"Boys like Smart Girls More Than Pretty Girls": Young Korean Immigrant Girls' Understanding of Romantic Love in American Popular Culture
Lee, Lena, Journal of Instructional Psychology
Despite the importance of understanding children's interpretations of popular culture in the United States, young children's voices have not been sufficiently explored in studies. Moreover, the perspectives of American immigrant children hardly have a presence in studies of popular culture. Thus, this paper explores how young immigrant children perceive American popular culture by focusing on young Korean immigrant girls' understanding of romantic love in Disney films. In order to do this, the paper discusses two major characteristics they considered important for love--namely, being nice and being intelligent. It also investigates their perspectives on physical attractiveness, which was not seen as significant for love. Then, it reflects the Korean cultural context by connecting it to the girls' responses about the importance of being intelligent. Finally, this paper provides some suggestions for future research.
Children have been exposed to a great deal of popular culture over the last couple of decades, and there has been much concern about the negative impact of that culture. Specifically, popular culture in the United States has been more criticized than that of many other countries, since it tends to use cultural imperialism to establish American cultural power and hegemony throughout the world (e.g., Cannella & Kincheloe, 2002; Dorfman & Mattleart, 1975; Giroux, 1995, 1999; Steinberg & Kincheloe, 1997). As an exemplary symbol of such American popular culture, Disney films has been said to be particularly detrimental to children around the world. According to several scholars (e.g., Bell, Hass, & Sells, 1995, Giroux 1995, 1999; Jackson, 1996; Kasturi 2002; Rollin, 1987; Smoodin, 1994; Ward, 1996; Zipes, 1995), Disney films ignore complex socio-cultural issues, as well as the cultural differences and struggles of various groups, by representing only the social norms of the American white middle class.
The studies mentioned above are important in that such content analysis helps us understand how American children's popular culture embeds specific social ideologies in these cultural products that support a certain group of people. However, these studies have merely criticized popular cultural texts without considering the perspectives of the viewers--in this case, children--and their socio-cultural situations. More important, the voices of young children from different cultures in the United States have hardly been included in such studies. Although many immigrant children learn about American society and its socio-cultural values through popular culture (Olsen, 1997; Pyke, 2000), the area of studies that explore what the children think of American popular culture has been neglected. In light of the importance of examining minority children's perspectives on American popular culture, this study is focused on Korean children since they have received little social attention (e.g., Lee, 2002; Zhou, 2004) in spite of their increasing numbers in the United States.
This paper particularly investigates young Korean girls' understanding of romantic love in Disney films, as most Disney films have always focused on female characters who fall in love with male protagonists (e.g., Giroux, 1999; Wasko, 2001). It thus explores what these girls considered important characteristics for love by emphasizing two major characteristics: being nice and intelligent. It also addresses their thoughts on physical attractiveness, which was considered a complicated matter to these girls. The paper then discusses the Korean cultural context as a possible influence on the girls' interpretations of what it means to be intelligent. Finally, I provide suggestions and implications of the study for researchers of popular culture to consider in future studies.
Three Disney animated films have been chosen for this study: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. These films were chosen based on a careful analysis of their relevance to the issues with which the study dealt, such as romantic love and gender issues. The degree of familiarity with these films on the part of both the Korean girls and their parents was also considered, since the study wanted to investigate the association between the parents' perceptions and expectations of the films, with those of their children.
In order to select participants, I first contacted at least twenty Koreans who had or knew immigrant children in grades between kindergarten and third (age five to eight) through local churches, schools, and a university. However, the actual number of participants decreased to ten because of the children's various situations. For example, their complicated schedules for academic work outside of school, after-school programs, or their participation in other studies interfered with their participation in this study. These ten participants came from the Midwest in the United States. They had some experience with a Korean school and all of their parents were Koreans who were born and raised in Korea before they came to the United States. Their families had lived in the United States from one to four years.
Five pair groups participated in this study. As several researchers (e.g., Graue & Walsh, 1998; Mauthner, 1997) have noted, the pair or small-group interview is one of most effective methods of conducting a study with primary grade children. Furthermore, according to these researchers, these kinds of interviews can be useful because children tend to feel more comfortable talking about a subject with their peers than with only one unfamiliar adult.
Although the primary method of collecting data for the study was group interviews, additional information and documents were gathered from personal meetings, talks with the children, and informal discussions with their parents. I also collected the children's research notes and drawings as a supplemental tool for analyzing the interview data, since several children wrote about or drew their ideas in notebooks during the interviews or at home in order to explain their thoughts more clearly, and so they could be clear about what they wanted to say. Therefore, this study used a variety of methods to gather and develop interrelated hypotheses about the meanings of popular culture as the participants saw them.
