Special Episodes, What's Up in Dramaland?

65. Representation in Dramaland: Race and Identity

This is Part 1 of a special edition of What’s Up in Dramaland where we discuss why representation matters, and cover depictions of race and identity specifically. We called for your input, you responded spectacularly! (See the bottom of this post for a link to everyone’s comments.) We’re really excited to bring you this two-part series, which continues in our tradition of doing special episodes on topical issues, but also provided us with an opportunity to dive deep into things that are always on our mind, but which we don’t necessarily have the time to cover in-depth in our usual format. (Update: Find Part 2 here!) This topic is unfortunately ongoing, but fortunately always evolving, so of course there’s still much more that can be said, even though we talked ourselves hoarse! But we hope it provides a good starting point for more conversations, with our listeners and in the fandom.

In our extended show notes below, you can find links to the articles we reference in the episode, quotes we didn’t have time to read out, and additional points from us that we forgot to mention during the recording. (We definitely all thought of super smart things we neglected to mention at 2 the next morning.) Let us know what you think, what we missed, and what you wish we’d talked more about!


Part 1: Race representation

00:01:32 Introduction
00:05:45 Why does representation matter?
00:28:05 History of blackface in Korea, and the history of American imperialism
00:39:32 Marcia’s voice note: Man to Man, Father I’ll Take Care of You, Backstreet Rookie, and how we deal with bad rep as members of marginalised groups
01:03:55 Indian representation: Strong Woman Do Bong-soon’s fake yogi; Park Hae-jin in Kkondae Intern; Axone as good rep of Indians from NE states
01:17:53 How white people are represented in K-drama and English as a marker of social status (Dramas: Search WWW; CLOY; A moment At Eighteen)
01:24:33 Itaewon Class and Chris Lyon

Part 2: LGBTQ+ representation

01:30:34 Itaewon Class and trans rep
01:35:12 Graceful Family, Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, and trans villainy
01:40:11 Personal Taste, “gayface”
01:43:23 Accessing private spaces and gender-bending dramas
01:46:12 Coffee Prince and “gay for you”
01:51:29 Secret Boutique
01:54:28 My Unfamiliar Family
01:57:28 Reply 1997
01:59:08 Her Private Life and obligatory tragedy
02:03:34 Where Your Eyes Linger
02:04:42 Her Private Life, again HELLO RYAN GOLD
02:06:29 Conclusion

Extended Show Notes

Past episodes we mention in the episode in which we covered:

Race in K-drama

  • Before we begin: South Korea’s current domestic demographic shift, and the concurrent (and in some ways related) international shift in focus for its entertainment media. Demographic stats.
  • There is currently no anti-discrimination law in SK.

