Diversity in Dramaland: K-dramas and Racial Stereotypes
Updated: Jan 23
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.
Man Who Dies to Live
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.