What it’s about
Ji Young was always the prettiest girl around, but it turns out that adult life doesn’t live up to her high school expectations: She’s single and lives at home, the only girl in a working-class family of misfit men. At work she’s an elevator girl, valued for her good looks and pretty smile but constantly demeaned by her creepy boss. But with the inspiration of an old boyfriend and President Ma, the director of Seoul’s greatest beauty salon, Ji Young decides to change her life—and save a cosmetics company—by becoming Miss Korea, 1997.
In tone, Miss Korea is wonderfully far from a traditional romantic comedy. Even with a scenario right out of a fairy tale, it manages have a serious soul and treat its characters like real people, not drama tropes. It also has bigger thoughts in its head than the one-dimensional romantic shenanigans that are so central to most kdramas. (Prime Minister, I’m talking about you.) Yes, there’s clearly going to be a love story here. But there’s also a story about adapting to an ever-changing world, and one about the human dignity so often denied to beautiful women, and another about the emotional toll of outliving your glory days. And as a worker in an industry that’s been on the brink of obsolescence for about thirty years, I especially feel for the elevator girls. They’re watching the death throes of a profession they sincerely care about, and wondering how they can support themselves in a world that no longer wants what they have to offer. That’s a scary thought, and I love that this drama is smart enough to take advantage of it.
I wanted to love this cute, quirky character study, and I almost did.
Miss Korea is wonderful for a lot of reasons, and my favorite of them is how respectfully it treats its female characters. Finally, this is a show that tackles gender politics in a way that feels right to me—and nobody even needed to be crossdressing to do it. The women are strong and capable, and free to be whatever they want: a beauty queen, a brainiac scientist who prefers comfortable shoes, a queen-making pageant matriarch who’s anything but an obedient housewife. Women old and young are treated as human beings with their own motivations and stories, not just flat drama stereotypes. There’s also a dad who allows himself to be called “mom,” a male etiquette coach, and a supportive boyfriend who doesn’t want the female lead to get the breast augmentation that makes her scared and uncomfortable.
The show is earthy and naturalistic instead of broad and goofy. It moves forward through a series of obstacles, rather than staying frozen in place. It travels from something best described as beauty queen boot camp through pageants and on to life after the question of Miss Korea 1997 has been decided. It makes time for a love triangle, “bad” guys who are good at heart, and my favorite second lead pairing in recent memory.
The things that kept me from loving Miss Korea are mostly subjective. To me at least, it isn’t a marathon-ready crack drama: In spite of its many narrative check points, the story never felt particularly propulsive. I could set it aside for weeks on end without wondering about what would happen, because my love of the characters was never magnified by a story that felt pressing. I also never got emotionally involved with the lead couple, who were sweet together but ultimately bloodless. Their romance was never really at the forefront of the show, and their easy camaraderie didn’t feel like it needed to result in something more than friendship. (But those second leads! I want them to have their own family drama that features lots of cute little babies.)
Miss Korea had my brain from the word go, but it never really got my heart.
—And the award for best scene-setting poster in a locker room goes to….Leonardo DiCaprio as Titanic’s Jack Dawson! I will love and miss you always, 1997.
—It’s already easy to see why this show is known for its strong depictions of women. From the defiant scientist to the driven salon president, it’s showing us powerful women from a variety of age groups. And yet it seems to me that the female lead is heading from the frying pan straight into the fire. She works as an elevator girl, a job that requires her to be always composed, always beautiful, and always graceful. It’s all about pleasing others and creating a perfect facade to hide the hungry, sweaty, scared human being that inhabits the gorgeous body. Looking forward, it’s hard to imagine that being a contestant in pageants is going to be any different. They’re all about manipulating yourself to fit some impossible ideal of womanhood. I trust that the show is going to take this good places, but it’s hard for me imagine how that will happen when I just want the female lead to run away and join a commune where she’s free to grow dreadlocks and gain five pounds if she wants. How is going from one form of downtrodden decorative object to another representative of a positive transformation?
—Dear young girls of the world:
The next time someone says to you “Take your clothes off. I’ll make you Miss (fill in the blank),” you should tell them to go fuck themselves and then kick them in the shins.
—Lee Sun Gyun is pretty much the only active male lead who’s so old that even I could call him Oppa. I worry that this drama is the beginning of the end for him—from here, it’s off to playing someone’s hot young dad, and then maybe a sageuk king. There’s a lot of discussion about a lack of good roles for older women in American entertainment, but on Korean television most every actor eventually suffers from this career desiccation. That’s the peril of an industry so devoted to youthful romance: once you’re not so youthful, you’re automatically relegated to the status of bit player.
