REVIEW: Dramaworld

Title: Dramaworld
Starring: Liv Hewson, Sean Dulake
Genre: Koreaboo wish fulfillment fantasy
Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆ || 0

One word, five letters: y i k e s.

Okay, in all fairness, on a scale of 1 to 5, I , too, am 0% surprised to my reaction to this webseries. It was a foregone conclusion from the second I read the post that alerted me to the unfortunate existence of this trash. You’ve heard of Columbusing, you’ve heard of colonisation, hell, you’ve even heard of cultural appropriation, but get ready for: white self-inserts into media that does not belong to them and does not cater to them! Because you just have to be the centre of everyone’s world, right?

I’m not wasting the effort to type up a proper review. It was already an imposition on my time to finish this (which I did, at first because I wanted to know if it would subvert my expectations, and then because I felt an obligation to finish this so that I could review it for this blog, since it’s so short). I’m just going to, as I have with my reviews of Cinder and Soundless, type up a litany of complaints.

But first, the premise: Claire is a white girl who is completely obsessed with kdramas, to the exclusion of living her real life. One day, as her father’s store is being robbed without her noticing because she’s too engrossed in the drama, she slips and falls––right into the kdrama, where she learns that she is a facilitator: one of the people who makes the plot happen. Which is a pretty common plot as far as it goes. Girl who lives in her own head is thrown into fictional medium, comes out realising she needs to live in the real world. Right?

Hell fucking no.

  1. Right from the beginning, Korean, as a language, is Othered. Even in a world where the default language and expectation ought to be Korean, English is presumed to be normal, obligatory, default, and accommodated.
    1. Our spunky protagonist, Claire, makes a sum total of 0 (zero) effort to actually learn Korean –– people in Dramaworld (will get back to that premise later) “come with subtitles.” Unlike those pesky real-life Koreans, who don’t come by default explicated to white Western Anglophones.
      Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope nope, nope. You don’t. You do not speak Korean, you are not speaking Korean, that is not how this works.
  2. Koreans themselves are treated like side characters in their own stories, utterly replaceable archetypes who are literally rendered agency-less by the very premise of the show. They are all the same. They don’t live their own lives, they live lives that are defined by their status as Male Lead or Romantic Interest or Second Female Lead. And while yes, these are tropes present within not just kdrama but all of East Asian dramas, these are things we can analyse metatextually as consumers of what we know to be fictional narratives. Within the context of their own worlds they are still defined characters with their own agency and motivations. To see this utter lack of personalisation and humanisation actualised within the narrative itself is is, frankly, shocking to anyone who considers Koreans to be, oh IDK, human.
    1. Only Claire is allowed to exist simply as a person, somehow free from all narrative expectation, even though she is every trope of this sort of story jammed together in an albeit cute strawberry blonde.
    2. Further, Claire is allowed to, and in fact, even expected to manipulate Korean lives to her liking. And she is portrayed as this white girl who is marginalised and looked down upon for liking kdramas when, let us be exceptionally honest here, it is Korean people who are most negatively affected by stereotypes koreaboos hold.
    3. She is consistently told that she is more special than all the other girls, which in any other context is still not an innocent statement to make, but in this context is made worse because of her race.
      Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.29.07 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.29.22 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.29.33 AM
  3. Korean men are portrayed either as empty vessels for the white gaze, fetish objects without real personalities outside of those assigned to him as a Leading Man, or they are desexualised objects of derision and scorn who are duplicitous, untrustworthy, conniving, evil, nerdy, awkward, and sly. Yellow Peril, anyone? Like if you thought it was bad when Justin Chon played Eric in Twilight. Wait til you get a load of Seth in Dramaland.
  4. Korea itself, which has a history of well over a thousand years and contains rich cultures and dialects, which has its own social problems and generational trauma, which has stood strong through colonisation at the hands of its neighbours, civil war, American occupation, is reduced to dramas. Not merely dramas, it is reduced to Dramaland. The whole of Korea is reduced to cheap storytelling and empty tropes, utterly untethered to the reality of what is or is not Korea.
    1. More insultingly, Korean stories, the stories Korean people tell about themselves, are then made to revolve around the presence of a white girl.
  5. The way this series is framed, it’s ‘giving white girls a kdrama.’ That is to say, giving white girls a role in a medium that does not automatically cater to them. For all that Seth is supposed to be the usurper, aspiring to occupy a role that does not belong to him, it’s Claire who invades a narrative like so many colonists before her. How is she any better than Seth? He’s only been here longer, learned how to influence things behind the scenes. She simply barges in and takes and takes and takes.
    1. This makes several key assumptions: it assumes that the audience is white. Thus, it assumes that the audience will identify with her and root for her, even though the narrative, by rights, does not belong to her. It assumes that she is the most relateable character in the narrative by dint of her whiteness, and then it backs that up by giving everyone else the flimsiest characterisation they can get away with.
    2. But she is not relateable. And I am not white. My default, when watching kdramas, is Korean, because kdramas are a Korean medium. And most of my friends who watch dramas are also Asian, and we watch Asian dramas because there is nowhere in the West where we can see stories about ourselves, where we and our cultures and front and centre and portrayed in ways that are not utterly Otherising (see once more: Soundless and Cinder).
    3. Even more insultingly, we have had to watch again and again an again as justifications are made for why we do not belong in the media of the places where we live. We watched Cho Chang sidelined and vilified to make Ginny  Weasley seem more perfect. We’ve watched white feminists slam Pacific Rim for not passing the Bechdel Test (which was never a measure of a film’s feminism to begin with) and advocating for the boycott of the film because of this, even as it gave us an East Asian woman who is not sexualised, has a complex and relateable characterisation, and is given a hero’s journey. We’ve watched these same white feminists turn around and say that we should “wait our turn” for representation in Star Wars, a series that jacks so much from our cultures without acknowledgement, because white female leads are just so revolutionary even though Felicity Jones, Daisy Ridley, Natalie Portman, and Carrie Fisher are all white women. Even though white women have been headlining films since Gone With the Wind. Since The Wizard of Oz. Since Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And I’ve personally seen how little attention Kelly Marie Tran has gotten, even though she’s slated to lead the next SW film.
    4. Now, even better! We get to watch as we’re shoved out of the narratives that were meant for us, get to watch as that narrative is claimed by white women, watched as we are replaced again, and this time in a medium that we turned to for representation when we were given anything but.
  6. For all this show tries to convince us that Claire is the one who is Othered, the only thing it does is to Other Koreans by reducing them to characters, tropes, archetypes to be jerked around and manipulated and ultimately, vanquished, whether through physical force or through the Force Of Her Character and Her Beautiful Heart, by a white girl.

Here’s the part where I normally sum up my thoughts and conclude with a recommendation, but I’m pretty sure you guys already know what my recommendation would be. So I’ll leave you with this, as an English minor and an EAS major: white women have always played as large a role as their husbands and brothers and fathers in colonialism and imperialism. This has not changed.

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