K-Dramas are known for many things: a rich, good-looking male lead, his delicate love interest, cliched tropes such as romantic bag hugs and redundant love triangles, emotional breakups and eventual reconciliations of lead couples, the fashion (oh the trench coats and well fitted suits), a dramatic gangster/psycho killer villain and a happily ever after ending (well, mostly).
However, while many K-Dramas do fit these narratives, it would be a grave overgeneralisation to assume that ALL K-Dramas fall under this broad stereotyped sketch. Moreover, what may look like your typical comedy/romance drama may almost always have deeper themes that are to be found below the surface. Amongst the laughs, the feels, and the angst many K-Drama writers are telling stories about feminism, people battling mental health and PTSD, as well as challenging social and cultural norms that persist in society (and are often quite universalistic in nature).
Amongst such K-Dramas is ‘Strong Woman Do Bong Soon’, a hilarious romcom that comes with an undertone of gender issues. Unlike many K-shows that feature a fragile Cinderella character often saved by a lead male character in dangerous situations, “Strong Woman Do Bong Soon” is quite literally the opposite. The main lead is a female character Do Bong Soon who possesses superhuman strength, a hereditary gift that is passed down only to the women of her family for generations at birth. As the show follows Bong Soon’s struggle to come to terms with her gift and use it to do good (which also includes tossing bad guys twice her size effortlessly into the air and fighting off burly serial killers), she meets Ahn Minhyuk, a CEO of a software company who hires Bong Soon as his personal bodyguard to protect him from a mysterious caller making death threats against him.
Do Bong Soon then encounters a serial killer who is targeting female victims in her neighbourhood and decides to use her power for good.
The good: The show is a refreshing look at gender roles. It is one of the few pieces of South Korean media that does many things right, especially in terms of tackling gender role stereotypes differently than mainstream Asian TV, giving messages about female empowerment and agency, and being representative of women’s changing roles and representations in pop culture.
The show has a heroine who can save herself, someone who you really don’t have to worry about. She is not a damsel in distress, unlike most representations of women in mainstream Korean shows. Bong Soon is unapologetically strong, powerful and she uses it for good. At the same time, she learns to receive help when she needs it. It’s not about being a lone heroine; the show tells us that a strong heroine can co-exist with love. This is demonstrated by the fact that Bong Soon does capture the psychopath serial killer but not without Ahn Minhyuk and Gook Doo’s help. However, they only serve as aides to her character, and it is actually Bong Soon who handicaps the killer by literally pinning him to the ground using her superstrength and sends him to justice. Minhyuk and Gook Doo are the side characters in the show; it is Bong Soon who is the focus of the show.
Moreover, she’s not represented as your typical sexy female superhero (like the ones typically seen in Hollywood) but she is featured as a superhero with a petite stature and demeanor, which doesn’t make it obvious that she is the strongest person in the world. I especially like how this is used as a means to convey a strong message of self-confidence while also being a very unique portrayal of a female super-hero as an ordinary girl, someone who isn’t overly sexualized and does not need a revealing costume or a colorful cape to be signified a hero. Also, during several points in the show we see men underestimate and physically intimidate Bong Soon because of the fact that she’s short, petite and talks and in a cute manner. However, this show makes a focal point of this and instead of being portrayed as ashamed or afraid of her strength, the director allows Bong Soon to embrace it. Additionally, the show delivers a strong message about violation against women. In one episode, a groper is seen harassing a woman on a bus. Witnessing this Bong Soon takes charge and bends his fingers backwards. In this way we see a female hero who isn’t afraid to take matters into her own hands and fight back against the world’s prejudice and violence against women. The acceptance of the mindset that men are stronger and therefore superior to women is definitely a setback, however it still persists in many Asian societies. The director attempts to use Bong Soon’s character to criticize and change this mindset by giving a seemingly common girl the kind of power that outperforms men and reprimands them for their actions. The show is emblematic of a growing global movement seeking to end violence and harassment against women and is a first for such female representations in Korean media (especially during the time when it was released in 2017).
Let’s talk a bit about the male lead character, Ahn Minhyuk. He’s a young entrepreneur and the CEO of AIN SOFTware, a gaming company. He hires Bong Soon as his bodyguard to protect him. One of my favourite things about the show is how Minhyuk’s character is a breath of fresh air. He is never intimidated or emasculated by BongSoon’s incredible strength. He doesn’t ever belittle or patronize her, instead he supports and encourages her in realising her full potential. This is because he’s confident in himself as a man. The male lead’s character is a departure from typical narratives in television in the late 2010s in South Korea where fragile masculinity and toxic masculine behaviors were painfully common in portrayals of young male characters. Minhyuk sees Bong Soon’s strength as something admirable and he doesn’t try to dim or subdue her. Instead, he accepts and respects her for who she is. He realises that she doesn’t need protection, that she has her agency and independence. Even as a person, Minhyuk is self-aware, he is emotionally expressive and even vulnerable. He is charmed by Bong Soon’s confidence, he’s totally smitten with her and he’s not afraid to show it. In its portrayal of Minhyuk, the series makes an attempt to challenge many Korean (as well as Asian) television’s gender norms and representations of men in mainstream Korean media where men were often represented as having 'tsundere charm', having a cold and tough image, and being dominant over female characters often to the point where they controlled them (and the show's script as well).
The bad: However, that’s not to say that the show does not have its downsides.
The show is disappointingly let down by its reliance on LGBT+ characters and problematic stereotypes for comic relief. In one episode there are rumors about Ahn Minhyuk being gay that are shown to be enough to prevent him from becoming the chairman of his father’s company. While this is an outdated trope, it is still overused in Korean television and its use in this show undermines some of the show’s central themes and messaging. Additionally, our female superhero is shown as having grown up in a household where her special-ness was deemed threatening to those around her and she was constantly told to hide who she was, sometimes even scolded and reprimanded for having superpowers. This is applicable to many Asian societies (including ours) where women are told by society to hide our talents, gifts and abilities or face rejection from society.
Even her childhood crush, In Guk-doo constantly tries to keep her small and insignificant, often mentioning to her that he likes “girls to be like flowers, delicate and small.” This is problematic in itself because it subtly highlights fragile male egos and how many men find trouble accepting a reality where a female could be an equal counterpart let alone be a superior to them.
Moreover, Bong Soon’s mother’s obsession with getting her daughter married to a rich, chaebol heir is also rather problematic because it enables the trope that the ultimate focus for a woman in life must be finding a good husband. Her achievements, talents and abilities? Well, not as important.
In all, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon is a good watch. It is a show that features a superheroine that you can relate to, where every conversation does not revolve around the men in her life, and where the tone is a good mix of serious and funny, all the while highlighting gender issues prevalent in South Korea (as well as other Asian and South Asian societies).