Don’t Walk, Run: An Essay on Running Man and Hallyu

Jang Mi has been in Seoul for last few weeks, attending a Summer Program at Korea University. Here is the fascinating term paper she wrote on Hallyu and Running Man. Enjoy!

Don’t Walk, Run: An Essay on Running Man and Hallyu

The ordinary person may believe that the appearance and extreme popularity of Psy’s Gangnam Style on Youtube may have blazed the trail for international fandom of Hallyu, which consists mostly of South Korean pop songs, dramas, and movies. However, with closer observation, one may realize that it was not necessarily the man with sunglasses, but the many different factors responsible for the increasing popularity of Hallyu. K-pop, a common phrase for Korean pop music, and Korean dramas have taken the spotlight in Hallyu ever since the beginning of the Korean Wave, which arguably took place in the 1990s and not in 2012.

Nonetheless, a new genre of entertainment is steadily growing in popularity and may one day become as important to Hallyu as its music and dramas: variety shows. Indeed, South Korean variety shows such as Running Man and Infinite Challenge have gained and are gaining more fans from around the globe. Under even closer observation, one may discover that Running Man in particular is unique in its fandom, its format, the way it is produced, its content, and so forth. Hence, after seeing the dominance of music and dramas in Hallyu, a simple question may be asked: why is Running Man is becoming more internationally popular? Some may say that, since the existence of YouTube makes it possible for fans to easily watch K-Pop and comment their thoughts on it , the same may apply for Running Man as it is available on websites such as Dramafever. Still others conclude that the South Korean government has supported the Korean Wave and has thus contributed to Hallyu’s, and Running Man’s, popularity. Furthermore, others may simply say that the Korean public enjoyed dominant American culture and that Japanese popular culture has influenced Korean pop songs , perhaps hinting at the causes of Running Man’s popularity. However, it is most probable that the popularity of Running Man is caused by similar factors which cause the popularity of K-pop, Korean dramas, and Korean movies, but that there are also many crucial differences which makes Running Man and its popularity unique.

Perhaps the best way to begin understanding the popularity of Running Man is to understand the factors causing the popularity of K-pop, Korean dramas, and Korean movies. Some say that the key factors causing Hallyu’s popularity are simply the attractive Korean celebrities and the romance usually found in Korean music, dramas, and so forth. Sometimes, people go so far as to conclude that the fandom is interested in Hallyu simply because they are fond of the partially sexual content that Hallyu unfortunately but occasionally displays. However, in most cases, South Korean pop culture is more innocent and romantic compared to the more vulgar American culture. This has led many fans to enjoy Hallyu as it is family friendly and entertaining. Nevertheless, others may claim that Hallyu is popular because it is a mixture of two major popular cultures: the culture of Japan and of the United States. It could well be argued that K-pop and other Korean media do blend Japanese and American cultures at least to some extent while preserving the dominant role of Korean culture. Furthermore, the Koreans’ possession of tacit knowledge, which in this case refers to the knowledge of how to effectively combine cultures such as Japanese and American, may also serve well as an explanation for Hallyu’s popularity. Nevertheless, there are still others who hold fast to their belief, which is partially true, that the majority of Hallyu became popular due to the convenience of modern technology. Pictures, music, and videos can be accessed quicker than ever before in human history. There are yet more theories concerning Hallyu’s popularity: the three melancholias.

The first of these is racial melancholia, which, according to Lecture 6, is “the loss of one’s desired racial/ethnic identity” or “the failure of assimilation into the mainstream.” Generally, victims of racial melancholia are jealous of different races. Michael Jackson, for example, was originally an African American that underwent countless plastic surgeries in order to look like a white person.

