This is a slightly different Dear kfangurl post, you guys.
Technically, someone did ask the questions – what makes it different than usual, is that that someone was representing VOGUE India, and it was for a collab of sorts, where I answered a bunch of questions over email, for a VOGUE India article!
Hasina Khatib (@thejoblessjourno on Instagram), who writes for VOGUE India, reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, and asked if I’d be interested to participate in an article that she was writing for VOGUE India. I said yes, and you can check out the article, where she quotes me selectively, here!
At the same time, there was a lot that I said, that didn’t make it into the final article, so with Hasina’s permission, I’m sharing the actual interview questions and answers here with you guys – because my gut tells me that this is just the sort of topic that you guys would enjoy digging into.
The only difference is that I’ve added screenshots and linked my reviews where relevant, to make this more reader-friendly. I hope you all enjoy! ❤️
With k-dramas, the male gaze is being turned on men for a change
Brief: After an eternity of watching women portrayed onscreen through the male gaze, taking a look at how Korean shows are bucking the trend with the female gaze instead: here, women are allowed to be less than ideal while the camera employs all the principles of the male gaze on the show’s men instead.
1. Have you ever noticed the male gaze in TV shows (both Western and Korean)? How would you describe it to a layperson?
In broad strokes, you could say that the ‘male gaze’ is used, when media presents the world through a generalized heterosexual male perspective. What would a generalized “ideal world” look like, to a man?
Traditionally, we’ve seen this take the shape of women being portrayed as always beautiful, always sexy (often hyper-sexualized), and always alluring. And the world, as seen through the “male gaze,” is often presented as a “man’s world.”
A very recognizable example of this is the James Bond franchise. James Bond is always suave, always handsome, and always a winner, while his female co-star is basically a beautiful, sexy accessory, there to do not much more than make the world a more pleasing visual experience.
2. How would you describe the female gaze in k-dramas? (For reference: https://www.scoutmag.ph/69126/nevertheless-kdrama-masterclass-female-gaze/)
Would you agree that k-dramas employ some of the elements of the male gaze on the show’s men instead?
I’d say that the female gaze in k-dramas is something that’s still evolving over time.
In the early 2000s, which is widely considered the early days of Hallyu, men were portrayed in an idealized fashion, but without the sexualization aspect.
Think true, beautiful, pure love that endures through any and every storm that the central couple might encounter. Both first and second male leads tended to be fleshed out to be “perfect boyfriend” sort of material, which I believe speaks to what women desire to see in their partners.
In the 2010s, however, we started to see a lot of shirtless scenes from male leads in our k-dramas.
They were still perfect, sweet boyfriend material – or at least, that’s what they would become, if their character started out as a jerk (because the reformation of the jerk male lead was a Total Thing for a season) – but there was now a new layer of sexualization – and yes, objectification – added to the mix.
I feel that this was a reflection of a bolder attitude towards women’s sexuality, for both writers and viewers.
Does this mean that there were no shirtless scenes in k-dramas prior to the 2010s? Absolutely not. As early as 1993, Lee Jung Jae went shirtless for early k-drama Feelings. There were shirtless scenes in the early 2000s, too. As an example, Gong Yoo went shirtless for (the terrible) 2006 drama One Fine Day.
The difference that I’ve noticed, is, the shirtless scenes prior to the 2010s, were more matter-of-fact. The boys just happened to be shirtless, is all.
But when the 2010s came around, the shirtless scenes became a lot more gratuitous, with the camera often panning our male leads’ shirtless torsos with a distinctively appreciative gaze.
In recent years, I’ve noticed that the gratuitous shirtless scene has progressively become less popular. More and more dramas are doing away with gratuitous shirtless scenes, and importantly, fans aren’t complaining.
I guess you could say that we collectively went through a phase, and we’re now moving past it? I don’t think the gratuitous shirtless scenes will ever completely go away, but it’s no longer taking up as much of the spotlight, nor as much space in our collective consciousness, as before, and I’d like to think of that as growth and progress.
How would you categorize the shirtless scenes in Coffee Prince: were they gratuitous or just a product of the story?
Personally, I feel that the shirtless scenes in Coffee Prince leans matter-of-fact, in that the camera isn’t slo-mo panning his glistening torso so that we can soak in the sight of his abs.
The shirtless view is extended, not primarily for our gawking pleasure, but to lean into the rather bawdy comedy around the fact that Eun-chan is scandalized to see Han-gyul wearing only a towel, while having his leg hiked up. The gawking opportunity is more of a by-product, than a primary goal.
The thing about Eun-chan though, is that she does get a glamorous makeover, which Han-sung gives her, before taking her to the art gallery. What’s important about this, however, is the fact that Show doesn’t treat the makeover as the “right” or “better” way for Eun-chan to be.
