As a South Korean, it is a little bit shameful to say, but my country is well known as a high quality plastic surgery. In 2009, abc news introduced South Korea as a mecca of plastic surgery, and showed women from other countries who came to visit Korea on a ‘plastic surgery trip’. abc coverage even mentioned that many high school graduates in Korea get a plastic surgery as a graduation gift. As we can see from this example, many Koreans accept plastic surgery generously, with thinking that not only celebrities but also everyone can get a plastic surgery. However, when it came to discussing in the public – especially in the public space like a television -, Koreans had quite a conservative view on that. Dealing with or talking about plastic surgery in the TV show was a taboo, or even rude. Within this cultural background, the TV show Let 美人 (Chinese character; pronounced like a ‘me in’, and has a meaning of beautiful person in Korean) aired first in 2011. With the slogan, ‘Impression Beyond Controversy’, the format of the program is quite simple. With the well-known female celebrity and 9 doctors, which consist of plastic surgeons, a dermatologist, a dentist and a psychiatrist, they selected 2 participants on each theme (such as, boyish girl or a person suffers from developed chin). In each episode, the story of each participant is introduced, and 9 doctors discuss and select one winner who will get the all surgeries with makeup and a style coach. As the slogan indicated, this show brought national controversy because of the public discussion about the plastic surgery itself. Each episode of the TV show Let 美人 have similar characteristics to western extreme makeover shows, like objectification and harsh description targeted to the participant, weird commercial break, and oversimplified process, and these features are criticized by the public. However, this show successfully defended themselves by identifying audience with the participants by using the word ‘ordinary women’ and humanitarian approach, which are important characteristics of Korean reality shows.
First of all, Let 美人 showed similar characteristic that western extreme makeover shows have. Even though it is not the makeover show that deals with the Plastic surgery, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition (as known as Extreme Weight Loss) has similar features about handling participants. Both programs objectify and downplay the participant rather than considering them as human. Alex, who is the participant in the second episode of the Extreme Weight Loss, is framed as a ‘more than obese’ and the ‘boy who refuses to grow up’ by the Chris Powell (Episode 2). Furthermore, this program judged Alex only by the weight he loss, rather than his other characteristics.
|Overlapping Chucky’s image with an image of the participant and subtitles, |
“Chucky who wants to be a swan”.
Similarly but more extremely, participants in the Let 美人 have their own nickname that was framed by the voice actor and subtitles. All aggressive nicknames from chin retard girl to ‘Chucky’ are introduced with visual effects (image above) and serious voice, which cannot be considered as a nickname for human being and give a shame to participants. For another example, in the episode ‘Woman who has lots of hair’, crying celebrity asked the participant to show her hair in front of the people, and this scene is monitored by the 9 doctors and audiences in the studio. Even though her hairy body was revealed in a form of video clip already, audiences with celebrities checked her status once again publicly, which is not respectful of her as a woman. This way beyond action by a celebrity did not only make the participant embarrassed, but also make audiences outraged.
What is more, Extreme Weight Loss and Let 美人 oversimplifies the process of the whole makeover. Since Extreme Weight Loss have to show the whole year process of the makeover within 1 hour, every detail that participants really struggled with is edited and cut. Because of this compression process, the whole process of weight loss looks like an easy, which may help viewers to confuse the message about weight loss itself because every people don’t have the workout equipment in their home, day-to-day consult or 4-5 hour workout per day like Extreme Weight Loss provides (McIntosh). With the similar reason, Let 美人 have to cut every detail about each participant’s process during the makeover because expressing the half year process within 30 minutes is needed. This also can be said as an oversimplification of the process of makeover because not all people don’t get the ‘secured’ plastic surgery by experts and constant care from healthcare to counseling with experts during the recover stage like them. Like Extreme Weight Loss has a possibility of promoting the wrong perception of the weight loss, Let 美人 have some possibility of promoting the wrong perception on the plastic surgery, like ‘its process is easier than I thought!’ or ‘getting a plastic surgery can solve my problem easily, as participants experienced.’.
