Asian TV and Rethinking Whiteness as Default

By Charlotte Stevens on March 5th, 2021

This blog post uses the year’s Alternativity theme as a starting point for an upcoming discussion for the Screen Cultures cluster’s ‘year in screens’ seminar week.

Since late 2018 the vast majority of my TV viewing has been Chinese and Korean serial dramas. This personal media consumption is a form of alternative experience to the default and dominant culture of my upbringing and current situation, since I am white and North American, and these series are not part of my family’s viewing or cultural history. However, I am acutely conscious that it is not an ‘alternative’ for viewers in China, South Korea, or (perhaps) their respective diasporas. From what I can gather based on paratexts and the fragments of celebrity culture that filter through to English-language social media, many of these series are profoundly mainstream programmes. Indeed, there is a cute but revelatory moment in the Korean series Tale of the Nine-Tailed (2020) when the protagonist says his hobby is watching ‘American dramas’, framing an interest in a foreign media culture as a quirky hobby. Touché. 

My viewing habits started to change in late 2018 when some friends watched and loved one hugely popular Chinese adaptation of a web novel (Guardian, 2018), and I followed them into exploring streaming platforms, celebrity cultures, and narrative formats that had hitherto been beyond my experience. These days my Netflix algorithm shows me very little material that isn’t produced in Asia – it has clearly given up on asking me to watch UK-based or other Anglophone media. (As a further point re: Alternativity, I cannot recall the last time I watched something broadcast, rather than on-demand.)

I am enjoying these programmes for a few reasons. Chief among these is a solid standard for good acting and plotting, some astonishingly high budgets, and the pleasures of encountering familiar tropes and learning new ones across a range of genres. In the series I’ve watched, there is often an attention to telling stories in genre, without needing to be cynically clever about it; the repetition with variation at the core of genre seems to be embraced rather than taken as an embarrassment to be subverted. It is also not difficult to find female protagonists, especially in the more romcom-leaning series, though not exclusively. 

These programmes also offer a satisfying depth and breadth of storytelling. The Korean programmes will have 16-20 episodes of about an hour each, whereas the Chinese series tend to be a single coherent run of up to 60 episodes (though shorter, typically 40-45 minutes each). It also seems rare for a second (or third) series to be commissioned, meaning these are serial narratives moving toward a definite end, offering the pleasure of investing in a complete story. This distinguishes them from American series where the story which may just end rather than conclude depending on season renewals, and offer more scope for character development and narrative complexity over a standard British ‘quality’ 6-episode series. It is also interesting to reflect that I feel a need to develop a complex defence here in order to overcome a reflexive orientalist view of ‘foreign = lesser’ that shaped my initial expectations.

This has also been an opportunity to reflect on the default of whiteness in my media exposure, and experiences that regularly position minority representation in European and North American media as a niche interest or special concern. As a media scholar and science fiction nerd I am passingly familiar with anime but I haven’t had a huge exposure to Asian media despite a few (token?) weeks in undergraduate courses. It has been interesting to learn about elements of Chinese and Korean culture and history that give context to what I’m watching – everything from folklore through ideologies. I have also been doing personal work to decolonise the way I speak about this experience: this has not been a journey of discovery, I have not been exploring new Netflix categories (these being metaphors with colonial implications), but perhaps finding my way though. 

What started as a bit of fun has inevitably bled into classroom practice. While I’d never argue that consuming entertainment TV is a shortcut to cultural sensitivity, I hope that I’m working to be a better tutor for our international students. Also, I’ve started to use Korean TV in teaching fandom studies; namely Her Private Life (2019) a series about a k-pop fan which comments on age divides in fandom, fan labour, and appropriate ways of being a fan. Feedback on the latter was positive! 

I could have stopped with just watching Guardian, and taking its budget limitations as indicative of an entire culture’s media production, but buoyed up by friends’ recommendations, I watched other series to learn how genres and tropes function in this space where I am an outsider. It had been so long since I felt excited about watching television – bored by American/UK offerings, tired of productions that seemed to hold their audiences in contempt, looking for an escape from the juggernaut of Marvel fandom – that I wholeheartedly opened myself to these new experiences. Throughout 2019 it was fun to be excited about television again, and find new fandoms; throughout 2020 I was grateful for new and renewed friendships oriented around a shared consumption of these series.