Thursday, April 7, 2011

Non-Asians in Korean Music Videos: A Response


So MrCKDexter, a.k.a Fangirl, co-authored this awesome post on non-Asians in k-pop music videos a few weeks ago (thanks for the mention!). I wanted to respond sooner, but I had so much to say, that it took forever for me to collect my thoughts in a coherent fashion, lol. I posted this as a long comment on their blog, but decided to post it here so others could join in the conversation. Before their post, I hadn't thought about the casting of non-Asians in general as much as I thought about the High High MV in particular, but I can offer a few (or many) thoughts. Read on after the jump...

My stance is kinda similar to Fangirl's: what stands out to me when non-Asians are cast in Asian pop videos, is that they've been cast as opposed to an actual Asian. That is, a Asian girl/guy is much easier to find than a non-Asian girl/guy, just due to the sheer number of Asians present in Asia as opposed to people of other races - so when non-Asians are cast, there has to be a particular reason for it, right?

A common reason stated by fans about the reason behind non-Asian appearances is the desire to appeal to a global audience. I think that appealing to a global audience could be a reason, but not in every case. For example, the music video for HOT's "Candy" is one of the earliest examples of a non-Asian in a k-pop video. It's also first example I've seen of a non-Asian woman being the main love interest in an Asian music video. I find it interesting because it back then, k-pop was just getting off the ground. I doubt they had aspirations of appealing to a global audience back then. Instead I think they simply wanted to bring Western-style music and visuals to Korean audiences. So they decided to make it as American as possible, which meant including a white girl as the love interest. I was more convinced of this when I saw the video for their first single "Warrior Descendants", which looks (and sounds) like it was made by a 90s LA hip hop group. HOT was really the beginning of k-pop - it hadn't yet developed into what we know it to be today, so I think I can safely say that then, it wasn't aimed at attracting American audiences, but rather, wanting to appear more global to a local audience.



You see this attitude in most Korean entertainment today: it's constantly updating itself, trying to be more current than whatever came out last week. As more non-Asians arrive in Korea, more of them are appearing in popular culture because they're becoming a part of the society there. And also, as Korean entertainment expands abroad, there are more opportunities to cast non-Asians in videos. If I was to attempt to give a catch-all answer as to "why" you see this phenomenon, I'd probably just say that there are enough non-Asians in Korea (or enough non-Asians that can be accessed by the Korean entertainment industry, as some of these videos were shot abroad) that directors are beginning to use them in their videos.

Another problem with some explanations that support the "global appeal" theory is that they read as if non-Asians will only watch Asian music videos if there's a white person in it. Not only does that totally ignore the existence of people of other races who are interested in k-pop and spend money on it (example: the huge k-pop fandom in South America), but it ignores the fact that the global k-pop audience already watches plenty of videos with no non-Asians in it whatsoever. And, as we've seen from the numerous attempts to break into the US market by Korean artists, there's a lot more that needs to be done to get people to watch your video than putting someone of another race in it. It can't be as simple as that, surely, or else they'd have no trouble succeeding in the US.

Now, as a standalone concept, I don't think there's anything wrong with non-Asians appearing in k-pop videos. However, such appearances always hint at existing social issues regarding race and gender in Korea. If the world was all kumbaya and colorblind, I wouldn't bat an eyelid at them. But it's not, and so I question the motives behind that creative choice because i'm interested in finding out what they hoped to achieve by putting a non-Asian into the video, and what they may be saying, inadvertently, about the Korean social dynamic by putting a non-Asian person in a particular role.

Each appearance of non-Asians in a k-pop video that I've seen has had different dynamics at play. The most common example I've seen is a white female as either an antagonist/negative influence (U-Kiss, "Shut Up"; Winterplay," Touche Mon Amour"; Big Bang, "Beautiful Hangover", and kind of in this Cass Beer CF MV with Lee Minho and Jessica Gomes) or a party prop/sex object/just someone to flirt with (High High). I've already discussed the conceptions of white women in Korea that might play into this, but just to reiterate: white women are often seen as "bad girls" - promiscuous and easy. Therefore, Koreans don't regard them as good long-time partners, and rather as women to just mess around with, or who will mess around with you. At least, that's what the scenarios in these music videos imply.

