The ignorance of a hairstyle

Cultural appropriation is a very nuanced issue and not one to be taken lightly. Today I will be talking about cultural appropriation in K-pop, and how groups over there were ignorant of the cultural strife of the west and used it as a fashionable dress sense.

Lets start from the beginning and understand the cultural context. South Korea is situated on a peninsula, in the middle of Asia, and is considered to be a very homogenous culture, being 99% Korean in contrast to America, which has more diversity. It is rare to see foreigners as a part of this culture, as Koreans inside Korea keep close to their ‘family’ both in a literal sense and a cultural sense. It is a very ingrained sense of community that only awoke to the influences of the US after the effects of the Korean War in 1950 and when both nations began to gradually rise as superpowers and have a global impact, and in Koreas case, it was the Hallyu.

Korean culture grew, and in the 1990’s they started a new genre to export, influenced by the movements of America, called K-pop. In the beginning it was very sparse, but the group that kicked it off, Seo Taji and the Boys, incorporated rap into their pop songs. This started with their hit song in Korea, called Nan Arayo (I know), and popularized the hybrid mish mash of musical styles that kpop would come to be.

Now onto the appropriation part. Over the years, many kpop groups have come under fire for imitating a ‘gangster’ style of wearing clothes, hair and rapping, which they got mostly from African-Americans. While this in itself might still be considered fine, it becomes cultural appropriation when they unknowingly borrow concepts from African American culture that have cultural importance to them. African-Americans more than likely do not want it to be used as a set piece in a Korean music video with little cultural meaning behind it except that ‘it looks good’.

Some specific examples are Korean Idols wearing Box braids or any other braid that is very distinctively used in African American culture. These hairstyles are cultural appropriation because they were used in the African-American entertainment scene for them, while in reality, many of these African-American kids at schools were being told that they looked ‘dirty’ with it, or that they were in ‘gangs’ because of this hairstyle, and being shunned out of society because of it. The braids that African-Americans is an important part of African Culture and symbol of their heritage. Kpop idols simply wear this now because ‘it looks good’ on them, when no one said that those hairstyles were ‘cool and fashionable’ when an African-American wore them.

Here are some specific examples, starting with hairstyles (They are all 100% Korean by the way) –

Bang Chan from Stray Kids sporting these braids
BTS’ J-Hope wearing these
Big Bang’s Taeyang
2NE1’s Dara wearing these cornrows
BTS’ RM having this

And there are probably many more examples that I have missed. Now here’s a photo of a group concept that BTS had at debut, that many people groan at when they look at BTS’ past.

BTS’ infamous debut style where they clearly imitated American Rap

To be fair, BTS were a rap-focused group in the beginning but slowly transitioned to standard kpop fare that they showcase today. Though that doesn’t excuse the clear cultural appropriation that is seen in those photos above. It is understandable why South Koreans would not understand the importance of cultural appropriation or even see it as an issue at all, but still need to realise that it is an issue.

I have to admit, being an Australian myself, and being raised in a very white area, when I’m first exposed to this, I think ‘Why something like this is cultural appropriation?’ in a genuinely confused manner. Like the hairstyles, since I haven’t met many African-Americans, if any, and only through reading about it and seeing other people’s cultural experiences can I understand the impact.

What do you think about cultural appropriation?

Academic Article Reference

Grays, J. (2019). The blurred lines of Cultural Appropriation. City University of New York (CUNY), [online] Fall 12-16-2016, p.Page 2. Available at: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1193&context=gj_etds [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019]

Academic Article Reference 2

Dal, Y. (2019). The Korean Wave: Retrospect and Prospect. International Journal of Communication USC, [online] 11(2241). Available at: https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/6296/2047 [Accessed 25 Aug. 2019].


Cultural crossing in Snowpiercer

Promotional poster for Snowpiercer, with Chris Evans

One day, I decided to watch the movie called Snowpiercer after seeing good reviews about it. Unaware that it had significant international involvement (Korean), I watched it for the plot premise. The movie is about people in the ‘tail’ section of the train, which houses the last remnants of humanity, as they fight their way up to the rich forward carriages. The film was applauded by critics for its plot and themes. Done by Korean Director Bong-Joon Ho, the main character is an American, Curtis (Played by Chris Evans),  but two other essential characters, Namgoong and Yona (Song Kang Ho and Go-Ahsung respectively), are Korean.

