In a scene from the 2019 K-Drama, Her Private Life, Sung Duk-Mi (played by Park Min-Young) and her boyfriend Ryan Gold (played by Kim Jae-Wook) have an early morning conversation about art and their childhoods.
“Although I failed to become an artist, at least I became a person who hangs up paintings at a gallery,” says Duk-Mi, a chief curator at a private museum. Gold, an artist, is quick to notice the dismissive tone and points out the importance of what Duk-Mi does. “Nowadays we don’t go to an exhibition and see a piece of art directly. What we see is a concept of what a curator perceives as art,” he says, quoting Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher.
Her Private Life is not a deeply philosophical show; on the contrary, it is a breezy, romantic comedy filled with the tropes we associate with most feel-good K-Dramas. There’s a childhood connection, temporary memory loss, a grumpy male lead with a heart of gold, and a warm female lead. But a lot of screen time is used to show Duk-Mi’s life as a curator and her love for art. Over the course of the show, she tracks down a reclusive artist, curates a celebrity exhibition, and puts up with the whims of her difficult boss. In the meantime, she meets Gold and falls head-over-heels in love.
This is a seemingly conscious writing choice in several mainstream K-Dramas, especially those centred around romance — a woman’s career and ambition are not sidelined in favour of the romance and the ensuing drama.
These K-Dramas enable us to immerse ourselves in the lives of women who are museum curators, weather forecasters, taekwondo champions-turned-webtoon editors, reality show producers, journalists, screenwriters, rebellious entrepreneurs, or even regular office workers.
For a long time, mainstream films, especially rom-coms, have sacrificed the ambitions of working women at the altar of romance. Women’s ambitions have often been ridiculed. And the more they are shown to grow in their careers, the harder it becomes for them to find a significant other. If they are not pursuing a glamorous profession, even less is shown about what a day in the life of the female lead looks like. We hardly get to know anything about her responsibilities or work friends, and even less about the possible gender-related difficulties she faces at the workplace.
Park Min-Young plays a weather forecaster in the K-Drama, Forecasting Love and Weather, which released earlier this year. The writing is in fact compelling in the parts which focus on how she tackles her professional challenges and lacks lustre in the portions on the romance. Such a deep dive into the life of a weather forecaster, let alone a woman forecaster, is rare in any rom-com.
Son Ye-Jin plays Yoon Se-Ri, an heiress who is estranged from her family and is a hugely successful entrepreneur in the cross-border romance K-Drama, Crash Landing On You. In one of the most telling, laugh-out-loud scenes, Se-Ri, who is stranded in North Korea, beams with pride when she finds her cosmetics line being sold surreptitiously at a market there. She immediately proceeds to give the seller a lesson in effective marketing.
There are also shows which depict male leads and also equally give space to women. The 2017 coming-of-age-romance, Fight For My Way, shows a male lead struggling to make a comeback as a boxer. But there is also significant screen time given to a woman who wants to make it big as a sports announcer and her friend, an office worker who discovers her entrepreneurial streak. There is more to the women than just existing solely as spectators of the journeys that the men embark on.
Some K-Dramas also empathetically portray the barriers that women face at work. Woo Su-Ji, a character in the 2017 slice-of-life K-Drama, Because This Is My First Life, is a mid-level office worker who harbours dreams of becoming a part of the top management. She is a rare woman employee there, who has to constantly put in extra hours to be taken seriously while also enduring sexist chatter, sexual harassment and male workplace bullies.
And in one of the most affecting episodes in this year’s smash hit Extraordinary Attorney Woo, Woo Young-Woo, a lawyer on the autism spectrum disorder who herself has to navigate prejudice, finds herself forced to defend a large corporation with sexist workplace policies. My Liberation Notes shows one of its leads, Mi Jeong (Kim Ji-Won), being let go from her job after becoming a victim to office politics and the schemes of a sleazy colleague.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea has a wage gap of 31.1% as of 2021, which is the highest among all of the OECD member countries. The wage gap, sexism at the workplace, discrimination and harassment are themes that women anywhere can resonate with, irrespective of the language and location featured in these shows.
Many women struggle to re-enter the workforce after giving birth; some drop out altogether due to various reasons. The 2019 romantic comedy drama, Romance is a Bonus Book, focuses on the former. Kang Dan-I (Lee Na-Young) is a single mother who is trying to re-enter the workforce. She is told at a job interview by a male interviewer that she has been “lazing around” for too long after quitting her job. To make matters worse, a woman on the same panel later tells her how competitive the market is for women even in their twenties, and asks her not to be proud about her experience as a housewife. This portion shows, importantly, how patriarchy cuts across gender.
Later in the show, Dan-I goes on to find a non-toxic, nurturing workspace where she finds herself and rediscovers her capabilities, all while getting a second shot at love. Journeys like these, which women can relate to and feel comforted by, are few and far between otherwise on screen.
This sensitivity in chronicling both the personal and professional lives of these women, irrespective of the genre, comes from having women screenwriters in large numbers. Tropes such as the ‘candy girl’ (a hardworking poor girl who finds a rich Prince Charming) have largely given way to nuanced, evolved portrayals of women.
Female-centric K-Dramas in particular, such as Search WWW and Be Melodramatic, show women navigating their careers and taking workplace conflicts head on — while the men in their lives remain largely passive spectators.
Looking ahead to the end of the year and 2023, here’s hoping women’s journeys, their growth, and their careers find more representation, and K-Dramas continue to herald this change.