Mukbang and the Performance of Unclean Eating.
Maria Tonini & Max Gonen
For connected people in the Global North, information about the latest food trends is increasingly disseminated through social media. YouTube is an endless pool of fitspiration articulating our current preoccupation with healthy lifestyles and body optimization. But, alongside the millions of chiseled and glowing YouTube personalities providing viewers with tips to make clean eating simple, and the best method for assembling avocado toast, we will also find an equally impressive amount of YouTube broadcasters who are doing the opposite: eating huge amounts of junk food while chatting with an audience who cheers them on.
This YouTube subculture is called Mukbang: a socio-technical phenomenon where “eaters” film themselves consuming excessive amounts of food for a viewership with numbers in the millions. The phenomenon originated in South Korea, but in the last few years it has spread to the US. Meal after meal, binge after binge, “eaters” talk to their audiences, sharing life narratives and building an engaged following.
We see Mukbang in this incarnation as a byproduct of a growing western obsession with “clean” regimes and healthy lifestyle as cultural currency, an example of an alternative narrative of expectations of health and how the body should be treated, a de-regulation of pleasure and control around food and composure. Mukbang invokes the intersections of pleasure and disgust felt while watching performative gluttony in a media landscape which otherwise exalts the clean, healthy, optimized, minimal and strict.
Thus, we view the subculture of Mukbang as a contemporary example of rebellion against the Foucauldian idea of the docile body; we argue that Mukbang eaters and their followers – their practices, the communities they build, the narratives they share – temporarily disturb, and thereby visibilize, the current hyper-healthy incarnation of disciplinary biopower.
While Foucault’s ideas form the basis of our theoretical approach, we see affect as the language of viral phenomena, and thus we seek to integrate concepts such as biopower, disciplinary power, and normalization with affect theory to better understand how the spectators body is instrumentalized in creating invested subjects. We view Mukbang as a relational spectacle that generates embodied affects both in the performer and in the viewer, and an example of the ways subjectivity is produced in online environments.
Arguing for the necessity of studying viral online phenomena in their local manifestations, in this paper we focus on US examples of Mukbang: we look at three major figures in the Mukbang community representing different eater/viewer relationships and explore their videos and the dialogues which emerge in response to them.