Whether it’s overcoming a mental handicap or fighting for their rights, Korea’s women-led stories are evolving as the local industry kicks some of its dated stereotypes for female characters.
Recent shows “The Glory,” “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” “Little Women” and “Twenty-Five, Twenty-One” not only delve into social issues in Korea, but highlight the strength and depth of character of their female leads.
Three of these were top-10 shows for Netflix in 2022, while data from FlixPatrol shows revenge thriller “The Glory” as the number one TV show on the streamer this year in South Korea, as of Feb. 24.
While Korea’s rigidly hierarchical society and history has traditionally put women at the bottom of society, that same rigidity moulded strong, creative women who overcame hardship and prejudice. Finally, these traits are being reflected in content hitting the small screen.
“Back in the day when the country lived in great poverty and there was not much to eat, Korean women were extremely creative in providing food for their family, so in that sense, we always try to make the best of what we were given,” Kim Jiyeon, executive producer of “Squid Game,” told Variety.
“Women were underrepresented and had to be more competitive in getting what they want,” adds Kang Eun K, screenwriter of the “Doctor Romantic,” who is now preparing the thriller action series “Gyeongseong Creature” for Netflix.
Stories of women overcoming obstacles are hardly new. They have been told for generations through TV and movie content. However, today, women make up a large and successful portion of the screenwriters working in Korean TV. And, with success flowing faster in the streaming era, the narrative is evolving.
“My [predecessors] wrote dramas, films and songs about women. There was a spirit of resistance because there were definite barriers at that time. But now, we focus more on freedom and the identity one holds, be it [about] men or women,” says Kang.
Veteran actress Moon Sori, who takes on the character of a human rights lawyer turned politician in upcoming “Queenmaker,” says that female characters are increasingly multi-faceted. “Before, a lot of female characters were usually victims or weak. Being feminine meant that you’re soft and looking for love. But now, we see a lot of women characters who choose different paths. It’s invigorating,” says Moon.
In the Netflix original film “Kill Boksoon” which uploads at the end of March, Jeon Do-yeon gets to defy multiple stereotypes. In a “John Wick”-like set-up her character endures all the usual workplace hassles of contract renewal, petty jealousies and a domineering boss in a company that happens to be in the business of assassination. She juggles these pressures with that of being a single mother to a stroppy 15-year-old daughter. She even manages to deny another trope by being funny.
Korean storylines regularly blend strong characters with discussion of social issues and its society’s most vulnerable members. “Looking at the Korean industry as a whole, social issues are a focus. ‘Squid Game’ was interpreted from an angle of addressing some of society’s issues,” said Kim. Recent industry developments may now allow creatives more freedom to widen the scope of storytelling, with fewer worries about achieving local sales or financially breaking even.
That is a reflection of the changes wrought on the Korean TV industry. As streamers have eclipsed traditional broadcasters, they have ushered in more mini-series and limited series designed for binge-watching and edged aside the long-running serials that were produced in a just-in-time fashion for ad-supported free-to-air television. As private, and often foreign-owned, companies operating business models where viewers must opt in, the streamers also seem less willing to be cowed by censorship concerns than the public broadcasters.
“One of the projects I’m working on is called ‘Thirty Niners.’ It’s a story about three Korean women who are about to turn 40, a critical point when you get a second chance at life,” said Kim.
Upcoming “Gyeongseong Creature” portrays “a definite dichotomy between ideologies, genders, economy and class,” said Kang. “I wanted to portray different people and the different choices they make in order to survive.”
Said Moon: “Nowadays, scriptwriters and directors ask, ‘What do you think about this female character, from a woman’s perspective?’ or ‘Would this be offensive to a female audience?’ This [level of] consideration was never given before. This is a very encouraging change.”