Call for Diversity in Work/Leisure Binary:
On Fans and Fandoms
Irina Lyan
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The academic literature has typically analyzed fandom within the context of culture and media studies, referring to it as an extreme form of leisure activity. Using such metaphors as “religion,” “nation,” and “market,” studies in the field often frame fans as fanatical, over-dedicated, and obsessed consumers who can go as far as making imagined or actual pilgrimages to their source of fandom, be it a country, a site, or a concert in the most distant place. For instance, as synonyms of the word, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary suggests quite unflattering comparisons to addict, aficionado, buff, bug, devotee, enthusiast, fanatic, fancier, fiend, fool, freak, habitué, head, hound, junkie, lover, maniac, maven, nut, and more.
   While these frameworks help us to understand the stigmatization process of fans and their power to challenge social order, they also demonstrate how little diversity we have within the work/leisure binary―we either work or not. In this essay, I propose to conceptualize fans as entrepreneurial actors whose actions might enlarge and diversify the social boundaries of the work/leisure binary, and even build alternative institutions to the dominant institution of work.
   My first encounter with the power of fans to change the existing social order took place in 2007. I was working at the Korean cultural center in Jerusalem, trying to attract Israelis to learn about Korean language and culture. I remember asking the center’s manager about the job goals. “Do you see this place?” he answered, gesturing toward the large, empty space of the center. “I want it to be full of people.” I felt as though I had found a mission―an identity―and it was strange to have had to leave my Korean family in Russia and move to Israel to find it.
   My first attempts to bring Israelis closer to Korea failed. Free language lessons, free movies, and free food attracted very few people. As the daughter of a Russian Korean, who was and remains always curious about Korean history and culture, I was surprised at how little Israelis knew or wanted to know about Korea. Following this disappointment, I left the center to travel to Korea for the first time, and when I came back I did not recognize the place, which was now overflowing with endless phone messages, emails, and waiting lists to enroll in Korean-language classes. After a decade of popularity, mostly in East Asian countries, the Korean Wave had finally made it to Israel. In a way, Korea had become closer to Israel in my absence.
   But let me begin at the beginning, when my personal fascination with Israeli fans of Korean popular culture encountered the academic one. In 2011, after Hallyu in Israel had become a permanent fixture rather than a passing fad, with its own online and offline communities, events, and leaders, I received a phone call from a colleague and friend, Alon Levkowitz. “You know all these female fans who like Korea because of TV dramas? Let’s write an article about them together,” he proposed. I was at the beginning of my dissertation on a serious subject in international management focusing on cross-cultural encounters between Israeli and Korean business managers, but the offer was too tempting to ignore. “Just one article,” I thought, “and I’ll be back to international management.” That choice, which changed my life completely, was a “mistake” that I will never regret.
   Neither Alon nor I had any expertise in popular culture up to that point, but we were lured into this project by our own curiosity about fans and fandom. We mapped online communities, participated in events, talked to fans, and even watched Korean TV dramas. I remember Alon showing me a book chapter that had appeared in one of the first English books on Hallyu written by Kim and Kim (2010) entitled Hallyu: Influence of Korean Culture in Asia and Beyond 1). The paper in question, written by Sueen Noh, studied an online fan community of Korean TV drama in Egypt. We felt that we were not alone, and that if Sueen Noh could write about Hallyu in Egypt, we could certainly write about Hallyu in Israel. We decided to start with an online survey that I tested on three of my friends who were Hallyu fans. When we posted it on all online communities in Hebrew, we expected very little in the way of responses; however, the result exceeded all our expectations, as we received almost 400 replies. The participants were actually thankful for the attention, and some wrote more personal statements in the general comments section. I especially remember one of them as a call to action:

Please pass on this message to all the Koreans in South Korea. Tell them how many people love them and their culture here in Israel. Let them know how much love we have for them. And let the Israelis know about who are Koreans and how amazing they are.

