Tuesday, November 19, 2013

For the birds: The quietly feminist leanings of Korean dramas

Ojakgyo Brothers’ Baek Ja Eun and her ajumma.

“I don’t know why feminists like you watch Korean drama.”

Although they’ve since deleted it, an anonymous commenter left this note on one of my posts about Kdrama girls. I guess the person who wrote it wasn’t happy about my criticisms of the way women are sometimes treated in Kdramas, which is fine. But the perhaps unintended implication of their words is that the whole of Korean drama is fundamentally anti-feminist, making it a lost cause for people like me (or vice versa). Seen in this light, Kdrama will never fall in line with my ideals, and if my ideals are so important to me I should just stop watching it.

As someone who thinks that all people—whatever their gender, whatever their religion, whatever their color—should have the same freedoms, rights, and responsibilities, I do find troubling things in Korean dramas. I’ve written about a lot of them, from wrist grabs and forced kisses to virtually enslaved daughters-in-law. But there’s more to the story than that. Korean dramas actually allow understanding of the world in ways that are too “feminine” for the West. They build stories from things we overlook here in America, because to our eyes they’re old-fashioned and silly and womanly. But respecting women and telling their stories is one of the most feminist things you can do—and that’s exactly what Korean dramas specialize in.

No matter what their themes may be, almost all Korean dramas are actually about emotions. They glory in things traditionally seen as suitable only for women: relationships, and matters of the heart and the feeling soul. Whole series are devoted to transforming human connections from one thing to another—from strangers to mother and daughter, from rivals to friends, from enemies to lovers. Lots of things may happen in the course of the show, but what ties every event together is this journey and its importance. This is why Eun Chan and Han Gyul’s developing love story is so powerful in Coffee Prince. It’s why Park Bo Ja’s mothering of the interloper Baek Ja Eun is so moving in Ojakgyo Brothers. And it’s why that final father-son scene in City Hunter will always rip your heart from your chest, no matter how times you watch it. In Korean dramas, narrative almost always exists in service of relationship, instead of the other way around.

All this attention to the ties that bind people makes for a lot of romances. This is one of the things that always keeps me coming back to Korean drama—for reasons both technical and cultural, love stories aren’t something that my own country’s television does well. Our shows last forever, precluding any sort of closure. And in America, romance for the sake of romance is ghettoized; on the rare occasions it actually exists, it’s kept out of sight on channels like the WB and Lifetime that are geared toward women. But why should shouldn’t a love story be just as important as a story about war? To regard romances as something less is a remnant of the male-dominated patriarchy, a mindset that focuses on public life and disregards the home sphere as the less-important realm of women. So in this way, Korean dramas are actually light years ahead of anything we have in “feminist” America: They’re not ashamed to traffic in stories about love, because love isn’t treated as something exclusive to the interests of women.

Coffee Prince’s Eun Chan: The ultimate Candy?

Their fixation on underdogs is another way that Korean dramas appeal to people who think women deserve the same freedoms as men. Kdramas often tell the kind of rags-to-riches story that hasn’t been popular in America since the turn of the twentieth century. People who start off with nothing end up with everything through their honest hard work—and those people are often women. Think about the archetype of the hardworking Candy girl. She’s not a character who’s limited by her gender (even if her happy ending usually involves a prince on a white stallion). She supports herself and does what it takes to survive, beating seemingly impossible odds along the way. Hwang Tae Hee got the job she always dreamed of in Queen of Reversals, and my beloved Go Eun Chan won a worldwide barista competition in Coffee Prince. Heck, hapless Geum Jan Di even got into medical school in Boys over Flowers. Their own personal agency is what earned these female characters their happy endings. The fact that a dreamy guy happened to be involved in each of them doesn’t necessarily invalidate these stories as girl-centered, feminist-friendly storytelling.

All the on-screen housekeeping in Korean dramas can also be seen as feminist. In Western entertainment homemaking is simply invisible, and I can’t help feeling that this is partially because it is so tainted by its longstanding status as “woman’s work.” Washing the floor, making the bed, and preparing meals are not valueless and devoid of narrative merit; they’re the stuff that real life is made of. Korean dramas respect them as such, rather than ignoring the entire realm of homely arts just because even today—and even in America—they’re so often solely the responsibilities of women.

Jewel in the Palace: No boys allowed

There are some Korean dramas that I would even consider overtly feminist. The personal and professional freedoms experienced by the characters in the original I Need Romance were accompanied by the ability to feel, express, and control their own physical desire. The 2003 sageuk Jewel in the Palace displays a different kind of feminism. In a world where women are property, it is concerned almost exclusively with their lives and interactions. It focuses on the inner workings of the palace kitchen during Korea’s Joseon dynasty, and it never looks down on its huge cast of female characters or their concerns. Instead, their struggles, friendships, and rivalries become its backbone. This is territory Western filmmaking has yet to explore. Even when mainstream historical dramas revolve around a woman, she’s almost always surrounded by men, like in 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age. With its gaggle of ladies in waiting, the currently airing WB drama Reign is an intriguing exception to this. But it still has nothing on Jewel, which let the King’s women speak in their own voices for more than twenty episodes of girls-only intrigue.

