On the lush grounds of frizzy-haired college girl Hong Seol’s campus roams a bunch of green-eyed beings—stalkers, thieves and one copycat—accusing one another of being weirdos who think of normals like themselves as weirdos. There is also the Mr. Nice, Yoo Jung, whom Seol catches betraying a faint smirk when a flirtatious schoolmate trying to strike up a relationship with him at a party “accidentally” has beer poured over herself. Jung, in turn, catches Seol catching on to his trick and stares back. Such is the chilling tone of the lead couple’s first encounter in 2016 Korean drama Cheese in the Trap. In the time to come, Seol suspects Jung of more misdeeds, while he subtly maneuvers people into harassing her—or at least she thinks. One year later, though, Jung starts acting friendly to Seol too and pestering her to have lunch together. At first flustered, Seol discovers the real culprit behind a misdeed and acquiesces out of guilt, only for him to propose that they date not long after that. But the audience gets to see the incident from the culprit’s perspective and find out that Jung is the puppet master after all. Just what is Jung scheming now?
Over the course of the series, we piece together the story from Jung’s point of view: Since he was a child, his father has demanded that he maintains a pleasant demeanor at all times, which most of us find is the more intuitive way to cultivate relationships anyway. Meanwhile, all around him are covetous people putting on friendly facades to sponge off the rich boy. Even his close friends want a share of his father and turn out to be the elder man’s spies. Behind Jung’s manipulative behavior is the mindset of the child he has always remained: to return carefully wrong for wrong and evil for evil. It feels far easier than direct confrontation, and one may argue that he merely does what so many people do in a more intelligent manner. To Jung, the others, with their pathetic foibles, are the truly strange ones. Yet Seol judges him in her own terms and throws him a sneering look. As they get more acquainted, though, he realizes that she is the rare person who, like him, does her best for the team no matter that people see her as a pushover. His love for Seol is genuine. And so is the manipulativeness he now redirects towards the weirdos bothering her.
Commenting on the case of a real-life weird man who emerges from his virtual game reality to murder masses of actual humans, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård suggested that it is the appreciation of his own humanity and the humanity of others that fosters the proper development of an individual. Such understanding, he thought, comes about through social integration. In his words:
“The most powerful human forces are found in the meeting of the face and the gaze. Only there do we exist for one another. In the gaze of the other, we become, and in our own gaze others become.”
His lyrical statements echo French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory that seeing and being seen shape one’s identity. The individual sees how he is being seen and becomes aware of the difference between his self-image and image in others’ eyes. Not only that, he sees how others see others in comparison and notices his deficiencies. He then attempts to close the latter gap. The alternative, one might add, would often be to continue suffering anxiety about being “strange”—a quality that bothers the person perhaps because of its inherent distastefulness, the distastefulness of the particular socially deviant behavior, or the yearning for acceptance and/or love from the community.
But why has social contact not cultivated in Jung the kind of empathy envisaged by Knausgård? Perhaps the answer (partly) lies in resentment towards personal autonomy robbed by the social scrutiny. As academic Jonathan Schroeder noted, the “gaze,” a term popular in phenomenological analyses, symbolizes psychological power over the object gazed at. It does not help that all Jung discerns are unsympathetic sentiments towards himself. In line with his eye-for-an-eye mentality, he socializes without looking too deeply into people’s psyches, denying them his understanding.
Lacan’s writings suggested, however, that one does not really need to see people in the flesh to perceive a gaze. Angles of view potentially accessible to them and objects or experiences modifiable by them suffice. He raises the example of Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors (1533). When a viewer first takes in the painting, he may delight at the experience of peering into this world of exquisite scientific instruments, exotic textiles and well-dressed figures. As his eyes reach the bottom, though, a blot of colors running diagonally across the picture puzzles him. When he views it from certain angles, he realizes that it is the distorted image of a skull staring back at him, and the meaning of the painting is changed. The object one sees and thinks he is controlling has apparently been seeing and controlling him after all! To put it another way, it is as though the painter has watched him (more accurately, noted the vulnerability/malleability of viewers in general) and manipulated his experience. The centuries-dead Holbein’s gaze is thus felt.
Scholars have since extended the concept of the gaze to various cultural phenomena. There is, for instance, the clinical gaze, under which modern patients have their bodies subject to direct, scientific examinations, as opposed to the days when diagnoses relied solely on their testimonies and medical theories that were not always well-tested. Another example is the cosmetic gaze, which refers to how bodily enhancement techniques and media coverage of such enhancements influence society’s beauty ideals and contribute to the notion of the body as something awaiting improvement.
