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[2018 Year in Review] I’m not a potted plant


I’m Not a Robot

By ChinguMode

Earlier in the year I finally watched Shut Up Flower Boy Band. In the middle of an argument between the first and second male leads about the female protagonist’s living arrangements, I suddenly realised their argument would still work if they substituted the words “potted plant” for her name.

“Why is my Potted Plant at your house? Bring my Potted Plant back.”

“The Potted Plant is fine at my house. It’s not your Potted Plant anyway.”

You get my drift.

I finally had a phrase for what, for me, is a common problem with K-dramas in general: their tendency to treat female leads as pretty, happy objects to be fought over, manipulated, attained, stolen, and generally moved around without any sense of agency.

It’s not that Korean dramas aren’t exceptionally good at characterisation – they are. K-dramas have lots of female characters, frequently pass the Bechdel test, and have women in their 40’s and 50’s played by actors in the appropriate age range. Of course, they are almost always somebody’s mother, but as far as representation goes, K-dramas are pretty good.

That doesn’t mean dramas don’t have a potted plant problem.


I’m Not a Robot

In dramaland, a Candy is supposed to represent an ordinary woman caught up in a situation outside of her control. But it is precisely her attributes of beauty, martyrdom, familial piety and poverty that deprive her of agency. A Candy is supposed to endure with sparkling, smiling resilience until she is rescued. So unless she shows some genuine self-determination, her story can easily become a princess myth – someone beautiful, virtuous and mistreated waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her.

But this is not a diatribe about the prevalence of potted plants in Korean television. In fact, despite the Candy still being the go-to female lead in many dramas – and despite recent shows like Memories of the Alhambra and Clean With Passion for Now indicating otherwise – this has been quite a good year for women who are not potted plants.


I’m Not a Robot

I’m Not a Robot

As we leave 2018, so many words have been written across so many forums on why I’m Not a Robot’s portrayal of female characters was iconoclastic. They were varied, they were three-dimensional, they were treated respectfully and most importantly they all had agency.

This show took the usual one-dimensional female character stereotypes, tore those stereotypes into strips and fed them to a Roomba. We had a wealth of cool female characters like Pi, who struggled to be seen as a woman while also being respected as a scientist to Ri-el, railing against being treated as a commodity by her family and the company. The show’s lead, Jo Jia was a creative and intelligent inventor with the drive to make it on her own. While the I.Q. of the female lead usually drops 50 points once she’s the love interest, I’m Not a Robot never felt that Jia had to be in a subordinate position to Kim Min-kyu just because they fell in love. The drama ended with her sourcing her own seed financing – despite dating a wealthy man whose company made exactly those kinds of investments. Jo Jia truly was an independent Warrior Queen from beginning to end.


Your Honor

Your Honor

This drama was described as a drama about justice starring Yoon Shi-yoon, who did double duty playing two roles, the main character Han Kang-ho and his twin, Han Soo-ho who was a judge. But don’t let the title or the show’s description fool you, because the real protagonist of this show about turned out to be Lee Yoo-young’s Song So-eun.

It’s so common for K-dramas to prefer men’s stories over women – even when the women are supposed to be the main character – so it came as a delightful surprise when the drama turned its focus on Song So-eun and her search for the true meaning of “justice.” The twin-swapping shenanigans were simply a hook to get people to watch. At its core, the drama was about So-eun’s struggle with sexual harassment and the miscarriage of justice that was her sister’s rape case.

The drama was a brutal and compelling story about finding justice in a system stacked against women. #Metoo finally made it to Korea and it was pretty powerful stuff. The drama made it clear that So-eun wanted to fight back but was genuinely deprived of the tools to do so. Any of Song So-eun’s inability to take action in this show came from true systemic powerlessness and paralysis rather than acquiescence of the status quo.

The cut from 20 episodes to 16 unfortunately gutted this drama and turned it into one of this year’s biggest disappointments. But for a while, it was a gripping tale about a very real, very strong and very smart woman trying her best and ultimately winning.


Greasy Melo

Greasy Melo

All my attempts to write about this messy, surreal show have always been stymied before. Greasy Melo somehow became less than the sum of its parts. At its best, this was a kind of anti-melodrama that gleefully mixed up melo and makjang elements to make a dish that was as delicious as it was completely new. At its worst, it was a giant mess. At the end of the drama’s run, it was a shadow of itself.

The show had its strengths and one strength was its female lead. At first glance, she seemed like a cheerful potted plant — but was categorically not. Jung Ryeo-won’s bankrupt heiress, Dan Sae-woo, was beautiful, cheerful, optimistic and resilient. In that respect, she had all the makings of a potted plant. But that exterior hid a core of steel and that in turn influenced her choice of love interest.


Greasy Melo

Faced with an adoring but paternalistic gangster who worshipped her and an often bad-tempered chef who demanded the same of her as he did everyone else, she chose the latter. Unlike her mother, a hothouse flower, Dan Sae-woo was a tree in search of an open space to grow. It’s no surprise she chose a man who demanded things of her rather than one who wanted to protect her. After all, she was more than capable of protecting herself.

One of the best scenes in this otherwise disappointing show was when her mother insisted she give up her new dream of being a chef because it was too difficult and she was only doing it to be near a man. Her mother, after all, is the potted plant this female lead ultimately refused to be.
“Gosh, you don’t know me at all,” responded Dan Sae-woo emphatically. Then she proved her mother wrong by thriving in the heat of the kitchen, despite a general consensus it was too difficult for a woman.

Overall, the portrayal of women in dramas this year may have seemed like the same progression of potted plant female leads, scheming second female leads and crazy mothers-in-law. But there were a significantly larger number of women with purpose and agency, and who were genuinely the hero of their own stories. This bodes well for next year’s dramatic fare. I personally can’t wait.


