Addendum #2 to [Literary] SF: A Social Phenomenon (Plus Some Detours)

This entry is part 40 of 67 in the series SF in South Korea

Note: This is an addendum to this original post, and to the first addendum I posted the other day.

Some of the discussion that has cropped up in the responses to the earlier post and addendum to which this is appended (and which I want to address) is concerned with the “colonialism” or “imperialism” of the status I suggested American mainstream non-SF media have for average Korean viewers.

That is to say, questions were raised as to whether this non-SF having a kind of pseudo-SFnal, utopian quality — in that it depicts a world not only radically different, but also a world aspects of which could be made real in Korea today — isn’t really a product of US hegemonic cultural imperialism.

Now, I’m going to let go of the fact that when Edward Said addressed the question in his Cultural Imperialism, he was primarily talking about how it was domestic culture — literature, specifically, and the arts — that got recruited into the service of the imperial project abroad. He was, for example, discussing the way in which Jane Austen’s or Tennyson’s writing related uneasily, supportively or critically (or both) to the British imperial project. Packaged into that is the idea more like our own sense of “media distortion” — the blinding, stultifying effects of having discourses that misrepresent reality, or promote certain warped views of reality, through excluding that which falsifies one’s comfortable, nationalist assumptions about the world.

But these days, when we say cultural imperialism, what we mean is something else: something more akin to the flooding of the global entertainment market with American TV, film, music, and other media.

To which I must pause and note that it’s not as if places like Korea don’t have their own media. Korea, indeed, has a massive media industry, so much so that Korean TV has had a profound influence on TV throughout Asia. Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Japanese people have gone through phases of being absolutely gaga over Korean TV and film. So much so that a huge, self-congratulatory buzz, centered on the notion of a “Korean Wave” overtaking Asian media and crashing, noticeably, against the shores of America, served as the main topic for articles on slow news days for several years running. (If you’re curious, google “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu” and you’ll see what I mean.)

So it’s not as if there’s a media void onto which American media is imposing itself. In fact, it’s pretty challenging to see most Hollywood films on the big screen: the screen quota in effect here has long made it much easier to see Korean films than American ones, and the oligopoly and programming decisions of the few big cinema chains here have relegated anything but a narrow selection of films to a few hard-to-find arthouse cinemas in Seoul.

Likewise, the Korean airwaves are full of Korean content: Korean music, Korean TV shows, Korean entertainment.

There is a word in Korean — I forget the phrase, as it’s one I’d never use myself — which designates people who are crazy about “American TV dramas” by which it is meant shows like Prison Break, Sex and the City, Lost, Gossip Girl, and so on.  What this designates is people who are “into” American TV shows, and who are avidly consuming these shows.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, this is not (and is not perceived as) a neutral act in terms of cultural politics, at least not by those who disapprove. “Soybean Paste Girls” were infamously criticized not just for their love of expensive, foreign coffee (Starbucks was explicitly tagged as a “Soybean Paste Girl” affair) but also for their love of the television program Sex and the City. This was, of course, primarily criticized by a certain type of young man who seemed to be (rather hypocritically, if you ask me) rather worried that their female peers might “get ideas” by watching such shows.

Which is to say, the slur was a kind of attack on women who were, however consciously or unconsciously, seizing upon a narrative depicting a (fantastical, to be sure) image of the lives of American women and viewing it as an alternative to the lives of women in Korea. Now, however far Korea has come along, it’s still one of the most unfair places in the OECD in which to live as a woman — in terms of all kinds of specific details, but also in terms of general empowerment relative to men, that is, as I discussed here (and as is widely discussed online).

So I think it’s useful to reframe this in a way where we are looking at Koreans as people who are doing something with foreign media, rather than as hapless victims of the machinations of the Grand Scary Hegemon. That is to say — if Koreans, especially Koreans of a certain age, gender, and social class, are choosing to consume foreign media over domestic, and consciously consuming it in ways that they find useful, then however problematic we may see the content itself, we have a responsibility to consider them active, relatively free agents.

My point is that to seize upon a foreign media, fashion, or culture and use it actively to critique, oppose, or investigate one’s own culture is perhaps a complex, messy, and dangerous process. But people have been doing it always and everywhere, and it’s a bit disingenuous to stop now and start declaring it bad, bad, bad. The flappers of 1920s America, after all, were all about the fashions of French designer Coco Chanel — and used those fashions as an alternative way of dressing themselves but also of conceiving of their bodies — how they could be shaped or presented, what they could do with them. Ought the French to have wringed their hands over the negative side of this — the teenaged pregnancies, the rise in alcoholism among women, the destablization of the traditional American family values system? Would that not have been a little arrogant, and wouldn’t that have been somewhat disrespectful of the women in America who were, after all, fighting against another, native form of femininity imposed on them by the culture of older generations?

