Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Other F Word: Feminism versus Korean Drama

Family’s Honor: “I do...give up everything about my life so I can
go on shopping sprees with your obnoxious mother and dust your living room.
Remind me again what you’re giving up for this relationship?”

This week’s post could have been devoted to sane and sensible things that people might actually be interested in reading, like reviews of the new crop of Kdramas. Being a difficult human being, I instead opted to write the following diatribe about the finer points of gender relations in Kdramas. Sorry.

Feminism is a weirdly fraught topic in America, as if there’s something controversial about the notion that women are equal to men and deserve to be treated as such. I suspect that it’s even more so in Korea—as in most of Asia, Confucian-rooted patriarchy is still a major cultural force there.

I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist. This can be a difficult thing to reconcile with a love of Korean drama: As much as fun as I have watching these shows, I often find myself cringing when it comes to their depictions of relationships between men and women. Dramas that are geared toward younger audiences generally aren’t so bad, but I’m quickly learning to carefully approach series with more adult appeal, lest their depictions of gender roles leave me clutching the back of my neck in psychosomatic pain, Kdrama-style.

The two most off-putting shows I’ve seen to date when it comes to women’s rights have been A Gentleman’s Dignity and Family’s Honor, a 56-episode drama that aired in 2008. Both shows were targeted at audiences in their forties, an age group that seems more likely to have attitudes about women that are contrary to my own beliefs.

What I would consider casual sexism suffuses the plot of A Gentleman’s Dignity: Hate your older wife and cheat on her constantly but don’t want to divorce her because you need her money? Fine. Express your admiration for the woman you like by forcibly pinning her against a bathroom door against her will? No problem. Tell your friends you’re not interested in a girl because “to me, she’s not a woman, she’s a human being”? Right on! But for the kind of show it was—one trying to appeal to both older viewers and male audiences—A Gentleman’s Dignity could have been a lot worse. 

It was Family’s Honor that really broke my heart. Its portrayal of traditional family life was one of the most interesting things about this funny, sweet drama, but it also required an old-fashioned approach to women’s rights. When its characters got married, the women were expected to completely abandon their pasts and their birth families to fill a domestic role in their husbands households. Marriage vows in the world of Family’s Honor aren’t a pact between two people; they’re very much a pact between two families, with the daughter-in-law functioning as equal parts hostage and maid. (Seeing this made me appreciate why there’s so much Kdrama conflict about children’s spouses. Getting that perfect daughter-in-law is like hiring an employee whose responsibilities include bearing your grandchildren.)

The worst thing, though, was hearing the capable, confident female lead in Family’s Honor tell her new husband that for the duration of their marriage, he would never see her without makeup. Up to this point I had really loved her character—in spite of being a goodie-two shoes raised in a deeply traditional environment, she brought a healthy serving of snark to the table. So a tiny sliver of my soul died when she told him it was her responsibility to be up early every morning so she could look good for him when he woke up, just as her grandmother had done for her grandfather. The male lead only grinned bashfully in response, as if he couldn’t believe his good luck. This seems like no kind of intimacy to me: If you can’t allow someone to see you as you really are underneath the mask you very literally wear in the public sphere, you can’t let them love you, either.

In the youthful, girl-centric dramas I usually seek out, the patriarchal nature of Korean culture has a subtler influence. But it’s still here, sometimes in unexpected ways.

“I’ll take responsibility.”
If you’ve seen more than one or two Kdramas, you’ve almost certainly come across this sentence. Most often spoken by a dashing male lead, it’s an oblique, drama-ese proposal of marriage. A character who says these words is stepping forward as a potential husband, as someone who will be around for his significant other through good and bad, thick and thin. I definitely kvelled the first time I came across a character saying he would “take responsibility,” back when I was watching the 2006 noona romance What’s Up Fox. But then I really thought about what the words meant, and now find it a bit harder to get excited about them.

“I’ll take responsibility for you and our relationship,” the man is declaring to his object of desire, as if she’s a pet in need of an owner, not an adult woman capable of caring for herself. Ultimately, it’s not a confession of love—it’s an acknowledgment of an uneven balance of power. It’s the person in control deigning to take on the burden of a wife, begrudgingly accepting the role of being her leader, boss, and master.

Gentleman's Dignity: “Duh...Wait! I mean otokay!”

Many Kdrama indicators of women’s status are external, acted upon one character by another. Some, however, are internal—like the exclamation “Otokay?” (What to do?).  This rhetorical expression of uncertainty and doubt is used by characters who feel out of their league and unable to chart a course of action.

Drama characters of both genders have been known to say it, but Otokay is a predominantly a female exclamation. In particular, it’s perhaps the most essential vocabulary word for rom-com leads. Of late, the character Yi Soo in A Gentleman’s Dignity has been driving me especially crazy with it—in every single episode, she’s had at least one spazz fit where she dances around, impotently moaning otakay in the face of whatever small-scale, childish embarrassment the show’s male lead has inflicted on her.

To me, otokay is an uncomfortable admission of helplessness and self-doubt that actually functions as an apology for the personal agency of female characters. Sure, they eventually make the decisions the plot requires of them, but not before the writers take time to stress just how hard it is for their women to think independently and solve their own problems.

One of the things that I love most about Korean drama is that it values any technique that allows the viewer to fully experience a character’s emotional life. And this is a key factor why otokay plays such an important role in so many dramas: it’s an opportunity to depict on screen what’s going on in someone’s head. I just wish that it didn’t preclude showing Kdrama girls in a self-confident, take-charge light.

Heartstrings: If a girl won’t do what you want, make her.
 It’s the Kdrama way.

The wrist grab.
I watched a number of dramas before it even occurred to me that the wrist grab existed—if you’re not paying close attention, it doesn’t look so different from holding hands, after all. But the distinction between the two is still worth considering: Holding hands is a mutual act of connection in which both sides are equal; if you don’t want to hold someone’s hand, you let go. In contrast, grabbing someone’s wrist is a one-sided assumption of power, with the grabber in complete control; as a physical gesture, it’s much more difficult to reject.

And guess who’s always the grabber and who’s always the grabbee? That’s right—men grab women to drag them off for lengthy, one-sided conversations; to prevent them from leaving the room; or to steer them in crowds. In all my many, many hours of watching Korean television, I can’t think of a single instance of a woman taking a man’s wrist. The only parallel thing Kdrama women are allowed is to grip the edge of a man’s jacket, something they generally do in fear or to ensure that they’re not separated from him on the street. Yet it’s always clear that grabbing a wrist is an assertion of power and a denial of the other person’s free will, while grabbing a jacket is an admission of weakness.

The ultimate wrist grab, I think, comes toward the end of Boys over Flowers. While standing in a huddle of irate characters, Joon Pyo took what he thought was Jan Di’s wrist and dragged her for blocks. What he didn’t realize until far too late was that the wrist he grabbed belonged not to Jan Di, but to her rival for his affections. This was played for comedy, but it’s actually just a reminder what a one-sided, impersonal act of aggression the wrist grab actually is: He dragged that girl so far she had to ask for cab fare to get back to where they started, without ever realizing who it was.

“No” means “Whatever you say, Sir.”
Wrist grabbing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to domineering physical contact in Kdramas. Again and again, we see men who force women to do things against their will. Whether it’s Ra Im’s struggles against Joo Won’s “romantic” kisses in Secret Garden or Jan Di’s eternal ambivalence to Joon Pyo’s obsession with her in Boys over Flowers, what female characters want isn’t of the utmost importance even in Kdramas geared toward women.

