CaMD Scholar Jane Park ’22 Analyzes Asian American Agency and Representation in K-Pop

Jane Park ’22 combined personal experiences and racial histories for her presentation.

What does it mean for Asian Americans to reclaim the politically complicated success of K-Pop in America? Exploring questions of agency, representation, and identity, Jane Park ’22 delivered her Community and Multicultural Development (CaMD) Scholar presentation, “Playing with Fire: Asian American Youth, Agency and Ownership in K-Pop,” on May 9 in Kemper Auditorium.

The central question of Park’s research explored how the Asian diaspora can celebrate the success of K-Pop in Western countries as a success for Asian representation. Park analyzed, however, how Asian representation via K-Pop in Western countries can be distorted by the biased gazes of White supremacy and capitalism.

Drawing from Korean history as well as theories of racial capitalism and hybrid cultural forms, Park argued that K-Pop provided subversive moments of joy, freedom, and even transformation for Asian Americans. Despite the music’s entrance into a hegemonic Western industry and its appeal to White audiences, she acknowledged that K-Pop can still be appreciated by Asian Americans.

“K-Pop is a player in the game of Western and therefore, racial, capitalism… and so it’s easy to look at K-Pop success and say that they are just catering to the Western gaze…However, [K-Pop artists] are also producing music and creating content that is implicitly subversive. And so I think my argument is a little more nuanced in saying that there are subversive moments in K-Pop… for example, with BTS members wear makeup…just the fact that Asian men and consumers in general are seeing BTS and other K-Pop male groups expressing softer ideas of masculinity in which in which they question this idea of this rugged and tough and hyper sexualized masculinity, that in and of itself, is revolutionary, in my opinion,” said Park.

Park’s research was in part inspired from her own experiences growing up listening to K-Pop music and feeling ashamed to tell her friends. Through these experiences, she became interested in the topic of how Asian Americans can reclaim their agency to connect with pop culture from Asia. She believes her actual process of researching has allowed her to reclaim Asian experiences and personal feelings, creating more space and legacy for Asian Americans in American academia.

“For me, this was always more than just a research project; it was a question not only related to academia, but also to myself. The questions of ‘I feel uncomfortable every time I mentioned K-Pop to other people who don’t listen to K-Pop’ or ‘I feel uncomfortable when people are lauding BTS for their Grammy nominations,’ that personal discomfort was what motivated and fueled my research. And so the broad purpose of the presentation was to explore what agency looks like for the K-Pop listener. But even just by doing my research with all the resources this institution has given me and presenting my research to a crowd of my peers, I felt as if I was taking a huge step toward claiming agency. Previously I viewed academia as a very white centered space because institutionally it has supported research that continues to perpetuate white supremacist frameworks and retain power in the hands of those who currently possess it and that perception hasn’t really changed,” said Park.

Ethan Sun ’23, who attended Park’s presentation, praised Park’s research exploring how the colonial history of South Korea influenced K-Pop, as well as her journey of self-discovery. Sun said he left the presentation with much to think about regarding Asian representation and his own identity.

“Jane’s presentation really made me consider the implications of building Asian American identity. I remember something she said was that we just didn’t get a lot of representation in media, so it was really ‘take what you can get.’ There are also still a lot of issues of self-exotification, as well as infantilization of Asian culture and people by Westerners…The Asian Diaspora (in my opinion) is still young, and Asian America is still a very mutable thing. I really think our next steps should be finding diverse representations of our identity, both physically and socially, such that we can positively develop the third space we find ourselves in,” wrote Sun in an email to The Phillipian.

Park’s faculty advisor, Lilia Cai, Chair and Instructor in Chinese, highlighted the impact of Park’s research on holding up representation in K-Pop, as well as pop culture more broadly. Ultimately, Cai stated her hopes that people would continue to recognize the importance of and talk about issues of Asian representation, as she believes it to be an urgent Asian American issue.

“I think the impact is huge…just to see all the kids that showed up on a Monday night, and especially all the Asian American kids—they felt that they could be seen in Jane’s project. Because this is what young people listen to, it’s such a big part of young people’s lives. And when I think of K-Pop I really do think K-Pop is a pretty Pan-Asian, a pretty international phenomenon. It’s so powerful, and I just don’t think we’ve tapped into that enough to really help kids build healthy racial identities, particularly Asian and Asian American kids. I think [music] not only [makes] you feel seen, but [also] connects to your soul, and so many people need this in their lives—Asian Americans particularly—to find something good that satisfies their soul and that they connect to,” said Cai.