I took this call quite seriously. Even though I do not consider myself to be a Hallyu fan, I feel somehow part of this community, which shares with me a special connection to Korea. And the opportunity to tell the world came very soon. Alon came across a call for papers on Hallyu 2.0, or the spread of Hallyu online through social media, at the University of Michigan. We submitted an abstract, and it was accepted. Thus, ironically, my academic journey with Hallyu in Israel has begun in 2012 in the United States.
   During the following years I would present this project numerous times around the globe, but the initial journey was the most exciting. It was my first time in the United States, my first international conference, and my first academic writing, and I found myself in the company of leading scholars of Korean popular culture. After the conference, we were invited by the organizers to submit the chapter to the edited volume Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media 2) , another journey that extended across three years of numerous editions and improvements. Only in 2015 did I hold in my hands the book with a photo of the singer Psy’s concert in Paris on the cover and, inside, our paper on Hallyu in Israel.
   In that paper, which we titled “Consuming the Other: Israeli Hallyu Case Study,” we focused on the otherness of Korean popular culture in Israel that can be attributed to a lack of economic, diplomatic, or cultural relations between the two countries. We described Korea in Israel as a “tabula rasa,” a country that is absent from the Israeli national consciousness or memory. Until the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Korea was an “obscure nation,” not only in Israel but around the world as well. The beginning of the peace process in the Middle East in the 1990s and the decrease in fear of Korean companies―as a result of the Arab boycott of companies trading with Israel―led to the growth of political and economic relations between Korea and Israel. This disparity was gradually dissolving, but Korea’s cultural influence in Israel was still imperceptible. Such foreignness is ignored within American media texts, which are absorbed as universal and global; those of Korean origin were always questioned.
   The focus on Hallyu fandom in Israel provides a unique opportunity to explore the role of fans in the success or failure of Korean popular culture flows. For one, Israel is a small market and, with a population of only nine million, constitutes a marginal consumer base. There is therefore a lack of interest by Korean content creators to explore market expansion opportunities in such a small market, compared to the much bigger Arab-speaking world in the Middle East or affluent markets in Europe and North America. Thus, the dissemination of Hallyu in Israel is left almost entirely in the hands of fans. Moreover, Israel is a “late bloomer”―Hallyu fandom arrived relatively late, at the beginning of the 21st century, only after gaining popularity in Asian and North American markets.
   The shift toward cultural acknowledgment of Korea came in the late 2000s with the introduction of Hallyu in Israel. In 2006, the first Korean TV drama, My Lovely Sam-Soon (Nae irŭm ŭn Kim Sam-sun, 2005), was aired on the Israeli cable soap opera channel Viva. It gained such popularity that it paved the way for the next Korean TV dramas broadcast on the same channel. Korea’s otherness, as well as its foreignness, was further complicated by two interconnected stigmas: first, the stigma of popular culture, especially in terms of Korean TV dramas, which have a low standing with fandoms; and second, the fact that most of the fans of the program were females, a circumstance that enhanced stigma.
   For example, I remember the sudden interest on the part of the Israeli and Korean media that produced articles and TV programs, and, at the beginning, I was happy for this interest. In 2008, the Israeli national newspaper described the popularity of Korean TV dramas in Israel as a “revolution” in cultural taste. In 2013, another popular Israeli newspaper published a three-page cover story on how K-pop had “conquered Israeli youth.” But I soon realized that the media were mocking, marginalizing, and stigmatizing Hallyu female fans as strange and even ridiculous. My perusal of studies on Japanese female fans of Korean TV dramas revealed the same representation. They were stigmatized as lacking romantic or sex lives, and even as betraying their own nation by fantasizing about beautiful Korean men.
   In the end, we argued that (1) the otherness of Korean popular culture, (2) the overwhelming female presence, and (3) the low fandom hierarchy of Korean TV dramas was projected onto Hallyu fans, forcing them to form a marginalized community in which they could share their fandom safely without being judged. Unified under the aegis of this community, they also acted to promote Korea beyond that nation’s borders by trying to reach a wider audience. As a result, the aforementioned sense of call to bring one culture closer to that of another country guided them on this transformative journey. Yet far beyond the triple stigma of Hallyu fandom, fans everywhere are framed as extreme “worshippers,” “patriots,” and “consumers” engaged in extreme leisure activity that disturbs the dominance of the work institution.
“Worshippers”: Fandom and symbolic pilgrimage
Religious metaphors typically frame fans as fanatical worshippers who are prepared to invest much of their time and money in achieving their imagined and actual pilgrimages to their fandom land. The comparison to religious worshippers is not accidental. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the very definition of fans originates in the religious background used for the first time in 1682:

Fan is generally―and very likely correctly―believed to be a shortened form of fanatic. The origin of fanatic (which can be traced back to the Latin word fanum, meaning “sanctuary, temple”) is less often commented on. In English, fan made an early appearance in the late 17th century only to disappear for two centuries, resurfacing in the late 19th century. In this later period of use, it often referred to the devoted observers of, or participants in, a sport. 3)

