Korean Popular Culture

The Textbook-in-progress of the Ivy League's first class on the Korean Wave. This blog is the work of University of Pennsylvania EALC 198/598 students (Spring 2006 & 2007). Please apply proper citation when using any part of this blog. For details on citing this site see: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/online/cite5.html#1

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Korean Portrayal on Prime Time

I am not ashamed to admit that I catch the WB's show "Gilmore Girls" every so often. I happened to watch tonight's episode and I was surprised to find that it was an episode about the wedding of the main character's best friend. The best friend is a Korean girl named Lane Kim, and she is played by the actress Keiko Agena. She only appeared sporadically in previous seasons, but has been appearing with more frequency this season since one plot line revolves around her relationship with a Caucasian boy, and her overbearing mother's disapproval. While I found the portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the mother's accent and demeanor (played by another Japanese actress), a bit distasteful (the mother is extremely strict, and walks around like a Star Wars storm trooper), it was at least tolerable. But I was shocked by tonight's episode, as I thought it portrayed almost every stereotype that Westerners may have of Koreans.

Most of the actors and actresses that had to speak Korean were not Korean (not uncommon), but the accent and pronunciations were especially atrocious and awkward. There is a scene where the aunts are over and they are making kimchi and dumplings, almost like robots, all with horrible, horrible accents. There is also a scene where Lane's grandmother comes to visit from Korea, and they bring out this huge statue of Buddha, and both women start bowing to it fanatically a hundred times. There are two wedding ceremonies, one Buddhist and one 7-day Adventist, and the characters are all in han-boks for the Buddhist ceremony (during which the mother and grandmother get into a heated argument and start yelling at each other loudly in Korean). Thereafter, there is a mad dash to the church for the next ceremony and the characters are told to run since the Koreans will hog the seats (and there follows a chaotic scene where all the Koreans are running around and screaming and pushing).

Overall, Koreans were portrayed as being extremely prudish, overbearing, rude, and traditional to the point of being backwards (one of the other main characters was scolded for being an unmarried woman, and told that she cannot attend the wedding unless she brings a man). While some of the scenes celebrated Korean culture (such as the traditional wedding with traditional costumes-- although I'm not sure that is even necessarily "Buddhist"), most of the content was so exaggerated that it almost mocked Korean culture as being weirdly ritualistic and its people, mechanical. This was especially surprising since I considered the show relatively progressive and liberal (Lane herself is portrayed as being extremely resilient, independent, "cool," and brainy).

On the one hand, I think it is great that Koreans are increasingly being portrayed in the mainstream media (such as the Korean couple in the hit series LOST). However, I think it does a disservice to not just Koreans but to all Asians and Asian Americans to only portray the stereotypes that the American audience is used to seeing. Also, continuing to portray Asians as "the other" and being drastically unassimilated to the point they do not seem "American" also hurts the way Asian Americans are perceived in American society generally. I found a bio of Keiko Agena, and found that she had previously won an "Ammy" Award-- I wonder if the show (and the actress) will be as highly regarded in this year's "Ammies" after this episode.

Keiko Agena

Lane Kim ON Gilmore Girls

BIRTHDAY: Oct. 3 (She is 33 but plays a 22-year old!)

HOMETOWN: Honolulu, HI

Keiko (pronounced Kay-ko) Agena stars in Gilmore Girls as Rory's (Alexis Bledel) brainy and somewhat eccentric best friend, Lane Kim. For her performance in Gilmore Girls, Agena recently garnered the Ammy Award for Best Female Actor in a Television Production. The Ammy Awards honor Asians and Asian-American achievement in film and television.


At 11:13 PM, Blogger Jackie Slater said...

So funny that you posted something on this.... I used to watch Gilmore Girls religiously but haven't in a while. I randomly watched some of the episode tonight and was so shocked at the way that this Korean wedding was portrayed. I'm not too familiar with religious beliefs in Korea, so I wan't sure if it was accurate... but the absolute mania and rigidness of the depicted traditions and ceremonies and they way they were forced to be carried out, was really surprising. The fact that in this wedding party in the show something like 58 out of the 62 guests were Korean furthered this image of an unassimilated, segregated Korean family and tradition. The lack of communication adn affection between the family members also seemed like a broad generalization. I thought the show usually portrayed Keiko Agena's character in a very positive light, but this episode seemed to take Korean and Asian stereotypes a bit too far. While Gilmore Girls has always tried to be witty and funny, tonight's comedy seemed to be at the expense of a perceived Korean image.

