Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oh Boy: Gender-swap Dramas and Gender


I’m a total junkie when it comes to gender-bending Kdramas, so I was shocked at how negative my initial reaction was to the new drama short Ma Boy, in which a boy pretends to be a girl. 

I haven’t gotten around to watching the show yet, but something about the promotional materials really squicks me out. Is it because the male lead looks so masculine, in spite of his flowing locks and flirty schoolgirl uniform? Is it because he doesn’t look masculine enough, and instead falls into the uncanny valley between genders? Or is it just because boys pretending to be girls on screen tend to do so in the name of comedy, while girls pretending to be boys generally explore issues of identity and liberation from the established social order? It’s the difference between Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire and Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry: one is amusing, madcap slapstick, and the other is a wrenching portrait of the little boxes people are trapped in by the expectations of others.

I think this distinction is rooted in the ugliest aspect of our understanding of traditional gender roles: Men are defined by self-determination, power, and control, while women are defined by how they look and the quality of their relationships with men. When a girl pretends to be a boy, she inherits all the rights and privileges inherent to that gender, which makes great fodder for storytelling. On the other hand, when a boy pretends to be a girl, he’s taking a step down the ladder of social hierarchy, and his sphere of influence shrinks from the whole of human endeavor to the constricting circle home and hearth. The tone of gender-swapping dramas is set by the things their characters stand to gain through their deceptions: Girls pretending to be boys attain freedom, while boys pretending to be girls are gifted with mascara and impractical footwear.

And speaking of impractical footwear: femininity in Korean drama is almost always a carefully studied performance, not a physical state of being. It requires both specific props (like lipstick, designer purses, and indecently short skirts) and specific dialogue (including whimpers of “Ottokae” and “Oppa”). When a woman pretends to be man, these things are stripped away—the hair, the make-up, the frilly dresses. In its very nature, pretending to be a boy is an act of exposure, of nakedness against the world, which is why it so often leads to thoughtful, introspective dramas. But playing a girl (whatever your gender) requires the drag-queen-ish addition of female-specific items and rituals, leading to lots of jokes about underwear and the horrors of high heels.

Take the heroine of Coffee Prince, my favorite of the gender-swap Kdramas. Although Eun Chan never sets out to live as a boy, at their first meeting the show’s male lead assumes that she must be a guy. She doesn’t “perform” femininity like the other women he knows: she has a low-maintenance haircut and wears clothes designed to be practical, not girlie. From Han Gyul’s perspective, how could Eun Chan be a girl, when she isn’t defined by her chic wardrobe and willingness to bat her eyelashes to ensnare a man? As their relationship grows, skin-deep markers of womanhood aren’t what he comes to appreciate about Eun Chan. Instead he sees her as an equal, an ally, and finds in her in her all the noble traits traditionally associated with masculinity: she’s strong and capable and brave. Throughout Coffee Prince, Eun Chan is too busy being herself to be a Kdrama drag queen—which is exactly why Han Gyul and I love her so much.

It’s true that not all girls pretending to be boys are the focus of thoughtful dramas that explore the meaning of gender and identity in the modern world. The Beautifuls come to mind here, in particular—as fun as they are, the female leads of You’re Beautiful and To the Beautiful You gain very little from their gender-bending. Sure, they get behind-the-velvet rope admission into the clubby world of men, but what do they do with it? Jae Hee, To the Beautiful You’s female lead, seems to spend most of her time doing laundry, making snacks, and standing behind her man—she’s acting more like a mom than a boy. Still, their shows don’t exist solely to mock them. The same can’t be said for most men pretending to be women.

I Do, I Do: “But I see real girls doing this all the time!”

Two of this year’s urban rom-coms included unexpected moments of male cross-dressing, both inspired very specifically by the male characters’ need to create products for women. I Do, I Do’s apprentice shoe-designer thinks his skills will be improved by knowing what it’s like to wear high heels; 12 Men in a Year’s famous novelist wants to gain insight into his female characters. Although both characters are well-meaning, their distaff experiments are played for laughs, and their costumes—big, cartoony women’s clothing and Ringling-Brothers-ready makeup jobs—fool no one.

