Queer politics of Korean variety TV: state, industry & genre

by Grace Jung

On September 3, 2016, the popular South Korean (hereafter “Korean”) variety program Ask Us Anything (2015— ) on cable network JoongAng Tongyang Broadcasting Corporation (JTBC) aired an episode featuring singer Ahn Sol-bin of the Korean pop (K-pop) girl group LABOUM.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Early in the episode, one of the program’s regular cast members Kim Hee-chul (of boyband Super Junior) invites Ahn to come sit beside him saying,

“Sol-bin. Even if you date me, you won’t be involved in any scandals so don’t worry. Really.”

To this, Ahn immediately responds,

“Why? Are you gay?”

Kim and the cast members all react to Ahn’s comment with laughter over the canned laugh track that sets off in the background. Three months later, the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) issued a disciplinary action against Ask Us Anything’s program runners citing this remark to be problematic as it might be offensive to the “sexual minority” (sŏngsosuja)—the LGBTQIA+ group in Korea. Alongside this, the KCC also condemned the program’s frequent objectification of women’s bodies, citing the episode in which cast member Min Kyung-hoon made a bra out of paper cups and gifted it to actress Jun So-min.

The KCC is a state administration that is responsible for producing and regulating all television-related policies including censorship clauses, and it is comparable to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US. KCC representative Ha Nam Shin states,

“[Ask Us Anything] is a variety program which is comedic in nature but it also enjoys a level of popularity that rivals non-cable programs. This means that the show also must maintain a level of class that reflects its popularity and we decided to issue a warning on this ground."[2]

In the same report is a record that thirty-seven viewers wrote in complaints against the show to the KCC, although details of these complaints were not published.

In this article, I investigate the KCC’s disciplinary action against Ask Us Anything based on claims of homophobia and sexism, which construct a state concern for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community and women. The state and industry, however, prevent fair and equal treatment of queer and female identities on and off screen through moments of homophobia, sexism, and emphasis on heteronormative ideals. While the two particular incidents that the KCC cite lack sufficient textual evidence of homophobia or sexism, Ask Us Anything does air homophobic and misogynistic content that state censors regularly overlook, demonstrating the KCC’s inconsistent political concerns for the rights of marginalized identities in the Republic of Korea (ROK). While a gay celebrity like Hong Seok-cheon makes an appearance on the show, the program reduces his appearance to a state of homonormativity by making his value and return to television conditional upon his economic contribution to the nation as an entrepreneur and not recognizing his inherent human value as a person who happens to be a gay man.

The genre of Korean variety TV and figures like Kim Hee-chul, however, transgress conservative rationales on television through queer/camp visuals and queer stardom. In addition, the female comedians who make guest appearances on Ask Us Anything also bring an element of trans gender queering to the screen by disrupting the straight cis-male cast members’ masculinity, male gaze and male appetite for sexually desirable femininity. I argue that while the instances that the KCC cite as homophobic and sexist are not so violating to LGBTQIA+ members and women, the show still violates the rights of these identities in other ways. At the same time, the show exhibits queerly liberatory moments as well.

While reading Ask Us Anything through a queer lens, I bring attention to the “queer politics” of Korean variety television by using a method similar to one that political scientist Samuel Chambers applies.[3] I analyze state laws, the industry, and episodes of Ask Us Anything for evidence of state and industry intolerance of queer identities. I also look at how the show transgresses the very acts of queer suppression and homophobia by exhibiting high camp elements and startexts while also maintaining a highly hegemonic-masculinist logic in practice within the TV industry through hierarchies and relations that oppress or exclude women.[4] The discriminatory practices against women and queer identities expose how hegemonic masculinity affects both groups in the television industry specifically and in Korean society more broadly. With that said, Ask Us Anything also contributes to progressive queer television viewing through frequent gender bending and trans gender queer subjectivity. 

There is a dearth of queer Korean TV studies in the fields of Cinema and Media, Gender and Sexuality, and East Asian studies. Historian Todd Henry’s essay “Queer/Korean Studies as Critique” comments on the systemized discrimination against and suppression of not only queer civilians in the ROK but also of the scholars who seek to publish on queerness thus “relegat[ing] scholarship on LGBTQI Koreans to a position of negativity and neglect.”[5] In fact, during the research for this article, I had trouble finding academic publications on queer critical Korean television studies; an article on the Korean drama Life is Beautiful (SBS, 2010) and gay representation is an outlier.[6] What articles I did find on contemporary queer Korean media were few and far in between, and topics were mostly limited to cinema, fashion, and K-pop. This project aims to fill a gap and expand the discourse in the area of queer Korean television studies with a focus on variety content.

