A typical day at a coffee shop. If you’re a K-pop idol, that is. (image source)
| Read Part 1 |
This concluding half of this discussion on ‘sasaeng’ fans will involve quite a bit of psychological and behavior-development theory. Two concepts that relate to the analysis of the general fan psyche are parasocial relationships and attachment, which will be defined in the first two sections (and this may be review for those of you who have gone through some form of Psychology 101). Overall, it’s important to understand the foundations of basically ‘(‘normal’) fangirling/fanboying’ before delving into what possibly goes on in the mind of a ‘sasaeng’ fan. This will be addressed in the end, where I’ll not only draw from the previous sections but also examine what existing theories and studies cannot explain when it comes to our case.
Of course, what I’m doing is merely hypothesizing. As mentioned before, because we don’t have much academia on ‘sasaeng’ fans the best we can do is draw from what is available (which, sadly, is predominantly western theory and western case studies). The conclusions I make or the ones you draw yourselves should be seen as tentative and open to re-evaluation, especially as more and more light gets shed on the topic as a legitimate social concern.
The stuff might be kinda heavy, so I’ll do my best to avoid sounding dry… I know how it feels like to drift away when someone’s talking to you about theoretical textbook-y kinda stuff* :’(
*first year Sociology, 8am class. A soft hoodie and empty seats in the back row were my best friends that semester.
As fangirls/fanboys, we have with our favorite celebrities what are called ‘parasocial relationships’: one-way relationships with famous people in which we feel we know them really well through constant and pervasive media exposure, whether they be passive (Kim Kardashian’s face plastered on billboards and magazines everywhere), or active (browsing the BIGBANG tag on Tumblr everyday). The more interviews, performances, appearances, and even fan accounts we watch or read, the bigger this illusion is, despite never having met them nor interacted with them in real life . The process through which such bonds are formed is the same foundation of basic interaction and relationships with everyone we meet, which is why the emotions we may have for celebrities can get quite powerful. Parasocial relationships feel real, though they are merely imagined .
Some researchers debate that parasocial relationships is a regular part of normal cognitive development, especially for young people, and essentially “performs important emotional and social functions” :
For example, a romantic parasocial relationship with a pop star may enable a young person to practice a relationship at a safe distance as a preparation for an adult relationship .
Yoseob and I, for example, have a beautiful
parasocial relationship. We’re totally dating; he just doesn’t know it yet. (gif source: watermark)
‘Attachment’ refers to a “strong enduring affectional ” bond to a particular other. Attachment forms the foundation for all relationships — mother - child, husband - wife, even fan - celebrity. There are two elements involved: perception of other, and perception of the self in relation to the other. These are called ‘working models,’ and are what determine the type of attachment that plays out in future adult relationships .
The perception of the other can either be positive or negative: “trustworthy and available” versus “unreliable and rejecting”. The perception of the self is also either positive or negative: “worthy of love and support” versus unworthy . Possible combinations define the style of attachment adults (and young adults) exhibit, which are based on one’s history of interaction with her/his primary caregivers. According to one scholar Dr. Kim Bartholomew, attachment in adulthood is classified into the following* :
*Of course, each classification is merely a prototype, of which different people exhibit varying degrees.
Anyone else remember the Peanuts from their childhood? (image source)
THE ‘SASAENG’ FAN PSYCHE: INBALANCES AND EXTREMITIES IN PARASOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS AND ‘ANXIOUS-PREOCCUPIED’-ESQUE ATTACHMENT?
At least, it seems likely. General stalker-tendencies are derived from an attachment style similar to, or a very extreme version of, ‘anxious-preoccupied.’ Accordingly,
Individuals with this attachment style may indulge in approach and stalking behaviour because they overvalue others and perceive that contact with others is a means by which they can gain personal validation, which they can use to challenge negative views of the self. In essence, acceptance from others serves to indicate that the individual is acceptable and valued. Individuals of high social status, particularly celebrities, would be expected to be most at risk of approach behaviour and stalking motivated in this way .
Concerning parasocial relationships,
The significance and influence of celebrity figures [tends to decrease] with age… however, for some individuals the relationship with a celebrity may become highly significant and even come to dominate their lives… Such individuals devote considerable amounts of time to their favourite celebrity and are likely to attempt to make contact and/or approach the celebrity .
I think this, plus a hyper ‘anxious-preoccupied’ attachment is where the tendencies of ‘sasaeng’-ism can start, although that is not to say that we all don’t experience once in a while the desire to get in touch with our idols. Sending fan-mail or attending fan-meets is a very normal part of celebrity fandoms, but the problem starts when we start displaying behavior that is outside the boundaries of what is appropriate and expected of us as fans, or even, as ultimately strangers to the celebrity. Simply put, we do not know them personally, regardless of the fact we may experience or take in their presence on a very personal level, and we need to be conscious of the division between the two realms. Maybe for some, that line is unrecognizable, if not completely nonexistent.
Screencap from a featurette aired on tvN-ENews on ‘sasaeng’ fans. Watch it here, with English subs.
ANOTHER CONCEPT: ‘CELEBRITY WORSHIP SYNDROME’
To be frank, many academics are saying different things when it comes to conceptualizing ‘celebrity worship,’ especially in its most extreme forms. One discussion I stumbled across related the three dimensions of Celebrity Worship (CW) to a particular personality theory (‘Eysenckian’) *:
*Again, not everyone is exclusively one or the other. There are varying degrees within each category, as well as crossovers between types and variation within those combinations as well.
