• The cast of 'Sister's Slam Dunk'. (KBS)Source: KBS
Jeremy Helligar

4 Apr 2017 - 1:49 PM  UPDATED 4 Apr 2017 - 1:50 PM

In 2010, Kang Yong-suk, then a member of South Korea's parliament, became a man without a political party. His crime: publicly making an offensive sexist comment during a university student dinner.

"Do you know you have to give everything to become a TV announcer?" Kang said to an aspiring female presenter, the implication painfully clear. The Grand National Party was not amused and promptly ejected him from its ranks.

While the reaction to Kang's blatant sexism differed from the ultimate response last year to Donald Trump's "grab them by the p***y" caught-on-video moment, it shows that in some countries, women command respect in certain political quarters. Sadly, seven years later, women on Korean TV are still struggling for respect.

The statistics are sobering indeed. According to Variety, the 70 variety shows that were broadcast in South Korea last year were unapologetically masculine. A whopping 13 of them had only male hosts and guests. The 23 that featured female performers were all hosted by men.

Several days ago, the Korea Gender Equality Promotion Agency released a study focusing on 132 TV programs. In the variety TV realm, 63.5 percent of the performers on 62 shows were male and 36.5 percent were female, while 67 hosts were male and 32 were female. Though some of the findings were less alarming – 68 percent of drama producers were male and 69 percent of the writers were female – the trend disfavouring women was unmistakable.

The study states: "Male characters were more often described to have jobs with a higher social status such as a self-employed person, doctor, prosecutor, minister and a politician, while female characters were described as part-time workers, housewives, factory workers and saleswomen."

It's a longstanding Western problem that translates similarly in the East.

"2015 was definitely a difficult year for me as a female comedian," Korean comic Kim Sook told Variety. That year she appeared on the testosterone-soaked variety show Infinite Challenge. Her professional colleague Park Mi-seon concurred: "Women comedians can be as funny, but we are not given the chance that our male colleagues get."

One producer who spoke to Variety anonymously actually blames women for the disparity between male and female opportunity.

"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," he said.

It's an argument that's been used for decades to condone gender inequality in Hollywood. According to the old theory, audiences, including women, prefer to see male heroes onscreen. However, the success of Hidden Figures, The Hunger Games series and, currently, Beauty and the Beast disproves this wonky theory.

So does the success of SBS's Saimdang, Light's Diary, which has consistently been a Top 10 TV hit in South Korea since its launch in January. Meanwhile, tvN's Guardian: The Lonely and Great God and OCN's Voice, two 2017 series featuring women in positions of power, are among Korea's Top 20 cable dramas of all-time.

And then there is the KBS variety show Sister's Slam Dunk. Its main cast is made up entirely of women (including the aforementioned Kim Sook), and its first season was a huge hit. The second season got off to a promising start in Feburary, with a 5.4 percent viewer rating, which was higher than its 2016 debut.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here returns the heyday for women in variety shows," cast mate Hong Jin-kyung said last year at a press conference on the eve of its launch. "We watched men dominating the TV shows with tears of blood and finally we got our stage."


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