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>.

What Should Your Favorite Kdrama Be Named?

Source: http://allkoreandrama.com/baker-king-kim-tak-goo
Poster, Baker King Kim Tak Goo

Most of us who watch Kdramas are used to their titles, but sometimes the titles of Kdramas do not do them justice. That’s when I start making up new titles that I feel are far more descriptive of what is actually going on.

Here are some examples:

God of War, or Delusional Women of Goryeo (He Doesn’t Want You)

Source: http://www.dramacrazy.net/soldier-images/4018/Image/15350
Song Yi

This is a gripping tale (so far). You have serious themes like slavery and corruption. You follow the story of a monk torn from his contemplative life and thrust into a politically-motivated world as a slave. However, sometimes I get distracted by the women.  Song Yi is a love-interest (in her own mind).  Few who are watching this Kdrama like her. One viewer says she “should be strung up,” and another hopes “that she gets killed off.”  Chun Shim is her servant, and she’s no better, shamelessly chasing after a man who has made it clear he’s “just not that into her.”

While they are separated by class, they both share the annoying trait of chasing men who show absolutely no interest in them whatsoever.  The less attention the men show them, the more determined these women get. Veteran Kdrama watchers are used to the shenanigans of female characters, but neither of these women are sympathetic. You’re actually glad when the men go to the frontier.

Chuno, or Chosun-Era Parkour

I get it: they are slave catchers. This involves chasing and running. But has anyone else noticed the parkour-like acrobatics the leads engage in? In slow motion?   It’s like: gotta go to the market to get some supplies. Watch me jump off this wall!  In slow motion. And do this flip. It’s an innovative way to show how even slave-catching is work and hard labor.

Kingdom of the Winds, or Jumong Jr.

Source: http://forums.soompi.com/discussion/1260/song-il-kook-송일국/p9
Song Il Gook, Jumong

I really think that the makers of Jumong just weren’t done, even with 81 episodes under their belt. Hey, I love a sequel too. For Kingdom of the Winds, they just picked up the members of the cast of Jumong and plopped them down a few decades later.  Hey, who’d notice? These characters are apparently beloved by the audience.

Source: http://yisantv.blogspot.com/2009/05/blog-post_25.html
Kingdom of the Winds

I haven’t seen the mother of all historical Kdramas yet, but how surprised was I to find that Song Il Gook, who portrays Jumong, also plays his grandson in Kingdom of the Winds? I was completely convinced he was Jumong’s grandson. He hasn’t aged a day!

Don’t worry, you get the same political and palace intrigue to boot! Plus, there are lots of references to good ol’ Jumong.  Once I finish with Kingdom of the Winds, I suppose I’ll have to watch Jumong to see how this all got started. What’s really funny is, no one ever tells Muhyul that he looks exactly like his grandfather!

Baker King Kim Tak Goo, or Evil, Down to the Bitter End

Source: http://forums.allkpop.com/threads/do-you-guys-know-actor-moon-joo-won.6263/
Moon Joo Won as Ma Jun

You know, I have a really strong moral compass. I think that if you do good things, good things will happen to you. However, if you are evil, you will reap what you sow. This applies so much more in the world of Kdramas. I mean, why else would you endure episode after episode, if not to see the villain get his or her just due? There are times when Ma Jun has me completely fooled. I begin to think that he is a real human being, with feelings. But then he just returns to his evil ways, again and again and again.

Source: http://dramamia.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/king-of-baking-kim-tak-gu-episode-12/
Jun In Hwa as Seo In Sook

But he pales in comparison to his mother, Seo In Sook! She just can’t stop! She’s spend her life messing up the lives of others, all to assure her son a successful life.  For a minute, I thought about calling this Kdrama No One is Interested in Your Flunky Son. She condones kidnapping, eviction, termination from employment, lying and I even think attempted murder at one point. Even when her relationships with her children and her husband are at stake, she just can’t help being evil!

