In the quest to understand other cultures, confusion is normal. I observe, perhaps clearly, but then misinterpret what I see or hear. This made living abroad endlessly fascinating, and often humorous.
The quest is one of the many things that keeps me coming back guiltily to the propaganda platform Netflix. It would take too long to list every show that depicted Russians as evil incarnate so I’ll just list one that seems specially designed to tee up the proxy war in Ukraine: Stranger Things. The propaganda is often more subtle, and harder to discern when watching a show set in Turkey, Iran, Italy, or South Korea.
Now that I’m down with Covid for the second time, Netflix is useful for keeping me resting on the couch. But I have to find a different show for daytime because my husband would be disappointed if I watched Extraordinary Attorney Woo without him.
The premise of the show — that people on the autism spectrum experience life differently than most of us, and face unique challenges in love, diet, wardrobe, and issues of employment (including revolving doors) — is not uniquely Korean. Several individuals in the community of people on the spectrum have criticized the show as coming from an ableist perspective. Also for depicting an extremely rare “genius savant” as if she represented the group accurately.
Apparently the show is popular enough in South Korea that schoolchildren are taunting classmates by asking, “Are you Woo Young-woo?”
Perhaps not surprising considering the original title in Korean translates as Weird Attorney Woo Young-woo.
So I’m watching this highly entertaining show through the lens of my own experiences. I was a teacher for many years, on teams working to eliminate the “R” word as an ableist taunt disrespectful of people with developmental delays. And I witnessed the beauty that becomes possible when neurodivergent people are afforded time and appropriate accomodations to participate fully in school activities. At my oldest grandchild’s high school graduation recently, his class gave a standing ovation to a classmate with Down syndrome who was receiving a diploma along with the rest of the class. The growth in compassion, understanding, and opportunity that resulted from inclusion is the best thing that happened in public education during my lifetime.
I also lived in Japan for several years, where Koreans conscripted during WW2 were still treated as aliens several generations later. I’ve protested General Dynamics building warships that port at Jeju Island, depicted as a tropical paradise for vacationing in certain Attorney Woo episodes, with a heritage coral reef now entombed in concrete.
I’ve heard the argument that the brutal occupation of Korea by the Japanese empire created the conditions that gave rise to a culture of political protest.
The ubiquitous presence of organized protest is one of the first things I noticed about this show.
Color-coordinated vests with political slogans show up in the courtroom when Woo’s trials address social issues like gendered discrimination or treatment of people with disabilities. An opposing lawyer steps outside her role to protest (loudly) outside the courthouse, and then makes the argument that she was doing so in her capacity as a private citizen, and that she and the plaintiffs only chose the location because they had to appear in court later that day. The judge allows it.
Even the episode on South Korea’s education culture, which many consider oppressive and inappropriately harsh, featured a character using absurdist political theater and direct action to protest. The self-styled Commander-in-Chief for the Children’s Liberation Army has elementary school students ditching their “study cafes” and instead chanting: “Children must play now! Children must be healthy now! Children must be happy now!” He’s the youngest son of a private academy owner known for her draconian regime of 12 hours straight study with no breaks or meals, where students are sent home for using the bathroom more than twice a day.
I live in a nation at the other extreme, where standards of education for the masses have eroded steadily. We look longingly at nations like Finland which has both excellent outcomes and plenty of play time, and where school tuition is illegal to ensure the wealthy don’t exclude their children from the public schools.
Overall, though, I continue to be surprised by how much South Korea’s legal system as depicted in Woo resembles that of the U.S. Our war on Korea killed 5 million before it was suspended by ceasefire and partition of the peninsula into the communist North and the capitalist South. Freedom of speech and press are part of South Korea’s constitution, as is prohibition of discrimination against people with disabilities or on the basis of sex.
That’s the structural reflection of U.S. influence, even though the national government of South Korea has often been autocratic, with heads of state installed via military coups. Militarism pervades Attorney Woo’s world as male attorneys bond over their shared military service experiences.
Most like the U.S., however, is the pervasive class resentment that crops up in nearly every episode. It underpins the education mamas’ anxieties, and fuels competition at law firms where connections trump merit. The theme of class under capitalism was an Academy Award winner in 2020 when the South Korean film Parasite won Best Picture depicting greedy landlords, and was the underpinning of the blockbuster dystopian series Squid Game in 2021.
Our increasingly desperate life under late stage capitalism transcends borders, inspiring authors in many languages.
A final note: it can’t be a coincidence that all the affluent, highly-educated characters on Woo have very light complexions — in contrast to many of their working class clients, and consistent with social stratification by melanin under capitalism. A cursory examination of K-pop stars shows those rising to the top of the highly profitable entertainment sector are uniformly fair. Also, the lighting scheme most often employed renders the actors especially bright.
This is an issue the show has yet to take up, but I’m on episode 11 out of 16, so we could still get there. Needless to say, I will stay tuned.