That men would pretend to be women is a logical extension of the Kdrama tradition of gender-bending. As far as entertainment value goes, I’m not crazy about this fad, but just the fact that it exists indicates that people are really thinking about what gender means in our lives and our world. And that’s a good thing.

Cross-dressing Kdrama Girls

Painter of the Wind, Moon Geun Young as Shin Yoon Bok
There were times in the course of this show when I forgot its main character was a girl. This is at least partially because it was the first drama I’d seen Moon Geun Young in, but beyond my lack of familiarity with the actress her overall demeanor and utter lack of girlie embellishment totally worked as a boy. And while she’s a compelling screen presence and has an interesting look, Moon Geun Young isn’t really a beauty—which actually comes in handy when you’re playing a girl pretending to be a boy while wearing unforgiving sageuk headgear. Grade A

Coffee Prince, Yoon Eun Hye as Go Eun Chan
Having starred as an ultra-feminine princess in the drama Goong the year before Coffee Prince aired, Eun Yoon Hye had some serious challenges to overcome with her portrayal of Go Eun Chan. And overcome them she did, turning in a charmingly loose-limbed, open-hearted performance utterly devoid of any form of vanity. Her physical presence as Go Eun Chan was a revelation—gangly and slouching, she really seemed to be a different person, who might actually pass as a boy. Grade A

To the Beautiful You, Choi Seol Ri as Goo Jae Hee
This show’s greatest gift to lead actress Choi Seol Ri is that it’s set in high school—a time before testosterone really kicks in and when a lot of actual boys look pretty girlish. With an appropriately masculine (but still cute) haircut and wardrobe, her baby-faced prettiness is not so far beyond the realm of possibility for a 15-year-old boy. As an added bonus, the script gamely hands her specific opportunities to convey boyishness, most notably when she dressed as a girl in episode 4 and nearly flashed half of Seoul before she remembered that skirts require their wearers to sit with their legs closed. The jury is still out on this one, but let’s give it an optimistic Grade C+

Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Park Min Young as Kim Yoon Hee
When most of the male characters in your drama wear what amount to flowing, hot-pink dresses, masculinity can be safely judged on a sliding scale. Park Min Young lowered her voice a pitch or two and brought to the role of Kim Yoon Hee a prickly energy and puffed-out chest. But while her cute-as-a-button face is the stuff of Pixar’s wet dreams, it ensures that she’ll never play a believable boy. (All that lip gloss didn’t help, either.) Grade C

You’re Beautiful: Park Shin Hye as Go Mi Nam
How do you know Park Shin Hye’s character is only pretending to be a boy in this show? She uses slightly less hair gel and wears slightly less make-up than her male counterparts. When you’re a post-Bowie rock star, gender-bending tendencies almost go without saying. But with a ladylike wardrobe and script that offered nothing more than vapid airheadedness (no matter what gender she was playing), Park Shin Hye was out of luck. Grade D


  1. Just finished Painter of the Wind. Oh why did she have to do that??? So sad!!! I think Moon Geun Young is another actress that may not be a traditionally feminine beauty, but I think she is really gorgeous because she is so different. As much as I did not like the second half of Cinderella's Sister, she was a knock out in that drama. One thing about her is that she always appears really natural without ridiculous amounts of make up and overly fashionable clothes. Her portrayal of Yoon Bok is definitely a close second to YEH's Eun Chan in the gender bending contest for me as well.

    Though I am really enjoying TTBY, I agree that she still acts exactly like a girl, but maybe we'll see some more of her masculine side come out as the drama progresses? I guess the difference is her character's motivation. I mean she came across the world and crossed dressed to be close to a famous guy she had a crush on... stalkery puppy love motivation does not equal free spirited gender bending tom boy lol.

    1. I really like Moon Geun Young, too. (Random note: You might actually want to watch the beginning of Autumn in My Heart to see her—she plays the female lead as a middle schooler, and is really wonderful. The rest of the series is probably not worth your time, but it's fun to see her as a kid.)

      I think the key to the ending of Painter of the Wind was the male lead's line about his apprentice being unable to live as either a girl or a boy—she couldn't be happy with anyone, because her identity was so confused by playing the opposite gender for most of her life. I didn’t think they had much chemistry, anyway...but totally loved the idea of Shin Yoon Bok running off to be with the gisaeng in the end =X

      As you said, the cross-dessing in TTBY is sort of different from most of the other shows: She's really just doing it for him, and isn't committed to being successful in the same way someone like Shin Yoon Bok is (or even the female lead in You’re Beautiful). I wonder how long it will be before she finds out he knows? (Erm. Or maybe I should come out and admit that I'm so excited for her to find out he knows that I can barely stand it?)

