A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog ran a short piece about Chinese viewers of Korean dramas. It caused something of a furor on the dramaweb, and no wonder. Even from the headline, you knew trouble was ahead: “South Korean Soap Operas: Just Lowbrow Fun?”
When someone is talking about scripted Asian television, they generally use one of two names: drama or soap opera. To speakers of American English, drama is a neutral word that describes a show’s format without judging its content. Soap opera, in contrast, is a loaded term. It tells you not only that the program is a scripted series, but also that it focuses on the domestic realm and is characterized by sensational storytelling. The phrase arises from the early days of the radio, when companies—often manufacturers of soap—funded programming geared toward housewives who would be listening on weekday afternoons. In America, soap opera is still shorthand for a dying breed of schlocky daytime series (although it occasionally pops up in reference to “prime-time soaps” like Dallas and The OC).
The real distinction between these two names is their assumed audience: Anyone can watch a drama. But it’s women who watch soap operas. Their scripts focus on things that are automatically gendered female: relationships and family and home life. They don’t necessary have complicated, self-consciously clever plots or deal with lots of thrilling action. Instead, emotions and the doings of the human heart are their canvas. And that’s exactly what’s undervalued by the sort of people who scoff at Korean television as being simplistic.
The author of the WSJ article—according to his CNN bio, an extensively traveled native of Seoul—may not be familiar with the fraught nature of the phrase soap opera. But I think it’s clear that he’s happy to dismiss Korean drama as an embarrassment. Here’s how he describes Korean shows: “These ‘dramas’ are characterized by the use of plot twists like birth secrets that connect lovers as blood siblings, or conveniently-timed car accidents that lead to temporary amnesia.”
In 2003, this probably would have been a fair assessment of Korea’s currently airing dramas. It’s also true that many Kdramas still rely on these plot points. But this dismissive summation of all of Korean drama doesn’t take into account how well executed these shows might be, or all of the many developments they’ve undergone since the melo heyday of Winter Sonata.
Without offering any evidence, the WSJ article makes an immediate logical jump: the study shows that people with less education and lower paying jobs prefer Korean drama. Therefore, Korean drama must be lowbrow. This is apparently part of the study’s conclusion, but how it arrived there isn’t something WSJ covers. Another article about the same study isn’t so shy about drawing lines between Western and Korean shows. In its clumsy, Google-translate prose, it discusses the “rational and lightness” seen in series produced for American television. In contrast, Korean drams are described as “irrational” and prone to “excessive feelings.” It’s like gender studies 101: the rational and cold is seen as inherently more valuable than the the emotional and heated. The head—that stereotypical realm belonging to the male of the species—is where true quality and art resides, not the heart, that shameful seat of girlie emotions.
I’ve Googled until I reached the end of the Internet in several directions, but still can’t find any primary source material about this study in English. What I have found largely discusses it as proof that people who are less educated and earn less prefer Korean dramas to American or Japanese shows. This is silly on a number of levels.
• The researchers polled a total of 398 individuals in Beijing. (It’s unclear whether these people all lived in Beijing or the study was just based there.) This is 0.0017 percent of the city’s total population, which is currently just over 20 million. China’s total population is 1.344 billion. I’m no sociologist, but I think it’s safe to assume that their results are not statistically significant.
• English-language coverage of the study draws lots of conclusions from it, but doesn’t really analyze its data. There are an insane number of factors at play here. One of the few actual facts we’re given is that the people who took the poll were between the ages of 20 and 50. Rates of college attendance have risen in China during the past 30 years, so I would assume that the older the participant is, the less likely they are to have attended college. And if China is anything like America the older participants are more likely to be drawn to the kind of traditional values that Kdramas espouse—the importance of hard work, modesty, and respect for elders. On the other hand, younger people (who probably have higher levels educational attainment) are more likely to feel comfortable with the casual mores portrayed in American television. Out of all these many, many conflicting factors, “dumb, poor people prefer Korean drama” seems like a pretty reductive conclusion.
