Webtoons and Masculinity: Melodrama and Sympathetic Imagination in Contemporary South Korean Digital Media

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In my dissertation, I refine scholarly views on a new mode of reception that has emerged with the media consumption of web-based cartoons, known as webtoons. Webtoons have become popular since the 2000s in South Korea and have quickly spread to other Asian countries and even to the U.S. because of their easy accessibility through online platforms. Conventional scholarship on modes of literary reception has been focused on the manner in which audiences receive literary texts. In media studies, this discussion has been not only extended but shifted. Stuart Hall, for example, suggested that modes of reception may involve a struggle to produce meaning, and in so doing, he drew attention to the potentially active role of audiences. John Fiske developed Hall’s perspective and emphasized the agency of audiences. Following Fiske’s emphasis on the active forms of collective engagement by audiences in considering contemporary Korean media practices, my thesis gives particular attention to the active participation of webtoon users who are involved bodily, such as through shedding tears, or through actively writing about their own responses, when they engage with the virtual space reserved for webtoon audience comments. I refer to these “comments” features with the Korean term taetkŭl in my dissertation. I explore how this virtual and textual space enables emotional interactions among audiences. When I initially examined webtoon taetkŭl, I observed a noticeable number of male webtoon users mentioning tears when virtually sharing their own stories in the taetkŭl space. Particularly, the webtoon series Misaeng (An Incomplete Life, 2012–2018) called my attention to the phenomenon of male tears, suggesting that its reception might be related to changing modes of masculinity emerging in contemporary Korean media practices. The emotional reactions of men, including tears, have often been neglected in the study of practices associated with various media forms. For this reason, I explore this new and active form of media consumption among male audiences by redefining and challenging discourses on melodrama as a mode of reception. Melodrama, in this dissertation, entails emotional engagement, and I discuss ways in which emotional engagement prompts webtoon audiences to write taetkŭl. I conclude that their emotional engagement in the taetkŭl space can be fruitfully considered as a “melodramatic mode of reception.” In order to understand the new practices involved in producing the taetkŭl as a mediated form of sociality, the dissertation develops this concept of webtoon consumption as an emergent “melodramatic mode of reception.”

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306 pages


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Audience Reception; Masculinity; Melodrama; South Korean Digital Media; Sympathetic Imagination; Webtoons


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Union Local


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Committee Chair

Bary, Brett de

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Murray, Timothy Conway
Fuhrmann, Arnika
Choi, Yun Jung
Woo, Miseong

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Asian Literature, Religion and Culture

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Ph. D., Asian Literature, Religion and Culture

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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