Smart People Talk About Korean Dramas: Regina Yung Lee

At KCON 2015 in LA, we had the pleasure of sharing a panel discussion on “Women in K-drama” with Regina Yung Lee, a lecturer in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. We caught up with Regina to delve into her love of K-dramas.

How did you get into K-dramas, and what attracted you to them?

I had already been active in some English-language fandoms around Japanese and American media texts, and somehow got wind of this little-known Korean show named “Coffee Prince”. It was pretty much game over then.

The website, Dramabeans really helped me get into K-dramas. I found the blog in the early days of my addiction, when I was still a student. So, I think it’s fair to say that blogs and recaps influenced my attraction and lasting interest in K-dramas at least as much as the K-dramas themselves.

What kind of influence do your areas of study have on your view of K-dramas?

Well, it’s stopped me from watching some of them. I had to stop with “Secret Garden”, because there were several instances of outright assault, which the show framed as romantic (the music, the flashbacks, etc.), even when the situation clearly wasn’t. That’s what structural violence looks like in action. So I quit.

Secret Garden wrist grab

However, my work on feminist theory and media cultures has also made watching K-dramas really pleasurable and fun. I enjoy seeing a great camera angle, or a fantastic writer turning a good plot, which my training enables me to see from a technical perspective.

It’s also fun being able to, for example, spot how something like a noona romance upends gender norms through social conventions about age and respect, or how supernatural fantasies provide ways out of the constrictive roleplay required of women in these shows.

Are K-dramas a guilty pleasure for you as a feminist?

I don’t think of them that way. Feminism is one of the major frameworks I use to engage with the world around me, and that includes my media consumption. There’s plenty in K-dramas to discuss and analyze from feminist points of view, for a variety of purposes, in many different venues. If nothing else, there will always be something I can use as a starting point with my students. It’s a great place to start discussions on many of the ideas that fuel my research.

How are K-dramas different than female driven narratives in North American television?

I do think that both genres garner a lot of scorn through their association with stereotypical femininity. That is, people feel like they can be dismissive of things like K-dramas and soaps, because they are “for women.” This demonstrates the lingering presence of actual misogyny in current media cultures – when “for women” still means “vapid” or “ignorable” or “less than” in everyday language and life.

I will say, though, that watching Jessica, the female lead of “Fresh Off the Boat”, navigate the rough straits of a new culture (the family moves from a thriving Asian community in D.C. to a predominantly white suburb in Florida) made me see how often the show played her obdurate refusal to assimilate for comedy, yet made her abrasiveness a mark of her actual greatness. The show didn’t punish her for daring to defend her own choices to her family, even as it showed that those choices weren’t always great. It respected her decisions and gave her nuance. Frankly, all shows from everywhere could stand to do more of that.

What was the last K-drama you watched, and did you enjoy it?

I just finished watching “Modern Farmer”. I went in with zero expectations, just thinking the setup sounded funny, and it turned out to be this sustained meditation on family structures, rural-urban tensions, and what it means to succeed. And, of course, endless ramen, inventive uses for cabbage, and pee jokes in every direction, including a disgusting (but hilarious) winner for best reenactment of a romantic moment.

Modern Farmer


Find out more about Regina and her work at her website.

2 Comments

  • A great interview! Given that K-dramas are so widespread across the world, there are still too few academics interested in thinking about them. Perhaps because they’re aimed at women? But the Korean women who write these shows are working hard to figure out what kind of values people want to see in our stories in the twenty-first century. Go Dr. Lee and thanks Noonas!

  • First time commenting. I must say that I appreciate this interview. I do enjoy K-dramas but there are certain portrayals that are extremely troubling. My pet peeve is that certain K-drama writers are so lauded but their work is misogynistic, the case for me is the writer of Secret Garden, Heirs, A Gentleman’s Dignity. These dramas all left a sour taste in my mouth because of how the female leads were written and their interactions with the “hero”. I haven’t seen any of her older work, the lovers, and I am hesistant about her new revenge drama. But she is not the only writer guilty of this. I only single her out, because her work is very popular but I find the quality and content dubious.

Leave a Reply