The queerness of the
Korean variety show called yenŭng

Korean variety shows are referred to as yenŭng—a genre of entertainment broadly composed of classic variety show elements such as musical performances, sketch comedy, talk show banter, and ad-lib, as well as reality TV, and quiz/game shows.[30] [open endnotes in new window] Comedy is the foundation of all yenŭng programs and with it comes great possibility for destabilizing constructed identities. Gender-mixing, bending and crossing occur regularly on these shows as they did in American TV like The Texaco Star Theatre (1948-1956, NBC) with Milton Berle.

The men of Ask Us Anything dress up as famous women and female characters for improv scenes such as the Little Mermaid, Nip Siu-sin, Marilyn Monroe and Mona Lisa.

As Alexander Doty notes, queer readings “result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along.”[31] Stylistically, formally and aesthetically, yenŭng differs from standard U.S. and British reality shows in that yenŭng has laugh tracks, CGI, sound effects, and subtitles to enhance emotional and comedic impact.[32] The shows imitate studio recordings before a live audience but without an audience. In this way, yenŭng emulates live performances’ theatricality that is in line with the tradition of vaudeville and variety shows that are staged and filmed before a live audience. Korean yenŭng programs are conscious of the live audience watching at home as well as the state censors (the KCC) who approve or disapprove of certain images, actions and language for television. More than in narrative content, yenŭng exhibits its queerness through a camp aesthetics of excess and artifice. That is, Korean variety programs have an excess of effects both sound and visual, e.g., CGI, slow motion, repetitive replays of significant moments, subtitles in bold texts, canned laugh tracks and music. In addition, the programs contain multitudes of intertextual meanings. For example, they consistently point to recognizable media from the local and global (typically from Hollywood) zeitgeist including film, TV shows, celebrities, newspaper headlines, etc.. Although Korean variety shows do not incorporate obvious qualities that would at first-glance be recognized as queer, the genre works as a queer text through its consistent homosocial casting, cross-dressing, cross-gender play, and by recurrently featuring women who do not conform to the heteronormative conventions of desirability that cater to the hetero cis-male gaze.

At this point, because I am finding queerness in works that are not overtly so, I want to contextualize my use of this concept. Gender scholars may favor the term “queer” for its flexibility and boundlessness but the scholar also needs to set parameters for how they use the term in their work.  For example, “queer” is characterized by Annemarie Jagose in Queer Theory: An Introduction as elastic, mobile, indeterminate and arising during moments of ambiguity.[33] Korean variety shows’ ambiguity as a genre allows both scholars and many viewers to anticipate its queerness through its unstable, excessive, and camp qualities. In cinema studies, Ungsan Kim defines queerness as “a stylistic and formalistic attitude that disrupts or alters cinematic conventions” that work in conjunction with filmic elements of “non-normative sexual desires.”[34] Kim acknowledges at the same time that the terms “queer” as well as “queer cinema” are unstable and always changing. Judith Butler observes that queer must remain open and cannot ever be “fully owned” so that it may evolve constantly into useful political applications.[35] The political application of queer theory matters greatly in contexts where rigid language and ideology repress identities that go beyond hegemonic recognition—as it is in the case with contemporary Korea. As Dong-jin Seo writes,

“Although homosexuality exists in modern-day Korean society, it seems to be an entity whose meaning has been endlessly deferred.”[36]

Seo laments the unhappiness which frequently defines homosexuality in Korean society because its “social existence” goes unrecognized. This raises the question of where Korea’s queer individuals can turn to for affirmation. Thus, in my application of the term “queer” herein, I include all qualities and identities that disrupt heteronormative and hegemonic assumptions, and this extends to not just individuals but also genre categories.

Yenŭng consistently displays queer and destabilized images of gender “norms” through humor. Jack Babuscio considers humor “the strategy of camp: a means of dealing with a hostile environment and, in the process, of defining a positive identity.”[37] The baseline of comedy in all yenŭng programs is not only a facet of its camp attributes, but it’s also a queer strategy that processes Korea’s patriarchal heaviness. Humor mitigates any real threats to the patrilineal heteronormative order; yenŭng programs are therefore “safe” for TV airing. In a country that has just one openly gay celebrity, it is impossible to state that queer people do not exist; yet they do not come out for fear of backlash. Yenŭng’s constant destabilization of gender, sexuality, customs and hierarchy make Korean variety TV queer. These family-friendly weekend variety programs that iterate state-approved prescriptions of socio-cultural “norms” are, in fact, expressing queerness at all times.