    2. Hmmm, maybe I will check that out.

      Yeah there was some serious lesbian vibes going on lol, but all of the scenes with them were really beautiful. I thought the sexual tension between her and Han Do was so thick you could cut it with a knife, and then was so pissed when they never really kissed. WTF? I am probably going to do my review on it tomorrow. I wanted to write it today, but I started my new job yesterday and also got sick with a cold as well so I kind of passed out and slept forever after I got home from work today lol. I am about to watch TTBY and really want to pay attention to it and then will have to go to bed, so alas it will probably be put off until tomorrow. I can't wait for her to find out either!! But I like that Eun Gyul doesn't know, it makes it more interesting and I love the contrast between him being such an innocent character by nature but he has this big secret forbidden love. GENIUS!!!

    3. I loved the exploration in Painter of the Wind of the woman-confused-by-being-in-man's-role. Honestly, this drama is the only one that really deals with those issues very much. It's more about Yoon Bok's dilemma and how she deals with it.

      I think Coffee Prince is my fave of all these dramas, but it deals more with Han Kyul's coming to terms with his confusion as to his sexuality. It's not really about Eun Chan dealing with being in a male role and coming to terms with how society sees her (outside the coffee shop).

      Also, I've noticed that in kdramas where the male lead is so much older than the female lead there's very little skinship of any kind. Which can be very disappointing in a drama with awesome chemistry. So I'm not very surprised at the no kissing in Painter of the Wind.

    4. I agree about Painter of the Wind being the only gender-beding drama that really explores how the girl's interior life and identity are effected by pretending to be a boy. (That was also the only drama where pretending to be a guy was both long-term and not optional—I got the feeling her adoptive dad wouldn't have stood for anything else.)

      For most of Painter, I was actually shipping Yoon Bok and her brother, which is just messed up and wrong =X Much like big age differences, fauxcest dramas tend not to get too into physical displays of affection. I couldn't believe there wasn't even a goodbye kiss at the end, though.

      Coffee Prince is my favorite gender-swapping drama, too. In some ways, Eun Chan's identity is involved. she did some struggling with not being feminine and the way people perceived her because of it. Like when Han Gyul's grandmother called her a "thing," instead of a girl: She was clearly hurt, and then asked him to piggyback her right afterward, as a way of getting him to affirm her femininity.

  2. Have you read seoulbeats recent article on gender benders and pseudo-homosexuality? I just happened across it today as well. Got some good points.

    You're Beautiful got a grade D? I'm shocked. That's generous, lol. Seeing as how 2 out of the 3 guys realized she was a girl by the second episode... Also, I was positive in SKKS at least twice that he'd obviously figured out she was a girl, and was stunned minutes later to realize that no, he just had his mouth hanging open because apparently Yoon Hee looked ultras pretty in a girls hanbok. * dies*

    1. Here was my guiding principle in grading the girl-as-boy performances: As long as they made it through the entire series without flashing their ta-tas—ala the (delightful) 80s movie Just One of the Guys—they got a passing grade ;)

      These gender-bending dramas are full of fake-outs about whether the characters realize the deception—TTBY has had a few, too, but none as insanely ridiculous as the SKKS scene you mentioned. It allows the writers to have lots of exciting reveals that don't go anywhere, I guess.

      And I didn’t see the Seoulbeats article, but just looked it up. Thanks for mentioning it! As always for Seoulbeats, it’s super thoughtful and well done. (Why, O why, don't I go there more often?) In some ways, I think these gender-bending dramas might be building a foundation for a successful LGBTQ community. The first step in getting over prejudices is putting a human face on the issue, and realizing that we're all just people underneath these petty differences. Even if the characters don't end up being gay, the shows set the stage for people accepting the possibility that they might be.

