"Seeing Another/Seeing Oneself": Nondisabled Audiences' Perspectives on Disability in Two South Korean Films, Oasis (2002) and Malaton (2005)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Steven J. Taylor

Second Advisor

Owen Shapiro


Audience research, Cultural Studies, Disability representation, Disability studies, Film Studies, Korean cinema

Subject Categories



Using qualitative research methods, this dissertation closely examines discourses and representations of disability from the cinematic images of disabled characters and their families in two South Korean films, Oasis (C. Lee, 2002) and Malaton (Y. Jung, 2005) as well as from the responses of nineteen Korean graduate students at a US research university to disability imagery of the films. The findings on the representation of disability in the films indicate that disability is used as a visual reminder to restore previously marginalized identities, such as gender and sexuality. Situated in the Korean male crisis brought on by the 1997 economic turmoil, the films disclose Neo-Confucian patriarchy's attempt at maintaining its privileged status and its complicity with the neo-liberal logic. The successful alliance between the two relies heavily on the depoliticization of disability. In the process, disabled characters are reduced to visual metaphors to signify the perceived marginalization of nondisabled people and a living means of proving able-bodied supremacy. In the films, the dominant ideologies, patriarchy, ableism, and neoliberalism, are materialized through normatively feminizing and sexualizing a disabled woman in Oasis and blaming a mother of an autistic son and remasculinizing the son with the familiar trope of "supercrip" in Malaton.

Even though the films are saturated with disability imagery, the focus of the participants, none of whom are disabled themselves, shift away from disabled characters toward themselves. Consequently, disability becomes an emblem of these nondisabled participants' own concerns and desires to approximate "normal," especially gender-based obstacles, expression of gender identity, sexuality, and repression. A sense of marginalization and aspiration is strongly felt by female participants who symbolically use disability to critique male-oriented Korean society. Their male counterparts tend to deploy disability as a tool to express their perceived marginalization and nostalgia for a patriarchal social order.

However, identification with disabled characters is short-lived, and the participants of both genders ultimately disassociate themselves from disability and disabled people due in large part to their hegemonic understanding of disability. In other words, narratives of tragedy, disease, and dependency appear to override their partial attachments to the plight of disabled characters and their family members. Constrained by the cinematic treatments of disability and participants' assumed fear and guilt of disability, the participants fail to fully engage with disability and to understand it as an important part of human diversity.

The findings imply that a Disability Studies perspective, one that shifts from medical to social framing, is very useful when it interrogates the connections between disability and other social identities. A perspective can politicize disability, while also helping alleviate sensitivity and fear through discussion, and can, at its best, provide a safe space in which people can critically engage with disability.


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