Parasocial Relationships, Fanfiction, and Slash

Queer Literary Coterie in Western BTS Fandom

for the fully footnoted version, see the Google Document here!

We have only to think of the troop of women and girls, all of them in love in an enthusiastically sentimental way, who crowd round a singer or pianist after his performance. It would certainly be easy for each of them to be jealous of the rest; but, in face of their numbers and the consequent impossibility of their reaching the aim of their love, they renounce it, and, instead of pulling out one another’s hair, they act as a united group, do homage to the hero of the occasion with their common actions, and would probably be glad to have a share of his flowing locks. Originally rivals, they have succeeded in identifying themselves with one another by means of a similar love for the same object.

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

Freud’s reading of the shared love objects in groups of women is inherently misogynistic. It implies off the bat that women are rivals, who might turn against each other out of sheer jealousy. At the same time, the observable fandom surrounding Korean pop and their idols undeniably resembles Freud’s analysis of the herd instinct in Group Psychology. Fans crowd around and pay homage to their favorite idols just like the women and girls surrounding the man at the piano. This reading is complicated, though, by the queer expression of fans in fan labor and literature. Through their relationships with the K-pop group BTS, queer female fans create their own fan work and literary coteries that transform parasocial relationships into normalized social communities.

Aguacates’ work “How much to give and how much to take” was first published on the popular fanfiction publishing website Archive of Our Own in 2019. After the first chapter was posted, I sent the author, @virgocrushes on Twitter, a message praising her work. I can’t find it now, lost under the weight of over two years of friendship and constant requests for proofreading back and forth. I have no memory of doing so, but she assures me that I also proofread the last two chapters of this story as well. Moments like that get lost within these fan-based literary communities; I have read so much of her work, she has read so much of mine, that we forget which ones we’ve worked on. Two years and 66,615 words later, “How much to give” has been clicked over 100,000 times. It’s been liked over 7,000 times and just got its thousandth comment. These are all beautiful things, by the numbers. But “How much to give and how much to take” is fanfiction; worse than that, it’s BTS fanfiction, focusing on the imagined romantic relationship between Namjoon and Jungkook, two members of the band. It works within the popular fanfiction trope of “Arranged Marriage,” a tag that has over 19,000 works under it on Archive of Our Own.

The politics of fanfiction based on real people will be explored, but relevant in this moment is the relationship between white fan authors and our non-white shared love objects.  One of the key moments in the romantic development between Namjoon and Jungkook is asked to address Namjoon not with the Korean formal “Namjoon-ssi,” but rather with the informal and friendly “Namjoon-hyung.” English does not have honorifics; writers have integrated Korean language honorifics into their writing through watching BTS and doing cultural research. Aguacates acknowledged this in an interview, stating “I will never fully understand where they’re coming from in a cultural context,” and that she is motivated to research and observe how culture affects their interactions. She noted that she has taken care to both respect and integrate Korean culture within her fic writing practices, while acknowledging that she is, still, white. This essay will not be focusing on the racial dynamics of western fanfiction writing about Korean media, but there is a growing corpus of literature focused on the racial politics of fandom. To acknowledge the importance of privilege, bias, and positionality in this paper, I am a white passing, queer, Latinx genderqueer woman, and I am analyzing the works of primarily white authors within fanfiction spaces.

Fanfiction cannot exist or be discussed without context and definition, especially in the case of fanfiction based on the Korean boy band BTS, written in 2019. There are so many facets of fandom history leading to the widespread popularity of this specific subgenre. Fanfiction is, as defined by Judith May Fathallah in 2017, “the unauthorized adaptation and re-writing of media texts.” The first modern fanfiction comes from early print fanzines (fan magazines) in the Star Trek fandom. Those fan writers, primarily women, took up the labor of writing entire books worth of stories and fully printing and publishing those stories themselves. They didn’t do it alone, though; through conventions and zine-sharing culture, individual fans created communities amongst themselves. Writers in early fandoms like Star Trek, Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Quantum Leap worked together to create and disseminate fan works. 

In Henry Jenkins’ 1992 seminal work in fan studies, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, he tells the story of one writing group in Wisconsin. A group of four women got together every single week to write “diligently on their own stories about Al and Sam.” They wrote, printed, bound, and mailed out zines together. They received letters from fans of their works and shared that joy as a group. Jenkins points out “how writing becomes a social activity for these fans, functioning simultaneously as a form of personal expression and as a source of collective identity.” The community, socialization, and self-identification through fan labor is inextricable from fandom.

