Not gonna lie. I made a pact that for the duration of Backstreet Rookie (alt. Convenience Store Saet–byul) I was going to hide until it went away.
From its announcement, this drama was such a disgusting waste of time, talent and broadcast space that I’d have preferred to exist in an universe where it was never made and I could pretend that at no point did somebody say, “Hey let’s make a Korean drama based on porn” and somebody else agreed and greenlit it.
But I guess this ghastly new development can only be expected of a drama year I already dubbed The Year of the Creep.
As you can tell by my tone and my somewhat conversational style, this blog post is not going to pull any punches, nor am I going to pretend to be reasonable or unbiased. I draw the line at sexism and misogynism and find the argument that “you can’t expect better from Asian dramas” to be patronising as hell. I bloody well can expect better from everybody, everywhere. And Korea – as well as the rest of Asia – are more than capable of producing fantastic female-centric dramas with great female leads.
The Manwha that Backstreet Rookie is based on is hugely popular admittedly. It’s also gross, exploitative, sexist, racist and figurative – if not literal – paedophilia.
The story of an early-30s burnt-out convenience store clerk fending off the sexual advances of a scantily-clad, pneumatic, nubile and barely-legal employee is sex fantasy fodder for under-developed 16 year old boys. It’s barely one step up from a pimply teenager being seduced by the bikini-clad bored housewife whose pool he cleans.
I get it, boys fantasise that women who would never look twice at them desperately want to have sex with them (even if they do resemble actual human women, which this one does not) and so they read Manwhas that appeal to this demographic. Or just watch Michael Bey movies. Same difference.
I have no idea who the hell decided this should be adapted into a genre aimed at (mostly) women, nor how they thought it could ever be adapted into something they insisted was going to be ‘family friendly’. Nor do I understand how anyone watching this show could think it was some sort of welcome foray into a new world of sex-forward women and thus somehow feminist.
Instead these texts tend to re-enforce the worst of Asian sexism, especially around sexualising teens, romanticising disturbing power imbalances between men and women, fetishising school uniforms and normalising Ajusshi romances. The hugely-popular Goblin, for example, was basically paedophilia with a glossy makeover and ended with the image of a middle-aged man and a girl being perpetually reincarnated into her school uniform.
But, hey, they didn’t kiss until she’d shed the uniform so Korean audiences were apparently fine with this. I was not. It made me want to barf.
But even romanticised paedophilia like Goblin has little on a drama that cast the 33-year-old Ji Chang-wook against the 20-year-old Kim Yoo-jung and then had her character launch herself at him while wearing her school uniform.
I have no comments to make about Wookie, who seems to have devoted his post-military comeback to making the worst dramas known to God and man, but Kim Yoo-jung is a truly fantastic actor. One who, for inexplicable reasons, seems to have been typecast as a very young girl in creepy romances with older men (yes I am including Bogummy in this, don’t @ me).
While I no longer care what Ji Chang-wook does in any part of his professional or personal life, I do not know what Kim Yoo-jung’s management was thinking letting (forcing?) her take this awful part.
Since the show’s announcement, I personally had little interest in hearing about let alone watching it. But a few weeks before its launch, the production team released stills for it that they decided would emphasise its fun, colourful tone and comedic leanings. These stills included a Korean actor in… wait for it… blackface with dreadlocks.
I wish I was joking.
I am not.
As everyone knows, I’m Australian and therefore have a natural predilection for profanity, something I usually try to keep to other forums. I’m reigning myself in here, that’s all I’ll say.
Right in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests.
If you need an explanation of why either of these two things on a Korean man are cultural appropriation at best and flat-out racism at worst then it’s time to join the rest of us in the 21st century.
As my youngest niece would say, This is Not Okay.
You’re probably wondering why I’m writing this blog post, especially when I declared I was going to pretend this drama never existed and hide until it went away. The answer for that is simple: I can’t escape it. It’s everywhere.
Crazed stans of both leads have flooded forums with rationalisations and justifications for the sexism and the racism and the gross objectification of the female lead and the director up-skirting girls in school uniforms and instead of wading into any of those arguments I decided to just put my two cents here.
This drama was disgusting from the minute it was conceived based on its source text alone.
Don’t put yourself through the trauma of watching it. At this stage, it appears the production company is deliberately fanning the controversy to increase viewers; a tactic that worked for its first week where ratings were a respectable – if not great – 5-7%. More importantly, ratings rose for the second episode after the uproar in Korea following the broadcast of the first.
I hope that you, like me, plan to try to ignore it until it inevitably goes away.
PS For those who have a strong stomach I put some screenshots here from the first episodes of Backstreet Rookie to illustrate the show’s issues with race. If racism upsets you then don’t scroll below this. But if you do choose to look, you can ponder how anybody could not see the racism here.
Since I am refusing to watch this show, I obviously did not screenshot this myself, it came from a commentator over on db.
You read that right – Australopithecus.
They compared a man with blackface and dreadlocks to a subhuman.
That is all.