"Homosexuality" in Korean Media: Much Emphasis on the Quotation Marks

Posted by sophirrito
2013. 10. 16. 21:13 EDITORIAL/문화 & 예술 :: Culture & Art

Traditionally a Confucian and a patriarchal society with rather inflexible gender roles, South Korea has never been the most tolerant, let alone aware, place when it came to homosexuality. Recently however, homosexuality seems to have become the most desired element in media over all them fancy K-pop stars. Just off the top of my head, I can name not a scanty number of films or shows produced in the recent decade that incorporates the element of ‘homosexuality’ in the plot in one way or another. Respond 1997, (응답하라 1997), Life is Beautiful (인생은 아름다워), Secretly, Greatly (은밀하게 위대하게), School 2013 (학교 2013), King and the Clown (왕의 남자), The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (커피프린스 1호점), To the Beautiful You (아름다운 그대에게), You Are Beautiful (미남이시네요), and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (성균관 스캔들) are a few of them. The trend is clear but the significance of it is debatable. Is it as simple as South Korea is becoming more tolerant towards homosexuality?

The first step to answering this can be extracted from what I’m assuming was your reaction to the listed shows and films above – none of them really discuss homosexuality. I don’t agree any less – none of them except for one gives homosexuality the legitimate coverage and attention it deserves. Secretly, Greatly and School 2013 employ what I label as “show” homosexuality, where the male characters show a relationship that is indisputably “more-than-friends,” but never question it let alone seem aware of it. The ‘gay’ element literally seems to be for ‘show,’ a medium to attract a female audience base. The last four shows employ what I label as “pseudo-homosexuality,” where the female protagonist pretends to be male and the question of homosexuality is implicitly introduced here, when the male protagonist questions his sexual orientation upon falling in love with her. But of course, there is a catch – even this glimpse of the issue of homosexuality disappears as soon as, or sometimes is even used as a comic relief when, the male protagonist finds out that the female protagonist had been woman all along.

Granted, nothing changes overnight and some may argue that even though not thorough, ideas and images of homosexuality appearing on national television itself is an improvement from their having been treated as ‘taboo’ in the past. However, what most people that view this blindly as an “improvement” may be forgetting is that homosexuality as a plot device has been popular in other popularly distributed media such as comics and novels since the 1990s.[1] Munwon Lee, a pop culture critic, goes as far as to claim that this “enthusiasm over homosexual relationship of pretty, metro-sexual boys” has always been a “culture,” while may be unique to certain East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea.[2] It seems likely then, the increasing prevalence of “show” homosexuality on television is simply an extension of the Korean dramas’ general broadening in genre with the coming of the digital age, the emergence of the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu, and consequently the development of the South Korean soap opera industry.

A fan-made Photoshop image of two Super Junior members

What about the increased prevalence of “pseudo-homosexuality?” Does this offer anything different as the shows include the characters’ awareness of, and consideration at least for, this ‘other’ sexuality? Sorry to disappoint but the answer is probably not. In almost all shows that employ this “pseudo-homosexuality” plot device, the question asked by the male protagonist is “what is wrong with me,” not “could I be gay.” This notion is explicitly shown in 1st Shop of Coffee Prince when the male protagonist, upon realizing that he is in love with the female protagonist who he’s convinced is male, visits no one else but a doctor – a sad but perhaps a realistic depiction of the country’s perception of homosexuality yet.

The fact that this “pseudo-homosexuality” is no more than a dramatic device can be further elucidated upon tracing back to the history of the trends in South Korean dramas. Let’s think of a couple of plot devices considered as the typical, defining features of traditional K-dramas: amnesia followed by a car accident, Cinderella stories, evil mothers-in-law, a sudden development of cancer and leukemia…and oh yes, the notion of “mystery behind birth,” – or should I just say, that of “pseudo-incest.” Many dramas in the past (including the evermore sensational Autumn in My Heart or 가을동화) used this plot device where the characters struggle as they fall in love with whom they are convinced is their blood-related brother/sister (but in fact, isn't). Indeed, replace the word “blood-related brother/sister” in this summary with “a person of the same sex,” the plot is almost the exact parallel of the above mentioned “pseudo-homosexuality” shows. So I ask again, to those that still think the mere exposure of the concept of "homosexuality" on national television per se can improve people's understanding of homosexuality: did the popularity of “pseudo-incest” shows in the past such as Autumn in My Heart bring about in the South Korean society an understanding of, and the tolerance for, incest? Well, the rest of my point I believe is self-explanatory.

 That these elements of homosexuality in media are just used for their novelty and contentiousness as sources of conflict, and that the Korean public are also taking them as just that and nothing more, becomes all the more clear when we examine their success in comparison with other works that do not "beautify" homosexuality as these works do. Hun-sik Kim, another pop culture critic, reports, “When the movie King and the Clown became a huge success, many in the media suspected that “homophobia will soon subside.”[3] Unfortunately, he adds, “Yet when the movie Brokeback Mountain opened in theaters right after, it made “records no different than those of indie films.” He also reports that "while 1st Shop of Coffee Prince was gaining nationwide popularity with its “pseudo-homosexuality” device, LeeSong Hee-il, the director of the film No Regret which was later acclaimed in the professional world as the “first real Korean gay feature,”[4] was bashed on the internet as a lowbrow director who “just makes homosexual films.”[5]

Worse yet, notice how  the words “homosexual” and “gay” are almost interchangeable  in this article because no work, even for “show” purposes, cover the story of lesbians. This shows the knowledge behind the directors’ and producers’ decision that “lesbian” images have no market value, precisely because the majority of the audience of these shows and films are female in Korea. What does this signify in turn? South Korea may understand homosexuality as a concept but has yet to accept it as something that can actually happen within their own society, within their own families. It seems like people are able to enjoy these notions of "homosexuality" only and precisely because it strictly stays within the fictional, detached, and the un-relatable realms. 

Granted, the outlook for the acceptance of homosexuality in South Korea is not entirely bleak. Shows such as Life is Beautiful, which actually features difficulties of a gay couple after coming out to their families, or the public’s growing acceptance of figures like Hong Seokchun, an openly gay comedian, are some optimistic examples. But in the bigger picture, we still see instances like the broadcasting company for Life is Beautiful censoring certain scenes of the gay couple that originally existed in the script, or KimJo Kwangsoo, an openly gay film director, being thrown filth at by a homophobic stranger on his wedding day. In my opinion, South Korea still has a long way to go and I respectfully want to assert that the first and perhaps the most important step that everyone needs to take is precisely to examine these media products more critically, and not blindly accept the portrayals of "homosexuality" as they give you let alone blindly believe that the increasing popularity of these "show" homosexuality works directly correlate with any sort of improvement in the national perception of homosexuality.

[1] , 성규. "한국 여자들이 男동성애 코드를 좋아하는 이유." 동아닷. (2012): n. page. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://news.donga.com/3/all/20120405/45300024/1>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] , 헌식. "[문화불평]드라마의 멜로 요소동성애 코드’." 주간경향. (2007): n. page. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://weekly.khan.co.kr/khnm.html?mode=view&artid=15193&code=116>.

[4] Bertolin, Paolo. "Korean Presence Strong at 57th Berlin Film Festival." Hancinema. N.p., 06 02 2007. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://www.hancinema.net/korean-presence-strong-at-57th-berlin-film-festival-8605.html>.

[5] 헌식. "[문화불평]드라마의  멜로 요소 ‘동성애 코드’." 주간경향. (2007): n. page. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://weekly.khan.co.kr/khnm.html?mode=view&artid=15193&code=116>.

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