Each pair of girls watched a film in my presence and took part in a semi-structured interview with me over a period of six months. Each of the interviews was audio-taped and transcribed. I started each interview by asking "grand tour questions" (Spradley, 1979) about each film, such as the following: "How was this film?"; "What was interesting or fun to you?"; and "Was it much more fun than the previous film(s)?" Once I asked these questions, the direction of the interviews was determined by the participants. However, when certain issues did not clearly emerge from an interview, I guided the children by asking them questions that might naturally arise from the content of each film: 1) Why do you think a protagonist liked/did not like a particular person? 2) Why do you think that certain characteristics of a person are so important for love? and 3) Why did/did you not think a protagonist was nice (or smart)?
Glaser and Strauss's (1967) "constant comparative method" of grounded theory was used as a guide for analyzing the data. I read all the transcriptions several times in order to uncover, not only the children's shared perceptions, concerns, and interests, but also the nuances of each child's unique perspective. As more information about them was recorded, these themes were used to establish more relevant categories. And the findings from these investigations were compared to initial ideas on the themes. Furthermore, I also looked at theoretical issues in the relevant literature and compared them to the themes which emerged from the field work in order to generate the themes of the study more clearly. By doing this, the data were continually reviewed and re-categorized in order to classify them according to more appropriate and accurate themes, and make my interpretations more accurate (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).
As the sole researcher of this study, I tried to view the children's perspectives from as many angles as possible so as to estimate the participants' understanding in a more cogent way by using the different sources of data mentioned earlier. In order to reduce possible misinterpretations of the children's responses, I checked my perceptions by means of triangulation (Denzin, 1978; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). My interpretations were also clarified by the informants and their parents. These so-called 'member checks' were conducted during interviews with the children and through informal discussions with their parents. In this way, my interpretations of the data were often reconstructed and modified based on the reflections of both informants and their parents.
Internal Virtues as Important Characteristics for Love
The informants' discussions of romantic love inevitably began with discussing "good" people, since, as the informants said, their feelings of love could only be directed towards such people. In expressing this view, they specifically mentioned two major characteristics of good people--being nice and intelligent. Therefore, these two characteristics are briefly discussed in this section. This section also looks closely at their perspectives on physical attractiveness, which was not regarded as a significant factor for love.
When talking about the people who deserved love, the girls of the study first emphasized being nice and they described it in various ways. For example, Narim related the niceness to sympathizing with a person. During a discussion about Aladdin, she said that "Jasmine liked a boy that knows her heart. Remember that part when Aladdin showed her where he slept in the market? They were in totally different situations. But both thought they were trapped. Aladdin could feel what she felt!" Several other girls also pointed out the sympathy shown in the scene Narim mentioned above, since they saw the sympathy as a precious human feeling which could produce an emotional connection between people regardless of their social status. Sympathy was thus seen to help two individuals--namely, the street rat Aladdin and the princess Jasmine--overcome their different social backgrounds and fall in love.
Moreover, the informants emphasized the importance of niceness, by comparing Gaston to the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. This film clearly represented the appearances and personalities of these two men by placing a good personality--namely, the Beast--in opposition having to attractive physical appearance--Gaston, in this case. The informants often regarded Gaston as "good outside and bad inside," as Narim argued, whereas the Beast was nice. Many girls thus appreciated the Beast's sense of understanding and sacrifice, both of which were considered an attribute of being nice.
Another girl, Heesun, also considered the value of sacrifice important for love by describing the lack of deep emotion in Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid. Although Heesun acknowledged that Ariel liked Prince Eric in the movie, she herself didn't like him because, as Hesun said, "He did not make me cry, not even once. And he didn't do anything special for Ariel. He didn't treat her well, either. He just played a flute and walked along with a dog, and that is it." In this sense, the absence of any real emotion in Prince Eric made him unattractive to Heesun. She could not find any special inner beauty in this prince who did not play a significant role in the movie or make any great effort to gain Ariel' s love. According to Heesun' s argument, then, the meaning of being nice was expanded to including a sincere feeling for someone's well-being. As a result, even though Prince Eric was like most of the handsome men who often appear in Disney films (e.g., Giroux, 1999; Kasturi, 2002), he failed to make a favorable impression on Heesun and some other girls in the study. Put differently, due to his lack of effort to understand, care for, or sacrifice for Ariel, the gifts did not tend to see Prince Eric as worthy of being loved.
