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Transgressive Academic All-Stars and Conventional Teen Idols

Transgressive Academic All-Stars and Conventional Teen Idols: An Ethnography of School-Age South Koreans "Gaming the System"

Bonnie Tilland (University of Washington)

This paper represents one part of my dissertation research on changing family values and dominant media images in South Korea. I combine ethnographic methods (interviews, participant-observation) with media analysis, on the one hand investigating women’s narratives about navigating the education system and the aspirations of their children, and on the other hand looking at popular television dramas about youthful dreams and educational achievement. I argue that under neoliberal logics youth are simultaneously expected to be flexible with their creativity (enabling them to hypothetically become pop stars) and presumed to be fixed in terms of academic ability. Thus, fighting to move up academically is transgressive, and becoming a teen-idol-in-training has become almost a conventional goal in twenty-first century Korea.

Two popular “youth dramas,” 2010’s “God of Study” and 2011’s “Dream High,” are employed in this paper for the purposes of thinking through intersections of dominant representations and everyday discourse about children’s potential. “God of Study” exemplifies the unease parents feel over negotiating their children’s educational trajectories, and hit such a social nerve with its depiction of a group of low-achieving middle school students who become academic all-stars that it spurred a “God of Study study guide” franchise. “Dream High” tapped into a moment in which more high school students aspire to be “idols” or entertainers than the long-preferred stable, prestige occupations of doctor or lawyer, telling the story of artistically gifted students attempting to make it in a cutthroat music industry. These dramas, along with interview data, point to a shift in perceptions of the value of academic success, which in turn leads to a discussion of other definitions of success.