What happens when a beauty vlogger, a restaurant owner, a dancer, a neuroscience student, a men’s boutique owner, fitness trainers and models in their 20s-30s are tossed onto an uninhabited island to find love – that’s the premise of Netflix’s dating reality show Single’s Inferno in a nutshell.
The show is trash reality content at its sinful best – good-looking people in a picturesque setting, but with no cussing or scheming. A Korean friend contextualised this digression, “The Korean audience is obsessed with morals more than they realise. That’s why the whole situation with one of the participants wearing knock-off items blew up after the show. If the contestants started plotting against others, the show might have been more fun but their reputation would take a hit in Korea. They didn’t fight so that they all could become winners.”
And that’s exactly what has happened. The popularity of the contestants skyrocketed by the time the show ended in early January 2022, their social media followers had exploded and they were dealing with brands like Chanel and Alexander McQueen. But glitz and glamour aside, Single’s Inferno spurred a discussion on Korean beauty standards and bought to table the complex issue of colourism that didn’t sit well with the international audience. Different from racism, colourism is the preference of people with light skin over those with darker complexion within the same racial or ethnic group.
The tone and manner of the contestants’ colourist remarks on the show displayed no malicious intent and were probably made unconsciously – a byproduct of their society’s makeup. As an Indian viewer, my reaction wasn’t livid, unlike a Western viewer. In fact, the colourism aspect of Single’s Inferno hit so close to home. India, like many other Asian countries, is not immune to bias over skin colour. Everyone at some point has overheard or experienced comments being made on skin tone in India. As I watched the show, it reminded me how ubiquitous its presence is and how the media is a potent vehicle to perpetuate it.
Anyone who has been consuming K-pop music culture for a while would be familiar with controversial colourist remarks by K-pop groups. Even the biggest names in the industry, including EXO and BTS, have been caught making colourist remarks in the past. Sometimes, it isn’t even directed against another party but a self-derogatory comment that a member, with a relatively darker-skin tone, makes against themselves. Single’s Inferno has put the spotlight back on the topic.
Participants, both male and female, gasped when any contestant with extremely fair complexion made their entry on the show. One contestant even went to declare that they preferred people who have light skin and unsurprisingly went on their first date with a fair-skin person. Netflix Korea took note of the controversies and said that cultural differences were the riding factor.
“Something may be okay in South Korea, but not okay in other countries,” said Netflix Korea’s Vice President Kang Dong Han.
The international scrutiny of the show found mention in the Korean media. Experts explained the historical origins of colourism linking it to agrarian societies where having white skin meant the person didn’t work in the fields and indicated upper-class affiliations. They said the preference of skin tone in South Korea, which has had ‘practically only one ethnicity’, had nothing to do with social stratification like caste system in India and was a distinction between white-collar and manual labour.
Regardless of whether colourism is accepted or is a non-factor within the ethnically homogenous Korean society, today, when the country is no more isolated from the outside world, and Korean content is globally consumed, the prevalence of such bias is unlikely to be tolerated by an international audience.
Moreover, the colourist bias of Korean society seems to have manifested into racist tendencies. A news report in the largest English daily in Korea traced the racial hierarchy prevalent in Korea and quoted a sociology professor saying, “Koreans tend to be more welcoming toward white people from developed countries but disregard those from countries with lower economic status.”
Deer or puppy? How does your face look
Once the bitterness of colourism settles down, Single’s Inferno becomes a blinding vortex of gorgeous-looking people basking in vanity and scrutinising other beautiful people. Each contestant unfailing asks about the other’s ‘ideal type’ – a mandatory practice in the Korean dating culture.
In a country where high school students get plastic surgery for graduation, the weight put on appearance and pressure to look good is unmatched. A 2015 New Yorker article delved into the Korean fascination with plastic surgery and how it was rooted in Confucianism, which teaches that behaviour toward others is all-important. “In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more,” a psychology professor had said.
There is also the prevalence of Physiognomy, or the art of face reading, which has been practised for centuries in Korea as a way of divining a person’s future, all of which tie-up with the emphasis on facial appearance.
Single’s Inferno contestants replicated this steady focus on appearance and the significance of ‘first impression’. During their monologues, while cameras showed their toned and chiselled bodies, participants professed their beauty preferences. From preferences such as good teeth, to nose to ‘pure, innocent and untainted eyes’, the parameters were diverse.
The Korean obsession with double eyelids also surfaced when a contestant said they had monolids. If we scratch a little deeper, the double eyelid surgery or ‘Asian blepharoplasty’ is a reminder of the country’s painful past. The surgery was pioneered in South Korea by an American military plastic surgeon, Dr David Ralph Millard, when he was stationed there during the Korea War in the 1950s. “Surgically altering the ‘slanted’ eyes became a mark of a ‘good’ and trustworthy Asian,” a Korean scholar claimed.
A Korean vox pop on the show showed the popular and peculiar practice of comparing people’s faces to animals. One of Single Inferno’s most popular contestants Song Jia had a ‘cat-shaped’ face. Although there doesn’t seem to be a definite number of categories, women’s faces are usually compared with cat, dog, rabbit, turtle or deer. Men’s faces are segmented into herbivorous-dinosaur face, carnivorous-dinosaur face, monkey or horse face, apart from cat and dog. Each category comes with a set of attributes, stereotypes and also, make-up styles!
A 2016 article in the Korean media mentioned a study where puppy face was preferred over cat face when it came to first impressions.
Single’s Inferno is a stark reminder of the sore realities within South Korea – a society where preference for certain skin colour exists and a strenuous demand is put on looks and appearances. It’s a paradox that an aesthetically-pleasing reality show made a new batch of international audience aware of the flipside that exists beyond the picture-perfect world of K-dramas and K-pop.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)