   Thinking about religious origins of the word “fan” as a fanatic obsessed with religion provided the idea for another paper, this one entitled “From Holy Land to ‘Hallyu Land’: The Symbolic Journey Following the Korean Wave in Israel” (2015b), derived from the play on words between Holy (Land) and Hallyu 4).
   Our survey participants viewed Hallyu as a life-changing experience and reported feeling a special connection to Korea. For example, one of them described the sense of homecoming: “I can’t explain my personal connection to these dramas, I feel at home…. I’m dying to go there [to Korea] and I have a feeling that when I arrive, I’ll feel like I came home.” Fans in our study tended to idealize this “home” as a place of aesthetic beauty and moral purity. Since most Hallyu fans in Israel have never been to Korea, this has become an oft-imagined trip that includes the fantasy of homecoming.
   Through Hallyu, fans undergo an identity change and become part of the home-like imagined community wherein fans may feel as if they have found their “real” homes and life missions. The pilgrimage goes far beyond a fictitious journey, resulting in an “authentic” cultural experience. Hallyu serves as a lens for envisioning fans’ own stories and dreams, and it plays a decisive role in creating the image of Korea―the “Hallyu Land.”
   While religion-inspired fandom studies, along with media coverage of Hallyu success, help to understand the transformative experience of fans, they also frame them in a stigmatized way as fanatical crowds blinded by their fandom. “To frame,” argues Entman 5). , “is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text in such a way as to promote particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52). Yet reducing fans’ agency to a religious frame narrows the very understanding of that agency.
“Patriots”: Fandom and politics
In our study with Nissim Otmazgin 6). on Jewish and Palestinian Hallyu fans through the national frame, we found that for both of these diverse communities, K-pop has become a tool of political empowerment as well as an escape. According to the fan from Gaza Strip,

In the war days [during the 2012 clashes] we didn’t sleep at all, because we live next to the tunnels, and every minute there were three rockets launched day or night and the sound of ambulances working and scared crying children. I would retreat from between them and go to my favorite world. I would put on anything―drama or music―and raise the volume to the max so I wouldn’t hear anything or feel anything anymore; you could say I was escaping from fear and reality.

   We also found that Hallyu fandom allowed fans from two groups to meet each other in Korea-related events or in Korean-language classes. As another Arab fan explained, these meetings made her feel better, since in Israeli society the Arabic population is negatively associated with terrorism and conflict. She also has dreamed that when she moves to Korea, she will be accepted for the person she is. Fandom has the power to bring together groups in conflict that, despite living in such geographical proximity, do not have many opportunities for meaningful interaction. This is another symbolic journey on the part of two isolated groups toward their mutual fandom. To put it differently, while K-pop fans are often stigmatized for their fandom, they are also empowered by it.
   In 2018, Ki-Eun Jang, a doctoral student at New York University, contacted us about this article on Israeli and Palestinian Hallyu fans. She was awarded the Davis Project for Peace international scholarship and decided to organize an intensive Korean language summer course for Arab and Jewish students at the Hebrew University. We were very surprised that our research had inspired political action to create common ground between two conflicting groups through the Korean language.
   Similarly, in another study with Limor Shifman and Sulafa Zidani (2015) on the Middle Eastern video remakes of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (2012) we found that the majority of video makers used the clip to make a point about their own political and social realities often in the form of satire, or used it as a reference for joyous fun or pastiche 7). . We concluded that remakes of “Gangnam Style” in places of conflict, such as the Middle East, have the potential to change negative perceptions of conflict zones. One year after the launch of “Gangnam Style,” a group of Israeli soldiers on patrol in Hebron heard its familiar sounds and joined a Palestinian wedding party. The video went viral, and “Israeli soldiers dancing” has become the most searched phrase on Google. It may be a stretch to say that “Gangnam Style,” or popular culture in general, can bring peace to the Middle East, but remakes may have the power to create new images of national cultures previously stereotyped in a narrow manner. And in terms of the dancing Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, such images may also―at least temporarily―bring even longtime rivals onto the floor to dance to the same tune.
   Henry Jenkins’s 8). work on the political activism of fans of Harry Potter and their ability to impact and improve society through organized political actions―such as donations, demonstrations, and petitions for the sake of social causes―reveals the potential of fans as political agents. Yet Hallyu fans’ recent involvement in social disorder and even hooliganism, including the recent #Blacklivesmatter and anti-Trump campaigns, demonstrates that fandom can actually harbor feelings of anti-establishment and norm-changing reinforcing the stigma of anti-work institution.
“Consumers”: Fandom and entrepreneurship
The market metaphor has also been utilized to understand fandom, owing much to Jenkins’s seminal work 9). on the “participatory culture” of fans’ central role in the production, consumption, and distribution of popular culture. Yet the association between fandom and consumerism is usually a negative one, since scholars describe fans as “over-dedicated consumers” and emphasize their exaggerated leisure activities as the antithesis of doing “real” work.
   In Hallyu fandom, the most exaggerated fans are known as “Koreaboos” and are characterized by their fetish of liking, buying, and promoting all things Korean. Most Hallyu fans distinguish themselves from Koreaboos, whom they perceive as overenthusiastic, extreme, and obsessive. One famous case is that of Oli London, a Caucasian British man who underwent multiple plastic surgeries to become a look-alike for BTS singer Jimin. Even though such extreme behavior is limited to the margins of Hallyu fandom, it still serves to define it in a negative way.
   Paradoxically, while the framing of fans and fandom in the context of religion, nation, and economy clearly demonstrates a power of fans as agents of cultural (ex)change, it also stigmatizes fans by associating them with extreme leisure. To understand this paradox, I build on the work of the prominent anthropologist of the Middle East, Lila Abu-Lughod 10). , who famously suggested “writing against culture.” Writing culture, or framing others as culturized subjects, reduces them to a few caricatured traits narrowing and underplaying their potential for social change.
   In a similar vein, the available literature on Hallyu typically overlooks the mechanisms and processes that are responsible for the transfer, and instead concentrates on an approach that assumes that cultural content simply appears among fans. Yet fans are efficient harbingers and mediators of cultural content, in addition to being avid consumers who blur and even reverse work-leisure boundaries problematizing the common understanding of the sharp division between work and fandom. In other words, fandom is not only a peculiar cultural phenomenon that motivates social action among people, but is, in itself, an efficient grassroots institution responsible for the spread of cultural content across different political, ethnic, and social boundaries.
Concluding Remarks
Until today, in my mind the Far East was the most far-away place, the end of the world. In the first [Korean] drama that I watched, I didn’t like the language and I had my hand on the remote control to switch the channel. But I got used to it and today [watching Korean drama] is like going home…. I was probably Korean in a previous life.