Seemingly progressive shows like I Need Romance 2012 aren’t immune, either: This series didn’t even make it past its third episode before a female character was physically restrained and carried into her bedroom for her first sexual encounter with her boyfriend, in spite of her longstanding protests that she wasn’t ready for that kind of relationship with him. It’s true that the show painted said boyfriend as a creep, but not because he was a date rapist—because he was a jerk who didn’t please her once he got her into bed, and then had the nerve to criticize her sexual skills in public.

When it comes to desire and physical relationships in Kdramas, women are doubly cursed. Only in the rarest of circumstances are they allowed to want to touch a man, but when that man wants to touch them they’re almost always expected to let him do so. Episode 5 of A Gentleman’s Dignity included a particularly skin-crawl-y example: Do Jin, the male lead, had been pursuing the female lead, Yi Soo, for a number of episodes. She had yet to give in, though, and regularly told him to get lost. One night she was in desperate need a ride and called him for help; he took Yi Soo to her house and invited himself in. While eventually excusing himself, Do Jin gazed leeringly at Yi Soo and said “I’d better leave, or I’ll do something bad.” The line was delivered as if it were scampish and charming, much in the tone I’d use to fret about being alone with a quart of Ben & Jerry’s. But this isn’t ice cream he’s talking about—it’s a person with an agenda and motivations fully independent of his own, and someone who is clearly disinclined to accept his sexual advances. I might be helpless against the impulse to devour that tub of Chunky Monkey. But what “bad” thing is he threatening to do here, when alone with this woman he professes to have a crush on? I wonder. And would it matter what Yi Soo had to say about it?

Secret Garden: “Her hands might be saying no, but I’ll make her mouth say yes.”

“How will she run the household?”
I love Coffee Prince like other people love air, at least partially because it’s a shining bastion of girl power. Both its female leads live the lives they want, in spite of the world’s expectations of them. But even Coffee Prince doesn’t completely escape the patriarchal nature of Korean society.

Undercurrents throughout the show hint at just what the tomboy Eun Chan should be, but isn’t. When faced with the possibility of acquiring such an unorthodox daughter-in-law, the male lead’s mother was flummoxed at the thought of how the household would be run under her supervision. Because, of course, when a woman becomes a wife in Kdrama it’s usually expected that she also becomes a professional housekeeper—either for the male lead, or, as in this case, his entire family.

And then there’s the male lead himself. Unspeakably charming and supportive as he is, even Choi Han Gyul doesn’t exist outside of the patriarchy. “What kind of man do you think I am? Of course you can keep working after we get married,” he says to Eun Chan after she’s confessed she’s unwilling to marry him immediately. The stickler here is that it actually matters what kind of man Han Gyul is when it comes to Eun Chan’s ability to remain active in the world outside his home. It’s understood by every character in the drama that once they’re officially together, everything about her life becomes his prerogative.

It’s not that I think these characters (or the writers who created them) have to-do lists including the item “be culpable in the oppression of women.” It’s just that as an outsider seeing Korean culture for the first time, I’m not desensitized to these things the way someone who grew up there would be. Just like in America, some things are so embedded in the native worldview that their actual meaning has been all but forgotten. Although a man might say “I’ll take responsibility,” I suspect it’s the equivalent of someone like me buying Uncle Ben’s rice at the grocery store. If I really stop and think about the history of racism and slavery in America as represented by this product’s name and marketing, it’s damn upsetting. But in my day-to-day life, it’s just another box on the shelf. And in his day-to-day life, it’s just what you say when you want to marry someone. 

And while my own values and those shown in Korean dramas are sometimes in conflict, Kdrama does have a lot to offer women viewers. Koreans are not afraid to tell stories from a female point of view, even if they’re meant for general audiences (Girl K, Miss Ripley). Kdrama girls who work hard and believe in themselves always, always win in the end (Shining Inheritance, Sungkyunkwan Scandal). In Korean drama, women are rarely sexualized (Boy over Flowers, which never showed a single Korean girl in a bikini, in spite of ample opportunities). I would also like to add, with no small degree of irony, that to the best of my knowledge Park Shi Hoo has never yet made a drama without at least one shirtless scene.

• • •

Fascinating things discovered while procrastinating about this post:
on Homegrown Social Critique

on Not Another Wave

on Idle Revelry

Master List of Feminism x Kdrama Blog Posts
on Malariamonsters


  1. Having just finished ep 3 of Prosecutor Princess.... what are you talking about? Women have no brains? I'm sure they're just faking it.. Otokay? Never heard of it! Definitely seen NO examples of wrist grabs.. ever.. like.. I don't even know what a wrist is.. are the males ever even pretty in these shows? What sort of sexist Kdramas are you watching anyways? I've only seen sophisticated dramas where girls take an arrow to the back for their loved one, marry rich dudes, cook amazing-looking food, carry their future-grandma-in-law on their back, drop said grandma on the pavement, sing stupid songs, spazz out in the middle of a busy street, play duck and cover in front of a raging horse, pretend to be dead for.. some reason, fish out dead sunflowers from the trash bin for the tenth time in an episode.. and.. and.. yeah I think my argument is losing some wind..

    Point of interest #1: In Time Between Dog and Wolf.. one of the instances where the guy tries to initiate the wrist grab, she successfully twists his arm, thereby releasing herself from his uber-manly mangrab. :::And the cheering squad lead by Sara goes wild!!:::

    Point of interest #2: If Jung Yong Hwa ever grabbed my wrist and lead me several blocks away for a little chat about his need to play the noble idiot.. I'd drool all over myself, nod dumbly, and marry him on the spot. :/

    1. Oy vey. If feminism has taken root in Korea, Prosecutor Princess almost certainly set it back a decade or two. At least most stupid Kdrama girls are good-natured—she's a bitch *and* someone who can't do a thing for herself. It's either mommy or daddy doing her thinking for her, or the male lead.

      On the other hand, Kdrama has also given me some of my all-time favorite girls. Hmm...what Kdramas feature smart girls who can take care of themselves? There's the holy trinity of cross-dressing shows: Coffee Prince, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and Painter of the Wind. Plus Shining Inheritance, Time Between Dog and Wolf, Rooftop Prince, Protect the Boss, I Need Romance...and I'm out. That's just sad.

      Point of interest #1: That's girls, 1 point; boys, 9.75 million points. Good start ;)

      Point of interest #2: While I put up a good argument, I'd happily keep house and/or get up early to apply makeup for any number of Korean actors. Gong Yoo, Ji Hyun Woo, Song Joong Ki, Lee Jun Ki (even if I'd probably be applying the makeup to him, not me), any member of the F4...

    2. Haha I'm not much of a feminist at all, not that I'm all about shovenists either, but things like that have never bothered me unless they were taken way too far. I think a man being a little bossy and in charge is actually very sexy, maybe I'm just too primitive (or maybe because I grew up in the Southern Baptist Bible Belt). Having grown up in a house with my dad and two older brothers I thought A Gentleman's Dignity was hilarious because it was like a guy's fantasy world, and that's really how so many of them think, especially in an Asian culture I would imagine. It's interesting because my brother (who has lived in China for 3 and a half years) and I were talking about racism in Asia and I tend to notice that in kdramas more than I notice the feminist stuff, though it doesn't bother me I just find it interesting. I even caught it in an interview of Gong Yoo when they were asking him about kissing scenes. He made the comment that it was always exciting to kiss foreign actresses but when he is working with Korean women he just considers them colleagues in the field, and I was like hold up, so foreign women don't make the cut as colleagues?

