Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Girlie Show?

Is Korean drama more girl-oriented than American television?

I’ve been mulling over this question for a while. Initially, it seemed clear to me that Kdrama really does appeal to female viewers in a way American TV never would, but then I had a realization: I’m a newbie who almost exclusively seeks out dramas intended for female audiences. This makes me the television-watching equivalent of those blind men in the elephant story—I only understand what’s directly in front of me because the whole of the beast is just too unfathomable.

Having said that, there is a way for me to answer this question even with my limited knowledge and understanding: Korean drama is capable of being more girl-oriented than American television, and in the pink-wallpapered ghetto in which I prefer to dwell, it actually is.

The funnest piece of evidence I have to support this argument? That would be the F4 effect. Although American television demands that its women fit society’s ideal—they’re almost all pretty, thin, and well-dressed—it completely lets men off the hook. For every devastatingly beautiful woman on TV, you’ll find a chunky, sloppy, not-particularly-hot man. But in Korea? Conspicuously attractive men are all the rage, with their faces more beautiful than flowers and their wardrobes more amazing than a September issue of Vogue. Heck, there’s even an entire series of dramas built around the premise that women like to see good-looking men: the Oh! Boy shows, including Flower Boy Ramen Shop and Shut Up: Flower Boy Band. (You had me at flower, quite frankly.) 

There are also weightier, more fundamental reasons why Korean drama is uniquely equipped to appeal to women. I don’t really buy that we all like the same things because of our biology, but it seems to me that as girls we do tend to gravitate toward particular interests. And relationships are one of these interests, whether they’re romantic or not. We like to see people relate to others, to understand their emotions, and to chart their connections over time. This, as it turns out, is just what Korean drama excels at.

To me, anyway, the structure of the 16-episode Korean weekday drama is perfect for bringing relationships to the center stage. It’s a finite window allowing for a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It’s long enough for depth and nuance, but it’s not so long to require excessive amounts of filler or treading water. Characters and their relationships begin in episode one, and then proceed to grow and change for fifteen more episodes.

American television shows, on the other hand, are engineered to last all but forever, for hundreds of episodes over multiple programming seasons and calendar years. Take The Simpsons: This animated show about a working class, middle-American family started airing in 1989, when I was in sixth grade. Fast-forward 23 seasons and nearly 500 episodes, and you’ll find that in that time I’ve grown into middle-aged, mid-career professional. But Bart Simpson is still in fourth grade, just as he was in the show’s first episode. A stunning number of wacky things have happened to Bart and his family in the meanwhile but as characters they—and their relationships—have remained in absolute stasis.

A few rare shows have managed to thrive in spite of the longterm, amorphous commitment of American television production, including the perennially wonderful Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy survived by developing two narrative arcs—one revolving around season-long “Big Bad” characters that gave immediate payoff and moved the plot forward, and another focusing on the show’s overall mythology and the continued development of its characters.

In response to the never-ending runs of its shows, American television has also evolved Law-and-Order-ism, another big killer of focused relationship development and growth. At any given moment over the past decade, most of our scripted offerings have been procedurals—shows that have a central core of characters that interact with an ever-changing cadre of weekly plotlines and characters. These shows don’t focus on the relationships or activities of their central characters, and inevitably these characters are about as one-dimensional as the animated Bart Simpson. Instead of driving the action with their own plotlines, the core cast links freestanding episodes under the show’s “brand.” Korean television has flirted with this narrative structure—as in the much-lauded-but-underwhelming Hello, My Teacher, which used the lens of a teacher to focus on the episode-long struggles of her students—but its lasting impact seems minimal.

While we Americans have been suffering through the scourge of uncertain, open-ended television shows that far outlast their usefulness, Seoul has been pumping out bite-sized delights that, in spite of their shortcomings, function as complete, stand-alone television “novels,” each full of characters that grow and change and overarching plotlines that resolve.

Beyond a tightened focus that allows for more meaningful character development, it’s also true that shorter-run Korean television shows can glory in a small detail that American monoliths can’t—romance. I hesitate to link being a girl with a disproportionate interest in love, but as a television watcher there's no hiding that love is just what I want to see. Every season love story after love story airs on Korean TV networks, while even American cable channels specifically devoted to women can’t manage to air a single series that focuses on love over being a policewoman or a lawyer or a vampire groupie.

I still haven’t reached a conclusion about whether Kdrama is inherently more girl-friendly than American TV. But in my mind, all signs point to Yes: Women are regularly lead characters in the most mainstream of dramas. Relationships, not gimmicks, are at the heart of their plots. And are those Korean actors ever handsome.

What it all boils down to is that Korean television, consciously or subconsciously, is built around and for women. The bulk of American television, on the other hand, sees female viewers as a niche audience not to be offended—but not necessarily to be served. 

We may hold the purse strings but Jack Bauer holds the remote.


  1. Excusez-MOI...if you consider yourself middle-aged when you were in the 6th grade in 1989 - EIGHT YEARS after I graduated from highschool....what does that make ME?


    On a serious note - your writing is a cut above, and I am a devoted fan.

    1. Middle aged is a state of mind, clearly. And as my mind is often in pajamas watching Korean television by 6 pm, I herein declare myself to be middle aged. ;)

      Thanks for the kind words. I've been thinking of retitling this blog TL;DR, so I'm grateful someone out there actually bothers with me!

  2. Lovely post.

    You've hit on almost every reason I now watch British and Asian TV instead of US--better character development, story structure with defined beginning, middle and end and more focus on relationships. I actually watch very few romance-centric Kdramas (nothing wrong with them, they just can't hold my interest for some reason), but I do appreciate how they usually don't portray women as simply objects of desire or the Hero's Hot Reward, with a few personality ticks thrown in for "depth". Like you've pointed out, this is probably because the main viewership is female, so guys end up being the more objectified ones in Kdramas XD.

    Now, if they only made all the female leads more intelligent, and stop the rampant wrist-grabbing...

    1. The vapid female leads do get old, don't they? I'm watching Can You Hear My Heart right now, which features a developmentally disabled dad and his "regular" daughter. I'm on episode 10 and have yet to see any evidence that she's smarter than he is :b

      I think this is why I like girl-pretending-to-boy plot lines, like Sungkyunkwan Scandal. They almost always guarantee a competent, smart female lead. Too bad they have to be pretending to be boys to come off this way, but still...

  3. I love your blog! You're not overwriting your ideas. I like how you take the time to fully explain your point of view, and do so intelligently and with a smooth writing style. Keep writing! I'd honestly say you're up to par with Dramabeans. Keep putting up posts! I just eat them up. :)

    1. I only wish I could be as genius as the girls at Dramabeans! Thank you for the kind words—it's nice to know that people are actually reading this stuff.

  4. K-dramas might be more girl-friendly but there's a lot WTF things in them in a woman's perspective. It might be OK for Korean women but not so much for many Westerners.
    I'm a woman, and I like watching stuff about relationships but not only, and I prefer them to be written in a smart way, and with less conventional female leads. Many women don't fit these stereotypes, and I'd love to hear their voices in K-dramas more often. In that sense, K-dramas are not really friendly to me, I can barely relate, especially as a foreigner. I'd love to see more time where the scenario is centered on women's thoughts and identity without relying on having a man or worrying about not having one. Solutions should be broader than just ending up dating a rich handsome man. But I think I should have said that in your "sexism in k-dramas" post instead :)

    Good and interesting post!