I’m Not a Robot

 
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This was wonderful @leetennant ~ I love the potted plant analogy, it really drives home the objectification of women in most plots where they are a pretty prop for the protagonist (I was ranting about this earlier actually 😅). I’m glad to hear someone write with hope that this is changing!

Though, if you were a potted plant, which would you be?
My mind says geraniums are hardy and survive great neglect (I know from experience), but my nose says rosemary (but it grows brittle without consistent attention).

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My mother tells me I'm a sunflower.

With Memories of Alhambra still ongoing, I honestly feel like this is all I'm ranting about at the moment. Which is why I dropped it of course. There was a point this year where I was starting to wonder if INAR was some sort of strange aberration and we were never going to see such strong female characters again. Thankfully Just Dance and Sky Castle came along just in time.

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Ah, it wasn’t kdramas but my foray into American movies over the holiday ~ I get rather tired of the beautiful blonde with no personality who they have make a pretence of toughness in one scene to show that they aren’t a damsel in distress, then spend the rest of the show as the showy boring plant stuck onto the sets

No offense to blondes or plants, of course

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None taken on either count ;-)

The 'James Bond' male fantasy aspect of a lot of American film - especially the superhero genre - is one of the main reasons I went searching for new cultural content in the first place.

I still remember watching old Star Trek - and bear in mind this is the original that they're insisting on recreating on the Big Screen now, not the more inclusive later versions - and the female characters were always stunningly-beautiful with 6 PhDs and the experts in their field. And their entire narrative purpose was to sleep with Kirk. These kinds of female characters are merely trophies and their role is to be the most awesome trophy they can be. The victorious male lead deserves nothing less.

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I knew just by the title that you must have written this @leetennant 😄

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Same! I saw the title and I knew it was @leetennant 's piece. Published on the last day of the year too - a truly powerful piece for the mostly female
(intelligent guess) readership of dramabeans.

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I also knew immediately who wrote this, and of course it is wonderful.

In real life women are just as complicated and messy as men, and deserve to have their stories told without sacrificing to some arbitrary feminine standard that few, if any, really live. Even in it's fairy tale frame, I am Not a Robot gave us some of my favorite female characters of the year, and flawed though it was, Greasy Melo, did the same. I would also add Just Between Lovers for the female lead, and her web-toon writer friend who just happened to be disabled. And even Lawless Lawyer, which gave me a female villain that was not motivated by lost romance, but rather a straight up grab for good-old-power was refreshing.

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So did I! The pot plant is such a perfect analogy.

I said to one of my (non kdrama) friends that a character in a movie had been turned into a pot plant, and she looked at me as if I was ... well, crazy pretty much sums it up.

I hope there will be lots of non-pot plant dramas coming up in 2019.

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Sigh, why doesn't everyone understand Beanisms? The world would be a much better place.

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Thanks @raonah @greenfields @egads @cloggie (we miss you! come back!)

I have been ranting about the pot plants a lot lately unfortunately so it's no surprise you saw my fingerprints all over this one. Hopefully this year (it's 2019 here!), I'll be able to rant a lot less. As well as the Year of Dropping, it can also be the Year of [insert something witty here about emancipated plants - I got nothing].

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I remember your posts on the fan wall about Greasy Melo and I was intrigued. Not enough to watch it, sorry, but I did enjoy your writing here about a woman who thrives in a masculine world. I might know a thing or two about that. Thanks again for an analytical and contemplative post!

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*ponders whether Ally would like Greasy Melo*

I honestly don't know. A good chunk of the first half is full of random elements that verge on the surreal. And since you like Legion you may actually appreciate it. Still, the show got a lobotomy in the back half so I probably shouldn't recommend it to anyone. It really did not fulfil its potential.

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Agreed; for me the most telling detail was how they dropped the horse's storyline at the worst possible moment for the poor thing. I finished it because that's what I tend to do, but I wouldn't recommend it either...

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I was on horse watch for most of the back half.
#wheresbuster #savebuster

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#adoptbuster , because he's probably still waiting for her to visit...

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I came up with a whole fictional subplot where Poong's wife had kidnapped Buster for revenge and that's why they both disappeared.

Then we decided that Buster and Kitty Dim sum had conspired for Buster to kidnap Poong's wife to get rid of her. Gangster kitty hyungnim asked his dongsaeng to get rid of the troublesome ex. Buster came back because his work was done. Just don't ask what he did with her - we will never ever know.

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:-))) I'll go with that story, but Buster is a jilted horse; I am having visions of Chil-Seong riding Buster towards the sunset, Chuno style, after getting his own revenge :-p

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“It really did not fulfil its potential.”

That could have been my 2018 Year in Review. Oh well here’s hoping I won’t be able to write that one for 2019.

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Overall, the portrayal of women in dramas this year may have seemed like the same progression of potted plant female leads, scheming second female leads and crazy mothers-in-law. But there were a significantly larger number of women with purpose and agency, and who were genuinely the hero of their own stories.

👏👏👏

I really love your review @leetennant! Hooray for strong female leads in Dramaland this year!

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Thanks! The year certainly ended strongly (Memories of Alhambra notwithstanding) so here's hoping 2019 is even better.

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The first time I saw you use this term I thought you meant an actual pot plant. I can't remember the comment, but I had to read it a couple times.

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Haha! I did mockingly say that the writer of MoA could just cast a flower pot for the female lead of her next drama.

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Great write up on potted plants @leetennant Chingu. Slowly evolving are those plants who sit and wait to be watered to becoming more animal like in moving about themselves and spraying water on the gardener! I look forward to more plant evolution as the year wanes and we start a new year of dramas!!!

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You remind me of a shirt I have that says: Plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

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Nice quotation @crysta

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Yes, nice quote Jig and thanks growingbeautifully. A few more rebellious plants in the garden can only be a good thing. It's why I'm so happy Boksoo has a rare tsundere female lead. It's a welcome change.

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I’ve started gifting my friends flowers, as well as growing them for myself. Why wait for someone else when you have your life to fill?

