aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, TV

Sam Okyere’s Racism Anecdote in South Korea on “Talking Street”/말하는대로

Sam Okyere is a South Korean entertainment personality originally from Ghana. Okyere appeared on JTBC’s yeneung talkshow program Talking Street to discuss how he dealt with ignorance and discrimination while living as a black man in Korea. [Please view the YouTube videos on the site for context. On Facebook, a shorter version of the story was uploaded on a page called “All Things K” and generated over 19,000 reactions.]

Initially blending wry humor on ironically responding to ridiculous questions such as “Do you raise lions back home?” he eventually delves into a much more painful anecdote on the time he experienced outright racism on the 2 train. When he was trying to take a seat on the subway, a middle-aged woman forced her way in and sat down instead. She then spread her legs widely, swore at him, and told him not to sit. She then confronted Okyere’s friend and asked why him he is hanging out with a black man. She turned to Okyere and told him to return to his country. While addressing the wrongness of this situation, Okyere goes onto explain that what hurt him the most was the reaction of the other Seoulites on that subway car, and how no one said a word to intervene. All they did was sit back and observe. As Okyere’s story progresses, a melancholic symphony plays in the background.

Throughout this two-minute story, the camera cuts to members of the live audience who are sitting on the floor around Okyere who is seated in a chair, looking down at the crowd like a teacher does when reading to elementary school children. The cutaways focus on audience faces that are frowning with disapproval or pain at Okyere’s story. There are also cutaways to the show’s hosts You Hee-yeol and HaHa (Ha Dong-hoon) who add small remarks such as, “I’ll apologize on her behalf,” “Oh my…” “It’s embarrassing,” and “I feel really sorry.”

Anti-blackness, racism and ignorance are certainly prevalent problems in the ROK (and arguably throughout Asia). They need to be addressed and corrected. Part of what this program does is help address the issues in Okyere’s story as problems. Asking questions based on ignorance is rude. Okyere speaks on the stresses of day-to-day microaggression while living in the ROK. And, of course, being outright hateful to a black man is completely unacceptable and hurtful. This much is obvious to everyone who is sitting on the sidelines as the show’s hosts, as well as the audience.

What’s missing from this program, however, is any comment on whiteness in the ROK. Anti-blackness is a learned racial discrimination that stems from the US’ military occupancy of the ROK since the 1950s. Historically speaking (in US terms), Koreans have no need to hate blackness (no enslavement of African bodies, no emancipation, no civil rights movement), so where does it come from? This question needs to be asked but it doesn’t appear in this anecdote at all. Instead, it goes from point A (Okyere as the subject), point B (the middle-aged Korean woman as the other subject), to point C (racism is obviously bad, and so are bystanders who don’t do anything about it).

Whiteness often goes missing from discussions of racism in the ROK probably because South Koreans are not used to addressing that either. The silence Okyere felt is more complicated than racial hatred; it involves universal urban solipsism (how often in any of the viral racial discrimination videos do we ever see bystanders helping out victims of hatred?), a disconnect from Western hatred for black bodies, a muteness that erupts from the solipsism and disconnect, and a confrontation with confusion at a sight such as that: a Korean woman hating a black man. What makes a middle-aged woman hate a black man?

In the general horizon of the public sphere, South Koreans have mixed feelings when it comes to US military occupancy. The ROK government accommodates the US’ militaristic needs as a means to stave off the DPRK’s aggression. Then again, prostitution, violence and racism are all problems that occur in military camps and camptowns. We can’t discuss South Korea’s racism without discussing prostitution, the cold war, the Korean War and the US military occupation of South Korea.

Whiteness is the hegemonic cloth that cloaks over these matters and silences South Korean programmers from ever shifting blame onto the US. Okyere is certainly a victim of racism in South Korea, but he is also a victim of US military whiteness and its hatred for blackness. Understanding how racism works in the ROK requires addressing global hierarchy.

(A longer piece on this matter is in the works.)

