It’s wholesome, it’s fresh and it’s the latest example of how far K-dramas have come in their portrayal of women.
According to figures released by South Korea’s national broadcaster KBS, over 53% of lead characters in the network’s dramas were female in 2021, a slight increase on its five-year average of 49.8%. On the country’s other networks, the figure was roughly 40% between 2017 and 2020.
“The number of female protagonists on Korean television has become quite high,” said Jacklen Kim, marketing manager at ENA, the channel that originally aired “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” in a phone interview.
Not only are women more visible, they are increasingly being depicted in positions of power, Kim added. Gendered tropes that once dominated the genre are slowly falling out of favor. In 2022 alone, female characters were written into a wide range of roles including a wise queen (“Under the Queen’s Umbrella”) and a tenacious journalist (“Little Women”).
Extraordinary Attorney Woo, starring Park Eun-bin, left, and Ha Yoon-kyung. Credit: AStory/KT Studio Genie/Nangman Crew
Elsewhere, “Our Blues” featured a number of strong female protagonists, including a wealthy head honcho fisherwoman and several “haenyeo,” older female free-divers who harvest mollusks and other sea life in Jeju province. Another of the show’s characters is a high-achieving pregnant high school student who defies her father’s orders by keeping her baby and deciding to attend college while he and her boyfriend take care of the child — a storyline that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
So does growing women’s representation in K-dramas reflect changes within Korean society, the expectations of global audiences or simply TV producers’ attempts to court female viewers?
An arc of one’s own
Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, blatant sexism and even scenes of domestic violence could be seen on South Korean television, according to Park Sung-eun, an executive producer at Studio LuluLala. Among several examples, she cites the country’s longest-running television drama, “Country Diaries,” which aired from 1980 to 2002 and contained scenes of female characters being beaten by their husbands. She also pointed to 2000’s “Autumn in My Heart,” an early international sensation that featured a famous scene in which a major character dramatically pushes his love interest against a wall. The intended effect, Park explained, was for viewers to laugh at or — in the case of “Autumn in My Heart,” even be attracted to — displays of aggression.
Television reflects the times, said Park, who started her career at South Korean broadcaster MBC in 1999. At a time when women were expected to get married in their early 20s, the 26-year-old protagonist in 1994’s “One of a Pair” was considered by other characters to be past her prime. In 2005’s “My Lovely Sam Soon,” the titular character faced similar criticisms aged just 29.
“Nowadays, not only has the average age women get married increased but there is even a word, ‘bihon,’ for women who (willingly) decline to get married,” said Park. “More people understand marriage as an individual choice, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a female character in the past few years who really cares about getting married.”
With marriage no longer necessary for stories to have a happy ending, female characters are increasingly able to have story arcs of their own. Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, said that romance narratives in K-dramas increasingly focus on personal development and friendship.
“While, in the past, there was a somewhat fixed set of character types and tropes — like the spunky working-class heroine meeting a wealthy love interest — these dynamics have become more malleable,” she said via email, citing the recent international hit “Crash Landing on You” as an example. The drama, which achieved record-breaking viewing figures in South Korea, centers on a romantic plot but its heroine is a successful corporate CEO whose work continues despite the unfolding love story, Cho explained.
Shh, it could be feminism
South Korean demonstrators hold banners during a rally to mark International Women’s Day as part of the country’s #MeToo movement in Seoul on March 8, 2018. Credit: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
A still from the movie adaption of “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.” Credit: Lotte Entertainment/Spring Wind Film Co.
An industry insider working for one of Korea’s leading studios told CNN that it is difficult for anyone in the sector to actively describe their productions as feminist. “If, for instance, you use an image that’s interpreted as feminist, it can become very controversial,” explained the person, who asked not to be named due to possible professional repercussions. “And if you apologize for posting a feminist image, then the other side gets very angry and it causes a lot of problems.”
The preferred f-word: Fresh
Some industry experts have argued that Korean dramas are improving their portrayals of women simply because doing so appeals to audiences. ENA marketing manager Kim argues that “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” became popular, primarily, because it was about an underdog triumphing. But the main character being a woman, she said, did add something new. “In Korea, there have been so many shows about male lawyers, so I don’t think another one would have felt as fresh.”
“In the past, men have played everything from detectives to gangsters to judges,” film and TV critic Hwang explained. “They’ve run out of plotlines involving men, so a story does feel fresh just by replacing men’s stories with women’s stories.” She believes studios now feature more women characters to boost ratings, rather than because of progressive politics. But that may not be a bad thing, per se: A female character will, nonetheless, naturally bring women’s issues to the table, she said.
For Hwang, the genre’s next step should be featuring a wider range of body types and physical attributes. “The Korean sense of aesthetics does not allow for someone who is not conventionally beautiful to appear on television, but that will change, too.”
Top image caption: Heroines (left to right) from “Little Women,” “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” and “Our Blues.”