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If this was published before I started Memories of the Alhambra, I would have ranted less on Hee Joo. It would have been so much easier to see her for what she is - a potted plant then to expect anything from her. It would also explained a lot about her actions or rather non-action.

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I do think she is the worst example of it I have ever seen. She is the Candy of Candies. I genuinely can't think of a worse female lead for passiveness and lack of impact on the main plot.

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Thank you! Finally something that included Song So-eun. I actually watched that drama for Yoon Donggu but was pleasantly surprised the first time I saw the heroine. I loved her to bits--indeed she was the center of the show! The ending felt rushed and I didn't really like how they resolved Kangho's deed (playing judge,how did he get away with it?!) but So-eun was a gem. From the moment she first spoke against her senior prosecutor (that a**hole) to her court hearing that threatened her future as a judge, I cheered for her. I felt the same way for Go Ara's Park Cha Oh-reum in Miss Hammurabi. She wasn't afraid to speak for justice and against stereotypes. She was strong but always grounded. She showed moments of vulnerability but it didn't stop her from going against the giants of society. It wasn't until she faced the probability of having made the wrong judgement that she finally crumbled with shattered confidence. Her emotional character was balanced with Myungsoo's rational Im Ba-reun. The show was heavy in procedural scenes as it was really an occupational drama through and through but it had so much heart! The cases were handled pretty well (maybe because the scriptwriter was a real judge). Miss Hammurabi may be my fave drama of 2018.

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I didn't fit in Miss Hammurabi this year unfortunately but now it's on Netflix I'll be able to get to it. It's good to know it has a strong female lead.

Re Your Honour - I thought this was getting better week-to-week and the ratings were also fine. It got cut around the same time 30But17 did and I can't help think that the networks just planned poorly around preemptions. It's a shame because it could have been one of the better dramas of this year - and that's because it had such a great female lead.

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Oh I didn't know about your honor being cancelled? What happened? I saw so many good reviews

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I'm not sure what happened. There were a few dramas in the middle of the year that were slated for 20 episodes whose ratings were fine and that were then cut. Maybe it was due to poor network planning around pre-emptions? I honestly don't know.

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I love your piece. My only stipulation to your argument would be this: just because the male characters talk about the female lead as if she's a potted plant does not make her a potted plant. You may or may not have been implying this, but Jo Boa's character in SUFFB had quite a bit of backbone and spoke her piece despite the (sometimes) idiotic boys around her. I wouldn't characterize her as a typical candy. There's other such cases where other characters (whether male characters or evil mother-in-laws) try to speak for a woman only for her to speak up for herself. That's a reversal I love to see (JBL, Healer, GG 1979, etc)

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To my way of thinking, I Am Not A Robot had a thin top-coat of creepy paternalism (faux female robot slave), a thick creamy center of solid female representation, then at its base was another layer of paternalism again. The unspoken subtext of the series seemed to be 'The natural destiny of a self-reliant young woman is to someday become the plaything of a high status male'. Granted that center section of strong female characterization was substantial and satisfying. But it was still just the interior of a sandwich.

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You would be correct IF the robot ever actually worked as intended. The premise itself of a female robot not working to satisfy the male gaze contradicts a patriarchal interpretation. Minkyu falls for the robot precisely because she has a personality and is unable to just be a potted plant. When the robot does work, Minkyu and the other scientists realize her shortcomings because of her lack of humanity. The robot only being a beautiful plaything is no longer satisfactory. When the robot is kidnapped, everyone is amazed because it becomes clear that the robot learned agency and compassion, instead of just being another damsel.
Jiah got with Minkyu at the end on her own terms. If she were to just become a "plaything", she would have not been perusing her inventions still. Like many other kdramas, her passions and goals would have just been thrown aside (Pasta, Secret Garden, etc). However, she is still an individual in her own right while in a relationship.

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Exactly @crysta. Ji-ah maintains her dreams, her drive, and her autonomy and does not have to sacrifice any of this in order to have this relationship. The point is that she is not the plaything of a chaebol, but rather they become equals within their relationship. This is baldly showcased as the opposite of her relationship with the professor in which she was literal "doll" to him. Thus the robot. INAR is far from the typical romance we see in either kdramas or western films and shows, and in breaking free from the molds we are so used to seeing, set the bar high, and now it can be difficult to wallow below.

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Nicely said @crysta and @egads
I read that comment last night and was in such violent disagreement I was rendered speechless. The culture of commodifying women was exactly what the show was critiquing!

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And critiquing so explicitly it was impossible to miss! That entire bit about a man breaking Aji3 and intending to change her entire purpose - from being the stereotypically feminine communication robot to the male-coded weapon - and her rebelling against it was so on the nose... but apparently not enough.

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I loved the analogy! This was a very nice (and important) write-up!
It is so important to have fully fleshed out females because that is what females are IRL! Not just eye/arm candy or princesses to be rescued.

It goes beyond leaps and bounds when there is a strong female character I can relate to!
Like Pi or the Ahn Jeong Min (Mama fairy where she was a grad student/lab assist), I struggle to find females being represented in scientific profession in dramas who aren't either lab rats or just people in the background.
I always squeal with joy when we see such good characters.

Given good writing, female characters can be so much more , so here's a request to writers, give your females a rich back story and loads of character. They might surprise you!

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Thanks for commenting!
It made me think about other STEM characters in kdrama and you know I can't think of any off the top of my head. Apart from doctors. There's an awful lot of doctors. But engineers, IT professionals, lab techs, research scientists, are almost exclusively male (if they're represented at all).

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As a women in STEM, I also struggled to find characters like me. Apart from Pi, there are very few and even when I do find one (I am currently watching Love O2O where the female lead is a computer science grad), you never see them at work. Only in romantic settings with the male lead. It's quite disheartening. :(

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I am a women in STEM too! (yay fellow STEM kdrama watcher) and yeah I yearn for the day there will be a strong female lead who is in STEM field and the drama does not only revolve around the romantic side of things.
e.g. (allowing for some kdrama cliches) The female is a super intelligent programmer/chemist developing new things etc and the male lead wants her to join his company (or wants to work with her in her company!) so he goes after her with lucrative offers and is mesmerized by how smart she is and falls for that charm of her.