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Art, cinema and media studies

“Answer Me 1988” (응답하라 1988, Reply 1988): A Transmedia Text & Manual to Navigate Another Era’s Fandom

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According to Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, “the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways” (6). Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the show Answer Me 1988 where several forms of media converge in one medium—television. The show includes cinema, video games, music, style (fashion, hair, makeup), internet chat rooms, comic books—even food package designs (iconic brands that are recognizable at a glance)—all of which are set in the 1980s. The main vehicle that Answer Me 1988 utilizes for its transmedia reception is the spectators’ nostalgia: “Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with each other” (3). Similar to The Matrix example explored by Jenkins, by blending various forms of old school pop culture items into one program, Answer Me 1988 becomes a transmedia text containing the 80s memory belonging to generation x but also one that works to clue in the later generations on the fandom of the past. As Jenkins defines in “Interactive Audiences?”: “Transmedia promotion presumes a more active spectator who can and will follow these media flows” (165). Answer Me 1988 assumes the kind of audience that is willing and able to follow its media flows regardless of the viewer’s age or background. This is evident in the show’s casting choices, music and the show’s ability to function as a manual to guide contemporary viewers through the nostalgia of a different era and culture.

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Answer Me 1988 (2015-2016), written by Lee Woo-jung and directed by Shin Won-ho, is an hour long, twenty-episode Korean dramedy series that aired on the cable network tvN, owned by media conglomerates CJ Media and Fox International Channels. The show’s finale had an AGB Nielson rating of 18.8%, and a TNmS rating of 18.4%–both of which are considerably high numbers for a cable channel.[1] It is notable that although tvN is a pay cable channel, it does not contain any violence, nudity, sex or profanity, which encourages a family viewing experience. What this further suggests is that although viewers under the age of 30 may not recognize the tunes, films, commercial jingles and other media texts played on the show, the parents or older viewers who are watching alongside them might. The show creators bank on this type of audience interaction where convergence spreads across generations by reaching for a wider demographic: “…franchises depend on hypersociability, that is, they encourage various forms of participation and social interactions between consumers” (Convergence Culture, 112). This reach for a broader audience is apparent in the show’s casting.

Lee Hye-ri who plays the lead role—Deok-seon—is a K-pop star from the girl group Girl’s Day. She’s a recognizable face whose singing career spans 5 years with a budding acting career since 2014. The very act of crossing over one’s recognition as a singer to an actor is a form of transmediation; fans who are plugged into the pop world can be led into the drama world via Lee Hye-ri’s career transition. Furthermore, the show adds another dimension to Lee Hye-ri’s initial doll-like pop star image with her character image of Deok-seon, which is that of a normal neighborhood teenager with plain black cropped hair who doesn’t perform well in school but has a kind heart and a goofy personality thus humanizing her appearance. The manner in which a star’s image changes in the spectator’s mind is also a form of transmediation as it moves from singer to actor, but also from unreachable to accessible.

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The creators of Answer Me 1988 as well as the other Answer Me series (arguably a franchise), e.g. Answer Me 1997 (2012), Answer Me 1994 (2013), distance themselves from assumptions that the subsequent shows are sequels or prequels. However, the franchise does play with the series timeline as defined by Jenkins in Textual Poachers dropping in cameo appearances of actors from the earlier series to suggest a link or connection to one another (163). For instance, Sung Shi-won played by girl group K-pop star Jung Eun-ji in Answer Me 1997 appears in Answer Me 1994 alongside Jung Woo who plays Kim Jae-joon in Answer Me 1994. Kim Jae-joon then makes a cameo appearance in Answer Me 1988. This method of expanding the series timeline to keep Answer Me fans invested in the reality of the story world is a method of attracting viewers through a transmedia engagement (163). The creators’ strategy relies on casting and recasting. However, the recasting strategy also complicates the viewing experience as the protagonist’s parents played by Lee Il-hwa and Sung Dong-il are always the same throughout the series by retaining their dialects, persona, and names. This forces viewers to accept each series as its own text via “cross overs” of the protagonists’ parent figures; the protagonist’s character and actor changes whereas the parents do not (170). What may be comforting to viewers about this is knowing that there’s a through line connecting all three shows, and in that regard, the previous series’ storyline never really ended with the finale episode, thus indulging fans emotionally.

