Mukbang finds its massive audience by pandering to the three pillars of Internet culture: loneliness, sex, and absurdity.
The concept of posting "food p*rn" pictures to social media was taken to new heights in 2010 when a bizarre Korean phenomenon featuring petite women eating impossible portions of food took off.
Before ASMR videos entered the mainstream American consciousness, the audio-visual experience of watching people eat carved out an Internet niche befitting the lonely, the starved, and the sexually frustrated.
Mukbang (pronounced mook-bong) roughly translates to "eating broadcast." Thousands of viewers tune in to watch a beautiful Korean woman — or sometimes an oafish, amusing man — consume copious amounts of food. Viewers will stay enraptured for over an hour watching the mukbanger eat, sending online currency called "star balloons" for impressively large bites, particularly expressive reactions, or simply being "cute." The stars are dubbed "broadcasting jockeys" or, believe it or not, "BJs" for short.
Nicknamed "BJ The Diva" by her 145,000 subscribers, Park Seo-Yeon earns $9,000 a month as a mukbanger. At 34 years old, the former consultant is a full-time YouTuber. In her most popular video, over a million viewers have been treated to the site of this petite, glossy woman single-handedly consuming seven to eight double-portion-sized dishes.
더디바 : The디바 (아구찜,산낙지연포탕,치킨) 140126 part2 The DiVa www.youtube.com
Beginning in 2007 with Korean TV dramas and ballooning into a worldwide $5 billion K-pop industry, Korean culture experienced a surge of popularity in America amidst what was later called the "Korean wave" (or hallyu)– a trend that made the country's media a driving force of global culture. Hallyu has allowed weird Korean trends to infiltrate Western tastes. Since then, popular American Youtubers, including The Try Guys, PewDiePie, Tana Mongeau, and Liza Koshy, have hosted their own eating broadcasts, while others have dedicated their channel to gorging themselves on camera in hopes of gaining a following. Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (Walking Dead) has even parodied the strange phenomenon in a three episode series with Be FUNNY Studios titled "What's Eating Steven Yeun."
What's Eating Steven Yeun? (스티븐연, 대체 뭘 먹는거야?) Episode 01 (제1회) youtu.be
Clearly, Korea's belief in fan death and affinity for Nazi aesthetics aren't the weirdest aspects of the culture. Part food review, part ASMR, and part fetish, mukbang finds its massive audience by pandering to the three pillars of Internet culture: loneliness, sex, and absurdity.
In Korea, a collectivist country where "it's not common for people to go out to eat by themselves," says food blogger Simon Stawski, "dining is a social activity, and you don't sit and eat alone. For those that can't eat with others, they'll more than likely stay home to eat alone, but they'll still have the urge to socialize while eating, which is what I think mukbangers replicate."
Michael Hurt, director of cultural studies at the Busan University of Foreign Studies, told Quartz: "Korea is a society of the spectacle, and it's gotten to the point where social interaction can't happen—can barely be understood—without being mediated in some way." In Korea's media-obsessed society, mukbang isn't even a peculiar concept. "They have a different understanding of how media is used," Hurt added. "It's become truly a part of life." Cultural critic and researcher Jeff Yang agrees that the online interaction addresses "the loneliness of unmarried or uncoupled Koreans, in addition to the inherently social aspect of eating in Korea."
Aside from being starved for human contact, mukbang watchers are also seeking the ASMR component of the videos. While successful BJs are required to have good production quality, their audio must be excellent, with enhanced volume to emphasize every sound associated with their eating. The louder it is, the better the "brain tingles."
시크릿반반닭다리 먹방~!! 리얼사운드 Mukbang(Eating Show) youtu.be
It's a Sex Thing:
Some enjoy watching petite Korean mukbangers for the voyeuristic thrill of it, attracted to the manufactured intimacy of sharing a meal with a beautiful woman. Like ASMR, mukbang is not necessarily a "sexual fetish" at all—but it sure can be. Plenty of men are willing to pay $50 (or much more) to access a video featuring a fully dressed woman who resembles a K-pop star binge-eating up to 12 hamburger beef patties, 12 fried eggs, and three servings of spicy kimchi stew, followed by a green salad. Aside from the inherent connections between food and sexuality, the sensorial descriptions included in many mukbangers' videos as they narrate their feasting tap into plenty of people's kinks.
Watching someone gorge themselves with abandon is always ridiculous, but the Internet thrives on normalizing the absurd until we slough off self-consciousness and indulge. During an interview, Steven Yeun told Conan O'Brien about one of his favorite mukbangers. Known as the "Korean Peter Griffin," the overweight man posts videos of terrible quality, but his shrieking, ecstatic laugh while he eats is strange enough to be endearing.
So before you begin to despair about what mukbang's popularity says about our stunted social abilities, our preference for imitated intimacy over emotional relationships, or the fetishization of Asian women, just watch this fat man eat and enjoy.
Korean Guy Enjoying His Food Laughing! youtu.be
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