There is an unspoken agreement between idols and fans. It’s a shared investment in the creation of a particular fantasy. This can be generalised to things like unrealistic expectations of behaviour, for example dating bans. Sometimes it is specific to an idol, as “characters” are assigned to them by their entertainment companies. A lot of the time, idols are expected to endure conditions of employment that are unacceptable with smiles and humility. Predominantly, they are thought to be polite, humble, and uncomplaining despite being under immense physical and emotional demands. They are not only supposed to perform well on stage, their whole lives are taken over by maintaining a certain perception.
The pressure of intense scrutiny is a heavy burden to bear, and an idol is more likely to slip than be the paragon of good behaviour for their entire careers. This burden is in some ways shouldered by fans, entertainment companies, and personal staff. Entertainment companies control the flow of information and access to idols, so their images can be maintained. Idols play along with a bit of light deception, and fans engage in mental gymnastics to ignore all evidence that their biases are human. The mistakes idols make are minimised and filed away through distraction, speculation, and dismissal by their fan base, so they can navigate the fantasy land of K-pop relatively free of consequence.
Wanna One‘s controversy during a live celebrating their newest comeback on Mnet’s website is a prime example of this phenomenon. The broadcast was live before the members were aware they were being filmed. In the video the members are heard speaking in a way they wouldn’t on any normal broadcast. Some of the unfiltered comments were: “Why can’t we receive payment?”; “Why do we only receive 20 percent?”; and “Why can’t we sleep?” Members were also heard swearing, announcing their phone number, and telling saesangs to leave them alone.
The fallout from this controversy was significant enough for the group and YMC Entertainment to post an apology to their fans. After the footage had been removed and the apologies issued, the members went about promoting their comeback in a relatively normal fashion. It’s normal after a scandal for a media hiatus to happen to allow for the hubbub to die down. In this case, with a full album to promote and most of the group involved, they had no choice but to carry on as usual.
As is normal with this kind of scandal, no detailed explanation was offered for what had happened. The public were only told Wanna One would reflect on their actions and show a “better side of themselves” to the public in future. Some fans asked why the group should apologise for complaining about bad working conditions during an unguarded moment. Some were disapproving about sexual comments and the swearing. The members were reamed for speaking casually about taboo topics in front of older staff members. This kind of behaviour has had serious effects on previous idols’ careers like Lee Tae-im and Yewol’s informal speech scandal. The Tae-im/Yewol scandal was aggravated by conflicting statements made by the agencies involved, drawing more attention to the incident.
Companies have learned to say less and allow fans to burn out the fire of indignation on a wall of silence. People seem to be all too happy to believe the most outlandish theories if they somehow absolve their favourites of responsibility in a scandal. Wannables sent the footage to a forensic lab to be analysed and publicised; the results declared the swear words heard on the broadcast to be machine-made background noises. A reference made to a sexual act was deemed to be the phrase, “answer me” misheard by all except the digital scientists employed by the fans.
Dodgy science may be good enough for some, but in other cases, no evidence is good enough to exonerate someone whose guilt has been decided by public opinion. Up10tion‘s Wooshin, was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal where multiple witnesses, including his alleged victim Somi, confirmed he had not done anything wrong. Digital scientists were similarly employed by fans in that case to prove his innocence to no avail. Wooshin took a hiatus from promoting due to mental health concerns, widely speculated to be caused by the stress of the accusations.
The backlash any idol accrues for scandalous statements appears to be linked to how much they are liked by the general public. Less popular entertainers may find their careers are over due to carelessly spoken words. Ex-Boys24 member, Lee Hwayoung was removed from the group after saying having to shake hands with fans for hours made him want to throw up. Former Bulldok member Hyung-Eun had her departure from the group officially announced after she speculated BTS‘s V had athlete’s foot and spoke casually of her seniors, igniting the ire of fans. Whereas, notoriously outspoken idols like Heechul regularly speak on controversial topics and retain their popularity.
Some of these situations depend on the reputation of the idol, but a lot also depends on their popularity and the power of their agency. Likability will have fans making excuses for the most outrageous behaviour and rationalising that idols are “only human” to dismiss offense. Idols are not judged according to fan expectations, but when they display flaws they’re ignored because they’re dealing with unrealistic standards. The word “bias” is apt to describe how fans deal with idols, as the tide of public opinion is undoubtedly skewed. When that tide will turn seems to be as arbitrary as who is the current flavour of the week.
The artificial facade projecting otherworldly innocence allows for a multitude of sins to be ignored. Prejudice and malice are excused in the same breath as complaining about inhumane employment conditions because they’re all human actions. Fans scramble to find excuses for their favourite groups, but lead the charge against less popular idols with unwavering zeal because none of it is based in reality.
People are imperfect and idols, despite what fans may believe, are people. They make mistakes, sweat, swear, and go to the toilet. In order to judge the depth of the error we must have a scale of reference. If we use the bar that “idols are not supposed to be like us” as a standard we can’t really hold them accountable when they do something worse than say “fuck”. Any error they make won’t be judged according to conventional morality but according to whether we like them or not. We can’t help protect them from inhumane conditions of employment and exploitation if we mentally assign them superhuman abilities of endurance. As tempting as it is to live with an elevated view of idols, it might be better for all of us if they could be a little closer to earth.