Boys Over Flowers, or I Don’t Like That Chick

Source: http://media.photobucket.com/image/boys%20over%20flowers%20jan%20di/funkaaay/KPN2/vlcsnap-774446.png
Jan Di

Oh Jan Di. She is the reason why this Kdrama is called Boys Over Flowers. She starts off very plucky. You like her.  You even try to give her the benefit of the doubt when two really attractive guys begin to show interest in her. Oh the dilemma!  She also seems to be a good influence on those bratty, rich boys. She stands her ground, defends her friends. And then something goes horribly, horribly wrong. She becomes as passive as a rock. She can’t make a decision to save her life.  I find the dynamics among F4 far more compelling: they fight and make up and fight again. Jan Di just stands there and does nothing.

Source: http://www.choc-o-lurve.co.cc
Ga Eul

All my good feelings get transferred to her friend, Ga Eul! She’s in a similar situation as Jan Di: they work in the same noodle shop. They are both outsiders to the swanky world of F4. She’s not content to just wait around for these boys to get it together. When she falls for one of F4, she’s on a mission to get him. Or at least show that he’s not nearly as much of a player as he thinks he is.

City Hunter, or No Socks, No Shoes, No Service

Source: http://im-your-mannequin.blogspot.com/2011/10/lee-min-ho-x-city-hunter-fashion.html

Look, if you are going to be a vigilante/security expert, you gotta play the role. That means being athletic, having the right hair, the right clothes, the right shoes, and, apparently, no socks. That’s what Lee Min Ho is teaching me.  Cool heroes fight for justice with no socks on. I haven’t figured out exactly how this contributes to his hero status.  It surely doesn’t do anything for his aerodynamics as he’s jumping off of buildings. Perhaps this mystery is solved in the final five episodes, which I refuse to watch until I get some new Lee Min Ho on tap in the upcoming Kdrama, Faith.

So, as long as they keep making Kdramas, I’ll keep making up alternative titles. In my head.

Reviews, DramaFever

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The Men Who Would Be Kings In Kdrama

The throne hall in Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace. Source: http://blog.rhapsody.com/2009/03/soundtreks-the-soul-of-seoul-or-five-days-of-korean-music.html

More often than not, a sageuk (historical Kdrama) will center on the shenanigans of royalty.  And what is royalty without a king? Kdrama not only offers a wide array of historical kings, but also imbues them with personalities that enthrall modern audiences.

Continue reading “The Men Who Would Be Kings In Kdrama”

Clothes Make the Man (and Woman!) in Kdramas

Source: http://koreafilm.ro/blog/2011/02/dragobete-cu-f4-2/

Clothes may seem like mere accessories to the romantic triangles and tensions in a Kdrama, but often they are characters in and of themselves.  Some Kdramas use clothing to enhance the presentation of the characters and the story.

Continue reading “Clothes Make the Man (and Woman!) in Kdramas”

This Is NOT The Reality I Wanted, But I Continue to Watch Anyway: Kdrama Endings

Source: http://www.mykofan.com/DramaPhotoDetails.aspx?did=283&pid=319&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

I don’t watch Kdramas for the realism. I don’t need them to reflect tendency for things not to turn out well, as is so often the case in real life. I’m not watching them for the reality factor. And yet, in what seems to be an effort to remind me that life isn’t fair, some Kdramas lure you in, only to sucker-punch you with an ending that you never asked for. And yet, I keep coming back.

Continue reading “This Is NOT The Reality I Wanted, But I Continue to Watch Anyway: Kdrama Endings”

Things I’ve Learned From Watching Sageuk (Historical Kdramas)

I am an avid watcher of Korean sageuk (historical Korean television series). They have something for everyone: romance, adventure, political intrigue, mystery.  Little did I know that I was learning things along the way. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from watching sageuk!

Continue reading “Things I’ve Learned From Watching Sageuk (Historical Kdramas)”

Stealing the Show: Unintentional Leads in Queen Seondeok and Warrior Baek Dong Soo

Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on September 3, 2011 by CeeFu

When a Kdrama starts, I’m sure the writers have a clear idea of who the lead character is. Sometimes, that plan goes awry, as other characters become so compelling that they come in and steal the show.

In watching Warrior Baek Dong Soo, you expect the title character to be compelling enough to hold your attention.  You see how he has such a hard time coming into the world.  His father is executed as a traitor, and his mother dies soon after birth.  To add to his problems, he is born with birth defects that require that he wear bamboo braces.  Kinda hard to be cool in those. Nevertheless, he comes off as a plucky, determined hero.

