All charges of racism in K-pop are not equal. The reaction to the Girls’ Generation (SNSD) win at the YouTube Music Awards is pretty blatantly racist, while the reaction to the news of an American remake of Boys Over Flowers is not easily characterized as racism.
First, let’s get our terms straight. Just talking about race does not constitute racism. Ashley Doane writes that racial discourse is “the collective text and talk of society with respect to issues of race,” where individuals can “reinforce or transform ideologies” (257). In other words, racial talk does not equal racism. Racism emerges when individuals express or infer racial superiority or inferiority, or reinforce negative stereotypes.
Reactions to K-pop supergroup SNSD’s win at the YouTube Music Awards are racist because these statements imply inferiority based on ethnicity. Popdust reports that “the losing fandoms didn’t take too kindly to seeing their faves being beaten by an Asian act, and took to Twitter to vent their frustrations with a string of disgusting racist tweets.” Many Tweets express the kind of superiority inherent in racist statements. For example, @lloydvatoo tweeted: “why is girls generation in america if they cant speak a word of English lolllooololl” @TwerksOnJustin tweeted: “How did Justin lose over some Japenese (sic) chick no one knows.” In addition to nationalistic sentiments, these tweets also imply that SNSD should not have won because they do not speak English or are Asian. Other tweets posted on the Tumblr Sanctuary are also sexist because they reflect negativity based on gender. @NotAndrewDavis referred to Tiffany as “This lil Asian girl.” @babymermaids tweeted: “How did those irrelevant Asian girls win?” @slothmantha and @smilingkidrauhl both brought out the B-word to express their displeasure at the SNSD win. These comments suggest that individuals are not happy with the SNSD win because they are Asian and female, and they view both as negative.
However, they also reflect an ignorance of the place of SNSD globally. The group is well-known in East Asia, so comments about not knowing about them only reflects one’s lack of engagement with the rest of the world. Moreover, K-pop fans know about “the power of Nine.” SONES, fans of SNSD, are one of the largest and most well-organized K-pop fandoms. As Jeff Yang explains: “Nominees for the YTMAs were selected solely by algorithm, based on likes, shares, views and other metrics of ‘fan engagement,’ and, according to YouTube, winners were chosen based on how many fresh shares the nominated videos got in the month-long runup to the actual event.” SONES did what they, and other fandoms, always do: mobilize the base. Because K-pop fans are also quite savvy in using the Internet, it should surprise no one that they put those skills to work.
On the other hand, the charge of racism thrown at individuals who did not want to see an American remake of Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) is misplaced. In the face of a negative response, producers of the venture described their critics as, among other things, racist. According to a post on the producers’ Tumblr: “The amount of racist comments, venom, and negativity aimed at our cast, crew and production staff has been harmful and hurtful for no reason and most of it has no basis that was grounded in fact.” Without seeing the kinds of comments the producers received, it’s hard to determine their tone. However, the producers’ statement lumps all forms of critique together with racism and hateful comments. All critique is not racist.
Many fans objected to changing these fundamental elements of the story. All three television versions of the Japanese manga (Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean) take place within Asia, and the dynamics of the plot depend on Asian cultural values, including the dynamics within Asian families, the dynamics between classes in countries in Asia and the centrality of education and school in some Asian countries.
Moreover, the original Asian cast was changed. American fans of Asian popular culture have seen many Asian productions “whitewashed” and stripped of their original Asian context. Such changes replicate business-as-usual for American adaptations of Asian popular culture that erase the Asian context to cater to American sensibilities. In relation to the remake of the anime classic Akira, Angry Asian Man notes, “Warner Brothers still seems hell-bent on making this live-action Akira adaptation thing happen, despite the fact that every fan of the original manga and movie seems to think it’s an awful idea. . . . [Juame] Collet-Serra was going full-steam ahead with his whitewashed adaptation of the beloved Japanese classic, before production was stalled in early 2012. This version was going to star a mostly-white cast and transplanted the story’s post-apocalyptic Japanese setting to “New Manhattan.” Angry Asian Man says similar things about the trailer for the remake of Oldboy: “I’ve read interviews claiming that this draws more heavily from the manga source material than Park’s films, but based on this trailer, it looks like they’ve straight-up remade the movie minus the Asians.”
When fans critique the American remake of Boys Over Flowers, they do so with this tendency in mind and draw attention to the erroneous logic that Americans will only accept entertainment devoid of Asians and Asian culture. In the comments section of “21 Questions About the American Boys Over Flowers Remake Answered,” love4hope4evar wrote: “The K-drama is so beautiful that it makes people interested, then the asian CULTURE is what permanently hooks people into it.” To favor the Asian original context over a watered-down remake is not racist because it does not imply racial superiority or reinforce negative stereotypes. If anything, calls to retain the original context of the drama opens up opportunities for more cultural exchange.
Let’s reserve racism for incidents where it truly appropriate. Because if everything is racist, then nothing is racist.
Acton, Dan. “American Boys Over Flowers Adaptation Changes Title and Responds to ‘Racist Comments.’” DramaFever. 1 Oct 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Angry Asian Man. “Dammit. The Whitewashed Akira Remake Is Back On.” Angry Asian Man. 5 Aug 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
—–. “The New Oldboy Looks Like the Old Oldboy..With Fewer Asians.” Angry Asian Man. 10 July 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Doane, Ashley. “What Is Racism? Racial Discourse and Racial Politics.” Critical Sociology 32.2-3 (2006): 255-274.
Patterson, Jacques.”Girls’ Generation Wins Big At YouTube Music Awards, Racist Tweets From Losing Fandoms Follow.” PopDust. 3 Nov 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Yang, Jeff. “Why Girls’ Generation and K-pop Won Big at the YouTube Music Awards.” The Wall Street Journal. 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.