There’s an ambivalence to my post on pot plants this year. Mostly because the post itself has become somewhat redundant.
The way in which Dramaland treats its female characters has changed radically for the better in the last few years and there’s little I can say about 2020 that wasn’t already said about 2019. And so I’m forced to celebrate the death of my tradition. I have almost nothing to say this year about pot plants.
Of course the way in which Korean dramas treat its female leads is still far from perfect. The problems with female agency have not been miraculously resolved. There were still a large number of borderline creepy (or outright creepy) relationships this year in Dramaland, female leads who were sidelined despite ostensibly being the main character, and female leads whose job was to simply be an accoutrement to the male lead’s story. This was particularly an issue in a year with so many sci-fantasy action dramas. But 2020 had enough blazingly original female characters that even mentioning pot plants seems… well… just so last year. You know?
Still, this has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. Our annus horribilis. And so there’s still a place, I think, to celebrate the great female characters we got this year. And by ‘great’, I don’t mean badass or ass kicking. I mean female leads who were allowed to be as interesting, complex and flawed as their male counterparts; ones who are allowed to be the leads in their own story. You’ll have your own and many more than these. These are just a few.
Han Seo-woo (A Piece of Your Mind)
A Piece of Your Mind was a truly beautiful and profound study of grief; one that unfolded almost like a poem or a song rather than a drama. Its female lead, Han Seo-woo, was a Candy on paper. Cheerful, warm-hearted, resilient, orphaned, generous. But while Han Seo-woo may not be essay-worthy as a person, she is definitely worth considering as a character. Because, like a lot more female leads this year, her job was not just to give comfort and support to the male lead in his story. She was allowed to be a character herself. A real one. An equal part of her own story.
Because A Piece of Your Mind was a study of grief, the writers allowed Seo-woo to grieve. And not to grieve within the lines but to struggle with grief. To be messy in her grief. To be depressed and anxious, confused by her own shifting emotions. To be cheerful one minute and miserable the next. Han Seo-woo was allowed to make the kind of human mistakes we make when we think we’re okay but we’re not. And instead of being a cipher to the male lead’s development, his healing and his story, she was instead an equal partner in it. Her healing, her development and her story was just as important. She got as much from the male lead as she gave. It was a romance built around a true partnership with someone as warm hearted and empathetic as herself.
Bae Gyu-ri (Extracurricular)
Extracurricular is a study of consumerism. An unfolding tragedy. A violent and profanity-laden descent into darkness for our male lead, Oh Ji-soo, who gets into crime to help pay for his schooling. But it also has one of the most complex female leads I’ve seen on Korean television. Bae Gyu-ri may be wealthy and entitled but she feels as out of control in her life as Ji-soo does. Unfortunately for Gyu-ri, her parents have taught her only how to compete, to win, and to pursue wealth. Gyu-ri simply doesn’t know how to get the things she wants from love without treating it as a strategic campaign. She hasn’t been taught how to express love or affection for others without expressing it in financial terms. And her desire to aggressively improve Ji-soo’s financial bottom line is both for her own reasons and because of feelings for him that she’s ill-equipped to express.
Dramas have tended toward the endless dichotomy that men are cold and emotionally ill-equipped while women are warm and empathetic. Extracurricular allowed a female character to lack both the emotional skills and the courage of vulnerability that they need to connect with others. And, of course, Extracurricular may be Ji-soo’s story on paper but Gyu-ri’s role is just as important and just as tragic as his. But while you could make an argument that both Ji-soo and Gyu-ri were in fact the antagonists of someone else’s story, their mutual struggle to gain some measure of control over their lives made them both eminently sympathetic and the unfolding tragedy even more heartbreaking.
Ahn Eun-young (The School Nurse Files)
2020 is most noticeable for producing a female lead who was not just offbeat but aggressively weird; an outsider struggling with the tension between being ‘normal’ and being herself. An oddball non-conformist who was also a blazing hero, willing to tear into the fray to protect her young charges.
The School Nurse Files was at all times a gleeful and joyous celebration of weird; of non-conformity and embracing all parts of yourself. And its toy sword, BB-gun wielding hero was front and centre of that. The School Nurse Files was completely Eun-young’s story, her hero’s journey. Her love interest was not only shy and reserved, he was an emotional support and an empathetic constant. A quiet foundation for her as she fought the battles she needed to fight.
In a different drama, Eun-young would have been forced to learn a Very Special Lesson about fitting in or softening her edges to find love. But The School Nurse Files never forces any of its characters to compromise on being themselves to find their happiness. If anything, the show says instead that the path to happiness is finding the courage to be yourself and embrace all the parts of you – even the jigsaw puzzle pieces that don’t easily connect with anything else.
Eun-young’s hero journey was not about needing to change but to accept that she was perfect just the way she was. And as she walked off into the sunset hand-in-hand with her emotional superhero, she was all of us walking into the future after our internal battles are won. After all, the show says, it’s better to be weird than ordinary. And Eun-young was completely the lead in her own story.