• Based on the vague language in the WSJ article, I assumed the study involved a bunch of Korean academics cold-calling random Chinese people and asking them about their TV-viewing habits. A South China Morning Post piece gives a tiny bit more information. The participants were “asked to watch television dramas produced in mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US” (emphasis mine). This makes it sound as if the study was essentially a taste-test—at the request of its organizers, people watched shows from a number of countries and reported on how much they liked them. But who chose the shows? And did all viewers watch the same programs? The only series mentioned by name in any of these articles is The Big Bang Theory, which the WSJ noted was “the most popular feature for fans of American TV.” As an American, I’m not convinced that show is representative of my country’s television, which ranges from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to Mad Men to Vampire Diaries. So why is it part of this study instead of ABC’s Mistresses or Lifetime’s Army Wives?
• To borrow a comment translated for China Smack’s coverage of this story, “According to my knowledge, those who watch Korean TV series are mostly women who have nothing better to do.” There are clearly a lot of preconceived notions about Korean dramas and people who watch them, which even the study seems to have noted as potential concern. The WSJ article says, “The report also offers a caveat: highly-educated and high-income viewers may conceal their fondness of lowbrow entertainment.” I would take issue with all of Korean drama being smeared as “lowbrow entertainment,” but this kind of attitude is bound to impact the responses to a study like this one.
I also have to take a moment to discuss the post about the WSJ article on Drama Fever’s blog: “Wall Street Journal Calls Korean Drama Fans ‘Lowbrow,’ ‘Uneducated.’” My relationships with the DF blog is love-hate to an extent rarely seen outside of Korean dramas. I’m incredibly pleased that they’re incorporating the voices of independent bloggers on their site. But manipulative, troll-baiting posts like this one make me crazy.
They’ve spun what is admittedly a biased, ridiculous (and occasionally inaccurate) article into yellow-journalistic gold. The WSJ post never called any drama fan lowbrow—it called drama lowbrow. But what’s factual accuracy when you could recast the article to whip your readers into a frenzy and ensure lots of comments and shares? Clearly Drama Dan—who also happens to be author of some of the most repellant articles about this spring’s rape case involving Park Shi Hoo—has had some success with this tactic: as of Saturday morning, the WSJ post has 117 comments. Predictably, most of them are from reasonably well-educated, well-heeled Westerners (not unlike myself) being offended by the WSJ article (not unlike myself).
As far as I can tell, Western viewers aren’t addressed in either the study or the other coverage of it. I’m not so sure what the results would be here. In practice, most American viewers of Kdrama are probably fairly educated and well off—just to watch the stuff, we have to pay at least $60 per month for a high-speed internet connection, plus buy computers and memberships in assorted drama sites.
But all this depends on how the survey was conducted. If the audience was self-selected and therefore potentially open to watching international television, I can think of a number of Kdramas that would be as well received as any American show. But if the study’s participants were chosen at random, that might not be the case. We Americans are notorious for our hatred of subtitles and lack of interest in foreign cultures.
And here’s one unexpected strike against Kdrama in the West: happiness. An NPR article from last year comes to mind at this point. It discusses the disappearance of major-key songs in American popular music.
“I think that people like to think that they’re smart,” [Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto] says. “And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliche. If you think of children’s music like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or ‘The Wheels on the Bus,’ those are all fast and major, and so there’s a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there’s a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naivete.”Modern Korean dramas, in their heart of hearts, tend to be fundamentally optimistic and hopeful. Which is exactly what we Americans are moving away from in what feels like an era of bitterness and uncertainty. Note, if you will, the posters shown above. All the ones for Korean shows share one detail that isn’t present in their American counterparts—a smiling face.
The more time I spend watching Kdrama, the more I realize that just because I love it doesn’t mean everyone will. (Or even should.) Here’s what I intend to do about all this: I’m going to continue to watch and adore Korean dramas and not worry about what a WSJ blogger or a Korean professor have to say about it.
I’ll close with one more comment from China Smack that hints why Kdrama is right for me: “American TV series attract both men and women, but Korean TV series are mostly for women.”