Another factor that the gifts saw as essential in one's beloved was intelligence. When the informants talked about it, their focus was mostly on a single heroine, Belle of Beauty and the Beast. Acknowledging Belle's passion for reading in the movie, for example, Haana thought of her as smart by articulating Belle's intelligence from evidence in the movie. She described particular scenes, such as that of the librarian and that of Gaston's visit to Belle's house, as examples of Belle's enthusiasm for reading books. Like Haana, most of the informants agreed that Belle's erudition led not only to confidence in herself, but also to her being so lovable. Haana's assessment of Belle, in part, stemmed from her identification with Belle, for she said, "Belle and I are similar" as a result of their passion for reading. By identifying with Belle, Haana went on to presume that Belle's intelligence might be one of the reasons why the Beast loved her. Her way of identifying with Belle is certainly a contrast to some scholars' interpretations (e.g., Bell et al., 1995; Lieberman, 1972), which insisted that gifts who watch Disney movies will want to be like Disney's beautiful, thin, sexy heroines. Hanna's identification with Belle, however, was not based on her physical appearance; instead, Belle's intellectual ability allowed Hanna to project herself onto Belle.
Minhee and Sunjoo, whose parents were exceedingly passionate about their children's academic performance and education more than the other parents in this study, also emphasized intelligence. In discussing this perspective, their definitions of being smart were intimately related to levels of academic performance. Arguing that "Boys actually like smart girls more than pretty girls," they said that sometimes boys like gifts who are not smart because they have not yet evaluated these girls' intelligence. To Minhee and Sunjoo, therefore, it was obvious that boys liked girls who were "smart and talented like me [Minhee]" as long as they recognized the girls' intelligence. In this way, their advanced academic performance made them confident of considering smartness important for love.
Like these girls, most of the Korean girls of the study had a high level of academic performance and it was likely a sign of their strong self-esteem and desire for self-improvement. From this stand point, many of the informants believed that intelligence was more important than physical appearance in obtaining love and judging people in general. As a result, even though it is true that the girls could not find many intelligent protagonists in Disney films, they did not ignore intelligence or treat it as insignificant. Rather, based on their personal experiences, they unwaveringly considered it important and even necessary both in love and in life.
Physical Attractiveness: A Complicated Matter
As discussed earlier, this paper revealed that the girls tended to see having a good personality as more important in winning love than many other traits, especially physical attractiveness. However, in spite of their strong arguments for the relative insignificance of one's outward appearance, they did not completely ignore it. This is so because, although the girls saw physical attractiveness as a secondary matter in romantic love, they viewed it as having a certain power under certain conditions. First, physical appearance was considered important as far as a first impression is concerned. The informants thought that a person's appearance or physical traits might be influential only when people met him or her for the first time because, as Jisoo and Minhee commented, "We don't know if that person is good or bad and we can only see that person's appearance at that time." From this point of view, a person's lack of previous knowledge of, or relationships with people, seemed to lead him or her to think of physical attractiveness as important.
Second, according to the informants, physical attractiveness was essential for males. While they did not seriously consider physical attractiveness in the male characters crucial in the matter of female love, they thought that the heroes' love generally depended on the heroines' appearances. They often spoke of such a perspective when talking about the film The Little Mermaid. Discussing what Ursula did to win Prince Eric's love, for instance, Minhee said, "I know why Ursula turned into a really pretty woman. It was because she wanted the prince to break up with Ariel. When she turns really pretty, I mean, prettier than Ariel, the prince will like her more than Ariel." Based on Minhee's statement, then, a woman used her physical beauty in order to win a man's love because it was clear for Minhee that the man was going to choose the better-looking woman of the two. Even Minhee, who strongly insisted on the importance of intellectual ability for love throughout this study more than many other girls, perceived that a woman can compete with another woman by using her physical appearance to obtain love.
Such a view of male's love was also discussed in Aladdin. All the girls thought that Aladdin fell in love with her at first sight at the market. Since Aladdin has an explicit scene in which a male character--Aladdin--falls in love with a heroine--Jasmine--all the informants tended to be sure that his love was inspired by Jasmine's physical beauty.
Given the informants' ideas on the relationships between physical attractiveness and males' love, particular film scenes and plots tended to provide important clues with which the girls interpreted females' looks as significant for males in Disney films. Hence, this perspective could echo some scholars' critiques (e.g., Bell et al., 1995; Giroux, 1995; Kasturi, 2002), which asserted that Disney's romantic love develops quickly by means of physical attraction.
Reflections: Being Intelligent in the Korean Cultural Context
Of the informants' ideas on romantic love in this study, the emphasis on intelligence can particularly be analyzed by taking a close look at the views of their families and culture on intellectual ability. In other words, their opinions on this matter can be seen as the product of Korean culture, in which academic success is remarkably important. Such a Korean value of education was revealed when they talking about themselves as examples of being intelligent. All of the informants felt confident and proud of their intellectual ability, and recognized that the pursuit of excellence in education was a top priority. In addition, their conversations clearly indicated that they knew their parents' high expectations about education and academic achievement. Hence, like the Korean children in Rohner & Pettengill's (1985) study, these informants did not respond negatively to their parents' high expectations in regards to their education. Rather, they tried to understand adult perspectives, and thus, considered successful academic performance one of their important responsibilities.
