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Layoung Shin

Doctoral student examines pop culture
   and sexuality in South Korea

by Kelly Hyde

Layoung Shin arrived at Harpur College afraid. Home was halfway across the globe. The language she grew up with was suddenly replaced by another she could barely understand.

"I spoke like an elementary school level of English — I had learned only grammar," she said. "Everyone was talking around me and talking so fast. It was really scary."

That was back in 2006, when Shin began in the doctoral anthropology program at Binghamton University. She pressed on, and today, she's an Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) fellow working on her dissertation, "Performing Like a Star: Pop Culture and Sexuality among Young Women in Neoliberal South Korea."

Shin's path started in 2000 in Seoul, South Korea, where she pursued a master's degree in women's studies at Ewha Womans University. Her interest in women's studies had a personal motivation.

"I personally have experienced discrimination in the patriarchal system in Korea," she said. "They would say that because I'm a woman, I need to do this or that."

She said that while these limits were frustrating, she found reprieve in her studies.

"(The women's studies program) was very fun and insightful," she said. "I felt liberated."

Her advisor was a professor who studied anthropology in the United States and taught gender and sexuality studies from a feminist perspective. Shin found what her advisor taught — the way gender and sexuality influences society in different ways — interesting, so she decided to study anthropology in the United States herself. At first, she didn't know where to go, but she had a helping hand.

"I had a friend I met in Korea studying sociology (at Binghamton University)," she said. "It sounded like the programs were nice, with a progressive perspective and a realistic price."

For her dissertation at Harpur College, she has continued studying the topic of her master's thesis: the "fan-cos" phenomenon prevalent among young South Korean girls. The girls would dress up and perform as their male idols, and to them, it wasn't just a costume.

"The costume was ongoing and the girls were very enthusiastic," Shin said. "They would practice and perform on stage every week. They also wore these costumes in everyday life —they would say, 'This is me.'"

A closely related trend was "fanfiction," or stories written by young girls featuring their idols as characters, often placing them in same-sex relationships. In these phenomena, Shin saw a generation of girls navigating their gender and sexual identities, trying to explain themselves. In doing so, they pried open a society's narrow view of sexuality.

"Korean society just started recognizing homosexuality and other sexual identities in the late 90s and 2000s," she said.

Unfortunately, this recognition came with a price.

"In the late 1990s, they made a law protecting children from 'obscene media content' and included homosexuality," she said. "This motivated the movement against this inclusion — they were saying homosexuality was bad."

"There are some narratives and discourses that assume these young women in fan-cos are influenced by fan-cos/fan-fic in identification with iban. I examined the discourses and argued that the discourses are another type of discrimination."

"The (fan-cos) girls I met were iban who did not want people to know," she said. "They were very careful."

However, as the movement has progressed, it's been increasingly difficult for these girls to keep their secret.

"With the recognition of the existence of other types of sexual identity increasing, other people not identified as iban now assume if someone looks boyish, maybe she is a lesbian," Shin said. "This did not exist before — they would just figure they were on a sports team. The iban are experiencing more discrimination; they hide more."

The discrimination is not all external. Shin found that hierarchies exist within the iban community itself.

"Some girls were influenced by the fan-cos phenomenon to identify as iban," she said. "Those who claim to be born as iban don't like those girls. There's talk about being a 'real lesbian' or not — the 'authenticity' of being lesbian."

Shin has seen all of this first-hand in her field work. Her research has affected her.

"Because I saw those LGBT youth girls in Korea and their situation, in some way I want to contribute to something for them," she said. "I'm not sure what I can do, but I want to do something."

Her primary goal after she earns her doctorate is teaching and researching new topics she has found through her field work. For the moment, though, she's focusing on getting through the program, which hasn't been easy from the beginning.

"My stress at the beginning of my coursework was English," she said. "I felt like a fool. I wondered if I could follow with this process."

Today, her stress is more related to her research. She said she has a lot of support, from friends to professors.

"Binghamton is great — what I like is the people," she said. "I feel like I'm cared about as a student."

After her scary and difficult arrival, Shin has made it this far, and she won't be giving up.

"Whatever it is, I just have to do it," she said. "I came very far from home and I wanted to do this study, so I have to finish it. (That thought) keeps me continuing."


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Last Updated: 3/1/17