Friday Feature: Women in K-dramas

On Saturday, August 1, we will take part in a panel discussion on women in K-dramas at KCON 2015. Here is a sneak preview into what we will be discussing.

Junggugeo Kaenada 중국어 캐나다: We have a confession to make, and it feels safer to do it here than at the KCON panel: we have reservations about the way women are generally depicted in Korean dramas.

Only 만: ‘Reservations’ is such a nice way to put it. We do, indeed, take issue with the depiction of women in K-dramas, from the female leads down to the comedic side characters.

Junggugeo Kaenada: Okay, let’s rip the bandage right off. What are the worst K-drama female archetypes?

Only: Oh, it’s a long list, but I’ll give you my top three: Candy girls, crazy second leads, and bitchy chaebol moms.

Junggugeo Kaenada: Of those three, I think I encounter crazy second female leads the most, and I agree; I hate them. It’s just insulting when a character who has everything becomes desperate to the point of debasing herself in order to destroy the competition for the male lead.

Since I stick mostly to romantic comedies, and skip melodramas and heartwarming stories, I will need you to elaborate on the Candy girl and the bitchy chaebol mom.

Only: I can do both from one drama: “Secret Garden”. I know it’s a fan favourite, but it also exemplifies a lot of what I dislike about female representation in K-dramas. The female lead is presented as a kickass stuntwoman but, she’s actually a Candy in disguise. She’s dim, cheerful, hard-working, cares about everyone, and brings warmth and love to the cold chaebol male lead. Nothing wrong with that, but it sticks so close to the script of practically every other K-drama that I wondered why they even bothered to try something different with the stuntwoman thing.

Then you have the male lead’s bitchy chaebol mom, who is the diametric opposite. She wants what she wants when she wants it, and that includes her son’s obedience in all things. Not surprisingly, she’s played by Park Joon Geum, who’s made a career out of playing bitchy chaebol moms.

Junggugeo Kaenada: However, we do enjoy crazy female characters. “Secret Love Affair” featured violent cougar, Young Woo, and the amazingly entertaining, ambitious schemer, Secretary Wang. Plus, you enjoyed Park Joon Geum in “Emergency Couple”. Explain yourself.

Secret Love Affair villain 2

Only: First, “Secret Love Affair” was great in that it featured several powerful female roles. Young Woo was all id, but she wasn’t a one-note character, and she was part of a broad range of women on that show. It wasn’t like other shows that I can name, where I can neatly categorize every woman: candy girl, whacky sidekick, rich bitch, princess, career gal, sexually liberated career gal, evil mom.

And, I don’t object to these archetypes on their own, especially if they’re part of an entertaining character; I object to the fact that they’re as dominant as they are.

Junggugeo Kaenada: Well, let’s try our best to remember the female characters we have liked. For me, the female leads who were not obviously prepackaged for easy consumption stick out in my mind.

I found Gong Hyo Jin’s character in “It’s Okay, It’s Love” very refreshing. It was a relief to see that she was capable of playing such a confident and complex character after watching her Candy girl get trampled by everyone in “Greatest Love”. Her psychiatrist character plainly states that she does not care if she is called a bitch, because she feels no need to please everyone.

“Me Too Flower!” kept my attention by featuring a female lead played by Lee Ji Ah who was obviously suffering from depression. She knew she was unlikeable and lashing out at everyone, but she could not help herself. It was played to be realistic, not cute, which was a relief.

Oh My Ghost 3.5

Only: Lee Bo Young as Hye Sung in “I Hear Your Voice” was a great character, not just because she was contrary, but because she was multi-faceted, and grew as a character over the course of the show.

We’re watching two fantastic female characters at the moment, as well. One is the loudmouth horny virgin ghost, Soon Ae of “Oh My Ghost” played by Kim Seul Gi and Park Bo Young.

The other is Jang Na Ra’s police detective, Cha Ji Ahn in “I Remember You”. In a recent episode, she was attacked in her own apartment. She held her own against a much larger opponent, but not past the bounds of believability.

Junggugeo Kaenada: I look at the roles that popular K-drama actresses like Gong Hyo Jin and Jang Na Ra are taking on, and I keep hoping that their recent choices signal the decline of the Candy character. Though, I suppose one could argue that actresses step away from the cutesy Candy character as a necessity of growing older.

Only: I’m not sure if it’s that, or we’re actively seeking out dramas with more complex female characters. I’d be more curious to know if someone like Park Shin Hye is playing more interesting characters, since she’s pretty much an ingenue. I haven’t seen “Pinocchio”, but I know you watched it. Is she a Candy in that one?

Pinocchio 1

Junggugeo Kaenada: Park Shin Hye finally kissed like a consenting adult in “Pinocchio”. Though people may think that it is crass of me to focus on that, I think it signals that she is ready for adult roles. Her character in “Pinocchio” was supposed to be gratingly blunt, but Park Shin Hye’s depiction smoothed out the hard edges of the character. To her credit, at least she tried a role that was not meant to be a Candy, so there is hope for the future.

Do you have hope for the future of women’s roles in K-dramas?

Only: I do. Given that dramas with strong female characters at the centre have been pretty successful recently, I see no reason for that trend to die out. One of the biggest dramas of 2014 was “My Love from the Stars”, and you can’t deny that Jun Ji Hyun’s Cheon Song Yi is a great, multi-dimensional character. And, she carried that show.

Junggugeo Kaenada: Let’s end on that positive thought so that we can start the KCON panel with a good attitude towards women in K-dramas.

Come join us at our KCON 2015 panel discussion: Women in K-Drama – Saturday, August 1.