As an American feminist, there’s another reason for me to love Korean drama. By exposing me to other ideas and other ways of life, it encourages me to examine my own. Kdrama alters my perception and allows me to look at my own culture from a new vantage point. For example, I’m always marveling at the fact that women in Korea don’t take their husband’s last names. In America, our culture expects women to erase who we used to be when we get married, becoming a wholly new being with a wholly new name. Wifehood sometimes involves becoming a glorified maid in Kdrama relationships, but it never requires you to be somebody else.

To say that Kdramas are so problematic that they can’t be appreciated by people with feminist sensibilities is both short-sighted and inaccurate. Korean television has produced an almost unimaginable variety of programming—and while some of it has been painfully anti-woman, some of it been every bit as enlightened as anything on the international stage. 

So that, anon, is why feminists like me watch Korean drama.


  1. Jewel in the Palace constantly amazes me with its perspective of story-telling. I typically detest the kind of women's backstabbing fights that are depicted in storylines, especially in sageuks and historical dramas of all nationalities; because they're coincidentally portrayed as a secondary kind of struggle than the men have. Ex: princes and politicians scheme to the death; women scheme behind the scenes because that's all they can do. In Jewel though, the main characters don't bitchslap each other just to save their own faces, and their first interests aren't to promote the claims of their lovers/husbands/sons (like the typical scheming mother/mother-inlaw). They have a world of their own, but they fight for what They want, for their own livelihoods, inside that sphere. And yes, you're right - this kind of storytelling is rarely told. Of course, the kind of 'women-first' story isn't seen in a lot of Kdramas, at least without the rest of the trimmings, but it happens so much in smaller doses that I am content.

    Thanks for bringing this topic out! It's excellent justification for why we still love this genre, wrist-grabs and all. And btw, my theory on why the dreaded wrist-grab happens so often: because it's doubly amazing when after you've seen it a 100 times, when the woman grabs HIS wrist, you get to whoop and cheer like a madwoman! Yeah, little victories. I'll take them.

  2. I really appreciate this post. There are times when I am asked similar questions and you put the answer into words perfectly!

  3. Wow you wrote an essay! I think it's encouraging that many (most?) drama writers are female. There's a lot of potential for these dramas to make more statements about the inequality in Korea--well, if they can get by the male directors and network crews.
    Also, I think there's an okay balance of weak and strong female characters. I mean, I think plenty of dramas portay independent and strong female characters and skip the family customs and culture stuff.

  4. Hello! I love your blog, but there's just one thing that I wanted to clarify: it's not "in the most of West" that women take their husbands' surnames, I dare say it's just in english speaking countries - at least in Europe, I'd say it's just in the UK which this happens, so to me it seems a bit exaggerate to plaude to Korea for such a thing... it's kind of common! XD

    1. Thanks for bringing this up! I changed the text—of course you're right that it's not traditional to take your husband's surname in all Western cultures. (And I think it's getting less common in America, too.) I also don't think that Korea is somehow more enlightened on this front—the Confucian expectation really seems to be that you're a *guest* in your husband's house, and not really part of the family until you have a son. It's just different from here, which made me think about why American women are willing to change their names. I've never been married, but I'd never do it.

    2. It also can be viewed as how differently some cultures' notions of patriarchy play out (hi, I hardly ever comment, and I forget what I called myself before but here I am again hiii); in America, taking on a husband's name is a firm acceptance of status quo patriarchy (but that this may be the last bastion was noted quite well in Cashmere Mafia--can't believe I watched this show but I was avoiding work and it seemed like a good idea at the time--the women acknowledge how they're outpacing their men and the power shifts that result). Of course changing the surname for the sake of the family makes things a lot easier too but potentially messy later (d-i-v-o-r-c-e). And at first I was impressed by Korea's forward-thinking notion of keeping your last name until I realized that it does tie in with Confucian ideas. But of course I should have realized--my mother once told me how she was "on notice" until she had a son. Also interesting that in divorces, the men often won custody of the children--I think the surnames and the immediately connection to bloodlines helped.

      A couple of dramas that have what I consider strong female characters (maybe not proto-feminist, but strong and interesting) is History of the Salaryman and King of Dramas, the latter which I rewatched recently, both with Jung Ryeo-won, whom I adore. There we get a despot-like character with the hero, and the heroine is untried and innocent and gets hurt by the hero (again and again and . . . again), but she fights back, and her character arc compared to his is interesting; her emotional growth is immense, but his, through her influence, is exponential. And the former--that's a completely different animal. Neither one has a makeover scene (actually, I take that back, there is one in History, a subversion).

      ok I've gone on long enough, and I know I've contradicted myself at least once. Public forums make me twitchy . . . wish I could email you instead, but truly, thanks for your thought-provoking post(s).

  5. Unrelated, I just started watching Cruel City (it's called Heartless City on Hulu). So far I'm loving it. I'm loving how much edgier it is that broadcast kdramas, and that was even before that 4th episode happened! That 4th episode though...I felt like I was saying "WHAT!!? NO WAY!" through half of it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. People throw the word feminist around so much that its become so unclear whether the person using it even understands it fully.

