K-drama: The women pushing boundaries on TV

Many Korean television series – or K-dramas – now feature complex and powerful female characters, reflecting momentous changes in society and media habits.

K-dramas are now just as likely to have a female lead as a male. One of this year’s biggest hits, The Glory, was about a woman taking revenge against her bullies, and the hugely popular Extraordinary Attorney Woo featured an autistic female lawyer.

Women’s roles in K-drama weren’t always this interesting. Traditionally made to be watched by the whole family, nowadays shows even have the odd sex scene – and taboos like bisexual relationships and older people having love lives are being broken.

“In the 1990s Korean dramas were mainly about chaebol – rich heirs – loving poor women,” says Hong Eun-mi, vice-chair of the Korean Screenwriters’ Association.

Dramas such as Boys Over Flowers, in which spoiled rich heirs fell for plucky, working-class girls, were typical. The genre was known as “Candy girl” – named after the Japanese anime Candy Candy, about a cheerful, hard-working orphan girl waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet.

A painting of the anime character Candy Candy hangs in a Seoul art gallery
Image caption,A painting of Candy Candy hangs in a Seoul art gallery

“That’s not the case now,” says Hong. “The female protagonist has changed – she’s very independent, has a professional job, and is not really bothered by marriage.”

And even though dramas still love rich and powerful characters, they can now be women, too – like in Crash Landing On You, a huge global hit about an implausible, cross-border romance.

The actress and singer Uhm Jung-hwa, one of the most powerful women in Korean entertainment, says the spotlight rarely shone on women in the ’90s, when women’s “life goals boiled down to finding the perfect man”.

“Now we can see many strong female characters boldly embracing life on their own terms, and I feel fortunate and happy to be able to tell women’s stories, even at my age.”

Uhm Jung-hwa
Image caption,The actress and singer Uhm Jung-hwa has been called “Korea’s Madonna”

The 54-year-old has just starred in Doctor Cha, a Netflix series about a middle-aged woman who decides to complete her medical training and start work after 20 years of looking after her ungrateful family.

“Doctor Cha chooses to pursue her dreams, saying that she’s done her part as a mum. Her journey is incredibly inspiring,” says Uhm.

The idea of a middle-aged woman as the lead would have been unthinkable when she started her career.

“Once you hit 30, you couldn’t land a leading role. If you were over 35, you were often typecast as the mother figure in a family,” she says. “Even really talented and beautiful women would vanish from the screen because of their age.”

Doctor Cha
Image caption,Doctor Cha decides to finish her medical training after 20 years of being a housewife

Uhm thinks the shift in women’s representation is thanks to South Korea’s extraordinary economic development, which has seen GDP per capita soar from $400 (£320) to about $35,000 (£27,730) in half a century. This has led to changes in society – including the social standing of women.

“Korean women are highly educated and want social success rather than marriage and childbirth – but there are some problems,” says Hong, the scriptwriter.

South Korea now has the lowest birth rate in the world and scores very low on measures of women’s equality. Korean women are paid a third less on average than their male counterparts.

But on screen, at least, women are taking charge.

Forbes’ K-drama critic Joan MacDonald credits the move away from Cinderella stories to the changing landscape of Korean television, with cable channels and streaming platforms willing to take more risks – 2016 was the first year that Netflix invested in a Korean drama: Kingdom, a historical zombie saga, where a woman played one of the leads.

By 2019, there were more workplace dramas and stories that involved women having influence in courts and in politics, even in historical dramas.

“You started to see a lot more women with jobs, women solving problems that had nothing to do with men,” MacDonald says.

Covid lockdown accelerated change – a combination of video on-demand streaming and people consuming more from home trebled K-drama viewership during the pandemic.

This year half of the K-dramas MacDonald reviewed had strong female characters, which was quite a departure.

“I’m not sure it completely reflects what’s going on in Korean society – http://berikanlah.com/ but dramas certainly are leading the way.”

She is reminded of how people in apartheid South Africa saw black middle-class characters for the first time on TV, when watching the Cosby show – “they had never seen black people as professionals before, and it actually influenced society”, she says.

Female superheroes

Drama writer Baek Mi-kyoung has pioneered female narratives on Korean television, and her shows often tackle taboo subjects.

“With every show I try to break boundaries,” she says.

Baek Mi-kyoung
Image caption,Baek Mi-kyoung has pioneered strong female characters in hits like The Lady in Dignity and Strong Girl Bong-soon

Baek’s highly-rated 2021 drama Mine featured a love story between two women, the first depiction of bisexuality on Korean TV – it was well-received, despite some angry letters.

But getting women’s stories on air has not always been easy. Baek’s acclaimed 2017 series The Lady in Dignity was repeatedly rejected by broadcasters.

“They thought that a story about two middle-aged women would not be commercially successful,” she says.

It was only after she had a huge hit with Strong Girl Bong-soon – about a girl from a family where all women inherit supernatural strength – that Korean broadcaster JTBC finally took a punt on Lady in Dignity. The series went on to beat the viewing records Strong Girl Bong-soon had just broken.

“I faced significant opposition to this project, but luckily, it was a big hit,” Baek says.

“Since my drama, female characters have become more proactive and empowered and very cool and independent. But I’m not satisfied yet. I want to be game-changing.”

