In one comedy sketch, an overweight woman wearing sparkling jewelry and a comely black dress scarfs down food.
A man acting as her manager yells, “Min-kyoung, wake up! How many times have I told you to lose that weight? How can you call yourself a woman and not make the slightest effort to become prettier? Who would think of you as a woman?”
Min-kyoung, playing a ditzy celebrity-wannabe who is always hungry, seems hurt. “I want to be a woman, too,” she says weepingly. “I want to lose weight and wear pretty clothes and meet men. But if I lose weight, I’m afraid the TV stations will stop calling me because I’ll lose my character….”
The audience “awwwws.” Sad music flows. But then: “BULLSHIT!” The manager yells. The scene is instantly elevated to comedy as Min-kyoung bursts out laughing, accepting the call-out. The audience laughs too. Onto the next fat joke.
Kim Min-kyoung, 36, is one of South Korea’s most successful female comedians, beating long odds to build a career in the country’s unforgiving comedy industry. To get ahead, she has had to build her professional identity on her rotund appearance, and is now confronting the reality that for a working comedian like her, fat is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, her weight, which she said a few years ago fluctuates between 80 and 90 kilograms, gave her an obvious source of joke material. But it also cages her to a predictable character with a limited repertoire that involves mostly eating (because duh, that’s what fat people do).
“You can’t avoid the visuals,” she said, talking about her size. “Lots of people like me because I look like this.”
Overweight women in South Korean comedy are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they draw on their own weight as fodder for jokes, they become tools in a larger comedic machine that uses stereotypes about fat people and unfeminine women to score cheap laughs. If they don’t use their fatness, they might just be wasting their most marketable selling point.
It’s not easy to be a comedian in South Korea. Competition is fierce; compensation usually meagre; and only the lucky few make it to the glittering top. Conditions are especially hard for female comedians. The industry is still mostly led by men, and for women to stand out, their ideas need to be catchier and their comedic personalities need to be more dramatic. For Kim, her fat was an obvious tool to attract easy attention.
When Kim was young, she wanted to be someone else. She wanted something extraordinary, beyond the repetition of school and home. She wrote poems. She religiously watched celebrities on TV, dreaming that someday she might be one of their managers. She wanted to go to Seoul, the capital and hub of opportunity, about 300 km northwest of her city, Daegu.
When she told her mother she wanted to be a comedian, her mother sighed, “If you can be a comedian, anyone can be.” Twenty-year-old Kim left home anyway, with only 50,000 won (about 45 U.S dollars) that her older sister gave her. She joined Comedy Market, a free educational institute for amateurs founded by legendary comedian Jeon Yoo-seong. Its appeal to her: The organization accepted applicants on a rolling basis.
“It’s not an audition? Awesome! Count me in!” She recalled thinking.
More than fifteen years later, Kim Min-kyoung is a famous comedian, best known for her warmth, wit and undeniably, her weight. For better or worse, “fat” is one of her most marketable assets. Her most popular gigs base their jokes on her being large and eating a lot (or talking about eating a lot).
In Gag Concert, a sketch-comedy TV show that’s like the Holy Grail for many South Korean comedians, Kim currently stars as the female act in a program titled “Love is Large.” In Tasty Guys, a popular eating show categorically called meokbang, she’s part of an oversized troupe of comedians affectionately called “The Fat Four.”
On one set of Tasty Guys, surrounded by at least ten cameras and 30 crew members in a Chinese restaurant in a suburb of Seoul, Kim acts with exaggerated movements in the conventional slapstick manner that’s popular in mainstream South Korean comedy. She hops around in a pink bunny suit, trying to make the nervous five-year-old guest laugh. Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Kim holds the little girl’s hand and keeps talking to put her at ease.
She earnestly describes her real-life personality as that of “a woman by nature,” or cheonsang yeoja, a common phrase used in South Korea to positively describe someone who embodies the characteristics conventionally associated with femininity — sensitivity, compassion, proneness to crying and motherly displays of affection.
“I feel like I’m becoming more masculinized though,” Kim laughed, almost proudly.
