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[Some] Koreans’ Perception of The West Wing

A few weeks ago, in one of my classes, we watched that episode of The West Wing titled “Han,” where a North Korean musician playing in the White House informs President Bartlet of his wish to defect, in preparation for a panel discussion on the depiction of leaders in American media. (We also looked at scenes from a King Arthur film that the department had on hand.) I found my students had some interesting things to say about it, though.

Well, not “say,” in many cases, but I always have students write up a Prep Sheet and a Reaction paper, before and after a panel discussion, respectively, and I’m working through the Prep Sheets for the West Wing panel right now. There’s lots of good stuff, such as discussing the logic of a fantastical Democrat Administration on TV during a Republican Administration’s rule, or the relative lack of women in high positions in the West Wing even in this supposedly utopian, egalitarian, “dream” administration. Lots of good stuff. But there’s lots that took me by surprise, too.

While I’m on a marking break, I thought I’d note a few things among my students’ reaction papers that were really odd, unexpected, or surprising, for anyone interested.

Idealism, Realism, and “Fantasy”

Now, the reason I chose that episode was simply to show students another way in which Americans are more aware of North Korea than South; but the intended focus of the show was on the idealism (and imperfect realism) of the President.

Even though the episode we were watching involved a President who, for national security purposes had to go against his own instincts and feelings, had to ignore eloquent and morally sound advice from one of his advisors, students criticized the program as being to “idealistic” and “fantastical” — rather than asking why a program about a Democrat Administration shown during a Republican Administration would exist, or why it would be so popular, and rather than wondering whether audiences, well aware of the differences between The West Wing and reality, might be attracted to it, they tended to argue that TV shows need to be “realistic” and “truthful.” They also complained that idealism in politics is impossible, and that they’d rather see depictions of the White House more like what they say characterize depictions of Korean politicians on TV: that is, corrupted, selfish, scandal-ridden, and rotten to the core.

Now, if TV should be “realistic,” it makes me wonder what they’d say about the garbage on TV that depicts foreigners as rapists and sex-crazed fiends (such as 섹시몽 리턴즈 [Sexy Mong Returns], which Brian in Jeollanamdo discusses here, or any number of crazy “news” programs that have aired over the years). Several times I had to hold back my urge to suggest, in response, that perhaps the national news media has more of a responsibility to be realistic, instead of peddling images of foreigners as AIDS-carrying, violent, child-abusing, raping, malevolent, drug-addicted, and essentially evil while shushing up or gently handling all kinds of news stories about things that nasty Korean individuals do to one another, one anothers’ children, and to any foreigner unfortunate enough to run across their paths.

I didn’t mention that reaction — and maybe a fair number of them would agree that this kind of show is objectionable too, as they’re a bright bunch — but I did argue, after the panel discussion, that students should take a look at a station like Arirang to see whether Korea doesn’t also market a sanitized image of itself to, well, whoever can stand to watch Arirang TV. (More below on the notion of media-as-public-image-management.) Students agreed that Arirang is unrealistic, or that it “leaves out” a lot, for the purposes of looking good, but weren’t quite convinced that it was “fantasy” of a kind similar to what The West Wing represents. However, a number of students also argued their belief that a show like The West Wing could not be made or aired in South Korea. They cited a few points as reasons why:

The second point suggests, at least to me, an explanation of why the newsmedia are constantly jumping from one group of stock villains (evil white male foreign hakwon teachers) to another (the conniving Japanese trying to steal Ddokdo!) to another (American soldiers are violent and horrible and have Korean girlfriends sometimes!) to others (female Korean celebrities who perhaps had, say, premarital sex): it’s because they’re not allowed or “able” to do real exposés on real social issues. Tax evasion among the very rich? Abuse of power among politicians and corporate CEOs? Police refusal to do their job in case after case of violence of sexual assault against women, children, and poor men? Hey, we can’t talk about that on TV — that’s too controversial and embarrassing. So let’s bash those who can’t silence us!

(Click on the comic to see the writeup on Mongdori.)

Anyway, what was interesting was that a lot of students explicitly commented on the weighing of traits in a President, and suggested that South Korea’s choice of its current president used a kind of mathematics of traits that weighted economic power much more than ethical rectitude. That is, in other words, they knew he was “dishonest” but hoped he would “fix the economy” nonetheless, even if he lied and stole and whatever else he might be expected to do. (Some students went so far as to say he should be expected to do that, since every (or almost every) other President has done it in some way or other.) It was very interesting how frank they were about all of this.

“Stereotypes” and Criticism of North Korea

Several students complained of the program presenting rather objectionable “stereotypes” of North Korea. Now, I want to be perfectly fair, and so I have to say that, yes, in that episode of The West Wing, almost everything said of North Korea is not only negative, but also chosen carefully to highlight its oppositeness to America. The North is totalitarian because America is not (except, of course, when it comes to security, and don’t you dare question that!); how the North is unfree, because America is “free”; how North Korea is run by thugs because, as we see in The West Wing, America is run by rational, idealistic, conscientious, sane, and moral people… at least, under Bartlet’s administration.

But while I have to agree with the careful, selective use of facts and adjectives in relation to North Korea, I’m a bit stunned that people seem to think it’s okay to dismiss all these things as “stereotypes.” After all, I’m not the only one who spent a long time discussing stereotypes with classes this semester. I mean, are these stereotypes about North Korea?