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I would watch that drama in a heartbeat!

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I love you, @leetennant, did you know that? I'm glad someone else watched and liked Your Honor - unlike you, I wasn't particularly disappointed with it, because despite its numerous flaws I was satisfied with what I saw on-screen. My biggest takeaway from this is probably the fact that this is the only boss/subordinate romance I've endured which didn't make me uncomfortable, because Kang-ho being out of place the away that horrible power imbalance. He respected So-eun entirely, and basically worshiped the ground she walked on, which is exactly what I think a girl burned by disgusting men needed in her life.

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Thank you, frabs!

Yes, I agree with all of that about YH. I'm glad you liked it all the way through. The problem with episode cuts is that the writers end up spending too long on things (because they think they have four more episodes) and them have to rush to tie up the important story arcs. While it didn't matter in 30But17, this show could have used those episodes so well. And while I was sold on the OTP theoretically, I really needed those episodes to get on board with how their relationship was going to work going forward.

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This was fun to read @leetennant , especially since I get aggravated by the lack of personality and dimension some FL's have. I'm not saying all of them have to be strong or be able to kick-ass. I just want FL's who make an impression on me with their layered characterisation or purpose other than just being there.

My current non-potted-plant female leads are in SKY Castle and Children of Nobody putting on phenomenal performances.

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Thanks, Andy!

I haven't seen Children of Nobody yet (although I will be starting it soon) but the female leads in Sky Castle are amazing. They're so complex. In fact, I hope that show gets designated a 2019 show because it seriously needs some appreciation and it'll have to be next year. Another surprise hit for strong female representation was Just Dance and I recommend that too.

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I keep hearing praises for Just Dance so I'll probably start that one soon!

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Just Dance really did a good job with female representation. With our lead taking control of her life and her journey of what she wants to do, right down the her mother who is in a tough male dominated job making ends meet for her children to the other club kids finding out what they want to do in life after high school!

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Yeah, Just Dance was the surprise of the year. It's a shame because it will now get overlooked.

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The potted plant conversation is usually followed by one of my least favourite kdrama staples: the Wrist Grab.

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So the first time I saw the Wrist Grab in a kdrama I was horrified. HORRIFIED. I really hate it but even more so when there's slow mo and sweeping romantic music as though this is supposed to be desirable behaviour. It's really not.

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I was much younger and more susceptible to swoony music and slow mo when I first saw the Wrist Grab. I was so confused. I understood that we were supposed to be cheering on the guy, and part of me did, because, romance. But part of me balked at the idea of dragging a human around like a rag doll. My little mind was like: "he likes her a lot and that's romantic, but why does he have to be so mean about about it?"
Now I'm older and I know there's nothing romantic about the Wrist Grab and it needs to die.

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When I read these feminist takes on female representation three questions immediately come to mind:

(1) I wonder why melodramatic love stories about regular women winning the handsome and rich hero are so prevalent, not only in kdrama but in Western movies and books as well. Remember, these stories are written by women, and consumed by women.

(2) If the way heroines are represented is beset with problems, what about the hero? Why is the stalker in Gangnam Beauty a short, ugly guy we can all agree would never have a chance with Soo-a? Would the women watching kdrama accept it if guys looking like that were the love interests of the heroine instead of the good looking actors so ubiquitous today? This is of course a rhetorical question.

(3) If you are happy with the simple-minded wish fulfillment fantasies kdrama provides, why watch it in the first place? There are is no lack of interesting portraits of women in more serious Western TV. The Americans, Babylon Berlin, The Little Drummer Girl, etc., etc. The list is endless. Why forego these shows to watch kdrama unless you take it for what is is: a little bit of fluff that - occasionally - succeeds in toying with you feelings. Completely artificial, yes, and with little resemblance to reality. But the same goes for other genre fare: thrillers, action, horror, comedy, and so on.

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1. There are immense cultural and social constructions which result in women (and other disenfranchised groups) participating in and even propping up the very structures that which disempower them. When for centuries a woman's only visible path to contentment and success is through a rich handsome man, it is not surprising then that these are the stories they write and consume. This is beginning to change. Slowly. But as societal norms continue to change, and future generations of women (and men!) embrace equality and equity amongst all genders, so to do our stories.

2. Who says I don't want a short so-called ugly guy as my hero? Someone needs to give this guy his shot at the part. I also want the same for the heroine. Give me someone who doesn't look like they stepped out of the pages of a magazine spread. But most of all, I want dramas, and all media from all over the world to stop romanticizing the handsome stalker (I'm looking at you Your House Helper).

3. I love fluff. I love the escape it gives me from real life. I love the fantasy of it. But that doesn't mean I can't critique it. I come to Dramabeans because I want to discuss, bicker, squee, and sometimes argue over the fine and broad points of what I'm watching. However, kdrama isn't all fluff. It brings to me an awareness of a different cultural viewpoint, and therefore makes me reexamine my own. My feminism has become more nuanced because I am seeing things from outside my own cultural perspective. Even the most artificial and unrealistic settings still reveal things firmly rooted in the reality of its creators. Add in the myriad of Beanie voices to the discussion, and even more is revealed. But I can still wish for more and more from female characterizations, even as I watch the fluff.

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Ad 1. This is one possible explanation, reminiscent of Frankfurter School Ideologiekritik. Another, opposing, view is the biological that sexual selection has shaped human brains to respond to certain traits, and that romance stories mirror these desires. Irrespective of which of these theories are true, my point was merely that the kind of stories being critiqued in this post exist because a large number or women like them. If you are right that women will stop enjoying them, obviously they will cease to exist.

