|Ojakgyo Brothers’ Baek Ja Eun and her ajumma.|
“I don’t know why feminists like you watch Korean drama.”
Although they’ve since deleted it, an anonymous commenter left this note on one of my posts about Kdrama girls. I guess the person who wrote it wasn’t happy about my criticisms of the way women are sometimes treated in Kdramas, which is fine. But the perhaps unintended implication of their words is that the whole of Korean drama is fundamentally anti-feminist, making it a lost cause for people like me (or vice versa). Seen in this light, Kdrama will never fall in line with my ideals, and if my ideals are so important to me I should just stop watching it.
As someone who thinks that all people—whatever their gender, whatever their religion, whatever their color—should have the same freedoms, rights, and responsibilities, I do find troubling things in Korean dramas. I’ve written about a lot of them, from wrist grabs and forced kisses to virtually enslaved daughters-in-law. But there’s more to the story than that. Korean dramas actually allow understanding of the world in ways that are too “feminine” for the West. They build stories from things we overlook here in America, because to our eyes they’re old-fashioned and silly and womanly. But respecting women and telling their stories is one of the most feminist things you can do—and that’s exactly what Korean dramas specialize in.
No matter what their themes may be, almost all Korean dramas are actually about emotions. They glory in things traditionally seen as suitable only for women: relationships, and matters of the heart and the feeling soul. Whole series are devoted to transforming human connections from one thing to another—from strangers to mother and daughter, from rivals to friends, from enemies to lovers. Lots of things may happen in the course of the show, but what ties every event together is this journey and its importance. This is why Eun Chan and Han Gyul’s developing love story is so powerful in Coffee Prince. It’s why Park Bo Ja’s mothering of the interloper Baek Ja Eun is so moving in Ojakgyo Brothers. And it’s why that final father-son scene in City Hunter will always rip your heart from your chest, no matter how times you watch it. In Korean dramas, narrative almost always exists in service of relationship, instead of the other way around.
All this attention to the ties that bind people makes for a lot of romances. This is one of the things that always keeps me coming back to Korean drama—for reasons both technical and cultural, love stories aren’t something that my own country’s television does well. Our shows last forever, precluding any sort of closure. And in America, romance for the sake of romance is ghettoized; on the rare occasions it actually exists, it’s kept out of sight on channels like the WB and Lifetime that are geared toward women. But why should shouldn’t a love story be just as important as a story about war? To regard romances as something less is a remnant of the male-dominated patriarchy, a mindset that focuses on public life and disregards the home sphere as the less-important realm of women. So in this way, Korean dramas are actually light years ahead of anything we have in “feminist” America: They’re not ashamed to traffic in stories about love, because love isn’t treated as something exclusive to the interests of women.
|Coffee Prince’s Eun Chan: The ultimate Candy?|
Their fixation on underdogs is another way that Korean dramas appeal to people who think women deserve the same freedoms as men. Kdramas often tell the kind of rags-to-riches story that hasn’t been popular in America since the turn of the twentieth century. People who start off with nothing end up with everything through their honest hard work—and those people are often women. Think about the archetype of the hardworking Candy girl. She’s not a character who’s limited by her gender (even if her happy ending usually involves a prince on a white stallion). She supports herself and does what it takes to survive, beating seemingly impossible odds along the way. Hwang Tae Hee got the job she always dreamed of in Queen of Reversals, and my beloved Go Eun Chan won a worldwide barista competition in Coffee Prince. Heck, hapless Geum Jan Di even got into medical school in Boys over Flowers. Their own personal agency is what earned these female characters their happy endings. The fact that a dreamy guy happened to be involved in each of them doesn’t necessarily invalidate these stories as girl-centered, feminist-friendly storytelling.
All the on-screen housekeeping in Korean dramas can also be seen as feminist. In Western entertainment homemaking is simply invisible, and I can’t help feeling that this is partially because it is so tainted by its longstanding status as “woman’s work.” Washing the floor, making the bed, and preparing meals are not valueless and devoid of narrative merit; they’re the stuff that real life is made of. Korean dramas respect them as such, rather than ignoring the entire realm of homely arts just because even today—and even in America—they’re so often solely the responsibilities of women.
|Jewel in the Palace: No boys allowed|
There are some Korean dramas that I would even consider overtly feminist. The personal and professional freedoms experienced by the characters in the original I Need Romance were accompanied by the ability to feel, express, and control their own physical desire. The 2003 sageuk Jewel in the Palace displays a different kind of feminism. In a world where women are property, it is concerned almost exclusively with their lives and interactions. It focuses on the inner workings of the palace kitchen during Korea’s Joseon dynasty, and it never looks down on its huge cast of female characters or their concerns. Instead, their struggles, friendships, and rivalries become its backbone. This is territory Western filmmaking has yet to explore. Even when mainstream historical dramas revolve around a woman, she’s almost always surrounded by men, like in 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age. With its gaggle of ladies in waiting, the currently airing WB drama Reign is an intriguing exception to this. But it still has nothing on Jewel, which let the King’s women speak in their own voices for more than twenty episodes of girls-only intrigue.
As an American feminist, there’s another reason for me to love Korean drama. By exposing me to other ideas and other ways of life, it encourages me to examine my own. Kdrama alters my perception and allows me to look at my own culture from a new vantage point. For example, I’m always marveling at the fact that women in Korea don’t take their husband’s last names. In America, our culture expects women to erase who we used to be when we get married, becoming a wholly new being with a wholly new name. Wifehood sometimes involves becoming a glorified maid in Kdrama relationships, but it never requires you to be somebody else.
To say that Kdramas are so problematic that they can’t be appreciated by people with feminist sensibilities is both short-sighted and inaccurate. Korean television has produced an almost unimaginable variety of programming—and while some of it has been painfully anti-woman, some of it been every bit as enlightened as anything on the international stage.
So that, anon, is why feminists like me watch Korean drama.