Fanfiction and fandoms are built off of parasocial relationships with love objects, be they characters in TV shows, movies, books, or in the case of RPF, real people as they are perceived and portrayed through the mass medias of YouTube, reality shows, and social media. Parasocial relationships were defined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 as the “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.” Moving into the 21st century, parasocial relationships have only become more ubiquitous through mass and social media. K-pop thrives off of this relationship. K-pop fans will often refer to their love object idol as “emotional support K-pop boy/girl,” and this personal connection exerts incredible control over the fans wallet, as well as their emotions. In a survey of sixteen Asian American LGBTQ+ individuals, all sixteen said that they engage in fan labor. The parasocial relationships in K-pop inspire extreme devotion, but personal creative expression as well, in diverse forms such as dance covers, visual fan art, fan videos and compilations, and fanfiction.

The concept of slash or slash fic is necessary to understand fanfiction and fan labor. The term refers to fanfiction that is focused on the romantic relationship between two men. To illustrate its centrality in fan studies;  Jenkins titles his chapter on Star Trek, that first modern fandom, “Welcome to Bisexuality, Captain Kirk: Slash and the Fan-Writing Community.” He quotes liberally from Kirk/Spock erotica. That slash that between the names, implying their romantic relationship, is the origin of the term. Jenkins argues that “Slash fiction represents a reaction against the construction of male sexuality on television and in pornography,” or, as a realization of homosocial desire. He does a great job describing the complex politics aand possible problems surrounding women writing romance and often erotica between two men, but he does not linger on why queer women, too, write slash. The online slash community has become, in modern scholarship, viewed as “a space that invites queer potential.” After establishing fandom as a community, this posits that fandoms create communal spaces that allow room for queer identity.

The work of author Aguacates on Archive of Our Own does not necessarily fit into Fathallah’s definition, nor does it, on its own, represent a queer space. Aguacates writes exclusively “RPF,” or “real person fanfiction,” fanfiction based on real people. Under Fathallah’s definition, this calls into question what a “media text” is; do the perceived lives of celebrities, as exhibited through social media and reality programming, constitute “media text?” Speaking from personal memory as a long time fanfiction writer and community member, RPF was one of the biggest taboos in the community. It would be fine within the culture to write the oddest kink erotica on the internet, but even the most mundane stories based on the lives of real people was banned from many LiveJournal communities in the early days. In the 2000s, through the popularity of bands like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, “popslash” (fanfiction focused on romantic pairings between members of boy bands) became popular, if not fully accepted. Hagen states that “RPF is built around the assumption that a celebrity’s public identity is in some sense fabricated,” a concept that is only complicated when fans pull understandings of that identity from a source material whose language we literally do not speak. Hagen’s analysis of RPF in popslash and “bandom” relies on “how RPF exploits the flexibility of celebrity identity.” In RPF fandom communities, we can choose which pieces of “canon,” or in the case of RPF, real life, we relate to and utilize in our works.

LGBTQ+ individuals create relationships and fic surrounding real people is to find kinship, even if it might be fictive. In a survey of LGBTQ+ Asian American individuals, a majority stated that K-pop “normalizes same gender affection and challenges western gender norms,” allowing for both homosexual and homosocial readings. Aguacates reflects on her own relationship with BTS:

I think I see them as artists who give an extraordinary amount of themselves to their fans within the bond that they create. The window we get into the kind of family they are is really lovely. It feels like a manifestation of found family. As a queer person who didn’t grow up in spaces with other queer people, I was basically fated to love found family themes wherever I encounter them. I think it’s natural to want to explore that kind of thing.

Aguacates, a queer author, finds kinship with them through the perception of found family. That application of commonality is a direct response to her own experience as a queer person without social support; she idealizes BTS because they can, in fantasy, represent the ideal, queer, found family dynamic.

“How much to give and how much to take” reflects those themes of found family, but more centrally focuses on depression, anxiety, and homophobia. When asked why she decided to focus on those themes, she said “I mean, fully honest answer, those are all themes of my life. Fanfiction is fun but a lot of the time it’s also very personal and used as catharsis. This was that for me, and fanfiction really hasn’t stopped being that for me.” She creates Namjoon and Jungkook into remarkably relatable characters, specifically because she builds them as expressions of self experience and catharsis. She shows moments that speak to personal experience as a gay person in a homophobic society. Jungkook expresses those fears in a few short moments, here and there, saying “I was really scared for a second, when they asked if we were married. I thought they might be, you know, homophobic.” Namjoon, the point of view character, “wants to say, you don’t have to worry about that anymore, but it would be a lie. He wants to say, I will protect you or I will watch out for you, but he can’t promise that, so he doesn’t.” Moments of homophobia are not distant from the world of “How much to give,” but in this world, everything can turn out okay. In this world, they can face that homophobia together and come out on the other side, stronger. Aguacates can address, through these fictive conversations between members of BTS, both the fear of homophobia and the catharsis of a happy ending, despite it all.

