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.
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.
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?
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?