Ad 2. Good for you. My prediction would be that if kdramas stopped featuring handsome male leads for the (female) audience to swoon over they loose the rest of their dwindling audience. Certainly the majority of discussions on Dramabeans is about how hot some actor is. I personally don't think there is anything wrong with indulging in sexual fantasies like that. It is just good to recall that 99% of us frequenting Dramabeans are women, with a woman's perspective, and that this discussion would no doubt look very different to man. His critique of representation would probably be why there is no kdrama where the hero is regular Joe who ends up with a super hot model, or some sexy heiress.

Ad 3. To me kdramas are all fluff. Nothing more, and that's ok. If I want serious storytelling I know I will not find it in a kdrama show. Even shows that pretend to be quasi-serious, like My Ahjussi, are melodramas at their heart, with contrived storylines and unconvincing psychology. What they are good at, and what they should be sought out for in my opinion, is their ability to conjure intense emotions. Others are of course allowed to disagree with this view, but personally I find it bizarre if you choose to buy an ice cream at the store and then complain about its copious amounts of sugar and lack of nutritious. Sure, nutrients are very important, but if that's what you want stop buying ice cream and get yourself something more healthy.

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Eh...not sure if I am following this argument but I can relate to that ice cream thing.

There's nothing bizarre about me going to a store, buy an ice cream and complain when I get a soggy piece of cardboard. Bland and useless.

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1. I'm not familiar with the concept of sexual selection, although I do know that there is some scientific research suggesting why men and women like certain traits (personality-wise and physical) in the other gender. I think this is more a matter of yes, women do like being treated like a princess and yes, we would all love to be swept off our feet by a perfect man one day. Is this realistic? No, but that's why TV exists, to give us virtual satisfaction of our own fantasies. Sometimes you just want to immerse yourself in a world where you don't need to try and people are falling over themselves to get a chance to be with you. I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but the reason more and more women are complaining about these shows is that we want the story to go further than just Cinderalla gets her man and it was all happily ever after. Being treated well/loved by a great man shouldn't be mutually exclusive with being a layered and capable person on your own as well.

2. You would be right that male representation in k-dramas is not ideal or realistic for men, but that would be because the audience for kdramas is intended to be women. This is why film/drama makers across the world are learning to be more and more careful about their portrayal of women but not so much their portrayal of men. Generally it is assumed that men would be more interested in sports, hanging out with friends at the bar, or busy with work to indulge in drama watching. This is the same in both the East and the West. Women have traditionally been home during the day so soap operas were created to help keep them entertained as they stayed home all by themselves tending to house and children. As more and more women work, the drama trend is hopefully going to move towards works that both men and women can enjoy together, but even then, combating the stereotype that men can't like romance will likely make it a very long time before you see a romance drama tailored for men like what you want.

3. I agree that there is a lot of fluff and sugar-coated type qualities to kdramas in particular, but I disagree that they can't be serious. Perhaps they are not as dark and indicative of reality as you would like, but as I said earlier, our primary purpose for watching dramas is to escape reality, not to be reminded of all the heavy and hurtful aspects of it with little to no hope of a happy ending. If you don't like the neat wrapped in a bow happy ending and pretty visual aspect of kdramas then this is likely not the place for you, since, as you are implying, that is the majority of what is available here. That's perfectly fine, but please don't put down other people for wanting their ice cream to have some extra flavor and texture to it besides just sugar.

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I mean, I'd check out his recommendations but since I am apparently incapable of watching both American and Korean television at the same time or of simultaneously watching and critiquing something, I guess I'll stick to my nutritionless female fantasies. Life is full of Hobson's Choices!

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This comment is very perplexing. Almost all your observations were exactly the points I made. And I didn't make to say that there is anything wrong the kdramas. My point was precisely to take them for what they are and not expect to get something else. I was not disparaging kdramas to exalt Western shows. I was just pointing to the original post's author that everything she was wishing for already exists in shows that are not kdramas.

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THANK YOU for Ad 3. That is EXACTLY how I feel about kdramas and have wished I could explain my feelings the thousand times I have seen rants and harsh critiques on DB. I could never say it as clearly and as eloquently as this. Thank you.

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Thanks, mate. I'm so glad you dropped by a kdrama website to mansplain kdramas to us. Us "feminists" need all the help we can get.

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Thanks dude, for (mistakenly) assuming I am a man. I suppose that tells me all I need to know about your biases. Also thanks for extending the same willingness to engage with arguments to me as I extended to your piece. It is this type of openness to debate that makes public diskussions so fulfilling...

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You are right and it's why I should have just ignored the comment as I originally intended.

I'm sorry but I find it extremely offensive to use "women's fantasies" as a pejorative when 95% of the cultural product of the world is blatant male fantasy. The "strong female characters" in most of those shows are still just there as window dressing to the male lead's story and their awesomeness is often just there to justify the male lead's interest.

It's hardly surprising that women seek out their own stories - and even less surprising they speak up about what they want those stories to be. At least kdramas have female leads and large numbers of female characters and none of them need leather or a gun to be seen as "strong".

Just because we love kdrama doesn't mean we "forego" other television. And since most TV shows worldwide are simply male wish fulfilment fantasies, I find the implication - and the semi-sneering use of the word 'feminist' - frankly offensive.

Yeah, we're feminists. It's actually why we're here and why we love shows that have strong female protagonists with their own stories. We love how much time and loving attention kdramas give to characterisation, we love the cinematography and artful direction, and we even love those wish-fulfilment fantasies. The world sucks. Why wouldn't I want to watch a show about a woman winning? It's even better if she wins because of her skills, her hard work and her brains and not because of a wedding ring. That's just icing on the cake.

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It's also important to remember that most of the gatekeepers deciding what media product is released into the world (films, television, print, music, etc.) are male.

