Most fans of Korean drama, no matter their culture or background, would all agree about one thing. This is not the medium one turns to for realism, variety and representation. Korean series and the romance genre in particular are riddled with overused and limited tropes, making it possible to predict how most plots and characters will evolve based on that cookie-cutter method the industry is clawing onto.
And with those tropes come some character stereotypes that often feel anything but realistic or respectful. Let's face it; drama does not particularly love all kinds of people, men or women. If it does, its refusal to represent them is quite the weird way of showing it. So we end up with the same arrogant, but traumatized rich men and bubbly, but persistent poor women living on rooftops and destined to serve their mothers in law. We end up with rich parents/grandparents who have nothing better to do than meddle in their kids' romantic lives. We end up with a ton of clichés we all know and could each comfortably form a list of.
But since this is a type of entertainment which mainly produced and enjoyed by female audiences, it is imperative that the real wants, needs and nature of those women, as well as their representation are taken into account.
The problem with Korean dramas, however, is that their female leads almost always ride shotgun next to their male romantic interest. They often lack development, a life beyond their romance and in extreme cases, agency and basic self-respect. Women in kdrama take a lot of emotional abuse. Most of it from the men they are supposed to be loved by and their families. Some seem to exist solely to be punching bags that need saving. But it's ok. Those men are rich and handsome. Which makes their behavior automatically fine.
So here's a little story. A hardworking poor woman who is dismissed by family and/or friends and coworkers is doing her best to get by. She may not have a lot, but she has a fighting spirit and enough self-esteem to not let the bad things get her down. Then she meets a rich man. And that basic self-respect goes out the window. The man is mean to her, physically and emotionally and yet she can't help but fall for him. And then this hardworking woman who went through most of her adult life doing fine suddenly cannot cope with anything and anyone without that man's help. Her world revolves around him and his protection.
Sound familiar? It is only the plot of most rom-com Korean dramas. It unfortunately does not stop with that genre. Take "Vampire Prosecutor" as an example. This is not a romantic series and it is also a cable one, meaning it is less bound by the norms which govern public television. The female lead, Jeong-in, is a capable, educated and tough girl. But this is not her story and she is therefore not important. Her only function is to be that unreachable goal and forced victim for the male lead to save and protect.
Stripping of a woman's agency and choice is even treated as a romantic notion in more concrete ways. The recent "Master"s Sun', while making an effort to develop its female lead, had a ton of verbal, physical and emotional abuse thrown at her, including a whole romantic setup in a scene where she is kissed while unconscious and unable to give or show consent. And lack of consent and choice for women is a staple of the industry.
Yes, a lot of women in Korean society are expected to want security and wealth from a man, just as men are expected to provide that and these types of leads express this. But entertainment should, at least sometimes, go against dated and restricting gender roles, not reinforce them. It is offending to women to base an entire medium targeted at them on the assumption they have no interest in seeing their own lives expressed and developed beyond the man they are told they are supposed to orbit for this power and money. And there are ways to have both romance and not tie it with abuse and underdeveloped female characters.
Now, this is not to say all the female characters are like this or that the male ones do not also get unfair treatment. As mentioned earlier, Dramaland does not seem to respect people much as a general rule. But female leads and especially the ones in romantic series do have the shorter end of the stick in this rule. The things mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg.
Diving into the reasons why and finding solutions is a tough job. It requires time, devotion, as well as knowledge of Korean history, society and the drama industry. It is another, big story not everyone can tell and not something I am equipped to talk about. The goal of this trio of pieces to come out within the next few weeks is to express dissatisfaction with the current condition, offer a definition of what I mean by 'strong' female characters, take a look at how they are usually presented in Korean drama and lastly, offer some examples of such strong characters, both in leading and supporting roles.
The 2nd piece can be found here: [HanCinema's Column] Strong Drama Women - The Definition.
The 3rd piece here: [HanCinema's Column] Strong Drama Women - The Examples
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Column] Strong Drama Women - The Norm"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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