    3. One of my friends always says she likes a little monster in her man, and I think there's a kind of weird, animal logic to that. Even though I'm as liberal as the day is long, I even suspect one of the reasons why I love Kdrama so much is the rigid hierarchy it depicts. It's like the human version of my mother's housekeeping mantra: A place for everything, and everything in its place. The fun comes, though, when that thing busts out of its place—like when the poor girl hooks up with the chaebol ;)

      I've definitely noticed racism in Korean dramas, too. (I totally watched the same Gong Yoo video you mentioned, which was a head scratcher for me. It's kind of concerning that we've both clearly googled "Gong Yoo" and "Kiss." I wonder why that would be appealing? Teehee...)

      It's funny to see how Westerners are perceived in Asian drama: if an event is supposed to seem like a big deal, they always show that a lot of blond, blue-eyed Westerners are in attendance. And if someplace is supposed to seem scary, out come the black people. The most amazing example of this was the Japanese version of Boys over Flowers: the female lead went to New York and was promptly menaced by black men with guns. (Who actually dropped the F bomb in English multiple times without being bleeped!) That's a whole other post, I think ;)

    4. Oh, and I started reading Peony in Love, Julie. I've only read the first chapter or two, but so far I *love* it. Thanks for recommending it!

      (And talk about issues of women's rights...it's fascinating to read about foot binding in such a matter-of-fact tone.)

    5. I definitely think it's hot when a man is a little jealous and a little bossy. I maybe sometimes even provoke my husband to make him get mad... I'm a weirdo lol

      I was totally looking up random interviews of Gong Yoo that day because I was just curious to see what he was like not as a character but as himself, and found out apparently he's a little racist lol, but that's okay we all have our preconceived bias.

      OMG!! Lisa See goes into the foot binding stuff in several of her books and I have a sick fascination with it. It is unbelieveable how much it affected women's lives!! How well their feet were bound could effect the type of man they married, even poor girls could manage to marry out into more well to do families if they happened to have the miracle of idealy small and perfectly bound feet. But even though they could marry into higher status with well bound feet, they gave up so much when they did this!! They were pretty much bound indoors and could not do anything that require a lot of walking/running/ heavy lifting. Like eesentially they hung out in a women's room sewing, writing, and singing all day lol. And the process in general was excruciatingly painful and 1 in 10 women died from infection caused by it. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Lisa See goes into this in great detail. The women were so suppressed that they developed their own language to write and communicate with one another called Nushu because they were not allowed to learn to read and write regular Chinese characters, or men's language as they called it then. I will shut up now lol, I am like totally fascinated by Asian historical novels because they give you awesome glimpses into what the culture was really like in that country at that time, and because America is such a young country I feel like Asian cultures just have so much more well... culture lol than we have in our history. I'm just a huge nerd lol.

  2. Nice article! I especially enjoyed the links at the bottom. You may also find these two blog articles of interest:



    Asia in general is still pretty backwards feminism-wise, and it shows through it's media (though US also has problems with it's hyper-sexualization of women), but it is very slowly improving. I know the Bechdel test isn't meant to be a perfect indicator of how feminist a work of fiction is, but I'm still surprised at how many kdramas fail it.

    1. Pah. Practically every television show ever fails the Bechdel test, unfortunately :b

      Thanks so much for these links—I always love that Seoulbeats has sociological coverage like this, and then promptly forget to visit the site for months and months.

      I think it's interesting that there's a big to-do about birth control pills no longer being available over the counter in South Korea. In America, they've always been prescription only, which is of course a huge hassle. Most people here seem to think that this is a health issue, not a reproductive rights issue. (In that birth control pills can have dangerous side effects.) I'm also trying to figure out the perception of abortion in Asian cultures—people sure seem to be a lot less hysterical when they discuss it in Kdramas, but then again nobody ever gets one, either.

    2. Didn't they talk about abortion being illegal in I Do, I Do?

  3. Ugh.. Prosecutor Princess has to be worse for your brain cells than any amount of alcohol-drug combination.. If only it didn't have Park Shi Woo in it, and I might actually be able to stop.. but, his accent is so adorable. And so far (ep 6) it's almost like he's playing the typical second lead role, always a moment too late.. Cuuute!

    1. Nevermind, I can feel life returning.. started watching Dal Ja's Spring *squeeel* In the first episode after the alley scene, when she turns around and yells "Son of a B****. You scared me to death!" and kicks his shin.. probably the most honest/realistic thing I've ever seen a Kdrama heroine do.

      Where did you manage to watch this drama though? Quality everywhere I could find is horrible! I'm over on DailyMotion watching it with German subtitles! It's kind of awesome actually.. even if I sometimes have to pause the screen once in while because the subs go by too fast.

    2. Scratching Prosecuter Princess off my list...

    3. Dal Ja's Spring actually cooperated with me at MySoju, although the image quality wasn't that great. There's also GoodDrama, which I haven't watched anything at yet, but is stunningly comprehensive. (I think the nasty copyright law types haven't found it yet, so its videos don't get pulled as quickly as the ones at MySjou or DramaCrazy.) Much like Time Between Dog and Wolf, the quality of Dal Ja's Spring makes it worth wading through the crappy subs and dodgy video quality :b

  4. Wow. Great post! I agree with almost everything you have said here. I've only seen one "wrist grab" that seemed romantic and it was recently in I Do, I Do. I wrote about it in a post on Idle Revelry in the midst of my guilt. I kinda hate myself for having thought it was cute. Except for that one though I loath them with a vengeance. I have baby cousins who just learned to walk a few months ago and one day I realized that when they walk I don't hold their hands, I hold their wrist. Why? Because they are babies and have no judgement and so I don't let them have a choice as to where they want to go. And that is the same thing male leads do to women in kdramas.

    I have less of a problem with the line, "I will take responsibility for you." It is said mainly by men, but it is said by women many times also. Sometimes it means the kind of responsibility you need to take on as a spouse - provide a house to live in, money for food etc. Very straightforward things so say I will take responsibility means, I will never let you go hungry or cold. I think it can be a nuanced phrase and depending on the characters, the context and the kind of drama it is, it can have different meanings. Sometimes "I will take responsibility for you" means what you've described above, basically a sugar coated way of saying "I now 'own' you." But other times I feel like it comes across as "I will take responsibility for your heart" or "I will take responsibility for your emotions." Meaning I will keep my promise and not let you down. "I will take responsibility for you" is often paired with the request "trust/believe in me" or "trust/believe" me. In these instances it's seems like a very complex and layered interaction because there is a request being made along with a promise...

    One of my favorite scenes from Coffee Prince was when Han Gyul and Eun Chan where on the balcony at the coffee shop and Eun Chan was trying to explain herself for lying to Han Gyul about her gender. Han Gyul told her (base off the translations I've read) something like "You didn't believe/trust in me, that's why you didn't tell me." But Eun Chan insist that it herself that she didn't believe in. Then Han Gyul explains his sense on betrayal and says, "I need someone who believes in me. [...] Not someone who deceives me because she's scared she will be abandoned."... They talk about both responsibility and trust in this conversation.

    I think it's fascinating that kdramas almost always touch on this interplay between trust and responsibility.

    I could not finish watching A Gentleman's Dignity even though I got to the finale. 1 I don't care about any of the couples because they frustrated and annoyed the hell out of me. And 2 there were too many instances where the men, mainly Do Jin, crossed the line. I don't know if it was a combination of the actor and lines he was saying, but he always came off creepy and pervy to me. ugh.

    One thing I do like about kdramas is that many are very women centric. One's like City Hall or Daemul or even melodramas about families have women as leads and are women centric even though there is obviously this current of traditional, some would say sexist, views about women. It can often be jarring.