She says the TV show made her “break out of herself” by not eating so much like a “typical girl,” as in, trying to be pretty and dainty. She is proud of eating like the three other guys; that is, according to Kim, unhesitatingly and boldly, not afraid to look bad. On the show, she’s often addressed with the military honorific “General Kim Min-kyoung” and applauded by other men for eating just as well as they do.
Kim isn’t the only female comedian that doesn’t act like a typical girl. On screen, many South Korean comedians adopt masculine personas. Female comedians like Lee Guk-joo, Lee Se-young, Jo Hae-ryun, Lee Young-ja, the list goes on, often defy conventional femininity by being loud and rambunctious.
Some find this refreshing. But some are more critical, arguing that these women aren’t actually breaking the misogynistic stereotypes about how women should be, but reinforcing them and validating patriarchy.
Kim described South Korean comedy as a “traditional man’s world.” In general, South Korean TV is still largely dominated by men. According to the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE), in March 2017, less than 39 percent of the total number of participants in 33 TV shows were women, and usually in supporting roles.
In the absence of a conventional femininity, female comedians often resort to masculine behavior. Jokes are then created to mock the fact that they aren’t ideally feminine. At times the women are even approved by men for acting like one of them.
A few months ago, comedian Lee Guk-joo instagrammed a screenshot of comments from trollers mocking her appearance. “I’ll never do it with a pig like that,” a commenter wrote, expressing disgust at Lee’s flirting with a handsome male star in the reality TV show, We Got Married.
When Lee called the trollers out on Instagram, she was met with a deluge of online criticisms, saying that she essentially deserved what she got. A male actor even accused her of sexual harassment. “Are you upset that commenters are mocking you? What about those male celebrities you sexually harassed in public? That could’ve landed you with at least ten lawsuits. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Some of Lee’s roughhousing on TV is certainly inappropriate, and would have incited greater outrage if the genders had been reversed. But is Lee the real perpetrator? Isn’t her TV character, to a large extent, determined by the larger machinery of South Korea’s comedy, that expects her to produce laughter through her large body, loud voice and rowdy behavior?
And if she plays along in the machinery, mocking her own looks and acting less like a conventional woman, does that forfeit her right to stand up against trolls that degrade her for her appearance?
Breaking the Fat Trope in South Korean Comedy
“Love is Large” is a sketch in Gag Concert, a male-dominated program. According to KIGEPE, only 15 comedians that appeared in Gag Concert in March were women, out of 55 total.
In the show, Kim Min-kyoung is that fat girlfriend: loud and always hungry. In one episode, an overweight couple orders an inhumanly large amount of fried chicken. Ha, ha. During a fight, Min-kyoung starts to walk away in anger, then returns shamelessly when her boyfriend says the chicken is coming. Ha, ha, ha.
“The sketch portrays fat people as being unconditionally happy in front of food. It continues to mock women’s appearances,” KIGEPE stated. (To be fair, it also mocks men’s.)
“Awareness about human rights needs to improve,” said Jeon Gil-yang, a director at KIGEPE. “If the culture of respecting individual diversity spreads, people who look like this and look like that will all be accepted as equal. Right now, the culture and awareness are still falling behind.”
But the views stated by this state-run organization reflect a minority position in South Korea, where the market for fat jokes thrives without much critical reflection.
In one episode of Tasty Guys, the “Fat Four” weigh themselves on a scale. Apparently out of courtesy for women, Kim Min-kyoung’s weight isn’t revealed.
Tasty Guys is an apt example. “I thought it’d be fun if four fat people got together,” said Kim Dae-woong, the director of the meokbang show. He emphasized that the show isn’t meant to perpetuate stereotypes about overweight people, but rather, aims to portray fat people positively by showing they can really, properly eat.
Wouldn’t making large people eat copious amounts of food do precisely that, i.e. perpetuate stereotypes about fat people? Even if the portrayal is positive?
Kim Min-kyoung doesn’t seem overly bothered. To her, the meokbang show — which is not so unique in a country where an outsize portion of TV programming is dedicated to eating shows — is successful because viewers like watching others eat, especially if they eat well like Kim and her colleagues do.
