Korean Television Is Going Queer

Television can play a huge role in normalizing queerness in Korean culture.

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May 9 2017, 9:20pm

Twelfth Night–style costume switcheroos are the bread and butter of Korean sitcoms and historical dramas. A Viola in menswear often steals the heart of our hero, who then suspects that he is gay. But at the last moment, his uber-masculinity and straightness in Korea's Confucian culture are preserved when a feminine Viola materializes from beneath her k.d. lang-ish garb.

Queerness has snuck into Korean TV shows of late. From incognito genderbending to characters who are presumed gay (but never officially named as such), this highly conservative society has become obsessed with destabilizing gender and sexuality. Whether in steamy male-on-male shower scenes, glorious montages of sporty men holding hands and kissing one another's cheeks, or fashion shots of K-pop boys sensually styling one another's perfectly pastel hair, Korean homoeroticism speaks volumes in the silence between the lines. Purely platonic friendships are more hands-on in Korea, sure. But queerness bubbles like lava just under the crust of Korean culture; plot devices are just the societally acceptable cracks through which it seeps out.

Take the show Kiss Me, Heal Me, in which an heir gobsmacked with money hires a medical student to help him kill off his seven dissociated personalities so that he can live in peace. The plot device that paves the way for queerness here is the dissociative personality disorder. While under the trance of one of his female personalities, he ends up dressing up in a girlish kilt, flirting outrageously, and kissing a male character. The desire to exhibit male-on-male affection is strong in Korean society, if this chase scene is any indication.

Then there's the popular queer-as-folk Korean sitcom Coffee Prince. It's arguable as to whether any straight show has ever been this gay. It might as well be called Gong & Grace. Gong Yoo, Korea's handsome, winsome male superstar, plays Han-Kyul, the playboy heir to a coffee fortune. Han-Kyul starts a Chippendales of sorts, a coffee shop staffed entirely by adorable, winsome Korean boys almost as cute as him, and hires what he believes to be just another cute young thing with junk in the front trunk. Lucky for him, his boy is actually Yoon Eun-Hye, who plays a tomboy playing a boy named Eun-Chan. Cue accidental kisses (a common Korean TV trope), falling in love with sleeping beauty Eun-Chan, and a bromance that leads Han-Kyul to question his sexuality and his very meaning in life.

The improbably named K-POP Extreme Survival features a same-but-different drag scenario to Coffee Prince—but it skyrockets the uneasy Korean conversation about queerness from here to the moon. The show is jam-packed with tense homoerotic moments—after all, this is like the young gay version of The Real World, with six young M2 Junior pop stars in the making living in one house together and even showering together. In a particularly ribald moment, one clutches his chest in agony and proclaims, naked, "My heart starts racing just thinking about it," when recollecting a favorite male musician's performance. Another drops the soap in the shower, and there's a tense, sexy, fight-or-flight moment when his rival goes down to pick it up for him.

The male lead and head of older brother pop group M2, Woo-Hyun, is a tall drink of water—and he knows it, sauntering the halls of the record label like everyone there works for him. But he's quick to pummel an M2 Junior member who mocks him when two fans at a autograph signing ask, "Is it really true that you're a gay?" You know what they say about he who doth protest too much.

But where are my girls? On Seonam Girls High School Investigators, Eun-Bin and Su-Yeon are two very close friends who share Korean TV's very first lesbian kiss. Some viewers threatened to destroy everything if the network didn't pull the scene from all future recorded memory. (All bets on the fact that those very viewers were secretly titillated and would actually love their own Korean version of Bound.) The Korean Communications Standards Commission even vowed to monitor the situation to see if there was any misconduct. Meanwhile other viewers righteously demanded to know why men could kiss on TV but not women. Regardless, their romance had fans, and one even made a tribute video to the girls' love.

Korean views toward queerness are undeveloped; queerness is not understood, and transgenderism is hugely stigmatized. K-dramas could play a pivotal role in changing this. For instance, when Coffee Prince's Han-Kyul is traumatized by his own homoerotic feelings, the conversation could be used to engender empathy for queer folks in hiding in Korea. As more Koreans come out, Korean TV will no longer be able to ignore the beautiful queer elephant in the room that's long been its best supporting actor.

Follow Dakota Kim on Twitter.

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