In South Korea, “성덕” (seong-deok) means “successful fan,” a term given to fans who have managed to attract the notice of their beloved celebrities. Replies on social media channels like Twitter or Instagram would be one of the simple examples, but some fans even make it to forming personal relations with their idols. But the question that begs to be answered in an industry where celebrities are put on a pedestal is often: how much is too much, and whose fault is it when the line is finally crossed?
The power dynamics between fan and celebrity is a paradoxical one. Even if celebrities are raised to the high heavens in the eyes of fans willing to run to the ends of the world for them, artistes are often at the mercy of their fans – especially when it comes to social media attacks. One wrong move and their world could be flipped upside-down and inside-out. But manipulation of such idolatry is more than a bad move, it is possibly the worst and most disrespectful thing to do – which is the line that Don Malik crossed when he sexually harassed a fan in December 2017.
On February 22, the rapper posted a confession and apology on his Instagram account:
I met up with a fan in December last year. I admit to taking advantage of the power relations between artist and fan at that point in time and molested her. I sincerely apologise to the victim.
I will repent and work to become a better person so such incidents will not occur, and I will watch my actions in future.
In response to Don Malik’s post, Jerry.K, the head of his hip hop label Daze Alive, announced on his twitter account that Don Malik is no longer part of their company.
For many netizens, leaving this matter to be seems too unfair, especially considering the victim to be an underage high school student. At the moment, there is yet to be any police statement on the matter, even though the label has confirmed that they would stand by the victim in any case. What remains even more shocking is Don Malik’s complete overturn of his self-proclamations as a “feminist rapper,” turning his back against Daze Alive’s participation in many LGBT festivals and active promotion of gender equality through their music.
Don Malik’s confession of sexual harassment puts him in the wrong, and punishment should be dealt to him accordingly. Not only has he betrayed his fans, he has also forsaken the dignity of a decent human being. However, this entire issue begs the reassessment of fan-celebrity relationships.
The term “idol” has its ties to “idolatry,” which is in turn tied to the attitude that many fans in South Korea view their precious celebrity figures. Not only are idols hailed as gods, but almost every other singer or actor can lay claim to such veneration. Fans go miles and miles to show their adoration, from publishing advertisements on subway billboards to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries of celebrities, to the extreme cases of stalking and fan wars.
By doing so, fans are giving over too much of themselves to these individuals they worship like gods. Arguably, many celebrities remain respectful and immensely grateful to their fandoms for such devotion, but the amount of power embedded in such a relationship can become extremely dangerous, and extremely easy to manipulate.
Almost the entirety of marketing tactics rely on such fandom dedication, from producing multiple versions of albums and hosts of merchandises. The industry is founded upon catering to fans, and fanservice is just a small part of the huge play on this fan-celebrity dynamic. The industry is cunning in maximising profit, but of course, fans also need to maintain some form of rationality. Even the smallest resistance can prevent one’s dignity from being stripped away and condemned to be a blind consumer.
Admiration can be a huge motivating force for fans in their lives. Artistes are often huge sources of inspiration. But they too are humans, and they too are susceptible to mistakes and misjudgements. Even as fans may choose to follow the influence of, say, BTS in the “Love Myself” anti-violence campaign (a good example of using the fan-celebrity dynamic), they should choose to do so knowing the effects of their choice.
Returning to the incident regarding Don Malik, the conclusion to come to would simply be that power corrupts. The ability to manipulate the complete devotion of others is certainly tempting, and in this case has went off in the entirely wrong direction. When someone sits on a pedestal for too long, perhaps he really does think of himself as forgivable for any action.
The sexual harassment committed is only one example to add on a list of offences made by celebrities. From the host of drug abuse scandals concerning YG artistes, crimes of fraud, soliciting prostitution, and numerous more, these public figures that we have all held in high regard commit such acts, of which exposure only leads to a betrayal of public trust. Keeping oneself should be the responsibility of everyone, and neither fan nor celebrity is above the law.
Fan-celebrity relationships are ultimately human-to-human relationships – not god-man, not man-object relations. This is important to remember not only for fans, but for celebrities themselves when keeping their actions in check. Perhaps what is crucial is the link between humility and dignity, to respect and admiration. Eventually, those blinded with power and feed on the dignity of others would fall from their lofty heights into depths where they receive nothing but disdain and disgust. On the other hand, only those that ensure the line is not crossed truly deserve our respect and adoration. As for Don Malik, he has become an example of a misguided notion of himself as a celebrity. We can only hope this incident has shattered his illusion, and that he receives the appropriate punishment.