In March 2019, Pengsoo made its debut on its own YouTube channel, Giant Peng TV. Although the character was originally intended to be a character for children, the giant penguin with an honest and outspoken personality quickly went on to capture the hearts of millions. It was even named South Korea’s Person of the Year in 2019, despite not being a person. Pengsoo’s status as an unlikely superstar proves that there is an audience for unconventional characters, especially those that appeal to adults through their unstoppable honesty.

Pengsoo has easily become one of the most recognizable celebrities in South Korea since making its debut last year, partly due to its distinctive characteristics. Pengsoo stands at 210cm tall, has a gruff voice despite only being ten years old, is genderless, and it is also blunt and honest to the point of being rude. The giant penguin left Antarctica for South Korea to pursue its dreams of being the greatest creator and is currently a trainee at the broadcasting station EBS. Despite being only a trainee, Pengsoo has 2.14 million subscribers to its YouTube Channel, Giant Peng TV. The channel boasts a wide variety of content, sticking to Pengsoo’s goal of getting to try whatever it wants to try. Videos range from meeting Twice, to learning how to dance with Lia Kim from 1Million Dance Studio, to competing with Pororo to decide who is more popular with children. However, Pengsoo’s goal of being the greatest creator is far from being achieved, as it continues to try new things, most recently releasing a song with Tiger JK, Bizzy, and BIBI.

Despite its origins, Pengsoo has become popular with adults because it embodies honesty and freedom that they may not be able to express themselves. Pengsoo is honest and expresses its thoughts and feelings without hesitation. It prioritizes expressing its opinions honestly over obeying traditional manners, such as when it called the chief of EBS, Kim Myung-Joong, by name without honorifics.

In a culture where rank and respecting hierarchy are important, Pengsoo is an anomaly. Even when Pengsoo is told by others that it should use the appropriate honorifics, Pengsoo refuses. For ordinary adults who may feel boxed in by traditional manners and expectations in their day-to-day lives, Pengsoo is a mascot that represents what they want to say. While adults may face consequences for being so outspoken in their professional and personal lives, Pengsoo does not, enabling adults to live vicariously through the giant penguin. Pengsoo has become a mascot for straightforward honesty among adults who may feel they cannot express it themselves.

The establishment of Pengsoo as a unique character that is flexible in the kind of content it creates plays a large role in how it has evolved to become a mascot for adults. By stepping away from a cuddly and endearing persona, Pengsoo’s creators knew that the character could be targeted towards the whole family and not just children. The penguin, ten years old, with a scratchy, gruff voice that uploads a variety of content to its YouTube channel has clearly succeeded in captivating a wider audience than what is expected of such a cartoonish character. 

Pengsoo, who wants to become the greatest creator, also has the freedom to try any kind of content that it wants to. This freedom means that Pengsoo’s videos can range from going camping, to vlogs about its daily life, to meeting celebrities, with different videos tailored to different age groups. In one video, Pengsoo faces off against Pororo, another penguin superstar in Korea. In another video, actors Lee Je-Hoon, Ahn Jae-Hong, and Park Jung-Min appear to promote their movie Time to Hunt. While Pororo is beloved by young children, the appearance of actors to promote a movie not suitable for children proves the versatility of Pengsoo’s videos. Indeed, Pengsoo’s bold personality is allowed to shine through its flexible content, enabling it to become beloved among adults as well as children. 

As a character originally intended for children, Pengsoo’s popularity among adults for its brazen attitude may raise questions as to whether it is really suitable for children. Pengsoo’s honesty that borders on being rude, especially towards superiors, is definitely unconventional for a character meant for a younger audience. Pengsoo is indeed very different from Pororo, whose target audience is young children.

However, the creator of Pengsoo explains that they wanted to break away from typical characters that are adorable and often well-mannered. Producer Lee Seul-Yena explains that children want to have the freedom to express their true feelings in an honest manner, so Pengsoo was created to represent a realistic side of children and their outlook on life. Instead of trying to create a character that teaches children about manners and rules, Pengsoo was deliberately designed as a frank, but genuine character that children could relate to.

Pengsoo’s popularity across diverse age groups also proves that there is a tolerating audience for more unconventional characters. As explained, Pengsoo does not fit the mold of a character for children in a variety of ways. Pengsoo’s keep-it-real attitude is one of these factors and also one of its most beloved traits.

One of the most distinctive ways that Pengsoo breaks this mold, as well as other societal expectations, is by being genderless. Lee explains that she wanted to break traditional media depictions of the binary gender norms. By being genderless, the emphasis is on Pengsoo, the activities it gets to try, and the people it gets to meet. Without a gendered label, Pengsoo is not expected to conform to gender stereotypes in its actions or content, and Pengsoo makes this statement in subtle ways as well; at the Golden Disc Awards, Pengsoo wore a tuxedo and hair clips as accessories. However, Pengsoo, as a genderless penguin, may not have received as much interest or backlash as a genderless person would. Regardless, Pengsoo’s popularity despite not fitting into societal standards suggests that there is a welcoming audience for those who deviate from societal expectations.

Pengsoo is beloved, especially by adults, because people can live vicariously through its honesty and its superstar status proves that there is a welcoming audience for unconventional characters. The unconventional, giant, gruff penguin has charmed adults as well as children, cementing its fame through diverse content. As Pengsoo has only been around for a year, and it is still a trainee, its future contributions to the Korean entertainment scene can be anticipated.

(BBC, No Cut News, Time, UPI News, Women News, YouTube. Images via Instagram, EBS)