Warning: Dating foreign women comes with risk of strangulation (from Winterplay's video, link above)
I've also seen a similar dynamic between Korean women and Caucasian men in k-pop videos. Another example of non-Asians in a music video that I've seen from the early days of k-pop is S.E.S's "U". The video centers around the girls of S.E.S getting back at rude American men who have disrespected them in some way by humiliating them pretty badly. I seriously doubt this video was intended to draw in a foreign audience. Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling wrote a great post that breaks down the video, and touches on social issues that may have been at play in the creation of the video, including anti-American sentiment and the state of working women in Korea. Definitely worth a read. He mentions a couple other videos which also include white men, but they're hardly portrayed in a positive light. There does seem to be an underlying sentiment in Korea that discourages romantic pairings of Korean women and Western men, so that may have something to do with the frequency of this particular image - for more information, definitely check out The Grand Narrative's posts on interracial relationships in Korea - this post is a good place to start.

Finally, coming to the most recent example of non-Asians in a Korean music video - CNBlue's video for "Intuition". First of all, it's weird that the entire security force for the building they "break into" was non-Asian - somehow I find it hard to believe that a white man in Korea would be working anything other than a white collar job. Also, how come the black man is the only one they seem to do any physical harm to? In the MV teaser below, at about 0:26 they spray him in the eyes with their spray paint. In the video, it's re-edited to have them simply overcome him to get to the elevator. Still, he's the only person they actually put hands on. Why does he have to be the one downed by kids? Why is the black man in this particular role? (And then, notably, never seen again, while the other non-black, non-Asian men have an epic run up the stairs scene) It does seem like it's just to make them seem badass, so he's technically just a prop. But he may also stereotyped - i.e. all black men are big and strong (and, according to Western media, more violent than men of other races), therefore downing one with an aerosol is a big deal. It's also possible that they cast him and the other non-Asians because it would be disrespectful to disregard the authority of, and cause harm to an elder Korean man (respect for elders is a HUGE deal in Korea) so they cast "foreigners" so that they wouldn't offend any viewers or sully the image of their idols. We'll never know for sure unless the director of the video gets asked, but - intentionally or not - these are the issues that the video touches upon.



To touch on the BoA video mentioned in Fanboy vs, Fangirl's post, it seems like the white dude there is just a novelty - whatever romantic connection they attempted to establish between BoA and the white dude is completely vague since all he's doing is watching her through his creepy CCTV eyeball. Also, he's watching other people for the same amount of time, so it's not like she's particularly special or anything (to him) - she's the star of our video, but not his main interest.

So, you don't see a lot of explicitly positive portrayals of non-Asians in music videos. If they're not just there as eye candy/ props, they tend to be portrayed in a negative light. Counter-examples do exist though: the aforementioned HOT video, and also Narsha's "Mamma Mia" video. Knowing that Korean woman/Caucasian man relations aren't exactly encouraged in Korea, I was shocked when the video came out and she was tonguing a white guy in close up HD glory. I was like, whoa girl! Even though it seemed like it was just there for shock factor, I couldn't help but wonder about what else might be going on - is she objectifying the white dude? Is the white dude objectifying her? Are we, the viewers, objectifying them all as we get close ups of Narsha's butt and the guys' abs? *brain fart* Then we get into the whole "What do Koreans think about white dudes (and also, specifically white dudes dating Korean women) and do we see evidence of that attitude reflected in this video? Why was he cast in the first place? Would Korean men react badly to seeing a Korean woman having multiple Korean lovers and not being ashamed of it?" *sigh. It's analyzing these kinds of things that make me wish that people just got along and we didn't have to deal with complicated issues of race and gender: it can ruin your enjoyment of a lot of entertainment if you're constantly thinking about it.



