What Donald Duck, Hani, and Big Tits Taught Me About Body-Image in Korean Comedy

Exid Hani Vitamin(Source: Euri)

“That’s Problematic!”

Many smart people loathe the word “problematic.” Others, because it’s “frequently used in progressive political settings among White People of a Certain Education,” or because they think they’re the best judges of what the rest of us should concern ourselves with. And maybe they have a point. I do often use the word; I am indeed White; I’ve had a “certain education” I guess; and, if it’s both “progressive” and perverse for someone like me to be troubled about body-image in Korea, then guilty as charged.

That is to say, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the dictates of any self-appointed arbiters of cultural criticism. So let me shout it from the rooftops, loud and proud: Korean comedy’s body-policing is damned problematic sometimes. This post, very much a #longread, is about several recent cases in point.

But before I got to work on what was all set to be my usual diatribe, I came across some comments made by Lizzie Parker of Beyond Hallyu, someone I do pay attention to. Learning that she too dislikes the word, I realized with that great power of not giving a rat’s ass, comes great responsibility:

It’s such a cop out…problematic is just lazy-speak for ‘there is something bad about this and I can’t be bothered to figure out what’. It’s bad writing.

Lizzie’s comment was made in a different context, but it resonated with what I’d just been reading in Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction by John Tomlinson (1991), and I’ll take my muses in whatever guises they appear, thank you very much. Specifically, it clicked because Tomlinson discussed scholars’ tendency to assume the nefarious impacts of Western consumer products on local cultures, but reluctance to explain the actual means by which those products (allegedly) do so. If I just confine myself to one illustrative example from the book here, about How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart (English ed.,1975; quoted in italics):

To service our ‘monoproduct’ economies and provide urban paraphernalia, we send copper, and they send the machines to extract copper and, of course, Coca Cola. Behind the Coca Cola stands a whole superstructure of expectations and models of behavior, and with it, a particular kind of present and future society and an interpretation of the past. (p. 97.)

So, imported cultural goods — Coke, Disney — somehow ‘contain’ the values of American consumer capitalism and offer an implicit interpretation of the good life. Still, we have yet to see how these cultural goods are supposed to transmit the values they contain and the social vision they ‘offer’. When the explanation comes, it is frankly disappointing:

The housewife in the slums is incited to buy the latest refrigerator or washing machine; the impoverished industrial worker lives bombarded with the images of the Fiat 125. [in the same way]….Underdeveloped peoples take the comics at second hand, as instruction in the way they are supposed to live and relate to the foreign power center. (p. 98)

When it comes to the crucial question of ideological effects, Dorfman and Mattelart can only offer an unproblematized notion of the manipulative power of the media text. They simply assume that reading American comics, seeing adverts, watching pictures of the affluent yanquí lifestyle has a direct pedagogic effect. (p. 44.)

Tomlinson may well be another White Person of a Certain Education, but his book is easily one of the most enlightening and well-explained cultural studies texts I’ve read in years, and provides an obvious solution to the challenge presented by Lizzie. Yet in my bid to look smart, I quote him at my peril. For now I’m obliged to demonstrate just how exactly Korean comedy teaches such harmful messages about body image, and why its constant, egregious examples can’t be dismissed as just harmless fun—all without patronizing Korean audiences in the process.

It’s a tall order. So, to set the stage, let’s see what happened when long-limbed Hani recently stepped onto that of Vitamin, a health-cum-variety show on KBS:

I think I'm addicted to feminist media criticism(Source: Social Justice For All)

걸그룹 옆에 ‘못난이’…이 장면이 웃긴가요 The Ugly Sisters Next to a Girl-group Member…A Scene to be Laughed at

[TV리뷰] 예능 프로그램 속 외모 비하, 여전히 개선되지 않는 문제점

[TV Review] An entertainment program criticizes women’s bodies: why has this problem still not improved?

OhmyStar, 27 February 2015, 우동균/Woo Dong-gyoon

큰 키의 미녀가 한 계단 위에 올라서 있는 키 작고 통통한 여성들과 비교대상이 된다. 그리고 ‘못난이 삼형제’라는 자막이 버젓이 표시된다. 비웃는 패널들의 표정은 덤이다. 미스코리아 선발대회의 한 장면이 아니다. KBS 건강 프로그램 <비타민>에서 등장한 장면이다.

