Ji Chang-Wook and Kim Yoo-Jung‘s latest romantic k-drama, Backstreet Rookie has been embroiled in even more controversy. After premiering, the South Korean television series replacing The King: Eternal Monarch has been met with criticisms regarding the premise of the romance between the protagonists and the alleged sexualisation of minors, with over 6000 official complaints filed. The criticisms stemmed from the show’s mature source material (a 19+ rated webtoon titled Convenience Store Saet-byul) and the producers of the show assuring the public that the drama is family-friendly.
While these criticisms mostly came from local viewers, as more episodes aired recently, the k-drama has attracted outrage from international viewers in particular with the show’s portrayal of a Nigerian man. The scene in question was around the character Han Dal-Shik, a webtoon artist played by Um Moon-Suk. The character had already been criticised for cultural appropriation as he is a Korean man sporting heavy dreadlocks and tie-dye shirts in Jamaican colours. However, a convenient store scene involving an actual Nigerian character and Han Dal-Shik took these accusations to the next level.
The scene showed an African man with dreadlocks and wearing a Rastafarian T-shirt entering the convenience store. A Korean customer who was heading out of the store looked shocked upon seeing the Black man enter and muttered, “Oh, gosh,” before avoiding him to step out. The African customer walked towards Han, who was manning the store, and then the two had the strangest conversation, I have ever witnessed in a k-drama in a long time.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, the scene ended with the two characters randomly dancing to Bob Marley’s “A lalala long” around the convenience store.
Watch it below:
How this made it past the rounds of editing and approvals is baffling, especially for a show in 2020 with such huge stars fronting it. Granted, Backstreet Rookie is a romantic comedy and this scene was likely intended to be a comedic skit. Hence, certain traits are often exaggerated for comedic effect. However, the argument against that would be that comedy should not come at the expense of stereotyping races and minorities.
International fans have directed their anger and frustration towards the producers and writers of Backstreet Rookie rather than the actors of the show, with some emailing South Korean TV network, SBS directly to give their feedback. Most took to Twitter to air their grievances:
That being said, second week ratings for Backstreet Rookie has increased tremendously as the show begins to pick up its pace. Though it is likely because of the chemistry between the main stars and the love triangle storyline between Saet-Byul (Kim Yoo-Jung), Dae-Hyun (Ji Chang-Wook) and Ji-Wook (Kim Min-Kyu).
To say that the show was meant only for locals would be tone deaf as k-dramas are becoming more and more mainstream in many places all over the world, not just in Asia. Furthermore, the perpetuation of such stereotypes among local South Koreans is equally damaging as it warps the perception of people of African descent. This is keeping in mind that the show was on free-to-air television, nation-wide. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, ignorance is no longer an adequate excuse, especially from the people in power, making the creative decisions.
As of writing this article neither the producers of the show nor SBS has addressed the criticisms regarding the character Han Dal-Shik nor the aforementioned scene.