Tragicomedy of US Soft Power: Exporting Banality to Korea (2)

For part 1, click here. SK is a great case for the study of the soft power,and also a sad example of the cultural banality that is frequently the outcome of Americanization. Conservatives never seem to acknowledge this, but spreading McDonalds, boy bands, action movies, Madonna, etc. not only breeds cultural blowback, it also breeds an embarrassing banality and cultural shallowness in its targets. It is, quite honestly, rather shameful as an American living in Korea to see the arrival of American habits like consumerism and obesity, or insipid American products like soap operas or music-machine pop-music. So from a US foreign policy perspective this is good (Koreans are more like us), but from a high, or even middle-brow, culture perspective, its pretty disturbing to see (how come they seem to pick up the worst of what we have to offer?). When Koreans tell me their country is too Americanized, it is hard not to agree.

Why SK is a good case for a study of soft power’s success/failure:

1. It has been heavily penetrated by the United States for over 60 years. It has been subject to the full weight of Americanization – deep political ties, reinforced by a constant military presence, nested in a large cultural influx.

2. Korea is (was?) very culturally distinct. (Canada or Britain, by contrast, would be weaker examples of cultural shift, because of pre-existing values congruence.) Its history is all but unknown to Americans. Its traditional food, dress, language, and music are quite distant. Its alphabet is not roman and includes sounds that translate poorly. Most importantly, its religious-philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Buddhism, plus some shamanism – are very different. Liberalism and democracy are ideological transplants. Monotheism, and fury it creates in the West and Middle East, are foreign here (although the charismatic evangelicals here are unfortunately bringing it with them.)

How Korea is Americanized:

1. The country is obsessed with learning English. I have been to lots of other countries where learning English was a priority for survival in the global economy, but Korea is exceptional. Koreans will drop out of school for a year to take private lessons just to learn English – not junior years abroad that count as credit. There is a huge public fight over which Koreans can attend US DoD schools here, and there are private ‘international’ schools with an English-only curriculum. (Ironically, they are filled with Koreans, because expats can’t afford their usual $20k/year price-tag.) They will send their grammar school children to after-school extra schooling (hagwons), that have downright brutal teaching regimens with 10 year old students staying until, I’m not lying, 11 pm every weeknight. The bookstores here are filled with books and gimmicks for learning English to pass the TOEFL. There is even an urban legend about surgery to get your tongue cut to supposedly make it easier to speak English. Good English speaking has huge social prestige and will help you land a serious job in Seoul, the center of the universe. 

2. Korean TV is filled with American TV shows and films, frequently the most silly or violent. And Koreans have also patterned their own television partially on the US models, frequently the most insipid. Soap operas here are quite similar to the US – ridiculous adultery plots with pretty women and prettier men wildly overacting, all with great hair and sportscars, living in large American-style homes with driveways and lawns that almost no one here actually can afford (Koreans live in apartment high-rises because of extreme population density). Korean action movies are similar, with exorbitant CGI and quick-cut editing. Forensic police shows are popular too. My students have learned more about America from CSI than from me.

3. Korean popular music too reflects repetitive, self-serving US pop. K-pop is filled with rap and boy/girl bands with all the accoutrements of such groups in the US: silly self-congratulatory videos, inane love lyrics, hairspray & fashion model outfits, bling and conspicuous consumption.

4. US junk food is ubiquitous: Burger King, McDo, KFC. Obesity is a growing problem among Korean youth.

5. Perhaps most disturbing is rapid influx of US versions of Christianity. Protestant evangelicalism is spreading quickly. It is easy conquest, as 50% of Koreans are agnostic or areligious. Blood (yes, as in the spiritual “Power in the Blood” you heard in There Will be Blood) red neon crosses fill the nightskylines of major Korean cities.

6. The US has a major diplomatic and military presence here, and just about every American here seems to know someone in it or otherwise be connected to it. (Me included.)

Of course, deep Korean cultural attributes – food, deference/bowing, Korean traditional music – survive and contest this Americanization. No society is monolithic, and the social contest ebbs, flows, and hybridizes. Last year America was a big problem because of (supposed) mad cow-infected beef; this year, the US isn’t so bad, because NK suddenly seems so dangerous.

My concern is the sheer banality of the cultural influx. Indeed, I think this whenever I travel. I remember seeing Star Trek on TV in Athens with Klingons speaking Greek! Why is it that the silliest, most unhealthy, most ridiculous elements of US social life are exported? Presumably in a market economy, there is local demand, so blame goes both ways. Koreans clearly like McDonalds and the Transporter (its on TV at least once a month here). But it is discomforting to see Koreans made fatter and sillier by US cultural import. And it is easy to imagine what Khomeini notoriously called ‘westoxification’ creating a cultural-nationalist backlash. In the ME of course, that extends to liberalism and democracy, so Khomeini was no defender of the culture – he was a vicious theocrat. But it is still easy to conceive a cultural, sliding into political, backlash against the influx of so much trashy American mediocrity (Project Runway translated into Korean). In fact, Asia is where Chalmers Johnson, the best theorist of political blowback to cultural Americanization, expected something like 9/11 to originate, not the Middle East. And it should embarrass Americans too. A soft power remaking of Korea may be good for us, but don’t we feel a little ashamed about what we export? Are we really pleased to remake others to be shallow, celebrity-obsessed, obese, or insipid (like the Americans foreigners see on TV)? How come Frontline or Mark Twain are not our exports?

4 thoughts on “Tragicomedy of US Soft Power: Exporting Banality to Korea (2)

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  4. Sorry I’m responding to such an old post, but I find these kinds of sociocultural analyses really interesting.

    Maybe you’ve come upon some ideas in the succeeding 5 years since you wrote this, but if I had to guess an answer to your last question (why it’s mostly the low-brow stuff that ends up being exported), I’d posit two major factors.

    First of all and possibly most important, the money involved is simpler to come by. The “classic” American diet of burgers and fries is inexpensive to produce, and thus easy for McDonald’s, or e.g. Lotteria to make money on. Same thing with the cheesy soaps, the low production value and talent enabling a plethora of chances to make new product should the first run fail.

    For the second factor, I’d appeal to the contextual culture theory. The main cultural exports are easily sold–and happily bought–precisely because the don’t have a lot of intrinsic content; they’re accessible and malleable. It’s as easy to write a song in the style of American pop music about being wealthy and famous as it is to write about being chaste for oppa. It seems to me there’s little enough about American pop culture that is explicitly “American” that it’s easy to suit its tropes and ways to a wide variety of cultures, although I’ll admit that being an American, I might just be numb to the American-ness of it all.

    Compare both those examples with, say, French haute cuisine or Wagnerian opera, and it’s easier to see why the representatives of Western culture are what they are.

    Frankly, I the more interesting discussion lies in dissecting Americanization, Westernization, and Modernization. I wouldn’t think even for a moment that all three were the same, but there definitely seem to be consistent parallels between them. The myriad number of ways in which many different countries have gone through any one, or all three, is a fascinating potential study, particularly while keeping historical contexts in mind.


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