A tall beauty stands to the side; some short, tubby women stand on a step next to her to be compared. “The 3 Ugly Sisters” appears in the captions, with a shot of [the beauty’s?] fans laughing thrown in too. But this is not a scene from the Miss Korea contest. It’s from Vitamin, a health program on KBS.

미녀로 등장한 것은 대세로 떠오른 그룹 EXID의 하니이고, 못난이로 묶인 연예인들은 신봉선, 김숙, 김영희, 조혜련 등 개그우먼이다.

In this example of the trend, the girl-group member is Hani from EXID, and the four gagwomen are Shin Bong-seon, Kim-sook, Kim Yeong-hee, and Jo Hye-ryeon.

개그맨들의 단골 소재도 외모에 관한 것이다. 외모가 개성적이거나 뚱뚱한 개그맨은 자신의 얼굴이나 몸을 희화화해서 웃기기 일쑤다. 이런 현상은 예능에서 쉽게 찾아볼 수 있다. 예쁜 게스트들이 나오면 환호하고 상대적으로 외모가 떨어지는 개그맨들과 비교선상에 놓는다. 남자고 여자고 할 것 없이 같은 취급을 받는 것이다.

Comedians regularly use the subject of appearance for joke material. They will routinely make fun of their own bodies and faces if they are tubby, or in any way unique; examples are very easy to find in entertainment programs. So, if an attractive guest appears on their show, the guest will be cheered by the audience, and their bodies will be compared to the inferior ones of the comedians. This is done to both men and women.

Vitamin Hani<비타민>의 한 장면, 여성들의 키와 몸매가 비교당하는 장면이 공중파에서 버젓이 방영되고 있다 In a scene from Vitamin, women’s heights and bodies are openly compared on air.

외모에 관한 차별은 우리 사회에 뿌리 깊게 박혀 있다. 예쁘면 좋고, 못생기면 나쁘다는 식의 고정관념은 단순히 성형외과 광고에만 있지 않다. 이미 2015년 현재 TV속에서 벌어지고 있는 현실이다.

Discriminating against people on the basis of looks is something deeply rooted in our society. The notion that if you’re attractive, you’re good, and if you’re ugly, you’re bad, is not something that you only find expressed in advertisements for cosmetic surgery clinics. Rather, it is the reality of our television screens in 2015.

작년 여름 <1박2일>에서도 난데없는 외모 차별 논란이 일었다. 예쁜 여성들과 데이트하는 ‘상’과는 반대로 개그우먼들과 데이트해야 하는 ‘벌’이 주어졌기 때문이다. 많은 사람들은 이 장면을 두고 갑론을박을 벌였다. ‘분명한 외모 차별’ ‘여성의 성 상품화’라는 이야기부터 ‘외모가 부족한 남성 패널들이 같은 취급을 당하는 것은 왜 묵과하느냐’ ‘이정도는 용인 될 수준’이라는 이야기까지 설전이 벌어졌지만 결국 명확한 결론은 나지 않았다.

Last summer, some controversy arose over the body discrimination displayed on the show 1 Night, 2 Days. In one episode [aired July 27th; a clip is below — James], dates with attractive women were offered as prizes [to the all male cast] while dates with female comedians were provided as punishments, leading to charges that this was a clear case of both body discrimination and sexual objectification of women, as well as a double-standard in that the less desirable male comedians on the show weren’t treated in the same manner as the female ones were. This provoked a lot of heated discussion, but no clear conclusions.

그러나 이런 논란이 일어나는 것 자체가 아직까지 한국에서 외모를 두고 비난할 수 있는 환경이 얼마나 자연스럽게 이루어지고 있는지를 보여준다. 예능 프로그램에서 이영자나 이국주는 단순히 ‘잘 먹는’ 캐릭터가 아니라 ‘뚱땡이’ ‘과체중’이라는 캐릭터로 각인되어 있고 상대적으로 외모가 부족한 여성들은 예쁜 연예인들과 비교 선상에 놓이고 무시당해도 당연하게 받아들여야 한다. 그렇지 못하면 쿨하지 못한 것이 되기 때문이다.

The fact that this incident occurred shows that openly criticizing people on the basis of appearance is seen as natural in Korea. On entertainment programs, the comedians Lee Young-ja and Lee Guk-ju are not recognized simply as ‘characters that eat well,’ but are instead known as ‘fatties’ and for being overweight. [Also,] ordinary women that appear on the shows are unfavorably compared to pretty entertainers, and are expected to just roll with the criticisms and disrespect, lest they be considered uncool [and putting a damper on things].