Gendered melancholia, another factor causing the success of Hallyu, may be described as “the loss of father or mother” and “the loss of brothers or sisters,” according to Lecture 6. Lecture 6 also describes gendered melancholia as “the loss of homosexual partners.” Those who suffer gendered melancholia tend to feel helpless as they cannot change their status; for example, men generally possessed more power than women, and there was usually not much that women could do to establish themselves in a more powerful status. In most movies and television programs from leading cultures such as American and Japanese, the leading hero of the story is a man, with the woman being submissive and at many times helpless. Therefore, Hallyu possesses a great advantage in terms of relieving those with gendered melancholia: Hallyu movies and television shows, in most cases, have a female hero, with the man being equal and sometimes even submissive to the woman.

The final known melancholia is postcolonial melancholia: “the loss of one’s colony” or “the continued subjugation in the postcolonial era.” (Lecture 6) Those suffering from postcolonial melancholia usually consist of people who are losing their cultural identity or who are indirectly forced to accept popular American or European culture and eventually abandon their own culture, whether it was Japanese or Korean. Therefore, Hallyu provides at least partial relief for those who suffer postcolonial melancholia because, in most cases, it complies with Korean culture, which actually shares many traits common among other Asian cultures such as respect for family. Of course, there remains the theory of globalization, in which Hallyu becomes popular because it makes itself more friendly and open toward other cultures. While the exact cause of Hallyu’s popularity is still uncertain, it is very probable that the Korean Wave is caused by a variety of factors. The innocent, sometimes romantic, and family friendly values in Hallyu are entertainingly expressed in most of Hallyu’s content, hence gaining the love of countless fans, whether they are Asians reliving their culture or Western foreigners discovering an interesting new culture.

Hallyu, in many ways, also helps to at least partially relieve racial, gendered, and postcolonial melancholia because it provides an empowering sensation to those who suffer under the melancholias. The Asian majority in Hallyu may relieve the racial melancholia of discriminated or simply jealous Asian people. Racial melancholia is partially relieved by Hallyu because of its introduction of women as equal to men and as heroines. Also, Hallyu relieves postcolonial melancholia because the cultures, especially Asian, that was seemingly lost to white culture is now able to be expressed more freely. The melancholias are very sensitive and personal matters; it is for this reason that perhaps the melancholias are the most important cause of Hallyu’s popularity. Furthermore, it may well be said that Hallyu would be very different, if not nonexistent, had not modern technological devices such as smartphones and television sets been invented. Without the convenience of simply clicking on a picture to see a music video, Hallyu may have taken a different path. Unfortunately, the partially sexual content that Hallyu is occasionally infected with also attracts several fans, in some cases perhaps, for undignified reasons. Indeed, it may be concluded that there are many different factors causing the popularity of Hallyu, the strongest being the relief of the melancholias.

Having understood to some extent the popularity of Hallyu in general, it would hence be fitting to observe the qualities which make Running Man popular. Running Man, to begin with, is an interesting phenomenon in South Korean entertainment. It is not an outburst of sudden popularity like Gangnam Style, nor is it a drama. It is not a K-Pop group, and it is definitely not a movie, although there has been a Chinese movie based on it. Running Man, as previously stated, is a South Korean variety show. However, Running Man is somewhat different from other Korean variety shows and may actually be paving the way for the other variety shows to become successful in terms of international popularity. There are many who insist that Infinite Challenge is the first variety show to be part of the Korean Wave, and in some cases, this may well be true. Infinite Challenge is indeed much older than Running Man, as it has first aired in 2005 while the first episode of Running Man was broadcasted five years later.

However, while Infinite Challenge has become extremely popular in Korea, Running Man is probably the first Korean variety show to gain a significant number of international fans. Evidence of Running Man’s popularity is abundant: in 2013, three years after its first broadcast, most of the members of Running Man have gone on a fan meeting tour in massive Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Beijing, and Singapore. Similar Asian tours took place every year after that, excluding 2016, to the present, with an increasing number of visited cities in each year except 2017, when there were only five cities visited compared to 2015’s seven. Two of the Running Man members were even able to form the R.M. Bros as they did two tours and a few other activities in the U.S. From as early as 2011, Running Man was able to film international episodes in other countries such as Thailand, China, and Vietnam, Japan, and even the United Arab Emirates.

