Written by Hahna Yoon, CNNSeoul, South Korea

Certainly one of final yr’s most profitable South Korean TV reveals, “Extraordinary Legal professional Woo,” follows the story of a younger autistic girl, Woo Younger-woo, who navigates maturity whereas profitable circumstances at one of many nation’s prime legislation corporations. Already renewed for a second season, it’s now Netflix’s sixth most-watched non-English tv sequence and was not too long ago nominated for a 2023 Critics’ Alternative Award.

It is healthful, it is contemporary and it is the newest instance of how far Okay-dramas have come of their portrayal of girls.

In line with figures launched by South Korea’s nationwide broadcaster KBS, over 53% of lead characters within the community’s dramas had been feminine in 2021, a slight enhance on its five-year common of 49.8%. On the nation’s different networks, the determine was roughly 40% between 2017 and 2020.

“The variety of feminine protagonists on Korean tv has turn into fairly excessive,” mentioned Jacklen Kim, advertising and marketing supervisor at ENA, the channel that initially aired “Extraordinary Legal professional Woo,” in a telephone interview.

Not solely are ladies extra seen, they’re more and more being depicted in positions of energy, Kim added. Gendered tropes that when dominated the style are slowly falling out of favor. In 2022 alone, feminine characters had been written into a variety of roles together with a sensible queen (“Beneath the Queen’s Umbrella”) and a tenacious journalist (“Little Ladies”).

Extraordinary Legal professional Woo, starring Park Eun-bin, left, and Ha Yoon-kyung. Credit score: AStory/KT Studio Genie/Nangman Crew

Elsewhere, “Our Blues” featured a lot of robust feminine protagonists, together with a rich head honcho fisherwoman and several other “haenyeo,” older feminine free-divers who harvest mollusks and different sea life in Jeju province. One other of the present’s characters is a high-achieving pregnant highschool pupil who defies her father’s orders by maintaining her child and deciding to attend faculty whereas he and her boyfriend maintain the kid — a storyline that may have been unthinkable only a few years in the past.

In actual life, nevertheless, South Korea’s ladies face vital boundaries to equality, and have reported points with sexual harassment, outdated gender stereotypes and different types of discrimination in male-dominated workplaces. The nation ranked 99th out of 146 international locations within the World Financial Discussion board’s 2022 World Gender Hole Index. OECD information discovered that South Korean ladies earn a mean of 31.1% lower than males (the worst gender wage hole of any OECD nation). Feminism, in the meantime, stays a particularly divisive matter.

So does rising ladies’s illustration in Okay-dramas replicate adjustments inside Korean society, the expectations of worldwide audiences or just TV producers’ makes an attempt to courtroom feminine viewers?

An arc of 1’s personal

All through the ’90s and early 2000s, blatant sexism and even scenes of home violence may very well be seen on South Korean tv, in line with Park Sung-eun, an government producer at Studio LuluLala. Amongst a number of examples, she cites the nation’s longest-running tv drama, “Nation Diaries,” which aired from 1980 to 2002 and contained scenes of feminine characters being overwhelmed by their husbands. She additionally pointed to 2000’s “Autumn in My Coronary heart,” an early worldwide sensation that featured a well-known scene by which a serious character dramatically pushes his love curiosity in opposition to a wall. The supposed impact, Park defined, was for viewers to snort at or — within the case of “Autumn in My Coronary heart,” even be interested in — shows of aggression.

Within the latter half of the 2000s, because the style grew to become dominated by romantic comedies, a standard pairing concerned poor ladies with rich males. Whereas there are dozens of examples, some fashionable titles embrace “My Beautiful Sam Quickly” (2005), “Espresso Prince” (2007) and “Boys Over Flowers” (2009). On the time, these explicit dramas had been applauded for defying gender expectations about how ladies ought to costume or act. But, even these standout TV reveals fell again on the concept assembly a wealthy man was the trail to happiness. By the final episode of “Espresso Prince,” as an example, tomboy Eun-chan begins to “costume like a lady” for her boyfriend — inheritor to a household fortune, Han-gyeol — joking with him that every one she wants “is to be fed 4 occasions a day.” (The Cinderella-esque plot has been parodied in quite a few comedy sketches concerning the style, together with a 2016 BuzzFeed video captioned, “It is not a Korean drama with out the wrist seize.”)

