66. Representation in Dramaland: Bodies and Sexism

If you aren’t completely exhausted from listening to Part 1 of our discussion of representation in K-drama, here’s the second instalment! In this one we tackle particular aspects of relationships, body image, and ableism in a deeper way than we’ve been able to before.

In Part 2 of Representation in Dramaland, we analyze the trend of very young female leads in contrast with their far older male counterparts, fat-shaming and beauty standards, and ableism. We go into specific examples of both good and bad representation in all of these categories, and what makes them objectionable and often upsetting. We reflect on how K-dramas have evolved since we’ve started watching them, and conclude this broad exploration of representation with some thoughts on how these conversations often play out in the fandom (or don’t), and how we might all approach the stories that we love so much with more nuance, and our fellow fans with more kindness and respect.

Once again, thanks so much for your input, listeners! We’ve covered some of what you brought up to us in previous episodes: we talked about #MeToo in the entertainment industry and problematic relationship tropes in dramas in our Men Behaving Badly special, and did a deep dive into the Burning Sun scandal. We also tend to address these topics whenever they come up organically in a Long Yak, as we mention in this episode. Let us know if there’s something we missed that you’d like us to discuss, send us voice notes or emails that we can include in the show, or simply let us know how we did!


Part 1: Sexism
00:03:00 The infantilization and/or sexualization of young female leads
00:03:32 Kim Yoo-jung & Ji Chang-wook in Backstreet Rookie
00:04:35 Kim So-hyun & Yoon Doo-joon in Radio Romance
00:05:30 The ickiness of waiting for child actresses to “turn legal”
00:09:47 Jung Eun-ji & the creepy second male lead in Reply 1997
00:22:05 Park Shin-hye & Kim Rae-won in Doctors
00:23:42 Drama representations vs. real-life relationships
00:30:14 Kim Go-eun and Gong Yoo in Goblin
00:37:20 But why are we often okay with noona romances with high school male leads?

Part 2: Body Image
00:43:20 Beauty standards and fat-shaming in Korean entertainment
00:46:52 Kim Sun-ah in My Name is Kim Sam-soon
00:51:00 Shin Min-ah in Oh My Venus
00:54:45 Ha Jae-sook in Perfume
00:57:55 My ID is Gangnam Beauty
01:02:56 Eating disorders, Seo In-guk’s struggle
01:05:11 Birth of a Beauty
01:05:52 Lee Young-ja in Hello Counselor

Part 3: Ableism
01:11:00 Fox Bride Star/Where Stars Land
01:19:50 The Secret Life of My Secretary
01:22:50 The Beauty Inside
01:24:35 Trauma and mental illness
01:28:00 What makes a drama “too problematic to watch”?
01:32:00 The importance of creating space in fandom for these conversations
01:34:30 Who we valorize on TV, and how that affects society, and who’s responsible
01:40:47 Context, change, and conclusions


Seo In-gook’s struggles with bulimia

How does it feel to make police shows in 2020?

Dramas Mentioned

Part 1: Backstreet Rookie, Radio Romance, Reply 1997, The Prime Minister & I, Doctors, Clean With Passion for Now, Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, Goblin, High School King of Savvy, I Hear Your Voice, Biscuit Teacher Star Candy

Part 2: My Name is Kim Sam-soon, Oh My Venus, Birth of a Beauty, Perfume, My ID is Gangnam Beauty,

Part 3: Life, Where Stars Land/Fox Bride Star, The Secret Life of My Secretary, The Beauty Inside, I’m Not a Robot, Kill Me, Heal Me, It’s Okay, That’s Love, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Additional Notes


