Korean Variety Shows and the Performance of Gender

Curator's Note

The Korean Wave is one of the most impressive popular culture phenomena in recent years, inspiring not only international social engagement, but also a participatory community of dedicated fans. South Korean pop music and television dramas have received both local and global praise, leading to the overseas promotion of K-pop idol groups and numerous adaptations of visual media. While we may still view Hollywood as the dominant producer of “global” entertainment, the Korean Wave complicates prior notions of Western cultural imperialism. However, despite the recognition of profitable Korean media styles, there remains one very specific genre of programming that is unlikely to breach the American market: celebrity variety shows.

Variety shows are well-known in the international fan community and often showcase the talents of and revelatory interviews with Korean idols. These programs are frequently subtitled, edited, circulated, and discussed online by fans, but their affective investment in performative celebrity culture is not quite translatable to a wider American audience. One key aspect that is integral to the reception of these shows is a central reliance on “soft masculinity,” which is relatively oppositional to the expectations of gender in an American context. In shows such as Weekly Idol, male idol groups are almost required to perform aegyo (a kind of cute display of affection) to appeal to their fans and demonstrate their versatile (albeit, manufactured) personalities. These more “feminized” performances deconstruct traditional Western binary gender dynamics that can threaten dominant norms. Another unavoidable obstacle to the adaptation or acceptance of this genre is the centrality of hip hop culture in the American music industry, which carries with it a particular hyper-masculine affiliation. The influence of hip hop is extremely pervasive in K-pop (most idol groups include a designated “rapper” and hip hop-inspired clothing and/or “concepts” are commonplace - though the issues of cultural appropriation are out of the scope of this post), but the same cannot be said for idols’ embodiments of masculinity. While the music and visuals may be fairly easily packaged and sold internationally, male idols’ behavior on variety shows often does not quite match up with their stage personas, perhaps to the detriment of any potential American marketability. There has already been significant resistance to Korean idol groups breaking into the U.S. entertainment industry, and the disparities in cultural ideologies surrounding gender currently obstruct future potentials for adaptation.

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