이 같은 현상은 공개 코미디에서 더욱 심화되어 나타난다. 개성적인 외모가 주를 이루는 개그맨들은 외모를 무기로 코미디를 하려는 경향이 강하다 보니 이런 패턴에서 벗어나기가 쉽지 않다. 특히 개성적인 외모와 과체중의 소유자라면 그런 경향은 반복된다.

This trend is most evident in comedy programs. On them, it is the norm for comedians to take advantage of some very obvious bodily feature or aspect of their appearance to make jokes, and it is not easy to break out of this trend.

현재 <개그콘서트>에서도 ‘크레이지 러브’나 ‘속상해’ 같은 코너는 외모의 비교라는 전제를 두고 진행된다. ‘크레이지 러브’는 이 공식을 살짝 비틀긴 했지만 여전히 웃음 포인트는 박지선이 김나희에게 못생겼다고 독설을 퍼붓는 역설적인 형식으로 표현된다. ‘속상해’는 이 희화화의 대상을 여성에서 여장을 한 남자 정태호로 바꾸기는 했지만 외모 때문에 무시 당하는 노처녀라는 설정은 이전과 크게 다르지 않다.

One example on TV screens at the moment is Gag Concert, which has two regular skits called ‘Crazy Love’ and ‘I’m Hurt’ that are both based on comparing people’s appearances. In the former, the humor revolves around Park Ji-song berating Kim Na-hee for her ugliness, despite Park actually being the uglier of the two; while in the latter it’s about Jeong Tae-ho dressing as an old maid, who’s always ignored by suitors because of her ugliness.

이제까지 <개그콘서트>에서는 이런 코미디가 반복돼왔다. 단순히 못생긴 여성이 무시당한다는 설정보다 더 심각한 문제는 외모가 부족한 여성들이 잘생긴 남성에게 집착하며 눈치도 없어 남성들에게 쉽게 여겨지고 비아냥을 당해도 좋은 여성으로 묘사된다는 점이다.

This comedic theme is normal for Gag Concert. But more serious than unattractive women getting ignored, is the notion that if they obsess over attractive men, they can be treated tactlessly and thought little of, as if their only value is their potential for sarcasm and ridicule.

이는 코미디의 소재 부족을 여실히 느끼게 한다. 현재 <개그콘서트>는 예전에 비해 히트작이 나오지 못하고 있다. 코미디의 패턴이 반복되고 있는 와중에 그들의 웃음 포인트가 단순히 외모나 분장을 활용하는 것 이상으로 흐르지 못하고 있기 때문이다. 통렬한 풍자나 패러디는 물 건너 간지 오래다. 대표 코미디 프로그램인 <개그콘서트>가 이 정도면 다른 프로그램들은 더욱 심각하다. 단순한 패턴도 지겨워지는데 외모적인 특징으로 하는 1차원적인 개그는 어느 순간 불편한 지경에까지 이르렀다. 그들의 개성적인 외모가 개그맨이는 새로운 길을 열어주었을지는 모르지만 그 외모로 발산하는 에너지가 긍정적이지 못하다면 그들의 코미디에 마음 놓고 웃을 수는 없는 노릇이다.

This dramatically shows how lacking comedy is these days. Compared to the past, Gag Concert no longer has any really popular skits. Its humor is repetitive, relying on little more than laughing at costumes or appearance. It no longer has any biting satire or parody. [What’s more,] if a representative comedy program like Gag Concert is like this, you can imagine what other comedy programs are like. Their simplistic patterns are getting tedious, and the gags poking fun at some special aspect of people’s appearance have become uncomfortable and embarrassing. While that focus can open the door for comedians, as an audience it feels insincere to still laugh at such things.

외모가 예쁘면 물론 좋다. 그러나 누구나 다 예쁘게 태어나지는 않는다. 외모의 다양성과 개성을 존중하지 않고 단순히 ‘이렇게 생겨야 한다’는 고정관념 속에서 사람들은 지쳐간다. ‘강남 미인도’ 같은 풍자가 나오는 것이 이런 분위기와 무관하지 않다. 그러나 여전히 대한민국은 지금 ‘외모’ 하나만으로 사람을 판단하는 경향이 강하다. 단순히 못생긴 얼굴을 무시하는 경향이 문제가 아니다. 예쁜 얼굴이라 할지라도 ‘자연미인’이냐는 시험대에 놓인다. 예쁜 것을 원하면서도 성형을 한 얼굴이나 화장으로 달라진 얼굴에 뭔가 하자가 있는 것처럼 묘사되는 것은 아이러니다.

