K-dramas or Korean dramas, television series that originated in South Korea, are on everyone’s watchlists these days! With brilliant aesthetics, beautiful cinematography, gorgeous and talented actors and a multitude of different kinds of plots, it is easy to understand why everybody is currently obsessing over them. Although seemingly dismissible, a closer look will reveal that they offer a lot to unpack, including the predominant female gaze that is prevalent in most of them.
What is the Female Gaze?
The female gaze is a response to the male gaze, a term that was first coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. The male gaze is present aplenty. Simply put, it is the objectifying portrayal of female characters, most evident in television or cinema from the way the camera always seems to train on the bodily features of the female characters with a distinct leering gaze. Under the male gaze, the sexual appeal of the female characters is the key point of her appeal. The male gaze inevitably caters to the male viewer and forces all others in the audience to be subjected to the same. The female gaze, on the other hand, puts the onus of the perspective on the female character, maker and audience. The female character is then viewed as an active participant instead of a passive subject that is deliberately picked apart for male gratification.
The Female Gaze in K-dramas
K-dramas are often known, and even praised for their modest nature, especially compared to the American TV shows which are much more explicit. In K-dramas, the focus is more on the realization and development of the feelings involved, especially on part of the female characters. In some cases, like in the 2019 K-drama Search: WWW and Be Melodramatic, romance is not even the main focus. However, there is no aggressive denial of it either.
Emotions and romantic feelings are not dismissed to reinforce them as weaknesses coming in the way of the female lead’s robustness but are rather shown as a natural reaction, where falling in love is definitely a part of the story, but is not the entirety of it. On the other hand, there are cloyingly sweet romantic K-dramas with dreamy male leads as well. In Her Private Life (2019), the female lead Sung Deok-mi is a dedicated, “professional” fangirl. Contrary to popular belief, her partner Ryan Gold, is supportive of her fangirling endeavors. Where much of the notion surrounding fangirls is excessively negative, especially by male peers, this is quite a refreshing take.
Even in the more explicit scenes, tenderness is what reigns supreme in K-dramas. The camera focuses more on the actors’ faces, the highlight being their expressions rather than their bodies. This is in direct contrast to the dominant perspective where the female character’s body is usually the pivot for the scene, filmed with a voyeuristic bent to cater to the leering male gaze. Sexual tension depicted in K-dramas is through lingering gazes and shy touches- there is hunger, but not of the kind that makes the female audience feel violated but rather acts as a testament to female desire. Physical intimacy is present but takes a backseat to the emotional journey, that is more often than not, incredibly nuanced.
Take, for example, Nevertheless (2021), which is undoubtedly one of the most explicit K-dramas as far as showing physical intimacy goes. However, the sheer tenderness of the cinematography, coupled with the intimate storytelling from the female lead, Nabi’s perspective, makes the series more relatable. The silent tension and lingering gazes between Jae-on (the male lead) and Nabi culminate into tender lovemaking as the camera lovingly focuses the audience’s gaze on both the characters.
K-dramas also highlight female friendships and the strength of the solidarity that is gained from them. And the female gaze through which they are portrayed, makes them relatable and enjoyable to watch. In the superhit drama Crash Landing On You, Yoon Se-ri’s whirlwind (quite literally) romance with a North Korean soldier is at the center of the series but her friendship with the women of a small North Korean village remains one of the most memorable components of the drama.
A primary proponent of the male gaze is undoubtedly those who are behind the camera and it is no secret that it is incredibly male-dominated in most industries. The K-drama industry, however, features a large number of women working on the scripts and stories for these dramas. In fact, most popular K-dramas have female screenwriters helming their plots (Hotel del Luna by the Hong Sisters, While You Were Sleeping by Park Hye-ryun, Goblin by Kim Eun-suk, to name a few), and it is perhaps why the female gaze is so well-represented in them.
However, it is important to remember that K-dramas originate in South Korea, which continues to have a supremely patriarchal society. The reflection of this is evident in many of the negative stereotypes about women that are still perpetrated through K-dramas. Moreover, the female gaze in K-dramas has also been largely confined to heterosexual cis-gendered women, although there have been efforts made towards more inclusive representation in recent years. At the end of it all, K-dramas are definitely worth the hype they are getting. While they are often dismissed as silly, primarily because of their female-dominated audience, it is maybe time to question why the audience composition is so.
In Nevertheless, Jae-on is the “playboy” and it is him that Nabi chooses over the other conventionally “good” guy. Does she then become “problematic”? Is she choosing the wrong guy, who has charmed her? Does the show then propagate toxic relationships? Not quite. You may not agree with Nabi’s choice, but you cannot entirely condemn her either, precisely because the series is entirely from her perspective, with her inner thoughts laid bare before the audience. You know the conflicts she goes through, the exact feelings she feels for Jae-on from the moment they meet, in all their intensity, her past and how she copes with it as well as the exact moment when she reaches a resolution to follow her heart.
As Jelou Galang aptly observes in Scoutmag, ‘The show proves that self-awareness (she thought, “The gates of hell have opened” upon kissing Jae-eon) and fragility (“I can stop this right now. Because there are so many reasons why I shouldn’t do this. But I’m still attracted to him, even at this moment.”) aren’t mutually exclusive. She’s realistically, wholly imperfect, not stuffed with superficial traits that make her a mere accessory of a love story. She isn’t plainly framed as Jae-eon’s object of desire. We feel her frustration about his dreamlike mystery, too. The female gaze makes it easy to empathize with her.’
Sudarshana Ganguly is currently pursuing a Bachelors in English from Jadavpur University. When she’s not procrastinating or falling victim to impulse retail therapy, she can be found learning new languages, fangirling over her favourite kpop acts and daydreaming about herself as a future magazine editor. She is passionate about fashion, especially about how it can be made more sustainable and inclusive. You may find her on Instagram