By Thuy Nguyen and Savannah Cooksey
Korean Dramas have long been a big and significant part of Hallyu, or “Korean Wave,” the “meteoric rise of Korean popular culture” that resulted in the “transnational exchanges of cultural content to and from Korea” (Kim, 2019, p.173). Korean Dramas (K-dramas) are enjoyed by both domestics and international fans by its romantic, heart-warming, and typically family-oriented nature. It is also worth noting that many K-dramas targets women audiences, as one of its most popular topic is romantic relationship between a male and female character. A quick Google search on the key phrase “most popular K-dramas” yields almost all dramas with a straight, masculine male and a thin, beautiful, feminine female as protagonists who, most likely, fell in love with each other in the drama.
There are, of course, more to discuss when it comes to the cultural perceptions of genders and romantic relationships in regards to comparing and contrasting Eastern and Western perceptions. However, in this article we will scope the analysis of the K-drama Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo within the K-dramas frame, that is, using the gender “standards” and “norms” set forth by the typical K-drama aired.
We argue that this 2016 K-drama Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo challenges the hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity dominant world of K-dramas by provoking questions regarding cultural expectations for female physical appearance and demeanors, gender in sports, and intersectionality. In terms of physical appearance, we will be specifically discuss in details the topic of weight and weight perceptions. We also pointed out areas in the show where the stereotypes might have been unintentionally reinforced, but in general we acknowledge the overall positive effects of the show in light of blurring the “mythical norm” that defines the gender binary (Lorde, 1980, p.2).
Kim Bok Joo – Not Your Princess Protagonist
An analysis of the wardrobes of Kang Mo Yeon – the female protagonist in another sensational K-drama Descendants of the Sun, and Kim Bok Joo immediately reflects the intent to break off from the feminine mold.
It can be seen that the typical female protagonist’s wardrobe usually consists of very “polished,” designer, and neutral colored dresses, skirts, shirts, vests, and accessories. In contrast, actress Lee Sung Kyung (who plays Kim Bok Joo) were dressed with oversized hoodies, baggy pants and sweatshirts.
In fact, other elements that composes the character’s appearance can also be analyzed to further understand the contrast between Kim Bok Joo and other female leads. Often times, female leads are very thin / slender and has long hair. Meanwhile, Bok Joo has short and a relatively messy haircut. Her nickname in the movie, given by the male lead Jung Joon Hyung, is “Chubs,” because she was “chubby” since elementary school. As a side note, actress Lee Sung Kyung is naturally slim (she is also a model), but reported to gain weights for this role (Yu, 2017, paras. 5-6).
Weightlifting vs. Rhythmic Gymnastics
The show revolves around lives of student athletes at a sports college, which allows the opportunity for the show to juxtapose Kim Bok Joo and other female weightlifters against the female gymnasts. We first briefly analyzes the gender implications behind these two particular sports.
With gymnastics, McMahon (2017) noted that they “perpetuate gender constructs.” There is “a significant cost difference between the men and women’s wardrobes” in rhythmic gymnastics, due to “the number of crystals on the women’s leotards and lack thereof on the men’s shirts,” and signifies the “efforts to portray a more feminine appearance when compared to the men’s conservative shirts” (p. 13). Furthermore, analysis of the role of mass media and the sustained gender ideologies in gymnastics reveals that “female gymnasts and their bodies were commonly depicted to represent traditional gender attributes such as ‘mature grace and elegance,’ ‘passiveness and fragility,’ and weightlessness” (p. 15). All that is to say that rhythmic gymnastics becomes the symbol of femininity in the world of sports.
In contrast, weightlifting, a considered “strength sport,” gives room for interesting discussions regarding female athletes. Although there are many respectable and well-known female weightlifters, the fact that the “official forms of female strength sports first officially cam to powerlifting in 1978,” with “women competed at the World Weightlifting Championships for the first time in 1987” after being pale in comparison to male lifting from 1945 – late 1960s reveals the masculine implications behind this strength sport (Heffernan, 2019, paras. 3, 15). Thus, by comparing and contrasting Kim Bok Joo against female gymnasts, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo was able to get messages on gender and stereotypes across.
In this particular scene, the weightlifters were asked to lift heavy stacks of chairs to prepare for a school event and got scolded at for being in the way of the gymnasts, while the gymnasts shows off their femininity and make fun of the weightlifters for being unfavored.
The show expresses their favor towards Kim Bok Joo and female weightlifters by making the gymnasts “mean girls.” In many incidents throughout the show, the gymnasts were portrayed to be unfairly accusing the weightlifters of ridiculous behaviors (i.e. stealing their laundry in ep. 1) and / or utilizing the favor given to them by school officials. In one particular incident where Bok Joo pushes another gymnast while they were in a fight, the gymnast faked pain, screamed, and demanded Bok Joo suspended. This implies the act of accentuating femininity to provoke the desire of the masculine counterpart, whoever that maybe, to protect.
The show heightens this “battle” between the “femininities” by making Song Si Ho, a beautiful rhythmic gymnast, the ex-girlfriend of the male protagonist Jung Joon Hyung. It also conveniently made Bok Joo and Si Ho roommates, which, again, allows for interesting counterpoints. A particular example is how in ep. 1, the “fragile” Si Ho asked Bok Joo to keep their window closed because she gets cold easily, while Bok Joo revealed that she always keep it open because she is always hot.
