It goes without saying that K-pop culture (and indeed most Asian pop culture) is ever on a quest to stay forever young, placing high value not only in youthful appearances, but youthful mannerisms as well. As the term ‘idol’ often comes with the caveat of an (unspoken) expiration date, it is inevitable that over time, as idols age, the majority of them will fall out of conventional idoldom and fade away from the public spotlight.
But what about the fans? As K-pop fans grow up alongside their favorite idols, do they, too have an (unspoken) expiration date? What of older fans, commonly referred to as (uncle) samchon fans and [pedo-]noona fans? Do they and should they face discrimination among K-pop fans for participating in typical obsessive fan behavior with younger idols and/or groups? Additionally, what of the double-standards of different public attitudes towards samchon and noona fans?
Let’s hear what our panel of writers had to say.
Maria: The terms of samchon and pedo-noona don’t refer to mature fans that simply enjoy music (at least from my perspective). Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any discussion. People from all ages can enjoy K-pop for different reasons. But sex sells everywhere and even better in the world of K-entertainment, albeit in a masked form.
The problem with these fans doesn’t lie to me in their age/age gap or even in their still minor idols, but in the reason that ties the two categories of people together: the way sex is sold. Idols are intentionally made to look younger through aegyo, clothes, or even made-up personalities. They undergo a process of infantilization to match these fans’ supposed sex-symbol: a child with still undiscovered, but potent sexuality. A perpetual coming of age is what IU‘s image has come to be, but the way she portrays it in videos or music looks more like a girl hitting puberty and turning into a woman than a teen transcending into adulthood. It’s this what usually makes me uncomfortable: why has a prepubescent child become the sexual ideal of people in their twenties, thirties, forties or even more?
Outside this particular situation (the sexually-charged relationship between an older or just adult fan and another adult playing a male/female nymphet), I don’t find much problem with these fans, even if they are turned on by idols. Youthful figures are attractive and it doesn’t change much with age — I insist though on ‘youthful’ and not ‘childish.’ I’m just curious: what are the double standards when it comes to samchon/noona fans? I didn’t pay much attention before.
Gaya: I think the double standard is evident in the names themselves, or part of it at least. Noona fans would be in the same generation as the idol they stan, while samchon fans would be much older–and yet they are seen as counterparts; all you have to do is be a few years older than a guy and suddenly you’re a cradle snatcher, or worse (“pedo-noona”). Discrimination based on age is nothing new to women, but it is quite disheartening to see it rear its head in K-pop in this way. Just let me stan the dongsaengs, dammit!
Because I only discovered K-pop a year ago, most of the idols are not that much older than me, and a fair few of them are younger, too, which I can find frustrating at times. I know there are people out there who don’t care about age, but I can’t bring myself to be one of them. I’ve been devising “rules” to keep myself in check, because it is easy to lose track of ages, especially with the Korean system of assigning age meaning that idols are year younger than their Korean ages, sometimes even two.
Even appearances can be deceitful: I was shocked to discover I was older than Minho because he’s so tall and has this deep voice and is se–yeah, anyway, it prompted me to create my first rule: The Minho Rule, whereby I would not stan anyone younger than Minho. This then quickly changed to The Taemin Rule, followed by The Sister Rule, until I gave up and decided to just stan anyone who’s come of age, regardless of how younger than me they are. That way, they’re legal in both Korea AND Australia.
Ambika: I hadn’t really thought about the names themselves. I guess you don’t really here eemo (aunt) fans as much as you hear noona or “pedo-noona.” Though with regard to that double standard, I can’t help but think that the use of noona is in part to prevent insulting the woman. Based on some K-dramas and responses of women in variety shows and such, so correct me if I’m wrong, calling them ahjumma off the bat seems to make assumptions about their age or appearance that could be offensive. On the other hand, uncle fans embrace their status and have no problem with being the samchon, granted they’d be tickled pink if a younger someone called them oppa.
The term “pedo-noona” seems overused, especially when you hear or read about girls as young as 16 or 17 exclaiming that they’re pedo-noonas because of a year or two of age difference. Personally, I don’t see a problem with admiring or even having some desire for those that are younger than you, especially in the context of K-pop. The image of idols is built up this way, and as long as it doesn’t translate into some drastic or disturbing action, especially one that affects the idol in question, I think it’s all right.
Luckily for me, I’m at the age where most older groups are entirely older than I am, and I’m about the same average age as rookie groups. When you’re rather close to the legal adult age, rather than thinking of which idols are legal, since that really keeps you at your own age, I think you think of the years separating you from that other person. So my personal lower limit tends to be two or three years below my age.