   Fascinated by both real and imagined travels, in my research I am especially interested in how fans imagine their own Korea, envision their own missions, and project their own stories through Hallyu, becoming agents of cultural (ex)change. Their journey overlaps with my own―that is, my finding of Korean origins in Israel, far away from my own family history or birthplace. I am always telling my students that our research interests derive from our personal backgrounds. Yet it took me some time to realize the similarity between a diasporic Korean like me and a Hallyu fan. Both imagine the distant “homeland,” and both are engaged in a never-ending journey of maneuvering between multiple identities, cultures, and places.
   Moreover, our research demonstrates that fans not only consume, practice, and celebrate their Hallyu fandom, but also fuel interest in the genre by generating discourse about things “Korean” and by initiating entrepreneurial activities. These initiatives, in fact, construct de facto institutions that allow fans to continue not only to celebrate their fandom and form a “community of practice,” but also to generate profit in the economic and institutional sense both beyond and within a work-leisure binary.
   By moving away from culturizing fans as “worshippers,” “patriots,” or “consumers,” the focus on institutional entrepreneurship allows one to identify the grassroots dynamics of fandom as dissolving and transforming the social boundaries between work and leisure. Cultural translation (as well as mistranslation) driven by fan-entrepreneurship is central to the construction of such a community. Fans as entrepreneurs pave new routes to co-create, connect with, and expand the community by creating new and sometimes unexpected institutional platforms. They both attempt to “marry” work and leisure to create a new market for commodities and ideas, as well as challenge the work-leisure binary by combining both. Fan-entrepreneurship strives to build fandom as a hybrid institution beyond either work or leisure activity by utilizing new marketing channels, accessing potential consumers, incorporating new promotional means, and creating vehicles for related products and services.
   Viewed from a wider perspective, the Israeli Hallyu 11). case helps us to understand both the difficulties in and possibilities of enacting social change by overcoming the existing lack of diversity in a rigid work-leisure binary that dismisses fandom as, at best, an extreme consumption. The institutional view on fan-entrepreneurship reveals, therefore, ambivalent relations vis-à-vis the work-leisure binary, simultaneously challenging, diversifying, and supporting it.
일(work)과 여가(leisure) 이분법에서 다양성 추구하기: 팬과 팬덤에 대하여
Call for Diversity in Work/Leisure Binary: On Fans and Fandoms
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