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While grading some homework from my course on Popular Cultures in the English Speaking World, something clicked for me. I was reading through student responses to the episode of How I Met Your Mother that we watched together, and discussed.

Something that really stood out for me was the way in which people talk about comedy, or entertainment in general. I’ve noticed it before, in the way many Koreans talk about music, but finally I think I put some pieces of the puzzle together. Now, I’m not 100% sure I have something here–it may be that my students are all just picking up the same phrases from the same sources–but it is an interesting pattern nonetheless.

It’s the idea of “letting off stress.” Now, anyone who has lived in Korea knows that it’s a stressful place, much more so for Koreans with all the stress of social expectations upon them so much of the time. But it’s interesting that time after time, I’ve heard students talk about how sitcoms are great because they allow people to “let off their stress.” The same thing goes for other forms of entertainment: when people discuss them, I’ve noticed many people tend toward speaking of entertainment in utilitarian ways: that movies are a way of “escaping from the stress of life” and that singing or dancing or listening to songs are all ways of “letting off stress” too.

All of that is an interesting way of putting things, and it certainly points toward why fiction sells so poorly here: for many people reading is not, like dancing to music, or guffawing at comedians, a particularly effective way of letting off stress. If you construct entertainment as serving a utilitarian purpose, all kinds of interesting things happen. Reading seems to go out the window (and reading, too, seems to be required to serve a utilitarian purpose — nonfiction and especially financial, self-help, and travel books dominate the Korean bestseller lists); films are expected to be light and amusing, not deep and powerful and moving (which might be part of why the Korean film industry seems to think it can keep the Korean Wave going with a flood of superficial comedies, and almost all SF films here seem to be both nationalist — useful to the cause of national consciousness — and action — serving as a pressure valve); music becomes background for one’s personal venting of steam and stress, so much so that live music (not live on TV, live in the same room as the listener) is an alien experience to most young people and completely manufactured pop music seems to suffice as said background; and so on.

Now, we could say that some of this applies in the West too. I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to adopt a more utilitarian view of the purpose of reading as they get older, claiming to have once loved fantastical fiction but having moved to nonfiction, history, or “practical” reading as they got older; the origins of the garbage music we hear Korean boy bands and girl groups cranking out is American, after all; and it’s not like Hollywood hasn’t voided its conceptual bowels onto the screen with shallow garbage for decades on end now.

Still, I get the feeling the causes are somewhat different, or at least, that these views tend to dominate reading and comedy and music (if not films) less North America. Most Anglophones I know don’t seem to construct their consumption of comedy, of fiction, and of music on utilitarian grounds at all: for us, we watch How I Met Your Mother (or any program) primarily for enjoyment, not as a pressure release; we like the music we do for reasons more tied to how it makes us feel, or how the music sounds, or (very commonly among Westerners) because of the kind of identity we construct for ourselves around it — the way it serves as an accessory for a specific kind of identity — than for its usefulness as a way of letting off steam; and we read fiction because we enjoy stories about nonexistent people and things. Because reading is fun, because music is enjoyable, because sitcoms make us laugh and we like to laugh.

I’m not saying Koreans don’t read fiction, watch movies, and listen to music for comparable reasons to those that motivate Westerners to do so. I’m quite sure plenty of Korean people watch sitcoms basically because they enjoy them, and listen to music because it makes them feel good, just like Westerners do.

What I’m talking about is how people talk about these activities. It seems pretty consistent to me that there’s a different set of reasons given by Koreans for consuming pop culture than the ones I’d expect, and the one that’s jumped up and hit me in the head today is the oft-mentioned utilitarian reason: the claim that one consumes entertainment for some useful purpose. When the reason given is not for the improvement of one’s English, or development of a better understanding of a foreign culture, then in my experience the reason given invariably has something to do with a stress-release.

(A footnote: one field in which we do see a similar justification advanced is in SF: some fans or promoters of SF seem to think that appealing to the utilitarian function of SF as cultivating interest in science among kids will help justify giving it to kids to read.)

The thing is, I’m not sure if this is purely a justification, in the Korean context. It’s not rare to see examples of Korean fiction or film or music that are somehow transparently preachy, didactic, or otherwise, well, utilitarian. Even some examples of Korean media or fiction that I happen to like display these qualities — my favorite Korean SF films, The Host and Save the Green Planet, for example, both partake of an overt didacticism.

This is what I’m wondering about: whether what seems, in Western culture, to be a relatively marginal view — the idea that entertainment ought always to serve a utilitarian purpose — hasn’t somehow become (or remained) more prominent and mainstream in Korean society. I don’t have any good answers for that question, but it’s a notion I’m kicking around.

If this is the case, then it seems to me that overt didacticism is just going to more naturally fit into the Korean narrative aesthetic than it does a Western one. It might even go some distance in answering the question suggested in this post by Patricia Park (which I found linked at The Grand Narrative in this post): if didacticism is part of the aesthetic, it justifies greater excesses in melodrama, for example. (Which brings to mind, for me, a lot of medieval literary and dramatic texts. The York Mystery Plays, for example, are melodramatic and didactic in a way that makes modern Westerners look on quizzically, but those are the kinds of performances that come to mind when I see Korean TV: waaaaaaaaaay over the top, melodrama up to 11, and so on.

I don’t think it’s a complete explanation. But I think it’s interesting to consider. And it’s a good thing to consider for someone like me, who finds himself wondering, when watching Korean TV dramas, how anyone could take them seriously or feel deeply engaged by them. If aesthetics is a big part of it, then the next twenty years will be interesting: plenty of my students find Korean TV rather off-putting and seem to prefer American-styled TV dramas. I wonder if the makers of Korean TV dramas will manage to keep up with their audience, or what will happen when the next generation of wannabe TV auteurs comes up in the ranks and tries to make TV that works in the newer aesthetic. It seems already to have happened in film, to some degree anyway, but film was a pretty-near dead industry not long ago. TV is different. Hmmm.

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