Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pop Stars as Ambassadors/ "Netizen" Powers

Koreans are very, very concerned about their image in the international community. One of the top five questions I get asked here is "What do you think of Korea?" (Along with "Hello! Where are you from?" "Are you married?" "Do you like kimchi/know about Dokdo?" and "How much [for your services]?") If I ever mention a bad experience I had in Korea (such as one of the numerous times I've been asked that last question), my Korean friends immediately, profusely, and sincerely apologize on behalf of their entire country. This concern about national image extends so profoundly that Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education's motto translates to something along the lines of "Aiming for the Upper Levels of the OECD," and they seem to care about those OECD rankings a heck of a lot more than other countries do.

This concern spills over into the domestic entertainment industry. You see, in the U.S., celebrities live separate, strange, and often incomprehensible lives from ordinary folks. No one aspires to be like Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga, even if we love their music. What weird freaks, we think, even as we buy their albums.

However, in Korea, it seems, celebrities are expected to embody the perfect values and ideals of Korea's people. When a celebrity steps out of line, such as when rumors about Jaebum from 2 p.m. posting negative comments about Korea/Koreans on his myspace page more than two years ago, he is harshly criticized and condemned in a public forum of "netizens" (cutely, "internet citizens"). One of my students wrote an essay about Korean figure skater Kim Yuna (pronounced Yuhn-a, not Yoo-na) and used the lack of such intenet condemnation as a strong example of her popularity and role-model status. I tried to explain how this logic doesn't read as a very strong argument in English, but then I learned a whole lot from my co-teacher about Korean celebrity culture.

The Korean belief that "talents" or "idols" (celebrities, largely selected for their good appearance rather than their artistic prowess, who work in multiple arenas of the entertainment industry, such as in a pop group, on television shows, modeling, and as a commercial actor) serve as kind of de facto ambassadors for Korean culture suddenly explains a LOT about their misunderstandings of American culture. For if our celebrities and television shows represent who we are, then the belief that Western women are easy, that American teens party all the time, that the men are somehow more romantic than Korean men, that everyone is rich and wants to live in New York or LA, seems much more logical.

The Korean celebrity/netizen culture is so pervasive and important, that when I ask students and teachers alike about current events in Korea, nine times out of ten, they tell me about Tablo's upcoming nuptials or G-Dragon's trouble over some possible plagiarism, rather than the latest developments in North Korea or the swine flu scare gripping the nation and causing it to cancel all my favorite festivals. Quite frankly, although I enjoy the occasional Korean pop song, I find the whole situation too minutely complex and tedious to bother following. Come on, people (I mean netizens). Get a life.

If Korea really wants to improve its image internationally, they should work on the things that matter to the international community--brokering peace with North Korea, developing new technologies rather than stealing others' work, and fostering relationships with ALL countries, not just the ones it deems "worthy" (i.e. "wealthy"). Stop worrying about whether the Wonder Girls (currently touring the U.S.) look uglier with "American-style" makeup or if Daniel Henney is Korean enough to bring fame to the ROK--no one cares.


  1. Interesting observations!

    Can I say that it comes from media, because media reports more celeb news. Where are in Europe, when I want to know how celebs are doing I have to buy yellow press.

    Teenegers are also more interested in celebs than adults I think.

  2. Excellent points.

    I'll just add that as an American I do cringe when I see the kind of crap American TV shows they show here. CSI, Law and Order, Criminal Intent . . . shows about routine rape, murder, and kidnapping. Oh, and Paris Hilton.

  3. Thanks MC and Brian,

    I once got into a fight with Min Gi for mentioning that he read in a news item that Lady Gaga supports casual sex. It was a stupid fight, but until that moment, I didn't exactly realize why it bothers me so much when Koreans talk about American celebs. They just take it SO DARN SERIOUSLY. He doesn't, of course, so my rage was stupidly directed at the wrong person (this happens a lot), but he's a good guy so he forgave me. :)



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