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Except I didn't use the "women's fantasies" as a pejorative - I used it in the exact opposite way: in a positive sense. As something which is not wrong, and something women should be allowed to indulge in, notwithstanding silly feminist diatribes. YOU were the one disparaging women's fantasies by suggesting they are wrong because they don't conform to your political views.

Indeed, you seem fond of attributing beliefs to people that they have never expressed. I never chastised anyone for seeking out kdramas at the expense of other forms of tv. Again: I said the opposite: that there is nothing wrong in loving kdramas for what they are. However, if someone find them too conservative, or too politically annoying, I made the observation that the world is full of shows that give a much better and complex depiction of women. I personally don't watch that many kdramas anymore, precisely because I am tired of seeing women depicted as asexual, 30-something virgins that freeze in fear as soon as a man touch them. My solution is to watch something else and get the occasional kdrama fix when a good one turns up. Your post reads more like a Harlequin aficionado who rants about their books not being great literature. Sure, they are not. But why would you expect them to be?

The next time someone spend time reading what you put out into the public sphere, and even respond to it, make an effort to understand what they say. Sneering at people, especially when you misrepresent their views, will not win you any arguments.

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Bravo hjw...bravo.

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1. Why are stories written and consumed by women about "regular women winning the handsome and rich hero"?

1a. Humans generally are attracted to good-looking people. That's a given.

1b. For a very long time, a woman's only way to get or keep material security, societal power, and emotional wellbeing was in whether she was able to make a good marital match. Generally a woman's ability to make a good match was determined by her own youth, attractiveness, and malleability (potted plant); and those characteristics were considered a trade for the man's relative power, wealth, or status.

Given that humans are attracted to good-looking people, of course a woman would hope for someone good-looking as well as financially better-off than she was. She would also hope for someone who was kind and loving. We all know that was not necessarily the case; but that is still the basis for many women's romantic ideals (successful AND handsome AND loving/faithful) - which is why you get these romance tropes of Prince/chaebol who falls head over heels in love with the regular female protagonist.

2. "Why can't the hero be a short, ugly guy?" You are comparing apples and oranges. When is the heroine of a drama ever ugly? I mean truly unattractive, not "drama-ugly," where a makeover makes it evident the female protagonist is beautiful.

If you were to compare apples and apples, a better question would be "when is a male protagonist ever not an alpha male?" Gosh, I hate that alpha/beta stereotype; but that alpha status could refer to personality, age, financial success. My answer would be "rarely, but not never, either." My drama favorites generally have male and female leads on a more equal footing.

3. "If you are [not] happy with the simple-minded wish fulfillment fantasies kdrama provides, why watch it in the first place?" Simple-minded wish-fulfillment fantasies were the most a woman could have for a very long time. That is actually still the reality for many women in countries around the world, sadly - to make a match with someone financially better-off, to hope he will treat them kindly, perhaps even be age-appropriate and good-looking.

That heritage is so ingrained in most of us that it is almost a kind of poison we with varying levels of willingness imbibe; even some of us who live in less traditional societies can have a hard time disentangling those old ideas from romance. But that is changing (though not without a struggle), in a world where a woman can make her own successful and happy life.

I think it is perfectly fair to hope or expect that the stories we watch deliver what we want to see - not to "take it or leave it," as you seem to be saying. I want dramas to reflect women making their own choices and lives (rather than being pretty, virtuous, and passive potted plants), and part of that can be in finding love. I think many other viewers do, as well.

I do think more modern dramas are...

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I do think more modern dramas are incorporating that, but it is a work in progress, like our societies.

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I think it's perfectly sensible to ask for a more balanced representation of females on tv, regardless of genre - especially in a world where 'feminist' is used as pejorative as above.

Sure - romcoms, which you seem to (mistakenly) equate kdramas with, are idealizations of reality. But, whether you like it or not, they shape everyone's perceptions of what romance looks like. And that is as true in western as is in asian tv. If anything, it's even more sensible to ask and expect for well written female characters within this genre. That's the way to make broader progress.

Going back to the ice cream analogy - there are scoops of chocolate sorbet or (my personal fav) coffee-carmamom that one remembers forever. And there's run of the mill supermarket stuff that tastes like soap. It's silly and pointless to tell people to eat some salad when they were asking for better quality ice cream.

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Oh, silly me, it was just a plea for GOOD ice cream.

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Your words from a comment above: "Sneering at people, especially when you misrepresent their views, will not win you any arguments."

This was in the same comment where you referred to "silly feminist diatribes."

By the way, I've had some fantastic ice cream, made with great ingredients; and I've had awful ice cream: thin or gummy texture, lacking rich or deep flavor, made with weird and unnecessary ingredients, bad aftertaste, & masking all that with a huge hit of sugar. If you're happy with the not-very-good stuff, then be happy. It's cheap! It's plentiful! The world is full of it! Eat to your heart's content!

As for the rest of us - is there something wrong with wanting or expecting better?

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Nicely put together!

I agree about how nice it is to have different female character from the traditional characteristic that fictional world often have. But I also will say it is great to have male character that is far from the typical rich jerk. Because I believe it is just as problematic that masculine expectation we have for how male should be. Woo jin (still 17), Jin Hyuk (Encounter), Bok su (My strange hero) and Kang doo (Just between lovers) are male characters that subverted that classic male character and they also show respect to female around them.
Lets us celebrate how diverse Kdrama have become when it comes to character traits for both female and male character :D

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I have a real soft spot for Kang Doo. He had so many wonderful female characters in his life.

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I would also add Nam Se-hee and Yoon Dog-ah to that list (although they weren't this year) but Boksoo in particular is such a great male lead.

I would argue that the move toward better male romantic leads is led by the move toward better female characters. Our well-rounded and strongly-characterised female leads need romantic partners worthy of them. And I think that's a large part of the move towards the Woo-jin's and Boksoo's of this world.

I'm a bit more reserved about Jin Hyuk, mostly because I think he's a male Candy. And while the existence of a male Candy in kdrama is extraordinary (and Encounter is entirely the Candy/Chaebol story with inverted sex roles, which is fantastic), it doesn't make me like Candies any more.

