this relationship has manifested a fantasy into a physical realm, complementing the idea of more real than real.
So what’s the big deal?
The K-pop industry shows the commodification of people as they follow a strict regimen that reinforces the standardization of beauty and behaviours. These standards are often and expensive, as demonstrated by plastic surgeries for the young demographics. However, these high standards also established the idea that a K-pop idol is a symbol of national pride and a respectable profession (Ho 2012:473). Consequently, becoming an idol is more costly and competitive. Currently, many prospective trainees are enrolled into inseong gyoyuk (Ho 2012:473–474). This is a special school that teaches them desirable traits such as humility, loyalty, and gratitude and enhances their chances to be groomed by entertainment agencies (ibid). Despite the high price, there is a low probability for the trainees and their families to receive a return on their investment, as only one in ten trainees make their way to debut (Seabrook 2012).
The Otaku-bishoujo case is complex as many Otaku are in solidarity. Hence, many of them dismiss others who label their relationships as deviant. However, an unintended consequence of this model is how the bishoujo games perpetuate stereotypes and hinder gender equality movements in Japan. The main characteristics in the database are submissive and passive personalities which create the idea of a ‘weaker woman’ (Tompowsky 2014:53). This issue is prominent when examining the speeches in these visual novels (ibid). At the same time, these games also promote the notion that their female characters are the ideal partners in the Japanese society (ibid). Hence, the limitation of the database on what dictates a right female character and the Otaku’s great exposure of these biases affect the way real women are treated. As a result, there is a contradicting discourse of how women are portrayed to behave and how they actually act in society. Hence, many Otaku are either ridiculed for their expectations or do not know how to approach and maintain relationships with actual women. Furthermore, these situations also result in Otaku further isolating themselves away from the societal norms and into a more comfortable and familiar realm of technological intimacy.
Understanding why a K-pop idol deleted her social media account by using the K-pop idol-fans model illustrate how fans see their idols through the lens of ownership. With this discourse, many fans feel that they have the right to show their disapproval because a relationship between Krystal and G-Dragon is seen as an inappropriate relationship. Meanwhile, Sal9000’s marriage to Nene Anegasaki can now be understood as someone who finds comfort in the technological realm. While his personal intentions are never stated, one can safely assume that the database helped calibrate Nene Anegasaki’s physical and behavioural features to fulfill an Otaku’s expectation of a woman and a romantic relationship. A possible future goal is to investigate how these perspectives and standards are primarily constructed by adding producers into the relationship. In this paper however, the complexity of the consumers-commodity models show the standardization and enforcement of looks, behaviours, and relationships. Furthermore the unintended consequences such as cyberbullying and isolation that arise from the costly standard become problems in their own right.
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