[Of course,] it’s good to look pretty. But not everybody is born that way. There is a great deal of variety among people really, and we are exhausted by strong prejudices in Korea against those that don’t live up to the ideal, which is partially related to the ‘Gangnam beauty’ stereotype. [See here for a classic satire of that by SNL Korea— James]. This is not just a problem of people being ignored if they have an ugly face though, because even if you’re pretty, you’ll always be on the judgement table over whether you’re a ‘natural beauty’ or not—it is such an irony that, even while judging people based on their appearance, we’ll criticize them if they use cosmetic surgery or cosmetics to look prettier.

Gangnam Miindo(L-R: a ‘Gangnam beauty’; the original Miindo/Portrait of a Beauty by Sin Yun-bok (b. 1758); and a poster of the 2008 movie of the same name. Sources: Awesome Pick; 기냥 보는 재미…원미동통신; and 연예계 뒷담화)

단순히 못생긴 여성이나 남성에 대한 무시뿐 아니라 자연적으로 예쁘게 태어난 여성이나 남성에 대한 지나친 환호 역시 우리 사회가 외모 지상주의에 멍드는 현실을 여실히 나타내 준다.

The issue here is not just that ugly women and men are ignored, but that we so loudly cheer those of us that are naturally born attractive, showing how broken our present society is.

외모는 타고 난다. 성형한 외모가 아무 노력없이 얻은 것이라 비판할 수 있다면 자연미인 역시 그 외모를 가지려고 노력한 것은 아니다. ‘뚱땡이’ ‘못난이’ 등의 캐릭터가 버젓이 TV에서 통하고 그 외모로 사람을 평가하는 분위기는 김치와 한국인을 비하했다는 할리우드 영화 <버드맨>보다 훨씬 더 심각하게 생각해야 할 문제가 아닐까.

Our appearance is something that we’re born with. But if you criticize those who get cosmetic surgery to look attractive as doing it without any hardship or effort, [then you’re being hypocritical,] for natural Beauties didn’t expend any effort also. Surely the characters like ‘fatties’ and ‘uglies’ that appear on TV shows, and the atmosphere created by judging people so harshly on their appearance, are some things much more important to think about and criticize, than a character in a Hollywood movie saying that kimchi smells? (End.)

Ajummification

Woo Dong-gyoon’s article starts well with its raising of an important issue, but disappoints with its repetitive platitudes. Also, in a mental note not to repeat the EXID HANI Vitaminsame mistake myself, he probably makes few converts among Korean comedy fans with his sweeping denunciations of the entire genre. (Edit: In fairness, it’s more of an op-ed than an article really.)

His greatest and most surprising sins though, were ones of omission. First, what of the comedians jokingly imitating Hani’s (now famous) dance move?

Yes, in isolation it was all good fun, and yes, even Hani herself comes across as pretty goofy here, and shy and endearing on the episode overall. (The contrast with her on-stage presence is really quite remarkable.) In the context of body-shaming the comedians because they don’t match the very narrow height and weight range of typical girl-group members however, it adds insult to injury by suggesting that women of their ages and body-types couldn’t possibly be sexy either, the notion that they could get their groove on being self-evidently absurd.

If all this sounds familiar, that may be because I wrote about a very similar example nearly five years ago, in which Hyuna of 4Minute performed her own ‘sexy pelvic dance’ on the MBC variety show Quiz That Changes The World. Unfortunately, I’ve long since deleted the post sorry, and remaining copies of the full episode (#62, 10 July 2010) are behind paywalls, but I can tell you that after Hyuna performed:

First, then 51 year-old male singer KIm Heung-gook would get up and parody her:

Kim Heung-gook Quiz That Changes the World(Source: KBS Conting. Technically, this is from an earlier part of the show, but you get the idea.)

Then host Park Mi-sun (then 43), actress Im Ye-jin (50), and actress Lee Kyung-shil (44):

Copying Hyuna's Pelvic Dance(Update: I was able to find a low resolution copy of the episode here, from which I took the above screenshot.)