This is just music videos, but there are also many examples of non-Asians popping up in Korean dramas and movies as well. Again, you have to wonder - what audience is this intended for? Why specifically choose a non-Asian for this role? Would it be different if it was an Asian person instead? We just have to keep asking I guess - until the world has homogenized enough that we don't notice these kinds of things anymore.

Thoughts on this issue? Sound off in the comments!

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for the response, mellowyel, you made my day! And thank you especially for the S.E.S. MV. I'd never heard of it before and watching it was fascinating.

    It's interesting to note that the "revenge" theme for girl groups' music videos is still thriving - think of Wonder Girls' "Irony", 2NE1's "Go Away" and most recently 4minute's "Heart to Heart". (And is it just me or is "revenge" a huge theme in Korean storytelling? A post for another time...)

    "[Early K-pop] wasn't aimed at attracting American audiences, but rather, wanting to appear more global to a local audience."

    Good point. I think most of K-pop is still operating on this basis. But since K-pop is attracting global attention now, I wonder if K-pop won't be forced to be more culturally sensitive. A commenter on the Fanboy vs. Fangirl post (http://fanboyfangirl.blogspot.com/2011/03/fanboy-fangirl-discuss-non-asians-in_14.html) stated that as a black person, CN Blue's MV really turned her off. If K-pop really wants to extend it's global reach, it's imperative that the Korea MV directors, song writers, producers, what-have-you, take things like this into consideration.

    Thank you again for the response. FANGIRL over and out!

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  2. You are quite right, at first it did seem like K-Pop musicians included different races in their videos to appeal to a wider audience, but these days I ask myself the same question:

    "This is just music videos, but there are also many examples of non-Asians popping up in Korean dramas and movies as well. Again, you have to wonder - what audience is this intended for? Why specifically choose a non-Asian for this role? Would it be different if it was an Asian person instead? We just have to keep asking I guess - until the world has homogenized enough that we don't notice these kinds of things anymore."

    Well said!

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  3. this was really interesting to read. thx ;)

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  4. I think it's important to ask yourself these questions :) I'll try to think about it more.
    I've just watched Narsha's mamma mia video and all I can say, without reflecting, is that she just looks like bragging and acting all cool and not conservative, thanks to the white dudes. Actually, many Korean female singers are into this "look, I'm so cool, I'm so pretty, I'm so in control" in their music videos.

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  5. I'm also interested in how you guys perceive non Asian (let's just say white...since there's no latinos or blacks) in Korean dramas! And how different their roles are from their roles in music videos. I think that there's a difference...white people are usually given good and neutral (secondary) roles.

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    1. I would, but I don't think I've watched enough dramas to really speak on that... also, you occasionally find black people in cameo roles (e.g. the random Nigerian in the boarding house that Daniel Henney stayed in on My Lovely Sam Soon) lol. the minorities are there, just have to keep an eye out for them

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    2. It's alright :) I watched My Lovely Sam Soon and I don't remember that...lol I'll watch it again!
      As for white people in kdramas, I've even seen a white dude meeting the parents of his girlfriend in order to announce their marriage! BUT...the Korean dad said no and forced her daughter to go back to Korea and eventually marry a Korean guy. They lived in Australia though, not in Korea, so she was westernized.

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  6. There're a lot of non-Asian people in S. Korea ? Is that why they need to put some non-asian people in MVs, dramas, adverts ? I don't think so, they just think they'll have a wider audience...
    There're also a lot of Asian people in Western countries, but we never see them in "cool" mvs. Asians look all nerdy there.

    A minority stays a minority.

    Korean from France.