—Ji Young is so beautiful that she can inspire a ticker-tape parade just by walking past a boys’ high school, and she’s repeatedly been approached by people who want her to try for the title of Miss Korea. All that attention could have turned her into a classic example of the species Mean Girlicus, but it hasn’t. Instead, the show has given her fears and anxieties about the way she looks. No matter what the rest of the world thinks, the only thing Ji Young sees when she looks at herself is what she believes to be that one, nagging flaw. Miss Korea sees and respects the pain of its female lead, even though to some people it might seem trifling. That’s beautifully kind-hearted for a drama that could have been about a Prosecutor Princess-style shallow, self-obsessed woman.
—The interactions between this show’s leads are so refreshingly sassy that they almost remind me of the noona romance vibe I like so much. Unlike Joo Yun in I Need Romance 3, Ji Young doesn’t turn into a wide-eyed, malleable blow-up doll whenever her male lead is around. She has her own motivations and desires, and doesn’t need him to explain them to her. Especially in the flashback scenes, Ji Young knows that Hyun Joon likes her but doesn’t get all nervous and jumpy about it: He’s just one in a sea of wannabe suitors. So she talks to him in a teasing (but kind) way, and he’s the one who’s unsure how to act. That’s the sign of a good dongsaeng, right?
—From sausage fellatio to an airplane ride that’s like a scene from When Harry Met Sally, Miss Korea is surprisingly aware of sex for a drama airing on a Korean network. It even acknowledges that sex can be used as an opportunistic bribe just as easily as if can be used as an expression of love. That’s too jaded—and true—for your average Kdrama to stomach.
—I’m no fan of beauty pageants, as they seem like a barbaric ritual from an era when a woman was only as valuable as her body. But if you have to have a pageant, how great is it to include a traditional dress competition like they do in this show? Forget the bathing suit—I want to see how the Miss America contestants would look in hanboks.
—The family dynamics in Korean dramas leave me a bit agog. As people always point out, drama doesn’t necessarily reflect real life, but there’s always truth in fiction. The hierarchical family unit in liberal America pretty much dissolves as kids grow up. My friends and I love our patents and see them whenever we can, but they stopped telling us what to do a long, long time ago. Our parents have become more like friends over the years—we listen to them, but they don’t dictate how we live. In most Korean dramas, things are different. In this episode, we see the heroine’s family members tell her she can’t try to become Miss Korea. There’s no discussion or advice, just an answer: No. Expectation of deference toward elders is built into Confucian cultures in a way that’s completely foreign to most Americans. I wonder if the tendency toward multi-generational households is one of the reasons this carries on—it’s different when you live with your family until you marry. Stepping outside of the role of being someone’s child is all the harder when you don’t live independently of them, and when there isn’t a strong demarcation between childhood at home and adulthood in the world.
—It’s great that Ji Young’s dad lets her him “Oma,” Korean for mom. He loves his daughter so much that gender roles and the opinions of strangers just fly out the window—if his little girl needs to call someone mom to be happy, then mom it is. (When I was about ten I got sick of a thousand women turning around whenever I said “mom” in a crowded store, so I decided to call my own mother Moo instead. I still do. You’d be amazed how easy it is to get used to something like that, and how hard it is to break the habit once you do.)
—Korean dramas are almost always set a woman’s world, but rarely is that so obvious as it is in this show. It includes a number of male roles, but the vast majority of them are background figures that exist as part of a woman’s story rather than as protagonists in their own right. Just like a beauty pageant, it’s the women who take the stage in Miss Korea. They’re scientists and leaders and businesswomen, not just wives, love interests, or mothers. From the wannabes to the fading queens, they’re strong and smart and capable. If you piss them off, watch out. I think it might finally be time to say it: this is a modern-day version of Jewel in the Palace.
—When people talk about the popularity of cosmetic surgery in Korea, one of the things that often comes up is how precise the definition of beauty is there. Small faces, narrow chins, and broad foreheads are what people want, so they look for practical ways to achieve them. This show, with all its discussion of body ratios and lines, seems to suggest this really is the case. Beauty is a formula: s-line + thin face + lion hair = hotness. In America, on the other hand, there’s no easy recipe for what’s beautiful. You either are, or you’re not. We don’t seem to break beauty down into component parts the way do they do in Korea—it’s a holistic thing that can allow for weird noses or knock-knees, but also something harder to define and attain through artificial methods.
—Well, I’ve now seen the most difficult scene Lee Ki Won will ever film in his career: The heroine just came out of a dressing room wearing a blue maillot bathing suit, and for a good thirty seconds he looked her straight in the face, not looking down once. Doing so seemed to cost him every ounce of available energy.
