In the two previous pieces of the 'Strong Drama Women' trio, 'The Norm' and 'The Definition', I talked about how problematic and limiting the portrayals of women often are in Korean drama, with the rom-com drama being my main focus. When it is the genre most watched by and intended for women, it is surprising to see how little it sometimes thinks of them. But in my second piece, I talked about the existence of hope. And hope is here. Bellow I have only a few examples that belong in one or more categories of the definitions I gave in my previous piece. While not the only ones or possibly even best ones (I have not seen every drama out there after all), they are, out of the ones I have seen, good examples of how women can be well developed and respected as characters, while often still maintaining their role in their romance.
There are some character-related spoilers here, which is inevitable in analyzing them, but they are kept to an absolute minimum.
Beautiful, strong women who do not turn evil or lose their spunk are already hard to find. Song-joo is easily the role model to follow on how to accomplish that. A gisaeng of her time, having suffered at the hands of her own people and the Japanese during the occupation, she has developed her brain and resolve. This woman is charming, quick-witted, but also caring and acts as a mother goose to all the people around her. She is an old soul in a young body. Her weaknesses highlight the struggles women went through during her era, but still often go through today. She has honor, a moral code, ideals that she fights for and still manages to have her romance and, an extremely rare thing in Korean drama, a soulmate-like friendship with the leading man she does not get romantically involved with. While Na Yeo-kyeong (Han Ji-min), the female lead, is also worth mentioning due to her innocence and seemingly stereotypical role being incorporated into the story, exploring how a pure person with values can struggle during such times, Song-joo manages to escape a "drama female" mold almost entirely. She is a woman other women can admire and feel for. She is someone who makes women proud. A heroine.
It is surprising, even to me, that a character written by Hong Jeong-eun and Hong Mi-ran would be in this list. The Hongs' female characters are usually some of the most irritating and disrespectful out there. They are tools, lack any measure of self-worth, self-respect, resolve, goals and motivations and mostly exist to make their male leads look cool and to get forcefully kissed. Why Anna is so different and why the Hongs did not write more like her, we may never know. But Anna is a true female lead. "Fantastic Couple" is her story. The story of a woman whose loneliness drove her to becoming cruel and distancing people, often testing their loyalty in ways so cruel that she made her fear of rejection a self-fulfilling prophecy. She has conflicts and development we usually only see in male leads of her kind. This series is about this woman and how she is changed, but also discovers the good things about herself, through the family she enters. While the man is important, it is he who acts as the supporting protagonist to her and her personal story, not the other way around. The main plot is about Anna. Most of the side-characters are the ones who change Anna's world. She is interesting, layered and well-developed, making her a worthy addition to this list.
Characters who are incredibly mean and cold to people in dramas are usually villains or there to annoy throughout the entire run. What makes Hye-seong special and a strong female character is that she starts off just as bad, but her betterment as a person, a woman and a public defender is a big focus of the series. Hye-seong does not exist for her romance alone. Neither is she only bettered by it. Every character in this series helps her improve a side of her life, learn of her sins, her weaknesses and her flaws and fix them, to make her own life better, but also to make her a worthy professional who saves lives. She is also treated as an equal and a person by the men and women around her, not as just the object of a romance, and those characters are not only placed there to play a part in said romance either. She also has her part in protecting the male lead, whereas female leads in kdrama are almost always the ones being protected. She does receive help, protection and is saved by some around her, but her role is not to be just a damsel in distress, but someone who gives as much as she receives, out of sense of duty, friendship and kindness.
When a female character is written as such a fun and unusual individual and when her actress is cast to bring that out , you have a recipe for success in your hands. Yeo-chi is not great for swearing or being a brat, as fun as those things make her. She is great for being written as "one of these fun people", not "the girl for the male lead". Yes, she does form a romantic relationship with him, but through that, she finds her goals, motivation and strength needed to become a capable woman. Her romance plays its part in helping her get power in all aspects of her life and her friendship and romance with the male lead is one of equality and caring. She receives help, but gives help back. She does her best to make the man she likes proud, because she knows he wants her to be happy and a master of herself instead of someone who will have to rely on his protection and help to achieve her goals. She wants to be a person who can take care of her own life, because she feels she needs to match the man she admires as an equal. She is not used as punching bag for a man's complexes, but as whole person whose romance helps her develop and channel her good sides to become a decent and happier adult.
We all love a good poor girl/chaebol drama. We kind of have to, since they are done so often. However, these dramas usually make it their business to show how the vast differences in these people's lives just magically disappear for their romance. Ji-soo is here, because she is the more realistic version of a common woman in a relationship with a chaebol (not simply a rich man, but a powerful figure) . Forced to hide from the public, not being accepted by the family because she holds no corporate power, not being seen as anything but a nuisance, eventually from her man as well. In the process of catering to the man's and his empire's needs, she loses herself and her happiness. She has to play a part, she has to use a mask and be oppressed, all to hold on to a person whose life will never be about anything but his work and power. The good man who enters her life helps her find and respect herself again. He helps her realize that "true love" is not that, if it requires you to give up on yourself to have it. She is what the dysfunctional relationships we swoon over in most dramas create. And she rejects that life. She is written to empower women, not show them how great entering a gilded cage is.
For the sake of space and time, there are many characters I had to leave out. In bigger or smaller ways, they are all roles real women can be entertained by, admire, respect or even be inspired by. And this is really what it comes down to. A genre and medium which is often watched by women offering them some basic respect instead of patronizing them. Recognizing and featuring aspects of their lives in ways that do not suggest they need or like to have their wants, needs, joys and worries being taken lightly.
Do you have other suggestions for strong drama women? Are there characters you feel are written well and explore things worthy exploring? Who are they and how do they fit the definition of strong? Or, if your definition is not the same as mine, what do you feel is a strong female character? Whether you'd like to comment on that or not, it is something worth thinking about in relation to Korean dramas and women as they are portrayed in fiction.
Written by: Orion from 'Orion's Ramblings'
Vasia, also known as Orion or Ori online, is currently doing opinion pieces and database upkeep. She has a love for good TV and a penchant for rambling in written form. Vasia can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Column] Strong Drama Women - The Examples"
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