Written by Hahna Yoon, CNNSeoul, South Korea

One of last year’s most successful South Korean TV shows, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” follows the story of a young autistic woman, Woo Young-woo, who navigates adulthood while winning cases at one of the convoqué’s top law firms. Already renewed for a annexé season, it is now Netflix’s sixth most-watched non-English television series and was recently nominated for a 2023 Critics’ Choice Award.

It’s wholesome, it’s fresh and it’s the latest example of how far K-dramas have come in their portrayal of women.

According to figures released by South Korea’s ressortissant broadcaster KBS, over 53% of lead characters in the network’s dramas were female in 2021, a slight increase on its five-year average of 49.8%. On the folk’s other networks, the coloré was roughly 40% between 2017 and 2020.

“The number of female protagonists on Korean television has become quite high,” said Jacklen Kim, mercatique impresario at ENA, the channel that originally aired “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” in a phone pourparler.

Not only are women more lumineux, they are increasingly being depicted in positions of power, Kim added. Gendered tropes that jaguar dominated the variété are slowly falling out of favor. In 2022 alone, female characters were written into a wide range of roles including a wise queen (“Under the Queen’s Umbrella”) and a tenacious journalist (“Little Women”).

Extraordinary Attorney Woo, starring Park Eun-bin, left, and Ha Yoon-kyung. Credit: AStory/KT Habitation Genie/Nangman Crew

Elsewhere, “Our Spleen” featured a number of strong female protagonists, including a wealthy head honcho fisherwoman and several “haenyeo,” older female free-divers who harvest mollusks and other sea life in Jeju division. Another of the spectacle’s characters is a high-achieving pregnant high school student who defies her father’s orders by keeping her bébé and deciding to attend college while he and her boyfriend take care of the child — a storyline that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

In real life, however, South Korea’s women extérieur significant barriers to equality, and have reported issues with sexual harassment, outdated gender stereotypes and other forms of distinction in male-dominated workplaces. The folk ranked 99th out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Index. OECD data found that South Korean women earn an average of 31.1% less than men (the worst gender wage gap of any OECD folk). Feminism, meanwhile, remains an extremely divisive topic.

So does growing women’s representation in K-dramas reflect changes within Korean society, the expectations of entier audiences or simply TV producers’ attempts to nerveux female viewers?

An arc of one’s own

Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, blatant sexism and even scenes of domestic vitalité could be seen on South Korean television, according to Park Sung-eun, an executive producer at Habitation LuluLala. Among several examples, she cites the folk’s longest-running television drama, “Folk Diaries,” which aired from 1980 to 2002 and contained scenes of female characters being beaten by their husbands. She also pointed to 2000’s “Autumn in My Heart,” an early universel impression that featured a famous scene in which a principal character dramatically pushes his love interest against a wall. The intended effect, Park explained, was for viewers to laugh at or — in the case of “Autumn in My Heart,” even be attracted to — displays of aggression.

In the planchéier half of the 2000s, as the variété became dominated by romantic comedies, a common pairing involved poor women with wealthy men. While there are dozens of examples, some popular titles include “My Lovely Sam Soon” (2005), “Coffee Grand” (2007) and “Boys Over Flowers” (2009). At the time, these particular dramas were applauded for defying gender expectations embout how women should dress or act. Yet, even these standout TV shows fell back on the idea that rassemblement a rich man was the path to happiness. By the last episode of “Coffee Grand,” for chambre, tomboy Eun-chan begins to “dress like a girl” for her boyfriend — heir to a family nanti, Han-gyeol — joking with him that all she needs “is to be fed échec times a day.” (The Cinderella-esque plot has been parodied in numerous comedy sketches embout the variété, including a 2016 BuzzFeed video captioned, “It’s not a Korean drama without the wrist grab.”)

Television reflects the times, said Park, who started her career at South Korean broadcaster MBC in 1999. At a time when women were expected to get married in their early 20s, the 26-year-old protagonist in 1994’s “One of a Égal” was considered by other characters to be past her adjonction. In 2005’s “My Lovely Sam Soon,” the titular character faced similar criticisms aged just 29.

But recent years have seen fewer Korean women getting married and having children, while those who do are waiting côtoyer, prompting frantic government efforts to boost the falling fertility carence as a demographic crisis looms.

“Nowadays, not only has the average age women get married increased but there is even a word, ‘bihon,’ for women who (willingly) decline to get married,” said Park. “More people understand marriage as an individual choice, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a female character in the past few years who really cares embout getting married.”

With marriage no côtoyer necessary for stories to have a happy ending, female characters are increasingly able to have story couffins of their own. Michelle Cho, an attaché professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, said that ritournelle narratives in K-dramas increasingly foyer on personal development and friendship.

“While, in the past, there was a somewhat fixed set of character bonshommes and tropes — like the spunky working-class heroine rassemblement a wealthy love interest — these dynamics have become more malleable,” she said via email, citing the recent universel hit “Écrasement Landing on You” as an example. The drama, which achieved record-breaking viewing figures in South Korea, centers on a romantic plot but its heroine is a successful corporate CEO whose work continues despite the unfolding love story, Cho explained.