Fanfiction doesn’t just allow for catharsis; it also serves as an avenue into queer community. Just as those four women in Wisconsin got together every week to discuss Quantum Leap, Aguacates has, through BTS fandom and fan literature, been able to build her own community of like-minded, non-conforming LGBTQ+ individuals who can produce fan works together. In her interview, she said “I have actually developed some of the closest relationships in my life with people I met either directly through my own fics or through the fic writing community.“ She and I met through fandom; we bought tickets next to each other for the next BTS concert. She met her girlfriend through fanfiction. Social connection in K-pop fandoms is a studied avenue for person-to-person normalized social interaction. Almost all participants in the survey by Kuo et al. said that “community and connection is one of the most important aspects of being a Kpop fan.” BTS fandom is a space where homosexual and homosocial desires are, for the most part, accepted and promoted.

Fandom is not perfect; slash fanfiction is not without its own problematic politics; the BTS fandom can be absolutely terrifying, racist, and homophobic. I have received death threats from people who adamantly believe that Taehyung and Jungkook should be together instead of Jungkook and Namjoon, and have witnessed Black fans be doxxed for pointing out racist behaviors in fandom. Fandom is absolutely not an ideal, open space; K-pop fandom especially can be a wretched hive of scum and villainy, to use old school fandom terms. It is, however, a space for queer expression, socialization, and catharsis, utilizing complex international relationships to do so. In 2020, respondents to the “BTS Army Census,” a fan project aiming to gain accurate demographics of fandom, were 50.3% under the age of 18. Readers are young people, likely being exposed to queer relationships for the first time, in places where the popular media fails to do so. The BTS fandom may not be perfect, but it is allowing young, queer people access to spaces that welcome them.

The work “How much to give and how much to take” by Archive of Our Own user Aguacates can only exist with all of its social and historical context. Fanfiction could not exist in its current form without the labor of those early Star Trek and Quantum Leap writers working in their tiny apartments in Wisconsin. Aguacates might not have placed BTS as her love object if she hadn’t perceived them as the ideal expression of found family. This work would not have been written without the need for queer catharsis, and I would not have met one of my best friends and built an entire community of queer writers with her. Freud believed that the man playing the piano was the love object, the ego ideal, of those women surrounding him, and that their numbers were the only thing preventing them from “pulling out one another’s hair.” He never thought that maybe, just maybe, they have, through fan labor, transformed their love for the man at the piano into love for one another.


BTS ARMY Census. “2020 Results.” Accessed May 10, 2021.

Aguacates. “How much to give and how much to take.” Archive of Our Own. Accessed May 10, 2021.

“Arranged Marriage – Works | Archive of Our Own.” Accessed May 10, 2021.

Coppa, Francesca. “A Brief History of Media Fandom.” In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 41-59. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

Espinal, Veronica. “Parasocial Relationships in K-Pop: Emotional Support Capitalism.” EnVi Magazine (blog), February 21, 2021.

Fathallah, Judith May. “Introduction.” In Fanfiction and the Author, 9–16. Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Translated by James Strachey. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg, 1922.

Google Ngrams, “para-social,parasocial; 1900-2019.” Accessed March 12, 2021.

Google Trends. “Google Trends.” Accessed March 11, 2021.

Hagen, Ross. “‘Bandom Ate My Face’: The Collapse of the Fourth Wall in Online Fan Fiction.” Popular Music and Society 38, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 44–58.

Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” Psychiatry 19, no. 3 (August 1, 1956): 215–29.

Hutton, Zeenah. “What Fandom Racism Looks Like: No Safe Space/‘Curate Your Space’.” Stitch’s Media Mix (blog), May 7, 2021.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

Kuo, Linda, Simone Perez-Garcia, Lindsey Burke, Vic Yamasaki, and Thomas Le. “Performance, Fantasy, or Narrative: LGBTQ+ Asian American Identity through Kpop Media and Fandom.” Journal of Homosexuality 0, no. 0 (November 9, 2020): 1–24.
Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse, and Robin Anne Reid. “‘Yearning Void and Infinite Potential’: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space.” English Language Notes 45, no. 2 (FAL-WIN 2007): 103–11.

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