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.

another secret garden

Don’t they look happy? Never mind all the stalking.

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.

the innocent man 2

This photo is one of the few clues Eun-Gi has about her past.

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.

answer me 1997

Shi-Won is still not taking any of your crap.

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.

  • Orion

    Thank you for this piece. This really needs to be said. Out of the series I am watching lately, (only one of them being rom-com), the women in two of them are relying on the leading man to pretty much save their life and sanity. The leading female in another one is shown as a hysteric, overly emotional person who can’t decide between being a melodrama-vessel and a capable prosecutor. Only one of them has a normal everyday woman who is also not revolving around a man (which will happen soon to her as well).

    Strong, self-reliant, interesting female characters in kdrama are rarely the female leads and rarely stay like that until the end. They are either killed, “tamed” or turn evil. When they are tamed or turn evil, it’s due to a man and how love twists their womanly weak feelings, as if their brain shuts down in the presence of a man. It’s basically telling women that romance means you have to give up on yourself and that, in order to get a hot man, you need to sacrifice your character, desires, career and even agency.

    As you say here, this industry is still a business run by older rich men. And you can see that in what they choose to give timeslots to and what they expect of drama makers. Raging sexism and the frequent neglect of female characters in kdrama is a reality and a very sad one. It’s also a reality in Korean society.

    Cable is a hope, yes, but the more popular it gets, the more it might fall into the same standards that bring in the money. What I mean is, ‘Vampire Prosecutor’ did good, but it had an angsty hero who kept saving his female romantic interest’s life. Sure, she is much better than what we get in rom-com, but she is still being turned into “his woman” and becoming defined by that more and more, instead of her own virtues. ‘Who Are You’ has a female lead who is strong considering her circumstances, but they keep using her as a punching bag for ghosts and villains, turning the leading man into a protector and savior. She is turned into a useless cop and damsel in distress to highlight the hotness and heroism of the male lead. So frankly, I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. Proper female leads are still a rarity in drama, in some genres more than others and unless the industry’s power shifts to the hands of those who want to correct that, things won’t change as easily. It will be slow. Just like the change in society.

    • whateverwha

      Yeah…it’s crazy how every single (or most) of rom-com Kdramas are about a young, rich and hansome (arrogant or immature) man dating a working-class woman. As if love was just about social status, looks and money, what about personality, compatibility and respect? Building a healthy relationship? Men in dramas mostly fall in love with women because they’re weak, poor or victims or don’t fall easily for them (chaebols love challenge lol). They just want to protect them, that’s it…and women are easily impressed by a rich handsome dude kissing them without their consent and who makes fun of them.

      • Orion

        I had quite a big discussion on this about some of the latest romantic dramas and my issues with them and yes, despite the cultural differences which do play a role in what Koreans view as feminism and what we do, I can’t really feel that argument is solid enough to defend sexism in kdrama, since Korean movies have some very decent female leads that are all types of people with all types of relationships, clearly showing that kdrama is not simply as is due to “what Korean society is like”. There are clearly those who want to write and see stronger and more developed female characters, so kdramas don’t have that excuse, as far as I’m concerned.

        And some good Korean rom-com movies don’t adhere to these stereotypes either. So I think the medium’s lust for ratings and the proof they have of the current model’s success, since these things inevitably sell when nothing else is on offer, are the main reason why Korean drama remains so limited. The fact that those standards are quite sexist (by what I feel are global standards of feminism in most modern countries) might not be the intention, but it is something I can’t really deny when I personally see it.

        • whateverwha

          I wasn’t talking about movies, I’ve only seen 3 or 4 them anyway. (off-topic: I’m waiting for Snowpiercer’s release in my country and Pluto’s eng subs!! :D)

          I agree that some Kdramas do have good female leads. I’m sure there are counter-examples to what I said, like “I Do I Do” maybe, the female lead didn’t fall for him at first and even had contempt for him, even if previously they had sex and kissed. She wanted to be a single mom and I respect the writer for having this perspective on TV, despite his/her choice of the conventional happy end. Her dilemma about giving birth or not was cool too, though it could have been more interesting.

  • Angela Parsons

    This happens way too often, it’s annoying and i feel bad for watching the drama despite being a woman. However, one exception i found recently is in I hear your voice where the female lead maintains her feminist personality and acts like she doesnt need the man but of course ultimately she does need him… it is the nearest i’ve found to a leading lady keeping her awesomeness

    • Orion

      I’ll keep saying it until people are sick of me, but Yeochi from ‘History of the Salaryman’ was her awesome self from start to finish. She accepted support, but never gave up on trying to solve things herself. She actually grew more and more into a proper self-reliant woman as the series advanced, instead of becoming dependent on the male lead and letting romance govern her life. She accepted his support, but gave plenty back and only her bad character traits changed into a more understanding and balanced person.

      There are a few, but as you say, very few. I’ll have to watch ‘I Hear Your Voice’, because everyone is saying the lady there is another rare example.

      • whateverwha

        “I hear Your Voice” is good but overrated in my opinion. I didn’t finish it.

        • Orion

          A bigger focus on the female character than the male is what most romance shows lack. They’re for a female audience, so the female character is only a prop for the male one, as much as writers try to keep the balance. I am fine with not letting the female character take up more “space” than the male one, it’s equality I want. Both characters developing by themselves and with the support of their mate, not for their mate.

          There are very few series which develop their female characters well and even fewer series where I can say “It’s a series starring Female_Lead and Male_Lead or Male_Lead and Female_Lead”, instead of the male lead being the clear protagonist. And even getting that does not guarantee a fair approach to her. Getting the focus on them both instead of mainly the man and proper development for the female lead is extra rare.

          At least by what I consider to be focus and development.

          • whateverwha

            I agree with the need for a balance between both characters.

        • StarfishieT

          I really enjoyed ‘I Hear Your Voice’ but I understand where you’re coming from.

          History of a Salaryman– I didn’t watch it yet but fell in love with Jung Ryeo Won’s acting in ‘The King of Dramas.’ I really loved the character she played there, Lee Go Eun. Thankfully she retained at least some of that ”take no shit from anyone”- attitude throughout the whole of that particular series and proved just as important as the male lead when it came to resolving sticky situations. I also think she actually keeps her job after falling in love, although it’s been a while since I’ve seen the drama.

    • Seti Tesefay

      I think this is one the reasons why I skip or stop watching the last couple episodes when it becomes about getting the two leads together instead of character development. The first couple of episodes in K-dramas are my favorite, because of the comedy and the strong-willness of most of the leading ladies. Then mid-way through it gets boring.

  • Orgil Khatanbaatar

    “Can’t lose” starring Choi Ji Woo portrays strong female lead