Possibly the greatest evidence of Running Man’s significance in Hallyu is the major controversy from 2016. On December 14, 2016, SBS had made the decision, due to Running Man’s low viewership ratings, to fire the members Song Ji Hyo and Kim Jong Kook and replace them with comedian Kang Ho Dong and create a season 2 for Running Man. Once the fans realized that SBS proceeded with those actions without letting the members know beforehand, however, the majority of them expressed extreme discontent with SBS out of sympathy for the members and caused many results: Kang Ho Dong refused to accept his new job, the members and the producers held an emergency meeting, and the final decision of the meeting was to end the show in February, 2017. The decision was then greeted with mixed emotions; some fans decided to display a gloomy but grateful attitude while others simply wanted the show back. At last, SBS Entertainment Director Nam Seung Yong apologized to Kim Jong Kook and asked if he would like to continue the show. Shortly afterwards, news came out that Kim Jong Kook, because of Running Man’s fans, decided to continue the show in spite of having been previously offended. The rest of the members soon made the same decision for the same reason. In other words, international fans had indirectly caused Running Man to continue as a television program despite low viewership ratings. The popularity of Running Man is now clear; it has its fan meetings and other promotions just like everything else in Hallyu, and the show’s fandom even affects what is played on South Korean television stations.

Hence the question remains: how is Running Man different with the rest of Hallyu? As previously mentioned, there may be some similar factors causing the popularity of Running Man and the rest of Hallyu, but there are some major differences. Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two is that Running Man also offers partial relief to the melancholias. Actress Song Ji Hyo has remained the only female member of the show while retaining an image of a tough, intelligent, and sometimes ladylike tomboy, perhaps providing an entertaining and lighthearted image of female empowerment. The recent addition of the actress Jeon So Min has enhanced the relief of gendered melancholia by showing the development of an unusual sisterly relationship between Jeon So Min and Song Ji Hyo. Of course, racial melancholia is also partially relieved due to the fact that all of the Running Man members are ethnically South Korean. Similarly to how some K-Pop groups may include members from foreign countries or how Korean dramas may occasionally star foreign actors, Running Man has had several notorious guests from other countries such as Nichkun from 2PM, Sam Hammington, and even Jackie Chan. This apparent equality and friendship between different races may also serve as a relief for racial melancholia. Postcolonial melancholia, especially in Koreans, is also partially resolved in Running Man, as the members, sometimes accompanied by a guest, take part in countless Korean games and word plays.

Globalization may also play a great role in Running Man’s popularity as, just as with other Hallyu products, its friendly attitude toward foreign cultures and the existence of online translations give it more potential for international fandom Of course, modern devices and technology also make the popularity of Running Man possible; clips from the show are accessible from Youtube, and full episodes may be viewed on websites such as Dramafever or Viki; both Running Man and the rest of Hallyu may be watched on a smartphone, a laptop, and so forth. Just as K-Pop has taken several themes from J-Pop, Running Man, along with other Korean variety shows, has taken several themes from Japanese variety shows; this is somewhat true, as Korean variety shows have used ideas and concepts from their Japanese counterparts such as the expressive captions placed in the show in varying fonts and locations.