Anti-queer politics in Korean broad/narrowcasting

Queer Korean identities are not outlawed or completely erased in Korean broadcast and cable television. Within domestic politics, however, the state makes little effort to enforce policies that prevent discrimination of LGBTQIA+ citizens. Following the impeachment and arrest of former President Park Geun-hye in late 2016, President Moon Jae-in was elected. During his presidential campaign, he publicly announced that he opposed gay marriage and homosexuality in the military. Moon claimed that one’s sexual orientation is a “private matter”—an expression that forces queer people into the closet and prevents them from living freely and openly in society.

In the JTBC serialized TV drama Schoolgirl Detectives (2014-2015), a kiss scene between two high school girls led to a warning citation from the KCC to the producers of the show because of the content’s “harmful influence on Korea’s youth.”[7] Homosexuality is not illegal in Korea, but laws like the Juvenile Protection Act (also known as the Youth Protection Act) which went into effect in 1997 masquerade as a form of government protection of youth while repressing queer identities. In 2001, the law was amended to prohibit the distribution of any homosexual material or content related to incest, bestiality and sado-masochism.[8] Distribution, according to the act, includes the sale of audio-visual media and broadcasting. This law not only equates homosexuality with harm to youth but also legitimizes the exclusion of queer subjects on television. In April 2003, after years of activism by Korean LGBTQIA+ groups, “homosexuality” was removed from the list of “obscenity and perversion.”[9] Despite this, in 2015, it was reported that Samsung, along with Google, banned a popular app for social networking within the queer community called Hornet.

Samsung, which owns the newspaper JoongAng, is also affiliated with the cable network JTBC where Ask Us Anything airs. The KCC’s Broadcasting Act allowed chaebol[10] groups to own up to 33% of cable operations and to produce, program and air their own entertainment.[11] A representative of the company explained in a memo to Hornet dated January 1, 2013 that the app was not approved for Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets:

“[D]ue to the local moral values or laws, content containing LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi sexual, Transgender) is not allowed in the following countries….”[12]

The list includes 34 countries including Korea and the US, as well as nations with socially progressive gender and sexuality politics such as Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Norway. The report also states that images found in the app are “not appropriate for young users” such as teens and children.[13] This remark stems from Samsung’s assumption that an LGBTQIA+ identity is necessarily sexual and immoral. It also contains the discriminatory stereotype that conflates homosexuality with pedophilia. Samsung’s report which includes this conflation parallels the language used by the KCC in the Broadcasting Act. While queerness is not illegal in Korea, queer discrimination is systemically present in both state and commercial institutions.

The KCC’s Broadcasting Act applies to all broadcast and narrowcast programs. Throughout the document, there is a consistent discouragement of “lewdness” or anything that would disrupt “a sound family life and on [the] guidance of children and juveniles.”[14] The Broadcasting Act also condemns discrimination according to “sex, age, occupation, religion, belief, class, region, race, etc.”:

“A broadcast shall strive to faithfully reflect the interests of the groups or classes that are relatively small in number or at a disadvantage in realization of the pursuit of their interests.”[15]

Whereas identity-based discrimination is condemned, there is no explicit language that protects LGBTQIA+ rights in this act. Rather, by upholding family wholesomeness and values, emphasizing the protection of youth, and stressing overall “public morals and social ethics,” the Broadcasting Act demonstrates its bias for the heteronormative family structure. The state’s protectiveness of the “sound family life,” children, as well as public morals is motivated by sexist and homophobic underpinnings, as demonstrated by the Juvenile Protection Act.[16]

The irony is that despite the state’s emphasis on the family life, Korea has many single people. The number of heterosexual marriages is low while divorce rates are high. The number of births is also at a low, which produces a great deal of government anxiety given the high number of senior citizens and a concern over welfare.[17] Because there are so many singles living in Korea, same-sex cohabitation among heterosexuals is quite common, and homosexual cohabitation can easily pass for straight.[18] As mentioned earlier, being gay, lesbian or bi-sexual is not illegal in Korea. Being transgender is also not barred by law; it is legal to change one’s gender status in government records, public files, and national registration identification card (chumin tŭngnokjŭng) albeit with a great number of bureaucratic challenges.[19]

