The discourse around K-pop or Korean pop has been increasing significantly in Manipur.
It started roughly with the K-pop boy band M.O.N.T visiting the state on December 28, 2018. In the next year, another K-pop boy-band VAV, and then the internationally renowned DJ SODA also visited Manipur, on June 2 and October 4 respectively.
Unsurprisingly, this discourse too was reflective of the deep patriarchy and homophobia in our society. Along with questions on loss of culture and identity, the critique that K-pop’s male artistes were “effeminate” and “homosexual” became my main concern.
Looking deeper into this necessitates not the isolation of K-pop but an attempt to critically locate it in relation to other cultural and social elements in Manipuri society.
First things first, no admirer of K-pop is sacrificing their indigenous culture at the altar of something so “foreign” as K-pop. Their engagement is with an emerging popular culture, a process which they hope will devise new possibilities of exploring cultural tastes and sensibilities. K-pop allows us to transcend the widely visible and accessible Bollywood culture. At the same time, it represents an opportunity for resistance against mainstream Bollywood and its many misrepresentations of the Northeast.
Representation of the Northeast in popular culture, in films like Yeh Gulistan Hamara (1972), Dil Se (1998), Tango Charlie (2005), Mary Kom (2014), Axone (2020) is not free from bias. The films are made solely for their markets, which is the larger Indian mainland. These films, however, form the basis of many people’s understanding of the Northeast, just as Hollywood informs us of Americans.
At such a juncture, K-pop comes as a breath of fresh air, shattering normative perceptions of masculinity and femininity perpetuated by Bollywood cinema. K-pop says a man can be a man even if he doesn’t have a beard, have tricep or abs. While men are criticised for not being manly enough – a case in point is the K-pop stars – they are not criticised for exhibiting the worst attributes of masculinity, like misogyny or violence. Such is our patriarchal society.
My male friends often say that our society must not allow such “foreign culture” to sway us. This is, after all, another form of typical male chauvinism which they feel comfortable exhibiting because it is primarily young women who constitute the larger K-pop fanbase in Manipur. The sight of women enjoying a display of unconventionality bothers them. So they accuse them of not loving indigenous culture and tradition.
The attempt to design and dictate what women are allowed to want is one of the most crucial and brutal aspects of patriarchy. Women are expected to uphold patriarchy’s demands. Their agency is often sacrificed.
Thus it was that two K-pop boy bands visiting the state send our boys and our men into panic. Suddenly, they all became saviours of indigenous culture, safeguards of identity. This also exposed the fragile masculinity of the ‘cultural saviour’ camp.
What is more interesting is the fact that when the female artist DJ SODA visited the state, the talk of culture and identity took a break. Men, as usual, occupied a public sphere of their own that has long since been denied to women. A sphere where they are allowed to fetishise a performing woman’s body. It is because they know of this sphere that they fear the spectacle of the boy bands’ performances.
Recently, K-pop has made an immense impact in politics. Millions of fans around the world came together on Twitter by taking over hashtags that opposed the Black Lives Matter movement after the brutal killing of George Floyd by the police in America. In the meantime, the biggest K-Pop band in the world, BTS, supported and donated one million dollars to the movement. In an awe-inspiring phenomenon in the history of celebrity culture, the fans of the band also made a donation of the same amount to the movement.
On June 2020, to humiliate the rightwing US President Donald Trump in his political rally in Oklahoma, K-pop fans used social media and TikTok to register themselves in thousands with no intention of going to the event. In India, the K-Pop fanbase in the Northeast came together to donate to relief efforts in the aftermath of the Assam floods that affected lakhs and claimed more than a hundred lives. My point is that K-pop fans are politically conscious, and want to change the world for good. And therefore, they act.
Ironically, but also sadly, the culture saviours choose to overlook the influence of Hollywood and western music. How much K-pop poses a “threat” to our culture is not even a serious question. What needs to be discussed is not K-pop, but the rhetoric and practice of homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and patriarchy that stirred this cultural conservatism in the first place.
Veewon Thokchom graduated from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University, and did his post-graduation at Ambedkar University, Delhi. Veewon is currently pursuing M.Phil in History at Mizoram University.
Featured image: Members of the K-pop band M.O.N.T. (CC BY-SA 4.0)