In many ways, I think the less time spent talking about SBS’s Backstreet Rookie, the better, but unfortunately, we need to talk about it because it has Problems. Big ones. And I don’t just mean the questionable casting, because—against all common sense and public conversation—this is the show that went one better and brought blackface back to 2020. A startling choice given the timing, against the backdrop of Korea’s own BLM movement and protests, and the growing discourse around how ethnic minorities are treated in Hallyu’s homeland. (Spoiler: it’s not great if you’re not light.)
The offending character is a webtoon artist, and he’s introduced to the viewer starting with a shot of his naked nethers in the shower—panning slowly upwards to his (fake) dreads. A few moments later, he emerges into his dank lair workroom where, surrounded by his own drawings of hot naked women, a crowd of flies swarm around his head. He then proceeds to pick a fly out of the dreads. “Live!” he tells it, releasing it back into the wild. Clearly, it’s intended to be funny—but not before you curl a lip in reflexive revulsion. It further compounds the picture with him drawing an intimate scene (while mostly naked, surrounded by naked drawings), and getting off on it in a way that wants to gross you out. In short, the purpose of the introduction is to make you see him as prurient. Vulgar. Dirty.
The distinctiveness of his character coupled with his distinctive visual (“blackness”, adopted or otherwise) acts to create an automatic association for the uncritical viewer, which is essentially how the social engineering of racist sentiment works (see: implicit bias). It’s impossible for it to be harmless because even if it is individually low-impact, it exists in the broader context of other such messaging. Repeat that process across a population, repeat the number of exposures, and at some point, that manufactured image becomes a universally accepted (and defended) truth. Even if we take the international perspective out of the picture, you’re still left with highly negative experiences of race if you’re Black in Korea, and this kind of portrayal can only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes—which lead to negative perceptions, which lead to discriminatory treatment in real life situations. In sum: drama portrayals have real-life consequences.
It’s unclear (from the first episode, at least) whether the character is actually meant to be Black, or if he’s adopted Black style. Ultimately, it’s an argument of splitting hairs, because whichever one it is, it’s a problem. If it’s the former, then it’s blackface. If it’s the latter, it’s appropriation.
But Blackness is not a costume. Blackness is not a punchline. If you sincerely want Blackness…then cast a Black man. You cannot divorce the Blackness from the man, and if you want to, that right there is the problem. Even if Korea was not a perpetrator in historic persecution against Black people such as in the US, blackface and appropriation of Black culture comes from a tradition of oppression and violence which continue to this day. By continuing the same practices, we uphold and maintain the same machinery that systematically targets and deprives Black people, and other people of colour, of basic rights.
Backstreet Rookie Update
I honestly can’t believe I have to update this article again because of Backstreet Rookie, because this week, this happened. I guess that answers my question about the Dal-shik character. I just feel so tired from endlessly talking about this and why it’s so wrong that instead of going into it for the umpteenth time, I direct you to some reading instead:
- The problem with blackface: a comprehensive article from a Canadian perspective, but fully transferable and applicable, that goes over the history of blackface minstrelsy and, importantly, discusses whether blackface can be racist if a Black person is involved. (Spoiler: yes.)
- A guide to understanding and avoiding cultural appropriation: this is an entry-level introduction to the idea, what it means and how it’s different from cultural exchange. It comes from a US perspective, but is very easy to apply across contexts.
- Appropriation or appreciation: unpacking South Korea’s fascination with black culture: this article from Vice’s i-d discusses the impact of Black American culture on Korean culture and asks, “Is Seoul’s love for the hip-hop aesthetic more fetishistic than inclusive?”
- Braids, cornrows and dreadlocks: the hairy side of cultural appropriation: a really excellent analysis from Seoulbeats on how hair and hairstyles relate directly to perceptions, depending on who is wearing them and how. (Also browse the cultural appropriation tag for more discussion.)
P.S. Kim Jae-wook is up there to relieve the tension by looking pretty. He is not representing stereotypes. HE IS GOOD.
When stereotypes strike
I originally wrote this piece as a reaction to last year’s Vagabond, the SBS-Netflix drama which had significant portions filmed on location in Morocco. I was totally seduced by the opening credits (action! thriller!), but it felt unpleasant to me from the very opening scene—from the brutish white gunman who keeps sniping racist comments at Lee Seung-gi, to Suzy turning up dressed in Muslim-style clothing as a disguise, only for the wind to whip her scarf/hijab away and reveal her. I felt that familiar clench again: How bad was this going to be? Would it be like The K2?
