Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Misuda, Isaac Durst, and the Cosbyfication of Foreigners in the Korean Media

We've talked about this a lot on the blogs, and Girlfriendoseyo and I have had some interesting conversations about it, too: bald-face fact - Korea's media portrayal of foreigners and foreign cultures emphatically reveals that when it comes to trying to portray and understand foreigners living in Korea, and foreigners in general, Korea just really, really doesn't get it, expects us to be things we aren't, imposes stereotypes on us that are far removed from how most of us really are, and so forth. I've seen black people once on a Korean TV show... now, granted I don't watch a lot of Korean television... but in fifteen seconds of screen time, they first frightened the protagonist, then walked by her as if she'd been worried for nothing, and then ran up behind her and stole her purse.

A lot more ink/pixels have been spilled on this topic than I've dug up here (go ahead and put the link to your blog on the topic in my comments), but for a sampler: the Misuda girls prattle on about their cellphones and Korean boyfriends, sometimes taking breaks to bad-mouth foreign men. Ms. Parker in Korea has written about Korean television programming that makes foreigners look like fools, and that French guy from Tamna is the prettiest, most harmless white person the cute oyster-diving girl with big eyes could ever meet, but not typical of white people. (photo source)

(then again, I suppose this...)
Tamna The Island
is better than this:)

Is there another way to look at it, where we're not just snorting with disdain? I think so. There might be a way of recognizing that Misuda is a good thing, even if we sometimes think it's ridiculous. Maybe we can even forgive Isaac Durst.

Here's my crack at it. I think it's helpful to compare Korea's uneasy movement towards a diverse society, and that same cultural quantum shift, as it occured in American race relations a generation or two ago.
(Parenthetical statement) Now that I've put my neck out: a disclosure/disclaimer:

1. I haven't studied race and media in America in detail; excuse me, or correct me, if I miss the nuances. I also know the Korean and American experiences of race relations and media don't line up exactly. We could rattle off the ways they're different, but that's about a 500 word rabbit trail that'll derail my argument. I'm not an idiot, and I know it's not a clean analogy, and there are a lot of factors - particularly power dynamics - that make this a different case.

2. I'm engaged to a Korean lady, and will probably live in Korea for much of my adult life, so I have a vested interest in looking as optimistically as possible at these issues. Because this is the bed I'm going to lie in, while I try to be honest, I also try to be hopeful and generous. Call me an apologist, a sellout or (substitute ruder word for same) if you like; you're welcome to go drink the haterade at Dave's instead.

3. Foreigners living in Korea, and our response/reaction to how we're portrayed in Korea's media, and the way it affects Koreans' perception of us, is only one small subset of a whole barrel of issues and influences and factors that comprise a rapidly changing Korea interacting with a rapidly changing, globalizing world. The issues are much bigger, and more complex, than just how Isaac Durst influences Korean students' (and parents' and hogwan owners') expectations of their Kindergarten teacher.
When I see foreigners portrayed in the Korean media, two things come to mind. Sammy Davis Jr., and The Cosby Show.

Soundtrack: Sammy Davis Jr.: Mr. Bojangles

Sammy Davis Jr. was criticized, even during his time, as a sellout. The act he played for Sinatra and the Rat Pack boys was kind of insulting - he was a token, and the smiling, eager-to-please butt of racist jokes. If an equivalent act went onstage today, there's be a rightful outrage, and Davis knew that was the role he played -- just listen to the words to the song Mr. Bojangles (which you should be listening to, right now)... but frankly, White America needed those pioneers: we COULDN'T have skipped Sammy Davis Jr. and gone straight to Marvin Gaye singing, "Let's Get it On" - it would have been too much to see Marvin Gaye expressing a bold, confident sexuality, if they hadn't gotten their feet wet first with Sammy Davis Jr's Bojangles song and dance. And maybe Sammy Davis Jr.'s persona didn't resemble the actual lives or characters of the African-American people of his time, and maybe they didn't feel that he represented them, but then, at least it wasn't a white guy painting his face black anymore. When we project current sensitivities into the past, we miss what Sammy Davis Jr. meant to his audience at the time, and get upset that he was taking the racist jokes on the chin, rather than, like the people of his time, appreciating that he was the first black performer ever to appear on many of those stages, sometimes in clubs and venues that wouldn't have allowed him to enter the building as an audience member.

