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Feature: Into the feminiverse, women in Kdramas

Into the feminiverse

Given that most of the hit Korean dramas (Kdramas) are written by women, the feminist gaze trained on both characters and stories comes as no surprise

I began to watch Kdramas just this January.  Fifty-six Kdramas down, my one major takeaway is that it`s a world full of women. Sweet women, nasty women, naively innocent women, conniving women, the  whole gamut of femininity. Women who indulge in intensely feminine pleasures like the gaze resting on a fresh bloom or the side profile of a loved one. Women who serve haejang (hangover) soup to other women the morning after a liquid binge.

These women have sexual agency and happily jump their romantic interest`s bones at times. Let`s go to bed, they suggest. Let`s live together, they suggest. The noonas (elder sisters, though not always related) manage to land their younger  swains. In a society rife with social taboos rather like our own, dewy-eyed young women get to date and eventually marry men their parents whole- heartedly disapprove of. Some women get to keep children born out of wedlock. High-spirited in a culture that celebrates restraint, basically, these are incredible women.

And depicted in drama after drama, they are  part of a gang, girl gang or  mixed gang, the former a vibrant hurrah to friendships between women who laugh together, weep together, bicker and make up, have each other`s backs.


Kim Yeo-jin in Vincenzo.


Warts and all

It’s a quiet empowerment for some, an urgent grab  at what`s rightfully theirs for  others. Since food is a huge and hugely enjoyable feature of Korean lives/Kdramas, you get food  scenes aplenty but often, the female lead is professedly hopeless when it comes to cooking, so the male lead either happily cooks and serves dishes like jjangmyeon, japchae, gimbap and the ubiquitous kimchi  or tolerates her enthusiastic burnt offerings with nary a flinch. One game fellow actually goes to his wife`s village and helps her parents and their neighbours prepare kimchi!

Very many of the writers and their teams are female, writing these dramas for a largely female audience, so it`s no big surprise that there are some strong women onscreen. There`s Park Ji Eun who wrote the mega hits Crash Landing On YouThe Legend Of The Blue Sea,  My Love From The Star; Park Hye Ryun, who wrote While You were Sleeping;  the Hong sisters (Hong Jung Eun and Hong Mi Ran) of My Girlfriend is a Gumiho and Hotel Del Luna; Kim Eun Sook who wrote the clever The King: Eternal Monarch as well as other huge-hit dramas like Mr. Sunshine, GoblinDescendants Of The SunThe HeirsSecret Garden; Lee Woo Jung of the instantly recognisable and instantly loveable  Reply 1997, Reply 1994, Reply 1988, Hospital Playlist, as well as several others.

Seo Hyun-jin in and as Another Oh Hae Young.

No excuses

These writers make no excuses for the way their female characters behave. There are mothers who wail, go fulltime melo, even slap their grown- up kids around. There are petulant chaebols, not so young women who face down poverty and work their way up,  women  who hold down jobs  in one country  and boyfriends  in another. There are women who fall for bad `uns… who don`t reform themselves by episode 16! There are female leads who themselves are regular bad `uns;  lion-hearted stuntwomen; spoilt brats who remain spoilt brats; weightlifters aiming for an Oly medal.

There are victims of marital abuse who either escape their hell, stay on taking all the abuse or avenge themselves. The men cry and suffer palpably, which may be  wishful thinking but definitely  raises a cheer from  women viewers!

These women characters are given strong brushstrokes at the start of the drama and then pointillist accretions happen all through,  till we get a detailed picture, warts and all. We wince at the way they behave sometimes, we roll our eyes in exasperation at the lifestyle choices they make,  but deep down we are rooting for them. We crack up at their wit, we grin at their exuberance, we smile in understanding at their reserve. We understand their caution, their hesitation, their longings…we understand these women. Because they are us, in another country, speaking another language.

And so,  the so-called gentler sex who IRL have to deal with harsh realities like gender discrimination, sexual harassment,  who are treated like second class citizens in ways subtle and obvious,  find these Kdramas a sweet escape, rather like Mills & Boon romances used to be. What better morale-booster than to show strong women reaching into themselves for the resources to face down adversity, for the guts to grab life opportunities as they pass by, to come up trumps in love, at work, at home, on the streets? Now that’s a meaningful Utopia.

Park Bo-young in and as Strong Girl Bong-soon.

Loved in India

These women resonate big-time with Kdrama watchers in India. Ask why and the answers run thus: they have independence, hopes and dreams that rise above the romance track; they are not there just to make the male lead look good; the women take centre-stage in the dramas. Even as the plot dwells on their soft, empathic, emotional side, their strengths are revealed in reveals small and big as the story progresses.

It`s not like other language dramas don’t make shows like these. It`s just that Kdramas seem to be a constant celebration of the feminiverse.

This appeared in the Society section of The Hindu on 14 January 2022.

Lee Sung-kyung in and as Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo.

(All pics from the Internet.)

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Sheila Kumar • January 15, 2022

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