Balance is overrated. I mean, there’s a reason why How to get away with murder is a TV series and not a course in college, if you catch my drift. There are some things we can only get away with in fiction, but of late, a huge chunk of popular media has caught the epidemic of petrifying self-awareness (Katy Waldman calls it the reflexivity trap), reaching a stasis with characters debilitatingly in their own heads so that the mental gymnastics far outweighs plot and action. The form is the mindscape and while that is a powerful technique sometimes (case in point: Euphoria), it often ends up in a vicious circle of to-do-or-not-to-do.
But for all the non-Hamlet enthusiasts, K-dramas provide a respite with the conspicuous “crazy woman’s” assent from the sassy side chick or the doomed antagonist to the main lead. While there is a long history of popular media that features a corrupted male protagonist in a redemption arc or a picaresque, the female counterpart of this unrepentant less-than-socially-prim-and-proper psyche has been largely counter-positioned vis-à-vis ‘virtue-rewarded’ to a ruinous defeat or at best, thrown into the hands of a disarming brat tamer under the guise of being romantically rewarded for curbing their disposition.
Amidst the throes of tooth-rotting moralism, I have come to relish the gun-brandishing Man-wol and stepped-straight-out-of-the pages-of-a-Victorian-fantasy Moon-young. Korean dramas are sawing off the crazy-in-a-quirky-way or clumsy-but-cute manacles to progress towards more complex and nuanced characterizations of their heroines and I’m here for it. Salute to Rae-won (Doctors) and Bok-Joo (Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo) for shining light on the path.
My love affair began with Ji Sun-woo’s riveting crash and burn in The World of the Married where, instead of succumbing to her (ex) husband’s games or remaining cool-as-cucumber unaffected, the successful doctor tackles every bull by the horn. Be it out of an overarching maternal instinct or a not-so-noble ravaging desire, she doesn’t shy away from even resorting to trickery à la Gone Girl in a breathtaking fall-from-grace plot.
Itaewon Class was a gust of fresh air straight from the Himalayas when I was proven wrong about Soo-ah being the female lead. In comes Jo Yi-seo, a blazing 18-year-old who doesn’t take to self-censorship to fit in and is confident in her unconventional career choice. The iffy romance doesn’t take away from our kinda adorable borderline-sociopath’s personality- she may be the key to Sae Ro-yi’s success but isn’t defined by it and refuses to be set aside for even a moment. Yi-seo knows her worth and doesn’t give into the inertia of heartbreak. Kim Da-mi’s invigorating presence is vital in rescuing the show from falling into a hackneyed underdog plot. One of my qualms with this trope being elitism, hinting that a ruffled personality is a risk only loaded women can take, Yi-seo’s grit and hubris are held even dearer.
She saunters in with a Siberian tiger in tow and wields a shotgun with the practiced ease of a marine. Jang Man-wol is Hotel del Luna’s boss, straddling time and space while indulging in material pleasures, unabashedly.
A children’s book author with a penchant for gore? I’m hooked! It’s okay to not be okay wrapped up a murder mystery, trauma and healing in fairytale gossamer, delivered by the feisty Ko Moon-young, a prolific creative who’s a collector of all-things-pointy on the side. And as much as I adore Kim Soo-hyun, I was miffed by his character psychoanalysing her obviously superior wardrobe choices as camouflage and overcompensation. Over-dressing, my pals, is a social construct.
Female sexual liberation wrestles patriarchal pacification to the ground. Femininity achieves a more wholesome, zingy picture with the heroines being able to embrace their animus. Their journeys do not climax to a crucible where they can only choose to be one thing, they’re allowed to bloom as multifaceted human beings. We have come a long way from the fates of Baek In-ha (Cheese in the Trap), Seo Young-woo (The Secret Affair) and Veronica Park (The Secret Life of my Secretary) who are ‘punished’ and tamed or exploited as comic relief.
Perfection isn’t always desirable. Even if these heroines are ultimately soaked up in a romance plot, it gives hope that you don’t have to be perfectly likeable with all your rough edges sanded down to be loved. You’ll find people who’ll embrace you, fire and brimstone and all.
Does this sea-change follow the external stimulus of the k-dramas’ introduction to varied demographics riding the newest Hallyu wave or the internal mechanism of more women being involved behind the scenes (three of the four aforementioned k-dramas have female writers)? Whatever the reason, fiery women with captivating screen presence are surely my not-so-guilty pleasure!