Don’t call my K-drama a soap
If you’ve been watching Korean dramas for any amount of time, chances are you have encountered some criticism in the shape of them being equated to “soaps.” And, if you’re anything like me, you take this as a pretty strong misinterpretation, possibly worthy of a nice juicy kimchi slap. What makes people quickly dismiss this entertainment medium as mere soap operas? How and why does the term “soap” misrepresent and misunderstand K-dramas — or, is it more applicable than we’s like to think?
While terms and genres are always open to interpretation, one thing this article will assume is that the term “soap” is a) used as a label for a particular kind of television production; and b) not a term that signifies any sort of value. In fact, we could even take it a step further and say it signifies the opposite of value — in other words, cheap drivel. The following is my completely biased look at K-dramas and the whys and hows around them being compared to soaps. (And as a bit of clarification, when I refer to K-dramas in this article, I’m talking about the primetime and miniseries-like dramas that we regularly cover here at Dramabeans.)
So, to start, where did the term soap come from, and how did it become the derogatory label it is today? According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the term “soap opera” was first coined by the American press in the 1930s. It was almost pejorative from the start, since they used the term to describe the highly popular serialized daytime radio shows that were sponsored by household cleaning products — that’s where the soap part comes in. The opera part references the fact that classical/musical operas are some of the most loud and dramatic bits of storytelling around.
With that basic definition down, we already have a starting point to compare and contrast soap operas with K-dramas. The thought of soap operas as the genesis of commercially-sponsored programming is fascinating. Sponsorship and entertainment are so closely linked today, with TV commercials every nine minutes, Spotify ads, sponsored posts on our Instagram feeds, and the like. This idea of commercial sponsorship also puts PPL in an interesting light, though I doubt this connection is what critics are thinking of when they call K-dramas soaps.
What about operas — are they anything like K-dramas? They may not be your musical taste, but you can’t deny an opera’s powerful drama, not only musically, but with the tales they tell (just read the synopses of Italian operas La Bohème or Madama Butterfly and you’ll get the picture). Operas are enjoyed as both a musical genre and an era in musical composition. I like to think of them as one example that high drama can not only be delicious, but be an important and respected part of storytelling history.
Let’s get back to the evolution of soap operas. As radio programming died away and the age of the television came into being, the term soap opera came to refer to a specific genre of America TV: serialized daytime programming. Early in the innocent days of television, these soap operas were, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, simple stories where “sin and violence, always offstage, frequently affected the daily lives of the family members, but good inevitably triumphed, or at least all wrongdoing was justly punished.”
As soon as the 1970s hit, soap opera content began to shift and more openly contained storylines around drug abuse, domestic abuse, love affairs and/or promiscuity, violence, and crime. These kinds of rough and cheap stories are how we think of soap operas as a genre today: lowbrow stories that rely on sentimentality and sensationalism. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications puts it, to call a film, novel, or other cultural production a soap opera is, “to label it as culturally and aesthetically inconsequential and unworthy. ”
While K-dramas couldn’t be more different in how they handle content, there are some interesting parallels in the history of soaps operas that I honestly didn’t expect to find. Didn’t the description of early WWII-era soap operas sound a bit like the K-drama world we know and love today? The idea of a genre that tells simple and rather innocent stories of heroes and heroines triumphing over odds and obstacles is actually a pretty good description of K-dramas from a bird’s eye view. It’s also one of the elements of K-dramas that I cherish the most.
Does a simple good-versus-evil story with a somewhat predictable structure make K-dramas equivalent to soap operas? Unworthy? Inconsequential? Not to me, since when we use the term soap opera as a descriptor today, it references soap operas after they shifted content and storytelling methods. Calling something a soap opera today is more like calling something “makjang” in the world of Korean programming: crass, lacking in quality (in storytelling and production), and a bit on the trashy side. This is where I see the strongest contradiction between modern-day soap operas and K-dramas. Our primetime K-dramas may at times be cheesy and light-hearted, but they’re never cheap or base.
As we’ve seen, K-dramas have quite a bit in common with the kinds of stories early soap operas commonly told. But are there any similarities in how these two genres operate technically? Here’s what the Museum of Broadcast Communications has to say about how soap operas traditionally tell their stories:
“The defining quality of the soap opera form is its seriality… Unlike episodic television programs, in which there is no narrative linkage between episodes and each episode tells a more or less self-contained story, the viewer’s understanding of and pleasure in any given serial installment is predicated, to some degree, upon his or her knowledge of what has happened in previous episodes.”
