[2018 Year in Review] I’m not a potted plant
by Guest Beanie
I’m Not a Robot
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.
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.
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.
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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