Post-Seo Ji-hyun Korea and #MeToo’s Implications on K-Dramas

K-dramas often perpetuate both unrealistic and unfortunate realities in a country that has difficulty openly speaking about sex and relationships

It’s funny how the world can be so drastically different across the Atlantic Ocean – but also the same. In the Western world, our media is saturated with images and conversations surrounding sex and its various implications. On the other side of the ocean, this subject is hushed and barely even spoken about – the conservative eastern Asian world keeps the topic under tight wraps.

But there is one similarity that bridges the two cultures, one we witness time and time again – the sad, global truth that sexual predators often escape justice, while many of their victims end up silenced, shamed and isolated.

The #MeToo Era – Moving across the Atlantic

This past year, however, our society witnessed a shift in the cultural landscape. #MeToo and #TimesUp paved the way for many courageous voices to speak up and against the toxic spiral of silence.

Participants at the 34th Korean Women’s Conference march. 

Participants at the 34th Korean Women’s Conference march. 

And while it can be said that the heat of such movements has simmered down, they didn’t do so without long overdue repercussions for long-time offenders. And it seems like #MeToo and #TimesUp are being further edified much beyond Hollywood – from the workplace, schools, and even hospitals. But it was only until March of this year that this movement rallied voices across Asia, namely South Korea.

Even a mere three months ago, seeking justice for sexual harassment and abuse seemed like a pipedream for South Korean women. But after public prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun appeared on national television and accused a former South Korean Ministry of Justice official of groping her during a funeral in 2010, she spurred a domino effect, prompting hundreds to come forward with their own cries of #MeToo.

Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun testifies on national television.

This prompted several prominent actors, politicians and even a revered Nobel Prize-hopeful author to be denounced and forced to issue public apologies, taking accountability for their actions. And as the torch is slowly being passed onto Japan, it seems that for the time being, #MeToo has done its part in the small but fiery country that is South Korea.

But it is important to ensure that this conversation is not diminished, and only further empowered and strengthened as the country recovers and comes to terms with the changing cultural and political landscape that surrounds women and sex – especially as South Koreans are known to get heated just as quickly as they cool down, much like a pot of boiling water.

Media and its role in normalizing Cinderella stories and harassment in the workplace  

Just as Western media plays a huge part in shaping our understanding and perception on this subject – East-Asian media does the same. And in South Korea, this comes mainly in the form of Korean Dramas, or K-Dramas for short.

These dramas – similar to the classic soap opera – are traditionally a series of 16 hour-long episodes, that are aired twice a week for two months.

The world of K-Dramas is truly fascinating. To begin, while Korean Dramas are a genre in and of themselves, there exists myriad of subgenres that act as the pillars to its foundation: the classic rom-com and melodramas that are quite self-explanatory, to school and historical dramas that take place in – you guessed it – schools, and in ancient Korean settings respectively.

But across all of these dramas, no matter the genre, it is almost impossible not to come across a specific romantic archetype: the all too common storyline of the female lead being helpless and disorganized – often frazzled because they are unable to find a job, boyfriend, and subsequently the approval of their parents – and the dashing young male lead that seems to have everything figured out and sweeps her off her feet.

In these shows, the classic boy-meets-girl narrative is often remixed into rich-boy-meets-poor-girl and unexpectedly, mind-blowingly, against all odds and the very nature of the world itself, falls in love with her.

But it is also important to give credit where credit is due – as of late, many K-Dramas have been looking beyond these elementary plot lines to explore topics such as mental health and the struggles that come with coming of age and adulthood.

Regardless, it is interesting to now view these shows with a more critically sharpened eye, in a #MeToo filter of sorts – especially as this movement is currently taking the country’s film industry by storm. Don’t get me wrong, I love K-Dramas – hell, they were how I learned most of my Korean as I refused to attend Korean School as a kid – but I couldn’t help but notice the normalization of harmful behaviours and cultural traits that these dramas project on screen.

The plight of taboo

In a country where its deeply conservative culture stifles open conversations of sex and relationships, these dramas are often all that young people have to look to and learn from. And while these shows are much different from traditional Western media – the characters often don’t share their first kiss until the twelfth episode and explicit sex scenes are never broadcasted – the many culturally embedded ideas of love and relationships are portrayed.   

Scenes of young female employees willingly accepting sexual harassment by older male executives both to land a job and even after securing one, in an effort to appease them and remain in their favour can all too often be found in these shows.

The culture of “business boozing”, where career-men and women go out after work for dinner and drinks, often followed by karaoke and even more drinks sets up the perfect setting for male senior executives to take advantage of their female colleagues. This further sends the message that such events are simply part of the culture, and what you got to do if you want a chance to climb the corporate ladder and to be considered a professional.

Forceful kisses and uncomfortable attempts to display intimacy are also largely common in K-Dramas – depicting both male and female characters pinning down their counterpart and forcing their lips on theirs.

One of many historical K-Dramas.

One of many historical K-Dramas.

K-Dramas also construct a fantastical illusion of romance and love – the perfect and unspeakably handsome Korean Oppa that performs over-the-top romantic gestures arguably paints a very unrealistic and frankly unhealthy picture of relationships.

South Korea is known for its incredible speed and agility when keeping up with trends – and subsequently dropping them like they’re hot when they go out of style. And as the #MeToo movement is finally having its moment in this country, I hope that the voices fighting sexual abuse and assault are not swept up and blown away like just another fad. But that they continue to fight for change and reform.