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You know, I don't think Encounter is a reverse Cinderella story. And Jin Hyuk -although less rich and younger- is not a prototypical Candy either.

There's an interesting interaction going on between social standing and gender and that weirdly cancels out things. There were a couple of awkward moments in the beginning where there was a power dynamic at play (one-on-one post drunk JH) but by now their private interactions are mostly decoupled from their work relationship. She is his boss, but he is the pursuer when it comes to romance. He does calls her by her job title (대표님) but I get the feeling that it's more a sign of respect/admiration for all the things that she's achieved (echoing her dad's complained that her former in-laws refuse to use that title as a way of dismissing her value).

Also her superior socioeconomic status is not a plus, but rather an obstacle in their relationship. One may call a traditional Candy a gold-digger, but no one really judges the 'prince' for his choice. Here boss-or-not, CH's choice of romantic partner comes with harsh public judgement. Basically, gender trumps $$$ and the female keeps getting a fair share of naming and shaming.

Ultimately this is not just a plain romance but also a tale of a woman trapped in a gilded cage and her (hopefully successful) escape from it. While I fell in love with JH too once he grew into his role CH'S partner, I am watching this because of her.

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Oh I completely agree with all of that and it gives me a similar vibe to Secret Love Affair, which was one of the best shows ever written (also its cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful and the actor is so perfectly subtle - it's a work of art).

Nonetheless, I'm pretty sure the Candy/Chaebol reverse Cinderella setup is deliberate. And the double standards and systemic sexism that you mention is there as a way for the show is pointing at the standard romantic tropes and essentially critique them. "Hey," it's saying, "this was fine when the genders were reversed, what's everybody's problem now?"

Almost every scene, down to its use of colour, serves to depict a reversal of standard gender stereotypes in Korean television.

Plus it's a damn good romantic fantasy as well.

Although it's only halfway through, I actually love it and hope it's this good to the end.

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My kingdom for an edit button...

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Your comments motivate me to finally try out Secret love affair; I was skittish at the time when it aired but can't remember the reason (is adultery involved?)

Also very much agree with the edit button comment; too often I get excited and jolt down stuff that sounds barely literate (doing this kind of thing at 1am when i should really be sleeping does not help either).

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@charlieblue17

A lot of people were skittish about Secret Love Affair because of the adultery. And some people will never watch it and that's fine - every one has different tastes.

But, for me, Secret Love Affair is flawlessly written and beautiful produced. It's a work of art and a lot of that is the music - the OST is extraordinary.

So I do recommend it. A lot of people find it slow but if you like Boyfriend then I suspect you won't have a problem with the pacing.

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"Secret Love Affair" - my all time favorite drama. Everything about this drama was perfect for me. Directing, acting, art, camera, music etc.

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Please continue to write and rant for us. It's always a pleasure to read your writing.

I need to find time for Your Honor. I'm willing to overlook flaws in a drama with a well done female character.

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... would you be interested in trying it together as a rabbit watch? I too am thinking of picking it up after LT’s great endorsement (also I meant to watch it but got very lazy about finding episodes this year)

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I'd love to, but I'm too unreliable for times right now.

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Gotcha. Hit me up if there is a day for it ~

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Will do.

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Writing and ranting? I think I can manage that!
Thanks as always for commenting.

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I love you LT. INAR can never receive too much love.

I need more Jia-like female characters with proper fleshed out character development and agency in their own story.

Everytime I start a kdrama I am scared the main female character - who often starts out so strongly- will inevitably end up as nothing more but a simple plot device and/or an accessory for the male lead to shine.

Thank you for this ode to the female characters who escaped this fate!

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Aww, thanks Daisy!

I too find it frustrating when a fantastic female character gets sidelined and even neutered near the end of the show because of the male lead's story. I wanted to include Kang So-bong from Are You Human in this list. I even started to write a paragraph on her. But that show completely sidelined (and even fridged!) its female characters and so I just couldn't include it.

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@leetennant Someone has to ask, are you sure you’re not a potted plant?

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I don't know. I'll find a man and ask them.

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Darn, my bad. My silly female brain forgot I needed a man to answer questions.

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I looked. I can't find one. Now I'll never know.

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Well, they say a good man is hard to find. Especially if you’re a woman who keeps asking questions. 💁🏻‍♀️

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@hotcocoagirl and @leetennant you made me snort coffee up my nose when I laughed, and now all my silly female brain cells are probably scalded. Thanks.

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@egads it might be an improvement, as women are generally too cold to think clearly to begin with

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@egads I am too cold to think clearly at this moment. Because my ice heart is still lacking the warmth of a good man.

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Aaaaahhhh such a great piece. YES TO EVERYTHING. I really love your take on Your Honour, as well - I couldn't put my finger on it but you nailed it, about how Lee Yoo-young really was central character. (I love her - you should see her in Tunnel as well, if you haven't already.)

I can't remember if you've watched Mother or not, but that's another show all about the women, mothers or not, which you should watch immediately if you haven't already!

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Also about Jung Ryeo-won's Sae-woo - so well said.

yes basically everything

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Thanks, Saya! I haven't seen Tunnel yet but I have seen Mother. It was a very good drama - and beautifully filmed. I think it kind of got lost this year because of how extraordinary My Ahjussi was.

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For me, the first half of the year is always eclipsed by the latter half, which stands out more in my (poor) memory. (Apart from INAR, ha.) I strongly recommend Tunnel, Lee Yoo-young plays a totally different type of character I lovingly called 'my little robot girl'. (I wrote about her in my last year's review, too! Also I recapped Tunnel *nudgenudge*)

I'm getting to My Ajusshi. Very soon. *girds emotional loins*

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Amazing - as always - @leetennant. While I was always aware of how female leads were portrayed in kdramas, i must admit you had a big role in making me -MORE- aware. I just cant bare a stupid candy anymore or just mock them endlessly. Nevertheless, i feel the need to add that i like my female leads opinionated and strong -- but the male leads as well. I dont like male leads to be subservient to their female lesds. There needs to be a balance. The only first example that comes to mind is Just Dance although it was treated well when seungshine tells shieun that hed just take in anything. Point is, yay for 3D characters!

