Women tend to be subject to higher moral standards than men in many Asian societies. The ideal Asian female is widely envisaged as a pure, demure and virtuous lady, but whereas the image of a protective and responsible breadwinner with leadership qualities similarly exists as a paragon of manhood, penalties for deviating from this paradigm are barely as severe as those for women. A married woman who commits adultery, even if just once, is immediately deemed so filthy that her husband feels more than justified to divorce her swiftly and mercilessly. In contrast, a man who gambles away money for his children’s food and beats up his spouse often gets numerous chances to turn over a new leaf. The neighborhood is far more likely to ostracize the former than the latter.
Such differential treatment is also seen in the range of characters populating Asian dramas. Brutes, selfish egomaniacs and even outright villains are, collectively, not uncommon among first male leads. Females in primary leading roles, on the other hand, can be professionally and cognitively inadequate, but almost never malevolent at heart. While revenge dramas revolving around female protagonists are abundant, these characters often start off as pure and sweet-natured girls and return to these roots by the end of the series. For a long time, heroines with lasting moral flaws were hardly visible on the drama landscape.
While these scripting choices mirror the observed tastes of Asian audiences, they are incongruent with both the idea of art being larger than life and the notion that art imitates life. First, they restrict the imagination that goes into the works. Second, men and women with persistent flaws are very much a reality of life, and both have inner lives and aspirations that deserve the attention that first leads get. Unfortunately, the modern obsession with efficiency in creative productions can make it a formidable challenge to move away from well-received character types.
German writer Michael Ende commented on the corrosive influence of this obsession on the creative process in his novel Momo. Through the rise (and emotional fall) of its amateur-storyteller-turned-celebrity character Guido, Ende noted that the pressure to deliver, compounded by the lack of opportunities to sit back and gain inspiration from people they love, can rob arts creators of the space and ability to innovate. To cope with commercial demands, creators have no choice but to recycle old ideas, making small changes here and there in the hope that no one will notice. In the long run, feeling that they are frauds blindly worshiped by the masses, their morale ebbs and their narratives become yet more impoverished.
In Korea at least, things started to change with My Lovely Sam-Soon, a drama which characters coincidentally bonded over the book. The eponymous character of Sam-soon was a far cry from the Asian ideal of femininity and at odds with Confucian norms of propriety—she was loud, sprouted vulgarities and did not hesitate to smash a cake into a disrespectful man’s face or slap and kick her boss when he pulled a prank (that was entirely unrelated to harassment or violence) on her. Yet she was given a Cinderella-esque treatment in the script, which had her bumping into the son of a wealthy hotelier, developing a romantic relationship with him and opening her own pâtisserie. The drama attracted massive audiences and rave reviews domestically and abroad. Since then, a string of female protagonists with persistent blemishes have headlined various other popular Korean dramas—there were the unapologetically crude and irreverent lawyer who won the heart of a younger man in I Hear Your Voice, the noodle shop worker who confronted her boyfriend’s disapproving father with a toilet plunger in the finale of Flower Boy Ramyeon Shop, the prima donna with perpetually boorish mannerisms and a lascivious bent who dated a professor in My Love from the Star and so on. The day when an incorrigible villainess takes the center spot in a drama may not be too far away.
Yet this emerging trend does not symbolize a fundamental shakeup of the popular culture industry. With a long history behind them, the all-prevalent saccharine heroines and the limited narratives that they bring may have started to tire viewers. Flawed heroines, in contrast, not only appeal to the public with their sense of freshness and added layers of romantic tension with male leads, but also probably tap into a latent desire for characters the largely female audiences can better relate to or poke fun at. It is likely that the boom in alternate female leading characters is not a massive attempt at artistic revolution in the true sense of the phrase, but a frantic borrowing of ready-made character templates with new-found commercial logic. There is even a danger that, in its eagerness to catch this latest wave of hype, the industry will veer too far in this other direction and exclude the traditional, gentle female protagonist almost altogether, making the flawed heroine the new cliché.
This potential drastic change in direction may appear to work to the benefit of gender equality, but a close examination suggests otherwise. Mass media not only have the power to alter societal standards of acceptable behavior; they also have the capability to shape public images of both genders. As they release the pressure for perfection in women, they also risk undermining public respect for them. Such respect, in turn, may have gone a long way toward protecting females from physical and mental abuse and maintaining the self-confidence necessary to achieve various kinds of success. In particular, when women are deemed to be generally “loose” and “unsophisticated,” would-be crime perpetrators may apply less restraint on themselves. Admittedly, the increased portrayal of aggressiveness in women may provide some counter-deterrence in some scenarios, but there seems to be little need for potential wrongdoers to fear such aggressiveness if their victims are in a state of incapacitation and the wrongdoers mistakenly believe that their advances are welcome.
Even if gender equality would be somehow achieved under the change, it may be a kind of equality we cannot be very proud of. For a start, by lowering the standard of behavior for the fairer gender rather than raising that of the other gender, the popular culture industry would be engaging in a form of leveling down. Additionally, while it is widely understood that no human is perfect, there is a sizable number of people whose conduct is exemplary enough to give the appearance of perfection. Traditional Asian dramas happen to acknowledge this in the case of women, even if they have not done so intentionally. When screen narratives celebrate flawed individuals from a swathe of society to the near exclusion of others from the group, especially in the name of hipness or realism, there is a risk that real-life members of the group with no clearly visible moral flaw would be discredited as hypocrites or labelled “uncool”.
To stop industrial-age efficiency from skewing representations of society one way or the other, the popular culture industry needs to reimagine the way it manages creative professionals. Creative workers are stymied when they are treated as cogs in a machine or, more blatantly, yet another resource to be exploited. They need the space for their souls to grow, the room for minds to roam and and the opportunities for the eyes to wander and take in life. Indeed, what Sam-soon, her young friend Mi-ju and the novel’s own heroine Momo have in common is their capacity for empathic listening at one or more points in the stories—a skill that makes them catalysts in the developments of surrounding characters. Management teams miss this point when they reduce story creators and scriptwriters to a bunch of metrics.
Ironically, too, the metric most integral to efficiency equations—time—arguably has no measurable value. In Ende’s view, the time-measuring devices conjured up by mankind hold little significance because the length of the same unit of time can feel very different depending on how it is spent. The more haste with which people conduct their affairs, the more time slips away from them. If, instead, one concentrates on the moment, he may come face to face with the boundless beauty of time. In his surrealist style, Ende envisages the true nature of time as such: a shaft of light falling straight onto a circular lake, which dark, still water resembles “a jet-black mirror.” Glittering in the light and hanging just above the lake surface is a majestic pendulum swinging slowly back and forth. Each time the pendulum moves to the edge of the lake, an exquisite flower with all the colors in the spectrum rose from the black water, blooming wider and wider as the pendulum swings to the center and disintegrating as it moves away. Moving with the shaft of light itself is a mighty sound composed of “notes such as might have been given forth by gold and silver and every other precious metal in existence” and voices of all celestial bodies in the universe, each of which is decipherable only with careful attention. Imagine then, a reader may ponder, the diverse dramatic possibilities an arts creator can conceive of and the vast range of human experiences he may observe when he is given the support to take a soulful approach to time.
Dramas are fundamentally about exploring human lives. Drama production houses contradict the spirit of their work when they ignore the lives of those they represent or could have represented on screen and those laboring behind the scenes.