    1. It's malta btw... :)

    2. You know that's what I really love about kdramas too. They're these shows that I feel like are created for women, from women's perspectives, and it probably just speaks to how ingrained and universal patriarchy and the devaluation of women as, you know, actual cognizant, autonomous human beings that these shows that have women protagonists concerning things that are usually confined to women's spaces and concerns (romance, family) are so rife with sexism and misogyny.

      Like one of the things I've come to notice about many a kdrama romcom is that the (heterosexual) couple usually starts out hating each other and bickering and then ends up in luuurve. Now I'm aware that this is a romcom trope in general (see: Pride and Prejudice, When Hally Met Sally, The Shop Around the Corner, Someone Like You, Adam's Rib, basically all screwball comedies; really, the list is exhaustive) but the thing about kdrama romcoms is that the crux of the bickering is almost always to do with gender and gender roles. What I mean is that the reason the heroine can't stand the hero isn't only because of his arrogance or his diverging socio-economic beliefs, but because of his sexism and misogyny. Prime Example: this year's The Marriage Plot, where in the first episode the guy who's supposed to be our hero spouts off such gems as "Women shouldn't be in the workplace," and "Women can't do what men do." It's fascinating, really, because the show opens with our heroine in a wedding dress, which she rips off and pulls out what I can only guess is a semi-automatic and then proceeds to hunt down our hero--who was her groom--because he basically stole her work and passed it off as his, and then a SWAT team comes to stop her but she pulls the trigger anway. Which we don't get to see. I mean, just in that one opening scene so much is going on with the constraints of marriage and the rage that women feel at how belittled they are both in their romantic lives and in the public work place, and how isolated they are, too, considering she was up against the SWAT team, which is basically an extension of the state, right? It's like, state power bolstering up patriarchy. I would watch the rest of that drama just to figure out how that 5 minute sequence resonates for the next 16 some odd hours, but the hero's misogyny in the first episode is so blatant and he's so shameless about it that the only conclusion I could accept is her actually shooting him off of a 30 story building. Like the idea of her falling in love with him should be the plot of some Catherine Breillat horror film.

      And you know what's ironic about the "I will take responsibility for you" line? It's the woman who actually doing the taking of responsibility, considering she has to live with her husbands mother and take care of him and his mom.

      Cont. ...

    3. Other anti-feminist issues I have with kdramas:

      - Women who aren't friends. The antidotes: Dal Ja's Spring, Coffee Prince

      - Women who are passive in their romances. (This infuriates me! I am all about the romance. I'll be honest, it's the main reason I'm here. So when I'm watching these stories that are essentially about falling and being in love, and one of the participants is conspicuously not participating, and in some cases--like Boys Over Flowers and Secret Garden--may even be actively indifferent or even wholly opposed to the hero's romantic advances, I just can't stand it. It just negates the crux of the story, you know?) The antidotes: Kim Sam Soon, Queen In Hyun's Man

      - MANPAIN. Ugh, the bain of my existence (even though some of my favorite shows are rife with it and I constantly find myself wholly invested in those stories). The antidotes: OBGYN Doctors, Queen of Reversals, Flower Boy Ramen Shop (??? I've yet to finish this one)

      - When the hero keeps on saying that the heroine is ugly. 1) The radical in me wants to scream that women don't need to look pretty for anyone and that conceptions of beauty should be totally dismantled, but I manage to reel myself in because, hello, Song Joong Ki, Yoon Shi Yoon, LEE DONG WOOK, and just pretty men everywhere. 2) The actresses in these roles are some of the best looking people on the planet. Seriously. They make the rest of us look like that thing in the back of our fridges that should have been thrown out months ago. Calling them ugly is absurd. And 3) every time they say it it's like this twisted little endearment; it's romanticized. Just, ew. Antidotes: Kdrama shower scene compilations and gifs on youtube and tumblr, googling images of Song Joong Ki, Yoon Shi Yoon, Lee Dong Wook, Gong Yoo, Park Shi Hoo, etc.

      The only problem is that the antidote-kdramas for one ailment sometimes have a different ailment in them. Like Kim Sam Soon is great for proactive heroines, but it's got some manpain going on. :/ Best bet is probably to watch Painter of the Wind, which I still need to get to!

      Mmm...and yes, yes, responsibility and trust, trust and responsibility; I want to think more about this...(strokes imaginary beard thoughtfully).

    4. My response to both wrist grabs and "I'll take responsibility" tends to vary based on how they're played; I've seen a number of both that didn’t really bother me. On the other hand, there are instances like the one shown in the Heartstrings screen grab above that make my skin crawl: Without explaining himself one bit, the male lead used his size advantage to completely overpower his girlfriend and drag her away from a serious situation—she protested the entire time and never would have voluntarily left if he'd trusted her enough to tell her what was actually happening. It's just like you and your little cousins: woven right into the fabric of probably 70 percent of Korean dramas is the belief that women are incapable of controling their lives.

      This will be wildly unpopular, but I think I'm especially soured against "I'll take responsibility" right now because of Queen In-hyun's Man. Most of that drama is great, but my spleen exploded during the scene where the female lead said she would be the one to take responsibility and the male lead proceeded to mock her inability to even care for herself. It was like being presented with the biggest, most beautifully iced cake in the history of the world, and then having it slammed right in your face.

      The interplay between trust and responsibility really is a major common theme in Korean drama, but I just can't give "I'll take responsibility" a get-out-of-jail-free card based on an implied or understood component of respect and mutuality. It reminds me of what my catechism teacher told me in fifth or sixth grade Sunday school when I complained about the word "obey" appearing in the marriage vows: "The man may be the head of the household, but part of his responsibility in this role is to consider the needs of everyone. If you love and trust someone, you should know that he would only act in your best interest." (Clearly, this is paraphrased, as it's been a long, long time since this exchange took place.) Even as a 12 year old, I wasn't having any of it: why should this kind of trust be required under any circumstance? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, etc., etc.

      Maybe more than being a feminist issue, "I'll take responsibility" is a personal hangup that I shouldn't be airing on my blog about Korean drama (you think?). But the assumption that anyone needs to take responsibility (or that at any point it's appropriate to do anything *but* take responsibility) really sticks in my craw.

    5. Man, does Blogger make lengthy comment discussions difficult :b

      On a related note, one of the reasons why I was reluctant to be too negative about A Gentleman's Dignity is because I never finished it, and I suspect (or hope, dear god) that the sexist aspects of the earlier episodes were intended to be a starting point for the character's narrative arc. It might be the same with The Marriage Plot—just as most Kdrama career women start off cold and unfeeling and end up dewy-eyed and maternal, most Kdrama chauvinists wind up so crazy in love they think their woman hung the stars. Growth and change is incredibly important in the world of Korean drama, and in order to have either of them, you need a bad beginning.

      I also hate male leads who call their heroines ugly—especially because it's almost always just the first in a long list of negative things about her: she's poor, she's stupid, she has a bad personality. How that's construed to be romantic, I don't understand. (While, on the other hand, I get a serious case of the vapors every time a Kdrama man calls someone "my woman.")

      RE antidotes for the state of female friendships in Kdramas: You should also give Protect the Boss a try. A woman who starts off as the bitchy competition for the male lead ends up a fully nuanced character who's just one of the girls, even going so far as to move in with the female lead. Even more than a lot of shows that are self-consciously "about" female friendship (e.g., I Need Romance 2012), it really values the positive roles women can play in each other's lives.