Blackface and anti-Black racism

  • An article on the history of blackface, and an overview by the Code Switch podcast, which also includes Mickey Mouse’s roots in blackface
  • The history of blackface in Korea, written by an expat after a blackface scandal in 2012 (there have been a bunch since)
  • Hari Kondabolu’s documentary on The Simpsons’ decades of brownface, The Problem with Apu
  • Korean anti-blackness in the context of American imperialism, from Nadia Y. Kim’s “The United States Arrives: Racialization and Racism in Post-1945 South Korea,” in Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Interactions, Nationalism, Gender and Lineage, edited by Rotem Kowner, and Walter Demel. This is an academic text not easily accessible online, so I pulled some quotes/summarized some of her points:
    • “In the context of US military power… The American Forces Korea Network… has transmitted the channel’s American movies, soap operas, professional sports and prime-time programs throughout Seoul and other regional bases since the very beginning… many South Koreans have remarked that those who wish to learn English or who simply adore American culture tend to be regular watchers of AFN Korea”. (Bong Joon-ho credits it for his love affair with Hollywood starting in childhood; South Korea has historically been the largest market for Hollywood outside North America.)
    • Kim argues that Korea’s historical domination by China, Japan and eventually the US means that there is an internalized acceptance of a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, Asians in the middle and Black people at the bottom; the arrival of white and Black occupying soldiers further hardened the sense of Korean ethno-nationalism that had its roots in being racialized by the Japanese.
    • “As a later blooming ‘Asian Tiger,’ South Korea [like Japan] Blackened the foreign workers who would join them from ‘lesser Asia.’ The Koreans considered these oft-darker skinned workers’ desperation for Seoul’s ‘three-D’ jobs (dirty, dangerous, difficult) as an expression of their inferior national blood and of their own ‘Whiter, middle-class’ standing. Despite their great pride in this economic arrival, the peninsular populace had also fundamentally engaged the downside of their color—class—ethno-national order: their position not on top but in the (invisible) middle of the racialized and gendered global economic order”.
    • Although its meaning/usage has changed since, double eyelid surgery was developed by an American army surgeon as a way for Asians to overcome the anti-Asian stereotypes that would hinder their success in the imperial power structures at home and abroad.
    • Tension between the proliferation & absorption of American propaganda (in mass media and cultural products like the blackface/minstrel dolls, produced for an American market, exported to Korea from Japan from 1965-90s), and Korean resistance of American imperialism means that South Koreans have complicated feelings about whiteness, as well as blackness, but, ultimately, “The saturation of American mass media representations have likely stitched the Black slave, gang banger, drug addict, and one-dimensional entertainer into the South Korean collective consciousness more than any other source.”
  • English as a marker of wealth and privilege, as mentioned by our friend Refresh Daemon in our Spoiled Yak on Parasite
  • Christian Burgos’ Asian Boss interview: Meet the Most Famous Mexican in Korea
  • What is Intersectionality? in the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term
  • Dramas mentioned: Man to Man, Reply 1988, Father I’ll Take Care of You, Crash Landing on You, Backstreet Rookie, Kkondae Intern, Misaeng, Axone, A Moment at Eighteen, Vagabond, My Strange Hero, Search: WWW, Itaewon Class

Representation of LGBTQ characters

  • Dramas mentioned: Itaewon Class, Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, Graceful Family, Personal Taste, You’re Beautiful, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Coffee Prince, Secret Boutique, My Unfamiliar Family, Reply 1997, Her Private Life, Where Your Eyes Linger

Additional Notes


  • Re: Dal-shik’s get-up in Backstreet Rookie being a homage to Bob Marley, and the reggae reference: contrast to how the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) played exactly the same reference (except with white stoner boys) but in a self-aware, actually critical way, with an actual Black man calling it out—while not playing a policing role. Note difference between making critique and policing.


  • I mentioned a Code Switch episode that describes how racism over a lifetime causes PTSD, which I couldn’t find, but this article makes a similar point.
  • Something I wanted to add to our conversation about blackface: when it comes to the acceptability of blackface in Korea until the Seoul Olympics, there may be an element of the general social acceptance of commenting on and/or making fun of people’s physical appearance in Asian cultures that we discuss more in depth in Part 2. I wonder if this might have contributed to Korean people’s perception in 1988 of this as a “cultural difference” around what kind of entertainment is okay, and not something rooted in moral judgment. (Which of course, doesn’t excuse blackface in 2020, and is not a reasonable argument to make in an age where MANY of these scandals have happened, with alarming regularity, with the same severe backlash every time.)


  • I said that The Elephant Princess, about a white girl with an Indian slave boy who is possibly in love with her, was a Disney show. It’s actually Australian, and first aired in 2008 (!). You can watch the cringey first episode, which literally starts with the beating of a gong, here.

Thank you so much to JustMe, Lee Tennant, Carrie, Natasha J.F., Virginia Taylor, Katy, Maria Dong, Yu Jinyoung, BlackGirlSeoul, Fahmina, Kenyonkatrina, Anonymous, Rue, Marcia Howard, Supriya Nair, Liliana, Yousra Tahery, Humbledaisy, egads, wapz, and Lord Cobol for sending us your emails, comments, tweets, DMs, and voice memos! We treasure every one. You can see them all here.


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