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Kingdom, one of Netflix’s original South Korean dramas, couldn’t be streaming at a more apt time.
The drama is, on the surface, a zombie show. It’s intriguing in how it puts the classic zombie trope into a historical drama format—the zombie outbreak has occurred during the Joseon Dynasty. But despite its classic zombie horror trappings and lush historical sets and costumes, Kingdom is a story about how a disordered society—one focused more on greed and status rather than the good of all people—can cause a pandemic to quickly grow out of control.
Relating class and race to safety
I’ve been astounded by the current American phenomenon of refusing to wear masks simply because it is new and a slight inconvenience. No matter how many people discuss the importance of shielding your nose and mouth droplets from others to save lives, there are still folks who are adamant that masks are impeding on their American rights.
Unfortunately, this lack of disregard for others’ lives is part of the American fabric of life. The country went through the same denial of responsibility with the flu outbreak in 1918. But while it’s a big part of American ideology under the guise of “individualism,” human disregard is a broader social issue regarding race and class, as shown in Kingdom.
When it comes to America, people’s denial of the coronavirus hinges on both racism and classism. We’ve seen people stage protests against closing businesses, even though the act is occurring to protect them and others.
As the BBC reported in April, protesters alleged “that the stringent measures restricting movement and businesses are unnecessarily hurting citizens” and that the stay-at-home measures put in place by state governments were “an overreaction.” A sizable contingent of those protesters was also part of gun rights groups, states the outlet, “citing infringements on civil liberties.” Overall, protesters felt like shutting down the country would hurt the economy, without realizing that keeping the nation open would hurt the economy even further.
“The organisers have behind these protests have largely been conservative, pro-Trump and pro-gun activists,” states the BBC. “US media have described many of these demonstrations as reminiscent of Trump campaign events, with pro-Trump banners, t-shirts, and signs aplenty.”
It’s classist; people who can afford convenience – the services at hair salons, buying mimosas for brunch with friends, paying for concierge services of any type – are having a tough time comprehending that their “needs” for convenience isn’t as important right now.
Race also comes into play because the majority of the protesters are white.
These protesters don’t realize that those who are the most vulnerable are poor and non-white Americans. More impoverished Americans must work in potentially unsafe conditions to meet the wealthier classes’ demands. As school season ramps back up, teachers are now forced to consider possibly catching the virus because state lawmakers are compelling them to work or face unemployment merely because they are concerned about their health and their students’ health. All over the country, vulnerable people have to make decisions that could affect their lives and their families’ lives, all because of a more affluent, more powerful class that wants things to remain comfortable for them.
Example: The Los Angeles Times highlights protests that have taken place in some of the wealthier parts of California.
“The raucous protests in wealthy, coastal Orange and San Diego counties and at the state Capitol in recent days have, for many, highlighted racial and class disparities amid a pandemic that has killed more than 2,500 Californians – a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Latino and poor.”
The article cited how low-income residents are three times more likely to die of the coronavirus than their wealthier counterparts. Similarly, Black and Latino Californians under 50 years of age are dying at higher rates than White Californians and other ethnic groups. Why? “Experts believe one reason is that many work in ‘essential’ service jobs that require them to leave home, putting them at a higher risk of infection.”
The privilege on display was expressed by East Los Angelean Alexis Rodriguez, who told the outlet, “When Latinos are out protesting immigration or other problems, the first things you hear are White people saying, ‘Get a job!’ or ‘Follow the rules!’ But when it’s white people in Huntington Beach, it’s all about ‘fighting for your rights.’”
While race isn’t the defining issue at work in Kingdom, class certainly is. Classism is essentially a character of its own in this series, in which government officials, the wealthy elite, and the royal family see lower classes as dispensable. As far as these people are concerned, the lower classes can deal with the zombie virus all by themselves, as long as it doesn’t affect their wealth and status.
The best example of this is an elderly noblewoman who refuses to take the virus as seriously as possible. This woman is a member of the aristocracy of Dongnae, a village attacked by zombies. She resists pleas from Seo-bi (Bae Doo-na), a local nurse who has witnessed the zombie outbreak firsthand, and Yeong-shin (Kim Seong-gyu), a tiger hunter who was with Seo-bi at the start of the epidemic, to burn the infected bodies. Why? Because it would mean she’d have to burn the body of her deceased son, a decorated military official.
Crown Prince, Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) is the only aristocrat in this series who cares about his country, orders for the destruction of the bodies due to Seo-bi and Yeong-shin’s advice. But the noblewoman still stows her son’s body with her on a boat taking all Dongnae’s elite away from the infected village. Ultimately, it’s this woman’s sense of classist importance, along with the rest of Dongnae’s rich and powerful classism, that kills them in the form of the woman’s son, now reanimated into a zombie. This tragedy could have never happened if the higher class took the virus seriously and thought about how the poor’s wellbeing coalesces with their welfare.
Lack of proper (and competent) leadership
The obsession with classism is just part of the issues with the government officials and elite in Kingdom. The upper classes, who are ruling over their vulnerable constituents, are more concerned with acquiring and coveting power rather than passing decrees that could help make their people’s lives easier.
