The Future of the Strong Woman in Top Korean Dramas
For all their millions of passionate female fans, one thing top Korean dramas have never been accused of is a feminist agenda. A genre largely targeted at very young women, Korean dramas often traffic in tried-and-true romantic tropes centered on the man’s physical domination over a woman: wrist grabs and wide-eyed “surprise” smooches. While k-drama heroines can be smart, creative, and strong-willed, they often find themselves submitting larger, richer, more powerful men. Sure, they might be “spunky” or “feisty,” but, as the Life Is Not A K-Drama points out, those admirable strong wills often erode in the face of a cocky chaebol’s ~true love.~ Top korean drama blogs Outside Seoul and Not Another Wave also relate struggles reconciling their feminist beliefs with their k-drama fangirling– and indeed, as a fan and feminist myself, it’s always been difficult watching dramas I loved perpetuate imbalanced relationship dynamics where the woman is always subject to the man’s will, the man’s ideas, and the man’s physical presence.
But then, in 2016, the k-drama gods of two competing networks were visited with the same, incandescent idea: what if they actually had strong female leads?
Not only strong in the literary sense of a “strong female character”—women with dynamic personalities, realistic flaws, desires and development—but strong in the bodily sense of the word. Women with whom wrist grabs and forced kisses wouldn’t fly. Women who could kick your ass ten ways to Sunday.
In November 2016, MBC premiered WEIGHTLIFTING FAIRY KIM BOK JOO, a coming-of-age rom-com set at an athletic university in Seoul. As the weightlifting department’s darling, Lee Sung-kyung’s portrayal of Kim Bok Joo isn’t your prototypical dainty heroine. She towers over her female friends; she dresses in layers of shapeless sweats. (Is this wardrobe choice largely a function of supermodel-thin Lee’s less-than-convincing weightlifter’s frame? Definitely. But still.)
From the very first scene, in which we see Bok-joo win a gold medal for lifting hundreds of pounds above her head, it’s clear this is going to be a different sort of drama. Same goes for STRONG WOMAN DO BONG SOON, which premiered on the heels of Weightlifting Fairy’s finale: in the very first episode, we see the diminutive Park Bo-young hospitalize a dozen gangsters with her bare hands, without so much as breaking a sweat. Park Hyung-sik, who will later become her boss and secretly-pining rival for her love, witnesses the smackdown in awe–and when she dresses him down for watching while she took out the mobsters on her own, he’s visibly (and verbally) turned on by her take-charge attitude.
Both WEIGHTLIFTING FAIRY KIM BOK JOO and STRONG WOMAN DO BONG SOON reject the idea of the stoic, controlling leading men that populate so many top korean dramas; neither are these women quiet and submissive, or helplessly goofy. Kim Bok-joo and her main man are both portrayed as highly talented athletes with Olympic potential, but while Joon-hyung struggles physically and mentally to overcome the trauma that keeps getting him false starts, Bok-joo consistently comes out on top in weightlifting, winning gold medals and sponsorship deals even in the face of major emotional obstacles. In STRONG WOMAN, Min-hyuk isn’t put off by Bong-soon’s preternatural ass-kicking abilities—on the contrary, he finds them wildly attractive. He literally hires her as his personal bodyguard, partially because of her killer strength, but mostly because he needs a pretense to spend more time with the girl he watched put 10 grown men in the ER.
Looking at That Kiss in Top Korean Dramas
In WEIGHTLIFTING FAIRY, love interest Jeong Joon-hyung does adopt some more eye-rolling k-drama characteristics in his pursuit of Bok Joo–although he proves himself a good and loyal friend many times before finally coming to terms with his feelings for her, once he realizes her likes her, he almost immediately gets down to the whole “let’s corner her against a wall and kiss her against her will” business. BUT BOK JOO DOESN’T TAKE THAT SHIT. Her resistance doesn’t melt away; she shoves him off and demands an explanation. And while Joon-hyung does insist she at least “try him out” as a boyfriend before rejecting him, involving a lot of sneaky guerilla hand-holding that certainly wouldn’t earn a girl any “awws” if she’d tried it on him, the next time they kiss, it’s on her watch. And it’s really cute, btw:
STRONG WOMAN’s kissing is even more egalitarian. Before going in for true love’s first smooch, Min-hyuk asks Bong-soon to meet him literally halfway: he draws one side of a heart with a stick in the sand, then she picks up another stick to etch out the other side, meeting him in the middle for the sweetest, purest first kiss you ever did see.
But what’s more interesting, perhaps, is where these dramas don’t avert the formula–sometimes adhering to some of the more troubling tropes, and other times subverting them to create new meaning. For instance: Bok Joo’s helpless crush on an older man, wherein she’s nearly crushed by the embarrassment of her weightlifting. When he comes to see her in her competition, she’s mortified by the idea of him seeing her in her element: sweating, muscles straining, face contorted–in short, everything a woman isn’t supposed to be. She sees her strength as a weakness in her love life; and you can’t really blame her, with the messages she receives daily, not only from the media but from everyone around her. The guy who’ll go on to be her boyfriend calls her “Fatty;” the dainty girls on the rhythmic gymnastics team constantly mock their bodies and less-than-delicate personalities.
Similarly, in STRONG WOMAN, the supernatural strength that Bong-Soon inherited from her ancestors is contrasted with a “weakness” in her heart. But unlike other top korean dramas protagonists, Bong-soon’s emotional outbursts aren’t spurred on by romantic problems, but by her struggle with her own identity and place in the world, by her mother’s clear preference for her older brother.
Interestingly, Western depictions of “strong women” often imbue their heroines with stereotypically masculine characteristics–they’re cold, detached, emotionally unavailable, brutish–these top Korean dramas counterparts don’t sacrifice emotionality or compassion to make their physical strength more plausible. They’re all woman, even when shoveling fried chicken down their throat–or tossing cars around like McDonald’s toys.
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