  • On heroes: that it’s not just about who is allowed to be a hero, but who is allowed to be human. When you can have dramas about robots and you can give more nuance and humanity to a robot than a human, what does that say about us?
  • This is also important in the question of whether there are lines that are universally wrong to cross, that transcend personal preference. We talked about the enactment of harm, but I actually think there’s something that comes even before that, of which enactment of harm is a consequence, and that’s dehumanisation, whether of an individual or a group. Dehumanisation comes from an inability—or unwillingness—to relate to that person (or people) as a fellow human. Or to put it more bluntly, once you deprive a person or group  of the right to be seen and treated as an equal human, or to consider their words and experiences as valid, that’s the beginning of a slippery descent towards dangerous ideologies, which has to be headed off at the pass with a hard and fast line of what we can never allow to be on our screens. I mean, the beauty of the live-shoot is being able to change the story as you go along. This power should be used for good.
  • What I feel got lost in the ableism discussion—and it’s my bad!—is the good, good work that some dramas are doing in the field of mental illness and psychological disorder. Given how we know what a taboo it is domestically, it’s very good to see so many dramas showcase characters, including leads, getting help, whether that’s in the form of therapy or medication. And it’s vital to underscore just how important and needed that is in a country that has such an intense work culture and some of the highest suicide rates in the world. We have a lot of dramas that allude to suicide in some way, but you also get dramas like Radiant Office and Solomon’s Perjury which centre themselves around the question completely. It’s an example of art attempting to influence society to literally save lives.
  • In the sexing up of young female leads: WE FORGOT TO TALK ABOUT MR. SUNSHINE. Where Kim Eun-sook makes Kim Tae-ri say, “Will you do it with me? Love?” to Lee Byung-heon and it is kind of vile because it plays up her innocence and gives him a weird upper hand (she doesn’t know the meaning of the English word “love”, but asks this dude—this highly unsavoury in real life dude—to do it with her OH THE YUCK).


  • One trend we forgot to mention, that was especially present for a while, is psychiatrists falling in love with their patients. The first dramas that really depicted mental illness with nuance and empathy, such as It’s Okay, That’s Love in 2014, were unconcerned with the ethics of a setup like that. They were more about humanizing people who struggle with mental illness, and using psychiatrists as main leads served to a) provide medical expertise for viewers in an organic way and b) maximize conflict. But as awareness of mental illness grows and there’s more of a general understanding that psychiatry is a form of medical care that deserves the same respect and boundaries as any other type, we’ve seen less portrayals of these types of romances. So we’ve seen more dramas that address psychological illness and trauma without having doctors and patients fall in love (I’m Not a Robot, My Ajusshi, Chocolate, Just Between Lovers). We’re not completely out of the woods though; Soul Mechanic/Fix You just aired recently.
  • I wanted to mention Heart to Heart specifically because even though it does loosely fall into the above trope, the drama explicitly addresses that dynamic. It does a wonderful job dealing with the phobias that both leads struggle with (I loved the conceit of a psychiatrist who’s afraid of patients), and later on in the drama the male lead’s mentor cautions him about letting this relationship turn codependent. Super well done! And, the heroine also deals with a chronic, visible condition that lies at the root of her crippling socialphobia—and I love that it isn’t magically cured, but that the heroine learns to live with it and love herself.
  • We agreed in the episode that lead actors who perform in problematic dramas shouldn’t be held responsible, due to their contractual obligations and relatively small amount of power. I feel somewhat differently about films, because the way movies are made is so different: the actor usually has the ability to read the entire script before agreeing to the movie, and while there are often many iterations of a screenplay before it’s finalized, you usually have the bones of a premise to go on. This isn’t in all cases, of course, and it again depends on the fame and power of the actor in question, but if a prominent actor continues to choose lead roles in movies that push a particular and troubling perspective, I would choose to no longer support their projects. 

Thank you so much to JustMe, Lee Tennant, Carrie, Natasha J.F., Virginia Taylor, Katy, Maria Dong, Yu Jinyoung, BlackGirlSeoul, Fahmina, Kenyonkatrina, Anonymous, Rue, Marcia Howard, Supriya Nair, Liliana, Yousra Tahery, Humbledaisy, egads, wapz, and Lord Cobol for sending us your emails, comments, tweets, DMs, and voice memos! We treasure every one. You can see them all here.

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