In the end, she is happiest and most comfortable in her own skin, and Show gives her the space and freedom to do that.
Last but not least, I just wanted to say that while Coffee Prince is an iconic drama, I wouldn’t call it typical, for its time.
It was daring for how it pushed the envelope on exploring same-sex attraction in a traditional, conservative environment, which 2007 Korea was, and it was also refreshing in how earthy and relatable it managed to feel, which I do think has a lot to do with the fact that the show was written by women, and also directed by a woman.
3. With regards to the recent conversation around men written by women (please find more details here), would you agree that the higher prevalence of female screenwriters (from Goblin to Descendants of the Sun) has turned the tide on the male gaze in k-dramas?
Has the higher frequency of female screenwriters in k-dramas allowed for more nuanced depictions of female characters?
For instance, Yoon SeRi in Crash Landing On You is shown to be a strong woman without being an emotionless robot, which is usually the case with mainstream depictions of ‘strong’ women
I don’t know if I can agree with that, actually. The main reason being, that k-dramas have traditionally been mostly written by women. For example, the Seasons dramas (Autumn in my Heart, Winter Sonata, Spring Waltz, and Summer Scent), which are foundational to Hallyu, were all written by women.
It’s true that in these foundational dramas, the male leads were written as romantic, sensitive types, which definitely helped to drive the dramas’ popularity around the world, but at the same time, I also feel that the female characters were strongly stereotyped with what can be considered a “male gaze.”
What I mean is, our female leads in these dramas are mostly sweet, patient, long-suffering perfect types, rather than the more everygirl type of heroine that is more common today. And, our second female leads tended to be clingy, scheming, two-dimensional types, who weren’t accorded much character development, because they weren’t deemed as important enough.
In my opinion, I feel that the use of the male gaze in older k-dramas wasn’t because there were fewer female writers then.
I believe it’s because Korea has traditionally been a patriarchal society, and those patriarchal beliefs and attitudes were broadly held by both men and women. I feel that this is how we got “male gaze” type of writing and characterization in early k-dramas, even though those dramas were largely written by women.
Of course, there’s also the factor at play, that many decision-makers have traditionally been men, so that could have also influenced the types of stories that got approved.
I do agree that the tide is slowly turning, and that we are increasingly getting more dramas written with a “female gaze.” I feel that this is because of changing attitudes in Korean society, around the role of women in society, and women’s rights in general.
While I think it’s generally true that female writers these days are more adept at bringing out the “female gaze” in their writing, I realize that it isn’t always the case, that we get more “female gaze” types of characterizations, with female writers, and more “male gaze” types of characterizations, with male writers.
Sometimes I’m disappointed to realize that a less than satisfying female character is written by a woman, and sometimes, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that a great female character is written by a man.
In fact, this year, I was very happily shocked to learn that the webtoon source material for Yumi’s Cells, which does SUCH a good job of unpacking the female psyche and showcasing what makes a woman tick, was written by a man (Lee Dong Gun).
I’d like to think that this is an indication that both men and women writers (and decision-makers!) are learning and growing. Some more than others, sure, but it’s still progress?
4. What are some ways in which k-dramas humanize women?
I personally loved and related to the fact that Choi AeRa had that one orange jersey shirt that she wore throughout Fight For My Way because that’s something everyday women (including me) do. They aren’t perfectly dressed around the clock and they definitely don’t roll out of bed with a perfect blowdry!
I realize that I tend to notice less, the disheveled-ness of a female character, because over time, it’s kind of become a trope, that a messy, traditionally “unattractive” female lead gets noticed by a suave, successful Prince Charming type.
I think that cliché speaks to a certain fantasy of many viewers, that even an everygirl (like me!) could stumble into a fairytale romance with a handsome Prince Charming.
That said, I totally agree that that’s not the case with Ae Ra in Fight My Way, because that one’s a friends-to-lovers story, and so her friend-turned-love-interest is just as casually unkempt as she, heh.
What I do notice is that there are more dramas now than before, that allow their female lead to be flawed.
In Classic Hallyu, I’d often felt like it was A Thing, for female leads to be so winsomely wholesome, that a real person would never be able to achieve those levels of perfect understanding, kindness and longsuffering.
Like Song Hye Kyo’s character in Autumn in my Heart, or Choi Ji Woo’s character in Winter Sonata.
In more recent dramas, I find that more and more female lead characters are allowed to be flawed.
I can think of several examples from 2019 alone.
In Romance is a Bonus Book, our female lead is a divorced single mom, and she’s given this earthy, fairytale sort of romance arc, which I feel is a pretty big deal, since traditionally, divorce has been considered a big negative, in Korean society.
Search: WWW featured a rather unusual set-up, with three strong, flawed female leads headlining the story, and their various love interests written in a more supporting role sort of space.