The corset, the heaving bosom: the crippling clothing women were expected to wear when being a Gibson Girl was the "in" thing.
The corset, the heaving bosom: the crippling clothing women were expected to wear when being a Gibson Girl was the “in” thing.

Now, the issue of feminism and women’s rights is one thing, but there are other aspects of this question that are more problematic. For example, the popularity of all-white, predominantly white, or preferentially white shows here far outstrips other shows. (The Bill Cosby Show may have been a massive hit in America, but from what I can tell, it was not aired here, or if it was, it made little enough impact nobody seems to remember it.) (Note: See the comments below — I was wrong about Cosby, happily; but I think my point still stands that at least in recent years, shows like Friends which have all-white main characters dominate.)

While in one way, it’s not surprising: a lot of American TV shows are very, very white to begin with — the point is subtler: it’s that the subtle racism that saturates a lot of TV tends not to be all that apparent to Korean viewers as such — not when it’s just presenting a vision of America that is all white, all the time. After all, Koreans are quite used to a media establishment presenting an essentially monoracial, monocultural, monolithic image of their own society. The parallel here would be Korea:Korean as America:White. Which of course is to miss the massive difference in the American reality, but that’s not so present in TV anyway — and when it is, the nonwhites are too often either sidekicks, criminals, or otherwise negligible. In fact, most of the time when a Korea student in one of my classes notes racism, it’s in a case where a Korean character is presented in anything other than the rosiest of lights. (As with the–inherently sexist–brouhaha over the maligning of the character Jin in Lost when the first season was being aired here.)

One more caveat I should make: I have, in this series and elsewhere, conflated “American” with “Western” which is a category error that is interesting in two ways: First, it reveals my own bias as a North American. Canada and the USA have some differences, but we share a lot, and I think we also like to believe we share a lot with the UK, such that it’s easy for (lazy) Anglophones (like me) to map that onto the rest of the “Western” world.

But I think it’s also a habit of mind that I’ve fallen into the longer I’ve stayed in Korea, because in these parts, one find often that “American” is sort of conflated with “Western” in a lot of popular discussions —  for example, American models being the ones often sought out as alternatives to Korean institutions. (This is beginning to change, for example, in how both in the media and in classes, I find students advancing the idea that Korea should look to, for example, Scandinavian countries for alternate models of a public education system, but there’s a long way to go in demystifying America as “The West.”)

Which is to say, I think there are Western countries with which Korea has a lot more in common, and it would be fascinating to see how Koreans would react to that media. In that way, it’s correct to be a little concerned about the dominance of American media — not in that Koreans might or might not be seizing upon it as a vision of alternity, but in that it’s the most available here (despite the perhaps potentially greater payoff for Koreans of other national medias) because of the structure of media distribution as it stands today, as well as for historical and political reasons.

But that’s a more global problem, and the best solution, of course, is to create buzz around non-American media that you like. That’s at least part of why I blog about Korean SF, especially Korean SF film, after all — so SF fans in the English speaking world might get interested in it, seek it out, add a little diversity to their media consumption, or at least be aware that there’s more out there.

Whew. I think I’m done with contextualizing everything now, and can move on to something else…

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5 thoughts on “Addendum #2 to [Literary] SF: A Social Phenomenon (Plus Some Detours)

  1. Just one thing. The Cosby Show was aired in Korea, in the late 80s. It was an unsual hit, and as far as I remember, it was one of the very first american sitcoms aired in Korea. It was KBS, and early sunday morning, and I guess there must have been re-runs, as I clearly remember watching the episodes in my elementry school days(mid 90s.) I can’t believe that no Korean around you remember ‘The Cosby Family(코스비 가족, the Korean title of it)’! It was really a hit….

  2. Soyeon,

    Really? I’ve asked a bunch of times, and nobody ever seems to have seen it! I guess I was asking the wrong people! I’ll make a change above. Thanks!

    Oh, and wow — look at this! A “How they’re doing now” article in Korean. Though it looks like someone didn’t care how flattering the pictures he used were… Though it seems time has been extremely kind to Keshia Knight Pulliam and Malcolm Jamal Warner, in comparison to other of the kids in the fictional family, Lisa Bonet doesn’t really look that gaunt now, and there are much more flattering pictures of Sabrina La Beuf out there.

  3. Thanks. Actually we(I and Jin) got a direct hit, as we’re in 강서구, where it rained about 300mm. And the disaster was perfected with a delayed flight to Jeju, where my in-laws are living…

    But now I’m safely back in Seoul and the moon’s just beautiful! After all, I’m a pround SF fan, always ready for bits of adventures. ;-) So happy Chusok to you, too!

  4. Wow, 300 mm. That’s nuts. I keep thinking how lucky I am living in a highly elevated part of my neighborhood.

    Yeah, the sky is gorgeously clear. If it weren’t so wet out on the mountain, I’d have climbed a bit to see some stars.

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