To an extent, Kim herself actively reinforces society’s stereotypes about large people by uncritically promoting herself as fat. She openly calls herself a “pig character.” When others call her the “Tinkerbell of meokbang,” she says with no trace of irony, “Please. I’m more comfortable with Fatkerbell.”
Fat jokes are common and widely accepted in South Korea, not just in comedy but also in everyday life. Everyone — and I mean everyone — is subject to the Fat Gaze in some way or another. (By the way, the Fat Gaze often partners up with the Male Gaze when imposed on women, who because of this partnership probably have it rougher than men.)
The Fat Gaze appears in comedy shows, at work, at family gatherings on holidays, and in diet and plastic surgery clinics. Friends joke with each other, commenting on the others’ weight; it’s even perceived as an expression of familiarity to diss each other’s appearances.
But comedy amplifies that existing impulse, for laughs, and for darker effects.
An anonymous director of a comedy program told the Korea Herald, “It’s everyday routine for comedians to mock each other, picking on the others’ weaknesses. The most visible material out there is appearance. The easiest gag is one that degrades looks. But it’s true that the resulting laughter isn’t entirely rejuvenating.”
Kim Min-kyoung is aware that having the “fat card” is a privilege, but also a chain. It’s not that she doesn’t want to expand her comedic repertoire beyond being a fat person who eats a lot. She wants to create humor out of a variety of human stories — especially about women her own age, in their thirties going on forties, an age when South Korean women face acute social pressure to marry and have children.
She wants to joke about the trials and tribulations of getting married (or not) and of having children (or not). The kind of things that occupies her mind these days. She wants to joke about aging and women suddenly not being able to control their own fart.
“I want to talk about things like that without being embarrassed,” Kim said, before whispering, “Things like sex, too.”
But using her appearance for comedy is a tested, reliable formula. And therein lies the luring trap. “I always worry about how I can do things differently,” she said. “Let’s do something other than the fat gag this time, I think. I plan and plan, and then, when I run into hurdles, I return to the same routine, the stuff that already has the ‘funny’ stamp of approval.”
“The fat act is something I have to overcome,” Kim said. “It’s too ingrained in my head that this is what makes people laugh. It’s like I’m addicted to this laughter.”
Except for the weekends and Thursdays (when she shoots for Tasty Guys), Kim goes to the Gag Concert office every day. There are rehearsals, recordings, meetings. Especially on Fridays, when different programs need to submit their plans for the following week, comedians can even work until Saturday morning.
At 36, Kim is the oldest female comedian in the show. This isn’t surprising; for stars beyond their 30s, the gender ratio in comedy (and television in general) becomes imbalanced in favor of men. Lee Guk-joo, one of the country’s most popular female comedians (also overweight), is five years younger than Kim.
“In comedy, there are a lot of married men but fewer and fewer married women,” Kim said. “A lot of the older female comedians I know quit after they give birth, whereas men need to work even harder after having children. It’s difficult for women to carry on after getting married. I don’t know anyone who does comedy past my age. I think it’s possible for me because I’m single.”
This is a personal concern for Kim, who says she worries constantly about the future. “How much more can I do as a comedian? Will I keep doing Gag Concert? I’m nearly forty. What will I be doing then?”
One day, she wants to create a comedy platform for women her age. They can be married, single, unemployed, whatever. They can come with kids, or without. The point is to create a space to share different concerns and experiences, and to laugh about them together.
Maybe this dream reflects her desire to share and release her own confusion about life. “This interview is taking place at a time in my life when I am full of different worries,” she said. “I’m thinking all the time. My head just won’t take a break.”
Then there’s the never-ending desire to explore different roles. Beyond the fat.
“Sometimes I look at myself and I get so surprised. I came to Seoul with 50,000 won. Now I have a car of my own, even if it’s small. I’m living by myself. I look at my life and think, wow, who would’ve known I would live like this? I am so, so happy with where I am now. But the desire to [be someone else] is endless. The Kim Min-kyoung that I am is different from the ones before, but I still want to live the life of yet another Kim Min-kyoung.”
Cover image: Portrait of Kim Min-kyoung in Gimpo, South Korea. 20 Apr. 2017. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)
For a behind-the-scenes on this story and fun conversations with KÉ writers, check out our 2017 summer podcast: