The Damaging Cultural Portrayals of the K-Drama Slap
Perhaps there is nothing more vicious than a hard smack across the cheek, delivered in front of a very public sea of onlookers. Which is precisely why it pains me to witness it, particularly in K-dramas where it’s used in such heavy rotation.
Honestly, it makes Korea look bad.
Now, K-dramas are not indicative of reality, of course, nor are they pitch perfect pillars of Korean culture. I watch a lot of content: I like independent films, documentaries, and foreign flicks. I enjoy talk shows, stand-up comedy, and YouTube sketches. I take entertainment with a grain of salt, as probably (and hopefully) many viewers do. But, as an American aficionado of foreign content – Korean dramas in particular, I’m aware that I’m getting love squares, childhood flashbacks, and revenge plot lines relayed along with a dose of cultural exposure; I know I’m not alone on this.
In a world where content is king, K-dramas are a hot commodity, given South Korea’s growing magnitude as a global content provider evidenced by drama remakes, exclusive co-productions, hefty distribution deals, and buzzy entertainment news sites (insert meta joke here). Thus, impressions regarding culture from Hallyu’s exports have a perceivably worldwide reach.
Which brings me back to the K-drama slap. Because of its popular use onscreen, the slap has emerged as one of the instruments out of the conventional K-drama toolkit, and I can’t help but pick up on negative undertones redolent of society. I find it doubly disconcerting, both as a character device and a cliche (or triply, including as an act of violence). (Sidenote: I hate cliches. I even hate that my aversion to cliches is a cliche. So, you guys like double entendres?)
And, as far as imparting upon my impression of culture?
Firstly, it sparks curiosity as to how much of art is imitating life; entertainment can be fictional, but it can’t be completely devoid of the culture from which it is derived.
Secondly, rationale kicks in: though scripted drama is not reality (however much one may dream for it to be more so), content still influences my perspective on culture, at least on some level. International viewers are potentially at a loss to capably distinguish to what degree content may be fictional and what is inherently part of culture; I wonder that fans may subconsciously blur the two.
Distinctly negative characterizations of the slap in K-dramas have emerged from countless hours of programming. Because these portrayals are so prevalent, the slap seems more potentially harmful to the country’s image. Here are some characterizations of the onscreen slap which may unintentionally give a negative cultural impression.
1. Making The Heroine Look Pitiful
A “Real-Housewives-Of-Seoul” mother type (Goo Doo Shim) in this year’s “High Society” is especially generous with doling out smacks to her adult daughter Yoon Ha (Uee). It makes Yoon Ha the pitiful victim and signifies a history of abuse.
This is a slap often delivered by parental figures in K-dramas, particularly of the moneyed sort. Cha Do Hyun (played by Ji Sung) in “Kill Me, Heal Me” was slapped by the matriarch of his family. The 2013’s “Heirs” had its fair share of onscreen smacks; particularly notable were when Lee Min Ho‘s Kim Tan and Kim Woo Bin‘s Choi Young Do were each left with stinging cheeks, courtesy of their fathers. The slap invites empathy for its victim, showing a character’s moment of weakness, and the force of opposition a protagonist is up against.
Because of the social constructs surrounding the portrayal, scenes give the negative impression that parents may not have heavy qualms about physically striking their children, even when they’re grown adults, or are a little too quick to do so.
2. The Assaulting, Entitled Character
In “Angry Mom,” Hong Sang Bok (Park Young Gyu) is a formidable villain. He gropes and hits his secretary (aka what I’d call an assistant) played by Oh Yoon Ah; he inflicts violence upon others like a toddler throws tantrums. (Sidenote: perhaps Park Young Gyu is getting typecast – see “Falling For Innocence” for details.) He’s a wealthy employer, and feels entitled to act in such a violent way. Korean films are also not immune to this depiction: Tae Young (D.O.) gets hit by his boss while working part-time at a convenience store in “Cart.”
Then there are educators. School bully Go Bok Dong (Ji Soo) gets smacked (with a book) by the principal for a fight he didn’t start in “Angry Mom.” Ma Dong Seok‘s Shil Ba in “Shut Up! Flower Boy Band” was after rebellious students like a lion ravenous for prey. In feature film “Commitment,” the teacher used a pointer stick to hit students on the head – at which T.O.P.‘s Kang Dae Ho quietly, and coolly, erupted in defense.
Onscreen, it’s a common illustration: teachers are in a position of authority and feel entitled to go as far as smacking students as a measure of discipline. It often comes off as more harmless than malicious, but is nevertheless humiliating for the student, not to mention inappropriate and outdated (in lieu of more historically accepted corporal punishment).
Customers in K-drama sure are an entitled, atrocious lot. A snooty woman made projectiles out of produce in “High Society” (episode one), and in “The Time We Were Not in Love,” a disgruntled customer was seconds away from smacking the heck out of Ha Ji Won‘s Oh Ha Na (before she safely massaged her way out of it).
One particular scene I’m still reeling from was when a disgruntled customer lashed out and slapped a bank teller (Han Groo) in “A Word From Warm Heart” (Episode Five). Our lady stands up, apologizes to the customer, and assures the crowd that all is hunky dory. Smiles through the pain. And humiliation. And everyone proceeds to carry on, business as usual. It is their reaction which made it seem exponentially more detrimental to Korea’s image – the acceptance of it all.
Whether it be employers, educators, or customers, these characters in dramas feel a sense of entitlement in abusing those under their authority or employed in their service. I wince for how these depictions may hurt Korea’s image as a society. (It reminds me of the ‘nut rage’ fiasco that made headlines some time ago.)
3. Unveiling A Hero
In “School 2015,” Gong Tae Kwang (played by Yook Sung Jae) stops a swinging palm from landing across a cheek. Joon Hee (Yoon Hyun Min) comforts a stunned Soon Jung (Kim So Yeon) who was smacked so hard by her boss she was sprawled on the ground in “Falling For Innocence.” Choi Young Do (Kim Woo Bin) swoops in and saves Cha Eun Sang (Park Shin Hye) from one serving of hand-to-cheek by Rachel (Kim Ji Won) in a display of machismo.
Slaps create heroic moments for characters, especially when blocked (or when victims are comforted ex post facto). Heroes in a story are needed, after all, but depicting them precisely in this way triggers cultural tie-ins along the nature of damsels-in-distress and the men who rush in to save them.
Ideally, viewers distinguish realism from dramatization. But, a slap, applied in K-dramas so liberally, brings to mind the larger ripple effects of its cultural portrayal, which may be far more damaging.
What do you think? Are you sick of the K-drama slap? Do you think these characterizations give a negative impression of Korean culture?