      I literally just needed to look up the meaning of "manpain," which I take as a sign that I'm out of step with the rest of the world. On the bright side, I discovered this genius chart, which not only explains it perfectly, but acts as a blueprint for practically every male character in Korean drama.

      And on the front of Kdrama speaking to women, I came across another really interesting article on CNN's Geekout blog after this post went live. It talks about the relationship between women and manga, and I think it also touches on what draws us to Kdrama. (Although based on my somewhat shaky understanding of the behind-the-scenes world of Korean drama, most of the shows are ultimately still controlled by men.)

      In the west, stories told with a female lead are stigmatized in a way that doesn't seem to happen in Asia. Also, I find that the concept of "the male gaze" doesn't exist in Kdrama—instead, shows pander to "the female gaze," giving us shower scene after shower scene of handsome men lathering up. I wonder if this is because women are the primary television watchers, as the workforce is predominantly male and the hours spent at work are so lengthy.

  5. SLOW CLAP OF PERFECTION. Fabulous post. Off to re-read!

  6. Thanks for the link to my post. Really enjoyed your article! Cheers!

    1. And I really enjoyed your article. I've been trying to figure out just what I love about Korean drama for a long, long time, and when I read your post it was as if someone turned a lightbulb on in my head. You're completely right that Kdrama’s subtlety and all the things it hints at rather than saying outright make it incredibly compelling. And as an utterly rootless, free-living and free-thinking American, I think there's also real appeal to to a society that values tradition so much.

  7. The sexist attitude doesn't bother me as much as the fact that I can only think of a few strong independent heroines in Kdramas. Most Kdramas seem to portray the main female character as a pure innocent victim or juvenile with emotional issues. And they are only able to be complete as people with the male hero saving them. If they are poor they marry a rich man, if they are scatterbrained they get a clearheaded capable hero to save them from themselves. Protect the Boss and Coffee Prince are the only dramas that didn't have me frustrated at the main female characters. It seems like the primary role of the main female character in Kdramas is "prop to show how hot the male character is".
    I really want to see a clearheaded even-tempered heroine with a good sense of humor but those characters seem to be all male.

    1. Male or cross-dressing, anyway ;) I also think the heroines of both Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Painter of the Wind qualify as clearheaded and even-tempered, but guess what? That's probably because they're pretending to be boys.

      The trope of the air-headed girl was something I almost included in this list (and probably should have). When Kdrama women are conspicuously smart, they're usually acting as 'bad guys,' or foils to the idiot female leads. Playful Kiss is a perfect example: it gives us a ditzy female lead whose middle name appears to be "doormat." And while she's chasing after her brilliant, ultra-successful crush, her biggest competition is a smart girl who's depicted as more of an utterly perfect, straight-A-getting freak of nature than a person.

      Here's hoping a bookish, smarty-pants female lead lurks in Kdrama's near future.

    2. I can definitely see that in so many Kdramas. The biggest disappointment of Playful Kiss for me however was that it couldn't live up to its Taiwanese counterpart. ISWAK and especially the sequal They Kiss Again was so much better. Although they could have cut a lot out of the plot they somehow managed to make a girl character who was not the most intelligent without overtly bashing her. Yes she's a bit stupid but unlike Playful Kiss it was her differences that made her the perfect match for the male lead. She showed him compassion and love in a way he couldn't compute in his robot brain. In Playful Kiss it seems like he's settling for the girl with the most persistence, in the Taiwanese drama you actually get the feeling that she completes all his deficiencies.

    3. ...And my to-watch list (already rivaling the Oxford English Dictionary in length) grows by two! Thank you very much ;)

      In spite of its failings, I actually enjoyed the Korean drama a lot. If nothing else, it was very convenient that the female lead's name was Oh Ha Ni, because I spent the entire 16 episodes muttering "Oh, honey" under my breath.

    4. Ha! I can totally see that.

      I think I would have liked the Korean version better if I didn't like the Taiwanese version so much. It is somewhat confusing but usually I just tell people who have seen the Korean version to watch the first and last episodes of It Started with a Kiss and then the entire second season (They Kiss Again) since it covers material not in the Korean version (their married life) and was twice as charming as the first season (which is kinda long-ish for casual watching).

    5. My favorite part of the Korean version was actually the sort-of second season that aired on Youtube. They finally figured out how to make it seem as if the male lead might actually like his wife, wonder of wonders.

      If the chemistry is way better (which I've heard is the case) I could actually see myself watching the whole first season of the Taiwanese version =X Playful Kiss was the third Kdrama I ever watched, way back last summer, so it might be fun to revisit old territory. I'm watching my first Taiwanese drama right now, and I love that it's significantly less innocent than any of the Korean shows I've seen—even the ones intended for grownups.

    6. Guessing that's Autumn's Concerto? The weird thing is that some Taiwanese dramas are like that and others are like happy go-lucky animes. It's a really odd mix but there are some good ones (without the odd, frustrating ending of AC) like Black and White, Summer's Desire, and my all-time favorite MARS.

  8. Btw,if you're dipping your toes into Taiwanese dramas as well, may I suggest Black and White? (opening credits here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6zl2lUfrfE). It's one of the few asian dramas I've seen where practically every female character is awesome at some point or another.

    1. Thanks for the rec—I've added it to my ginormous list of dramas to watch! I think I'm going to like Taiwanese television...at least based on Autumn's Concerto, it has all the good things about Korean drama (involving, soapy plots; cute boys) and none of the bad things (totally useless girls; chilly, closed-mouth kisses).

  9. I think you're reading too much into the dramas, especially with this quote, "“I’ll take responsibility for you and our relationship,” the man is declaring to his object of desire, as if she’s a pet in need of an owner, not an adult woman capable of caring for herself. Ultimately, it’s not a confession of love—it’s an acknowledgment of an uneven balance of power. It’s the person in control deigning to take on the burden of a wife, begrudgingly accepting the role of being her leader, boss, and master."

    That's not what is meant. What he is saying is that he will take responsibility for the woman as his wife. After all, marriage is a responsibility between a man and woman. What's funny is that I don't think you really need to have a good grasp of Korean culture to understand that, but it seems that one can be too overzealous in the desire to find sexism in everything. If you really want to understand Korean dramas, you should approach them with an open mind and not try to impose some agenda on them based on some preconceived notion of "Korean culture".

    1. If it's mutual responsibility between a man and a woman, why is it that I've seen maybe 2 female characters say they'll "take responsibility" for a man, and probably 50 male characters say the same about a woman?

      There's a lot to criticize in this post—especially my reliance on English-language subtitles to understand Korean concepts. The English word "responsibility" carries with it associations of obligation and blame. Maybe the Korean word used in this sentence doesn't, for all I know.

      On the other hand, the evidence of sexism in many Korean dramas is undeniable, and the fact that I've noticed it is not evidence of my "preconceived notions." In fact, one of my first posts on this blog was devoted to singing the praises of how girl-friendly Kdramas are. But since then, I've watched a lot more Korean TV and come to see the other side of the equation: Dramas are often built around female characters, but they're not always treated with respect by their male counterparts—or the dramas themselves.

    2. Women wouldn't say that because there is a different implication in the term, which implies "I will take care of you." It's about a man taking care of his family, which is different from how a Korean woman takes care of her family. Could you imagine an American woman saying that in a drama as well? I don't think it's sexism as much as gender roles, which is not always about discrimination. In Korea, traditional roles are more emphasized and the man is seen and expected to be the breadwinner while the woman is expected to be the caretaker. You can argue that it is sexist to assign different roles to men and women, but when both do so willingly, is it? Equality is not always about sameness, but equal respect. Korean women prefer leaders and not someone that they have to take care of. Perhaps you see that as sexist, but it really is about preference. A Korea woman would probably not say "I will take responsibility for you" as a matter of pride. It's not something that is aspired to, so probably not shown in Korean dramas. Of course, if there was a way to spin it as "aspirational", it would be shown. But that is where the cultural difference comes in. Korean women may work, but they usually do not want to be the breadwinner, the person solely responsible for the family's income nor do they want to propose to their husband.