To Vagabond‘s credit, even if some places just look like the production team went, “Hey, how can we make this more…Morocco,” it does make a respectable effort, using local actors to play varying roles, from corrupt detectives and drug-runners to ordinary everyday citizens and civil servants—they’re not called upon to play villains or damsels alone, which automatically makes it better than nearly everything. They speak Arabic, English and Spanish, and the Korean cast give their best efforts at whichever language they’re called upon to use, and sometimes I even understood it. So it’s not all horror story, even if Suzy does use a Muslim prayer mat as a doormat.
On the other hand, some shows can’t be redeemed. Until Backstreet Rookie, the most obvious and flagrant offender was the 2017 MBC drama, Man Who Dies To Live. In it, Choi Min-soo plays a character who, tired of his homeland, moves to a (fictional) Middle Eastern country where he gains the favour of the king and lives a life of luxury. He’s waited on hand and foot by the Arab natives, who make excellent props, while white women lounge by his pool in bikinis and hijabs, vying for his attention. Yup. Then, the king tries to force him to choose one of his three hot but demure, virginal, veiled-yet-sexy daughters to marry—and he MUST marry one or be punished. Choi has to escape this awful fate by running away all the way back to Korea, which I guess he didn’t hate so much after all.
It was appallingly tone-deaf in every possible way, from how the show chose to create its setting and depict its protagonist, to MBC’s response to viewer backlash—which was so severe that the show ended up being pulled from international providers. Everything worth saying about what was problematic about that show has already been said, so I won’t dwell on that. But the other side of the story was how the show tore the fandom in two, and as always, the legitimate discussion about its problematic portrayals was derailed and shut down by the emotions of people who did not want to hear that discussion, because “why can’t we all just be nice?” or “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it”.
It’s an old fight to fight when you’re part of a marginalised group, and constantly told that what you think and how you feel about how your avatars are portrayed don’t actually matter. But it does. It does matter. Just as how the simplistic representation of the Korean diasporic experience via Lane Kim in Gilmore Girls matters, or how Hollywood depicts Asians, Arabs, Black people and Muslims matters, how Korean dramas represent other cultures and people of colour also matters.
Another example can be found in Ji Chang-wook’s 2017 film, Fabricated City, where he randomly receives the help of a Black American couple. They are cartoonishly overjoyed to help him, and practically thank him for giving them the pleasure, in what feels like a grotesque iteration of the “jolly black woman” trope (“Mammy”), with all its accompanying “Magical Negro” and Black minstrelsy connotations. These are subtly racist stereotypes that still regularly play out in western media, and often fly beneath the radar for most viewers, even those with a vested interest. They seem harmless—even positive—until you notice that it’s a repeating pattern that ultimately serves to deprive those characters of a real story of their own. The fact is, stereotypes are shortcuts, and lazy ones at that. By providing a seemingly complex constellation of assumptions, they can stand in for nuanced storytelling and replace the role of research. It’s the blueprint for a plot device—tired, clichéd ones that have no humanity or real agency in them.
The ones that dismay me the most are the ones involving veiled women, and the raft of assumptions made about them. In The K2 (2016), Ji Chang-wook’s backstory takes him to Iraq where he’s a soldier for a private militia. He falls in love with their group’s translator, a beautiful veiled Iraqi woman called Rania who loves K-pop and Korea and is very much in need of saving, as all veiled women inevitably are, when they’re not busy being threats to society. Ji Chang-wook the white saviour proposes marriage and she says yes and whips off her hijab and they kiss, woohoo! Thus his proposal is rewarded. But then she’s killed, and to add insult to injury, the “Iraqi” woman is actually a very white woman, because who doesn’t love a bit of whitewashing? I mean, she’s dead, either way.
I very nearly dropped A Poem a Day over the Arab chaebol storyline. In that episode, a tycoon from Dubai visits the hospital and compliments one of the physios by likening her to a camel. “Her eyes are filled with purity and innocence, like those of a three-month old camel.” Really? You really think a Dubai chaebol has actually even ever seen a camel? This was followed up with a polygamy joke that wasn’t funny when the last 60,000 men said it and it will never be funny. It just won’t. Ever. Stop trying to make it happen. To top it all off, we also got our unveiling scene, where Lee Yubi peels off her all-black garb to reveal a glittering ensemble inside.
That part came well into its run, and I was only able to brush it off because of the goodwill and trust the show had built up with me in its preceding episodes (ultimately, I ended up really loving it). On the other hand: Miss Hammurabi (JTBC, 2018). I’d heard good things about it and felt in the mood to try it, but wow. They hit you with it right in episode 1, where Go Ara wants to make a genuinely important point to her boss, Judge Sung Dong-il, in a sexual harassment case of a female student. He snaps that the student shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt, and Go argues back that the molester is the one at fault for molesting. So what does she do to make her point? First she turns up extra glamorous and sets heads turning in a short skirt (L tries to protect her dignity):
Then her boss complains, so she changes into:
And then she sweetly asks, “Will this do? Which outfit would you rather I wore? The miniskirt or this?” Okay, girl. You don’t need to put other women’s wardrobe choices down to make your point, and second, you literally could have put on a chicken suit and made the same point to exactly the same effect—and don’t mistake me, that’s not a good thing. What does it mean when Muslim women’s clothing can be put in the same category as an animal costume? There are many layers of racism to this short scene (the “Indian” music, the other guy passing by who was absolutely terrified by her, that she used the outfit as a revenge-stunt) that I can’t even unpack it all right now, but it was so grossly offensive that I was done with the show then and there.
