Mukbang, Korean for ‘eating broadcast’, first arrived to the internet 10 years ago – and no one could predict the popularity it would garner. The mukbang has been defined as a ‘new and unique phenomenon developed in a specific socio-historical context of Korea’ which ‘breaks the norms of traditional food culture and challenges the social norms governing the body and subjectivity’ (Destefanis, p. 112).
The eating show is simple: there is a host (known as a ‘broadcast jockey’) who eats a large amount of food on camera and interacts with an audience – predominantly through live-streaming services such as the Korean AfreecaTV, but YouTube has also become a popular platform for pre-recorded videos.
The social context of the mukbang is the area of study we were most interested in – one of the most noticeable changes in Korea’s social structure is the increase in single-person households. According to 2015 population statistics, there are about 5.2 million single-person households; this accounts for 27 per cent of all households and is the first household type to surpass the traditional four- or three-person household. It is predicted that this figure will rise continuously, to reach 34 per cent in 2035 (Destefanis p. 117).
This change is partly attributed to the increase in senior citizens living alone due to ageing, but also to the increase in young people in their twenties and thirties living alone, reluctant to marry due to their unstable careers. These young single-person households have affected the industry and consumption structure to such a degree that the term ‘single economy’ has appeared (Destefanis p. 117).
The above change serves as an important background to the advent of mukbang. It is not pleasurable for single-person households to prepare food only for themselves and eat alone in silence, as this lacks the cozy atmosphere of a family gathering. So they tend to face the TV or a computer monitor while eating, with mukbang serving as their ‘meal mate’, soothing their loneliness during mealtime. People usually access mukbang around mealtime or late-night snack time (Destefanis pp. 117-118).
Mukbang fulfils both the physical and sentimental hunger of single-person households:
- Fulfils physical hunger as broadcast jockeys provide simple recipes or tips for eating alone.
- Viewers are offered vicarious satisfaction through broadcast jockeys having a great deal of diverse foods in one sitting.
- As Georg Simmel said, ‘the shared meal…lifts an event of physiological primitivity and inescapable commonality into the sphere of social interaction’ (Probyn, 1999). While eating alone lacks social interaction. Food definitely plays a social role that creates bonds between people.
- Many single-person households are in want of this bond, but are sufficiently individualised to have given up finding someone to share a meal with. Instead, they try to overcome their sentimental hunger through the interactive nature of mukbang.
For the assessment, we filmed a mukbang. We created 50 minutes worth of content, but edited it down into 11. Two of our group members collated the snacks together from local Asian supermarkets, and all the food and drinks came to under $40. We consumed ‘quirky’ snacks – peanuts in a spicy batter shell, chrysanthemum tea, and the classic mochi – just to make things more exciting. However, we still ended up comparing them to Australian snacks, like the Wagon Wheel.
We also tried to incorporate a Q&A element into the video, but ultimately, it didn’t make the final cut. The end result is the following:
Our autoethnographic process incorporates aspects of both layered accounts and co-constructed narratives: we all had varied, often clashing experiences and cultural frameworks by which we made sense of the experience (Ellis et al., 2011). And it also incorporates performance autoethnography: having been developed and shared via a public platform, our project reflects both an acknowledgement and criticism of the mukbang, with ourselves operating as a group that ‘produces and engages in meaningful cultural criticism’ (Denzin, 2003).
While we each had individual epiphanies, as a group we came together and figured out the shared experience we had related to how we felt after we’d finished creating the mukbang. Each of us felt that eating obscene quantities of food in one sitting was difficult – and we didn’t necessarily capture the traditional elements of a mukbang. Our version very much was a conversational, vlog-type video, which precluded us from focusing on the sounds of eating, which is associated with mukbang – typically mukbang reverses table manners by showing people grabbing or shovelling food, devouring it sloppily, and talking constantly with full mouths. (Destefanis, p. 112).
From this experience, we learned that mukbang creates ‘unique aesthetics and ethics, which can be seen to transgress the conventional norms of the food culture in Korea – such as detaching itself from traditional values regarding meals’ (Destefanis, p. 114). Most of all, we came to appreciate that mukbang is not as easy as it looks – but it was definitely as fun as it looks.
- Destefanis, A.R., Youth Reading, Creativity and Virtual Performances. YOUNG & CREATIVE, p.111-123.
- Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095>
- Denzen, N (2003), ‘Performing [Auto] Ethnography Politically‘, The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9014/f5038b33178c59d9a94017e15336803afeff.pdf
- Hu, E 2015, ‘Koreans Have an Insatiable Appetite for Watching Strangers Binge Eat’, The Salt, 24 March, viewed 29 September, <https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/24/392430233/koreans-have-an-insatiable-appetite-for-watching-strangers-binge-eat>
Header image: Sharon Chen