The glamorization of overwork
When I’m not lost in the world of dramas, I’m usually reading, and lately it’s been some interesting research around the culture of rest versus the culture of overwork. As a society, are our values shifting more from one to the other? Do we reward overwork differently than we reward rest? Do we prize rest, or do we wear a golden badge of exhaustion?
Because all things can be boiled down to their core in dramaland, I started thinking about how work versus rest are portrayed in K-dramas — and even what the industry behind drama production tells us about the all too frequent glamorization of overwork.
The first bit of dramaland evidence is in the quintessential Candy character. She is, without much deviation, a toiling, exhausted part-timer who is working herself to the bone. Whether it’s to pay off her parents’ debt, or pay her way through school to better herself, there’s no plight we’re meant to identify with as much as this one. Nor, I would argue, is there a drama stereotype that’s quite as frequent.
I’m (impatiently) awaiting the rest of Netflix’s Love Alarm, so that drama comes into my head first when looking for recent Candy-like characters. But pick a drama, any drama, and there’s a pretty big chance you’ll find a Candy heroine — and if not a full-blown stereotype, some of the characteristics will at least be present and accounted for.
But what is this trope really about? What’s the message behind it? Why do writers love it so much that they’ll keep creating different versions of these female leads again and again? To answer this question, we have to think about the end result for these heroines: Candys are rewarded.
Regardless of how stale (or sometimes fresh) these Candy characters might be, their end point is always the same. (I’m sure there are some outliers, but most are pretty consistent.) Their hard work pays off. Their struggle is rewarded. Their suffering leads to victory. Whether someone recognized their effort, fell in love with them, slapped a fix on their problem, or helped them regain their emotional footing, Candys always end up in a better spot than they started. And that’s the point.
Not to make it look like the glamorization of overwork is centered around female characters alone, there’s a similar character stereotype that’s made for our heroes: the hardworking CEO. This character type puts work above all else — he might have a good heart and good motives, but he doesn’t mind working himself (and everyone around him) to death. He’s either striving for success, or striving to stay on top. Either way, there’s striving. And striving is the opposite of rest.
Our CEO stereotype often has to go through a process of softening and unlearning, but generally he meets a happy, rewarding ending as well. But was it his hard work that got him there? Or was his reward the cessation of that hard work?
This brings us to another examination of glamorized overwork in dramas, and that’s best seen through its representation of corporate life and culture. No matter the genre (rom-com, slice-of-life, legal thriller), you will undoubtedly find characters that come to the office early, leave last, work all weekend, nosebleed over their stacks of paperwork, and yes, they even work in the pitch dark after the office building has been shut down for the night. (The mirror image of this setup is also seen in school-centric dramas, too. Just replace studying with work, and the office for the library, and you have a very similar equation.)
Watching someone strive towards a goal and then succeed is not only one of the most traditional, but one of the most gratifying kinds of stories to engage with. In fact, this kind of “meritocracy” we see in dramas is one of the first things that lured me in. Work hard, put in all your effort, and you will be rewarded. Dramaland guarantees victory because victory is based on merit, and merit alone. And according to this logic, who deserves success more than the young orphan fighting for his/her goals, the office worker putting in the hours, or the executive who puts his company’s health above his own?
We’ve looked at some of the overworking long-suffering character archetypes in dramaland, but you don’t have to be a Candy or a CEO to strive and suffer in dramaland. In fact, it’s pretty reasonable to conclude that dramas teach us broadly about the value of hard work. Like Kim Da-mi said in her opening scenes in Itaewon Class, the way to be successful is to “work hard and study hard.” There’s no other road to success in her mind except effort.
This message can be (and has been for me) a source of encouragement — I know I’ve cheered myself on with a Hwaiting! more times than I can count, and taken heart in the fact that I, too, was a heroine gritting her teeth and soldiering on.
But what if this message doesn’t really show us the whole picture? Working, and working hard, is admirable and desirable — but shouldn’t taking rest be the same? Strange though it is, I can’t think of many dramas that talk about rest.
Of course, we can’t talk about overwork — or lack of rest — in dramas without looking at the actual production process behind them. We’ve heard the story over and over again: idols, actors, staff, and crew, worked to the point of breaking down. Most recently it was Sohn Ye-jin on the set of Crash Landing on You, but there’s a whole string of actors who have pushed themselves past their edge in the name of hard work, diligence, and responsibility.
It’s more than a little ironic that an entertainment media famous for overworking its cast and crew can actually provide hours of rest (as in restful entertainment) for its audiences. It’s even more ironic that stories of toil and struggle are the ones we most often watch as entertainment. So, what’s the takeaway?
To be inspired to press on, try hard, and endure is a great message, and one that we don’t easily tire of. The hundreds of stories about struggling, toiling, overworking heroes and heroines are proof of this. In the struggle lies the story.
But, as the audience of these stories, we also have to make sure we take them with a grain of salt. They’re created for drama. They create moments, whether it’s contention that pushes the plot forward, or the midnight office hours that bring our lead characters together.
Getting a nosebleed, fainting from overwork, or taking care of your boss’s pet fish before you take care of yourself — these are not actually healthy ways to live. Dramas might use these events as devices to show us how much effort our lead character is putting into their work, but the reality is quite different. For instance, real-life surgeons sleep for as long as they can before they head to the OR for an important surgery. When have we seen anything close to that in dramaland? Dramaland gives us entertaining and even delightful scenarios to relate to and enjoy — but they’re just that: drama. They’re a recipe cooked up to create a good (and sometimes even great) story.
As you look back on your drama travels, do you find you’ve been influenced by the glamorization of overwork? Whether you see a battle of work versus rest in dramas, in society, or don’t pay much attention to it at all — the question of effort, struggle, and work remains a central storytelling device in dramaland.