Don't be ashamed it's for chicks! Korean Drama 101 (Class 10)

Hello. This is AKIA Talking from Korea with another short instalment of my Korean drama 101 series.
Well… short… maybe not.

When talking about Korean dramas, there is something that is so obvious that I overlooked it for a while now. In discussions, I would come close to this topic but never really nailing it. Recently, this obvious fact came to me as a revelation.

What is it?

As a whole, Korean dramas are hard core “Chick flick” shows with all the positive and negative connotations that definition brings. Thus, in order to get into Korean dramas, this is a hurdle that has to be overcome even for Korean men. In other words, if you do not stand the “Chick flick” genre, you will have a hard time with Korean dramas.

The reason for the popularity of Korean dramas
Even in Korea and throughout the world, the audience for Korean dramas is predominantly female. There is a reason for this. Korean dramas are “Chick flick” show made for females. I mean that it is no coincidence that women like these shows. They are made for and developed for that purpose.

It was not that I did not know this fact before but oddly I seemed to have filed this Korean drama fact and Korean dramas’ characteristic as a cultural factor and not a gender related one. Once this revelation came to me, a lot of the questions I had about the explosive popularity of Korean dramas around the globe became so obvious.

In the wider movie entertainment industry, the “Chick flick” as a genre is essentially dead. Even on American TV, the soap industry that dominated the viewership of the bulk of the American female audiences is dying out. In this environment, why wouldn’t Korean dramas, which are a whole nation’s entertainment output evolved to just satisfy the female audience, not be popular in this void of female centric entertainment? The cherry on the top of this treat is that Korean culture seems exotic to female’s from distant lands. And exotic always sells well. It does not also hurt that Korea is going through a period which is similar to the American 80s in which excess was a religion and yuppies were all the rage.  The Korean drama characters, even the poor ones, are essentially yuppies.

The Chick flick
The definition of “Chick flick” has been used somewhat derogatory throughout its existence. Critics, who tended to be predominantly men, viewed the genre’s pandering to the female preferences as being of objective lower artistic quality. Whether this is true is debatable.

Compared to some movie genres that pander to male preferences, I personally do not view “Chick flicks” to be of lessor artistic quality. It is just a different form of art. At the same time, in regards to Korean dramas, since my revelation, I seem to find that most of my complaints originate from the characteristics of the “Chick flick” genre itself. Thus, this matter seems to require more exploration.

What is the definition of the “Chick flick” genre?  Whether they are comedies or makjang shows, Korean dramas are viewed in terms of being melodramas. According to the merriam-webster dictionary, the definition of this word is “a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.” This definition does not exactly fit with Korean dramas. This is the same for the “Chick flick” genre.

Even many of the male centric genres are melodramas according to the merriam-webster’s definition. With Korean dramas, Koreans tend to view melodramas in the same manner as romance dramas but according to the female perspective of love. Love, romance, female perspective…I think these words encompass the characteristics of the “Chick flick” genre. And, this is a turn off for many of the male gender and even for some of the female gender also.

Personally, I do not see romance as a theme as something that should be looked down upon. And I do not think that this is the problem for Korean dramas. To dig deeper, I do not think the subjects and themes associated with the “Chick flick” genre and female centric literature are the issues here. They are all interesting aspects of the human condition. Rather, the problem seems to be with the literary mechanics traditionally associated with female literature partially and definitely with Korean female literature.

Task oriented story telling
If many of the pop-psychology books such as “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” are to be believed, man and women think in different manners. I am not sure about what lies at the core of female and male psyches. However, a lot of the behavioral and intellectual expressions of men and women which are formed by millennia worth of cultural indoctrination definitely are different.

One of those is that men are task oriented and women are not. Well I think the original saying is that women are experience oriented or something but… In any case, this is what thousands of cultural outputs in the form of print, video, audio has told us. I have seen a bunch of sitcoms where the main problem between the couple is that women only want their men to listen while men focus on trying to solve their partner’s problems.

While this may or not be true, it does definitely impacts female centric literature and Korean dramas. The manner in which the stories are told in these mediums are not task oriented. Men think that being task oriented makes us superior and more rational. This can be debated. However, not being task oriented does hinder the “writing” process.

In a way, creating a story is a process of problem solving. This is true for either plot development or character development. If you want a character to end up some place either literally or figuratively, you have to solve the problem of how to do that while being cohesive and entertaining. Did you notice that I did not say writing? Creating a story and writing words down on paper are actually two different skill sets.

You can see this in play with the U.S. TV writers. If you look at their backgrounds, many, not all, do not come from literary backgrounds. To be frank, I have heard several TV writers say that they work in TV and not in the literary field because they cannot write well. As a visual medium, TV and movies do not need as much skill in the writing category as the actors, directors, editors, and all the other members of the crew do much of the function the actual writing skill does in literature. Rather, the TV screenplay writers tend to focus more on problem solving. In other words, they focus more on story creation.

This can be glimpsed in the fact that many of the U.S. TV screenplay writers come up via non-writing crew positions. Many start out as personal or production assistances that do not write a word. Rather, they deal with practical problem solving. This practice is fostered by the fact that a huge bulk of U.S. TV is based on Task oriented story telling. What I mean by “Task oriented story telling”?

 “Task oriented story telling” is an approach to story creation in which the story itself could be seen as a chain of tasks to be accomplished by the protagonists. Within the overall story, you have characters involved with solving tasks and then moving on to another afterwards. These tasks could be as grand as preventing a terrorist attack or as personal as finding the perfect dress for a date. During the process of task completion, the characters change, develop, get damaged, and etc.  However, these character developments are rather a side effect than the focus of the characters at the moment. Their focus is put on the task at hand.