(Western Media, let's not forget, isn't innocent of stereotyping)
sorry, Mr Miyagi

The Cosby Show was the same thing, in a different context. It was a little farther along than Sammy Davis, and it's been criticized lately for something that one scholar calls "Enlightened Racism" - basically that by portraying an upwardly mobile African-American family that never dealt with actual race-based issues that existed in America at the time, The Cosby Show presented a post-racial America that didn't actually exist, and allowed white viewers to feel that "If the Cosbys can be successful and respectable, that shows that any African-American family can do the same; if the black family down the street isn't as successful or respectable as the Huxtables, it must be their own fault" - this kind of attitude may have led to complacency in rooting out remaining vestiges or racism and discrimination in America. That was a long sentence.

But there we go projecting modern sensibilities on past times again: I've been accused of being way to optimistic for holding this opinion, but I think that America (and here I mean US and Canada, as we all watched The Cosby Show as loyally) DID still need the Cosby Show, despite, or maybe because of the way it basically took a sitcom about an affluent white American family, and cast it with black actors. No, it wasn't an accurate reflection of how most African American families lived, talked, thought, or acted, but it DID humanize the African-American family that lived down the street, it made them less "other" - heck, it invited them into our living rooms. As inaccurately as it may have portrayed the typical African-American experience, it also said "Not all black families are like the ones you see on the evening news". There was still a long ways to go (still is) but it was another step.

Now, we can watch a show like The Wire, that deal directly with the ugly, institutionalized racism and despair that still afflicts a lot of poor communities, but just like we wouldn't have accepted Marvin Gaye without first getting our feet wet with Sammy Davis Jr., we wouldn't have accepted The Wire without getting our feet wet on The Cosby Show.
Footnote: more about The Huxtable Effect on American culture:Before Obama, there was Bill Cosby
Obama IS Cosby - must-read interview with Sut Jhally, author of "Enlightened Racism"
So back to Isaac Durst, the silly-acting white guy from Korean "edutainment" shows like The Morning Special and EZ English:
(from James: Awesome remix of the Girls' Generation's new song Oh)

(image source: Pai Mei)

You know what? Right now, in the Korean media, we still have one foot planted firmly in Sammy Davis Jr. territory. (Dancing black monkey puts on a cartoonish show/Dancing white monkey puts on a cartoonish show) When Girls Generation dresses like cheerleaders and dyes their hair blonde, and tosses mangled English phrases into their songs, well that isn't as insulting as blackface, and the power dynamic's WAY different (I'm not an idiot, remember?) but it's just as superficial a reading of American culture.

Next thing about Isaac Durst and Misuda: frankly speaking (see what I did there?), Koreans don't look much better on Korean television. Living overseas, we sometimes make the mistake of comparing Korean popular media with the very best our home cultures produce -- after all, THAT'S what we consume while we're overseas. While I'm here, I spend my time looking for the very best our home countries can produce: I'm downloading, or watching online, episodes of The Sopranos, or old seasons of The Simpsons in its prime, or whatever well-written TV Series my friend in Canada liked enough to mention to me in an e-mail, not TYPICAL shows, like Real World, Steaming Pile of Reality, or Two And A Half Men. It's hardly a fair comparison: we've got to compare SNSD with Miley Ray Cyrus, not with freaking Radiohead, and we've got to compare Misuda with Maury, not with 60 Minutes or even Oprah, or we're missing the point.

Meanwhile, there ARE some signs that Korea's media is moving from Sammy Davis Jr. towards The Cosby Show: James Turnbull writes about Bandhobi, a movie about a Bangladeshi guy who befriends a Korean girl. Compared to the century-plus that passed between the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement, and finally The Cosby Show in America, Korea's way ahead of pace. As far as I know, early American television sure didn't feature a show like Misuda, that asked African-Americans what they thought about the day's topics. It's one of the things that makes Korea a fascinating place to live in, the way it goes so quickly through all the changes that took our home cultures centuries to navigate, and yeah, it's messy - Korean feminism is trying to negotiate second wave feminism and third wave feminism simultaneously, rather than one at a time, the way we did, which leads to a fascinating muddle of labor complaints and sexy dances and birthrate/maternity leave controversies and music videos laden with the question "have they or haven't they been re-claimed?" -- women are dressing like the girl-power symbols of America, without yet fully having claimed the power those women are expressing in their own cultures.