The Body Weight Pressure
There is a culture of constantly having to control one’s weight in Korea, and this expectation is especially burdensome for females. Choi (2018), in a study of Korean weight-loss reality shows, noted that it went as far as associating “good female citizens” with “self-body care” (p. 154). Choi pointed out an example of how this expectation is systematically embedded into the Korean culture: a 2017 New Balance promotion for the “Run on Seoul” marathon “came under public fire” because of the t-shirt sizes available for the marathon. There were four sizes for men, while there were only two for women, small and medium. The public exploded negative outrages: “Can only thin women participate in the marathon event?,” “If she is bigger than medium size, should she be naked?,” “I don’t understand why slim waistlines are needed when women do a marathon,” etc (p. 155). Public opinion seemed to have been mediating the extremes associated with the body weight pressure, however the fact that weight-loss reality shows where female bodies are “labelled” as “marketable” or “unmarketable” still exists poses some serious questions about the weight-loss discourses in Korea (p. 161).
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo addresses this issue in many different ways, and we’ve examined one of the indirect way that it does so through juxtapositioning female weightlifters and female gymnasts. Another way that weight and weight-loss programs are addressed and criticized is through its portrayal of food and eating scenes. Kim Bok Joo is someone who loves food, and is not afraid to express her love towards eating. Her eating scenes are categorized as funny scenes in the show and is meant to give the audience a good laugh, but the implication is that expression such love towards food and eating does not make a women “less feminine” or not “a good female citizen,” in Choi’s terms.
Yet another way that the show sought to convey messages on the female weight-loss culture is through the incident where Kim Bok Joo had a crush on Jung Jae Yi, Joon Hyung’s older brother (before things began to unfold with Joon Hyung). Jae Yi is an obesity doctor who runs a weight-loss clinic, and in order to pursue him Bok Joo has pretended to be a weight-loss patient who comes to his clinic for treatment and consultation. Here the show exposes a little bit of the separation of identities spheres: Bok Joo is simply a women wanting to lose weight to impress her crush, but the fact that she is also a professional weightlifter inhibits her from becoming the extremely thin, slender, and fragile figure desired by the male counterpart (or at least assumed so). In other words, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo pointed out the problematic way of categorizing females as either pretty / desirable or athletic and inhibits the intersection of both.
Not Female OR Athletic, but Female AND Athletic
The analysis of Bok Joo’s relationship with Jae Yi provokes thoughts on the defining of identities in light of gender and sports. As noted, the show points out the problematic separation of identity spheres. This is an example of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality, the possessions of “multiple identities at once,” and a “metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequalities compound themselves.” Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo reiterates its point against this argument and endorses the alternative by portraying heart-warming Bok Joo’s actions and reactions to certain events where her two spheres of identities intersect: when her father gifted her a trending lipstick “because she’s also a girl,” and when she was about to meet Jae Yi at the clinic (her “date,” as she would’ve thought), which invokes empathy from the audience towards female athletes, in this case.
There were, of course, areas throughout the show where “the molds” that Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo seeks to break were not necessarily broken, but seemingly reinforced. For example, as noted, eating scenes throughout the shows are meant to be funny scenes, and the general message is that one’s eating habit does not define who they are. However, did it went too far in its effort of making these scenes “funny” that they became caricatures, and therefore backlash in that the negative perceptions on individuals who love food persist?
Another point worth debating is Bok Joo’s transformed appearance at the end of the show. Bok Joo was suddenly portrayed very “femininely,” and in a way, conforms with the typical K-drama female lead: long hair, polished clothing, make-up carefully done. It is possible that this message be interpreted as the eventual convergence to the same “mythical” standards of individuals who identify as females, and if so the argument for inner-beauty might have been weakened.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo has no doubt succeeded in conveying the message empowering feminists and women in sports despite some minor problematic areas. The show gained a large amount of support from fan nationally and internationally, and particularly resonated with the young demographic. On the surface, the show appears to be a simple love story between female weightlifter Kim Bok Joo and male swimmer Jung Joon Hyung, however in-depth analysis can revealed much more than that, namely cultural expectations of appearance, sports, and intersectionality, all through the lens of gender. These revelations challenges the hegemonic masculinity / emphasized femininity-dominant world of Korean Dramas, and thus serves as a promise for upcoming positive changes in gender perception in this particular media category.
Choi, Y. (2019). “Are You a Good Female Citizen?”: Media Discourses on Self-Governing Represented in Popular Korean Weight-Loss Reality TV Shows. Sociological Research Online, 24(2), 154–166. https://doi.org/10.1177/1360780418807949
Coaston, J. (2019, May 20). The Intersectionality Wars. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination
Heffernan, C. (2019). “The Untold History of Women in Strength Sports.” https://barbend.com/women-strength-sports-history/
Kim, U. (2020). Beyond Hallyu: Innovation, Social Critique, and Experimentation in South Korean Cinema and Television. In World Entertainment Media (1st ed., pp. 173–181). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315106298-19
Lorde, A. (1980). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Copeland Colloquium, Amerst College.
McMahon, F. (2017). Gender Expectations Sustained in the Sport of Gymnastics. Lehigh University. https://preserve.lehigh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=cas-lehighreview-vol-25
Yu, J. (2017). “Lee Sung Kyung Talks About Positive Impact of ‘Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo’ And Reflects On Her Past Self.” https://www.soompi.com/article/942213wpp/lee-sung-kyung-talks-about-positive-impact-of-weightlifting-fairy-kim-bok-joo-and-reflects-on-her-past-self