However, Yeo Woon has an equally sad backstory.  The son of a righteous hero-turned-alcoholic who kills Woon’s mother,  he grows up to be a sullen young man, mostly due to his father’s assumptions about his “killer” nature.  When he finds out the truth about his other, he becomes an angry young man, and is mentored by the WRONG person, Chun.  As the final test of his training as a ninja (um, were there Chinese ninjas?), he is supposed to kill the closest person to him. Despite his father’s opinions, Woon is reluctant to kill his father (patricide is a no-no), and it is unclear whether he actually does the deed, or Chun does, or Woon’s father saves from having to do the deed.  As a result, Woon becomes a melancholy spy for the ninjas.

So, while I know I’m supposed to be intent on Dong Soo, I find myself more drawn to Yeo Woon.  Even though he doesn’t say much, he is more compelling than Dong Soo, who, after episode 10, has yet to make that turn from goofy to great hero.  He also at this stage is not much of a fighter.  He can hold his own, but he has yet to win in a fight against Woon, who is the better fighter. Woon’s character is deeper: not only may he be working for the man who killed his father, he is also friends with the guy he’s sent to spy on and, one would expect, will be ordered to assassinate at the right moment.  His ambivalence is palpable, and while he starts off as arrogant, he comes around to be a sympathetic character.  Oddly enough, I was not all that thrilled with Yoo Seung Ho, who plays Yeo Woon, as Chunchu in Queen Seondeok. Dude is a great actor!

I’ve seen this kind of thing before in Queen Seondeok.  It’s called Queen Seondeok, so you do find yourself drawn to Deokman, her sad backstory of being hustled out of the palace, raised in the desert, only to return to the capital and join the elite young warriors, the Hwarang.  One thing that is great about her is that she’s clever, uses her mind to get out of situations, although most people don’t know it because she’s passing as a man.  She undergoes all of this, only to discover that she is not only royalty but daughter to a king.  Of course, by this time, everyone knows she’s a girl, and, apparently, is the one who will be able to regain the throne.  And yes, it does matter that she’s a girl, because she has to fight that fight to be the first female ruler of Silla.

What she doesn’t count on is having to tangle with Mishil, the royal consort.  That doesn’t even come close to describing how Mishil uses her feminine wiles to manipulate the men around her.  And rather than being a damsel in distress, she’s often the one dishing it out. I think the writers thought Mishil would be a minor character, but she practically takes over the Kdrama. She’s a villain, and she’s good.  Like eerily good. She knows her opponent’s plans because she has spies everywhere (they, on the other hand, seem to try really hard and get lucky with their plans).  She’s not afraid to back down, threatening everyone with that Mishil smile.  At the same time, you find out that she has motives that are kinda honorable? She’s complex, in a way that Seondeok fails to be.  Come for the Seondeok, stay for the Mishil.

I’m not mad at these developments.  I just think that it’s interesting how these things turn out.

Bad Girls!!!

You  know I love a good swordswoman, but it occurs to me while watching Queen Seondeok (see new category!) that women hold it down in other ways in wuxia and the historical genre period. So here’s to the Bad Girls!!!

First, the bad bad girls. People think that men rule the world.  Please. Even within the royal families where you would think women are on lockdown, women are not to be trifled with.  Yeah, you got bad swordsmen (see Legend of the Condor Heroes), but there is a special brand of sass when royal women get into the act.  I used to think that the chick from The Handsome Siblings was hands down the most cold-blooded woman who never wielded a sword. She is willing to take ANYBODY out.  If her mother was in this drama, she would have sold her down the river and made sure she was dead by the time she got there.  She works her way up from nobody to Empress over the course of the series, and she absolutely will not stop! Close to her is the chick from The Legendary Warrior. Working from the inside, she manages to keep our hero from his destiny rather effectively, from manipulating court officials, her own husband, framing people for murder, etc.  She does get hers in the end in a rather delicious way, tho!

This was all before I started watching Queen Seondeok.  Who needs a sword? Mishil is OFF THE CHAIN! Men just accept it: we can’t beat you.  She is sneaky, conniving, bold, not afraid to get her hands dirty, your hands dirty, anybody hands dirty. Don’t be a family member, you are not safe either if you don’t fit into the plan.  She is a worthy villain.