      As far as your other claims about sexism, I am very skeptical based on reading this post. Men and women are equal, but to dismiss all differences in behaviors between the two is unrealistic. It's not even about understanding Korean culture, but just keeping an open mind and critically questioning why those differences exist. Korean dramas are a reflection of a lot of things. They are definitely overdramatic to appeal to the emotional sensibilities of Korean women. And sometimes, that means showing characters in a vulnerable light, someone women can relate to and root for in the end. Dramas are cathartic for many people. They can see their own flaws and challenges in the character. Korean dramas connect to the heart more BECAUSE they highlight these emotional vulnerabilities unlike Western dramas where the emphasis is on characters that are strong and prevail. It's just a different approach not meant to show women as weak, but human characters that women can identify with. I think it's more honest actually as people are not all superheroes who can do and have it all. I think it's your own bias that says that women have to be invincible or else they are sexually oppressed. I have never seen a drama where a Korean woman just succumbs to the pressure around her. Korean dramas reflect reality in some respect and reality isn't always pretty. Korean women have to deal with mother-in-laws, which can be a sensitive relationship. This is a reality for many Korean women and to be honest about that is not sexist, but just truthful.

    3. A man will say "I will take care of you" as a way to propose. Korean dramas are about appealing to the fantasies of Korean women, so in that respect, I would say that they cater to the female viewer rather than oppress her. Most Korean women don't want to see a woman saying "I will take responsibility for you" and hence, you don't see that in many Korean dramas.

    4. Thank you for your comments—they're extremely well stated and have really made me think. American feminists also grapple with issues of identity and freedom: some people think that you're failure as a woman if you don't have a husband and a passel of kids, and other people think you're a failure as a woman if you aren't an invincible corporate raider. Ultimately, I just wish our societies would let us do and be what we want, in spite of (or because of) our genders, and I don't agree that the physical differences between genders should determine how we live our lives. I do see that Kdrama is a reflection of the culture that created it, though, and that my understanding of both is elementary at best. So I guess there's one thing we agree on ;)

    5. The way genders are portrayed is not always about sexism, but preference. Even if women can be a certain way, they don't always WANT to. Korean women can work, but that doesn't mean that they want to be the breadwinner. Every culture has its own ideas about what is desirable or not.

    6. Ahem. itissaid. I'd have to disagree. You talk about preference, but can a woman really be said to be making the decision herself when she is acting upon what her culture expects of her rather than what she wants? What if a woman "prefers" to become a housewife because her culture would frown on her otherwise? Is that actual preference? And this whole pride thing-- how a woman won't say "I will take responsibility-- that is what patriarchy does. Convince women that they should be taken care of, rather than take care of things for themselves. Why do you think women are disrespect as the lesser sex around the world? Because patriarchal cultures have convinced them that they are incapable of dealing with the world outside the home. If Korean women don't want to see an assertive woman [ as you say. I have no clue about this], its not because they have made the choice but because decades of patriarchal conditioning has made the decision for them.

      " This is a reality for many Korean women and to be honest about that is not sexist, but just truthful." you say. Do you not realise that sexism IS truthful as well? How do you think these perfect men would react when their ladies told them that they wanted to take responsibility? Sexism isn't always overt hatred. It is also condescending and patronising treatment. THAT DOES NOT TRANSLATE TO ROMANCE.

  10. I am a newbie to the KDrama world. My first was Boys Over Flowers which I found by chance after watching the Anime.

    I agree with you completely, it's hard sometimes to enjoy the show when the female lead is so weak. Maybe I shouldn't use the word weak since is a cultural thing and I don't want to give it a negative connotation. There are, however, so many Kdramas were the girl not only gets walked all over by the male lead, but her friends and family and rivals all do the same thing. Is as if a woman couldn't be angry, or even defend herself when attacked because is not feminine.

    Joon Pyo's witch of a mother was horrible to Jan Di and she never even ONCE told that woman to go f herself. While I appreciate Jan Di's class, after all the attacks on her family I would've at least expected her to be angry at her, she just always look confused by the woman's vitriol no matter how often it happened. She always had a look on her face as if she couldn't understand what was going on when Joon Pyo's mom was ever so clear.

    In Full House the lead Ji-Eun has her entire house and contents sold by her two "best friends" She finds herself homeless and losing the house her father built with his own two hands, but she couldn't bring herself to solve the problem by calling the police. When they emptied her bank account it was the same. How many people would get their savings stolen and not rip the people at the bank a new one for allowing the withdrawal when she wasn't even in the country! Ugh!!

    The same happens over and over again in all K dramas. It's infuriating.

    Yet I watch em. Go figure.

  11. What a great post! About time we got that F word out in the open. You have confirmed my suspicion that I should avoid A Gentleman's Dignity. One of my readers recommended it in a comment as relatively "realistic." But how much realism about 40-something Korean men and their dating adventures do I want to see? Kdrama often reminds me of the US in the 60s, in all of its prefeminism. BTW, regarding some of the comments above, sexism is and/or has been a part of many cultures (including ours). That doesn't make it constructive.

    The wrist grab thing drives me nuts, too. Wrists are quite delicate, and I wonder how many Korean actresses end up with sprains and bruises. I have seen some evidence that Korean women (even young ones), as well as men, still see physical strength in women as unattractive. However, that was a common attitude in the US not long ago, and we're well over it now. It wouldn't surprise me if Korea got past it even quicker.

    Much as I love Spunky Heroines, it's been tough to relate to Kdrama actresses when their characters so often MARRY guys who throw them around like rag dolls. You should check out My Husband Got a Family, though. It features an unusually large number of diverse, well-developed female characters for one drama. The main couple are already married, which allows the character growth of the women to assume center stage. Not only do they grow individually, they also influence each other, find resolution to conflicting values, and grow collectively.

    Unfortunately, there is one couple where the (much larger) man physically dominates the woman he is in love with - so sad, because I really enjoy his character when he's NOT with her. It's supposed to be OK - or even worse, romantic! - because he knows more about her feelings than she does. In real life, that's stalker thinking. Did I mention he's also her boss, and wealthy? I've noticed rich girlfriends of poor boys get manhandled less than poor girlfriends of rich ones.

    My Husband Got a Family also features male bonding around the humoring of wives. I'm sure I don't have to tell you how unfunny that is. So, not perfect. But a step in the right direction.

    Anyhow, thanks for adding my blog to your links list, which is how I found you. I'm honored :) I don't know how I never came across you before, but now that I have, I'll definitely visit again!

    1. I only recently discovered your blog, and I'm glad I did—you write about exactly the things I love to read about. I'll definitely keep an eye out for My Husband Got a Family. I'm usually not that interested in dramas that start off with established relationships, but the thought of seeing female characters who are treated as more than love-starved wannabe brides is pretty tempting.

      I would it's safe to skip Gentleman's Dignity. I can stomach a lot when it comes to dreamy Kdrama "heroes" starting off as creeps, but all the male leads in that show were total jerks who treated women as either (1) objects or (2) the enemy.

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  13. Great article! Here Here! My poor former Sociology of Gender teaching self dies a little inside when I watch kdramas, but I just can't stop.