Cho Beom-pal (Jeon Seok-ho) is an excellent example of a person in power with no credentials to be in a lawmaking position. As a member of the Queen’s Haweon Cho clan, Beom-pal takes Dongnae’s magistrate’s role. Indeed, he is one of the officials who initially disregarded Seo-bi, Yeong-shin, and the Crown Prince’s warnings about the virus and ran to the boat with the other elite to escape. After becoming the only survivor of that fateful boat ride, Beom-pal evolves into someone who takes responsibility. But beforehand, he was only focused on having lavish parties with his family’s money instead of focusing on policy. He is a bloated official with no real talent or skill at leadership. Does that sound familiar?
Our current president, Donald Trump, similarly hasn’t tried to learn anything during the pandemic; instead, he’s content to ruin the country due to his urge for power.
Trump has stayed true to his denial of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans – people who could have gotten help had Trump been proactive about safeguarding the country against this public health threat.
Trump’s lack of proactivity is worse than we initially assumed; as the pandemic got more aggressive, we’ve learned that the Trump administration knew about the threat. But instead of taking precautions by relying on existing public health protocols, Trump chose to assume the pandemic would pass by the country. Also important: he chose not to fill key national security positions after officials unexpectedly left their posts two years ago. Their jobs were explicitly designed to handle pandemics.
According to CNBC, House Democrats have unleashed their latest attack against Trump, saying he “intentionally misled the American public on every aspect of the pandemic,” leading to economic disarray and countless deaths.
The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis wrote in their report about the pandemic, “President Trump’s deadly denial, distortion and delay has led to the worst federal response to a national emergency in our history. His actions are directly responsible for tens of thousands of needless deaths, tens of millions of people out of work, and mass confusion that has crippled our nation’s response.”
Even as recent as Aug. 5, Trump told reporters that the virus is “going away,” despite evidence to the contrary.
“It’ll go away,” he said. “Things go away. No question in my mind that it will go away.” He didn’t give a plan on how the virus would go away. Treating a problem or an illness, as we know, means having a treatment plan. To this end, Clyburn said Trump “seems to be in deep denial” and addressed how his refusal to listen to health experts is a danger.
His inability to lead has placed us in our current predicament. We’re a country that can’t get back to “normal” because of the raging virus, yet we’re feeling pressured to act like the virus doesn’t exist because our government focused more on self-centered power than leadership.
If we go by Kingdom standards, Trump is a less-glamorous version of Queen Cho (Kim Hye-jun), who covets power to the point of killing pregnant women to harvest a son. (If the women gave birth to female babies, she would kill them as well.) She also killed her father, Chief State Councilor Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong), because he threatened her chance at remaining on the throne because of his ambitions. Indeed, Hak-ju uses the virus for his political ends by using it to turn the former deceased emperor into a puppet for his political gain.
Even though her father was terrible, Queen Cho is even worse. Not only has she killed innocents and her father, but she was also willing to sacrifice the entire nation to the zombie epidemic, so no one else will gain the throne after her. Her lust for power is not too different from Trump’s, who is currently sacrificing the nation so that he doesn’t have to reckon with his ineptitude.
Our own power to help ourselves in the midst of breakdown
So where do we go from here? What lessons can Kingdom teach us? One of them, I think, is that power doesn’t have to corrupt leadership if used responsibly, and it doesn’t have to hurt more vulnerable classes. Real power is using your skills and advantages to help others.
The true heroes of Kingdom are the same heroes we should be lauding in real life – the first responders and healthcare workers, the community leaders, and those in office who are using their privileges to create a better society for all, regardless of social status. These heroes continue to work tirelessly to make the country – and the world at large – a better place.
Other unsung heroes in this series and our current pandemic are the group of everyday individuals who do their part to help their neighbors in need. In Kingdom, these average citizens put their lives on the line, helping save families, killing zombies, and devising plans to keep their villages safe. In our society, ordinary Americans are sounding the alarm about the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing, creating community outreach programs to provide food and help to families, and keeping loved ones’ hopes up via virtual get-togethers. These actions, big and small, are helping make this crisis a little bit easier to bear.
America has witnessed just how toxic classism, racism, and high-level ineptitude can be in the face of a public crisis. It’s been intriguing to see most of these issues get examined in Kingdom.
The show is a shot in the arm in the discussion of social responsibility – not only are the elite and ineffectual leadership skewered in this series, but the power of community gets exalted to its rightful place. In Kingdom, “community” isn’t merely about folks working together with no goal in sight – it’s about individuals using their unique skills to make life better for everyone involved. We should take that lesson to heart.
Americans are smarter than how the current stories of anti-mask protests make us appear. In May poll held by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland, most Americans are uncomfortable with the country reopening and returning to “normal.” In June, CBS News reported that over half of the nation – 62 percent – felt the Trump administration was bungling the pandemic’s handling. Even more impressive – most people polled think that wearing a mask is a “public health responsibility.” The majority of us know what we need to do. And, like the communities in Kingdom, we have a higher chance of securing the peace and health we want if we fight together as one.
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