Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Heroine addict

Sometimes I think 90 percent of Korean dramas are about the same girl. (See above.)

You know her: always hardworking and self-sacrificing, wide-eyed and innocent. Sure, the details are different. She makes a mean omurice, or she likes watching horror movies. Maybe she’s a little snarky, maybe not; that’s where her individuality ends. And while she may be the star of the show, she never really grows or changes. Things happen to her, not in her. It’s her love interest that becomes a new person, usually thanks to her positive influence.

Other kinds of girls—the ones who are troubled, conflicted, and unsure—tend to be the “bad guy” second lead who may or may not find redemption by the end of the show. They’re Rachel from Heirs, pushing meek little Eun Sang’s suitcase down the stairs. They’re Yoon He Ra in Playful Kiss, doing everything in her power to make the female lead look stupid. They’re Oh Se Young in I Need Romance 3, sleeping with the lead’s boyfriend because...well...why not?

It’s a rare, special Kdrama that allows malcontents like to take the lead, and then dares to allow her to evolve rather than punishing her. 

Here are some dramas to watch if you’re looking for a girl who has a mind and a journey of her own.

Secret Love Affair

Also known as my boyfriend, the Korean drama, this show revolves around Oh Hye Won, the queen of difficult women. She’s tricky and morally flexible, and has spent her adult life doing distasteful things for money. Watch it for her sizzling chemistry with the younger man who opens her eyes to what she’s become, watch it for the creeping sense of dread that touches even the happiest scenes as her life begins to fall apart, and—hopefully—watch it for the glorious redemption she finds by the finale. 

A Wife’s Credentials

A powerful drama about everyday life and the things we do to survive it, A Wife’s Credentials follows middle-aged, middle-brow Yoon Seo Rae as she decides whether her own happiness is worth more than her wedding vows. But the handsome—and equally married—dentist whose kindness and easy charm tempt her toward infidelity is only the beginning of Seo Rae’s problems. (Why yes, Kim Hee Ae of Secret Love Affair does make two appearances as an adulteress on this very short list. It’s easy enough to see why—at her age, she can either star as a cheating wife or a hide in the background as somebody’s mother. She definitely made the right decision about both of these roles.)

Flower Boy Next Door

This sweet, silly character study introduces us to Go Dok Mi, a reserved girl who’s content to live life apart from the rest of the world. Well...content until she meets manic pixie dream boy Enrique, anyway. He’s a blast of sunshine in her drab universe, and he helps her control the fear that has held her frozen her in place for so long. 

Que Sera Sera

Eun Soo is a lot like typical Kdrama girls, except for the whole squatting in a stranger’s apartment thing. As she falls in love with a heart-breaking gigolo, her wide-eyed innocence is replaced by hard-edged anger that drives her to do things she shouldn’t, and then prompts her mature acceptance of the world and herself. 

Prosecutor Princess

The Korean version of Elle Woods from Legally Blonde has a dark secret: She used to be fat. When the series begins, she’s also not so crazy about the concept of hard work, which is unheard of in the world of Kdrama girls. (You can always count on her to be stylish, though.) Over the course of 16 rom-comy episodes, Hye Ri transforms from a spoiled brat who doesn’t care much about other people to a driven prosecutor who can solve any mystery with her unique brand of brainy, breezy common sense. Factor in a mysterious flower boy and a big mystery, and you have a drama about a girl who’s going places.

I Hear Your Voice

The only thing Korea loves more than a dashing prosecutor is a dashing prosecutor who used to be a total mess. Thanks to a bad childhood experience, Hye Sung is a slob who slacks off at her job as prosecutor, using every ounce of her energy to avoid playing the hero. But everything changes when she realizes that it’s impossible to hide from the past, whether that means hooking up with a cute younger man who can read her mind or fighting off a serial killer who wants her dead.

Dream High

Whether she’s a pampered princess or a homeless delinquent on the run from gangsters, Hye Mi is always a girl to be reckoned with. She doesn’t undergo a massive character transformation in the course of this show, which is actually why I put her on this list. Dream High lets her grow and change but still stay herself—the kind of girl who makes up her own mind about things and never quite falls into step with the world around her. Hye Mi might not be the star of this show, but she’s proof positive that you can have a happy ending without turning into a smiling dramabot.