—Guess this episode came in a little sort—it ends with four minutes of flashbacks recapping the show so far. If this montage was actually meant to serve a purpose other than filling time, it would have appeared at the beginning of an episode, not the end.
—I think watching so much Korean drama has finally destroyed whatever organ is responsible for allowing me to feel disbelief. Thirty-eight-year-old Lee Sun Gyun playing a freshman in college? Sure thing!
—A horrible truth about me? In the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen several episodes of Toddlers in Tiaras. The president of Cherry Salon is exactly like the moms on that show—she sings and dances along with the routines of her clients, all the while puffing and preening as if she’s the one who belongs on stage. President Ma of Queen Salon is a whole different story. She’s distant and exacting, approaching the pageant as if she’s leading troops into battle instead of bathing-suited girls on stage. There’s nothing emotional about her, but there’s also nothing false—she treats people the way she thinks they deserve to be treated, no matter who they are. Her one soft spot is for the show’s heroine, a hard-working poor girl who reminds her of herself when she was young. But even around that girl, President Ma never turns into a cuddly mother figure. Instead, she’s helpful and honest.
—So they keep showing a pair of sneakers dangling from a telephone wire in front of the female lead’s house. I sure hope this signifies something different in Korea than it does in America. Here, it would mean that illegal drugs were available for sale nearby. Will the shoes be explained away with a cute couple moment? Or will her brother turn out to be making some cash on the side? [Finale note: Utterly unexplained. Well, unless season 2 is in the works: Breaking Queen.]
—This episode includes what might just be the most egregious example of Dramafever taking liberties with the original wording of the shows they sub. One character just said to another: “I don’t understand your English.” Call me crazy, but I think even we Americans are clever enough to figure out that the people on this show are not speaking English.
—Most Korean dramas take place in tiny universes comprised of a few offices and homes, usually supplemented with the occasional product-placement ready restaurant. Miss Korea is one of few shows that seem to be part of a larger world. From the salons and Ji Young’s family store to the Vivi factory and Miss Korea boot camp, there’s a lot going on in terms of geography. Like in real life, the settings in this series are just as likely to change and evolve as the people who are in them. This is a great boon to Miss Korea’s naturalistic, real life mindset, and keeps the story from feeling motionless, even during the dreaded mid-run stretch.
—Are the makers of this show clueless or evil geniuses for using “Barbie Girl” in one of the big dance numbers? The chorus sounds peppy and all, but the song is actually pointing out the ridiculousness of modern society, as embodied by shallow, soulless Ken and Barbie. Here’s a refresher course in the lyrics:
You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation
I’m a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly
You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky…
You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours”
That’s definitely Miss Korea territory, right? After all, the past few episodes have been about corrupt judges and girls who are willing to pay for their titles.
—I would like to imagine Lee Sun Gyun practicing this hair-washing scene with his wife beforehand, but I think that may not have happened. He’s scrubbing Ji Young’s hair like it’s a disgustingly dirty rag—it probably took an hour to get it detangled afterward.
—They spent most of this hour making you think that the gangster bought his scientist crush a pair of high heels. After a trip to a fancy store full of stilettos, he kept looking at her cloth sneakers and trying figure out her shoe size. I (of course) had mentally composed a post ranting about how how dramas limit women to stereotypically feminine self-presentation: If a girl isn’t carrying a brand-name bag and wearing Louboutin spikes, it’s because she can’t afford them, not because she doesn’t want them. Well, silly me for thinking Miss Korea was that kind of show. Instead, he presented her with a comfy-looking pair of loafers that are understated and delicate, not pink and silly. They’re a perfect fit with her wardrobe, and just the kind of gift someone who really knew her would buy. Forget the lead couple—I ship brains and brawn.
—I love that this drama didn’t save the Miss Korea pageant for the last episode. So many shows never move beyond their marketing premise, like I Do, I Do, which was about a woman finding out she was pregnant from a one night stand. It wasn’t about a woman dealing with the realization she was pregnant, or embarking on her life as a mother—the show had little or nothing to offer on those topics because it couldn’t move past the one thing that its PR department decided it was about. Miss Korea is different. It acknowledges that there’s more to its story than the central hook they built they drama’s marketing posters around, and plots its episodes accordingly.
—One of my favorite parts of this entire show has to be the tiny cameo from the ridiculously adorable Jung So Min as President Ma’s new pick for Miss Korea. It’s especially great because the two also played mother and daughter in last year’s Can We Get Married. Finally, we have a girl who won’t just drop trou on command.