Put Your Own Hair Up!: Female Agency in the Historical Kdrama

Source: http://www.hancinema.net/korean_drama_Merchant_Kim_Man_Deok-picture_115408.html?sort=Most_Popular_Pictures
Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

For some, Kdramas may be the last place to look for empowered female characters, but I think they contain quite a lot of female agency.

Modern Kdramas sometimes draw feminist-inspired critiques for their representations of women.   On Outside Seoul, Amanda sets up a tension between feminist ideals and Kdrama:  “I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist, which can be a difficult thing to reconcile with a love of Korean drama. As much as fun as I have watching these shows, I often find myself cringing when it comes to their depictions of relationships between men and women.”

Theresa Celebran Jones tentatively approaches her critique of Kdramas because of her unfamiliarity with the cultural context, but defines herself as a “feminist since my early teens,” which causes her to give the genre of romantic comedies the side-eye:  “Even then I knew that romantic comedies had a tendency to reinforce traditional gender roles and set unrealistic expectations for relationships. Too often, I felt romcoms cosigned behavior that would come off creepy or be otherwise unacceptable in real life.”  Her assessment of A Gentleman’s Dignity was not without critique:  “A lot of wrist-grabbing, possessive boyfriends, and stalker-like behavior, and this was a show that completely favored the male perspective.”

While Amanda admits that “feminism is a weirdly fraught topic in America,” she does not elaborate. One of the reasons why feminism is complicated is because there are actually several brands of feminism, including black, postcolonial and third-world feminisms.  These brands of feminism recognize that race and nationality can impact what agency and equality mean to different women. One of the critiques these feminists express is the notion that early brands of feminism were defined by what white women wanted, which may be different from what women of color want.  For feminists of color, the issue may be more about choice rather than a predetermined equality.

With that said, one may be able to see feminist tendencies in Kdrama that are overlooked if we only view feminism through a white feminist lens.  Women have different opinions of what agency looks like. Kdramas may in fact promote agency by Korean women that may not look like agency to women measuring their behavior by Western mainstream feminist standards.  I’m an American woman looking at Kdrama, so like Amanda, I don’t have a full understanding of the cultural context either. But what I do see are women, even under patriarchy, making decisions for themselves.

Both Amanda and Jones focus on contemporary Kdramas, but I find a lot of female agency in a place one might least expect it: the historical Kdrama, or sageuk. I’m currently watching Merchant Kim Man Deok, and Kim Man Deok (also known as Hong as a young girl) may be subject to certain expectations of women in Joseon-era Korea, but there are significant instances where she exerts her agency.

Generally plucky,  Man Deok finds herself as a government gisaeng on Jeju Island. The time comes for her to have a man “put her hair up.”  The gisaeng headmistress explains that the man who “puts a woman’s hair up” becomes like a husband to her. Man Deok does everything she can to avoid the ceremony.  Even though she knows Kang Yoo Ji, the foreman of a local merchant company who is attracted to her, she does not want to have that kind of relationship with him. During the elaborate processional to the ceremony, Man Deok looks like she’s going to the gallows.

As is typical of a melodramatic Kdrama, circumstances occur that postpone the ceremony, and Yoo Ji never “puts her hair up.”  But what is interesting is that a few episodes later, Man Deok makes a point of telling her father that she “put her own hair up,” which seems to suggest that she does not belong to a man. This act seems to signify  not only a certain maturity, that she is a young woman rather than a teenager, but also that she is not dependent on a man.

Source: http://www.hancinema.net/korean_drama_Merchant_Kim_Man_Deok-picture_113134.html?sort=Most_Popular_Pictures
Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

Man Deok continues to show independence when she rejects the aggressive courtship tactics of Yoo Ji. After failing to be the man to “put her hair up,” he continues to pursue her. Following the faulty advice of his scheming stepmother, he initially withholds evidence of Man Deok’s commoner status, which can allow her to be dropped from the government gisaeng rolls. At first, he intends to exchange it for her “being his woman.”

When that fails, he works with his stepmother to try to destroy East Gate, the merchant company for which that Man Deok works.  When they succeed in falsely accusing the East Gate head foreman of smuggling illegal goods and economically crippling the company, Yoo Ji offer to “save” Man Deok. When she refuses, he tells her that he will destroy any company she works for until she relents. Not only does she tell him she would rather jump in the ocean than be his woman, she asserts that she will not join another company but build East Gate back up with her own hands.

It’s easy to root for a character like Man Deok; she’s so likeable and plucky. It’s harder to root for a female who goes against societal expectations in a way that hurts others but exerts the same degree of independence.  I have to admit, Choi Song Yi is relentless in God of War.  She falls in love with Kim Jun, a slave, and after helping him advance through the military, she drops the bomb on her father that she wants to marry him. Because her father, Choi Woo, the supreme military commander, wants an heir to succeed him, he’s not going to let that happen.

You would think she would just let it drop. But no!  She engineers a plan to run away with Kim Jun, but he’s not having it.    When forced to marry another man to satisfy her father’s wishes, she continues to hold a torch for Kim Jun, right up to when she meets her demise.  While she doesn’t murder anyone with her own hands, her inaction contributes to the death of at least four people.  I have to admit, when she was alive, she was not my favorite character. In fact, I thought she was not right in the head.