For a writer or more accurately a creator of stories, this approach is efficient and very handy. It is much easier to create a cohesive narrative with this approach since it emulates the story creation mentality itself. It is also very modular and robust at the same time. And it has focus.

Male vs. Female minds?
You could argue that female centric literature does the same thing. However, there is some difference especially in Korean literature which gets reflected in Korean dramas. While the characters go through events, these are not tasks. Rather they just random or semi-random events that the character has to endure rather as problems that should be solved. As a result, the characters do not particularity grow from going through the events although they are somewhat change. In Korean dramas, this does tend to be expressed as female characters devolving into whimpering pale and puffy messes through the show.

Reminds you of Can we love (2014)? Anyone?
Or any show with  the actress Eugene recently?

The reason for this non-task orientation has been hypothesized, according the pop-psychology, to be because that, for a long time, the experience of females were centered around a never ending cycle of mundane choirs that had no defined start or end. This theory makes sense although the logic could be debated. However, it could be said that Korean society does not look kind on task oriented females. If you think about it, the most task oriented characters in a Korean drama is the second lead villains. The female leads just endure and wait for better days to come.   Digging deeper, the only real task focused show subgenre in Korea drama is the revenge subgenre.

Even that subgenre gets the task stuff muddled...

In the story creation process, this means that creating a focused narrative is difficult since you have to tie together semi-random events to do so with eyes on the point of the whole narrative. It is far easier to string along tasks than that. What I am trying to say that non-task oriented storytelling is far more advanced level of storytelling. Examples of this type of stories are “a day in a life” type of stories or vignettes stories. This type of storytelling actually requires more literal “literary” talent in the screenplay writing process. However, this ability is far less prevalent and simply impractical in the Korean drama setting.

Korean dramas as Chick flick show
It is commonly said that the reality of the Korean drama industry is prohibited in creating a satisfying ending to a show. And there is more than a sliver of truth to this. However, at the same time, the blame could not be solely put on the crappy Korean drama filming schedule or the minute by minute pandering to the ratings fluxuations. It is not easy to tell a cohesive story with your protagonist passively meandering through various events without any real objective or purpose. It is far more likely that the story would end up ending abruptly in an inorganic manner compared to the overall narrative.

Once again, this type of storytelling is not inherently a negative thing. However, it does end up poorly especially as a TV show since it is a long duration to just meander through.  Even with a tight task oriented show, the 16 to 20 hour air time of a typical Korean drama miniseries is not an essay endeavor to keep the focus on the prize.  Thus, in a lot of ways, a movie is more suitable for this type of non-task oriented story telling.

In any case, these “chick flick” characteristics of Korean dramas create a huge barrier of entry into the medium. The romance centric nature of “chick flick” is the lessor barrier since, honestly, men also like a good love story, really! The problem is that men, in general, tend to be inpatient with directionless meandering. Females tend to be more accepting of this. Once again, there are pop-psychological theories about why this is so that I will not touch here since this article is already going long.  It seems like females can tolerate more of this torture especially if you toss in several handsome male actors and have a cute couple prance about like puppy dogs. For men, we cannot even stand lengthy porn. It just becomes dull after the initial taste.

Because of these reasons, there is a huge chuck of Korean males who do not watch Korean dramas. Even when they do watch a show, it is the exception. It is common for them to say that “that show is good for a Korean drama!” This is the exact phrase I hear men say about some  “chick flick” movies. “That movie is good for a chick flick!”

In recent years, as the Korean drama market is changing, there have been efforts towards bringing in these Korean males into Korean dramas. This is the reasoning behind the current trend of incorporating male centric genres such as Thrillers, crime shows, and so called fusion period shows into Korean dramas. It is an effort to pander to the preferences of the male demographic. The problem with these shows is that the shows still are “chick flick”shows at their cores with the same problems. Male centric genres tend to not work well with non-task oriented story telling.

As a side note, female centric show writers seem to put less importance of world building in their shows. In contrast, this is an important factor for male centric show writers. Thus, when Korean dramas do male centric genres, there is simply not enough communication with the audience about what the heck is going on.

Where are we?
What is that?
Why is that important?
Why is that character acting in that manner?

This is the reason why most Korean dramas are set in generic current Korean reality. You do not have to do any world building since you can assume that everyone is already comfortable with the world in the show.

Getting back on track, the result of making female writers of “chick flick” shows do male centric genre shows ends up being awkward. At best, the shows end up feeling like fanfiction in the vein of the young adult genre. I am not totally bashing the young adult genre. Well not as a whole. However, the best things about those are not the male centric genre elements that were imported into them. The best things are the stuff the “chick flick” originally had.

At worst, it is just a mess. It is not that female writers are inherently bad at it. Rather, it is simply not in their acquired wheel house. Crossing genres as a writer while trying to pander to both genres’ fans and both genders is not easy at all.

It is an unavoidable fact that Korean dramas are “chick flick”shows made for females. This is something you have to accept if you want to get into it. All the exoticism of Korean culture, all the sexiness of skinny Korean actresses cannot compensate for this fact. If you cannot stand “chick flick” shows, you will not get into Korean dramas. I am not saying that not getting Korean dramas is something to be ashamed about. It is neither a race nor a cultural thing. It is simply not your cup of tea. Most Korean men feel the same way.

You have to like “chick flick” shows to get Korean dramas. In my case, I have read a lot of romance novels and manga when I was in my early teens before I moved onto more male cntric genres. I have seen more “chick flick” movies than most women also. So, I am good with the “chick flick” as a genre. This is why I am watching Korean dramas. However, I am still a man so there are still many shows I cannot stand which the females out there seem to tolerate and even enjoy.

C'est la vie…That's life

I’m good with that. Just don’t ask me to watch those shows which do seem to make up the bulk of the shows that came out during 2014.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving me a comment.