The way women are portrayed in Korean dramas can vary greatly from drama to drama. They can be righteous badasses or dumbass fools. I’ve created 6 distinct types of these portrayals and ranked them on a scale from 0-5. Most of my favorite dramas have a rating of 3 or 4 and I’ve never, ever been able to give a drama a 5.
Woman rights in Korean dramas is a complicated thing to talk about. It’s deeply tied to Confucianism and tradition and as a Westerner I’m not familiar with them to comment. However, while there’s not a lot of Mad Men, America-in-the-50’s type treatment of females Korean dramas do a good job of showing physically and emotionally abusive relationships under a rose colored lens.
Lead males in dramas often are the ones who control the physical space. They are often grab wrists and pin the arms of women to keep them from leaving, seduce them, or “comfort” them. The odd thing about how this is portrayed in a drama is that it is something that the viewer is made to desire. The characters are caught in a situation where the female is very upset and the male lead needs to physically dominate her in order to give her the comfort she “needs” or “wants”. In this situation there are two things working against the portrayal of females 1) the image of the female as an emotional and mercurial being that needs to be controlled and 2) the image of the male as the more rational being and the only one who can control the female.
Another situation in Korean dramas that often leads to the physical dominance of females by males is the “shipping” of couples. In almost all Korean dramas there is a male and female character that are designed to end up together. The pattern is incredibly predictable and fans often like to“ship” couples aka: acknowledge and approve of the main couple in the drama. A lot of the time these couples don’t get together until late in the drama, about episode 8-14, depending on how many episodes it has. So, before they do get together the male in this “fated” couple has a lot of leeway to do what he wants. He can be a dick, he can sexually harass her at work, and he can invade her physical space. She can say no all she wants but in the end she’ll take it.
Men’s physical dominance in dramas essentially takes away the right of woman to lead their own sexual identity. Woman in dramas are often non-sexual and opposed to physical contact. Now, this does not legitimize the dominance of male characters but often people in healthy long term relationships are more affectionate, have pet names for each other kiss passionately, and have healthy sexual relationships. (Listen to this article from On Point) However in Korean dramas the chemistry between the main characters is often non-existent and most kisses look like two planks of wood hitting each other in slow motion. This might be because of the censoring on the main channels, bad acting, or it might just look weird to me because of the difference between American and Korean cultures but the result is an image that tells young impressionable women that in order to be good people, wives, or mothers they have to be neither passionate nor sexual.
While I do see this trend in a lot of dramas I’m excited to see a few that do not follow these rules. Dramas where couples kiss passionately, have sex, and don’t end up with the person you think they will. Dramas where woman take on the old notion that they are too emotional or not fit to lead. Where woman have healthy relationships and have equal control over their physical and emotional space. It’s still very rare that I’ll give one a 5 rating but as long as more dramas get 3 and 4’s I’ll keep tracking them.