In other words, those who exhibit behavior related to the third type may have higher a higher risk of falling in ‘sasaeng’-like tendencies*.
*highly depends on how ‘obsessing’ and ‘obsession’ is defined here…
*What would be super interesting to do is to conduct a survey among supposedly ‘sasaeng’ fans and have them answer questions that measure possible attributes of psychoticism. For example, items can include “I will try to enter my favorite idol’s home if the least I know for sure is that I will not get arrested” or “I have been scolded by an idol or her/his manager more than once for following them around.”
Other CW theories include :
WHAT IS MISSING FROM THE PICTURE?
There are some ‘sasaeng’ fans who describe their activities as an addiction:
“It’s an addiction. It gets worse. I have to come periodically. If I don’t I keep thinking. If I don’t go, it’s weird, strange. And makes me want to go..”
Which indeed suggests that this is very much a psychological experience.
None the less, there’s also the fact that they seem to not be able to distinguish right from wrong. Many of these stalker ‘fans’ are not harmless. There have been accounts of idols getting physically injured on purpose (hit by rocks, getting their fingers wedged between car windows), and breaches of personal privacy that are indeed punishable by law in many countries (tapping into cellphones, robbing social security numbers). The lack of legal restraints should have something to do with it… if these kids have no authority figure telling them not to do something, then how would they know what not to do (as much as we would like to think it is universally wired into us the boundaries between what’s harmful and what’s not)*? Is this an external, environmental influence, as much as it is a cognitive experience? On top of that, remember that the population of ‘sasaeng’ fans is supposedly not a small number, especially among popular idol groups. And these ‘fans’ are not anti-social, unlike what we usually think of when it comes to ‘psychopathic’ behavior. This may call for some type of cultural ethnographic study. Are there any contributing factors found only in North-east Asian fandoms and celebrity culture (there supposedly are ‘sasaeng’ fans in China and Japan as well)?
*It’s so strange because these ‘fans’ probably know they’re ostracized and disregarded as ‘real fans’ by their peers (and even so ‘authorities’ within their fandom), but they still none the less do what they do.
Screencaps from Entertainment Relay’s documentary on ‘sasaeng’ fans following the JYJ incident. If there’s anyone out there who knows where one can get a hold of this with English subs, please let me know! (image source)
CONCLUSION: WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
Why did I ask myself this question -_- Obviously more legitimate research into this phenomenon, and even implementation of legal enforcement. Where the heck are the laws that protect these celebrities? What’s more, are there any laws that prevent stalking and invasion of privacy among ‘normal’ citizens? If so, why do they not apply to celebrities*?
*I know in Hollywood, a person’s right to privacy wanes when a PR is hired, which is usually the case for public figures. This is why pop culture gossip and public rumors are somewhat warranted under the law.
Moreover, these ‘sasaeng’ fans do indeed have a problem that needs attention. If they are in fact developmental or psychological, then their needs cannot be swept to the side. The thing is, South Korea and many parts of Asia in general are still too hesitant to confront issues of psychological disorder and what not. This needs to change.
This discussion was an attempt at merging existing theories of celebrity attachment and worship and considering the context of K-pop and even South Korean society to shed more understanding on the weird world of ‘sasaeng’ fans. I feel that it lacked analysis on the latter, so it’s possible I could be revisiting this topic sometime in the future.
Before I conclude, I just want to note that I don’t mean to come off as, I guess, ‘unique-izing’ the things these ‘sasaeng’ fans to specifically to K-pop, because of course, such behavior can be found in different contexts all over the world. Then again, that’s the question that also needs to be address — is it indeed ‘unique’ to K-pop? Moreover, what I’ve noticed is that such cases merely get media exposure, but again, no legal action (as opposed to in Hollywood).
There is a study, however, that was conducted among pop culture fans in Malaysia in which findings “mirror [those] in the West”:
… participant’s age was negatively associated with celebrity worship and that self-rated attractiveness was positively associated with celebrity worship. Overall, the present results suggest that celebrity worship in Malaysia may be driven by market and media forces, and future research may well be guided by use of the CAS (Celebrity Attitude Scale — same standard used to measure the aforementioned classifications of CW) .
This study and many similar to it floating around indeed establishes a good starting point for East Asian fandoms. Again, the discussion does not end here. Feel free to share any thoughts or points you feel this post missed. As for me, I’m gonna go update myself on what oppahr’s been up to these days. #yolo
(If any of you would like a copy of the following publications, please contact me via my g-mail or Facebook!)
 Roberts, K.A. (2007). “Relationship Attachment and the Behavior of Fans Towards Celebrities.” Sunderland University, United Kingdom.
 Bartholomew, K. and Horowitz, L.M. (1991). “Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model.” Simon Fraser University, Canada; Stanford University, United States. (The American Psychological Association, Inc.)
 Meloy, J.R. et al. (2008). “Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures: A Psycholgoical and Behavioral Analysis.” (Oxford University Press).
 Viren, S. et al. (2011). “Celebrity Worship Among University Students in Malaysia: A Methodological Contribution to the Celebrity Attitude Scale.” University of Westminster, United Kingdom. (Hogrefe Publishing)