Scandal. \ˈskan-dəl\. Noun. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong.”
Used within the context of South Korean media, however, eh, it’s more along the lines of:
Scandal: Anything that can be harshly criticized or deemed in a negative light in any way. Examples include: legal gambling, drinking, and dating (!?). [Read the Korean version of this post here (한국어).]
From the looks of things, entertainment in South Korea is doing pretty well. There’s the barrage of super(-duper) pop groups and their music videos, the addictive television dramas, the fashion icons, and booming film industry; things look free-spirited, fun, and, well – thriving.
And so is the culture of tabloid and celebrity infotainment. Recent feature film, Tabloid Truth (2014), explores the dark side of media sensationalism.
If you look at the production output, things may seem liberal, but South Korea, compared to other countries, still leans conservative (hey, they still ban songs, monitor the web and decry bad posture over there). The nation’s culture stands upon traditional tenets of respect and filial piety. The way people speak to each other reflect a long-standing history of deeply embedded cultural honorifics (hello, Confucian-influenced cultures of Asia).
But why are Korean media outlets so critical of their celebrities? (Not to mention the sometimes disturbing fanbase, but that’s another story.) Stars do, either directly or indirectly, promote the nation’s culture, language, entertainment, and economy, on an international scale.
Celebs, by definition, live incredibly public lives. It seems, though, the harder they get glorified, the more severely they might be berated – especially with today’s transparency. Everything they do is in the spotlight – their music, acting, clothes, even their weight – all heavily criticized in the media. (And yes, I’m sure celebs knowingly sacrifice their chances at having a plebeian life.)
But news sources take it to another level, prodding a bit too deeply into personal lives (even indigestion makes headlines) and admonishing celebs rather quickly. I know I’m not the only one who thinks so. Why so sensitive? Does it really help newsstand sales or website traffic?
Sure, South Korea has undergone a lot in the last century. (Dictatorship, military rule, civil war, a nation divided, industrial boom, emergence of the Korean Wave of entertainment, did I mention a nation divided? Serious stuff.) It’s a liberal, maturing democracy of Asia now, but sensitivities still abound. There’s still anti-Japanese sentiment. There’s still a conventional attitude towards what’s acceptable in society in popular culture, whether it be pop song lyrics or politically charged artwork.
Is it culturally struggling to catch up with its creative freedoms? Things like music and television, after all, are forms of artistic expression. A thriving entertainment industry is testament to that.
Take, for instance, some so-called scandals that made headlines in Korean media:
- Park Bom’s drug smuggling controversy: in June, the singer from Kpop supergroup 2NE1 was rumored to have smuggled amphetamines – which she had been legally prescribed in the US – into Korea (where they are illegal) – back in 2010. People really cared about this? I mean, it happened four years ago, and legal authorities apparently already addressed it back then? It prompted her departure from the reality show Roommate and a backlash of criticism online. And then a subsequent buzz questioning her age. Yikes. (Sidenote: why did this come out four years late, anyway?)
- Actors Kim Soo Hyun and Jun Ji Hyun (co-stars in this year’s hit kdrama, My Love From Another Star) were hit by negative critics after endorsing a Chinese mineral water brand. Because the brand gave the impression that its water source was from a mountain that was completely Chinese territory (but was split into Chinese and Korean territory in 1962), it caused a major upset.
- Popular actor Lee Min Ho (Heirs) was in New Zealand and happened to stop by a casino. And gambled. Legally. Something to the tune of a few dollars. And that’s a scandal. (Seriously?) What’s the crime, you say? Gambling is viewed negatively, and if you’re a celeb, you’re going to hear about it. And then have to subsequently explain yourself. Probably repeatedly.
- And then there’s dating (see second definition of ‘scandal’ above). A simple meeting between two people sparks tabloid fanfare and dating rumors. Happens everywhere, right? Baekhyun, member of kpop boy group EXO-K, was revealed to be dating (also a Girls Generation songstress) Taeyeon. He even apologized. For dating. I repeat, FOR DATING. Sigh. Fans were so ticked off they resorted to calling him ‘traitor’ at a live broadcast music program, and even demanded that he get booted from the group. (Why such vitriol? And by fans, nonetheless.)
- What’s next? Not recycling?
Perhaps it’s the stalker-lengths to which some reporters (and fans) will go that’s at fault. Or the public’s insatiety for the intimate details surrounding their stars.
What’s a rising star to do? Hope the paparazzi eventually gives up on them?
If entertainers still have the capabilities to entertain audiences, who cares? It seems like there’s a bit too much pressure – celebrities are entertainers, actors, who play characters to tell a story. There seems to be a little too much of pushing-onto-a-pedestal action and not enough grounded context. They seem to be relegated more as national representatives on a global scale, their backgrounds scrutinized in the style of politicians’ lives are during an election year.
No one’s perfect. If you’re just standing by, looking for flaws – you’ll find them eventually. But then no one will be able to live up to your expectations. (That would be like sabotaging yourself while dating – if you were allowed to date, heh.)
It would seem that rising entertainers would have to go to great lengths not to step on anyone’s toes, lest they upset a major television network, an entertainment agency, or a bevy of fans. (And if you have a Korean mom, I know, there’s likely criticism enough.)
Navigating the intricate honorifics and complexities of a sensitive culture is a fucking minefield. Props to those who dare accept the challenge.
Korean celebrities: go date like there’s no tomorrow. Maybe just don’t tell anyone about it.
Korean media (and fans) need to relax a bit and take it easy on the criticism. Life is short; people are imperfect. (I realize, in effect, I am criticizing Korean media, and fans, for being too critical. Cue meta jokes.)
Celebs battle enough in a volatile, competitive industry – likely the road to get there was sufficiently wrought with hardship, adversity, crippling moments of doubt, insecurity, fear and failures. Maybe they slept in bus stations, or were disowned by family members to follow their dreams. Maybe they almost gave up. Or maybe they did. But for whatever reason, somehow, against all the ludicrous odds of the entertainment gods that be, they pressed on and made it. All to entertain – you. They are living proof of a dream.
(Pictured, above left: a young Jung Ji Hoon, aka Rain. Right: Rain performing at the 2013 MAMA Awards.)