Paloma: Actually, I always thought the double standard to be the other way around and noona fans were better considered than samchon fans, I don’t know if that’s only among international fans though. On one hand, it is true what you say, Gaya, that you rarely hear about ‘oppa fans’ probably because they are assumed to be just normal fans; on the other hand, I’ve never heard of ‘eemo fans’, like Ambika said, so older female fans somehow benefit from the fact that they are all noona fans, which is a much nicer term than samchon I think; it implies less age difference at least. Sure, I have heard of ‘ajumma fans’, but you definitely hear more about noona fans even in the same category as samchon fans.
And following what Maria said, I also think both terms imply a sexual attraction towards the idols, so noona fans are still winning there. I mean, a noona is someone an idol could date — don’t they always ask the idols in the interviews if they like noonas, also obviously encouraging older fans? — but calling older fans samchon makes them sound like middle-aged, perverted guys.
Although again it may be that I’m seeing it from the point of view of an international fan, because if Korean fans are a bit more equilibrated, international fans are definitely mainly females (and these are statistics I just made up), and I know girl groups male fans over their thirties are usually much more questioned than female fans the same age.
But personally, and as a girl that is a noona fan to 90% of the members of groups debuted after 2008, I can’t care less — first because I’m not gonna date them, just fangirl over them, but secondly because even if I dated them I just don’t care (OK IF THEY ARE UNDERAGED I CARE). And I think it’s only natural the affluence of older fans, because rookies are damn young and because as Maria says, companies sell youth and adolescence as a sexually desirable quality obviously appealing to them.
And also let’s not forget (I’m reading a book about this ok?) that not every fan is an obsessive and sexually frustrated person, like the word pedo-noona would suggest.
Johnelle: As an older K-pop fan, let’s just say I would be a noona to most idols, this subject is something I have thought about. I don’t believe that fans have an expiration date; any idols throughout history and location have had fans of all ages. As a fan of music, I think anyone should be able to like and be a fan of whomever they want. But — and this is a big but — I can also see why some might judge older fans of idols depending on their intent or actions.
I do think that older female fans are looked at in a better light than older male fans, because seriously — when you hear “uncle fan,” nine times out of ten you’re probably thinking of a perverted old man looking at the young female idols as sexual objects and not as an idol whose music and personality they admire. But one doesn’t need to be an “uncle fan” to think the same thing, as I’m sure a lot of teenage and young adult male fans might feel the same way. It’s just kind of the way things are in any culture when an older “creeper” guy is ogling, following around, or idolizing a young beautiful female. What might also be fueling this unfavorable light on “uncle fans” is the problem of older men raping young girls in South Korea, most infamously in the Na-young case. Even after the controversy of the Na-young case — which resulted in calls for harsher punishment for rapists including chemical castration — rapes have still been occurring, the most recent case being that of a 7 year old girl in Naju in late August.
Why aren’t older female fans called ‘eemo’ fans, but noona fans instead? Noona definitely has a better connotation to it; it acknowledges that the women is older, but only enough to be an older sister–not an aunt fan which would infer that the woman might be as old as the idol’s mother. And I am in no way claiming that noona fans don’t also look at male idols as sexual objects (and believe me, I never knew female fans could be so perverted until I got a tumblr), but most of the time it’s not looked at in a sexual predator type of way for the most part as it is when it’s a male doing it. Which I think comes down to the double standard there is for rape too — is the idea of a woman raping a man just as conceivable as the reverse? And how many men would actually admit they were assaulted or raped by a woman? So even though an older woman can see a young male idol in the same sexual way that an older male fan can, it just isn’t thought of as being quite as bad–not that it’s right, but that’s just how society (and not even just Korean society) is. I think also idols don’t mind noona fans because they tend to have money (and a lot of it) and a lot of it goes towards concert tickets, fan events, merchandise, and presents for the idols.
As for younger fans judging older fans because they’re not “acting their age” and for being a fan of much younger idols–it’s their right to have an opinion, but they don’t ‘own’ the idols, or K-pop even, for that matter. So what if there are older fans who enjoy going to concerts and screaming their heads off for an idol–if it’s done for fun and/or maybe to relive some of their youth. Are they really hurting anyone? Young ‘uns might think that older fans are uncool or not acting their age, and I do admit that sometimes I check myself and think if I’m being a spazz. But in the end everyone has the right to enjoy their fave group’s song or concert. Who really cares what other people think? And I hate to break it to all the youth out there, but one day, you too, will be old. So be nice.
(Images via Newsen, TS Entertainment, SM Entertainment, LOEN Entertainment)