Strong Girl Nam-soon sitting under a home-made yurt in a park in Seoul
Image caption,Like all the women in her family, Strong Girl Nam-soon is born with superhuman strength

In her latest comedy series, about another female superhero, Strong Girl Nam-soon, she decided to tackle a different TV taboo: older people in love.

“Korean audiences are crazy about romantic comedies, but only for young people. It’s a contradiction – most viewers sitting in front of the TV are seniors, but they don’t love senior love,” she says.

She says she was asked not to write about older people’s sex lives because it was feared viewers would switch off.

“But an older woman has a right to love in their life,” Baek says.

So her character, Nam-soon’s equally strong grandmother – played by 67-year-old Kim Hae-sook – falls in love with a barista, and at one point even carries her beau into a hotel, over her shoulder.

In the show, the grandmother says she has stopped watching Korean dramas because they only show young people in love. “Seniors have hearts too – their breasts may be sagging, but their hearts are beating,” her character says.

“That is an important message for me to send,” says Baek.

Super-strong grandmother Gil Joong-gan lifting huge dumbbells
Image caption,Super-strong grandmother Gil Joong-gan falls in love with a barista

She had ambitions to write the “first female generation superhero series” – but a very small budget limited what they could do with special effects. “There is a big difference between Marvel and my stories,” she sighs.

“It is difficult to receive investment for a script featuring a woman,” says Hong, who writes for both film and television. “When a woman is the main character, the budget is very small. I am very disappointed by that.”

Her own debut 2016 film, Missing, was about a workaholic, divorced mother’s desperate search for her kidnapped daughter. “I’m really proud of myself because I made a movie with female protagonists,” she says.

During the pandemic Korea’s movie industry slumped, while K-drama viewership rose sharply. Streaming services provided freedom of expression and big budgets, and many filmmakers started making K-dramas. The gap between K-drama and cinema has narrowed, with dramas such as Squid Game – a hyper-violent dystopian thriller and Netflix’s most-viewed show ever – actually being made by filmmakers.

The Netflix series "Squid Game" is played on a mobile phone
Image caption,The dystopian series Squid Game is the most watched in Netflix history

Before Covid, more than 80 big-budget movies were made per year – but this year only six, Hong says. “For the filmmakers it is a very sad story, but it’s good for Korean content, I think.”

Investment from streaming platforms, and with it change, looks set to continue. Netflix is planning to invest another $2.5bn – 60% of its subscribers saw a Korean drama in 2022. Disney, Amazon Prime and others are also ploughing cash in.

Hong says she no longer has to think about the budget when she writes – but at the same time, she worries that quieter, female narratives could be pushed aside to make action-packed shows in what she calls “the Squid Game effect”.

“I feel they want more and more of that for the audience. Women writers get a bit sick of it,” she says.

Squid Game would not have been made unless Netflix had invested money in it because it was deemed “too violent and strange” for terrestrial television in Korea, says MacDonald.

She can already see that streaming is changing K-dramas. “I started watching them 14 years ago and there was a lot less violence, there was a lot less sex – you had to wait until episode 10 to get a kiss, and that’s certainly not the case any more.”

Women are taking part in the violence too. My Name, a hard-hitting drama about a policeman’s daughter seeking revenge for her father’s death, had lots of fighting – and even a sex scene.

Short presentational grey line
Minha Kim and Uhm Jung-hwa
Image caption,Leading ladies Minha Kim and Uhm Jung-hwa
Short presentational grey line

K-dramas are famously chaste, which is part of their global appeal.

“Women don’t generally have free and enjoyable sex lives in K-dramas,” says MacDonald – but that, too, is changing.

And K-dramas are beginning to depict different genders and sexuality in a positive way.

Itaewon Class characters chef Ma Hyun-yi and her friend Choi Seung-kwon
Image caption,Itaewon Class features a transgender chef, played by Lee Joo-young

The hit drama Itaewon Class featured a transgender character who was treated with respect. The show was adapted from a webtoon – a comic designed to be read vertically on a smartphone – which often have millions of international fans, acting as a sort of barometer for any drama reversion.

Minyoung Alissia Hong, an executive at Kakao Entertainment who was behind the adaptation, says this popularity comes with increased responsibility.

“We need to be very careful not to offend any audience globally,” she says.

“Korean dramas used to have much more aggressive male characters when it comes to romantic scenes. It was something that we identified as a risk, so we dealt with it before it turned out to be problematic.”

Alissia Hong feels that K-dramas and K-pop actually show that men don’t have to be macho. “You can be very sensitive but you can still be a cool character,” she says.

Itaewon Class stars
Image caption,The hit drama Itaewon Class was based on a webtoon

Even though the classic K-drama hero starts off as “kind of arrogant”, MacDonald says that one of the things she first liked was seeing men cry and express their feelings.

“I think one of the reasons women are drawn to K-dramas is the way they portray men,” she says. “They might pretend to be macho at the beginning, but inside they’re tender, and very romantic.”

She hopes K-drama “doesn’t change too much because we like it for what it is”.

But she says: “Perhaps it is time for men to take note of what women’s fantasies entail. Women have been catering to men’s fantasies for centuries.”

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