Then finally the 12 year-old daughter of retired footballer Yoo Sang-chul, the guest in the yellow t-shirt (the “13” in the video was likely her ‘Korean age’):

As you might expect, the episode quickly generated a lot of controversy for its sexualization of an adolescent girl. Alas, that ‘girl’ would actually be 18 year-old Hyuna, a bizarre blind spot that I went on to explore in my Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea series. More to the point here though, if viewers had few qualms about laughing to a 12 year-old thrusting her crotch in their faces, then presumably they’d have even less about the stereotypes of asexual, unattractive ajummas perpetuated by almost always only having 20-something women doing the sexy dances on such shows, every 30+ woman only the goofy parodies.

Yes, they’re not solely responsible for widespread perceptions that women lose their sex drives after having children, and consequently that its only fair that men should visit prostitutes to meet their needs. But they certainly don’t help either, and it’s surely very telling that I’m seeing the exact same, apparently still fucking hilarious joke 5 years later.

Rather than outrage though, I was strongly reminded of a (very) old skit by the UK comedian Ben Elton instead, in which he laments he can never be a great comedian because he lacks…

Big Tits

And it’s worth quoting him at length, because replace all the “big tits” below with “he/she’s fat/ugly/unsexy/too old” jokes, then I feel exactly the same way about the Korean comedy programs I’ve just described. From An Approach to Traditions of British Stand-up Comedy by Oliver John Double (PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1991, pp. 298-299):

In another of his routines, Elton makes a more political attack on clichéd comic style, satirizing the British tradition of smutty humor. A hypothetical situation comedy is described, which contains a number of covert references to breasts. Elton deconstructs these jokes, and adds ironic laughter:

I saw this sitcom, working title: Can You Show Me the Way to Oldham?. That was the first laugh: Oldham sounds a bit like “hold ’em” doesn’t it, very very funny, well done BBC, well worth sixty five quid a year license money I don’t think. I watched ’em all, Benny Hill…laugh? I nearly did, fantastic. And in this sitcom, there was Gloria, behind the bar, she’s a big woman, bring in the camera, steam up the lens, everybody loves it, big tits, best gag in the world, that’s the one for the British punter. In comes Tom, he’s an amicable northern stereotype, ‘e says, “By ‘eck, you don’t get many of those to the pound”, ‘e gets a laaauuuugh!! Nice one Tom, ‘cos she’s got big tits, oh ho ho ho ho! ‘E says, ‘By ‘eck, I wish I were her doctor’, yes Tom, second laugh, same pair o’ tits, I couldn’t believe it, it’s happening in front of me. ‘E says, “By ‘eck, no wonder they built the extension,” go on Tom, you’re winning, ‘e says, “By ‘eck, that’s the loveliest pair of…eyes I ever saw!”. Oh, amazing Tom, we thought he was gonna say “tits'” didn’t we? Faaantastic!

After ridiculing the simplicity of the joke-structures of breast innuendo humor, Elton then tackles the root of the problem. Jokes which make covert references to breasts rely on the idea that breasts are rude, naughty objects of desire, which cannot be overtly mentioned. Elton destroys this conception, by reincorporating the jokes from his hypothetical situation comedy in the context of a woman’s getting dressed in the morning. This robs the breasts of their naughty connotations, restoring their status as ordinary physiological features, and thus making the jokes laughably unfunny:

Come on girls, how do you get dressed in the morning, dear me ladies, you must die!! Bathroom mirror, up with the nightie, there’s my tits! Fuckin”ell, these are funny!! I’ll ‘ave a good laugh at my tits while I’m brushing my teeth! Ooh, I wish I were my doctor, ho ha ho ho ho!! I’m glad I built the extension, tee hee. These are the loveliest pair of… eyes I ever saw…! Fuck me, I nearly said I ‘ad big tits!!

Ben Elton, alas, is also a White Person of a Certain Education. Be that as it may, I remember laughing so hard I was crying as I first listened to him 20 years ago, and, once the tears dried, how surprising and refreshing it felt to hear comedy deconstructed so. It’s even more impressive when you learn that he first performed this particular skit way back in 1981, and that it was a deliberate reaction to the virulently racist, sexist, homophobic jokes that were standard for UK comedy in the 1970s (see 10:55-12:45, and 1:35:00 here).

