Since late-April, rumours about a group of idols seen at a club in Itaewon began circulating around Korean forums and made their way to Twitter. Why is this a big deal?
A man infected with Covid-19 visited five clubs in Itaewon on May 1, and into the early hours of May 2, which subsequently led to a spike in new cases. The man supposedly has over 1,300 contacts that were told to self-isolate and get tested. Because a bar he visited turned out to be a gay bar, it resulted in a homophobic backlash that led to a fear of forced outings of people who frequented the bar.
Since April saw a significant decrease in cases, these news sparked a public outrage. Shortly afterwards, Winner’s Mino was caught in a club doing an impromptu performance, and Park Gyuri, a Kara ex-member, was partying unknowingly in the same club the infected man was. When the restrictions tightened, the government called for people who went to Itaewon from April 24th to May 6th to get tested and self-isolate.
Then, Dispatch dropped the news on May 17th that the ‘97-liner gang was spotted in Itaweon on the nights of April 25th through the 26th. The group’s name comes from the years the idol were born, and it’s composed by BTS’ Jungkook, Astro’s Cha Eunwoo, NTC’s Jaehyun and Seventeen’s Mingyu — in short, a collection of some of the popular boy groups at the moment. This was met with backlash from netizens who saw the action as irresponsible, as the men had not been to just one place, but had started at a restaurant, then moved to a second bar that also functions as a club. And to add fuel to the fire, Cha Eunwoo and Jaehyun continued to attend activities in the following days, despite having been in crowded places during prolonged periods of time and the health guidelines indicate that a person should self-isolate as prevention.
Now, you can say the blame may be misplaced, as the group went to these places before the infected Itaewon man and the rise in new cases. But since the virus is not slowing down anywhere in the world, social distancing is still mandatory and the forgoing of masks in public spaces is even fined in some countries. And the places that are succeeding in lowering cases knew of a possible new outbreak in the future, which is why South Korea was taking baby steps in lifting certain restrictions in the past month.
So, is it really irresponsible for these men to have gone out to crowded spaces with the risk of getting infected? Yes. So it’s everyone. Even if the closure of public places happened later? Yeah. Everyone is supposed to follow precautions, famous or not. A lot of the criticism goes into some of them still attending promotions after going to the bar instead of self-isolating, which not only put them at risk, but others around them of being infected. Cha Eunwoo, especially, was criticized for participating in the “Thank You” campaign, which shows support to medical workers on social media.
And this is where the fandom comes in.
I think everyone who has been into K-pop for some time has seen the extend that fans go to protect their idols. Tweets defending the idols in question began pouring in right after the news, even though what they are defending are the same things that have been frowned upon literally everywhere else: going out and exposing oneself during a pandemic that’s killing a significant portion of the population. These tweets, puzzlingly enough, have a very high number of engagements.
Some of the arguments are that they were allowed to go out because SK had not yet put on a lockdown. SK never put on a lockdown. Schools were closed and large events were canceled to avoid crowds. Lots of countries didn’t resort to a lockdown to reel in a potential economic crisis, but it’s still required for people to stay home since it’s one of the most effective ways to avoid getting infected aside from washing your hands and social distancing. And the irony of this situation is that most likely the people defending these idols are likely quarantining at home.
So why is it then that fans are so eager to excuse the decisions of these men to go out and expose themselves to the virus? These men are all adults. They knew what they were doing when they made the choice to go out. NCT fans trended hashtags in support of Jaehyun, and BTS fans were collecting tweets of people expressing their disappointment in their idol, as it was “offensive” to them that some fans don’t blindly support someone.
There’s this phenomenon among boy group stans that every time their idols are caught in a scandal, they claim they’re the scapegoats in a cover-up. They believe that celebrities are so important that the public will be more worried about them than actual real-world news. And in this case, it’s the Nth Room, a case of sexual assault where young girls were blackmailed into becoming sexual slaves for men and their videos were posted in Telegram chatrooms. The day of the ‘97-liners scandal came out, the face of “GodGod”, the founder of the chatrooms, was exposed to journalists. And somehow, the fans took this as a sign of Dispatch throwing their “babies” under the bus to cover up a story that is already in the news. It’s not like celebrity scandals only matter to a portion of the public, right?
Now, I won’t get into how offensive it is that people have so little self-awareness to use a case like this for the sake of defending a group of grown men who were aware of what they were doing when they decided to go out that night. This kind of insensitivity towards victims has happened plenty of times before — when Seungri and Burning Sun were exposed, his fans made it a habit to harass people who condemned the sex trafficking ring happening in his club, and they’re still loyal to this day, despite the man being investigated by police for seven different charges. (There were also cries of a government cover-up here and he eventually walked free.) When Shinee’s Onew was accused of touching a woman inappropriately in a club in late 2017, and subsequently charged, their fans claimed that he was the victim of a media witch hunt, despite there being witnesses of the incident. The real victim dropped the charges after being pressured by SM, but maintained that she was sexually harassed. The list could go on.
These are obvious tactics to deflect the blame and severity of a situation to other parties: the reporters (in the Itaewon case, Dispatch), the government, netizens, etc. This also happened in November, when Jungkook of BTS was booked and questioned for hitting a taxi with his car. The idol was not indicted, but their fans were trending hashtags, fighting other fans in his defense and clearing up his Twitter searches, even though he clearly made a serious mistake that shouldn’t be brushed aside as it involved another person.
This also stems from the belief that idols are perfect, and this idealization is a product of the marketing that entertainment companies sell to their consumers: the fans. So it’s no wonder that the fans, who have spent years believing and investing in this fantasy, work to keep it up no matter what, even when the idols’ flaws are brought to the surface and the evidence is hard to ignore. It’s there that this culture becomes toxic, not exactly because of the job these idols procure to their fans, but the fans’ inability to step outside the bubble and use their objectivity. They’re holding these very real people to very high standards, and when these expectations are threatened, they either dwell in denial or face the disappointment. And for the oppapologists, it’s always the former.
Oppapologist is a mashup of the Korean word “oppa” and “apologist”. It’s a dated euphemism for K-pop fans who defend male idols who get into a scandal. As male idols’ scandals are usually worse (misogyny, rape, sexual harassment, drugs, you name it) than female idols’ scandals, the perseverance of these fans to defend and excuse their actions has become infamous (“Oppa didn’t mean it” was a meme because of this). Whereas female idols’ careers are stalled or tainted forever for not knowing a historical fact, fake bullying scandals, dancing, certain expressions (seriously), etc., male idols are allowed to go on promoting despite getting tangled in illegal activities or sexual harassment. Some of them even admitted publicly to these crimes and faced little or no consequences.
A lot of these fans cry out against “cancel culture” as they believe some people on Twitter choosing not to stan a person anymore means the artist’s career is over. If that was the case, people like Chris Brown or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or tons of other famous men wouldn’t have jobs anymore. All these men are still actively working and have even been awarded for it.
And so, the obsession for idols’ clean and innocent image is probably never going to end. It’s going to keep being a thing as industries work to maintain it, people forget eventually and K-pop moves fast. Nobody works to bury these incidents harder than their fans, even if this shows a very real lack of common sense on their part and a lack of empathy for the people all these male idols have hurt, often the victims being women. Even so, herd mentality like this is dangerous, and like social distancing, it’s useful to set some distance from this fantasy sometimes and see idols for the real, imperfect people that they are who also should be held accountable for their actions.