Kim Yu-na is wonderful, but sadly ‘commodified’

Published in the Korea Times March 30, 2010

Late last year, I presented a paper in a conference at Chongshin University titled, “The Role of Mass Media in Shaping Contemporary Worldviews among Koreans”. And before you ask what the topic has to do with Kim Yuna, I will be upfront that the lovely daughter of this land has been, unfortunately, pressured into the clogs of economic rationalism. I will explain, but first let me clarify that I admire Kim Yu-na. She has is a talented girl who has continually portrayed a spirit of sportsmanship ever since she ventured into figure skating. She is also focused, diligent and with warm smile attracting a big following as fans and supporters. That is why

I was also surprised by her seventh place at the recently concluded World Figure Skating Championships in Turin, Italy.

Nonetheless, at the Chongshin conference, I argued that mass media is shaping the way Korean see and live in the world today. I also argued that there is no neutrality in mass media and their contents. That the media process does not simply interact with the rest of society but has a major influence on how the rest of society understands and imagines itself. In brief, the media not only informs, educate and entertains, it also forms. It forms our hearts, our minds and guides our responses to life experiences. And Korea being a highly media-saturated society where media production and consumption has been termed as plentiful; super-fast; colorful and innovative, the impact of media should call for a critical reflection and genuine engagement.

By observation, many Koreans see the world from economic point of view powered by capitalistic materialism that replaced Confucianism decades ago.

In the same forum, I used an example of Kim Yu-na and how the media and profit-motivated companies had clothed the girl with a super-teenager perception and the promise that she will keep skating on the stage of eternal success. Like many Koreans, I also wish that Kim Yu-na continues to excel in the sport. My apparent disagreement is in the way Yu na has been commodified – equated to a market item. Even journalism and journalists have fallen victims of economic rationalism and have become agents of commodification of personalities. For example, economic terminologies have increasingly been used in reference to Kim Yu-na in the recent past. When she won the Trophee Eric Bompard Championship last year, local dailies reported that she had sparked a marketing craze: “Figure skating sensation Kim Yu-na has been the biggest hit item in the local ad market, even raising concern that excessive exposure in various campaigns could write off her value in the end”  a local newspaper reported. Other headlines ran across newspaper pages: Kim Yu-na’s marketing value sours; Kim Yu-na becomes golden queen; Golden girl Yu-na marketing in top spin and many more. Perhaps it does not take an economic genius to tell that the wordings of these statements reflect a highly economic worldview perspective.

Some critics have indicated that a number of sportspersons abhor a certain degree of marketing craze and obsessive adoration. Last year Yu na was quoted as telling her fans to tone it down. “… I was confused when I saw the way the audience reacted and the way they behaved. Just before I was about to jump, I could still hear them making noise. During the six-minute warm-up, I just wanted it to end, it was too much. So I thought about withdrawing.” In the same breadth Yu-na added that, “I agree with weightlifter (Jang Mi-ran) who said, “I hope Korea does not host the World Championships again.” Kim Yu-na may be right. Spectators can be detractive, confusing, pressurizing and a nuisance.

As for the role of media in shaping worldview, one must understand that mass media is liturgical in nature and disseminates values that can form, manipulate and blurs the way we live.  Media content must therefore be critiqued and its impact evaluated at all times.

By all means, media channels should report about Yu na’s performance. However, they must also acknowledge that she is a mortal being with strengths and weaknesses as opposed to a market product whose value is determined by the market. Her not so good performance at Turin, Italy, perhaps sends an obvious lesson that we must reckon with. That Kim Yu na, weather she wins today or not, remains a wonderfully and beautifully made sportsperson who should be appreciated, encouraged and loved.

And of course companies should be productive and make their products known through advertising. Nevertheless profit making is not all there is to life. Kim Yu-na, regardless of her accolades, should be respected at all times because the personality of an athlete needs not be market-valued. Human beings can never be price tagged – not on an earthly gauge!

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