Painter of the Wind

Unlike most cross-dressing drama girls, Shin Yun Bok didn’t want to pretend to be a boy—she was forced into it by an adopted father eager to make use of her artistic talent. She meets the perfect teacher and falls in love (maybe not with the person you expect), but her real story is about the journey from cowed schoolgirl/boy to someone who makes hard decisions for the people she loves.

Ojakgyo Brothers

Baek Ja Eun travels the traditional path for a troubled drama girl. She starts off as a rich and lazy celebutante who’s content to glide through life on her good looks, but grows into a hardworking farm girl who’s always eager to do the right thing. What makes Ja Eun special, though, is that the catalyst for her change isn’t a guy (although she does pick up one of those along the way). Instead, she finds the mother figure she always longed for and learns from her what it means to live a dedicated, compassionate life.

That’s a distressingly short list, isn’t it? Are there other female leads out there who grow and change as the stars of their own dramas, instead of reacting to the world around them? (And aren’t punished with cancer or death in the end?)


  1. What a great post. And your question at the end really got me thinking, actually...

    The first female lead I'd suggest for this list is Eun Young from Coffee House perhaps. I'm not sure about her overall journey as the drama is more about the hero's journey, but Eun Young definitely has a mind of her own. For instance, her confidence is tested when she falls in love with her long-time friend and gets rejected, but doesn't let it interfere with her life and career. She also starts seeing the potential in the naive secretary that she used to make fun of, and ultimately befriends her. So there is some personal growth involved, though mostly she's just awesome already.

    I'd also add Eun Jo from Cinderella's Sister, even though there are some major letdowns about the drama itself. She gets a lot of guidance from the main guy early on in the series and learns to express her feelings thanks to him, but I think she gains most from her mother's new husband who becomes an influential father figure to her. He understands her and doesn't try to hold her back when she wants to leave, but his kindness and unconditional support has a big impact on her, and it is what keeps her from running away and abandoning those who depend on her.

    And the last heroine I can think of is Se Ryung from The Princess Man. She starts out as a naive little daddy's girl but who, in response to utter tragedy, transforms into a brave woman with strong sense of justice. She actively fights for things she believes in, even though her means are very limited, and stands up to her father, even though she loves her family dearly. While a lot of the things she does are because of love for her guy, in the end she shows herself as an honorable princess who most of all wants justice for her people.

  2. The character that comes immediately to mind for me is Oh Dal Ja in Dal Ja's Spring. She started out as such a giddy fantasist and ended up learning how to take responsibility for herself, her growth and her happiness, instead of waiting for/expecting a fairy tale ending and an ideal handsome prince. It was a romance, yes, but more than that it felt like the story of a woman coming into herself, into the blooming springtime of her life.

  3. I can say without hesitation, that the first person who I thought of for this list the foul mouthed, spoiled chebol Yeo Chi from History of a Salaryman. Perhaps my favorite female character/performance of all time (at least for the comedic moments,) Jung Ryeo Won was given a lot of crazed rich bitch scenes at the beginning, which she utilized to the fullest. From swearing at underlings, to not understanding the concept of how poor people work, to ordering the destruction of a beloved pet chicken, this chick had some issues. After meeting protagonist Yoo Bang, a poor self starter who dreams of working as a salaryman, and going through some real world hardships she starts becoming enlightened to the world outside her designer labels and upscale excesses.
    I love this character because her progression seems natural yet she never loses her sense of self, as evidenced by her non-stop cursing throughout the series. Also, I believe this show was subverting the candy trope, by having the leads switch genders. Yeo Chi is the cold hearted darcyesque cheobol, while Yoo Bang is the idealistic good hearted (and at least in the beginning slightly dim) "candy" who impacts Yeo Chi for the positive. They even subvert the poor girl makeover trope by having her buy him a new wardrobe.
    By simply switching the genders, one can see the difference in how it impacts the characters and their decisions then the typical female candy model. For instance, Bang was seen as someone who first would get by thorough odds and ends types jobs, but that was quickly changed and he rose a position of power. Meanwhile Yeo Chi would have been in the dictionary under spoiled, which is a characteristic that male chebols doesn't seem to be played up as much (rich and mean yes, glorifying their excess wealth while not showing interest in work, not so much) Anyways , I love this show so much possibly because its undefinable (I'd call it a dramedy corporate satire based on historical events, and featuring love rectangles, but thats just me.) but what I'll probably remember most is the progression of her character, where even details like her attire and the lessoning use of english indicated how much she changed for the better, while also being less dependent on others even when connected to the male lead Bang. Apologies for the tangents and length, I just finished this drama so these thoughts are still rambling around.