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K-pop star images aside, Answer Me 1988 has an original soundtrack album available on iTunes as well as in the form of a music video DVD produced and distributed by CJ Media. The soundtrack includes throwbacks like “Youth,” originally sung by the band Sanulrim in 1981 but covered by Kim Feel—a contemporary artist signed with the record label CJ E&M (a record company owned by CJ Media of tvN network). This is another example of the show’s function as a transmedia text, drawing a “common ground” between the old and new generations through a single song (Convergence Culture, 97). The song works as both a “cultural activator” and a “cultural attractor” through its ability to appeal to a younger crowd that recognizes Kim Feel the artist but also to the older generation that recognizes the tune that brings them back to 1981—the year that Sanulrim released the hit song “Youth” (97). The show transmediates through time, fame and fandom via a single song. While attracting and activating cultural significances for multiple groups, it operates through the older generation’s nostalgia while also creating a nostalgic sensation for the younger generation with songs that have a dated feel but are sung by recognizable artists today.

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As Jenkins states, “Our lives, relationships, memories, fantasies, desires also flow across media channels” (Convergence Culture, 17). In Answer Me 1988, the show’s creators allow viewers to have a transmedia experience through a visual flashback across media channels experiencing everything from old music via cassette tapes that get visibly inserted into a cassette player, followed by a long montage of the characters’ faces simply listening as the song plays out in its entirety, to live concert shows on TV that the characters watch excitedly as a group. What makes Answer Me 1988 a unique transmedia text is its ability to work also as a fandom instruction manual in the form of a show. The indulgent scenes illustrated earlier inform younger spectators on the fandom culture that existed before their time. In this particular story world, fandom itself converges across generations.[2] The enthusiastic reception of the characters watching these shows informs a younger spectator of the fan culture back when those shows, tunes, and films were at their peak. Fandom gets instructed to younger viewers via this transmedia text, where witnesses (characters) respond with joy to the movie, song or TV show playing inside the show. The show creators consciously designed a story world where multiple generations could learn to appreciate the various forms of transmediated texts throughout. Jenkins states that our society is “increasingly fragmented and multicultural,” however this show’s ability to draw a diverse viewership through a period piece that exploits a recent past and its nostalgic elements is striking (Convergence Culture, 125).[3]

There is a considerable number of articles and research indicating Korean dramas’ global fan base reaching beyond South Korea. K-drama streaming sites such as Viki and DramaFever report higher percentages of non-Korean viewers than Korean viewers tuning in. In the case with transnational fandom for Answer Me 1988, how does a nation’s specific cultural nostalgia translate, especially when “not all participants are created equal,” meaning, when not all participants share the same memory and cultural experience (3)? What makes Answer Me 1988 a transmediated text is that it is accessible beyond just generation X Koreans. There are multiple entry points for viewers to interact with the text: familiar voices, faces, products, and the creators’ signature. Fans who’ve seen the previous Answer Me shows presumably have an appreciation for this one as well, and notice patterns throughout. The show successfully establishes a sense of “common experience” or ground where audiences across generations and cultures can find ways to engage with the text. As Jenkins illustrates, the internet has made fan experience global, and fans on the margins may now partake in that collective “knowledge space” or realm (“Interactive Audience?,”158). Beyond space, transmedia also breaks boundaries across time (generation gaps) as evidenced by Answer Me 1988.

Grace Jung
May 13, 2016

Bibliography

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. 2002. “Interactive Audiences?” The New Media Book, edited by Dan Harries. 157-170. London: BFI.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

 

[1]Reply 1988: Episode Ratings,” All About Korean Drama, http://www.koreandrama.org/reply-1988/, May 5, 2016.

[2] See also “Analogue Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Digital Remediation” by Dominik Schrey.

[3] The high reception of the Answer Me series that utilizes nostalgia (created or triggered) as its hallmark influenced MBC’s variety/reality show Infinite Challenge to take on similar tasks by reuniting old K-pop groups that disbanded in the 90s or early 2000s and putting on live concerts which then influenced the music charts around the time those shows aired; 90s hits became the most requested songs on radios or the most downloaded songs at those times. A K-drama’s approach influencing a variety/reality show’s unscripted production is also, arguably, a form of transmedia, where different genres of television share (borrow or steal) a similar concept that eventually impacts yet another industry’s variable—the music charts.

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