The Pressure to ‘Be Pure’ in Korean Dramas
How many dramas have you seen that stars a woman in her 20s (often her late 20s) who has never been kissed and has never fallen in love? This happens frequently in dramas and I am sure I am not the only one that it strikes as odd. Let’s be honest, that is not a scenario that mirrors the vast majority of people’s lives, but it seems to be the case for many drama leads. What makes it more interesting, or perhaps disturbing, is that the same is not true for male leads.
Male leads often contrast with female leads in every way, including sexuality. While the women are highly chaste the men are womanizers. They flirt, drink with women at clubs, and “go to hotels” with women on a regular basis. These women they “meet” with are barely characters, usually going without a name. They melt away almost as soon as they appear. Never are they the one you root for.
There is a clear and disturbing dichotomy here. Sexually-active men are attractive and they are subjects. They have feelings, development, conflict, and a strong voice in the drama. The audience cheers for them and feels their pain. Sexually-active women are background objects. They are there to decorate a scene in order to show the male lead’s womanizing ways. At best they are obstacles, trying to prevent the leads from getting together. This means men are allowed to be sexually-active and likable while women are not.
The idea of “man who has sex = good, woman who has sex = bad” is an essential sign of a patriarchal society, or one in which men have the vast majority of power. The media idealizes very chaste women. They are the ones who get to be with attractive male leads. The message is simple: chastity is a necessary characteristic for a woman, counted along kindness and a strong work ethic. Being sexually active is to lack an essential part of what makes a woman attractive. While Korean society tends to be more sexually conservative than Western ones, it is by no mean to the extent television would have you believe. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality’s entry on South Korea notes that in 1996 almost half of Korean girls reported having been in a relationship by the time they graduated high school, a percentage which has only increased with time. In the same year 16.7% of teens were sexually active. Although this should be read along with another part of the study which found that 61.1% of single adult women reported never experiencing sexual urges.
The erasure of sexual activity comes from its prohibition. Korean society is changing. People are marrying later and increasingly marrying for love. They are having more sex outside of marriage. However traditional values dictate that sexual activity before marriage is wrong. This has led to a great tension in Korean society. As the study demonstrates:
Around 80 percent [of individuals responding to the study] were concerned about what they viewed as the current open and uncontrolled sexual culture. On the other hand, 61 percent agreed that Korea’s sexual culture is repressed. The usual double moral standard, which is more permissive for males than for females, is more complicated in modern Korea, where premarital sexual experiences and sexual liberation are increasingly accepted, while at the same time, the traditional value of female virginity and sexual passivity is expected in a very patriarchal society. The result, obviously, is psychological stress more for women than for men.
Because of this ambivalence and television censorship it is easier for dramas to maintain the status quo of uneven treatment of sexuality between the sexes. While there is nothing wrong with abstaining from sexual activity until marriage, that shouldn’t be the only option people have. When dramas show that sexually-active women have no happy endings they are sending a very strong message and propagating unreal expectations. Unlike what you see in dramas, not every woman wants to wait until she gets married and not every woman wants to be a wife. Korea is known for blocking women from job promotions and even firing women once they get married. This puts many women in an untenable position. Women are told they can’t have intimate relationships without marriage and they can’t have the career they want if they are married. That is an incredibly difficult position to be put in. The fact the media lauds men who are sexuality active adds another layer of difficulty. Men are allowed freedom in both the personal and public spheres that women are not. That is a sexist double standard.
Dramas are a business. They will always show whatever is in demand. However I doubt very much that there is no room for a greater variation in what romantic relationships are shown. 2012’s diverse set of dramas made it clear that there is room for innovation without sacrificing financial success. Also, many successful Korean films have strong sexual themes such as “The King and the Clown” (2005), and “The Housemaid” (2010).
Though television has to contend with some serious censorship that films do not, there is still a tendency whitewash out sexuality. However, the surprise hit “Reply 1997” frankly portrayed a couple who cohabitates and conceives before getting married. So who’s to say there isn’t room for a wider variety of relationships in TV dramas?
Should K-Dramas show more diversity in their portrayal of female leads and romatic relationships? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
This is part of a series of articles about gender in Korean entertainment and society.