As mentioned before, Running Man does use many expressive captions in the show, and it occasionally may borrow ideas from American pop culture or other Korean pop culture such as dramas, K-Pop, and even many older variety shows. Unscripted gags, witty quizzes, and candid camera are some of the many examples of borrowed ideas from other sources. While everything in Hallyu arguably uses hybridization at least to some extent, the manner in which Running Man uses hybridity contrasts in some ways with how Hallyu in general uses hybridization. K-Pop, for instance, seems to combine, with tacit knowledge, of course, the Japanese concept of innocent boy groups and girl groups with the American concept of Michael Jackson, who can dance extremely well. Running Man, on the other hand, seems to combine the uncertainty, anticipation, and thrill of an action movie with the hilarity of slapstick comedy, as the members will often poke jokes at each other in the midst of interesting missions. Running Man, however, is fairly different from other forms of Hallyu as the show has many features unique to itself. Running Man, for instance, has developed name tag elimination, the immensely popular game in which the members and guests have to rip the name tags from off each others’ backs, often with a certain twist. The writers for the show consist mainly of variety show PDs such as Im Hyung Taek, with some assistance from FDs; Dramas, on the other hand, are obviously written by writers such as the Hong Sisters, and K-Pop is managed by companies such as SM Entertainment. The cast of Running Man is quite unique, as it stars members who have a broad range of backgrounds and ages. The cast includes Yoo Jae Suk, the “Nation’s MC,” Ji Suk Jin, a singer and former show host in his 50s, Lee Kwang Soo, an actor in his 30s, Kim Jong Kook, a veteran pop singer in his 40s, Ha Ha, a reggae singer and entertainer in his 30s, and Song Ji Hyo, a renowned actress. The inclusion of Song Ji Hyo as the only female member is quite unique as opposed to the common dominantly male cast in other variety shows such as Infinite Challenge and Two Days One Night.

Of course, there are great differences between the Running Man cast and cast of other Korean Dramas and K-Pop. K-Pop usually consists of young boys or girls, Korean dramas obviously includes actors and actresses, and Running Man has members from different backgrounds. The main concept of Running Man, however, may be responsible, at least in part, for the show’s popularity; while most of the episodes require a goal of some sort to be accomplished, the episodes also vary in several ways. Some episodes may have only one winner, while other episodes may have a winning team; there are even some episodes in which all the participants must win. In the majority of the episodes, there are build up missions, which generally give advantages and disadvantages to the members depending on their performance during the missions; the climax of the episode, which is usually the final mission, normally takes place after the completion of the build up missions. The missions themselves, whether they take part in the beginning or the end of the episode, vary greatly; the famous name tag elimination, quizzes, memory games, mysterious puzzles, and countless other ideas are present in the many missions in Running Man. Another extremely important aspect of Running Man which helped immensely with the show’s popularity is the good and decent images of the members.

Of course, while no celebrity can have an absolutely flawless past, the Running Man members have charmed fans with their unique and down-to-earth personalities and their humility, as each member has his or her own character traits both in the show and in real life. However, perhaps the strongest and most important factor causing Running Man’s popularity is the way the members interact with each other. The majority of Running Man fans will surely agree that their favorite part about the show is the relationship between the members as they seem to bond as a kind of family. Whether the members are playing practical jokes on each other, sharing their thoughts on personal matters, or fighting each other for the prize, the members’ interactions with each other are typically unscripted and seemingly very genuine, even going so far as to include the producers, VJs, and other staff members as frequent cameos. Examples of such interactions include the Monday Couple, a loveline between rapper Kang Gary and actress Song Ji Hyo, and the Easy Brothers, an “unlucky” duo consisting of singer Ji Suk Jin and actor Lee Kwang Soo. Therefore, it can be said that, of course, there are many similarities between Running Man and Hallyu in general. However, there are also indeed many differences that make Running Man different from everything else in Hallyu.

What exactly is it, then, that causes the international popularity of the formerly unknown South Korean variety show Running Man? Despite many similarities with the rest of Hallyu, Running Man has many attributes unique to itself that have captured the hearts of fans both national and international. In conclusion, it seems that Running Man has contributed to Hallyu’s cause by introducing a new branch of entertainment, variety shows, to the international public. Ever since its debut in 2010, the show has brought laughter, thrills, and sometimes even tears to people all over the world. As a humor-filled variety show, Running Man has been a reliever of stress for many and has opened up the world of other variety shows for all to enjoy. Perhaps it would be best if variety shows continue to be promoted. Spreading laughter and knowledge of a unique culture throughout the world is indeed a just cause; let us not walk to this goal, but run.

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