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    1. I agree with your first point - what I meant in the post was that they do it because they want a wider audience (and for other possible reasons) but the frequency of it in recent times has been because there are more foreigners in Korea now than there were before - the videos are (sometimes) reflective of the actual make-up of Korean society at the moment. If there were only a handful of foreigners in Korea, they probably wouldn't be appearing in music videos shot in Korea. That's my theory, anyway.

      Also, I think the situation [i.e. the state of race relations] is different enough in Western countries that you can't really compare it to Asia. Koreans perceive Caucasians differently from the way white Americans perceive Asians, and that's because the histories between the two races in each country are pretty distinct. If by "a minority stays a minority" you mean that Asians will always be perceived as inferior to Caucasians, or something along those lines, I think you'll find that in Korea the situation is quite different - or at the very least, it isn't as simple as that. That's the impression I get from reading accounts of foreigner's experiences in Korea.

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    2. I see. And no, what I meant is that non-Asian people are a minority in S. Korea. Therefore they don't need to be represented. People are easily brainwashed by those things. S. Koreans admire white people too much. With this kind of stuff, they'll go crazier...

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    3. Point taken. My comment still stands though - I didn't mean that non-Asians are in Asian music videos because the producers want to represent accurately the make-up of Korean society (note my "sometimes" caveat, and I haven't forgotten about High High). It's more so that they think something like this:

      1995 - "It would be cool if we had a white person in our video." "Yeah, but where are we going to find a white person?" "Good point. I guess we'll forget about it then.
      2010 - "It would be cool if we had a white person in our video." "Yeah, but where are we going to find a white person?" "Oh look! A white person! Let's put them in the video!"

      In sum, more supply for the demand.

      And again, I disagree that it's just pure and simple white worship. They like the visuals, but don't like the idea of actually having foreigners around in everyday life. You can check out my post on the "High High" video for for my breakdown of the situation as it pertains to white women specifically if you're interested.

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    4. oops, forgot to give you the link: http://mixtapesandlinernotes.blogspot.com/2010/12/who-are-all-these-white-chicks-gd-high.html

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    5. Well, why would it be cool to have a white person in a mv ? I'm not saying that what you've written is untrue, but I don't like the fact that S. Koreans need to put some non-Asian people in their mvs.

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    6. ah okay! I see what you're getting at now. sorry for bothering you with all my comments! That is, of course, the primary issue here - I guess I just don't talk about it because it inevitably leads to me raging about the injustices in the world and why the West didn't just leave the rest of the world alone. I'm in a good mood this week, lol. Thanks for the conversation!

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  8. ....Ask yourself how many asians are in the American media market...now how many of them are top singers (the only one the mass American audience is aware of is Utada Hikaru).
    Now let's see for movies....um....Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Jet li, Bruce Lee...not a whole lot if I still have fingers left to count on. Let's go on to shows....I can not name any off the top of my head....
    So that clarifies why Koreans can't break into the American market... We have a negative view of them. Period. And there's another Big Bang music vid where there's just white girls there to be there....can't remember the song, but I'm sure you'll know what I mean when I say most of the time Big Bang was just walking down the street and the girls occasionally popping in and out. Two white chicks, an Asian chick ,and I can't tell what you are chick (maybe part asian, part caucasian). That didn't objectify white women as much as it just objectified women in general.
    Let's point out that in 2ne1's music video with the whole race track sequence of the cars...you know...racing...it was an Asian guy being the total abusive arse with not a single white person in sight. I think Asians are broadening their horizons. Asians especially in Korea see Asians all day.
    When a white man sees an asian woman, she looks exotic and they are seen as voraciously slutty in any available media in America. I think the same could be said for the opposite. White women must look rather interesting to these Asian Blokes just going 'wow, you look different'. It's biased...but I'm sure they thought of wanting to sleep with one just like white man has fantasies of asian women being the sluts.
    So who's guilty? America? Korea? Please. Like it matters.
    Let's not forget the noonablog mentioned 'a bunch of models' who let's remember are paid to look sexy no matter the circumstance. Yeah I'm pretty sure the attention on the white girls was more of something to pull viewers in. You can see the asian girls in other music videos. You aren't going to see nearly so many in another Asian mv especially in Korea or Japan.
    And if you bothered to read the article you linked to, you would remember this comment: "the Korean models that were supposed to be dressed in bunny suits, dancing with G-dragon refused to put on the outfits because they were too sexy, so Mac asked me if I could do it instead"
    So the korean women refused to wear something too sexy. Sounds like the producer focused on the white women not to portray them in a bad light, but because they were more willing to be more sexy. Oh wow. We're brave causasian women and it seems the producer was proud of her. I have to say you exaggerate the proportion of bad white women when I'm sure it happened mostly because the white woman was more willing to be in the sexy role.
    It is probably how it all started. Korean woman: "No."
    Man: "Damn it. Hey you! Will you do it?"
    "Sure."
    Then man sees his own hidden fantasy and puts a little too much focus on it. It happens (I've had a male friend who told me of his lack of sex for several years and being so horny that when he went to one of our life drawing classes of nude people he drew the woman's pose as it was, but there was much attention to detail in the vagina without realizing it).
    I'm sure the editor was so used to asian women and found the white women to show more fun, variety...and newness. Sometimes you should start thinking that these people are just people and are not always out looking for some way to objectify every person in the damn mv.