Update — I was able to find a video of that first performance from 1981, but have to admit that it hasn’t aged well, partially because his delivery was much too fast (in fairness, he was only 22; he improved as he got older):

Elton’s skit clicked with me because in my experience, Korean comedy is very physical and slapstick, and seems to repeat many of the same childish jokes, as described above. Friends and colleagues I’ve discussed this with though, chosen because they’ve watched much more Korean comedy than me, say that my characterization is unfair, with sitcoms like High Kick, for instance, being just as sophisticated as the likes of Friends. And they’re probably right. Rather than discussing Korean comedy then, which I’ve already stated that I can’t and shouldn’t generalize, I think it’s more correct to say that, as a whole, Korean television is very comical, primarily because it has an unusually large number of variety programs—which include shows like Vitamin and Quiz That Changes The World:

“Much of Japanese television content, including even what is aired during [prime time], consists of ‘infotainment’ on subjects that range from science and diet to current affairs and travel. Rather than being broadcast as straightforward factual television, these shows are often bifurcated into segments that involve a panel of celebrities who discuss and interpret the informational content in an entertaining way. By cutting back and forth between factual and entertaining content, celebrities remain central to Japanese televisual discourse. As opposed to a continuum defined by fact and fiction, Japanese variety TV generally alternates between fact and celebrity.”

Patrick Galbriath and Jason Karlin (ed.s), “Introduction: The Mirror of Idols and Celebrity,” in Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, (2012, p. 17.)

Yes, that quote was actually about Japan. But if I was so desperate for sources that I still used it in my recent conference paper on the disproportionate role of celebrities in Korean popular culture, then I’m just going to go right ahead and extrapolate from it here too. Because seriously, it does sum up Korean television rather well, and serves to suggest that the compulsion for panels of celebrities to “interpret informational content in an entertaining way” is a strong one, for which crude body-shaming and physical, slapstick jokes would be easy methods to rely on. (Not to mention racist jokes.)

Julien and Ga-hee(Source: Think Different)

Moreover, whatever the explanation, I suspect that all these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. For instance, in the very next episode of Quiz That Changes the World, Ga-hee opined that because she was tall, she preferred to date men over 183cm, prompting her and fellow tall guest Juilen Kang to line up against much older and shorter hosts Kim Gu-ra and Jo Hyung-gi. (Never fear: afterwards, she did some completely spontaneous sexy dances to make them feel better.) Also, here’s three more examples from 2012; another from this February; another from March; and God knows how many more I’d find if I actually watched the damn things…

I Should Really Be Doing More Interviews by Now, Dammit…

But do such examples have “a direct pedagogic effect” on Korean girls and women watching though? Or on Korean boys, on Korean men, or on pretty much anyone that watches them for that matter? Or do they instead see them as merely harmless fun, are fully aware of their damaging messages about body-image and sexuality, and reject them completely? After all, the second main take-away point of Tomlinson’s book, and which should surely be a mantra for all cultural-studies students, is the question of “who speaks?”, the necessity of acknowledging and analyzing (supposed) victims’ negotiation of ‘texts’ they’re confronted with being Tomlinson’s very next point:

Any advance in [an approach to cultural imperialism based on texts rather than institutions] is dependent on an analysis of the relationship between text and audience. This is something that, as Boyd-Barrett points out, few critiques of cultural imperialism have addressed (pp. 44-45):

The orthodox view of audiences in the West is now one that stresses the social context in which communications are received, and which stresses the individual’s capacity for active selection and selective retention. This view does not seem to have carried over sufficiently to Third World contexts….Individual capacity for psychological compartmentalization and rationalization is underestimated to an extraordinary degree. Much more attention needs to be given to the processes by which individuals and groups interpret, translate, and transform their experiences of foreign culture to relate to more familiar experiences.

(J.O. Boyd-Barrett “Cultural Dependency and the Mass Media”, in M. Gurevitch et al. (eds) Culture, Society, and the Media, London, Methuen, (1982, p. 193.)

In light of that, the second failing of Woo Dong-gyoon’s article on Hani and the 3 ugly sisters is that he doesn’t attempt this, not interviewing a single person. By extension though, it is also my own for relying on such articles, rather than scouring Korean academic journals and/or conducting my own ethnographic research, and consequently failing the challenge I set myself in the introduction. But this is just a blog sorry, academic Korean is tough, and the approximately $10 a year in donations I receive these days don’t allow for much fieldwork. (Yes, it does feel a little awkward and distasteful to mention that; but doing so could hardly lead to less donations, right?!) Given those constraints, I would be very interested in and grateful for readers’ own interpretations of any of the examples mentioned here, of what they know of Koreans’ interpretations of them, and/or for links or any other sources with more.