Source: http://www.hancinema.net/korean_drama_God_of_War-picture_219109.html?sort=Most_Popular_Pictures&typephoto=promotion
Song Yi, God of War

But during her last episodes, I realized that she defies her father and societal convention, up to the end. Her impassioned pleas to her father and mother about her love for Kim Jun suggests an unwavering desire to flout societal expectations.  She explains that she is willing to give up her wealth and position to be with him. While one could argue that she’s a stereotypical woman who does anything for love, Song Yi actually is little more savvy than that. Kim Jun is her man, so while he spurns her affections (every time!), she also looks out for his political future.  She even chastises her father for failing to free Kim Jun earlier and give him more responsibility.   She routinely tells her father than Kim Jun is the man he can depend on, unlike the flunkies that surround him. Finally,  she is so confident in her actions,  she never shows remorse, even when she knows it’s wrong, even at the end.

I may not like her choices, but Song Yi boldly makes them and she accepts the consequences of her actions.  In doing so, she consciously challenges societal convention, and while she does not make it to the end of the series, even the soldiers marvel at her will.

To me, agency is about women making their own choices, even in situations where they are limited, even when we don’t agree with them. They are still their choices, and isn’t that what feminism is about?


Merchant Kim Man Deok,1, 2,  Han Cinema.

God of War, Han Cinema.


Amanda.  “The Other F Word: Feminism versus Korean Drama.”  August 21, 2012.  Outside Seoul. Accessed September 30, 2012. <http://outsideseoul.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-other-f-word-feminism-versus-korean.html>.

Jones, Theresa Celebran.  “A Primer on K-Drama Feminism.” September 12, 2012.  Hyphen.  Accessed September 30, 2012. <http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2012/09/primer-k-drama-feminism>.

3 thoughts on “Put Your Own Hair Up!: Female Agency in the Historical Kdrama

  1. Thank you for the suggestions for dramas to watch. As someone with many of the same concerns as the bloggers you quote, frankly I gave up on finding mainstream Korean dramas to watch long ago, so it’s good to remember that there are alternatives out there.

    I was just a little frustrated by one paragraph of yours though:

    “With that said, one may be able to see feminist tendencies in Kdrama that are overlooked if we only view feminism through a white feminist lens. Women have different opinions of what agency looks like. Kdramas may in fact promote agency by Korean women that may not look like agency to women measuring their behavior by Western mainstream feminist standards. I’m an American woman looking at Kdrama, so like Amanda, I don’t have a full understanding of the cultural context either. But what I do see are women, even under patriarchy, making decisions for themselves.”

    Please let me explain. As a white male writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality, and pop-culture, I am regularly criticized for my alleged ethnocentrism; my overly Western, male, privileged perspective; and indeed my measuring Korean women’s behavior by Western mainstream feminist standards. Undoubtedly, there will be merit in those criticisms sometimes, and I’m willing to be educated, but unfortunately no-one ever seems to take the time to go on and explain what my mistakes are exactly, nor, say, how Korean women’s perspectives are any different to my own. So really, they just come across as lazy ad hominem attacks based on my sex and race, and they’re very frustrating given the time and effort I put into translating Korean sources.

    I don’t mean to rant at all and project my experiences here sorry. It’s just that I was a little taken aback by you implying that “Western mainstream feminist standards” are inadequate for judging Korean dramas, without acknowledging how ill-defined, ambiguous, and contentious those standards really are, nor without providing your own definition(s) for readers to work with. Moreover, why *wouldn’t* white mainstream feminists be able to recognize and acknowledge the examples of female agency in Korean dramas you provide? *I* consider myself one at least (and am certainly dismissed as one by my critics!), and *I* acknowledge and appreciate the examples you give, so I’m left feeling that you’re unnecessarily and unfairly targeting Western mainstream feminism — and by extension Western mainstream feminists – for criticism here.

    As this kind of thing impacts on my own writing so much, I’d really appreciate any insights you can give me in response. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your response!

      “Western mainstream feminist standards” is quite the catch-all, I admit. But at the same time, there is a whole body of work on feminism that does promote certain ideas that we have come to identify as the core of a particular brand of feminism. In other words, those standards are not verbatim repeated everywhere, but they do constitute an identifiable body of knowledge. When I wrote about Western mainstream feminist standards, what I had in mind is that they aren’t the only feminist standards, but often the ones that are used. Often, when writers, especially bloggers, invoke feminism, they are invoking that kind particular kind of feminism, which has been greatly interrogated by feminists of color. For example, WMFS (let’s just make up the acronym) tend to measure women’s experience by one standard, that of white women. But things like the work of The Feminist Wire, or recent discussions around the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen trouble those assumptions about who is at the center of the discourse. These perspectives suggest that one should recognize that you are not always the center of the action.

      I’m suggesting that we be aware of the Western part of this, and as a writer raised in the United States, I try to be aware of my own subject position: I’m the foreigner here. In these discussions, it’s not about who you are, but what kinds of lens you are using to look at a phenomenon. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t speak on these things, but my point, especially in relation to Amanda, is that it appeared to her that Korean women were weak because their behavior didn’t match what she had come to known as feminism, and she didn’t seem to consider that her lens was not universal.

      That said, the point of the post was not a treatise on various schools of feminism. Amanda said she cringed at the depictions, I offered a different way to read those depictions. It really was whether these characters have agency. Within the context of the narrative, our protagonist is clearly the hero who not only helps herself, but helps those around her and becomes respected as a female merchant.

      I hope that helps!

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