The informants also touched on another reason for the importance of being smart: it is an important quality for adulthood--particularly motherhood. As Heesun and Kaain mentioned, mothers must be intelligent and knowledgeable, which does not seem easy to them. These girls viewed being smart as important for becoming a complete adult who should be both erudite and responsible for his or her children's learning in the context of Korean culture. As in Western societies (e.g., Archard, 1993; Jenks, 1996), childhood in Korean culture is considered a period of preparation for adulthood, even though such preparation in Korean culture tends to be focused more on education and academic success than it is in Western culture.
Moreover, according to these girls, being a smart girl is seen as crucial for having an intelligent suitor. This situation reminded me of a Korean social tendency to consider a person's educational attainments an important aspect of being a good future spouse. This social attitude still applies in Korea in spite of the fact that there is an increasing emphasis on a person's physical appearance and sexual attractiveness--particularly among female adolescents and young female adults (e.g., Cho, 2002; Lee, 2002). Thus, in considering their future roles not only as mothers but also as wives, the girls in this study recognized that intellectual ability was necessary for both themselves and their future children.
To summarize, the informants' perceptions of intelligence were inevitably related to their conceptions of adulthood in Korean culture: intelligence was considered essential in becoming a complete adult, one who would be considered erudite and responsible for her children's learning. Hence, the Korean emphasis on intellectual ability implies that these girls' lives will be unfulfilled without family.
Conclusions and Suggestions
This paper examined young Korean immigrant girls' understanding of what was required for romantic love as made evident in Disney films in the United States by looking at two major characteristics--namely, being nice and being intelligence. Of the informants' discussions about such characteristics, it was remarkable that they considered inner beauty more essential for romantic love than many other characteristics.
Nevertheless, the girls' strong belief in inner beauty was challenged when they attempted to understand the male point of view in Disney films, in which the physical attractiveness of females tended to be valued more than their personalities. This is so because their perception of the importance of female physical beauty for romantic love seemed influenced by verbal or visible clues present in the films. From this standpoint, the inclusion of active and strong female characters in the movies should be necessary for helping young children establish positive images of female heroines.
As for these girls' views on the importance of intelligence, this paper has shown that the informants' emphasis on intelligence was closely related to the importance that Korean values places on education. All of the informants understood that a person's educational level is considered crucial to one's success. In addition, being smart was important for these girls to be "wise mothers and good wives" in the Korean cultural context since Korean mothers are often seen as responsible for their children's academic performance.
Therefore, the dichotomy in gender characteristics in American society--the "nice and gentle girl" versus the "strong and tough boys"--was decoded differently by the girls in the study: that is to say, "nice males and intelligent females." Korean culture then provided the girls with a different framework to formulate their own cultural assumptions about females and males.
Reflecting on this study's findings, further research should consider the diverse meanings of popular culture that can be derived from young children who have different socio-cultural perspectives. As this paper showed, these Korean immigrant girls' interpretations of romantic love in Disney films were closely wrapped up with Korean cultural realities which are different from those of the United States. From this perspective, certain meanings present in American popular culture can be differentiated by and negotiated with according to different audiences (Gotz, Lemish, Aidman, & Moon, 2005; Robertson, 1994). More precisely, depending on a child's different situation and experiences, popular culture will have a variety of different meanings and uses (Dortner, 2001; Fiske, 1992; Hall, 1980; Lemish, Liebes, & Seidman, 2001). Future studies should consider such a child's socio-cultural factors as having a potential impact on the child who interprets American popular culture and decides what is relevant and appropriate for him or her to adopt, through the messages that such culture conveys.
In a related matter, further research should include more diverse cultural group of children whose voices are not considered important enough in society. As discussed earlier in this paper, many American immigrant children learn actual American values and expectations based on popular culture. However, like Korean children, they have often been excluded from research on American popular culture. Given the currently increasing number of immigrants in the United States, examining how such children understand and reconstruct American values in popular culture is more necessary than it was formerly. By doing this, future studies will be able to help to find a way to create a democratic learning environment in which every child's voice and experiences can be respected and heard in a given society (Freire & Giroux, 1989).
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Dr. Lena Lee, Assistant Professor. Early Childhood Education, Ohio University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Lena at firstname.lastname@example.org.…
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Publication information: Article title: "Boys like Smart Girls More Than Pretty Girls": Young Korean Immigrant Girls' Understanding of Romantic Love in American Popular Culture. Contributors: Lee, Lena - Author. Journal title: Journal of Instructional Psychology. Volume: 36. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2009. Page number: 87+. © 2009 George Uhlig Publisher. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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