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South Korean Television Dramas


This dissertation analyzes Korean soap operas/television dramas as social and cultural texts that transmit the oral logic and emotional underpinnings of the Korean patriarchal family and social structure in a period of rapid social change.

The dissertation reviews the history of Korean serial television dramas and studies three genres with an analysis of one or two examples of each genre: historical dramas (The King and I), professional dramas (Air City and Golden Time) and home dramas (Dear Parents).

The dissertation focuses on continuities and some changes in the ways the patriarchal basis of the traditional Korean family, the traditional and newly-emerging roles of woman, and the larger challenges of a modernizing society are portrayed in Korean television drama. Class divisions, personal virtues, romance and familial loyalties provide the background against which male characters are established as patriarchs. Korean soap operas portray the women’s ability to shape patriarchy through feminine affability and strong emotional bonds among the women in the family.

Virtuous women are portrayed as being powerful but caring. Their polite and yielding natures give them the victory in the end as they guide their family through the multiple dimensions of family life and relationships. In contrast, villainesses and rogue matriarchs, such as domineering mothers-in-law, usually end with ruined lives or having to give up their power. In the historical drama, The King and I, powerful matriarchs such as the queen dowager and the great woman seer must yield their power to their sons who become the new patriarchs in the royal household. At times, the villainesses seem to be the more rational characters as the virtuous women bear all the burdens and sacrifice themselves for others. However, their virtues make them powerful and everything is under their control in Korean soap operas.

The dissertation analyses the strength of the female emotional bond in Korean dramas. The bond is created through women-only gatherings in the house. Through constant dialogue throughout the day and special times in the evening when they gather to talk, sing and cry with catharsis and happiness, they maintain their emotional bonds of friendship and concern for each other. On the other hand, male characters, whether they be quiet and reserved fathers, war heroes, members of the royal dynasty or kings, have no such bonds except in military situations where they must depend on each other. As soap operas have focused on virtuous women for nearly forty years, the female bond is well developed but the male bond is still in its incubation.

Relatively new soap operas, short serialized professional dramas, present female and male characters that reject the patriarchal culture. Their workaholic lives leave no time for love or personal relationships or for the patriarchal social structure. However, the professional dramas with their aloof rejection of the dominating culture gain a smaller ratio of viewers than dramas that support the patriarchal family. The research reveals that the serial form of long-running television soap operas encourages viewers to find their social role and function in supporting the patriarchal social system through identification with the characters portrayed. Thus Koreans conflicts about how patriarchal values can be adapted to modernity are worked out through the dramas that captivate Korean and international audiences.

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