  14. I live in that same tension..loving Kdrama and hating part of the sexiststuff, But ttbt it is NOT that much different in US shows, there, more often than not not only does no not mean no either...and the gender roles in USA TV when it comes to men are even more harmful... i agree with your assessments culture shows..in germany, in the usa and korea... but ttbt I find that very fascinating too...it seems to me that because of the speed of development in recent years in terms of socializing some koreans still seem to live in the 50s (where all of this and more was equally staple in USA movies) some in the 70s and some (especially a few of the younger women I met from Korea) are living in the 70-now. Its already makes for interesting stories (like coffee prince, like Protect the boss, like even the great queen -the first 10 episodes are the best female driven show I have seen in any of my TV countries) but also fro some horrible ones Daemul, for example which was sold as feminist as it allegedly was about the first female president of Korea and instead was not at all ABOUT her but about the two men around her... as K drama evolves more it will shift too...things are clearly moving what I cherish is that it moves rather independent of american culture per se while at the smae time, I believe if Gloria steinem were to start monitoring Kdrama, all she would say is: history repeats itself, but it seems while they started later Korea is catching up (as indicated by the additional data from Korea like increasing divorce rates, driven by women, women saying they wouldn't marry their husbands again...what I learned from my korean friends here were some valuable lessons in how the system works... by directing your focus.

    the thing I find incredible is that the sexism in Korea does not seem to necessarily be driven by outright mysogyny, but more by rigging the system than by actively disrespecting women on a larger scale, for example the pinning against the bathroom door thingie so mild compared with any number of coerxive scenes I saw on american TV...in fact I found anything physically coercive but the wristgrab RARE. and until I understood the wristgrab context from Korea always mild compared to violent/physically coercive behaviour shown on screens in the US or Europe...What I see delightfully in K drama is that there are shows you could NOT shoot in the USA atm...and a trend...like Iris (all four remaining leads are female at this point, that moral obligations within relationships are (pre-marriage anyways) not very gendered..it may be bad form to have a child out of wedlock for a woman, and a bad thing for her for sure...BUT it also is a significant stain on a guy..men get to cry in Krdama...they apologize, they cook and clean (something which is basically NOT the norm in RL (I call it ajumma porn ;)) BUT the young boys who grow up now see this...I actually know more Korean men who can cook, than young ladies.... I guess my point is: yes: lots of sexism...more benevolent (which is incredibly harmful, I truly know but it IS a difference in quality of experience for the subjected women) than HATE, respect is paid and can be demanded... it is a country with a Confucian history, BUT the occasional heroines are great...i am waiting for the next generation of writers...because , Ladies, I am sure we are in for a treat in the future...and that, given the speed of development, that future...it ain't far off

  15. I wonder to what extent the "age difference" or "positional difference" is being misunderstood as sexism. The age difference is much more significant in Korea than the west. Honorifics.. So to grab your junior (in age, job, wealth, family position.. etc) by the hand to set them straight on a perceived mistake would not exactly be sex based. Comparing the east with the west is like apples and oranges... There are class distinctions that exist in korea that do not exist in the west.. to the point most westerners do not even realize they exist. Like 7 levels of formality for speaking. I"m sure that it's not just speaking, that there is an inferred responsibility to keep young people on the right path, especially friends and family. So when they grab that wrist.. is it an older person setting a younger one right? I do agree tho that i've seen some stuff go on in kdrama's that would rate an arrest in the usa.. kidnapping etc. But.. the only one who can make this call is the victim. I have seen women in kdrama's put their foot down.. hard... but.. there is at least one glaring exception.. that is they had a crush on that guy.. Even now.. there are things husbands or strangers cant get away with that someone's crush can get away with. I think the kdrama's are probably pretty light weight. compared to actual Korean society. I have heard about suicides because of the clash between doing what it takes to succeed (the casting couch) and then having to live with your society's shame for having done it. Is it the woman who made the choice to play that game tho? and is the cost merely her perception? A guy might get a medal for sleeping with 100 women for a part.. so i do think it sexist that a woman would feel shame for the same thing, instead of thinking of it as worthy of a badge of honor. I think much of your rant has merit, but i'm not sure i can agree 100%. Men and women are different.. and have different stakes in a biological relationship. But in society they are?(supposed to be) legal equals. I think in a natural sense we are not equals so much as like a jigsaw puzzle that fits even tho it's not a straight line.. we complement each other to make something whole that does not exist in the separate parts... most animals are not equal (based on sex) .. the human animal was not for much of it's history..

    1. I think it is the Ajuma? the old women who rule the pecking order on things like public transportation. How many older women grab younger men in kdrama's? That if the younger women are quiet.. that's their choice and prerogative. Being from the west I'd be more reserved in judge Korean society from the outside.

  16. Agree with everything. Don't care how gorgeous a man is, if he tried any of that crap with me, I'd kick him in the shin and run. I got tired of Kdramas pretty fast exactly because of this. Don't get me wrong, India [where I'm from] can get worse, but there's a very active feminist rhetoric in play here. In Korea, not so much.

    And no, I do not like it when men get jealous or bossy or coercive. I think its offensive.

  17. I loved your post. But I didn't feel the same way watching Kdramas. I think that's because I live in Asia (not anywhere near Korea but yeah, the same continent) and in my country the culture is almost the same as in their's. Here, it's a man's world too. And women are expected to be good at house work and nothing else. Though this has changed a lot over the years, it's still there. So these situations kind of felt like home. Like these things happen in my country too so it's no big deal. I think that's why I didn't notice this much and it didn't affect me much. But I do hate the forced kisses. They make me really angry and if it were me, I would hit the man 'cause he doesn't own me. Also the notion of women being 'objects to own' annoys me too.
    Anyway, very well-written post! I loved reading it :)

  18. Thanks everyone that included some show recommendations! As far as the cringe worthy head pat, wrist grab, vicious future mother inlaw, mute-doormat-dishrag-spunky heroine I discovered I can fast forward (oh yeah) OR (and this one was a hard one to learn) YOU CAN DROP THE SHOW AT ANY POINT!! ♪ ♫ ♪

  19. Interesting article, but this is a Western perspective on Kdrama. I would hope Koreans would not get impressions of Western gender relations from soapoperas like Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives or even holiday special movies on ABC, or Seventh Heaven. Being a Korean-American, I understand both spheres and they are quite different in their outlook. Yes, to an American, many of Korea’s gender relations distilled from Kdramas seems sexist, derogatory, or, as many hegemonic Western nations like to call non-Western nations, “backward.” But they are two distinct cultures and things are to get lost in translation. If you would like to watch some dramas with more interesting and complex gender relations, check out City Hunter, Faith, and My Girlfriend is a Gumiho to see how subtly power balances can shift. My Girlfriend is a Gumiho demonstrates how a female lead can dominate a man’s life, yet it also avoids the cliché “independent woman” storyline. But remember, Kdramas are formulaic, just like the Victorian novel is formulaic and just like many books written by female authors, such as Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey follow uncomplex patterns of genre.

    In contemporary America’s hyper-capitalist society, a woman’s “autonomy” is based on her paycheck in contrast to her male counterpart. Beyonce is only an example of female empowerment because her net worth is close to Jay Z’s. Of course, money is power, yet there is something also problematic in the way feminism grew alongside capitalism. South Korea is in a transitional phase (many critics do not like the hyper-capitalistic future of South Korea). Kdramas to me represent the Victorian novels, in which women’s portrayals are problematic as well. Can Maggie in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss or Emily Bronte’s Catherine be supported by today’s standards of feminism? It’s important to remember that life is concrete, theory often is abstract, the way life should be according to the theorists. Most Korean households are still female-dominated even if there are increasingly Westernized Korean “independent women.” Kdramas represent fantasy since most of the male leads have wealth. A poor and ugly man would never be the lead. Gong Yoo and Lee Min Ho are unrealistic standards in reality…and most Korean women would not want to see ugly male leads in dramas. So it cuts both ways. South Korea is reaching a peak in capitalism as the Kdramas show the chaebol family, which Boys Over Flowers displays through the F-4, basically the top 1%.

