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Tracing the root of Koreans’ ‘white skin obsession’

Netflix dating show ‘Single’s Inferno’ under fire for male contestants’ comment on skin color

A scene from “Single’s Inferno” on Netflix (Netflix)
A scene from “Single’s Inferno” on Netflix (Netflix)
Weeks after Korean series “Hellbound” became a massive hit on Netflix, another show -- “Single’s Inferno” -- has started a fire, possibly for all the wrong reasons.

The dating reality show recently became the subject of a dispute among viewers abroad over one of its cast members’ comment on a female cast member, specifically about her “white skin color.”

The controversy, appears to stem from a combination of factors including a lack of understanding about Korea’s traditional standards of beauty and a less-than-perfect translation.

In one episode, the male contestants gather after meeting their female counterparts for the first time and shared their first impressions.

One contestant’s remark is translated as “She is so white. My first impression of her was she is very white, so purely white.”

Another contestant chimed in, saying “She is so white. I like people with white skin.”

A scene from “Single’s Inferno” on Netflix (Netflix)
A scene from “Single’s Inferno” on Netflix (Netflix)
The two comments sparked angry reactions from viewers, with the pair receiving flak over their “obsession” with skin color. One viewer commented, “‘She looks so white and pure’ you really came on this show for THAT. You could’ve deadass stayed in yo hometown.”

The way the comments were translated may have helped fan the criticism.

While the male contestant’s comment was on the “magnitude of how bright and flawless” the female contestant’s skin was, the English word “white” could allude to race or reflect colorism.

While some viewers even took the case as an example of the Asian “obsession toward white people,” having fair skin has traditionally been a standard of beauty throughout the history of Korea.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, the history of Koreans’ preference for “white skin” dates back thousands of years.

A mural found in tombs from the Goguryeo Kingdom (AD 37-668) -- such as one in Susan-ri Tomb in North Korea that was listed as a World Cultural Heritage -- depicts nobles by emphasizing their pale white skin, which was part of the typical makeup of that era.

“White and glossy skin symbolized high class, which motivated people -- men and women alike -- to make their skin white. This is indicated through our ancestors’ preference for bathing or the use of cosmetic products using natural ingredients,” the state-run agency wrote in a 2014 article from its monthly magazine Love of Cultural Assets.

In the folk tale “Chunhyangjeon,” protagonist Chunhyang’s love interest Mongryong puts on makeup to make his face look whiter before meeting her, indicating that white skin was preferred as early as in the 17th century.

Jeong Yak-yong, an 18th century scholar, and most other people from that era whose records show were assessed as “handsome” are said to have “white skin.”

Another interesting point is that Westerners were not considered “white” at that time.

While people of European origin are often described as white, including in modern Korea, records show that the Far East Asians did not perceive them as having white skin. During the Yuan Dynasty -- founded by the Mongolians and occupied most of what is China -- the Westerners were called “saekmok-in,” which is directly translated into “people of colored eyes” but in practice meant “assorted categories.” It mostly referred to the Semu people, from Central and Western Asia.

Dutchman Hendrick Hamel, one of the small number of Westerners known to have landed on the Korean Peninsula, spent 13 years in 17th century Joseon and wrote a detailed account of the country. He said Westerners were called “myeon-cheol,” which directly translates as “iron face” and in practice used to refer to a reddish, rusty complexion.

While preference toward white, or pale skin dates back at least centuries, it is unclear exactly why. It is clear that it did not come from the West -- as it far predates Western influence on the country. But most people believe it is due to the Korean Peninsula having an agriculture-based economy throughout its history. Since noblemen and the wealthy were spared from the burden of everyday labor in the blazing sun, pale, white skin was considered a symbol of wealth.

A scene from “Single’s Inferno” on Netflix (Netflix)
A scene from “Single’s Inferno” on Netflix (Netflix)

Back to “Single’s Inferno,” some Korean viewers found it odd that overseas viewers were so deeply offended by the white skin comments, especially when there was another scene in which another participant compliments a person with tanned skin.

“Wow, they really don’t respect personal preferences,” wrote one viewer. Another said, “White skin has been a standard for beauty for ages in our country, what’s this about? What ‘white people’?”

Some say the latest controversy shows the risk involved in exporting cultural products. Due to the differences in audiences’ perspective and backgrounds, the product could invite unwanted negative attention.

In a relatively homogenous society that Korea was for a long time, commenting on someone’s skin color may not have been a sensitive racial issue, setting aside the question of lookism. But when presenting them to a global audience, creators should be more sensitive. Especially as Korea, too, has become more multicultural, the viewers argue.

“A lot (of the controversy) could have been saved, if anyone cared about Western audiences and their issues,” said one viewer.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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