Well, Kim might not be dull — psychopaths very rarely are — but… forgive me if I’m misinformed, but even if these aspects of North Korea are being used to show how “great” America is, aren’t they also, generally speaking, true? Nothing I’ve read about North Korea suggests that people are free, that the government is non-totalitarian, that artistic freedom or a free press are in place, that North Korean officials don’t get off on labeling America negatively and that they have good senses of humor, or that they haven’t threatened war on numerous occasions, and in no uncertain terms. (The words “Sea of Fire” run through my mind at this moment.)

What’s more predictable is that some students expressed a kind of shameful rage about this… and my feelings about that are mixed, considering I pointed out at the beginning of the episode that “The Koreans” in this episode refers to North Korea, not South Korea or all of Korea, and that if they were to understand this episode, they would have to bear that in mind.

Sure, a few words can’t necessarily make people think differently, when they’ve been accustomed to thinking that the border between the north and the south is a painful fiction and not an inescapable reality, but it was still unusual. It made me wonder whether students have somewhere picked up the idea that any negative point — true or not — can be effectively dismissed by calling it a “stereotype.”

A secondary theme, aside from the discussion of so-called “stereotypes,” was a sense of shame about Korea’s “public image” as a result of bringing up these negative points about North Korea. Note, not shame about South Korea’s image, but about “Korea’s image.”

Only a few students went deep enough to pick up on the idea we’d discussed several times earlier, on how the traits one accentuates in a villain are usually opposite to the traits one wishes to accentuate in oneself. Said’s term, “Othering,” got used once or twice, but much less often than I’d expected given how many times we’d discussed this idea.

Varying Attitudes Towards Han, Including its Comprehensibility to Foreigners and its Significance

Students also had some things to say about Han — the title of the episode, and a somewhat complex concept discussed here.

One thing that a few people asserted was that, either, Americans could never understand Han because they are not Korean, or that the episode actually did a remarkable job of conveying the feeling through the story of the Korean defector who was turned away, and chose to accept it.

To those students who felt it was impossible for a non-Korean to even grasp what Han means, I asked (in my comments on their write-ups) whether they thought other societies might not have a sense of that kind of sadness, even if they did not have an equivalent word for it; for example, whether a Holocaust survivor, or an escapee from the Khmer Rouge, or an African-American old enough to have lived under Jim Crow laws and to have seen lynchings, might not have some understanding of the feeling of Han, even if he or she never heard the word and was not Korean. To the others, I asked what it might mean if a show written by Americans (including Korean Americans) and focused on a piece of European classical music and American political policies can communicate the meaning of “Han.”

But one student surprised me by expressing rage at fellow Koreans and at the idea that Han is a definitive, longstanding characteristic of Korean culture. She suggested that it was modern defeatism and that in older Korean literature, Han barely figures in older literature at all — history of invasions nonwithstanding. She said most older literature was full of happy-ending love stories between a handsome prince and a beautiful maiden — which really surprised me — but I’m going to ask her for more details.

Anyway, more interesting were her comments about self-defeatism and the “stupidity” (her words) of romanticizing “Han” as the distinguishing national characteristic. I recommended she read Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (in translation, if she can find it) as one possible explanation for the fetishization of sorrowful victimhood in post-colonial Korean society. (I posted more about that here, under #5, a little bit. I’ll write more later about that.)

Who’s The Audience?

Another point which students seemed to consistently assume (erroneously) was that The West Wing was designed for non-American audiences, as a kind of pro-American propaganda aimed at the rest of the world. Maybe there is an element of this, but I pointed out during our discussion that all kinds of shows that shouldn’t be popular abroad become popular — for example, the second Star Wars trilogy, which makes no sense if you haven’t seen the first trilogy, still did pretty well here, for no obvious reason — but that the main audience The West Wing was designed for was American. Which raises the question of why people assumed American dramas were designed primarily for non-American audiences (and image-management).

After all, this isn’t something I think is true of a lot of Korean dramas — Old Boy and the trilogy it’s part of, or Kim Ki-duk’s films, for example, don’t make Korea look all that pleasant or good.

This negativity, interestingly, makes me think about why idealism is so often missing in any Korean film that isn’t a romantic comedy (and even then sometimes…), or a tear-jerker drama. For example, why the film “Welcome to Dongmakgol” had to end with America bombing the crap out of the hidden village, instead of some happier ending of reconciliation. I think it’s also time for me, too, to return to Frantz Fanon and The Wretched of the Earth.

The President Bartlet of Korea?

One student raised a very interesting, if tangential, point where he said that, during the discussion of the impeachment of former South Korean President Roh Mu Hyun, Roh himself actually explicitly cited The West Wing as an exemplar of liberal politics, and that he had hoped to reform the Korean political environment to be more like what’s seen in that show. I don’t know where the student got this — I’ve asked him for a source — but it’s a very interesting claim, and if there’s some truth to it, it’s fascinating and, I think, a case for positive influence, however ineffectual it (and Roh) turned out to be in the end.

I don’t think Roh was the Bartlet of Korea (the way Hyori is the Britney Spears of Korea, or the 63 Building is the Empire State Building of Korea, and so on, ad nauseam), but it would be interesting if that was, indeed, what he aspired (or claimed to aspire) to be the Bartlet of Korea. (Certainly, his image spin these days as a friendly old grandpa who’s willing to chat with citizens is much like what I imagine Bartlet would be like in retirement.) Again, that would send me shuffling off to my copy of Fanon’s aforementioned book.


All of this is moving me closer to having a better idea of what I think about dystopian and utopian narratives in Korean SF, believe it or not… to the degree that I’m actually considering writing up an abstract for the call for papers that James mentioned at the end of this post. What the hell, I don’t think anyone will be saying anything about dystopianism in Korean SF… though I’d better hit the databases just to see.

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