What’s so problematic about these scenes is that they punch down. It’s not the same as “Americans being shown as druggies again” (which, honestly, I find hilarious—now you know how it feels to get consistently bad rep, through no fault of your own!), because that doesn’t hurt anything except a few privileged people’s feelings. But we already know that in Europe and the US at least, negative depictions of Muslim-coded characters lead to huge spikes in hate crimes against actual Muslims. We know that the Korean public’s attitude towards outsiders is rough at best, but thanks to the proliferation of Western media, it’s particularly negative towards Arabs and Muslims. That’s nowhere better represented than in the image of a hijab-wearing woman. Women are always softer targets, and WOC and Muslim women are so much more so.
On the other hand, I remember a moment in Descendants of the Sun, which pleasantly surprised me for subverting how I expected the scene to go. A young doctor tries to treat a covering Muslim woman in a disaster zone, but she refuses the injection—and I have an “uh-oh” moment of sighing and wondering what backwardness we’re meant to expect now—is she going to refuse to show him her (broken) leg because he’s a man or something? So old, so tired, so bored of crappy turns. So imagine my surprise and, I admit, gratitude, when she pulls out an ultrasound photo and it turns out that the reason she refuses is because she’s pregnant. It’s a brief but touching scene that was as fraught for me as it was for them, if for different reasons.
However, despite that moment, Descendants also contains a whole matrix of problematic elements, especially its fictional quasi-Arab setting, which creates something of a conveniently blank canvas on which to project Korean nationalism, and consequently, unchallenged heroism, which is a topic for another day. (Read Anisa’s review of the drama for a more thorough and learned discussion on the topic.)
In 2017, the film Midnight Runners provoked strong protest from the ethnic Chinese community in Seoul for depicting their locale and community as vicious criminals. I actually loved that film at the time, and it didn’t occur to me that it was equally problematic: I hadn’t noticed what wasn’t immediately relevant to my sensitivities, and that’s a lesson. There’s no shame in needing something to be pointed out to you. But to continue to persist in creating, defending, or turning a blind eye to something once you become aware that it’s harmful—once you’ve been petitioned to please stop doing this because we can’t breathe—that sends a message we’re reading loud and clear.
Another scene that sticks in my mind is from Lawless Lawyer (tvN, 2018), where the scheming villainesses mock the name of a Thai immigrant employee. “We’ll just call you Mama,” they hoot. Of course, this is an intentionally horrible scene, but it aims to convey a general cruelty rather than specific racism, and so the racial weight of that moment can easily go unnoticed.
There’s a generally simplistic treatment of Southeast Asian characters across K-drama, where the men tend to be shown as gangsters, drug-dealers or smugglers, while the women are either the help, or in need of help. On the other hand, the white-collar professionals, foreign investors and CEOs tend to be shown as largely white (whether that’s American or Russian), with the occasional clearly defined Japanese/Arab/Chinese figures thrown in. While the migrant population of Korea is about 2% and includes a significant proportion of low-paid workers, these portrayals remain reductive and stereotypical at best, and an incomplete picture that does not acknowledge native Koreans of colour or mixed race, nor give them the complexity and individuality their homogeneous counterparts receive. Guzal Tursanova (a Korean national of Uzbek heritage) in one drama or a 30-second cameo from Sam Okyere every few years isn’t enough.
How to tell inclusive stories
So what is the solution? If K-dramas are at fault for not including much diversity, and slammed when they get it wrong, doesn’t that make them damned if they do and damned if they don’t?
I don’t think so. The fact is, how these storylines and characters are depicted is a choice. There are plenty of dramas that have been able to show diversity without a hint of Orientalism or xenophobia, and those shows are proof of just how much it is a choice, not a can’t-be-helped mistake. In My Strange Hero, Joel Roberts, who is Black, appears as a night-time convenience store part-timer who is just a person—not a prop, not a token, just someone living his life and being friends with Jo Boa. Itaewon Class (JTBC, 2020) went one better and featured Chris Lyon, a Black man, as a main character. I can’t comment on how well the show treated his character (or not) as I haven’t watched it, but the prominent casting itself feels like a step in the right direction.