Lee Hyori: U-Go-Gull: is she a symbol of Korean feminism, or is her play at empowerment a sales-boost?

So can we be patient, for the time being, with how foreigners are portrayed on Korean television, and be glad that, while some of the portrayals are stereotyped and negative, some are stereotyped and positive, and every once in a while, we DO get a foreigner in the Korean media who ISN'T a caricature (see Bandobhi and the foreign bride in "Thirst" if you don't believe me) We're still waiting for the Korean equivalent to the Cosby Show - one where the foreign family acts out situations similar enough to Korean families that, while it might not resemble our actual lives, it helps Koreans see the mixed-race family down the street as essentially the same as them, which will make it possible, after that, for truer portrayal of foreigners' lives in Korea. And until that happens, we should be vocal when our image is politically-tinged, or aimed at scaremongering, but we should probably also be patient with the dancing monkeys, as long as everybody involved realizes that's what they are, and take the time to let our Hogwan bosses, and our students, and our students parents, know that Isaac Durst is a TV person, and TV people are different than real people.

Maybe one day we'll be able to celebrate a post-racial Korea, where it really doesn't matter what color you are. Maybe we won't, but most of the foreigners here would be happy if things changed enough here that, even if we don't have any special rights, we could buy our I-phones, take out bank loans, get the job we want, the fair price we deserve, and date whomever we like, without catching any grief above and beyond what Koreans give their own people about those things. Those of us who are marrying Koreans especially want those things for our kids. Whatever kind of media portrayal, or progression of inaccurate portrayals, it takes to reach that point will be worth it, if that's where we arrive. It'll probably take longer than we want it to... but I bet it'll also take shorter than it took for North America to pull its head out of its ass and start treating visible minorities as real people.


Chris in South Korea said...

It's been ages since I've watched any of the shows mentioned (come to think of it, can you GET the Cosby Show anywhere around here?)... I wonder if the question isn't the pace or the treatment, but how willing we are to accept our pace. To follow your analogy, Sammy Davis probably didn't want to be That Guy (the predecessor who would pave the way for future artists / musicians), but in retrospect might have internally accepted his role when he saw the progress. If we're in transition, I suppose we'd recognize it in hindsight, even if we don't necessarily want the role...

Even though we don't all look like Mr. Durst, we're still expected to act silly (somewhere between trained clowns and automated robots - especially with kids). That does strike me as playing the role a la SDJ. We'll get to the Cosby stage when I'm expected to actually teach kids, not simply entertain them.

Anonymous said...

Nice read...

I gotta say for what it's worth you couldn't pay me enough money to do what Durst and a handful of other foreigner's do on National TV here. I had a rather eccentric friend of mine brag(Or maybe he wasn't bragging..who knows...but anyway) that he got a full time TV gig. Later I tuned in to see his show and he was wearing a silly pirate outfit with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder...the title of the show was hip hop English and he was doing just that...singing bad hip hop in a childish English-lesson style. I was really embarrassed for him.

I'd rather chew off my own limb than do what some foreigners do here. All I can say is I hope they are getting paid lots of chunners for it coz I couldn't put a price on that kind of embarrassment.

Lizzie said...

Nice post! I came across it through links of links or whatever and have been having a week in Korea that has just been egging on thoughts towards Korea like your post. Hope you don't mind I linked you up to my own blog!

p.s. I used to really want to be on Misuda... It's a shame they get in such trouble for having their own opinions...

kissmykimchi said...

I don't understand why this Issac Durst guy gets grief. The whole format of his show is like a big Nikelodeon episode right?

It's like sesame street or mr rogers, or the muppet show. Using humor, even buffonish humor to teach shouldn't be automatically derided.

If the kids laugh and learn I see no problem. There are also enough depictions of white men in the media so that his image isn't the only one Koreans have immediate access to. Do they really believe all white guys act like this or that he is like this off of his show?

Brian said...

Something I'm more interested in, and this ties in with Durst and a lot of the foreign buffoons on TV---I see it even on Misuda---is the rendering of English ridiculous. Every time an English or "English" word comes out of somebody's mouth it's followed by a stream of giggles or "oooooooo"s.