    2. Incidentally, I just rewatched the 3rd to last episode of Secret Garden (yes, your alllltime faaaavorite). But, I noticed this time around that after Kim Joo Won wakes up as his 21yr old self and can't remember anything, Ra Im goes to his horrible mother and tells her: "Please give me your son. I'll take responsibility for him." Granted, this is after evil Oma has pulled a million and one evil Oma shennanigans out of her evil fur cape collection - but, I was amused to see the phrase pop up out of a woman's mouth this time.

    3. ::does kdrama sneer at the mention of Secret Garden::

      The male lead in Secret Garden was kind of set up to be a little boy, so it seems natural that he would need someone to take responsibility for him ;)

      In some ways, I think I should give Secret Garden another try. I was expecting something totally different, and my intense hatred of the show might actually be caused by feeling let down that it wasn't really a fantasy drama revolving around a body swap mystery. Instead, it was a romantic comedy with a side-plot involving body swap.

      (Weird footnote: I loved Protect the Boss and hated Secret Garden, but they've totally blurred together into one show in my memory.)

  3. i've just discovered this post and appreciate it and all the great comments. it's nice to hear discussion of 'back' issues of kdramas. enjoyable tho' they are, there are many topics they avoid like crazy. homosexuality or questioning is one of them. it's part of what i liked about coffee prince first the female was comfortable with who she was as she was, quirky girl lead, but not typical. and Gong Yoo's character really did consider over the course of several episodes what his attraction to a 'male' might mean--and he was facing this set of questions in a pretty serious manner (except for the comic doctor visit scene where the doc is so old school i wanted to smack him). it did use the 'hidden identity' trope in a new way, but Gong's character was likeable to me in part because unlike many other kdrama men, he was actually considering that he might be gay. i thought that was new ground. at least in my short viewpoint. i'm 3 episodes into Protect the Boss and while I don't see gender identity swapping there, i did love the opening presentation of the female lead as physically tough, even aggressive, capable and feisty. she is the quirky diamond-in-the-rough girl we've seen many times, but with some skills to take on a sexually harassing boss---completely awesome. i'll watch more more interesting posting here. thank you

    1. Thank you! I'm also always interested in hearing more about the themes behind Korean dramas, not just the shows themselves. There aren't a lot of blogs out there that spend much time on that front, which is too bad. (But understandable, because it's really hard to come up with things to write about!) Another show that has an interesting presentation of possible homosexuality is Painter of the Wind, if you haven't seen it yet—it doesn't really tackle the issue head on, but the subtext of two girls maybe actually being in love is too prominent to miss.

      I really liked Protect the Boss for just the reasons you mentioned—in some ways it's a gender-bending drama, too. The female lead is a tough, aggressive leader and takes on a lot of the characteristics of the standard Kdrama hero.

  4. after all these kind of dramas where the girl pretending to be a boy, which do you think is the best regarding acting like a boy and the appearance as well??

    1. Really, I think Painter of the Wind and Coffee Prince are the only dramas that even tried to make their characters' gender bending believable. The other shows are too traditionally minded to deal with the cross-dressing in a realistic fashion—which is why the girl in To the Beautiful You gets away with so much lip gloss ;)

  5. Thoughtful post. You are definitely right about most guy-dresses-as-girl moments in Korean media, but I must point out that you are wrong about Ma Boy. This drama doesn't make fun of femininity. The main character, Hyunwoo, just uses the female identity as a means to be able to be successful (in this set-up world, his female identity is a successful "CF Queen"). It's not for the audience's laughter. He doesn't hate or ridicule the skirts and wigs and lip gloss he has to wear-they are just a facet of life that he has to deal with in order to work in the industry. Also, there's this deeper element where we see that Hyunwoo actually feels disappointed in himself for having to lean on the Irene character to be successful (not because she's a woman, or a "lesser" gender, but because it's hard to deal with the fact that his true identity and merits haven't been enough to make it). He has an aura of sensitivity there, and it's not something you see in every drama, so I think that there's definitely something nice and unique to how Ma Boy treated the subject of cross-dressing.

    1. This post was actually written before Ma Boy aired, and I still haven't gotten around to watching this drama. Your comments about it make me want to see it, though. It sounds much, much better than I anticipated. I'll move it up on my to-watch list!

  6. Ma Boy was a really really good drama. You should go watch it. on YouTube. It has only 3 episodes though >< T^T I wished there were at least 16 xP

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