Queer policing takes place in certain spaces and events set aside for gendered nation-state duties. According to the Constitutional Court of Korea, Article 92 of the Military Criminal Law considers homosexual behavior (2008Hun-Ga21) in the military punishable by law. Article 92 stipulates that anal sex or sexual acts between service men may be punishable for up to two years in prison. Because of this law, in 2017, over 30 men were arrested and charged with 2008Hun-Ga21.[20] Laws such as these demonstrate the legal consequences of being gay in Korea, where conscription to the military is mandatory for every able-bodied cis-man in the country. Although the military does not turn away gay conscripts, the law does not tolerate gay intimacy during service.[21] In addition, in January 2020, transgender sergeant Byun Hui-su was discharged by the Korean military citing “physical or mental disabilities” as a provision to discharge military personnel, equating Byun’s gender-reassignment surgery as a disability, and barring her from serving despite her desire and commitment to her military duty and national security. Such examples demonstrate the suffering that queer individuals endure in Korea due to the nation’s homophobia and transphobia.  

The ROK’s military discrimination against queer citizens is an example of Eve Sedgwick’s concept of “homosexual panic”—a type of homophobia that transpires in a homosocial environment wherein both the self and others are suspected of being gay and therefore feared.[22] Homophobia is amplified in homosocial conditions because the potential for homosexual desire is heightened. I add that not only does the Korean state induce homosexual panic through law but legitimizes said panic with the state’s concerns over the country’s low birth rate. All men in the ROK are required to serve in the military for up to two years—a gendered state obligation required by law for men to be socially recognized as men.[23]

Upon completing this task, the next step is for men to fulfill their state duties as breadwinners by participating in the economy and as fathers through marriage and procreation with a woman. Thus, homosexual panic, when coupled with the nation’s panic over the population crisis, makes homosexuality appear like a betrayal of the state, and makes women’s bodies seem valued solely for procreation. The nation’s heavy emphasis on hetero-normative familialism, or what John (Songpae) Cho calls “Confucian biopolitics,” “inhibits the expression of homosexuality, except in highly discreet ways….”[24] Confucian biopolitics prioritizes the heteronormative family and the nation-state over individual independence; the individual is expected to conform to specific social prescriptions as a collective—the “family governmentality.”[25]

In her monograph on single women and the housing market in Korea, cultural anthropologist Jeesook Song details how lesbians remain closeted for fear of facing job discrimination and abandonment by their families. All unmarried women—lesbian or straight—who choose to live apart from their families are infantilized and othered by their community: “[Unmarried women] are treated as children or disabled people and their sexual security is threatened.”[26] The treatment of single women as disabled echoes the treatment of Sergeant Byun’s transness as a disability making someone unfit to serve. Misogyny and transphobia in such contexts morph into ableist discrimination. Song describes one woman’s experience at a social gathering where she was told by married men that “‘children should go home’ because they ‘shouldn’t interfere with…adult business.’”[27] Song observes a parallel between the single woman’s issue with the queer issue because both identities fall outside of Korea’s social order of heteronormativity. This order is, in part, conditioned by patriarchal rationalizations that all women should be married to men, and it labels those who do not as “immature.”

The misogynistic idea of the single woman’s immaturity is tied to the assumption that all single women are virgin and not sexually awakened through intercourse with a man, specifically a husband. The possibility that the woman might have engaged in pre-marital sex with someone regardless of their gender or sexual orientation prior to meeting her husband simply isn’t an option. Just as female bodies are treated purely as an apparatus of procreation within the confines of marriage to a man, homosexuality is not viewed as an option in this hegemonic masculinist conception of “normal” lives and relationships. This assumption ignores accounts documented in memoirs and short stories of lesbian relationships among school girls in colonial Korea, which were long trivialized and dismissed by scholars due to their ephemeral and transient quality during the girls’ “transitional phase” of adolescence.[28]

It also erases the documented homoerotic stories between women aimed predominantly at male readers for entertainment purposes in newspaper weeklies. These stories combined “investigative journalism and the playful invention of fictional storytelling” to produce “cautionary tales” in 1950s-1970s ROK’s Cold War era. In fact, their purpose was to allow male readers to “imagine themselves as more thoroughly embodying idealized notions of (re)productivity and patriotism, thus allowing them to assume a position of domination in relation to their ‘deviant’ female compatriots.”[29] The conjoining of homophobia and misogyny legitimizes hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity, while the queerness of the variety genre creates moments of queer potential on Korean television.