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Your writing is thought-provoking as always, @leetennant. This article from FiveThirtyEight is good supplementary reading: The Next Bechdel Test.

Although these tests were created by American women, many of them are applicable the entertainment industry anywhere. These 12 tests broadly fall into four categories:
1) Behind the camera: on set crew, production staff
2) Intersectional: gender,race, ethnicity
3) Protagonists: characterization, dimension, empathy, agency, sexuality
4) Supporting cast

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Oh, thanks so much for that article @tsutsuloo.
It is true a lot of the problems with Hollywood are that the industry is run by men behind the scenes. I'm not surprised so many films failed these other tests. I've always found it interesting the industry in Korea has far more women - and that most of the women are writers. It makes characters like the lead in MoA more inexplicable.

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I. LOVE. THIS. ANALOGY. Spot on.

Also, Greasy Melo...Ugh. It was a mess, and I've struggled to grasp why I still felt compelled to watch it. NOW I remember...although her character annoyed me in so many ways, I DID appreciate her independence and her free mind. And I always like dramas with a bit of quirk. Unfortunately for that show, the writers didn't take that charming quirkiness and translate it into a cohesive story, but it had the elements of something special.

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Thanks for commenting, Mehgann. I'm glad you liked it.

Re Greasy Melo: There was a point where I was waiting for them to bring it all together and they just... didn't. It was such a shame. The three leads were very good though and I really liked Saewoo's character.

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Sadly a lot of times dramas are about hero journey and character growth, heroine is already finished product and waiting on the sidelines for hero to fall in love with her and change for better. I fall in love with Gangnam Beauty Id, because it was the opposite, the heroine had to got through character growth and find her inner strength and hero waited for her, and a lot of side female characters and some male in that show were given chance to grow as a character although some of them were quite tropeish. I wish we got more fluffy dramas that are revolving more about women growing into romantic relationship than multiple retelling of Cinderella waiting for her prince charming to grow up into not being mean jerk.

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At the moment, the best gift dramaland could give me would be a fluffy romcom without the Cinderella subtext. At least Boyfriend/Encounter is giving me a reserve Cinderella. But that's not really fluffy - and there's no com in their rom.

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Thanks, @leetennant! I enjoyed your writing. I agree with what you are saying, but must confess I didn't like I'm Not a Robot nearly as much as most commenters seemed to. I am also not drawn to watch Greasy Melo or Your Honor. I was planning to watch Memories of Alhambra, but am given pause by your description of a potted plant character. Hmm, what to do...

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Thanks so much, Jamie! I'm so glad you liked it.

Considering the very low ratings for I'm Not a Robot, I've been surprised at how much love the show has been getting from people who are not me, Saya and Liquidsoap. It's pretty well my favourite drama but the widespread critical acclaim it's gotten at the end of the year wrap-up has been a surprise (a delightful one). I was expecting more people to pop up and express confusion over the love it was getting - even if I personally think that love is completely deserved.

Regarding the female lead in MoA - I was an early dropper because I couldn't stand the female lead. But now it seems the majority of watchers feel the same way. The show really isn't about her though so some viewers are just ignoring it or fast forwarding her scenes. It might be worth watching a few episodes and just seeing how you feel about her.

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"It might be worth watching a few episodes and just seeing how you feel about her." I'll give it a shot - thanks! :)

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I don't think Memories of the Alhambra is good counter-example.

I don't need that a drama was 50-50 between the female and the male characters. It will depend about the story. In the case of MoA, the story is about the game and the male character, the female character is not very important in the story. The issue is why Park Shin Hye accepted this role? From an actress like her we are excepting more. But if you forget the fact it's Park Shin Hye and you take her character for what it is, I really don't care that she doesn't have more importance. If the genders were reversed, it would be the same for me.

I think I need different things in drama. I love a typical rom-com drama like Clean with Passion for Now from time to time.

But there were a lot of strong women in drama Mr Sunshine, The Guest, Come and Hug Me, Just Dance, Familiar Wife, My Mister.

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@leetennant WOW...if you pull at the thread of your Candy analysis, it unravels to reveal something dark and deeply ingrained within the KDrama world.

****WARNING. Don't read this if you are a happy KDrama beanie

Candy--as you describe--is not just the damsel in distress. In KDramas it is an extension of the "othering" process that appears to be derived from KDrama's version of filial piety. The issues around Candy and KDrama's prevalence of "blaming the victim" only make sense if the filial piety lens includes its negative flip side...If an ill befalls you, your political/family tree was not able to save you and by extension your tree was weak due to its lack of piety. In KDramas, filial piety in not a simple respect relationship. It has been extrapolated to be an unspoken purity test for your existence and your value.

Candy is doubly charged, as a woman in a patriarchal society and as a victim (lack of success). Ironically, even the rescue is a part of the "othering" as it defines a split between "deserving" and the "undeserving" as at its core is the question by the very people doing the "othering": is this woman worthy and pure enough to be saved. History has shown this deserving/undeserving is essential to make "othering" palatable to those in society who themselves will be othered in time.

With the re-emergence of political and social othering in many societies and our understanding of where this can lead, I am finding myself butting up against the inherent differences in values between SK drama and my own.

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So this is the 'potted plant' everyone is referencing! great one ChinguMode!

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Chiming in to say thanks for this really great look into what makes a good female character! I hate the argument that a piece "passes the bechdel test" so it must have good female representation according to some. If you don't mind, I will use your potted plant analogy in the future to explain to them why this is not always the case!

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Please, go ahead. I'd consider it a compliment if you did use it.

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