You know, from the discussion you see online, you’d think the Koreans in the TV show “Lost” are central characters. Well, I can’t say for sure that they aren’t, since I’ve only watched as far as Episode 3 so fareverything else is still just an incoming file, for me, but the first thing to remember is that these characters are not any more central to the story than others, and actually seem quite peripheral. It’s not as if a main character is an evil Korean guy. He’s not a villain, he’s just a guy among many on the island.
The topic of the show has been making the rounds on Koreablogs once again, showing up on The Marmot’s Hole (with many comments), at Cathartidae, The Unlimited Mood, Duophony, and Lost Nomad. And The Choson Ilbo is whining too, of course.
Much is made of the fact that the Korean male character is a grouchy son-of-a-you-know-what, but then again, I was surprised by his generosity in preparing some food for everyone as soon as he coulddespite rudeness in response in at least one case. The character is uptight, he’s grouchysure, I would be too if I were having a day as bad as his. He’s possessive of his wife, which isn’t flattering but I’ve seen some instances not too far off from this. Instances, I note. I don’t think most of the men I’ve met would be as grouchy, as possessive, as commanding, and so on. I do think the distrustful instincts are believable in a Korean man who had never spent time with foreigners, though probably the way the character is acting out on them is pretty exaggeratedlike all kinds of other things in the show are also exaggerated. I think it might have been more effective to let Daniel Dae Kim be a little more sympathetic, more fearful and trying to protect his wife as best he can from perceived dangers, instead of barking commands at her. But he does seem more an exaggeration of a conservative Korean man than a kind of evil styereotype invented from thin air. Is he wholly offensive? Not to me; I can understand his fears. And I think he was generous with the seafood, regardless of how the other crash victims regarded the gesture. But I probably wouldn’t get along with the character. I do think he’s a bit psycho, a bit of a jerk. (As of episode 3, mind you, only episode 3. All this may be subject to revision as I work my way through the series.)
What’s amusing is complaints originating on the Korean side tend to focus on how this show will give Korea a bad image, how Koreans aren’t really like that, about how it’s unfair that Koreans are represented by such a bad, bad guy. There’s so much focus on the male character, and the female character is discussed primarily as his victim, instead of as a character in her own right. You’d think that there was only one Korean character on the show, really, when there are two; the Korean woman on the show is extremely likeable, very decent-hearted, and very sympathetically received. The focus on the male character seems to me a bit sexist, to be honest.
This brings back my memories to the whole outburst over Anton Ono, when, at the same time, a female Korean team won the gold in the womens’ 3000m relay. Which one do you think got more press? My roommate at the time took young Koreans he knew to task for not talking about the womens’ win, and focusing only on the Ono upset. Ignoring those women was not just negative and kind of embarrassing, it was also blatantly sexist, even when women were the ones complaining. Yes, it’s not just news coverage that’s sexist; there’s a whole complex set of social and cultural factors at play here:
- A habit of self-asserting by demonizing non-Koreans. (A habit noted in other cultures as well, of course, but it’s pretty pronounced in Korean popular discourse.)
- A habit of focusing on the male over the female. This is why, when the brothel crackdown began, I was shocked to see reportage of complaints from businessmen in Seoul who claimed they were running out of avenues of entertainment for foreign business visitors. Even the most ridiculous male concern will get airtime. I don’t remember a lot of interviews with the girls in the brothels, though, or the madams.
- A tendency to be overly concerned about what non-Koreans think of Korea. Why anyone should care, I’m not sure, but I think that, like in Britain, a common cultural concern in Korea is that of keeping up appearances.
- A tendency to think that TV-shows convince gullible viewers that people of nation X are bad, stupid, evil, or good, kind, and sweet. Some of my most ignorant students do see the world that way, but plenty of intelligent Koreans don’t assume all white women are willing to sleep with anyone, as on TV. Actually, I’m torn about this, since there is a certain segment of the Korean population that is gullbile enough to think that: I know white women living here who’ve had to deal with that stereotype, so I know. Meanwhile, I am not so sure that North Americans are as impervious to this kind of subtle idea-forming… except that North American media is far more sympathetic to people outside the majority than media in other countries. I’ve seen plenty of extremely unsympathetic portrayals of whites on Korean dramassmall though they mostly have been, and admittedly few that I have seenbut never seen one of whites doing things like, oh, volunteering at the local orphanage, the way several foreigners in my neighborhood do. Should we find this scandalous? Because overall, I think most of us find it boringly predictable.
To those who complain about racist stereotypes being wrong and not belonging in media, I ask, what are you doing about this?
Unlike the nastiness of one of the two Korean characters in the TV show (among many other rather unsavoury characters with different racial backgrounds), these cartoons are outright racist. Black people in America with bones in their noses? Is this why little kids I teach at camp, and college freshmen alike, at least one per class, call out “ooga-ooga” as a monkey sound when people with dark-skin are brought up in discussions or seen in pictures? White people with noses so big they could be elephants?
Meanwhile, Jodi at Asia Pages has some interesting things to say on depictions of Asians in American media. I mean, really, TV is often pretty much the Penny-Dreadful of our age: we can’t expect too much from it, since it’s meant more than anything as money-making, comfortable, disposable entertainment. Someone said, rightly, that the Korean guy on Lost needs to chill out. Well, yes, but so do those Koreans who are so worked up about one character on one TV show in America. I don’t remember anyone writing celebratory posts about the Gilmore Girls and their “Korean content”. If nothing else, they should realize that their intepretation of the TV show is also sexist.
And another thing: they should realize it’s silly to identify so strongly with the character just because he’s from the same country as them. I don’t feel hurt or badly characterized as a musician, though the only musician on the island is a pathetic drug addict and a liar. This is just a story on TV. And if it’d been a Ghanian man who was hollering at his wife and fighting the American Korean, Korean audiences would never hear of the show, or would be eating it up, with occasional kids going “ooga-ooga” in front of the TV.
(And yes, I realize not everyone in Korea is of the “ooga-ooga” racist mindset. But racist depictions of non-Koreans are widely tolerated here in media, news and entertainment alike, and racism is far from nonexistent here. What I found most revealing about teaching people almost twice my age was how they split on notions of racism; those who’d never been abroad tended to complain that America and other Western countries were far more racist than Korea, whereas those who’d actually been abroad were very quick to point out how very common and widespread and tolerated racism is in Korean society.)