Severity of school violence in K-dramas raises questions of appropriateness
The severity of school violence depicted in Korean dramas on major streaming platforms is concerning viewers as an increasing number of recent hits center around graphic school violence.
Relevant titles include Netflix’s “The Glory” (2022-2023) and “Juvenile Justice” (2022), Wavve's “Weak Hero Class 1” (2022) Disney+'s "Revenge of Others" (2022).
Foreign viewers, too, are expressing their shock and perturbance in comments and reviews online. In Thailand, the popularity of one show sparked a movement on social media that called for perpetrators of school violence to fess up to past acts of bullying and apologize.
Experts say that school violence and bullying is a social phenomenon that is a microcosm of the larger problems of Korean society — thus both enthralling viewers and sparking acts of change when depicted in media.
“School violence and the scars it leaves are always a source of anxiety and fear in Korean dramas,” reads one comment on the global contents review site IMDb, left by a foreign viewer for “The Glory.”
The eight-episode Part 1 of “The Glory,” which was released on Dec. 30 last year, is still extremely popular on Netflix, holding onto the top spot in domestic streaming rankings and also topping the non-English language rankings on Netflix.
Only half of the entire series has been revealed so far, and Part 2 is set to be released May 10. But the story of lead character Moon Dong-eun, a woman who suffered horrific school violence during her childhood, played by actor Song Hye-kyo, has already captivated viewers around the world as she plans her revenge on the perpetrators step-by-step.
These shows' popularity, as seen by the many comments left on IMDb and other review sites, reflects how school violence has been appearing more and more as a major subject in numerous K-dramas. Wavve’s “Weak Hero Class 1,” which was released in November last year and received favorable reviews, was also a full-fledged school action genre that tells the story of a model student standing up to violence inside and outside of the school grounds.
And although it did not generate as much public attention as “The Glory” or “Weak Hero Class 1,” Tving’s “The King of Pigs,” released last year, is another crime thriller in which a protagonist deeply scarred from childhood school violence takes revenge on the perpetrators. “The Kings of Pigs” was praised by critics for being a well-made drama. Widely praised by critics for its storyline, deep-dive into social themes and cinematography, “The King of Pigs” turned out to be a sleeper hit among K-drama watchers.
Additionally, series such as “Revenge of Others” and “Juvenile Justice” depict students as both perpetrators and victims of school violence.
With this surge of school violence-themed series across almost all Korean streaming platforms from last year, foreign audiences in particular are expressing shock and discomfort at the severity of violence depicted.
“I don’t really know what Korean schools are like in real life, but on K-dramas, all Korean teenagers seem to be so mean and violent that it gives me goosebumps,” read a comment on the review section for “The Glory” on IMDb.
“I know I’m biased because I’ve only seen what Korean school life is like through shows,” said one foreign viewer who requested anonymity. “But from what I’ve seen in ‘The Glory’ and ‘The King of Pigs,’ the level of violence in schools in Korea seems so high that I don’t think I’d ever want to experience school life in the country myself.”
Shows like “The Glory” have even sparked social movements abroad. With the show's popularity, a relay of school violence accusations spread on Thai social media, leading a number of celebrities to come forth with apologies. Just as the #MeToo movement that sparked in Hollywood brought forth a wave of sexual harassment accusations, Korean school violence dramas instigated a hashtag movement called #TheGloryThai and caused a social ripple effect.
The reason that school violence has emerged as a key subject material for K-dramas, according to experts, is that it is easy to attract viewers’ attention with this theme, and that school violence reflects deep-rooted ills of the whole of Korean society.
“The social space that is schools is the place where everyone gets their first experience of society and, at the same time, is the starting point from which all social problems — such as the infinite competition in capitalist society and resulting alienation — erupt,” said Koo Jeong-woo, professor of sociology at Sungkyunkwan University, who specializes in sociology of education, Korean studies and human rights. “School violence is widely used as subject material because it can elicit universal sympathy from the audience while showing conflict in a stimulating way.”
In the case of “The Glory,” social problems such as class inequality and corruption of public power were pointed out by showing that teachers, the police and even parents of the victims would succumb to the financial power of school violence perpetrators.
Other dramas based on school violence also received favorable reviews for highlighting the absurdity of the adult world by linking it to the issue of school violence.
School violence is a chronic problem that exists everywhere in the world, but with the advent of streaming services, which has a higher level of freedom of expression than traditional broadcasting systems, certain aspects of the issue have become more prominent in video content.
In fact, “The Glory,” “The King of Pigs” and “Weak Hero Class 1” were all rated R for their explicit depiction of violence, which would have been difficult to air on traditional broadcasting stations.
“School violence has been a staple of movies and dramas since long time past, but streaming platforms started dealing with it in earnest as the content-production content shifted,” said Kim Seong-soo, a pop culture critic.
“The level of violence and the depiction of it is freely adjustable on these streaming platforms. Since problems such as the polarization of wealth directly related to school violence is a global phenomenon, the story of victims’ self-relief, or private revenge, outside of the social system, can also gain widespread sympathy.”
However, experts point out that the school violence depicted in media should be taken with a grain of salt, given that teenagers and children are both the subject and object of violence.
“If the action and revenge are depicted in a way that only focused on being cathartic or adrenaline-boosting, there may be a problem with showing the actual brutality and emotional toll of violence that happens in real life,” said Kim. “Even if violence is portrayed nakedly and openly, it is necessary to direct the depiction so that people will empathize with the suffering of the victims, and to put out a story that can form a normal social discourse.”
Koo agrees with Kim that these depictions should be constructive.
“If these negative views on schools become prevalent, I am concerned about the adverse effects of internalizing such views in society,” said Koo. “An element that can bring about constructive discussion and an understanding about the eradication of school violence is also needed in popular culture.”
BY NAM SOO-HYUN, LIM JEONG-WON [firstname.lastname@example.org]