Don't think this doesn't have an impact on how English is taught, learned, and viewed in Korea. It's something Koreans don't pay much attention to, it's something considered un-PC for people to even bring up (us being language imperialists and all), but is something that needs a good, hard look. And I'd prefer it if it were native English speakers doing the looking.

Anonymous said...

Sesame street? Right it's exactly like sesame street but here the puppets are a little more life-like.

Anonymous said...

It's not as if this is the only country portraying foreigners in a bad light. Take for example the stereotypes given to Canada from someone who should, in theory, know them the best, the USA.

I've seen, on a number of occasions, shots at Canadians from hockey to the value of the dollar. Sure you could say it's all in good fun, but look at the average American and ask them something about Canada, chances are they will spout off something they have seen on tv.

Anyone who has seen "Talking to Americans" can laugh at this fact.

"Wishing Canadians a happy Stockwell Day"
"Congratulating Canada for getting its first university.
"Congratulating Canada for getting a grade 9 and a volunteer fire station."
"congratulating Canada on reaching a population of 1,000,000, even though Canada has a population of over 30,000,000."

Perhaps we all don't know as much as we think we do.

Chris said...

The thing is jejidong, they didn't show the Americans who did know better. I wouldn't use that as a meter for Americans knowledge of Canada. My adopted mother's family is from the States and they would know better when it came/comes to questions like that. They "Michael Moored" the answers.

Shit, I'm Metis and a lot of Canadians don't even know what that means! To the Koreans who don't know, it means I'm a dirty half-breed-my blood isn't pure.

Now as far as the way foreigners are portrayed on Korean TV and movies, well what do you expect?
It wasn't that long ago that the Bubble Sisters threw on some black make up and did a silly dance was it?

What gets me is that we are the immoral, uncultured barbarians. Koreans are morally superior and more culturally enlightened than we lowly foreigners.

They are also kind, friendly, warm hearted and polite to the lowly immoral, uncultured foreinger, so why do they portray us in the media the way they do?

Shouldn't they of all people know better?

Unknown said...

I was watching some show last night about a foreigner married to a Korean last night, and the two main points I got from the show was number how different foriegners were from koreans and number two how well the foriegner fit in/obeyed his mother in law, eating the kimchi and all that. Which of course makes sense, since Korea is hierarchial and all that. Also, it was interesting to see the point on how isolated the english guy was from everyone, and how we talked how we couldnt make any friends who understood him. Of course, the locals dont get that, everything they do is basically from a point of serivtude and status quo, and western culture is a point of independence and self development/ndividuality. I was talking with a Japanese lady about Chinese/Korean/Japanese (which I would never do with a local) and we agreed it comes down to money, iwht Japan being the richest country. Money equals power, power equals freedom. Even now, alot of guys here are buying digital cameras, its a start. When you have money you have to know what to do with it. So, I think after a few more generations like this, its possible (but not certain in Korea's case) that people will start to develop more individually. But first, the old guys have to die. Sorry. Move it or lose it, right?

ok then

Dunk said...

My father-in-law, with whom I get along with very well, peppers his conversations when I am over with English words and phrases ("Thank you verrry much! Nice to meet you!" etc) delivered in a way that, and I wish I could describe it in any kinder way, shows he considers speaking English a truly ridiculous thing. (We converse in Korean). I've never liked it much, but as I love the old guy and respect him I let it go as he's earned the right as my wife's father and as a pretty decent guy to have an off-putting personality quirk or two.

But now we have kids, and live in Canada. They were visiting us and my wife and I noticed that my 5 yr old son was unhappy when Grandpa talked to him, which he did as to me with frequent English lampooning. Finally he cried to his mom that grandpa was making fun of him and insulting him. My wife chided her father for it and asked why he had to talk to me and his grandson as if English were ridiculous (she's noticed it). His bewildered reply? "But that's how foreigners are talked to on TV!"

Roboseyo said...

Dunk, that story now ranks as one of my favorite comments ever on my blog. Thanks for adding it.

Roboseyo said...

I think you missed The Jeffersons, and it broke more ground than Cosby did.

Roboseyo said...

Ooh. Good point. Unfortunately that one was before my time. Were the Jeffersons as urbane as the cosby family?