By Sophie Squire
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Mask Girl—Beauty norms and a beast of a system

New South Korean TV series tells a brutal tale about how beauty ideals, pushed from the top, destroys lives
Issue 2870
Mask Girl on Netflix

Mask Girl is now showing on Netflix

The new Netflix series Mask Girl is a horrifying and twisted tale of how impossible beauty standards—created to make a profit—destroy lives.

The tragic heroine of the piece, Mo-Mi Kim (played by newcomer Han-byeol Lee), dreams of becoming a performer from an early age. In the film’s first few scenes, you see her shining as she performs a dance routine for an applauding audience.

But all her talent and charisma mean nothing, and her dreams are crushed because she is considered unattractive. As she goes through school and then into the workplace, she is mercilessly bullied and ignored by her peers.

But Mo-Mi has a secret outlet where she can find the gratification she desperately needs in an alienating world.

She’s an online cam girl who performs for money wearing a mask. The sparkling dresses, multicoloured wigs and compliments from fans she receives might be a poor substitute for her dream of performing, but it’s something.   But when her colleague, Oh-nam Joo (Jae-hong Ahn), discovers her real identity, Mo-Mi’s life is ripped apart.

What comes next is a nightmare of murders, gore and revenge that will leave the audience in a cold sweat.

It’s not a surprise that this searing critique of beauty ideals has come from South Korea, often considered the world’s plastic surgery capital. In 2020, the Korean plastic surgery industry was worth over £9 billion.

And so sought after are the procedures, Korean surgeons say 82,000 people travelled to the country to get plastic surgery or dermatological work last year.

The pursuit of perfection driven by the beauty industry also reflects broader social attitudes. Yusu Li, a member of the feminist group Haeil said there’s often a stigma against women who don’t wear makeup or have short hair in the workplace.

Up until 2015 most major corporations requested that potential employees provide a photo of themselves with their CV. During the 2022 South Korean presidential race, conservative candidate—and eventual winner—Yoon Suk Yeol denied that structural inequality between men and women exists.

Discriminatory beauty standards and wider sexism are, of course, not exclusive to South Korea. The grinding pressure to conform and transform yourself to whatever the bosses push as attractive is present everywhere in the world. 

For women, the unrelenting pressure to be beautiful is just one product of a sexist world. Ideas pushed from the top mean that women’s bodies that are so often used to sell products are also treated like public property to be judged, mocked or sexualised.

Those who rule us use these forms of dehumanisation to justify women’s subordinate position in society. 

The result of these ideas can mean that in the eyes of some, the important thing a woman can be is beautiful. Yet, as Mask Girl presents so well, the lives of individual women are not automatically made better by being considered attractive.

After a fateful meeting with a man intent on humiliating and assaulting Mo-Mi, her old face literally melts away. She is transformed into the form of someone who is considered attractive. But her life doesn’t change for the better — in fact, her life gets much worse.

Mo-Mi is objectified throughout the series, but after her transformation, she becomes a hostess at a club, where she is valued only for how she looks.

The message is that even if you fit within the narrow confines of the current beauty standard, you will be subject to the brutality of the sexist system.

The bosses’ relentless race to profit from our insecurities, combined with the sexist objectification of women, has led to untold levels of misery and suffering for millions of people. From dangerously invasive plastic surgery procedures to eating disorders, these standards literally kill.

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