Readers: what are your favourite female characters in K-drama?

14 Comments

  • Great points.I don’t usually have too much of a qualm watching shows that have problematic content (consent and agency issues abound) though certainly I wish there were less of the “bitches be crazy” and sacrificial sweetie doormat tropes. I think kdramas are better on certain fronts for women than Western shows. There are great characters for older women (though a lack of diversity of roles for middle aged ladies, imo), tons and tons of interesting lead female characters doing all sorts of things and kicking all sorts of ass in their own ways and the female gaze is definitely pandered too. My husband keeps begging for a shower scene with a lady. I just tell him to go watch GoT or something and go back to my mindless drooling.

    Favorite female character this year? Easily Jo Min Ja aka Hacker Ajumma in Healer.

    • Kim Mi Kyung who played the awesome Hackker Ajumma, has played some pretty interesting characters in the past. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have to be relatable or likeable like the female lead that she gets to be interesting?

      As an aside, I loved the fact that they made Hacker Ajumma a kickass middle-aged woman. In almost any other scenario, that character would be a younger guy.

      • Plus she knitted. I think she’s knitted in other roles too. Love seeing that actress pop up in things.

        Choi Kang Hee’s character in Heart to Heart was different and the show flipped a lot of tropes which was fun (questionable medical ethics aside) and for someone like me with serious social phobia issues also familiar in a way that doesn’t often get portrayed in tv shows. Uee’s character in Hogu’s Love was for a long time unlikable and difficult. Kim So Yeon played similar sort of cold or prickly characters in both Falling for Innocence and I Need Romance 3 (which was also full of decent examples of women’s sexuality).

    • Unfortunately the lack of diversity in roles (or the lack of roles, period!) for middle aged female actors is too universal to be ignored. That’s why some of them end up under the knife with the usual frightening results.

  • When I started reading your post, I thought “But I can name a lot of lovable female characters! Ones who made their own choices, helped move the story forward, and weren’t just dragged hither and thither by their leads.” Then I realized that for every awesome female char, there are 5 or more who fall under the generic “I’m Just Here So The Male Lead Can Be Awesome” type.

    Given a choice between Candy, Evil MIL, and Bitchy 2nd Lead, the one I hate the most is the 2nd Lead. And how come they’re always depicted as successful, beautiful, and smart– then they turn into crazies who will lie and cheat and steal just to force a guy to like them? DOES. NOT. COMPUTE.

    Someone who has that level of confidence and success is probably happier and mentally healthier. No need to get love from a particular man for validation, right?

    I wish dramaland will learn from what kinds of second leads audience like the most. We need more females who will clash with the heroine for non-romantic reasons. Ones that we end up grudgingly respecting like Baek-hee from Dream High or the Prosecutor in IHYV or Ji-sook Unni in Cruel City.

    • Part of the problem for me is that I also can name a lot of great female characters. But, I also realized, I can only name the great female characters. The generic “I’m Just Here So The Male Lead Can Be Awesome”? I can’t remember anything about them, much less names, what they did in the drama aside from being inexplicably loveable, and maybe their makeover moment. And, like you said, that character doesn’t bother me, so much as the fact that it’s the default female lead character.

      I’m so with you on pointlessly evil, bitchy second leads. They make no sense at all, and I hate that dramas waste their time with such a boring trope. I don’t need every other female character to be perfect, but at least let their actions make sense.

  • I think Park Shin Hye was amazing in Cyrano but oh, it was a movie. She was like an adult there and was quite smart and a Lil bit vicious as well.

    How about Min Joo in Hidden Identity? She’s sweet, buy not too sweet, cute but not too cute and very bad as a and believable. I think she is rocking the show.

    Oh, and Chae Young Shin in Healer. She wasn’t the typical candy character. She kicked ass and was ready to save her beau. She was very cute, but kicked ass like a miniature Schnauzer. Lol. And she dances like a pro.

    • Totally agree with you on Young Shin. She was very cute and likeable, but didn’t seem like a cardboard cutout Candy girl who got herself into trouble for no reason.

  • I’m under the impression that, apart from the overprotected, jealous mother of the guy, which is a worldwide phenomenon (and as old as time!), the female characters in k-dramas follow a certain cultural pattern. I fail to see any other logic in those bizarre actions and reasons behind them. No Candy in western series, tons of bi@@@y second female leads though, but I can still remember epic slaps and some hair pulling fights ( the most hilarious scenes in telenovelas!).
    The complete submission to the male lead, her endless patience with his mother and her -usual- insults and the whole “I’m an angel on Earth” personna seemed to me so weird and unrealistic . Though I have come to terms with that by now, I still feel it’s the Asian culture behind to what a good girl (therefore a strong candidate to be the male lead’s wife and mother to his legit children) is: a girl or a woman with high moral values equals to no talking back to the elders, no fighting back for her rights nor hair pulling fights with the second female lead.
    Bravo, for choosing this awesome subject for a panel discussion! Looking forward to reading the highlights! I wish you all the fun!!

  • How about the character of Young Ra in “Heard it through the Grapevine” (Baek Ji Yeon) A rookie actress, age 50 (!) she totally made that role her own. Watching her take down Daddy Han was always a treat.

    • Agree with you 100%. Almost every female character on that show was amazing; even the evil Secretary Yang was a treat to watch.

  • I’ve almost given up on kdramas and simply accepted that the writers hate women. Fortunately I found “Heard it through the grapevine”, “Misaeng”, Heart to heart, it’s okay that’s love, Queen in-house man in time.

    I end up liking the “always bitchy” second female leads and it worries me that there is no bromance for women in kdramas.

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