Choose a side, but don’t tell anyone: Making a political statement often has major consequences
In March, Song posted a picture of herself holding a book written by Lee Byung-hoon, a Democratic Party politician, while Lee posted a picture of Song’s album signed by the singer as well as a picture that the two of them had taken together. After she wore a pastel blue shirt - the color of the Democratic Party - in a video for the National Election Commission, online comments criticized Song for “openly endorsing a politician” and demanded an explanation.
“The photographs that are spreading through social media and YouTube are not Song Ga-in’s political endorsements,” said the statement from her fan club. “The picture was taken because the politician was a fan of Ga-in, not a sign of endorsement. And as you all know, Ga-in often enjoys wearing pastel-colored clothes. It doesn’t mean anything.”
The statement ended by addressing the members of the fan club, telling them they “should not worry” because neither the singer nor the fan club is related to any particular political party. The statement is likely to have been issued due to the demographics of Song’s fans, who are older, middle-aged trot music fans who are sensitive to political issues.
The “secret” vote
When early voting began last Friday, many singers and actors visited their neighborhood polling stations to cast their votes. Many celebrities posted pictures of themselves on social media after they voted encouraging their fans and followers to exercise their rights. On Wednesday, election day, more celebrities joined in on sharing their voting experience on social media.
Looking through the photographs of celebrities taken on Friday, Saturday and Wednesday, there’s a visible commonality - most of them are wearing either black, white or light-colored clothing to avoid being accused of indirectly supporting a certain party like Song. Actors Park Hae-jin and Go Joon-hee wore black from head to toe, while younger celebrities such as the members of girl group (G)I-DLE and boy band Pentagon wore lighter colors with jeans. Singer Solbi wore a black T-shirt with an image of the voting stamp printed in the middle, making her message of neutrality quite clear.
Before heading out to vote, celebrities and their teams are careful to choose the most innocuous outfit they can find without any bright colors. Agencies train their stars to not make any hand gestures that would look like they are alluding to supporting a candidate.
“The company doesn’t give them any guidelines on their outfit, but the actors probably chose their clothes because dressing in the wrong color could easily result in rumors spreading about their political stance,” said Mountain Movement, the agency of actors Go and Park.
In fact, singer Yewon from girl group Jewelry was harshly criticized online for wearing a blue shirt underneath a black jacket. She was accused of “openly expressing a political stance,” despite not making any direct comments. Actors Jung Woo-sung and Kim Je-dong are known to be some of the rare politically-outspoken celebrities in Korea, but when it comes to election season, even they tone down their outfits.
The restrictions carry over to fictional characters as well. Writer Cho Gwang-jin, of the web comic and drama “Itaewon Class,” stated that the use of his character Park Saeroi by candidate Hong Joon-pyo had not been discussed. He asked that his character remain politically neutral.
EBS - the copyright holder of popular penguin character Pengsoo - stated that it would not authorize any use of the character for political means. The company said it would take legal measures against those who did so without their consent.
The contrast is stark with the United States, where many celebrities have openly endorsed candidates for the 2020 U.S. presidential election scheduled to take place later this year: rapper Kanye West has spoken of his support for President Donald Trump, singer Cher advocates for former Vice President Joe Biden and Ariana Grande was vocal throughout the campaign about her plans to vote for Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, just to name a few.
In Korea, the only cases where people don’t cast stones at celebrities endorsing particular candidates are when they are family members of them, as in the case of actor Shim Eun-ha, whose husband Ji Sang-wuk ran for the main opposition United Future Party, or singer Choi Nakta, whose father ran for the Democratic Party.
“Fans support their stars even if they have committed a crime,” said an industry insider. “Yet, there are fans who are very dedicated and hard-core, and others whose support is more light. When something they say puts them off, those fans easily turn their backs on the celebs. So the stars try to be careful not to tread on sensitive ground, especially politics or religion.”
The sugar-coated gag
Singer Kim Dong-wan, who debuted in 1998 as part of boy band Shinhwa, left a comment that resonated with many following the untimely death of singer Sulli last year.
“People expect them to be sexy but not have sex, look tough but not get into fights with anybody,” he said, alluding to the tremendous amount of stress young stars face in Korea. Though his post was aimed at entertainment companies that force young stars to hide their feelings instead of providing them with proper protection, the comment is also applicable here: People want stars to vote, but not for anyone in particular.
According to culture critic Ha Jae-geun, this is mostly due to the fact that in Korea, the opposing side in politics or social issues is often seen as an “evil force that needs to be destroyed.”
“Seeing a celebrity on the other side of a given issues means that they need to be destroyed as well. This ends up in incessant bullying and internet trolling and attacking them in harsh ways. Rational criticism should always be allowed, but excessive hostility should be stopped,” he said.
“People don’t change their points of view because a celebrity says something,” said culture critic Kim Heon-shik. “Society will become much more democratic if everyone, including celebrities, are allowed to state their opinions openly.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]