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K-pop - What are "Idols" and the problem generated by fandoms

The term "idol" is used to describe manufactured starlets and is commonly used to refer to singers, but it can also be used to refer colloquially to young celebrities in general.
- Wikipedia on Japanese Idols

As the definition above from the Wiki page for Japanese Idols, which comes from a Japanese book by Shoko Ueda, there should be no doubt about what actually are Idols: Artificial celebrities with the sole goal of creating an image that is then used as a brand for sponsors, endorsements, merchandising, commercials and sometimes even music. You need a celebrity famous with young adults to sell your brand, you get an Idol.

Since the core concept is their image, Idols must follow very strict contracts and rules to maximize their appeal and "sell dreams" using a persona or character. Usually these contracts include not dating, not engaging in any polemic activity or subject, and maintaining a persona of "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" for their fans: anything that damages this image will drop their "brand value" and, therefore, reduce or even cease their sponsors and endorsements. A wrong word or turn can ruin an Idol career in a heartbeat, and that makes maintaining the image for years a very stressful job. Unfortunately, some natural human behavior is also seen as a wrong turn in the career, such as showing true emotions and worries.

The main goal of any Idol is creating engagement and increasing their exposition. It is not about music, or dancing, or acting, but being known and spoken about. Their image is everything: once their image gain enough value, companies will hire them for endorsements and promotions, either by their agency, or directly (on early stage, they are usually contractually bound to only do deals through their respective companies, but once they eventually "pay for themselves" (the investment the company made to create the Idol image), some renewed contracts are more lax and allow the Idol some degree of freedom on doing their own promotions, usually by Instagram. But the huge competition, working hours and stress are not the worst part of being an Idol: the Fans are.

While the main goal of any Idol is to create an image adored by as many people as possible, this end up creating a sense of entitlement and even "ownership" from the Fans over their Idols. The Fans believe Idols should do whatever they want, and that their lives are public. The Sasaeng fans, "obsessive" fans, break any form of privacy the Idol maintain in order to get as close as possible, often committing serious crimes or even assaulting the Idol or agency employees. From that, Idols become the target of much toxic behavior, where their every move is closely monitored and the smallest slip can cause a career-breaking rumor. Since the industry wants fans to believe the illusion that Idols are their partners, Idols will often apologize for doing basic human activities such as having friends, or the worst crime of them all: dating. Sometimes even after retired, Idols will still be careful with their public image and apologize for anything that is frowned upon by fans despite the facts they are no longer Idols per se. To make it worst, obsessive fans are often proud of being obsessed and "loyal" to their Idols, so the neologism "stan", which was arguably created as a derogatory term, became mainstream among Kpop fans and eventually other fandoms. When people are proud to be mentally impaired to the point of stalking, obsessing and being entitled over celebrities, you realize the whole industry is in trouble.

This entitlement will also cause many other hardships for Idols: having to keep a positive attitude even when in extreme low health (physical or mental), being judged by things that normal people don't even care, and eventually bullying. Some fans will engage in "fan wars", believing that a person can only be fan of one single Idol / Idol group, and not only you should be loyal for that Idol, but attack other Idols to damage their image and indirectly help your Idol. The toxic fandom behavior has no limits, and its no surprise that several Idols in both Japan and Korea ended up committing suicide from the extreme pressure they are put under.

The result is obvious: the stress on Idols is tremendous, and most suffer anxiety and/or depression along their career (sometimes even pre-debut). Depression can quickly turn into suicidal idealization, and the history writes for itself. In 2019 two stars took their lives under the extreme pressure from toxic trolls and staning fans. Sulli was viciously attacked by trolls due to her personal life style (which was pretty normal for a normal person, but it is not forgiven for Idols), and Go Hara suffered multiple blows across her career being severely judged for having emotions, having opinions, and being a star. Eventually, society further failed her on an abusive boyfriend which exposed an already weakened star.

Idols, even as a product, should be separated from the people behind them: don't "stan" them (anyone who identify him/herself with this term is, by nature, lacking in empathy and possibly with signs of psychopathy, as they believe its perfectly normal to stalk and judge as part of their "love"), don't be a sasaeng fan (someone who "stans" to extremes), Agencies should protect their idols from comments (any comments, comments are not required to increase their exposition and brand value, but cause a lot of issues with the celebrities mental health), and should also offer 24/7 psychological support for all of their employees, including staff.

So the take out is clear: Celebrities are people, and there is no excuse to treat them as objects or judge them with impossible standards. Their characters/persona are high standard, and if they fail, its their own loss, no need to judge and attack them, but them as people are not yours to be attacked.

"Freedom of expression is a vital value in democratic society, but insulting and hurting someone else’s dignity is beyond that limit" - Lee Dong-gwi (Yonsei University)

It is not a Korean problem, it happens worldwide. It is not a K-Pop problem, it happens with all celebrities. It is not limited to the internet, but the internet and its anonymity and certainty of walking out with no consequences, but it has always happened in any media mode.

The botton-line is simple: Don't "stan" (like, but don't obsess), don't bully (constructive criticism is one thing, toxic comments are other), be human. Don't follow tabloid-like media, don't trust everything you read specially on the internet, and if possible don't even judge the people behind the art, let them be themselves and focus on their work.