The Behind the Scenes Gender Divide in K-Dramas

Lots of time and attention is given to the stars of K Dramas, but rarely is the spotlight shone on those working behind the scenes. Screenwriters and directors are equally important to a drama’s success (or failure) but are largely ignored. So I set off to answer the question every flustered drama fan has asked: “Who made this thing?!”

kim eun sook

Unsurprisingly, as I began to research, a clear gender divide between directors and screenwriters became clear. Screenwriters are mostly women and directors are overwhelmingly men.

I compiled a list of 40 dramas that appeared within the last three years on Korea’s three main stations: SBS, KBS, and MBC and tried to confirm the name and gender identity of each director and main screenwriter. This proved to be more difficult to find in English than I would have hoped. I mostly had to rely on French fan site Nautlijon and Korea’s Nate. Three dramas got removed from my list because of lack of information. You can see the full list here.

34 out of 41 total screenwriters were women and seven were men. Out of 50 directors and assistant directors on the list only one, Lee Na-Jeong, is a woman. Lee worked as the assistant director on KBS’s 2011 smash hit “The Innocent Man.”

drama gender

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the gender divide. These same patterns apply in the West.  Especially during the “golden age of Hollywood” of the 40s and 50s many women were successful screenwriters  while simultaneously completely shut out of directing.

To date, only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards (with the first nomination coming only in 2003 for “Lost in Translation.”) However many classic films nominated for the Academy Film for Best Original Screenplay have been written in full or in party by women. These include “Singing in the Rain” (Betty Comden), “Adam’s Rib” (Ruth Gordon), “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (Maguerite Duras) and “That Man From Rio” (Ariane Mnouchkine).

"The Innocent Man" was the only show to have a female director

“The Innocent Man” was the only show to have a female director

Women working in Korea’s entertainment history have the same lot. Plenty of women write dramas, very few direct. However the picture isn’t as sunny as it may appear. For the most part, lady screenwriters are working on romantic comedies and melodramas. While these may be popular, they are still regarded as “low brow.” These dramas are for the most part not going to be “classics” of Korean film. None of the top 10 highest grossing domestic Korean films were written or directed by women. While women write for the “lesser art” of television they are shut out of cinema entirely.

However, what may be the most interesting (and concerning) part is that despite women making up a considerable majority in the silver-screenwriting business, lady screenwriters are overwhelmingly producing anti-feminist or at least problematic shows. I would think at least some screenwriters, especially veterans with (assumedly) a good amount of pull in the industry would be able to add feminist characters or themes into their stories. However, this doesn’t seem to be true. This year’s hit Master’s Sun was written by the Hong Sisters, two of the biggest names in Korean television. Yet the female lead spends a great deal of time begging for the attention of the cruel businessman she eventually ends up with.

Undeniably, part of it is ratings. It is common for writers to get a cut of the profits. The larger the profits the larger their cut will be. The sad fact is shows that play into the status quo tend to get bigger ratings. However it is still disappointing to know that anti-feminist stories are still favored even in an industry mostly headed by women.

Are you surprised by these outcomes? How do you think this affects K-Dramas? Let us know in the comments!

  • Mystisith

    I think that there is multiple factors for that sad situation:

    – About the writers: Simply put, their mentality and awareness of the sexism problem is the same as the rest of the SK population. They are not enlightened sentinels thinking outside the box. If you add to that the “copy and paste” way of writing, this is what you get.

    – About the viewers: The ahjumma who’s ironing shirts or the tired schoolgirl who watch dramas want to be entertained, comforted and that’s it. They don’t watch dramas for the political or social aspect: They just don’t come for that and they don’t want to be “lectured”. They don’t expect that dramas will change the world/their life either… Strangely, that attitude changes if you consider movies. Maybe the fact that you have to pay for your ticket gives value to a message?

    – About the channels: There is an aversion to risk. Trying something new and challenging is seen as a risk for the ratings and the decision makers (sponsors, producers…) prefer sticking to the good old formula. It’s a tiny little better on cable but not that much.

    • regina_filange

      being a feminist show does not mean it has to lecture you about feminism or social justice or whatever, it just has to have vairous types of female characters and non problematic relationships/ plot situations. i doubt a viewer, given a good show, will give a crap. they might actually welcome the change of pace. and i think the reason we wont see that for a while isnt because it doesnt sell but more because of the institutionalized sexism and large ammount of males that are not going to fund a show that doesnt marginalize females or show an oversimplified idealized view of a female, whether they are doing it purposefully or not. but it will change as the population changes, as you have said. i jst think its important for media to be bit more progressive then the actual public and show progressive things in order to get the public to think crtically about their situation- i doubt these writers arent enlightened enough to see it; given the sheer amount of female writers a few of them probably are feminists and want to write feminist shows.

  • Orion

    Agreed with Mysti and I just wanted to add that, the fact that we don’t see feminism as we view it does not mean it’s not there, in some form.

    I am sure some of the women doing the writing believe they are feminist, because by Korean (still very disappointing) standards, they think they’re doing well enough. The Hongs, I don’t think they’re such. They’ve been around enough to educate themselves and they have clearly shown signs they can write strong females in the past. So I can’t find an excuse for them. That said, making money is a strong motivator. If you know you only stand a chance if you comply, you comply.

    Because we also have to consider what channels allow. Would a feminist with a poignant series be taken seriously by those making the decisions? Who are probably mostly rich men? In Korea? For all we know, men and women have tried doing better and saying beautiful things, but would really good quality series be given a chance in such an industry? I doubt they’d get time slots. For the reasons Mysti mentioned. And you can tell what some producers and channels think about their viewers through the shows. It’s a sad reality, but the shows that are made are made with a dated view of society, love, life and people. Because it is assumed that is what viewers really want.

