It is highly unlikely that you haven’t yet been smitten by, or at the least, gotten the sniff of Hallyu—the popularity of Korean culture which saw a boom in the 90s with the admission of Korean dramas in the mainstream media. These Korean dramas tread on the murky path of deconstructing masculinity in many ways, and concurrently, construct and reinforce gender roles and norms in innumerable representations of romance. While gender stereotypes and prejudices are rampantly portrayed in the series, there is a distinct deviation from gender binaries that some of the K-dramas are trying to produce by defying the generally accepted notions of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’.
The Non-Problematic Side
A discussion on the growing admiration for Korean dramas is necessary for understanding an essential shift in the consumption pattern of the audience. While for the longest time, the media space was hegemonized by western content, Hallyu opened a new avenue for Asian media to gain recognition. This move of developing preference and tolerance for non-American faces and Asian representations of culture and artistic thought, marks the beginning of opportunities for the historically sidelined artists. Especially, the manner in which women like Park Shin-Hye, Song Hye-Kyo, Jun Ji-Hyu, Park Min-Young and Ha Ji-Won have gained significant popularity and have been given the due recognition for their work, proves that there has been a readjustment of acceptance for non-western women artists.
The dramas tread on the murky path of deconstructing masculinity in many ways, and concurrently, construct and reinforce gender roles and norms in innumerable representations of romance.
In addition to departing from the western-centric approach to media, one also sees how K-dramas often offer a restructuring and deconstruction of masculinity and the ‘male’, which has been presented throughout mainstream media. With the known fact that male actors use make-up, they defy the categorically divided and gendered beauty industry. There is an appreciation and acceptance of the softer side of human temperament in men, as opposed to always portraying them as tough-rough nuts to crack who are guarded by a thick shell of indifference.
This ‘softer’ side is discovered either in minute ways of their relation to objects around them which are conventionally ‘cute’ and therefore, ‘feminine’, such as the use of pink objects or wearing headgears (Park Hyung-Sik in Strong Woman Do Bong-Soon or Song Seung-heon in Black in the amusement park scenes); or in allowing them to act emotional, hysterical, over-the-top and associating with them all adjectives which are typically attributed to women. This can be seen in the case of Chae Chi-soo in Healer, or Kang Nam-Gil’s character in Goong, who are given animated or flamboyant father personalities, a portrayal which is absent in the mainstream media. The body language and expressions are often such which violate the generic emotionally-incapable presentations of male characters.
A K-drama fanatic must be acquainted with the second-lead syndrome. However, apart from sympathising with the second lead and seeing it as a love-triangle plot, the concept of it sends a larger message of how unrequited love and rejection must be accepted and the consent of the other must be valued. Persistent tries for making the woman fall in love lead to futility and convey their unsuccessful nature in proposals.
Class conflict is a theme which some shows ultimately resort to by using the conventional poor girl-rich guy trope. However, in many K-dramas, a concept of ‘Candy Narratives’ is quite common, where the working class is portrayed as satisfied and proud, as opposed to merely being envious and ambitious for a rich lifestyle. Though some K-dramas glamorise the rich, many challenge them and the veil of arrogance behind it. In Coffee Prince, instead of making Go Run Chan fawn over the haughtiness of Choi Han Kyul, one sees how she smashes it instead for making him realise the importance of hard work, on which her life was built. This changes the representations of working-class women who are otherwise predominantly shown to be vulnerable, weak and desirous of a richer lifestyle.
K-dramas also deal with age difference romance and have a particular informal genre called Noona romances in which the woman is older than the man (the reverse of which are called Oppa/Ahjussi romances). These shows decimate the stigmatisation around older women dating young men and attain much admiration among their audience. They attempt to address issues of how older women are seen to be ‘manipulative’ ladies and emphasise on how it is a mutual and conscious choice made by their partner to be involved in the relationship. Some of the famous shows that tackle with the negative connotations of older-woman relations are I Need Romance 3 (which simultaneously shows women asserting their sexual needs), I Hear Your Voice, Something in the Rain, Angry Mom and Reply 1988, to name a few.
Upcoming K-dramas are trying to create powerful characters for women that do not rely on the conventional beauty constructions such as in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo, where the main lead does not undergo a “makeover transformation” in the end to suit the standards of pretty as set by the society. The kiss scenes are turning more mutually participatory by showing a movement towards the other from both the partners as in the kiss scenes of Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, and the relationships and their development are turning more egalitarian, as in The Descendants Of The Sun or Suspicious Partners. While there is an unprecedented dominance of misogyny in the shows, different media houses are trying to create work which defies the established patriarchal values of the Korean society, as seen in the case of My ID is Gangnam Beauty or a web series called It’s Okay To Be Sensitive, which addresses the issues of feminism and sexual harassment.
Recently, a show named Romance Is A Bonus Book created a different lens for viewing the life of an old, single-mother. Kang Dan-I, in one of the episodes, writes a letter to herself apologising for not finding the time to care for herself and for always worrying about others (her husband, her child, her mother) in the span of her lifetime. There is a powerful scene where she celebrates being called out by her name, instead of relational names that had formed her identity (being called a wife, mother, daughter, sister) till then. In addition to it, it conveys a strong message of sisterhood and women solidarity when Jeong Yoo-Jin plays a supportive character, as opposed to a villainous woman conspiring against her colleague for falling in love with the same man.
A discussion of this dual nature of K-dramas is not a justification for the male-chauvinism or a call for acceptance/appreciation of them thereof. What matters is being aware of the impact of the gender values that are advocated by Korean dramas and making a conscious effort to decipher the toxic from the un-toxic material of the shows
The Problematic Side
Much has been said and written about the discriminatory impressions of women in Korean, and in extension, Asian dramas. The shows mentioned above do not escape the patriarchal values they subscribe to as well. Though the mentioned practices in representations of gender identities are trying to make a move away from misogynistic values, there are several mannerisms in which sexism still guides a major chunk of gender portrayals.
One finds them in the constant wrist grabs and being dragged away by men (Lee Shin in Goong), romanticisation of forced kisses (Lee Jae-Hee in When A Man Falls In Love), toxic possessive boyfriends (Kim Tan in Heirs), assertive women turning submissive under the aggressive and domineering male characters (Geum Jan-di in Boys Over Flowers), reinforcement of beauty ideals and standards (She Was Pretty, Birth of a Beauty), and the relentless pursuit of love interest by men despite a clear no (Kim Joo-won in Secret Garden). Added to this, a woman is often depicted as an indecisive character who is clumsy and incapable of coming to a firm decision and putting up a confident front. Damsel in distress is a done to death portrait which is still very much alive in the dramas and gender binaries govern the storyline.
Thus, one sees how Korean dramas perpetuate a liberating-suffocating nature of gender ideals and representation. A discussion of this dual nature of K-dramas is not a justification for the male-chauvinism or a call for acceptance/appreciation of them thereof. What matters is being aware of the impact of the gender values that are advocated by Korean dramas and making a conscious effort to decipher the toxic from the un-toxic material of the shows to avoid the widespread continuance and replication of the asymmetrical power divides between men and women in both the private and public spheres depicted in media. Cognisance of this duality would ensure that the audience (especially, the younger women) does not consume the content without tracing the ideas and concepts that guide the representations.
Featured Image Source: Whatakdrama