Yenŭng programs are typically hosted by comedians in a homosocial group. For instance, popular shows like 2 Days 1 Night (KBS, 2007— ), Infinite Challenge (MBC, 2005-2018), and Ask Us Anything feature an all-male cast. All-female yenŭng programs such as Sisters’ Slamdunk (KBS, 2016-2017) and, the Infinite Challenge spin-off, Infinite Girls (MBC, 2007-2013) had much shorter runs compared to their male counterparts.

The all-male cast of Infinite Challenge led by Yoo Jae-suk.

Because these shows are segregated by gender, queerness is always present through homosociality’s queer potential, but this suggestion remains in tension with the programs’ overt emphasis on heteronormativity, which is a strong socio-cultural underpinning of Korean society.

Infinite Girls season 3 with an all-female cast led by Song Eun-i.

Queer startext and the straight guys’
queer possibility on variety TV

Cultural anthropologist Erick Laurent claims that queer culture in ancient Korea has conflicting roots tangled in Buddhist and Confucian ideologies that coexist in the nation’s social and cultural fabric across centuries. Records of queerness in Korea date back to 350 AD with shamans who dressed outside of gender-normative outfits; in the 13th century, homosexual relations among the hwarang (men who served the royal court’s military) and the namsadang (a mobile theater troupe) commonly occurred. But as Confucianism began to take hold in Korean society, the pressure to conform to a hetero-family unit began to rise: “Confucianism, its emphasis on social order and family, viewed male same-sex relations as a threat….”[38] Meanwhile, Buddhism, which was and is just as influential in Korea, promotes acceptance of homosexual engagement. Because of this, Laurent contends that while the burden to get married and produce offspring exist because of Confucianism, homosocial bonding is greatly accepted because of Buddhism in Korean society:

“[S]ame–sex friends living together before marriage, the fact of holding hands and rubbing each other in the street, of brushing a male friend’s buttock or genitals when parting. Nothing sexual will be interpreted.”[39]

The kind of homosocial acceptance that Laurent describes, however, has more to do with open homosexuality being so far from the realm of possibilities in Korean society that such homoerotic behavior will not be interpreted as anything but straight intimacy.[40] Ron Becker observes that post-closet U.S. TV narratives construct “queer straight guys” who are open to the possibility of male-to-male intimacy as well as emotional and physical bonding; the queer straight guy concept functions as a sign of liberal progression of the producers and viewers of that era.[41] In Korea, however, the nation’s open acceptance of homosocial bonding is a result of never considering queer relationships as a possibility. Queerness is not an option. With that said, Ask Us Anything includes instances of homosocial bonding and queer straight guy intimacy.  

Kim Hee-chul is a popular entertainer and emcee on numerous talk and variety television shows, but his stardom originates from the internationally beloved K-pop boyband Super Junior, which debuted in 2005. Since his debut, Kim has co-hosted over three dozen unscripted television programs on public, commercial and cable channels. Kim’s popularity among fans stems from his sharp wit and comedic timing but also from his close friendship with numerous girl group members and his androgynous appearance. For instance, Kim was mistaken for a woman by a security guard when he tried to enter a men’s room. Although many rumors speculate on his sexuality, Kim claims to be straight.[42] Kim also claims in interviews that he does not adamantly deny gay rumors for fear of offending his gay fans.[43]

On episode 37, Kim and the other members of the show play two rounds of a game called “the egg test,” which determines a man’s stamina by seeing who can hold an egg between their knees the longest. Kim wins both rounds of the test. Upon winning, Kim turns to the camera in direct address and says, “Dear future wife, aren’t you so grateful to me?” Kim performs his heteronormative masculinity here but he is mostly known on the show for his frequent cross-dressing and dancing alongside girl groups whenever they appear as guests. Kim is, by all means, “that bitch” on the show:

“Within the world of queer performance, being ‘that bitch’ is about having an exacting, unquestionable creative juice and asserting yourself through performance and style.”[44]

Kim’s male co-hosts tease him for this while also expressing their awe at how well he knows the girl groups’ dance moves. When Kim goes up to dance, the editors add graphics to give Kim long flowing hair, turning the moment into a CGI drag performance, as they did in episode 21 (air date Apr. 23, 2016) with a guest appearance by Red Velvet. Kim happens to know all the dance moves because he is a fan of Red Velvet’s music, but when the producers in the editing room place a CGI wig over Kim’s head, there is a hint of trans/homophobic ridicule in equating his love for a girl group as a gendered act. With that said, Kim’s “that bitch” attitude makes him a confident queer figure on Ask Us Anything. That is how he reacts towards speculations about his sexuality and he seems not to care whether or not his knowledge of girl group dance moves might challenge his gender or sexual identity. Thus, Kim gets constructed in two contradictory ways: he is a freely queer figure on the show and is also used to demonstrate moments of the show’s queer phobia. In addition, while male-to-female cross-dressing ridicules trans/queerness, as Quinlan Miller points out, such an image also informs queer viewers of a possibility toward productive queer imagining:

“The pain is part of it, but it can’t be the whole focus, especially if you take the actual lived existence of trans people…into account. Anecdotal evidence confirms that the medium was doing more than inflicting harm….”[45]

Onscreen cross-dressing is a camp feature—a superficial style.[46] Such images of gender nonconformity are also “a part of trans history.”[47] Kim’s persona on Ask Us Anything is “trans gender queer”—a term that “positions gender as a multiplicitous switch point between trans and queer….”[48] This term enables a wider and more inclusive reading of texts by taking gender and sexual orientations into account. By naming Kim trans gender queer, the myth that queer identities do not exist on Korean television and society is broken; queerness gets centered, and the variety genre’s camp gets recognized. In Kim’s trans gender queer performance, he not only dresses and embodies female attributes but also plays the role of a wife or girlfriend to some of the male cast members in their improv and sketch segmenst. In fact, Kim cross-dresses so frequently on Ask Us Anything that a fan created a supercut YouTube video of all the moments he appears as a woman on the show.[49]

Kim Hee-chul cross-dresses as a woman for a sketch on Ask Us Anything. Hee-chul dresses as a high school girl and plays the girl character "Hee-mi" in an improv scene.

Kim’s confidence and enthusiasm whenever he dresses like a woman or dances alongside girl groups display Becker’s notion of straight guy queerness. Kim’s remaining untethered to gender “norms,” in fact, is a quality commonly found in many K-pop boybands. Male K-pop soloists and boybands have a flexible gender identity when it comes to expressions of masculinity, ranging from hard-bodied muscular images like Rain to softer, more effeminate images such as BTS and 2AM.[50] The range of masculine images for male K-pop stars, however, does not apply to girl groups, who must always accommodate the hetero-male gaze. Girl groups are pressured to maintain slim bodies, create certain facial features through surgery and makeup, wear short skirts and heels even when performing complex dance routines, and behave childishly (aegyo) to preserve the fantasy of the infantilized girl child.[51] There is a rigid gender expectation placed on girl groups to be hyper sexual, hyper feminine and youthful. Such gender disparity explains the variety show’s homosocial environment. Women are not invited to be regular cast members on popular programs like Ask Us Anything. In general, women are never cast in historically popular Korean variety shows such as Infinite Challenge and 2 Days 1 Night. When women do appear as guests, they are expected to sing and dance for the men like show girls. And the KCC never penalizes these programs for such common instances of female objectification.

BTS (top) and 2AM (bottom) pose for photos with a colorful, soft and effeminate display of masculinity.

Yenung producers’ consistent failure to cast women as regulars on programs is an industrial act of female exclusion. These variety shows that centralize men permit queer moments between cast members with male-to-female cross-dressing perhaps because remaining homosocial with the potential of crossing into queer boundaries is preferred over inviting actual women as show regulars. Furthermore, the drag performance by these straight men is an example of “hetero-masculine drag” that gets staged strictly for “fun and comedy.”[52]

Kim Hee-chul’s startext is queer while he maintains a straight orientation; this makes him a prime candidate for giving the show a hue of liberal progressiveness by exploring gender fluidity as well as queer intimacy. This is particularly evident in Kim’s music video made with his variety show’s co-host Min Kyung-hoon and the rest of the Ask Us Anything members and production staff. Entitled, “Sweet Dream,” it has a storyline of a love triangle between Kim, Min and Momo from the K-pop girl group Twice. At the end of the video, when Kim happily meets Momo in-person, Min reacts with supportive joy for his friend but later, when no one is looking, he removes his hand from his desk to reveal the scrawl “Kim Hee-chul <3 Min Kyung-hoon,” suggesting gay love.