    They have made this medium into fluff. They keep it soapy and silly because they have trained the viewers to only want that and in turn attract more such viewers. As Mysti said, a movie is shorter and costs more. Dramas are just there. So people don’t seem to even consider the possibility of them being something beyond light brainless entertainment. And those making the decisions certainly don’t seem to view them as anything but a paycheck. They think the current model makes good money and are not willing to try a new one.

    I believe Korean drama is a case of viewers and big-shots not letting a medium grow, keeping good creators out or dragging those with potential down to their level through money. And until viewers demand and big-shots understand, it won’t change.

  • Terri

    I’d first like to say that feminism varies from country to country, and each has its own agenda, etc. I’m not actually sure what are the hopes and desires of the feminist movement in South Korea. (Do you have an article on this?)

    I will say I was not surprised with the percentage of directors, but I was surprised with the amount of writers – honestly, I thought there would be a few more men writing dramas in South Korea.

    Honestly, I like the Hong sisters plots (I have only seen three of their dramas) but I have grown to hate their female protagonists.

    It was fine and understandable for Mi Ho in ‘My Girlfriend is a Gumiho’ to be so naive, and to make mistakes in the world. It was less so for Go Mi Nam, a nun, in ‘You’re Beautiful’ (I really disliked the character).

    But I could not forgive the naive, bumbling female protagonist (the same as Mi Ho and Go Mi Nam! Seriously, they’re all so similar!) in Hong Gil Dong – whe first introduced, she was a good fighter, and a travelled girl. IAs soon as romance started to develop, she was clumsy. And as soon as she encountered the prince in hiding, she was stupidly good natured and unsuspicious. It does not match with her life experience, and her character at the beginning (and it could hardly be called character development).
    Sorry for the little rant, but it irks me that they have not created better female protagonists (I love Mi Ho, but that’s because it all made sense); their recycling of the female character does not work for all their dramas and I wish they’d fix it.

    Sorry about the rant ^^;

  • toak

    Hancinema is a good source for finding the gender of people working on dramas. Click on a drama and click on a name and you will find the gender. There have been female directors of some shows in the last years, not only assistant, and some have been hits. Also female screenwriters write all sorts of dramas, not only romances- most of the action dramas are also written by female screenwriters. Of course they generally write the few truly great dramas as well, like Reply 1997. Hopefully the good ones can push some of the tired men out of the director’s chair.

    Actually last year was great for female movie directors, relatively speaking. They are not completely shut out compared to the rest of the world. When I say that it’s still pretty bad looking at the percentages. But compared to Hollywood, last year had more Korean female directors directing big hit movies: Two blockbuster examples: Helpless, 화차, directed by Byeon Yeong-joo and Suspect X by Bang Eun-jin. Both thrilllers, traditionally a male-oriented genre.

  • Krystal

    You’ve done a lot of work! It’s useful to have numbers on hand.

    While watching dramas, I also try to be a bit critical and question how characters–women in particular–are portrayed. Recently, I’ve been thinking about Kim Eun Suk’s dramas. I saw Secret Garden first, and now there’s Heirs, and I just finished marathoning A Gentleman’s Dignity, which I mostly enjoyed except for the fact that the lead heroine is continually disempowered/undermined by all the male characters “helping.” I don’t feel like it would have taken much to give her more agency while keeping her essential character, and I would have enjoyed the drama a loooot more.

    If I could just defend The Master’s Sun a bit:

    “…the female lead spends a great deal of time begging for the attention of the cruel businessman she eventually ends up with.”

    This is true on a surface level, but it’s not really Joong Won’s attention Gong Shil is seeking so much as shelter from ghosts (and thereby peace enough to sleep). That makes her motivations very much practical. Like learning how to cook so you can eat.

    Feminism by itself is a vague term that different people define differently. With that in mind, I would say that, for me, The Master’s Sun actually makes progress toward a more ideal female figure, because Gong Shil prioritizes her relationship with herself over her relationships with others–Joong Won especially.

    [SPOILERS: In the end, she leaves because she knows she doesn’t like herself or her ability to see ghosts, and she doesn’t want to enter into a relationship in that state. She wants to make peace with herself and get to the point where she doesn’t need Joong Won as shelter. At the same time, she doesn’t ask Joong Won to wait for her, which I think gives her decision more weight.]

  • shi suisen

    I’ve always thought the lack of feminist characters or theme is due to the broadcast stations that are always swayed by the audiences’ opinions, thus limiting the screenwriters from exploring more. No matter what, in the end of the day, it is still the broadcast stations that have the most power and say in the matter.

    In defence to The Master’s Sun though, while it’s true that the female lead tried to get the attention of the male lead, she did that just so that she could live more normally as he happened to be the only one who could dispel her ability, albeit temporarily. Additionally, during the near end of the drama, she chose to leave him not because she’s too in love with him or opposition from anyone, but rather, she left because she herself wanted to. Even though the male lead was more than willing to be with her and deal with everything, she herself hated that. She wanted to understand herself, to be more independent, so that she could come back to him, being confident and sure of herself.

    I find that quite admirable and quite feminist (well, it’s pretty progressive for a Korean rom com drama). Instead of just accepting her situation and live and depend on the love of her life, she herself wanted to stand on a more equal grounds with him. Only then their relationship would work.