Also, necessity being the mother of invention, for your help in establishing a second means to fulfill the challenge. Because if Korean popular culture is actually just bursting with positive representations of non-skinny, non-tall, and/or 30+ women looking and feeling sexy, and rare proud girl-groups with larger than average members don’t feel compelled to slim down…then sure, maybe it’s all just harmless fun. If not though, then maybe, just maybe, those fat jokes are indeed—yes—problematic.

To get the ball rolling, let me present all the examples of ‘plus-size’ Korean models I know:

Sexy is not about size(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 2(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 3(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 4(Source: All Tha+ Plus)
Sexy is not about size 5(Source: All Tha+ Plus)

Did I get them all? Did I miss anyone? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THEY’RE ALL THE SAME WOMAN?!!

2 thoughts on “What Donald Duck, Hani, and Big Tits Taught Me About Body-Image in Korean Comedy

  1. I’ve been living in Korea for just over a year and in that time kind of fell in love with Gag Concert because of it’s uniquely Korean brand of sketch comedy. It is extremely repetitive, but familiarity with the gags and characters is part of its charm. Lately however, I’ve been found myself being increasingly troubled for the exact same reasons Woo mentions in his article.

    He only touches on it briefly, but I’m starting to find the way that Gag Concert treats it’s female comedians to be almost unbearable. I’ve only been watching for a year, so I can’t speak too generally about a show that’s been running since the 90’s, but from what I’ve seen, the gag women are put into four categories: fat, ugly, average, and pretty. Knowing how competitive it is to become a real gagwoman, I have no doubt that all of these women are brilliant comedians. And in the rare occasion that you get to see them really showcase their comedic chops, they’re bloody hilarious. The problem is is that, in general, the characters they portray are almost entirely modeled around their appearance. In other words, if a “fat” gagwoman appears in a skit, the punchline of every single joke she is involved in has to do with her fatness. That is not even an exaggeration, I would challenge anyone to pinpoint a joke involving one of the plus-sized Gagwomen that has nothing to do with her size, attractiveness, or how much she eats.

    A lot of the time, the jokes are cheap and overt, and other times more underlying, like the “Crazy Love” skit mentioned in the article. In that skit, the entire premise of the skit is the absurdity of an “ugly gagwoman” like Park Ji Sun playing the character of a sexy, desirable Jaebol house wife. The pretty/sexy gagwomen don’t have it much better…. they are most often used as props and foils in male-dominated skits and are barely given an opportunity to show their own comedic talents.

    While there is a category of “fat gagmen” they don’t have it nearly as bad as the women. They do appear in a lot of skits poking fun at their size, but they also get the chance to play characters that are size-neutral in skits that are fat joke-free.

    I just find it really sad and disturbing that plus-sized women only ever appear on mainstream Korean TV if their size is a big joke that the audience has complete permission to laugh at. It sends this toxic message that when a woman is plus-sized, her size becomes her identity. Whether you’re using it to get laughs, or casting her aside as unfeminine, unattractive, and unworthy. As a Korean plus-sized female myself, I’m really interested in how Korean culture shifts in this area over the next few years. Thank you for keeping a critical eye on these issues here, and for sharing your thoughts! Totally relate to that feminist media criticism cartoon… I’m sending it to all my friends.

    Cheers,
    Heather

    • Sorry for my late reply, and that it’ll be so brief compared to your own. But thanks very much for your insights into Gag Concert, which frankly I find invaluable given how little I know about the show myself.

      I’d like to add more, but I’m doing a follow-up post next month, so most of what I want to say will have to wait until then sorry. I will mention though, that in light of:

      1) What you wrote about Gag Concert

      2) A friend of mine noticing that SNL Korea’s jokes tend towards the middle-aged men getting hot and bothered by voluptuous women type (helpful recent example below)

      3) And reading a Yonsei MA student’s paper on variety shows, in which she argues that the ugliness/averageness of the members of Unlimited Challenge, but ability and/or striving to fulfill the challenges despite that handicap, is actually a large part of its wide appeal…

      …then my analysis in the post starts looking, if not naive, then at least a little simplistic and ill-informed. (I’m glad I stressed that I can’t generalize!) So, although I do still expect to find the handling of body image to be problematic in Korean comedy overall (and particularly bad in some shows), now I’ve got a much, much greater appreciation of how idiosyncratic each show is, and realize that in future it’s probably wiser to critique individual ones rather than the genre as a whole.

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