Tv displays the occasions, mentioned Park, who began her profession at South Korean broadcaster MBC in 1999. At a time when ladies had been anticipated to get married of their early 20s, the 26-year-old protagonist in 1994’s “Certainly one of a Pair” was thought-about by different characters to be previous her prime. In 2005’s “My Beautiful Sam Quickly,” the titular character confronted related criticisms aged simply 29.

However current years have seen fewer Korean ladies getting married and having kids, whereas those that do are ready longer, prompting frantic authorities efforts to spice up the falling fertility price as a demographic disaster looms.

“These days, not solely has the typical age ladies get married elevated however there may be even a phrase, ‘bihon,’ for ladies who (willingly) decline to get married,” mentioned Park. “Extra individuals perceive marriage as a person selection, so you would be hard-pressed to discover a feminine character previously few years who actually cares about getting married.”

With marriage not obligatory for tales to have a cheerful ending, feminine characters are more and more in a position to have story arcs of their very own. Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Research on the College of Toronto, mentioned that romance narratives in Okay-dramas more and more concentrate on private growth and friendship.

“Whereas, previously, there was a considerably fastened set of character sorts and tropes — just like the spunky working-class heroine assembly a rich love curiosity — these dynamics have turn into extra malleable,” she mentioned by way of e mail, citing the current worldwide hit “Crash Touchdown on You” for example. The drama, which achieved record-breaking viewing figures in South Korea, facilities on a romantic plot however its heroine is a profitable company CEO whose work continues regardless of the unfolding love story, Cho defined.

Shh, it may very well be feminism

Regardless of the consensus that Korean dramas have modified, there may be much less settlement as to why. Specialists CNN spoke to supplied a spread of attainable causes, together with the rising variety of ladies at government ranges of manufacturing, extra streaming platforms and new TV channels, elevated ladies’s participation within the labor pressure, altering household dynamics, the affect of overseas media on writers and better web entry making it simpler for ladies to present suggestions on TV reveals. Self-described feminists, like popular culture critic Hwang Jin-mi and screenwriter Kim Hyo-min, additionally level to the nation’s newest wave of feminism.In 2016, the brutal homicide of a girl in a rest room in Seoul’s Gangnam district ignited a motion that has been described because the nation’s “feminism reboot.” Additional fueled by the worldwide #MeToo motion, the push for change has been marked by thousands-strong protests, political division and pushback from a equally vocal males’s rights motion.

South Korean demonstrators maintain banners throughout a rally to mark Worldwide Ladies’s Day as a part of the nation’s #MeToo motion in Seoul on March 8, 2018. Credit score: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Pictures

Korean dramas have lengthy been written and seen by ladies, Hwang mentioned over the telephone. (In 2018, the nation’s Broadcast Writers’ Union estimated that 94.6% of TV screenwriters are ladies.) However on account of the “feminist reboot,” she added, ladies really feel solidarity with each other and are extra empowered to specific their issues about gender points, with tales addressing these matters notably resonating with feminine audiences. This was mirrored a yr after the Gangnam homicide, Hwang mentioned, when ladies rushed to buy “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” — a guide about an abnormal housewife battling melancholy, gender discrimination and inequality. The feminist novel grew to become a world best-seller and was tailored into a success film in 2019. The success of each the guide and film demonstrated ladies’s buying energy, Hwang added.

A nonetheless from the film adaption of “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.” Credit score: Lotte Leisure/Spring Wind Movie Co.

