Smiling Girlfriends and Personality Draining in K-Drama Leading Ladies
I’ve noticed a pattern in K Dramas. In the early episodes we meet a spunky, driven young lady. She’s got a good heart and a golden dream. Suddenly her life is interrupted by the appearance of an arrogant man who has power over her. Maybe he is a prince à la “Goong”. Maybe he is a cutthroat corporate boss like in “Can Love Become Money”? No matter what, over the course of the series these two will fall in love and her personality fades away until she is his doting and devoted girlfriend/fiancée/wife. Sound familiar? I can’t be the only one who finds this zapping of personality disturbing.
Interestingly, K Dramas typically don’t follow the “Taming of the Shrew” plot wherein a badly-behaving woman is disciplined and brought under control by a domineering love interest. The female protagonist in a K Drama is portrayed as virtuous from the get go, just spunky with a take no crap attitude. Usually they don’t care much about their appearance or material goods. Even though it is often these aggressive or “unfeminine” qualities that cause the male lead to be attracted to them in the first place, the ladies become passive and submissive as soon as the attraction is established. Essentially, once the audience understands how the female lead is “different” from other girls she becomes the same.
My favorite (and by favorite I mean the saddest) is Seo Eun-Gi (Moon Chae-Won) in “The Innocent Man.” During the initial episodes she is an unintentionally brilliant feminist character. She spends her life learning the family business and becoming a savvy and brilliant businesswoman. More than once her quick actions save the company. Yet all she receives from those around her is discouragement. Constantly hanging over her head is the knowledge that one day she will be forced out of the company and into an arranged marriage. Her father is cruel to her and never appreciates her work.
Eun-Gi resents being put into a domestic prison. Despite her years of effort, her little brother will be the one reaping the benefits. It is understood that when he is old enough he will take over the company. No matter what Eun-Gi does she will be swept aside in favor of a man. She is angry and prickly, to a point where some audience members found her repulsive. But all her actions are understandable. She is fighting to be heard and taken seriously in a world that aggressively shuts out women. She fights her body in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Her debilitating illness confines her and so does her body, by virtue of it being female. Many Korean businesswomen and women all over the world are forced out of jobs and into marriage and motherhood by pressure at home and on the job.
However, by midway through the series Seo Eun-Gi is defanged. Due to brain damage she becomes incredibly pitiable. She relies on others for everything and can’t even spell her own name. Of course, the only thing she clearly recalls from before her accident is the name of her boyfriend, who is also the reason she acted recklessly and became injured. While brain damage is a reality, it saddened me to see yet another K Drama heroine become weak and dependent thanks to love.
Why does this happen so often? I suspect it is a mix of economy and patriarchal notions. As I mentioned earlier, once a lead’s “different-ness” is established, it never comes up again. K Dramas tend to suffer from lazy writing. They reuse plots, stretch episodes with flashbacks, have insane coincidences, etc. The goal of many K Dramas is for two characters to fall in love and for the mostly female audience to fall in love with the male lead. Often that means the development of the leading lady falls by the wayside.
That brings me to the other reason women tend to dissolve under the hand of love: patriarchal beliefs about relationships and women’s roles. As has been noted elsewhere, Korean expectations about romantic relationships are still very much colored by the Confucian ideal of marriage, which emphasizes duty and submission to one’s husband. It may be acceptable for a young, unmarried woman to be somewhat rebellious in modern Korea, but marriage is still an unbalanced act. As couples in K Dramas have idealized relationships, it is not surprising part of the “ideal” involves matching Confucian ideas. Like I previously noted an article about When A Man Loves K Drama audiences do not take well to women who desire more than a wealthy, handsome husband. Women in Korea are still under extreme pressure to settle down and get married, and it is no wonder that K Dramas reflect that. Like a lot of media, they are a form of wish fulfillment showing young girls what they “want” as defined by what society believes they should want.
There is promise for the future. The rise of cable TV as a significant force is starting to have an effect on Korean television tastes, just as cable affected Anglophone television in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. A wider variety of channels means a wider variety of stories being told. We here at Beyond Hallyu loved Answer Me 1997 (2012) which featured a young woman who continues her career and keeps her fiery temper even after marriage and two kids.