“More than 90% of the crew were either British or American, so everything went according to the American system. As a result, there were a lot of unfamiliar regulations and union rules to follow.”

This movie is a definite international mix, with this movie being based off a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. Snowpiercer is a South Korean-Czech Production, and 80% of the movie is in English. The other 20% is in Korean. Most of the staff and cast in this movie is a mix of white and Korean people, with cinematography by a Korean, and being edited by a white and Korean person. Bong Joon Ho also said ‘More than 90% of the crew were either British or American, so everything went according to the American system. As a result, there were a lot of unfamiliar regulations and union rules to follow.’

Namgoong, from the movie

Snowpiercer is a post-apocalyptic drama and an allusion to society. It is aimed at the English speaking audience and there is little knowledge needed for other cultures, as it is mostly English speaking. It is also aimed at Koreans too, with a Korean director and several Korean cast members in the movie. There is not really any cultural proximity needed, excepting Masons character (explained below), as it isn’t set in the current day, and only on a train.

There is some cultural knowledge needed for the film, as it caters to a Western audience already, and is set in a post-apocalyptic setting, where cultures are very much mixed together. One of the characters, Mason (played by Tilda Swinton) is very much a caricature of western political figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Hitler. Swinton also uses a Yorkshire Accent for the character, which English speakers would recognise as being distinctive and different from the rest of the cast while Koreans would not. Tilda Swinton suggested that her character have a British accent such as a Yorkshire accent, but Bong Joon Ho couldn’t tell the difference so they had to communicate this in a roundabout way.

Snowpiercer character Mason (Tilda Swinton), know for her distinctive style

There is alot of cultural diversity in this movie, and races and cultures are blended together, as these inhabitants are all stuck on a train. In Western cinema, it would be a foreign experience to see other languages spoken on screen, as well as a Korean director for a seemingly western movie. The movie and casting are different from how a usual western film would go, and is distinctive in this way. It is a hybrid production between two cultures. This is a production geared towards a Global North, as America (The West) and South Korea are in the Global North.

The global north (blue) and global south (red)

This movie does an excellent job at overcrossing the cultural divide, and having two different cultures and languages make one movie aimed for an audience. While Bong can understand some English, he is more comfortable with Korean, while the lead actor of Snowpiercer, Chris Evans, can only speak English, so that alone makes for an impressive cultural mix, as Bong Joon Ho would have needed to direct all of the actors. But in the end, the film came together, and received critical acclaim by critics, so I would say that despite all the differences, it was worth it to make this movie. This movie could also be considered as part of the Hallyu, the South Korean Governments push to export Korean entertainment to the world, as it has a Korean Director and actors.


How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Cultural Analysis (Scrapped Week 2 Post!)

I had seen the last two How to train your dragon movies, and while scrolling through Foxtel’s list of movies, I found the last movie in the trilogy and decided to watch The Hidden World. The synopsis of this movie is about a young adult called Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, along with a whole dragon village, who decided to look for the Hidden World after dragon trappings, and to put the dragons in a safe place. This movie was made by DreamWorks Animation, and is a movie made and written in America. The intended audience was kids, teens and families, and people who had seen the last two How to train your dragon movies, so plot knowledge is also expected.

Promotional Poster for How To Train Your Dragon

The movie is set in a fantasy setting where there are dragons, and the village is based off Viking warriors, so previous knowledge of Vikings would make the story more enjoyable, as people understand that Berk, Hiccup’s village, is based off Viking stereotypes, such as drinking beer, horned helmets and long beards. The villagers also have a variety of Scottish and Scandinavian accents to play the part. And although very prominent and obvious in the story, basic knowledge of dragons is required, such as they breathe fire, have wings and so forth. While these are all very simple concepts for most of the Global North to know about without even thinking, it does require some cultural knowledge about Scandinavia and fantasy creatures that a person might not understand.