In a restaurant in Gangnam, one of many tailored screenplay’s writers, Kim Hyo-min, additionally reiterated the significance of “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982,” attributing the novel’s success to the craving of on a regular basis ladies to have their anxieties acknowledged. “In the present day’s ladies do not simply need to see ladies portrayed favorably,” she added. “They need to see ladies who can do something — even when that is lie, cheat and battle for energy.”Hwang, who evaluations Korean dramas for numerous publications as a contract movie and TV critic, mentioned the query of whether or not reveals could be thought-about feminist relies on if feminine characters have management over their lives and the way they’re represented — together with measures just like the Bechdel take a look at, which asks whether or not two feminine characters have conversations about one thing aside from a person. However she believes TV networks are upset by the “feminist” label — one she would apply to reveals like “Extraordinary Legal professional Woo” — though it may be meant as a praise.

An trade insider working for one in every of Korea’s main studios advised CNN that it’s troublesome for anybody within the sector to actively describe their productions as feminist. “If, as an example, you utilize a picture that is interpreted as feminist, it might probably turn into very controversial,” defined the individual, who requested to not be named as a consequence of attainable skilled repercussions. “And should you apologize for posting a feminist picture, then the opposite facet will get very indignant and it causes numerous issues.”

Korean manufacturing corporations — like different companies attempting to succeed in a broad mainstream viewers — usually keep away from being related to feminism as a result of it’s such a polarizing concern, College of Toronto’s Cho mentioned. In contrast to in North America, the place the “feminist” label is usually thought-about optimistic, the time period is often used pejoratively to connote misandry in South Korea, she added.

The popular f-word: Recent

Some trade consultants have argued that Korean dramas are enhancing their portrayals of girls just because doing so appeals to audiences. ENA advertising and marketing supervisor Kim argues that “Extraordinary Legal professional Woo” grew to become fashionable, primarily, as a result of it was about an underdog triumphing. However the principle character being a girl, she mentioned, did add one thing new. “In Korea, there have been so many reveals about male legal professionals, so I do not suppose one other one would have felt as contemporary.”

“Up to now, males have performed all the things from detectives to gangsters to judges,” movie and TV critic Hwang defined. “They’ve run out of plotlines involving males, so a narrative does really feel contemporary simply by changing males’s tales with ladies’s tales.” She believes studios now function extra ladies characters to spice up rankings, fairly than due to progressive politics. However that is probably not a foul factor, per se: A feminine character will, nonetheless, naturally carry ladies’s points to the desk, she mentioned.

For Hwang, the style’s subsequent step needs to be that includes a wider vary of physique sorts and bodily attributes. “The Korean sense of aesthetics doesn’t enable for somebody who will not be conventionally stunning to seem on tv, however that may change, too.”

These altering values have already been felt past South Korea’s borders as Okay-dramas develop in reputation abroad.In India, the place the urge for food for Korean reveals has exploded lately, audiences have been drawn to the energy of feminine protagonists, with every day newspaper The Hindu describing them as “unimaginable ladies” with sexual company. “In a society rife with social taboos fairly like our personal, dewy-eyed younger ladies get thus far and ultimately marry males their mother and father whole-heartedly disapprove of,” wrote journalist Sheila Kumar. In Tatler Asia journal’s roundup of inspirational Korean drama leads, Filipino author Jianne Soriano wrote, “On the earth of Korean dramas … One factor we are able to depend on seeing ladies run the world, whether or not it is by standing as much as these in energy or subverting society’s expectations on how a girl needs to be.”For some, nevertheless, these reveals can spotlight the disparity between ladies’s lives as portrayed in dramas and the realities of right this moment’s South Korea. As the author Tammy Kim mentioned on the podcast she co-hosts, “Time to Say Goodbye,” reveals like “Extraordinary Lawyer Woo” have the potential to set unrealistic expectations in knowledgeable sphere rife with gender inequalities. “If there are any ladies legal professionals who’re like, ‘I must go there (South Korea) so I could be the agency accomplice,'” she advised listeners, “do not go there.”

High picture caption: Heroines (left to proper) from “Little Ladies,” “Extraordinary Legal professional Woo,” “Beneath the Queen’s Umbrella” and “Our Blues.”

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