    I love that you responded to that person's comment and you've definitely bring up great points. I'm someone who loves and appreciates the different kinds of portrayals of women and also men. The good and the bad.

  7. This was enlightening and, for some reason, makes me feel better about being a feminist who loves Korean dramas.

  8. I've never labelled myself as a feminist and I'm not politically minded either. KDramas are an escape for me. I don't always like how women are treated in the dramas so it is always good to see it when they stand up for themselves. I believe each person, man or woman, has to make the best of their situation in life and steadily move forward. Inner peace with who you are is a wonderful thing.

  9. I use Kdramas as an escape, so I tend to view them as how I would react. I don't view the whole wrist grabbing/ forced kiss thing in the same light as others, because I feel like if a girl has enough gumption to kick a guy in the head she has enough to get out of a kiss if she really didn't want it. No matter what face she makes. I'm a very physical person as well. If I'm done enough with a conversation to walk off you would need that physical stop to get me back because words aren't going to cut it. I think that love comes in so many forms that its hard to pin down how someone is suppose to feel at any given time. The fact that a character continues to talk to a man after he has done things to her like that are a form of permission. These aren't women in extreme abuse situations they are women who work hard to survive in normal circumstances. Loosing a parent or being poor is hard but its not the mental toll that getting beaten daily is.

  10. another lovely blog to read! thank you as always for putting things into perspective and giving words and reasons for the emotions we all feel yet don't always know how to express! i have not watched(in my opinion) shallow american shows for years now i found and fell in love with korean dramas. the depth and human side of life and relationships and emotions are the magic of the shows. and, i love them! and i love reading your stuff!

  11. You are so right about women's stories getting ghettoized in US tv. Part of what's attracted me to k-dramas is that they really are stories by women, for women, about women. It's rare to find shows like that in the States. (I was going to say "anymore" but I believe breaking into the writers-room in the States has been historically hard.)

    And yes, it's not all perfect, rosy-colored examples of female empowerment -- but it's a lot better than being the supporting "girl-character" in a show filled with men.

    Love this post! :)

    --Betsy Hp

  12. Thank you for this. I especially love your point about how love stories are often hidden away on "women's" channels. Sitcoms like Parks and Recreation sometimes develop love stories over the course of several seasons, but otherwise, romance seems to be saved for "guilty pleasure" shows.

    Since it came up in the comments, I can't speak authoritatively about the rest of Europe, but women in Finland and Estonia usually take their husbands' last names, so it's not just the US and UK!

  13. Beautiful post. Women being so in touch with emotions is what your post brought to mind. But this is not only the case in Kdramas or Asian dramas in general. I mean, we also see hunks shed a tear or two or wail even. Yet, it does not make then less manly. How often do we see that in Western television? Just saying...

  14. I have a friend who did her PhD research on women and empowerment in Late Medieval English peasant society. Her whole thesis was that although men had power in ‘official’ terms (for example, they were the ones that went to the manor or negotiated with the bailiff) in reality it was the women who were truly powerful since they were the ones that organized the routines of shared labour or carried out the un-taxable milling of wheat in their homes using illegal grindstones. This fact became most clear when the men were widowed and I remember thinking how uncannily similar the situation was to present day Korea. I hear stories (mostly through my mother) of middle aged men who belong to the elite of Korean society who upon becoming widowed are unable to carry out the most basic of non-work related chores. My favorite story is that of the recently widowed professor who had no idea that one was supposed to record gas meter readings at the end of every other month and had his gas cut off. He should have hired a housekeeper but apparently didn’t think that ‘a little bit of housework’ was worth paying that much per month. I think stories like this, which represent only a tip of the iceberg, show that in reality Korean women – even those of the older generation with very traditional and conservative beliefs – have done their upmost to become empowered within the confines of Confucian patriarchy. So I agree with you that the showing and therefore acknowledging of these day-to-day practices of ‘keeping house’ through dramas is definitely an important statement in terms of feminism.

  15. Bravo! Thank you for the post, I agree with you and I've always wondered if other drama fan girls felt the same way I'm really glad to see that you and all of the others who left comment have some of the same thoughts. Cheers to beginning the discussion!

  16. I loved this post! I have sometimes had great difficulty explaining to myself (not to mention friends) why I like watching Korean dramas when so many female protagonists get on my nerve. But I only just realised while reading this post that I don't have to be ashamed for being a sucker for onscreen romance. I was so embarrassed when I still lived at home, that I would always fidget and cover my computer screen, if my mother entered the room. It only occurred to me much later that she must have thought I was a prolific porn addict.
    Loving the feeeeeeels!

  17. how do you "ghettotize" something?

  18. I thoroughly appreciate that men understand a woman's need to cry without ridicule nor fear of her tears. At times, men are portrayed advising a woman where to go and cry as depicted in Winter Sonata; at other times men are cherises that a woman only cries with him as depicted in Kimi wa Petto.