Global North (blue) and South (red)

The film also focuses on comedy, and relies on understanding some visual humour between two dragons, such as Toothless hanging down from a tree like a bat, or acting awkwardly. There is also spoken humour between characters. There is a chance that an audience not from the West may not understand the humour, as it is reliant on cultural boundaries and expectations.

How to train your dragon is made by the major animation studio DreamWorks, which is based in California and part of Hollywood. It definitely is made for a Global North, as it is an animation movie for kids and aimed a Western audiences, all of which are in the North. There is not much evidence for hybridisation of cultures in the movie, only Vikings, unless a fantasy friendship between dragons and humans count… Ah, If only dragons were real. But only as pets. No Game of Thrones behemoths please!

An example of an Asian Dragon, demonstrating different cultural fantasy creatures

For a person in the Global South, they might have different expectations of dragons, as there are many cultural stories like Asian Dragons, dragons that are snakes or a different depiction entirely. The cultural proximity for dragons in the West is very similar, all with common features of wings, lizard-like body, two or four legs. Anything else would likely be unfamiliar to Western audiences and they would struggle to realise it as a ‘dragon’. As a Westerner myself, How to train your dragon is a movie that falls in line with my own cultural expectations of how characters should act and the presentation of the world. It would be hard to interpret how the Global South took this movie, and if anything was misunderstood.


Bath and Bim

That’s what the American version of Kath & Kim should have been called, unfortunately.

The original iconic Australian TV series Kath & Kim first aired on our screens in 2002 with our first look at this suburbia bogan-esque characters that were not grounded in reality and their antics surrounding it. This proved comedic for many Australians, and the show had a very successful run that ended in 2007 and even had a theatrical movie produced. Kath and Kim today are still known by the majority of Australians as a part of Australian culture. So how did the US get the adaptation so bizarrely wrong to Australians?

Kath & Kim Australian Version

Here’s what happened.

Firstly, in the US, cultural expectations and humour are very different to what it appears in Australia, so they tried to conform it to US tastes. The problem was that the idea flew completely over their heads. In the starring roles, they casted two beautiful ladies in the role, which is the antithesis of the Australian version. In both versions, Kim brags about how she is a “Horn-bag” (slang for being very attractive). In the Australian version of the show, we can laugh at their ignorance and how they are not conventionally pretty and dense enough to believe it. In the American version, they are pretty, so there is no dissonance to be seen, and therefore there is no humour in it. In the article, Karen Brooks states that ‘The American Kath Day and her daughter Kim are not monstrous enough to be clichés, stereotypes, parodies or even brave enough to be abhorrent or funny.’ This insinuates that some part of Kath and Kim’s comedy derives from stereotypes of a culture or location, and the stereotyping has to be translated accurately for different cultural audiences. In the case of the US version, it didn’t represent cultural values or stereotypes well enough for the American consumer to laugh at it. 

Kath and Kim US Version

It is a very tricky goal to adapt a current show for a different audience, as you have to change the cultural context of all of it, and in every show the culture is pretty ‘baked in place’ so screenwriters and actors have a huge challenge of trying to insert their own instead, and in the right places, so that it functions smoothly like it is an original and not an obvious shoddy adaptation.

‘The American Kath Day and her daughter Kim are not monstrous enough to be clichés, stereotypes, parodies or even brave enough to be abhorrent or funny.’

This is especially true for British and Australian TV being adapted into the American Sphere, with shows like the Office being adapted from UK to US.

On the left, Office US and on the right, Office UK

There are already several comparison videos on YouTube that examine the cultural differences between the versions and are worth a watch, such as WatchMojo’s video comparing the two Office shows.

UK Office VS US Office

Regardless, whichever version tickles your fancy is entirely up to personal preference, and a UK citizen might prefer the US version of the office, or some Australian (however unlikely) might fall over into gut-busting laughter at the US version of Kath & Kim.

We all have different sensibilities when it comes to humour, and sometimes it might be completely different from what the culture expects from us. Either way, no adaptation can be ‘perfect’ as everyone has a different sense of humour, even if they share the same cultural reference point.


-Journal Article Reference 2

Turnbull, Sue. ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’: Television Comedy in Translation [online]. Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, No. 159, 2008: 110-115.