Yet Jung would not be wrong to claim that the gaze may involve distortion of truth. In the case of the tourist gaze, for example, it is argued that tourists sometimes hold stereotyped expectations of a place, which locals try to meet for financial returns, resulting in misrepresentation and corruption of the geographical culture. Like Jung, some of those gazed upon gaze back in retaliation. In response to the male gaze, for example, in which visual media are designed based on masculine attitudes and desires, there is reportedly an “oppositional gaze“—some female viewers, repudiating the representations of themselves, criticize and laugh at the works.
A complication, unfortunately, is that a gaze can be all-pervasive yet undetectable. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham fantasized the Panopticon, a circular prison designed to enable a watchman to observe an inmate from any cell without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being observed at any given instant. In such manner, even though the watchman cannot observe all cells at one time, each inmate has to keep his behavior in check as though he is watched round the clock. His French counterpart Michel Foucault and various social critics have since used the model as a metaphor for mechanisms through which societies apply constant pressure on their members to maintain norms. It may be argued that, just as those complying perfectly are reacting disproportionately to the actual amount of surveillance, those rebelling against the gaze risk overestimating the scale of the oppression and retaliatory damage warranted (if damage is even rightful at all). Indeed, we can speculate that the fear of the unknown—the unpredictable and potentially boundless extent to which a foe will persist in his hurtful behavior—is sometimes one of the factors driving people in Jung’s predicament to respond with actions harsher than those that have upset them.
Gaze exchange is an unreliable social signaling mechanism in many more ways. The gazed may be not much less myopic than the gazer, in terms of their understanding of the gaze and foresight of domino effects from their responses. Neither will the returned gaze automatically reach the gazer. At the end of the day, the gazer may not even understand which aspect of its attitude has caused happiness, or that it has caused unhappiness at all. With Jung, we gradually see that he fails to detect the possibly well-meaning intention behind one close friend’s seemingly traitorous speech, or envisage how his manipulative schemes will run out of control and ricochet back to him and Seol. In certain cases, his conceptually brilliant plans work like Aesop’s North Wind, provoking more extreme behavior from stubborn and infuriated enemies. Most paradoxically, that friend (Baek In-ho), the second male lead whose hand was crushed by his doings, never seems to learn that those denigratory words have also hurt Jung, not even in the finale.
Given such a context, one would opine that the relationship between Seol and Jung is rather unhealthy. The upside, though, is that Jung’s critical stance towards exploitative behavior influences Seol to stand up for herself. Yet, whereas he orchestrates things from behind the scenes, she addresses her troublemakers openly, even if the confrontation gets ugly. She eventually demands that Jung communicates freely with her too, with a confession that he sent people after her because he used to dislike her. That is the provocative idea offered by the story: We need tiffs and arguments, after all, to be better versions of ourselves and to build better relationships. Communication is capable of what gaze and Machiavellianism may not be.
What sustains communication, in turn, is trust. Seol convinces Jung that she will not desert him because of his true nature, although she does urge him to stop his machinations. Still, how is Jung supposed to trust that communication will also work with any other person? Cannot communication be open as well as respectful more often? Instead of the answers, the drama is capped off with the weary old tropes of parental opposition to relationship, car accident and noble idiocy. Another sore point among viewers is that its focus shifts to In-ho in some episodes. To be fair, there are probably plots that benefit from switches of leads halfway, but this is a case where an intriguing case study of psychology is sacrificed for a somewhat generic story of a struggling pianist. Even if the show would not have thought itself equipped to contemplate those questions, the time diverted to In-ho’s brooding scenes could have been better spent illustrating additional points discussed in the original webtoon: constant failure to disguise negative emotions leads to ostracization; some individuals worn down by life may have subconsciously thought it fine to let better-off peers experience a little loss; protests of judgmentalism can become excuses for inaction with regard to personal problems.
In fiction—insofar as fiction is powered by boundless imagination—no romantic pairing is absolutely unworkable. The real star-crossed romance in this drama is perhaps that between philosophy and commercial workings. Given its rich insights into relationship dynamics, however, not all 16 hours the show consumes are a waste of time. It is just that we may have to look intently for the last chunk of the snack elsewhere. But who is to say that the story encountered in one medium cannot end in another?