It is true that Let 美人 has many characteristics that is similar to characteristics of the western extreme makeover show and these features made viewers annoyed at some point. However, the producer of Let 美人 positioned themselves in a positive way by helping to identify audience with the participants by using the words “ordinary women”, and emphasizing their humanitarian feature. Korean viewers have emotionally distinctive characteristics that cannot be found in other country. During watching the television, they intervened deeply on the main character, identify with themselves so they can sympathize and understand the character, rather than seeking the instant pleasure from the character on television (Kim & Park, 2006). When we see the every episode, the word that every participant mentioned in their appealing process is ‘ordinary’. They wanted to be part of the society as an ordinary woman, but their physical ugliness –or deformities- made it hard to achieve. Keeping this word in mind, producer borrows the voice of surgeons or celebrity to express their understanding towards the participant’s needs. In every episode, after one participant finally turned into the beautiful woman who becomes confident about herself, one of the plastic surgeons came out and said, “We are so glad that she endured this hard process, and look forward to see her new life as an ordinary woman”. This desire of participants to ‘ordinary women’ and surgeon’s fulfillment on that are expressed by changing appearance and attitude of the participant. What is important is, viewers in Korea didn’t only feel instant pleasure from the fulfillment. Since they identified themselves with the participant, the fulfillment of participants become their success, and they are happy about the changed attitude of the participant, as if this is their affair. That is the main reason why the Korean reality show tries to find some controversial contents with considering sympathetic and humanitarian factors.
Moreover, doctors’ humanitarian behavior helps audience to think positively about the program Let 美人, which helped them to accept as one of the reality programs in Korea. Different to the western extreme makeover show, doctors once override the rule they made for humanitarian reasons. This reveals another characteristic of the Korean reality TV show. In South Korea, reality program should be more moderated with concerning humanitarian feature and avoid voyeurism because people feel uncomfortable if the style of the program is too aggressive without any gentleness (Kim & Park, 2006). For example, in the episode ‘Boyish Woman’, two participants are both selected because both participants need immediate help. Even though one of the participants needs long term hormone treatment, which could be considered as ill-fitted participants for this “extreme” makeover show, 9 doctors decided that they will aid her hormone treatment for 20 years with needed plastic surgery. Then, after 2 months later, her extreme makeover scene finally came out as an episode of ‘Women who has lots of hair’. This story was applauded and reproduced by the online journalism and helped Let 美人 to improve their image.
To sum up, Korean extreme makeover show Let 美人 have similar characteristics to the western extreme makeover show, such asl objectification, harsh description towards the participant and oversimplification. However, their identifying audience with the participants and humanitarian behavior appealed successfully to the audience. However, no matter how their rhetoric or humanitarian behavior is effective or not, what I want to leave a question mark on this TV show is the standard of ‘ordinary woman’. As you can see the before & after sheet below, these surgeons did way more surgeries on the participants who want to enjoy the life of ‘ordinary women’. For the participant who worried about her developed chin, ‘generous’ doctors did the liposuction surgery, double eyelid surgery and putting silicon pad on forehead for putting her in the ‘ordinary women’. So, does the definition of ‘ordinary women’ mean the women who has double eyelid, high nose with beautiful hairline? Or is ‘ordinary women’ just a rhetoric for deceiving people’s mind? I will leave this question to you.
Extreme Weight Loss season 1 ep.2, aired 6 June. 2011.
Women Who Lose Their Dreams Because of Appearance, Let 美人 season 3 ep. 3, aired 27 June. 2013.
Boyish Woman, Let 美人 season 3, ep.2, aired 20 June. 2013.
Woman who has lots of hair, Let 美人 season 3, ep. 14, aired 5 Sep. 2013.
McIntosh, Heather. "Reality TV, Healthy Lifestyle Messages, and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition ." Flow 14.14.04 (2011): n. pag. Flow. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
Kim, Yeran & Park, Joo-Yeun, “A Study on Theories and Practices of Reality Programs.” Korean Journal of Broadcasting 20-3 (2006 June) p.7-48. Web 18 Feb. 2014