That sounds awfully like a K-drama to me — and not only that, but it’s another of my favorite things about them. Episodic, stand-alone stories in television or elsewhere have rarely interested me. But K-dramas? A continuous narrative is at the core of how they tell stories.
Continuous narratives are stories with plot lines that advance, characters that develop, and story arcs that ebb and flow — these things are crucial to a strong narrative. And after all, going on a journey with a character — whether they’re doing anything from falling in love, to looking for a full-time job, to playing AR video games — is a huge part of the pleasure of a story.
While K-dramas and soap operas may be similar in that they are serialized or continuous stories, they are actually quite different in how they tell their stories. Sometimes, the difference between two genres is not the story itself, but how the story is told. In other words, how a story is rendered through things like direction, production quality, editing, and scriptwriting can determine its quality.
Take these one-sentence blurbs for example: a cold, emotionally-removed woman falls in love with a free-spirited younger man. A young, emotionally-scarred woman is encouraged to love again when she encounters a new neighbor. A haunted man falls in love with a woman he doesn’t know is his niece.
Based on these write-ups alone, these shows can sound pretty soapy and awful. And, given a certain execution, they very well could be. Instead, we have dramas like Boyfriend, Flower Boy Next Door, and Nine. From a contemplative story about freedom of spirit, to a quirky wholesome rom-com, to a harrowing time-travel story where the hero destroys his own future — each of these are very different kinds of stories. And none of them soap operas.
The term “soap opera” as a descriptor for K-dramas, I think, has a lot to do with misunderstanding. People outside of the K-drama culture often don’t know how to interpret the genre when they hear the storyline, or catch a glimpse of some high drama moments. Smash hit You From Another Star is the perfect example. Its huge popularity and impact on the consumer market spurred articles in the American media, and it’s interesting to see how they talked about Korean dramas.
In The Wall Street Journal, the show is quickly referred to as “a new Korean soap opera,” and The New York Times curtly explains the drama as “a South Korean television show about a 400-year-old Harvard-educated alien who falls in love with an arrogant actress.” Technically that’s accurate, but it doesn’t really do it justice, does it?
The blurb from The New York Times, and the ones I wrote above, show that there’s a rather big difference between how something sounds, and what something actually is. What’s missing from the blurbs is the execution, or how the story is handled. And it’s the execution of a K-drama that elevates it from purely silly or soapy stories, into dramas that capture our hearts.
K-dramas are a storytelling medium all their own. They create rich, narrative worlds complete with their own format, rules of engagement, and storytelling devices. They know their purpose is to entertain, and rather than pretend to be something they’re not, K-dramas are absolutely and unabashedly themselves. They might be a lot of things (cheesy, tropey, predictable), but they’re always genuine. And for this, I love them.
This leads us to a final thought as we distinguish K-dramas from the soap opera label, and that’s in the culture that exists around them. This is where I think the biggest distinction lies. Daytime soaps are criticized for being the cheap entertainment of housewives who don’t realize the stories they’re glued to are considered cheap and outlandish. Whether or not that’s true, it’s nothing like the culture around K-dramas that I’ve come to know.
K-drama watchers might be diehard and committed fans, but they’re also some of the genre’s biggest critics — in the best sense. They’re the first to call out plot holes, eye-roll tropes, or express frustration when a story isn’t as well-handled as it promised to be. Above all, they’re people who understand the importance, value, and fun, of a rich story that pulls you into a world all its own. The term soap opera may denote a kind of uncultured ignorance, but K-drama fans are some of the most articulate and analytical fans I know, and comprise a community that manages to both deconstruct, criticize, and devour dramas.
We’ve looked at how K-dramas are perceived, how they are told, and how these things might cause people to label them as soap operas. While there are a lot of elements that they have in common, there’s also a lot that distinguishes them. Whether you see more similarities or differences after reading this article, one thing is true: all forms of storytelling have value. One kind isn’t better than another — they’re just different. Does it bother me when K-dramas are undervalued, misunderstood, and dismissed without an attempt to really understand them? Yes — but not enough to kill their magic.