An Informal Review of Sun Jung’s “Korean Masculinities”: Part 1

Don’t get too excited: this book may have a very, very sexy picture of Rain on the cover, but it’s a trap. Published in 2011 by the Hong Kong University Press, Sun Jung‘s Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols has been talked about quite a lot in the academic field of Cultural Studies. People have claimed that it’s the most informative book on Hallyu out there at the moment.

There has yet to be an academic review of this book, and it’s about time to do one. To be fair, I have a specific way that I approach the academic study of Hallyu, and everyone is entitled to have their own views and their own ways at looking at things. But this book needs a review, because people need to know where it’s real place in academia should be: in Communication Studies, not in Cultural Studies.

The description of the book from the inside of the cover states, “South Korean masculinities have enjoyed dramatic influence in pan-Asian popular culture, which travels freely due to its non-nationalistic appeal. This book investigates transcultural consumption of three iconic figures the middle aged Japanese female fandom of actor Bae Yong-Joon, the Western online cult fandom of the horror film Oldboy, and the Singaporean fandom of the popstar Rain.” Based on this, the book should be about what Korean Masculinity looks like as it’s moved across the globe within the Hallyu Wave. So it seems like it should be an ethnographic approach to a particular area of gender and cultural studies. But if you picked up the book expecting this, you’d be disappointed.

Instead, Jung’s book is a communications analysis of certain popular Hallyu products as she’s been able to look at them on the internet. Her sources include websites for the movies and idols she studies, a few interviews and questionnaires, news articles from Korean newspapers and journals, and her own observations. But there’s a problem: Jung is lazy.

First off, her sample sizes for the websites, questionnaires, and interviews are way too small. She interviews a few women from K-Pop idol Rain‘s fanclub in Singapore, and collects 100 questionnaires from the general body of the Singapore fanclub. Compare this to the number of survey-takers we’re looking for: 16000. I’m not assuming that there are that many Cloud members in Singapore, but she could have also gathered data from Rain’s other East Asian fanclubs, such as ones in Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Second, she restricts her samples to a very limited range of people, mostly middle aged women located in East Asia. While it’s understandable that Jung may not have had the time or the funds to travel to many different places to interview Kpop fans, she could have done more for the global fans by looking at more than just one or two websites per chapter in her book. Plus, although she looks at the US-based website for the Korean film Oldboy, her sources come almost exclusively from East Asia, and most are about women.

This is significant because it gets to my third point: because she focuses on the women and how they participate in Hallyu culture (websites, concerts, fanclubs, K-Dramas, CDs, etc.), she treats the men that she is studying as mere objects – passive puppets created exclusively by television and music companies with no will or input of their own.

This is so frustrating because, as fans of Hallyu in general, we know this isn’t true. The actors and idols who create these products are living, breathing people with input and ideas and wills of their own. There are a wide range of people in all areas of the globe who love K-Dramas, films, and kpop. And, on top of all that, if you type “Bi-Rain” into Google, you’ll find thousands of websites dedicated to him – why only study one?

Jung has proved that she is lazy in other articles she’s written. One that was published in 2009 called “The Shared Imagination of Bishōnen, Pan-East Asian Soft Masculinity: Reading DBSK, and Transcultural New Media Consumption,” is another example of her lazy scholarship. In order to do an analysis on the masculinity of the popular Kpop group TVXQ, Jung looks at… YouTube comments. Just YouTube comments. There’s no way that an accurate analysis of the masculinity of TVXQ can be done with YouTube comments alone – she should have at least looked at their music videos, interviews, and fansites in order to really get a good feel for what the Cassies think about their men.

Perhaps that’s the true problem: Sun Jung is not a fan of Hallyu products, or if she is she’s very good at hiding it. CeeFu will talk more about this, but you can tell that she doesn’t really have an understanding of Kpop fan culture. Just wait until you hear what she says about Clouds at Rain’s concerts – you won’t believe what Jung comes up with. On top of simply not being a fan, she throws Japanese terms into Korean popular culture like bishonen and kawaii. These two words alone have very specific definitions and connotations for Japanese popular culture, so using them to describe Korean culture is almost equivalent to saying that those two cultures are the same. Someone who had really done their work would realize that kawaii is really different from the Korean ‘equivalent,’ aegyo.

Jung does have a lot of interesting and insightful observations into Hallyu – from a communications perspective. But this book is incorrectly put forth as an ethnographic cultural study, and is considered to be the authority on Hallyu scholarship, especially about Kpop. Many academics have studies the films, and some have started looking at the K-Dramas, but Kpop is still technically up for grabs in the academic world.

On top of all that, even though she doesn’t appear to be a fan of Korean popular culture in general, it’s been reported that at a lecture she gave in the United States, she said, “You can’t really understand Kpop unless you’re Korean.” Jung herself is Korean, and yet she didn’t know that it is inappropriate to use a Japanese term to describe Korean popular culture. So, to say that others outside of South Korea can’t possibly understand Kpop is simply wrong. Could she really say that fans in East Europe don’t understand Kpop, when one of the most popular Facebook pages dedicated to SHINee is run by two sisters from Turkey? Try telling my Cassie friend from Latin America, who is heartbroken over the TVXQ/JYJ controversy, that she couldn’t possibly understand Kpop because she isn’t Korean. And I may be from the US, but I know what the difference between aegyo and kawaii is.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Miguel says:

    Hi! Just read your review of Sun Jung’s book. I haven’t read her book yet but would you mind telling me her sort of findings about Korean masculinity through Rain and the other stars mentioned?

    1. CeeFu says:

      We will get into the entire book, but in general, Sun Jung argues that Korean masculinity represents “soft masculinity.” She argues that Korean masculinity is hybrid, a blend of a variety of cultures, but its popularity is based on its “non-national” nature. i.e. its specific lack of Korean culture. She argues that Korean masculinity rarely represents “hard masculinity,” which relates to aspects of masculinity that includes sexiness and toughness. Basically, “beast-like masculinity” is not Korean masculinity. We don’t agree with this. Please come back to see what we think about Rain, Oldboy and the Kpop idols! Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thank you for this incredibly enlightening review. I was looking for reviews of this book to see if it’d be viable to use in my senior thesis, and this was exactly what I was looking for. As a K-pop fan and a three-year student of Japanese language and culture, many of the points she raised confused me and this helped pinpoint what exactly was so odd about her writing. So thanks again for this! I shall use it mostly to prove how my point is more valid than hers…

  3. Wendy says:

    Thhanks for the post

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