On a usual day, I was watching a fairly new Korean drama released in 2017, wherein two childhood friends, who have just started dating, decide to go on their first official date. When the woman steps out of the home in a dress, her friend-turned-boyfriend asks her to “change into pants” to cover her legs because he might “spin kick guys” looking at them.
After opposing to it in a cutesy manner (while the romantic background score plays), the woman gives in. The whole set up and the soft music playing suggests that the exchange between them is intended to come across as adorable.
Although the scene featured the k-drama prodigy Park Seo-joon (one of my favourites), I couldn’t turn blind to how controlling behaviour is glamourised in these immensely lionised South Korean television series. As a fellow avid k-drama fan, I admit it’s difficult to wear this lens of criticism but it must be done.
In the same show, Fight My Way, the second-lead couple gets into a fight after the woman is forcefully kissed. The man here blames her “wearing a short dress to get attention” which, according to him, led to the act. How does victim blaming makes the situation better here?
For the uninitiated, the recent dramas are considered among the most-progressive ones featuring independent women as well as non-conventional ‘masculine’ men. Despite that certain k-dramas still haven’t totally shed the archaic idea of a man ‘protecting’ (read that controlling) the woman, even the ones denying the service.
Is the old still gold?
The Korean classic drama Boys Over Flowers, starring the celebrated actor Lee Min-ho, often recommended to the ones newly entering the k-drama world, showcases the typical case of toxic masculinity. The immensely popular trope in these shows are the rich brats who fall for the girl who belongs to a humble socio-economic background. This high-rated series features a similar couple, where the lead Gu Jun-pyo, elite spoiled boy, bullies the new kid in the school Geum Jan-di.
When the girl stands up against him, stunningly, the boy decides that the former is ‘madly’ in love with him. Gradually, he makes every effort (in his own problematic way) to win her. From abducting Jan-di to transform her into a ‘girly girl’ to forcibly kissing her, the male lead does it all except asking for her consent.
Eventually, much like other k-dramas, the destined couple fall in love with each other. One fine day, Gu Jun-pyo abandons the love of his life and provides her no explanation. The male lead in the series is undoubtedly controlling to an extent where he believes that he has the authority to decide who is ‘allowed’ to date the woman, if not him.
Although, the said series released a decade ago we cannot ignore that fact that it’s still popular among k-drama fans, which majorly ranges from 16-25 year old females. Young girls fantasise about these ‘Oppas’, while internalised sexism is sold in a glittery packaging labelled ‘romantic’.
If we dig into the old-time shows, especially the romance genre, we will find piles of titles which are noticeably problematic when it comes to the portrayal of relationships. Dating abuse could be commonly witnessed, although, the romantic music and visually appealing cinematography tries to pass it as all lovey-dovey.
Dragging a girl by her hand, pressing her up against a wall, barging into her house or commanding her are extremely usual, unfortunately till now. The disrespectful men in k-dramas makes these old show almost unwatchable.
At times, the toxic behaviour is justified with a traumatic background story which led the man to perform the clearly unacceptable deeds. Fortunately, the rich trope is on an extinct sparing space for men who are supportive, caring yet aware of boundaries. In the drama Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo, the female lead plays the role of an athlete who didn’t go through a ‘feminine’ transformation after bumping into the male-lead. And the latter doesn’t resort to any forcing or commanding to mark his territory.
What makes the ‘perfect’ female lead?
Primarily, the damsel-in-distress trope is alive in k-dramas till date, wherein the woman in some way or the other has to be dependent on the male-lead to save the day. No matter how modern the storyline, as soon as the woman becomes the love interest of the lead, she is pulled to an ‘inferior’ level where all her problems have one solution- the man.
Often times, even a strong and independent female character is turned a little submissive when the man enters her life. Besides that, what is commonly seen is the transformation that a woman goes through appearance wise. The dramas which intend to defy the feminine stereotypes end up modifying the woman to make her ‘eye-pleasing’. The series She Was Pretty leads on with a similar idea as the protagonist, who is ashamed of her looks, decides to introduce her attractive best-friend to her first-love instead of herself.
Eventually, the main lead who has been mistreating her all along (unaware of her identity) starts to develop feelings for her. What’s interesting here is the girl now transforms into a prettier version of herself, which makes the drama miss the whole point.
Additionally, the woman characters are moulded in a way that accept the man’s bad-temper and abusive behaviour to finally change him into a better person. The unhealthy nature of these relationships is justified in the few ending episode where the man is now a paragon of virtue, thanks to the woman’s love.
However, a selective yet truly progressive dramas such as Itaewon Class and Start-up have created a separate trope of women leading in all manner. Gender-equality has brought balance in the new-age Korean dramas as they put the spotlight on strong and independent female leads, who aren’t waiting for their knight shinning armour.
What hooks the k-drama fan?
Gorgeous actors, beautiful cinematography, engaging cliffhangers and delicious food— are a few factors to be named. Although, the previous Korean dramas hooked the audience with the slow-motion scenes and unrealistically romantic plots, the changing times has broaden the requirements of the viewers now. The Korean drama shows have gone through major visible transformation and are being praised for the same.
Despite the sea of cliches in k-drama, we cannot deny that the gripping narratives and captivating performances keep the fans glued to the screen. Unlike the earliest Korean series, the current format shows women taking charge, being supportive of other women (Search WWW) and a gender inclusive environment.
Not only is the Korean content space making way for powerful female characters but also the queer community or at least making efforts to do so. To mention a recent instance, Itaewon Class included a transgender character played by Lee Jo-young. The Netflix show shot to highest-ratings in no time, which suggests that the k-drama viewers in the homeland as well as globally embracing gender-inclusivity and queer representation.
Featured Image: Pinterest/ Viu. Views expressed are author’s own