Problematic sex appeal of K-dramas: Why are we obsessed with fatphobic, sexist shows romanticizing masculinity?
K-dramas have a long way to go before becoming inclusive of colored people but a burgeoning Western fanbase could pressurize them into evolving faster
Until five years ago, Korean media was littered with anecdotes about "anjeon ibeol" or "safe breakup" – a term highlighting growing fear among young girls over being stalked, verbally abused or being secretly filmed and photographed, only for the content to be leaked by an ex.
Chosun Weekly’s "Five things I want to tell my daughter about breaking up safely" even went on to list tips such as "don’t say goodbye in a private place alone" and "threaten to call the cops if he stalks you". It's no secret that South Korea’s longstanding tradition of sexual conservatism is largely a result of the patriarchal culture of Confucianism, a behavioral system originating in ancient China. However, the bourgeoning popularity of K-dramas worldwide has reinforced concerns that have plagued feminists in the region for decades.
For starters, the romanticization of casual sexism did not raise eyebrows as long as K-dramas were limited to Asian popularity, even though shows like 'Boys Over Flowers' were being excessively consumed by Japanese, Filipino and Chinese audiences. The Seoul chapter of the Young Women's Christian Association criticized the 2009 series for being an epitome of "the damsel in distress" complex. It said that the show sets a bad example for K-dramas by portraying school violence and teenagers indulging in prejudice toward others based on their appearance and social class. The report also singled out the leading female character, Geum Jan-di, for being passive and dependent, but that didn't stop the show from receiving the highest viewership ever in K-drama history – 2.4 billion viewers worldwide, according to AsianWiki.
Right up to 2010, TV dramas from the region were compared to Spanish telenovelas and considered "too soapy for the mature American or British viewer". Korean TV shows were never analyzed in-depth due to language barriers. This changed when the US, Canada, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand were struck by the K-Wave, primarily due to the K-pop boom and 'Gangnam Style' going viral in 2012. Media houses began commissioning large scale subtitling projects for OTT streaming platforms, which marked the beginning of a new soft power that would generate millions of dollars for the Korean government.
By 2018, one member in eight out of nine American households was watching K-dramas every day, with Top 10 Netflix shows across English-speaking countries featuring at least four K-dramas, Reel Runner reported. The South Korean government raised a $1 billion fund to nurture popular culture through corporate giants sustaining this K-Wave, which eventually contributed to a 1% increase in the country’s GDP.
Thanks largely to their release on the global streaming platform Netflix, 'My Holo Love', 'Something in the Rain' and more recently, 'It’s Okay to not be Okay' have quickly become international hits. While they are praised for addressing social ills like the monopolization of chaebols or family-owned conglomerates, they are put on a pedestal because each K-drama portrays at least one romantic journey over 16-24 episodes. This appeals remarkably to a teen female viewership and extends up to women of 35 years, JTBC states. While the fan following is immense, the genre's viral content has now come under the scanner for alluding audiences to start believing that the crossing of boundaries they see on-screen are acceptable romantic gestures in real life too.
A "superior gentleman" or Chun-tze forms the central character. He is characterized by a ruler, perfect husband or even "oppa" – a contemporary term whose meaning has evolved from "brother" to "idol" and now "boyfriend", assuming he is superior in the authoritative spectrum. A popular trope in K-dramas is a faux Cinderella story where a rich, powerful guy falls for a poor feisty girl. This gentleman has had a heart of gold all along and it's the "inferior" woman who brings that out of him. While it's immensely satisfying to watch the couple fall in love and overcome odds, a power imbalance is always present. Another prevalent character is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a beautiful, eccentric, fantasy woman-of-sorts who saves the male protagonist from himself. She usually aides in his transformation without showing any real agency of her own.
If you’re watching K-dramas at the lightening speed at which Netflix is releasing them, you’ll instantly recognize that first mannequin doll-like kiss that always catches the female lead completely off guard and keeps her frozen in place, eyes wide open. "Grabbing her wrist and pulling her around is romanticized on screen. We know the two will ultimately live happily ever after, so we gush over moments that clearly indicate a lack of consent," a viewer on Korea Women’s Hotline wrote.
Hongkong’s Netizenbuzz explains that by allowing two people in love "to grab wrists and push someone forcefully, K-dramas also sexualize male ego" – all while staying true to the philosophies of Confucianism: Chaste women, patriarchal dominance and always saving your v-card until marriage.
If you were to draw parallels with an American teen rom-com, you would notice that any scene where a male member tries to take a female by force has eventual repercussions if not immediate. K-dramas are devoid of dialogue such as "you're hurting me" or "don't touch me". Instead, they portray a naive, submissive woman who acts even sweeter after the incident.
K-dramas also center around "absolute beauty standards" of being whiter than white and skinny, which for Koreans is far lower than the average weight in most countries. Plotlines unravel around good looks being vital to getting ahead. Having a small face and double eyelids are a big plus. Characters wearing face masks have inspired K-beauty products with cheek implants and other plastic surgery demands at an all-time high. In Korea, parents even use them as "graduation gifts". Thanks to K-dramas, market research company Mintel shared that the K-Beauty industry saw $13.1 billion in sales worldwide in 2018.
The glamourization of local food plays a big part in K-dramas too. Characters are seen eating greasy fast food, marketed ramen, pork belly, rice cakes and fried chicken on-screen, all while promoting products, but they are never seen exercising or discussing a healthy lifestyle. This has further encouraged a body-shaming culture. SAS blogger Ryu Jin states, "The harsh standards in K-dramas lead to many suffering immense criticism for being fat even though their weight might be considered thin in the US. Girls and boys as young as 18 go under the knife to meet K-beauty standards."
This is evident in 'What's Wrong With Secretary Kim', where the leading actress and her sister constantly belittle their youngest sibling for "never being too full" and eating excessively. Leading lady Yoon Se-ri in 'Crash Landing On You' also suffers from eating disorders, but only until she meets "the man of her dreams".
It may have come at snail speed, but the massive success of 2020 K-drama ‘Itaewon Class’ with a season finale rating of 16.1 reflects South Korea’s changing attitude. But many believe that a positive portrayal of women and homosexuals is only noise marketing for the West. In an interview with Yonhap News, culture critic Ha Jae-keun explains, "Nowadays, portraying LGBTQ+ characters could work commercially – and K-Wave will ring it in, even if it is heavily looked down upon in their own country, just to generate the right buzz in the West."