At 2:01 AM, Blogger HDHWANG said...

Hearing about this portrayal of Koreans on "Gilmore Girls" is quite upsetting to me as I generally find that show to be funny, witty, and harmless. However, this is not a singular instance as is seen in "Lost" as well. While Korean-Americans are playing a part in modernizing the reputation of Koreans in the United States, it seems that the representation of Asians in the entertainment industry is lagging. It exasperates my sense of pride when Asians are depicted as outdated, uncouth, and overtly religious. However, I suppose we shoud not forget the fact that in other countries, Americans are not shown in a favorable light as well, characterized as obese and obnoxious.

At 12:50 PM, Blogger JungYeon Kim said...

Yes. In Korean shows or drama, Americans are often characterized as rude and stupid. I think there are distorted pecceptions of other ethnics in almost every coutry. What I find it always interesting is that even after the advance of internet and cable tvs, people do not bother to know more about the foreigners. People seem to want to believe what they think other countries' people are.

At 3:05 AM, Anonymous Yie Yie said...

I don't think, actually, that this is too out of sync with the pattern that the Gilmore Girls has been showing. All of the boys that Lane has been previously matchmade with are portrayed as very nerdy, future doctor types, who wear tight fitting clothes and have horrible accents. I think the point of the writers was to produce the POV of Koreans through a small town that though friendly, has not seen very many diverse people. Maybe instead of viewing it as the directors making fun of Koreans, this can be viewed as a social commentary of how little the people of a small town understand about the world? They could be making fun of the biases suburbian America have towards other races.

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It wasn't all that stereotypical or racist. The mother was strict, that's how most Asian parents are. That's not being rude or judgmental, it's just how it is. And the wedding wasn't stereotypical either, it was in a different setting even in the context of the show (e.g. in America, had to be rushed, etc.). Some things may have been exaggerated, but that was for the comedy. If you expect fictionalized shows to depict life accurately, then you need to get out more. The representation wasn't judgmental, stereotypical, nor racist. It's pretty annoying how Asian people tend to read a lot into these things and don't have much evidence to back it up. Nice try though (not).

At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The representation wasn't judgmental, stereotypical, nor racist. It's pretty annoying how Asian people tend to read a lot into these things and don't have much evidence to back it up. Nice try though (not)"

I absolutely love how white people think that they have some kind of authority over how other groups of people should perceive the blatant racism they use to portray us.

Honestly, much as I find the show entertaining at times, the racist, homophobic, and fat phobic jokes are a blight on what would otherwise be a great show.

Amy Sherman-Palledino is one of those racist white people that like to use minorities and claim them as friends so they think they have some kind of pass to get away with that bullshit.

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually thought Lane's portrayal was pretty good, given the Asian sidekick isn't the typical nerdy kid without the cool factor (ahem..there are a lot of Asians who are not doctors, lawyers and scientists). I do think Mrs. Kim was portrayed a bit psychotic in her mindlessly strict discipline of Lane. Yes Asian parents tend to be more strict but they're not psychotic. That aside everything else was pretty accurate. One thing non-Asians need to understand is for young people who were raised here in the US with traditional parents, many of them do straddle both worlds, as Lane's character portrays very well. My siblings and I lived through it and had very similar experiences with my own parents in the home, as well as the intense peer pressures outside the home like most American kids. Lane wearing double outfits were spot on and made me laugh hysterically given it reminded me that was what my baby sister did a lot during her teen years. Looking back now as an adult I loved that my parents raised me that way. Otherwise I would not have been able to speak, read and write in my native language well, nor understood the culture and history. From the way I see it, I experienced the best of both worlds, know my identity as an Asian American well, and became a confident, self-assured adult who very much enjoys both cultures.


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