Now for the good bad girls!  Some of my favorites are in The Young Warriors (Mama Yang and crew–they got armour!).  The sisters-in-law make swords, heal disease, beat you down, cook really well, etc.  But once again, I have a new hero thanks to Queen Seondeok:  the Wonhwa!  Why didn’t anybody ever tell me about the WOMAN who leads this elite group of MALE warriors? I totally need my own hwarang!  Applications are being accepted.  Deokman and Cheonmyeong work the royal system to get the job done.  They are smart, savvy and bold, and they are not afraid.  Yay!

Iljimae (2008): “Wait and See What I Steal Next”


I’m always excited to see a wuxia drama from Korea; we get so few.  They got the historical drama on lockdown, tho!  Like a lot of Korean popular culture, Iljimae can be a little brutal. Many wuxia stories require the elimination of the parents, sometimes the entire family, but the WAY the drama introduces you to the brutal world of the Joseon Dynasty is ridiculous!  It’s one thing to have your father killed, it’s another to have to watch it go down. It’s one thing to have to not acknowledge your mother in the street, it’s another to have to throw a rock at her head! No wonder dude has a nervous breakdown.

Continue reading “Iljimae (2008): “Wait and See What I Steal Next””

Boys Over Flowers: The Aestheticization of the Korean Male? Or THEY’RE SO PRETTY!!!!!!

Dedicated to my Kdrama Kousin, Emily!

Welcome to the inaugural post for the new category on High Yellow, the Kdrama Kafe! Spoilers ahead (like you haven’t seen it!)

Now, Boys Over Flowers is not my first kdrama, but I can see why it is much beloved.  And like many, I like it for the Boys! But let’s dispense with the girls first.  I can’t figure out if I’m not enamored with the actress who plays Jan Di, or Jan Di herself.  She starts out great: fiesty, sassy, and violent.  But as the series wears on, I can’t believe how passive-passive she gets.  Even her sidekick-friend Ga Eul has more character growth than she does.  But to her credit, she still wants to make her own way.  She could be nicer to Gu Jun Pyo.

Speaking of the men…..I know that this is based on a Japanese manga, Hana Yori Dango, which spawned a Japanese drama and a Taiwanese drama, but the Koreans showed why they OWN the drama.  Just for my own edification, I decided to watch the first episode of the other two, particularly the introduction of F4, to test a theory.  In Hana Yori Dango, the female progatonist seems more anti-F4, but F4 themselves do not strike me as particularly enviable.  In Meteor Shower, the Taiwanese version, the creators do a slightly better job of making you think these are privelged sons of industry (or in Woo Bin’s case, illegitimate industry). But the introduction of F4 in Boys Over Flowers convinced me that F4 was every bit as priveleged and snotty  as they are supposed to be, at least in the beginning.  They roll into school with that halo of light behind them with expressions that imply, “What?”

So why do I like them?  Because whoever styled them deserves a medal, hence the theme of this post!  These guys are dressed, I mean DRESSED.  Who sports white suits, canes and fur to go to school?  They are pimptastic! For real, it takes a special man to rock eyelet (yes, I’m talking to you Kim Bum!).  Now, some may argue that I am objectifying these young men, not allow them to be fully realized human beings with thoughts and feelings. Hey, I’m all ears to hear whatever they got to say. Hit me up on the blog! 🙂

But I think there is another way to read this.  Way back in the day, intentional clothes mattered. They were emblems of personal style and expression. When people dressed for dinner. You know you’ve caught yourself watching some old movie from Hollywood’s glamour period.  I can remember my mom talking about how they looked forward to dressing up on the weekend to go dancing (not even trying to put my mom in Hollywood’s golden age; she would kill me for putting her age on blast on the internet).  You don’t even have to go back that far. F4 reminds me of the New Romantics of the 80s. Clothes may not give us world peace, but there is a tradition of intentional dressing, significant to communities the world over.  It means something. And that’s what I like about the Boys in Boys Over Flowers.  THEY’RE SO PRETTY! And I say that with much love and affection!

So to close out the post in an appropriate manner, here’s a little video!  Gentlemen of the world, remember, women love a well dressed man! Shout out to SS501, who make that sneaky cameo in Boys Over Flowers! Oh, and one question: where does one find a Lincoln Continental in Korea?