    I also find it interesting that you don’t mention the older women in these dramas. What about Jung Pyo’s mom, the Western archetype of the hyper-capitalist? She could care less that her husband fell ill, doesn’t even mention it to the kids, prefers to say he died, doesn’t have maternal instincts, is a “boss lady” making numerous business deals, ruthless in the way a certain part of American feminists prefer to see “real feminists,” the Hilary Clintons or Madonnas if you will.

    1. I completely agree that Korean dramas are reminiscent of Victorian novels. But show me a scholar who focuses on the history of the Victorian era, and I'll show you someone who quotes liberally from the works of Charles Dickens. Cultures and their creative outputs are not formed in vacuums; they're forever tied together. Modern Korean culture can be analyzed through the lens of its television shows, just as Mill on the Floss can be a key point in discussion of the Victorian era. (And you can also learn an awful lot about America from those soap operas you mentioned so dismissively.)

      While money is essential for independence, feminism is not a contest between household paychecks. Jun Pyo's mom in Boys over Flowers is anything but an example of a feminist icon—her character arc is closer to a morality play about the evils of women in power. She's cold and isolated, having alienated everyone in her life with her hunger for professional success. She doesn't care about her children or her husband, and she works hard to pull down any other woman who dares to stand up to her. The drama's happy ending requires that she be punished for the audacity she displayed by being something other than a "traditional woman." She ends up back in the kitchen where women belong, utterly powerless and reduced to unhappily spoon-feeding her invalid husband. My Girlfriend is a Gumiho is similarly problematic—Gu Mi Ho gives up her heritage, her self, just so she can be with a man. And City Hunter? Its female lead is just another weak woman waiting to be saved.

      For real feminism in Korean drama, try Jewel in the Palace or the original season of I Need Romance, both of which showcase women as fully drawn, capable characters not imprisoned by their gender.

  20. How is Uncle Ben's rice racist?!

  21. Great post! i just started watching The Heirs (it's the first kdrama i've ever watched) and i love its clichéd romantic type stuff, but it seems like the female lead has NO agency whatsoever. its so frustrating!

  22. It is fun to read this article on some things seems in Korean dramas and Western response to it.

    While I agree that in Korean, the social hierarchical structure is very strict and rigid, I also tend to think that feminism in USA is no more about equality between genders, having long ago accomplished for the most part most of it's goals and now going overboard.

    As an Asian (sadly I am a guy), I feel a lot of woman in Asia have strong control of their lives, especially the last few generations. And I am scared to get married in the sense that once I do so, I know my wife will be in-charge of my life from then on. Aka in most families the wife rules the household still, when compared to Western culture.

    The difference is that In Asian, there is a culture of the wife controls the home while the husband is the figure head and controls external decisions. What that means in most Asian cultures is that, while outside, they should not gainsay they husbands, the truth is that they control most of the decisions of the house and most of the finance. This is regardless of it the wife works or not. Guys get to make the big decisions, but woo to him if he makes something without consulting his wife and getting her agreement.

    My father gets to act tough outside, but in the home and in their bedroom, the one that gets her way is near always my mother. And I am way more scared of my mother then father any day.

    Even in Korea, while the husband is the head of the home, the heart and neck is the wife. Of cause shows like The Heirs show a different family dynamic. But I tend to think of that as due to money then anything else. In that case, the one that controls the purse controls the family. Happily for alot of families that is not the case.

    Extreme Capitalism makes everything about money. Adding gender equality to a society controlled by Capitalism makes for a interesting situation with many issues. Aka I find USA a fascinating country of extremes that somehow lacks a middle ground is near any issue. Then again I an Asian staying in Asia and my country has its own problems.

    1. I like that you added the last line to your comment as you have no right to criticize or even say that feminism in the US have gone overboard. Do you know that in the US, women still make less income than men doing the same job? Do you also know that in the US, when women are raped, we are still told that it is our fault because of the way we dress? In the US, we are told that the government have the right to regulate our body: what we can and cannot do with it?

      So you are here talking about how you think feminism in the US have accomplished for the most part of of its goals and now going overboard? How much is "overboard"?

      Is wanting equal pay overboard? Is wanting freedom to do whatever I want with my body overboard? Is having the right to justice after violation to me by another person overboard? You should tell me.

  23. Are you saying that because K-drama do not shy from showing women in the kitchen and extreme focus on romance than it is feminism? Why must the girl always be rescued by a knight in shining armor? If he wasn't from a rich family and next to the company throne, do you think that he could have been her knight? Probably, not. That guy also end up not getting the girl. So it is feminism when a working girl get rescued by a rich, handsome, man who have problems and need her to change his mood? C'mon.

    In the United States, we don't glorify homemaking because it is still a culture outside of television that women should stay home, have babies while the men go to work and bring in the dough. Which is why US television try very hard (but enough) to depict women in different situation, to say, "hey it is okay to not have to be the housewife all the times." It is not "ghettotizing" anything. Homemaking is already a common lifestyle, why should our television shows glorify and encourage it even more, instead of encourage to believe that they have options? There are plenty of housewives on US television by the way. Just because one have a taste for one kind of shows doesn't mean the other kind of "ghetto."

  24. Great article. But it's wasted on your readers.

    Sigh, blissful ignorance.

  25. Good read; enjoy all of your blog sections.

    Wrist grabbing -- I personally liked the judo throwing scenes in "City Hunter" by Park Min-Young. However Lee Min Ho gets back by doing a fancy ankle grab. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted.

  26. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I
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  27. Its as easy to say that feminism is the worst thing that could happen to humanity! We need to return to the old roles to save traditional familly.

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. What so many people who decry supposedly 'sexist' attitudes in KDramas fail to understand - the SOCIETY is still stuck in the 50s, but the DRAMAS, while reflecting that society, are actually written BY women FOR women, w/balanced casts (about the same number of women as men, a good age range as well, showing family interactions & the consequences of actions). They actually almost always manage to pass the Bechdal test!!! Compared to the godawful sexism of HOLLYWOOD, KDramas come off sooo much better! Coffee Prince is AWESOME, A Gentleman's Dignity is as well. Your arguments against them are basically complaints that Korean society is depicted accurately. I also find it deplorable when a supposedly rational, independent woman says something like 'I'll get up & put on make-up for you, dear' but that's where Korean society happens to BE right now. AND I sure remember stuff like that being in MY OWN Home Ec textbooks in 1962!!! KUDOS to the KDrama entertainment corporate brass for at least recognizing the buying power of the majority of the country & giving us something to watch - AMERICAN TV execs have their own heads so far up their nether orifices that I just cannot watch too much of their output anymore - and I am not alone.

  30. What I love about historical Kdramas, such as Dong Yi (highly intelligent heroine), Princess man, Hwajung/Splending Politics, Princess Man, Dae Jang Geum, A Tree with deep roots, Sukwong Scandal??? (it's mentioned up thread)... are the highly intelligent heroines.

  31. Here's the link to the blog post I commented about : https://www.dramafever.com/news/the-11-most-dramatic-wrist-grabs-in-a-k-drama/

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