K-dramas take one step forward, two backwards in depiction of other cultures

A scene from tvN drama ″Shooting Stars″ (2022) [TVN]

TvN’s rom-com series “Sh**ting Stars” which aired its finale on Saturday, has been under fire for scenes that contain racist portrayals of foreign cultures from episode one.

The series is about a PR person named Oh Han-byul played by actor Lee Sung-kyung, who develops a love-hate relationship with her talent agency’s star celebrity Gong Tae-sung, played by actor Kim Young-dae.

Three minutes into the series, the viewers come to realize that the male lead Tae-sung has gone to “Africa” ​​as a volunteer. The specific country in Africa that he travels to is not mentioned. The screen flips to an image of a smoldering red sun rising, giraffes galloping, meerkats turning their heads, and a lion chasing after a dazzle of zebras all the while playing the theme song of “The Lion King.”

The shot turns to Tae-sung who is surrounded by villagers who watch as a rig is drilled into the ground until water gushes out and everyone cheers.

“Now you get to drink clean water!” shouts Tae-sung with both arms raised up in victory.

Many viewers, especially foreigners watching the drama, were baffled by the blatant misrepresentation of Africa on the show, tweeting comments like “Africa is not a country!” and “This cartoonal of Africa seemed like ‘The White Man’s Burden’ Korean version.”

A scene from tvN drama ″Sh**ting Stars″ (2022)

A scene from tvN drama ″Sh**ting Stars″ (2022)

Needless to say, Africa can’t simply be summed up as a developing continent in need of those with a lighter skin color to sweep in and save them.

There are 54 countries in Africa. Libya was included in the world’s top five fastest-growing in 2021, based on the IMF’s April 2021 projections. The number of middle-class Africans has tripled over the last 30 years to 313 million people, according to a report from the African Development Bank in 2021. This means that every one of three people are considered middle class.

This drama has nothing to do with Africa and the fact that Tae-sung went there to volunteer is a not an essential part of the plot, which is based on the office romance between a celebrity and his publicist. What the scene is aimed at doing is portraying Tae-sung as someone who is kind, smart, heroic and worthy of worship.

The scene is especially disappointing as the network had temporarily offered its services in South Africa last year, through tvN Africa.

When asked to comment on the controversy, Studio Dragon, the production company behind “Sh**ting Stars,” refused to comment.

The explanations behind such scenes are rarely ill-intended, but the lack of knowledge or effort to accurately depict them is certainly no excuse.

A scene of SBS ″Penthouse 3″ (2021) [SBS]

A scene of SBS ″Penthouse 3″ (2021) [SBS]

Last year, actor Park Eun-seok issued a subpar statement of apology on his TikTok account after dressing up in an outrageous costume to portray an African American on SBS’s “Penthouse 3” (2021), writing that “none of the appearances by the character were intended to cause harm, mock, disrespect or discourage the African American community” and continued that it was “more of an admiration of the culture than mockery.”

Park had appeared on an episode of the series with dreadlocks, tattoos painted over his face and body, grills on his teeth and wrapped in thick gold chains and rings, all the while speaking in what appears to be “blaccent,” which can be defined as speaking in a way that mimics or mocks African American vernacular by a person who is not African American.

A scene of JTBC's ″Ms.  Hammurabi″ (2018) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A scene of JTBC’s ″Ms. Hammurabi″ (2018) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“Penthouse 3” and “Sh**ting Stars” are just two of many Korean dramas that include racist depictions of foreign cultures.

To name a few more instances, JTBC’s legal drama “Ms. Hammurabi” (2018) used the burka as a point of humor; “Man Who Die to Live” (2017) featured women wearing hijab with bikinis; and KBS’s “Descendants of the Sun” (2016) called a dark-skinned child “Blackey.”

A scene from KBS's ″Descendants of the Sun″ (2016) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A scene from KBS’s ″Descendants of the Sun″ (2016) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“Amid the globalizing environment, drama production companies need to better depict other cultures without prejudices and stereotypes,” said culture criticizing Jeong Deok-hyun. “A lot of the time, it isn’t intentional, but stems from ignorance.”

He also pointed to the fact that production companies don’t often like to publicly recognize these issues when they do happen. “If the controversy occurs in Korea, the production companies usually deal with it by giving out public statements, but that isn’t the case for issues that occur abroad.”

A scene from SBS's ″Backstreet Rookie″ (2020) [SBS]

A scene from SBS’s ″Backstreet Rookie″ (2020) [SBS]

SBS’s “Backstreet Rookie” which aired in 2020 was another drama that drew backlash from international viewers for racist scenes when a character appeared in dreadlocks and painted his skin to make it look darker. The drama drew controversy locally as well, but because of sexually and verbally inappropriate scenes.

The Korea Communications Standards Commission issued a warning for the drama for broadcasting provocative and inappropriate scenes as a response to scenes involving offensive slang, a minor kissing an adult man and a character groaning while drawing an adult webtoon. It was not given warnings for the scenes involving racist depictions.

Of the dramas that were mentioned in this article, only MBC’s “Man Who Dies to Live” issued a public statement of apology for its inappropriate depictions of the Islamic culture.

Some Korean content in recent times has been more inclusive and sensitive.

JTBC drama “Itaewon Class” which aired in early 2020, tactfully incorporated issues of discrimination into its storyline by pointing out the realities of racism in Korean society.

TvN’s “Our Blues” which wrapped up on June 12, has also been praised for its respectful portrayals of minorities, especially the disabled, and actually hired actors with down syndrome and people with hearing impairments.

A scene from tvN's

A scene from tvN’s “Itaewon Class” (2020) [SCREEN SHOT]

However, the recent scenes in “Sh**ting Stars” seem like a step backward.

“We have to be able to put ourselves into other cultures’ shoes. Just like Korea wants its culture properly portrayed in other countries’ media, we should be portraying them accurately as well,” Jeong said.

BY LEE JIAN [[email protected]]