Kim and Min are known on the show for their “bromance” and common expressions of straight guy queerness through words and actions just as much as Kim is known for his feminine tendencies on Ask Us Anything. With that said, Kim and Min also push the boundaries of this intimacy by frequently getting close onscreen with suggestive visual displays of same-sex love.[53] Including these characters on a show as popular as Ask Us Anything signals the text’s progressive choices. However, it is important to note that these queer intimacies all function in the realm of comedy. As Chambers claims,

“Thought rigorously, ‘queer television’ would describe television that suggests a relational understanding of (sexual) identity and/or television that resists or subverts normative heterosexuality.”[54]

Variety shows are known for their excessiveness and liminality through their comedy, skits, costumes and games, and thus they are the perfect temporary realm for all identities to transgress their social and cultural boundaries for a moment before the show ends and everyone returns to their regular social positions. Experimenting with gender crossover and homosocial play that edges towards homosexual intimacy are all acceptable in the secure bounds of the variety show genre and it comedy. With that said, Ask Us Anything also clearly demonstrates homophobia through its display of homosexual panic when an openly gay man appears as a guest.  

"Kim Hee-chul <3 Min Kyung-hoon." Kim Hee-chul and Min Kyung-hoon get close enough to share a kiss.

Open gayness on Ask Us Anything

Actor Hong Seok-cheon is an Ask Us Anything guest on January 13, 2018. The minute Hong arrives, jokes stemming from homosexual panic get thrown around among the cast members, which Hong plays into. When Kim Hee-chul asks Hong if he would care if Twice appeared, Hong expresses irritation at the thought of being surrounded by nine girls.

Hong Seok-cheon rejects the presence of a girl group.

But when Kim mentions the boyband Wanna One which consists of eleven young men, Hong breaks out into a celebratory song and dance making his preference for men very clear. On the one hand, discussions of gayness are relatively prevalent on a variety show, where they can exhibit queerness through the safety net of comedy. It happens in the way that Becker discusses the constant presence of humor around television discussions of homosexuality, which demonstrates a persistent cultural anxiety around LGBTQIA+ themes in the mainstream:

“That most queer straight guys are found safely wrapped in comedic irony reveals a culture nervously processing its changing politics of gender and sexuality rather than one fully confident in a vision of some queer future.”[55]

At the same time, homosexuality is also a threat on a set like Ask Us Anything where all the male members are confined to a homosocial space; Hong’s openly gay identity activates homosexual panic in the room. Hong’s deviance from heterosexuality is a threat to the members’ masculinity. As long as they are telling jokes, however, the threat of Hong’s sexuality is under control. While Hong appears as an LGBTQIA+ member who has found success on television, due to the “dominant currents within televisual flow…[he is]…no longer quite queer….”[56]

This kind of use and disavowal of homosexuality exemplifies Lisa Duggan’s concept of “new homonormativity.” That is, a shallow or false liberation in gay politics gets promised while maintaining dominant heteronormative systems and organizations. According to her, the problematics of homonormativity is rooted in U.S. political economy and neoliberal rationality as they dismantle and depoliticize queer politics. This happens through the privatization and monetization of gay culture, and places the onus of political responsibility on the individual while equating political practice with consumerism and wealth.[57] Hong’s career as a gay celebrity in Korea follows a similar pattern of homonormativity.

Hong is the first celebrity in Korea to come out as gay in 2000. Upon coming out, Hong faced industry homophobia. He lost all of his broadcasting and advertisement deals including the children’s program PoPoPo (MBC, 1981-2013) on which he was a regular. In Ask Us Anything, Hong casually mentions this period in passing. He tells how he could not make any television appearances for three years but without explicitly mentioning that the cause of this break took place due to homophobic backlash from the industry. Hong then transitions into a story about how his passion for cooking enabled him to become a great chef and successful restauranteur (he owns seven restaurants in Seoul’s queer-friendly district Itaewon). The congratulatory and triumphalist tone of this anecdote, however, skirts the fact that Hong had to seek an alternative means of survival after losing his job in entertainment as a consequence of coming out.

Hong is now back on as a regular in multiple television programs; however, the industry’s acceptance of Hong’s gay identity was contingent upon his success as a restauranteur. This demonstrates the conditional acceptance of gayness for economic purposes—a logic and practice found in the US television industry as well, where executives target white upper middle class gay and lesbian viewers as consumers.[58] Hong’s return to the public eye is accepted by Korean society despite his gay identity because of capital success. Furthermore, Hong’s wealth and status afford him the luxury to take time off, make a career transition and start a new business. Living an openly gay life in Korea, however, is not an option for everyone, especially if they lack the economic means to live apart from their families or if they get fired as a consequence of coming out or being outed. Hong’s bold move to come out in 2000 has empowered numerous others. With that said, Hong’s persistent treatment in mainstream television as the token gay man whose sexuality gets reduced to a joke is a testament to Korea’s social and cultural lag in accepting and humanizing its LGBTQIA+ citizens.