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    1. ... okay, so you make a lot of points in your comment, and I'm not sure if they're all relevant to the conversation here. I'm assuming your comment was supposed to be posted under my post about the GD&TOP MV? I was just observing a trend, postulating why it exists, examining what image of white women that video and other similar ones portray, and my personal response to it. As I read your comment over again, I don't see where exactly we disagree. I will say though, that objectification does go both ways across the racial divide, but that doesn't make it okay.

      I did read that comment on the noonablog, and I think it's a great example of the cultural differences between Koreans and Europeans/Americans, and possibly the root of the Korean stereotype that white women are promiscuous because they have less issues with wearing skimpy, sexy outfits - both issues that I talk about in the post. While I didn't discuss that comment directly, I don't think it undermines any of my observations there.

      I agree that this trend can stem subconsciously from a director/artists' own sexual proclivities or cultural experience. But I also think it's important that we discuss the subconscious consciously, because it can reflect implicit biases that we may not know exist, but that can nonetheless shape our behavior. Your friend's experience in his art class seems separate from that, and doesn't involve race, so I'm not going to say "oh yeah, he was totally objectifying that woman". A life drawing subject is pretty much a woman consenting to be an object to be looked at and drawn. Different context, different story. Models in MVs consent to it as well, but that doesn't mean that the image of women of a particular race presented in the MV can't be problematic.

      Yes the 2NE1 video portrays an Asian male in a bad light, but that's pretty common. It's uncommon to see white people in MVs, and when we do, they follow a certain trend. That's the thing, see: once you add race into the mix it becomes much more complicated, and sometimes problematic. If it was a white male, for instance, you could say that the "Go Away" video is a representation of the submissive Asian woman who is often susceptible to domestic abuse, which would rub people the wrong way for two reasons. Firstly, domestic abuse is a real problem among Asian-American communities; secondly, considering Asian-Americans still face discrimination in America, and sexism is still alive and well, it would be doubly subordinating to see a white man beating up on an Asian girl. That would be extremely problematic and I, as well as many others, would take issue with that.

      And I think the Big Bang MV you're referring to is "Bad Girl"? I wrote these posts last year, so obviously there are new videos to talk about now. I don't know that I'd say the same thing about that video as I did about High High, because now we know Big Bang is trying to reach a wider audience, and the video was shot in NYC, so the inclusion of non-Asian women in the video makes more sense. "Knock Out" on the other hand, is a different matter. But someone else has talked about that video, so I'll save my words. Read her take here: http://imnopicasso.blogspot.com/2011/01/gd-top-sudden-foreign-woman-obsession.html

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