  4. I want to scream Hye Jin from La Dolce Vita across the mountain tops. She starts out all bullied by her husband, then has an awakening as to what she really wants in her life and what she'll have to sacrifice in order to have it, and we get to see her emerge as the most resilient and steely blooded person in a drama full of lies and adultery and death. I love her! And now I want to watch QSS even more, because for some reason I thought the heroine would remain as wide-eyed-and-innocent as her styling suggests.

    1. everyone grew in QSS. Eun soo was really interesting. She was naive and innocent but instead of that making her timid and shy, she was fearless and unashamed in love and pursuing it. It lead to initial hearbreak and some disastrous events but eventually, everyone came to realise that bad choices didnt have to be permanent. I hope thats not giving too much away.

      One of my favourite female characters is yang eun bi from FBRS. I love her journey of self discovery. Her struggle btween what she should want vs what she actually really wants. Its a relatble struggle and i felt she was true to herself all the way.


  5. I would have loved if you had included Oh Ji-Young from Miss Korea!!

    1. I was thinking exactly the same thing. She started out having serious doubts about herself as well as being the object of control of the men around her. At the end of her journey she was able to proclaim that she belongs only to herself.

  6. How about Go Eun Chan in Coffee Prince? She decided to pursue her dream of a barista and left her love. She also disguied as a man and did men's work,

  7. Lee Yeon Jae from Scent of a Woman. Kim Sun Ah's characters often dominate the drama, making it less about the romance and more about heroine's emotional journey.

    1. Kim Sun Ah in Sam Soon was also a terrific character.

  8. Whats worse than a lead not growing or changing is an actor/actress playing the same character over and over again.

  9. I heartily second the addition of Yeo Chi from History of a Salaryman. She is one of my favorite leads of all time just because she doesn't fit that cookie cutter mold. Another would be Hwang Tae Hee on Queen of Reversals. That's 31 episodes devoted to her personality growth!

    Love this post. I've been thinking about character tropes a lot lately, and this hit the nail on the head.

  10. Love this list, and adore how your comments are generating an even bigger list! :D

    I'll second (third?) Oh Ji-young from Miss Korea. (The hero even consciously steps back from his dream to better support Ji-young's.)

    Choi Hee-jin from from "Queen In-hyun's Man" is another. (She calls him. And is really straightforward about her interest -- especially for a k-drama leading lady. And also manages to further her career as she goes. And never loses who she is.)

    Everyone in "Queen's Classroom". (Even typical mean-girls get a chance to change and strengthen and grow, without losing themselves.)

    I'll say everyone in "Can We Get Married" too. (That drama was a refreshingly mature and layered look at what goes into a relationship. With several different kinds of relationships explored.)

    And I totally agree with your list, Amanda. And obviously need to check out "Painter of the Wind" asap. ;)

    --Betsy Hp

    1. I would totally recommend Painter of The Wind to everyone. It was well written, well acted and well directed show. The leads are amazing. I become a fan of Shin Yun Bok and his paintings because this drama. And if you're into feminism and gender, this drama is perfect.

  11. I'm actually surprised you don't include Eun Chan from your favorite drama.
    Agree with Shin Yun Bok, my all time favorite drama character.
    If she were a man, I would totally marry him. LOL

    Little correction, Jang Hye Sung (IHYV) is actually a lawyer, a public lawyer, not prosecutor.

  12. I second Choi Hee Jin and Go Eun Chan.

    I'd like to add to the list Jang Geum. For a woman at a time when speaking one's mind as well seeking personal growth in the realm decided only for men (as a doctor) is almost a crime, she's quite a feat. Talk about women's emancipation. :-)

  13. my all time fav female characters are Seo Eun Young from Coffee House and Han Yeo Reum from Discovery of Romance.

    Seo Eun Young is the epitome of a cool and level headed woman. smart, capable and career driven but still feel very relatable to average audience.

    Han Yeo Reum on the other hand..some people hated her guts and some might call her b*tchy, selfish, manipulative, crazy etc but i find her so refreshing in Kdrama-land for being frank and realistic. i wish to see more realistic characters on kdramaland.

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