Our female leads are ambitious types who aren’t always kind, and who don’t always do the right thing, and yet, their personal journeys are drawn in interesting and worthwhile ways, where they are not required to change their personalities, by the end of the story.
At the end of our story, they are still strong, and they are still flawed, even though they have each experienced varying degrees of growth. I like that a lot.
Be Melodramatic similarly featured a trio of strong, imperfect female leads as our main characters.
What I found particularly interesting about this show, is that the main female lead’s love interest is played by Ahn Jae Hong, who’s not cut from the typical tall, chiseled cloth that most k-drama male leads are.
Yet, Show does a great job teasing out why he’s a great match for his leading lady, and I really like what this says, about our collective evolving romantic fantasy, as viewers.
While these are all rather recent examples, I wouldn’t say that the presentation of a flawed female lead is something that we’ve only seen in the last few years.
As early as 2014, Secret Love Affair featured a strong, flawed female lead, who’s as ambitious and even a little shady, as she is beautiful and talented.
Of course, this was far from the norm back in 2014, and we are seeing more flawed female leads these days, and in my opinion, this allowance for imperfection, is one of the key things that humanizes our female leads. Because, aren’t we all flawed as human beings, after all?
5. Down the years, pop culture has subjected women to unrealistic tropes (such as taking a bubble bath with a full face of makeup on).
Are k-dramas breaking the mould of unrealistic portrayals of women? What are some things that they get right and what are some things that need to be worked upon?
I think that k-dramas are in the process of breaking the mould of unrealistic portrayals of women, but it’s a slow and uneven journey.
Like I mentioned earlier, we see more flawed female leads now than ever before, and this makes them feel more realistic, relatable and down-to-earth.
At the same time, it’s still a norm for k-drama characters to go to bed with a full face of makeup, and wake up still wearing that makeup.
We also often get scenes of female characters applying lipstick and foundation, on top of a full face of makeup, thus implying that they are so beautiful, that they look perfect even before the so-called actual application of makeup.
And yes, there are still characters who take bubble baths with a full face of makeup on, too.
That said, there are times when dramas allow their female leads to lean into “the ugly,” like when a character’s crying a lot, and has snot coming out of her nose, &/or mascara smeared all over her eyes.
And on the odd occasion, we do also have characters who actually look plausibly barefaced, when they are supposed to be barefaced.
Overall, I’d say this is a work-in-progress.
6. With regards to the intimate scenes, what are some ways in which the camera focuses on the female perspective? As opposed to merely sexualizing the moment, which we often come across in Western television?
I feel that one of the big draws of the k-drama treatment of romance, is that the focus has always traditionally been on the emotional journey.
It’s only in recent years that OTPs (One True Pairing, in fan-speak) have been written to share intimate scenes. In many a classic drama, the OTP only ever shares one kiss – or maybe two.
However, because the entire drama has spent all this time teasing out the emotional journey, the burgeoning feelings behind that kiss, are enough to give viewers a strong thrill.
With k-dramas, the thrill is always about the emotional journey, and any and all physical intimacy is consistently treated as secondary.
Therefore, it makes sense that k-drama writers would extend this type of thinking towards scenes of physical intimacy.
In terms of camera focus, there’s often still that element of male objectification thrown in, since, even though it’s more dormant now, it’s still part of the makeup of our k-drama psyche.
It’s not uncommon for us to get a scene of the male lead taking off his shirt to reveal his buff upper torso, and for the camera to pan appreciatively and indulgently over that fine musculature.
At the same time, I notice that no matter how the scene is framed, the camera will give us close-ups of our leads’ faces, often with extra focus given to their eyes, so that we can see and interpret how this physical intimacy stems from their emotional intimacy, and what this milestone means to them both.
The camera will also often focus on markers of intimacy, like the reciprocal nature of an embrace.
In terms of how the scene is directed, more often than not, the leads are shown caressing each other’s faces, rather than other more obviously erogenous zones.
I feel that all of this is designed to point us back to the emotional intimacy of the relationship.
Less is more, basically, because Show has already spent 15 episodes (give or take) teasing out all the ways in which these two people are each other’s worlds, and all the ways in which they yearn for and long for each other.
The physical intimacy is designed to simply be an extension of that, and not something new in and of itself.
I’d thought that just getting linked by VOGUE India in September (article here!) was exciting enough, but this took the experience to a different level.
This was my first time collaborating with a big publishing house, so it was quite a different and exciting adventure, all in all. Plus, it’s a significant milestone to be recognized by a mainstream publication, I(‘d like to) think.
Thanks for sharing the experience with me, you guys. I honestly couldn’t do this without all of your support. ❤️
As always, if you guys have other perspectives, thoughts or insights, please share them in the comments!
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!