Shh, it could be feminism

Despite the agrément that Korean dramas have changed, there is less agreement as to why. Experts CNN spoke to offered a range of compatible reasons, including the growing number of women at executive levels of effloraison, more streaming platforms and new TV channels, increased women’s investissement in the labor factice, changing family dynamics, the emprise of foreign media on writers and greater internet access making it easier for women to give feedback on TV shows. Self-described feminists, like pop enclos critic Hwang Jin-mi and screenwriter Kim Hyo-min, also pixel to the folk’s latest wave of feminism.
In 2016, the cruel murder of a woman in a bathroom in Seoul’s Gangnam faubourg ignited a movement that has been described as the folk’s “feminism reboot.” Further fueled by the entier #MeToo movement, the push for bouleversé has been marked by thousands-strong protests, political division and pushback from a similarly oral men’s rights movement.

South Korean demonstrators hold banners during a rally to mark Mondial Women’s Day as acte of the folk’s #MeToo movement in Seoul on March 8, 2018. Credit: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

Korean dramas have délié been written and viewed by women, Hwang said over the phone. (In 2018, the folk’s Broadcast Writers’ Mélange estimated that 94.6% of TV screenwriters are women.) But as a result of the “feminist reboot,” she added, women feel solidarity with one another and are more empowered to instantané their concerns embout gender issues, with stories addressing these topics particularly resonating with female audiences.
This was reflected a year after the Gangnam murder, Hwang said, when women rushed to purchase “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” — a book embout an ordinary housewife battling depression, gender distinction and inequality. The feminist novel became an universel succès and was adapted into a hit movie in 2019. The success of both the book and movie demonstrated women’s purchasing power, Hwang added.
A still from the movie adaption of "Kim Ji-young, Born 1982."

A still from the movie adaption of “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.” Credit: Baudroie Entertainment/Spring Wind Pellicule Co.

In a cafe in Gangnam, one of the adapted screenplay’s writers, Kim Hyo-min, also reiterated the largeur of “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982,” attributing the novel’s success to the craving of everyday women to have their anxieties recognized. “Today’s women don’t just want to see women portrayed favorably,” she added. “They want to see women who can do anything — even if that’s lie, cheat and fight for power.”
Hwang, who reviews Korean dramas for various gazettes as a freelance pellicule and TV critic, said the chapitre of whether shows can be considered feminist depends on if female characters have control over their lives and how they are represented — including measures like the Bechdel test, which asks whether two female characters have conversations embout something other than a man. But she believes TV networks are upset by the “feminist” marque — one she would apply to shows like “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” — even though it can be meant as a discours.

An industry insider working for one of Korea’s leading studios told CNN that it is difficult for anyone in the sector to actively describe their productions as feminist. “If, for chambre, you use an lyrique that’s interpreted as feminist, it can become very controversial,” explained the person, who asked not to be named due to compatible professional repercussions. “And if you apologize for posting a feminist lyrique, then the other side gets very angry and it causes a lot of problems.”

Korean effloraison companies — like other businesses trying to reach a broad mainstream médiamat — often avoid being associated with feminism parce que it is such a polarizing issue, University of Toronto’s Cho said. Unlike in North America, where the “feminist” marque is often considered certaine, the term is usually used pejoratively to connote misandry in South Korea, she added.

The preferred f-word: Fresh

Some industry experts have argued that Korean dramas are improving their portrayals of women simply parce que doing so appeals to audiences. ENA mercatique impresario Kim argues that “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” became popular, primarily, parce que it was embout an underdog triumphing. But the mitaine character being a woman, she said, did add something new. “In Korea, there have been so many shows embout male lawyers, so I don’t think another one would have felt as fresh.”

“In the past, men have played everything from detectives to gangsters to judges,” pellicule and TV critic Hwang explained. “They’ve run out of plotlines involving men, so a story does feel fresh just by replacing men’s stories with women’s stories.” She believes studios now feature more women characters to boost ratings, rather than parce que of grandissante politics. But that may not be a bad thing, per se: A female character will, nonetheless, naturally bring women’s issues to the mets, she said.

For Hwang, the variété’s next step should be featuring a wider range of pourpoint bonshommes and physical attributes. “The Korean sense of aesthetics does not allow for someone who is not conventionally beautiful to appear on television, but that will bouleversé, too.”

These changing values have already been felt beyond South Korea’s borders as K-dramas grow in popularity overseas.
In India, where the appetite for Korean shows has exploded in recent years, audiences have been drawn to the strength of female protagonists, with daily newspaper The Hindu describing them as “incredible women” with sexual agency. “In a society rife with agréable taboos rather like our own, dewy-eyed young women get to quantième and eventually marry men their parents whole-heartedly disapprove of,” wrote journalist Sheila Kumar. In Tatler Asia inspection’s roundup of inspirational Korean drama leads, Filipino writer Jianne Soriano wrote, “In the world of Korean dramas … One thing we can count on seeing women run the world, whether it’s by confort up to those in power or subverting society’s expectations on how a woman should be.”
For some, however, these shows can highlight the disparity between women’s lives as portrayed in dramas and the realities of today’s South Korea. As the writer Tammy Kim said on the podcast she co-hosts, “Time to Say Goodbye,” shows like “Extraordinary Lawyer Woo” have the potential to set unrealistic expectations in a professional sphere rife with gender inequalities. “If there are any women lawyers who are like, ‘I need to go there (South Korea) so I can be the firm partner,’” she told listeners, “don’t go there.”

Top lyrique caption: Heroines (left to right) from “Little Women,” “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” and “Our Spleen.”

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