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Korean TV’s Gender Imbalance No Laughing Matter

Gender imbalance in the Korean TV industry is no secret.

Take it from two of the country’s most proactive female comedians. “2015 was definitely a difficult year for me as a female comedian,” says Kim Sook of appearing in “Infinite Challenge,” the top variety show hosted by all-male emcees. Fellow comedian Park Mi-seon agrees, noting, “Women comedians can be as funny, but we are not given the chance that our male colleagues get.”

Among some 70 variety shows broadcast on South Korea’s major TV stations including KBS, MBC, SBS, JTBC and tvN last year, 13 shows featured all-male hosts and all-male guests; 23 programs featured female guests but were hosted by all-male emcees. That means more than half the country’s variety shows lack females in hosting roles.

On the other hand, only two programs were represented by all-female hosts, featuring all-female guests. Shows that feature both genders in hosting roles tend to set a group of male comedians as main hosts, while a woman or two are given supporting roles.

There are shows without hosts: “We Got Married,” “Just Remarried” and “Flaming Youth.” In these programs, in which celebrities are paired up for virtual marriage, or group dating, the number of male and female guests is equal. That suggests gender balance is only available when shows require couples.

Some blame female entertainers for not proving their own talent to get the job. But it’s a meaningless assertion when there are not enough sample programs to evaluate female performances.

“Producers have no other choice but to hire male celebrities, because women account for the majority of variety show viewers in Korea and usually men appeal to them better,” says a producer who spoke to Variety on the condition of anonymity.

Hong Si-young, the producer of “5 Witches,” believes otherwise. “We were worried that the audience would not like wild, strong women on our show,” Hong says. “But once it started broadcasting, it was quite well received. We also learned that female audiences showed greater support [than men].”

TV critic Kim Sun-young says, “It is not simply the matter of the numbers. Even when women appear in popular shows, they function as virtual or potential partners for male stars. Some shows even present young, pretty women celebrities as a reward that male hosts should fight for.

“Under the current structure of many Korean variety shows, women, whether they’re hosting or appearing as one-off guests, are not expected or even allowed to show any quality other than femininity.”

Bucking that trend, KBS variety show “Sisters’ Slam Dunk,” which exclusively featured female pop musicians, actresses and comedians in the main cast, won success with its first season in 2016.

“I wanted to try something different,” says the show’s producer Park In-seok. “For a long time, only male entertainers have been given programs in which they struggle, tumble, band together to achieve something. With ‘Slam Dunk,’ I wanted to make a show where women unite and try together to achieve their goals.”

Still, a KBS source notes that “it has become very difficult for production companies and TV stations to go out of their comfort zone and try something new, especially since the competition is now more intense with the recent advent of nationwide general cable TV networks.”

However, the source adds that producers should pay attention to South Korea’s growing women’s movement. “Reality shows are about reflecting our real life. All industry professionals

should work out ways to reflect current social trends.”

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