Her Private Life has some delightful inserts in the fan café shots with a niqabi and a few hijabis, which is hilariously true to life. They’re background faces that acknowledge the true makeup of the fandom, and it gave me so much glee to see it, even though it was in no way prominent or even highlighted. It just was. It was there, they were part of the picture. Similarly how in Protect the Boss (2011), Choi Kang-hee prays even to Allah out of desperation, in a scene that flashes by but leaves you grinning. Just like how in an early episode of You’re Beautiful (2009), trainee nun Park Shin-hye hides from pursuit at the airport among a group of hijab-clad women, a habit among the jilbabs, and it’s so funny…but at nobody’s expense.
While not a drama, Netflix’s recent travel variety show Twogether has been giving me so much joy, and not just because of the adorable bromance and nonstop lols. It provides both sequel and spinoff to what Her Private Life began, as the boys travel across Asia meeting their fans, many of whom are visibly Muslim and very excited. The only thing it leaves me wanting is to see this same level of joyful interaction back home in Korea. Twogether was made with an international audience in mind, and Lee Seung-gi’s and Jasper Liu’s fanbases are largely eastern, which includes a lot of fans in majority-Muslim countries, so it’s not really a comparable dynamic.
I don’t want to be too hard on K-dramas: it’s a good thing to see Dramaland diversify, and since they’re still in the early stages of finding their way, I’m willing to roll with most things and would rather find the humour in it. But I won’t say it’s not disturbing to see exactly the same patterns and problems of Western representation play out in Korean shows, where the Korean character is easily slipped into the “white saviour” role, with all its attendant assumptions. The main assumption, just like in Western media, is the one of ethno-cultural superiority. It’s even more frustrating because such representations are clearly imported—not only through the more recent proliferation of Western media, but as a lasting effect of decades of American imperialism in the region since the Korean War—with little to no basis in Korean lived experience.
The uncritical adoption of such stereotypes becomes a dangerously lazy route which ends up perpetuating the same problems that riddle Hollywood. I’m still grateful that Vagabond‘s plane-downing terrorists weren’t non-Korean (or worse, Arab). To me, that’s still a big win and encapsulates the reason why K-drama remains an infinitely better experience for me. But I worry what the future holds, then, for K-drama intentionally made for an international audience, and whether they will model themselves on the same problematic media that made me seek refuge in K-drama in the first place.
Thanks to the global success of Hallyu, we can no longer argue that K-drama is made exclusively for a domestic audience, because that’s patently untrue. But that might also hold the answers about why some dramas do it really well while others really don’t. Cable channels like tvN do it better, and their missteps are forgivable and even highly entertaining (like Misaeng and the extremely wrong Muslim prayer scene haha). The worst offenders seem to be broadcast channels, which perhaps tend towards tapping the domestic mainstream rather than the global. As a homogeneous country that has only recently opened itself up to the world, mistakes are to be expected. But if we can have Crash Landing on You, which consulted with North Korean defectors for accuracy and authenticity, we can do the same for other dramas. As long as there’s evidence that a show tried in good faith—i.e. with research and conscience—I guarantee I’ll be there with goodwill. But I think we also need to be there to call a show out when it crosses the line, because that’s what it means to be a sincere fan. The feedback loop is our voice, and it’s how we can change the story into something richer and more inclusive, and ultimately? We get a better story. Win/win.
In conclusion, I think it’s important to realise that the world of dramas is a microcosm of real life and the wider world. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it a self-subsisting world in itself. As such, dramas are a reflection—good or bad—of the current social climates, and its tides change along with the real world. Sometimes, Dramaland responds to real life, and other times, it sets the agenda. That’s the nature of the relationship between art and life. I think the aim for artists should be to have a sense of social responsibility when it comes to depicting already marginalised groups. Art has always been political, and so it must also have a conscience, and it cannot come at the expense of those already besieged.
Inevitably, in discussions that involve asking people to examine their implicit biases and censor their explicit racism, the question of freedom of expression comes up. I’ve been thinking about freedom a lot lately, and whether we are artists or consumers of art, I think we need to interrogate ourselves about which freedoms we value more: freedom to, or freedom from. Freedom to is a function of the upper hand: freedom to do something which will have an effect on someone else. Freedom to say or write or create what we want without being called to account for it.
Freedom from is the prayer of the oppressed. Freedom from is the fulfilment of a need. Freedom from oppression. Freedom from violence. Freedom from harm. Freedom from fear. Once we attain freedom from, only then can we achieve the freedom to: freedom to exist in the fullness of who we are and can be, authentically and with dignity.
This essay was written with the invaluable feedback and advice of my pals and podcast co-hosts, Anisa and Paroma. Don’t miss our podcast special on representation, race, and identity.