Prime time TV programming in Korea, much like prime time in the US, has broadened efforts to appeal to young female viewers by featuring more complex, communicative female characters. However, in the U.S. most of those characters are created by men. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 27 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and photography directors working on U.S. network programs are women. In Korea the number of female screenwriters is closer to 90 percent.
Does the higher prevalence of female screenwriters mean Korean dramas do a better job of passing the Bechdel test or pass more exacting standards for representing what women actually contribute to the world? The Bechdel Test, named after a 1985 cartoon created by Alison Bechdel, offers three minimal criteria for works of fiction. To pass this baseline test there must be two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. The Bechdel standard is now considered a low bar to jump over and whether women are ultimately portrayed realistically—and positively—can be much more complicated.
Dramas written by mostly female screenwriters are more likely to provide a female perspective, pay tribute to the female gaze and include women having conversations about the minutiae of women’s daily lives; whether those details concern parenting, commerce or war. K-drama plot lines also tend to focus more on relationships of all kinds.
“Korean dramas are popular in part because they explore interior lives and very, very small stories and not just the obligatory amnesia plot—that includes the internecine aspects of platonic female friendship,” said Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool and the upcoming The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success.
Korean female screenwriting stars include sisters Hong Jung Eun and Hong Mi Ran, who wrote the dramas You’re Beautiful and The Master’s Sun; Kim Eun Sook, who wrote Secret Garden, Goblin, and Descendants of the Sun; Noh Hee Kyung writer of That Winter The Wind Blows and It’s Okay, That’s Love, Kim Eun Hee who wrote Signal and Kingdom; and Park Ji Eun, writer of My Love From The Star, The Producers and My Husband Got A Family. These stories feature a range of female protagonists: from a novice nun disguised as a male k-pop band member to a woman who serves as a therapist for ghosts. Women have a lot to say in these dramas and it’s not always about men.
Tasha Pipkins, co-owner of MACGMagazine.com, a k-music, drama and entertainment blog, has long been a k-drama fan, but these recent developments have “reignited her passion.”
“At first, every story was the same: only young, beautiful, needy women being saved by some handsome rich guy,” said Pipkins. “It had started to get old fast. However, recently, the plots with the stronger female characters with a sense of self and sensibility have been really refreshing. More importantly, these characters don’t loose any of their femininity or softness just because they are strong.”
To Pipkins, these stories feel more realistic and relatable.
According to Bonnie Tilland, professor of East Asian Studies and Anthropology at Yonsei University, South Korean TV has featured plenty of women talking to each other about topics other than men for decades, but a big change is the numbers of female lead characters (younger women) talking about diverse subjects with one another.
“This change has occurred in part because of a diversification of genres, with increasing numbers of workplace dramas airing to balance out the romance-centric and family dramas,” said Tilland. “Though many Korean viewers complain that even workplace dramas tend to fall back on romance, this diversification is a positive development. The proliferation of cable networks tvN, JTBC and OCN has contributed to this trend, as cable networks take greater risk with programming.”
How aware dramas seem of changing gender norms may depend on the time of day they are watched. Most of the Korean dramas that make it to the U.S. are evening dramas, which are initially aimed at a different audience.
Seung Ah Lee, a lecturer in Korean studies at UCLA and USC, says the recent changes carefully target a younger audience with evolving social perspectives. Such changes mostly pertain to the type of dramas most international fans view.
“Most of the k-dramas you’re watching here in US are mini series, dramas with 16 to 24 episodes,” said Lee. “The mini-series are usually made to target viewers in their 20s and 30s and the majority of them are female. So, I would say responses from female viewers matter a great degree as well.”
Other dramas, which don’t usually reach U.S. viewers may be slower to adapt to a more equitable perspective since they have a different audience.
“There are also morning dramas, daily dramas and weekend dramas that are targeting middle-aged housewives, which still portray the traditional values such as family and patriarchy,” said Lee.
Tilland agrees that these dramas are less likely to pass the Bechdel test, while later evening and weekend dramas do better.
“Daytime TV shares more characteristics with US soap operas or telenovelas, operating in a more melodramatic mode and with more reductive gender roles,” said Tilland.
Although daytime TV will often have female characters—particularly mother characters—talking to one another about various family issues that affect them, according to Tilland they are usually hashing out their differences of opinion over how their sons or husbands should be treated.
A few current and recent Korean dramas airing in the U.S., that fall into the category of later evening or weekend dramas, feature strong female characters and manage to pass—even surpass—the Bechdel test.
Her Private Life is a romance drama about a competent museum curator who is secretly a fangirl, devoting all her spare time to photographing her idol, Cha Si An. Despite the fact that this is a rom com, with an involving story about the lead actors, played by Kim Jae Wook and Park Min Young, the story devotes considerable time to the main female character’s relationship with her best friend. While it could be argued that Park Min Young’s character and her best friend, a cafe owner, played by Park Jin Joo, often talk about their love for a male idol, fandom is their hobby and they also discuss work, family and friendship.
My Fellow Citizens, starring Choi Si Won, Lee Yoo Young and Kim Min Jung, has a female detective/team leader and a female gangster, who discuss crime, politics and corruption. While Choi Si Won plays the con man main character, Lee Yoo Young’s detective character often has conversations about work and her career with her adoptive mother, the police chief, played by Gil Hae Yeon, as well as her co-ed team of detectives.
The recent hit drama The Fiery Priest, stars Kim Nam Gil as the bad-tempered priest and Lee Ha Na playing a tough but ethically conflicted prosecutor. In that role she discusses the law—and how she circumvents it—in multiple episodes. There’s also a courageous female police officer, a shy nun with a secret skill and a reprehensible female villain, all of whom have the opportunity to speak up and often.
While the fandom conversations in Her Private Life may not be Bechdel worthy, all three dramas still pass. All of the chief female characters have involving careers. None of these women are looking to be saved or to marry for money. They all discuss subjects other than men. They’re not afraid to stand up to injustice at work or in society.
“With the rise of the #MeToo movement in South Korea in the last few years, several dramas have featured young female leads who explicitly do battle with a patriarchal system,” said Tilland. “If we look at other kinds of programming that is targeted at both female and male viewers—such as variety TV programs—these are much less likely to pass the Bechdel test.”
While it may be the right thing to do, to accurately represent women with complex female characters in fiction, it’s also a profitable choice.
Recent budget data by Gracenote, a Nielsen Media Company, analyzed all of the top grossing U.S. films since 2012 and found that all films exceeding one billion dollars in revenue passed the Bechdel test. TV producers have taken note of changing audience values when considering productions for a certain demographic. Korean entertainment continues to court an international audience. If changing perceptions of desirable fictional female roles have not thoroughly permeated all Korean media, they will play well in other cultures.
“Korean pop culture is extremely export oriented, and any commercial decision is based on foreign perceptions,” said Hong.
This article was originally published on forbes.com.